Castro’s death spurs memories for Twin Cities Cubans

| December 9, 2016 | 1 Comment
Local Cubans pray at Our Lady of Charity National Shrine in Miami Nov. 26. The death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro triggered both excitement and a more subdued reaction among Cuban exiles in Miami. CNS/Tom Tracy

Cubans pray at Our Lady of Charity National Shrine in Miami Nov. 26. The death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro triggered both excitement and a more subdued reaction among Cuban exiles in Miami. CNS/Tom Tracy

Painful memories of life under Fidel Castro remain to this day for Ernesto Piedra, who fled Cuba in the 1994 Cuban raft exodus.

“When I was 11 years old, the Fidel Castro people killed my dad in the civil war in Cuba,” said Piedra, 70, now the Spanish Mass choir director at Incarnation in Minneapolis.

Under Castro’s leadership, the Cuban revolution began in 1953, finally ousting sitting president Fulgencio Batista in 1959. It upended Piedra’s world; his mother spent 40 to 50 days in prison, and two brothers were imprisoned for three and seven years, respectively, he said.

Despite that suffering, he doesn’t celebrate the communist leader’s Nov. 25 death, he said. Instead, he thinks of the Cubans still in his homeland.

“I pray and say, ‘Oh God, please help my people over there,’” Piedra said.

Mixed messages

Media have sent mixed messages about Castro’s legacy since his death and burial, observed Deacon Luis Rubi, who was born in Cuba and ministers at Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul.

“It feels a little bit like Castro has been portrayed as some sort of folk hero and champion of human rights,” he said. “Which, for anyone who actually knows what’s happened there in so many years, it’s a really ridiculous thing to be saying.”

He added: “It’s not even naive, it’s just wrong.”

Deacon Rubi likened the response called for in the wake of Castro’s death to the one he explained for a confirmation class at the time of Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011: hope that the deceased had a conversion and received salvation.

“I had been watching the cheering crowds and all the things going on in the country and elsewhere,” Deacon Rubi said. “I reminded the students it’s understandable that people would be cheering at the death of a butcher, a person who did so much harm, but that we should never, ever rejoice in the death of a sinner.”

Deacon Rubi was 9 months old when his family moved to the U.S. around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Religious sisters at a neighboring convent warned his mother that his family should leave Cuba. The sisters’ order had a convent in the Soviet Union and saw parallels in the persecution people were experiencing.

Today Deacon Rubi compares Castro to Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler as authorizers of persecution, torture and death.

Although he grew up in the United States, the enduring shadow of the Castro regime struck Deacon Rubi while visiting cousins in Key Largo, Florida. He saw a 1959 copy of Life Magazine laying on a counter in their southern Florida home, and the issue’s cover photo featured Castro and his inner circle holding up their guns.

He recognized a face.

“I saw my cousin’s wife’s father in that same inner circle, and I go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Alcides,’” Deacon Rubi recalled. “So they told me the story that he was actually part of the revolution, and he was part of the inner circle. But once he found out that this was a communist play, he had to go into hiding” for two years because he disagreed with the ideology. Alcides Gonzalez was able to escape to the U.S. in 1960 and worked for two years to raise enough money to bring the rest of his family to the U.S.

Danger touched all Cubans. Deacon Rubi recounted one story told to him by his late uncle, Miguel Leal, who lived in Cuba until the early 2000s, about the Elian Gonzalez case.

Gonzalez made international headlines as a 6-year-old after escaping Cuba by boat with his divorced mother, who drowned on their way to Miami in 1999. His father reclaimed him and returned him to Cuba in 2000 with the support of the Clinton administration.

Leal witnessed what happened with the public gatherings in Havana Square calling for Gonzalez’s return.

“What my uncle mentioned is that the Cuban government actually sent out buses all across the country byways and highways, and soldiers with machine guns basically said, ‘Get in’, to people,” Deacon Rubi said. “That’s how they filled the square, under force.”

Daily life in Cuba was difficult, too. Piedra recalls the difficulty to make a livelihood in Cuba. Music became his career after government officials removed him from school because of his faith and family ties to military opposing Castro, he said. Piedra started a band in 1974, but the members couldn’t legally accept tips, stunting his income.

The government regulated the foods Cubans could purchase for their homes, Piedra said. For instance, he said, a person could have, “five pounds of rice, six pounds of sugar and three ounces of coffee,” for a month.

Hope for change

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, saw Cuba more recently during a November trip for his work with the Engage Cuba Minnesota State Council, an organization that works to end the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba. The embargo has been in place since 1962.

“Cuba is still a communist country, but it did not strike me as a police state,” Adkins said. “I had complete freedom of movement while in the country, and even found a Mass to attend at a convent close to the private residence in which I stayed.”

Adkins said that “no one is destitute, but almost everyone is poor,” and Cuba’s infrastructure reflects the material lack. Buildings show serious wear and tear, even in the capital city. But, Adkins has hope for the island nation.

“It was depressing to see the dilapidated splendor of Havana, but there were glimpses of what a renewed Havana could look like,” Adkins said.

Castro’s death could also present a renewed opportunity for dialogue between the nations, Adkins said.

“The isolation of Cuba by the embargo, which extends far beyond U.S. trade, perpetuates an injustice on the Cuban people, for which the United States suffers as well,” he said, adding that he thinks Minnesota lawmakers should play a role in ending the embargo.

“It is my deep hope that our full congressional delegation will follow the lead of Congressman Tom Emmer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and end the trade and travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba that are the result of the failed policies of the embargo,” he said.

Castro’s rule included some positive aspects for the country, Adkins noted.

“The Castro regime has been vigilant in keeping drugs, pornography and gambling out of the country, proving that one need not be Christian to see how such vices harm the common good,” Adkins said. “These prohibitions have been a blessing to the people. And it has invested significantly in health care and education, creating a nation with extraordinary human capital.”

They don’t justify, however, years of oppression and violence, and “marriage rates are low, abortion is common, and people lack access to basic goods and technologies we take for granted every day,” he said.

Castro’s regime also hindered the Church, although Adkins saw signs of new life during his visit.

“One government official to whom I spoke acknowledged that Christian social theory was receiving new consideration by many in Cuban government and society,” Adkins said.

Adkins noted that the Church isn’t drawing young people, but the elderly in the Church still attend Mass despite decades of oppression.

“Like baseball, surprisingly, young Cubans seems to regard the Church as a thing for old people,” he said.

Pope Francis visited Castro in 2015, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

“One of the primary goals [of the Church] has been to really open up more dialogue around religious liberty and the opportunity, too, for the people to worship,” Deacon Rubi said.

The deacon doesn’t believe Pope Francis’ offering of condolences to Castro’s family and Cuba hints at the pontiff’s approval of Castro’s politics.

“I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with his expressing condolences for any human being’s passing,” Deacon Rubi said. “I don’t think that that’s affirmation, expressing condolences to family, it seems like a civil thing to do regardless of who the person is or was.”

He added: “My hope and prayer for [Castro], really, is that those interactions with John Paul and Benedict and now Francis were things that moved his heart.”

The effect of Castro’s death on Cuba is unknown, although the leadership since 2008 of his brother and fellow revolutionary, Raul Castro, gives some barometer of what’s next.

Calling him “worse than Fidel 20 times,” Piedra is pessimistic about Raul’s leadership, but Adkins sees an opportunity.

“Fidel’s passing allows the Cuban government to make changes and acknowledge the failures of the revolution while not assaulting Fidel’s dignity and embarrassing him while he was still alive,” Adkins said. However, he added, “drastic changes right away” are unlikely.

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