Friday, December 02, 2016

Memories of El Lider

The world I have known for 63 years has shifted on one of its many axes with the death of Fidel Castro. El Lider managed to have a major impact on lives of people like me far removed from the shores of Cuba and his death brings back a flood of memories.

Gracious Strangers Speaking a Beautiful Language

I was only vaguely aware of the momentous changes taking place in Cuba on New Year’s Eve in 1959. I was six years old and enjoying the Christmas holidays from my first year in school. Always a map lover, I knew where Cuba was, our closest international neighbor along with the Bahamas. But I had little idea in that week after Christmas that momentous changes were coming to the world because of the events taking place in that island nation slightly smaller than my home state and just 90 miles off its coast.

My first hint of these changes occurred in 1961. As a part of a refugee relocation project by the US government, a group of Cuban miners were settled in our little town in Central Florida. Sumter County had long been the site of lime rock and stone mining, its products used for everything from building highways to fertilizing yards. The belief was that the Cuban miners would naturally adapt to mining techniques of the industry in the US. The unspoken but perhaps more important goal was to prevent a mass of Cuban emigrants from settling in Miami and permanently changing its character.

The house next door to us was rented to resettled Cubans and at eight years of age, my whole world changed. The neighbor’s daughter, Barbarella, was my age and spoke no English. But we played together, swimming in her plastic pool, eating previously unknown Cuban delicacies at her birthday party. Her mother was a gentle soul and began patiently teaching me Spanish vowel sounds and words. It was a beautiful language and I was enchanted from the very start.

But within a year, tensions at the mines between the Anglo workers and their newly arrived Cuban co-workers rose and ultimately all of the miners and their families decided as a group to move to Miami. We were awakened early one morning by our neighbors who came to tell us goodbye.

I was heartbroken.

“Why do they have to move, Mommy?” I asked. “They need to be with people who are like them, honey.” I did not understand that at the time. But my Cuban neighbors had left an indelible print on my soul. Little did I know at 8 years of age that I would one day visit this forbidden land that they had felt compelled to leave.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Now what could be such a source of pain?
I so boldly inquire.
Pointing finger Havana way,
these three words which transpire:
She told me that only in Miami
is Cuba so far away.

- “Only in Miami, Max Gronenthal, Scott Delawanna
recorded by Bette Midler (1983)

The resettlement programs around the country met with mixed results. Some places like New Jersey reached critical masses where Cuban refugees could feel comfortable with others like situated. In small towns like ours, the resettlement programs were largely failures and the feared transition of Miami to Havana North would soon come to be.

My aunt, uncle and two cousins lived in Hialeah in the late 1950s and early 60s. It was a working-class town with small houses surrounded by yards full of tropical plants. On our visits to Hialeah I would become familiar with avocadoes and the tropical fruits that now form a regular part of my diet. Metro Miami of the early 1960s was booming, a seething caldron of creativity and change, dubbing itself the Magic City.

The changes in that magic city took on a decidedly different turn with the influx of Cuban refugees and it would produce a fundamentally different Hialeah within a decade. Miami’s working class neighborhoods became places where uprooted emigrants could begin a new life in a new land. Once Spanish speaking families moved into these neighborhoods, Anglo families would quickly sell, unwilling to become minorities in their own land. My aunt’s family was the last English speaking household on their block to move away, in their case to the "safe" confines of Tallahassee.

By the 1970s, Anglo departures would render Dade County majority Spanish speaking. White Flight Anglos moving north into Broward County would describe Miami as Paradise Lost. The Cuban emigrants who took their place mourned a homeland lost, a mythical Golden Age past, entertaining hopes of returning when the anti-Christ of Cuba was dead. While a number of the original Cuban emigres would not live to dance in the streets of Little Havana upon the announcement of Castro’s death last week, many of their children and grandchildren would be there to represent them.

Duck and Cover

By the time I had reached the fourth grade, I had become pretty well indoctrinated in anti-Castro thinking. Until that time, Castro had seemed pretty far away, more of a nuisance to American dominance of the western world than anything else, a dominance most Americans uncritically equated with freedom and democracy and took for granted.  

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 I will never forget the look on my Father’s face that day we were released from school early and sent home. I had never really seen my Dad frightened before but when I saw his grim appearance that day, it was clear to me something was seriously wrong.

When we asked what was happening, my father said that President Kennedy was going to announce on television that evening that the Russians had brought nuclear bombs to Cuba. The US was imposing an embargo around Cuba to prevent any more from being established there. 

At eight years of age, I had no way to know what that meant. But it sounded serious.

That afternoon on the streets across our little town AM radio announcers could be heard mixing actual news with unabashed hype about a third world war. Over and over the phrase “just 90 miles away” would be voiced, a reminder that at its closest, Havana and Key West were just 90 miles apart across the Straits of Florida. More menacing were the reminders that Russian bombs were “just 30 minutes away,” the time it would take for a nuclear bomb launched from Cuba to arrive at any site in peninsular Florida.

