Posted on Wed, Feb. 12, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Cuban exiles shifting hard-line position
Polls: Dialogue, dissidents backed

In a marked shift away from hard-line positions, a majority of Cuban Americans in South Florida say they support dialogue with Cuban government officials and believe that dissidents on the island are more important than exiles to Cuba's political future, according to two polls released Tuesday on a range of Cuba-related topics.

More than half of South Florida's Cubans support recent efforts at dialogue between exiles and Cuban government officials, according to a poll commissioned by The Herald.

And nearly 70 percent of Cuban Americans believe dissidents in Cuba play a more important role in a democratic transition than exile leaders, according to another, unrelated survey conducted for the Cuba Study Group, an organization of prominent Cuban Americans.

Each survey separately polled 400 Cubans in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

''Cuban Americans in South Florida have reached the point of exhaustion at railing against the dictator and now maybe they're willing to do something differently,'' said pollster Rob Schroth, whose company, Schroth & Associates, conducted The Herald's survey. ``These numbers indicate that a significant number of Cuban Americans have clearly decided that ousting the dictator is not as realistic as dialogue with a democratic purpose.''

Both polls seem to confirm a major shift towards moderation by Cuban exiles, framed by several significant events in recent months:

First, the January visit of Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas to Miami to garner support for a growing dissident movement on the island.

Second, a statement in January by Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban American National Foundation, that his organization would be willing to meet with high-ranking members of the Cuban government to discuss a democratic transition -- barring Fidel and Raul Castro.

And third, a meeting in Miami last week between exiles and Cuba's top diplomat in the United States to plan for a conference in Cuba to discuss the Castro government's relations with the exile community. The Herald poll shows that 56 percent of Cuban Americans support such a meeting, scheduled to be held in Havana in April.


Both polls also showed that a majority of Cuban Americans -- between nearly 60 percent and 66 percent -- support the Varela Project, an initiative by opposition leaders on the island to bring about democratic changes through a referendum based on the Communist Party Constitution.

The Cuba Study Group, whose poll was conducted by Bendixen and Associates, is a supporter of Payá, the leader of the Varela Project.

Pollster Sergio Bendixen said Payá's image has greatly improved among exiles in the past 10 months. In a poll he conducted in April 2002, 30 percent of Cuban Americans had a positive impression of Payá, compared to 67 percent of those polled in January.

Although a series of past polls show support for engagement with Cuba's government increasing over time, the surveys released this week show some clear about-face moves.

In 1993, for example, only 36 percent of South Florida Cubans favored a dialogue with the Cuban regime, while 73 percent favored military action by exiles.

In 1994, a WLTV-Univisión 23 poll also conducted by Schroth & Associates put the number who supported dialogue efforts even lower -- at 18 percent -- while showing that 73 percent of Cubans felt the best way to topple Castro was to isolate Cuba.

''I think the change has been taking place since the mid-'90s, and then I think there was a seismic change in the aftermath of the experience of the Elián González affair,'' said Miami banking executive Carlos Saladrigas, who chairs the Cuba Study Group.

Saladrigas called the Elián episode a ''turning point'' in the community.

''It was when the Miami community realized, as a diplomat friend of mine said, that we were playing checkers while Castro was playing chess,'' Saladrigas said.

The bottom-line message of these polls, he said: ``We don't mind that there is a soft landing, but we need to insist that there is a landing.''

Fifty-four percent of Cubans polled by Schroth said they support the Mas Santos initiative to meet with Cuban government officials.

CANF Executive Director Joe Garcia was not surprised at the support for dialogue and said that if the word did not carry such historical baggage among exiles, the numbers would be higher.

''Of course, rational people want to talk about their problems in order to resolve them. The problem is that, unfortunately, dialogue here doesn't mean the same thing as anywhere else in the world,'' Garcia said. ``Dialogue here means to surrender to the ideas of the communist revolution, which I don't think anybody here or on the island would agree to.''

Longtime Castro foe and anti-dialogue activist Ninoska Pérez Castellón said that the polls hold little weight because she believes they are

''You know what my poll is? The fact that Mario Díaz-Balart was elected against someone who advocated the lifting of the embargo and dialogue with Cuba,'' Pérez said, referring to Díaz-Balart's victory for a Miami congressional seat in November against a veteran politician who campaigned on the embargo issue.

''If it were really the way the community feels, then neither Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Lincoln Díaz-Balart nor Mario Díaz-Balart would be in office,'' Pérez said. ``That is my true poll. Not these paid polls, because there is always an interest behind them.''

She also said that most of the people she meets on the street or through her radio program on WQBA-AM (1140) do not believe dialogue is a mechanism for change.

''The majority of people I encounter in my daily life do not support that thesis. That's not the feedback that I'm getting and I don't believe those figures,'' Pérez said.

In the 1970s and '80s, the word ''dialogue,'' when referring to conversations between exiles and the Castro government, often became synonymous with treason. The first such dialogue in 1979 in Havana elicited several incidents of violence against participants in Miami, whose homes and businesses were firebombed.

Even before the 1979 dialogue, people who advocated any softening of the hard line against Cuba were taking a risk. One of them, Luciano Nieves, was shot to death in 1975 in the parking lot of what is today Miami Children's Hospital. His killer, Valentín Hernández, is serving a life sentence.

Even in the 1990s, exile reaction to dialogue-minded Cubans has been volatile.

When Miami lawyer Magda Montiel Davis shook Castro's hand, planted a kiss on his cheek and called him a ''great teacher'' during a pro-dialogue conference in Havana in 1994, she became a pariah among many exiles.

Death and bomb threats were called to her home and office. Her entire staff quit in protest. Her car was attacked by protesters. Her children were harangued in school, her parents harassed by friends. Protesters marched on her Key Biscayne neighborhood.


CANF has been careful to keep a distance from the Havana conference in April, which will focus on immigration matters. Similar conferences were held in 1994 and 1995, but until this year, never had a Cuban official solicited views from exiles for the conference.

''Every time Fidel Castro talks about sitting down, he wants to talk about migration, he wants to talk about giving people more food, he wants to talk about ways to continue the ongoing system,'' Garcia said. ``But he doesn't want to talk about giving new form to a system that is morally and financially bankrupt.''

Though some of the Miami participants raised political issues at past conferences, they have not led to any real openings, Garcia said. ``Those are conversations that produce absolutely nothing.''

But Garcia does espouse the idea that change must come from within the island.

''We agree with that. It puts us in the role that we should be: supporting that change,'' Garcia said. 'The easiest thing in the world is to lead from Miami and not risk your life. Meanwhile, the dissidents take tremendous chances. They are risking their lives, their families' well-being, their security to bring about change.''

Saladrigas said the idea that dissidents are more important to a democratic transition in Cuba does not exclude exiles from participating.

''What is changing is our perceptions of how change needs to come about and what are the means available to bring about that change,'' Saladrigas said. ``Anything we can do here to lessen the fear of change in Cuba is positive and will contribute to accelerating the positive change, which at the end of the day is inevitable.''