I’ll not forget my rookie year as a new cop for Dade County in 1960.
Until then, I had never met a Spanish-speaking person. The populations of Miami and Miami Beach were lily-white.
Schools were not integrated and neighborhoods were divided by race. Spanish-speaking folks were a novelty.
With Miami situated in southeast Florida, residents were mostly immigrants from New York and other northern states.
While Americans followed the war taking place in the mountainous Cuban terrain, many were happy to see crooked Fulgencio Batista toppled from power while a rugged, charismatic revolutionary leader emerged from the hills to assume the seat of leadership. His name: Fidel Castro. Cubans, and many Americans, were happy to see a new government take control of the Island nation. So what if he said he was “socialist.”
After Castro took full control over the new government, he unveiled his alliance with the Soviet Union and announced that he was a die-hard communist.
The stranglehold was now in place. Cities and towns in Cuba were “cleansed” of people who stood in the way of a one-party rule government. Thousands of dissidents disappeared. Families were pulled apart. Schools became propaganda strongholds for students. Thousands more frantically risked their lives rafting over ocean currents to America, many of whom never reached the shores. Everyone was stripped of their possessions.
The Cuban people no longer owned their homes or their businesses. There was no such thing as freedom of speech or the right to assemble or control of their future. Within 20 years, some 1.5 million Cubans managed to resettle in America and build new lives for themselves and their families.
In 1961, while in uniform, I had just attended a court session in Miami when I spotted a middle-aged man wearing a Cubavera shirt, selling bananas on Flagler Street at the intersection. Curiously, I approached and said, “Sir. Can I ask a question?”
He looked at my uniform. “About what?”
“Can I ask what you did when you lived in Cuba?”
Proudly, he puffed out his chest and replied in broken English, “I was vice president of a bank.”
“You have a family?” I asked.
“Si, a wife and two daughters.”
He went on to explain that they were living in a two-bedroom apartment with two other families. With furrowed eyebrows he looked at me strongly. With his finger pointing to the sky, he declared they were proud people and would not take welfare.
That was a lesson.
As years passed, I developed a closeness to the Cuban people who assimilated and worked hard to support their families. Many became teachers, business owners, military, entertainers and even police officers. Some of the best cops I ever knew were of Cuban heritage. I came to enjoy their music, their food, their humor, and die-hard honesty.
Castro’s plight was not a one-time event. Twenty years later, the Cuban economy was in dire straits. Multi-thousands were sick and injured, unable to work or contribute. Mental hospitals were beyond capacity. The elderly in Cuba were considered useless. Prisons were in overload. Too many people were taking, but not giving. The remedy? Get rid of everyone. What else?
Starting May 17, 1980, over four arduous months, more than 125,000 desperate human beings were granted exits from Cuba to reach America via rafts and rickety vessels from a port called Mariel. President Carter gave the OK as the infamous Mariel Boatlift conveyed desperate human beings to South Florida, devoid of possessions. Thousands died or disappeared. Miami became the murder capital of America for four years. Bodies surfaced everywhere, in waterways, the Everglades, in car trunks and garbage cans. The medical examiner needed a huge refrigerated truck to house the overflow of bodies.
The Cuban people have once again taken to the streets of Havana in protest as the government has failed to provide basic necessities.
Why rise up now, 61 years since Castro’s communist dictatorship began? Because the oppressed Cuban people sense an opening for the first time ever, daring to stand up against the regime, making demands.
Not for food. Not for medicine. Not for luxuries. But for the most precious commodity of all: freedom.
Perhaps that time has finally come.
I pray the American government will rise to the occasion.
Marshall Frank is a retired police captain and author of 15 books.