Monday, August 20, 2007

Exiles' 'pain' must include room for dissent

Posted on Sun, May. 27, 2007


We Cubans are infamous for our public displays of suffering, our flamboyant airing of grievances that other cultures have learned to keep private.

It's a trait that has always bothered me, partly because it is has become a symbol for much that others find distasteful in us and partly because it has allowed too many otherwise brave and intelligent people to wallow in corrosive victimhood.

So, in the two years I have been here, I have resisted writing about myself in any way that could be remotely construed as serious. But the week and a half since my column on exiles ran has been a painful one, and I hope the reader will allow me this first and only foray into the deeply personal.


Both my parents were born in Cuba. On my mother's side, they were immigrant merchants, little concerned with politics. My father's relatives, not quite so lucky, were full of the tragic impulse to change Cuban history.

In the early 1960s my father's elder brother was arrested, declared an enemy of the revolution and thrown in jail. There is still a lot about that time that I don't know, but a few stories stand out.

The first is one that my father told me many years ago about how after my uncle's arrest, my grandfather stood outside the detention center for hours screaming his name -- wildly, almost incoherently. Finally, one of the prisoners in the top floor yelled down, ''He's here,'' and they made room so my uncle could stand at the window and wave to his father.

The other one my mother reminded me of a few days ago. In 1980, my father traveled to Mariel to try to get his brother out of Cuba. The Cuban government refused to let him go, and when my uncle returned home, he was greeted by a screaming mob. It was a classic act of repudiation, un acto de repudio.

On my mother's side, they, too, were forced to leave. The soldiers who came to inventory their house maliciously told them that all of this now belonged to the state. My grandfather was far from a ''latifundista,'' or land baron. He was a poor boy from Spain who had worked hard and put together a small business. At the age of 63, when most people would be thinking of retirement, he was forced to flee his adopted country and start over in Los Angeles, where my parents eventually met and married.

Bitterness ate away at many in my family. But my mother's father and my father's brother somehow seemed immune. My uncle is now living and working in Miami; my grandfather is many years dead. When things get rough, I remember them both and how they met life's sorrows with humor, openness and dignity.

I wasn't lucky enough to inherit their nobler qualities. But their experiences at the hands of mob and state machinery left me with a lifelong impulse to side with the individual.

My family's suffering shaped me, even in ways they might now find unrecognizable. But I have always considered their story a private matter, refusing to write about it out of a sense of what I grandly considered decency. But I realize now that that reluctance has allowed many in my own community to view me as an abstraction.

Among the most troubling attacks -- in a week of vicious and personal calumnies -- have been those condescending suggestions that I don't ''understand'' Cuban pain.

I understand it too well. But unlike many, I also understand its origins: It is us. The actos de repudio have continued in exile, mob attacks led by a radicalized minority that not only ruin personal lives but seek to destroy reputations and interfere with people's right, not just to dissent, but to pursue their livelihood.


Almost two weeks ago, I wrote about a French company with ties to Cuba that is in line to build a tunnel at the Port of Miami. Of the reams of attacks published in the pages of this newspaper and aired on radio since that column ran, few have addressed the central issue of the tunnel.

Why? Why is this community -- so quick to protest at the slightest perceived ''disrespect'' -- now so silent when it comes to Bouygues Travaux Publics and the $1 billion project they are in line to receive?

This is the company whose affiliate built Cuban luxury hotels for European tourists so they might delight in a country that most Cuban Americans are barred from visiting -- even to see a dying relative.

Even more troubling: Bouygues is represented by attorney Ignacio E. Sánchez, a board member of the Cuban Liberty Council, one of the most outspoken anti-Castro organizations in this country.

During the past week, Sánchez's fellow board member Ninoska Pérez Castellón has blasted me on Spanish-language radio using the most inflammatory language imaginable. She has demanded that I ''retract'' my column, perhaps forgetting that the only systems that demand and extract retractions on opinions are totalitarian ones.

Friday night, I reached Ninoska by phone to ask her about the tunnel project and her association with Sánchez, extending to her the courtesy that she has denied me. She hung up on me.

I connected with a far more cordial Sánchez Saturday, but he was unable to comment, citing his relationship with his client. In an April 3 letter to Miami attorney Nicolás Gutiérrez, he said Bouygues ``had never participated in any project in Cuba.''

That work was done by an affiliate. Many companies use affiliates in Cuba to get around Helms-Burton, the U.S. law that seeks to punish foreign companies that ''traffic'' in exporpriated Cuban properties. Sánchez helped write the law. He knows the loopholes.

So does Gutiérrez, and he's not buying it. Gutiérrez, who represents families who had property expropriated after the revolution, has steadfastly opposed the tunnel deal.

I met with Gutiérrez Friday afternoon. In Miami Cuban circles, everyone knows everyone, and it happens that Gutiérrez and Sánchez are good friends. Together they helped write Helms-Burton and the two of them, Gutiérrez remembered, demonstrated before the Benetton store in Dadeland Mall in 1993 to protest the opening of a store in Havana.

Through the tunnel issue, the two have maintained a friendly, if firm, correspondence. ''Have a Happy Easter,'' Sánchez signed off on one e-mail, using his nickname ``Iggy.''

Gutiérrez, who clearly has great respect for Ninoska and Iggy, didn't think their partnership on the Cuban Liberty Council had anything to do with the pervasive silence surrounding the tunnel project.

Instead, Gutiérrez attributed it to something much more mundane: the complexity of the deal and of the Helms-Burton law itself. (Sánchez would probably say it's because the law doesn't apply.)

I disagree on both points. The law is complex. But the moral stakes are clear. And I suspect that if anyone else but Sánchez represented Bouygues, Ninoska might publicly question the deal with far more rigor.

For GOP state Rep. Julio Robaina, there's no ambiguity: ``It's the moral of the issue for two reasons. First, we have the property tax issue, the crisis really, and we're going to dump $600 million on the tunnel? To add to the fuel, we're willing to give the money to a company with ties to Cuba? You've got to be kidding me. This is a no-brainer.''

Wherever you stand on the tunnel issue, isn't it a good idea to talk about it? Aren't there legitimate questions to be asked? Two Wednesdays ago, after my column ran, one of the first e-mails I got was from a reader who wrote, ''May a bolt of lightning cut you in half.'' Might not be a bad idea, but what does that have to do with the issue?


Later that day, I was supposed to have dinner with my parents when I got called back into the office. Before I made it back, my father made an offhand comment about the column that, without his realizing it, wounded me. At the office, I briefly considered canceling dinner. Instead, I drove back to my parents' house.

My parents and I sometimes clash on important issues. We have lived vastly different histories. Now and then, we hurt one another. But if I can't sit down and have a meal with those I disagree with, I have no right to ask anyone else to do the same.

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