The Bilingual U.S. – Cuban Miami Part I

The Cuban element in 19th century Tampa was so strong that, as we discussed in last week’s blog, Sicilian immigrants to the city learned Spanish rather than Italian as a second language. Economically, Cubans made the city; Tampa’s population jumped from 720 in 1880 to 5,532 in 1890 thanks to the founding of the Ybor City factory and company town by Spanish-Cuban businessman Vicente Martinez Ybor. The political turmoil surrounding the long Cuban struggle for independence from Spain had caused the migration of Ybor and his compatriots north, and Cuban politics would continue to play an important role in South Florida. When revolutionary leader Jose Martí visited the United States in 1891 he was particularly struck by the zeal for the independence movement among the Cuban community in Tampa and during his sojourn there was inspired to write the “Tampa Resolutions”- a document in which he outlined the bases of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.

The place of prominence in Cuban history acquired by Tampa would not last long; it would soon be overshadowed by a small settlement of a few hundred souls founded among the marshes of the southeastern tip of the Floridian peninsula, at the terminus of the Florida East Coast Railway. The first two years of Miami’s life, incorporated in 1896 with just 343 inhabitants, bound its destiny to that of Havana. The Cuban War of Independence which had been initiated by Martí in 1895 gave Miami a chance to make easy money off of the illegal arms trade, and when the conflict escalated into the Spanish-American War in 1898, Miami became a strategic military site. The defeat of the Spanish and the American hegemony in the Caribbean which followed made Miami’s fortune.

The 1930s began with a flurry of events which strengthened the relationship between Miami and Havana. In 1930 President Gerardo Machado launched a massive promotional campaign in Miami encouraging businessmen to start importing to the island, and in 1931 Pan Am launched regular air service between the two cities. In the same year President Machado announced that he would be extending his period in office by six years- an unsuccessful coup quickly followed, and a number of political exiles took up residence in the American city which up to this point had been a purely economic partner.

The newly-arrived refugees fell into two very different categories- poor, radical students forming a group known as the “Miami Cell”, and the ex-president Mario Garcia Menocal and his “elite” followers. In their exile these two groups reconciled their differences and worked together on the common goal of overthrowing Machado. The city of Miami, on the other hand, was divided on how to deal with the newcomers; while the Pan American League put on benefits and hosted the students at the Biltmore Hotel, Miami businessmen, afraid of backlash should the revolution against Machado not succeed, stayed mum. During this period the Miami Herald published 5 pages of advertising paid for by the Cuban government every Sunday and never once wrote about the presence of the refugees in the city.

When Machado fled Cuba and a new government was installed the refugees were finally able to return home. For a change the opportunistic editors at the Herald saw it fit to write to comment the occasion: “With the sudden retirement of Machado, Miami had begun to lose her Cuban residents who are fleeing back to their homeland.  Miami was glad to extend her hospitality to the exiles and sad to lose them. … Miami’s gates will always be open to Cubans, should the time ever come again when they need a refuge.  In the meantime our mutual interests will continue to grow.”

Although the mutual interests of the cities of Miami and Havana continued to grow over the next two decades, their relationship was soon to take a turn for the worse. The arrival of refugees- who were not as warmly greeted as the Herald predicted- from Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba would usher in a new era of silence between the cities which would nonetheless have so much in common.

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