Exile Stories XI: “Taking the decision was the most traumatic part” – from Cuba to Spain

Leopoldo is a Cuban exiled, son of Spanish parents exiled in 1936 before the
beginning of the war. He was born in la Habana in 1938 and belonged to the upper medium class; when Castro’s revolution started in 1956 he decided to support it
because he believed in communist ideology. However, while studying granted in
Prague, he discovered Castro’s activity was no longer what he wished, and he
started to have political problems. So in 1970, while returning to Cuba by ship, he
managed to escape in Rotterdam’s port and ask for political asylum; one month
later he was getting a Spanish visa an arriving to Madrid. Here he finished his
degree in History and lived on doing translations until he got a job as civil servant.
Nowadays he is retired but continues working for the Cuban cause: he collaborates
with the Hispanic‐Cuban Foundation8, publishes articles and keeps in touch with
Cuban exiled all over the world.

Marta, Spain

If you have some time and want to find out more, read the whole interview:

1. How was your childhood in Cuba?
My parents were Spanish; they fled the country in 1936, just before the war, as they knew things weren’t going well. I was born in la Habana in 1938; it was a wonderful country which was starting to host people whatever their origin, which was going out of the great depression, it was becoming a better country. It offered great chances, until the 56 when we “screwed up”.

2. Which were the mainly reasons which made you emigrate?
The reasons were not mainly but exclusively political. I was a fidelista, from the
illustrated left, young people of medium class who wanted to change the country.
We sincerely believed we could change it. We were young, had already finished the
school – it was a religious school, los rafaelitas, where I received the best
education, but a traditional education: God, fatherland and Home. But when we
finished the school we said no, it was necessary to change the structures of
capitalism, which exploded the workers… It is true that people were exploded,
there was inequality… but there it is, still. The reasons for conceiving a left‐winded solution were there, but what was wrong was the solution, thinking that the
kruschovian socialism, not the Stalinist, was the best.The concept ended up being completely wrong, up to the point that the USSR dissolved itself. It wasn’t necessary that Ronald Reagan came with his “Star Wars”, that was only a little help.

3. How did you decided to exile?
Taking the decision was the most traumatic part, because you need to break with
your family, your country, the safety of a home and a job, a likely future. Although
we were young, left‐winded, we had very strong family ties, like here in Spain. And
besides, you have to run the risk of doing it illegally. Many people left the country
legally, with nothing else than the clothes they were wearing and $5. The illegals,
we risked 10 years of prison if caught. I finally made up my mind because I realised
the system would not work, indeed, it was a fake system, which was committing
crimes of which I only knew 5% before leaving the country, I came to know the
rest here. For me it was easier as I had no future or family there, however, it was
still difficult. Legally, you had to ask for permission for leaving the country and
then work in the fields as a serf for 2 or 3 years, after that you were called and
allowed go to USA or Venezuela. I decided I wouldn’t wait and I risked.

4. How has it been the Cuban exile?
I’m not the typical exiled. The main exile took place during the first years of the
regime; it was of those who had collaborated with Batista and those from the
higher classes, who lost their properties. All the lands passed to the State, so they
lost their means of leaving. In 1959 and 1960 all of them left the country, and they
are the ones who have built up Miami. They were somehow helped by the US, with
credits for buying houses; they also give them a job –not always the best one‐.9
After that there was the exile of those who disliked the regime, chiefly the
democrats. For example in 1965 took place “el puente de Camarioca”, in which the
regime allowed 30,000 odd democrats to leave the country in boats came from La
Florida. Also in 1975, Cuba took part in the war of Angola and Ethiopia, to support
the USSR, sending 350,000 soldiers of which 6,000 or 10,000 died, although the
government has only recognized the death of 2,300, that made many people to
exile, the regime was divided between those who supported the soviet model and
those who supported the Chinese model. I met a paratrooper who was thrown from a plane to make photos of the Ogaden dessert; once he deviated he landed in
Gibraltar and asked for asylum. So in 1980 there was “el éxodo de El Mariel”, in
which took part, voluntarily or compulsorily, 123,000 Cubans, released prisoners
included.
Finally, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Union, there were
much more emigrants, given rise to the phenomenon of the “balseros” (1994). Now
the reasons are chiefly economical, because it was the end of the economical aids
from the USSR.

5. Which are the main destinations of the Cuban exiled?
They go mainly to the US and Venezuela. Each year 4,000 odd balseros arrive to the
US, especially motivated by the law of “wet feet, dry feet”. It’s an economical
emigration, but they know they have no future in the country with the regime. And
when they spend some time in the new country, they change their mind, towards
more democratic forms. Those who went to Venezuela have had now to move
again for the arrival of Hugo Chavez.

