By Manuel Roig-Franzia
An excerpt from “The Rise of Marco Rubio” by Manuel Roig-Franzia published by Simon and Schuster.
Cubans roared into the streets of Miami that New Year’s Day in 1959. A dictator was gone, toppled by a charismatic revolutionary in a beard.
“Viva Castro!” they shouted.
Fidel Castro’s victory over the venal strongman, Fulgencio Batista, gave hope to thousands of displaced Cubans. He promised to transform their island. One of those who believed him was a shoe repairman named Pedro Victor Garcia.
Pedro Victor, born to an illiterate single mother beneath a thatched roof in a rural Cuban village, was the unlikely forebear of one of the biggest rising stars in modern American politics. In 2010, his grandson, Marco Antonio Rubio, would be elected to the U.S. Senate and instantly christened a future vice presidential or presidential contender by an adoring Republican base. But on that singular historic day in 1959 few could have predicted great things for Pedro Victor’s family.
Pedro Victor emigrated to the United States in 1956, the same year as his daughter and son-in-law, Oriales and Mario Rubio. The Rubios touched down at Miami International Airport in a National Airlines jet six months before Castro set sail for Cuba in a leaky yacht called the Granma. Pedro Victor, Oriales’s father, followed a few months later.
The years between Pedro Victor’s arrival on U.S. soil and Castro’s victory were not easy on him or his pride. He went to New York, where he found little more than odd jobs, then made his way to Florida where steady work also eluded him. He repaired shoes at his home and sometimes picked up a few extra dollars as a money collector in a parking lot. He was 60 years old and dependent on his daughters.
But in Cuba, Pedro Victor thought, he could be his own man. So two years and two months after being admitted to the United States as a legal immigrant, Pedro Víctor reacheda difficult conclusion. “I had to go back to Cuba to work there because I did not want to be supported by my daughters, my sons- in-law,” he later explained.
On January 15, 1959, two weeks after Batista abdicated, Pedro Victor flew back to the island of his birth. For the first three months he operated a small shoe store he owned, but in March he started selling off all his stock and materials. One of his daughters’ husbands offered a better option: he could get Pedro Victor a real job, a job with a salary, vacation time, reliability. Pedro Victor decided to take it.
His new employer was the Castro government.
The job was with Cuba’s Treasury ministry. Pedro Victor later described what sounds like a low-level bureaucratic or blue-collar position. He would say that he was tasked with recording payments owed to the Treasury by bus and truck drivers.
Castro’s government was beginning to insinuate itself into all aspects of daily life. In 1960, it unveiled the Urban Reform Law, under which the government seized rental properties throughout the country. The law was part of a series of sweeping moves designed to impose a socialist economic structure on the nation. Rents for the tenants of apartments were slashed in half, and the tenants were promised that they would become owners of the apartments in five to twenty years.
Pedro Victor was skeptical. But it wasn’t solely his skepticism toward the government’s games that made him decide to return to the United States. Two incidents fundamentally altered his life in Havana. The first occurred on July 9, 1960, when he had a serious accident. His grandson has said that Pedro Victor was hit by a bus. Six days later his wife, Dominga, traveled to Cuba to take care of him. In those days it was still relatively easy to travel back and forth between the United States and Cuba. She stayed for three months. Pedro Victor tried to return with her. He requested vacation time, but his bosses denied him.
In April the next year, about a year after Pedro Victor began working for the government, a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles launched a failed invasion of the island at the Bay of Pigs, about 130 miles southeast of Havana. About two weeks after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Pedro Victor’s growing unease with the Castro regime was further confirmed. At a ceremony commemorating May Day 1961, Castro stood beside Aleksandr Alekseev, the Soviet ambassador. As the band was getting ready to play, Castro turned to Alekseev and said, “You are going to hear some interesting music today.” The band then swung into a rendition of “Internationale,” the international socialist anthem. In his speech Castro declared that he was a Marxist-Leninist and that he would “remain one until the last day of [his] life.”
