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Miami: Exiles

1.

The Miami exiles are not anticommunist,” an exile named Carlos M. Luis said one night at dinner in Miami. It was about eleven o’clock, the preferred hour for dinner in those exile houses where Spanish manners still prevail, and there were at the table nine people, eight Cubans and me. There had been before Carlos Luis spoke a good deal of spirited argument. There had been a mounting rhythm of declamation and interruption. Now there was a silence. “The Miami exiles are not anticommunist,” Carlos Luis repeated. “I believe this. Anticommunism is not their motivation.”

Carlos Luis was the director of the Museo Cubano de Arte y Cultura in Miami, an interesting and complicated man who had entered exile with his wife in 1962, deciding to move to New York after the cultural restructuring which began in Cuba with the confiscation of Orlando Jiménez Leal’s documentary film P.M., or Pasado Meridiano, and led eventually to Fidel Castro’s declaration that there was no art, or would be no art, outside the revolution. “The P.M. affair,” as it was called in Miami, had plunged Havana into a spiral of confrontation and flagellation not unlike that which later characterized el exilio, and was for many a kind of turning point.

It was the P.M. affair, involving as it did the banning of a film showing “decadent” night life in Havana, which more or less codified such repressive moves as the persecution of homosexuals later examined by Orlando Jiménez Leal and the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros, by then both in exile, in Mauvaise Conduite. It was the P.M. affair that had in fact gotten Nestor Almendros, at the time a young filmmaker who had written admiringly about P.M., fired from his job at Bohemia, the Havana weekly that had by then closed itself down and been restaffed by people closer to the direction in which the regime seemed to be moving. And it was the P.M. affair that had caused a number of Cuban artists and intellectuals to doubt that there would be room within this revolution for whatever it was that they might have valued above the revolution; to conclude that, as Carlos Luis put it, “it was time to leave, there was no more for me in staying.”

The first group left because they were Batistianos,” Carlos Luis said now, reaching for a bottle of wine. “The second group left because they were losing their property.” Carlos Luis paused, and poured an inch of wine into his glass. “Then,” he said, “the people started coming who were unhappy because they couldn’t get toothpaste.”

You mean these exiles were anti-Castro but not necessarily anticommunist,” our host, an exile, said, as if to clarify the point not for himself but for me.

Anti-Castro, yes.” Carlos Luis had shrugged. “Anti-Castro it goes without saying.”

That the wish to see Fidel Castro removed from power in Cuba did not in itself constitute a political philosophy was a point rather more appreciated in el exilio, which had as its legacy a tradition of considerable political sophistication, than in Washington, which tended to accept the issue as an idea, and so to see Cuban exiles as refugees not just from Castro but from politics. In fact exile life in Miami was dense with political distinctions, none of them exactly in the American grain. Miami was for example the only American city I had ever visited in which it was not unusual to hear one citizen describe the position of another as “Falangist,” or as “essentially Nasserite.” There were in Miami exiles who defined themselves as communists, anti-Castro. There were in Miami a significant number of exile socialists, also anti-Castro, but agreed on only this single issue. There were in Miami two prominent groups of exile anarchists, many still in their twenties, all anti-Castro, and divided from one another, I was told, by “personality differences,” “personality differences” being the explanation Cubans tend to offer for anything from a dinner-table argument to a coup.

This urge to stake out increasingly recondite positions, traditional to exile life in Europe and in Latin America, remained, in South Florida, exotic, a nervous urban brilliance not entirely apprehended by local Anglos, who continued to think of exiles as occupying a fixed place on the political spectrum, one usually described as “right-wing,” or “ultraconservative.” It was true enough that there were a number of exiles in Miami who believed the most effective extant political leaders in the hemisphere (aside from Fidel Castro, to whom diabolic powers were attributed) to be General Augusto Pinochet of Chile and General Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay. In fact those two names were heard with some frequency even in the conversation of exiles who did not share this belief, usually turning up in the “as” construction, in which the speaker thinks to disarm the listener by declaring himself “every bit as hostile to the Pinochet government,” or “just as unalterably opposed to General Stroessner,” as to Fidel Castro. It was also true enough that there were a number of Cubans in Miami, most notably those tobacco growers who between the fall of Fulgencio Batista and the fall of Anastasio Somoza had managed to maintain their operations in Nicaragua, who supported the military leadership of the Nicaraguan contras not in spite of but precisely because of whatever association that leadership had with the Somoza militia.

