Cubans Face Past as Stranded Youths in U.S.
January 12, 1998
Raquelin Mendieta cannot cry. Maria de Los Angeles Torres cannot send her daughters alone in a plane anywhere. And Antonio Garcia, married for 31 years, cannot stand to be apart from his wife for even one night.
They are grappling with the legacy of the darkest period in their lives, the time in the early 1960’s when, as children, they were sent alone from Cuba to the United States by parents who feared Communism.
The 3 were among 14,000 children who in the span of 21 months -- from December 1960 to October 1962 -- were flown out of Cuba under a plan developed by the Roman Catholic Church in Miami and the United States Government. Under the plan, which for a time was kept secret from the Cuban Government as well as the American public, the State Department gave a young Miami priest the extraordinary authority to allow entry, without a visa, to Cuban children age 6 to 16.
Some of the parents who sent their children away were underground fighters seeking to topple the Government of Fidel Castro, who took power in January 1959. Others feared that Mr. Castro, who had closed all Catholic schools and confiscated church property, planned to indoctrinate children in special schools. And other parents simply thought that having children living in the United States would guarantee them a quick visa later.
Known as Operation Pedro Pan, in a bilingual reference to the boy who never grew up, it is the largest child rescue ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. It is also one of the saddest chapters in the history of Cuban immigration to the United States.
The family separations were to have lasted only a few months -- whenever the parents obtained visas to travel to the United States or Mr. Castro was ousted, as many Cubans at the time expected. But the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 abruptly ended flights to and from the island, leaving the children stranded on the other side of the Straits of Florida.
Many remained under the care of the Catholic Church for years. They were sent to foster homes, orphanages and even homes for delinquents in 35 states. By the time they saw their parents again, they were grown women and men, already married and with children. Some of the families were never reunited.
The children of Pedro Pan, as they call themselves, now live quiet lives all over the United States. Most are successful men and women who managed to put painful memories behind as they learned English, became United States citizens, got an education, started families and worked hard. They are bankers and hairdressers, writers and teachers, artists and builders.
Only recently, with their children as old as they were during the operation, and as they have reached the age of their parents when such decisions were made, they have begun dealing openly with the memories of their lonely childhoods.
Some, particularly those who were separated for a long time, say they paid a very high price for their freedom and resent their parents’ actions. Others say they are forever grateful for their parents’ sacrifice. But however they view the decisions made long ago, the children of Pedro Pan are united today in a fraternity of shared pain. They all carry the scars of a truncated childhood.
"Over all, it was a good thing because it saved us from Communism," said Mr. Garcia, who is now 50 and a car washer in Miami. "But I have told my mother, and I know it pains her, that I would never do to my own children, if I had them, what my parents did to me."
Ms. Torres, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, came to the United States alone when she was 6. She has spent six years researching the operation and is particularly interested in the role of the United States Government. Ms. Torres said she believed that people in the Government viewed the children of Pedro Pan as a perfect cold war propaganda tool.
"There were people involved who had their own sinister motives," said Ms. Torres, who is now 42 and the mother of two girls. "They wanted to create panic, to scare the middle class into disaffecting from the revolution."
Ms. Torres wants the Central Intelligence Agency to allow her to see the files that she is sure hold details of the Pedro Pan operation. So far, the C.I.A. has denied knowing of the operation. Today, Ms. Torres plans to file suit to force the agency to release whatever information it has. Anya Guilshes, a spokeswoman for the C.I.A., said the agency had no comment about Operation Pedro Pan.
The operation started in December 1960, when James Baker, the headmaster of an American school in Havana who has since died, met with the Rev. Bryan O. Walsh, a Miami priest with the church’s social service agency, and told him that parents in Cuba were concerned about their children’s welfare. The two agreed that if Mr. Baker could get children out of Cuba with student visas issued by the United States Embassy in Havana, the Catholic Church would take care of them.
When the embassy closed shortly thereafter, in January 1961, Father Walsh turned to the State Department, which gave him blanket authority to issue visa waivers to children 6 to 16. Older children had to undergo security clearances before they could travel.
