Illustrator. Photographer. Random thinker. Um rato de praia.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Leaving Cuba

I wrote this op-ed piece for Florida Today newspaper in 1994, when another major exodus from Cuba was taking place. Rafts used by balseros, who had been rescued offshore by U.S. Coast Guard, were washing up as far north as Brevard County beaches. I figured this would be a good time to post it on my blog, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution.


“Pack up some of your clothes, we’re leaving the country tomorrow morning.”

That's all the warning I had when my parents decided to leave Cuba in July 1961, when I was 10 years old. This was two years after Fidel Castro took control of the government from the previous dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

There was some discontent with the revolution among the middle class after Castro came to power, but no one really talked about these things because everyone was afraid. You didn't know who you could trust. People with anti-Castro sentiments were being reported and arrested.

My first experience with this fear happened when a classmate’s mother asked me how my parents felt about the revolution. I said that my parents were not as happy as when Castro first took power on Jan. 1, 1959. The next time this woman saw my mother, she said, "I hear you’re becoming anti-Castro and that you're not happy with the revolution.” Quickly, my mother changed the subject, and as soon as we were alone she said to me sternly, “If anyone asks you about the government, you should always respond 'I don't know.' ”

Frustration had been growing among the population. People were arrested at random for suspicion of anti-government activity. The socialist government confiscated private businesses, sugar mills and cattle ranches. Many Cubans who opposed Castro were leaving the country, and in 1961, travel restrictions were imposed.

Children were being taken into indoctrination camps, where they were given uniforms and taught to run through the neighborhoods shouting slogans praising the communist government and demanding the death of the imperialistic Yankees. Six- to 10-year-olds demanding death!

I attended Colegio de Belen, a Catholic school in Havana run by Jesuit priests. This was the same school Castro attended as a young man and I remember seeing his picture among the graduating class photos of earlier years.

I could sense there was discontent among the teachers and priests in regard to the government. One day, I arrived at school to find the chapel had been closed and the school was occupied by the militia, who had set up machine gun nests throughout.

It was April 1961, and I later learned that Castro was expecting the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One day during this occupation of the school, I saw from my classroom window (1) a confrontation taking place between an elderly priest and a soldier at the small bridge (2) leading to the entrance of the school. I could not hear what was going on, but I could see there was a heated exchange and the soldier cocked his rifle and pointed it at the priest's chest. A younger priest jumped between the soldier and the priest and I thought we were going to witness a death. Fortunately, the situation was calmed and no one was hurt, but when I got home and told my parents, they took me out of school the very next day under the pretense that the teachers had gone on strike.

Although we were just a middle-class family and had no real property or business that the government could confiscate, for fear that I might be sent to an indoctrination camp, my parents had begun their plan to leave the country. At the time, one could still leave for short trips, such as vacations, but it had to appear as if you were coming back.

My father was employed by the Cuban airline and he often traveled to Mexico and Miami to buy parts for the airplanes. But because of the nature of his travels and because my family was known by most people who worked at the airport, it was not safe for us to leave as a family from the airport. My parents feared they would be arrested.

An uncle who worked for a shipping agency arranged for my mother, my younger brother and I to book a trip on a cargo ship, which had been set up with bunk beds to accommodate people leaving the island. We were lucky enough to embark on the last ship that was allowed to legally leave the island. However, all we were allowed to take was one suitcase each.

So, in the early morning hours of July 28, 1961, we walked out of our house and left everything behind. My father drove us to the port, said goodbye and told us we soon would see each other again. Then he drove himself to the airport, parked the car, left the keys in the ignition for whoever happened to come upon it, and got on a flight for a business trip to Mexico. After he went through a month of immigration hassles, our family was reunited in Miami.

{In 1983, when my father passed away, I was going through his photos and personal papers and found his letter of resignation from his job in Cuba: "Dear Sir, I regret to inform you that I will not be returning to my job, as I have left the country and will not be coming back."}

Thinking back on our flight, it was relatively easy on me, harder on my parents. But it's nothing compared to the present-day emigrants who set sail on rickety crafts, with few supplies, over dangerous seas, leaving families behind for a chance to escape an oppressive government that denies its people the basic human necessities of freedom and opportunity.

Because I have lived most of my life in the United States, I hold no attachment or feelings of nostalgia for Cuba, mostly a sense of curiosity.

I find it interesting that Castro's dream of a utopian, socialist society may just crumble, not from some outside invasion, but from a rotting within.

I found this video of the first days of the Cuban revolution on youtube.
Video contains graphic images.

1 comment:

kathi said...

Wow...what a story...a story that Ramiro told me..and countless other friends back in the day... I am grateful that ll of you were able to come here and settle and make a new life. I know that, in my early days of flying, I was hiajcked to Cuba...and it was a weird but not an awful experience. We were all give a good meal...los pilotos were given good cigars...and we left...not the fear/agony/death I was taught to expect did not happen.. Have you been back to Cuba since?? My curosity abounds...especially after being in the restaurants/clubs that celebrate Cuba in Spain. Looking forward to seeing you at the reunion.


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