August 7, 2006

Castro’s “worms” brought sea-change to Miami

By Tom Brown

MIAMI (Reuters) - As the world ponders whether the Cuban
Revolution will outlive Fidel Castro, the changes his most
implacable foes brought to Miami seem irreversible.

The first wave of Cubans fleeing the 1959 revolution were
derided as worthless "gusanos" or "worms" by the bearded
leader, whose grip on Cuba now appears to be weakening after
his surgery and provisional handover of power to his brother.

But they came largely from the island's upper and middle
classes and found fertile ground on the coastal swamps of South
Florida, just 90 miles from the land they hoped to return to
one day.

In a remarkably short time they transformed a very American
resort town, full of young former soldiers and retirees, into a
vibrant tropical city. The so-called "newly wed and nearly
dead" soon found themselves dancing to a conga beat.

"Miami was basically a tourist town that shut down in the
winter in the 50s and 60s," said Frank Nero, who heads the
Beacon Council, a promoter of Miami's economic development.

"The entrepreneurial spirit and talent and expertise of the
Cubans, the first wave of exiles that came over, really is what
made Miami the international community that it is today."

The emigres opened restaurants, shops and even schools
catering to their community. Miami is now a city of 2.2 million
people where Spanish is the preferred language, supermarkets
stock all things Latin, and the 650,000-strong exile community
reigns supreme, both economically and politically.

They are, says Nero, "the backbone of the business
community," with a grip on power that reaches far beyond Little
Havana -- everywhere from school boards to representatives in
Congress shaping U.S. policy toward their homeland.


It was the politics of post-revolutionary Cuba, not the
American Dream, that drove the first Cuban emigres to Miami's
shores in the early 1960s.

And it is the stridence of some of the old-guard exiles,
many of whom have made it their life's ambition to see Castro
defeated, that Miami's Cubans are best known for. It has often
given them an unsavory image.

Their anti-Castro fervor has died down since the early
1980s, when the Miami City Commission voted to make a special
grant to Alpha 66, a local paramilitary group involved in
violent efforts to overthrow Castro.

But it flared up six years ago when exiles and local Cuban
politicians ran afoul of U.S. authorities and public opinion in
the fierce custody battle over young shipwreck survivor Elian

Despite such incidents, Damian Fernandez, the Cuban-born
director of Florida International University's Cuban Research
Institute, cautions against assuming that all of the original
exiles are hard-liners or extremists.

The truth is much more nuanced, he said.

The first arrivals -- many of whom are now either dead or
old and weary -- were driven by "a very deep, affective,
emotionally charged crusade against what they perceived to be
the evil represented in Fidel and communism," said Fernandez.

Their fight was almost a family feud, as many members of
the community came from the same left-of-center political
current as Castro before he turned communist.

There is a paradox in that the Miami exiles are the leading
voice demanding Cuba be isolated through U.S. economic and
political sanctions and yet are more engaged with the island
than any other community in the United States, Fernandez said.

"We are perceived as supporting isolation and
disengagement. We are engaged on a daily basis; we send money,
we call, we travel, we send packages. We're informed."

Speaking of paradox, Juan Clark, a Cuban-born professor at
Miami-Dade Community College and long-time observer of the
exile community, said Castro had probably done more than anyone
to change the face of Miami.

Castro thought he was getting rid of the dregs of society
by letting opponents of his communist rule leave.

"That social scum actually rebuilt or remade Miami," Clark