Julio Balsera, who fought the Castro regime and had to take refuge in Caracas before making his way to Miami, died Tuesday night after battling leukemia.
Balsera, who was 80, “died quietly surrounded by his family,” said his son, Freddy Balsera, a Coral Gables Democratic political consultant.
The son of Spaniards who immigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, Balsera was born in Havana on April 12, 1939. When he was identified as an anti-Castro activist in 1960, he escaped the island hidden inside the kitchen cabinets of a cargo ship bound for Caracas. In 1963, he arrived in Miami and remained here for the rest of his life.
In 1967, Balsera founded J. Balsera School Bus Service, the first private company that offered school transportation in Miami, his family said. A station wagon adapted with wooden benches to transport the children became the company’s first vehicle. Over the next 40 years, Balsera buses transported thousands of local schoolchildren.
The buses also became an entry point into the growing Cuban-American community, with Balsera turning those connections into his passion for politics.
“The parents of the children that rode in my vehicles did not know the candidates that were running, but they knew me and trusted me when I recommended who to vote for,” said Balsera, according to a family statement.
Balsera played an active role in the mayoral campaigns of Maurice Ferré (Miami) and Steve Clark (Dade County), and in the congressional campaigns of Reps. Claude Pepper and Dante Fascell, according to his family. He allowed political campaigns to use his buses to mobilize voters.
Balsera was also a founding member of the Cuban American National Foundation, which Jorge Mas Canosa and a handful of wealthy exiles formed to lobby U.S. politicians on issues related to Cuba, particularly against Fidel Castro and Cuba’s Communist Party.
During the Mariel exodus in 1980, in which tens of thousands of Cubans arrived in Florida and often had no means of transportation, Balsera lent his buses to the cause.
“For months, Balsera and his team left every day for Key West after finishing their school routes in the afternoon to find newcomers and bring them to Miami during the night,” his family said in a statement.
Balsera sold his company after 40 years and dedicated himself to civic life.
In 2011, Balsera led the Hispanic effort to dismiss then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez for raising taxes and increasing his office salary in the midst of the recession. Working with volunteers from an office in Little Havana, Balsera and his wife collected more than 100,000 signatures to call for the recall election. It was held on March 15, 2011, with more than 88 percent voting to recall Alvarez.
In 1983, the Miami Herald recognized Balsera’s activism, publishing a story with the headline, “If Flagami were a city, Julio Balsera would be its mayor.” Flagami is the neighborhood where Balsera lived until he died.
Balsera is survived by his wife, Esther, their children Juliette, Freddy and Esther Maria, and seven grandchildren.
A visitation will be at 6 p.m. Friday at Rivero Westchester Knight Funeral Home, 8200 Bird Road. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Dominic Catholic Church, at 5909 NW Seventh St.