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.
If Communism was in conflict with human nature, it was particularly in conflict with the nature of Cubans. With no incentive for people to get ahead, commercial activity nosedived. According to Soviet archives, Cubans habitually falsified records to exaggerate production and hide theft. The planned economy fell apart from the very start. It was one of history’s most vertiginous peacetime impoverishments of an affluent society.
Today, Cuba continues its lonely journey through the infinite calamities of Castro’s dictatorship.In recent years, the state has announced such blockbuster democratic reforms as letting people buy toasters and letting barbers keep part of what they charge. More significant market reforms are withdrawn as unexpectedly as they are announced. Dissidents are still routinely detained and beaten. Disgustingly, the victims of these beatings include young women, such as the blogger Yoani Sánchez, and elderly women, such as Laura Pollán, former leader of the group Ladies in White, who recently died in a state hospital after years of intimidation and physical abuse by government-organized mobs. In the last year, many political prisoners have been released from prison, in shockingly poor health, and immediately exiled to Spain. So much for the hope that Raúl Castro would liberalize anything.
Meanwhile, if Cubans turned out to be terrible Communists, they have made great Americans. The young kid who swept the floor of the local Burger King in the 1960s rose to become VP of operations. The one who started at Kellogg’s as a sales rep rose to become CEO and U.S. secretary of commerce. The Cuban-American community now has a median income slightly higher than that of America as a whole.
For our families, America has been a dream of loss redeemed; of sacrifice repaid; and ofhumiliations undone. The humble dignity with which our parents and grandparents lived out their lives in exile was one inspiration to my generation. Another was their gratitude to America. And yet another was their staunch conservatism in defense of the principles that made America great: freedom, limited government, and self-reliance.
For Cuban-exile families, the American dream continues to play out against that old black-and-white family picture. But those in my generation are the protagonists now. It has fallen to us to build in this country something that can make up for what our families lost in theirs.
We grew up being told that everything is possible in America. Now it’s our turn to prove that it’s true, and to make sure it stays true. That’s why so many of us feel called to public service. America has given us – and our families – as much to be grateful for as anyone in America.
The greatness of this country needs defending in every generation. Now it’s our turn.
— Mario Loyola is director of the Center for Tenth Amendment Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.