August 11, 2006

Winds of change may sweep few exiles back to Cuba

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - A lot more than the treacherous Florida
Straits separates Miami's Cuban exiles from their homeland just
90 miles off the southern tip of Florida.

But the handover of power by ailing Cuban leader Fidel
Castro has many thinking about change on the communist-ruled
island and the day, perhaps soon, when barriers between Cubans
and staunchly anti-Castro Cuban Americans may finally come
tumbling down.

"In the long run it's going to be impossible to separate
South Florida from Cuba, the links are too strong," said
Anthony Maingot, a Caribbean expert and sociology professor at
Florida International University.

"I have absolutely no doubt that Cubans will go back," said
Maingot, predicting many exiles would return to Cuba to live
after Castro's long rule comes to an end.

Castro, who will turn 80 on Sunday, has not been seen in
public since the announcement on July 31 that he was
provisionally handing power to his younger brother, Raul
Castro, while he recovered from stomach surgery.

No one doubts that many of Miami's 650,000-strong Cuban
exile community yearn for their lush tropical homeland.
Nostalgia is especially strong among the elderly and the first
wave of Cubans who fled Castro in the early 1960s.

But a 2004 poll by Florida International University showed
that most exiles -- who may not be welcome back on the island
-- would probably never return to Cuba to live. Even if it
changed to a democracy, nearly 67 percent said they were
unlikely to consider a permanent return.

That total was even higher than the 60 percent who said
they favored military action, by the U.S. government or Cuban
exiles, to overthrow Castro.

There are many reasons for rejecting a permanent return.
But none is cited more often than the fact that most Cuban
Americans now have deep roots in the United States.

Many have prospered in Miami, as Cuba fell into economic
ruin, and have a history of mutual antagonism and deep distrust
with those who endured in their homeland.


Cuba and Florida could eventually have "highly integrated
economies," said Javier Corrales, an associate professor of
political science at Amherst College. "But a lot depends on
whether Cuba becomes a hospitable place, politically and

If there is a true democratic opening in Cuba, Ileana
Ros-Lehtinen, an exile and Republican congresswoman from South
Florida, said booming tourism and new business and franchise
opportunities could lure many Cuban emigres back to stay.

She stressed that it would be a very emotional time for the
exile community, however, as they take stock of "the way things
used to be and the way they've been torn down by almost 50
years of a brutal dictatorship."

Touching on what may become the thorniest issue in future
U.S.-Cuban affairs, Ros-Lehtinen said exiles should not hope to
reclaim property confiscated during the revolution. Rather than
pushing to regain land and property expropriated by the Cuban
state, most exile leaders now favor demanding some sort of
compensation from a democratic transition government.

"There are a lot of family decisions that will be made as
soon as Cuba is free from the dictators, whether it's Fidel or
Raul or communist tyranny by any other name," Ros-Lehtinen

Elena Freyre, a voice of moderation among Miami's often
strident exiles, said Cuban Americans will play only a limited
role in a post-Castro Cuba, and should not expect to be well
received on the island due to their support for the U.S.
economic embargo against it.

"I think the vast majority of Cuban Americans are here to
stay," said Freyre, who came to Miami as a child in 1960 and
now heads the Cuban-American Defense League.

"Most of the people who speak the most about how much they
miss the homeland haven't been there in over 40 years and have
no clue what Cuba looks like today," she said.

"The few that are bold enough to venture stepping on the
actual ground (of Cuba) are going to catch the first plane