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Forget the year of arrival, Cubans are exiles

Recently there has been much ado about the validity of Sen. Marco Rubio’s status as a son of exiles. The controversy mistakenly suggests that to be pro-freedom a Cuban must have left the island within a specific time frame. My family history, like Rubio’s, demonstrates otherwise.

In 1956, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s policemen dragged my mother’s stepfather, Justo, from his workplace and jailed him. He was brutally beaten and later released. He was warned that their next encounter would result in his death. The regime mistakenly believed he was part of the revolutionary movement.

He left the island on a boat to Nassau, Bahamas hoping to return when it was again safe. Police arrived at my family’s home at 3 a.m. They overturned every item in the house looking for Justo’s supposed weapons cache. They found nothing. My then 4-year-old uncle pretended to shoot at the policemen with a toy. One of them hit my uncle on the head and threw him on his bed, threatening to kill both him and my grandmother. No official apology was issued for the egregious error.

In 1958, when it was clear the political situation would remain unstable, my grandmother and uncle left Cuba to Miami where Justo was waiting for them.

At the time of these events my mother was in Spain where my grandfather lived. His life savings were in Cuban banks. His brothers oversaw the family properties on the island. He planned to return to Cuba to live once my mother completed her schooling. Then the new Cuban state imprisoned and executed political opponents, deported the clergy, seized bank accounts and confiscated private property from its citizens and foreigners. After the deception and failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, he sank into a deep depression and retreated to our country home in the mountains, later dying from a massive heart attack. His story was not unique. As a permanent U.S. resident, my grandmother claimed her daughter and in 1962 my mother left Spain and entered this country. My mother joined the legion of others affected by the Castro takeover.

In 1957, two Batista secret police agents knocked on my paternal grandfather’s door at 7 a.m. and demanded that he join them. He was taken to military barracks where his younger brother was waiting inside an office. Together they were interrogated and threatened for several hours. The police claimed that either my grandfather or great-uncle was a revolutionary. In fact, they were shown a picture of a man who possessed an uncanny resemblance to the virtually identical brothers.

The secret police also claimed that they would have shot my grandfather the day before had he not been with my then-12-year-old father. A family contact pulled strings and arranged for the brothers’ release. Immediately my family applied for passports to leave the country. Their passports never arrived.

In January 1959, the family reapplied, fearing the Castro regime that had mercilessly bombed their eastern region and murdered myriad Cubans. Their attorney discovered that their original 1957 applications had been blocked and were sitting in a drawer. The Batista agents were bitter that their authority had been overridden at the barracks. In 1960, my father’s family finally fled Cuba and arrived in Miami, where they would wait to go back home.

Most of our families had migrated to Cuba from around the world seeking economic opportunities, freedom, social mobility and a better life in a Caribbean paradise. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents left behind Armenia, Austria, China, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Poland, Spain and many other homelands to establish themselves in the tropics. For most, there was no valid reason to leave Cuba and no desire to do so.

For many, the Batista tumor was unsavory, but the Castro cancer was indigestible. They fled to the United States and other countries seeking temporary lodging until the fall of the regime. It simply has not yet fallen. Date of arrival, visa type and place of departure are irrelevant. Together we continue to wait for freedom because we are all Cuban exiles.

Tania Mastrapa is the secretary of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE). The opinions expressed here are her own.

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