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Monday, November 28, 2016

Sympathy for the Devil and to Next Year in Cuba...

Was evil the nature of his game?...
On Christmas Eve 1978, as my great grandfather was in his final stage of life, we were gathered at my cousin's house in Chicago. Most of the family was there, at least those of us living in exile.  I remember because that was the winter the great blizzard hit the Windy City shortly after we left.

As we were about to sit for our traditional, Noche Buena dinner, my great grandfather, who was ill and frail, came down from his room to the basement, where a ping pong table, other tables and chairs had been set up, to join us for what turned out to be our last Christmas Eve together.

As the patriarch of the family, he said a prayer, some words of wisdom and then made a toast.  While, I won't pretend to remember what he said, I do recall the many end-of-year family toasts which culminated with, "May our toast next year be in Cuba."  I think it was a universal toast in most Cuban exile households.

Well, next year in Cuba never came.  My great grandfather died and it never happened.  My great grandmother died and it never happened.  Both of my grandparents, most of my great uncles and great aunts died and it never happened (they were ten siblings and only a few remain!).  Even several cousins died and it never happened.

Like my family, hundreds of thousands of Cubans, who came on Freedom Flights, many who left thinking it was a temporary sojourn, leaving family, friends, their livelihoods, their culture, their language and everything they knew and loved behind, and almost fifty-eight long years later, are still waiting for that next year to come.  

For most, one man was responsible for their displacement; Fidel Castro.

And, there was plenty of reasons for the resentment.  When Castro took power in January 1959, he promised hope for the future.  He promised a Democratic government that would hold free elections and put the power in the hands of the people.  He promised to stop the corruption and brutality of the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

Before the firing squad...
Instead, he quickly turned even more corrupt, repressive and tyrannical.  He started executing all his opponents. He turned to Communism and confiscated property, including my great grandfather's business that he spent a lifetime building since arriving in Cuba from Spain. Castro also persecuted gays, banned the free press and ousted thousand of Catholic priests, nuns and clergymen of other faiths, in an attempt to eradicate religion.  All forms of free expression against the government were outlawed.

Soon the hope and optimism Cubans felt early on gave way to a living version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, where the few in leadership got the spoils and everyone else was left to starve.

Many Cubans, including some in my family, who supported the Revolution at first, felt betrayed, prompting a massive exodus of the middle class.  Fourteen thousand kids were sent on their own to the United States, ahead of their parents, as part of the Catholic Church's Operation Peter Pan, and, when Castro stopped the floodgates of those allowed to leave legally, countless others died and are still dying trying to flee.

Families were separated for decades at a time, tens of thousands who opposed the regime were tortured and physically and psychologically abused in concentration camps and jails, tens of thousands more were murdered, many in public executions, including some who had fought alongside Castro in the Revolution, while others disappeared and were never heard of again.

For the people who fled, said to be over two million over the years, and many who were forced to stay unwillingly, Castro became evil personified and he loved to stoke the flames; calling those who left traitors and worms.  Hate would not be too strong a word to use for how they felt.

Needless to say, Castro's death, was as long awaited as that elusive toast in Cuba.

It was like the souls of the slain in the Book of Revelation, crying out, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

And then, it happened.

On Friday night, after years of deteriorating health and countless of premature reports of his demise, Fidel Castro finally died at the age of 90.

A poignant message...
As could be expected, the reactions were immediate.

Despite the news breaking shortly after midnight, people started hitting the streets of Miami with pots, pans, musical instruments and Cuban flags in hand.  They blocked traffic, cheered and danced, as motorists blew their car horns and celebrated the end of an era into the wee hours of the morning.  It was a historic moment that had long been coming but never seemed to come.

"At long last.  The son of a b*#@ is dead," my brother texted me from Oregon at about 1:30 (Miami time) in the morning.

"I have never been so happy to be called back to work after going home for the day," a co-worker admitted as she gave me a hug with a huge grin on her face later that day.

"My only regret is that Mom and Dad are not here to see this," my mother said to me on the phone, as her voice began to crack.

A friend posted a photo on Facebook of a scotch bottle with a typed note pasted on the front that stated, "My days and those of Fidel Castro are counted," dated December 24, 1963.  It was written by my friend's uncle who said he would drink the bottle when Fidel Castro died.  Sadly, he never lived to drink it but his son opened the bottle on Saturday.  

Such is the dichotomy of the Cuban people.

My wife captured the moment well.  She posted, "Today was a bittersweet day.  Ever since I can remember, we've been waiting for this day. The day when Castro would die. My mother was a Peter Pan child. My dad, who had to flee Cuba with his mother as a young teen, trained in Central Park to go to the Bay of Pigs (fortunately, they were left behind.  He was 16 years old)... I grew up listening to stories of what they had been forced to leave behind. My father never forgot. He never put it behind him. And it was his dream to see a free Cuba. Yes, I know Cuba is not free yet, but I'd like to think we are one step closer...I just wish my dad was here to share it with me."

Still, as evil as Fidel Castro was and the wrath of pain, suffering, death and destruction he left behind, there's something about celebrating another man's death that doesn't quite sit well with me.  Although, I can understand those that do, especially the families victimized by his brutality, and those that are not necessarily celebrating his death but what it represents.

We will never know what is in another man's heart and Castro had plenty of time to repent over the last several years, especially as he grew more ill and frail, as my great grandfather did in 1978.  The man who would become the longest ruling dictator in history did attend Catholic school in his youth and he met privately with Pope Benedict, as his health deteriorated.  Only God knows.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.  When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

As the Rollings Stones' lyrics in Sympathy for the Devil say, "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints."

I think the fact that he died now and not thirty or forty years ago, has given time for people to rebuild and heal.

In any case, may God judge him accordingly.  And, moreover, may his death, mean Cubans are one day closer to that toast in Cuba next year...


Jorge Alvarez said...

Poignant indeed....

Carlos Espinosa said...

Thank you for the copy rights!