Fortunately the bombs never came. From a self-serving US perspective, it was Nikita Khrushchev who ultimately blinked and the missiles in Cuba began to be removed. The Kennedy administration would make explicit promises not to invade Cuba a second time (after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion) and secret promises to remove its own missiles from Turkey aimed at the Soviet Union.

But our school systems were taking no chances. The Duck and Cover exercises of the 1950s were revived and we school children became experts at diving onto the floor and jamming our heads inside the base of our desks where our books were stored. We were told it was a means of preventing broken glass from putting out our eyes when the blast force shattered our windows. We learned how to line up quickly and march out to our buses in an orderly fashion. No one mentioned that with the eruption of a thermonuclear device the elector magnetic pulse emitted would destroy any kind of electronic ignitions rendering our buses and our cars inoperable.

Disorderly lines would be the least of our concerns.

To ratchet up the fear even more, our town was in the middle of the flyover patterns of three Strategic Air Command bases located at Patrick Air Force Base at the Cape, McCoy Air Force Base at what is now Orlando International Airport and at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. The frequent SACS flyovers regularly caused sonic booms which sounded an awful lot like the dreaded atomic bomb we were being trained to respond to. I spent a lot of my fourth grade year on the floor with my head inside my desk, my heart pounding.

I learned to hate Castro that year. 

Criminals, Drug Addicts and the Insane?

In the next two decades, Miami would become a Cuban refugee homeland in which far right politics were taken for granted and any signs of political incorrectness could get your car or your radio station bombed by self-styled "patriots." Castro’s revolutionary regime stayed afloat with the support of the Soviets who traded clunky, fume belching Lada cars (not realizing that, ironically, the name sounded an awful lot like the Spanish word for tin can, an apt description of the Russian cars) for Cuban sugar and oil. With the implosion of the USSR in the 80s, Cuba would increasingly find itself on its own in economic hardship.

As the crisis subsided, Castro’s Cuba increasingly fell off the map of my consciousness. That all changed my second year of law school.

On the news we began hearing about an embassy in Havana being overrun by asylum seeking Cubans. Spurred in part by the downturn in the now Soviet-less Cuban economy, Fidel Castro suddenly declared that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so in any way they could find. Within hours, an armada of small boats and rafts began departing from Mariel Harbor west of Havana. In the process, Castro would effectively deport many of the residents of his country’s mental illness facilities and prisons.

A few years later I would encounter some of the younger members of that boatlift in my classes at Lake Worth High School where I taught for a half year prior to leaving South Florida. I recall how sad and withdrawn these young men were, and how different they were from the extraverted upbeat Cuban-Americans I had grown up knowing.

In retrospect, I think they may have been stoned most of the time and not suprisingly. No doubt they were in a lot of pain. Only later would I learn that Marielitos had arrived with a number of strikes against them, not the least of which was a strong condescension among previous refugees who saw them as an embarrassment to Cubans already here.

Cognitive Dissonance in the Conflicted Zone

Leaving public school teaching and law behind, I headed to seminary in 1991. With a focus on liberation theology, I would spend a good bit of time in Latin America. I recognized that the opportunity to visit new cultures, learn their language and their richness, was what I needed to grow as a human being. Somehow the Gospel seemed so alive in countries where “Blessed are the poor” could easily have been addressed to the multitudes of starving people standing around me on the streets of Central America’s overrun, polluted cities.

My visits also provided the chance to see the effects of war first hand, as most of the countries of Central America had endured one or more “civil wars” more or less continuously for the past half century. These were largely instigated by US corporate interests like United Fruit and fought by those serving in the military by day and terrorist paramilitaries by night. 

It was my first trip to El Salvador in 1992 that provided a very different vision of Castro’s Cuba than the experiences my childhood and early adulthood had taught me. We were in the conflicted zone outside San Salvador, the countryside near the town of Aguacate, where a fragile ceasefire was in place. I had come with other seminarians as international observers of that ceasefire under the auspices of the World Council of Churches and the watchful eye of the blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers.

We had visited a small base community that day where burn victims had been isolated for treatment and therapy. The scars they bore were horrific, results of a burning jelly napalm dropped from helicopters onto the countryside below. In places, the napalm had burned the vegetation back to the bare blackened rock of the hillsides. Not surprisingly, most of the human beings on whom it landed did not live to tell of their experience.

One of the burn victims spoke as community leader. He told us of the helicopters overhead and then the sudden searing burning all over his face, neck and back. He had managed to find a ditch full of water in which to throw himself and put out the flames.

But the ditch would become his prison for several days as military trucks negotiated the nearby dirt road winding between signs warning of mine fields and helicopters overhead searching for survivors. “It wasn’t to treat our wounds,” the man said. “If they caught us, they’d take us up in the helicopters and throw us out.” It was a tactic designed to terrorize the remaining rebels in the area, lessons well learned down in Panama City at the US funded and operated School of the Americas.

