Note from the Editors: This essay is included in “IM ISSUE 2: “Florida: Blood & Sunshine”.
The Miami Cuban exile experience as a defense mechanism against the progressive revolution
The immigrant experience has certain common features: one hears of the strange customs of the new arrivals, evaluations of their work ethic, or lack thereof, their clannishness, their old country obsessions, and stories of their assimilation and the adoption of a new country and new ways. The Cuban-American experience shares all these features with waves of migrants to the United States going back centuries.
But there also is another factor, running like a scarlet thread through the Miami Cuban exile experience from 1959 to today. The singularity of Miami Cubans is of a people losing everything, and being damned for it, but persevering in the fight.
The fact that you were repeatedly insulted as a gusano (a maggot), and a “parasite and son of a parasite” by Fidel Castro and his Cuban Revolutionaries is seared into your brain. You have a pitiless and powerful enemy that sees you as a sub-human. This same enemy is feted worldwide, interviewed by Barbara Walters, coddled by statesmen, and has his henchmen celebrated like pop idols on t-shirts. This you never forget, even if locked away in the deep recesses of the psyche. You. Must. Fight. Them.
One of my earliest political memories in Miami is from when I was ten or eleven years old, seeing American anti-Vietnam war protesters on television, marching with the hammer and sickle and thinking “My God, the ones from Cuba are here!” This fervent anti-communism of Cuban-Americans, and especially Miami Cubans has been mocked so often by observers of the Miami scene over the years to have become a cliché. You can find it in now classic books on Miami by Joan Didion and David Rieff, explaining to the English-speaking world this strange, fierce exotic phenomenon seemingly so ill-tempered and unbalanced from the way ordinary, reasonable Americans saw the world.
In reality, Cuban-Americans are not monolithic: there are certainly left-wing and Democratic Party Miami Cubans, and perhaps more and more. Nevertheless, the fiery florid hatred of Reds and their works has been a hardy community trait of great benefit to Miami Cubans down the years, like a child knowing instinctively not to touch snakes. It also exists to a certain extent among other communities of Miami exiles and refugees, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans certainly. Aside from the justice and rightness of the anti-Communist cause, the hardy anti-commie political gene continues to promote relatively healthy patterns of thinking in the great body politic. It encouraged the following:
I) The operating assumption that politicians can, and in fact are lying to you: that they cannot be trusted and are not what they seem to be, for instance when Fidel Castro appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1959 and stated “I am not a Communist.”
II) The understanding that, even if you don’t care about politics, politics is necessary, and can be deadly. You may not be interested in the Revolution, but the Revolution is interested in you.
III) The special radar for detecting when official speech or propaganda does not add up, for example when the media is clearly spinning for the other side. Long before Trump and “fake news” we had Jorge Mas Canosa plastering “I don’t believe the Miami Herald” on city buses in 1992.
IV) The recognition that despite what politicians in high places say, you’re likely to be on your own in the end. Being abandoned on the shores of the Bay of Pigs by the sainted JFK had a way of doing that.
V) A (sometimes perverse) pride in the hostility of others, and in being singled out, e.g. those Miami Cubans that bedeviled and complicated Clinton’s (and Obama’s and Biden’s…) Florida strategy and foreign policy.
The CIA actually had a plan back in 1962 as part of Operation Mongoose to turn that epithet gusano into a badge of resistance inside Cuba. But it didn’t happen in Cuba. Instead it became not only a fighting word but almost a badge of honor organically in Miami. I still remember with pride when I was the US press attaché in Managua in the 1980s, and the Sandinista daily Barricada referred to me as “the Embassy spokesman who is of gusano-origin.”
Operation Mongoose and the CIA is part of the “origin story” of the Miami Cuban experience, and references inevitably come up in left-wing and Castro regime accounts of the community. There was a connection. Apart from the Bay of Pigs in 1961, there was a massive US intelligence agency presence in Miami in the Sixties connected with the anti-Castro struggle. JMWAVE, the CIA station on the Coral Gables campus of the University of Miami was said to be the largest in the world at the time except for Langley itself. Millions of dollars were spent and hundreds, if not thousands, of Cuban exiles worked for the operation in some capacity. It is a wild, messy story, parts of which are still classified, with odd permutations.
