6 Ugly Facts Of Life In Communist Cuba
Just 90 miles south of America's dangly bits lies Cuba -- a place that went from vacation destination to pseudo-dystopia over a matter of years. So what's it like to live in (and escape from) a country that accelerates from zero to tyranny practically overnight? To find out, we spoke to Vivian Moreau, whose family escaped when Castro's government was still in its swaddling clothes; Jose Suarez, who was a child in Cuba as Castro seized power; and Jose Manuel Garcia, who spent most of his childhood in Fidel's Cuba and later escaped to America during the infamous Mariel boatlift. They told us that ...
Even The Worst Despot Can Start Out As A Good Guy
Fulgencio Batista was once considered a Cuban national hero. In the 1930s, he led a rebellion against Gerardo Machado, slipping into el presidente's chair himself from 1940 to 1944. But things took a grave turn when, after an eight-year absence, Batista decided that a swanky retirement in Daytona Beach wasn't the way he wanted to go out after all.
Who would want sunshine and frozen drinks when you could be fighting contras in the jungle?
So Batista returned and, after the Cuban people politely told him where he could stuff his proposed sequel, he coup'd his way to power once again. Jose Suarez was about seven years old at the time, and he remembers his family not exactly being down with the whole "dictator" thing:
"He suspended the constitution, and the whole university student crowd, the middle-class, merchants, everybody was pretty much against him. It wasn't just the coup; we were also aware that Batista was enriching himself from organized crime, in Cuba and in the United States, and that he was sapping the nation of his wealth. It was benefiting no one but his regime."
Which sort of seems like the only reason to become a dictator in the first place.
So it's understandable that, prior to 1959, most Cubans were supporters of Castro, one of the most vocal opponents of Batista.
"During the '50s, we were all glued to our shortwave radios. ... We would get news from the small army that Castro had landed. ... People collected money, clothing, medical supplies, weapons. My family collected no actual weapons, but clothing and medical supplies we collected, and we managed to smuggle it to the rebels.
"The majority of Cuba's middle-class supported Castro, and so did we."
That an armed insurgent might not make the best head of state was a concern for later.
Castro won, obviously. But the celebrations were short-lived, as those who'd supported him suddenly found themselves unwittingly starring in Despot III: With A Vengeance anyway.
We Went From Being Mostly Free To Mass Executions
Before Castro came along, Cuba wasn't all that different from America. "I guess the very, very first sign we had was six months into 1959," said Jose Suarez. "They had started televising trials of counter-revolutionaries. And so we had in Cuba something we'd never seen before -- mass executions of counter-revolutionaries who'd been found guilty in these kangaroo courts. It was right out of the French revolution. People were pulled in, abused, found guilty, and from the court marched out to a firing squad."
It's hard to say how many people Castro's new regime gunned down (evil dictators being notoriously spotty record-keepers), but the butcher's bill was probably around 30,000.
This. Thirty thousand times.
"Thousands of people were executed over a few months' time for being counter-revolutionary. That was not something we'd ever experienced before. We'd heard the Russians did it in Germany, the Germans did it in Poland, Mao's forces in Tibet. ... We'd always thought of ourselves as an extension of the U.S. And this was totally barbaric."
In a move that surprised absolutely no one, save for ol' gullible Guillermo -- the fisherman who took an oar to the head and lost the ability to follow logical progressions -- what started with mass murder didn't end happily.
The Propaganda Was Insane
"The first thing was the news," said Jose Suarez. "There were some famous newscasters and commentators who were removed from the airwaves ... and some of them ended up in prison camps. The second thing to go was television programs not Cuban in origin; we had a lot of U.S. television dubbed into Spanish. Those disappeared and were replaced with revolutionary content. ... A lot of revolutionary songs being sung, a lot of preaching. Television ceased to be fun."
"What do you want to watch, Fidelligan's Island or Murder, Che Wrote?
After Castro's goons did a similar sweep through the newspapers, it was time to launch their propaganda missiles at the minds of Cuba's children. Vivian said, "One of their favorite ways to find out what people thought about Fidel was to ask kindergartners. My younger sister was a kindergartner.
"One day, my sister came home and exclaimed, 'Fidel is better than Jesus!' In school they had asked the kindergartners to close their eyes and pray to Jesus for ice cream. When they opened their eyes -- nothing. Then they closed their eyes again and prayed to Fidel for ice cream, and ... surprise! Ice cream cups on their desks! I remember my mother's reaction: 'Helado! Que rico!' She totally avoided any other comment for fear of whatever she said making it back to my sister's teacher."
Apparently, excommunicating an egotistical dictator can have weird results. Shocking, we know.
Having been born several years after Castro's rise to power, young Jose Garcia was no stranger to indoctrination. At an age when our understanding of politics came mostly from diplomatic missions to rescue Princess Peach, Garcia was already involved in political intrigue of a sort.
