Andrés Gómez—a shambling, friendly, 63-year-old bear of a man—is the director of Areito Digital, an online magazine of “progressive Cuban immigrants,” the leader of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a Miami-based pro-Cuba activist organization, and one of the best known moderate voices in Miami’s el exilio.
I met with him while I was in Miami recently trying to understand why lawyers for the Cuban Five had argued at trial and later, in appeals, that it was impossible for their clients to get a fair trial in Miami.
Gómez has traveled a long journey from his beginnings not only as the refugee child of anti-Castro exiles but also as the nephew of a leader of one of the most notorious anti-Castro terrorist groups of the 1960s.
Like much in Miami, his story begins in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution when his upper middle class parents joined the flood of anti-Castro refugees escaping to Miami in 1960. He was 13 at the time.
Most of his family, Gómez says, were—and are—militantly anti-Castro. “Progressives?” He thinks for a minute, laughs. “There’s me and another first cousin. We’re a pretty lopsided right-wing family.”
His own favourite uncle growing up was Miguel San Pedro, a key member of the Movimiento Nacional Cuba, an anti-Castro terrorist group that claimed responsibility for—among other incidents—a failed bazooka attack on the United Nations during Che Guevera’s speech in 1964 and a bomb blast at the Cuban exhibit during the Expo 67 world’s fair in Montreal.
“I loved him dearly,” Gómez says today. Despite their differences, his uncle not only taught him much about Cuban history and politics, he says, but also happily and “constructively” argued with his young nephew, helping hone his developing views on Cuba.
His uncle, Gómez says now, was actually a Cuban nationalist who not only opposed Castro but also American interference in his country. That eventually brought him into conflict with an increasingly powerful cabal of Miami exile militants—including Luis Posada, Oscar Bosch and others—whose actions would become more and more intertwined with those of the CIA.
San Pedro, Gómez remembers, was “incensed” when anti-Castro exiles bombed a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976, killing 73 people. “His own brand of terrorism involved not harming innocents,” Gómez inists. “It was OK to kill officials to make a point. But never innocents. He saw the [airplane] bombers as decadent Mafia types.”
By the time San Pedro died in 1981, Gómez believes his uncle had distanced himself from his terrorist past. “He would have been my age when he died,” Gómez says today, “and I think that, if he’d been raised in different circumstances, a different time, he would have turned out like me.”
Gómez’s own political evolution was gradual. At the University of Miami in the sixties, he was one of the founders of the Federation of Cuban Students, a group that fought to preserve the privilege of a separate loan program for Cuban students (one of the perks available to the children of “good” anti-communist Cuban exiles but not to other immigrant groups). And one of his contemporary right-wing critics says he saw Gómez at an anti-Castro rally in support of jailed exile terrorist Felipe Rivero as late as 1967.
Gómez says his radicalization began with the standard trigger issues for young people in the sixties in America—Vietnam, civil rights—but quickly spread to encompass Latin American revolutionary movements and, particularly, the Cuban experience.
The turning point came in 1977. Thanks to a brief rapprochement between the United States and Cuba during the Jimmy Carter presidency, Cuba invited 55 young Cuban exile professionals and intellectuals—including Gómez—to visit the homeland that had been off limits to them for all of the 18 years since the Cuban revolution. The 55 became founding members of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, named after a 19th century black Cuban military general “known for his fierce fighting against Spain in defense of his homeland.”
That first visit to Cuba, Gómez would write 30 years later, “left an everlasting mark on all of us… We were young, but we were aware of the implications of our resolution… we were the ones who destroyed the monolithic image of the then-Cuban counter-revolutionary exile.”
The “counter-revolutionary exile” monolith in Miami did not take the challenge lightly. Over the years, there were attempts on the lives of Gómez and others.
“Bombs,” Gómez says simply, “a Molotov cocktail thrown against a house.”
One of the members of the original brigade—Carlos Muñiz Varela—was murdered in April of 1979 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “That was 31 years ago,” Gómez says, “and no one has ever been brought to justice. Even though we know who did it, and we know that they [the FBI and Puerto Rican police authorities] know who did it.”
That isn’t unusual. American law enforcement has, at the least, benignly tolerated exile violence, whether against Cuba itself or against moderates in the Cuban American community. Prosecutions are rare, convictions even rarer.
Gómez tells the story of one 1994 incident to make his point. Members of Miami’s Alianza de Trabajadores de la Comunidad Cubana, a group collecting medical equipment and supplies to donate to Cuba, discovered a plot to burn down a warehouse they were using to store 20 tons of supplies in preparation for shipping it to Cuba.
“We let the FBI know what we knew,” Gómez says.
On the night of November 2, 1994—two months after Max Lesnik’s Replica offices had been attacked with two Molotov cocktails—police arrested three Cuban-American men just after they’d smashed out a window and were climbing into the warehouse. They were armed with 10 gallons of gas, fuses and a fully loaded semi-automatic handgun.
Despite the reality that they’d been caught red-handed, Gómez says, the FBI didn’t want to pursue the case. “’Let’s not go to a trial,’ they said to us. ‘The jury will find them innocent anyway. If we don’t take it to trial, we can reach an understanding with them, we’ll be able to control them better…” Gómez shrugs. “We wanted to go to trial.”
The case didn’t go to trial.
“That’s the way it’s been in Miami,” he says simply.
In an unprecedented 1992 report, Americas Watch, a human rights group, published a scathing assessment of the state of free speech in Miami, concluding that exile groups, including the Cuban American National Foundation, the Miami City Commission and local Spanish-language radio stations were so determined to enforce their anti-Castro political views among Miami’s exile community that “moderation can be a dangerous position.”
The 30-page document catalogued a long list bombings, vandalism, beatings, death threats, violence and harassment aimed at moderate exiles from the 1970s to the nineties.
Intriguingly, the group decided to look into the free-speech climate in Miami—the first time it had ever investigated an American city—while investigating human rights violations in Cuba.
“Ironically,” the Americas Watch report concluded, “in their attitude toward dissenting viewpoints, many anti-Castro Miami Cubans have a good deal in common with the regime they loathe.”
For more, you can check out this Field Note on Max Lesnik, another of Miami’s progressive Miami Cubans.