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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

February 28, 2012

Growing up in Cuba

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons*

“I was only three years old; of course I have no memory of the event at that time. It was 1959 when the revolution occurred and everything had changed. My father worked outside of La Habana for a sugar cane company, he was a hard worker and worked long hours, we were considered an upper middle class family. My dad bought the house we are sitting in now, though it didn’t look the same as it does now. Since we have always lived here we never lost the property.”

“I was the youngest of the three kids, each separated by 7 years, don’t ask what my parents were thinking with that schedule but that’s how it worked out. Luis was 10 at the time and Paco would have been 17 years old. My oldest brother Paco was born with a slight disability having some limited capacities; this would create some complications later. He still lives here with me though my mom and dad have both passed. But at the time the country was feeling a lot of tension and there were many protests and small rebellions against the incredibly corrupt government, just prior to the revolution.”

“The country had seen almost all of its growth in the years prior to the revolution and very little after that. It was stinking with wealth and with violence, drugs, prostitution, gambling, murders, etc., a real paradise for some and a hell for others. The second Great War had made its mark with industry and wealth and with a long and complicated political history in Cuba. The United States had muscled a contract to have unrestricted access to mining and military bases as well as the rights to interfere with Cuba’s sovereign issues at their leisure, this was called ‘Enmienda Platt’; so much for the idea of sovereignty, it allowed for a condition where Cubans had very little rights to their own country.”

“Of course you know about Fidel and how he originally led a band of students in an armed assault in Santiago against Batista, which failed. This put him into prison where he represented himself, since he was a lawyer, and eventually got out of prison and ended up in Mexico. He and a group trained and returned on the boat known as ‘The Granma’, you’ve seen it in the Museum of Revolution downtown, landing in Coloradas a province of the Orient. He then led the revolution. There were 82 people on the boat, one of the sailors fell overboard but was rescued lending great moral support to their effort.”

“You know, at the time, everyone supported the revolution, everybody. The rich, middle class and poor people all supported the revolution. Fidel was not alone; it was not a revolution of one man. But in 1961 the ‘Peter Pan Project’ occurred. By now Luis was 13 years old. The large companies were annexed and my father lost his job. Medium size companies were starting to be taken over by the government and eventually even the neighbourhood butcher would end up as a government distribution centre causing most of these small businesses to close.”

“You can imagine that during this period there was a lot of confusion. My aunt, on my mom’s side was in an uproar. She was a bit of a nut. She was in prison for protesting against Batista and then again for protesting against Fidel, nuts. Of course the Peter Pan Project didn’t help her. Since the take over of Fidel the support for the revolution took a terrible turn. Many of the supporters that wanted the revolution didn’t want the change in economic structure that Fidel implemented; just a necessary change in leadership, there was no doubt that Batista and the US Government were responsible for the terrible conditions of the majority of Cubans which facilitated the revolution. But a socialist and communist system was not the answer for most. This meant that in this year there were new revolutionaries fighting from the very high mountains against Fidel that he himself fought from.”

“During this time of confusion the rebels printed a ‘fake law’ for mass distribution posing as an official government notice. The new law stated that the parents of all children under 15 would lose custody or parental rights to their children and that the children would be sent to the USSR for reprogramming. This would cause widespread panic amongst the Cubans. Parents began sending their children to the United States by the thousands. With the exception of my mother, her whole side of the family left Cuba under the strenuous pressure of my rebel aunt, including my brother Luis. Of course, the years after saw the Bay of Pigs/Playa Giron (US sponsored attack by mercenaries) and the Cuban Missile Crisis which pitted us in between the USA and USSR, a very low time for Cubans. Sadly the embargo had put us into the loving care of the Soviets and there we had no choice but to adopt communism, something Fidel said he never wanted, but what were we to do?”

“Luis by now, I’ll remind you, was 13 years old and military service was a requirement for males aged 15-30 years so the conditions for him to leave Cuba were running out. Under my aunt’s pressure he was sent, I was still very young and my older brother Paco was disabled so we stayed behind. My parents didn’t want to leave Cuba like so many others had. It was prior to this time that we were the only occupied house on the block. So many of the affluent people had left for the United States leaving everything behind, as though they were going on a short vacation, to return once the dust had settled. Of course they never did and lost everything in the process. Again, we never abandoned our homes so we didn’t loose anything, really. This explains all the angry Cubans in Miami, I guess.”

“Not having immediate family in the USA my brother ended up in an orphanage until he was about 16 years of age. Over those years he was beaten and raped repeatedly. I asked why my aunt’s family didn’t take him but they said it was just too difficult trying to take care of themselves in their new country. I never really understood. By the time he was release from the orphanage he was taken into foster care by an American family who owned a small locksmith shop in which he worked to help out. He never lost his motivation to study and never blamed anyone for his plight, eventually finishing a PhD from Boston University in Sociology, becoming recognized as an expert in child sexual abuse. Luis and his partner moved to Puerto Rico where he died of AIDS in 1996 on my father’s 82nd birthday. Dad was in such good spirits I couldn’t bear to tell him about Luis so I waited a couple of days after the birthday. I told him Luis died of cancer; Dad never knew about Luis’ lifestyle or the abuse he suffered, there was no point in telling him now; Dad lived a couple more years before passing, joining my mom.”

