I was born in Havana in November 1959. I left Cuba in November 1960. They tell me that I learned to walk at the José Martí airport the day of my departure. How ironic that the first act of freedom a human being exercises, I accomplished on Cuban soil, as the country was falling into the grips of “revolutionary” totalitarian rule.
Many times I’ve heard my mother recount the story of that day, always with deep emotion. She was alone with me. My father was waiting for us in Miami as he had left a few days earlier — the family decided to travel separately on different days to avoid suspicion. She had no reason to expect anything other than an uneventful departure on a regularly scheduled Pan Am flight. But as the passengers were boarding, the loudspeakers blared “Martha González de Alfonso, report to the office of State Security.” After she and I were thoroughly searched — it was illegal to take valuables out of the country, even wedding bands were confiscated for the good of the revolution — she was summoned for an interrogation. The uniform-clad officer was bearded, of course, leisurely sitting with his feet on his desk, puffing on his cigar, of course. He cursorily glanced at a file, asked her a few questions about her father — a former university professor. Then he stared. A few very long minutes elapsed before the door opened. “Captain, the flight is about to depart, what do we do?” asked the stewardess. This man wanted to see tears and hear pleas for mercy, but my mother knew that her only salvation was to stare back — and not break down. As a twenty-one year-old, she had attained the maturity beyond her age needed for a situation such as this. The standoff of wits continued several more minutes. “Captain, what is your decision?” He nodded his head and said: “Get this gusana out of here.” Gusano literally means “worm” — the dehumanizing label applied to all who dared question the revolution. With that, my mother grabbed her bag, and me, and raced to the tarmac — the plane had already begun to taxi down towards the runway. The pilot was compassionate and stopped, the stairs were positioned, she made her way into the cabin to the sound of applauding passengers. Twenty minutes later we were in Miami.
The extraordinary aspect of my family’s flight to exile is that it is in fact quite commonplace for countless Cuban families. The details may be different, but all the individual experiences share the common elements of fear, suspense, sadness, separation, and many times tragic endings. I grew up hearing these stories. My wife’s father could not obtain an exit visa since he was a dentist — by that time professionals were not allowed to leave without special permission — but he miraculously talked his way into the airplane with his wife and daughters. By the time the flight was ordered to return, it was already in international airspace and proceeded on its way to Miami. My dearest friend’s mother had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities and managed to escape the island, in turn his father was thrown in prison for five years where his glaucoma was left untreated resulting in his permanent blindness; they left in one of the “Freedom Flights” in 1968. The long story of the Cuban Diaspora is indeed the collection of thousands upon thousands of unique and daring stories such as these — of people fleeing from tyranny, whether by air, in boatlifts, or precarious rafts.
As an exile, I was raised in the belief that our family would soon return to our homeland. My family’s roots run deep in Cuba, so pride and love of my country of origin was instilled at an early age. I am the last of many generations to have been born there — all of my eight great-grandparents were Cuban. This is somewhat unusual, as prior to 1959, Cuba was a country of net immigration — mostly Spaniards who were received with open arms by their former colony, the last jewel of the Spanish Imperial crown. Now, almost twenty percent of the Cuban population of this planet lives outside the island. And my family’s generational continuity was not meant to be — my children were the first in my lineage to be born outside Cuba since the nineteenth century.
I have been blessed to live breathing American freedom all of my life, in a society skeptical of false messiahs and which repudiates tyranny. Consequently, what has always confounded me is the complacency with which so many in the world have accepted the propaganda of the Cuban revolution. How can people continue to lionize Castro, Che and company, and glamorize a cruel regime that has held an iron grip on power for forty-nine years? The dark, bitter and long night through which Cuba endures has witnessed the imprisonment and execution of thousands of dissenters, religious persecution, and ultimately a cruel internal “blockade” inherent to Communism which has thwarted the creative power of a resourceful people and which is the true cause of the impoverishment of a once thriving country.
Deacon Gustavo (Gus) Alfonso is a convert to the Orthodox faith. He serves at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church in Miami.