In the 1950s, my grandfather owned a pharmacy in the Cuban seaside town of Manzanillo. After Castro’s band of guerrillas landed in a mangrove swamp a few dozen miles away, my grandfather let his clerk, Alberto “Beto” Pesán, join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He continued to support Beto’s family, and was soon secretly donating medicines to the rebels. Like most Cubans, he was happy when, in January 1959, Castro arrived to a hero’s welcome in Havana to take over the country.
Up until then, Castro had been all about democracy and liberation, but within months it became obvious that something was going terribly wrong. Mass executions of Batista loyalists, carried live on television, horrified the public. Fear of summary arrests, seizures of property, attacks on the Church, cancellation of elections, criminalization of the free press and of private commerce — such was Cuba’s vertiginous descent into Stalinism. Just a year and a half after Castro came to power, Cubans — and disproportionately, the very urban middle class that had formed the core of Castro’s initial support — were fleeing by the tens of thousands.
My grandfather sent my grandmother and their three daughters, including my mom, to the U.S., and stayed behind with his son just a few more months to save what he could, which turned out to be nothing. By the time he left, he hated Castro to the very limit of his gentle soul’s capacity for hatred, and would continue hating him to the end of his days — like virtually all Cuban-exile families.
Now that former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz is running for U.S. Senate, the Dallas Morning News thinks that the fact that Ted’s father Rafael was an early supporter of the Revolution — and that he left Cuba before Castro came to power — “complicates“ his claim to exile status.
In fact, the Cruz family story is entirely typical, even among the most conservative and anti-Communist elements of the Cuban-American community. By the end of 1956, when Castro was in exile in Mexico preparing his small band of hipster-guerrillas for a landing in Cuba, there were many organized groups in Cuba fighting the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Among the most important was the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU), a campus-based activist group under José Antonio Echevarría.
Groups such as FEU provided the crucial element of urban resistance to Batista’s regime. While Castro was in exile, they tried unsuccessfully to unify the whole anti-Batista movement. They knew that Castro intended to land in Cuba and hoped to organize an urban uprising along with it. But Castro and the anti-Batista forces failed to coordinate in any meaningful way, and when Castro’s boat landed near Manzanillo in Oriente province, the hoped-for urban uprising failed to materialize.
In the weeks after Castro’s landing, the bedraggled guerrillas escaped one encounter with Batista forces after another until they found their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, the most inaccessible and remote area of Cuba. From there, the guerrillas would wage a war of political attrition against the regime for the next two years.
Meanwhile, the efforts of groups such as FEU developed slowly into a small-scale urban uprising. In March 1957, the FEU’s terrorist wing launched a daring and fantastically ill-planned raid on the presidential palace to kill Batista, who unfortunately was somewhere else. Most of the attackers were killed, and Echeverría was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police later that day.