Miami’s Angry Cuban Exiles Are Not Giving Up

Inside the hard, conservative core of hardline anti-Castro exiles, the last five decades have been a passion play of backstabbings by the U.S. government. But Obama’s historic decision to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, they say, is the most bitter of them all.

MIAMI — In 1961, José Basulto says, he was a CIA operative gathering on-the-ground intelligence on Cuba's military defenses in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion. After President Kennedy abandoned the invading troops on the beach at Playa Girón, Basulto says, he also abandoned the intelligence operatives on the island.

Thirty-five years later, in 1996, Basulto was piloting a plane over Cuba, one of four Cessnas belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, the activist group he founded in part to drop leaflets on the island. The other three pilots were killed that day when they were shot down by Soviet-made Cuban fighter planes. Basulto alleges that the Clinton administration knowingly and deliberately kept the Air Force from protecting them.

Yet none of these blood-soaked alleged betrayals Basulto recalls were as painful as President Barack Obama's decision announced Wednesday to normalize relations with Cuba. "I am witnessing something horrible," Basulto said.

For the Cuban exilio's hardline anti-Castro core, in spite of having long succeeded in shaping U.S. policy toward Cuba, the last half century has been an ongoing melodrama of backstabbings and desertions. "We've been used, we've been bargained with, we've been sold out," Basulto told BuzzFeed News.

In the past, the exiles could always count on the fact that America's official line would fall on the side of total condemnation of the Castro regime. Wednesday marked the first time in history that U.S. leadership had openly spurned the exile cause.

Since Wednesday, the dominant story out of Miami has been about the Cuban-American community's surprisingly mixed, muted response. But there remains here a hard core of exiles who were left raw and reeling, and for whom there is nothing ambiguous about Wednesday's announcement.

The Castro regime can stop calling the U.S. "Yankee imperialists," said Maria Antonieta Lima of the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a prominent exile group. "From now on it's Comrade Obama."

Miami's conservative Cuban exiles have been speaking in intensely emotional terms about the sudden, drastic, and utterly fundamental shift in the cause to which they have devoted their entire lives.

"This is the worst of all the betrayals," said Orlando Gutierrez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate. "Giving these guys an embassy — that's not a little thing here and there in the give and take. That's sanctioning repression."

"This isn't a technical betrayal," Gutierrez added. "It's a moral betrayal."

In response, the exiles are planning protests and an extensive media campaign to sway the public against Obama's move. They also say that they intend to continue using their clout in Congress to make sure that the embargo against Cuba, which only congress can lift, remains in place.

"We've got six members of the house of representatives and four senators," Gutierrez said — including Sens. Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio, who have positions with significant influence over foreign affairs. "We've got incredible political power. That hasn't changed. That's why the sanctions are still there."

Meanwhile, the exiles are also highlighting the role of what they call a growing pro-democracy movement in Cuba itself. In interviews with BuzzFeed News, several exile leaders stressed their intention to continue supporting dissidents within Cuba from afar, whom they now see as the greatest remaining hope of real change on the island. "Cuba will be free, with or without Obama's help," said Maria Antonia Lima of the Cuban Democratic Directorate.

It is the existence of this pro-democracy movement that, in the eyes of the exiles, disproves the assertion that a half-decade of isolation has done nothing to harm the Castro regime, one of the basic premises behind Obama's decision to renew relations with Cuba.

"Economic sanctions have worked," said Gutierrez. "Over the last 15 years the sanctions have put so much pressure on the regime that, for the first time, repression was limited, and you had a grassroots pro-democracy movement grow [in Cuba]. For the first time there was hope for democracy."

The hardliners in the exile community also reject the conventional wisdom that Cuban-Americans no longer back a hard line against the regime. This is in spite of the fact that polls show that as many as 90 percent of young Cubans favor establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. "I disagree with that completely," said Sylvia Iriondo, president of Mothers and Women Against Repression in Cuba. "Our younger generations are as committed as ever. Polls can be manipulated, and those polls are a propaganda tool." (Iriondo would not say who she believed had manipulated the polls.)

A theme repeated insistently in this community is that Obama's transgressions extend far beyond the Cuban people. "This is not only an affront to us," said Jorge Gutierrez Izaguirre, vice president of the Association of Bay of Pigs Veterans. "It's an affront to Americans, to America itself, and to the principles of democracy and freedom for which so many Americans have died over the years."

In the language they choose to express the special loathing now reserved for Obama, the exiles are often indistinguishable from certain sectors of the Tea Party. Speakers on Radio Mambí, Miami's seminal anti-Castro AM station, regularly call Obama a dictator, denounce his overuse of executive power, and even question the legitimacy of his American birth.

"I don't understand why Obama, with his doubtful place of birth, didn't pick some other Latin American country where he could install himself as dictator," Carlos Martinez, of the World Federation of Cuban Ex-Political Prisoners, said on the station. "He should have chosen another birthplace, not the United States of America."

The feeling amongst Miami's most zealous anti-Castro exiles is one of dazed, raw emotion. And after five decades of struggle, the sting will likely take some time to wear off.

"Did you watch Castro's speech?" Gutierrez asked. "He basically said: We won."

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