Father Walsh sent the waiver forms to Cuba, often in diplomatic pouches. The forms were filled out for the children, who were then allowed to travel to the United States. When the organizers in Cuba ran out of forms, they falsified them.
With some exceptions, the children of Pedro Pan say they are grateful to have grown up in this country, but they also wonder what their lives would have been like if they had not been separated from their parents.
"It is not all as rose-colored as one may think -- we carry around a lot of pain," said Elly Vilano-Chovel, a 50-year-old real estate broker in Miami and a founder of the Operation Pedro Pan Group, which was created in 1991 to help children who are orphans and refugees.
What frustrates so many Pedro Pan children is the twist of fate of 1962, when the flights were canceled, leaving a trail of broken families and troubled lives.
"That is the irony of it," said Ms. Torres, who began her research when her eldest daughter turned 6 and she started to question what could possibly had driven her parents to send her abroad at such a young age. "This operation was conceived to avoid the destruction of the Cuban family and ended up creating so much suffering."
Monsignor Walsh, now 67 and director emeritus of Catholic Charities, says he knew the children were lonely and sad without parents. But he said the church had done everything possible to make them happy and keep them safe. In all these years, Monsignor Walsh said, he has heard of no child who was mistreated.
"I know it was sad for them, but I have no regrets," said Monsignor Walsh, who still lives in Miami. "How can I? All I did was to take care of children who were alone. Ultimately, the decision to send them was made by the parents, who assumed the separation would be short-lived."
Ms. Torres, who was separated from her family for four months, considers herself lucky. Others, like Jorge Viera, a 50-year-old banker in Miami, had a much tougher time. Mr. Viera, who was sent when he was 14, did not see his parents for 25 years and then only briefly, when his parents visited him in Miami. They returned to Cuba, where they died two years ago.
"Basically, I lost my parents when I was 14 -- the family, as I knew it, ceased to exist then," Mr. Viera said, adding that he understands why his parents sent him alone and feels only admiration for their courage.
In Mr. Garcia’s case, his parents feared for his life because he had started to rebel against the Government. He was sent at 15 and was separated from his parents for five years. When they finally arrived in 1967, he stood in front of his mother and she did not recognize him. Mr. Garcia’s mother, Maria del Carmen Garcia, now 71, sobbed on the telephone as she recalled that day.
"I sent a boy, a nice child who never spent a night outside his home and I found a man with a mustache and a girlfriend," Mrs. Garcia said, adding that in the years she was away from her son, she contemplated suicide every time she went to the docks.
"I would look to the water and think, ‘This water that separates us can bring us together.’ But my faith in God did not allow me to do anything foolish."
Mr. Garcia, who married at 20, said that although he lived with a kind family while he waited for his parents, he would always miss the time they could have spent together. Fifteen years ago, he said, he suffered a nervous breakdown and the memories of his adolescence came rushing in. He cried all the time.
Others have had different reactions. Enma Baron, a 53-year-old perfectly composed and impeccably coiffed wine importer in Manhattan, begins to cry at the mere mention of the five years -- from 17 to 22 -- she lived without her parents. Ms. Baron calls them "the dark ages" and refuses to discuss them. When her parents immigrated to the United States, her mother had become mentally ill and her father, a doctor, was crippled and could not work.
Ms. Mendieta, who left when she was 15, was sent to a home for juvenile delinquents in Dubuque, Iowa. She was accompanied by her sister, Ana, then 12.
She told of living a nightmare surrounded by violent girls who had committed crimes. Ms. Mendieta said nuns had forbidden her and her sister to speak Spanish, hit them when they misbehaved and once locked her in a dark closet when she cried hard. Ms. Mendieta, now 51, is accomplished sculptor and the mother of five who said she had a large family, in part, in an attempt to replicate the family she lost.
Mr. Viera, the banker, refuses to go to Cuba to see his only brother because to see him would open up old wounds, he said.
"I have healed -- I have moved on," Mr. Viera said. "It would be too painful."
