Exiled Cubans' attitudes harden Anti-Castro feelings: The downing of two unarmed Cuban-American planes by the Castro regime has set back prospects of a thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- After Fidel Castro's MiGs shot down two unarmed Cuban-American planes last Saturday, Maria Cristina Herrera felt a double blow.

"Cuban lives have been lost," she says. But also lost was the chance "of some kind of resolution in a peaceful way" of America's three-and-a-half-decade Cold War with Cuba.

The incident has hardened attitudes among Miami's Cuban-Americans and in Congress, stalling or setting back a process of easing tension between the United States and Cuba and muting those voices calling for an end to the embargo of the island.

This anger erupts over the airwaves in calls to a talk show whose host is Armando Perez Roura, general manager of the powerful Spanish-language Radio Mambi.

It inspires self-sacrifice among friends of the downed civilian airmen such as Jose Monroy, a member of Brothers to the Rescue and a former political prisoner in Cuba.

And it prods prosperous Cuban-American businessmen who stay out of politics, such as Carlos Planas, to acknowledge a private hope for a confrontation.

"The thing here is we hope everybody keeps cool, but inside, we hope that something different happens as long as there is no lost life," he says.

Many who arrived here as adults after Mr. Castro came to power cling to the notion that only military action will end the Communist regime. Now Brothers to the Rescue has added a new tactic: nonviolent resistance.

"Essentially, their presence is definitely an act of defiance to a totalitarian government," says Ramon Cernuda, who has ties to human rights groups concerned about Cuba.

The date chosen for last week's fatal flight was significant. Feb. 24 celebrates "Grito de Baire," the cry of independence launching the last effort in Cuba's war against Spain in 1895. Cuban human rights groups had planned a gathering for the same day but canceled it after the government began arresting their members.

In a community known for a near-obsession with Mr. Castro, it's not surprising that the gulf dividing people in Miami is not a question of whether they like the Cuban leader but one of the strategy for ending his dictatorship.

When she first left Cuba in 1961, Miss Herrera spent two years supporting the anti-Castro underground, hoping the Communist regime would be overturned.

But after 1963, as the Soviet Union buoyed the Cuban regime with a steady stream of subsidies, she concluded that confrontation was hopeless and that the best course for changing the regime was to promote openness.

Financially secure as a tenured professor at Miami-Dade Community College, Miss Herrera, 61, promotes her ideas for peaceful Cuban change through the Institute of Cuban Studies and the Cuban Committee for Democracy, both of which she helped found, and through ties with the Cuban Catholic Church.

In 1979, Miss Herrera joined a group of Americans invited to Cuba on an exchange program. Ever since, she has been the target of wrath from the Cuban-American right wing, she says.

Her comfortable home in Coral Gables was bombed seven years ago, on the eve of a conference on easing U.S.-Cuban tension.

A Cuban-American newspaper labels her a traitor subject to punishment once Cuba is free. She has been publicly dubbed "la coja Herrera" -- the lame one -- and called a pro-Castro agent.

"I am not committed to subverting the regime," she says in an interview in a living room dominated by floral patterns -- flowered upholstery with bouquets of lilies and purple and yellow tulips, a flower still-life; even her dress is a floral print.

Although she condemns Mr. Castro and was furious with President Clinton last year for reversing U.S. asylum policy toward Cubans, she opposes the U.S. economic embargo, which she says is being flouted widely.

She also believes Cuban change should come from within. Cuban-Americans should participate, but not as leaders, she says.

Confrontation tactics merely play into Mr. Castro's hands, she says. "The Cuban regime leadership can't bear normalcy. They thrive in conflict and are masters of confrontation."

Ms. Herrera suspects Brothers to the Rescue was out to provoke the Cuban regime in a display of Latin bravado.

"I harbor doubts," she says. "In this case, peaceful tactics are a cover-up for violence."

Support for struggle

For Jose Monroy, flying for Brothers to the Rescue provides a way to honor the memory of his brother, who was fatally shot by Cuban authorities when he tried to escape a Cuban fishing boat and swim to an oil rig off the Texas coast.

