How Fidel Castro Dominated Miami's Politics for Decades

The Latin American strongman cast a long shadow over the southern tip of Florida.

by Francisco Alvarado
27 November 2016, 3:39pm

Miguel Saavedra, a longtime anti-Castro activist (in the orange polo shirt), leads a rally on Saturday after Castro's death. Photo by the author.

On Saturday afternoon, about 12 hours after the world learned longtime revolutionary leader and communist strongman Fidel Castro had died, hundreds of Cubans, along with a few dozen Nicaraguans, Colombians, and Venezuelans, gathered in front of Versailles Restaurant, a Cuban joint in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood that has long served as the de facto center of anti-Castro fervor. Among a group of 16 demonstrators holding up a large Cuban flag was Miguel Saavedra, a 58-year-old handyman with sandy blonde hair and a neatly trimmed beard, who started a chant: "Cuba si! Castro no! Cuba si! Castro no!"

As the founder of the anti-communist organization Vigilia Mambisa, Saavedra has dedicated the past 37 years of his life to mounting protests against Castro, the Cuban government, and anyone who dares stand against the hardline Cold War approach toward the communist nation. "I come from a very patriotic family," Saavedra told me between shouts. "It's our duty to fight for a free Cuba. Now that the assassin Fidel is dead, we must not stop until it happens."

Saavedra personifies how Castro, who is universally reviled in Miami, reshaped the city just as he influenced socialist revolutions across the Western Hemisphere. Before Castro conquered Cuba in 1959, Miami served as the playground for rich Americans. Since the revolution, Miami has become an international metropolis filled with immigrants hailing from Cuba and other countries in Latin America upended by communist revolutions. Because of Castro, Miami became the front line of defense against the red threat, where even decisions about whether to allow Cuban bands to perform at local venues caused widespread community discord.

"Fidel Castro not only shaped events in Miami and around the world where communist revolutions took place, he shaped how we reacted to those events," said Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, a local commentator for Miami AM station Actualidad Radio. "If Fidel didn't exist, Miami is not the city it has become today."

Anti-Castro political stances have become a requirement for candidates running for local, state, and federal office in Miami, Rodriguez Tejera noted. "As a candidate, you identified yourself through your anti-Castroism," he said. "Issues impacting the community like transportation were not as important."

Consider the 1993 Miami mayor's race that pitted Stephen P. Clark, a white man, against Miriam Alonso, a Cuban-American woman. During the campaign, Clark touted his credentials assisting Cuban immigrants since the early days of Castro's revolution. Alonso, at the time a city commissioner, argued that only a Cuban could properly serve as the city's leader. According to a New York Times article from the time, Alonso argued on Spanish language radio stations that only a Cuban-American mayor was equipped to handle the aftermath should Castro die or lose power. Ultimately, however, Clark won by a 3-2 margin, helped by a photo that Alonso's detractors claimed showed her standing next to Castro.

Francis Suarez is a Miami commissioner whose father, Xavier Suarez, was the city's first Cuban-born mayor. He told me that Castro was part of the fabric in the lives of many Miamians. "There is a connection between my generation and the people of Cuba even though many of us have never been there," Suarez said. "In my case, my grandfather and his two brothers were political prisoners. We have lived firsthand the stories even though we weren't there."

The commissioner pointed out that Spanish language AM radio stations often structured local programming around what Castro was up to. "The informational system was predicated on everything that was happening in Cuba," Suarez said. "Certainly the news and politics were very closely tied to Cuba and the constant manifestations to protest significant events were part of daily life in the city."

But as Castro's power waned in Cuba after he relinquished the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008, el comandante's influence on Miami's civic affairs has also lessened. A September Florida International University poll found that 56 percent of local Cuban Americans "strongly" or "mostly" favor reestablishing US relations with Cuba and 63 percent don't believe the US embargo against Cuba should continue.

Raul Martinez, a former mayor of Hialeah, a city neighboring Miami that has the highest percentage of Cubans in the US said Castro's role as bogeyman in local politics and civic affairs has been on the downswing in the last decade. "We are closing one chapter in Cuban history," Martinez said. "He's gone and now it's, 'What's next?'"

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