And Luis Ramirez, a childless contractor in Newark who is 44, recently lost a chance to become a foster parent because he decided to return a little girl to her mother after two months.
"In the end, children belong with their parents," said Mr. Ramirez, who was sent alone when he was 8 years old and did not see his parents for two years. "Ultimately, she would have held it against us."
Yet, despite the pain, many Pedro Pan children say they would do what their parents did, given the same circumstances. Although their parents’ worst fears never materialized -- children were not taken from their homes by the Government in Cuba -- growing up there in the 60’s and 70’s would not have been easy for them. It would have meant not being able to openly practice their Catholic faith and, for children of people who opposed the Cuban Government, a life of ostracism.
"Our parents gave us choices in life," said Yvonne Conde, a 47-year-old freelance writer in Manhattan who was separated from her parents for eight months when she was 10 and is now writing a book about the program. "Over all, I think it had a positive effect in our lives."
But even Ms. Conde said she was somewhat weary of people who assert that the operation was positive because so many of the Pedro Pan children are now leading productive, successful lives.
"Those are the ones we know about, the ones who want to be known," she said from her apartment on the Upper East Side. "They send their business cards and fax their resumes. But I often wonder about the ones we don’t know about. What are their lives like?"
The World; Four Decades of Revolution Bring Cuba Full Circle
February 1, 1998
FOR 39 years he has worked hard to build a better society for his own children and for all the children of Cuba. At 73 he still works as an organizer of the elections that every two years guarantee the permanence of the government he helped bring to power in 1959.
Pictures of him with Fidel Castro dot the walls of his comfortable apartment in the upscale Vedado district, and his frayed olive green uniform -- the one he wore without fail for 13 years -- hangs in his closet. He still rattles off the achievements of the revolution in health and education. When Mr. Castro speaks, he listens with pride.
Yet Serafin, the only name he would allow for publication, says he is an anguished man. "I look around and I see the needs of my people, how they must struggle to survive every day, and it fills me with sorrow," he said.
Serafin’s quandary is common these days in Cuba as old revolutionaries and diehard Fidelistas come to terms with the failure of their dreams. From their posh apartments in Vedado and the area known as Miramar, those who helped make this revolution look around in horror and see what the country has come to: Many parents must scramble to feed their children, some sick people die for lack of medicines, young women marry foreigners for a chance to leave the country, old people line up in the morning to buy newspapers they can resell, and children as young as 8 gravitate to tourist spots asking for handouts.
Welcome to Latin America
In many ways, Cuba today is not unlike any other underdeveloped Latin American country. True, children go to school and do not sleep in the streets. But there is class division (those who have dollars and those who do not). There is prostitution (young women throw themselves at tourist cars). People rummage through garbage for everything from spare parts to plastic containers. Some of the potholed city streets resemble rural roads. Large families of two or three generations squeeze into tiny, dilapidated apartments. And there are a lot of needy, unhappy, rundown, desperately sad people.
In these conditions, it is tempting for Cubans to look for solace in comparisons with, say, Peruvians or Mexicans. At least here, the Government guarantees some basic needs (rice, beans, sugar and, occasionally, toothpaste) and free doctors’ care for all.
But the people who made the Cuban revolution, who for the most part genuinely believed they were building a better world, know the revolution was supposed to be much more than that. The country was not supposed to just survive, but to prosper. It was not supposed to alienate its best sons and daughters, but to convert ordinary citizens into social idealists. And finally, after all the years of scarcities and slogans, it was not supposed to depend, once again, on the Yankee dollar.
This is perhaps the cruelest failure of the revolution for people like Serafin, who believed Mr. Castro could liberate them from dependence on their huge northern neighbor. That dependence was what Mr. Castro blamed for Cuba’s troubles 39 years ago -- the regime of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, the reliance on American sugar markets that kept Cuban peasants poor, and the domination of Havana’s tourism, gambling and prostitution by American mobsters.
Yet today, despite the United States embargo, officials acknowledge that the economy’s pillars are dollar-based: tourism and "remesas," the dollars that Cubans abroad send home to relatives and friends. Half of Cuba’s people -- most of them in Havana -- have access to dollars, either because they are paid in them or because they receive them from abroad.
