Miami revisited

Maurice Walsh

Maurice Walsh


I can remember where I was on the twenty-fifth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s asassination. In mid November 1988 I had travelled from Managua, Nicaragua, where I was living, to attend the wedding of two American friends in Miami. The ceremony was conducted on a boat swaying in the choppy waters of Bicayne Bay on a sunny afternoon, by a pastor they had found in the yellow pages called the Reverend Driggers. I stayed on for a while after the wedding in an apartment I had borrowed, overlooking Miami Beach. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving Day and most people I knew had scattered to different parts of the US for the holiday, so, returning to that apartment on Saturday afternoon with nothing else to do, I turned on the television.

A cable channel was showing pictures in black and white, scenes from Dallas twenty-five years before. As I watched I realized that this was not edited footage recapitulating the assassination of JFK but the television news as it was transmitted on that day, raw and uncut. It may have been the same footage that the housekeeper at Lee Harvey Oswald’s rooming house was watching when Oswald walked through the door after fleeing the Texas School Book depository: bemused crowds in the harsh Dallas sunlight, cops on their motorcycles, reporters in white shirts and thin ties standing around the back entrance to the hospital. There was Walter Cronkite suddenly brought onto the set and being handed pieces of paper which he read hesitantly. From UPI: ‘Three shots were fired today at President Kennedy’s motorcade in downtown Dallas.’ The longer I stared at these images and listened to Cronkite’s uncertain voice the more they lost any quality of being historical curios and insinuated themselves into the present, their verisimilitude heightened by the edgy cuts and the inconsequence of much of the footage. As the afternoon passed I began to believe, or make believe, that these events were unfolding minute by minute on the television in front of me and that in apartments throughout the building, on floors above and below, others were switching on to catch up with the news. The sky was unusually overcast that day and as the light faded to evening outside on Miami Beach and the television scenes shifted from the Dallas sunlight to the arrival of Kennedy’s coffin in Washington on a dark November evening in 1963, it was possible to imagine a living sense of foreboding over the assassination of JFK.

Miami was a particularly suggestive place for these imaginings because it was central to the Kennedy story. In April 1961 Kennedy had failed to support an invasion of Cuba by the exile guerrillas of Brigade 2506, whom the CIA had trained to overthrow Castro. More than eighteen months later, after the crisis over the nuclear missiles that Khrushchev had installed in Cuba, Kennedy turned up in Miami to welcome home more than a thousand prisoners captured in the failed landing. There were forty thousand people in the Orange Bowl football stadium in December 1962 when Jackie Kennedy declared – in Spanish – that all she wanted her son to be was ‘a man at least half as brave as the members of Brigade 2506’. And then her husband, on being handed the brigade’s flag, had made his famous unrehearsed promise: ‘I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.’ After this there were shouts of ‘Guerra!’ (‘War!’) Many took Kennedy’s words to mean that he would launch a second invasion, whereas the reality was that he had ordered the scaling down of operations against Castro. Less than a year later JFK would be back in Miami, on his way to Dallas to make a speech saying that if Soviet influence were removed from Cuba ‘we will be ready and anxious to work with the Cuban people in pursuit of those progressive goals which a few short years ago stirred their hopes and the sympathy of many people’.

So it is no wonder that some Cubans have described John F. Kennedy as the second most hated man in Miami, the great betrayer of the exile cause, and that, in the years of conspiracy-making that followed the assassination, this hatred was often advanced as a plausible motive why some of the many violent Cuban exile groups in Miami would have plotted to kill Kennedy. Twenty-five years later there was enough of this history still in the air in Miami to nourish, even briefly, a sense of living in two worlds.

The Cuban exiles most consumed by the idea of ridding Castro had, in the 1980s, aligned themselves with a cause that bore close similarities to their own: that of the Nicaraguan Contras. When the Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Somoza and many of his cronies moved to Miami; and as civil war developed in Nicaragua, it was to Miami that many people came because of politics or merely to escape hardship and insecurity. In November 1988, when three hundred Nicaraguans a week were arriving in Miami, little bars along Flagler Street were called the Rincon Nicaragua and the Masayita; these were places where peasants in cowboy boots drank beer from short glasses and ate from plates of plantain and beans. It was Miami where the Contra leadership and the CIA plotted the war being waged in Central America, much as the operations against Castro had been run in the early sixties. During that week I spent in Miami in 1988 the most powerful Cuban politicians had spoken to a mass meeting in the Orange Bowl – where Kennedy had made his rash promises in 1962 – in support of the Contras’ struggle in Nicaragua. One of the Somoza people who had come in 1979 told me that the Cubans had treated the Nicaraguans like relatives who had suffered a misfortune.

