Miami, January 19, 2015— President Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba made few waves in the United States—strange, because his announcement ended a half-century saga of conflict, tensions and intrigue.
The passions which Cuba once aroused in the United States among politicians and the general public are all but forgotten. Cuba’s revolutionaries rose to power in 1959, flouted and taunted the Yanquis to the north, expropriated all their businesses, and turned to the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War arch enemy, to substitute for commerce cut off by Washington.
In the US, “Who Lost Cuba?” became a national rallying cry. In 1961, Kennedy launched a botched invasion of exiles; the next year, Nikita Khrushchev decided to put missiles on the island and the two superpowers engaged in a near-tragic nuclear stand-off. Thousands of exiles streamed to the US and Washington broke relations with Cuba. The cut off had nothing to do with democracy or human rights, but retaliation for the expropriation of US businesses and the warming of relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
The 1961 exile invaders of Cuba had lived in Miami. During the Soviet missile crisis, US rockets were aimed at Cuba from the outskirts of the city. Plots against Castro were hatched in Miami and tumult in Cuba inevitably sparked feverish demonstrations here.
Cuban exiles and their offspring themselves seemed ambivalent. In part, that’s because the generations of have moved on. The original passionately anti-Castro refugees are dying off. Their heirs have integrated into US society and Cuba is a distant memory, if recalled at all.
Recent arrivals from Cuba, many who come by raft and broken down boats, are less interested in getting rid of the Castro brothers than getting by in their new country, the United States. In that, they resemble more economic migrants from Mexico and Central America than the old Cold War firebrands from 1960s Cuba.
Still, if you’re from Miami, where I grew up, your life was somehow bound up with this long, sad history. The city endured wave after wave of Cuban refugees after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Many of them were dispossessed and came to the city with only the clothes on their back. Miami grew to have the second largest population of Cubans outside Cuba, after only Havana.
For me personally, Cuba provided several lessons in the ways of revolution and totalitarianism.
Lesson One: The Revolution Eats Its Own
My mother was from Havana, though she married an American in 1946 and never lived there again. I remember her listening to Havana radio on New Year’s Day, 1959, when Fidel Castro marched triumphantly into Havana. You could listen to Cuban radio in Miami because Havana is only 150 miles away. My mother told me that the ousted government was corrupt and hoped that the new one would be better. But she also said that Cuba had seen a lot of such upheaval and we ought to wait and see.
Just six months later, when I was only 10 years old, I traveled to Cuba to visit my grandfather. Relations with Cuba had not gone bad yet and there was no danger, as far as my parents could see, so off I flew, first to Havana and then to Camaguey, a cattle town in central Cuba.
In Camaguey, everyone seemed happy. When someone bought something at a store, they would say, “Gracias Fidel”—Thanks Fidel. Even I did it when I bought a Coke. The town was full of bearded young men with olive green fatigues and rifles slung over their shoulders. They were heroes, and everyone greeted them with shouts of “Viva la Revolucion” and “Viva Fidel.”
Castro came to town one day to make a speech in the baseball stadium. My step-grandmother took me and let me run up to the stage through the crowd to shake his hand. There was no security guards, just a mob of happy people. I thought it all very cool. I had no idea what Castro said during his speech, as I spoke only kid Spanish; as usual the speech was a long one and we left early.
I also was introduced to a man named Huber Matos, who was military governor of Camaguey Province. He was from the town, had a big beard and was popular among Camagueyanos. I got to shake his hand, too. I saw him again during a carnival parade, and ran up to him as if he were old pals. I don’t think he remembered our previous handshake.
In October that year, when I was back in Miami and in school, I read in the Miami Herald newspaper that Matos was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to 20 years for counter-revolutionary activity. Fidel Castro himself tesitified—for several hours. My mother explained that it was because Matos was a Socialist and a democrat and disagreed with Fidel’s evermore Communist policies. Because Matos was a revolutionary hero with a following, Castro had to put him away.
Lesson Two: People Flee
Miami, meanwhile, was changing quickly. The first few thousand Cubans to flee either were connected with the old regime or somehow had offended Castro politically. The next group were the wealthy who lost property. And then came businessmen big and small, artisans and tradesmen as Fidel nationalized all assets, including homes and businesses.
Among the arrivals were some of my mother’s aunts and distant cousins, some rich and some not. Many first settled in a corridor along Southwest Eighth Street in Miami, which soon became known as Little Havana. I used to accompany my mother around the neighborhood and have coffee with old ladies who I had never met, cousins I had never heard of, and acquaintances even my mother barely new. All thought they would be back in Cuba in a year.
It seemed that it might be true: in April, 1961, the US sent 1,00 exile fighters to Cuba to launch an invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs and ignite an uprising on the island. It failed miserably. Ninety men died and more than 1,000 were captured.
