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.
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.”
As soon as Cruz returned to Austin, he contacted the various groups before which he had lectured to ask them for a second audience. Now he talked about the evils of Communism, about the dangers of Castro’s regime, about the betrayal Castro had inflicted upon the Cuban people. Cruz’s sister soon became involved in an anti-Castro rebellion that developed in the Escambray mountains over the course of 1960, which was brutally repressed by Castro forces. It was the failure of that rebellion that led the Eisenhower administration to focus on plans for a rebel invasion. Cruz’s sister was forced to flee Cuba.
By this point, the dreaded State Security (patterned and named after the East German Stasi) had flagged the Cruz family as potential enemies of the Revolution. Rafael’s father (Ted’s grandfather) had been an RCA salesman before the Revolution. Now he was forced to learn to fish in order to have food on the table. By law, he was required to sell his entire catch to the government, but like many Cubans, he had to keep enough to survive, which of course was a crime. Until 1966, Ted Cruz’s grandparents endured the constant privations of Castro’s Cuba, along with the constant fear of arrest, until finally they were allowed to leave. At the airport, the authorities informed the elderly couple that they were not allowed to take suitcases with them. They were allowed to leave with only the clothes they were wearing.
That last injury, which had no other purpose than to demonstrate the impunity with which the Castro regime abuses its people, is what separates Cuban exiles from everyone else. Every single Cuban-exile family has stories like that — stories of senseless abuse, and humiliations inflicted for their own sake. All of our families have had a personal taste of Castro’s most defining personality trait, which — as only Cubans know — is sadism.
Cubans here and there have had to endure the calamities of the Revolution alone. Conservatives in America reached out to us and supported us, and our parents found solace in their enmity to Communism. But they weren’t really with us either, because they had no idea how awful Fidel Castro really was. It simply isn’t within the comprehension of any American that someone could actually choose to be as evil as Castro. The sheer depravity of his crimes against the Cuban people helped to keep the depredations of his rule a secret hiding in plain sight, where only other Cubans could see them.
It’s no surprise that liberal papers such as the Dallas Morning News now think they’re in some position to judge which families are truly exiles and which aren’t. It was liberal papers — particularly the New York Times — that originally built Castro up into an international hero and persisted in romanticizing him long after he offered Cuba’s young men to the Kremlin as a Third World army. It was liberal papers that blamed the U.S. embargo for the economic catastrophe into which Castro plunged Cuba. It was liberal newspapers that helped to occlude the unspeakable daily abuses of Castro’s regime beneath the fantasy of a romantic nationalist who was bravely willing to stand up to imperialism.
“There is power,” the Dallas Morning News tells us, “in linking your past and your future to this unending struggle [against Fidel]. But because the fathers of both these men [Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio] migrated several years before the revolution, as is now clear, the link is at best a stretch. In the case of Cruz, the situation is even more complicated because his father originally supported Castro.” What utter nonsense. It would be offensive if the editors actually had any idea what they were talking about. No Cuban exile would for a second say that the Rubio and Cruz families were any less exile than anyone else. All of our families lost their homeland. That some were already here when it happened is irrelevant — nobody meant to forsake Cuba by coming here. We lost Cuba because Castro took it from us, from all of us, born and unborn, both here and back there.
Among Cuban-Americans, having been an early supporter of Castro in no way diminishes your anti-Communist credentials. On the contrary, it is the typical story for almost every family. Virtually all of our families opposed the dictatorship of Batista. Virtually all of our families believed Castro’s rhetoric of democracy and liberty. The first thing everyone hated about him was his evident relish in betraying his most ardent supporters. That was the first of many very personal reasons he would give us to hate him, reasons that only we can really understand.
What makes us exiles is not merely the fact that our families can’t go back to Cuba. It is that Castro wantonly ruined the land that our families grew up in, the land of our forefathers, and now that land exists only in the fading black-and-white pictures and memories of the happy childhoods of a generation that is dying now. Compared with that, what possible difference could it make that our grandparents arrived one year and not another? Senator Rubio didn’t know exactly what year his father first got here because it doesn’t matter.
Still, I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised by the Dallas Morning News’s display of presumptuousness and ignorance. The editors are decent people, and if they knew even 5 percent of what I know about the Revolution and its exiles, I’m sure they would be deeply ashamed of what they’ve written. But they don’t and they never will — Castro has already seen to that.
— Mario Loyola is a frequent contributor to National Review.