Out of Cuba: From The Sickle to The Sword.
Carmen A. Queral, P.A.-C., M.B.A.
Many years have passed since I left Cuba. Yet it is all very vivid in my mind. I was old enough at fifteen to have built up wounds and scars after having lived under the communist regime for eight years. I praise God that He has healed all that. Yet the experience is still deep in my mind, and I knew He would use it for His glory one day. I just didn’t know how. I knew sharing my testimony would be part of it, but I knew there would be more to it than that. Sharing the nightmare of life under communism (if it can be called life at all!) and alerting people to its dangers is the other part.
Castro took over Cuba on January 1st, 1959, another day that will live in infamy. At least in the minds and hearts of many Cubans.
I remember the general condition of the country by the time we left, in 1966---oh, what a mess! And to think that it has gotten only worse is hard even for me to imagine. I remember how the economy began to turn upside down shortly after Castro took over. First there was the “Agrarian Reform”, then the “Nationalization” of every business and industry. Castro took over and now the government owned everything. Soon there wasn’t anything left for anybody. I remember how we all sat back and watched things happen without being able to do anything about it—what a frustrating feeling, even though I was a little kid! And what a frustrating and eventually despairing feeling not to be able to buy food, or clothes, or toys, and not to be able to have a party or go the movies.
Ah, food...some foods were never seen again. All food was rationed. And there were lines for food. In spite of rationing! Because if you didn’t get to the store’s counter before they “ran out” you were out of luck…and, therefore, out of food.
But everything was rationed. Rationing was done by families. Each family received a little book from the government and in that book was recorded whatever was sold to them. Each person in the family was allowed, for example, one pair of shoes, one shirt, and one pair of pants or one skirt a year. He or she was also allowed ¾ lb. of meat per week. Unfortunately, the meat didn’t come around for months at a time, and when it “came in” to the store you certainly didn’t get your back quota. But you had to stand in line for your ¾ lbs of meat. Or a loaf of bread. Or a ½ dozen eggs. Or a pound of beans. Beans…. Boy, it took me a long time to get over them after I left Cuba! At the time we left we had been eating split peas for 8 days straight, noon and evening, cooked with just salt and water—to this day I have never touched them again! We also had a mango and an avocado tree in our backyard. Pretty soon my grandmother discovered mango stew, fried mango, mango desert, and a whole bunch of other varied and sumptuous dishes made with avocado, since there was nothing else available.
Sometimes we were able to get some things on the black market. Like one potato, one slice of ham, and one onion. My mother and I traveled clear across Havana on three buses each way just to get those “black market goodies” from my mother’s old piano teacher, who dabbled in the market—the black market, that is!…And I remember watching my sick little sister eat that whole mashed potato! Boy, if she hadn’t been sick! (And my mother hadn’t been watching!) …. I could have had some French fries! But French fries were only a memory. And all hope of ever getting more was gone. I remember crying for two hours after our German Shepherd puppy jumped up and stole a piece of meat from my hand and ate it whole before I had a chance to wrestle him for it. Boy, those days were hard! They were harder for my mother, though, trying to find even just a little bit of milk on the black market to give to my three year old sister who was extremely anemic and almost died in a massive epidemic of gastroenteritis.
But the lack of food wasn’t the only hard thing. I remember the “volunteer work” we had to do for the government. I had a heavy schedule. I had skipped 7th and 8th grade and was doing high school in three years. Including a couple of communist indoctrination courses I had twelve courses average a semester. Yet many were the times when I was taken out of class, at the ripe ages of twelve and thirteen, to go wash Russian trucks or paint walls. And there was nothing we could do about it. The system operates by terror, and you have no choice but to comply…or go to jail…or a “youth camp”, depending on your age. But the country was decaying faster than they could keep up with, even with all the “volunteer work”. Some of the houses in “Habana Vieja” (Old Havana), for example, are merely a painted façade to show to the tourists. Others, in the streets were the tourists are not allowed, are falling apart. And the latest model of cars that came into the country was for the 1959 year. Since cars can’t hold up without parts for so many years, it is needless to say that bicycles were becoming very popular. That is, if it was your “turn” to “get” you “family bicycle” by your household rationing book, and provided they had a bicycle to sell you at the store. Otherwise, you walked.