With the return of the dollar, any hope of achieving the old revolutionaries’ tattered ideals is buckling under the weight of all the concessions the regime has had to make in order to survive since the crumbling of the Soviet bloc.
In the last few years, the hotels have filled with tourists who snap pictures of dilapidated buildings, and the nights have reverted to a debauchery that recalls the 1950’s. Teachers who taught Russian have been retrained to teach English, and young doctors and engineers bribe hotel managers for jobs serving food in dollars-only restaurants.
And the schism that separates the classes is deepening: Those who have dollars eat meat and have toilet paper; those who do not go without proteins in their diet and use pages of old textbooks for their sanitary needs. There are people in Cuba who carry only dollars in their pockets. There are others who have never seen one.
Welcome to 1958
In a twist of fate or bad planning, these were some of the very conditions that fomented the Cuban revolution in the 1950’s. The revolution set out to eradicate ills it attributed to capitalism: poverty, inequality, illiteracy, diseases, prostitution. With Soviet help, it made enormous strides in education and health care. But it was never able to fully accomplish all of its goals. The children of government officials always lived better than the children of ordinary workers, and the economic crisis began even before the Berlin Wall fell.
In important ways, the Cuban revolution is hardly alone. Throughout the Soviet bloc, the most common -- and, in the end, perhaps the most fatal -- failure of Communism was its inability to turn ordinary human beings into loyal new socialist citizens. Here, after almost four decades of indoctrination, most people, including the children of old revolutionaries, are dissatisfied by the government’s failure to deliver material security. The welcome to the Pope last week demonstrates that Marx did not become the only source for ideals.
The desires of today’s youth, it seems, are not so different from those of people who were young here in 1958. Like people everywhere, Cuba’s young want to raise families and prosper. If that is impossible in Cuba, many want to leave for a land of greater individual opportunity.
Five years ago, Serafin’s oldest son was sent to prison for trying to leave by boat. Serafin finally visited him after eight months. "It was very difficult," he said, swallowing hard. "I think he made a mistake."
Although pained by Cuba’s situation, some old revolutionaries stubbornly cling to their ideals. Very few admit they made a mistake. And they probably cannot. At 73 or 65, to declare the revolution a failure would be to renounce their life’s work.
Reality, though, is sometimes impossible to ignore. Carlos, a 65-year-old man who fought against Batista then went into exile and returned when Batista fell, cannot accept any criticism of either Mr. Castro or his revolution. He was the only person interviewed who gave his full name. But his daughter asked him to withhold it for fear of reprisal against her. A 35-year-old former biology teacher, she rents half of her one-bedroom apartment and sells cigars on the side. Both activities are illegal without licenses. She and Carlos avoid politics when they talk; yet, when she can, she drops a few dollars in her father’s wallet.
Many Cubans, of course, blame the United States embargo for their problems. But even that argument rankles old revolutionaries because to hang Cuba’s fate solely on its ability to trade -- and with the United States at that -- reeks of the dependency mentality Mr. Castro set out to eliminate.
Welcome to World Trade
Economists trained here now acknowledge that few countries can survive economically without trading with their neighbors. But even that simple thought has required a shifting of the collective Cuban mind. People born after the revolution never had to worry about market conditions or the value of the dollar.
Now, there is a long list of applicants for a new M.B.A. program at the University of Havana, and people flock to English and marketing classes. The dollar has become so much a fact of Cuban life it has at least eight names: fula, guano, guaniquiqui and varo (all slang for money), peso, verde (green), chavitos (coins) and, of course, divisas, the official term, which means foreign exchange.
A woman who lives in Miramar takes solace in the fact that her husband, a respected official who believed deeply in socialism, died eight years ago, right before the worst times began. Since then, two of his children have left Cuba. Two more would like to go.
"As much as I miss him, I know that what happened was the best thing that could have happened," she said, drying her tears. "If he were alive today, I don’t know what my husband would have done, but I do know that he would have been incredibly sad."
