Last updated: December 20, 2021
Freedom Tower in Miami, Florida is considered the "Ellis Island of the South” for its role from 1962 through 1974 as the Cuban Assistance Center, offering nationally sanctioned relief to the Cuban refugees who sought political asylum from the regime of Fidel Castro. A National Historic Landmark, Freedom Tower illustrates the important story of the Cuban exodus to the United States and resettlement during the Cold War. Because of the political climate of the era, Cubans seeking political asylum received a warm welcome into the United States. Many Cubans fled to Miami, Florida because of its close proximity to Cuba.
Enacted during President John F. Kennedy’s administration, the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962 authorized assistance to the large number of Cubans fleeing to the United States for political asylum. The U.S. government transformed the building at 600 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami into the Freedom Tower, opening the Cuban Assistance Center there to help Cubans with everything from health care to housing, finances, and education. While assistance centers opened in Miami and other cities, the Freedom Tower is the single most important physical manifestation of this period of Cold War era politics and the Cuban exodus experience. More than anything else, Freedom Tower stands tall as a symbol of hope and freedom, and the firm belief that democracy should be available to all who fight against tyranny and demagoguery.
Construction of the building that would become the Freedom Tower began on June 11, 1924. Former Ohio governor James M. Cox purchased the Miami Daily News and Metropolis (Miami News) in 1923 during a thriving economic period in Florida and commissioned the construction of the building for use as the newspaper’s headquarters and printing facility. The building opened on July 26, 1925.
Freedom Tower reaches 17 stories, a significant achievement at the time, and contains over 82,000 square feet of space. The tower, based on the design of the Giralda tower of the Cathedral of Seville, is 11 stories high and three bays deep. Details such as the oak main doors, a cast iron decorative transom, wrought iron balconies, Corinthian capitals on the columns, groined ceilings, and cast concrete cherubs, add to the allure of this Spanish Renaissance-style building. Using a blend of Spanish and Italian architectural techniques with Moorish ornamental embellishments, Freedom Tower rose as a permanent and distinctive feature on the Miami skyline. The Miami News utilized the building until its 1957 move to a new facility. It sat virtually unused for the next five years until the U.S. government leased it, starting in 1962, to assist the Cuban refugees.
When Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 he initially was very popular, even receiving support from the Catholic Church. He rose to leadership as a champion of the working class, raising wages and redistributing the assets of the wealthy. He made many businesses property of the Cuban government and nationalized large tracts of agricultural land. His popularity was short-lived, however, because he soon made significant policy changes after aligning himself with the Soviet version of Communism, resulting in a mass exodus of the Cuban people. Fearing imprisonment, violence, or worse, many upper and middle class Cubans fled the country, leaving all of their possessions behind. They left their belongings because they believed that they would be returning to Cuba after Castro’s surely imminent removal from power; they thought of themselves as exiles, not immigrants. Meanwhile, Castro began a campaign of ridding the island of anyone who did not support his ideologies. By the end of 1960, approximately 40,000 Cubans had fled to the United States.
Between 1965 and 1973, thousands more Cubans fled to the United States. Many arrived via Pan American World Airways’ “Freedom Flights.” Pan American World Airways flew two flights per day, five days a week from Varadero Airport, east of Havana, to Miami. Between December 1, 1965 and December 31, 1969, over 175,000 Cubans fled to the United States on what became known as Freedom Flights. The Freedom Flights continued until 1973, with a brief hiatus from August 1971 to December 1972 when Castro stopped the flights.
Because of the large wave of refugees in such a short period of time, the U.S. government needed to provide assistance to ensure that the Cubans could successfully resettle and start new lives in the United States. On July 1, 1962, the General Services Administration began its lease on the first four floors of the Miami News Tower for the Cuban Assistance Center. Simple gold lettering identified the building as “The Freedom Tower.” Utilizing the basement, lobby, mezzanine, third, and fourth floors of the building from 1962 until 1974, the Cuban Assistance Center provided thousands of Cuban refugees with resources for adjusting to their new lives in the United States.
Known to the Cuban refugees as "El Refugio," the Freedom Tower provided in-processing services, basic medical and dental services, records on relatives already in the U.S., and relief aid for those starting a new life with nothing. Refugees were furnished with identification cards and were interviewed to identify both their needs and strengths. They received medical examinations and surplus foods like cheese and canned meat. Federal funds were also distributed for financial assistance. Due to the mass influx of workers in the Miami area, job opportunities became scarce, and some refugees, through the Cuban Assistance Center, resettled in other areas of the country where economic opportunities did exist. Many refugees remember that they could find all the assistance they needed at the Freedom Tower. Many of the people working at the Cuban Assistance Center were Cuban, so they could understand the needs and fears of those they were helping.
The Freedom Tower represented, for many Cuban refugees, a turning point in their lives. Here they began the slow process of rebuilding their lives by equipping themselves with the tools and resources necessary for successful resettlement. By utilizing the food program, medical clinics, and financial relief programs, refugees were able to start their new lives in the United States. The Cuban exile community utilized the Cuban Assistance Center and went on to make significant contributions to their new communities in the United States. With an estimated 650,000 Cuban refugees entering the United States from 1959 until 1974, the Federal Government spent $957 million dollars on the Cuban Refugee Program. By 1974, the U.S. government began phasing out the program and closed the Cuban Assistance Center in the same year.
Bought and sold many times in the coming years, and with vagrants destroying much of the architectural embellishments, the building languished until its purchase in 1997 by Jorge Mas Canosa, the founder and leader of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation. While Jorge Mas Canosa passed away only two months after purchasing the building, his family continued with his plans for its restoration and later sold it to another Cuban American family in 2004. The Pedro Martin family that purchased the building in 2005 donated it to Miami Dade College, the largest Hispanic-serving institution of higher education.
Today, the Freedom Tower serves the college as its premier exhibition space and gallery. Admission to the exhibition space on the 2nd floor of the building is free and open to the public. There are plans to use the Freedom Tower as the Cuban American Historical Museum in the future. As a beacon of hope and freedom, the Freedom Tower remains a national symbol of the liberty sought and found by Cuban refugees who came to the United States of America at the height of the Cold War conflict.
The Freedom Tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 10, 1979 and designated a National Historic Landmark on October 6, 2008.