Castro’s daughter describes growing up in Cuba
Beth Bellor, for The Midland Daily News
UNIVERSITY CENTER — Twenty years after leaving Cuba, Fidel Castro’s daughter still associates the country with turmoil.
The author of “Castro’s Daughter: An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba” and niece of current president Raul Castro spoke recently at Saginaw Valley State University to open the Fall Focus lecture series.
“In my case, everything began with something called revolution,” Alina Fernandez said. “I come from a country in which the revolution is endless.”
In the 1950s, Cuba struggled under Fulgencio Batista, the former elected president and later dictator. “This is the moment in which Fidel emerged as the political leader he still is today.”
He founded the Movement, which like other such political parties was illegal. Fernandez’s mother, married to a doctor and with a daughter, was a believer and slipped him a front door key for unconditional use of her house for his political work. That included storing weapons for what many thought would be just another exercise. “The mission of course was to hit Batista in his own yard.”
Castro initially escaped to the mountains but later landed in jail, where her mother wrote to him. However, the letters he sent in reply were screened by prison guards and one day, a guard entrusted with reading Castro’s tiny script put his outgoing letters back in the wrong envelopes.
“Fidel’s wife found her husband was in love with someone else. A few months later, Fidel found himself free from his prison and free from marriage,” she said. “Men can cheat, even in prison.”
Fernandez, a very young girl with a beautiful mother, had no idea she was secretly the daughter of a revolutionary.
“Life was gracious until that morning that I remember too well,” she said. “The cartoon I was watching disappeared.”
It was Jan. 1, 1959, and she remembers “the hairy people, well they called them the rebels,” and women on the streets throwing flowers at them, “looking like flowers themselves.”
Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse and others disappeared from the screen, she said, never to return — ever.
Castro divided the regular army from the guerilla army and gave a seven-hour victory speech. “People interrupted him constantly and applaud and celebrate him. He was charismatic and mesmerizing.”
Her mother’s husband, the man she knew as her father, left the country with her older sister and they were labeled traitors. She learned later that her sister did not learn the truth about their parentage until she was 15, and before that accused her father daily of deserting her little sister.
Her sister was far from the only child to leave, but many departed without their parents. “People never thought that things were going to change. They decided to send their children up front,” Fernandez explained.
More than 14,000 Cuban children were sent to America through the Catholic Church and Operation Peter Pan, which was larger even than the Kindertransport that removed Jewish children from Europe just before World War II. In this way, the first institution to suffer was the family.
Castro worried about an exodus of the middle class, and forbade anyone from leaving without government permission. Priests and nuns were sent back to Spain. Intellectuals were sent to military camps, along with dancers, artists and suspected homosexuals.
“The street changed. Stores had to close down,” Fernandez said. “In a few days, hotels, private properties were invaded. Even parking meters were destroyed — which was a good idea.”
Christmas was frowned upon as a capitalist celebration.
“The fact is that he managed to have everything under control — the press, the mail, the telephone,” she said. Soldiers took over farms and everything had to be given to the government. “They just told them, this is not yours anymore.”
In 1960, rationing was implemented. Citizens had to go to assigned stores to get their goods, which never were enough to last the month, she recalled. “That’s why, ever since the beginning, Cuba was a society obligated to live on a black market basis.”
Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were in every neighborhood, each covering 40 to 60 houses like secret police.
“You’re constantly watched, you’re constantly controlled in your own neighborhood.”
Castro visited her house often, mostly at night. “Fidel was never the man who would fix the car or ever help me with my homework, because you don’t do that at 2 in the morning.”
She loved the effect he had on her mother. “With his presence, he made my mother joyful,” she said. “You could see that she was flourishing. But Grandma called him the devil.”
With the TV shows she had known when she was smaller gone, she used to pray in front of the TV that his speeches would end in time for her to have entertainment from 7 to 8, local programs and Russian cartoons.
“His longest speech lasted a little more than 12 hours,” Fernandez said. “Imagine George Bush or Obama speaking for nine hours.”
Castro accomplished a great deal very quickly, she said, becoming chief of the army, executing all enemies, nearly starting a nuclear confrontation. From day one, “hate to America” was chanted, and Cuba was involved in most guerilla actions in the 20th century. “The Cuban government continues to undermine U.S. policies.”
She found out Castro was her father when she was 10. People began coming to her with problems, asking her to be messenger, she said. “You must be in real desperation to approach a child, expecting him to be helpful.”
As she grew older, she began chafing against the “voluntary mandatory” activities. “I was that teenager who could do nothing but scream slogans and wear uniforms,” and in 1989 she publicly became a dissident.
Bad as life had been, it got worse with the fall of the Soviet Union, which destroyed the Cuban economy.
“Schools were closed. Food was hard to find. Electricity was a few hours a day,” she said.
By then she had a daughter and faced not being able to get an education for her, so she enlisted help of friends in the U.S. -not CIA, she said- and escaped as a Spanish tourist in December 1993.
She has had no relationship with her father since her early 20s. While she knows he has friends here, she is not concerned for her safety.
“I was more afraid there,” she said. “I thought that maybe one of his admirers could do harm, not me, but my daughter.”
Her mother’s profound belief in the revolution strained their relationship as well. “She gave up everything for that process and that man,” Fernandez said. “We never found a common ground to understand each other.”
Fernandez said the U.S. embargo remains a political argument but her homeland takes a long view. “They already outlived 12 American presidents.”
Cuba now needs someone who can truly lead, she said. “We don’t need someone who speaks beautifully and looks good.”
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