It’s a heavyweight word. It can mean different things to different people, but it packs a punch for me in particular. As a first generation Cuban-American, my life is literally the product of a revolution.
The Cuban Revolution is the poster child of revolutions. Iconic images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara – decked in muted military garbs and red starred berets, strident in all their long-haired, wispy-bearded, proto-radical, fierce and resilient glory – represent to many around the world the epitome of what it means to be a revolutionary.
…But as history teaches us, revolutions are so often more style than substance, a swap of one group of power hungry, flawed, partly corrupt humans for another. There’s that proverbial lesson those who vie for control never seem to fully accept: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Learning about what a momentous, turbulent event the Cuban Revolution was for my refugee family has been a self-reflective process. Since I was old enough to remember I was imprinted with these incredible stories from the people who lived it. What I was told was meant to move me in a clear and certain direction. I’m supposed to feel an innate resentment toward the past…
To be honest the first thing I come away with after hearing the stories of my family’s tribulations, is the thought that I wouldn’t even be alive if it didn’t go down the way it had. My parents met in Miami after each of them escaped Cuba, after all. So how could I ever wish it away?
It’s a real mindf***.
All I can do is choose to learn. In recent years, I have dug deeper into my family history and uncovered so much more than I was ever told as a child about these events. On my trips to Miami, my hometown, and to Havana, Cuba (as the first in my family to travel back to the isolated communist nation) I’ve come to learn more about Cuban Revolution and how different branches of my family were involved – on both sides.
The reason many of these stories had remained untold, is that they’re too painful, especially the stories of my paternal grandfather Humberto’s involvement with Fidel Castro. I was always bombarded with the stories of my other, maternal grandfather, Enrique, a war hero who fought in the Bay of Pigs against Castro, but only as recently as right before my first trip to Cuba in 2016 was it was revealed to me that the other fought with the Rebels.
I was shocked such a major detail would not have been shared with me or my cousins, but I understood the stigma that such a secret carries in Miami. It is a city very much in control of (mostly) conservative Cuban exiles. You don’t want to go around announcing your part in helping the current dictatorship in your home country seize power anywhere West of where the ocean meets Miami Beach.
The reason my dad’s side of the family finally alerted me to my namesake grandfather’s past before I left to Cuba is that when he had escaped to the United States in the late ’60s, about ten years after he turned against the Revolution, he made public statements published in national newspapers about Castro’s assassination of his friend and revolutionary leader Piti Fajardo, whose official cause of death was that he was shot by muggers. Contacts within the CIA, who were in contact with dissident Cuban expats, informed my grandfather a contract was put on his head if he ever went back to Cuba.
Humberto Guida is not a common name. Even in Latin America. “They remember everything,” my dad warned. But I went anyway. Fortunately, there was no secret Cuban police waiting for me at the terminal. I stayed with my cousin, the daughter of another revolutionary who remained in Cuba from my mother’s side. I needed to be there. To see Cuba for myself and to understand this Revolution that shaped my very existence. And it was an amazing trip, which you can read about here.
So what was the Cuban Revolution really like from the inside? It was like the feeling one gets when they know a hurricane is on its way. If you live near a hurricane zone, you know what I mean. It’s coming. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it. But as intense as it felt, the Cuban Revolution was not as bloody a fight as many might think.
There were only a few significant gun battles between the rebels and the national army as Castro made his way from the Sierra Maestra in Eastern Cuba to Havana, its capital in the West. Many of the towns along the way were taken without a single gunshot. Most of the blood shed occurred after the Revolution…but we’ll get to that.
First, a question that stuns many historians. Do you know how many rebels it took for the Revolution to seize control of Cuba, a small but geographically and historically impactful island? What is it, tens of thousands? Or even just a few thousand? No. It was way less than that.
The 26th of July Movement, as Castro’s rebel army was known, began with around 80 guerrilla fighters. By the time they marched into the capital building in Havana as victors of a civil war, the rebels were made up of just a few hundred young men and women, with a leadership that averaged about 30 years of age.
