Last night I had the opportunity to hear Elena Fernandez Revuelta speak. “Who is that?,” you may ask. She is the daughter of Cuban Communist leader Fidel Castro. For a Hispanic Heritage Month event at a local college they invited her to talk about her experiences under the Cuban Communist regime. We were expecting a more animated delivery about anecdotes of a childhood and adulthood lived under oppression. What we got was a historical look back over the past 50 years in Cuba with a few humorous injections. It was interesting nonetheless.
Elena’s mother was Nati Revuelta. In her words, she was a green eyed, blonde haired bombshell that could turn any man to mush and win anything she put her mind to. Through most of her discussion she described her mother as a “sprite” with a sparkle in her eye. Nati was married to a cardiologist/surgeon in the early 1950s that had operated on her infected appendix. They had a daughter together, Natalie. What about Elena? Well, that’s coming.
In the mid-1950s Fidel Castro and his band of rebel insurgents were fighting against the existing Batista government. Fidel by this time was the crowned leader of their movement for his charismatic and fervent support of communism and opposition of oppression by the Batista’s. One day he received an envelope with a key and a note inside, scented with a sweet perfume. It was signed by none other than Nati Fernandez. The key was for an apartment that she, as a supporter of their rebellion, had made available for their parties use whenever they should need it. Shortly thereafter Fidel was found and arrested by the Batistas and sent to prison.
Now while in prison he kept communicating with this mysterious, voluptuous woman, Nati, via letters. He also corresponded with his wife. All of their correspondence had to be checked by a prison censor and then delivered to the respective party. Who knows if by accident or on purpose, but one day in frustration the prison censor mixed up the letters and sent Fidel’s letter to Nati to his wife and the wife’s letter to Nati. Needless to say, even though there had been not physical contact at this point, the letter was enough to “free” him of the bonds of marriage. Later he was also freed from prison. Not long after Nati had another daughter – Elena.
Elena was accepted by Nati’s husband Orlando and gave her a life of privilege that a doctor’s child would normally have. She had his last name, Fernandez, and the cloth diapers, nice pacifiers, good food and television entertainment that any child would love. Then one day as she sat in front of Mickey Mouse the picture went blank and the scary, hairy men appeared. Mickey was gone forever. Little did she know that the head hairy man was actually her father.
She recalls that at the age of three she saw a young man in a white shirt on TV that had what looked like paint splattered all over his shirt. She says it would be years before she would come to understand she had witnessed an execution. The man she then new as her father, Orlando Fernandez, was labeled as an enemy of the state because he was an educated professional and had money. Orlando took Natalie and fled the country. They would forever be known as enemies and worms of the communist state. After he father and sister fled the country the man she recognized as the “head hairy man” began visiting her home, sometimes with friends, but most of the time alone and at night. This became a regular occurrence. She noticed that every time her mother would see this man that it seemed a candle would light in her eyes. Elena remembers the dull green outfits and the thick cigar smoke that would fill her Havanna living room many nights of the week.
Changes came quickly during the early years of Castro’s regime. Not only did Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck disappear, but so did the street vendors, small businesses, professional independent doctors, teachers, lawyers and others. Farmers were not allowed to sell their harvest directly to individuals or they would risk imprisonment. The problems that ensued were food shortage because of the state’s inability to provide adequate transportation and storage for the food stuffs they would buy from local farms. This necessitated the rationing cards. These cards allowed each family a ration of coffee, sugar, beans and rice each month. Given the fertile ground and richness of this island nation this was a drastic change. It forced a black market trade of stolen and smuggled goods so that the people could adequately survive.
The years wore on and at the age of 10 Elena was finally told that Fidel Castro, the man who interrupted her hour of silent Russian evening cartoons with his 8+ hour speeches was her father. This made her happy because she no longer had to identify her father as the enemy worm that fled the nation – Orlando Fernandez. The bad thing about this is that now everyone would know who she was. She was given no real privilege, but a problem of “fame” among the people made life difficult. Thinking that she would have a special audience with Fidel her compatriots would come day and night to ask that they petition him for favor or grant them some special privilege. She had not such audience or privilege herself so this was mostly impossible.
In her adult years Elena had little to do with her father whom she had always seen as a political figure, not a human being. She married, divorced, remarried (what she calls a sport in Cuba) and in 1977 had a beautiful baby girl. She says in her thick Cuban accent, “Of course I say beautiful, what would you think of me if I said ugly. Though I did call her a troll for many years; she grew out of it. She’s OK now.”
She mentioned that she embarked on two career paths, neither of which she was able to finish. Based on the influence of her “father” Orlando she wanted to become a doctor. In an effort to become a national hero of sorts she then entered a program for political education so she could become a diplomat. Before she could complete her training things in the country began to spiral down even worse. The communist party in Russia in the late 80s was collapsing and any influx of money was getting scarce until it stopped completely in 1989. State run schools became a joke (even more so than before) and food became scarcer. Electricity was a luxury of a few hours of power available in the evenings. That was just enough to catch the tail end of a Castro tirade and maybe some silent Russian cartoon.
Elena pulled her daughter out of school feeling that there was no reason for her to be left there to be ignored by incompetent teachers. Out of desperation she finally started seeking a way out. It was frightening for this woman of then 38 years to embark on such a change, but it was the prodding of her 16 year old daughter that moved her to escape. In 1993 with the help of some friends in Miami she was able to obtain fake papers claiming that she and her daughter were Spanish tourists so they could escape to Spain. Soon thereafter they came to the US and applied for residency.
It was then that she realized that even though to Cuban standards she was an educated and well read woman that to the eyes of the rest of the world she was very ignorant. Elena had never known taxes, credit, mortgages, cell phones, cable, the internet, designer anything, freedom of speech, freedom of press or freedom period. She mentions that even after 15 years in this country she is still seeking to adjust.
This brings me to the editorial portion of my post. Has the embargo on Cuba helped us or helped Castro? Personally, I think that it has helped Castro in his goal to keep his people ignorant and separate from the world. Understandably, when the embargo was put in place it was in an effort to keep communist ideals from spilling over into our country since Cuba is so close to our borders. In the long run, though, it has created generations of people through the last 50 years that have never known anything but communism. Cuba is completely isolated. True they have diplomatic relations with many so called non-aligned nations, but the world power that has the money, power, people and influence to make the Cuban people open their eyes is just across the water.
Think about this – in the 50s Cuba was a vacation Mecca for Americans and Europeans alike. If that relationship could have continued with the Americans, Cubans would have been exposed to the benefits and advances of a capitalist, democratic society from the beginning. It would probably have been Castro that would choose to close the borders to Americans. The difference here is that once you’ve had a taste of the money, technology, and ideology coming in from a free nation Castro, I’m guessing, would have had a revolt on his hands very early on. Now we have a backwards country so deeply engrained with fear and communist ideals that changing their way of life will be difficult to say the least. The U.S. government just made Castro’s job that much easier.
The question was asked last night if Elena felt that Raul, Castro’s brother now in power, will be more moderate and allow more freedoms to the people. She admitted that it looks that way, keyword is looks. Raul allowed the use of cell phones IF they were purchased and paid for by their relatives from abroad. They are allowed now to have computers at market prices (who can afford that), but no internet. There were few other changes on the horizon that all of a sudden came to a screeching halt. This indicated to Elena that her father is still very much alive and in charge. Keeping the influence of the world out helps him keep power over the minds of the people.