Sugar cane … and the sweetness of freedom
By Aimee Arey
For the Salisbury Post
Columbus wrote the following about Cuba on Oct. 28, 1492:
“Everything I saw was so lovely that my eyes could not weary of beholding such beauty, nor could I weary of the songs of the birds large and small.”
My parents were raised in this Cuba, a beautiful tropical island filled with joyous happy people. Music, laughter and dance were at the core of its citizens. Cuba was a free country, economically stable, a hot vacation spot for tourists, and best of all, the ideal place to raise a family. It seldom crossed anyone’s mind to leave “paradise,” as some were accustomed to calling their mother land.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, arose a leader proclaiming equality for all Cuba’s citizens. His name was Fidel Castro.
Castro had a hidden agenda. It included a desire for power, wealth and the most devastating agenda of all, his fanaticism about communism. Although the majority of the Cuban people fell for his deception, a small group rose against Castro and his army. This sparked the Cuban revolution. My father fought fearlessly against Castro and his guerrilla bands, but to no avail. The citizens lost the fight, and the birth of communism arrived. My parents did not want to raise their children in this new world where there would be no more freedom for Cuban citizens, where there would be a lack of food and basic needs and no future for their children.
Freedom no longer existed in the lives of the Cuban people. Fidel Castro proclaimed in November 1961, “I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I shall be one until the last day of my life.” Fidel’s government moved against anyone suspected of opposition to the regime, including priests, ordinary men and women, even foreigners. The prisons were filled with political enemies. All access to the outside world ceased. Consequently, the government regulated and censored all forms of press. The newspapers and television were owned and run by the government. All incoming mail and telephone conversations were also monitored for political opposition or even a suspicion of it.
On every street corner there was a house that was occupied by a government official. His primary objective was to monitor the citizens on his assigned street. He was to observe and listen for anyone who opposed Fidel’s new order. If he found anyone under suspicion, he had the authority to imprison that individual for as long as the government saw fit. If the accusation was severe, the accused was shot to death. Most citizens feared for their lives and felt hopeless. What else was going to be taken from them?
Within four years of Castro’s leadership, food dwindled and the basic consumer goods of all kinds grew scarce. By early 1962, shortages became even more severe. The government imposed a general food rationing which also included consumer goods of all types. My parents, like the rest of the people, were given a list of the foods they were allowed to purchase. They were allowed only about 15 days’ worth of food for a 30-day period. However, this did not mean that the food they were allowed to purchase would be on the shelves at the grocery stores. Groceries were available on a first-come, first-served basis, and when the shelves were emptied, they would not be replenished until the next month. As a result of this lack of food, citizens were forced to go into the black market to buy and trade for food, while fearing for their lives if they were caught. Each member of a family was entitled to one pair of shoes, a couple of shirts and one pair of pants, per year. Although Castro promised medical services for all citizens, there was a dire shortage of medicine. When a doctor prescribed medication and the patient went to the pharmacy to fill it, there would be none available. My parents were struggling to find answers and solutions to this state of adversity. Their minds were consumed with despair as they contemplated their children’s future.
In Cuba, control of the people started at school. The communist party began in elementary school with the so-called “Cumulative School File.” This was similar to a report card, but it was not limited to academic achievements. This file documented whether or not the child and family participated in mass demonstrations, or whether they belonged to a church or religious group. The file accompanied the child for life and was continually updated. A student’s university options would depend on what that file said. From a child’s elementary school days on, he or she would hear that God did not exist. From the time young people reached seventh grade until they completed 12th grade, they were required to spend 30 days each year working on land, which could include farming, tobacco and sugar cane fields. Any student who did not carry out his work in the fields was barred from going to university.
From early childhood, Cubans were taught to hate everything connected with the United States. The “good guys” were always the communist countries, and the “bad guys” were always the capitalist countries. Military training was also given to all students, and at the end of their studies, there was a so-called “intensive military course,” which lasted between 15 and 40 days. Human rights were neither taught nor mentioned at any level of education in Cuba. My parents knew that this form of ideology was not what they had hoped or desired for their children’s future.
My parents finally came to only one conclusion: It was to leave the only home they had ever known. In Cuba, if people wanted to leave the country, there were comprehensive political regulations that they had to adhere to before they were allowed to leave. The first thing my father had to do was to formally turn in his request for exile to the government. The instant the government received his request in 1961, it took away my father’s job, gave him his official number of departure and sent him to the sugar cane fields. My family’s official number was 64,600. This meant that 64,599 families were ahead of us in line to leave the country. My father had to work in the sugar cane fields until our number came up. It took nine years.
During this devastating time, my father could only see his wife and children twice per year. He worked from sunrise to sunset with only beans and rice for his nutrition. Each worker was given a machete, and his job was to cut the sugar cane that was in the fields. The sugar canes were 8-9 feet tall, and because of the plants’ height, the workers could barely see anything around them.
All the workers slept on cots with a pillow and a thin blanket. My father spent his evenings writing letters to my mother and encouraging her not to give up, assuring her that there was light at the end of this dark and seemingly endless journey. My mother went through battles of depression and hopelessness. She was left at home to raise three small children in a country filled with poverty, hunger and shortages of medicine. She suffered every day as she watched her children go hungry and get sick and was unable to help them get well.
After nine long years, our number ó 64,600 ó finally came up. We were free to leave Cuba. My father was taken back to our home to prepare for our departure. As soon as we saw him enter our home, we were filled with peace, love and happiness.
Our father was finally home with us and we felt safe.
From that instant, our home was searched and all of our private possessions were scattered throughout the house. We were not allowed to give any of our furniture, clothing or even memory keepsakes to anyone. The government was now the owner of our family’s personal belongings. The only thing that we were allowed to take with us was the clothes on our backs. Our every move was monitored by the government officials until we all boarded the U.S. military plane. This plane was going to take us to the United States of America, our hope for freedom.
At last, the day my parents had longed for, finally arrived. In 1970 our family got on the plane, and as a result, I am here in a free country, able to write my story ó “Sugar Cane ó The Sweetness of Freedom.”