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Miami's Cuban-Exiles Mourn Ronald Reagan - 2004-06-09


Residents of Miami, Florida are remembering Ronald Reagan as an anti-communism champion who helped to end leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Grenada, and bring Cuban-exiles into the mainstream of U.S. politics.

Little has changed at La Esquina de Tejas, the small restaurant in the heart of Miami's Little Havana, where Ronald Reagan captured the hearts of Cuban exiles when he dined here in 1983. Wearing a traditional Cuban linen guayabera shirt, Mr. Reagan greeted restaurant patrons 20 years ago by shouting, "Cuba si, Castro no!" as he ate a heaping plate of roast chicken, black beans and rice, sweet plantains, topped off by a desert of coconut flan.

That gesture will never be forgotten by Miami's Cuban exiles and their Nicaraguan counterparts, who revere Mr. Reagan as the man who helped stop the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere.

Juan Enjamio and a group of friends came to La Esquina de Tejas the other day to remember their hero. Eating the same meal as Mr. Reagan, Mr. Enjamio says President Reagan was different from other politicians who court the Cuban vote.

"He had a consistency. His whole life's work was about speaking up for freedom, so it was not something that he just took up at the last minute for votes when he wanted to run for president," Mr. Enjamio said. "That had been his life' work, what he dedicated his whole political career to to speak for freedom and about freedom. So, there was sincerity about him."

Despite Mr. Reagan's fierce anti-Communist rhetoric, his administration's anti-Communist policies had little impact inside Cuba, where Fidel Castro's government remains entrenched to this day.

The Cuban government harshly criticized the former president. An editorial broadcast across the Caribbean island following Mr. Reagan's death called him the destroyer of the policies of détente, and said he should never have been born.

Director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami Jaime Suchlicki says while Mr. Reagan did not bring an end to communism in Cuba, his administration's strong opposition to the spread of communism is fondly remembered by many in Miami.

"So, while he did not concentrate exclusively on Cuba, in part because of the other pressures the United States was facing in its war on communism in other parts of the world, he did maintain a strong policy against Castro," he said. "He promoted the Radio Marti programming and he supported the Cuban cause as much as he could."

Shortly after Mr. Reagan's 1983 Miami visit, U.S. troops invaded the Caribbean Island of Grenada, putting an end to a Marxist-oriented regime and restoring a democratic government. The Reagan administration's support for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua was also a popular measure in Miami, home to thousands of Nicaraguans who fled the Sandinista regime.

Mr. Reagan's popularity in Miami helped to solidify the Cuban-American vote for Republican candidates in national elections. Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami says under President Reagan, Cuban exiles were welcome in the corridors of power in Washington.

"This was a period in which the Cuban American National Foundation was very close with the president," he said. "The president invited a lot of Cubans to Washington. So there was a feeling, and maybe a reality, of access on the part of the Cuban-American community to the president of the United States."

In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush won Florida and the presidency by fewer than 600 votes. Mr. Bush received overwhelming support from Cuban-American voters in that election, and is likely to get a majority of Cuban-American votes this year as well, perhaps part of a lingering legacy of the affection many Cuban-American voters feel for Ronald Reagan, who championed their cause and captured their hearts.

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