14ymedio, Mario J. Penton, Miami, 3 February 2016 — Miami Mayor Tomas Pedro Regalado (born Havana, 1947), says that his is not prepared to cope with the surge of Cuban rafters who come daily to the coast of Florida. He came to the United States as a teenager and was a journalist before winning election in 2009. Today he opposes the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and also opposed the opening of a Cuban consulate in Miami because of the costs for security that would be borne by the city.
Penton. In Miami, you breathe Cuba everywhere you go. Can you talk about a Cuban city?
Regalado. It may seem politically correct that the mayor of Miami says that this city has been made by Cubans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, but the reality is that it has been made by Cubans, who opened the door so that many other nationalities could work, triumph and achieve the American dream. I was born in Cuba, but I grew up here. When I arrived as a teenager, there were still signs in many rental buildings reading: “No Cubans, no Jews, no dogs.” We had to overcome these challenges so Cubans created Miami. Those who created this Miami were the same as those who contributed to the success of Cuba in the fifties.
Why hasn’t their “Cubanness” been extinguished? Simply because among the first generations many of the wounds have not healed and the exiles pass on this historic legacy to their children and grandchildren. The Cuban family is different from family in the United States. We grew up with grandparents and the family permanently together. My dad, who was a political prisoner, when he got here he picked up my daughter at school while I worked and he told her the stories of being a political prisoner. Today, my daughter, who has never set foot in Cuba, knows Cuban history as well as anyone who came in the ‘60s. In addition, the United States does not require you to break with your roots.
Penton. Tell me about the new Cuban Miami?
Regalado. It is made up of people who have recently arrived from the island. It doesn’t have political passion so much, as a tremendous appetite to regain all the years that have been lost, hungry and in need.
They go down the path of consumerism, but this also has an impact on Cuba. When they arranged the community trips in 1979 [with Cuba-Americans returning to Cuba for the first time since they left], under the Carter administration, they created a boiling point that led to the events in the Peruvian embassy and the Mariel Boatlift. Cubans went there with photos of their new cars, their modern houses and clothes. Miami is always going to gravitate to Cuba. It’s not about competition, but simply that here, in the United States, if you do the right things, go by the book and work hard, the law of probability says that you are going to succeed. In Cuba, if you go by the book and do the right thing, the law of probability says that you are going to be broke.
Penton. Among the generations that came between the ’60s and the ’80s, is there a bias toward the newcomers?
Regalado. Cubans get along because everyone has a relative they left behind, a friend in the village. When the time comes for solidarity, we think more with our hearts than with our wallets. Someone looks for an apartment for a compatriot, someone else gives him a mattress… Are their rotten apples among those who come? Of course. This is something we have everywhere in the world.
Penton. Do you think that those who come now should continue to get the rights to the legal benefits the United States gives them?
Regalado. The proposal to amend the benefits that Cubans receive has nothing to do with changing the Cuban Adjustment Act in the United States Code. To change that they must get a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress. There is no political will to do that and I do not support doing that. The benefits Cubans get are the same ones Syrian refugees are getting. The Department of Health and Social Welfare pays agencies and the State of Florida channels the funds to help these people so they can get ahead in their first months here.
What has been abused? Effectively, the abuses are technical: a married couple divorces before hitting land to get double benefits and other inventions. Fighting against these abuses can favor the permanence of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The Cuban Adjustment Act is a privilege that we must not give up or allow to be eliminated, because they have not eliminated the causes for which it emerged. The root of this law is the dictatorship in Cuba. The policy of “wet foor/dry foot” is not a law, it is a directive that any president can remove.
Penton. Is Miami ready for this wave of immigrants?
Regalado. No, we do not know how many are coming, or when, or what their circumstances are. Volunteer agencies receive money from the United States budget, from the refugee division. The extraordinary rise in the number of rafters is eating into the budgets of these agencies and overwhelming them. This month they ran out of funds on January 7th.
On the other hand, three groups of 13 people came from Ecuador and they were living on the streets. I picked them up and took them to Camilo’s House [a refuge]. Our facilities are full, because in the winter many homeless from the north come to Florida, and this year there are more than in 2015.
