Every Cuban-American family has the following black-and-white picture hanging somewhere on a wall: Grandfather and his many brothers, dressed in smart suits with thin ties; wives and sisters in floral and pastel dresses; everyone crowded together, some kneeling, others standing, all beaming broadly. That was Cuba in the 1950s. That was the country that Fidel Castro ruined.
For those of us in my generation – the first to be born in the United States – the memory of our families’ exile begins with that old black-and-white picture. It is the backdrop to the family history we were raised on, which all Cuban exile families share, stories of upheaval, loss, and salvation.The challenges of exile kept our families close together, long after they settled here. In theMiami house I grew up in, my grandparents lived in the third bedroom. Many of my grandmother’s sayings still ring in my ears: Ay chico, si el diablo sabe más por viejo que por diablo (“The devil knows more because he’s old than because he’s the devil”). Our grandparents and parents spoke Spanish to us growing up but, almost as soon as I learned to read, my mother surrounded me with books in English. We were expected to excel in school.
One thing that keeps the Cuban-exile community close is the intimate knowledge of how depraved Castro really was. Our families felt lucky to find so many Americans opposed to Communism in principle, but most of those Americans had little notion of Fidel’s taste for cruelty. Ask Huber Matos, formerly Fidel’s comandante for Camagüey province, who early on in the revolution dared to write a letter urging Fidel to hold elections as promised. He was summarily convicted of treason and sedition and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The best part was Fidel’s personal touch: He specifically ordered Matos’s best friend to arrest him.
Virtually all our families supported Castro at first. They wanted an end to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and a return to democracy. They believed Castro’s rhetoric of democracy and liberty and had little reason to believe he intended anything else.
My family fled Cuba in May 1961, in the midst of a massive exodus. Castro had been in power barely two years, and he had already canceled elections; forced non-Communists to resign from the government in disgrace; worked out secret arms deals with the Soviets; carried out mass summary executions live on television; shut down the free press; attacked the Church and confiscated its property; summarily detained and tortured critics; criminalized private commercial transactions; and blanketed all of Cuba with the enduring terror of his dictatorship.