The Cuban Revolution was less a masterful military display, and more a master class in winning over public opinion and international praise. Castro won his war using a media savvy campaign, in which his rebel army gave each of the poor villages they’d march into free medical care. The claims of daily military victories were broadcast over his ham radio to listeners across the country (whether those battles even happened or not). And as you can imagine, Castro was f***ing fantastic on the radio. Captivating audiences, with his tenor and voice, inspiring the nation’s young with his pronounced and unapologetically radical idealism.
The abusive, militaristic despot that the Revolution aimed to take out – Fulgencio Batista – fled the country before Castro even arrived in Havana. Batista – the emblem of the corrupt, strong man archetype that tragically placates so much of Latin American History – boarded a private plane and headed to Florida in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve 1959.
The national army, with its fair share of rebel sympathizers, basically threw down their arms and stood aside. When the rebels made it into Havana, they were met with cheering masses and fawning students lining the boulevards along the way to the capital building. Young female university students cut class to throw undergarments at them as they paraded down the street (yes, that really happened).
The visceral allure and sex appeal of these rough and rugged Cuban revolutionaries cannot be understated. A Great Aunt of mine who was a firecracker back in the day and danced at the Tropicana during these times confided with me (to the sneers of other family members present) that, “the rebels were bigger than movie stars. They were gods. They were the objects of desire. It was beyond politics. The four leaders [of the rebellion – Fidel, Che, Raul Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos] were the men every young Cuban woman wanted to be with, and every young Cuban man wanted to be. The revolution was beautiful. It was romantic.”
But once the Revolution took hold, it got a lot less romantic. That’s when the real conflict began. It was only following his assumption of power that Castro made the (in)famous announcement, with Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, standing right behind him. “The Cuban Revolution, is a Marxist-Leninist revolution.”
This was something Castro had been denying as he rode to power. Sure, the rebels had their share of influential and open socialists like Che and Raul, but also strident democratic liberals like Camilo Cienfuegos (who was killed in a suspicious plane crash one year later) and Fajardo, my grandfather’s best friend. To the shock of many who supported what they thought to be a democratic liberal Revolution, Cuba was now less free. It became a totalitarian communist state practically overnight.
A collective “oops” hung over the country. And so the exodus began. For those left behind, a new battle line was drawn, infighting took root, and the violence followed. It came mostly in the form of executions, failed counter insurgencies (such as the disastrous CIA-funded Bay of Pigs invasion, in which my maternal grandfather took part in), and the brutal clamp-downs on anyone who dared to oppose the Revolution, or even looked like they were thinking about it.
With their country thrust into a difficult transformation, some families struggled with leaving Cuba, while the other struggled with staying. People who had the means fled; for them, it was quite a decision. Crossing the Florida Straits between Havana and Miami in the early ’60s meant leaving your entire world behind…maybe forever. Everything was up in the air. Families separated not knowing if they’d ever see each other again. Nothing was guaranteed – not even the chance to come home.
It all happened so fast…
I want to take you through that time and place. It’s time. I’m basing all this on real experiences of my family, but with a dose of poetic license, and some liberties with the details that convey more truth than they do fact. Because of the sensitivity of some of these stories, names have been changed.
So get your Cuban coffee brewed, some rumba playing in the background, and get ready to take a glance at what Cuba was like just after the Cuban Revolution took hold.
The Family Ranch
There were a lot of family ranches in Cuba. The one my great grandfather, Manuel, owned, was near Manzanillo on the South Coast. He ran it with his siblings. The family businesses included a dairy farm and acres of sugar cane fields, where picturesque rows of cane stalks thrust out of the rich, clay-colored soil, surrounded by Jurassic-looking limestone mountains (mogotes).
One day, Manuel arrives at the gates of the farm. A small crowd gathers by the gates. They’re all farm workers, many of them Afro-Cuban, rural laborers referred to as gaujiros. They stand with pales and tools in hand, staring at the gates, shaking their heads. The gates are chained closed. A giant lock dangles off the chains. A note hangs off the lock by a string.
