- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Published at the same time as the troubling spectacles enacted recently in both Miami and Havana over the fate of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, Maria de los Angeles Torres' new book, "In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States" (University of Michigan Press, $42.50, 235 pages, illus.), voices a timely warning to both sides of this feud about the dangers of intransigence. The loudest voices on both sides of the battle over Elian have used the occasion to revive demonizing rhetoric that by many accounts ought to have died with the Cold War. Lost in the fray is sensitivity to the traumas suffered by a little boy who watched his mother die and clung to a raft for two days in the middle of the ocean.

If the bickering and manipulations of public sentiment by American, Cuban-American and Cuban politicians have been appalling, they have not been surprising. One accomplishment of this book is its presentation of the history of the frequently cynical use of Cubans who have left Cuba by different sets of politicians in both Cuba and the United States as pawns in struggles between states, whether it involves international diplomacy, nationalist mobilizations, or domestic electoral strategizing.

Cuban emigrants, concentrated in Miami but with sizable outposts in New Jersey, New York and Chicago, have been invoked as the representation of treason by the Cuban government even as that same government sought ways to tap its impressive accumulation of wealth. On the other hand, the U.S. government has vacillated between opening its ports to welcome exiled Cubans as heroic seekers of democratic freedom and regarding them with the suspicion and disrespect with which it treats many immigrants from other Latin American countries.

The author follows the variegated fortunes of Cubans living in the United States, tracking their changing relationship to both home and host countries over the course of the last 40 years, from the earliest moments in the revolution to the most recent crisis and transformation of the Cuban economy. Throughout, she insists persuasively on the multiplicity of political positions held by what is perhaps misleadingly still called "the community."

The first wave of Cubans leaving just after the revolution, in the early 1960s, already inhabited complex ideological stances. Many had supported Fidel Castro in his opposition to Fulgencio Batista but nonetheless suffered from one of the initial purges of suspected dissidents. This is the generation, according to the author, which has been most intransigent and most vocal in its opposition to the Castro regime, supporting the embargo and refusing to engage in dialogue with more moderate groups.

Their children grew up in the United States in the '60s, many of them becoming radicalized participants of anti-war protests and feminist and civil rights movements. The author argues that they were more sympathetic with the ideals of the revolution as well as more curious about their Cuban heritage than many of their parents.

Cubans who were part of the mass exodus in the '80s, known as Marielitos, held to yet another perspective. They were mostly poor "children of the revolution," those whom a socialist regime had meant to help most. Their attitude was not one of unrelenting opposition or romanticized idealism but rather of frustration and disappointment with the ideals they had believed in and towards which they had worked.

This emphasis on the diversity of voices within what has been perceived as a monolithic community deserves attention. As someone who has lived through and observed these generational mutations, the author is able to make a compelling case for her own view, both anti-Castro and anti-U.S. embargo, and supportive of dialogue rather than political or economic terrorism. Yet at the same time her methodological approach, relying heavily on secondary sources and interspersed with her own data collected as a result of participating in some of the processes she describes, raises some questions it cannot answer.

The narrative, although clear, lacks an analytical edge. Thus the author cannot explain how the Miami Cuban right wing has retained its tenacious grip on power despite the growing ideological pluralism amongst Cuban exiles. One comes away wishing her attention to texture and nuance had been applied to positions other than her own. That would perhaps contribute even more to the creation of the kind of dialogue she aspires to, and from which those caught in the middle, like Elian Gonzalez, would benefit.

Alejandra Bronfman has visited Cuba a number of times in the course of her history studies at Princeton University.

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