Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

December 2016
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Waiting for help
Waiting for help

By Gabe Ulla December 10, 2016

On the night of November 25th, the owners of Versailles, Miami’s most
famous Cuban restaurant, were at a Thanksgiving gathering when their
phones buzzed with a news alert: was dead. Nicole Valls,
who helps run the restaurant with her father and grandfather, was used
to false alarms; since 2006, when rumors of the leader’s ill
first circulated, she’d been keeping a folder in the trunk of her car
containing protocol for Versailles in the event of Castro’s passing.
Now, once she’d confirmed that Castro was really dead this time, she ran
to grab the folder from her car and texted the restaurant’s managers
with instructions: the parking lot would have to be cleared to make room
for the many news vans that had reserved spaces for the occasion. In the
early hours of the 26th, crowds surrounded Versailles, waving Cuban
flags, banging out clave rhythms on pots and pans, and joining in chants
in Spanish, including “P’arriba, p’abajo, los Castros p’al carajo”—“Up
and down, and the Castro brothers can go to hell.” The next day, when
celebrations resumed, the restaurant ran out of croquetas by noon.

Nicole’s paternal grandfather, Felipe Valls, Sr., opened Versailles, on
Little Havana’s Calle Ocho, in 1971, and in the decades since the
restaurant has outlasted most of the local competition. The family today
owns forty restaurants around the city, including one just down the
block. But it’s their flagship restaurant that has become a de-facto
town square for generations of Miami’s Cuban community, and the media’s
go-to place for assessing the state of Cuban-American relations. The
Cuban author Carlos Alberto Montaner, a close friend of the Valls
family, told me, “How can you effectively reach the exiled community, an
abstract concept of two million people spread throughout the world?
Versailles is a concrete place that gives sense and form to that
abstraction, and the media understand that.”

The restaurant has been an obligatory stop for politicians on the
campaign trail since 1986, when the Florida politician Bob Graham,
during his run for governor, put on a busboy uniform and worked a shift,
wiping down tables and refilling water glasses. In 2000, the restaurant
became a fixture of TV news segments during the custody battle over
Elián González, when Cuban-Americans in the region rallied behind the
boy’s family members in Miami. And in March, when Barack Obama became
the first sitting U.S. President since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba, a
group of protesters set up shop across the street from the restaurant,
holding signs with messages like “Obama Miserable Comunista.” If Donald
Trump attempts to undo Obama’s thawing of relations, as he has suggested
he might, media outlets will look to the reactions of Versailles patrons.

But the Valls family knew that the most frenzied activity would come in
the wake of Castro’s death. In “The Versailles Restaurant Cookbook,”
published two years ago, Nicole Valls and her co-author, the local
and television personality Ana Quincoces, explained that one of the
traditions of Versailles customers, especially at its outdoor café
window, or ventanita, is “plotting Fidel Castro’s death.” Each time
rumors surfaced that Castro had died, they wrote, “people flocked to the
restaurant in droves to confirm the story and to celebrate the
possibility that it might be true.”

Though my own father liked to slyly refer to Versailles by the nickname
El Pentágono, for much of my early life I viewed the restaurant less as
a political nerve center than as a place to get consistently good plates
of ropa vieja with and sweet plantains. Versailles is where my
parents, Cuban exiles who left the island in the early sixties and
eventually settled in New York, would take the family for dinner
whenever we visited cousins in Miami. The restaurant is open until 1
a.m. Sunday through Thursday and even later on weekends, so we’d go
there after parties when every other place was closed. The restaurant’s
many dining rooms are adorned with chandeliers and other faux-opulent
homages to pre-revolutionary Havana, but Versailles, which has about
four hundred seats, is really a cafeteria, a protean meeting ground with
an inexpensive and expansive menu, plastic breadbaskets, and vinyl
chairs. Like the long-standing Galatoire’s or Commander’s Palace, in New
Orleans, it is a place for regulars who like to stick to their habits. A
group of elderly exiles known as the Teen-agers eats lunch there every
weekday, and devotees request specific tables based on the strength of
the air-conditioning.

It is these old-timers whose political sentiments help to set the tone
of Versailles’s coverage in the media. On Election Night, when it became
clear that Trump would be the victor, a celebration erupted outside of
the restaurant. Though the Cuban-American vote in Florida tipped in
favor of the Republican candidate, a majority of Cuban-Americans support
Obama’s policies toward the island. But the news stories from Versailles
depicted a scene of pro-Trump fervor. Ana María Dopico, a Cuban-American
professor at N.Y.U., told me that the media’s relentless focus on
Versailles ends up selling a “caricature” of Cuban-American political
feeling. The population of the Cuban-American community in Miami-Dade, a
Democratic county, hovers close to a million. “The illusion of
Versailles as a village square obscures how varied Cuban Miami is, and
that Cuban-Americans are not a monolith,” she said.

The Mexican-American and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who
has lived in Miami since 1986, told me he’d found the post-Castro moment
in Little Havana surprisingly subdued. Twenty years ago, when Castro
seemed “all-powerful on the island,” there was a feeling that his
passing could instantly provoke change, and inspire a mass immigration
back to the island. “There is honor and dignity in confronting the
and outlasting the ,” Ramos said. But Castro ceded
power to his brother Raúl in 2008, and the lessons of post-Hugo Chávez
made clear that a Cuba without Fidel wouldn’t necessarily mean
the end of Castrismo. Felipe Valls, Jr., Nicole’s father and the current
head of the company, suggested a similar sense of ruefulness: “Castro
lived a long time, and we weren’t able to say, in his face, ‘This is the
new Cuba, and screw you.’ ” Exactly what Castro’s death, and Trump’s
rise, will mean for Cuban-American relations remains uncertain.
Versailles, more than providing campaign stops or media sound bites,
will be most useful as a place for Cuban-Americans to process their
continued sense of displacement—the trauma and complicated pride that
stem from having roots in a country that an increasing number of
Miamians never experienced firsthand.

A week and a half after Castro’s death, my parents and I all happened to
be in Miami, and I went to sit with them one evening as they ate dinner
at Versailles. The room was full. At one table nearby, four grandmothers
drank batidos, or milkshakes, with their main courses. I picked at some
croquettes, while my dad inhaled a plate of braised oxtail and my mom
had filet mignon. At one point, our waiter, a man in his forties wearing
the staff’s signature white dress shirt and green cravat, came by to
check on us. I asked him about the celebrations earlier in the week, and
when he expected Versailles’s next big party would be. “When Raúl goes,
I guess,” he said.

Source: Life After Castro at Miami’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant – The
New Yorker –

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