Exiled Cubans' attitudes harden Anti-Castro feelings: The downing of two unarmed Cuban-American planes by the Castro regime has set back prospects of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba.

March 03, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- After Fidel Castro's MiGs shot down two unarmed Cuban-American planes last Saturday, Maria Cristina Herrera felt a double blow.

"Cuban lives have been lost," she says. But also lost was the chance "of some kind of resolution in a peaceful way" of America's three-and-a-half-decade Cold War with Cuba.

The incident has hardened attitudes among Miami's Cuban-Americans and in Congress, stalling or setting back a process of easing tension between the United States and Cuba and muting those voices calling for an end to the embargo of the island.

This anger erupts over the airwaves in calls to a talk show whose host is Armando Perez Roura, general manager of the powerful Spanish-language Radio Mambi.

It inspires self-sacrifice among friends of the downed civilian airmen such as Jose Monroy, a member of Brothers to the Rescue and a former political prisoner in Cuba.

And it prods prosperous Cuban-American businessmen who stay out of politics, such as Carlos Planas, to acknowledge a private hope for a confrontation.

"The thing here is we hope everybody keeps cool, but inside, we hope that something different happens as long as there is no lost life," he says.

Many who arrived here as adults after Mr. Castro came to power cling to the notion that only military action will end the Communist regime. Now Brothers to the Rescue has added a new tactic: nonviolent resistance.

"Essentially, their presence is definitely an act of defiance to a totalitarian government," says Ramon Cernuda, who has ties to human rights groups concerned about Cuba.

The date chosen for last week's fatal flight was significant. Feb. 24 celebrates "Grito de Baire," the cry of independence launching the last effort in Cuba's war against Spain in 1895. Cuban human rights groups had planned a gathering for the same day but canceled it after the government began arresting their members.

In a community known for a near-obsession with Mr. Castro, it's not surprising that the gulf dividing people in Miami is not a question of whether they like the Cuban leader but one of the strategy for ending his dictatorship.

When she first left Cuba in 1961, Miss Herrera spent two years supporting the anti-Castro underground, hoping the Communist regime would be overturned.

But after 1963, as the Soviet Union buoyed the Cuban regime with a steady stream of subsidies, she concluded that confrontation was hopeless and that the best course for changing the regime was to promote openness.

Financially secure as a tenured professor at Miami-Dade Community College, Miss Herrera, 61, promotes her ideas for peaceful Cuban change through the Institute of Cuban Studies and the Cuban Committee for Democracy, both of which she helped found, and through ties with the Cuban Catholic Church.

In 1979, Miss Herrera joined a group of Americans invited to Cuba on an exchange program. Ever since, she has been the target of wrath from the Cuban-American right wing, she says.

Her comfortable home in Coral Gables was bombed seven years ago, on the eve of a conference on easing U.S.-Cuban tension.

A Cuban-American newspaper labels her a traitor subject to punishment once Cuba is free. She has been publicly dubbed "la coja Herrera" -- the lame one -- and called a pro-Castro agent.

"I am not committed to subverting the regime," she says in an interview in a living room dominated by floral patterns -- flowered upholstery with bouquets of lilies and purple and yellow tulips, a flower still-life; even her dress is a floral print.

Although she condemns Mr. Castro and was furious with President Clinton last year for reversing U.S. asylum policy toward Cubans, she opposes the U.S. economic embargo, which she says is being flouted widely.

She also believes Cuban change should come from within. Cuban-Americans should participate, but not as leaders, she says.

Confrontation tactics merely play into Mr. Castro's hands, she says. "The Cuban regime leadership can't bear normalcy. They thrive in conflict and are masters of confrontation."

Ms. Herrera suspects Brothers to the Rescue was out to provoke the Cuban regime in a display of Latin bravado.

"I harbor doubts," she says. "In this case, peaceful tactics are a cover-up for violence."

Support for struggle

For Jose Monroy, flying for Brothers to the Rescue provides a way to honor the memory of his brother, who was fatally shot by Cuban authorities when he tried to escape a Cuban fishing boat and swim to an oil rig off the Texas coast.

Mr. Monroy is a former Cuban Air Force pilot who was imprisoned for three years after trying to flee with his family aboard a stolen Cuban government plane.

Mr. Monroy, 50, who recounts prison beatings in which guards used sticks with chains at each end, entered the United States four years ago in a U.S.-Cuban prisoner exchange.

He was inspired to join Brothers after hearing Jose Basulto, the group's leader, describe flying over nine rafts and finding only one rafter, indicating that the others had perished.

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