Little Havana still wary about ties to Cuba

The US travel ban to Cuba is under review, but exiles' reactions are far from united.

Anaivys Alvarez will never forget the night nine years ago when her father took her hand and led her aboard the homemade wooden boat that was to carry several Cuban families to a better life in the United States.

More than 13 hours after leaving Havana, the 21-foot boat ran aground on a tiny island in the Bahamas, where the 42 men, women, and children drank only coconut milk for three days before they were rescued by the US Coast Guard. After three months' internment at Guantánamo Bay, they were among the last admitted to the US before President Clinton ended the policy of automatic immigration for Cuban exiles in 1994.

Ms. Alvarez, now just past her teens, knows how fortunate she, her parents, and aunt were to leave Cuba's economic hardships and communist regime. She is no supporter of the Senate vote last month - and the House one in September - that seeks to relax President Bush's hard-line approach to Fidel Castro by essentially ending restrictions on travel to the island by US citizens.

"Many of my friends support a softer line, but Fidel shouldn't be given anything," says Alvarez, a shop assistant in Calle Ocho, the main street running through the heart of Miami's Cuban exile community of Little Havana. "I want to go back to Cuba one day, but for now, I support President Bush, and I believe they must keep the travel ban."

True to his position, Mr. Bush announced a tightening of travel restrictions last month as part of an initiative to prepare for "a new, free, democratic Cuba." Congress, meanwhile, moved to strip government funding for the travel ban via an amendment to a transportation bill. Bush has said he will veto the bill if the final version from a House- Senate conference committee contains the amendment.

Such differences among US officials have been mirrored in recent years by splits in the Cuban-American community itself. Indeed, the media and some government figures have trumpeted observations about younger Cuban exiles breaking away from the hard-line stance of their elders and supporting a softer line.

Although many certainly have done this, the memories are still too fresh for others like Alvarez.

In fact, a walk along Calle Ocho, still adorned with giant banners celebrating the Florida Marlins' World Series success, shows that hard-line positions have by no means been subsumed by more moderate ones. Inside coffeehouses, restaurants, shops, and the famous domino club at Maximo Gomez Parque, a cross section of Little Havana emerges that, as always, puts its homeland at the top of the talk - and shows little evidence of a wholesale adoption of softer attitudes.

"[The younger generation] wants to push past the crisis and move on, while older Cuban-Americans are trying to hang on" to a more resolute policy, says Joe García, executive director of the nonprofit Cuban American National Foundation, the largest Cuban exile group. "But the bottom line is liberty, and all Cuban-Americans want to see change in Cuba."

For many in Little Havana, memories of the forced repatriation of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez under the Clinton administration still cause pain. Support for Bush remains strong, and could be crucial to his hopes for reelection next year.

"Bush is good for us," says Jose Faife, who arrived in Florida with his wife and nine children alongside 125,000 other Cuban migrants in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. "A lot of people are against him and what he is trying to achieve with Castro, but those people are the ones with money."

Mr. Faife has cousins in Cuba and sends what little money he can afford, but since retiring from his job as a cook, he spends much of his time playing dominoes in Maximo Gomez Parque and discussing politics with fellow émigrés.

"We all have opinions about what should be done, but it is difficult," he adds. "If you gave me control, I wouldn't know what to do."

Nelido Gil has visited his brother in Cuba three times since moving from Havana, also during the Mariel operation, but the former taxi driver believes the restrictions on travel must stay in place.

"Everyone who goes helps Castro a little bit more," says Mr. Gil, who now performs magic tricks from behind the counter of a party shop. "The more that go, the longer he will be there, so we need to end all travel now and help get him out."

But Barbara Bujans, who runs her mother's store selling religious artifacts, sees it differently. "The more people that visit Cuba, the less control the state can exert," she says.

Ms. Bujans, who, with her mother and brother, was given a US visa three years ago, says she and her friends all favor closer ties with Cuba. "Washington has become more open in recent years. More people have been to Cuba, and that has undoubtedly had a destabilizing effect on Castro. We need to look forward now," she says.

More conservative Cuban-Americans, however, insist that such views remain in the minority. "Don't go by these polls you see saying the exile community has changed," says Ninoska Perez Castellon, a director of the Cuban Liberty Council.

"Mario Diaz-Balart [a Republican US representative] was elected here by a landslide last year against an opponent who favored lifting the trade embargo," she says while at lunch with a friend at the storied Versailles restaurant. "Even though the voters were younger, more professional people, his position still prevailed."

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