'This is our struggle as well,' sons, daughters say

Published Aug. 5, 2006

Early Thursday morning, Armando Gutierrez was schmoozing with old friends outside the Versailles restaurant on Eighth Street. The portly man with a white mustache has one of the most recognizable faces in Cuban exile politics.

Minutes later, Armando Gutierrez Jr. parked his BMW and joined his father at the door.

"Es mi hijo, Armandito," Gutierrez said, introducing his son to the regulars who haunt this political nerve center of Miami's Cuban community.

The 24-year-old real estate developer in slacks and a tie may have the name, but nowhere near the recognition of the man who was a spokesman for the family of Elian Gonzalez.

The younger Gutierrez had already been to Versailles four times since Monday, when an ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother Raul. He usually goes once every two weeks. But no one who considers himself a player in exile politics would have thought of being anywhere else last week.

Father and son talked over cafe con leche and tostadas.

"You can't liberate Cuba from Miami," the father said.

"I think it's going to be a long ways away before it can go back to a full democracy unless there's outside influences," young Gutierrez responded.

People in Miami have been pleasantly surprised this week by the willingness of young Cuban-Americans to take to the streets in support of a Cuba without Fidel Castro. Far from disaffected, these American-born children of Cuban exiles have absorbed their parents' passions - most without ever having set foot on the island.

After breakfast, Gutierrez followed his father to a radio interview at La Poderosa 670 AM and listened quietly as his father addressed people who pick up the radio signal in Cuba.

"The time has come, and the nation of Cuba has its chance," Gutierrez Sr. said in Spanish. "This is the time, the day, the hour that the nation realizes it can be free."

Afterward, Gutierrez Sr. mentioned that exile leaders want to organize a march in Miami. His son wondered why no one had planned it yet.

Wendy's lunch in hand, Daniel Pedreira sat at his desk in the University of Miami's political science department Thursday. Between clerical duties, the 22-year-old writes a newsletter for a UM-based group called Jovenes por una Cuba Libre, Youth for a Free Cuba.

"At this important and historical crossroads, Cuba's future is in the hands of its people, especially its youth," Pedreira wrote in an e-mail Tuesday to his readers in Cuba.

Pedreira's parents left Cuba in 1980. He always knew they opposed Castro's regime, and that his mother was fired from her job as a teacher because she openly married in a Catholic church, but conversation didn't extend much past the basics.

"I brought Cuba to the dinner table," Pedreira said. "My first taste of civic action was Elian. It did plant that seed."

Pedreira is part of a generation of Miami-born children of Cuban exiles whose activism arrived when the Cuban boy did on Thanksgiving 1999.

"The Elian Gonzalez issue was a turning point for the younger generation," said Dr. Andy Gomez, a senior fellow the University of Miami Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. Gomez said that the younger generation saw the passions of their parents, but also saw the older generation's failures in handling the issues.

"This generation is as American as it is Cuban. But over the last five years, this generation has become again engaged in what I call the future of Cuba, in trying to develop a plan that when the time comes ... this generation will be able to reach out to that generation in Cuba," Gomez said. "It's pragmatic, but a little unrealistic, too."

If the older generation's downfall is "blind passion," Gomez said, the younger generation's weakness may be "unrealistic expectations." Young Cubans on the island, he said, may not share the same attitudes about democracy.

Thursday afternoon, Alex Correa dropped by Pedreira's office. The 19-year-old had been scheduled to go to Cuba on a church missionary trip. It had taken plenty of convincing to get his family to agree to let him go. His parents gave the okay, but he skirted the issue with his grandfather, who said he'd never forgive a family member who returned to the island.

"Their last memories of Cuba were very hard," Correa said. "It was definitely a big issue when I wanted to go."

But Correa was curious. He'd spent his entire childhood watching balsas - the crude rafts fashioned by fleeing Cubans - wash up on shore. At an exhibition of Cuban memorabilia, he watched his mother cry when she saw a doll exactly like the one she had to leave behind.

"Maybe it's a blessing that we haven't seen Cuba," Correa said. "Being young, we're idealistic. Being young, we haven't been calloused."

Correa said his parents' generation has been bitterly disappointed time and again - during the Bay of Pigs, the Mariel boat lift, the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes and, most recently, when Elian was returned to Cuba. His generation, Correa said, isn't as burnt out.

Correa said he sees carrying the torch as a responsibility.

"Two or three generations from now, if we have children, they'll be carrying our last names," Correa said. "What else will they carry?"

For Gutierrez Jr., Cuba did not become something more than a story his father told until a day in early 2000. That was when he followed his father on a visit to Elian Gonzalez's Little Havana home. He met the boy, the exile family caring for him and the scores of exiles keeping vigil outside.

"You go there, you see it, and you become passionate," the son said. He went home and created a Web site about the boy with a petition to allow Elian to stay in the United States. The day the Immigration and Naturalization Service took Elian into custody, his Web site got 2.6-million hits.

Thursday afternoon, Gutierrez Jr. got a call from Armando Perez Roura of Radio Mambi, a Miami station.

Roura challenged Gutierrez to organize his generation and find out what message they want to send to the Cuban community - in Miami and 90 miles away, across the Florida Straits.

Gutierrez scrolled through the numbers on his cell phone. He called 20 friends and representatives from young Cuban-American groups. Meet at Versailles, he told them. 7 p.m.

"Everybody's been criticizing Cubans for their reaction," Gutierrez said, leading the meeting later that night. "I feel it's our responsibility to figure out a plan."

"A peaceful movement," suggested Tony Iglesias, 35. "A march."

The group, nibbling on Cuban bread, lingered on the idea for a bit, deciding that they would march from the Versailles to downtown as soon as they got the news that Castro was dead.

"Armando, what are we talking about?" Pedreira asked. "Say there is a march. What's the message? We shouldn't just be celebrating his death when no change is going to happen in Raul."

Vince Lago Jr. agreed.

"We can march till we get tired. We can have a press conference till there are no more words. That government doesn't believe in dialogue," said Lago, 29.

"There's a lot of dissident groups, but they've never gotten together," Lago said. "A lot of young professionals are changing their views. Young people need to get involved, somehow, some way."

"This is not just you picking up your father's fight," Scott Wacholtz told Gutierrez. "This is our struggle as well."

That was the message, Gutierrez decided.

"The fact that we're all here, that we're the next generation and that we're politically inclined is the success of this meeting," Gutierrez said.

Pedreira wasn't satisfied.

"So what do we do?" he asked.

"If anything happens, we can communicate faster with each other. I think we know what our message is - that we're the next generation and we want to be involved," Gutierrez said. "It's going to affect our future. It's going to affect us more than we think."

By the end of the meeting, Gutierrez's generation hadn't come up with one specific message. They hadn't drafted a plan on how to free Cuba. They agreed to wear yellow at the march, to signify peace. Then they wrote their names and e-mail addresses on the back of a paper place mat and agreed to meet again.