Mr. Monroy is a former Cuban Air Force pilot who was imprisoned for three years after trying to flee with his family aboard a stolen Cuban government plane.

Mr. Monroy, 50, who recounts prison beatings in which guards used sticks with chains at each end, entered the United States four years ago in a U.S.-Cuban prisoner exchange.

He was inspired to join Brothers after hearing Jose Basulto, the group's leader, describe flying over nine rafts and finding only one rafter, indicating that the others had perished.

The group rescues "not only Cubans; we save Americans" or anyone else stranded in the Straits of Florida, he said.

On one mission, his plane hit the water, but recovered. Later, his seat belt jammed as his plane's cabin was filling with smoke.

A co-pilot rescued him. That co-pilot was among those killed last weekend.

Mr. Monroy acknowledged that the Brothers had flown over Havana on at least one occasion and dropped leaflets.

If Mr. Basulto has a political agenda, it is to "send the Cuban people a message that they are not alone, that we will support them in the struggle."

'Blood will run'

Mr. Monroy's employer, Carlos Planas, 49, sees confrontation as natural and inevitable: "We must at all times test the water with Castro. He must answer for his criminal activities."

The youthful-looking owner of a large Miami Chrysler-Jeep-Eagle dealership, Mr. Planas reflects the thinking of the prosperous apolitical middle class among Miami's Cuban-Americans.

Having arrived here at age 13 and been educated at the University of Miami, he is less fierce in his views than many of his elders.

But he speaks bitterly of a dictator who took over a relatively modern nation and turned it into one of the poorest in the world.

"There's a tremendous amount of hurt [in the community]. We PTC never thought it could happen to innocent men, totally defenseless."

"I will support anything that will get us organized to ensure that one day Cuba will be free," he says. But he's afraid violence is inevitable after Mr. Castro leaves power.

"I think the blood will run very heavy," he said.

Growing defiance

Nowhere is the hope of toppling Mr. Castro more powerfully voiced than in the cramped studios of Radio Mambi on Coral Way, and in particular, on the talk shows moderated by its general manager, Armando Perez Roura.

Arrested and imprisoned for a year early in the Castro regime for conspiring against the government, Mr. Perez Roura managed to leave Cuba in 1969.

He immediately began working for Miami radio stations. Nine years ago, he gathered a group of Cuban-American investors to acquire a station, which has since gained a large audience with Spanish-language news and talk.

Mr. Perez Roura boasts that Cuba had to start up its own station on the same frequency to prevent the Cuban people from listening to Radio Mambi.

The regime would certainly have wanted to jam Thursday night's round-table discussion moderated by Mr. Perez Roura, which became a heated anti-Castro forum.

The participants criticized the U.S. government for taking too soft a line toward Mr. Castro ever since President John F. Kennedy failed to support Cuban exile fighters in the Bay of Pigs. Mr. Perez Roura told his listeners that if proof were to be published about Mr. Castro's involvement in cocaine trafficking, the American public would support any action the White House took against Mr. Castro.

Mr. Perez Roura, a slightly built, bespectacled 68-year-old ("two years younger than Castro"), keeps a calm demeanor in his office, where he sits surrounded by patriotic memorabilia, such as pictures of Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo -- heroes of the war for Cuban independence.

But an insistent tone in his voice and a tremble in his fingers betray his bitter passion when he shows a visiting reporter two black loose-leaf binders containing names of people killed by the regime.

The list is arranged by dates, so the names can be read over Radio Mambi on the anniversary of the death.

World view of Castro

Mr. Perez Roura says the world is now able to see the Cuban leader for what he is.

"Beyond the grief and indignation, we will see a scenario of growing defiance" of the Cuban regime, says Mr. Cernuda.

"Quite a lot of people [in the exile community] are willing to risk their lives."

"The Cuban government is in for a surprise in the short- and mid-term."

All of which means Miss Herrera, whose views last year seemed to be gathering strength, is probably part of a shrinking minority -- at least of those willing to speak publicly.

"There's a hardening of positions and a polarization on both sides of the Florida Straits," says Damian Fernandez, chairman of the international relations department at Florida International University.

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