Still, “right-wing,” on the American spectrum, where political positions were understood as marginally different approaches to what was seen as a shared goal, seemed not to apply. This was something different, a view of politics as so central to the human condition that there may be no applicable words in the political vocabulary of most Americans. Virtually every sentient member of the Miami exile community was on any given day engaged in what was called an “ideological confrontation” with some other member of the Miami exile community, over points which were passionately debated at meals and on the radio and in the periodiquitos, the throwaway newspapers which appeared every week on Southwest Eighth Street.

Everything was read. I was asked one day by several different people if I had seen a certain piece that morning, by a writer whose name I did not recognize. The piece, it turned out, had appeared not in the Miami Herald or the Miami News, not in El Herald or Diario Las Americas, not in any of the periodiquitos and not even in The New York Times, but in El Tiempo, one day late from Bogotá. Analysis was close, and overcharged. Obscure points were “clarified,” and immediately “answered.” The whole of exile Miami could engage itself in the morning deconstruction of, say, something said by Roberto Fernández Retamar in Havana as reported by El País in Madrid and “answered” on the radio in Miami.

I talked one evening to Agustin Tamargo, an exile whose radio broadcasts with such prominent exiles as the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante and the poet Heberto Padilla and the legendary 26 Julio comandante Huber Matos, what Agustin Tamargo called “all the revolutionary people,” had tended over the years to attract whatever excess animus happened to be loose in the community. “I come from a different place on the political spectrum than most of the other radio commentators here,” Agustin Tamargo said. “There are many Batista people in Miami. They call me a communist because I wrote in Bohemia, which was to them a leftist-Marxist paper. Actually it was maybe center.”

Agustin Tamargo entered exile in 1960, the year Bohemia, which had been perhaps the most influential voice of the anti-Batista movement, suspended its own publication with the declaration “this is a revolution betrayed.” After he left Havana he was managing editor of Bohemia-in-exile, which was published first in New York, with what Agustin Tamargo believes to have been CIA money, and then in Caracas, with what he calls “different business partners, completely separated from American interests,” the entire question of “American interests” remaining in Miami an enduring preoccupation. I recall one visit when everyone to whom I spoke seemed engaged in either an attack on or a defense of the exiled writer and former political prisoner Carlos Alberto Montaner, who had written a column from Madrid which some found, because it seemed to them to suggest that Fidel Castro could be tolerated to the extent that he could be separated from Soviet interests, insufficiently separated from American interests. I was advised by one exile that “Montaner thinks about Fidel exactly the way Reagan thinks about Fidel,” not, since even those exiles who voted in large numbers for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 did so despite their conviction that he was bent on making a secret deal with Fidel Castro, an endorsement.

There seemed in fact very few weeks in Miami when, on the informal network the community used to talk to itself, one or another exile spokesman was not being excoriated on or defended against this charge of being insufficiently separated from American interests. One week it was said that the poet Jorge Valls, because he had left Cuba after twenty years in prison and suggested on the radio in Miami that there should be “an interchange of ideas” between the United States and Havana, was insufficiently separated from American interests. Another week it was said that Armando Valladares, whose Contra Toda Esperanza, an account of the twenty-two years he had spent imprisoned by Fidel Castro, appeared in this country as Against All Hope, was, because he had received support from the National Endowment for Democracy, insufficiently separated from American interests. “There’s nothing wrong with American money,” Agustin Tamargo had said the evening we talked, by way of amending an impassioned indictment of another exile who was, he believed, getting it. “Or Chinese money or any other kind. I will take it if they give it to me. But only to do what I want to do. Not what they want me to do. There is the difference.”

In Miami, where he was at the time we met doing a nightly broadcast for WOCN-Union Radio about which there was controversy even within the station itself, Agustin Tamargo was regarded as an eccentric and even a quixotic figure, which seemed to be how he construed his role. “Fifty thousand people listen to me every night,” he said. “And every night I say Franco was a killer. Every night I say Pinochet is an assassin. Most of the other Cuban commentators here never say anything about Pinochet. This is a program on which people say every kind of thing about the Cuban past. We say that maybe things before the revolution were not so golden as people here like to think. And still they listen. Which suggests to me that maybe the exile is not so onesided as the communists say it is.”

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