The RFC staff was in a meeting on December 17th, 2014 when our phone rang. One of my co-workers stepped into an office to answer the call. The remaining staff continued talking until we heard her surprised, excited response to the caller, our Board chair, Rafael Rodríguez Cruz. He was on his way to Cuba for an educational trip and was calling from Miami to let us know that President Obama had announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba and release the remaining incarcerated members of the Cuban 5.
I recently spoke with Rafael about his time in Cuba, the changing U.S. relationship with the island, and the release of the Cuban 5.
JM: When did you go to Cuba? Why?
RRC: I went to Cuba from December 18, 2014 to January 5, 2015. The reason has to do indirectly with Fidel Castro… About three years ago, Fidel identified the need for a literary competition on the topics of the environmental crisis and the survival of mankind. I submitted an essay in February 2014, and I won first prize. I went to Cuba to finalize details of the upcoming publication of the essay, which will be released at the Havana Book Festival later this month.
JM: Have you been to Cuba before?
RRC: Yes, many times. I have traveled there frequently since 1993. Cuba is the only country where I feel truly accepted culturally. You say that you are Boricua (a native of Puerto Rico) to Cubans and they rejoice. I was born in the United States and grew up in Puerto Rico, but I do not feel completely welcomed in either place. One is a colony ruled by the U.S., the other is the colonizer.
JM: What was it like being in Cuba right after the announcement of the plans to normalize relations with the U.S. and the release of the three remaining imprisoned members of the Cuban 5?
RRC: It was wonderful. In my experience, Cubans, in general, even the majority of those residing in Miami, are tired of the U.S. blockade, and they really would like a normalization of relations with the U.S.
This is funny…If you are from the U.S., and you go to Cuba, they call you a “Yuma.” That’s because 3:10 to Yuma (a 1957 Western with Glenn Ford) was popular in Cuba at the time of the triumph of the revolution. The most popular amusement park in Havana is called Coney Island. The capitol of Cuba is an exact replica of the U.S. capitol. I have found no animosity towards U.S. citizens in Cuba.
JM: Who are the Cuban 5?
RRC: Cubans do not talk about the Cuban 5 without mentioning the terrorist bombing of the Copacabana Hotel in Havana which killed Fabio Di Celmo on September 4, 1997. Luis Posadas Carrilles, a retired CIA agent, confessed during an interview with the New York Times in 1998 that he had paid a Salvadoran national to bring the bomb to Cuba and place it at the hotel.
Posadas, who lives freely in Miami and conducts frequent public gatherings with his right wing terrorist buddies, hoped to disrupt Cuba’s tourist industry by creating a climate of fear among European visitors. He has a long history of terrorist actions against Cuba, such as the downing of a Cuban jet (full of athletes) flying from Barbados to Havana. He also admitted to that action in an interview with a Spanish TV station in Miami. [Note from Jenn: Declassified FBI and CIA files on Posadas are available at here; additional information on his actions against Cuba are available here.] So, the Cubans felt in the 1990s that they had no recourse other than to send undercover agents to infiltrate the terrorist groups in Miami in order to find their secret plans and protect innocent people in Cuba and the U.S.
When the FBI found out that Cuban agents (Ramón Labañino, René González, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González, and Gerardo Nordelo) had infiltrated right wing terrorist groups in Miami, they arrested them. The Cuban 5, as they became known, were tried in Miami, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as well as other charges, and sentenced to decades in prison. The trial itself was-- like most trials against the left, including the trial against your grandparents--a mockery of justice. To think that we live in a country where law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, operate at will… It is kind of scary.
People in Cuba…really appreciate having Ramón, Antonio and Gerardo (the three just-released members of the Cuban 5) back. But they are also happy that Alan Gross is back with his family. I saw a lot of people wearing Obama t-shirts on the streets. He is more popular there, than here. After December 18, it was all celebration in Cuba. I had a lot of fun.
JM: Did you get a sense of how Cubans felt about increased relations with the U.S. and the release of the prisoners?
RRC: They are happily cautious… Cubans want the Yumas to come. After all, the country is already full of Canadians and Europeans. More than 3 million tourists visited the Island last year. Quite a number of U.S. students are there on exchange programs. Cuba has a healthy tourism industry. The island is simply beautiful, there is little crime to worry about, and the ecological treasures of Cuba are pretty much intact and open to everyone.
JM: Is there anything else you want to share about your time in Cuba?
RRC: Despite all the changes, some things have not changed. People still love Fidel, and they rejoice every time he appears on TV or in the newspapers. If you go to Birán (his home town), you’ll find that there they adore him even more. There are many more modern cars in the country, but the 1950’s “American cars” continue to run well. If you go to see Cuban National Ballet, like I did, and you are a Yuma you pay 10 CUC (about 12 dollars), a Cuban national pays 10 CUP, that’s about half a U.S. dollar. Education and medicine are still free. More and more people are working as “cuentapropistas” (owners of their own business or self-employed), but children, the elderly, pregnant women and the sick still receive a guaranteed diet (eggs, chicken, rice, beans, powder milked, and some other goods).
Due to the blockade, U.S. firms are not allowed to trade with Cuba. Foreign corporations are also subjected to stiff penalties if they trade with Cuba on products protected by U.S. patents. So there is scarcity of some truly important items, such as medicine for children with cancer. Pets also suffer due to the scarcity of products for flea and worm protection. It is a situation that helps no one but a minority of right wing exiles in Miami.
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