In Cuba she was a symbol, the Madonna of the Counterrevolution. But in Miami, it’s a different kind of fight for Paula Valiente.
Rosaries dangling from their hands, a clutch of women stands on the sidewalk that circles Ermita de la Caridad church. Daylight is fading on a southerly wind from Cuba, breathing wisps of clouds over the tepee-shaped church, which overlooks Biscayne Bay just south of downtown Miami. The women, the majority of whom are of middle age, are talking in hushed rushes about the desperation on the island, about the balseros who flee every day, and about the newly arrived Cuban they are waiting to see. “Yo estoy loca para hablar con ella,” affirms Musmet de la Fe Posada, her frosted black hair ruffling stiffly in the breeze and her crescent eyes filling with tears. “I’m dying to speak with her.”
And then she appears, stepping out of a side door with a priest and another woman. Several worshipers point upward at the woman dressed all in white, her skin as black as iron, her face, carved like a mask with diamond-shape eyes and steep cheekbones, turning toward the bay. She moves down the steps and onto a knoll that leads to the low sea wall. Rosaries poised at the ready, Musmet Posada and her companions hurry to follow. Their halting remarks are soon drowned by the woman’s rapid declarations, blessing them and advising them of a big event she has planned for the following month, on the eighth day of May. Then, with the wind whipping her white skirt into foam and her hair into a black nimbus, the woman leads the way down to the water, where she will recite the rosary and call for the liberation of Cuba.
Paula Emilda Valiente Hernandez, a 41-year-old former junior high school math teacher, is many things to many people A a curiosity or a saint, depending upon whom you ask. But above all, Paula Valiente is a symbol, a well-publicized conglomeration of dramatic images that at the very least provokes recognition from any Cuban, no matter where he lives or what he believes about his homeland’s present-day travails.
Valiente has lived in Miami for six months now, having come to exile with her son, Daniel Angel Pe*a Valiente, age eighteen, this past November. Cuban authorities, Valiente asserts, forced her out of the country because of her dissident activities. Her ten-year-old daughter, Cheila Mayene Castilla Valiente, remains in Havana, caught between the government’s declaration that the girl wants to remain with her grandmother (who supports the Castro regime) and Valiente’s protests that she is being held captive in order to punish and silence a prominent activist.
Valiente and her son arrived from Cuba to an emotional and prolonged welcome from Miami’s exile community. During the previous two years, she had risen to prominence, principally through efforts by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) to publicize her repeated acts of defiance against the Castro regime, and the arrests and beatings that resulted from those acts. Daily, CANF’s short-wave radio broadcasts to the island on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn included calls to join Valiente’s twice-monthly peregrinaciones, the illegal public religious processions she led through the streets of Havana. Miami’s Spanish-language radio and TV stations chronicled Valiente’s exploits early on; the Miami Herald and its Spanish-language offspring El Nuevo Herald were slower to catch on, but by mid-1993, months before Valiente’s arrival, she was receiving print coverage, mainly in El Nuevo.
Initially, CANF, which helps resettle hundreds of Cuban refugees every year, provided generous support for Valiente. “We took an extra step for her,” says CANF spokesman Joe Garcia, explaining that the foundation paid her first three months’ rent for an apartment near the airport, took her shopping for furniture and clothing, candles and crucifixes, and helped her obtain Medicaid and other government services. CANF representatives even threw a birthday party for Daniel, Garcia says.
Within a few weeks of her arrival, the foundation flew Valiente to Washington, D.C., to testify at congressional hearings marking the first anniversary of the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act. In Miami she was featured on the local exile radio circuit and she waved to the crowds at the annual Three Kings Parade from a seat in Dade County Commissioner Pedro Reboredo‘s Cadillac.
Valiente’s arrival was not without its controversial moments. From the start, she was dogged by questions about why she had applied for a U.S. visa two years earlier. Her reply: She was homeless and desperate at the time and never really wanted to leave Cuba. In February, when Freedom House in Washington, D.C., flew her to Geneva to attend the annual conference of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, WSCV-TV (Channel 51) reporter Marylis Llanos asked her about a videotape that Cuban delegates had brought with them, which included footage of Valiente’s daughter declaring her desire to stay in Cuba, as well as a scene, purported to have been secretly recorded at the Havana airport hours before Valiente’s departure, in which the dissident was seen demanding to leave the country. Valiente claimed that the taped statements merely reflected her anxiety at being separated from her daughter, and her fear upon being informed by Cuban authorities that her son would be imprisoned if she remained on the island. Regarding the footage of her daughter, she asserted that the Castro government had manipulated or intimidated the child into making the statement. (Valiente has since produced a note, which she claims was written by Cheila and smuggled out of Havana; in childish script, the missive expresses the girl’s suffering and her desire to contact her mother.) Luis Zu*iga, executive director of CANF’s Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, defended Valiente’s integrity in a speech before the UN conference.