In order to understand the growth of Miami in the late twentieth century, we must first understand the history of an island a mere 90 miles South of Florida. During the turbulence of the Cold War, Cuba would take center stage in the world theatre and alter the course of Miami’s future.
After declaring independence from the US in 1902, Cuba struggled to find its own identity and become self-sustaining which led to various revolutions and violent regime changes. But by the 1940s, Cuba had stabilized and could boast of an expanding economy.
In 1940, a former soldier by the name of Fulgencio Batista was elected President for a four-year term. Batista had been the leader of the Revolt of the Sergeants in 1933. The revolt had successfully toppled the previous regime, and following the revolt, Batista had appointed himself Chief of the Armed Forces. It was heavily rumored that Batista secretly controlled the elected presidents that served between the 1933 revolt and his election in 1940. His first term was relatively stable and unremarkable. His second term, however, was anything but.
After taking a few years to relax in Florida, Batista decided to run for office again in 1952. However, Batista understood that he had no chance of winning, and instead led a military coup against the ruling regime. The election was canceled, and Batista was once again the President of Cuba.
Once returned to power, Batista restructured Cuba’s economy by inviting U.S. corporations to use Cuban land for the production of sugar. Over 70% of farmable land in Cuba was owned by foreigners, and Batista awarded high paying contracts to American businessmen rather than Cuban citizens. This fundamental restructuring of the economy in favor of American corporations caused staggering amounts of income inequality. Many Cubans became impoverished while watching the Batista regime and the American corporations reap all of the benefits.
Batista also allowed Cuba to become a lucrative haven for American Mafia families. While drugs, gambling, and prostitution were illegal in the United States, the Mafia was granted carte blanche in Cuba. As Cubans began to protest, Batista responded with an iron fist. He established a force of secret police tasked with arresting, torturing, and executing dissidents. Batista intended to frighten his people into submission. By 1957, the Batista regime is suspected to have killed up to 20,000 people.
Revolutionary political figures such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro urged Cubans to resist the Batista regime and began employing Guerilla tactics to gain an advantage. For two years, Castro’s revolutionary forces fought against the Batista regime. Castro claimed the ultimate victory, overthrowing Batista in 1959. Batista fled with his wealth and died of a heart attack in 1973.
After taking office, Fidel Castro established a communist government that stood with the Soviet Union in opposition to the United States. The United States had a policy focused on containing Communism, and Cuba’s transformation was a major cause for alarm in the U.S. Tensions between America and Cuba began to rise.
Castro nationalized all US and foreign-owned land in Cuba, turning it back over to the Cubans. In return, President Eisenhower froze all Cuban owned assets in America, severed diplomatic ties, and placed very strict embargos.
In 1960, following many failed attempts to covertly send aid to the Cuban Anti-Casto revolutionaries, the Eisenhower administration crafted a plan to provide military training to Cuban exiles and provide them with the support to overthrow Castro. Much of this training took place in Miami, where many of the exiled Cubans had settled. By the time the operation had gone into effect, John F. Kennedy had been elected president. While the operation was not the brainchild of the Kennedy administration, Kennedy authorized the operation that would be known in infamy as the “Bay of Pigs” invasion. The invasion was horribly botched and cost the lives of hundreds of Cubans. Castro could once again claim victory.
Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro asked Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev for aid in defending against further U.S. invasions. This led to the Soviets stockpiling nuclear missiles throughout Cuba, aimed at Miami.
This caused a great panic for the people of South Florida as well as the entire United States. The conflict came to a head on October 16th, 1962 when JFK was able to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev to remove the nuclear weapons. The incident, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, narrowly avoided a disaster that could have changed the trajectory of the entire world.
Castro’s government has faced many criticisms regarding human rights violations and the suppression of a free press in Cuba. These abuses have been the cause for many Cubans to attempt to flee Cuba and journey to America.
From the 1950s to the mid-1980s Cubans began to flee Cuba and came to Florida in droves. They first started to settle in the riverside area. In 1966, the Attorney General granted permanent citizenship to Cubans that had fled the Castro regime. By the end of the 1960s, over 400,000 Cubans were living in an area called Little Havana. In a period of just over 10 years, Miami’s population was over 25% Cuban, transforming the face of Miami forever.