MIAMI--In a closet-sized studio lined with egg cartons, Dr.
Diego Medina, 67 years old and a warrior in the struggle
against Fidel Castro, leaned forward to speak into a
Medina had recorded his shortwave radio broadcasts in the
headquarters of the paramilitary group Alpha 66 for decades,
promising the Cuban people again and again that the hour of their
liberation was near. But on this sweltering day in July, he faltered.
"You close the show, I can't," he whispered to his longtime
collaborator, Andres Nazario Sargen, 78. A few hours later, after
driving home with suffocating chest pains, Medina was dead.
News of the passing of the No. 2 man in Alpha 66 was greeted with
a weary sense of resignation among the first generation of Cuban
exiles, now elderly men and women who first arrived in South Florida
in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. In recent years,
they've gotten used to going to funerals.
"It's very hard of us to say goodbye to a comrade in arms while we
are still in exile and to know that they died without seeing Cuban soil,"
says Dr. Armando Fleites, 69, a former Alpha militant. "We are a
frustrated generation that might not have a future . . . but we also
know that we have kept up a spirit of struggle for 40 years."
Four decades ago, exiles like Medina and Fleites first came to South
Florida to launch the fight against Castro's Communist regime. In
their prime, they transformed Miami into a city of Latin intrigue, a
hotbed of counter-revolution, dark conspiracies and terrorist
bombings. Most thought their stay would be a short one--after all, the
most powerful government on the planet was on their side.
Today, thanks to a few cruel twists of history, their grandchildren are
being born and raised on U.S. soil. And every month, it seems, they
hear of another comrade who has abandoned the fight for what one
euphemistically calls "reasons of biology."
"Here in Miami, we have two mortuaries called Rivero and
Caballero," Tomas Garcia Fuste, 69, explains. "So we say that Rivero
and Caballero are the ones who are finally doing away with the
Medina is buried in Miami's Woodland Park Cemetery, as is Jorge
Mas Canosa, the founder of the powerful Cuban American National
Foundation. For years, Mas Canosa was touted as the
president-in-waiting of a future, free Cuba. Now he rests in a grave
just a few paces away from his country's last democratically elected
president, Carlos Prio Socarras, who died in exile in 1977.
Garcia Fuste remembers his last conversation with Mas Canosa. "He
was dying, but he didn't talk about that. It was always, 'Adelante
[forward], adelante.' "
The surviving exiles have reached old age only to find their life's
mission incomplete. Castro, 72, may yet outlive many of them. They
greet this bitter truth with varying degrees of defiance and surrender.
Some angrily proclaim that there are no more "real Cubans" left, so
thoroughly have the Communists ruined what was once an island
paradise. A handful are willing to make peace with Castro, but a very
vocal majority say they will not return to Cuba while the dictator
remains in power.
"I have not changed my position," proclaims Garcia Fuste, a radio
personality here. "I have two brothers in Cuba. I have many
nephews. But I will not go back to Cuba until Fidel is gone."
Still, in the near future, the aging of the exiles may bring a
long-predicted thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. In August, the U.S.
Senate voted, 70 to 28, to lift restrictions on sales of food and
medicine to Cuba. And Clinton administration officials say privately
that they see a softening of attitudes in the Cuban American
"There is a debate now. Before, there was no debate," says Eddie
Levy of the Cuban American Defense League, a group dedicated to
protecting free speech in the exile community.
Over the years, Levy says, he suffered threats and intimidation at the
hands of various anti-Castro groups that labeled him a traitor. Now
those voices are growing dimmer. "They were able to control the
media in South Florida and help to make Miami . . . a banana republic
separated from the rest of the United States," he says.
In all, about 250,000 Cuban exiles resettled in the United States from
January 1959--when Castro first took power--to the Cuban missile
crisis of October 1962. Their ranks were dominated by lawyers,
doctors, businesspeople and university activists, a decidedly more
affluent group than most of the immigrants who have followed. More
than half settled in South Florida.
Although they formed hundreds of often-competing political groups,
most came to agree on a central, inviolable tenant: no dealings with
the Castro regime. Even visits to Cuba were taboo, because any
dollars spent there would prop up the Communists.
The champion of the get-tough, stay-tough strategy was Mas Canosa,
a veteran of the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Mas Canosa
rallied the exile community behind his influential lobbying group,
which has had the ear of Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton.
When Mas Canosa died of cancer in 1997, many were shocked: he
was relatively young, just 58 years old. Some wondered if, perhaps,
Castro's agents had found a secret and mysterious way to kill him.
For years he had been a larger-than-life figure, lionized by many,
reviled by others as "the Godfather." His son, 36-year-old Jorge Mas
Santos, became the group's new chairman in July.
The elder Mas Canosa lives on in the color photograph that adorns
his grave site. He looks skyward against a backdrop of palm trees, as
if longing for his homeland. He faces the nearby marble crypt of
Anastasio Somoza, the assassinated Nicaraguan dictator, whose
simple epitaph reads: "He loved his people."
Mas Canosa has no epitaph--his grave is supposed to be a temporary
one, until the day Cuba is liberated. But there are plenty of other
Cubans at the cemetery whose families have built permanent
memorials. The cemetery is dotted with black marble pillars adorned
with Cuban flags made of inlaid tile.
Days after Medina's burial, a stack of flowers still stood atop his
grave, including one bunch in the shape of a Cuban flag, the stripes
formed by white carnations dyed blue.
