Fidel Castro: Unwitting father of modern Miami
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
The Gateway to the Americas: That’s how Miami’s business and civic
leaders would grandly if sporadically label the city in the middle of
the last century. In reality, the slogan was wishful thinking, little
more than the stuff of promotional brochures.
Contrary to the historic image as a sleepy tourist town that seems to
hold sway today, Miami was at the time already a dynamic city, having
grown dramatically after World War II. But it looked steadfastly north
as it absorbed waves of New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Southerners both
white and black who were drawn to settle in Miami by — what else? —
climate and opportunity.
Then came the Cuban Revolution.
Fidel Castro’s march to Havana at the head of an army of bearded
revolutionaries in the early days of 1959 would turn out to be the
single most consequential event in Miami’s short history. Over the next
five decades, Castro’s increasingly repressive and eventually
economically bankrupt regime would send successive new waves of
enterprising Cuban refugees to Miami, transforming the fledgling
metropolis into a true international city that looks both south and
north, though likely in ways those civic leaders of the 1940s and ’50s
It’s one of the ironies of history that the late Castro, the Cuban
revolutionary hero-cum-tyrant who died Thanksgiving weekend at age 90,
was the unintending father of today’s Miami — a cosmopolitan, polyglot,
multicultural global city that serves as an uber-capitalistic nexus of
finance, trade and culture between the United States and Latin America
and the Caribbean.
And it all goes back to the enclave centered on Little Havana and Calle
Ocho that the first waves of Cuban exiles established in the 1960s,
historians and sociologists who have studied the exodus say.
Mostly educated members of Cuba’s elite and middle classes, these
largely disenfranchised exiles — with a substantial assist from a U.S.
government eager to showcase the American system’s advantages over
Cuba’s Communist regime — used their skills and experience to build
local businesses, providing ready-made employment for each group of new
arrivals, before branching out into larger enterprises and banking and
international trade. From that base, Cuban exiles would accomplish
something almost unheard of, rising to a dominant political and economic
power and reshaping a big U.S. city within a single generation.
It helped that the early exiles were what Florida International
University sociologist Guillermo Grenier, himself a Cuban exile, calls
“the right kind of immigrants” — overwhelmingly white and educated, many
already familiar with Miami and the United States and its business mores
— who arrived in massive numbers at a propitious time.
Immigration was opening up for non-Europeans, refugees from the Cold War
were welcome, and starting in 1966 the Cuban Adjustment Act, an
extensive refugee assistance program and generous federal small-business
loans gave exiles a priviliged immigration status and a marked economic
leg up. The U.S. population and economy, meanwhile, were beginning a
historic shift to the Sunbelt and the civil rights legislation barred
discrimination against minorities, Grenier notes.
Miami, a developing city primed for growth and without a deeply
entrenched elite, was fertile ground for a determined group of
newcomers, he said.
“Cubans didn’t so much make Miami as Miami was ready to be made,”
Grenier said. “You had a perfect cauldron with this environment where
immigrants with the characteristics of Cubans would have to mess up big
time not to thrive. And we did thrive.”
By dint of sheer numbers, mostly controlled by Fidel Castro’s decision
to open or shut the tap for Cubans looking to leave the island, the
exiles were sure to change what was then known as Dade County, which had
a population of just under one million. About 135,000 Cubans came just
in the first two years after the Revolution, followed between 1965 and
1973 by 340,000 more on the twice-daily Freedom Flights, most of them
members of Cuba’s middle and working classes.
The 1980 boatlift launched when Castro opened the port of Mariel to
anyone wanting out of Cuba would later bring 125,000 others — for the
first time including many Cubans who had grown up in Communist Cuba — in
a matter of months. In summer of 1994, after Castro allowed 32,000
people to flee on rafts, a bilateral migration accord that ended the
crisis reopened a steady flow until this day, with the U.S. government
agreeing to grant a minimum of 20,000 visas to Cubans every year. About
550,000 Cubans have received visas under the program since 1996, Grenier
Most of those refugees have ended up in Miami, including many who
initially settled in Puerto Rico, New Jersey or the numerous other
accidental shores around the world where Cubans landed after exile.
“No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to resettle Cubans
elsewhere, they gravitate back to Miami,” said Silvia Pedraza, a
Cuban-American sociologist at the University of Michigan who has written
extensively about the Cuban exodus.
Today more than a third of Miami-Dade’s population of around 2.7 million
is either Cuban-born or of Cuban descent, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau. Over the decades, Cubans have been joined in Miami by other
political refugees and immigrants from around Latin America and the
Caribbean, including Nicaraguans and Colombians, who found the
Spanish-speaking culture hospitable and have also contributed
significantly to the city’s internationalization.
