People of the Cuban Revolution

My grandfather Gabriel Tubella “Pipa” and me with tin foil wings as Jose Marti’s butterfly the poem “LOS ZAPATICOS DE ROSA” in 1989. A soldier was coming home from serving in Africa and the neighborhood put together a welcoming celebration. I remember it perfectly.

The night before Fidel Castro died I dreamed my grandfather had passed away. My oblivious grandmother was in good spirits and explained the details of the funeral and burial as a distant matter-of-fact. I had to rather deduce what had happened on November 23, while I was away at a tedious left-leaning event. It pained me greatly to have to connect the dots in the midst of her apparent disconnection; his going hadn’t affected her personally. To decipher the dream’s meaning I was told to look-up the significance of a hard-boiled egg. In orthodox Judaism, it’s regarded as a food of mourning. Since the egg is also rounded, it also represents the mystic, endless circle of life and death. Being of a highly superstitious nature (as a logical result of being surrounded by bizarre, illogical phenomenon), I took the dream quite literally and made my mother call her father in Cuba to say one last good-bye...just in case. You never know and not doing anything might plague my conscience forever.

Through tears and with a faltering voice she did just that. I also tried to deliver a heartfelt but cheery adieu, communicating how much I loved him and still prized his 5-star breakfasts of omelets with diced plantains. The orphan of Catalan immigrants who refused to die in Morocco during the suppression of the Berber rebels in the Rif War, he’s always been the very reserved type and quietly accepted our unannounced pourings of love with his usual austere manner.

The following day, it was instead Fidel Castro’s death being announced by his Brother Raul on TV. My real grandfather is still fine but that other grandfather (if history registered Castro as a sort of founding father) has passed away. Once again my dream interpretation was too literal. I say all this in front of the eavesdropping NSA and whatever Cuban department also monitors my phone line, as I’m sure they do. They can verify my weird claims by looking up the call log and listen to my mom crying.

My maternal abuelo was a disciplined blue-collar construction worker all his life who helped modernize the rural outskirts of Camagüey, providing access to running water to hundreds of people by deep, drilled wells (drought is very common in Cuba). He’d ride his bicycle to work at dawn, working complex, heavy machinery under the blazing Caribbean sun that scorched to a deep tan his fair skin and strained his already beaten, former weightlifter’s back. A man of incorruptible morals, he eventually supervised entire construction projects (contraband of building materials has always plagued socialist systems) that provided decent, modest apartments to those that had no homes.

After a heavy dinner (his love of hearty food sometimes prompted him to prepare it himself), he’d either watch something on the soviet television set or sit in his rocking chair on the small porch. I vaguely remember showering early just to be able to join him in those rocking sessions. We’d just sit together in silence and gaze after familiar pedestrians.

In Miami (home to the biggest Cuban community outside of Cuba) my fellow countrymen are called “zombies that don’t know what they want” when dismissed as victims, and insulted with the worst adjectives (cowards, murderers, masochists, ignorant plebs, etc.) when judged as guilty in supporting their own Revolution. Those that hide their deep, unreasonable hate of the Cuban-people behind a suspicious anti-Castro fervor, offend honest citizens all the time yet the majority will never return to personally build a better country (without foreign aid aimed at subversion). The international, financial elites have also never tolerated free initiative as it disputes their hegemony in this globalized world but to defy powerful odds is a virtue. Cheap slander or cyberbulling can never really rob a people of their destiny and Cuba will one day be one of the most highly regarded places on Earth. Of this I am sure.

Precast concrete buildings created during the Revolution are visible throughout the entire island, providing basic housing to thousands of people.

As a model employee, Tubella became the boss of his syndicate to represent the demands of occasionally disgruntled co-workers but as an efficient member of the communist party, also represented law and order in the workplace. What might seem as contradictory was actually a sign of just how in touch he was with both forces and their intrinsic needs. As proof of that harmonious union was how much he was loved and respected by his coworkers who would go out of their way to call and visit him throughout the years, even after retirement.

He’d stand guard on sleepless nights as head of the neighborhood crime watch, a separate branch of the CDR or “The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”. People trusted him so much they’d ask him to hold their money when they didn’t trust themselves and needed a human savings account. Constantly in charge and in control of public and private riches, he never once stole a dime or bottle of oil or charged for his friendly services to the community.

“El Cata” or “Pipa” as we call him, Gabriel Tubella preparing Cuban coffee the traditional way during the “special” period when the Soviet Union disappeared and the economy nearly collapsed. During that difficult time the US only tightened the Embargo sanctions in order to drive people over the edge in utter desperation.

During the cold war, when Fidel Castro began to crusade against European “colonialism” in Africa, my grandfather became an overnight soldier and was drafted to fight in Angola. He survived the savage war without any signs of PTSD and brought back a pretty headscarf and beaded necklaces. Gabriel Tubella never knew his mother, lost his only sister to cancer, entire relatives were wiped out by tuberculosis, his half-brother was consumed in a fire accident, was scammed out of a house he built with his own hands, partially disinherited and was separated from his only daughter (my mom) in 1994.

