Miami Herald database tracks those who came on Freedom Flights

 

Cuban exiles in South Florida and across the country who arrived penniless can experience a sense of personal history with the launching of The Miami Herald's Cuban Freedom Flights Database Project.

lyanez@MiamiHerald.com

The gray-haired woman pressed two arthritic fingers against the computer screen to better focus her 73-year-old eyes.

''There we are!'' exclaimed Maria del Carmen Guzman of Hialeah, her eyes filling with tears. Right there, on the master passenger list of Cubans who fled the communist island on the famed Freedom Flights, she spotted her name and those of her late husband and two sons.

Now, other Cuban exiles in South Florida and across the country who arrived penniless and with less than a week's worth of clothing in their suitcases can experience the same sense of personal history with Wednesday's launching of The Miami Herald's Cuban Freedom Flights Database Project.

This unique, permanent database is believed to be the only one available to the public, according to Cuban exile history experts. It includes the names and arrival dates of the 265,000 exiles who boarded the life-changing 45-minute flights.

Freedom fliers can help make corrections and enhance the database by sending photos and memories from their early days in Miami, or last days in Cuba, to FreedomFlights@MiamiHerald.com.

The charters from Varadero to Miami ran twice each weekday from 1965 through 1973. They represent the largest, longest resettlement program of Cuban refugees ever sponsored by the U.S. government, financed with a $12 million budget and the help of religious and volunteer agencies.

The flights were approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson after a September speech by Fidel Castro in which he announced that any ''anti-revolutionary'' Cuban wishing to leave the island could do so. With all commercial flights from Havana to Miami suspended after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro's announcement sparked a boatlift out of the Cuban port of Camarioca, as relatives from Miami hired boats to fetch loved ones.

Three thousand made it out before Johnson declared the exodus unsafe and began negotiations with Cuba to set up what ultimately came to be known as the Cuban Freedom Flights, or los vuelos de la libertad.

`TIDES OF HISTORY'

''And so we welcome the Cuban people,'' an emotional Johnson said at a news conference thanking Congress for passing an emergency immigration bill to finance the flights. ``For the tides of history run strong, and in another day, the Cubans can return to their homeland to find it cleansed of terror and free from fear.''

As refugees kept coming, the flights ultimately led to the passing of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, drawn up to facilitate quick entry and residency status to the new arrivals. At their height, with about 1,000 Cubans arriving weekly, the Freedom Flights were instrumental in transforming Miami's Little Havana into a bustling Hispanic epicenter by the early 1970s.

''Freedom Flight Cubans were a very significant wave of refugees,'' said Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College sociology professor and an expert on the immigration patterns of Cuban exiles. ``The U.S. government had tried to spread them out, but it didn't work. Many of those who were initially resettled by Catholic agencies to places like New Jersey, New York and Chicago eventually also moved to Miami.''

Before the start of the Freedom Flights, Washington estimated the number of Cuban exiles who fled the island since the start of the revolution in the early 1950s at 270,000. About 180,000 settled in Miami and 90,000 in other U.S. cities. By the official end of the Freedom Flights, the exile numbers increased to more than 615,000.

A 1973 National Geographic magazine article explaining the refugee phenomenon put it this way: ``There are so many Cubans living in Miami that at times it feels like another country had sprouted up within the city limits . . . exiles have left their indelible mark on Miami. By any indicator, their impact has been, to say the least, profound.''

FINAL INSULTS

If the burst of refugees from the Freedom Flights left a lasting mark on South Florida, the heartbreak of leaving their homeland left deep scars on those who boarded the flights to a new life. Many recount heartbreaking tales of their last day in Cuba: of how surly Cuban soldiers came to their homes to announce the family's departure -- the next day; how they checked a government inventory sheet to guarantee nothing had been taken out of the home; how they placed giant seals on front doors to bar entry.

The freedom fliers also remember being called ''gusanos'' (worms) by Castro supporters. They recall the humiliation of having their Cuban passports stamped ''nulo'' or void, meaning they would not be able to return home.

Alicia Villate, 73, of Hialeah, who arrived on one of the final regularly scheduled Freedom Flights in 1972, said her last day in Cuba was hellish, except for a great kindness.

When her departure was delayed by a day, she and her 2-tear-old son had no place to sleep. Since refugees were told they would be stripped of all cash at the airport, she had come penniless.

''Then it began to rain,'' she said. ``I just sat on a bench with my son and cried.''

A fellow passenger lent her 10 pesos so she could rent a bed and buy food. In Miami, after a tearful reunion with her husband, Raul, she quickly repaid the debt.

''It was a kindness on a very difficult day that I'll always remember,'' Villate said.

LIFE BEGINS ANEW

Hollywood resident José Anorga, now 70, was among those who left on the first Freedom Flight on Dec. 1, 1965. He still cherishes the newspaper photos of him and his pregnant wife, Rebeca, carrying their oldest daughter and walking on the tarmac at Miami International Airport looking dazed. ''I still remember the day I arrived as if it was yesterday,'' Anorga said. ``In minutes, my life in Cuba ended and our life here began.''

Olga Carballo, who left on a flight in the summer of 1967, mostly recalls sadness.

''The day I left Cuba I said goodbye to my dear grandmother -- and never saw her again. That has always stayed with me,'' said Carballo, 53, district supervisor for bilingual education at Miami-Dade schools. Carballo also left behind her father and brother, 15 at the time, old enough for compulsory military training. The family was not reunited in the United States until 1979.

''My father told me he would come to the airport to say goodbye from the fence outside,'' she said. ``As I went up the stairs to get on the plane, I saw him. He was standing on the roof of his car, waving at me along with a bunch of my cousins.''

'BRAVE' PARENTS

Rolando Llanes, 47, a Miami architect, considers his exodus from the island a successful ''rescue attempt'' by his parents, Arturo, now 70, and Maria Luisa, now 69, who knew he would undergo communist indoctrination.

''They were brave,'' he said of his parents, who were at first resettled in New York. Both were in their late 20s at the time. ``I can't imagine what it would be like to go from one day living in a small town in Cuba to living in Washington Heights in New York -- in 1968.''

Father Arturo Llanes, said he left Cuba and will never return until both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are gone. But he does value something issued to him by the Cuban government that forced him into exile: His exit number: 100,470.

''Before I die, I would like to have it tattooed on my chest,'' he said, choking back tears.

As five decades have passed, the children of the Freedom Flights -- many of whose parents have since died -- are feeling the pangs of being ''plucked out'' of their homeland and of the need to preserve what became of them in exile.

''Having a website where Cubans like me, who came over as children, can find ourselves is very significant,'' he said. ``We need to preserve the history of those of us who left during that special time.''

Miami Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.

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