As Manuel walks over to the gate, he is in no special hurry. He knows what it is, and he knows it isn’t good. The farm workers make way for Manuel. He reaches for the note. One of the farm worker’s pulls his arm back.
The Farm Worker looks the older man in the eye and says, “Te lo juro. No estamos acuerdo con esto. [I swear. We don’t agree with this.]”
Manuel nods, puts his hand on the farmworker’s shoulder in some sort of solidarity. He reaches past the farmworker for the note. He reads it. Translated from Spanish to English, it reads:
“This farmland has been officially nationalized by the Office of Agriculture. You are to report to the Pinar del Rio Regional Office wherein reparations will be appropriated to the former landowner upon completion of transfer of title. ¡Viva la Revolución!”
Behind him, another car pulls up. A turquoise ’57 Ford Thunderbird convertible. The driver’s side door opens. A pair of long female legs in beige high heels step out of the car.
Maria, his daughter (my grandmother) marches toward Manuel. She is in her early 30’s, fashionable, a cosmopolitan woman in a flowery, figure-hugging picnic dress, a Sunday hat, and a pearl necklace – the quintessential upper crust Cuban housewife of the 1950’s. She looks around at the farm workers, waves at them with familiarity, but briskly, hardly a smile. Manuel motions toward her to go back.
He looks at her, solemnly. His hand holds the note. He does not try to keep it from her as she snatches it from his grasp. She reads it. Her face grows red with anger. “This is not right,” she yells. “No, no, no! I’ll fix it. Papi, I swear. They are not going to take the farm away. I won’t let them.”
He tells her, “Mija. Listen to me. Whatever pull you have left with your friends. Use it to get on a flight out of this country, and go.”
“And my husband?” she asks.
“…If he loves you. He will leave…”
Surprise Mystery Guest
Inside a mid-century modern apartment in the fashionable Miramar district, American Jazz blares from a record player. The décor is adorned with pearl whites and posh pastels, with a wide open, carpeted living room that looks out towards a balcony with an ocean view. It’s a home reflective of Cuban high society in the early ’50s.
It might be the middle of the day, but Maria is pretty dressed up. Especially for someone who is in the middle of tidying up some fine China plates arranged neatly on display in a Marquesa cabinet. She’s every bit the Cuban version of the quintessential 1950’s, upper crust housewife.
There’s a knock on the door. She opens it. Standing there is Piti Fajardo, an elegant, uniformed government official. He removes his hat and tucks it under his arm. A self-conscious smile slowly forms on his face. He looks Maria up and down, but respectfully, hoping not to be noticed. He fidgets, a bit nervous.
Piti is a physician who served with Maria’s husband, Carlos (my paternal grandfather), in the Revolution. They fought for and alongside Fidel and Che and the rest of the July 26th Movement, offering free medical care to the poor villagers along their way to the capital, which became a humanitarian signature of the Revolution.
Inside the home, speaking in English as to not be understood by “pajaritos,” Piti begins to share his growing concerns with the new provincial government. Despite being given a government post, Piti explains to Maria that the “Revolution is turning red,” which means, they are going to turn this country communist.
“I hear the whispers. But you fought with him. Carlos served with both of you.” She replies.
“I fought with Fidel because Batista had to go. I fought with Fidel because he stood for an end to the corruption. We went from town to town helping people. That was not propaganda. That happened. But it’s not turning out to be the revolution I thought I was fighting for…”
Maria holds back tears as she shares some news: “They nationalized my father’s farm.”
Piti, who was known to have feelings for Maria, implores her to leave Cuba as soon as she can. She explains that Carlos will never leave. She is right, Carlos is a faithful supporter of Castro, and a doctor in the infirmary at one of the regime’s prisons, a refitted athletic complex called La Sportiva, where hundreds of political prisoners are held…and where some of them are executed by firing squad.