Life in Cuba of that era was about looking over your shoulder and Castro loyalists eyed everyone suspiciously. “They are watching you every day,” Pedro Victor later said. He was referring to the Comites en Defensa de la Revolucion — Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The block committees, which still exist today and are commonly referred to as CDRs, essentially serve as the eyes and ears of the government. Within hours of the failed Bay of Pigs attack, thousands of suspected dissenters were arrested, many of them identified from CDR lists. When Pedro Víctor was beginning to chafe at what was happening in his country, the CDRs were at the height of their power. And he wanted out.
In the summer of 1962 he asked his bosses for a vacation, and this time they granted it. And so it was that on August 31, 1962, he boarded Pan American Airlines Flight 2422 bound for Miami.
Pedro Victor’s troubles began not long after the plane landed. He had a Cuban passport and a U.S. alien registration card, but he didn’t have a visa. The sixty-three-year-old grandfather was detained. A photographer snapped a mug shot of Pedro Victor with his alien registration number on a block in front of him. After more than three and a half years in Havana, he had aged dramatically. He looked exhausted.
In a way Pedro Victor’s treatment was not unlike the present-day experiences of many Mexicans and Central Americans who come to the United States legally but later run afoul of visa laws. The immigration authorities who detained Pedro Victor at the airport would have been well within their rights to send him back to Cuba immediately, but they decided to give him a chance to stay.
Six weeks later he received a summons to appear at an immigration hearing. The summons gave some indication of what was to come, and it wasn’t good.
On October 4, 1962, Pedro Víctor appeared before a special inquiry officer, a kind of immigration judge, named Milton V. Milich. Two vinyl discs recorded that day on an Edison Voicewriter tell the story of a man caught in an immigration no-man’s land.
Prosecutor Joseph W. Monsanto claimed that Pedro Victor had abandoned his legal resident status when he left the country in 1959 and stayed away for more than a year. All seven of Pedro Victor’s daughters were then living in the United States, and two had been designated refugees. But the designation was not automatic.
On the scratchy Voicewriter records, Pedro Victor sounds calm and respectful. He speaks Spanish in a deep, smoke-cured voice, the product of the three-cigars-a-day habit he would maintain into his eighties. He answers plaintively when asked if he belonged to a political party in Cuba, saying, “We don’t have any political parties.” He claims to be apolitical.
“I wasn’t really opposed to Batista,” Pedro Victor says. “I don’t oppose anything.”
Milich and Monsanto seem intent on figuring out whether Pedro Victor supports Castro. One key sequence interests them: Pedro Victor had moved back to Cuba in January 1959, the same month as Castro’s takeover. But ten months later, he had returned to the United States for a visit. If he had been disillusioned with the Castro government at that time, it would have been a perfect opportunity to escape. Instead, Pedro Victor returned to Cuba after three weeks, prompting Monsanto to question whether he had pro-Castro sympathies.
“It’s not really that I was in favor of Castro’s government,” Pedro Victor explains through an interpreter. “But I had a job and I had to keep working with the government who gave it to me. I knew it was not good what they were doing, and I knew it was going to be a dictatorship.”
It wasn’t until 1960, Pedro Victor explains, that he thought about permanently returning to the United States. But by then, he says, the defense committees were everywhere and they were making it difficult for people to leave the country.
Deep into the hearing, Milich gives Pedro Victor one last chance to argue that he should be allowed to remain. “I always thought of being here in the United States as a resident, living permanently here,” Pedro Victor says. “But I had to go back to Cuba to work because I did not want to be supported by my daughters.”
He was expressing a hard truth about immigration: Though the United States holds the promise of jobs that paid a decent wage, not every immigrant finds them.
Yet Pedro Victor still believes. “I wish to say that I want to be a resident because by this status I will be able to work, get a job and get some money from here and there, and not be depending on my daughters.”
