Full-page ad published in the New York Times, May 1980. Donated by the Hispanic community of Tampa, Florida
30 years ago several disasters caught the attention of the Cuban-American community in the Tampa Bay area. The volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helen in Washington State, and specially the collapse of the Skyway Bridge at the entrance to Tampa Bay were very unsettling; but these disasters were quickly dwarfed in magnitude by the 10,800 Cubans who took refuge in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. This event would become the opening act for the Mariel Boat Lift that brought approximately 130,000 Cuban refugees to the United States. Those leaving the island in dire conditions were freeing themselves from the stifling dictatorship that prevented them from exercising their civil and human rights.
Cuban-Americans in the Tampa Bay area were watching all of these events and naturally wanted to respond to the developments in Havana. In an unprecedented show of solidarity with the Cubans who had taken refuge in the Peruvian Embassy, Cuban-Americans gathered at the West Tampa Little League Field in McFarland Park. Eye-witness accounts speak of the emotional upheaval generated by over 10,000 exiles gathered at the park, under the rain, seeking an opportunity to help their compatriotas in Havana. Ultimately, the community’s effort was channeled in two directions. First, it sought international condemnation of the Cuban government by means of a media offensive. With the strong support of Woody Garcia and Puly Sequeira of the Spanish-language radio station WYOU, a call went out for donations to place a full-page protest advertisement in The New York Times. Within 48-hours the local community had contributed the $17,000 dollars needed. After this sum was obtained, donations continued to pour in, despite repeated exhortations to cease donating, until it reached $100,000 by week’s end. Local Cuban-American artist Henry Serrano designed the ad which showed Cubans climbing the walls of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Journalist Mario Quevedo and my husband Dr. Carlos J. Cano composed the accompanying text. Second, the Cuban-American community mobilized its resources to help resettle and assimilate the several thousand Peruvian Embassy refugees that arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. Jorge Astorquiza accompanied a shipment of three containers of food and clothing destined for the refugees now settled in San Jose. The remaining funds were used to assist the 1,000 refugees that eventually arrived in Tampa. The assistance consisted of cash and medical check-ups provided by local Cuban-American doctors. The community’s efforts were supported by state and local governments, which provided additional funds for assistance in health issues, resettlement and retraining. Cuban-Americans served in various committees and task forces that were created to help with the assimilation efforts. Private businesses also offered employment opportunities for many refugees.
Cuban-Americans at the time were very optimistic that the unfolding events in Havana would lead to radical changes in the Island. No one could have imagined that we were less than half way through the half century of the repressive Castro dictatorship. Rebuilding a new bridge across Tampa Bay and life coming back to the devastated slopes of Mount St. Helen has proven a lot easier than reuniting the divided Cuban family cast a sundered by the dictatorship.
Currently the debate among Cuban exiles is precisely about this question. Some would like to establish a process of reconciliation, while others would insist on punishing the culprits. We have to assume that, after half a century of ever increasing deterioration in the quality of life and human rights, the regime cannot survive much longer. What happens after its collapse reflects the on-going controversy of pursuing reconciliation or seeking retribution. Time will tell what strategy is the right one for rebuilding bridges across the Florida Straits, but I’m hopeful that we can finally come sooner rather than later to the end of the nightmare.