Cover Story

From Cuba to the Cabinet

Issue: "Mel Martinez: HUD's man," March 3, 2001

Mel who?
That was the initial reaction of many on Capitol Hill when George W. Bush announced his choice of secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Skeptics wondered openly how a few years as executive of Orange County, Fla., could have prepared Mel Martinez to head the nation's vast housing bureaucracy. Mr. Martinez, however, quickly silenced his critics to win unanimous confirmation in the Senate. When it came to his resumé, after all, he could boast one experience that gave him a unique perspective on government housing programs: Mel Martinez had once been homeless himself. In 1962, with the Castro regime cracking down on religious expression, the devoutly Catholic Martinez family made the wrenching decision to send their son to Florida. School-age children were "disappearing," Mr. Martinez recalls-leaving Cuba to study and never returning. The effort, loosely organized by the Catholic Church, soon took on a name whispered among families across the island: Operation Pedro Pan. For 15-year-old Mel Martinez, the journey to a northern Neverland began on February 6, 1962, when he boarded a Pan Am jet bound for Miami. There were about a dozen Pedro Pan children on the flight, including one 12-year-old girl whom he tried to comfort; she seemed even more frightened than he was. By the time he arrived at Camp Mantecumbe, a Catholic summer camp in south Miami temporarily crammed full with 400 refugee children, it was too late to go to his cabin. So he spent his first night in America huddled under an Army blanket on a cot set up in the cafeteria. The new immigrant spent almost four months in refugee camps before Catholic Charities finally set him up with a foster family and his first real home in America. "They were very loving and kind," he said of the couple who took him in, "but it was very strange to be with people you didn't know, who didn't speak your language. They were giving me suggestions on bathing, things that weren't really needed. The very first thing they gave me was peanut butter and jelly. We didn't eat peanut butter in Cuba. I didn't like it too much." As a boy in Cuba, Mel Martinez had dreamed of becoming a doctor. But once in America, his dreams began to change. Searching the newspapers daily for stories from his homeland, he began to form a fascination with government and foreign affairs. "You have to understand that my whole departure was in the context of the Cuban missile crisis," he said, his English lightly flavored with traces of both Latin and Southern accents. "It happened only a few months after I arrived. My 16th birthday was the height of that crisis. Watching the UN debate with Adlai Stevenson taking on the Russians was very exciting. So I was drawn to study international relations when I was in college, then went on to law school." Although he became a millionaire lawyer, he never lost his interest in government and eventually was elected executive of Florida's populous and powerful Orange County. Now, on the national stage for the first time, he still seems a bit bewildered by his rise. But he knows it was neither accidental nor solo. "Without faith I don't think I could have endured and kept believing that I could be somebody," he said. "During the lonely, lonely times of questioning and despair-Why had my life turned upside down?-it was my faith that kept me going."

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