MIAMI — When Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba played in Miami last month, some 200 angry Cuban exiles showed up outside the theater and assaulted some concertgoers and spat on others.
Mr. Rubalcaba no longer lives in Cuba. But his political sin, protesters said, was that he had not openly "broken" with Fidel Castro Ruz's government.
Several days later, the city's Center for the Fine Arts abruptly cancelled a planned lecture by another prominent Cuban, Gerardo Mosquera, citing community "sensitivity."
The two incidents have stirred anew questions about fringe exile groups using intimidation to control Miami's civic institutions.
For decades this city has drawn South American and Caribbean immigrants who fled military dictatorships seeking democracy. But ironically, the very immigrants who sought political freedom here are accused of depriving others of it.
The controversy has both sides fuming.
"If we can't invite people to speak and express different points of view, we have forfeited that right that is so fundamental to our country and constitution," says Benjamin Waxman, chairman of the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He calls the cancellation of the arts lecture "a restriction of the fundamental freedom of speech."
"Are we going to live in this fear anticipating anyone who comes who isn't outspoken about Castro?" asks Jacqueline Lipsky, a Miami sculpture and collage artist who was outraged when the talk by Mr. Mosquera, an art critic, was canceled. "They don't have the right to deny me listening to him." The museum operates with state and county funds.
However, CFA director Suzanne Delehanty sees the issue as one of being sensitive to local anti-Castro passions, inflamed earlier this year when four pilots were shot down near Cuba by Cuban Air Force fighter jets.
"It was really an issue of community, plain and simple," says Ms. Delehanty. She decided to withdraw the invitation after she read about the Rubalcaba protest in the newspaper. "We just felt it was not sensitive to the community to hold this lecture at this moment," she says.
State Representative Carlos Valdes, a Cuban exile, underscores her concern. "We're still in mourning [for the pilots]. You have to show a little respect."
Mr. Valdes, who wants to replace directors of the theater that allowed pianist Rubalcaba to play, doesn't buy the free-speech argument: "It's just like the Jewish community would be upset if a Nazi - someone associated with Hitler and his atrocities - would come here and make an appearance. People in Miami Beach would be just as upset."
Mosquera, the critic whose talk was cancelled, agreed with CFA's decision, claiming he didn't want to caught in the middle of a "problematic situation."
These recent events recall other exile conflicts since Cubans fled their island for Miami shores shortly after the 1959 Cuban revolution. Upon their arrival, many Cubans embraced the city, with its tropical beaches and balmy breezes reminiscent of home. And they promoted their politics. The militant anti-Castro view was hardline and unforgiving.
Over the years, exiles advocating a softer line on Cuba have found themselves called "communists" and threatened. In the 1970s, one radio announcer was the victim of a bomb attack.
The last five years, however, have seen more acceptance of diverse points of view. A generation of Cuban Americans has grown up here with no harsh memories of Castro. With the splintering of the Soviet Union and subsequent loss of subsidies, many saw the military dictator as close to the end of his rule.
Until the Cuban plane attack. Since then, a fading guard of right-wing exiles has garnered public support, according to Carlos Luis, former director of the Cuban Museum.
"There has been a turnaround. The terrorists have taken this as an excuse to regain some of the territory they have lost. They are on the offensive again," says Mr. Luis, who directed the museum when it was bombed several times during the hard-line years because it displayed works of Cuban artists viewed as sympathetic to the Cuban revolution.
Many here fear the recent events herald a return to a less-tolerant time. An April report of a Florida civil rights committee cites an overall rise in ethnic and racial tensions in the state.
"It's absolutely unacceptable to have public institutions held hostage by these people," says Steve Malagodi, a Miami radio producer. "People are afraid to speak out on anything that appears to go against this violent fringe. This would happen in no other city," he says. Mr. Malagodi has asked to see guidelines on what speakers are allowed and disallowed.
Delehanty asserts she was not directly pressured into canceling the art lecture. Even if she wasn't, the result is the same, says Luis: "This is self-censorship out of fear."