On Thanksgiving Day I had been invited to dinner by a Cuban friend and his brother at the home of their aunt and elderly grandmother. Roast turkey was served with black beans and rice (moros y cristianos) and Spanish and English were spoken interchangeably. As dinner progressed, a political argument slowly developed between the two brothers and their aunt over the elder George Bush’s assertion during the recent election campaign that the pledging of allegiance to the Stars and Stripes should become mandatory in schools. The brothers – who had grown up in the United States and appeared, in some ways, more American than their aunt – ridiculed Bush for wrapping himself in the flag and said they would refuse to make any pledge of allegiance. Their aunt was aghast that they could be so contemptuous of a country that had done so much for them. And their grandmother, confined to a bed some distance from the table, would raise herself by pulling on a stirrup suspended over her head to shout abuse at her grandsons. The argument grew steadily more passionate until somebody, by way of changing course, asked me about Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas and life in Nicaragua. As I began to answer blandly and mildly, the invalid grandmother reached for her stirrup, raised herself from the bed and shouted: ‘Is Ortega a communist? Is he a communist?’


The angle at which Miami tilted towards the world changed in the late eighties and early nineties. The ending of civil wars around Latin America and the rush to allow goods and cash to flow unimpeded through the countries of the south meant that Miami became more of an entrepot. In her 1987 book Miami, which portrayed the city as ‘a tropical capital: long on rumour, short on memory’ and the conduit for the introduction of a conspiratorial, Latin style of politics to the United States, Joan Didion had remarked how it was different from other cities in the United States where the Spanish language was common. In Miami, she noted, Spanish was not only spoken but heard: elsewhere in the US Spanish was the language of ‘the people who worked in the car wash and came to trim the trees and cleared tables in restaurants’, but in Miami Spanish was the idiom of ‘the people who ate in the restaurants, the people who owned the cars and the trees’. Over the years the city had become the natural haven for upper-class Latin Americans and their money, whether they were fleeing war, taxes or merely a change of government. With trade opening and the South American dictatorships crumbling, Miami became more than merely a place where the rich waited for the political weather to change back home: it was a source of influence and investment. When I visited the city again in the late nineties a Nicaraguan financier told me, in his office in one of the glass skyscrapers along Brickell Avenue, that Miami was the Washington and the Wall Street of Latin America, the place to be if you wanted to trade on the difference between the Guatemalan quetzal and the Venezuelan bolivar. In Miami International Airport they installed oversized luggage chutes to accommodate passengers bringing dishwashers, fridges and wide-screen televisions home to Honduras, Colombia or Argentina.
But the biggest change was the possibility that the collapse of the USSR would also mean the collapse of Fidel Castro. The Cuban American National Foundation, which had been established in 1981 to use the wealth of Cubans in Miami to make them not just occasional employees of the CIA but a powerful force in American politics, began to plan for a transition government in Cuba. Cars drove around Miami with bumper stickers proclaiming ‘Next year in Havana!’ and the Miami Herald – formerly the newspaper of the old Anglo upper class which had to make a painful readjustment to the rise of Cuban buying power – proposed that there should be an enormous festival at the Orange Bowl the day Castro fell. Year after year they waited for Cuba to collapse and sometime near the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first it became clear that this would not happen.


On the second weekend in March of this year I attended the annual festival that the Cubans began in Miami more than thirty years ago. It takes place on Southwest 8th Street in the neighbourhood known as Little Havana and is called the Calle Ocho festival. Since early in the morning the local TV stations had been broadcasting pictures of people setting up food stalls all along Calle Ocho. By the early afternoon, with the sun high and strong, people in the bungalows and streets around Calle Ocho had turned their lawns and driveways into parking spaces for the visitors. Families sat on porches helping drivers to reverse into narrow spaces and collecting $20 for their trouble. There were two remarkable facts about the crowds in Calle Ocho. One was the prevalence of the gangster style in dress and in the music coming from the large stage that had been erected at one end of the street. The other remarkable thing was that very few of the people streaming along Calle Ocho that Sunday appeared to be Cuban. Many more people wore T-shirts proclaiming themselves Puerto Rican, Mexican or Honduran than carried Cuban flags. And the stalls where they stopped to buy beer or pile up their paper plates were serving Nicaraguan or Peruvian food. What was once a Cuban festival has now become a Latin American one.

