Closing the Circle
by Robert H. Miller | Posted February 05, 2016
We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.
Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba, as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked Robert if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We will be featuring it in several segments, of which this is the first.
The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting. — Stephen Cox
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“Fidel does not have cancer. I’m very well informed . . .
Nobody knows when Fidel is going to die.” — Hugo Chavez
My mother, Ana Maria, died on July 14, 2000 at 78 years of age. For 40 years, ever since our flight from Cuba in 1960, she’d clung to the hope of outliving Fidel Castro Ruz, a man four years her junior. Almost more galling than having Castro outlive her was having her saint’s day fall on July 26, the anniversary and official title of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement. To a Cuban, one’s saint’s day — the birth date of the Catholic saint after whom one was named, in this case Santa Ana — is a personal holiday second only to one’s birthday. After our flight following the revolution, first to Mexico and then to the United States, she never again celebrated anything on that day.
My family has deep roots in Cuba. My maternal grandmother, also Ana Maria, was a third-generation Spanish émigré from the Canary Islands. John Maurice, my maternal grandfather, was an American contractor in Aguascalientes, Mexico when the 1910 Mexican Revolution erupted, so he fled for Havana where prospects seemed better.
Both were stern and imposing, with bulldog jowls, sharp, no-nonsense eyes, Grecian noses, and thin, locked lips, ever vigilant against any whiff of impertinence. Nonetheless, it must have been love, because in 1914 they married.
A massive man, a rigid disciplinarian, and a heavy drinker and gambler with a streak of willfulness that could turn violent, John Maurice was also an ambitious wheeler-dealer. He soon worked his way as a primary subcontractor into Cuba’s biggest construction projects under President Gerardo Machado.
Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock.
Nineteen-fourteen Cuba was caught in a time warp. It had achieved independence only 12 years before. Tiny next-door Haiti had been independent since 1804, besting what was then the world’s most powerful army, the Grande Armée of Napoleon. Since Cuba’s independence from, first, Spain and then, in 1902, from the United States — a facilitator in the first effort — it had experienced only five chief executives, two of whom were governors appointed by the US during post-independence interventions. Only three were duly elected presidents. And only one, Tomas Estrada Palma, the first, was considered uncorrupt.
In some ways Cuba in 1914 was like the US in 1804, when the War for Independence was a relatively recent memory, and its heroes still played a significant political role. But unlike the US in 1776 — a thriving outpost of a British Empire that was nowhere near its potential peak — Cuba was a distant province of an increasingly decrepit, inept, and corrupt Spanish empire. Slavery had been abolished only in 1886. Spanish investment in Cuban infrastructure was nearly nonexistent. There were no paved highways, and dirt roads were impassable after rains. What few railroads existed charged exorbitant monopoly prices for oxcart speed delivery. Cuba was a faded canvas awaiting, if not a Michelangelo, at least a Jackson Pollock. But first it needed reframing, restretching, restarching, stapling, and a solid foundation on a hardwood easel.
In 1925, Brigadier General Gerardo Machado, a hero of the War for Independence from Spain, ran for president under the slogan “water, roads, schools,” promising to end corruption while serving only one term (as the 1901 constitution dictated).
When he was elected, Machado kept his promise, building a beautiful new capitol building in Havana, with rotunda and wings modeled on the US Capitol, a paved trans-island highway, an enlarged and modernized University of Havana, a modern, progressively designed federal prison, the Hotel Nacional and Hotel Presidente, the Asturia Building (today the National Museum of Fine Arts), the Bacardi Building, and an expansion of health facilities. But he was not as successful in attacking corruption. In 1927 he pushed through Congress an amendment to the constitution that allowed him to run for a second successive term — a term that turned out as clean as the still undependable Havana tap water.
John Maurice was a beneficiary of the Machadaso, as Machado’s steamroller public works program was nicknamed. His first big commission, the capitol building, was completed in a scant three years. Begun in 1926 by the Purdy Henderson Co., it took 8,000 men to complete by 1929.
He then joined the big push to complete the Carretera Central, Cuba’s main trans-island artery; also built all at one go between 1927 and 1931. Family lore holds that John Maurice also worked on the Carcel Modelo (or model prison), the federal penitentiary on the Isle of Pines (the insular comma off the southeast coast of Cuba) that was built between 1926 and 1928, at the same time as the Capitolio and the Carretera Central. The three projects must have been a logistical challenge for the 41-year-old contractor. How he juggled these many responsibilities remains a mystery, though it is not uncommon for contractors to spread themselves thin by taking on multiple projects (often to the irritation of their employers).
Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway.
When my mother turned 13 she was shipped off to a Louisiana Sacred Heart convent to learn English. After graduation she was offered a full scholarship to a Sacred Heart college in Missouri. It was not to be. With the Great Depression in full swing and the war in Europe about to break out, her father, John Maurice suddenly died of a kidney infection, leaving the family nearly penniless and saddled with his gambling debts. So instead, Ana Maria attended secretarial school, graduating quickly and putting her new earning power immediately to use as a bilingual telephone operator back in Cuba.
Sometimes she’d field long distance calls from Ernest Hemingway, whom she always recognized by his unintelligible Spanish. He insisted on using it anyway. When my mother, in turn, insisted that he speak English so she could understand him, he’d demand to know if she was aware of who he was. “No,” she always answered tersely.
“I’m Papa,” he’d impatiently retort. When no acknowledgement was forthcoming, he’d testily add, “Papa Hemingway!”
My mother’s answer, “I don’t know who you are,” was always followed by a torrent of profanity. Ana Maria not only didn’t care, she disliked arrogance, pretension, the concept of celebrities, Hemingway’s writing, and Hemingway himself.