But I must say that our biggest “excitement” came from living next door to Che Guevara. Yes, THE Che Guevara who was killed in guerilla warfare in Bolivia. Our “excitement” wasn’t because of who he was, but because of the things happening around us because of who he was. When the family next door to us left the country, Che moved in. He had one house with his family, and his “guards” took up another house next to it. Across the street from us lived Regino Boti, the man in charge of the “economy”. We saw Boti, Che, and Castro meet across the street at Boti’s house many times. My father wanted to shoot Castro from out porch, but my mother’s objection that she needed a father for her children was sustained, and my father gave up.
Living next door to Che had its advantages, though. On Sunday, the 16th of April, 1961, we were ready to go visit my uncle, when the head of Che’s guard called my father over. He told my father that we’d better stay home, because they knew there was an “invasion” coming from the States, though they didn’t know when it would get there or where it would attack. That came as no surprise to us, because American planes had bombed all the major military airports on the island the day before, and we knew then that “something was up”.
We lived about four miles from one of those military airports, and I remember our solid house rattling with the bombs. I remember arguing with my grandmother at six o’clock that morning of the bombing. She kept telling me to get up and go into the bathroom (it had a double ceiling) because there were bombs dropping. I kept telling her it was just a thunderstorm, until I was fully awake and could see the gorgeous tropical sky and could feel the house shaking—I was in the bathroom in one jump. It was the only time I had actually seen my grandmother pray. And it worked, because the bombs ended up on target and we were protected.
That night and the next we had Che’s guards all around our house and in our backyard. They told us we had to close the curtains and turn the lights off. That wasn’t bad—we were used to the government’s way of conserving electricity by turning it off a few hours every night. That Sunday night my mother set out to water the plants on the front porch when a rifle made its way across our front door, blocking her exit. It was one of the guards, who asked my mother to go back inside. It scared her half to death! He was nice, though, and watered the plants for my mother. Monday morning the Bay of Pigs invasion hit the island, consisting mostly of US-exiled Cubans backed by US military. When John F. Kennedy changed his mind and ordered support withdrawn and the Castro government then defeated the invasion in less than 72 hours, the guards left us alone for a while. But they always kept a close watch on us.
When the Bay of Pigs prisoners were exchanged back to the States for food, medicines, and machinery, we were able to get a share, because our uncle had a nephew who was a prisoner. We got a small box of Corn Flakes and a small jar of peanut butter. My mother gave me the Corn Flakes and she gave my younger sister the peanut butter. I remember savoring every flake of those Corn Flakes…one flake at a time….too bad they came to an end…and life went back to its hopeless normality. Sort of. Because my aunt, (my mother’s sister), my uncle, and my cousin left the country on the spur of the moment. They went “to see if they could get onto one of the American ships that were letting families of prisoners get on board and seek political asylum.” They didn’t think they would be able to. But they did. And at the last minute they miraculously got on a ship. They got on board with the clothes on their back. Nothing else. Slept on the hard deck all crunched together with other people, with just one blanket to share for 3. All for freedom. They left their house behind with everything in it. And they never looked back. They kissed the US soil when they got here.
Life did go on “pretty normally” for a while, for what the sad and desperate “normalcy” was at the time. Then my mother’s brother left the country with my aunt and cousin. They left on the last flight from Havana to Miami right before the Cuban Missile Crisis, in October of 1962. And that was the last time we would see them for years. And now we were the last ones left in the country. All alone except for a few “left-over” friends who, for one government excuse or another, had been denied leaving the country.
In 1965 we found out that my uncle, my father’s youngest brother, had developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had been living in Mexico since before Castro, and so the Cuban government gave my father a “special” two-week permission to go see my uncle. The only reason my father was able to obtain that permission is that the government “half-trusted” my father, since he had been out of the country twice on special permission for medical conferences and had not tried to stay abroad. But this time it was different. My father knew it was “now or never”—he might not have another opportunity to leave the country for medical conferences again, and, even if he did, seeking exile as a political refugee would bring added problems. So at the end of the two weeks he asked the government for permission to stay another two weeks. At the end of the month my father “announced” to the Cuban government and to us that he wasn’t coming back. And that’s when our real nightmare began.
(To be continued.....)