New Cuba policy splits opinions in 'Little Havana'

August 22, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

MIAMI -- Between the bags of beans, rice and plantains in the small La Bodega supermarket in Miami's "Little Havana," you'll find Cuban-Americans split over President Clinton's decision to block the boat people from landing here, to end family reunion visits and cut off money transfers.

To J. L. Correa, retired former owner of the store in southwest Miami, Mr. Clinton has made a "big mistake" in closing the door to Cubans.

A poll in the Spanish-language editions of the Miami Herald yesterday suggested that 62 percent of Cuban-Americans opposed the decision to detain the boat people at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Cubans, says Mr. Correa, are good workers who contribute to the wealth of this country's immigrant society. He offers himself as an example. He arrived 48 years ago, worked in various menial tasks, saved enough to open a dress factory, and was employing 100 workers when he moved into the grocery business.

"I love the United States, but I don't love the government because I don't think it is right to do what it is doing," says the Clinton voter, who will be a candidate in next year's mayoral race in the nearby town of Sweetwater. "What is the purpose of stopping everything?"

The purpose is obvious to Alex Gutierrez, who was born here to immigrant parents 22 years ago: to undermine the Cuban economy and increase popular unrest.

"Now it's going to get really bad in Cuba, and Cubans are going to go after Castro," he says.

There appear to be two common threads running through the patchwork of sentiments aroused by the new Clinton policy:

* Agreement that the local economy in South Florida could not stand another mass arrival of Cuban refugees to match the 125,000 who came here during the five months of the 1980 Mariel boatlift.

* Hope, if not belief, that the days of Cuban President Fidel Castro may finally be numbered, that the first popular protest against him on Aug. 5 has forced him to permit the departure of a new wave of boat people to distract attention from his mounting domestic problems.

The combination has fueled calls for a total blockade of the Communist island, similar to the naval cordon being maintained around Haiti, so as to make life impossible for its dictator.

The administration's decision to detain Cuban boat people picked up on the high seas at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, where about 15,000 Haitian refugees are already held, is feeding the calls for a blockade.

Juan Clark, a Cuban-American professor of sociology at Dade County Community College, says: "The sentiment is that, if Cubans are being treated like Haitians, why not have a total blockade like they have on Haiti?

"People are going to that extreme -- let's really push it until we get rid of the nightmare, that's the kind of feeling I'm picking up."

The Miami Herald has called on Mr. Clinton to do "the noble thing" and push for a blockade through the United Nations, although such a move would run into broad international opposition, particularly from Latin American countries.

"If you live in South Florida, you have this perception that it's the whole world fighting Fidel Castro," said Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer active in refugee affairs. "The truth is that most countries in South America support Castro.

Back at the grocery store, the current owner, Hector Hurtado, 35, who came here when he was 4 years old and grew up watching his father amass a chain of eight grocery stores in Chicago, says: "Clinton should take Castro out, and after that, all the boat people would go back there."

Mr. Hurtado says he would be with them. "I want to open up a buiness in Havana."

At the store's luncheon counter, Olga Ruis, who arrived in 1973 and next year will become a U.S. citizen, says: "Clinton's policy is fine. We want him to blockade the whole thing and not let anything into or out of Cuba."

Next to her, Jose Abru, a retired chef who has been here for 25 years, says he has always refused to send relatives in Cuba any money. Why?

"If you send money, Castro will stay that much longer. Castro makes his living on what comes from here," he says.

Along the road at the coffee counter outside the Versailles Restaurant, a popular Sunday eatery and watering hole where Cuban- Americans like to take their coffee dark, thick and sweet, Rosa Arce thinks her brother Alfred will understand when the quarterly flow of dollars -- sometimes $100, sometimes $300 -- she sends to him in Cuba stops.

"He doesn't want money," says the 1959 immigrant, who left after Mr. Castro took power in Cuba. "He wants freedom. The whole of Cuba is tiring of Castro."

For Roberto Torres, veteran of the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco when Cuban-Americans vainly invaded Cuba in an effort to topple the Castro regime, the long-awaited day of vengeance is approaching. "Three months, no more," he says. "Castro will be gone."

If that is true, Mr. Clinton will have won many friends in Miami. If it isn't, he may have to pay a political price, as the community here comes to realize that the pain that is meant to hurt Fidel Castro is taking its toll only on their friends and families still in Cuba.

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