The amount of suffering he’s lived through might crush a modern snowflake but he only shrugs it off his shoulders and pats together his rough hands with a smile to make jokes out of thin air. Although brutally realistic and direct when he does speak, he is an incurable optimist. Having gained so little in this world and had so much taken from him yet still getting through each day with non-fastidious strength, I’m proud to share his blood and surname. He is a testament to Cuban resistance. There is a bountiful yet untapped spring of confidant heroism there and although put to the most extreme tests that many have failed and switched sides in the middle of battle, I’ve discovered true Cuban nationalism is a persistent seed endemic to the island.

In the middle of a sudden blackout he lighted an emergency lantern with his customary smile and the camera’s flash captured the moment.

I know all the African war stories by heart. There was the hungry boy who came to camp to beg for bread announcing himself as “Tubella, aqui está pan-duro”, or “Tubella, here is hard-bread”. The most chilling one was the bomb going off by the lake where dozens of women and their children were blown to bits while they did their laundry. The enemy had set off the bomb and the Cuban soldiers came after the noise but it was too late and the whole shore was covered in blood. There where many poor farmers who didn’t understand what was happening and kept asking him in apparent uneasiness:

“We like the Cubans very much for helping us be free, but when will the Portuguese be coming back?”

Many feared the Portuguese so much, they didn’t dare confiscate their former owner’s goods or properties and even stood by to protect their cattle. These people needed to be free, even if some still weren’t sure that was permitted.

Many Cuban men lost their lives in those former African colonies, many believe we shouldn’t have helped the Soviet Union with their “imperialism”.

Some returned either traumatize or physically disabled but that was a different time. Stuck in the middle of the cold war, Cuba was on the left, promoting social justice in countries left behind as second-rate backyards of the United States or other lagging colonies used to extract raw minerals. Though a third-world island without natural resources or industry of any kind, Cuba’s long, internationalist arm has lifted out of miserable living conditions those who nobody bothers to cure. They’ve offered full university scholarships to those that can’t afford it back in their home countries and even helped almost 3 million people regain their eyesight under the “Operación Milagro” project. It’s drained Cuba’s economy, but shouldn’t that serve as an example of what real solidarity between nations should look like?

Jose Vidal “Pepe” was a neighbor who came back from service in Ethiopia and was warmly welcomed by the whole block but sadly died in an automobile accident around a year later. I was two years old in the picture and remember it well.

You hear many catchy-phrases on the right and numerous Facebook discussions boasting about Batista’s “golden” Cuba but all those glitzy accomplishments of colored television sets and grand automobiles were limited to only a select few while the rest of the population lived in poverty and national humiliation. The west was ripe with scandalous prosperity during the post–World War II economic expansion but in Cuba only the elites took any notice of that wealth. This probably sounds like just another young leftist rant but it’s taken me a while to understand the complexity of Cuba’s short history and relationship to the United States, especially since I came to this country under a political refugee visa and that actually gave me another bias.

My father in his youth (mid 1980’s) tried to push for reforms within the system back when political censorship was severe thanks to the hostility from the United States. Let’s not forget the CIA’s unbelievable biological-chemical warfare against the unsuspecting Cuban population. They wanted to get children physically sick with germs and viruses. It’s the same immoral tactic of Winston Churchill targeting civilian populations in Germany.

I’m proud of my father’s courage to defend his beliefs without any foreign aid but I cannot deny that my father was arrested under Fidel. However, it’s very likely that he’s alive today thanks to Fidel. Too young, naive and out of time, his reforms for the Revolution were not welcomed and he was mistaken for an infiltrated agent. During the cold war, you were either a CIA shill or a Soviet vassal. He was asked on several occasions if he had traveled abroad and why he maintained correspondence with Israel.

The State Intelligence under the “Ministry of Interior” had a new administrator and this new chief wanted to prove himself and win Fidel’s trust so my father’s group was blown out of proportion. Pretty soon after sleepless nights in a tiny cell, my father confessed to even wanting to assault a local television station though they didn’t have a single firearm and he knew the station didn’t make live broadcasts. It seemed fashioned after another famous assault in Bastista’s Cuba, by José Antonio Echeverría.

A group of mysterious young officers one day showed up at the prison to interview my father about the case. They asked very specific questions and behaved professionally. They also worked for the government and had come down from Havana to record on camera my father’s answers. Somewhere in a dark, dusty office those historic tapes of my young dad explaining what he wanted to do are just waiting in storage. I hope to one day see them myself.

In response to daily problems, a common saying in Cuba goes that surely “Fidel does not know about such and such” otherwise, he would fix it. Right under his nose, a possible coup was being crafted by these already powerful people (it’s my personal interpretation of the famous drug-trafficking, Ochoa-Abrantes ordeal). His most trusted men were slyly betraying him but still he narrowly escaped the atrocity of executing an innocent man; my father.

Very little time after Reinaldo Escobar’s traumatic imprisonment, the very same man that had arrogantly sat across from him in uniformed glory as the powerful head of such a prestigious secret service in direct alliance with the soviet KGB, Jose Abrantes Fernandez, lost everything he had. The man who personally confiscated one of my dad’s surrealist paintings (maybe he was a fan of modern art) was removed from power in 1989 alongside Arnaldo Ochoa and died in his cell.

