Does It Matter?

The year is ending and the world has changed. We are moving from 2014 to 2015 and the changes that are taking place are, for the most part, wonderful. However, some of what is going on is not so wonderful.

I am very conflicted about the normalization of relations with Cuba. More than few of my friends have said it is good thing. Intellectually, I must agree. Emotionally, not so much. I well remember my childhood in Cuba and wrote Memories of Cuba. I have written in the past about my Cuban grandfathers in My Grandfathers. I never thought that later in life, I would again connect with the island by way of a pilot flying for Brothers to the Rescue, Hermanos Al Rescate.

I have friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who said everything that happened in the past is no longer of consequence. We should stop the embargo and open up Cuba. This makes me think about the very important idea regarding those who do not know or fail to study history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes of history.

Some of my friends and neighbors do not understand why I would stand against normalized relations with the Cuban government. Basically, they have not experienced the frustrations, fear, losses and more that transpired in our family. Many today do not understand what is going on with, and inside, Cuba. Since most of the people who lost all their property from long ago are now for the most part, dead, the younger majority asks, “What does it matter?”

It is a good question. What does it matter?

Personally, all of my grandparent’s wealth was lost. Much of the property my siblings, cousin, and I more than likely would have inherited from the family – was stolen by Castro and his henchmen. It was a lot of property and money – quite a bit of wealth.

However, never mind the money, the jewels, the real estate. Forget it. Forget all of it. None of it is worth a plug nickel. Instead, let us look at why the United States should not normalize relations with the Castro’s government. And make no mistake; it is still Castro’s government.

When Castro overthrew Batista at the end of the sixth decade of the Twentieth Century, tens of thousands died under his hand. As many as 14,000 Cuban children, women, and men died either by or directly at the direction of Castro’s accomplice, Che Guevara. Today, Hollywood and others of the liberal left proclaim Guevara as some kind of hero. Many idolize Che. I cannot understand why so many would celebrate a person who was responsible for the deaths of so many innocent men, women, and children.

Over the course of time, Castro became a full-blown Communist. As such, he does not allow free speech, the right to practice religion, the freedom of the press, and he will not allow the citizens of Cuba to own arms.

During his time as the dictator of Cuba, anyone who contradicted “El Commandante” was usually thrown in Morro Castle or any of a number of other prisons on the island. Morro Castle is a magnificent fort on the North Shore of Havana and used lately to house political prisoners. One prisoner familiar with the Cuban penal system was a Cuban poet and philosopher named Armando Valladares.

Valladares knows first hand of the atrocities of Castro’s prisons. When he was 23, the Cuban regime arrested Valladares in 1960 because he would not place a sign on his desk asserting, “I’m with Fidel.” Of course, the Castro regime did not take this lightly and they arrested Valladares later at his parent’s home. The government then sentenced him to 30 years in confinement.

During the next 22 years, Valladares continued to speak his mind and practice his craft of poetry. Discreetly writing his poems on any paper he could find, compassionate prison guards delivered his work to the free world. In a word, his writings were extraordinary.

When Castro released Valladares at the personal request of the President of France, François Mitterrand, he had spent 22 years in Fidel’s prison. While imprisoned and treated horribly, Valladares suffered a multitude of debilitating illnesses and injuries (he lost the use of his legs by way of malnutrition). During this time, he wrote as prolifically as any political prisoner is capable. In 1974, the poems he had slipped out of Cuba became a book – From My Wheelchair. Through his poems, Valladares chronicled the daily abuses of prisoners at the hands of the Cuban government.

When he was released, his writing continued. In the story of his life in prison, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, Valladares wrote about his time and the lives of other “prisoners of conscious” in Cuban prisons. He illuminated to the world, the abuse and torture by guards in the Cuban prisons that included beatings, imprisonment in spaces so confined prisoners were not able to sit or lay down, denial of sanitary facilities, solitary confinement lasting months and in some cases, years, and being forced to eat the excrement of other prisoners.

In a 2003 interview with David Horowitz of NewsMax, Valladares detailed his imprisonment. “For me, it meant 8,000 days of hunger, of systematic beatings, of hard labor, of solitary confinement and solitude, 8,000 days of struggling to prove that I was a human being, 8,000 days of proving that my spirit could triumph over exhaustion and pain, 8,000 days of testing my religious convictions, my faith, of fighting the hate my atheist jailers were trying to instill in me with each bayonet thrust, fighting so that hate would not flourish in my heart, 8,000 days of struggling so that I would not become like them.”

I feel as though these tortures continue in Cuba at this moment, right now, as I write this.

According to the Human Rights Watch, in a government report they obtained in May 2012, there are more than 57,000 prisoners in Cuba. According to the HRW website (http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/cuba?page=3), “Prisoners who criticize the government or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest are subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care. Prisoners have no effective complaint mechanism to seek redress.” They went on to report, “While the government allowed select members of the foreign press to conduct controlled visits to a handful of prisons in April, it continued to deny international human rights groups and independent Cuban organizations access to its prisons.”

“Controlled visits to a handful of select members of the foreign press.” This is how the Cuban government reported on all the free medical care in Cuba – with “selected sites” for the press to interview “selected” beneficiaries of the state sponsored medical care. If reporters had the ability to speak freely to the Cuban people, they would have discovered that the value of the medical care was worth nearly what the Cuban people paid for the care – almost $0.

