Miami Leaders: Castro's Death Welcomed, But 'Symbolic'
By the time Robert Suris was 5 years old, he learned to cross his fingers behind his back. That way, when he swore allegiance to Fidel Castro and the communist system, it was OK to lie. Or so Robert's mom told him.
The 55-year-old principal (center with his son and father, both also named Robert) at South Florida's Estate Investments Group is one of many Cuban-Americans this week cheering over the death of Cuba's longtime Communist dictator and strongman Fidel Castro.
That's because his memories of his brief time in Cuba are still crystal clear in his mind. His family owned one of the largest women's full-color fashion magazines in Cuba named Romace'. And that brought them wealth and a beautiful home along the coast.
So, of course his family's business and holdings were the first to be targeted by Castro, Robert (as a boy in Cuba on right with his sister and parents) says, including a newly developed printing press.
“I specifically remember that we had to leave the house and move into an apartment building,” he says. Soon, the family fled to a farm they owned, getting away from the city to a place where they could sustain themselves with their crops, as food was in short supply.
Then, in 1967, his family fled to Havana airport and boarded a Freedom Flight to South Florida. That experience was especially traumatic for Robert as the treatment by Cuban officials before they boarded was harsh.
“I was crying because they were pulling me away from my parents,” he recalls. He was strip searched and questioned before being allowed to board. When they arrived in America, Robert's family had just $100 they managed to smuggle out to start over.
So, when news of Fidel Castro's death hit the media, Robert's response was perhaps understandable: “For us, Satan died.”
That attitude could be found in other Cuban-American business leaders in Miami, including Colbert Boué & Associates partner Luis Boué, who came to America when he was 6.
“My initial thought, was it real? Or was it another hoax?” Luis says. “Actually I wished [Castro] lived another 40 years so he would have suffered more. But his judgment is coming now. He's in the hands of the final determiner.”
But, as for hope for a real change in Cuba, Luis is skeptical. “So long as the power elite is still there, there will be no change.”
Coral Gables lawyer Roland Sanchez-Medina—partner with the firm Sanchez-Medina, Gonzalez, Quesada, Lage, Gomez & Machado—was just 2 when his folks fled from Cuba, but not by a direct flight to Miami.
Instead, Roland's father, an orthopedic surgeon, was sent by Castro to the Belgian Congo, and there the family escaped to South Africa. And, like Robert and Luis, Roland sees Castro's demise as symbolic, with little possibility of reform or change in the near future.
Although unlike Luis and Robert, Roland has been back to Cuba. In fact, he just returned from a trip with the Florida State Bar days before Castro died. And his impression of Cuba today—despite the poverty and the crumbling infrastructure—is one of immense beauty.
“As much as I love Miami," he says, "Miami can't hold a candle to Cuba.”
The Related Group chairman Jorge Perez, via email, tells us he's not hopeful for much change either in Cuba.
"I believe Fidel Castro has not had any power in the last couple of years, Raul and the military [are] in control of the country," Jorge writes.
And while Raul seems more willing for open relations with the US, "every time a forward step is taken, more restrictions seem to be applied."
"The high hopes from Obama's visit have not materialized in either increased freedoms or trade," Jorge says. "With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, I would have thought that Cuba would have moved to open the economy to foreign investments, particularly from the US. This has not happened in any meaningful way."
Robert sees the potential for transition away from an autocratic, military regime in Cuba in the next decade or so, once Raul leaves power.
“Cubans are resilient people,” Robert says. “Once there is a certainty of investment in Cuba, I think Cuba is going to explode. The opportunities are huge and tremendous.”
And while he's avoided traveling to Cuba out of respect to his parents, he does actually plan to visit in the next handful of years “because I see change coming. I want to go in there and see it, feel it, and look where the opportunity is for the near future.”