Piti convinces Maria to send word for her husband. Carlos is not working that day, but he is not home either. Maria knows where he is. And she sends her oldest son, ten-year-old Carlos junior to fetch his father…at his mistress’s house.
When Carlos arrives, he is not happy. He eyes his friend, then his wife, who only throws fuel on the simmering fire.
“Look, we have a visitor, and I’m here all by myself…” she says, suggestively.
Piti and Carlos shake hands, tensely. Piti begins the conversation by asking about the dissidents being held at La Sportiva.
“I can’t say much. I just treat the ones who end up in the infirmary,” Carlos says.
Piti asks, “How about the ones they execute?”
Carlos smirks at the questions, walks over to his mini bar and pours himself and his friend some Scotch whisky.
“We’re doctors, not generals. What can we do?” he says, offering Piti a drink.
“…Carlos, I tell you this because you’re my friend and it affects you. I think I’m on a blacklist.”
“Because I refuse to join the Party,” Piti answers. “It makes them suspicious.”
Carlos can’t help to reply, “You arouse suspicion, my friend. Maybe you should stop meeting with people behind the backs of others.”
Carlos glances over at Maria. “I came here to find you. Are you not listening? You’re involved,” Piti says. “I brought you into the rebellion compadre…Carlos…we fucked up.”
“No we didn’t. We’re changing the world,” Carlos snaps back. “But every revolution has growing pains, infighting. Be patient.”
“If you care about your family more than you do la Revolucion…then leave,” Piti implores. “There is no winning back their trust. They are paranoid. They keep their enemies close.”
“That’s a pretty convenient point of view, no?”
“Remember Conejo Arias? The leader of la Frontera Maestra?”
Carlos says, “They gave him a government post!”
“He was found face first in a river yesterday. Shot ten times in the back. ‘A robbery,’ they said. A man with his own militia, mugged by teenage street thugs. Sure…,” Piti exclaims. “He was pushing for new elections. He wanted to run against Fidel.”
Carlos nods, “Maybe you’re the one who’s paranoid.”
“I have plans to leave next week. And so should you. I’ll get you clearance. If not for you, then do it for Maria.”
“Tell me Piti…You would love to be Maria’s savior, wouldn’t you?”
Maria walks away from the conversation.
“You have been my best friend since we were boys,” Piti says.
Carlos replies, “That only makes it worse…”
“She chose you. She loves you. She always has. And more than that, she’s forgiven you.”
“And there’s nothing I should forgive you for?” Carlos asks.
Piti gets right up in Carlos’s face, intensely.
“Only that my resistance to tyranny has cast a shadow on you and your family. For that I am truly sorry. Now for the last time, I plead with you. Leave Cuba as soon as you can.”
Piti pulls Carlos in for a hug. He looks over at Maria in the kitchen. Piti exits out the front door.
Carlos shouts in Maria’s direction, “We are not going anywhere! Me oye?!”
The Escape Plan
A kitchen table is covered with official-looking papers. Airline boarding passes with the Pan Am logo watermarked lie next to a stack of passports, leather covers engraved with the Cuban national insignia.
A silver espresso percolator in the middle of the table is flanked by tea cups half-filled with (Cuban) espresso coffee. There is a tense, eerie silence.
Masculine fingers feel their way across the gold leaf lettering on the Cuban Passport: “Republica de Cuba.”
Seated at the table, Enrique, (my maternal grandfather) late 30’s, professional, studious, fatherly, his shirt sleeves rolled up. This is a man who looks like the world is on his shoulders. He leers down at the passports and looks over to his wife.
Next to him, Carmen, (my maternal grandmother) mid-30’s, proud, educated, serious. She is a strong-willed woman born ahead of her time, but she is also devoutly traditional. She holds a rosary in her hand. Rubs her thumbs over the prayer beads. Carmen looks up, locks eyes with Enrique.
He says, “…I want to know you are absolutely clear on where to go, what to do…who to trust.”
She replies, “To leave to the U.S. by myself with five kids…? No, I’m not clear.”
He is adamant, “No matter what, the only thing that matters is that in four days you and the kids are on that flight to Miami.”
She keeps asking, “I don’t understand why we can’t leave together.”
Enrique has secretly enlisted into a group of counter-revolutionaries that will be armed and trained by the CIA. He wasn’t sure when he’d be leaving or where to. He just knew he had to get his family out of Cuba immediately. He says to Carmen, “It’ll be easier if you leave without me.”
“How are you so sure?” she asks.
He holds her hand. He stays silent. He is not so sure.
Pepin Knocks On the Door
Carmen holds a photo of herself as a young woman. In the photo standing next to her is a young man, her brother Pepin. It’s a happy picture. They are both smiling, arm in arm, with the beach in the background.
There’s a knock on the door. Carmen opens.
Standing there is Pepin – he’s in his late-20’s, baby-faced, upright, and dressed in the military green uniform: the flag of Cuba on one shoulder, and the red and black insignia of the Revolution on the other.
Carmen is taken aback. She eyes his regalia, starting down at his black leather boots, then rising slowly all the way to his steely brown eyes. Then, she looks above his face at his military issued green cap, a single red star in the center. Her eyes remain fixated on the star.
It reminds him to mind his manners, and remove it in the presence of a lady. He takes his hat off, holds it in his hand, and musters a faint smile. She stares at him, sadly.
“I don’t understand this.”
Pepin responds, “I’m sorry you don’t understand. But this is what I believe.”
“It’s just…you were never political.”
Pepin worked for the railroad. He often rode the train across the countryside. Months prior, he came across farm workers who were brutalized by Batista’s secret police for wanting to organize and push for farmers rights.
He says, “I told you about the men we picked up working on the railroad. What Bautista’s henchmen did to them. Tortured them…I know in my heart we are on the right side of history. Already, this revolution has inspired people around the world.”
She cries and tells him, “I will always love you no matter what.”
They throw themselves into a hug. A tight one. Pepin grabs a hold of Carmen’s shoulders.
“I promise I won’t say anything about Enrique. Even though they keep asking about him.”
She says, “Enrique tells me nothing. Only that we need to go. That we aren’t welcome in our home anymore.”
Pepin backs off. His demeanor changes. “Perdoname hermana, but that is where you are wrong.”
She shakes her head, “You have no idea what we have been through the past year.”
He stiffens, “And what has this country been through the past 100 years?!”
Carmen holds her hands up, hoping to avoid the oncoming argument. But it’s a can of worms she cannot reseal.
“I can love you as my sister, but I cannot pander to your false presumptions,” he says.” You’re paranoid. Because I assure you that you’re not in danger of any kind. They just want to know why your husband has been so sneaky.”
She implores, “After they seized Enrique’s company, it became impossible to stay. I’m telling you. We are not welcome here. We have to go.”
Angrily, he tells her, “You are welcome here. You and your husband. You do not have to leave. But you have to accept change. This revolution is about justice and independence. That’s what I believe in. That’s what the country believes in. And if you don’t believe in it…well, then maybe you should leave. But I am staying. I will never leave Cuba.”
“Okay Pepin. Okay…okay, venga…te quiero.”
They hug once more. This time, not as tight, or affectionate. Pepin turns around, puts his hat on and marches off. That will be the last time she will ever see him.
Last Flight Out
The parking lot at Jose Marti Airport is jam-packed. All of Carmen’s five kids line up together. The oldest, Gabriela holds her baby brother. She and Nicole, the two girls, are in their Sunday’s best – bright and flowery dresses like they’re going to Church. The boys, Eddie and Miguel, are in junior sailor outfits, white shorts and navy blue blazers.
The children are calm, well-behaved, unfazed by the commotion in the air. They patiently wait for their mother, to finish her exchange with a woman around her age, her cousin, Patricia, who hands her the last suitcase.
