April 28, 2000
By Rodolfo F. Acuna
Almost every Mexican American, it seems today, had a grandparent or a great-grandparent who rode with Pancho Villa. Few know or admit having ancestors who opposed the Mexican Revolution or supported the dictator Porfirio Diaz. The events surrounding Elian Gonzalez remind me of this tragic page in Mexican American history, and perhaps it holds out hope that in time the Cuban American exiles, like the Mexican exiles of 1913, will outgrow their dangerous infantili.
Mexican - Cuban History Similar
Like the Miami Cuban Americans many of the Mexican exiles arriving after the 1911 overthrow of Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz actively pressured the U.S. government to intervene in Mexican affairs and overthrow the revolution that had taken away their land and privilege. The Mexican exilados dreamed of the day that they would return to Mexico and resume their old ways. History, however, took care of the fanaticism of the Mexican elites. Succeeding generations mixed with the followers of Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and other revolutionaries, while others returned to Mexico. Over time most realized that it was not in their interest to announce that their ancestors rode with Porfirio Diaz. Like the many Cuban America leaders today, who claim to be anti-Bastistianos, the descendants of many Mexican exiles of 1913, claimed the revolution as their own.
Although the Cuban revolution took place over forty years ago, on the other hand, the Cuban exiles' fervor and dreams of returning to their land and privilege still burns hot. Few Cuban Americans care to remember that Fulgencio Batista y Saldivar came to power as the result of a 1952 coup and that it was Batista's political illegitimacy and the oppressive conditions imposed by the landed elite and owners of industry on most poor Cubans that produced the conditions that made Castro possible. They also choose to forget that it was Batista and other dictators who turned the island into a mafia fiefdom that allowed Cuba to be monopolized by US-based international land companies like the United Fruit Company.
Clout of Cuban Elites
Unable or unwilling to create a revolution from within, the elites continue to pressure Americans to fight a war that they themselves fear to wage. Because of the Cold War and their alliance with the most reactionary sectors of our society, this exile urban elite class, mostly based in Miami and New Jersey, has been much more effective in controlling American foreign policy than Mexican exile elites were in the first part of the 20th century.
The clout of the late Jorge Mas Canosa and groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation, a creature of the Republican Rightwing, lies in the perception that they can control, or at least influence, American foreign policy toward Cuba. Challenges to this hegemony in the past decade have produced a paranoia among these leaders, and it is not surprising that they see the Elian Gonzalez controversy as a test of this power. Desperate that their shouts no longer move many Americans, they fall back on their habit of myth making. They recite their litany, blaming every calamity on the bearded one, angrily accusing Castro for the abolishment of democracy in Cuba, as if it ever existed. The problem for them is that fewer people take them seriously.
The reality is that the core group of extremist within the Cuban American community is hardly democratic. The recent events in Miami expose the irrational and thuggish tactics encouraged by the exile leadership. Although their leaders whip up old fears, and play on a religious fanaticism that converts Elian into a religious symbol, they appear as pathetic as the Mexican elites who celebrated las fiestas patrias, and reminisced about the days of Porfirio Diaz.
Racism Under Castro Wiped Out
Like Mexico, Cuba has evolved in the past forty years. First, more people can read than in the time of Batista. People who read have a notion of history. They know that Cuba has evolved racially. Forty years ago, privilege in Cuba was in great part based on color. While not they have wiped out all vestiges of that racism, and although the crisis has slowed the narrowing of the economic and social gap between black and white, the government does not condone racism. The bottom-line is that racism is not as ingrained as it was when the older generation of Cuban American elites shared governance on the island.
I do not deny that there is racism among Mexicans, for example. However, the Mexican Revolution changed that society, and in spite of itself, Mexico has changed in the last sixty years. Just in my life time the skin hue of Mexicans in the land of my maternal ancestors, Sonora, for instance, has become much closer to that of the interior of Mexico. Mexico's culture has become less criollo (Spanish) and more, what can I say, Mexican.
Cuban's in Cuba Difer from U.S. Cubans
When I visited Cuba last July, I witnessed a similar process. The contrast that struck me most was the differences between Cubans there and those in the United States. Cuba is a racially mixed society than the United States, with over two-thirds of the island's population of African ancestry. Almost every African-Cuban intellectual I met expressed to me that he or she would not be a professor, writer or artist if it had not been for the revolution. In watching the talk shows from Miami on television or the crowds in front of Elian's distant relative, Lazaro Gonzalez's home, for example, well over 95 percent of the Cuban-Americans of the TV the audiences or the mob are obviously white Hispanics.
