Carping Through Exile

By David Abel  |  The Houston Chronicle  |  11/1998

MIAMI -- Like many of the scores of senior Cuban exiles swirling dominoes or grabbing chess pieces at the Maximo Gomez Domino Club just off Calle Ocho, Raul Costoya ignores the red-lettered signs in Spanish warning against screaming, smoking or using foul language.

The 74-year-old retiree, who left Havana 19 years ago for a life free of the island's Communist rule, ashes a half-smoked cigar while raising his voice and peppering his crescendo with epithets.

"This is an assault; yes, we have a good life here in America, but they continue to disparage us," said Costoya, whose jeering was joined by a small crowd of septuagenarian exiles. "They tell the world that we are scum, and then they starve their people."

For almost 40 years, the legions of Cuban exiles who have settled in this sultry city have campaigned to no avail to end the one-man rule that has gripped their country since Fidel Castro's bearded rebels took power in 1959.

Yet, that struggle has seen few times as disheartening as the past few months.

The most recent jab at this community's self confidence was the arrest in mid September of 10 Cuban nationals accused of spying and disrupting the activities of Cuban-American groups, attempting to penetrate facilities at the U.S. Southern Command and seeking to manipulate local media and political groups.

A few weeks earlier, federal authorities indicted seven exiles, one a senior member of the Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful voice in the exile community, on charges of plotting to kill the Communist leader during a visit last year to the Venezuela. The indictment, the first of its kind, was a blow to the efforts of exile groups who consider themselves at war with Castro.

And despite a torrent of protests and multiple bomb threats, Cuba-based musicians, viewed here as patsies of Castro's regime and long banned from Miami, recently played a history-making concert at an international music fair in Miami Beach.

"The [exiles] feel extremely alone, betrayed, hurt and somewhat bewildered to why all this is happening," said Max Castro of the University of Miami's North-South Center. "It's hard to fathom what's going on. It's all just viewed as an international betrayal."

Castro pointed to a poll taken last year by Florida International University, which showed an already depressed mood in Miami's Cuban-American community. While in 1991 and in 1995 88 percent and 41 percent, respectively, of those polled said they expected major political changes in Cuba to occur within five years or less, only 36 percent of those surveyed in 1997 said they expected such change.

The poll also showed although 25 percent said they felt the 36-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba didn't work well, 78 percent expressed strong support for its continuation. Moreover, 71 percent said they supported military action by exile groups to overthrow Castro's government.

"Forty years is a long time. But when people have a dream, you can't let go of it," said Ninoska Perez, a spokeswoman of the Cuban American National Foundation. "They're writing obituaries for the Cuban exile community. But the fight against Castro is not over."

The recent spate of bad news for the exile community began last November with the death of CANF leader Jorge Mas Canosa, which has diminished the powerful lobby's influence and deprived Cuban-Americans of an identifiable leader. Adding insult to injury, Mas Canosa was recently alleged to have helped finance a notorious anti-Castro exile believed to have planned the bombing of Cuban hotels and the downing of a Cubana jetliner over the Caribbean in 1976.

Another sore point was Pope John Paul II's January visit to Cuba, which provided an unprecedented degree of legitimacy to Castro's revolution -- everything exiles have spurned -- and opened the flood gates for those seeking to do business (including American companies) and negotiate with the recalcitrant leader.

In the wake of the religious opening, the United States lifted its ban on direct flights and remittances to the island, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien waltzed through Havana and other high-profile foreign leaders feted Castro, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to end a seven-year mandate of its "special rapporteur" on Cuba.

"[Exiles] are very angry and frustrated about the recent lack of principle in international politics," said Juan Clark, author of the book Cuba Myth and Reality. "How can you give the highest recognition to someone that has created so much damage and that has been there without elections for almost 40 years? It's like people don't care about human rights anymore."

Beneath the scattered awnings of Calle Ocho's domino club, clumps of counterrevolutionaries -- aging men who have spent most of their lives dreaming of returning to their tropical homeland and scheming to end Castro's long reign -- slap scuffed domino pieces on stone tables and mutter in garbled Spanish.

Along a back wall enclosing the park is a row of painted presidents and other leaders under a banner that says "Summit of the Americas." Though representatives from Chile to Canada are colorfully painted, one infamous bearded leader and country is missing: Castro's Cuba.

"As long as he is there, Cuba doesn't exist for us," Costoya said. "Whatever happens, it doesn't really matter for us now. We're old. We have good lives here in the United States. It's for our children that we dream."

Copyright, Houston Chronicle