Conference on the Cuban Refugee Center celebrated at the West Dade Regional Library
Por Ricardo Nuñez Portuondo
I want to thank, for this invitation, Diana Gonzalez Kirby of Miami Dade Public Library System, and Esperanza Bravo de Varona, Director of the Cuban Heritage Collection at the University of Miami
We are going to make an opening statement in relation to this Program that became the most important Federal Program for the Cuban people in the Unites States and also in Cuba, because they saw there that the opportunities were opening in this great Nation of ours. If there are any questions afterwards we will be very happy to answer them.
I want to thank the many friends that we have here, and also some of the Federal officers of the program, Fernando Mendigutia and my Executive Secretary Celia Sanchez Rhodes, who also went, like the military used to say "beyond the call of duty".
President Eisenhower, due to the conditions in Cuba, created on a short term bases the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in 1959. Afterwards President John F. Kennedy created the Cuban Refugee Program in 1961. When I became the Director, we had offices in HEW Bldg. In Washington DC and the previous Director was using the Central Office of the Program, at 747 Ponce de Leon Blvd. Coral Gables. I had under my command 30 officers in Miami and 4 in Washington DC.
At the time, I proposed the creation of the National Refugee Program to handle any future influx of Refugees. Time has proven that I was right. President Jimmy Carter closed the program in 1977.
This opportunity of being the Director, became of the greatest importance in my life, because I was going to be heading such an important program with an annual budget of 90 million dollars, at the time but also because I became historically the first Cuban-American appointed by a President of the United States, it fell on my shoulders, and I was very happy with this opportunity, to open the way to the excellent appointments that took place afterwards.
Also I had my obligation to the President Gerald Ford and to our Constitution to improve the quality of life of my Cuban brothers in the Nation.
Many things come to my mind, of great importance, but I am going to point out some of them to make this presentation as short as possible.
We increased the assitance the refugees were getting at the time. We traveled to different places in the Nation to be with them and to be able to solve their problems, on site, and also we went at the request of the US Navy, to the Guantanamo Bay Base arranging a system to receive in the US and give assistance to Cuban refugees leaving the Base. I approved the famous TV program "Que Pasa USA".
We financed programs that were very successful, Like the Cuban Doctors in the University of Miami, also we had clinics that took care of the refugees, and we refunded the States and the Counties for the expenses they had with the Cuban refugees. We worked very closely with the private agencies, four of them to resettle the Cubans. Also during my administration, there was a great discrimination in the City of Miami and with the help of the Justice Department; they instituted litigation that became the famous "consent decree" giving opportunities to all minorities to work in the city of Miami.
I realized that they had the ability to succeed in the U.S., but I realized also, that they needed the numbers, so I lifted the restriction for Cubans that were told that they would loose the assistance if they return to Miami. At the time we had 465,000 registered through the Cuban Refugee Center and my authorization to allow then to come to Miami, without loosing the assistance, gave them the numbers to become powerful in our political process. An by the way, 70,000 were on welfare and the rest 395,000 were self supporting, 85% of the refugees were self supporting
I understood that the success of the Program, was the defeat of communism in Cuba.
So I have written a book about the Early Years 1959-1965 that took into consideration an important program, that later became known as Peter Pan.
John Thomas, was the first Director, under the second Director, Howard Palmatier, the airlift took place from 1968-1972. and ended in 1973. And I became the last Director of the Cuban Refugee Program in 1975.
Before I finish I want to thank my wife Loly and family and friends for their presence here.
Ricardo Nuñez Portuondo