Havana Journal; A Sentimental Journey to La Casa of Childhood
February 3, 1998
HAVANA, Feb. 1 -- This is the moment when, in my dreams, I begin to cry. And yet, I’m strangely calm as I go up the stairs to the apartment of my childhood in Santos Suarez, the only place that, after all these years, I still refer to as la casa, home.
I am holding a pen and a reporter’s notebook in my hand and, as I always do when I am working, I count the steps: 20. In my memory, there were only 16. The staircase seems narrower than I remember, the ceiling lower.
Perhaps I have grown taller, perhaps my hips have widened with age and pregnancy. I am buying mental time, distracting my mind from what I am certain will be a shock.
After 17 years and 8 months, I have returned to Cuba as a reporter. I am here to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II, not to cry at the sight of a chipped, old tile on the floor.
The last time I went down these steps I was 16 years old and a police car was waiting for me and my family downstairs. They had come to tell us that my uncle, like thousands of other Cuban exiles who had returned to Cuba to claim their relatives, waited at the port of Mariel to take us to Miami in a leased shrimp boat.
It was May 7, 1980, the first days of what became known as the Mariel boat lift, the period from April to September 1980 when more than 125,000 Cubans left the island for the United States.
That day I left my house in a hurry. The police gave us 10 minutes to get ready and pack the few personal items we were allowed to take: an extra set of clothing, some pictures, toothbrushes. Everything else, from my books to my dolls and my parents’ wedding china, remained behind. There were dishes in the sink and food in the refrigerator. My underwear in a drawer and my mother’s sewing machine open for work.
Since then, I have often thought about this house, remembering every detail, every curve and tile and squeaky sound. The green walls of the living room, the view from the balcony, the feel of the cold tiles under my bare feet, the sound of my father’s key in the keyhole and the muffled noise from the old refrigerator in the kitchen.
A stranger opens the door and I tell her who I am and what I want. "I used to live here," I say. "I’d like to take a look."
Surprisingly, she knows my name. She asks if I am the older or the younger child who used to live in the house. I say I am the older as I look over her head. Straight into my past. My home remains practically as we left it, seemingly frozen in time, like much of Cuba today.
There, to the right of the bedroom’s door, is my father’s handiwork -- two glass shelves he screwed into the wall -- and my mother’s set of orange and green glasses. Later, I learn that no one ever drinks from those glasses. If they break, the new owner of the house tells me, they cannot be replaced. Under the shelves is my bookcase, painted a fresh coat of dark brown. A carpenter friend of my father’s had built it for me when I was a little girl.
My books are gone, though. When the Cuban Government declared a few years ago that it had entered a "special period" of shortages and books all but disappeared, she took my books to the school where she teaches. I am pleased to hear that. It is a much nicer fate than I had imagined.
One book remains, "Captain at 15," by Jules Verne. I want to take it to New York with me, to show it to my son. But I do not say anything and the yellowing book remains there, inside the bookcase. My mother’s pots and pans are in the kitchen. The old wooden ironing board remains where it always was, behind the door to the patio.
The dining set is exactly the way it was, except the table is covered by a plastic tablecloth and I do not feel the coldness of the beige Formica when I sit at the table as I used to. A painting of red, white and yellow hibiscus that always hung over my sofa bed is still in the same spot in the living room. It was painted by one of my mother’s cousins, who now lives in Florida.
This is a strange feeling. I knew I would face my childhood by coming here, but I never expected to relive it as I am doing now. I go out to the balcony and then, as if on cue, I hear someone calling out my childhood nickname, "Mirtica! Mirtica!"
For a moment, I do not know who is calling or even if the call is real. It sounds like my mother calling me for dinner. But it is the neighbor from the corner who looked up from her terrace and somehow recognized me. I wave faintly. I want to stay in this apartment for a long time. I want to be left alone. But I cannot. It is no longer my home.
The Jimenez family now lives in the house. He is a truck driver, just as my father was. They have a 15-year-old son who sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room, just as my sister and I did. The Government gave them the apartment a few months after we left. Their own house, nearby, had been badly damaged in a hurricane.
They were shown three apartments, all in the same neighborhood. They settled in ours, they said, because it seemed the nicest. It does not seem so nice anymore. It is rather small, smaller than I remember. The floor tiles are porous and lackluster and chunks of plaster have fallen from the ceiling. There is no light in the living room, because nowadays in Cuba light bulbs are luxury items. But it is home. And, yes, I cry.
Despite their warm welcoming, I am acutely aware of what the Jimenezes may be thinking. For years, one of the propaganda campaigns that the Cuban Government has mastered is that of instilling in ordinary Cubans the fear that exiles in the United States want to return to the country to recover the homes and businesses they lost when they left the country.
There is even a television short that mocks the Helms-Burton Act, a law intended to strengthen the United States embargo against Cuba, that warns Cubans to watch out for people like me, returning exiles.
I have no interest in my former home and whatever furniture still exists there, other than a purely sentimental one. But I do not know what the Jimenezes are thinking. They are, however, extremely generous with their time and space. They serve me coffee. We discuss the good features of the apartment, as if this were a real estate transaction. They tell me they love the old American refrigerator, a white Hotpoint that, miraculously, still stands.
I roam through the house as if it were my own. When, upon leaving, I apologize for the inconvenience, Mr. Jimenez tells me: "Don’t mention it. This is your home."
I knew this would be an emotional visit. Before I mustered enough courage to go up to the apartment, I had walked through the neighborhood. As my father asked me to do, I visit la bodega and search for Juan, the Spaniard who once owned it and, after it was confiscated by the Government in the early years of the revolution, remained there as an employee of the state.
He is retired now, but I find him helping out at another bodega, and we chat. I take a picture for my father as he stands behind the counter with a pencil balanced behind his ear, as he always did.
I walk the streets and find faces I recognize. I approach some; others approach me because, they tell me, I remind them of my mother. Some even call out her name, which is also mine, from across the street: "Mirta, what are you doing here? You’ve come back?"
They tell me who died and who left. The son of my sixth-grade teacher lost a leg in a bicycle accident. My next-door neighbor left for Spain with her son, Pepito, to claim an inheritance. The musician from downstairs died of bone cancer; his daughter married an Italian and left.
The downstairs neighbors returned to the province where they were born. For years, she was the president of the watchdog neighborhood committee; he wore a green olive uniform, a military man forged in the mountains of Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro and later trained in the Soviet Union. Their two children left for the United States.
My old neighbors tell me how they live, how they survive, as one woman put it. They make sweets at home and sell them in the street. They receive money monthly from the United States. They steal from the Government. They save and scrape and work very hard just to put food on the table every day.
The old movie theater is gone, demolished two years ago because it was crumbling with age and disrepair. Another theater has been condemned. The front door is covered with bricks. The hardware store is now a Government office. The glass of the windows broke years ago; crude wooden boards cover the empty shelves. The streets are unpaved and full of potholes. Workers rip them open to fix water or gas pipes and then do not have the materials to finish the work.
In a way, I’m reporting the story of a neighborhood, a typical one in Havana. But I’m also reporting the life I never got to have. Through their stories, I see what my life could have become. I search for parallels. I imagine myself as my neighbors.
What would have become of me? Could I have become a professional like the two girls from the corner who now teach? Would I have left in a raft like my next-door neighbor? Or perhaps I would have gone crazy, like the woman across the street, Regina, who could not recall my name after years of electroshock and pills. Her husband was accused of counterrevolutionary activities in 1979 and executed by a firing squad.
Had I stayed, would I have talked to a returning neighbor the way they talk to me? They tell me about the sadness of their lives, their husbands, their lovers, their misguided children, their ungrateful relatives, their never-ending litany of needs: bread, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, underwear, freedom.
Because I left, and because they know I will leave again, I become a depository of their penury. They are happy I have returned, glad that I remembered. A woman gives me a rose from her garden; another, two lithographs from an old book of paintings and a silver cross that has been in her family for years.
