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Cuban-Americans Mark The Passing Of Fidel Castro


Crowds gathered in Miami throughout the weekend as Cuban-Americans marked the passing of Fidel Castro. Castro shaped Cuban history but also had a profound effect on American politics. Most of the 2 million Cuban-Americans are in the U.S. because they, their parents or grandparents fled the island in the decades that Castro was in power. The vast majority live in on state, Florida, where they've helped direct U.S. policies toward Cuba and decided at least one presidential election. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The event that signaled the birth of Miami as a modern American city happened more than 200 miles away, in the streets of Havana.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: From his stronghold in the wild Sierra Maestra Mountains, Cuba's Fidel Castro emerged triumphant time after two years of guerrilla warfare against the Batista regime.

ALLEN: As Castro tightened his grip on Cuba, large numbers of people began fleeing the island. There were firing squads and property seizures. Over the next decades, the arriving Cubans transformed Miami from a sleepy southern city into a metropolis with international interests and aspirations. The first wave of exiles were mostly from Cuba's elite - businessmen and professionals. They came to Miami, where many began working on an urgent goal - to oust Fidel Castro and take back their homeland.

In Miami, a group of Cubans formed a paramilitary group - brigade 2506. They worked with the CIA on a plan to retake Cuba after landing on a beach in the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a disaster. More than 120 members of the invading force were killed. Twelve-hundred were captured by Castro's military. Most of those captured were released a year later. In a ceremony at Miami's Orange Bowl, members of the brigade presented their flag to President John F. Kennedy.


FORMER PRES JOHN F KENNEDY: I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.

ALLEN: That's a promise Kennedy was never able to fulfill. Among the Bay of Pigs veterans, their friends and supporters, there was a conviction that Kennedy didn't live up to promises to provide them with air support during the invasion. Some called it a betrayal. That's led many to see the Bay of Pigs fiasco as a turning point for Cuban-Americans - the episode that soured them on Kennedy and the Democratic Party.

DARIO MORENO: Well, I think they're wrong. I mean, actually, the numbers don't back it.

ALLEN: Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, says, up until 1980, the largest numbers of Cuban-Americans were registered as Democrats. The real turning point, Moreno says, came in the form of Republican president Ronald Reagan. In 1983, to thunderous applause in Miami, Reagan said, Cuba si, Castro no.


FORMER PRES RONALD REAGAN: What's happening in Cuba is not a failure of the Cuban people. It's a failure of Fidel Castro and the Communists.


ALLEN: Moreno says Reagan electrified Cuban Americans with a promise that the Castro regime would not survive his presidency.

MORENO: And this begins to mobilize Cuban-Americans into massive support for the Republican Party.

ALLEN: That was just as Cuban-Americans were becoming established in local and state politics, winning elections to the legislature and later to Congress. Unlike other Hispanic groups, which mostly leaned Democratic, Cubans became a solid Republican voting bloc.




ALLEN: On Miami talk radio, commentators like Ninoska Perez Castellon dismissed suggestions that the U.S. reengage with Cuba and instead advocated a singular goal - ousting the Castro regime.


NINOSKA PEREZ CASTELLON: Unless in Cuba there is democratic change, there is freedom of expression, freedom of the press allowed, political prisoners are released with a commitment to hold free and democratic elections, what is the point in renewing relationships with the same dictatorship?

ALLEN: Meanwhile, a couple hundred miles away in Havana, Fidel Castro showed he could still directly influence events in South Florida and the entire U.S.


FIDEL CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: In 1980, Castro encouraged disaffected Cubans to leave the island through the port of Mariel. Of those who wouldn't embrace his revolution, he said, we do not want them; we do not need them. More than 100,000 Cuban refugees poured into Florida. Fourteen years later, Castro allowed another exodus of discontented Cubans, who left in rafts and boats - the so-called balsero crisis. For decades as they settled in the U.S., had children and assimilated here, for many Cuban-Americans, Castro and Cuba remained a lens through which they viewed the world.

And then, in 2000, a local story - a child custody dispute - blew up into an international incident. After weeks of talks and legal proceedings, the Clinton administration and local authorities in Miami were locked in a standoff over whether 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez should be sent back to his father in Cuba. In an early-morning raid, federal marshals seized the boy. Miami's Cuban-American community erupted. Joe Carollo was Miami's mayor.


JOE CAROLLO: What has happened here is shameful. It's shameful. This is a dark day in American history.

ALLEN: The days and weeks of coverage riveted the nation's attention and cast south Florida's Cuban-American community in a less-than-favorable light. Political analyst and former University of Miami Dean Andy Gomez says that episode led Cuban-Americans to do some soul-searching.

ANDY GOMEZ: Well, I think many in the community realized that the policies that we had towards Cuba needed to be analyzed, needed to be looked at differently.

ALLEN: But that wasn't the end of the Elian story. Cuban-Americans lost their battle to keep Elian in the U.S., but political scientist Dario Moreno says a very close election - Democrat Al Gore versus Republican George W. Bush - came just a few months later. Gore lost Florida by 537 votes.

MORENO: So there's no doubt in my mind that, if you didn't have the Elian Gonzalez affair, Al Gore would have been elected president.

ALLEN: Moreno agrees that episode was another critical moment for Cuban-Americans - when they began to shift their singular focus away from Cuba on to jobs, the economy, education, issues that now rank higher in polls of Cuban-American concerns. More Cuban-Americans vote Democratic and independent now. Castro and Cuba no longer defines the community's political identity, especially for the second and third generation and those who've arrived more recently. Analyst Andy Gomez says, for that first generation of Cuban exiles, those who lost friends and relatives to the firing squads, the dispute with Castro will always remain personal.

GOMEZ: Many had their properties confiscated. You're talking about a generation that lost everything and had to start over again. It was a fight. It was a fight with Fidel Castro.

ALLEN: Now, that generation is mostly gone. It will be up to younger generations in both countries to decide what's next. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.

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