ORLANDO, FLA. — Orlando, Fla.
THOUGH VOLTAIRE, that famous French philosopher of individual rights and free expression, never wrote it, he's said to have commented once, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Maybe it's that French connection that makes the idea of freedom of speech seem so alien to the Spanish-thinking mind of a Cuban in exile. For whenever a Cuban-American has a thought of his or her own -- one not sanctioned by the conservative radio station personalities in Miami -- that person is called a traitor, a communist, a fidelista (supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro), a piece of scum.
And that's getting off easy. Sometimes, the "traitors" will have their cars or houses bombed and will lose a leg or other body part or even their lives.
So I wasn't surprised recently when, during the 30th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, one Cuban veteran in Miami was smacked in the face when he asked the crowd to lament not only the freedom fighters who lost their lives in that failed invasion, but Castro's dead troops as well.
This happened right around the time that Miami's government leaders decided not to renew the lease for the Cuban Museum of Art. The museum, which has been bombed a few times in the true spirit of Cuban exiledom, most recently was criticized for displaying work by Cuban artists who still live on the island, and who therefore must support Castro.
These incidents don't bode well for the future of a democratic Cuba. Once Castro is gone, how will the Cuban-American community ever reconcile with those Cubans who supported Castro? How can the Cuban-American community teach those who have lived under a communist system for more than 30 years that compromise is key to democracy, when the so-called leaders of the exile community refuse to hear or see anything that they don't agree with?
Sometimes I get the queasy feeling that we're destined to have Cuba ruled by extremists -- either of the right or of the left. I shudder to think so.
Granted, a lot of Cubans in Miami dislike Miguel Gonzalez-Pando, the Brigade 2506 veteran who dared ask that we remember Castro's fallen troops. He was one of a group of Cuban-Americans who met with Castro in 1979 in an attempt to free political prisoners and to open up travel for family visits. For the conservatives, who want to squeeze Castro out of existence with the U.S. trade embargo, that visit smacked of a treacherous act of conciliation with a communist egomaniac who has brought great pain to many of his people.
The truth is somewhere in between, of course.
Thousands of Cuban-Americans, who visited family in Cuba or had them come to the United States for such visits during the 1980s, can thank Gonzalez-Pando and his group for making it possible. But it's also true that this travel -- which brings needed U.S. dollars to Cuba so it can trade in world markets -- may well be prolonging the suffering of the people on the island by extending Castro's time as a leader of a system that's bankrupt financially and morally.
I can understand why many Cuban-Americans, when it comes to Castro, have no room in their hearts to compromise. Castro, after all, turned a country that was achieving prominence in industry, agriculture and tourism into a strident military state with no room for individual ideas or freedoms.
To many Americans, though, the Cuban exiles must seem unbending and reactionary. But 30 years really isn't that long to heal old wounds that run deep and bitter. Can you imagine if, 30 years after the lost battle at Gettysburg, an old Confederate soldier had stood up and said, "Let's remember those damn Yankees, too?"
Surely, it won't take another 30 years before Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are ready to embrace democracy, and fight to the death to defend it from the thought police of the left or the right.
Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Born in Cuba, she came to the United States with her family in 1959.