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The Nation

In Miami, Graying Anti-Castro Movement Is Losing Steam

The once-monolithic voice of exiles that dictated a hard-line U.S. policy on the island nation has fractured along generational lines.

August 11, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — At the height of the Cuban-American exile rallies after President Fidel Castro ceded power July 31, there were never more than a few hundred participants in the streets. Their noisy celebrations of Castro's latest illness showed a bitter face to the rest of the world.

But the embarrassed quiet that now prevails is perhaps a more accurate indicator of the mood among the city's largest ethnic minority.

The community's once-monolithic political voice that dictated a hard-line U.S. policy on Cuba for four decades has fractured along generational lines and weakened as a national force.

Militancy is out of fashion in this post-9/11 world, as evidenced not only by the recent sparsely attended demonstrations but by government cases against its last defiant practitioners.

It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago for immigration authorities to detain Luis Posada Carriles, a Bay of Pigs veteran, CIA operative and suspected bomber of a Cuban airliner.

When Castro foes held every major political office here, powerful businessmen like developer Santiago Alvarez never faced the indignities of prosecution and jail for allegedly organizing armed assaults against the regime in Havana.

For most of the nearly 48 years that Castro has been in power, Jose Antonio Llama, who now admits to an assassination plan for which he was tried and acquitted, would have feared for his life after revealing in interviews the names of others who plotted with him.

But today, Alvarez idles in a federal jail on charges of amassing assault weapons, Posada awaits deportation for illegal entry into the U.S., and Llama talks with impunity, contending there is nothing to fear from fellow exiles he sees as having gone soft.

Two watershed events -- the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez -- combined to discredit and discourage the violence espoused by radical exiles.

"Nobody is left who has the pants to go after Castro," Llama, 75, says with unmasked regret. "That's why I don't fear them."

On the other side of the political spectrum, Castro's former law school classmate and leftist radio commentator Max Lesnik agrees the extremists' era is over.

"The old mafia is retired," said Lesnik, whose Little Havana office was bombed half a dozen times in the 1970s and '80s.

"After Sept. 11, it's not easy for the Cuban right-wingers to practice terrorism," Lesnik said. "The American government can't accept those kinds of actions now, even though it protected Cuban terrorists in the past."

He counts Posada, 78, among those now facing retribution. Accused of blowing up a Cuban airliner over Barbados in 1976, killing all 73 on board, Posada has been held in an El Paso lockup since May 2005, when he was arrested for illegal entry. His fate will be addressed at a hearing Monday.

Posada's lawyer, Eduardo Soto, alludes to his client's complicity in shadowy events in Central America conducted on behalf of the U.S. when George H.W. Bush was CIA director and, later, during the Iran-Contra affair.

"Luis is a soldier, a very loyal soldier. He loves this country dearly," Soto said. But his client feels betrayed by a government that has denied him asylum and left him languishing behind bars in fading health.

"We live in a different world today because of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden," he said, describing Posada and his patron Alvarez as victims of shifting security dictates.

Some say militancy has waned because emigres prospered.

"In order to fight a revolution, you have to be hungry. You have to be poor. We have no Palestinians here today," attorney Antonio R. Zamora said as he gazed about the crowded Las Culebrinas restaurant at lunchtime.

Although emigres with close ties to the island now outnumber the ideologically driven militants, they are unable to organize against restrictions limiting visits to Cuba to once every three years and narrowly defining family as only parents, siblings and children.

"Cubans choose the easiest way -- they go through a third country instead of protesting," said Silvia Wilhelm, a 1960s arrival trying to rekindle social ties with her native country. "They solve their problem, not the problem." She disparaged the Little Havana celebrations of what some here thought was Castro's imminent demise as "tasteless and pathetic."

Pollster Sergio Bendixen, who has studied Latino public opinion for 25 years, has tracked the changing profile of the Cuban American community after the 1980 Mariel boat lift, the thousands of rafters who have arrived since then and 20,000 visa-issued immigrants a year who have diluted the radical vanguard.

Those who came after the initial wave of Castro foes in the 1960s are more favorable toward travel and a peaceful transition after Castro, who turns 80 on Sunday.

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