For example, Cuban exiles fought in the Democratic Republic of Congo against local rebels led by arch-villain Che Guevara. After the CIA operation was shut down, others fought in Vietnam, some exiles turned up in the Watergate scandal, others in criminal enterprises and drug cartels, still others in desperate plots throughout the world against Castro’s regime and its allies. At one of the oldest cemeteries in Miami off of Calle Ocho, one can find the grave of Juan Felipe de la Cruz Serafin, who died at the age of 28 in Paris. De la Cruz had gone to high school and college in the United States, ran in local elections in Hialeah in 1969, and worked as a journalist — then he joined a local anti-Castro direct action cell and went to France to bomb the Cuban Embassy in Paris. He either made some fatal error with the bomb or — more likely — was murdered by a Cuban regime intelligence officer that had penetrated the group.
Still, the CIA is given too much credit for exile action and politics. Cubans have been trying to invade Cuba from the United States since the late 1840s: one would-be invader, Ambrosio Jose Gonzales, became a Confederate colonel in the Civil War. Cuba’s “apostle of freedom” Jose Marti and future dictator Fidel Castro both raised money and intrigued among exile communities in Florida long before Operation Mongoose. The same Miami cemetery where de la Cruz is buried also features the tombs of two Cuban presidents who died in exile, the artist who used to draw Spy vs. Spy for Mad magazine, various major league baseball players, a world-famous ballet dancer (Fernando Bujones) and a monument to Colonel Emilio Bacardi Lay, scion of the rum maker, and the last surviving high ranking officer of the Cuban War for Independence who died in Miami in 1972.
The CIA did Cuba stuff until it was told to stop by its superiors. But for Cuban exiles, Cuba was not something you just walked away from. Long after the CIA stopped sponsoring them there were still Cuban exile groups with their own plots and machinations and plans to liberate the island. For outsiders, it may have looked faintly ridiculous: well-fed, aging men crawling through the tall grass in the Everglades. But from the inside, it had a noble sincerity. It was both personal and political, no matter what Washington thought.
The bitter school of exile action gave Miami Cubans valuable insights into the world of both Cuban and American politics. Because the anti-Castro camp was political, it accommodated Black and gay cohorts as well. The immortal Celia Cruz was one of us. So was the brilliant writer Reinaldo Arenas who took his life after battling AIDS in 1990. In his suicide note he wrote, “I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as on the island to continue fighting for freedom. I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.”
Rather than fade over time as assimilation took hold that rebel gene was refreshed from new waves fleeing the island. Online influencer and comedian Alex Otaola, who suffered homophobic persecution in Cuba, arrived in Miami in 2003 and by 2020 was supporting Donald Trump’s re-election campaign (and being attacked by Mother Jones, the New York Times and the New Yorker for doing so). It was also in Miami that a group of creative young Cuban and Cuban-American artists, most of them “Persons of Color,” put together that “Patria y Vida” that soundtracked the anti-regime protests which shook the island on July 11th, 2021. The principled nature of the anti-communist front means it is broadly inoculated against the divide-and-conquer tactics from the Left using racialist and gender rhetoric as wedge issues.
Read articles written by American leftists about Miami Cubans and the words you’ll see frequently include “hardline,” “fierce,” “loudly,” “vehement,” “deeply emotional.” You get the drift. It’s negative spin and meant to be dismissive, but is not exactly unflattering to a person with convictions.
The extent to which anti-Castro activism still defines the bleeding edge of the Miami Cuban existence has diminished. But our counter-revolutionary tradition remains an important defense mechanism against the progressive revolution currently sweeping political, cultural, and media power in the United States. What began and remains, to at least some extent, Cuba-focused, has grown a distinctly patriotic American beat. A passion for a free Cuba remains but now it encompasses one for freedom at home, in America itself. We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends.