As I wrote in a post here in the Den in October 2013, I spent two amazing years in Havana Norte - Miami - as a missionary, living in the thick of the Cuban exile community. It was one of the richest experiences of my life. It was there in Hialeah and Miami that I fell in love with the Cuban people, their culture, their food, and their wonderfully slaughtered version of Spanish. It was there that I also learned of what life was like under Fidel (spoiler alert - it wasn't good). I heard first-hand the stories of people whose families had been ripped apart by the Castro regime. I heard the stories of those who came over in the Mariel boat lift and I can assure you that the vast majority were not the hardened criminals and maniacs as portrayed in the press. They were people desperate for an opportunity to be near family and for a better life.
I will never forget one of the stories one of the Mariels told us. As missionaries, we had the opportunity to help in resettlement efforts as well as share our message about God and His Son. During one of those early discussions the young man we were working with asked, "God? Who is God? Let me tell you what we were told about God en la isla (on the island)." He proceeded to tell us about his elementary school experience. Every few weeks, the class would be instructed to bow their heads, close their eyes and recite a prayer, asking God for a dulce (candy - a rare treat). Dutifully, they would do as instructed. They would then open their eyes, raise their heads, and find nothing there. They would then be told to do the same, but instead of asking God, they should ask Papa Fidel for the dulce. They would again do as they were told and I suspect you know where this is going. When told to open their eyes and raise their heads, there was a piece of candy at each desk. Miraculously, Papa Fidel had provided but any sly seven year old who cracked open his eyes knew it was the teacher who had passed out the candy.
The damage was done. Faith in what parents had believed was crushed. So was any real loyalty to Papa Fidel. As rations dried up, so did the candy. So did any real belief in la revolucion. Where hope did not die was among the exile community. I saw it burning brightly in the mid-80's when I called Miami home. I've seen it every time I've been back to south Florida in the last thirty years. I saw it in all its exuberance as people celebrated wildly in front of that venerable temple of Cuban food, Versailles, this past Friday night. How I wish I could have been there with them!
While Castro's death is reason for optimism for the people of Cuba, tomorrow will not bring a Cuba Libre (Free Cuba). Change will come and with his passing, it will come even sooner. The Cuban people I know, love, and respect are patient, strong and they are committed.
Cuba will be free. !Vive Cuba Libre!