Observations from a Post-Ideology Miami

I have been observing Miami, especially the Cuban community, most of my life, sometimes as a resident, sometimes as a visitor.  As a resident one observes the city as one views a movie, as a visitor one sees it as a sequence of snapshots.  After moving to New York two years ago I am now in the visitor mode.

The advantage or disadvantage of observing through snapshots is that change becomes more evident, perhaps exaggerated. On this summer trip I have been struck by two important changes in the landscape of Cuban Miami.  One is that Miami has entered a post-ideology phase. The other is that there has been a marked improvement in the quality of the fried plantains served in Cuban restaurants in Miami (at least the ones I have visited). A few years ago it seemed one was always served platanos maduros cut too thick, not ripe enough, and undercooked. I am now seeing more platanitos cut into thin, very ripe, well-fried slices that stick together, as they should be:  amelcochados . . .  sorry, I digress . . .  this is not about plantains, but about ideology.

More than twenty years ago I published an essay on the nature and importance of the traditional exile ideology. Among the essential elements of that ideology, I wrote then, is an uncompromising hostility towards the Cuban government, a commitment to “recovering” the homeland, and the primacy of that ideology in determining the political attitudes and behavior of Cuban Americans.

A few years later, my colleagues Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick wrote about what they called the “moral community,” the set of political values that underlies Miami’s Cuban community, providing in effect a guiding and integrative force, a reason for the community’s presence in this country, and a vision of its destiny.

Mural at Casa Lario’s (now Bongos) on Ocean Drive, South Beach

I have been aware for several years of the withering of the anti-Castro “cause” within the ethos of Cuban Miami. I am not referring here to changes in the political attitudes of individual Cuban Americans, although that, of course, may be part of what I am seeing. Changes in attitudes are what my friend and colleague Guillermo Grenier has been tracing for years with the series of FIU Cuba Polls that he has conducted over the past twenty years. To be sure, there have been changes in those attitudes, influenced by intergenerational shifts and new arrivals from the island.

No doubt an overwhelming number of Cuban Americans, when asked, continue to hold negative views of the Castro brothers and of the Cuban Revolution generally. That hasn’t changed much. What I am referring to here, however, is the role of the anti-Castro ideology as a compass, a moving force, in the community. I would argue that even if the attitudes themselves have not shifted much and Cuban Americans of different generations and arrival waves continue to have a negative, even hostile, view of the Cuban government, what may have occurred with the passing of the older exile generation is the loss of the primacy of the Cuba issue in shaping the political agenda of Cuban Americans. In other words, newer generations and perhaps even newer arrivals may at various times exhibit attitudes and behaviors consistent with the traditional exile ideology, but their political agenda is more diversified. Unlike the older generation’s exclusive preoccupation with Cuba, today’s Cuban Americans do not see the world exclusively through the traditional exile lens. It is this development that has turned down the ideological volume of Cuban Miami.

A Miami friend, not Cuban, but also a longtime observer of the local scene, agrees with me that the Cuban cause is no longer a driving force in Miami. He says there are only two causes left in Miami today: David Lawrence’s Children’s Trust and Norman Braman’s efforts to curb what he sees as municipal fiscal excesses. Both of those causes have influential leaders and clear goals and have an impact within and outside their constituencies, something that is now missing from the traditional Cuban cause.

My friend traces the start of post-ideology Cuban Miami to the death of Jorge Mas Canosa in 1997. He may be right. It is undeniable that no one has replaced Mas as a leader in the Cuban community. Despite the fact that I strongly disagreed with what he was doing (and how he was doing it) and I took every opportunity to say so — even to his face in a televised debate in 1989 during his unsuccessful attempt to muscle into Florida International University a research institute controlled by the Cuban American National Foundation — I always recognized his extraordinary ability to project the exile cause both within and without the community in a way that had not been done before (or since).

Jorge Mas Canosa in President Reagan’s face when he hosted the President’s visit to Miami in 1983

Those that now seek to lead Cuban Americans are apparently doing so through the ballot box, getting elected to local offices, the state legislature, and even the U.S Congress. As Mas recognized, however, those are not ideal positions from which to most effectively push the Cuban cause (he never ran for public office), because elected officials must attend to a variety of issues that have nothing to do with Cuba. As with most leaders of causes, Mas’ political focus was exclusively on Cuba, and that was part of the reason for his success in keeping the exile agenda at the forefront of Cuban Miami.

That is not to say that the Cuban Miami gang in the U.S. Congress has been unsuccessful in advancing the traditional hardline agenda of keeping U.S. Cuba policy frozen in the Cold War. [Given the likes of David Rivera in that group, I feel justified in using the term “gang”.]  On the contrary, they have been quite successful (together with their New Jersey compatriots) in keeping U.S. Cuba policy unchanged. But that is a different ball game. To the extent that the leadership of the anti-Castro cause has defaulted to the Washington gang, it means that the stage has shifted from Miami to D.C., and that it is less about ideology and more about electoral politics and succeeding as a politician. To be sure, Mas Canosa lobbied in Washington, but he was always careful to tend to his ideological base in Miami, making sure it stayed focused and committed to la causa.

In this visit, I have seen symptoms everywhere that Miami has now fully transitioned to a post-ideology stage. There seem to be only scattered remnants of what had been a cause capable of being the major driving force in the political landscape of Miami. Let’s look at the media. The AM radio dial, formerly on fire with inflammatory political rhetoric and call-in programs expressing outrage about the Cuban regime, is now largely devoted to music, infomercials, religious programs, and ads and commentaries about local politicians and local politics. Only in Radio Mambí, la grande, la más potente, are there a few hours of programming a day devoted to castigating the Castro brothers in programs with long-standing formats and longtime participants that now sound pitifully decrepit.

