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Sixty years on, Miami’s Cubans have brought Caribbean flair

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Underpinning Miami, Florida, is sixty years of Castroism in Cuba: The island's diaspora has transformed the city into a towering skyline, where smells of fried "croquetas" and sounds of Spanish fill the air.

Roughly 230 miles (370 kilometers) apart, Havana and Miami were already closely connected by trade and tourism at the turn of the 20th century.

But 1959 and the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution saw an end to that -- and the Cuban diaspora was born.

The first Cuban exiles to leave the island in the 1960s are now around 80 years old.

They once dreamed of liberating their country -- but now live between frustration and nostalgia, having spent decades conspiring over dominoes on the porches of their pastel-colored homes.

Nestled along downtown Miami's busy Biscayne Boulevard  the Miami Freedom Tower stands as an ic...
Nestled along downtown Miami's busy Biscayne Boulevard, the Miami Freedom Tower stands as an iconic symbol of the Cuban population in the city
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

"We were losing everything our family had worked for for years. We couldn't accept it," said 78-year-old Johnny Lopez de la Cruz, a member of the 2506 Brigade, a group of CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles who tried to invade Cuba's Bay of Pigs in 1961.

"Those of us who had left Cuba at that time wanted to return to bring democracy and freedom to the Cuban people again," said Lopez, now president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

But their greatest enemy was John F. Kennedy, the former US president who "betrayed" them by withdrawing CIA support mid-operation, in an attempt to keep America's involvement under wraps.

"Almost all of us were captured," said Lopez.

Prison, torture and exile followed.

Cubans like Lopez have anti-Castro sentiment coursing through their veins. To them, detente between Washington and Havana equals surrendering -- a view simmering among most of Miami's Cuban community older set.

- Tropical flair -

Talia Sintado rolls cigars at the Cuba Tobacco  Co. on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neig...
Talia Sintado rolls cigars at the Cuba Tobacco Co. on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

As the years went by, the diaspora grew and southern Florida was irrevocably altered: Cuban sandwiches became a permanent fixture, coffee was known as "colada" or "cafecito," and English was relegated from its spot as default language.

It's a common local joke that Miami is the only foreign city Americans can visit without a passport.

According to the US census, 67 percent of Miami's population was Hispanic in 2017 -- with more than half of those Cuban-Americans.

Cuba Libre  a classic Cuban cocktail made with run and Coca Cola plus some drops of lime juice  phot...
Cuba Libre, a classic Cuban cocktail made with run and Coca Cola plus some drops of lime juice, photographed at a restaurant in Miami, Florida
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

The community holds major clout. Business leader Jorge Mas's support, for example, has proved key to a divisive stadium project from soccer star David Beckham having even a chance of success.

"Cubans turned parts of sub-tropical Miami into a city with tropical flair, a Caribbean-like ciudad alegre," wrote historian Anthony Maingot in his 2015 book "Miami: a Cultural History."

And when superstar Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz died in 2003, tens of thousands of people paid their respects to her at Freedom Tower, a monument to the exiles among downtown's skyscrapers.

However, despite that flair it's still distinctly American.

"The city's welcome Latinization is counterbalanced by the forces of an America which has always encouraged renovation and change," Maurice Ferre, six-time Miami mayor, wrote in the book's prologue.

- Rice and beans -

A Cuban sandwich -- ham  slow roasted pork  Swiss cheese  mustard  pickles and cilantro aioli on Cub...
A Cuban sandwich -- ham, slow roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles and cilantro aioli on Cuban Bread -- photographed at a restaurant in Miami, Florida
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

Caught in the middle of the cultural crossover are the community's children and grandchildren.

Giancarlo Sopo, 35, is the son of a 2506 Brigade veteran. He was born at the "peak" of the mass exodus of Cubans in the 1980s.

At the time, popular culture recorded the booming Cuban influence in Miami in the form of hits such as Gloria Estefan's "Conga" and the film "Scarface" with Al Pacino.

Years later, once Cuban-American relations had temporarily thawed in 2014, Sopo visited Havana -- and found he was more American than he thought.

"The more I interact with young Cubans, the more I realize that culturally, we have differences," the communications strategist told AFP.

Cuban American Giancarlo Sopo found on a visit to Cuba that he was more American than he thought
Cuban American Giancarlo Sopo found on a visit to Cuba that he was more American than he thought
Leila MACOR, AFP

For example, his wife -- born and raised in Cuba -- doesn't think anything of a guest showing up unannounced. But Sopo? He could never get used to that.

Second and third generation Cubans, he jokes, are "Americans who like to eat rice and beans."

As a result, they're more likely to favor openness and even vote Democratic.

But anti-Castroism like that of Johnny Lopez "must be understood an respected," Sopo said.

"They didn't confiscate land from me. They did not shoot my brother, my father ... I can't judge the people who did suffer," he explained.

"I think we all want the best for Cuba, a country where people can prosper."