6. How did you get out of the country?
I had the chance to study granted in Prague. I was there from 1963 to 1969, going
and coming. The first year I lived on doing translations from French, English,
German, Italian and Portuguese. I got the last grant to study in the Carolina
University of Prague. There I realised the system didn’t work, thanks to the
languages I learnt – German, Russian and Czech – and above all due to the girls,
who told me the system was rubbish. I firstly thought they were too reactionary.
What made me realise they were right was the soviet invasion in 1968, to put the
country again in the bond of the USRR, what we called in Cuba “la caja del pollo”.
By then I was in Cuba because in 1967 I lost the grant due to political problems –
having thoughts of my own and having a bourgeois origin, even though I supported
the regime–. It was just the moment when the Cuban movement divided between
the pro‐soviets and the pro‐Chinese, and I wasn’t in favour of Mao, I was more
moderated. So I was accused of things I hadn’t done but I couldn’t prove I hadn’t.
So we lived Prague’s Spring in Cuba, but as my wife was Czech, she kept us up to
date. We were very excited about it; a lot of people in Cuba supported it, as it was a
renovating movement. But Fidel thought he didn’t like the movement and made it
disappear from one day to another. That’s to be a dictator. In Prague the movement would have disappeared naturally, but the invasion of the USSR put a traumatic
end to the spring, and that made them lose support among the population. And
then 20 years later they did the same with the Perestroika and the Glasnost.
Anyway, that made us decide to leave, but it took us still one year and a half to find
the opportunity. We were returning from Prague to Cuba by boat. It was an
Eastern‐Germany army ship; it had to stop in Rotterdam for a week to load
chemical products. We were forbidden to go down but by chance a gyro broken
and 14 Cubans and other foreign passengers ran away and managed to get to the
police of Frontiers. The Dutch were very nice and imprisoned us, to avoid legal
problems. The next week we were taken to Brussels and there we had to wait for
one month to get the visa. I got a Spanish visa because I had family here, in Madrid
and in Valencia. I arrived in May 1970. Once in Spain I had no political problems,
only economical problems, adaptation…

7. How was your arrival to Spain arranged?
My cousin was working in the Caja Postal de Ahorro and got me a job as IBM cards
piercer. When the boss realised I knew English and French, he gave me a job
translating computing handbooks; it took me 4 years. After that I took a
competitive examination and I became an executive in Correos (the state‐run post
office) for 30 years, in the communication school. I taught at night English, French,
History, Geography… to other civil servants, who wanted to qualify for the General
Secondary School Certificate.

8. Do you feel already integrated and adapted to the country?
Yes, of course. I easily got the citizenship right as I have Spanish family, and I didn’t
have any adaptation problems because the customs are quite similar and the
language is the same, though I did have economical difficulties.

9. What is the relationship between Spain and Cuba nowadays?
There are actually two relations, the brotherly relations, between the two
countries, which are very close because the Spaniards colonized Cuba, and so the
customs, ways of thinking are the same, Cuba is like a Spanish overseas colony. But
then the political relation is quite different, in general it is better when the socialist
party is in the power and worse if there is a right winded party. Aznar dared to say
to Fidel “if you make a move, I’ll make a move”. That is, that if Castro opened to democracy, Aznar would open him the doors to the EU. Castro refused, and that’s
why the relation is worse with PP. But they have never broken,
I’ll never forget when in 1959 Castro expelled the Spanish ambassador in Cuba,
because Castro have accused Spain of collaborating with the US against the Cubans
and the ambassador responded saying to Castro “you have offended Spain, you
have lied”. Relations were broken during 8 years, however, diplomatic underlying
relations continued. There have always been relations; Franco liked him just for
being “gallego”.
Now Spain is interested in maintaining a good relationship, due to all the
investments it has in tourism and hotels in Cuba. With Batistas’s government there
were also good relations, I remember my home at Christmas full of Spanish typical
products, they were for the higher classes. That finished with the revolution, now
they buy them in dollars.
Not long time ago the Spanish government interceded for the journalist Sebastian
Martinez, who had been almost one year imprisoned in Cuba without been clear
the charges. He was accused of corruption of minors just because he had made a
documentary about child prostitution.
10. And with regards to the exiled?
In Spain the exiled don’t usually have problems to arriving or staying, and that
doesn’t cause problems between Spain and Cuba. There is a pact among the Cuban
government, the Spanish government and the Catholic Church about this. The
church has a very important role in exile because they have asked the government
to release the prisoners from the “black spring” and have put the means to take
them out. The church hast churches all over the country. During the first years of
the regime it was repressed, and now there are no religious schools, but they still
have all the structure. A priest friend of mine had problems for granting an exiled
asylum.

11.Do you keep in touch with Cuba?
After being pressed by my family I decided to return for 15 days during the
Christmas holidays of the years 94‐95, to see my mother, my sister and my brother.
My sister is now a famous actress, although she has been left out for 20 years until
they realised she didn’t want to flee the country. I got a visa for 8 days, me, who
was born in that country. To renovate it I had to go to a sinister office, and I got 7
more days only because my cousin passed me through another gate. I never felt
comfortable. I didn’t get any taxi; if I needed to go anywhere I asked my relatives to
pick me up and I gave him $10 for the petrol, because there they can only buy in
dollars, not in pesos. If not I went on foot; I avoided to drive myself a car, to avoid
having an accident, real or not, and so I would have to stay six more months. I
returned after 15 days and I was very happy.
In 1998 I tried to return for my mother’s birthday, she was 100, and I wanted to
see her for the last time; but I didn’t get the entry because in two months the Pope
was going there, and they thought we were going there to make a fuss. So I got
really angry, who on earth were they to tell me I couldn’t entry in my own country
to see my mother. And since then I haven’t gone back. But I do keep the contact,
and right now more and more thanks to the Internet, with my family, school mates,
Cubans all over the world: New Jersey, Washington, Italy, Sao Paolo, Island.
However with my family I have to be careful, there are things I cannot say.

12.How do you see the (political) situation, regarding the past and the
future?
Things didn’t change too much with the revolution. In the past there used to be a
dominant class who exploded the workers, the one who had to go to the exile, but
now it has been substituted by another one, that of the communist party
collaborators, that claim to govern in the name of workers but in reality are also a
dominant class. They can’t only be overthrown by cannon shots, but as it happens
that we want a democracy, the transition needs to be pacific, and due to this we
continue like we are. What we all which is that the same reformist sector of the
dominant class decided to made themselves the “hara‐kiri”, but for that it is
necessary that Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and some other of the historical leaders
disappear. New classes want to continue being the ruling classes, “sponge off” of
the system, but they know future is implacable, and that if they don’t do the
necessary changes these sinks. I don’t like that the future is in the reformist’s
hands, I would like representative democracy such as the Danish or the Norwegian.
But now Cuba has impoverish, the sugar refineries are in bad state, the exportation
of sugar has decreased from 7 million tons to 1,2 millions, it used to be the first exportation power and nowadays is the number 12. Besides, the economy hasn’t
diversified. Now the first product is the mining industry: nickel, cobalt and chrome
produced in the mines of “lengua de Pájaro”. Moreover, there is a debt with the
ancient USSR of $20,000 millions, that Cuba won’t be able to pay in 200 years. They
have to pay Russia, and also to Czechoslovakia $350 million for the metal refiner of
lengua de pájaro.

13. Which is the political influence that may have the exiled against Cuba?
Right now there are some 2 or 3 million Cuban exiles all over the world. They have
great influence in Miami, even though nowadays Argentineans, Chileans and
Venezuelans are arriving. But they still control the economy, and not all of them
are conservative, there are also castristas exiled. Their success is actually wearing
the regime down, but at the same time they are supporting it, as they send money.
Is the same with the rest of the Cubans, although they’re sending information and
try to defend the cause, in total they send $1,200 million/year, which means the
third source of income of the country.
What we tell our relatives is very important because there there is no freedom of
the press; newspapers publish what the communist party wants. The problem is
not what they publish but what they don’t publish, and what is not published
doesn’t exist. For example about ETA there are no publication, it is believed they
are a pro‐independence organization who fights for the liberation of the oppressed
Basque people, no matter how many killings they are guilty of.

14. What is the dissidents’ activity? Why don’t they get exiled?
What they mainly do is to think, and then raise doubts about the system. As a
consequence they are harassed, they end up losing their job, their relatives lose
their job, their children are expelled from school. Even so the regimen doesn’t dare
to crush them strongly. They go to prison, but is not the same repression as in the
past.
They are extremely brave, they don’t go to exile because they don’t want to, they
want to continue in the country and keep calling the international attention. The
best known are las Damas de Blanco – wives of political prisoners, who demand
their release, although for the regime they are ordinary prisoners‐. We should
support any movement that demands democracy, no matter their tendency.

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This entry was posted in Alumni activities, Exile story, Study trip Madrid 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

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