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  READ IT HERE
The impact on Miami of Cubans , unquestionably the largest and most visible ethnic group in the city, has been incalculable. Unlike most Hispanic immigrants to the US, who trade one form of poverty for another, Miami's first Cubans had already tasted the good life when they arrived during the late Fifties and were soon enjoying more of the same here. Some now wield considerable clout in the running of the city.

The initial home of the Miami Cubans was a few miles west of downtown in what became LITTLE HAVANA , whose streets, if the tourist brochures are to be believed, are filled by old men playing dominoes while puffing on fat, fragrant cigars, and exotic restaurants whose walls vibrate to the pulsating rhythms of the homeland. Naturally, the reality is quite different. Little Havana's parks, memorials, shops and food stands all reflect the Cuban experience but the streets are quieter than those of downtown Miami (except during the Little Havana Festival in early March). Many successful Cuban-Americans have moved to Coral Gables or elsewhere in the city, to be replaced by immigrants from elsewhere in Central America, especially Nicaragua. By all means make a beeline here for lunch at one of the many small restaurants on SW 8th Street, or Calle Ocho (its main drag), but don't expect monuments and museums - Little Havana's a neighborhood geared toward those who live and work, rather than visit, there.

There is, however, a cluster of memorials between 12th and 13th avenues along Calle Ocho that underscores the Cuban-American experience in Miami. Here, the simple stone Brigade 2506 Memorial remembers those who died at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, during the abortive invasion of Cuba by US-trained Cuban exiles. Veterans of the landing, aging men dressed in combat fatigues, gather here for each anniversary and make all-night-long pledges of patriotism.

During the mid-Fifties, when opposition to Cuba's Batista dictatorship began to assert itself, a trickle of Cubans started arriving in a predominantly Jewish section of Miami called Riverside. The trickle became a flood when Fidel Castro took power in 1959, and the area became Little Havana, populated by the affluent Cuban middle classes who had the most to lose under communism. These original immigrants were joined by a second Cuban influx in May 1980, when the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 islanders from the port of Mariel to Miami in only a few days. These arrivals were poor and uneducated, and a fifth of them were fresh from Cuban jails - incarcerated for criminal rather than political crimes. Bluntly, Castro had dumped his misfits on Miami. The city reeled and then recovered from this mass arrival, but it left Miami's Cuban community utterly divided. Even today, older Cuban Americans claim that they can pick out a Marielito from the way he or she walks or talks.

Local division gives way to fervent agreement when it comes to Fidel Castro: he's universally detested. Even though few would now seriously think about returning to the island once Castro is gone, passions within the exile political community run remarkably high and allow for little debate. In Miami, Cubans have been killed for being suspected of advocating dialogue with Castro, and one museum was bombed in 1989 for displaying the work of Castro-approved artists. The 1999-2000 case of six-year-old Elián González , who was returned to his father in Cuba after his mother was drowned while attempting to reach America with her son, is a telling example. Mention of the case still rouses loathing for Bill Clinton in Miami's Cuban community. The lawyer who defended Elián's right to stay in America was elected mayor of Miami in 2001 despite little political experience. The biggest test, though, will come when the Cuban-exile leadership is eventually able to return to the island, and Miami's armchair politicians face the daunting task of governing a country that will be very different from the one they left behind.

 

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