Brief Fragments of a Personal Cuban History
- The flight of Fulgencio Batista from Cuba (“to avoid more bloodshed”) during the early hours of January 1, 1959, marked the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
- The most comprehensive and best written history of Cuba in English is Hugh Thomas’ Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Here is Thomas’ assessment of Cuba before the Castro Revolution:
Cuba’s social misery in the past was due to an extreme form of that public meanness and private affluence that characterizes North America as well as South. (p. 1487)
- Soon after Fidel Castro’s assumption of power, U.S. politicians condemned the new regime’s public executions of torturers, policemen, civil servants and suspected criminals as a “bloodbath.” Typically, Castro pointed out U.S. hypocrisy:
What was done at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? . . . They said it was to obtain peace. They also said it was to prevent the death of many North Americans in battle . . . . We are executing the tyrant’s henchmen to obtain peace, and we are executing … so that they cannot murder our children again tomorrow.
- Ché Guevara was not born in Cuba. Born in Argentina, he had participated in the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (toppled by the CIA in a covert operation), later joined Fidel Castro in Mexico, and sailed to Cuba with Castro’s expeditionary force (86 strong) on the fabled yacht Granma.
- The Eisenhower administration (not the Kennedy administration as some newscasters would have it) broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in January, 1961. The immediate cause was the nationalization of U.S. interests in Cuba, including agrarian enterprises, hotels and insurance companies, and businesses such as Woolworth, Sears Roebuck, General Electric, Westinghouse and Coca-Cola.
- Once I asked my father why Cuban exiles always voted Republican in U.S. elections. His answer was swift and succinct: “Bay of Pigs.”
- There is an aristocratic hierarchy among Cuban exiles that is not based on class or family heritage. The one fact they want to know about each other, and one of the first questions asked about each other, is “When did you leave Cuba?” If you left before 1959, you don’t count as one who objected to Fidel Castro’s regime (the falsification of his family’s date of emigration was what got Senator Marco Rubio from Florida in trouble). If you left in 1959, you were probably a Batista sympathizer; if you left between 1960-1962 you are among the high aristocracy of Cubans who opposed Castro from the beginning; if you left after 1962 (the missile crisis) you were probably a Castro sympathizer who fled Cuba when things turned sour; if you left after 1980 (the Mariel emigration) you had been raised as a Communist, and therefore are highly suspicious to the old guard.
- My father left Cuba on January 1, 1961. Of the next to last emigration (1962-1980) he would say: “Don’t forget, those are probably the people who were shouting ‘To the Wall!’ at the public executions.” Of the last emigration (from 1980 on) he would say: “They have been raised as Communists. They know nothing else.”
- The best film on Cuban history, from the revolutionary point of view, is Humberto Solas’ Lucía (1968).
- The film that best captures the Cuban exile experience is Andy Garcia’s The Lost City (2005), with screenplay by renowned Cuban novelist and film critic Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
- One of the justifications made by the United States in the nineteenth century for entering the Spanish-American war was to liberate Cuban prisoners from the brutality of Spanish reconcentrado camps (sites where the population was kept so they could not support or join the insurgent armies). It is a historical irony that early in the twenty-first century, the United States established a comparably brutal prisoner camp in Cuba’s island of Guantanamo.
- I went through Catholic Middle School, High School, and later through undergraduate and graduate studies with my friend, Manuel Alvarez Lezama, now a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, who was the nephew of the great Cuban novelist José Lezama Lima. Once during Central American games in Venezuela, Manuel approached players from the Cuban basketball team and introduced himself: “I am Cuban too.” Their reply: “No. Cubans live in Cuba.”
- Years later, my son and youngest daughter (both born in New Mexico) approached Cuban baseball player Liván Hernandez, who was then pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. They wanted him to sign a baseball in order to give it to me as a keepsake. They introduced themselves and said: “Our father is also Cuban.”
“From where?” asked Liván.
“Then you guys are Cuban too.”
I have never forgotten Liván’s kindness, and keep the signed baseball as a treasured memento.
See what I mean? It is no use, in order to understand the Cuban Thing, to talk only briefly about Cuba. Fragmentation—as my friend Susan Owen reminds us—is a sign of trauma. And the inescapable trauma of the Cuban Revolution has left all Cubans (from within and without) if not senseless, at least incapable of talking or speaking about it in an orderly fashion
Yet there is one story that stands for me as a parable, a compendium of everything I know, feel and think about it all. It is the story of the day—told to me by my father countless times, and retold by me countless other times—when my father left Cuba for the United States.
I shall take a pause, and in search of lost times—or perhaps struggling to find fleeting meaning—tell the story once again in the next post.
(To be continued, one last time)