I wrote this as my kids had asked me to write my personal memories of Cuba. I lived this.
On January 1, 1959 people in Havana woke up in the morning to long awaited news. The cry: “Batista se fue! Batista se fue!” rapidly spread all over the island - but especially in Havana.
Cubans were ecstatic. They were finally free from a dictatorship they not only disdained, but actively hated. This cry resonated in most Cuban’s hearts. Finally, the hope of a future of freedom and self-determination appeared to be a reality.
The next day, a louder cry was heard, “Fidel viene! Fidel viene!” The happiness Cubans felt was unsurpassed and overwhelming - it had the power and noise of a thousand thunder storms. Batista was forgotten under the shadow of a powerful and compassionate hero; a veritable messiah. Many thought he would finally bring freedom, justice, forgiveness, equality, and fraternity for us all. He was the second Martí - nay, he was Martí reincarnated! He would place the ideals Martí had espoused, but were never brought to fruition due to the succession of inept or corrupt politicians of every stripe who plagued the nation following the War of Independence (Teddy Roosevelt’s Spanish-American War).
Fidel’s arrival to Havana was greeted with high expectations and infinite love. It was a sensation of well-being and a positive, confident belief brighter than any display of color humans have created. Never have I seen such a multitude of people from every walk of life, color, ethnicity, and creed show such spontaneous and sincere feelings as those shown to our new “Maximum Leader of the Revolution.” Old people became young through their unlimited enthusiasm; and young people felt awed as they recognized that they were a part of something momentous; greatness they would never experience again.
The masses eagerly awaited the great Hero’s first words. As he prepared to talk, a white dove flew around him, and finally chose Fidel’s shoulders as the best place to listen to him speak. The crowd loved this and cried: “La paloma de la Paz! La paloma de la Paz”. The peace dove! The peace dove! This brought tears and laughter to many who were there - many saw this as a sign that even God saw him as Martí’s heir, to finish Martí’s work and follow the path Martí had set, but had been denied by venal events.
Soon the great Leader began to talk. The words flew out of his mouth. And with them flew my hope. I saw his words envelope my fellow countrymen and my heart squeeze with panic. As the minutes passed, my sadness and disappointment increased. My pulse raced. Could I possibly be hearing correctly? Was he really saying, “Paredon”, or death, for the counter-revolutionary? I continued paying very close attention to what he was saying. Yes, he was saying “death for counter-revolutionaries,” with increasing intensity. His phrases were wrapped in rage and hatred towards those who did not believe as he did.
These words were the preface of the fundamental misfortune coming to Cuba. These words would transfer a peaceful and friendly multitude, anxious for real cooperation and freedom, into a fanatic horde of vengeful soldiers catering to Fidel’s every wish and belief. For me the spirit of unification and nurturing of liberty that I originally saw was coming to a quick end.
As I heard his words, I repeated to myself many times, “I am not listening well. The electricity in the air is making me confuse the words. Fidel is joking. These people repeating his words are not from this land. It must be a Hollywood movie; it can’t be real”. The speech lasted 12 hours! Towards the end I awoke from my fugue state and realized that what was happening was true. A single man after 12 hours of spouting hatred and vengeance could turn brother against brother. He brought out the beast in the souls of millions of Cubans. A country which previously had never shot people wantonly now became one anxious to exterminate not only criminals or abusers of power, but anyone who did not praise the revolution or mindlessly subordinate to its rulings. However, I still can’t believe that the majority of the Cubans understood the future consequences of his words.
When I say brother acted against brother, it is not as a figure of speech, but sadly a reality. More frequently neighbor or friend acted against neighbor or friend. Thousands of Cubans were jailed, and many were set to a firing squad without trial or hearing.
Fidel’s first act was to remove firearms from ordinary Cuban citizens so any chance of resistance was nipped in the bud.
There is an old saying, “divide and conquer”. Fidel put this into action. His first reform was “La Reforma Agraria” (The Agrarian Reform). Fidel proclaimed landowners as latifundistas and exploiters of farm workers. He gathered a million people in the Civic Plaza of Havana, and gave a 12 hour speech about the diabolical landowners. The multitude echoed, “Down with the landlord. Down with the latifundistas”. The multitude repeated Castro’s cries, “ Land need to be redistributed. Land need to be redistributed. Workers are the real owners.” Castro told us, “Workers are the real owners. All Cubans should own an equal share of our country’s riches. All Cubans should be able to vacation to Europe. Every single Cuban should have a car. To achieve this we must first pass the Agrarian Reform act; the government will then be in charge of all the changes.” This was partly true; all the lands, big or small, became government, which is to say Fidel’s property; of course the reciprocal part of the deal never materialized; no European vacation, no car. However, a modus operandi was established.
Many in the city, including rich people, and large shop owners, agreed with Fidel’s changes in the countryside, the Agrarian Reforms. They felt that landowners were just undeserving fat cats; and that change was deserved in the countryside but none in the city. A perfect example of this was my niece’s Boyfriend. He was a young, idealistic Cuban patriot. His father was a Spaniard who owned one of the largest stores in Havana. He believed that the many of the landowners did not treat the farmworkers well, and that some portion of their lands should be redistributed, and he assumed this would happen through fair laws and with wise planning. He thought Fidel would do that. My husband, and my niece’s father told him that Fidel planned to “First affect the landowners, and after that, the business owners and their businesses like your father’s.” Her boyfriend would not believe it, and told my husband and brother-in-law that they were mistaken. Business such as his father’s of course would be left alone; his father made the business himself, from the ground up! Future events would prove him devastatingly wrong, as the government took all private business both in the city as well as in the countryside; now Fidel owned them as well. Next all the television stations were confiscated as were radio stations, newspapers, banks, sugar mills…all of Cuba became Fidel’s.