But it was Cuban exiles who first established extensive business ties
with the rest of the hemisphere, looking to diversify and expand their
enterprises through trade and finance, Pedraza and other experts say.
U.S. companies, too, recruited Cuban exiles with business experience —
sometimes garnered while working for Americans in Cuba — to staff, run
or expand operations in other Latin American countries.
The experience of Pedraza’s father is illustrative. Alfredo Pedraza, who
had studied at MIT, worked for tire-maker B.F. Goodrich in Cuba, and
after leaving the island became the company’s sales manager in Bogotá
for 12 years before settling in Miami for good, the Michigan professor
said. In Miami, he helped an Ecuadorean firm establish what’s proven a
lucrative trade sector — shipping fresh shrimp by air from Ecuador to
the United States.
“Miami is in many ways a Latin American city and it’s open to all of
Latin America,” Silvia Pedraza said. “There are connections of all sorts.”
At the same time, as Miami’s Cuban enclave expanded and diversified,
Latin American businesspeople looking to invest or park their capital
securely in the United States — especially at times of political or
economic crisis in their homelands — increasingly looked to Miami, where
they could bank and conduct business in Spanish while enjoying familiar
food and customs. So did American and European businesspeople looking to
connect to Latin America.
Those advantages helped Miami vault over competitors for Latin American
commerce and shipping like New Orleans and Tampa, said sociologist
Alejandro Portes, a Cuban-born Princeton professor emeritus with a
distinguished-scholar appointment at the University of Miami.
“That Miami rose up to prominence as a global city has a lot to do with
the arrival of the Cubans, but also because their presence created an
attractive opportunity for others,” Portes said. “For the well-to-do in
places like Argentina, it’s much more convenient that Miami has a savvy
business community that speaks Spanish, than to go to New York and
conduct business through a translator or in broken English.”
That success didn’t come without a battle, said Portes, co-author of
“Miami: City on the Edge,” a definitive account of the city’s
transformation through the early 1990s. Cuban exiles initially met
resistance from Miami’s business and political establishment. But even
as they asserted themselves economically, and exerted clout through
organizations like the Cuban American National Foundation and the Latin
Builders Association, Cuban exiles used their numbers and concentrations
to begin electing political leaders from among their own, eventually
supplanting the city’s “Anglo” business and political leadership, he said.
“This was a fairly enlightened leadership that opened and procured the
internationalization of the city as a financial center,” said Portes,
who is now writing a sequel about Miami’s rise to international
prominence since the 1990s. “Out of those battles came a series of
stages that have transformed the city into one of the key players in the
global economy, and way beyond its past as a winter tourist destination.”
But absorbing hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees also carried
significant costs. The crashing waves at times led to considerable
disruption, including crime waves and fiscal and political crises, tense
clashes over the primacy of English and, over time, a dramatic “white
flight” that’s left Miami-Dade’s non-Hispanic white population a
The timing of the exiles’ arrival also proved unfortunate for the
county’s African-American population just as the civil rights struggle
might have opened doors and opportunities to blacks. They saw the road
to advancement closed off as hundreds of thousands of Cubans arrived to
fill jobs as waiters, maids, bellhops and cooks in hotels and
restaurants that were once the province of blacks.
To this day, relations between Cuban Americans and the city’s
native-born blacks and Haitian immigrants remain standoffish at best,
and residential segregation is among the most pronounced in the country,
the sociologists say.
The rise of the city’s internationally oriented economy that Cuban
exiles wrought, a significant segment of it concentrated in development,
has also created what some experts have termed a growth machine that
exacerbates economic divisions and inequality in Miami, not to mention
transportation and congestion problems — all which Portes says the
city’s current leadership seems unequipped to address.
“The traditional black areas of town have not been beneficiaries in any
significant way of the economic expansion of the city. The winners are
the developers, the growth machine, the builders, the bankers and those
people who live in condominiums in Brickell and Downtown,” Portes said.
“The city is living the consequences of its own success.”
No longer a southern city, Miami is also no longer Havana north. Cubans’
success has attracted competition from entrepreneurial Venezuelans,
Brazilians and even — in a final turn of irony — Russians, who are
building, banking and living, at least part of the time, in the city.
The increasing diversity has diluted the sway of the Cuban political and
economic class, Portes says his new research suggests, leaving no clear
or decisive leadership group in place.
“There are lots of transients, lots of people who come and go, and there
are few of what you might call true Miamians, people who are civic
spirited,” Portes said. “It exists, but is not very large.”
And so the story of Miami doesn’t end with the Cuban exiles, he
suggests. But as Fidel Castro is borne to his final resting place in the
city of Santiago, in Miami, too, it’s not clear who’s now going to be in
Source: Fidel Castro: Unwitting father of modern Miami | Miami Herald –