WASHINGTON – Fear of imprisonment, violence, or worse resulted in a mass exodus of Cuban people in the late 1950s in what became to be known as the “Golden Exile.” The parents of Rafael Ribas met at a Cuban exile registration site in Miami during this time in 1959. Fleeing from Fidel Castro’s dictatorship to begin a new life was the long-term goal, and for generations to come, opportunity and service were the main themes for the family of the man who would later become Maj. Gen. Rafael Ribas, Deputy Commander for Mobilization & Reserve Affairs, U.S. Southern Command.
“I grew up in a Cuban exile community,” said Ribas. “I was surrounded by a lot of extended family and exiles. We all took care of each other and relied on one another. My parents worked hard to ensure opportunity for my siblings and me.”
Ribas, originally born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1963, moved back to where it all began for his family’s new life — Miami, Florida — at the age of six. There he began his journey in education, publishing and service to his state and country.
He grew up as a proud Cuban-American in an area historically known for its rich and traditional Hispanic-Latin culture.
“South Florida has large integral components of Hispanic communities,” said Ribas. “For example there are festivals every year we all look forward to — like celebrating ‘Calle Ocho’ and the ‘Three Kings Parade.’ Everything about living down here is very ingrained in the Hispanic culture.”
He attended the University of Miami through an ROTC scholarship and graduated in 1987 with a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Chemistry, which provided a whole canvas of life to design.
“With respect to my military service, I did not really have a plan,” said Ribas. “I knew I wanted to be an infantry officer and did not really plan for full time active service. But I knew I wanted to serve and give back. Patriotism and service runs deep in my roots. Thirty-five plus years later, I still love serving.”
Ribas comes from a long lineage of service through the pages of history. His family served in the Spanish-American War, WWII, Vietnam and was involved in the Bay of Pigs. Ultimately, he too served in combat, during his first tour in Iraq in 2003 simultaneously with two of his cousins.
Ribas has been serving his state and country in the Florida National Guard since 1987, mostly with the 124th Infantry Regiment, 53rd Infantry Brigade.
“I can’t limit the reward of serving to just one experience,” said Ribas. “[But] being a battalion executive officer and later battalion commander while deployed to combat in Iraq has been undeniable challenging and life altering. The mentorship I received and the leadership I was able to provide stayed with me throughout my career. Regarding my National Guard service, what sticks out to me the most are the 15 state activations I have been a part of. In 1992, I was a company commander during Hurricane Andrew – one of the most devastating and costliest hurricanes to rip though Florida.”
Decades later, MG Ribas was nominated by the governor and appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve as the dual-status commander for hurricane response operations to Hurricanes Matthew (2016), Irma (2017) and Michael (2018). During Hurricane Irma support operations, he commanded over 10,500 Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine personnel.
Aside from protecting his country’s freedom, serving his state, and following his family's legacy, Ribas had a long-running civilian career in the publishing field.
“I started as an intern and then left for a startup company,” said Ribas. “There we created a company that would publish Spanish written magazines for Glamour, Newsweek, Men’s Health, etc. and distributed them around the Spanish speaking world.”
Today, MG Ribas serves as the principal advisor for Reserve matters to the commander of U.S. SOUTHCOM. He provides oversight on manpower, personnel and administrative functions to maximize the effective integration of the Reserve component in support of the combatant commander's theater campaign plan.
SOUTHCOM is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations and security cooperation in its assigned area of responsibility, which includes Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
“The U.S. shares many historical ties with the AOR [area of responsibility],” said Ribas “We share many of the same values and common democratic principles. SOUTHCOM is the trusted partner within our AOR. We are a part of this neighborhood, where we work with our partners through all manner of challenges and opportunities. We emphasize three base lines of effort, focused on strengthening partnerships by building partner capacity through multinational training exercises, humanitarian assistance and foreign disaster relief — recently in response to the earthquake in Haiti; countering threats from transnational criminal organizations; and building a cohesive internal team so as to be the best partner for our neighbors. As a positive example of this, SOUTHCOM is the only GCC [ geo combatant command] in which all countries are aligned as partners with the command through the National Guard State Partnership Program for example.”
In Spanish there is a word known as “esperanza,” meaning “hope.” For MG Ribas, esperanza is about more than hope.
“Esperanza to me is about the cultural integration that makes our nation great,” said Ribas. “Our success and greatness is because of all the cultures and diversity in the United States we have, and I consider myself a part of that. I encourage anyone who can serve or volunteer in whatever capacity to do so. It’s truly been an honor to serve my country and state for the last three decades.”