Fidel continued his march on Cuban’s psyche and his instigation of change. He soon disbanded the army, then quickly made a new one in the image he desired, Fidel’s’ Army, not the National Army that existed before. Fidel took fierce control of the country.
As Fidel was taking charge in Cuba, the majority of Cubans had no idea, no hint that he was a communist. Prior to Fidel’s communist revolution, Cuba had undergone other coupe d’états. Up until that time, even after such episodes as the Student Revolution against Machado, there was no divisive hatred amongst Cubans. Cubans up until that time were not lined up against a wall and shot by a firing squad as would happen during Castro’s revolution. Everyone thought this would be like other coupe d’états, including rich people like Miguel Angel Quevada*, the owner of Bohemia magazine (one of Castro’s revolution’s strongest defenders).
Many Cubans, myself included, believed that there should be laws improving the lives of Cuban “guajiros”. Laws to provide them better salaries and bonuses when appropriate, from the landowners and latifundista’s. But taking the land away from the landowners was not something the average Cuban thought was right nor appropriate. On a mere practical level, it made no sense. The landowners were the people who had the experience in managing the land, and the knowledge to improve production and cultivation. To remove them from the picture would create chaos and ruin. Taking American owned sugar mills from American ownership was also ill advised. The American sugar mills took better care of their Cuban workers, than the Cuban owned mills; the workers there were paid better, and when the mills were not functioning, they were allowed to continue living in the batey, which was not often the case with the Cuban ingenious (sugar mills).
During the 50 years following Cuba’s independence at the turn of the century, many positive changes occurred in our island. We developed a free primary and secondary educational system, and our university’s charged a fee of only 50 Cuban pesos per year. Besides the proliferation of newspapers, we also enjoyed modern television coverage; and it was all a free press. Our sugar crops commanded not only a good price, but were sold to US companies prior to being harvested, allowing us to have more of a sense of financial security; there were a multitude of Cuban and American stores and mills where Cuban workers could earn a reasonable living. Our schools produced more teachers and doctors then we could assimilate. Finally, a number of “progressive” laws were passed which were unheard of in the US, for example the maternity laws protecting women who were expecting babies. The labor union movement was quite strong in Cuba pre-Castro. In fact, one of Castro’s henchmen, (Che Guevara) first act of destruction was to kill the Cuban labor movement leaders and to outlaw organized labor.
A Cuban’s life was improving greatly during the first half of the 20th century. Of course, there was still plenty of room for improvement. My husband and I both thought that further effective improvements would come about through democratic laws. Perhaps if Fidel had followed the road to democracy, and considering he had the backing of 90% of the Cuban people, he could have been a miracle man that truly improved the Cuban people.
Soon after the revolution I stopped my job as an assistant superintendent in Havana city schools, and went back to being a school teacher in Havana. This happened not because I quit, nor because the district thought I had done a poor job. Instead, it was an action that affected many people. The new edict was that any promotion which occurred during Castro’s time in the Sierra Maestra was considered null and void. I found the new curriculum and what was expected of us to teach miserable. The new history books now taught that the United States was evil and that the US brought misery and colonialism to Cuba; no mention was made of the progress and development that American generated dollars had helped enact in Cuba. Instead, the books praised the Soviets, and all the good works the Soviets had done for Cuba. This was news for me and the other teachers as Russia was never a part of Cuban life. A new world of indoctrination began in the school system, and we teachers were to implement it.
Once the indoctrination of my students began, I realized that Castro was Cuba’s future and he would never lose his control. I knew that I could not lie to my students, however, if I adopted an attitude of protest against the government I would not be a teacher for long. My children would be amongst the newly indoctrinated. Already my oldest daughter was coming home from school speaking ill of “Yankees”, and reciting lessons where the belief in God was being questioned**. I knew that for my children’s sake and for my own sense of self, I had to leave Cuba.
Soon I found myself in line in front of the American Embassy applying for a visa to leave Cuba. It was a fearful action for me as I knew that if school officials, or acquaintances saw me, they could denounce me as anti-revolutionary and take away my job; I hunched over and hid while in line. Finally, when I received the visa for my children and I, we left without telling anyone but my immediate family. No one, including the school I worked at knew that I left. After one week of being absent from my job, my school principal and a superintendent came to my house to investigate my absence. When my principal asked my mother where I was, my mother told her that I left Cuba. When she could, and away from the superintendent, she told my mother, “Thank God; I would do the same if I could!” Later, my mother would recount this story to me, and I was quite surprised. Up until the day I left my interactions with my principal had led me to believe that she was a fervent, active revolutionary. Clearly, even in the early days of Fidel’s power, many people were faking what they believed out of fear of what might happen if they didn’t. And many still are.
*See previous blog post regarding Quevada’s curiously narssistictic, guilt laden suicide note.
**Cadres came to Elementary school and presented children with the conundrum: “Who will take care of you, Fidel or God? Here is a test: ask Fidel for ice-cream or ask God.” Those who “asked Fidel” got ice-cream and those who did not, received nothing – unless they changed their minds and asked Fidel. “See Fidel is real and takes care of you; God is nothing.” Thus ended lessons for the day.