New series explores 50 years of events that bound U.S., Cuba

From the day she landed on one of the Freedom Flights as an excited, frightened 7-year-old, Luisa Yanez has been fascinated by the massive U.S. airlift that brought her and 265,000 other Cubans to the United States four decades ago.

Now a reporter for The Miami Herald, Luisa has discovered she isn't alone in her fixation. When she wrote a feature story three years ago about the very first flight, she was swamped with e-mails and calls. 'People wanted to know, `What can you find out about my flight? Can you find out who else was on my flight?' '' she said.

That was when Luisa began a kind of personal crusade to gather the names and stories of as many Freedom Flight passengers as she could find. It was not an easy task, since no official record was kept and the arrivals quickly dispersed into Miami, South Florida and the rest of the country.

But everything changed one day recently as she and a team of reporters and photographers began work on a special Herald project on the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba. Luisa and reporter Alfonso Chardy located a former official involved in processing refugees who had kept the records and didn't want them lost to history.

''It was the whole list,'' she said, almost breathless as she told the story. ``I couldn't believe it. In a way, it's like our mini Ellis Island. It's taken a certain amount of years for people to realize that this kind of information has value.''

That could be the theme for the series, under the title 50 Years, appearing in The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald starting today and running intermittently until the Sunday after the Jan. 1 anniversary. The stories look at how events reshaped Cuba, helped create modern South Florida and launched the endless struggle between the island and the United States.

Twin stories on today's front page tell the remarkable history of South Florida's exile community and offer a clear-eyed assessment of what has happened in Cuba. Over the next two weeks, stories will explore the many layers of this history, from the story of the Plantadas resistance cells of women who ended up in jail, to a two-page graphic of historic events, to what may be in store for the island's future.

Luisa Yanez's story on the role of the Freedom Flights, this country's most ambitious resettlement program, runs this Wednesday. With it will be a one-of-a-kind database on our website that will include all of the Freedom Flight passenger names and dates that readers can search through for individuals and family members.

''I think this is a database that will live for a long time,'' Yanez said. ``I see it as having a long life at The Herald for people wanting to reconnect with their past. Maybe we can do Mariel next.''

We're also trying something different with this project. This Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., The Herald will host an open forum to discuss topics from the central issues raised by the anniversary to the questions of what is likely to happen next in Cuba.

Nancy San Martin, The Miami Herald's assistant world editor for the Americas, helped pull together an outstanding panel, which includes U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez; Uva de Aragón, associate director of FIU's Cuban Research Institute; Enrique Patterson, essayist, political analyst and radio talk show host; and Miami Dade College sociology professor Juan Clark.

The forum will be at the Freedom Tower, the processing center for 450,000 Cuban arrivals. Along with the panel discussion will be a special photography exhibit by former Miami News photographer Charles Trainor, who documented many pivotal moments of this history and whose son, Herald photographer Charles Trainor Jr., has also documented much of this history.

We think the stories will have broad appeal and highlight events that have woven the fabric of South Florida. If there is a revelation in assembling these stories, it is how much of this history, like the rolls from the Freedom Flights, has been lost or overlooked.

''We've done a lot of stories on Cuba over the years,'' said John Yearwood, The Miami Herald's world editor. ``But you've rarely seen it all pulled together like this.''

Added San Martin: ``This is a chance to preserve that history and -- to the best of our ability -- forecast what might be ahead.''

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