BY ELAINE DE VALLE
On this side of the Florida Straits, the Mariel exodus touched off an outpouring of generosity among local residents who initially welcomed the new arrivals.
Among the first to reach out and help coordinate efforts to assist the newcomers were many South Florida Cubans who had left the island in the 1960s and '70s.
Arturo Cobo, a Bay of Pigs veteran and Key West resident, was quick to recognize that the boatlift would turn into a massive exodus orchestrated by Fidel Castro.
``I had always maintained contact with people in Cuba, and these people told me that Castro was going to destabilize South Florida. The government's estimate was maybe 20,000 Cubans would come. But our people told me that Castro thought of sending no less than 100,000.''
Cobo went to the Key West city manager and police chief and ``told them we had to be ready to receive this massive exodus.''
CALLED FOR HELP
At first, ``they laughed at me . . . I knew it sounded ludicrous but I felt it was true. I told them, `Believe me. I need you to help me get a facility.' ''
Cobo, an activist on behalf of the Cuban exile community since the '60s and up to the present (he's among those regularly protesting efforts to send Elian Gonzalez to Cuba), got authorities to turn over Key West's Chamber of Commerce for the purpose of processing the new refugees, but that soon became inadequate. Eventually, city officials expanded the refugee quarters to include an old abandoned Coast Guard base behind the chamber.
About 8,000 Mariel refugees were counted before the state and federal governments stepped in to assist the arrivals with food, medicine, housing and other basic needs.
Before they got help from the state, Cobo and the corps of volunteers he coordinated did everything themselves.
``We had to go rent housing. We got on radio to ask for transportation. We asked for doctors and medical staff to help us. The medicines? We had to buy them. We begged people to donate clothes. We went to all the restaurants to get food. To all the bodegas to get toothpaste and deodorant and soap.''
The volunteers didn't sleep for days and when they did rest, they shared the same tents, the same cots, as the refugees.
``We spent months sleeping with them in the same tents . . . Sometimes whole days passed and we couldn't sit down to eat. But we did it with a lot of pride -- Cubans to Cubans. It is something we did with a lot of pride and a lot of warmth.''
Twenty years later, Cobo still gets emotional when he talks about it.
``The whole community -- Cuban and American and other Hispanics -- mobilized to confront this situation. It was one of the most beautiful things we've done in our 40 years of exile.''
At one point there were more than 1,000 volunteers. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency kicked in its resources, they were offered pay. They refused.
But there came a time that Cobo wanted to put a stop to the flow of people.
``When I detected a boat with common criminals -- I could tell by their shirts and their haircuts -- I took five of them to my office. I plucked them off the boat . . . They confessed that they were common criminals immediately. We took their photos to document everything and I went to Bill Traugh [then director of the FEMA effort] and I told him, `I am all for the unification of families, but we have to tell the world that Castro is using Mariel to send mentally sick patients and criminals who have murdered, raped, assaulted children . . .
``This we couldn't tolerate.
``He got on the phone and called the White House. He said he had the general coordinator of the operation in his office who wanted to halt the operation.''
But the word came back: This could not be stopped -- not in an election year.
That stance shocked Cobo -- but there were more jolting experiences in store for him in the course of the weeks he spent ushering in the Mariel refugees.
``It was very tragic. We were trained to win or die in the war. But we were never trained for this. Do you know what it's like to see an old man come off a boat and kiss the ground and then have a heart attack right there and die? The happiness of seeing children and families reunited again?
``One old man came to wait for his daughter and grandchildren. We saw him day after day after day. And his family didn't arrive. He slept in the park and we told him to come sleep in the tents with us. And day after day after day, his family didn't arrive.''
Cobo remembers the overwhelming pain he felt for that man, whose family never arrived.
``I saw friends of mine die in the Bay of Pigs and I never shed a tear. In fact, it gave me strength to continue in their place. But with this, I had to lock myself in a room and I cried like a baby . . . ''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald