When I learned about the death of Fidel Castro, I immediately thought about my father, who died 25 years ago. Like other Cuban exiles of his generation, my dad looked forward to the day when Cuba’s communist government would fall; and he and his family would return to a free Cuba.
It did not happen.
My father had all the faults of a Cuban man of his generation; and he could never accept the fact that his only son would never be the man that he wanted him to be. But Dad was a man who would do anything for his family; and he and Mom thought nothing of giving up their home and all their possessions to take their children to America, away from Castro’s revolution. I immediately phoned Mom, who is still alive, and she agreed that Papa would have been happy to witness the great event. To Mama, Castro’s death was long overdue; a belief that I am sure was shared by all of Miami’s padres and abuelos (parents and grandparents) who, like my own parents, sacrificed so much for their families’ freedom.
Next to my parents, Fidel Castro was the most important person in my life. Because of his revolution, everything that happened to me after 1962, the year the Monteagudos came to America, changed drastically from what it might have been. If not for Castro, I would have lived my life in Havana, sexually discreet and outwardly Catholic.
My writing, if there was any, would have dealt with different topics, written for different media, and of course in Spanish. I would even have a different name. More importantly, without Castro I would never have met the three men who shared my life in succession since 1976; all American-born sons or grandsons of eastern European Jews. Castro changed their lives, as he did so many others.
Fidel Castro, through his Cuban Revolution, changed the island of Cuba, for better and for worse, more than any human being except Christopher Columbus. But Castro also changed the United States, for better and for worse. The Cuban Diaspora sent to America hundreds of thousands of Cubans who, like the Monteagudos, sought to escape Castro’s brave new world. Many of us eventually settled in Miami, a city that our presence transformed beyond belief. What used to be a sleepy southern town, if not God’s waiting room, became the unofficial financial and cultural capital of Latin America (outside of Cuba). On the statewide level, Cuban exiles and their descendants became part of the Republican coalition that ruled Florida since the ‘90s.
Generations of Cuban-Americans, the children or grandchildren of the original exiles, have made important contributions to American politics, business, education, religion, science, literature, journalism and the arts, both within and outside of the LGBT community. For decades Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida have been pawns in the Cold War; and the United States has held a grudge against “the Castro regime” longer than any other country, except North Korea or Iran. (If we approve of a foreign government, it is a government. If we do not approve, it is a regime.)
Though Cuban-American politicians like Senator Marco Rubio or Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen continued to carry the torch, anti-Castro sentiment laid low in South Florida while President Barack Obama restored U.S. relations with Cuba. Castro’s death led to an almost unexpected wave of celebration and joy in Little Havana and elsewhere, not only from the first, “greatest generation” of Cuban exiles but from their children and their grandchildren as well.
As Cuban as I am, I sympathize with their sentiments, though I also agree with Obama’s efforts to restore relations and oppose our outdated and ridiculous embargo against the island. Castro’s revolution brought universal education and health care to the Cuban people and made Cuba its own nation after decades as an American puppet. But he turned the island into a totalitarian state that oppressed everyone who did not conform to his ideas of the revolution. Though Castro’s brother and successor Raul has made some reforms, Cuba remains to this day what it has been for more than 55 years. Though we could not imagine a world without Fidel Castro, the world would have been better off if he had never been born.