With time these outbursts became more frequent. It seemed — to her anyway — that her imperious prudishness egged him on, something that gave her great satisfaction. With time and little patience, she took to hanging up on him — another “no” he interpreted as a “yes.”
Ana Maria had developed into a strikingly beautiful, statuesque woman. Tall for her times, with a ready laugh, she was indispensable in her social circle. Nicknamed Mina — a practice universal in Cuba — her friends called her Minita, the diminutive being more expressive. Nonetheless, she was not frivolous and had inherited her parents’ sedateness and instinctive disgust toward all manner of filth and uncouth behavior, malas palabras (obscenities) and the bodily functions to which they referred, including bodily odors. She always accused anyone who sweated profusely as stinking like a “guaguero de la Ruta 43,” a Havana Route 43 bus driver.
During WWII, Mina worked for the US Office of Censorship in Miami. After the war she returned to Havana and got a job with the newly founded American International Company (now American International Group, or AIG). The Havana AIC branch was established by my father, Howard Wesley Miller, who had been a principal in the founding of C.V. Starr & Co., the parent company of AIG in New York.
In need of a bilingual secretary, Howard was assigned Ana Maria. A trusting man of few words and a forced smile, he found Ana Maria’s regal reticence attractive (not to mention, as they say in Cuba, that she was “mas bella que pesetas” — more gorgeous than dollars), so he immediately fired her. Already married, he didn’t quite trust himself. When his wife unexpectedly died, Ana Maria was rehired. They were married in 1948.
Howard, born in 1898, 1899, or 1900 — the uncertainty owing to his forging of papers in order to enlist in the Navy during WWI (a ruse Mina was later to use to obtain a driver’s license before her time) — was more than 20 years Mina’s senior. He had already packed a lot of living into those years.
After two years as a gunner’s mate in the Atlantic theater, he was discharged in 1919. The war had kindled a spark of adventure. With an Belfast Irish buddy from the Navy, he bought a used Model T Ford and crossed the United States along the old National Trails roads; a disjunct network of pioneer trails, oftimes poorly maintained state highways, municipal streets, unmarked rural roads, and confusing and braided connecting easements — the majority consisting of unconsolidated sand and dirt that turned to mud after rains.
Still restless, Howard then headed to Havana to learn Spanish and serve an apprenticeship in public accounting, a trade he’d briefly studied in Chicago. In 1921, immersing himself deeper in the Latin American milieu, he went to Buenos Aires, rooming — by chance — with Aristotle Onassis, another expat also looking to make his fortune. Both applied for jobs with Standard Oil of New Jersey, then just starting to exploit possibilities in Argentina and Bolivia.
The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.
Onassis didn’t make the cut: his language skills — in either English or Spanish (I never got that straight) — weren’t up to snuff (not that Howard’s Spanish merited any gold stars). Still, for some unknown reason, Standard Oil hired Howard, assigning him his own mule as an exploratory geologist’s assistant, prospecting for promising deposits across South America’s Chaco region. Eschewing traditional gaucho garb (or even a hat), and parting his hair straight down the middle, Howard, a native New Yorker and third-generation German immigrant, donned Wellies, jodhpurs, a white dress shirt, and wire-rim glasses. Though he stood out for his mildly eccentric outfit among the Chaco gauchos, it was his brains that were soon noticed. In no time, he was promoted to field clerk in a drilling camp in Patagonia and, before his 30th birthday, became Officer and Director of Standard Oil’s Argentine and Bolivian subsidiaries. That was when his earlier acquaintance with Onassis came into play.
Not one to pass up a good grudge, Onassis — by then well on his way to acquiring the world’s largest privately owned shipping fleet — had refused to carry Standard Oil products because of their earlier rebuff of him. But Howard needed tankers, and only Onassis’ fit his needs. Over a meeting I can’t possibly imagine — my father being neither garrulous nor guileful, and neither a big eater nor drinker — the two men sat down to resolve the problem. What was said, promised, or done, only the two men knew, but, their differences resolved, Onassis added Standard Oil to his list of potential clients.
Twelve years in Latin America — ten with Standard Oil — had taken their toll on Howard: he had contracted malaria, a condition that would bedevil him for the rest of his life. However, more importantly, he was still restless. He decided to call it quits and returned to the states. The Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal regulatory environment were the perfect challenge for him. If he could turn a profit under such adverse conditions, imagine what he could do in boom times.
During the following ten years he became, successively, comptroller of the Sphinx Trading Corporation, then Treasurer of Bush Terminal Buildings Company — a commercial property developer — and then controller of the Oxford Paper Company of Rumford, Maine, at the time the world’s largestpaper company under one roof.
Although in his early forties when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Howard immediately volunteered for the Navy, his old service branch. He was given a desk job, this time as an auditor. But for some unknown reason — perhaps his recurring malarial attacks, he served for only six months before being discharged. In 1942 he joined Starr, Park & Freeman, Inc., the initial precursor of what would much later become AIG, as Assistant Treasurer. In 1946 he returned to Havana as president of the American International Company, which supervised American International Underwriters operations throughout Latin America. That’s when he met my mother, Ana Maria.
Howard and Mina got married in Manhattan in January 1948. He returned to New York with a promotion: as treasurer and director of AIU. They settled in Massapequa, Long Island. The newlyweds planned on having children, adding some siblings to Howard’s 13-year-old son, John, from his first marriage. Howard was in a position to call his own shots, so the return to the United States had an ulterior motive: my parents wanted to ensure that their children were born in the US, in case they ever wanted to run for president.
I, Robert (soon to be nicknamed Baten, in the Cuban fashion), was born on November 19, 1949, proving — contrary to some opinions — that I am not a bastard. My sister Anita (Nana — from hermana, ‘sister’ or Nani, in diminutive) was born the following year, with little Patsy — my earliest memory — arriving in 1953.
