Bernardo Benes, Cuban Pioneer, Dead at Age 84

Benes with Fidel Castro
Benes with Fidel Castro
click to enlarge Benes met with Fidel Castro (pictured above) - LIBRARY OF CONGRESS VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Benes met with Fidel Castro (pictured above)
Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
Bernardo Benes, maybe more than anyone else, made Miami the capital of Latin America it is today. He also was sloughed aside by some in the exile community for his overtures to Fidel Castro.

After becoming one of the first influential bankers in Miami by climbing the ranks at Washington Savings and Loan Association — long before Brickell became a finance mecca — Benes made history by traveling to Havana in 1978 and winning the release of 3,600 political prisoners.

He was a cofounder of the Cuban Hebrew congregation on Miami Beach, and led key area charitable organizations including the United Way in Miami.

He died Monday at age 84,

Benes, who was also a journalist, guided scores of young reporters and editors like me through the labyrinth of Cuban-American politics. He was hated by many hardliners for his historic, U.S. government-sponsored trip to the Cuban capital in '78. He met with Castro 14 times there. Scores of political prisoners were set free, and families who had departed the island were allowed to visit loved ones for the first time.

Castro got nothing from the gesture. Miami got a lot.

Benes made a difference and was a harbinger for later efforts — including that of President Barack Obama — that have transformed the island.

Born in Matanzas, he studied briefly at the University of Maryland in 1951 and then at the University of Havana, where he graduated. His Jewish religion and red hair separated him from some others in the island elite. He worked against dictator Fulgencio Batista and left the country for Miami in 1960.

In a seminal profile on Benes published in Miami New Times in 1998, future Pulitzer Prize-winner Jake Bernstein wrote:

Benes's tale is a nonfiction thriller chock full of intrigue, high-stakes diplomacy, and betrayal. It includes not only numerous meetings with Castro in Havana, but scores of other encounters with lesser Cuban officials throughout Latin America... He was exiled first from his native land and then again from the community where he settled. 

Indeed, after winning the liberation of political prisoners from Castro, Benes was among those who led the effort to raise money for the Bay of Pigs monument located just off SW Eighth Street. His thanks: Bombs were planted around the city in revenge against those who had kowtowed to Castro.

Back in 1998, Benes told Bernstein: "I can't count the number of times I've put out my hand to shake another and found only air in response," he says. "If you would ask me what has hurt the most because of what I did in Cuba, I would answer losing the capacity to do good."

He was buried Tuesday.
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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse