His reach stretched across the Florida Straits, from Havana to Miami, and his influence in South Florida may have surpassed even that of Henry Flagler, whose railroad opened up the area to modern civilization.
Fidel Castro, one of the last paragons of the moribund communist system, was the catalyst who changed South Florida from a sun-drenched backwater of retired New Yorkers and drawling Southerners to an international destination with a decidedly Latin flavor.
Little did South Floridians know on New Year’s Day 1959, when Castro seized power in Cuba, that their world was about to be shaken to its core.
“The most transformational event in the history of South Florida was the Castro takeover,” said Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College. “You’ve got a guy that’s widely reviled, and yet because of him we’re living in a completely different area today.”
When Castro ascended to the Cuban presidency more than five decades ago, Cubans made up only 2% of Miami-Dade County’s population. As of 2010, they represented 34%.
More than 700,000 Cuban refugees have braved the journey to South Florida by plane, boat or rickety raft since the bearded revolutionary marched into Havana that day. Today, Floridians who identify themselves as Cuban number 1.5 million.
The exiles initially expected to return home once the leftist regime collapsed — quickly, they hoped. But Castro’s revolution took root. South Florida’s Cuban cohort likewise took root in its adopted land, buying homes and businesses and, most significantly, having children.
“These people came over as exiles and refugees, and yet they have shaped this place like nobody else has,” George said.
Cuba’s elites and middle classes, the most likely to suffer under a communist reign, were the first to flee Castro. South Florida was for them a natural fit. Many already had strong business ties to the peninsula. And the U.S. government accommodated them by making it easy to stay: The powerful anti-communist sentiments of the mid-20th century led to a law that allowed Cuban refugees to remain here without the usual immigration requirements.
Cuban elites may have left behind their homes and possessions, but their businesses often were easily relocated to the other side of the Florida Straits. Professionals with an acumen for international business, coming from cosmopolitan Havana, found sleepy South Florida ripe turf for expansion.
Working-class Cubans were drawn to the jobs those businesses offered. Cuban refugees quickly created an enclave with its own culture, language and hopes.
Some of those effects took unforeseen turns.
The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, once its own enclave in a predominantly Protestant region, grew into a powerful force as a result of the Cuban influx. In charge of resettling Cuban refugees, the church received boxcars of federal money to help with jobs, housing and education for the often-bewildered immigrants.
Education in South Florida was also transformed by the immigrant wave. Again, with an outpouring of government funds, schools developed new programs to teach English to new arrivals, young and old. School districts expanded as more students entered the system.
Cubans found teaching jobs, and in 1963 Miami schools became officially bilingual, leading the nation in a seismic cultural shift that is still underway.
And in the weeks leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, South Florida became Spy Central, hosting the greatest number of CIA operatives outside Washington. There were business fronts, safe houses and back-room plotting. Historians peg the number of local operatives on the CIA’s payroll at 10,000.
There was no significant backlash at first against the immigrants — except from African Americans. Fresh from the heady victories of the Civil Rights movement, blacks had raised their expectations only to see the communist-hating Cubans reap the societal benefits, or so it seemed to some.
By the 1970s, local whites were experiencing their own surge of resentment. “The working-class whites felt there were no jobs unless you spoke Spanish, that Cubans favored hiring each other,” said Alex Stepick, a Florida International University professor of anthropology and sociology who has published articles and books on Cuban immigration. “Their population declined.”
Indeed, by 1979, about half of Miami-Dade’s major construction companies were Cuban-owned.
Upper-class whites, with an appreciation for the economic opportunities, stayed and embraced Miami as the capital of Latin America. By the late 1980s a reverse assimilation was underway, with elite whites and their children hiring Spanish tutors and immersing themselves in Latino culture.
The ’80s also saw the Mariel boatlift, which spurred more working-class flight and was the event that, in retrospect, propelled Cuban Americans’ local political ascendancy.
Cuba opened its borders and some 125,000 refugees inundated South Florida in a matter of months. Castro painted the emigrants as either crazy or criminals, though later studies showed only 1% or 2% were actually from prisons or mental institutions.
It was an era of high crime and fear. Many locals felt they were being threatened by foreign-speaking invaders. Laws were passed enshrining English as the official language.
But South Florida’s Cubans used politics to rehabilitate their image. Nameplates on the daises of municipal and county councils were suddenly peppered with Latin patronyms. Cubans enamored of Ronald Reagan’s hard anti-communist stance helped transform Florida from a Democratic to Republican state.
Through politics and economics, the Cubans proved a unstoppable force in altering South Florida history. “If you look at Greater Miami, every area of endeavor is now led by Cubans, whether it’s educational institutes, politics, business, banking,” George said.
Newcomers no longer, South Florida’s Cubans are now in their third generation. Reluctant exiles who once chafed for an early return home, they too have changed greatly over the long decades of waiting for Castro’s downfall or demise.
“They’re now Americans,” said George. “They’re as American as anybody.”
Nolin writes for the Sun Sentinel.