The Autumn of the Matriarch

For decades Estrella Rubio has been a street-level general in el exilio's army. But her style of leadership, along with her health, is now fading fast.

The agents didn't buy it and hauled Rubio away. Once again connections saved her life. This time a friend of her husband in the Communist Party vouched for her. In exchange Rubio relinquished her passport to the Cuban authorities. Friends at the Mexican embassy helped secure her false travel documents. In the first month of the new decade, a plane carried Estrella Rubio away from Cuba for what would turn out to be the rest of her life.

I came to be a revolutionary, she says grandly. I came to continue to fight Fidel. In the official world of the United States, Estrella Rubio doesn't really exist. When she became a U.S. citizen, Rubio took her married surname and added Ivon in honor of Ivan the Terrible. Thus was born the legal fiction of Ivon Fuente. If she was going to be forced to live in the United States, she would do so as a warrior.

An explosion in a home bomb factory sent Luis Crespo to jail and Rubio into politics
Steve Satterwhite
An explosion in a home bomb factory sent Luis Crespo to jail and Rubio into politics
Rubio kept former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré's picture but dropped him as a candidate
photo Courtesy estrella rubio
Rubio kept former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré's picture but dropped him as a candidate

Along with most of her fellow exiles, Rubio always planned to return to Cuba sooner rather than later. She dedicated herself to preparations for the Bay of Pigs. She joined the Red Cross and offers a stained membership card as proof. Her hope to succor the invasion's wounded was not to be. The defeat of the April 17, 1961, mission sunk Rubio into despair. A few weeks later depression took control. While walking on a Flagler Street bridge over the Miami River, she threw herself into the water. Her suicide attempt failed miserably. The fall was not high enough to kill her. Rubio flailed around before a nearby boat plucked her from the river.

Once it became clear there would be no quick return, the Cuban exile community embraced a multipronged strategy against the regime. It included getting people off the island, plotting to assassinate Castro, and attacking Cuba's official presence in other countries. Rubio contributed to all these activities.

Using her contacts, she set up a business helping people leave Cuba via Mexico. She says those who vowed to fight the regime didn't pay for the service. For everyone else freedom cost about $100, she claims. In 1963 she bought a boat using her own money and funds she gathered from those who had recently escaped. The original idea behind the boat (dubbed El Pronto) was to ferry people out of Cuba. After a short while it took on a deadlier purpose. She gave it to the paramilitary outfit Alpha 66. In 1964 a group of men set out for Cuba in El Pronto.

"The news we got was that there was a beach where Fidel would go with just two bodyguards," Rubio relates. The group had hoped to overcome the guards and assassinate Castro. Instead they were captured and the boat confiscated.

That same year Rubio was arrested for the first time in the United States. She had joined a group of women who marched on the British Embassy. A newspaper photograph of the demonstration shows Rubio carrying a sign that reads, "Americans, English, Russians united to protect Castro." Police disrupted the protest and arrested the participants. Local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper, testified before a judge on their behalf.

Violence and the Cuban exile in Miami became intertwined in the early Sixties. The police regularly evacuated neighborhoods and closed down home bomb factories and weapons depots before the Bay of Pigs. Neighbors alarmed by the sounds of gunfire reported armed camps in South Dade. After the failure of the invasion, el exilio's belligerence moved toward attacking Cuban government personnel and installations directly. A more chilling component involved settling scores among the exiles themselves and silencing disagreeable viewpoints. Rubio actively supported many of these efforts, which both law enforcement and Miami's bewildered daily newspapers labeled "terrorism."

"I am not in agreement in the planting of indiscriminate bombs, but bombs directly against communists, yes, because the best communist is a dead one," Rubio still declares.

Her definition of a communist was sufficiently broad for her to justify the bomb attack on radio commentator Emilio Milian that cost him his legs.

Rubio says since bomb-throwing was largely a male occupation, she dedicated her time to raising money for the missions and helping those responsible when they were arrested.

Max Lesnic, an astute observer of his fellow exiles, terms Rubio "the godmother of fundraising" for her work during this time. Lesnic has known of Rubio since their days together fighting Batista. Today, among his other activities, he is the center of an informal salon of exile coffee drinkers where the name Fidel Castro is mentioned at least 100 times a day. "[Rubio] was always active in exile," he notes, "but she was used."

Lesnic offers the case of Henry Aguero. Born in Puerto Rico, Aguero had gone to Mexico in 1965 to kill the director of the newspaper El Día. The director had shown the temerity to editorialize against Cuban exile activities in his country. Ill-advisedly Aguero threw a grenade at the newspaperman's car directly across the street from a police station. He received a sentence of 30 years in prison.

Rubio maintained a correspondence with Aguero for seven years while he was incarcerated. "When I wrote to him in prison," she recalls, "it was like he was my son."

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