We asked the leader how he and the members of the community had managed to survive such horrendous wounds. “The Cuban doctors took care of us,” the man said.

Suddenly, my whole world tilted. The bogeyman of my childhood, the evil tyrant who had threatened to turn my homeland into a nuclear wasteland, had to be seen in an entirely different light. How could this be? 

Later that afternoon, we visited another base community where Lutheran missionaries were helping to form a farming cooperative to sustain themselves. The leaders of the community met our van and said, “Come with us. We want to show you something.”
There in the middle of the village was the burned fuselage of a helicopter tied up in the trees, a gruesome sculpture of the horrors of this war. 

“This is the helicopter that dropped the fire on us,” one of them said. My classmate from seminary, a former police officer, immediately noticed the obvious: a trademark on the chopper’s tail. “It’s a Huey,” he said, “It’s one of ours.”

Once again, the world tilted. Not only was Castro’s Cuba the good guys in this conflict, it was my own government that was largely responsible for the forces of evil I had witnessed over the past week.

How could this be?

A Country Where Homelessness is Unknown

Since completing my last round of higher education in 2000, I have had the opportunity to actually visit Castro’s Cuba twice. The first visit was a mission trip with folks from the Diocese of Florida (Tallahassee to Jacksonville) in which we visited parishes of the Episcopal Church in Cuba. The second was for an international conference on religion and society in Havana at which I delivered a paper.

To say I have mixed feelings about Castro’s Cuba is an understatement. The people are largely hospitable and generous. The food is wonderful, the architecture is magical and the jazz is outstanding. It's a stunningly beautiful country. But Cubans don’t trust Americans with good reason and in many cases have little difficulty expressing their anger about the American embargo choking their people.

My two experiences of customs in Havana’s Marti International Airport are the worst I’ve ever endured entering any country anywhere. At the first I was held at gunpoint a half hour while bags of donated clothes were searched. My passport was abruptly snatched from my hands by a woman guard at the second encounter who promptly disappeared into the crowd leaving my sister and I in the hands of some rather sadistic male guards. They opened my sister’s suitcase and began to quiz me on each item (No, officer, I have no idea what that is, I don’t wear those things) before turning the suitcase upside down and dropping all its contents onto the floor. At that moment the woman guard with our passports suddenly reappeared to clear us for entry.

Bienvenida á Cuba, compañeros!

From what I can tell, the Cuban educational system is very fine. I’ve taught several of the products of its primary schools and they thought critically and wrote well even in a second language. I don’t know how many children that system actually leaves behind - as its American counterpart routinely does with one in three children - but their pupils are clearly as subject to indoctrination as their American cousins. One of the few truly tense moments I experienced in Cuba came when a friend and I were surrounded by teenagers as we walked down Havana’s famed Malecon who used their best English to call us “capitalist imperialists” in tones that sounded decidedly threatening.  

The medical care available to the average Cuban is the envy of many working poor Americans nervously watching their own access to medical care teetering on the edge of extinction with the recent death of America and the rise of Trumpland. Indeed, Cuba’s sprawling medical university produces the country’s primary export -  doctors. It is these medical ambassadors who have fanned out all across the globe to care for the world’s poorest peoples in the most desperate need of medical attention like the burn victims of El Salvador.

But I was also driven to the airport by a Cuban doctor who was making money on tips driving cabs on the weekends. I saw an entire town suddenly stop their activities of daily life and line up at a store to buy onions when word got around that the shipment had arrived. And while my US dollar went far in tourist stores, I often found myself eating foods denied the average Cuban while enjoying jazz bands on outdoor patios where the surrounding shrubbery was animated with barely concealed Cuban beggars.

I found it astounding that a country with as many working poor as Cuba had no homeless people. Whether that was because of Cuba’s housing policies as it claims or the mysterious prisons where political prisoners languish that it denies is unknown. But it was a decidedly different vision from the streets of my own country where human beings sprawl on cold concrete sidewalks amidst piles of mildewed bedding and clothing with their black garbage bags containing all their worldly goods nearby.

An Unclear Path

Where Cuba will go in the wake of El Lider’s passing is unclear. An influx of American tourists and dollars would undoubtedly change Cuba. It's hard to know if that will be for the better or worse. 

What does seem clear is that despite the fervent dreams of six decades of emigrants in the U.S., it is doubtful Cuba will revert to its 1950s Bautista version with its brothels, casinos and ultimate control by a Mafia and a handful of corporations made in America. Indeed, at some level, Fidel Castro’s ability to stand in the face of the US juggernaut and give Uncle Sam the finger demands some level of begrudging respect.

Few leaders have ever gotten away with that.

Castro was a revolutionary leader in every sense of the word, changing Cuba and the world Cuba touched. He left a bloody trail among those who dared challenge him and inspired fear in the hearts of people around the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I cannot say I will miss him. But he was a fixture in my world for most of my lifespan and however begrudgingly, I must acknowledge the impacts he had on my own life and the world he inhabited. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harry, glad your spirit was touched at the ripe old age of eight (8).