Miami Beach

Protesters, proponents of Cuban consulate in Miami Beach spar outside City Hall

Idea of Cuban consulate in Miami Beach causes stir

Protesters criticized Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine for saying he'd welcome a Cuban consulate in Miami Beach Thursday, April 7, 2016. Supporters say they agree with Levine and want to help normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
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Protesters criticized Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine for saying he'd welcome a Cuban consulate in Miami Beach Thursday, April 7, 2016. Supporters say they agree with Levine and want to help normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Where the city of Miami refuses to host a Cuban consulate in the future as relations between the U.S. and the communist island nation continue to thaw, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine’s openness to the idea has stirred up debate.

The notion that the Beach could welcome a consulate ignited controversy, sparking a shouting matching between a few dozen critics and supporters of rapprochement outside Miami Beach City Hall on Thursday. Although any consulate is a long way away, with the U.S. and Cuba sorting out several other priorities first, the mere suggestion created a debate that had people on both sides calling each other “cowards.”

U.S. Census figures show that of the 90,000 people who live in Miami Beach, about 20 percent are Cuban.

“Put it somewhere else. Not here,” said Magaly Alfonso, a 72-year-old resident of Southwest Miami-Dade who came to the U.S. from Cuba about 50 years ago. Standing across the street from City Hall among protesters waving Cuban flags and calling Levine a “traitor,” she held a sign that said, in Spanish, “Don’t travel to Cuba. Don’t help the tyrant [Raúl] Castro.”

On the other side of the street and the issue, a few dozen people clapped their hands and chanted, “Levine, el pueblo está contigo (the people are with you).”

“Miami Beach is open to progress,” said Eddie Sierra, a 40-year-old son of exiles and Miami Beach resident.

Thursday’s demonstration came a few weeks after Levine and City Commissioner Ricky Arriola traveled to Havana in a trip that coincided with President Barack Obama’s historic visit and meeting with Cuban leader Raúl Castro. Levine and Arriola went as part of a Levine-sponsored trip for Tufts University graduate students. During their stay, the pair met with officials in the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry and told them they would welcome a consulate in the Beach.

Miami Beach leaders tell Cuban government they’d welcome consulate

Cuban officials “expressed to us the fact that they know that they’re not welcome in the city of Miami,” Levine told reporters after returning to the U.S. “My opinion, and Commissioner Arriola’s independent opinion, is that we would like to see the consulate welcomed in Miami Beach in the future, if that were to come about.”

On Thursday, Levine insisted he is personally open to the conversation about a consulate on the barrier island because he feels that South Florida, home to the largest Cuban exile community in the world, should follow the federal government’s approach to relations with Cuba.

“The U.S. government is moving forward with a policy of engagement with the Cuban people,” he said. “We would hope the people of South Florida would move forward in the same spirit.”

We feel this is going to be a good opportunity for all Cubans.

Eddie Sierra, son of Cuban immigrants who supports rapprochement and a consulate in the Beach

William Fernandez, an 80-year-old resident of Southwest Dade who said he was a political prisoner for several years in Cuba during the 1970s, said he opposes anything, including a consulate in Miami-Dade, that could benefit the Cuban government.

“I do not accept anything that benefits the Castro regime,” he said.

Arriola, son of Cuban exiles who emigrated in 1960, said he is sensitive to the emotions stirred by the concept. But he insists that a consulate has to be placed in Miami-Dade for the convenience of the large Cuban population, and says Miami Beach could be an appropriate location if no one else wants it.

“We might be willing to entertain this, but it is premature,” he told the Miami Herald. “But to preemptively say no? That’s wrong.”

The stance by Levine and Arriola marks a stark contrast from that of other Miami-Dade leaders who have already said no. Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado has strongly opposed the presence of the Cuban government in the city, saying it would create an unwelcome political flashpoint and pose a security risk. He even threatened a federal lawsuit if it were to move forward. Miami-Dade County commissioners passed a resolution in January urging the U.S. government to look elsewhere.

It’s disrespectful to the Cuban people.

Magaly Alfonso, who came to the U.S. from Cuba about 50 years ago and opposes a consulate in Miami Beach

And opinions even appear to vary among the Beach’s elected officials. Commissioner Michael Grieco placed a resolution on next week’s City Commission agenda that reaffirms past resolutions decrying the Cuban government and urging the Obama administration to keep any Cuban consulate away from Miami-Dade — and specifically out of Miami Beach.

Before Thursday’s protest, the commissioner said he didn’t think it would create a debate.

“It’s on the consent agenda,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t expect much conversation.”

Meanwhile, the Beach’s citizen Hispanic Affairs Committee plans to hold an open community dialogue at City Hall at 6 p.m. Monday.

“The Cuban-exile community has been an important part of Miami Beach’s success and identity. As such, the opinions of the Cuban community should be considered and respected when forming an official position on such a sensitive matter,” said Alex Fernandez, chairman of the committee. “We cannot forget and we must empathize with the exile community which lost everything while fleeing Castro’s dictatorial rule.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech