41 years later: Cuban refugees once housed at Fort McCoy

SPARTA, Wis. (WKBT) — In 1980, about 14,000 Cuban refugees who fled while Fidel Castro was in power came to Fort McCoy in Monroe County.

Just over 40 years later, that same fort will now house Afghan refugees.

“You have them in this population behind giant fences,” said Jarrod Roll, director of the Monroe County Local History Room and Museum. “It wasn’t a prison, but it had to be a safe holding place.”

In 1980, Roll said, the refugees included families, single men and some criminals. Castro had released the criminals. Misinformation about the refugees’ status made the community wary. Many in Monroe County worried that every refugee was a criminal. That was not the case.

“The message that everyone in Monroe County, Wis., was hearing was that ‘these are all criminals coming here.’ so that message came out in the front,” Roll said. “That was the big message, even though it wasn’t the truth.”

Regardless of public perception, the refugees’ presence created countless jobs at Fort McCoy in a time when the economy needed it.

“There were many jobs needed out at the refugee camp. From cooks, to translators,” Roll said.

One of the most vital jobs were translators, and Roll said people felt more were needed.

“Having someone who understands the culture — not just the language, but the culture, too — that would have helped the Cubans feel more at home, and it would have broken down some of the barriers and the confusion right there in the beginning,” Roll said.

The goal was to get the Cuban refugees a permanent home in the United States, which was a success for many before the remainder of refugees were transferred out in September of 1980.

As the weeks and months went on, the refugees left as they found sponsorship across the United States. About 500 settled temporarily in the Coulee Region. However, Roll said, only about 50 remained within a year or two.

Today, Fort McCoy has yet to confirm how many Afghan refugees are coming and how many there will be at the base.

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