Howard, now Pop to us, and Mina (mami or mima) lived in a Tudor mansion on a magnificent estate with an enormous lake behind it — or so it seemed to this three-year-old kid. They had brought Cuba along with them in the form of Mina’s mother, my Abuela (grandmother), Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo; a Cuban tata (nursemaid) to care of us kids; and a Cuban cook. Tata would often take us to the lake for an outing — in the summer, to pretend to fish; in the winter, to pretend to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short. Few Cubans had ever seen ice in situ.
My exposure to my parents being fitful, my first language was Spanglish, with a bias toward Spanish. We had a Dalmatian named Freckles (nicknamed Paca) who had his own fenced mini-estate. My brother John — at this time strictly an English speaker — and I loved to play with Paca. John attended a military boarding school and, with his sharp uniform, impressed me no end. Like his father Howard, John was a man of few words.
In fall 1953 — just after Fidel Castro launched his first failed coup on July 26 — and when Patsy was just barely old enough to travel, Pop sold the Massapequa estate and moved the family back to Havana. It was my first plane ride and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, pampered by the beautiful stewardesses and immersed in an illustrated book on American Indians and one on the animal kingdom.
Tata would often take us to the lake in the winter to ice skate, an undertaking so thoroughly befuddling to her, and one that scared her so much, that she always invoked the saints and cut it short.
Howard and Mina settled in Alturas del Vedado, one of Havana’s poshest neighborhoods, in a two-story concrete house near the dead end of Calle 43, next to a tributary gorge of the Almendares River. Terrazzo-floored throughout, the salmon colored house was high-ceilinged, spacious, and airy. My sisters shared a room, while my brother — whom I seldom saw — and I shared another room. Pop had gotten him an accounting internship at AIC’s Havana office. John would invariably come home late and leave early. When he reached majority, John left Cuba to seek his fortune in the US.
Kitty-corner across the street lived the just-deposed ex-mayor of Havana, Nicolas Castellanos, with whose children and grandchildren I’d later come to hang out. Directly across the street lived Luis Echegoyen, the star of MamaCusa, one of the top-rated comedy shows on Cuban TV, somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Winters’ "Maude Frickert" character. His sons, Yoyi and Luis, about my age, became frequent playmates. One block away stood the Mexican Embassy, and two blocks away, the Peruvian Embassy.
Afraid I’d lose what little English I’d acquired, Pop and Mina enrolled Nana and me in Ruston Academy, an American school. The arrangement didn’t last. Mina was disgusted with their low academic standards and their emphasis on drawing, naps, and play time. It seemed that we were learning nothing and paying a high price for it. After a short while, she transferred Nani to the local Academy of the Sacred Heart, while I was transferred to La Salle, a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, many of whom were Spanish (at the time, Cuba had been independent from Spain for only 53 years, and the ties were still strong). President Fulgencio Batista’s children attended La Salle at the same time, but whether I was aware of this, knew who Batista was, or might have cared, I don’t recall. The students would ceaselessly ridicule the Brothers’ (to our minds) effeminate Castilian pronunciation of ‘Ds’ and ‘Ss’, always lisped in the most affected manner. But they got back at us: their fire-and-brimstone approach to catechism instilled the fear of God, hell, and sex in me for the next 20 years.
Catholic school didn’t quite have the same effect on Fidel Castro, who attended Belen, a Jesuit school in his time. The boilerplate catechism instilled in him the virtues of sacrifice and a strong empathy for the poor. As for sex . . . Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches, the longest of which, delivered on January 1968, was 12 hours.
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Pop and Mina were hands-off parents. Pop worked every day, but had also taken up golf at the Havana Yacht & Country Club, where I’d occasionally accompany him on rounds.
Neither Nani nor I remember spending any time with mami, with one exception. Later, after we’d moved into the mayor’s house, my bedroom connected to my mother’s dressing room through a common door. Most non-school mornings I’d hang out with her while she “put on her face” applying make-up and becoming a sounding board for whatever outfit she tried on. Mina’s vanity, L-shaped and entirely mirror-lined with decorative smoked edges, was extensive and packed with brushes, lipstick, curlers, mascara, talcums, creams, lotions, and myriad unidentifiable devices and concoctions. Mina was an excellent amateur painter and she approached her face as she would a blank canvas. The conversation flowed easily and we enjoyed each other’s company. Intermittently, she’d get up and head for the walk-in closet to try on an outfit. She never directly asked my opinion as to how it looked. To this day we still wonder how our mother passed her days in Cuba. Mostly, our tatas — now two, one for baby Patsy and one for Nana and me — took care of us. But I do remember our Havana debutante ball.
We children were strangers in a strange land. Soon after arriving, our parents engineered a birthday party to end all birthday parties, in order to introduce us to every possible playmate available in this new country. Every little cousin — no matter how distant (even in-law cousins) — every child of Mina’s or Pop’s friends, or business colleagues, or friends-of-friends’ kids, every kid in the neighborhood was invited. They all came. Pop and Mina hired a mini-amusement park, set up in our large back yard with an electric train, a mini-montaña rusa (roller coaster), ponies in a circle, a petting zoo — mostly goats and rabbits — and who knows what other childish delights. It was all meant to be a surprise — and it was.
Castro hasn’t been nicknamed El Caballo (the stallion) for nothing. El maximo philanderer’s sheer number of affairs, assignations, and marriages rivaled the length of his speeches.
There were 30 children there — not a single one smiling in surviving photographs. I well remember my own reaction: resentment at sudden, forced fun, friendship, and camaraderie. What were all those people doing there? Why did I have to “enjoy” myself? I had always been the master of my days, each one a blank canvas that I filled creatively according to my whims and plans. When someone imposed an agenda on me, it was a violation of my autonomy. Nani, even more sour-looking in photos than nearly all of the other children, particularly resented having to share a birthday with me, older and a boy to boot. I tried to hide, but someone dragged me out (in a not unkindly fashion). A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.