A minority but vocal minority in the Cuban American community remains trapped in a cesspool of intransigent nationalism. Extremist groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation have played a determining role in preventing a lessening of tensions and thus contact with the island. They have used the Elian Gonzalez tragedy to whip up a hysteria to solidify their base, giving the impression that Cuban Americans speak with one voice. According to the Miami Herald, some 50 percent of Cubans even in Miami do not agree with the demonstrations.
Extremist in Miami, in Control
Yet, the lack of audible opposition within the Cuban American community presents a major problem for other Latinos. Because of the habit of American society to generalize, they believe that all Latinos are the same. Because the extremist voices from within the Cuban American community drown everyone else out, other Latinos are forced to disassociate themselves from the minority in the Cuban American community's dangerous infantilism. The mob in front of Lazaro Gonzalez's house perpetuates this myth by flying the Mexican and other Latin American flags.
The case of Elian Gonzalez has made me and others less tolerant of the Miami zealots. Many of us are unwilling to keep quiet while some in the Cuban American community indulge themselves at the expense of a small six-year-old boy. Many of us have Cuban American friends who we do not want to insult. Still, we realize that they are part of the problem because too often their condemnation is hidden in the crevices of academic journals or relegated to one or two op-ed articles. So we hear so few of them that all we hear are the shrill voices the Lincoln Diaz-Balarts and Ileana Ros-Lehtinens, allowing the few Cuban Americans who do speak out to often be put at risk or at very least ostracized by the more powerful elements of their community. The truth is that Cuban Americans do not have an overwhelming presence within the US Latino population. Census 2000 will show some 32 million US Latinos, 21 million of whom are of Mexican origin. Cuban Americans are only some tiny fractions of this totalabout 1.4 million, contrasted with about three million Puerto Ricans and three million Central Americans; a statistic that is startling when one considers that these areas have much smaller populations than Cuba. We estimate that the proportion who have left those countries were about 3 to 4 times greater than the number of Cubans who have left their island.
The Census will also show differences between Latinos. Cuban Americans, for example, are of a median age of 40.8 years, whereas Mexican Americans have a median age of 24.3. What the statistics will also show is that while the Cuban American is more prosperous than the others, or at least, the wealth of its elite skews the figures in that direction most Cubans in the US are not rich, and many scrape by, its leaders are sacrificing the poor Cuban Americans for their own purposes. The blind obsession of these leaders with Castro prevents a healthier relationship with not only other Latinos but also African Americans, to evolve better social programs, which would benefit large segments of the Cuban American community. More important it prevents a full and objective assessment of how Cuban American elites have amassed their great wealth, often illicitly, or via various government contracts or outright government handouts . . .
Latinos and Afro-Americans have Suffered
Both Latinos and African Americans have suffered from the arrogance of this Cuban American elite. Latino politicos and business leaders resent the likes of Cuban Congressional Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and their crude efforts to make them tow the line. The two mentioned congressional representatives resigned from the Hispanic Congressional Caucus because Mexican American Congressman Xavier Becerra was elected its chair. Becerra committed the sin of visiting Cuba without their permission.
The pages of the Miami Herald are replete with examples of African American resentment to being bullied by extremist elements in the Cuban American community. Especially galling to African Americans and many of us who experienced the civil rights movement is the appeal of these elites to the moral authority of the civil rights movement. History shows that during the 1960s Cuban American exile leaders, sought to advance their interventionist politics by crawling in bed with almost every reactionary group and leader, working and supporting the Republican party against the best interests of other Latinos and the working poor within the Cuban American community.
Let history also show that less than a decade ago the failure of Miami in 1990 to honor Nelson Mandela resulted boycotts in that city, and an ideological conflict between Cubans and blacks. We must remember that when the Cuban American cabal demanded that Mandela, as a former political prisoner should condemn Castro, he reminded them how staunchly Fidel and the Revolution had supported the anti-colonial, anti-apartheid struggle, asking them, "Where were you?" Many of us believe that Mandela earned an answer to his question! We should also demand why they are making a political pawn out of Elian.
(Editors Note: Rodolfo Acuña Ph.D. is a professor at Northridge University located in the San Fernando Valley. He is a preeminent scholar who has been at the forefront of scholarship in the study and analysis of politics as it applies to the 30 million Mexicans, Latinos of this country. This commentary is one of the most profound analysis of the Elian issue and lies the groundwork for the creation for a new paradigm for White America to come to terms with its Mexican, Latino population.)