Underpinning Miami, Florida, is sixty years of Castroism in Cuba: The island’s diaspora has transformed the city into a towering skyline, where smells of fried “croquetas” and sounds of Spanish fill the air.

Roughly 230 miles (370 kilometers) apart, Havana and Miami were already closely connected by trade and tourism at the turn of the 20th century.

But 1959 and the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution saw an end to that — and the Cuban diaspora was born.

The first Cuban exiles to leave the island in the 1960s are now around 80 years old.

They once dreamed of liberating their country — but now live between frustration and nostalgia, having spent decades conspiring over dominoes on the porches of their pastel-colored homes.

Nestled along downtown Miami's busy Biscayne Boulevard  the Miami Freedom Tower stands as an ic...
Nestled along downtown Miami's busy Biscayne Boulevard, the Miami Freedom Tower stands as an iconic symbol of the Cuban population in the city
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

“We were losing everything our family had worked for for years. We couldn’t accept it,” said 78-year-old Johnny Lopez de la Cruz, a member of the 2506 Brigade, a group of CIA-sponsored Cuban exiles who tried to invade Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961.

“Those of us who had left Cuba at that time wanted to return to bring democracy and freedom to the Cuban people again,” said Lopez, now president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

But their greatest enemy was John F. Kennedy, the former US president who “betrayed” them by withdrawing CIA support mid-operation, in an attempt to keep America’s involvement under wraps.

“Almost all of us were captured,” said Lopez.

Prison, torture and exile followed.

Cubans like Lopez have anti-Castro sentiment coursing through their veins. To them, detente between Washington and Havana equals surrendering — a view simmering among most of Miami’s Cuban community older set.

– Tropical flair –

Talia Sintado rolls cigars at the Cuba Tobacco  Co. on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neig...
Talia Sintado rolls cigars at the Cuba Tobacco Co. on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

As the years went by, the diaspora grew and southern Florida was irrevocably altered: Cuban sandwiches became a permanent fixture, coffee was known as “colada” or “cafecito,” and English was relegated from its spot as default language.

It’s a common local joke that Miami is the only foreign city Americans can visit without a passport.

According to the US census, 67 percent of Miami’s population was Hispanic in 2017 — with more than half of those Cuban-Americans.

Cuba Libre  a classic Cuban cocktail made with run and Coca Cola plus some drops of lime juice  phot...
Cuba Libre, a classic Cuban cocktail made with run and Coca Cola plus some drops of lime juice, photographed at a restaurant in Miami, Florida
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

The community holds major clout. Business leader Jorge Mas’s support, for example, has proved key to a divisive stadium project from soccer star David Beckham having even a chance of success.

“Cubans turned parts of sub-tropical Miami into a city with tropical flair, a Caribbean-like ciudad alegre,” wrote historian Anthony Maingot in his 2015 book “Miami: a Cultural History.”

And when superstar Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz died in 2003, tens of thousands of people paid their respects to her at Freedom Tower, a monument to the exiles among downtown’s skyscrapers.

However, despite that flair it’s still distinctly American.

“The city’s welcome Latinization is counterbalanced by the forces of an America which has always encouraged renovation and change,” Maurice Ferre, six-time Miami mayor, wrote in the book’s prologue.

– Rice and beans –

A Cuban sandwich -- ham  slow roasted pork  Swiss cheese  mustard  pickles and cilantro aioli on Cub...
A Cuban sandwich — ham, slow roasted pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, pickles and cilantro aioli on Cuban Bread — photographed at a restaurant in Miami, Florida
Gaston De Cardenas, AFP

Caught in the middle of the cultural crossover are the community’s children and grandchildren.

Giancarlo Sopo, 35, is the son of a 2506 Brigade veteran. He was born at the “peak” of the mass exodus of Cubans in the 1980s.

At the time, popular culture recorded the booming Cuban influence in Miami in the form of hits such as Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” and the film “Scarface” with Al Pacino.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Years later, once Cuban-American relations had temporarily thawed in 2014, Sopo visited Havana — and found he was more American than he thought.

“The more I interact with young Cubans, the more I realize that culturally, we have differences,” the communications strategist told AFP.

Cuban American Giancarlo Sopo found on a visit to Cuba that he was more American than he thought
Cuban American Giancarlo Sopo found on a visit to Cuba that he was more American than he thought
Leila MACOR, AFP

For example, his wife — born and raised in Cuba — doesn’t think anything of a guest showing up unannounced. But Sopo? He could never get used to that.

Second and third generation Cubans, he jokes, are “Americans who like to eat rice and beans.”

As a result, they’re more likely to favor openness and even vote Democratic.

But anti-Castroism like that of Johnny Lopez “must be understood an respected,” Sopo said.

“They didn’t confiscate land from me. They did not shoot my brother, my father … I can’t judge the people who did suffer,” he explained.

“I think we all want the best for Cuba, a country where people can prosper.”

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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