Cuban exiles and their curious vigil
By John Paul Rathbone in Miami
Much has changed during what has been a long wait on the mainland,
writes John Paul Rathbone
Every August, a distinguished group of Cuban-American scholars – from
Harvard sociologists to moonlighting International Monetary Fund
officials – forsake Florida’s beaches and gather in a downtown Miami
hotel instead. Their lofty purpose? To gauge communist Cuba’s transition
to a market economy and a liberal democracy. As these meetings have gone
on for 23 years, it goes to show that quixoticism can swell the hearts
of even reasonable men.
There was once a heady excitement to these gatherings of the Association
for the Study of the Cuban Economy. Immediately after the fall of the
Berlin Wall, Central Intelligence Agency operatives often mingled with
the academics, who knew chapter and verse on the baleful decline of
Cuban total factor productivity, but were more likely to have slide
rules in their pockets than spy cameras up their sleeves.
Since then, most other governments have come and gone, including Cuba’s
biggest patron, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s recently deceased president. In
Havana, meanwhile, the ailing Fidel Castro simply passed the baton to
his brother Raúl, who has instigated limited reforms. This was not the
transition anybody expected. “Every year, the same faces, much the same
words, and nothing has changed!” remarked an old-time attendee with
characteristic black humour, but also typical Cuban exaggeration.
It is true that strange cold warlike incidents still swirl around the
island. The latest was the discovery in Panama last month of a freighter
with some outdated fighter planes and missiles hidden under 10,000
tonnes of Cuban sugar, bound for North Korea. Why Havana thought to
dispatch obsolete munitions to Pyongyang for repair, all anybody can say
is: weird. Equally weird, their discovery was broadcast in photographs
tweeted by the Panamanian president. (The gossip is Ricardo Martinelli
wanted to ingratiate himself with Washington – as if commandeering
contraband with a smart phone in hand gave the impression of a President
Such incidents aside, it is remarkable though how much Latin America has
changed over the intervening 23 years – thanks to a boom that, like most
of recent history, has passed Cuba by, and how these changes are
reflected in the fabric of Miami life, the officially bilingual but
ex-officio business capital of much of Latin America.
One of these is the welcome passing of Miami Vice , and not only for
stylistic reasons. In the 1980s heyday of the television series, Miami
became known for its pastel colours, flash cars, Armani padded-shoulder
suits, speedboats and cocaine trade. Today, that business has been
pushed overland through Mexico by the US coastguards’ throttling of
Caribbean smuggler routes.
Another is how Miami’s Cuban-dominated Spanish conversation has been
diluted by other accents – spendthrift Brazilians and Haitian refugees,
of course, but also Venezuelan émigrés, whose talk can resemble that of
Cuban exiles of old, filled with an anger that to outsiders can seem absurd.
Meanwhile, the Cuban exiles’ zesty language has mellowed into
resignation, and its bitterness taken up by Cubans from the island. This
became clear during a conference panel of dissident economists,
doubtless brave but some of whom only echoed words by Raúl Castro
himself. Last month, the 82-year-old grandfather and former general
rebuked the National Assembly for the demise of Cuban manners and morals
– from urinating in the street to raising pigs in the city, taking
bribes, vandalising public telephones and throwing stones at passing
cars. Exiles were once called revanchist when they voiced such laments.
But times are changing.
Last year this Republican crowd even elected a Democrat to Congress. The
old guard are turning up their toes, and the young guard are travelling
to the island in droves. Around half a million visited last year, making
them Cuba’s second-largest source of tourists. (Did anyone say US
embargo?) Even more remarkably, exiles send some $2bn a year to their
That makes them one of Cuba’s economic mainstays, which is just as well
because mind-boggling mismanagement may well see Venezuela’s oil-fuelled
largesse soon reduced to fumes. A case of Miami coming to Havana’s
rescue then? Fidel once said, famously, of his revolution: “History will
absolve me.” The wittiest rebuke to that was: “Perhaps, but not
geography.” And so it has proved.
Source: “Cuban exiles and their curious vigil – FT.com” –