Sunday, May 08, 2005

Fighter for a free Cuba eulogized at funeral Mass

Posted on Sun, May. 08, 2005

Fighter for a free Cuba eulogized at funeral Mass

More than a thousand mourners bid farewell to beloved Cuban exile leader Rafael Díaz-Balart at a funeral Mass at St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana.


More than 1,000 people on Saturday mourned the loss of one of the Cuban exile community's most revered leaders at a funeral Mass for Rafael Díaz-Balart -- Cuban statesman and patriarch of one of the nation's most prominent Cuban-American political families.

Díaz-Balart died of leukemia on Friday at 79.

Mourners poured into the 700-capacity sanctuary of St. John Bosco Catholic Church in Little Havana to share their grief. They filled the pews, crowded the sides and back of the church and spilled out into the hall.

To many, Díaz-Balart was an icon: a democratic politician in Cuba, a fighter for a free Cuba from exile and a staunch opponent of Fidel Castro, his former brother-in-law.

''I will profoundly miss his devotion and supreme love for Cuba,'' son Lincoln Díaz-Balart said during one of four eulogies delivered by Díaz-Balart's sons. ``His ability to unite Cubans of different ideals and origins is going to be necessary for the republic, which is approaching.''

Before the service began, brothers Lincoln and Mario -- both U.S. congressmen -- Rafael, an investment banker, and José, a newscaster on Telemundo and WTVJ-NBC6, greeted well-wishers who came to pay their respects.

The cross section of mourners underscored how widely respected Díaz-Balart was. They included former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, ex-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, Cuban singer Olga Guillot and U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a longtime friend of the Díaz-Balart family. Inside, a woman handed out white roses -- a symbolic gesture honoring the anti-Castro party Díaz-Balart, a house majority leader in pre-Castro Cuba, formed on his arrival in Miami: La Rosa Blanca, The White Rose.


Díaz-Balart's sons talked about their father's constant devotion to teaching -- and his never-ending drive to learn more.

''He studied every minute of his life -- up until the moment that he took his last breath,'' José Díaz-Balart said in a passionate remembrance.

He told an anecdote about his father's final days. A woman visited and asked his father how he was feeling.

'He looked up at her with his celestial blue eyes and his mischievous smile and said, `I'm completely screwed,' '' José Díaz-Balart recalled. 'The woman laughed and told him, `Rafael, in all of my years working here, you are the first to answer me with such a sense of humor. Thank you for that smile.' ''

``He had so much love and tenderness. Dad, thank you for that smile.''


Rafael Díaz-Balart was born in 1926 to a well-known family from Banes in Oriente Province. After Castro came to power, Díaz-Balart lived in South Florida, Spain and Central and South America, where diplomatic work took him.

In Miami-Dade, he was a frequent commentator on Spanish-language radio, admired for his political mind and wit and considered an expert on all things Cuban. He was central in promoting his sons in their careers.

Rafael Díaz-Balart read from a letter written by one of his father's doctors at the University of Miami's Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center: ``He showed us how to create our lives with wisdom, courage and creativity and how to end the fight with grace and human dignity.''

Mario Díaz-Balart said his father constantly instilled in his children three values the late Gen. Douglas MacArthur profferred to cadets in a farewell address at West Point: duty, honor and country.

''Those things guided him all the days of his life,'' Mario Díaz-Balart said. ``Those things, which he taught me, are guiding me all the days of my life.''

After the service, family friend and fellow Cuban-American politician Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talked about how the Díaz-Balart family -- as well as the entire Cuban exile community -- lost a great man.

''He will never get to see a free Cuba,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. ``But his kids will, because of him.''

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