"Given the circumstances, we've done all the best that we can do,"
Fleites says of his generation. "No people have given as much blood
for their freedom as the Cuban people."
Like most of his friends here, Fleites was once an ally of Castro in
the earliest days of the Cuban revolution--until Castro declared
himself a Communist. After leaving Cuba in 1961, "with just one suit
and a pair of worn-out shoes," Fleites arrived in Miami.
For a decade, the revolution against Castro was his only vocation. By
1971, however, he'd gone back to medicine, opening up a Little
Havana practice where he still works today. "The time came when I
had to maintain my family and my parents who had come here," he
Now Fleites has a simple dream. If and when Castro disappears, he
wants to retire to a home on the edge of Lake Escambray, where, as
a much younger man, he once fought as a "comandante" in the
guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista, the soldier and dictator who
ruled the island in the '50s.
By contrast, Alpha 66 chief Andres Nazario Sargen still imagines a
political future for himself in Cuba, even though he is seen as
something of an anachronism by all but the most die-hard exiles.
"The Cuban people will respond to only one name, Alpha 66, and to
one leader, whose name is Andres Nazario Sargen," he says. "The
name of Alpha 66 is a legend to the Cuban people."
* * *
Decades slip away as a visitor enters Alpha 66's headquarters, a
Little Havana storefront on the mini-mall-sized Plaza de la
Cubanidad, where old men sit in chairs under the shade of a tree.
Inside, poster-sized, black-and-white photographs of martyred
fighters from the 1960s and '70s cover the walls.
On one wall, an arrow on an oversized map of Cuba shows the spot
where an 18-man Alpha guerrilla force invaded the island in 1970.
(They were quickly wiped out.) Nearby, the Alpha 66 shield, two
rifles floating over Cuba, proclaims: "Primero Muertos Que Esclavos
[Better Dead Than Slaves]."
Nazario Sargen, a diminutive, grandfatherly man who still trains with
his tiny army in the Everglades, presents visiting journalists with a
Xeroxed picture of himself taken with Castro and other bearded
guerrilla fighters in 1959.
Younger members of the organization, most of whom were either
born in the U.S. or left Cuba as children, treat veterans like Nazario
Sargen with a mixture of reverence and amusement.
"We're keeping their faith and continuing on their path," says Jesus
Hoyos, 37, a truck driver who is Alpha's commander of operations.
"As time goes on, a lot of these guys are between 80 and 90. A lot of
older ones go to camp with us. Of course, a 90-year-old man can't
carry a 60-pound bag for a mile and start shooting."
Guerrilla warfare long ago ceased to be the strategy embraced by
most anti-Castro Cubans, even in Miami.
"I used to think that [armed struggle] was the path," says Salvador
Lew, 70, a former official in the Castro government who fled Cuba
in 1961. "Much time has passed. We idealists of the struggle against
Batista would probably fall if you gave us a rifle to hold now. It's time
for new tactics."
Like many exiles, Lew began organizing against Castro almost as
soon as he made it to South Florida. "I thought that at the most the
regime would last two or three years." He started a radio news
program. With strong contacts still inside Cuba, he broke important
stories, including the arrival of Soviet troops on the island.
The years began to slip by, each quicker than the next. Lew's father
died in Havana--to this day, he has seen the grave only in
In 1973, Lew became a U.S. citizen, a step taken by many exiles. "I
spent the day crying," he says, because he felt even farther away
from Cuba. For years on Christmas Eve, they would give the
traditional midnight toast and say, "Next year, we'll drink our copita in
Now Lew thinks about the small things he left undone in Cuba, the
belongings long ago lost to time: his scrapbook, the stamp collection
he started as a child.
"I would like to be buried in my pueblo," he says. "I don't know why,
because everything is the same when you're underground."
For Celedonio Gonzalez, a 75-year-old expatriate novelist, there will
be no going back, not even in death. Cuba is another country from
the Caribbean jewel he knew as a young man, he says. The new
generations have been tainted by a Stalinist upbringing. "When we
die, there will be no more real Cubans left."
After working for years to bring Castro's downfall, Gonzalez is now
willing to say something few expatriates will say openly.
"An exile that lasts 40 years isn't an exile anymore, it's a failure," he
says. "We're great fakers. . . . It's been 20 years since I went to a
political meeting. They invite me, but I play deaf."
Although Max Lesnik, a 68-year-old journalist, remains active, he too
sees his time as a player in Cuban history nearing an end.
"All of us who came here in the 1960s are beyond any possibility of
exercising political power in a future Cuba," he says.
Lesnik regularly commits what is considered a heresy in exile
circles--he travels to Havana and meets with Castro, talks that are
more "personal" than political, he says.
"Today I can tell you, 40 years later, that I can see now what I didn't
understand then," Lesnik says. "I have to admit that Fidel's political
vision was the correct one."
Over the years, Lesnik has paid for his willingness to make such
statements. In the 1970s and '80s, the Miami offices of his magazine
Replica were bombed seven times.
For the younger generation, the future presents itself as a many-hued
landscape, not in the stark black-and-white of their parents'
"There's a different reality now," says John de Leon, 37, the son of
exiles and now head of the local ACLU chapter. Even members of
his own family, fervently anti-Castro, returned to visit the island,
during Pope John Paul II's appearances last year. "America is our
reality. Cuba was real to the extent it was passed on down to us. But
this is where we made our lives."
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.