One of those little girls was Sara Maria, the skinny, curly haired daughter of Mina’s best friend. She and Nana had become friends. Sari, as we called her, wasn’t your typical doll-clutching, let’s-play-house little girl, so I put up with her. After immigrating to the US, we kept in touch. She was to marry Luis Luis, an academic, who was later to become the Organization of American States’ (OAS) chief economist, and whose insightful studies of the post-Castro Cuban economy became the basis for many of my articles about the island.
We didn’t last long at that house. Pop was doing well and, feeling a bit restless, cramped, and ambitious (he rued being from Brooklyn, at that time a run-down, unsavory neighborhood), approached Mayor Castellanos with a proposition. He and Mina bought the ex-mayor’s residence. Castellanos in turn built himself an even bigger house on the empty lot next door.
Now, at the time, Cuban elections had always been relatively free, that is, when compared with voting practices in countries such as Mexico or Guatemala. Nonetheless, the most ambitious party could always find ways of digging up dependable votes: union leaders controlled their workers; businessmen squeezed their employees; ministries rewarded civil servants with illegal bonuses; and a high percentage of voting cards lacked the requisite photographs and so could be used by anyone. The system had produced only one laudable administration, the very first one after independence, that of Tomas Estrada Palma. And at that, only his first term. By his second, he’d been soured by the lack of reciprocal idealism and turned vengeful, venal, greedy, and power mad.
The 1952 election started out no differently than any other: in Cuban-cigar-smoke-filled rooms with Mayor Castellanos cajoling together a grand coalition of anyone and everyone who had a claim on a piece of the action. Together they would apportion power and spoils uncontroversially and multipartisanly. But this time Fulgencio Batista, one of the primary contenders, didn’t want to share.
Batista was a tragic figure. He was nicknamed “the Okie from Banes” (el guajiro de Banes) and “el negro” because of his modest education, lack of sophistication, and dark complexion. According to the scuttlebutt of the time, he was one of the last surviving mixed-blood, indigenous Carib Indians — noteworthy because the Spanish conquistadores had — unwittingly — almost annihilated Cuba’s entire aboriginal population. (Cuba was now European, African, or mulatto). Batista had only risen to the rank of sergeant when, in 1933, he stepped into history. That year, during the unrest that followed the overthrow of Gerardo Machado, who had become a dictator, he led a popular, behind-the-scenes, intra-army “Sergeants’ Coup” that wrested power from the commissioned officers and, in an absurd reversal of traditional chain-of-command logic, conferred power unto the lower noncommissioned ranks — the sergeants themselves.
Prior to the coup, the army had been kept out of politics through a spoils sharing program whereby politicians paid off the higher officer ranks to secure their loyalty. The sergeants wanted a fairer redistribution of the loot. After the insurgency, Batista turned the government’s loyalty-buying racket into an overt army-extortion racket that benefited all ranks. Now that he ruled the armed forces, he promoted himself first to colonel and later to general. Batista, in effect, yet behind the scenes, ruled Cuba for seven years. In 1940 he ran for president, won, and ruled more-or-less competently — competently according to the standards of the time, with economic development programs, infrastructure improvements, and health and education investments.
At the end of his term in 1944 he had become immeasurably rich, but his marriage was falling apart, his popularity was at an all-time low, and he still hadn’t been asked to join the exclusive Havana Country Club. More important, his party surprisingly lost the election. In the midst of a midlife crisis, the Okie from Banes divorced his wife of many years, married a young socialite, and fled to Florida, into self-imposed retirement to enjoy his wealth and new-found connubial bliss. In 1952, restless, ambitious and more popular than ever in his own mind, he returned to Cuba to contest the 1952 elections.
A gift of cowboy cap guns with holsters cheered me up, so I donned an Indian headdress and shot little girls at close range.
Nicolas Castellano’s coalition could easily have defeated Batista; but not one to quibble, the ex-sergeant launched a second military coup on March 10 and named himself president of Cuba once again. The coup cost Castellanos the mayoralty. More importantly, it was the casus belli that launched Fidel Castro on the road to the revolution that rules Cuba to this day.
On July 26, 1953, and just before our new, five-member family had moved to Havana, Fidel Castro — precipitately, unprepared, and with a handful of loose cannons (both literally and figuratively) — attacked the Moncada Army Barracks in the province of Oriente. Some of his contingent even traveled by public bus. They were quickly defeated and brutally rounded up. Most were shot on the spot. Castro escaped with his life only because he’d married into the family of one of Batista’s ministers. Imprisoned for life in Carcel Modelo on the Isle of Pines, he declared, “History will absolve me.”
Pop rented our first house in Havana to an American by the name of Phillips, whom my mother said was a CIA operative. Nani, my sister, recalls, “All I remember about the Phillips family is that there was a girl close in age to me who spoke very little Spanish and that one Easter they invited me over for an ‘Easter Egg’ hunt, a bizarre concept to me at the time, and even weirder because the eggs were NOT CANDY but REAL HARD BOILED EGGS! YUCK! These Americans are CRAZY!”
Pinpointing the identity of that Phillips is a hit-or-miss affair, based on a last name, the memory of a little girl’s playmate, and my dead mother’s off-hand remark made years ago. Luckily, a David Atlee Phillips, CIA operative in Havana at the same time, wrote a memoir, The Night Watch, with many details that can be cross-checked against our meager bits. If Pop’s renter isn’t David Atlee Phillips, the coincidences verge on the miraculous.
Our new house at 130, Calle 36, was located on what, arguably, was Havana’s highest terrain. All the land around it sloped down. No wonder it was called Alturas del Vedado (Vedado Heights). It had all the amenities one might expect from the residence of the second most powerful man in Cuba.
Along with four bedrooms and bathrooms (all with bidets), one of which, the master suite, had a large adjacent makeup room lined with mirrors on every wall, the house boasted the following: a banquet-sized dining room (also lined with mirrors); a spiral terrazzo staircase leading upstairs from a grand entry foyer; four living rooms, one upstairs, and one with a six-foot aquarium; a small upstairs kitchen; a large office; a main kitchen with a built-in breakfast counter island, which could sit 12 people; and a built-in, industrial, 6-door, stainless steel refrigerator with an additional 2 doors facing the opposite room — a bar with curved counter adjacent to a patio; a multi-car garage with chauffer’s quarters; an attached L with maid’s, cook’s, and tata’s quarters; and, finally, a small, triangular chemistry lab, one which I soon put to good use with a 1950s-vintage, definitely-not-child-safe, riddled-with-warnings, skulls-and-crossbones chemistry set. Not good enough for pop, he immediately added a swimming pool with adjacent shower and changing room next to the already existing wading pool.
And the grounds! Three large, fenced yards, each with a patio, thick with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and all sorts of flowering tropicals only adults could identify; a breadfruit tree, a mango tree, and a flamboyant tree, with its huge, distinctive seed pods, and overarching, protective canopy.
The breadfruit tree, next to the columpio, or swing set, was a disgusting botanical specimen. The breadfruit — large, flesh-colored, wrinkled bombs, like a fat old woman’s oversize breasts — would drop to the ground when overripe and plop open disgorging a viscous, off-white, vomit-like, foul-smelling interior. This was unimaginable as a food source but wonderful for mortifying my sister, whom I would try to push into the putrid glob. I had once tried to pick up a portion of a felled fruit, carefully holding it by its skin, to lob at her, but the glutinous mass had no integrity and I ended up covered in breadfruit glop.
I came to idolize our driver and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.
Life in the new, big house — especially now that I was a bit older — was an opportunity of possibilities. Pop would, on occasion, read me to sleep. His staples were Zane Grey and Winnie the Pooh, about the only English I was exposed to, but one that paid a dividend. One of Pop’s business associates from the US would occasionally come to visit. He’d always bring his little daughter, Kathy, with him. For some strange reason — in spite of little boys’ general aversion to little girls — we took a shine to each other. Not more than six or seven years old, Kathy and I would seek nooks and closets to hide in and kiss. We were not overly concerned with being discovered — other objectives being more pressing at the time — except by my sister Nani, who would try to exploit the knowledge to tease me (to no avail).
We acquired a black Chrysler limousine with foldout middle seats, and a black chauffeur, Jesus, to match. And yes, it’s true, Cuban chauffeurs always had a great collection of dirty magazines. Jesus and I became buddies. For some unknown reason, I never saw the rest of the household staff associating with him. He and I would take to hanging out, talking about absolutely nothing of consequence. His strong and unaffected, easy Cuban Spanish entranced me. It flowed so unencumbered and atonal. All the Ds and Ss, and many of the Rs became slight aspirations, or vanished. The Vs and Bs became indistinguishable. Most GUs became Ws. All fricative and lingual obstacles somehow disappeared. Even the consonants seemed to slouch. I came to idolize him and, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, declared, “un negrito chusma del solar” — a black bum from the sticks.
One day, stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the Barnum & Bailey circus (a rarity in Havana), right at an intersection, a car in the cross street T-boned into our limousine, scaring us all to death. “Ay, Dios mio!” exclaimed Abuela. It was our very first car crash and proved to be the end of both the limousine and the chauffeur. Jesus, who knows why, was let go. I suspect Pop and Mina weren’t totally accustomed to being chauffeured people. Pop then bought, in quick succession I think, first a Cadillac, then a Ford Fairlane.
After only one year at La Salle, Pop and Mina transferred me to the St. Thomas Military Academy, another Catholic school. Since I was a little angel, I can only surmise their reasons for the transfer. For one, it was a partial boarding school, in that I left home at 7 AM and returned at 7 PM, was fed three meals a day, and showered. Additionally, it was an arrangement that had suited my brother John so well when he was in grade school, that he chose it willingly when he entered high school. Finally, Mina’s brothers, John and Robert, had both gone to military school. But they were scamps of the worst sort and needed discipline like a broken bone needs a cast. Looking like twins, they’d often cover for each other when one got into trouble.
St. Thomas was located outside the city, in the middle of manicured parade grounds, athletic fields, and open space, all surrounded by giant trees that blocked any outside view. Its focus was discipline, and it was instilled under many guises. Students were assigned a number; mine was 119. Woe betide him who forgot his number. Marching drills with rifles alternated with kickball played on a baseball diamond. Students wore starched white shirts with sharp grey and black uniforms topped by either a crushable garrison cap or a billed dress winter cap — and black patent leather shoes shined and buffed to perfection.
My father retired from AIC in 1955 because of failing health. It wasn’t just the malaria. He returned home one afternoon looking very serious. Mama told us not to disturb him; he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition, angina pectoris, and would henceforth have to take dynamite pills. I was incredulous that dynamite could be used as a medicine. He was also advised to give up smoking.
I watched Pop go into the living room farthest from the center of the house, sit down, and pull out his pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. He stuck a cigarette in his mouth, lit it with his Ronson pocket lighter, and took a big drag.
I didn’t understand.
“He’s enjoying his last smoke,” my mother whispered. After he was done, he got up, threw the remainder of the pack away, and became his old, cheerful self. He never smoked again. It was a lesson in self-discipline I never forgot.
