Freedom Tower hosts launch of Miami Herald database on Freedom Flights

Miami's Freedom Tower hosted a discussion on Cuba five decades after the revolution.

12/17/2008 3:01 AM

08/19/2014 6:25 PM

Fifty Cuban flags hung in rows inside Miami's Freedom Tower -- one for each year since the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution.

Wednesday night, more than 200 people marked the five decades at the iconic Freedom Tower, the very place where tens of thousands of Cuban exiles were processed during the building's years as a refugee center.

It was the night of Dec. 31, 1958, and into the early hours of Jan. 1, 1959, that Castro toppled Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista, an event that changed both the island and Miami forever.

The Miami Herald and Miami Dade College sponsored the free event, featuring a panel discussion with U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., looking at the time since the revolution, its impact on Cuba and South Florida and the future of the country.

Joining Martinez were Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College sociology professor and expert on Cuban refugees; Uva de Aragón, a Florida International University professor; and Enrique Patterson, an expert on Afro-Cuban issues.

Martinez was 15 when he was spirited out of Cuba in a clandestine mission dubbed Operation Pedro Pan, which managed to get 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children out of the island undetected by authorities.

'The most poignant thing I remember that taught me things had changed for me dramatically was at the airport when they said, `Children traveling alone all come over here,' and all of the families with moms and dads and kids and grandmothers went in a different direction, and then there was all us children alone.''

Earlier in the evening, Martinez looked up information on his parents, who came in March of 1966, on a new Miami Herald database that allows people to search for those who came over on the Freedom Flights, which brought 265,000 Cubans to the United States from 1965 to 1973.

Martinez saw the entry on late father, Melquiades Martinez, who came with his wife Gladys in 1966.

''I had no idea if I'd be able to find them,'' he said. ``It was very exciting. My brother and I were here waiting then, and we kind of relived that moment waiting for their names to pop up.''

On Wednesday, The Herald launched the database of those who entered the United States on the five-day-a-week flights from Varadero, Cuba, to Miami.

The massive list, compiled from information entered by immigration workers, was obtained exclusively by Herald reporters Luisa Yanez and Alfonso Chardy. It is believed to be the only one of its kind available to the public.

Hundreds of people responded the first day, trying to find themselves and relatives. People entered their memories of leaving Cuba. They e-mailed family photos taken in Havana and from their early years in Miami.

Many who emigrated from Cuba before and after the Freedom Flights asked for similar databases tracking their arrivals.

At Wednesday's event, those who had come on the flights or had family members who did searched for the entries.

Ruben Soto, 48, was 7 years old when he came with his family in December 1967.

''My parents are deceased, and this is like a tribute to my parents,'' he said, recounting the journey from Cuba.

Another attendee was Huber Matos, 90, one of the highest-ranking Cuban revolutionary leaders in exile. After 1961 he opposed Castro and was jailed for 25 years.

''Fifty years later we still have a commitment to the Cuban people to bring democracy to the island,'' he said after the event. ``That's what we tried to do back then. I think we need to support those inside the island to bring that about.''

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