Updated 3 yearss ago
Cuban-Americans' image took a big hit, but don't look for a softer stance on Cuba.
By David Villano
A year ago, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas was hailed as one of the National Democratic Party's rising stars. Pundits placed him on Al Gore's short list of possible running mates. But after publicly haranguing federal officials last April, refusing to assist with the return of Elian Gonzalez to his father, Penelas finds himself firmly on the party's list of untouchables. Rather than being in a position to run for vice president, Penelas is campaigning fiercely to retain the mayor's seat.
To be sure, Penelas is not the only one paying the price for playing exile politics. In the aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez saga, Miami-Dade finds yet another irksome label pinned to its back. In addition to being perceived as the capital of drugs, crime and corruption, Miami-Dade is now seen by many as the capital of ungrateful, flag-burning immigrants who thumb their noses at the rule of law. For months national opinion polls have revealed that few outsiders sympathize with the majority Cuban-American view on the Elian case. Within south Florida, deep divisions along ethnic lines continue to polarize the community.
"There have been some very painful lessons," says Damian Fernandez, a scholar of Cuban politics at Florida International University in Miami. "The rest of America does not hold a very positive view of Cuban-Americans right now." That negative perception, adds Fernandez, could diminish the region's clout in Tallahassee and Washington. As an example, Fernandez points to the growing momentum for curtailing -- even ending -- the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Indeed, such talk -- once unthinkable in Miami-Dade -- could be heard in cafes and on talk shows during a brief time of introspection that immediately followed the crisis. But the voices of moderation within the Cuban-American community that called for a re-examination of U.S.-Cuba policy are fading. Earlier this summer the powerful Cuban American National Foundation named former Florida Public Service Chairman Joe Garcia its new executive director.
At 36, Garcia is the first U.S.-born chairman, and some observers saw the move as a symbolic transfer of exile leadership from the old guard to the new. But while admitting a need to better articulate the exile message, Garcia shows no willingness to promote a softer stance on Cuba. He vows to fight efforts to end the embargo.
So far, Miami-Dade's leadership appears unwilling to change. In Miami-Dade County, support remains strong for a controversial ordinance that requires bidders for public grants and contracts to sign an affidavit affirming that they have never done business with Cuba. The ordinance, much of which has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, has cost the county millions in lost revenues.
But in Miami-Dade, ideology has no price tag. To understand the Cuban-American experience is to understand that exiles see themselves as soldiers in a war who are willing to endure the consequences. Says Garcia: "In the rest of the world, the Cold War is over, but it's not over down here."
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Downtown Miami's beleaguered Omni International Mall has a new lease on life as a high-tech center for the city's growing telecommunications and e-commerce industry. New York real estate company Argent Ventures paid a reported $30 million for the property, which has lost retail tenants steadily since the departure of its last anchor, Burdines, in the early 1990s.
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Nearly 30 years after forming as a small cadre of Miami power brokers meeting in secret, the so-called Non-Group is restructuring itself by incorporating as the Miami Business Forum. Once almost exclusively Anglo and male, the group expanded and diversified its membership in recent years after word of its existence leaked to the media. Royal Caribbean Cruises Chief Executive Richard Fein will be the forum's first chairman. Membership fees are $10,000.
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