"Children were constantly asked to sing socialist songs and show our respect to such icons as Fidel or Che Guevara," he said. "Politics was an unavoidable fact of life, and you were expected to voluntarily get involved in the 'building of communism.' I became very aware from a very young age, probably 7 or 8 years old, that I had to play the game or suffer the consequences and be considered an anti-revolutionary or a traitor to the motherland."
The Government Could Take Everything From You For Any Reason
Luckily, kids are pretty damn good at games, because if you didn't play well enough, you'd be "intervened."
"In Cuba, we were upper-middle-class," Vivian said. "My grandfather was a bank vice president; my father worked for another bank and also wrote comedy sketches. We lived with extended family in a chic apartment. My sister and I had our own room; my brother had his own; we had a maid who lived in a small room behind the kitchen. She was a Spaniard and blind in one eye. I was a little scared of her."
But the middle-class was about to become a thing of the past. As Jose Suarez recalls:
"We had free public education, but a lot of us went to religious private school. And in 1960 the Castro regime intervened. ... The teachers were expelled; all new teachers were put in. Towards the end of that year, Castro ended up on TV -- because a lot of Cubans still believed he was not a communist -- he went on TV and said, 'Yes, I'm a Marxist; I'm a Leninist' -- and we started relations with the Soviet Union."
"Just an FYI, in case that becomes incredibly relevant in a couple of years."
Finally, Castro went for the businesses, because what were they going to do about it? Stage a fourth revolution? That's ridiculous. That ruins the whole three-act structure. It's bad storytelling!
"He intervened all non-Cuban-owned businesses on the island. ... He would intervene with landowners in farms and make them into communes. And after the farm commune process, which he called the 'agricultural revolution,' then he went into all private businesses in the city.
We were beginning to suspect that "revolution" was code for "Give us all your shit."
"Our family were business owners; my grandfather had a grocery business. ... One day a commissioner came into my grandfather's building and said, 'This is now property of the revolution.' So my father, uncles, and grandfather just walked away. ... There was no point in any kind of resistance."
Obviously, a whole lot of people were a whole lot of unhappy with how Castro's reign was working out -- but what could they possibly do about it? Write their local official? Conduct a grassroots political campaign? Hahaha ... no. When the government starts inventing ominous doublespeak like "intervened," you're lucky if escape is even an option anymore. And yet ...
For Some, Escape Is The Only Option
In 1961, the CIA launched the Bay Of Pigs invasion: Fourteen hundred Cuban nationals, trained in the U.S. by the CIA, invaded in hopes that the fourth coup would be a charm. It wasn't.
That's when Jose Suarez's family decided to make a break for it.
"At the time, you needed a permit to leave the island. My parents and I all applied for permits, and the minute we went to Havana to apply, the government went to our house and stole it. A government agent went to our house and put a seal across the door."
"No backsies" was taken pretty seriously.
He got lucky: Thanks to Operation Pedro Pan, a joint venture between the Swiss embassy and the Catholic Church to spirit children to America, he secured permission to leave ... alone. "So I came to the U.S. without my parents and lived in a refugee camp in Florida."
Vivian's turning point came when her father refused to be a cog in Castro's propaganda machine.
"The comedy team my father wrote for, Rodriguez and Otto Sirgo, were like the Cuban Abbott and Costello. When the Cuban Ministry Of Telling People What To Do And Think Or Else told him to include pro-communist propaganda in his comedy sketches, he refused. That meant his imprisonment was imminent, and we had to flee."
"Single-party rule is never funny -- no rule of three."
Way to stand up for the integrity of comedy, Vivian's dad! By contrast, we once got a sternly worded letter from a brand of laundry detergent and rolled over like a well-trained dog.
As Vivian's family was realizing their impending peril, Jose Garcia was still camping out somewhere deep inside his mother's left ovary. So he spent much of his youth under Castro's government ... but his parents were not at all content with keeping it that way. "Most people in those days had a deep fervor and solidarity with the revolution," he said. "But my parents dreamed of the day when we could leave the country."
Apparently, really excellent cigars aren't enough to offset poverty and food shortages.
That opportunity struck on April 1, 1980, when six Cubans jumped the fence of the Peruvian embassy looking for political asylum and the opportunity to get the hell out of Dodge. Those six were soon followed by over 10,000 more, and the Mariel boatlift was born.
"The Cuban government announced that anyone who wanted to leave the country could, as long as their relatives were willing to come pick them up. As a condition, those relatives had to allow the government to fill their boats with Cuban 'undesirables,' including a few thousand convicts. This helped the government sell the image that the Mariel boatlift refugees were mostly criminals, when in reality the vast majority were average Cuban citizens that, as history has proven, were law-abiding and productive."
"Fidel wanted you all to have this complimentary jewelry as a little going-away present."
Vivian's parents made becoming a political refugee sound like a trip to Disney World, because what else are you going to tell a little kid? Plus, letting on to their plan might get them disappeared.
