Posted on Mon, Mar. 18, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Failed boycott spotlights rift among exiles
Homeowners are still snapping up made-in-Mexico furniture.

Travel agencies have reported no significant numbers of Cancun-bound cancellations.

Corona beer continues to flow -- even at Cuban restaurants.

Many Cuban-Americans are not abstaining, despite a call by some Cuban exile leaders for a three-month boycott of Mexican products and travel to Mexico to protest the ouster of 21 Cubans who forced their way into the Mexican embassy in Havana earlier this month.

Even within the Cuban exile leadership, there is dissent. Several exile leaders have come under fire from traditional hard-liners on Spanish-language radio for taking a stance against the boycott.

At least six organizations -- including the Cuban American National Foundation, the Democracia Movement and Brothers to the Rescue -- have broken with a much larger coalition of groups that called for a three-month boycott to protest the Mexican government's handling of the embassy incident.

But the split highlights a widening chasm in the exile leadership over issues near and dear to the Cuban-American collective heart. And there are signs that there will be more rebuttals to the traditional Cuban party line.

''This is a crucial moment in the history of the exile,'' said Brothers founder José Basulto. ``For the first time, the image that some have wanted to create of an intolerant, radical exile has been challenged.''

Those who disagree with the boycott cite two main reasons: One is that engagement of the Mexican government -- which is being courted to support a condemnation of Cuba's human rights record -- will help the exile cause more than retaliation. The other view is that the incident was hatched by Fidel Castro to ''embarrass'' Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda for meeting with a group of opposition leaders last month and to distract Miami as the Cuban regime cracks down on island dissidents.

''Castro knows our idiosyncrasies,'' said Democracia Movement founder and leader Ramón Saúl Sánchez. ``He has known us for 42 years and every time he plays his music, we dance. Well, this time, he can take his music and play it somewhere else.''

Janisset Rivero, co-founder of the Cuban Democratic Directorate -- which also opposes the boycott -- thinks the expression of varied opinions is good.

''I don't see it as a tragic thing,'' Rivero said. ``I see it as an example of what a plural community in a free Cuba can be like.''

Basulto agrees and says the pluralism is something to be proud of.

''It is not division. It is a diversity of opinion,'' Basulto said. ``It's good for people to know that we are not represented by one single group or one single radio station or one single radio personality.''


Said Sánchez: ``The exile is producing a new attitude. Forty years of doing the same thing that doesn't work is enough to try new methods.''

Juan Carlos Espinosa, a political analyst and Cuba scholar, said the ''healthy'' difference of opinions reflects a ''maturity'' of the exile community.

''This is sort of a post-Elián Cuban-American leadership that is much more savvy to their image and much more wary of manipulation by Cuban state security,'' Espinosa said. ``It's also a leadership that is more reflective of the community.''

There are many within the community who are anti-Castro and anti-boycott.

Gabriel Mayor Jr., a salesman at Florida Builder Appliances, recently ordered a Corona with lunch at La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant, in Westchester. ''I cannot support the boycott because the Mexican consulate is a client of mine,'' he said.

Jack Guiteras, who owns a Coral Gables travel agency, has mixed feelings about the boycott. ''My heart is with it. But my head is with Basulto,'' he said.

Yet some boycott sponsors scoff at any dissent and insist that a majority of the Cuban community backs the effort. Alpha 66 President Andrés Nazario Sargén has proposed organizing street caravans on Saturdays ``to guarantee a firm position for the boycott.''

Anti-Castro activist Ninoska Pérez-Castellón has called the anti-boycott exile leaders ''spokespeople for the Mexican government'' on her daily 1 p.m. program on WQBA-AM (1140).


The boycott, however, is not the only issue that is causing deep divides in the community. The Varela Project -- an initiative by anti-Castro activists on the island who collected 10,000 signatures for a plebiscite on the type of government in Cuba -- has also sparked a debate in Miami. Many of the same exile leaders who disagree with the boycott support the Varela Project. However, many of the boycotters do not give the effort any weight because they say it is done within post-Castro Cuban law and, therefore, legitimizes the regime.

There are also different camps on the Bush administration. Some exile leaders have complained about what they see as a lack of action on Cuba. Key among them: the continued repatriation of Cuban migrants caught at sea and the waiver of part of the Helms-Burton law that allows U.S. lawsuits against companies in Cuba that use property confiscated from Americans.

The other side -- mostly the boycott backers -- say wait and watch.

They point to the appointment of Otto Reich as assistant secretary of state as well as other Cuban Americans to key positions and a current review of Cuba policy as signs that Bush espouses la causa.

But Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said the administration needs to see the Cuban community as part of the solution -- not the problem.


''What the foundation is trying to do is make the exile community relevant in the big picture,'' Garcia said, noting that Cuban Americans do not represent a large market for Mexican products or travel.

``What relevance is there in a boycott of a product that you don't use? We are pushing the concept of trying to develop a policy that sets the Cuban community as a relevant factor, not as some cheering section sitting in the stands.''