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.

Lesnic believes Aguero was nothing more than a soldier of fortune paid by the exiles to commit acts of terrorism. "He was a mercenary, not a patriot," he says.

Rubio disputes this. In 1972 she used her own money to travel to Mexico in an attempt to free Aguero through her contacts. After being told the price for a lawyer who could do the job was $5000, she returned to the United States and raised the money, winning his release. Once out of prison, Aguero never had anything more to do with either Rubio or Cuba. "When he got out, I lost my son," she admits. "That's happened more times than I would like to count, but I don't like to talk about that."

She continued to raise money and spend her own funds for various exile actions. Then shortly after March 1972, Rubio took on a case that would lead to a major change in her life. On March 22 of that year, Luis Crespo and Humberto Lopez, two exiles involved in anti-Castro activities, were manufacturing explosives in a garage when one of the devices blew up. Rubio knew both men well. She heard the news while in New York City and quickly returned home. Both men were maimed. Crespo served five years in prison, and Lopez served seven.

"I'm glad she's my friend," says former state Sen. Roberto Casas
photo Courtesy estrella rubio
"I'm glad she's my friend," says former state Sen. Roberto Casas

"[While in prison] Estrella sent letters and held demonstrations on our behalf," remembers Crespo, who remains active in exile causes and has a late-night radio show. "She spent time with my children, helped with money, and even brought a cake to my grandmother."

He credits her with visiting political prisoners in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama. "What is really admirable is that she has risked her own financial stability," he comments.

Rubio remembers hiding gifts of money around the Crespo house during visits, since the family was too proud to take it directly.

In her efforts to get the sentences of both men commuted, Rubio made a fateful decision: She volunteered in the campaign of a local politician. Many of her fellow exile fighters believed such involvement would compromise the purity of their cause. "At first in the Seventies it was almost a patriotic insult for [Cuban Americans] to get involved in local politics," says ex-Mayor Ferré.

The decision of Rubio and others to become citizen activists would mark a turning point away from exile and toward viejo politics.

It was my bad luck to support bandits, she says. Don't blame me.

By the late Seventies, Cuban Americans had begun to win office in the City of Miami and the state legislature. Rubio sought out Ferré, who was running for mayor, for help in obtaining an early release for Crespo.

The former prisoner and bomb-maker says he objected. "We have to be very careful to not involve ourselves in the political system of any country, because that brings with it obligations," Crespo insists.

Rubio only saw the promise.

Politics doesn't have to be separated from the revolution, she argues. "I tell them: ďAt the hour that they ask for favors, who signs the pardon?' The politician."

The Ferré campaign launched Rubio into the local political scene. Her mother and husband both volunteered to work in the re-election effort alongside her. Rubio and Ferré's grassroots coordinator, Lazaro Albo, says she was not paid for her work, at least not at first.

How much money Rubio has received over the years for her support of candidates is unknown. One politician who asked not to be named describes her as a "mercenary who works for the highest bidder."

While she will admit to isolated small payments here and there, Rubio maintains her work generally was not paid. Fellow campaign workers, politicians, and knowledgeable observers all seem to agree she has received occasional payments for her services. They also contend the sums were relatively paltry considering what she invested. "Some campaigns, if they had money left over, might give her $500, but compared to the time that she put in, it was nothing," concurs Charlie Safdie, who worked several campaigns with Rubio.

In 1985 Rubio dropped Ferré. "I asked him for a favor after working in three campaigns for him without ever asking him for anything, not even air," she complains bitterly. By this time she had lost both the house she bought in 1957 and another one purchased later, owing to the time and money she spent on her Cuba work. She and her immediate family were receiving public housing assistance. Rubio asked the mayor to help her get another apartment in a low-income housing development and when he refused, she placed him on her enemies list.

"That's against the law," explains Ferré. "She doesn't understand it, because in Cuba that was the way it was done." The former mayor sees a pattern with Rubio and others of her generation. Their political activities at times skirted the law because they brought a different set of experience with them. "She works on a Cuban paradigm in an American community," he notes. "Not only was it normal and accepted in Cuba, it was normal and accepted among the people she dealt with in Miami."

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