I am Cuban. I dream of the white sandy beaches of Varadero. I delight in the smell of the infamous Cuban cigars. I love the feeling of double R’s rolling off my tongue and the ability of the Spanish language to capture sentiments left unexpressed by English vocabulary. My skin color looks as though I spent my childhood sun-kissed by the rays that shine onto the streets of Havana. I’m prideful of the Cuban spirit engrained in my being.
Yet, I’ve never seen Cuba.
I’ve only seen pictures of the famous beaches of Cuba’s Varadero. I only know the smell of cigars from the illegal Cuban cigars my dad smokes on special occasions. I work restlessly to master and understand the language that connects me to my home country, since as a third-generation Cuban, it no longer flows naturally. I get my tan skin from time spent in Miami (lovingly referred to as North Havana). I find comfort in the history and stories my family shares over dinner about life in paradise. I am in exile.
My grandma on my father’s side cries every Christmas because it serves as a reminder that another year has passed and Cuba remains imprisoned by a dictatorship. Nevertheless, we continue to raise our glasses at the start of every holiday meal in hopeful cheers, almost in prayer, “to next year in Cuba” because we still hold on to hope 57 years later.
The announcement of Castro’s death caused a sensation of euphoria amongst Cuban exiles that transcended generational boundaries. Whether you were someone who fled the country yourself or are a third-generation Cuban-American whose only contact with the island is the distant memories of your relatives, the Cuban exile community was united in a sense of relief and justice. After nearly six decades of creating a life for ourselves in a new country while constantly feeling the restless terror of a tyrant’s presence a mere 90 miles away and a longing for a land that we love, we were all finally afforded a moment of peace. We could finally rest, knowing that the man whose hands bore the blood of so many of our people was dead.
People romanticize Castro as a revolutionary figure, as someone who spearheaded a human rights movement- eliminating classicism, racism and sexism. However, he wasn’t. His revolution was never about color, sexuality or creed. It was about him. He wasn’t even a true communist, he was a Fidelista, subscribing to Castroism (a political belief system founded on the worship of himself). Fidel advocates seem to forget that their “revolutionary” ordered firing squads to kill anyone with a dissenting opinion and established prison camps for homosexuals and random victims alike. He stole the soul of Cuba by eliminating freedom of speech, expression and religion and replaced it with fear and misery while indoctrinating the next generation of Cubans into submission. He was not a hero of the people. He was a murderer whose crimes equate with those of Stalin and Hitler, just on a smaller scale. His firing squads rivaled Hitler’s SS and the Gestapo, lining up entire families against walls for expedited execution – buried in unmarked mass graves. Anyone who was accused of objecting the Revolution would mysteriously disappear or be sentenced to 20 or more years in torturous “rehabilitation” camps, where the ill-treatment ranged from regular beatings to the gory amputation of limbs.
Knowing that, can you see how it is disheartening when we, as Cuban exiles, hear Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mournful tribute calling Fidel Castro a “larger than life leader” and “legendary revolutionary” who “served his people”? Do you see how we can’t help but feel overwhelming frustration at the sight of articles praising his fight for human rights? Those people did not know Fidel Castro and no textbook can afford them the knowledge Cubans know first-hand. Close to 100,000 Cuban lives have been taken in the name of his falsely-represented “Revolution” and even more have been imprisoned and tortured over it. Fidel advocates cannot claim to know and support the revolution if all they know about it comes from reading government-released statistics about Cuba and related Marxist papers. I think Castro’s death actually serves as a reminder that we must be cognizant of the way in which historical literature can manipulate the way we interpret history. Just because an American-authored textbook told you Castro improved the standard of living in Cuba, doesn’t mean it’s true. Just think: what desperation does a person have to feel to get onto a make shift raft in the shark infested waters that comprise the Florida Straits in hopes of reaching US soil? When they say history will judge him, I hope it will be based off an accurate account of his actions and their true impact.
In theory, I can see the appeal of the Revolution and Marxist ideals – a lot of young Cubans did in the 1950’s. It’s one of the reasons the revolution was successful. Who could argue with blind socio-economic equality? However, as with most extremist political theories, the idealistic revolution failed the people it had promised so much to- stripping them of even the most basic necessities such as food. The average person in Cuba struggles to meet the minimal level of caloric intake necessary for survival since the government’s food rations have dwindled over the decades. Today’s rations normally include rice, sugar, salt, 1 cup of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per month. On rare occasions, their rations will include a bun and four pounds of chicken. They live in the ruins left from buildings last updated in the 1950s; some buildings have been left untouched since their construction in the late 1800s. Mothers live with the constant fear of their homes collapsing on their sleeping children. The traditionally outspoken and passionate Cubans restrain themselves from expressing any political opinion due to the ever-present threat of government police who are encouraged to execute “rebels” without trial. That is the reality of their situation. It is not the glamorized socialist utopia Fidel advocates advertise. Who cares about a high literacy rate when there isn’t any uncensored literature to read?
My grandma on my mother’s side fled Cuba in 1962 as part of Operation Pedro Pan: the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere. Between the firing squads, concentration camps, relentless violence and the fear of losing parental rights, her parents, along with the parents of over 14,000 other children in Cuba, chose to send their children to live in the United States. There they would live in temporary camps followed by a massive foster care program that placed Cuban children with American families in cities all over the country. They expected this would be a three to six month separation as everyone hoped Fidel would be overthrown and their lives would return to normal. However, that normalization in government never came. My grandmother didn’t live to see the day the man who destroyed the island she loved died.
My grandpa, Carlos Prío Socarrás, served as the last democratically-elected President of Cuba. After Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état of his presidency, my grandfather exiled to the United States where he first heard of Fidel Castro. Castro presented himself to my grandfather as a revolutionary who would overthrow the corrupt Batista regime and restore democracy in Cuba, giving the office back to my grandfather. Unfortunately, my grandfather believed him and consequently went on to fund his campaign from the Sierra Mountains to Havana. This would later become one of the biggest regrets of his life as Castro went on to take hold of the Capital building and insert himself into office as Cuba’s next dictator indefinitely. My grandpa was forced to watch as Castro slaughtered the Cuban people and destroyed the flourishing country Cuba had been. He went on to help organize the Bay of Pigs and other exile-led political action against Castro, but nothing proved successful. His family suffered from constant threats to their lives from spies sent from Castro’s regime. Until the day he died he worked to see a free Cuba, but he too didn’t live to see the day Castro died.
The United States offered an entire Cuban exile community an expedited citizenship procurement process almost sixty years ago. The US granted us the freedom that Castro had stripped us of. Now in the wake of Castro’s death, we’re left to usher in a new chapter of hope. As Oscar Vila, another Cuban-American attending Boston College, puts it: “I can only hope that Castro’s passing serves as a symbolic end to an era wrought with oppression and misery… I just hope Cubans can one day taste the indescribable feeling of freedom and opportunity once again”.
So, yes. Miami exploded in celebration over the past weekend following the announcement of Castro’s death. Yes, it is wrong to celebrate the death of a human being. But to Cuban exiles like myself, who lost our livelihoods and our family members, Fidel Castro wasn’t a human being. He was a monster.
Viva Cuba Libre.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Author