Pop was only 57 when he retired from AIC, but he was full of dreams still unfulfilled. Politically he was a moderate social democrat. He was one of those extremely successful capitalists with a strong sense of noblesse oblige — he wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.
VW’s first Latin American foray had been in Brazil, where the bug became very popular. Pop’s Autos Volkwagen de Cuba S.A. building, a combination showroom and mechanical plant, was outside Havana, near Rancho Boyeros, the airport (now Jose Marti), and Mazorra, the insane asylum. Pop was proud of his new venture and took us all to tour it. In the spirit of things, he sold our Ford Fairlane and brought home a red and white VW microbus. Such a strange-looking contraption! And so much fun! We loved to ride around in it. In no time he had orders from tour companies who wanted to use the multi-seated vans — with sun roofs — for sight-seeing groups. Even Fidel Castro got to test-drive one of these new “People’s Car."
Pop wanted to do good while doing well. So he introduced the 1950s version of the Model-T Ford to Cuba: the Volkswagen bug.
Early after the triumph of the Revolution, before the sugar cane curtain descended, before the endless rationing queues and shortages taught Cubans the lost virtue of patience, before the busybodies of the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution killed all spontaneity and much of the nation’s humor, before physical and moral despair enveloped the island, while he was still popular, even idolized, Fidel Castro liked to appear in public unpredictably, followed — of course — by his retinue of guards. It wasn’t just vanity; he wanted to keep his finger on the pulse of the progress of the Revolution.
Dropping into a restaurant, he struck up a conversation with a pretty girl nicknamed Kika. One thing led to another, and he ended up going home with her in her VW bug, surrounded by his caravan of vehicles full of guards.
“You’re a very good driver,” Fidel told her, but added that the Bug was uncomfortable for anyone over six feet tall. The primus inter pares was too big for a proletarian car. Nonetheless, he was impressed. In the famous speech he delivered in March 1959, the one during which a white dove alighted on his shoulder, Fidel promised every Cuban a Volkswagen Beetle. Whether this would have been a windfall or a disaster — windfall if Castro bought the cars, disaster if he confiscated them for distribution — Pop’s reaction to Castro’s pledge went unrecorded.
But to return to the age before Castro: Batista, to improve his poll ratings, decided to amnesty all political prisoners. On May 15, 1955 Castro was released. In June he flew to Mexico to lick his wounds, reorganize, and plan an invasion of Cuba. One year later, on November 24, 1956, he sailed for Cuba with 82 men aboard the critically overloaded yacht Gramma.A week later they landed on the southwest coast of Cuba. Only a dozen survived or evaded capture. Those 12 men made their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, regrouped, and rebuilt a force that would soon become a minor thorn in the government’s side. That thorn slowly infected and spread sickness to the entire island.
But I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was now old enough for my first communion, a Catholic ritual that marked entry into the age of reason, when a child was old enough to cope with the mystery of transubstantiation and understand that the bread and wine ingested at communion were the body and blood of Christ — literally. It would be many years later that, as an anthropologist, I would interpret communion as ritualized, symbolic cannibalism, a practice shared by many religions. But for now, I was torn by conflicting emotions.
Wine! I’d get to drink wine! At dinner, Pop already let me sip his Hatuey beer, a bottle of which always accompanied his meal. I was ambivalent about its taste, mostly just wanting to imitate and bond with my father. But wine! That was some real grownup stuff.
On the other hand, I was filled with foreboding at the gravity of the holy sacrament and my responsibility to do my best in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, this required participation in another sacrament: confession. I’d been taught that, when confessing one’s sins to a priest, two things were essential: full disclosure and full contrition. It was never easy for me, especially if I thought the priest knew me. I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy, where the event would take place? It seemed an undignified violation of one’s sovereignty, but one which I soldiered up to . . .
. . . Until I came up with a brilliant idea for my confirmation a year or two later, an idea somehow, no doubt, inherited from Pop’s affinity for accountancy.
I didn’t mind God knowing my sins, but another person? Especially one who was my teacher at St. Thomas Military Academy?
Confirmation, a rite-of-passage meant to ratify and seal the Catholic faith in the recipient, is an acknowledgement of the child’s doctrinal maturity. I was going to become a foot soldier of Christ, and I took my prospective responsibilities very seriously, especially since the sacrament was going to be administered by a bishop, my first ever contact with a Prince of the Church. The ceremony took place at our parish church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help of the Redemptorial Fathers.
For that confession, instead of divulging every sordid detail, I’d tally the number of violations against each commandment and present the results as if they were on a ledger: “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” I’d begin, followed by:
1st Commandment: no sins
2nd Commandment: no sins
3rd Commandment: no sins
4th Commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother”: no sins
(Had I known that Catholic doctrine includes, by extension, siblings, a confession of these transgressions would have been in the double, perhaps triple digits.)
5th Commandment: no sins
6th Commandment (“Thou shalt not commit fornication”): 20 sins
7th Commandment: no sins
8th Commandment: no sins
9th Commandment: no sins
10th Commandment: 2 sins
(Not being able to distinguish between greed, envy, and admiration, I always admitted to a couple of sins in this category, just to be sure I covered all my bases.)
Notice the 6th Commandment.
* * *
Life was perfect. It was a timeless time, a time to explore life. The hands-off parenting really suited me. No rules were imposed other than being home for dinner on time, never lying or stealing, and getting As in school. I had the run of the neighborhood, and it was the perfect neighborhood for a kid to have the run of. Four parallel dead-end streets, accessed from a marginal avenue with little traffic, butted up to a tributary barranca of the Almendares River. A continuous concrete wall, doubled at the street ends with a concrete barrier, separated the 200-foot precipice from the homes, empty lots, and dead-end streets atop the highest ground in the city, Alturas del Vedado. Kids didn’t stray far. All the routes on the other three sides out of the neighborhood led downhill and into congestion.
