JG: Let's not forget that the legs of Emilio Milian were blown up by the Miami terrorists because he dared to challenge this intimidation mentality. Despite this report, I do not believe that much has changed in Miami.
Posted on Fri, Feb. 23, 2007
U.S. CUBA POLICY
A new forum for exile discourse
The owner of Tinta Y Café on Calle Ocho hopes to provide a forum for Cuban exiles who want to challenge U.S. policy on Cuba.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
Ink and coffee framed the countercultural debates in the cafés of San Francisco, New York and Paris, so Neli Santamarina figures her little joint on Southwest Eighth Street, Tinta Y Café, might help pry open exile Miami's Cuba discourse a half-century later.
Santamarina plans to begin monthly tertulias cubanas or talk sessions -- an old Spanish tradition -- at her coffeehouse so that people who disagree with U.S. policy toward Cuba can share their feelings with those who would never stray from the status quo. The first one is Sunday.
In any other city, an open talk about Cuba policy might not be a big deal. But in Miami, where thousands know of someone who was a political prisoner in Cuba or who died trying to flee the communist government, talk of softening U.S. policy toward Cuba is not always met kindly. It has drawn condemnation from talk radio, street protests and even violent attacks in the decades past.
''My parents didn't sacrifice themselves and come to this country so we would stay quiet and be afraid to speak out,'' Santamarina said. ``Everyone says things need to change in Cuba, and that's true. But they also need to change in Miami. There's a culture of intimidation in Miami that doesn't allow people to criticize U.S. policy toward Cuba. I'm not going to let that go on.''
With its own timbiriche window serving crispy croquetas and cortaditos with evaporated milk, Tinta reflects the anti-Versailles of exile thought. An art book featuring Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara on the cover sits on a book shelf -- placed there by Santasmarina to provoke conversation -- and the Cuban hip-hop sound of Orishas thump from speakers. Couches and threads of conversations critical of U.S. policy toward Cuba greet people as they enter.
''Miami is at a tipping point,'' Santamarina said on a recent afternoon as she tackled a plate with a plantain leaf-wrapped tamal, manchego cheese and arugula. ``I feel that we need to give a voice to the silent majority of people in Miami who are frustrated with the failures of U.S. Cuba policy.''
Santamarina and her friend, anti-embargo exile activist Sylvia Wilhelm, each invited ten people to Sunday's tertulia and asked them to bring someone who disagrees with them on U.S. Cuba policy.
Outside the famous Versailles Restaurant on Southwest Eighth Street, Miami's best-known tertulia on the Cuba issue thrives daily. Near the timbiriche that fronts Calle Ocho, casual groups form in the sparse shade of palms, always coming around to the topic percolating in Miami's collective consciousness for two generations.
On Wednesday, former political prisoner Dagoberto Venturita, 72, wandered into a conversation about the U.S. embargo of Cuba. He thinks Santamarina's tertulia plays into the hands of Cuba's ailing leader, Fidel Castro.
''Those people, that's leftism,'' Venturita said. ``Why do they come to this country if [the United States] is a democracy. Everyone has a right to talk, but there are a lot of sentiments and feelings in this community against their position.''
Cuban American lawyer Raúl Hernández-Morales, chatting in a group of three outside Versailles, snickered at the concept of a tertulia to discuss the U.S. embargo: ``What embargo? The embargo hasn't accomplished anything. The embargo has been an excuse for all of Fidel's tyranny.''
Santamarina believes recent changes in the leadership both in Cuba and Washington are cause to reexamine the strained U.S.-Cuba relationship. Fidel Castro's brother Raúl now runs Cuba, and Democrats, including many who want an opening with Cuba, now control Congress.
''You know what, I'm not a commie, so get over it,'' Santamarina said of those who disagree with her. ``We have to get beyond those ridiculous insults and talk this out. Lots of us feel that the best way to bring about change in Cuba is to increase contact.''
Earlier this month, Santamarina hosted a photo exhibit on the second floor of the building that houses Tinta, the Jóse Martí Building, known for amural of the island on a wall that can be seen from I-95. The exhibit was critical of U.S. policy that prohibits Cubans in the United States from visiting family on the island more than once every three years.
An awkward confrontation punctuated the night.
Alvaro Fernandez, chairman of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, which aims to end restrictions on family travel, unveiled the exhibit. He said the photos captured ''some of the pain experienced by families who can't see each other just because of a policy,'' a woman in the small crowd interrupted.
''Excuse me, didn't we all know that we were going to be separated?'' she said. ``I don't understand your attitude, I'm sorry.''
Fernandez asked her to reserve her comments until he was finished. But the woman interrupted again.
''President Bush didn't divide us,'' she said. ``Fidel is the one that divided us. He kept us from going for 25 years.''
As the visibly upset woman left the building, she declined to provide her name to a Miami Herald reporter, saying the people giving the presentation were ''cabrones'' (bastards) and ''asesinos'' (assassins).
''They are just saying half the truth,'' she said. ``I came here in 1962 and for 20 years, I couldn't go to Cuba and there was no Bush. It was Fidel's decision to prohibit us.''
Santamarina, who also is a real estate investor, was not dismayed. In a way, the confrontation represented the kind of discussion she wants to promote -- but without raised voices, insults or hurt feelings.
''Let's stop talking like that,'' she said. ``It's not about attacking someone. We have to stop the fights. To quote a T-shirt my friend was wearing the other day, what we need is dissent without fear.''