Into the late 1960s, it turned out things were going bad in Cuba for more than just the well-off and middle class. Even my grandfather who was already retired, had long disposed of a hotel he owned, and had not thought of leaving, wanted out. He needed false teeth and wasn’t eating well, due to rationing. His four daughters and a son had left Cuba long before Castro arrived and he was alone with his wife.
Regular flights from the island ended in 1962, so there was no easy way to get him to Miami. And those who came were no longer talking about going back. Some Cubans were fleeing by boat but also hijacking planes to leave. President Lyndon Johnson and Castro made a deal to provide an orderly exit on so-called “Freedom Flights.” First priority went to relatives of Cubans already in the US, so my grandfather was on a list, but nothing was heard until 1967. Then one day, his name—Juan Garcia Rodriguez– was read out on Spanish-language radio, which my mother monitored daily. She rushed to the airport, and there he was, so live out his last seven years in Miami. More than 500,000 Cubans lived in Miami by the late 1970s. Little Havana was not so little.
Lesson Three: During the Cold War, Revolutions Were Unwelcome—by the US
In October, 1962, the US Navy blockaded Cuba to stop a shipment of Soviet Missiles War seemed possible. I spent the day looking for our lost dog. Nikita Krushchev and then-President John Kennedy reached a deal to remove missiles from Cuba. Little did anyone know that part of the deal was a pledge to never try to invade Cuba again.
In December, 1962, the captured Cuban exiles from the Bay of Pigs returned to Miami, ransomed for food, medicine and money. President Kennedy came to Miami to greet them at the local football stadium. My mother translated for a Spanish language radio station. Kennedy promised that the flag of the brigade would fly in a “Free Havana.” It never did. My mother told me she thought Kennedy was very handsome but a bit of a blowhard. From then on, Cubans in Miami generally mistrusted the Democratic Party.
Lesson Four: The Great Leader Keeps You Waiting
I would not visit the Cuba until 1978. I had gotten my first job as a reporter at the Miami News, where I was what was then known as a copy boy. I carried pieces of paper around to reporters who generally ignored me or told me to bring them coffee. One day, Castro decided he wanted reporters to come to the island to hear about how he would welcome visits from Miami exiles. I happened to be the only Spanish-speaking reporter available, so the copy boy got sent to Havana, even though all I had written previously were obituaries of prominent Miamians for the back pages of the paper.
We had to fly to Havana through Jamaica. In Havana, I got my second lesson in revolution: the Great Leader keeps you waiting. He was supposed to give a press conference, but no one would tell us when. When they called us to the so-called Palace of the Revolution, we waited for four hours for Castro to show up. I fell asleep on a bench. The conference lasted two hours, during which Castro invited refugees to visit the island. I asked about release of political prisoners, but got no answer.
Lesson Five: Expect the Unexpected
The invitation to exiles to return for visits would create tumult for Castro and the US as well as Miami. Returnees flooded the island, some ostentatiously wearing gold chains and displaying photos of refrigerators full of food. Cubans began to get restless. The US became a dream destination. They began to steal boats and build rafts to cross the Florida Straits to the islands at the US southern tip and to Miami and to storm embassies to ask for political asylum.
Until then, everyone thought Cubans were content living in a police state where health care and schools were free.
On March 28, 1980, three Cubans crashed a car into the Peruvian Embassy and sought refuge. In the chaos of their break-in, a Cuban guard was shot, probably by one of his colleagues. An outraged Castro demanded the Peruvians surrender the three gate crashers.
Latin America has a long tradition of granting political asylum, so the Peruvians refused. Castro withdrew security from the embassy and practically invited Cubans to storm it. They did in embarrassing numbers: 10,800 eventually climbed over the walls to seek exile abroad. It was the start of the biggest threat to Castro’s rule since 1962 and one he overcame with difficulty.
Lesson Six: Demonize Dissenters and Then Get Rid of Them
The Cubans gave visas to reporters to witness the unfolding events. I was working for the Miami Herald and the editors sent me. At the Peruvian embassy, security agents set up loudspeakers and blasted patriotic music night and day. Fidel called them scum, and unsurprisingly, the neighborhood surveillance organizations, called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, organized a mass march of Havanans past the Peruvian embassy to echo his words. It was a scene of surreal political loathing: the mob screamed “worms” at the cowering refugees on the embassy grounds. The parade took all day.
I joined the march and on the way back downtown, I saw a home-made sign in front of a house that read, “Here Live Scum.” I returned the next day to visit. There lived a family, parents with five children barricaded inside a small house. They had been to the Peruvian embassy but had taken advantage of an official free passage to go home. But their neighbors, led by the neighborhood spies, pelted the house with eggs and banged on pots all night. The family subsisted on unripe mangoes.