A few days after Calle Ocho I went to see Jorge Mas Santos, the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. In the eighties and nineties his father, Jorge Mas Canosa, had made the Foundation into the most powerful organization in exile politics and won deference from presidents and members of Congress. Until his death from cancer in 1997 Jorge Mas Canosa pursued a course of unremitting confrontation with the communist regime in Cuba. His forty-three-year-old son still speaks of the struggle for freedom and of how he detests Fidel Castro, but there there is a sense in much of what he says that the all-consuming passion of that struggle is spent. ‘People get tired,’ he said at one point, ‘the younger generation [in Miami] is no longer Cuba first.’ The desire to erase all traces of Castroism has given way to the expectation of some messier transition involving pacts and deals with whoever runs Cuba after Fidel dies. Although his (slightly) younger brother Raul is the heir apparent it is uncertain how long he might last. Jorge Mas Santos says he’s prepared to talk to anybody except the Castro brothers, that the ability of the exiles to communicate with people in Cuba will be essential to their hope of influencing events, and that there is no use dwelling on the iniquities of the past.

Some years ago, when Jorge Mas Santos started to impose these ideas on the Cuban American National Foundation, one of its directors, Ninoska Perez Castellon, who was also a family friend, resigned and denounced him on radio as as a dictator. Ninoska, as she is known, is one of the most recognizable voices on Cuban exile radio. She broadcasts twice a day from the studios of Radio Mambi in Little Havana. The day I visited the studio towards the end of Ninoska’s afternoon show she was interviewing a young woman in a spangly top who had just put out a new record. Ninoska was holding the singer up to her listeners as a refutation of the idea that the younger generation of Cuban Americans didn’t know about Cuba. The studio was crowded: the young woman’s friend, a baby, a man with a video camera and another man were all moving around the desk and the microphones while Ninoska continued broadcasting, music fading in and out in the background. At the end of the show they all lined up with Ninoska for a photograph. This would be both a memento and good publicity: to be photographed with Ninoska was to proclaim your allegiance to an old style of Cuban exile politics that has no truck with talking to Havana, with or without Castro. The acid test for this approach is opposition to lifting the US embargo on Cuba. On Radio Mambi, those known contemptuously as dialogueros are denounced as traitors.

Ninoska believes there is a possibility of unrest in Cuba when Castro dies. She tells a story she has heard from somebody on the island. An old woman in Havana is heard by her neighbours shouting ‘Fidel fell! Fidel fell!’ Suddenly, several young men appear in the street with baseball bats and table legs ready to take on the security forces. But then they discover that all that had happened was that the old woman’s husband had fallen over in the bath.

This seems like a wisp in the wind. For all her sense of indignation, Ninoska appears resigned to the fact that Fidel Castro will die in power (‘there’s not much you can do if things remain the same’), and for someone who has lived for his overthrow since she came to Miami in 1959 this would be the wrong ending.

Last November the CIA said it was sure that Fidel Castro, who will be 80 this year, had Parkinson’s disease. Not long afterwards, in a television interview with Diego Maradona, Fidel boasted that ‘the day I die nobody will believe it’. And asked elsewhere what would happen after his death, he replied: ‘Frankly, I don’t think anything will happen.’ Divining what course Cuba will take is a task that occupies the minds of many. In Washington and Miami possible scripts for a post-Castro Cuba are rehearsed and re-enacted; detailed plans for a new constitution, for denationalizing Cuban state companies, for reclaiming confiscated property are set out and redrawn. But the truth is that nobody can be sure that Fidel Castro might not be right to some degree, that Cuba will drift into the twenty-first century without the cataclysm that once seemed likely. ‘The people who believe in vengeance are getting into their seventies and eighties,’ a veteran of the the Bay of Pigs invasion told me. ‘We won’t have the energy to exact vengeance.’

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 23 Summer 2006