"My parents took my brother and me into their bedroom and whispered that we were flying to the U.S., and that under NO CIRCUMSTANCES were we to tell our younger sister," she said. "They didn't tell us we were escaping from tyranny, or that Papi might get arrested. They told us we were going to Miami Beach (which was, for Cubans, a vacation spot), and that it would be a new house, and a new country, and new relatives to meet. An adventure!"
She may have been glossing over some of the finer details.
Jose Garcia's "adventure" was more literal, in that it reads like an Oscar contender's screenplay.
"My Mariel story begins when an uncle went to the port to pick us up and waited there for a month. A week after he gave up and returned to the U.S., the Cuban government finally agreed to allow my family to leave.
"We waited another month for the permit. To make matters worse, my father was forced to falsify some official papers to avoid detection. As a professional accountant, he had been the vice president of a large construction company, and some of his employees had been denied the official permit to leave the country, in addition to being accused of knowing military secrets. Subsequently, he had to run a scam that included being demoted and eventually fired from his post so that he could finally request permission to leave.
Getting fired is never fun, but earning roughly a hundred times more in Florida
may have come as some consolation.
"The day we were waiting to leave my hometown for Havana, the police arrived and took my father away. I still remember my mother falling to the ground crying. By some miracle the Cuban officials were not able to discern that his papers had been falsified, and he was released but warned that they would come back for him if there were any more questions.
"The trip to the Mariel port was accompanied by the constant fear that he would be arrested again. To make matters worse, our stay at the port lasted five days as we waited for a storm to pass. We finally launched, but we had been on the ocean for only a couple of hours when our ship began taking on water and eventually sank in the Gulf Of Mexico. We only survived because a large shrimp boat came to our rescue. We arrived on June 4, 1980 -- a trip that should take six to seven hours had taken us 19."
Chuck a friendly talking whale in there, and we'd watch the hell out of that movie.
You Have To Start Over With Nothing
Change is just plain hard, especially for the young.
"For the first few months (maybe even a couple of years), I constantly yearned to return home," Jose Garcia said. "We went to live in New York City in an area where both drugs and crime were a daily occurrence. The fact that I couldn't speak English really impacted my school performance, and many times I questioned why we had left Cuba."
Oh ... right.
Given the circumstances, Jose Suarez's first U.S. accommodations could've been worse:
" was like a housing project. So it had a lot of three-bedroom units. And in one of those bedrooms there was a houseparent couple who looked after us, and in the other two were three triple-bunk beds to a bedroom. So the campus itself had over 700 children without parents. And so we had a school, hospital, dining room. I lived there for about three months before moving north."
Our source thought the refugee camp was as good as possible, under the circumstances. And if you're wondering why he chose not to just wait for his family's arrival at the all-boys camp:
"The boys' camp was not great. The boys were living in army tents; it's very hot in the Everglades. And it's not an ideal place. In fact, the CIA would often go in the camp and try to recruit the older boys to work for them and to do operations in Cuba. I didn't feel that was for me."
Because the Cold War CIA always had everyone's best interests at heart, right?
Considering Jose lived in Cuba during the CIA's last disastrous "operation" involving a bunch of young Cuban men, it's not hard to see why he wasn't keen on signing up to hench for the U.S.
As for Vivian, she started out in a beautiful residence owned by well-to-do relatives, but soon had to move with her family to ... less luxurious accommodations:
"Once, the paint came off our ceiling and landed on me in bed in the middle of the night. Between the paint and the ceiling ... roaches. They landed on me and crawled all over me. I screamed for many nights after that, couldn't sleep, and to this day I'm deathly afraid of cockroaches. We also caught rats so big that sometimes the trap didn't kill them, and my father had to finish them off with a hammer. One time he told me to leave the room while he smashed in the head of a huge, very much alive, trapped but hissing, monster of a rat. I didn't leave the room. I should have left the room. It was one of the low points of my childhood."
Unless your dad is Thor, Mjolniring vermin to Valhalla shouldn't be a part of anyone's childhood.
For the old, the change was simply too much.
"What I remember the most about when we moved from Miami Beach is that my grandparents, who had stayed behind to try to get some money out of Cuba, arrived penniless just like we did," Vivian said. "My grandfather had a heart attack and died in the roach and rat house -- I think of a broken heart, since everything he had worked for his entire life was stolen."
Hey, the next time you bump into some hip young kid wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, give him a good smack upside the head with a history book for Vivian's grandpapi, would you?
You can learn more about Dr. Garcia's refugee experience and his first return to Cuba in 30 years in the award-winning documentary Voices From Mariel. Vivian became naturalized on her 18th birthday and considers herself blessed and grateful to be a citizen of the greatest country on Earth. Jason is an editor for Cracked. He has a Facebook page. Robert Evans is the editor of the personal experience section of Cracked, and he tweets.
Want to learn more about life in a Communist regime? Read 5 Things You Only Know If You Grew Up In A Communist Regime, and take a look at 6 Insane Things You Learn Overthrowing Your Own Government to find out what happens when you take on the man.
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