A court official halts the proceedings to place a new disc on the Voicewriter. Less than a minute into the new recording, Milich gives Pedro Victor cause for optimism. “I take official notice the U.S. consulates in Cuba were closed in January 1961, and from that time on no person in Cuba could procure a visa to come to this country.”
But then Milich pivots. It turns out he agrees with the prosecutor that Pedro Victor relinquished his legal resident status by remaining outside the country for more than a year.
But that isn’t all. Milich says that when Pedro Victor entered the country as a “returning resident” in late 1959, he really wasn’t what he said he was. Pedro Víctor had moved to Havana months earlier and could no longer be considered a resident of the United States. “Actually at that time he was on a leave of absence/paid vacation from his employment,” Milich says.
Milich also draws an important distinction about Pedro Victor’s identity. Even though many Cubans were entering the country as refugees, the grandfather standing before him cannot be given that designation, Milich says. Because Pedro Victor is trying to come into the country as a returning resident, “he must be considered an immigrant,” Milich says. In the eyes of the United States government, he is not a political exile. He is a man who has broken immigration laws.
Without a refugee status, Pedro Victor has no chance. He is in an immigration catch-22 — unable to get an immigrant visa because the U.S. consulate in Havana is closed and unable to enter the United States legally because he doesn’t have a visa. “The applicant is subject to exclusion . . . as an immigrant not in possession of a valid, unexpired immigrant visa.” At that point, Pedro Victor is officially an undocumented immigrant, a man standing on American soil without permission to be there.
Then comes the crushing blow. Milich orders “that the applicant be excluded and deported from the United States.”
How could a Cuban be deported under those conditions in that era? A little more than a year and a half after the Bay of Pigs invasion? After Castro’s declaration that he was a Marxist Leninist? It turns out that in those days a small number of Cubans were still being sent back to the island for violating visa requirements.
But why Pedro Victor Garcia? A shoemaker by trade, the father of seven daughters, all living in the United States?
Bill Yates, a retired immigration official, told me that Pedro Victor’s employment by the Castro government would have been a big “red flag” in that Cold War era with its pronounced fears of communist infiltration.
Milich was also adhering to a strict application of immigration law. No visa, no reentry. Many migrants get caught in similar conundrums today. In Pedro Victor’s case, “the judge really would not have had a choice,” Yates said.
But Pedro Victor did not leave the country as ordered. In those days deportees weren’t necessarily thrown onto a plane the minute they were ordered out of the country. Instead they were told to leave the country and were expected to do so, Yates said.
Any personal dramas that a sixty-three-year-old man from Cuba and his family were experiencing were about to be eclipsed by something that frightened an entire nation. On October 14, a U2 spy plane captured images of a missile site in western Cuba. The discovery became public eight days later, when President Kennedy went on television to address the nation.
Once that news broke, how could anyone have faulted Pedro Victor for staying? The course of world events was making it almost inconceivable that he would be forced to leave. Commercial air travel to Cuba was suspended. The world was on the brink of nuclear war for another six days, until Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev announced on Radio Moscow that the missiles would be removed.
Pedro Victor’s legal status would remain unresolved for years. Technically he was living in the United States without permission. In 1966, though, the legal climate officially changed in his favor. In November of that year the Cuban Adjustment Act was put in place, allowing Cubans who had been admitted into the United States since January 1, 1959, to be granted permanent residency after being in the United States for one year.
The next summer Pedro Victor returned to the immigration bureaucracy to ask, once again, to become a permanent resident. The photograph that accompanied his application is a tipoff that he was more upbeat about his prospects. His mouth, set so grimly when he was stopped at the airport five years earlier, spreads into an impish smile. He looks like he’s about to laugh. His cheeks have even filled out a bit.
The form he filled out states that he had been a Cuban refugee since February 1965. Refugee status may have been granted retroactively, Yates suggested. On September 13, 1967, the signature of Robert L. Woytych, the district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was stamped at a cockeyed angle on a sparse government form. The date stamp accompanying his signature strays over the previously blank line on the form, almost obscuring the numbers.
But the meaning is clear—application approved.