- Fred Smith
Talking Politics with a Refugee
My neighbor Eduardo is an American citizen. He holds the First Amendment sacred, particularly the part that protects freedom of speech in the United States.
Ask him and Eduardo will tell you he loathes Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Barack Obama and wishes all tax-and-spend liberals were banished to a circle of hell where “We are the World” incessantly plays at a deafening volume. On the surface Eduardo isn’t terribly different from a lot of Americans who share his staunch conservative views, with one exception. Eduardo is a refugee from Cuba. He spent eight years as a political prisoner in a jail that bears striking resemblance to one of hell’s circles. His crime? Publicly voicing his opinion against Fidel Castro and the policies of his Communist regime. Eduardo came to America in May 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift—a mass emigration of Cuban refugees who traveled with the blessing of Castro from Cuba’s Mariel harbor to the United States, where they sought asylum. From April until September 1980 an estimated 125,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States, many of whom (it was later discovered) had been released from Cuban jails and mental hospitals. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly how the fictional Tony Montana from Brian DiPalma’s Scarface started his career in Miami. Billy Corben's poignant documentary The Cocaine Cowboys summarized the Mariel Boatlift in the clip below.)
Eduardo isn’t a drug lord, nor is he a criminal of any kind. He came to this country with little more than the clothes on his back and a desire to work.Today he’s a general contractor who’s lived in the same home in Tampa, Florida for 31 years. By every measure, he’s a true American success story. To say Eduardo is passionate about his politics is like saying Fidel Castro has a modest appetite for sexual conquests. Eduardo is evangelical when it comes to politics (and Fidel is purported to have bedded more women than Wilt Chamberlain). Eduardo rails against socialist ideology—yet launches his stones not from a glass house, but from a place on the battlefield whose street cred is undeniable. “Why should I pay to buy that guy a home?” Eduardo says in a thick Cuban accent, pointing to a haggard black man sitting on a bus bench with a cardboard sign. “When I came to this country, I had less than him. No money. No education. I didn’t even know English.” Eduardo gets louder. Like a lot of Americans, his volume and passion knobs are wired together. “Castro put me in jail for speaking what I believe. I come to America and I end up working on roofs in Miami. I see guys like him quit everyday. But I don’t quit. I work. And now I’m in a truck going to work and he’s on a bench begging for money. “I built my home and paid for it, now they say I’m supposed to pay so he can have a home. I was put in jail by Castro because I didn’t believe that was right. I was a political prisoner! Now I vote and have the right to say what I believe.” Americans are good at saying what they believe. Many share Eduardo’s zeal, but few can match the credibility his personal experience warrants. When most blowhards sound off against the perils of inequality in America they come off as classicist at best, racist at worst. When Eduardo points fingers and blames the poor for their problems, I can’t help but empathize with his perspective. America was built by guys like Eduardo, literally. Throughout our history immigrants may have come here of their own free will, but most were pulled off the docks not knowing where their next meal might come from and told to pave the roads, build the rail roads, put roofs on the houses. Eduardo played the immigrant’s familiar role of the imported laborer without complaint. Through it all he managed save his pennies and make a stable life for himself and his family in the land of opportunity. Eduardo differs from the hard right in another aspect. Even though he’s on the proverbial boat, he doesn’t mind lowering the rope to let the hungry climb aboard. “I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t let me on,” Eduardo says, “but I started working the minute my feet hit the deck.”
Fred Smith grew up in Miami, Florida among a thriving population of Hispanic citizens during the 1980s and 90s. This decade he's made a few movies and written a few books you can check out on this site. Stick around. Have a few rounds on the house. Then, you know...buy something.