The Jimenezes give me a plastic bird that hangs from its beak from a wooden stand and, more important, our old soap holder, a white enamel piece from Poland that my mother always kept in the patio.
Down the block I find a man I never knew before. He stops me and asks if I am a foreign journalist. I say yes. "I want to ask you something," he says. "Perhaps you know. Why is it that children can no longer eat breakfast in the morning?" He is 70 years old and has lived in the same house for 44 years. His grandson goes to my old school, down the block. It is the man’s birthday and, he says, he cannot even buy a bone in the market to make himself a soup. I get a lump in my throat and wish him happy birthday.
I cross the street to the school and ask to see the library. It is here where I became a reader and, therefore, I think, a writer. I hardly recognize the place. The marble columns are there, but the bookcases lean precariously to the side. The books are dusty and yellowing.
I ask for the French literature section, but there is not one anymore. The librarian tells me that last year she received only two books, copies of "La Edad de Oro," by Jose Marti. The year before, none. In fact, except for those two books she does not remember the last time she got a shipment. Children now use the library as a classroom.
After a second visit to the apartment, I leave. And I leave exactly the way I left almost 18 years ago, profoundly sad, surrounded by friends and neighbors, people glad that I remembered them, unselfish people who are happy that I left and live better than they do.
Who says that Cubans are divided by politics or even by an ocean? In Enamorados Street, at the foot of a small hill called San Julio, my home and my people remain.
Havana Journal; Divided Loyalties Tugging at Cuba’s Children
February 18, 1998
More than eight years after the cold war melted in the rubble of the Berlin wall, the children of Cuba continue to dive under desks in schools all over the island.
The drills serve to reinforce the most pervasive ideological lesson in Cuba’s schools: that the United States is evil and that Cubans must always be ready to defend themselves.
That old message, fashioned after the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis in the early 1960’s, is fed constantly to children here even when there are no tensions between the United States and any other country, as there are with Iraq now.
But it is an especially poignant message today when most families in Cuba have relatives in the United States and when, faced with enormous economic difficulties, the Cuban Government has allowed dollars to circulate freely on the island.
Nowadays, when children come home from the war drills, they slip on shoes bought with dollars sent by their grandparents in Miami or, in some cases, they work odd jobs catering to American tourists to earn dollars themselves.
In the mornings, William Jose Diaz, a 12-year-old Pioneer who is in eighth grade, swears to defend the Cuban flag against "los Americanos." In the evenings, he rushes to open the doors of tourists cars. He works outside Pain de Paris, an expensive bakery in Vedado. Most nights, he makes at least $2. When someone handed him $1 recently, the boy rushed home to buy bananas for dinner.
Years ago, it was easier for parents to keep their children blissfully unaware of both their true political feelings and the hardships they went through. But now, with the country’s economy in chaos, even young children know that once they turn 7 they lose the right to buy milk.
They know that the Government issues only two school uniforms during elementary school -- one in kindergarten and the other in fifth grade. And that they are no longer able to buy toys because the Government did away with the yearly ritual of selling toys to children on the 26th of July, the anniversary of the beginning of Fidel Castro’s armed uprising in 1953.
The contradictions of their young lives -- hearing one message in school and another, radically different, at home -- confuses some children. Their teachers want them to fight the Americans; their parents want to join them or, at least, to get some of their dollars.
"Mom," a 7-year-old girl recently asked her mother, "if William Clinton is so bad, why do we want to go live with him?"
Trusting their children and thinking them ready to absorb contrasting messages, many parents openly discuss their beliefs in front of them and even mock the revolutionary slogans and songs they bring home. But then they ask their children to keep it to themselves.
Some parents fear that their children will be ostracized if their teachers know that they live in a non-revolutionary home. Parents who make a living in what the Government considers illegal activities -- renting a room or selling cigars without a license -- also fear that, if their children talk, the Government may confiscate their goods, fine them or, in some cases, jail them.
The burden of living in two distinct realities affects some children in psychological and physical ways. Teresita, a 14-year-old ninth grader who lives in Old Havana, said she had never told her best friend that her parents desperately want to leave the country.