Three blocks away stood the Parque Zoologico — the zoo, actually the zoo park, because it wasn’t just a zoo; it included large playgrounds with swing sets, slides, and sandy play areas. Carmen, our tata, would often take us there to pass the time. Those times always included the awkward experience of “making friends” — meeting up with kids you didn’t know, or barely knew; kids you hadn’t been introduced to; little strangers whom you didn’t know whether you wanted to know at all; little kid bodies that hid cruel little bullies inside that were impossible to escape from once engaged; but whom, if you didn’t make some sort of connection with, you’d be stuck playing with your sister or, even worse, stuck playing with your sister and the little girls she’d managed to befriend. Anyway you looked at it, it was pure hell for a shy, private little boy.
A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance. We’d throw kilos — pennies — onto their hides to get them to stir. None ever did. One could roughly estimate a croc’s last move from the number of pennies on its back. Once we spied one so laden that the kilos added up to near a peso, so we alerted the keeper that he was dead. The keeper laughed, saying that that giant was particularly lazy.
Zoo visits were always a treat, in spite of the disconcerting social scene. The roasted peanuts vendor sold a hot, paper cone-full for un medio — a nickel. Once, when Pop took me there, he stopped at a roadside cafecito stand for a sweet Cuban espresso on our way back home. The attendant eyed me to see if the order was for two. I looked at Pop silently asking if it would be all right if I had a demitasse. He ignored the silly question. Today we were two men, sharing a drink. Though my siblings and I, seven-, six-, and three-year-old children, already drank café con leche for breakfast, it was my first shot of 100-proof Cuban espresso. We each had two.
A giant entry moat full of fat, catatonic crocodiles guarded the park entrance.
Coca Cola was popular in Cuba at the time as it was in the US, a staple of Cuba Libres — rum and cokes — but kids gravitated toward Malta, a thick, rich, very sweet, carbonated malt soft drink — somewhat like a Guinness without the alcohol and lots of sugar — or Ironbeer, a soft drink still very popular in Latin America. Coke was, however, reserved as a special treat when mixed with condensed milk — a nectar imbibed only at home or when one was a guest.
After the US embargo was instituted and Coke was no longer available, the Cuban government created TuKola, bottled and sold by the Cerveceria Bucanero. Someone ought to have been investigated for subversion, or an excessive sense of humor. Tu cola means, literally, your tail, or more accurately, your butt. Because of the Cuban obsession with glutei, it has become an endless source of catcalls, innuendos, and, now, very old jokes.
A cast of colorful characters plied their trades on our streets, either with horse-drawn carts or pushcarts. “Granizado, granizado!” The shaved ice vendor would clarion. He was my favorite, followed by the ice cream man. Un medio, a nickel, was always forthcoming from Abuela, and would buy anything I wanted. We ignored the tamale man, Cuban tamales being somewhat bland, with the pork chunks mixed in with the corn meal.
Early in the morning — earlier than I was usually up — the bread vendor would come by. Little Patsy’s preferred breakfast was a fresh roll smothered in olive oil accompanied by café con leche, hot milk and coffee in equal amounts, with lots of sugar. Nani and I, introduced to scrambled eggs, wouldn’t eat them without ketchup (a condiment we also liberally poured on black beans and rice).
The produce cart appeared in mid-morning, with mostly local goods: “Malanga! Boniato! Mamey! Mango! Guanabana! Frutabomba! Yuca! Platanos verdes y maduros! Piña! Kimbombo!” The vendor would shout, never missing an item. Sometimes I’d accompany the cook out to the cart to watch the transaction and help carry the produce in.
I remember the lottery vendor, a staple of the Cuban street scene, appearing at our back door only once. He never returned. Either the gambling bug hadn’t hit our household staff, or he was asked not to come back.
During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT. I was fascinated by the process, knowing that the fog was poisonous, yet widely and regularly used. At night, we slept under white mosquito nets, made bearable when the new, window-model air conditioners were installed.
The local cop, a pasty-faced, pudgy cherub with the ubiquitous pencil-thin mustache, made no enemies, but he kept a sharp eye on the neighborhood. He once picked me up after dark — I must have been nine years old — during that fateful week in 1958 between Christmas and New Year’s when Batista had fled Cuba but the rebels hadn’t yet reached Havana. For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.
During mosquito season, a fumigating jeep plied the neighborhood roads, fogging entire blocks with the sweet-smelling DDT.
But not everyone on the streets was, to me, a welcome sight. Gerardito was my neighborhood bête noir. A bit older than I was, he always approached with a wry smile — a conman’s smile — and engaged me with some line or other until he could trip me up. Then he’d pounce. The first time he tried talking me into tasting an habanero pepper right off the vine, saying it was delicious. Since Cubans don’t eat and are not familiar with chilies — the cuisine being more Spanish than Mexican — and at eight years of age I wasn’t a fan of raw vegetables, I didn’t bite. When he became pushily insistent and wouldn’t take a bite himself, I suspected something was up. Finally, he grabbed a pepper and squished it all over my face, concentrating on my mouth and eyes.
He didn’t laugh. He just watched me scream and run away. Secure bullies simply enjoy the quiet satisfaction of success.
The next time I saw him, he had a broomstick in his hand. One end was whittled to a dull point. I immediately ran away. But being bigger and older, he caught up with me. As I struggled to escape, he rammed the stick into my right nipple, repeating, “See what happens when you run away from me?”
The injury soon festered and grew so large that Mina called our doctor. Dr. Ferrara came right away, diagnosed a cyst, and declared it had to be removed in a hospital. It was my first operation with full anesthesia. Years later, in American schools, I’d be asked why I had only half a nipple. “I was caught up in a street fight in Cuba during the Revolution,” I’d respond.
