LeavingCubaand the house inEast Hampton
Memoir by Rafael VG Rodriguez
We were three children the youngest of which reaching the age of reason. Our parents said it would be the trip of a lifetime. They had a dream of taking a trip around the world, with us, beyond our tropical island .They had finished building a house in a seaside resort ofHavana, the equivalent of a similar suburb ofNew York. It would be like a sabbatical year for my father in celebration of the success of the accounting firm that he had founded a few years earlier, Rodriguez Leal y Goirigolzarri (he was in the process of taking a partner) which now had eleven employees and a roster of clients that spanned the spectrum of the economic activity on the island: real estate, sugar mills, a paper factory, and a home appliance store among others . The Cuban version of the American dream. I remember visiting my father’s office as a kid, in oldHavana, it was in one of the narrow and busy traffic-filled streets, calleCuba# 468,third floor, suites 307-310. It was a long trip from the suburbs on the Ruta 32 citybus, or by cab, but when you finally reached the sanctum you were rewarded with the cool air gushing out of the state-of- the-art, Fedders air conditioners. They had round-faced blowers seemed perfectly adapted to Cuban architecture.
Where would we go? The Paris my mother dreamt about? The Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, in essence, the seven man made wonders of the world give or take plus some of the natural wonders too, for the first stop would be Niagara Falls, which we heard made our Cuban waterfalls seem Lilliput size. We’d take the car on the Ferry toFloridaperhaps althoughNew Yorkseemed closer by air. My first long trip! Our old uncle and aunt who came down for Christmas every year lived in a small and mythical apartment onRiverside Drive. Mythical because I received letters from him as he was also my godfather. Then we’d board a transatlantic ship headed toEuropeor the old world, as they called it. Relatives there, mainly inFranceandSpain, were recovering from the world war and the Spanish Civil war, and the European Union had just being established. It would be a sort of grand tour, like a Chinese professor of mine in College told us that he had a chance to take when he was a young man in pre-revolutionChina. Revolutions get in the way of life sometimes in fact this one cut right through our plans, or perhaps it jumped started them in its ironic way. AsCuba’s last hope for elections waned my parents saw the writing on the wall so they were forced to plan a very different journey, one that could be forever, starting with leaving behind everything they owned and had worked for or collected including their house. My father rushed to pay off the mortgage so my grandparents could move in after we left and in case we might come back one day. They showed joy in planning our family trip, even if they might have felt otherwise. As soon as the plane landed in a foreign country we would be dependent on charity.
Back in 1961 folks sometimes went to the airport for the simple joy of watching planes take off, and to say goodbye to relatives or friends traveling, sometimes with a little envy because traveling by plane was still novel for many. But going to the airport was a normal outing for us as my father’s uncle and aunt fromNew York Citycame down every Christmas, and my grandparents went toEuropeto visit their relatives. Looking at pictures now I can guess the meaning of the smiles on their faces strolling down Havana Boulevards in January, thinking no doubt of the cold and snow up north. The winters of 1959-60 and 1960-61 both were particularly snowy and cold up north. I used to cover an old chifforobe with decorative paper depicting red bricks that made it look like a chimney, and we sang “I am dreaming of a white Christmas.” I imagine my old uncle and aunt must have been thinking what fools we were!
The Revolution had come and gone. The elections of November 1958 and Batista’s subsequent disappearance act ushered in a new order that eventually resulted in the almost total dismantling of society as we knew it. Batista, more of a leftist than American public opinion wants to give him credit for, was also not the puppet of theUS, despite the special relationship arrangement of the sugar quota. However entire institutions were swayed to the extreme left without too much difficulty and with much revolutionary touting and the backing of the people. A report from theUSambassador inHavanaafter Batista’s 1952 (bloodless) coup shows the reluctance of theUSto recognize his government because of the participation of the communists in his governments. This was fifties politics. His later tampering in the elections and other crimes committed by his government would not be missed, but visits by Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, and Winston Churchill who were regulars/ habitués (for different reasons) would be replaced by Anastas Mikoyan and Nikita Khrushchev. The Cuban New Deal had now its capital inMoscow, courtesy of the evolution of the revolution. My parents managed to pull the family out of a society, now, in their view, gone mad. They had done the right thing by their principles and the changes that came would leave people like them marginalized as a result of a division that Cubans the world over are still paying for today.