LAS VEGAS -- Florida Ford dealer Gus Machado hasn't set foot in his native Cuba since January 1960.
Machado, who had first moved to the United States in 1949 to go to military school in North Carolina, had returned often to the country during the 1950s to visit his family and to sell a few used cars he took over by ferry from Key West. But the young entrepreneur left for good that January as Fidel Castro's Communist regime tightened its grip on free enterprise.
"I was always looking to go back to Cuba," he says. But Machado, now 77 realizes he will never again live in Cuba, nor will he get to sell cars there. But his country still lives in his heart.
Machado, a wiry, white-haired man with a wide smile, was one of seven Ford dealers honored here Friday night by Ford Motor Co. in its annual Salute to Dealers celebration that honors dealers who serve their communities. Machado has been a big benefactor, giving to charities that benefit schools and cancer research. His two Dade County, Fla., Ford dealerships, one in Hialeah and the other in Kendall, sell about 5,000 cars a year.
There's another cause that's near and dear to his heart: democracy for Cuba. In 2003, Machado formed a political action committee called the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC.
Although the Cuban regime, now controlled by Fidel Castro's younger brother Raul, recently loosened restrictions on the sale of cars, Machado believes the move will have little effect since most Cubans couldn't afford to buy cars anyway. Most residents make about $20 per month.
The island has become a museum of antique American cars because laws previously restricted sales of cars to autos built before the 1959 revolution.
"I look forward to seeing the system open up and have the freedom for everybody to vote, to go to church, to buy a home, to buy a car. Whenever that happens, I will go back to visit."