The women share an embrace. Patty weeps. Carmen raises Patty’s chin up to her eye level.
Carmen promises, “I’ll see you when I get back…okay?”
Carmen grabs her infant son from Gabriela, and directs the toddlers to pair up. The children do as their told. The older ones each grab a hold of a smaller sibling, and hold their small luggage in their free hands. Carmen begins the walk to the terminal. Her children fall in behind her.
All around them, people hurry, frantic, anxiously filing into the airport entrance.
Inside the airport terminal is chaos. They weave through the busy, buzzing crowd. Like them, many are here to escape. A man bumps into the children as he skips through the crowd. He stops for a moment, leans in as if to help with the knocked over suitcase, then pulls back, and scurries off.
The suitcases are kicked across the floor by others. Carmen has to stop, get ahold of her kids, and grab the suitcases.
Apathetic travelers march past them, barely glancing at her as they push their way by.
Carmen manages to herd her kids through the chaos and disorganized crowd to the gate.
The sign reads: “Puerta 35 – PAN AM FLIGHT 266 – Miami.”
As she approaches the security checkpoint, she notices the guards: military personnel, all armed, scope the crowd, suspiciously. Carmen and the children move up in line as she hears the harsh interrogations of the travelers up ahead.
They rummage through the suitcase of the woman ahead of Carmen. The Head Guard confiscates some cash hidden inside the suitcase and gives the woman a scowling look.
He then approaches the woman, noticing her hand. She pulls her hand away and hides it behind her back. He grabs her hand forcefully. With his other hand, he pulls off her wedding ring.
“This belongs to the people of Cuba.”
Carmen looks down at her hand, focusing in on the wedding band on her own finger.
One of the other Guards motions for her to step up to the counter. She’s frozen. She looks at the other woman crying over her confiscated wedding ring.
Carmen snaps out of it, grabs Gabriela’s hand, turns back, and walks away from the checkpoint. They march back through the concourse. Carmen stops all of them in their tracks. She hands the baby to Gabriela. She heads into the bathroom. Gabriela is left there, with her four younger siblings, including the infant in her hands.
Carmen stands inside the bathroom stall, her forehead beading with sweat. Her hands tremble. She removes her wedding band from her finger. And then, she does the same with her diamond engagement ring.
She holds the rings in her palm. She stares at them, tears form. The sound of footsteps pass by the stall. It startles her. She sees the feet walk by in the crease under the stall door. Someone has entered in the next stall. She refocuses, clutching the rings. She begins to cry, but only for a moment. She gathers herself, lowers her hands, and reaches under her dress. She pants. It’s a painful moan, which she instantaneously muffles with her free hand. Tears stream down her cheek. She pulls her hand up, now with no rings in her grasp, she wipes the tears from her face. She gets herself together, and opens the stall door.
Back in the terminal, Carmen approaches the security checkpoint. She stares down the officials. Her head is held high, as she stands tall, upright, proud. She looks at the Head Officer down the end of her nose. The Officer looks her up and down. He notices her hand. Then he looks at the kids. He asks if she is married. She says, “Yes. I am meeting him in Miami.” He asks where her wedding ring is. She replies that she threw it away when she caught him cheating.
“You know how Cuban men are…cochinos todos,” she says.
He smirks. They begin to walk through the gate. The Officer holds out his baton, keeping her back. She looks over to him, venom in her eyes. He retracts his baton. The guard lets them pass.
Carmen looks straight ahead, starts walking through the gate, no looking back. On the way through the tunnel to the plane, Gabriela tugs at her mom’s sleeve.
She asks if it’s true, that her father cheated on her mother. Carmen stops and tells her, “Your father has never betrayed me. He has never betrayed his family. And he never will. Understand?”
“Then why did you say-?”
“One day I’ll tell you. Right now we have to go.”
But little Eddie has one more question.
“Mami…” he says.
“When are we coming back home?”
Carmen looks in her son’s eyes, “soon.”
…To be continued in Part 2. Click Here.