Raising the Bar

Francisco R. Angones had the good luck to escape Cuba as a child. What he achieved after that had nothingto do with chance

Published in 2007 Florida Super Lawyers — June 2007

Forty-six years ago, an anxious boy arrived in Miami on a commercial aircraft along with two other unaccompanied Cuban children. It was two months after the Bay of Pigs and a few weeks shy of Francisco “Frank” Angones’ 11th birthday. He had no idea what the future would bring, any more than he knew when, or if, he would see his parents again.

In June, Angones will be sworn in as Florida’s first Cuban-born president of the Florida Bar. The honor is the culmination of a journey that began that long-ago day in June 1961.

Angones’ disrupted childhood, his subsequent reunion with his family and their integration into the United States, helped shape the ideology that Angones fights for today, both in and out of the courtroom. The windows of his eighth-floor law firm in downtown Miami look out on the Dade County Bar Association offices and the Dade County Courthouse. It’s a fitting view for a man at the height of his career—and his personal pursuit of justice.

“The quest, that is what it is all about,” says the lawyer, a youthful-looking 56 years old. “Whether it’s achievable or not, you should always try to do what’s right, no matter what the personal cost of an ideal.”

Freedom flight

This is not an academic question for Angones. Shortly after Fidel Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, he began to nationalize industries, close Catholic schools and churches, and send students to study in Eastern European countries. As Catholic Christians, the Angones family felt the noose tighten on civil liberties. They quietly observed the formation of neighborhood-watch groups that reported the comings and goings of people and goods into private homes, the mass mobilization of children for political rallies, the disappearance of independent newspapers and radio stations. Angones recalls with vivid detail that the only time he ever wished for anyone’s death was in confessional, when he wished out loud for that of Castro. The priest cautioned him to censor himself, warning that even people dressed as priests could be spies.

It wasn’t long after this incident that his parents joined other desperate Cubans in sending their unaccompanied children to the United States. Young Francisco was one of 14,000 children who came to the United States between 1960 and 1962 in what was dubbed “Operation Pedro Pan” by a Miami Herald journalist in reference to the Hispanic version of the Peter Pan novel.

For the first two months, Angones lived in a temporary camp in Kendall, on the outskirts of Miami, with hundreds of other displaced children. Under the supervision of Catholic Welfare Bureau director Father Bryan O. Walsh, children were relocated throughout the United States while they waited for their parents to join them. Some never did. Angones was lucky; he avoided being relocated to a stranger’s home in New York when distant relatives in Miami invited him to live with them. Two months later, his parents and younger sister joined him. Angones’ parents chose to live with their two children in a Catholic-sponsored compound, where they could assume the role of foster parents for Pedro Pan children. Angones felt isolated socially and linguistically from his classmates, but he respected his new country’s civic traditions. “I was really attuned to the rule of law in this country,” Angones says. “In Miami, there was such respect for the law that back in the 1960s, they even handed out citations for jay-walking.”

Path to success

Angones began to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. In high school he was elected student council president. In 1972, the year he became a U.S. citizen, he received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude from the University of Miami.

Four years later, he graduated from the same university with a law degree. He went on to co-found Angones, McClure & Garcia, specializing in civil trial, personal injury, commercial torts and insurance litigation.

Cuba was never far from Angones’ mind, but he became actively involved when he visited Guantanamo Bay in 1994. Tens of thousands of Cuban “boat people” were being held there in limbo. The increase in detainees was the result of a 1994 agreement between the two nations for “normalizing migration.” The United States no longer allowed Cubans intercepted at sea to come to this country, instead housing them at Guantanamo.

“‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ I thought when I saw those children behind barbed wire,” says Angones. “How could the United States do this? It was not right, and it was not constitutionally right to hold anyone indefinitely.”

Angones and other attorneys filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. They appealed their case three times, and each time the 11th Circuit Court turned them down. But in May 1995, the Clinton administration announced that an agreement had been made with Cuba resolving the dilemma of the 30,000-plus Cubans encamped in Guantanamo. It allowed Cubans to come to the United States through humanitarian parole. At the same time, the United States began the wet-foot, dry-foot policy, whereby any immigrant landing on U.S. shores may now stay and apply for asylum. Cubans not making it to dry land are repatriated directly to Cuba.

In 1996, a high school friend whom Angones had known for more than 20 years, Armando Alejandre, along with three other volunteers, had been on a humanitarian mission for the nonprofit organization Brothers to the Rescue. They were flying two small, unarmed civilian airplanes in the Florida straits on a search-and-rescue mission, looking for Cuban rafters. Without warning, the Cuban Air Force fired on them with air-to-air missiles, killing all four men. The Cuban government admitted the attack was premeditated and assumed responsibility for the deaths.

