This Cuban Exile Won't Forget
This Cuban Exile Won't Forget
Wednesday May 20, 5:53 pm ET
It was Oct. 9, 1967, and 19-year-old Emilio Izquierdo Jr. was trying
desperately not to smile.
As a political prisoner in one of Cuba's gulags, he seldom had reason to
show joy, but this day he did.
The guards had informed the prisoners that Che Guevara had just been
executed in Bolivia.
"Guevara was one of the people responsible for our plight," Izquierdo
told IBD. "The guards informed us that we had to be sad. They were
watching us for any sign of that we were happy. And though most of us
hid it, we were."
One young man was not so lucky. Disgusted with the poor-quality milk the
guards served, he threw it toward a poster of Guevara. The guards
interpreted that as disrespect toward the "revolutionary." They tortured
the prisoner by tying him up naked to a post where the bloodthirsty
salt-marsh mosquitoes would cover his body.
While Izquierdo was never tortured in that manner, the torment he
suffered was severe.
Yet he survived Cuba's gulag and came to America in 1980. His struggle
instilled in him a love of liberty that would drive him to become a
thriving businessman. It would also drive him to fight Castro's
propaganda by forming the UMAP Political Prisoners Association.
From June 1966 to July 1968, Izquierdo sat in one of the forced labor
concentration camps known as UMAP — Unidades Militares para Ayuda a la
Produccion (Military Units to Aid Production). During his first two
months there, he slaved away with bloody hands while digging holes for
Izquierdo's crime? He was "active in Catholic organizations" and his
father opposed the regime and was a prisoner as well, said Castro's men.
He Of Big Faith
What landed Izquierdo in the UMAP also helped him survive.
A devout Catholic, he said: "God helped me a lot. You've got to have
firm faith in your religion to survive. Many people despaired and
committed suicide. The strength to survive came from my religious faith."
He sustained his faith by reciting "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" in his
cell at night. He also found support from priests and other Christians
in the prison.
Before Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, Izquierdo worked at his
father's cafeteria and service station in the tourist town of Bahia
Honda. After he was released from the UMAP, he worked at various jobs as
All the while, the regime harassed his family and fired him from jobs
for not backing the dictator in Havana.
By 1980 he had enough. He fled the island with his wife, two daughters,
his parents and his grandmother as part of the Mariel Boatlift and
landed in Miami.
"You hear that a lot of the people who came over on the Mariel were
criminals and psychopaths, but that was a tiny, tiny percentage," said
Humberto Fontova, a Cuban refugee and author of "Exposing the Real Che
Guevara." "Emilio is much more representative of the Marielito — the
people who want to work and succeed, who love freedom."
"I would tell any person coming to the U.S., be ready to work,"
Izquierdo said. "It was nice that people gave us money when we first got
to the U.S., but you can't rely on that to achieve long-term success. My
father said everybody has to work."
And his family did. His wife worked in a factory. His dad went into the
auto parts business.
Izquierdo went to work as an accountant's assistant. But he was too
independent to do that for long.
Following his father's dictum that to succeed one must have freedom,
work hard and have one's own business, Izquierdo in 1982 obtained a loan
from a Miami bank and started Intercontinental Motors Corp. It
specialized in exporting used cars to the Caribbean and soon thrived.
Lauding his father, he said: "When I worked for him in Cuba, he taught
me to pay attention to the customer. Give the customer a good product,
excellent service, be ready for him anytime, 24/7. The customer will
As tighter state and local regulations made it harder to sustain his
used-car business, Izquierdo shifted to limousines. While still trying
to sustain Intercontinental, he joined Reinaldo-Padrino Limousine
Service in 1998. In seven years he had his own firm, which he now calls
Emilio Miami Limo.
Carlos Padrino, vice president of Reinaldo-Padrino, says that what set
Izquierdo apart was his attention to detail. "He does a lot of little
things such as opening the door, making sure there is water for the
passenger, being very professional and courteous," said Padrino. "It
seemed every time one of his customers wanted our service again, they'd
ask for Emilio. When he started his own limo business, many of his
customers went with him."
Bob Cotter, former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts (NYSE:HOT – News),
has been an Izquierdo customer for four years.
"He's totally available, personable and dependable, even at four in the
morning," said Cotter. "I think it's very interesting that in times like
this, when travel is down, his business continues to thrive and grow."
Izquierdo shares his enthusiasm in America with his family, one reason
his son, Emilio Izquierdo III, joined the Army.
But one aspect in the country troubled Izquierdo: the media, which he
felt were absorbing Castro's propaganda, especially about the UMAP.
So he teamed up with Francisco Garcia Martinez, also a former UMAP
prisoner, to found the UMAP Political Prisoners Association in 1995. He
says the outfit has 300 members who try to spread the truth about the
UMAP and help former political prisoners who have landed in America.
According to a Fox News report, about 200 political prisoners are in
Cuba today. The prisons reek with water-logged cells and rotten food.
He counsels charm, patience and persistence in getting the message of
UMAP PPA across. "I never get angry if a journalist won't pay attention
to me. I just keep trying and trying," he said.
It has paid off. He has been quoted in over 60 articles, including in
the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald.
Izquierdo includes among the UMAP PPA's biggest victories the agreement
by the U.S. State Department to recognize UMAP captives as political
prisoners and helping to reunite former UMAP prisoners in Cuba with
their families in America.
Yet it's tough to counter Cuba's propaganda. Izquierdo was especially
bothered when Colin Powell in 2001 said, "Fidel Castro has done some
good things for his people."
"I thought, 'Oh my God! If the secretary of state says that, I'm worried
about the United States of America,'" Izquierdo said.
Such passion has gotten him into trouble. In 1999, he was arrested while
protesting the Cuban band Los Van Van at Miami Arena. Carrying a Cuban
flag, he went around the barricade, in part because he was angered by
counter-protestors wearing "Che Guevara" T-shirts. The charges were
Now, when asked what he would say to people wearing such T-shirts, he
had his reply: "Shame on you!"
This Cuban Exile Won't Forget: Financial News – Yahoo! Finance (21 May 2009)