“Life went on and things were fairly primitive, the socialist effort and external pressures had reduced things to a meagre existence for Cubans. By 1980 the ‘Mariel Exodus’ occurred. I remember this; some embassies had started to offer visas to Cubans which caused thousands to rush the embassies. It became violent with people being crushed and shot at by embassy guards. At one point a bus tried to breach a gate of the Peruvian Embassy, both the Venezuelan and Peruvian Cuban guards were shooting, in the crossfire a Peruvian embassy’s Cuban guard was killed. The bus load of Cubans rammed the gate and requested asylum.”

“In response to the poorly thought out offers of the Peruvian government towards the visas, Fidel pulled the security around the embassy to avoid any more shooting. The worst happened and over ten thousand Cubans rushed the embassy. It was horrible, it’s the same place where the Hotel Occidental is now and you have seen the place, across from the Greek Embassy. There was violence, rapes, crimes; it was disgusting, people were defecating beside each other, eating the grass and bark from the trees. Everyone was going, people just running down to the embassies, they would come from all over the country and just abandon their cars and motorbikes, right in front of my house! Very bad people went there, many friends and most of my neighbours, this was a bad time.”

“It became so bad that the government began sending aid into the embassy and issuing passes for Cubans to leave the embassy and return home while still maintaining their rights to asylum in the foreign country. At this time a few boats turned up on the shore, coming from Florida requesting that their families be allowed to leave with them. The government allowed the families to leave but also many others, in fact they would load the boats regardless of family relations. After the first few boats arrived and left a few more would turn up, then a dozen or so, then hundreds. By the end of this process 150,000 Cubans had exited by sea and this was known as the Mariel Exodus.”

“This was a major blow to the ideals of the government, having so many Cubans leave in such a manor. The government recognized that they needed to improve life for the people and sough support from other socialist countries. It led to a time of gluttony and waste, we had everything, colour television, cars, food, luxury items and you name it. These were the years between 1985 and 1990 and represented the highest point in living standards that we had. After that though the Eastern block collapsed, the wall fell and the support for our country and crops completely stopped.”

“The recession and collapse in the 90’s of the Soviet Union became known as the Special Period. Everything was difficult to get: food, gasoline, clothing, everything; if there were 5000 bicycles on the streets there were only 5 cars. The government did a good job at keeping everyone employed but even though you had a job there was nothing to buy. You can imagine the difficulty we faced and the embargo gained some strength during that period to make things worse for us. At one point I remember a big riot downtown, people were smashing windows and stealing things, the military was there and finally Fidel came down to deal with it directly and calmed things down. Fidel talked on the television daily in those days, asking us to stick together, to help out our neighbours, believe in the revolution and our freedom and to work hard to get through this difficult period. Maybe we did, I don’t know.”

“What I do know is that this special period, in my opinion, was good for Cubans. We learned how to stick together, to work and survive. There was so much less waste, unlike the late 80’s when fuel, water, food, entertainment, etc. were in such abundance and so regularly spoon fed to us that it was totally taken for granted. Soya for example was considered food for cows. Through the 90’s a specific disease developed that you might know as Scurvy. People didn’t eat vegetables, but it wasn’t the lack of vegetables so much as it was the richness of the Cuban diet, people expected meat. This attitude changed and remains changed today, Cubans eat more fruits and vegetables.”

“The other great thing the special period did for Cubans was to rewrite the dependence on socialist countries into more self reliance. Cuba began to be recognized for its ability to produce results for itself despite the siege around it. A double edged sword also occurred at this time and that was tourism. Until the 90’s Cuba had virtually no tourists, a few Canadians and some Russians. This increased dramatically and helped to develop many other industries in Cuba. There’s a quote about tourism being the locomotive of industry, as it pulls along and other cars begin to fall in behind. It happened like that and not just growth in hotels and restaurants but mining, petroleum, etc.”

“But we also started to experience other things along with the tourism, crimes that we hadn’t seen before and really had no laws in our criminal code to help us deal with them. Things like pimping and drug dealing; they appeared in the 90’s and it was confusing, creating new legislation on how to deal with these kinds of things. It was certainly a great period of learning. Tourism though quickly became our number one industry surpassing sugar cane which at one point in our history we lead the world in production.”

“You asked me how things have changed or progressed up to this date. I don’t know that they have progressed. There is an incredible lack of initiative among Cubans, this is due to a lack of incentive and our greatest resource, human potential, is wasted. There is certainly not enough housing for Cubans; it stunts development of both the people and the economy. It is hard to say where we will go from here, maybe I’m not the one to ask because I’ve had a pretty good life in Cuba, after all I grew up with and English teacher instead of a Russian teacher, but the future seems to me to be on a knife’s edge. A tremendous support comes from Venezuela, in the past Canada was our greatest supporter and ally and your Prime Minister Trudeau did a great honour to our country and our freedom. But now that other powers are in play, what happens in they fail, if Chavez gets sick and the tune of support stops playing for Cuba, we’ll feel that deeply, economically.”

“We are far more open to other non socialist countries now but we are still a third world nation and have a long way to go. If we should do something it should be to consider the Japanese who, with their cultural mindset, have mastered themselves and their small island. They could be a model in some way for us but again, I don’t know.”

For several evenings we sat on the porch with our good friend sipping fine Cuban rum, the soft scent of fresh tobacco and deep glow of a cigar’s ember pulsing across the evening table. Our friend told stories with great detail, having been in the middle of some fantastic events and lived through times and events that we have only read in books. An intellect, realist and proud Cuban, it was our pleasure to share his time.

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