Alejandre’s widow asked Angones for assistance—she thought the families of victims had been denied many benefits because they never received death certificates. Angones filed a lawsuit on their behalf in probate court.

Several months later, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996. This act stripped immunity from foreign states classified as terrorists by the U.S. Department of State and cleared the way for the American victims’ families to seek compensation in U.S. courts. According to Angones, this act was historic because it gave unprecedented protection to American citizens living outside U.S. territory and allowed them to sue nations responsible for torture and murder.

In 1997, U.S. District Federal Judge James Lawrence King awarded $187 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the families of the Brothers to the Rescue pilots under the Anti-Terrorism Act. This was a real coup for Angones, because it was the first court victory claimed under the AEDPA. But there was no way to collect the stipulated damages because the federal government had frozen all Cuban assets. The fight went on for three years before Congress released the money to the families.

Angones says both the Brothers to the Rescue and the Guantanamo lawsuits were pursued for the right reasons. “Thousands of hours were spent on them without thought of remuneration, because it was the right thing to do.”

He is acutely aware of the culturally diverse and often divisive nature of Florida’s constituency, particularly in Miami, where the Cuban-American population has strong political influence. South Florida was forever altered in 1980 by 125,000 Cubans who arrived as part of the Mariel boatlift. This mass six-month migration occurred when the Cuban government announced that anyone who wanted to leave the island could do so. The exodus of bona fide asylum seekers, however, caused a political nightmare for President Jimmy Carter when it was discovered that Cuban prisoners and residents of mental health facilities were also on the boats arriving on Miami’s shores.

“Miami has done incredibly well for such a young city, taking in so many people from so many places,” Angones says. “But we have to remember that it is a young city—it only really became a city with the introduction of air conditioning.” Home-cooling boomed in the 1950s.

With honors

Angones has been engaged in bar association and civic activities for 30 years. Early in his career, he was chosen to be a board director for the Cuban-American Bar Association and, within three years, was elected its president. He has been a board director for, among others, the Florida Bar Board of Governors, Florida Bar Foundation, American Bar Association, Dade County Bar Association and the Judicial Nominating Committee for the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida.

Angones has been showered with honors, including the Lawyer of the Americas Award in 2000 by the University of Miami’s School of Law and its Inter-American Law Review; and an award by the Florida State Supreme Court in 2006 for his pro bono representation of Guantanamo Bay refugees. The Miami-Dade County Office of the Mayor, the Board of County Commissioners and the city of Miami declared June 10, 2006, as Dr. Francisco R. Angones Day. (In Cuba, lawyers are called doctors.)

For all his professional accomplishments, Francisco Angones is more comfortable sharing the spotlight with his colleagues and family than he is talking about himself. What little free time he has is devoted to his wife and son. Their pictures adorn his office walls and shelves. He jokes that his wife, Georgina, whom he’s known since high school, is smarter than he and better at everything—except, perhaps, he says, choosing a spouse. Georgina is an assistant dean at Miami Law School, and Francisco Jr. is a recent graduate from Columbia University and studying film in New York. Angones dreams of the day he can attend his son’s debut film.

When asked if he’s proud of being the first Cuban-born president-elect of the Florida Bar, Angones pauses before answering. He is thrilled and humbled by the honor. At the same time, his election is bittersweet. Many state bar members, including Angones, expected to be congratulating Henry Lattimer as the bar’s first black president, but Lattimer was killed in a car accident in March 2006. Lattimer had announced his intention to run and was expected to have no challengers. Angones speaks of his friend and colleague with respect, and regret. But he ultimately believes it is not a person’s race or heritage that should define the presidency: “When you talk about being a lawyer, it’s not a black lawyer, a white lawyer, a disabled lawyer. I’m extremely proud of my heritage, but I am president of all the lawyers.”

Angones sees himself as a bridgemaker. He wants to make the Florida Bar more accessible to all lawyers. He also plans to build on the proactive stance the Florida Bar has taken toward recruiting minorities. “The bar never said its doors were closed,” he explains, “but in reality, they were not open. I plan on reaching out behind the doors to include minorities and the disabled.

“The only way to improve relations is by talking, face to face, and let them know who we are, what we do, and ask them about their concerns. When there’s respect for each other, people may disagree without being disagreeable. They come to an understanding. Instead of accentuating our differences, let’s accentuate what we have in common.”

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