We have to deal with our own homeless. The law doesn’t allow people to live in the streets. Right now we have 64 families living in hotels and by March we are going to have used up all the money we have to pay for those rooms.
Penton. Have you made any official request to the federal government and the Congress?
Regalado. Yes, to both, but there is no definite answer yet. The federal government does not want to publicly acknowledge that there is a migration crisis or a humanitarian crisis, because for the White House, in Cuba everything is fine. If they are planning a trip for President Barack Obama to the island, how is Obama going to go if the headlines are saying there is a Cuban migrant crisis? The reality is that since relations have been formally reestablished we have seen a rise in the number of rafters and more people crossing the border, as well as those who come legally and Cubans with Spanish citizenship. Some of them became Spanish citizens under the Law of Historic Memory [which allows the grandchildren of Spaniards to claim citizenship], and they get on a plane in Havana with a Spanish passport and disembark in Miami with a Cuban passport.
The federal government should increase the grants to the volunteer agencies, issue executive orders to speed up the granting of Social Security, immigration documents and work permits. These same agencies are responsible for offering work for those refugees and homes and other parts of the United States. The other solution is that local governments give us a cushion of money to be able to handle more cases of need, if necessary. The families that we are already taking care of cost us $900,000 a year.
Penton. Do you propose, then, to increase the budget?
Regalado. Unfortunately, the city of Miami is not a republic and therefore we cannot have our own distinct immigration policy, only Washington’s.
The solution is immigration reform that would legalize the 12 million in the United States who are in limbo, and increase the number of visas for Cubans and interview them at the embassy on the island to determine who will be accepted and who will not. Those coming through Costa Rica are, for the most part, professionals, but here there is no background check, no one asks who you are.
They enter because they enter. In Laredo they say “I am Cuban” and they enter. Because we don’t have any authority to dictate immigration patterns, we say, “Are more Cubans coming?” Then we have to ask for more money.
Penton. Will this new wave of immigrants change the traditional Republican vote in South Florida?
Regalado. I don’t know. The greatest sin is that in the United States voting is not compulsory. Many young people do not vote. But if there is something we can say it is that this still isn’t having a political impact that is moving the positions of members of Congress or presidential candidates or local officials.
Penton. Why don’t you want to see a Cuban consulate in Miami?
Regalado. The only argument of those who support a consulate is that it is going to solve the problems Cubans here because they will be able to do their business without traveling and therefore at a cheaper cost.
But there is a cost. Given that in America anyone can protest and stand at the entrance and say what they think without the police being able to arrest them, the police will have to guard the consulate at all times to protect the staff, those entering the consulate and those protesting. We have experienced having the Venezuelan consulate which was opened six months ago, with daily protests and a cost to the city of $600,000 in extra pay to the police to guard it.
Penton. What are the prospects for the relationship between Cuba and Miami over the next five years?
Regalado. There can only be a radical change if Fidel, Raul Castro, Ramiro Valdes and all those commanders die tomorrow. Then, with a new generation that assumes power and is more flexible, we can have a dialogue. There will be no changes in the relationship simply because Cuba has not changed. Maybe the change is that the Ladies in White will face beatings not every Sunday but every other Sunday.
Or that they will fine the produce vendors with their carts not 10,000 pesos but 500 pesos. I have not seen any change: the opposition leaders do not have access to the media, and those investing in Cuba cannot hire their own employees.
I don’t see them allowing freedom of movement, or holding a public meeting where a Cuban from Miami can talk about freedom and democracy. Nor do I agree with those who say a new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging in Cuba. Those who say that are newcomers to the Cuba issue. With a little historic memory we can go back to the Farmers’ Free Markets (MLC), where production in Cuban multiplied and thousands of peasants got rich, but it also began to corrupt the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and the People’s Power and the regime eliminated it.
Once you have full freedom, free press, free elections in Cuba, I’m sure Miami is going to flood the island. Not that it is not doing so now, but then it will really be something.