On his deathbed five Christmases ago, my father no longer recalled who I, my siblings, or my mother were. But one afternoon, while we were all in his room in the house where I grew up in Puerto Rico, the Spanish news broadcast started with a story about Cuba. Fidel Castro appeared on the screen. My father’s eyes narrowed in recognition, and he uttered, “That man.”
As far back as I can remember, that man, Fidel, was a permanent fixture in my household. Initially hailed as having saved Cubans from the Batista dictatorship, within a few months of taking power, Fidel imprisoned dissidents (like my father’s best friend, Eddie), people he thought might be dangerous (like my Uncle Carlos, who had stored dynamite on his property because he was in the construction business), sent an estimated 600 to1,100 men and boys to the firing squads, and imprisoned ten times the number of political prisoners as under Batista. Castro displayed a particular aversion to homosexuals whom he sent, without trial, to forced labor camps. He expelled or imprisoned most priests and nuns, infiltrated seminars, eventually banned Christmas and instilled a reign of terror that sent more than 1 million Cubans into exile—my parents among them.
Desperate Cubans unable to obtain exit visas, passports, or airplane tickets took their front doors off the hinges, tied them to inner tubes and converted them into makeshift rafts to navigate the 90 miles of shark-infested waters between Cuba and Key West. Since the Revolution, it is estimated that more than 83,000 Cubans have died at sea. From 1960 to 1962, more than 14,000 children said good-bye to their parents and came to the United States in what is now known as Operation Peter Pan. More than half never saw their parents again. Many of those left behind starved and despaired. In 1986, suicide was the primary cause of death for Cubans aged 15 to 48.
Meanwhile, Castro’s expert propaganda machinery painted a different picture, which many were eager to believe. In 1977, while thousands of Cuban men and women languished in prison for crimes they had never committed, facing daily beatings and torture, Barbara Walters aired an interview with Fidel that hailed him as the romantic savior of the Cuban people. Thus continued the love affair of most of the world, including many Americans, with Fidel.
Truth Finally Speaks to the World
In 1982, things changed for Castro. French president Francois Mitterrand persuaded him to release Armando Valladares, a man who had spent 22 years in prison for turning down a placard that read: “If Fidel is Communist, sign me up.” Valladares, a prison-mate of my father’s best friend, had become a “plantado” prisoner for refusing to wear a common criminal uniform. For this act, he had been savagely punished. He spent six years naked and in solitary confinement; he lost the use of his legs for many years; and engaged in countless hunger strikes, the longest one lasting 46 days. He and thousands of political prisoners suffered unimaginably. His heroic young wife, Martha, was eventually able to smuggle out his poetry, which was translated into French by Pierre Golendorf, a member of the French Communist party. The international campaign demanding his release made it impossible for Castro to ignore him anymore.
Upon release, Valladares wrote a memoir, “Against All Hope,” which became a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller in 1986. I met Valladares while I was working at a job I had taken shortly after graduating from college. His translator had fallen ill and Valladares, who never learned to speak English, asked me to assist him. That moment changed my life. For the next ten years I worked with him to raise awareness of the plight of the Cuban people. Initially I worked at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva where Valladares served as U.S. ambassador and where we spent three years turning the tide of support for Castro. In 1989 the UN issued its first report condemning human rights violations in Cuba. I later ran the Valladares Foundation, an organization we created to raise awareness of prison conditions in Cuba and assist recently released refugees.
The Valladares Foundation facilitated and arranged for countless survivors of Castro’s gulags to tell their story to international bodies. Meanwhile, in spite of the Cuban government, the complete ban on information began to crack as intermittent access to the Internet emerged. A new generation of dissidents in Cuba, young people born in the Revolution, started to grow. The wives of many political prisoners who had been arrested started a movement: “Ladies in White.” Every Sunday they walked, dressed in white, silently to Mass. Their peaceful walk was met with beatings and threats by Castro’s thugs. In 2008 Time magazine named a young blogger, Yoani Sanchez, one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Her popular writing depicting everyday Cuban life also earned her beatings, arrests, and punishment.
Cubans Want an End to Dictatorship
I remember vividly an evening in 1974. A rumor spread. Fidel had died. My father rushed into our house, ebullient, to open a bottle of champagne he had been reserving for this occasion. That evening my father’s exile, his poverty, the oppressive heat, the seven-day-a-week job he hated, the nostalgia for his life in Cuba, the separation from the family left behind—it all vanished for a few hours. My father spoke about returning to his house, which was next to my aunt’s house, and digging up everything he had buried in the yard before he left for the Havana airport with nothing except the clothes he was wearing. The return never happened and, even though we suspected it never would, to the day my father died, like “that man,” that return fantasy occupied many of our dinner conversations.
Fidel outlived my father and his hopes to return to Cuba. I am glad, however, my father did not have to watch the grotesque spectacle that took place last week. An innocent man, Alan Gross, who while in prison lost most of his teeth, more than 100 pounds, and sight in one eye, was used by our government and by the Castro brothers to deliver a message to the world—a message Sanchez captured in her blog the next day: “Castroism won.” Even the Washington Post editorialized “Mr. Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life.”
Embargo or not, economic prosperity will not heal or liberate the Cuban people. What Cubans deserve this Christmas is for our government to demand that, in exchange for any commercial concessions, the Castro brothers return the $500 to $800 million they have stolen from the 11 million Cubans they hold hostage. Our government should also demand that Cuba hold the first free elections in 54 years and the release of political prisoners. They should demand that Cuba uphold freedom of the press, speech, and religion. Only then will the Castro regime be dismantled.