Later, after the Revolution had triumphed, Gerardito adjusted well. He was the only kid we knew with an electric toy car, one you could actually ride in. Carnival, at the beginning of Lent, was a big affair — as it still is in New Orleans and Brazil. In Cuba, where ancestral Spanish ties were still strong, clubs and associations based on the region of Spain from which one’s family hailed — Asturias, Valencia, etc. — would sponsor Carnival floats, marching bands, bagpipers, commercial displays, dance troupes, and just about any homegrown spectacle that would instill pride and provide delight. Children would dress up in regional Iberian costumes, complete with mantillas, castanets, and painted-on mustaches.
In 1959, Gerardito broke with tradition. Riding solitary between floats in his little electric car, he’d dressed up as Castro, with a fake white dove of peace attached to his epaulet, and a vain, arrogant smirk on his face. Fidel wouldn’t have objected.
For those few days Cuba had no government, and it wasn’t a good time to wander the streets after dark with a gun to make you a target.
Our household staff managed to be more inconspicuous yet more informal than most servants in more temperate climes. Carmen, Nana’s and my tata, was thin as a sugarcane stalk, dark haired, and with a face lined by country living that did not reveal her age. She was very relaxed but serious. After Pop, Mina, and we kids left the country, our house became the property of “The People.” It was deemed too large for Abuela, the single resident — according to the new regime’s housing laws. So our grandmother invited Carmen and her entire family to move in. They did, and were allowed to remain. Carmen sent us letters every month or two, keeping us informed on the condition of Abuela and the house.
When January of 1958 dawned, it only hinted at what the future held for the island. The previous year had been pretty uneventful, except in two important respects.
Throughout 1957, Fidel Castro’s 12 men — reduced to nine soon after landing — had managed to entrench themselves in the Sierra Maestra mountains in Oriente Province, on the western extremity of Cuba’s easternmost province, grow to a respectable force, and even win a few skirmishes. But they had gained little ground.
They were lucky. Batista had been tipped off about the landing and had sent the army and air force to welcome them. With a casualty rate of 73 men out of 82, armed forces commanders were convinced that the invaders had been neutralized. They radioed headquarters that Castro and his men had been annihilated. As far as the government was concerned, no follow-up action was required, and Castro was left alone to reorganize.
Two weeks later, Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times made his way into the Sierra Maestra and interviewed Castro in his redoubt. The interview and storybrought Fidel Castro to the attention of the world with both print inchage and television footage. It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations. Matthews portrayed the bearded rebel as serious, humble, honest, and idealistic, a role Fidel fitted — or played — to a tee.
Still, various attempts at widening the struggle had failed. The next year, however, was another story.
On January 31, 1958, an expeditionary force of 16 men and one woman, with a large quantity of arms, left Miami in a small yacht, the Thor II. They landed near Nuevitas, in Camagüey province, in the middle of the island, where Cuba’s northernmost coast protrudes up like a dowager’s hump. They broke up into smaller units and, with the aid of supporters and new recruits, began the arduous, 120-mile march into the Escambray mountains, due south, near the southern coast of the island. Along the way they engaged two army units, one by ambush.
Under the joint command of Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a Spaniard whose family were Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and William Morgan, an idealistic American soldier of fortune, the men reached their new base of operations in the mountains within a few weeks. At the end of February they published their Escambray Manifesto, laying out the objectives of their movement.
A second front, completely independent of Castro and his July 26 Movement — but with common cause — was now established.
“Aqui, Radio Rebelde, la voz de la Sierra Maestra!” The voice of the Revolution, set up by Che Guevara, began broadcasting in February. Between 5 pm and 9 pm, all of Cuba listened in to the daily battle accounts and Fidel’s speeches. Rumors that anyone listening would be arrested and tortured dissuaded no one, and only titillated audiences. Listening in made everyone feel like a participant in the Revolution; it made people feel that they were getting away with something — a hard-to-resist guilty pleasure.
We didn’t need Radio Rebelde to tell us about the bold incursion of M26 — as Castro’s rebel movement was known — into central Havana that February. It was all over the news. Two men had gone into the Lincoln Hotel and kidnapped Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine Formula One world champion racecar driver. Although semi-retired, he was in Cuba for the island’s Grand Prix. Fangio had dominated the first decade of Formula One racing,winning the World Drivers' Championship five times, thus making a record that stood for 47 years. To the boys at St. Thomas, he was a big celebrity, and it was all we could talk about.
It was the moment when Castro stepped onto the world stage — and into people’s hearts and imaginations.
The kidnapping was meant to embarrass the Batista regime by canceling the Cuba Grand Prix. But Batista insisted that the event go on. Police set up roadblocks and checkpoints everywhere, but Fangio could not be found. The rebels treated him well, installing him in comfortable quarters and allowing him to monitor the race on the radio. They tried to win him over to their revolutionary plans, with very limited success, since the Argentine was apolitical. After 29 hours Fangio was released, after forging friendships with the young idealists.
The publicity stunt was a great success. Fidel Castro and the July 26 Movement were on everyone’s lips — and not just as a distant guerrilla effort. The kidnappers were never found, adding to a growing perception of the regime’s incompetence. Public opinion sensed that Batista was losing his grip on power.
In March, Fidel Castro took another big gamble: he divided his forces and started another front in Oriente. Raul Castro, with a force of 60 men, marched east of the Sierra Maestra to the Sierra Cristal on Oriente’s north coast, opening up the Frank Pais — a third front — in the war against Batista. The revolution was morphing into a real war.
Robert H. Miller is a builder, outdoor adventure guide, and author of Kayaking the Inside Passage: A Paddler's Guide from Olympia, Washington to Muir Glacier, Alaska.
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