And where are the periodiquitos, the fly-by-night free tabloids devoted to the cause that once proliferated in the stands of restaurants? The ones I have been able to find now are entirely devoted to advertisements or to stories lauding one or another political candidate or declaiming on a local issue.

There used to be at least two primetime talk show programs on Spanish-language cable channels that were devoted to stoking the flames of anti-Castroism, Miami versions of Cuba’s dogmatic Mesa Redonda where only the party line is presented. Now only one survives and it has diversified its format to include non-Cuban topics.  The rest of the programming on those channels is devoted to telenovelas or to incredibly inane “comedy” programming.

Public demonstrations against the Cuban government on one issue or another manage to assemble only a few dozen participants (as a recent one on the death of Payá Sardiñas), a distinct change from the marches that Mas Canosa would convene, filling S.W. Eight Street.

The change in the quality of the platanitos is a good thing. The change in the ideological landscape of Cuban Miami is, well, what it is. I certainly do not mourn the passing of much of the intolerant and intransigent discourse that always characterized the climate in the community, a discourse that seems to survive primarily in some fringe sites in the blogosphere. And on a personal level I do appreciate that there are fewer venues, at least venues that matter, in which I can be accused, as I have been in the past, of being a Castro agent, an inflitrado, a communist, a dialoguero, un mal cubano, and a few other things. My point is that if I were to be accused of those things now, few people would notice or care (especially me).

But I must say that I strangely miss the effervescence that existed in Miami over Cuban issues. The community is without a compass. This was not the plan: the struggle for recovering the homeland was to be followed, in exile lore, by the effort to rebuild Cuba. None of that has happened, so there is a suspension of purpose, a loss of guideposts.

I have observed during my trips to Cuba that the same thing has happened there. Only the political elites (as here) are unwilling to abandon the historical struggle. The ideological hardline discourse finds fewer echoes in a population intent on adapting to new realities and going on with their lives. Too much time has passed, too many things have happened while, essentially, not enough has happened. Exhaustion takes its toll.

Havana and Miami have always been, in political terms, mirror images.

6 responses to “Observations from a Post-Ideology Miami

  1. Justo J. SANCHEZ

    “What may have occurred with the passing of the older exile generation is the loss of the primacy of the Cuba issue in shaping the political agenda of Cuban Americans.” Totally inaccurate. Take a look, for example, at the Marco Rubio case. He has been forgiven because he is perceived as “firm” in dealing with Castro. At the Congressional level, who could challenge and succeed against the Ileana/Rivera/Diaz-Balart triumvirate? Rivera is facing a corruption investigation but is yet a commanding figure. Even local politicians with sincere desire to serve the public like Commissioner Francis Suarez dare not label themselves Democrats though their praxis is in line with the party’s ideology. They have to pay lip service to the anti-Castro rhetoric. Do you monitor the local news and the Cuba-mania programs like Oscar “Hacha?” and the late politologist cum-stilettos Maria Elvira Salazar? They command serious ratings. Your visit to Havana’s Casa de las Americas has diminished your powers of observation. Hesehehehehe….just kidding. Go and see Bendixen and get some real numbers from Bendixen. Justo J. SANCHEZ

    • Thank you for your comment, Justo. The reproduction of the hardline stance in a new generation that aspires to hold public office is evident and I recognize that in my point about their success in Washington in maintaining unchanged U.S Cuba policy. Beyond elites, however, I stick to my point about the shift, not so much in attitudes, but away from the primacy of the Cuba issue in the political agenda. Your comment deals only with officeholders. The distinction between political elites and the rest is precisely the point I make with respect to Cuba, applicable to Miami. I will, however, be more sensitive about the possibility of diminished powers of observation . . .🙂

  2. Maria Elvira Salazar has been off-the-air for more than a year. At the time of her departure from Mega TV on July 5, 2011, her show “Maria Elvira Live” had better ratings than Oscar Haza’s “A Mano Limpia” on America TeVe, although neither show had the good ratings that they used to have. Maria Elvira should be back on the air, perhaps even this month, according to her Facebook page. Here is a meaningless point of interest item: Both the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald have a daily Web question for their online readers. On Friday August 3, the question on el Nuevo Herald was “Quien ganara el estado de Florida en las elecciones presidenciales?” Being the most important Spanish language newspaper in Miami, where Cubans are still the majority, I assumed that the result would be a lopsided victory for Mitt Romney, but I was pleasantly surprised, when on Saturday the results showed that out of 3,319 votes, 55% (1,824) voted for Barack Obama and 45% (1,495) voted for Mitt Romney. This was only a poll for el Nuevo Herald online readers who wanted to participate, but as Chuck Berry said in, I believe, the song Teenage Wedding — “That goes to show you never can tell!”

  3. I agree with you Maestro.
    Thank you for this post. As a friend of mine says: We are living the “Cubanidad in between”, and there is nothing more accurate to describes todays political scene of our Miami a.k.a. Macondo. At least I don’t need to explain myself to others, to chose a political side or to fight that large number of “compatriotas” every time I go to get my CORTADITO con leche evaporada at La Carreta anymore.
    Take care and I hope to see you in the future.

    ERC

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