The removal of similar scoundrels like Lage and Roque years later, reminds us that your actions as a leader are just as important as those of your closest officials. A leader must always be extra cautious with the company he keeps. I truly believe that negligence or distraction is a crime, as well as not distinguishing better between honest men and ruffians.

If the political leadership had not given the order to release my father, I would not have existed since the Provincial prosecution demanded capital punishment (death by a firing squad) for being the leader of the secret group. He would continue to be plagued with nightmares of getting arrested again for several years afterward. The cure was returning to Cuba after 15 years of exile in 2008. It really did stop the nightmares and feelings of persecution.

What about my other “26 of July” grandfather, who spent his entire life helping to construct a better Cuba? He is gone now but was an important puzzle piece in our story like the other thousands of unnamed revolutionaries. He gave it his all and never received or expected anything in exchange. By conspiring to overthrow the violent dictatorship of Batista through urban sabotage, Batista’s henchmen sentenced him to a slow and painful death through torture. I also would not have existed. When they discovered he was the son of Orhville Escobar, a respected gentleman publicly involved in politics (had attended first-hand with his wife the signing of the legendary constitution of the 40’s and supported the candidacy of Márquez Sterling), they dumped him on the side of the road as they always did with innocent young men. To be fair and unbiased, in Fidel’s future prisons nobody would be physically tortured like in Batista’s time. At most, prisoner’s have been subjected to sleep deprivation, physiological terrors and confined to small spaces which is wrong but unimpressive when compared to how the United States treats suspicious Muslims detained in Guantanamo.

Was he also wrong in wanting his Cuba sovereign and free of abusive, capitalist imperialism that trampled and spit with a cruel laugh on the nation’s dignity? These are just two men, out of thousands of men and women who gave up their youth, ingenuity, strength, intelligence and valor in shaping a self-respecting country where others before just saw casino bars, brothels and cheap sugar canes. How can anyone conceive a retreat? How can a reactionary turning back to degrade into servile nothingness even be seriously promoted?

Orhvy Escobar, my altruistic, military grandfather who always served the Revolution.

To overcome the grave crisis of the “special period”, Cuba opened up to a particular type of foreign investment in the tourism industry and Raul Castro’s administration has been characterized by profound reforms ranging from immigration to economy. Sometimes they prudently test the waters to see if a new thing will catch on or turn the steering wheel away to repeal whatever recent flop hasn’t yielded good results. It’s natural to give radically new concepts a first trial to see if it fits the bills while trying it out for a prudent test ride.

I support some specific reforms, the same way my father wanted them back in the 80’s, but not all. As much as all those jittery, impatient spectators with ants in their pants cry for faster speed I continue to believe that the only way to go is slow and steady. Faster, sloppy reforms would bring about the sort of crazy wild west of Russia in the 90’s and I don’t want my grandfather to lose his pension, as small as it might be or be charged hundreds of dollars for nonsubsidized electricity. Some corrupt government officials will want to push for bolder, privatizing reforms in a flash now that the historic leader has departed in an attempt to establish themselves as Oligarchs but where their Russian counterparts succeeded, they will fail as the circumstances are never the same.

I think many in my generation have sort of ignored that selfless calling to serve and to create. Were we all born too late to explore this small, already corporate-run world? No, that’s what those dream-crushing bureaucrats or politically correct politicians would like us to think that but I refuse to accept things as they are. While there is nothing wrong with conforming to the simple quotidian happiness of doing what’s expected, like starting a family — a really noble pursuit — we can’t ever lose that revolutionary motivation to fix what is wrong and the strength to sustain what is right.

My paternal grandfather’s medals and old, hand-sewn “26 of July” flags.

Final verdict on Fidel: he was authentic. Not your average necktie-politician or complacent cup-of-tea but genuine, nevertheless, with all his faults and big dreams to fight injustice in the world. Will the Revolution survive without Castro? Undoubtedly yes, but only the raw essence of that nationalist impetus, in it’s most truest form will live on as often happens with movements on such a large scale and across time.

Fidel’s fight was marked by hostile surroundings. Caught between the US and Soviet Union, he had to pick sides and the CIA’s obsessive, irresponsible interference not only violated Cuba’s most basic rights to state sovereignty, they tried to murder the people’s representative 638 times.

My paternal grandfather also fought in the six-year conflict “Lucha Contra los Bandidos” in the Escambray region against rebels flown from the US in alliance with a few anti-communist farmers . Here, in the corner top right of the photo.

Any foreign-induced move that does not respect the natural, flexible flow of history would be dangerously implying we should discard our own DIY book to pick up a new one. No thank you, violent, gold-seeking agitators. Things usually get better with time so have patience. Much like how that cooking recipe was perfected after several tries or the sports skill became flawless after a few scrapes and bruises, the well-crafted, collective book we all share on Cuba is being perfected by each new generational draft.

The way a soldier can assemble a weapon blindfolded with the proper practice and vise versa, I am confident that after many sad trials and errors, the people’s government can only go uphill from here. Want to bet?