Armando Lacasa, an attorney, lobbyist and former city commissioner whose rise to prominence paralleled the ascent of Miami's Cuban exile community, died Tuesday night in his Pinecrest home after a long battle with heart disease. He was 82.
Lacasa was an early promoter of civic involvement for exiles in Miami after he fled Cuba and arrived in South Florida in 1961 following Fidel Castro's revolution. He was among the first Cuban Americans to sit on Miami's city commission upon his appointment in 1979, and remained a regular commentator on Spanish-language radio and television until shortly before his death.
His eldest son, former state Rep. Carlos Lacasa, said his father's political support formed as he worked with SABER, a U.S. Department of Labor-funded vocational program focusing on Miami's growing Spanish-speaking community. He was raising two sons with his first wife, Maribel Maxwell, and had already spent time in the country studying at Georgetown in order to escape Castro's predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.
"This exile group was the inteligencia of Cuba in the '60s. And they were fleeing totalitarianism," Carlos Lacasa said. "They came to this country, didn’t speak the language and needed to immediately get back on their feet. And a lot of people who needed help went through SABER. That’s really where his base was founded."
Lacasa's time in office, though short, overlapped with one of the most momentous events in Miami history: the Mariel boatlift.
In 1980, more than 100,000 Cubans commandeered boats or were picked up by boats from Florida in order to flee the Castro regime across the Florida Straits. The city used the old Orange Bowl to process thousands of refugees and later to house hundreds who'd been left homeless. At one point, Miami set up a tent city under an expressway overpass — a health hazard that Lacasa never supported.
"He was quite a patriot," said Félix Rodríguez Mendigutia, a former CIA officer involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and past president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.
Lacasa's experiences in office reflect a tumultuous time in the city. During his 1981 reelection campaign, for instance, Lacasa said Santeria brujas threw dead animals in front of his campaign headquarters. He told the New York Times that he'd received death threats — not an altogether uncommon occurrence for a Miami politician at the time.
Lacasa lost his first and only reelection bid to Demetrio Perez, taking lumps after his personal wealth spiked more than 400 percent to nearly $1 million during his time in office. Critics nicknamed him "La Condo" because of his involvement in real estate. He ran unsuccessful campaigns for Miami mayor in 1989 and county commission in 1996.
But Lacasa's relevance in Miami went beyond his own campaigns. He maintained a presence at Miami city and county halls as a businessman, lobbyist and attorney. He fought against the incorporation of Pinecrest. And he was a regular figure and political commentator on Spanish-language radio, most notably on Armando Perez Roura's program on Radio Mambí.
It was on that station where his comments about a rival once sparked a fist fight between his son and another state representative in the parking lot at Radio Mambí. During the fight, host Marta Flores was so alarmed that she asked listeners to call 911. They did, and the emergency dispatch system became so flooded with calls that it crashed.
Lacasa also had a notable career as an attorney, during which he chaired the Latin America and Caribbean Law Initiative for the American Bar Association and spoke to members of Congress about the Americas. He earned his juris doctorate from the University of St. Thomas de Villanova in 1959 and worked at several prominent Miami law firms.
His stint at Ruden McClosky included time as a colleague with a then-young West Miami commissioner named Marco Rubio, as the U.S. Senator noted in his book, "An American Son." Lacasa later worked as counsel at Genovese Joblove & Battista, where he represented Venezuelan clients trying to move their assets to the U.S. in order to escape seizures by the Hugo Chávez administration.
"My father believed in institutions," said Carlos Lacasa. "He believed that what brought down Cuba and Venezuela were the failure of institutions and the rule of law."
Lacasa is survived by his third wife, Veronica, three children, Carlos, Eduardo and Veronica, and three grandchildren. A wake is planned for 6 p.m. Friday at Memorial Plan Westchester Funeral Home, 9800 SW 24th St. A funeral mass will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Timothy Church, 5400 SW 102nd Ave. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to La Liga Contra el Cáncer.