Did Fidel Castro Help Shape Modern Miami? For Some, The Answer Is Yes

Nov 27, 2016

Fidel Castro's death will no doubt spark a robust debate about what Cuba would be like today if he had never come to power in 1959.

But here's another important question: What would Miami be today without Castro and the thousands of exiles his communist revolution drove to South Florida?

The rest of the world calls Miami "The Magic City." Fidel Castro called it a den of gusanos, or capitalist worms.

Even so, a lot of people credit Castro for making Miami the nexus of the Americas that it is today. According to that school of thought, Miami could not have become an international metropolis without the entrepreneurial drive and the Latin American savvy of the Cuban exiles who fled Castro.

Others argue that Miami's geographical location and seaside glamor would have made it the Western hemisphere's dynamic crosswords with or without Castro.

Both sides are right: Miami's advantageous locale certainly guaranteed its booming future — but the Cuban influx certainly helped make that future happen sooner.

"In 1960, Miami was barren," said Bernie Navarro, president of the Latin Builders Association. That's one of Miami's most powerful Cuban exile institutions, which his father Gilbert Navarro helped found after escaping Cuba in 1961.

"What the Cuban community did made everything quicker," Navarro said. "Now we have the influx of Latin American communities coming in, and it's much easier for them to do business."

What many non-Cubans dispute, however, is the idea that Miami was just a tropical backwater at the time of the Cuban Revolution.

"The only thing that gets me upset is when they say we were a sleepy Southern town," said Arva Moore Parks, author of "Miami: The Magic City." She's a Miami native and one of South Florida's most prominent historians.

"We were a very vibrant town in 1959, 1960," Moore Parks said. "That's the era of the Fountainebleau Hotel and Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack."

Moore Parks points out that Dade County's (as it was then called) population had just reached 1 million people at the time and that Miami was feeling like what she calls an "optimistic metropolis."

But even if the city possessed ample confidence, it lacked adequate capital — the sort of financing base that builds major cities, said Gilbert Navarro.

"This was a tourist place," he said. "People who come from Latin America in order to make business in the United States, they needed to go to Chicago or needed to go to other places in order to make business, because even the banking industry was obsolete over here."

That changed, he said, when Cuban exile bankers began financing Cuban exile businesses, real estate developments and import-export ventures with Latin American firms.

Historian Moore Parks acknowledges the difference that made for Miami.

"In many ways, it made the dream that we had always had of being a very international city come true," she said.

Even the difficult moments — like the Mariel boatlift that saw Castro send 125,000 more Cubans to Miami in 1980 — enriched the city, said Mariel refugee Pedro Damian.

Damian is a popular Cuban-American artist, who designed the rooster sculptures in Little Havana and other Miami neighborhoods. He also helped eradicate the notion that all Marielitos were Castro's criminal outcasts like Al Pacino's Scarface.

"Miami gained new perspectives, new visions, through our experience of suffering Castro's communist system," said Damian. "It nurtured and refreshed the cultural scene here."

But even Damian concedes the Cuban phenomenon could sometimes darken the scene in Miami. Anti-communist intolerance, Cuban cronyism and paramilitary recklessness too often cast the city in a national and international spotlight. That reputation hit its unfortunate low during the Elian Gonzalez debacle of 2000, when hardline exile leaders turned a 6-year-old boy into a political football.

Still, a younger generation has brought more moderate Cuban-American voices to the forefront. Castro would no doubt call them the new gusanos. But one dictatorship's worms are another democracy's city-builders. Miami and Fidel's gusanos turned out to be a magic partnership