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

Miami (AFP) –


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.

"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.

- Tropical flair -

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.

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

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."

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 -

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.

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 Democrat.

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."