Changes in Cuba elicit mixed feelings

by Beacon Staff • March 5, 2008

Gonzalez, now an Emerson writing, literature and publishing professor, said her middle-class parents did not want their daughters to be brought up in Fidel Castro's communist society.,Flora Gonzalez was 13 years old when she and her 11-year-old sister waved goodbye to their family at Havana Airport.

Gonzalez, now an Emerson writing, literature and publishing professor, said her middle-class parents did not want their daughters to be brought up in Fidel Castro's communist society.

In January of 1962, they sent their children to Miami.

Castro, 81, officially stepped down as head of Cuba's government on Feb. 19 after 49 years in power, giving his position officially to his brother Raul Castro, 76, who has been acting president since July 2006.

Gonzalez was attending a conference on Cuban literature in Miami when Cuba's National Assembly elected Raul Castro to succeed his brother. For decades, many Cuban-Americans in Miami have anxiously waited for Fidel Castro to leave office; but when it finally happened last month, Gonzalez said she did not see any celebrations or parades in the streets of Miami's Cuban quarter, Little Havana.

"It means very little," Gonzalez said. "There was a sigh of relief that Castro had resigned, but there wasn't that kind of jubilation that Miami experienced when it was known that Fidel Castro was greatly ill and that he might even die."

Emerson students have also been affected by Castro's resignation.

Alessandro Miranda, a junior broadcast journalism major, was also in Miami when Castro relinquished power to his brother.

Miranda's parents fled Cuba shortly after Castro's revolution, and he grew up in Miami, which he calls "Cuba number two."

He described Cuban-Americans' reaction to Castro's resignation as "interested, but surprisingly unaffected."

"His resignation is something people have been waiting for, but at the same time it comes with his brother," Miranda said. "I think most Cuban-Americans don't know what to think."

Gonzalez said she has opposed Castro's revolution for all of her adult life, but said it excited her as a girl when Castro started a literacy campaign. The initiative aimed to mobilize teachers and educate the agrarian population.

At the same time, the Cuban government was separating children from their parents and sending them to farms to work and learn.

Gonzalez said she was thrilled at the possibility of joining this program.

"As a preteen you think this is a lot of fun, to liberate yourself from your family and go out into the countryside," she said.

Gonzalez said Castro propagated idealism in his speeches at the time.

She remembers learning songs about the literacy campaign, and singing them over and over with her peers, something that alarmed her parents.

According to Gonzalez, her father lost his job as a professor when Castro's regime shutdown his university, deeming it a bourgeois institution.

Many Cuban parents like Gonzalez's, sent their children out of Cuba in the early 1960s. She was one of 14,000 children taken to America through the United States government's Operation Pedro Pan.

The mission was coordinated with the help of Cuban exiles and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.

Gonzalez's parents came to the US in October 1962. Just days after their arrival, diplomatic relations with Cuba were completely severed due to the Cuban missile crisis, and flights were no longer allowed out the country.

Children whose parents had not made it to the US before the crisis had to wait seven years before seeing them again.

About 2,000 Pedro Pan children never saw their parents again, and many lived without parents for many months and years before they were reunited with their families.

By the time her parents arrived in Miami, Gonzalez was living at a boarding school in Ukiah, Calif. and it was not until June 1963, a year and a half after her departure from Havana, that Gonzalez was reunited with her parents.

During President Jimmy Carter's administration, Cuban-Americans were again allowed to visit their former homeland and Gonzalez regained limited contact with other family members.

Since then, Gonzalez has gone back to Cuba and other Latin American countries several times to meet writers, artists and filmmakers for her books: Jose Donoso's House of Fiction: A Dramatic Construction of Time and Place and Guarding Cultural Memory: Afro-Cuban Women in Literature and the Arts.

"Even though I'm very against the Cuban government today, I believe that Cuban culture continues to be very vibrant," Gonzalez said.

She also said she doesn't solely blame Castro for the problems between the US and Cuba and opposed President Bill Clinton's hardening of the trade embargo started by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.

In 2004, President George W. Bush's administration redefined the Cuban family as consisting of only a nuclear relatives.

Now, Gonzalez and other Cuban-Americans are only allowed to travel to Cuba every three years, and only to see siblings, parents and grandparents; not cousins, aunts and uncles.

Gonzalez explained that if she had just visited Cuba a month ago and then had a grandmother who died in Cuba, she would not be allowed to attend the funeral.

"It's very inhumane," Gonzalez said.

She said it would take a major governmental change within Cuba for a U.S. president to reconsider their Cuba policy.

In the months leading up to his resignation, Castro expressed some intentions of shifting power to the younger generations in Cuba.

The ailing leader read a letter on state television in December saying he did not want "to block the rise of younger people."

This excited Gonzalez, who said she has craved internal change for decades.

"I was a bit hopeful, but when we heard that Raul Castro was going to take the reins, that little bit of optimism died," Gonzalez said.

Although Raul Castro has shown interest in opening the country up to private enterprises, and allowing farmers to privately sell their surplus crops, he has also promised to essentially carry on the policies of his older brother.

In the wake of her birth country's political power exchange, Gonzalez is writing a new book whose working title is On the Other Side of the Glass, a reference to the waiting room at Havana Airport where she was surrounded by glass, able to see her family but not able to talk to them.

"On one side was what you left, and on the other side was your future," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she plans on visiting Cuba again this summer and someday, she hopes to see her native country under the governance of a new and younger political elite. However, she doesn't think she'll ever permanently live in Cuba again.

Sitting in her office in the Ansin Building at Emerson, where she has taught for over two decades, Gonzalez said with a big smile, "I call this home."