She has also never told anyone that, when the doors are locked, her mother rants against President Castro, blaming his Government for the scarcities in their home. Two months ago, Teresita began to shed the hairs of her arms and legs. The doctors told her that she lacked some essential vitamins in her diet; the mother thinks it is a result of stress.
A 52-year-old writer who insisted on being identified only by his first name, Angel, cannot stand a song praising the revolution that his 9-year-old daughter has been singing lately. He tells her to stop and his daughter obeys. The mother, worried about her daughter, intercedes.
"You want your children to be a full member of the family, to know how you feel about everything," said the mother, a member of the Communist Party who long ago grew disenchanted with the revolution but outside the home pretends to be as enthusiastic as ever. "But I worry sometimes how all this is going to affect her and how much contradiction she can really absorb in her young mind."
Yet the girl’s mother, in a fit of anger, recently ripped to pieces her red Communist Party ID and threw it out the window. It was her daughter who ran three flights downstairs in a panic to retrieve the picture from the sidewalk so that no one would ever know what her mother had done.
While Angel helps his daughter with her homework, he systematically deconstructs everything she has been taught at school. She is now learning about Jose Marti, a 19th-century patriot who fought to free Cuba from Spanish colonialism. In Cuba today, Marti is also regarded as the intellectual precursor of the revolution. Angel tells his daughter that Marti would never have supported Mr. Castro’s Government. The little girl giggles and rolls her eyes.
But there is very little that parents can do to shape their children’s education. In a country with no private schools and compulsory education until ninth grade, parents are forced to send their children to state-run schools. They also have no say about the curriculum and, more and more these days, very little about their children’s extracurricular activities.
Some parents try to exert control by taking their children late to school to avoid the morning ritual where students salute the flag, sing the national anthem and repeat revolutionary slogans. Others are turning to religion, hoping that lessons in catechism will open their children’s minds to other points of view.
The Roman Catholic Church is taking full advantage of it. To make the shift easier for the children, it is incorporating some of the messages children hear in school into Sunday sermons. It is not unusual for priests now to somehow link Cuba’s patriots to religion.
At a recent Mass here, Jaime Cardinal Ortega Alamino drew cheers from his mostly young listeners when he reminded them that the full name of Antonio Maceo, one of Cuba’s most revered martyrs, was Antonio de la Caridad, a clear reference to Cuba’s patriot saint, Our Lady of Charity.
Priests in some churches are also enticing children to attend Mass and catechism classes through a system of bonuses and rewards. Children receive bonuses for every Mass and catechism class they attend. Once a week, they can exchange the bonuses for gifts like gum, clothing, pencils and toys, all donated from churches abroad.
"They get things they want and need and we get an opportunity to show them the church’s way," said the Rev. Jesus Maria Lusarreta, a priest at La Milagrosa, where more than 400 children attend catechism weekly.
During his five-day visit to Cuba in January, Pope John Paul II referred to Cuba’s youth in two of the four Masses he held. At the first, in Santa Clara, some parents nodded in silence when the Pope said, "Parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children."
But it is difficult for parents to heed the Pope’s words. Elementary school children go to school here from 8 A.M. to 4:20 P.M. On Saturdays, they often return to school for sports or political events. Sometimes they sleep over in the school to await so-called Domingos de Defensa, Sundays of Defense, days in which the children practice what it is like to be under attack and receive their lessons in a bunker.
Marta Perez Herrera, deputy director of Pepito Tey, an elementary school in Old Havana, said that, beginning in third grade, children are trained by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, who teach them everything from patriotic symbols to military moves. At a recent practice session in a park, uniformed men were training young children to march as one.
While the children marched, a 16-year-old girl in tight pink shorts stood in a corner a few blocks away eyeing foreigners. The girl, Yanel Noa, said she dropped out of school because she did not want to work in the fields, a requirement for all students in high school.
Had she continued in school, she would have become a dancer, she said. For now, she lives off the charity of a special friend: a 32-year-old married American man who often travels to Cuba loaded with cash.
1999 winners of the ASNE Writing Awards announced