Exiled by Ike, Saved by America

Fifty years ago this week, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration broke off diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s government, placing Cuba in the middle of the cold war and changing my life, and that of many of my fellow Cubans, forever.

By January 1961, I had spent a year and a half in Tampa, Fla., where relatives of mine had lived since the 1930s, and where my parents had settled us in 1959, planning to spend as much time as it took for life to return to normal in Cuba, or perhaps to stay.

I was 17 and had gone back to the island about six times. This was because I had left behind my girlfriend, Mercy, and also because I could not get used to American life, particularly teenage mores, which I found silly. (“Teenager” did not exist as a role in Cuban culture.) I saved every penny from my various jobs as dishwasher and bag-boy to buy those plane tickets.

But with the diplomatic rupture, my travels were over. Though I did not know it at the time, Eisenhower’s decision turned me into an exile. I would not set foot on Cuba again for 18 years, when I went with a committee of exiles to discuss the release of political prisoners.

Though many Cubans in circumstances similar to mine became American citizens at the first opportunity, wisely aware that their displacement was permanent, I refused to do so because I naïvely associated citizenship and nationality. I clung to my Cuban citizenship, though my Cuban passport soon expired, and as a “permanent resident” of the United States had to travel abroad using a re-entry permit, an awkward document that gave proof, among other things, that I had paid my taxes. Travel through Europe and Latin America required an assortment of visas, but I thought the difficulties were worth it because they allowed me to preserve my identity.

I also latched on to my native culture by making the study of Spanish and Latin American literature my life’s work, and in a sense I relived my traumatic acquisition of English as a teenager by learning French and Italian at the University of South Florida with pathological zeal. When I spoke those languages I assumed new personae; they were shields against an American culture I still could not quite absorb. Instead of freezing me into a role, the 1961 break in relations between my two countries transformed me into a man with several voices within my own head, a perspective that has informed my literary criticism, I believe.

Now I am safely far from what I derisively call (to tease my American children and grandchildren) “teenagehood in America.” I am a citizen of the United States, rejoicing in this country’s democracy which, for all its faults, is the best form of government to which we can aspire. Fifty years after the break in relations, while Cuba is still ruled by a male, white, militaristic, totalitarian gerontocracy, Barack Obama is the president of the United States and Hillary Clinton the secretary of state. Which of my two countries is the revolutionary one?

In that half-century, Fidel and Raúl Castro have managed to run into the ground what was a prosperous country, to drive a million and a half of its citizens into exile and to fill the jails with political and common prisoners. Recent changes in the Cuban economy, conciliatory gestures toward the church and the release and deportation of some political prisoners show that the Castros are aware of the instability of their system — which Fidel Castro not long ago blurted out does not even work in Cuba.

The one change that they have not dared to make, however, is to remove fear from Cuban life, because it is the glue that holds together their government. Fear of being accused by a neighbor who belongs to one of the vigilante Committees for the Defense of the Revolution; fear that the secret police will find something to incriminate you; fear that you will be jailed without charges for months or even years; fear that the government-sponsored mobs called Rapid Response Brigades will stage a violent rejection rally in front of your house (as has happened to the mother of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the dissident who died during his prison hunger strike last February); fear that you will be denied your request to travel abroad; fear that you will lose your job; fear, in short, that the long arm of power will reach down to you and smite you.

I am very happy to be here, free from all of those fears and hoping against reason that the next historical break in Cuba will not be a violent one, and that it will bring about a future of peace, prosperity and democracy.

With no more flights to Havana, and having met other girls, I wrote Mercy a letter in 1961 breaking up. I still feel shame for having done this. She came to Miami with her family shortly thereafter and we had an emotional meeting in Tampa when they visited us. But it was over. I have been told that this delicate, petite piano player who wanted to be a kindergarten teacher married a pilot, learned to fly a plane (coincidentally, so did I) and even does sky diving (I would never).

It is a constant of history: political decisions affect ordinary lives in unexpected and often permanent ways.

Roberto González Echevarria, a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Yale and the author of Cuban Fiestas.

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