Security police showed up at the house in 20 minutes. They let me stay because I had official credential. But I was expelled from Cuba the next day. The island was in an uproar. Cubans were streaming to Havana. Castro decided to invite them to the port of Mariel from where they would be allowed to leave. Washington also was in turmoil: Cuban exiles were launching boats to pick up relatives at Mariel. The US frontier was out of control. Fidel let the boats pick up the gathered mob—125,000 people. Most ended up encamped in Miami, where coincidentally, a race riot broke out over a case of police shooting a black youth.
Effectively, Castro completed the social set of exiles who would take root in Miami. The rich and middle class that had come in the 1969s were joined by working class Cubans, who made up the bulk of the new arrivees. I hovered at a reception center in Miami. One day, groups of prisoners arrived, the next, prostitute. Then herds of mentally ill, who overwhelmed Miami’s psychiatric service. It would take years for Miami to accommodate the newly arrivals.
Lesson Seven: The Revolution Stagnates
The boatlift cemented Miami’s status as a Latin city. Speaking Spanish was de rigeur. Spanish language television and radio stations opened along with newspapers. Black Miamians fretted that their livelihoods were being undermined by the latest arrivals. White Americans were estranged by the implantation of an alien culture. No one talked about going back to Cuba except for politicians.
I would not return to Cuba until 1987, for an anniversary of the 1952 start of the Cuban Revolution. Castro offered up one of his interminable speeches—this one filled with statistics on production of everything from cement to bottles to eggs. Instead of attending, I decided to walk around Havana. Havana was in general decay; salt air was eating away buildings. Havana seemed less of a city than a bus station where everyone was waiting to go nowhere. The old Walgreens Drug Store, which Cubans called the ‘Ten-Cent,” a take on the American label Five-and-Dime Store, had almost nothing to sell. The Mercado Unico, Havana’s main market was devoid of vegetables.
People carried what they called “Just in Case” bags: plastic bags in case a rare item to buy, say a pineapple or some pork, showed up in a market.
For nostalgia’s sake, I visited the site of my grandfather’s old hotel, the Pasaje, just across from the domed capitol building in Havana. It turned out, the hotel had collapsed in 1982, when it was a tenement for housing old people.
Lesson Eight: the Bitter End
In July 2006, between jobs, I decided to visit Havana as a tourist. I spent a lot of time refusing offers from people on the street to sell me things: to sell me women, boys, rum, cigars, anything that might provide them a dollar. Prostitutes lined the waterfront drive at night. Police didn’t bother with them. Buildings were still falling down. The smell of mildew dominated the air. Baseball players, Cuba’s pride, were sneaking off to the US to make millions.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the month Fidel Castro took ill. He would later pass power to his brother, Raul. The revolution had finally ended in a monarchical dynasty. Meanwhile, the face of Miami had changed again. Cubans had moved to other parts of the US. There were almost as many Central and South Americans as Cubans. Capital flight had made the city into a speculator’s paradise and new skyscrapers sprouted up it seemed by the day.
Raul Castro welcomed Obama’s move, but assured everyone the Communist Party would continue to rule. Obama said renewed economic ties would liberalize politics.
My mother died in 1985 and hadn’t given Cuba much thought in her last years. Her aunts who came over had passed away and the cousins she grew up with and had come to Miami had also died or were very old and fading. Sometimes, I heard her talk with newly arrived refugees who spoke bitterly of “ñangara” (pronounced nyan-ga-ra), which is Cuban slang for Cubans on the island who supported and benefitted from the regime, but they were talking about a Cuba she didn’t know.
Miami is much a different place. Where Havana is in decay, Miami gleams with skyscrapers. Cuban singers make stops to perform before appreciative audiences. The best baseball pitcher for the Miami professional team is a 22 year old whose family paid $1,000 to get him smuggled out of Cuba to Mexico and the United States. The sons of those who grew up in Soviet times are more likely to seek sun in Miami, where they might own a luxury condominium, than Havana.
Little Havana has less and less to do with Cuba now. Restaurants serving Nicaraguan, Peruvian, Guatemalan and Salvadoran food line Eighth Street. Cubans who have made any kind of a good living have moved to the suburbs or even out of Greater Miami.
One famous food Eighth Street outpost remains, however: Versailles Restaurant, which stands more or less as the official entrance to Little Havana and long the scene of anti-Castro demonstrations. There last December, elderly exiles stage an anti-normalization rally. But, perhaps for the first time ever, they got into a shouting match with younger Cubans who were at worse, apathetic about the change. Some favored it.
“Communists! Ñangaras!” shouted one man who had come to Miami during the 1960s.
“I respect your opinion,” answered another, younger man awaiting a take-out serving of roast pork. He had come to Miami 17 years ago. “You can call me a communist—I’m not’– but you can’t tell me the embargo makes sense.”
And so it went, the first day on the road to when the Havana that was left behind merges with Little Havana in Miami.
As for me…Well, I asked six cousins, sons and daughters of my mother’s older sisters, whether they were interested in a family reunion in Cuba, which would soon be open and where we could visit places we’d only heard of.
They all said thanks, but they preferred to come to Italy.
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