With the release of Alan Gross, many in the United States wish to open relations with Cuba. We made many concessions for this to happen. And many from the media, in the government, and on the street are saying this is a good thing. There is only one problem.

Right after the concessions this year, Raul Castro went public saying that nothing in Cuba would change; they are not giving up on communism and for the most part, life will go on as usual for the islanders. The monies given to the Cuban government, the normalization of relations, the opening of trade, all of it – none will go to help the Cuban people. It is all going to the remnants of Castro’s regime. For the locals lucky enough to work the tourist facilities and garner tips, they will be forced to exchange those American dollars for Cuban pesos, in the same way the civilian workers at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station were forced to do since the fence went up.

There will remain no freedom of religion, no freedom of the press; the citizens still will not be allowed to practice capitalism or bear arms. Nothing will change for the people. They will remain poor and if anyone should complain, the government has a jail cell where others will never hear them ever again. On the island or off.

Working with the Cuban government is dealing on the wrong side of history. Until there are concessions on the part of the Cuban government giving the Cuban people the right to vote and decide their own destiny, we will be “dealing with the devil.”

The communist regime remains in place in Cuba. It tried to take essentially everything from the Cuban people. The regime took much of their land, their businesses, and their money. They tried to take the spirit of the people-and were unable. Indeed, all the worldly possessions the people of Cuba have lost, does not matter. What matters is the love and spirit of the people. That is what the Castro brothers cannot take from the citizens of the island.

Today, people don’t understand this. It is because they have not lived it. They know no one who was thrown into Castro’s Gulag, as Armando Valladares so aptly described the Cuban prisons.

Consequently, yes, to them, opening Cuba makes sense. After all, they don’t know what really happened. Castro’s forces did not throw their father, their uncle or aunt, their brother or sister, or anyone in their immediate family in jail for speaking their minds about religious freedom, or against Cuban communism. Their relatives did not speak against leaders of the regime and they hid their love of liberty. Today, even though it is in the process of opening a little, many continue to practice their religion very quietly in secret.

No, most young Cubans today never had someone close to them thrown in jail by armed military guards in the dark of night. So it does not matter. I think it matters. I often wonder if the political police crashed through their doors late one night and took someone in their family away, I really wonder if it would, at that time, suddenly matter to them.

My grandfather and I in Cuban waters before Castro.

My grandfather and I in free Cuban waters before Castro.

My grandfather was one of those political prisoners taken away from his family and thrown in jail. For five years.

So yes, it matters.

-30-

 ©2014 J. Clark

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7 Responses to Does It Matter?

  1. Hans Friedebach says:

    Joe,
    I appreciate the view of someone who knows Cuba. I can somewhat relate to your sentiment because 70 years and 16 days ago I too lost everything: home, farm, all my family’s belongings and my father. My mother and I survived with the clothes on our backs and one suitcase with all our earthly belongings.

    From this painful personal vantage point I have learned the importance of finding a solution that moves life forward.

    More than fifty years of US policy appear not to have changed life in Cuba for the better. If normalizing is not a path forward, then what would be a more effective, and practical approach?

    • Joe Clark says:

      Hans, welcome to the blog, thank you for the comments.

      With this one, yes, I am very conflicted to this day. Yours, like mine, sounds like a very interesting story. Some day in the future, we may need to sit down and drink cafe con leche and talk…

      Joe

  2. Hans Friedebach says:

    email me when a cross-country brings you to Fort Myers or Punta Gorda, I’ll bring the coffee 🙂

  3. Jose C. Perez says:

    As an individual who was born and raised in this regime, I agree one hundred percent with you, Joe. Not only was I a victim of all the brainwashing and lies that all kids go through Cuba’s educational system, I was also one of the blessed ones to flee the country as a political refugee.

    My grandfather, who is 90 years old and fortunately living in the U.S., was a prisoner of Fidel Castro’s abusive tyranny during the 60s and 70s. He was incarcerated in the province of Pinal del Rio for two different occasion, one in the prison “G2” and the other one in “Sandino”. He was never harmed to the extreme of causing health issues, but the stories tells are not pleasant at all. My dad, who also resides in the U.S., was persecuted for doing “illegal business and attempting against Cuban government,” so the government thought; the truth is he was a photographer for special celebrations likes, weddings, birthdays, baptism etc.

    The reason for the government’s acts is because he had a set of cameras bought in the U.S. and since he couldn’t show proof that they were purchased in Cuba, the police threatened him with being charged with espionage. All this happened during the late 80s, beginning of the 90s.

    I feel like nothing has changed in Cuba – absolutely nothing! The fact that many people have never heard of these types of stories, or simply choose to not believe them, irritates me. I understand that many people who have no knowledge of the situation in Cuba find the opening to a “tropical paradise” very opportunistic, but the truth behind this curtain is that nothing will change, the Cuban people are not going to receive their deserved rights, the Castro’s family will keep growing their millions from tourism and other exports and imports.

    • Joe Clark says:

      Jose,

      Good to hear from you. You are in a much better position to truly talk about the situation in Cuba, having so recently (compared to me) come from there.

      I know the island will soon open up and I am trying to learn to speak Spanish again. I hope to be able to go down and search out my grandfather’s house and clinic; I would like to know if anything still stands from the time I believed I lived in paradise…

      Stop by sometime.

      Now it is time to have some cafe con leche

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