At this point, the young Rafael Cruz was already a leading FEU figure in Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente, and a leader of its militant cell in that city. He hoped to organize an uprising to support Castro’s landing, but the lack of coordination doomed the effort. Batista’s security forces soon stood astride the known approaches to rebel territory in the Sierra Maestra. I asked Rafael Cruz why he did not go from Santiago to join the rebels. “There was no way there,” he explained: “The guerillas were surrounded.”
He eventually made his way back to his home town of Matanzas, on the north coast of Cuba about a two-hour train ride east of Havana. Once there he tried to help organize his town’s civic-resistance cell, but one of those he recruited turned out to be a spy for Batista, and turned him in. In June or July of 1957, Cruz was arrested and held for several days in military detention. While there, he was beaten bloody every few hours and left to lie on the floor of a small solitary-confinement cell.
His quick release was due to the fact that Batista was on a political knife’s edge and simply couldn’t afford to detain lots of people for very long. After his release, he tells me, a rebel came to him and told him that Batista’s secret police would now have him under constant surveillance to find out whom he was talking to. He was a security risk. He should leave.
Cruz quickly decided to apply to university in the United States. He applied to the University of Miami, Louisiana State University, and the University of Texas at Austin. UT-Austin accepted him first. On August 9 of that year, 1957, he was granted a student visa. Weeks later, his father took him (hiding in the bottom of the car, he tells me) to a ferry terminal, from which Cruz sailed to Key West. From there, he made his way by bus over several days to Austin.
Another typical Cuban-American story: He found a job washing dishes within a few weeks of arriving in Austin. “I didn’t speak English,” he explains, “and washing dishes, I didn’t have to speak to anybody.” He soon worked his way up to waiter, and then to chef, where he remained for the rest of his studies. He graduated with a bachelor’s in math and chemical engineering in 1961.
Meantime, in the early years of his career at UT, he remained a supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He tells me that he gave dozens of lectures about the Revolution to various clubs in Austin. As weeks turned into months and Batista seemed unable to finish the rebels off once and for all, he began to hope that the regime’s days were numbered. His hopes seemed fulfilled with Castro’s triumphal return to Havana in January 1959.
With Batista out of power, Cruz felt that he could finally return to visit his family. He went back to Cuba to visit in the summer of 1959.
Castro had seized power in January at the head of a transitional coalition government. But by the time Cruz returned, just a few months later, Castro had already forced through a redistributive agrarian reform, and had forced the new president, Manuel Urrutia, to resign after making “anti-Communist” statements. Supposed Batista loyalists were being subjected to summary trial and execution on television, en masse. That horrible general paranoia of being denounced as “counter-revolutionary” by somebody, which was to become one of the enduring features of the Castro regime, was already taking root. “It was a shock for me,” says Cruz.
One of Castro’s earliest depravities had an immediate impact on the fortunes of the Cruz family. Castro ordered that Marxist-Leninist thought be taught in public schools. Among their many flaws, Communists were widely understood to be atheists. Thus, the Church began to react against the new regime almost immediately. Rafael Cruz’s mother, a schoolteacher at the time, couldn’t abide the thought of being forced to teach Marxism. She feigned a ranting mental illness and was able to get a medical discharge from her duties. Rafael Cruz recalls how proud he was of his mother: “She preferred to be publicly humiliated than to poison the minds of schoolchildren with Marxist doctrine.”