Fidel Castro and his rebel army overthrew Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in early 1959. At that time I was an elementary school student in Jacksonville, Florida. I was in the 6th grade, so although not politically astute, I was old enough to know what was going on. Shortly thereafter I was even more aware what was going on. There was a direct impact on Florida, the Jacksonville area, our Catholic diocese and my elementary school.
Not long after Batista's regime fell, the rich and powerful began fleeing Cuba. Many of the middle class also fled. So, if you are in Cuba, an island, under stress and in danger where do you go? Maybe Florida, 90 miles away, might be your choice. Boats and planes carried thousands of Cubans to Florida. Although many of these were the wealthy and upper middle class, who could afford to escape, they were not able to bring much with them, including money. Most refugees settled in far South Florida but some migrated north by choice or because of charitable agencies relocation. One of the main charitable organizations was the Catholic church. As South Florida and the Miami diocese became overwhelmed, the other Florida dioceses pitched in. The St. Augustine Diocese (Northeast Florida) included Jacksonville and my parish school. We got some of the overflow.
There was a camp/retreat that the diocese owned called Camp St. John, ironically on the St Johns River, in an unincorporated area well south of Jacksonville called Switzerland. It was a rustic camp, but it did have some dorm-like structures and kitchen facilities. Some of the Cuban refugees wound up at Camp St. John pending permanent relocation. Unfortunately for the kids, there were not many Catholic schools in the area and the closest one was almost a one-room school. The alternative was to bus the kids into Jacksonville. My school was one of the closer ones but was still about 20 miles away. We got a few of the refugee kids.
One of them was in my class. That one was a boy because everyone in my 6th grade class was a boy. All the girls were in a different classroom. I don't think any of these kids spoke English. I know the one in my class didn't. I seem to remember his name was Juan. He was slender, actually skinny, tanned and a little taller than me. OK, everyone was taller than me. Back then I usually rode my bike to school or took the city bus. I was in no rush to get home. Juan had to wait for the Camp St. John bus which had to stop at a couple of the other Catholic schools to pick up kids before making the 20 mile trip back to the camp.
Turns out Juan and I were both baseball rats. I always had my glove and a ball with me. One day while he was waiting for his bus and I was just hanging out, we struck up a sorta conversation. He couldn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish. He saw my glove and said some of the few English words he knew. Those words are stuck in my brain. He said "I pitch, you catch" with a thick accent. I nodded yes and we went to the school ball field. He got on the pitching rubber and I got behind the plate and we played catch until either his bus came or I had to head home. We did that most every day for a few weeks until one day Juan didn't come to school. He never returned. He had been relocated. That was the end of our relationship. He learned a little English and I learned a little Spanish. Mostly it was just an afternoon catch between two young baseball players. I missed Juan when he disappeared.
That was phase one of Castro's Cuba. A couple of years later, those of us in Florida had another event. That would be the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962. By then I was in high school. There was a definite tension in the air during the crisis which was at its height for about two weeks. Jacksonville was thought to be a primary target if the missiles began flying. At the time there were three major naval installations in the area, two Naval Air Stations and a Naval Base (port). There are still two. Jacksonville is about 500 miles from Cuba, well within the range of the missiles that Russia deployed in Cuba. That too passed.
After the missile crisis, Casto's Cuba became less of a day to day concern but it was a constant issue, especially in Florida. The influx of refugees forever changed the makeup and politics of the Miami area. To a lesser degree, Tampa Bay was affected as was the rest of Florida. Plus, the influx of Cubans continued through the decades. Luckily for us, they brought their food and culture with them.
Now for the opinion section. The dictator Batista needed to go in Cuba and Castro brought that to fruition. Unfortunately, Castro was also a dictator, a communist/socialist dictator. The people of Cuba went from one oppression to another. What I witnessed is that Cuba lost a whole generation, maybe two generations, of the professional and middle class. This exodus was not only devastating to Cuba, but to the individuals.There were Cuban college professors who were lucky to get an elementary or high school job, even those with Ph.D's. Medical doctors and dentists could not practice, engineers could not engineer. Some completely abandoned their former professions, others took lesser positions in their old field and a few were able to go back to school or pass certification tests and regain their former positions.
I think the Bay of Pigs was a stupid and sloppy adventure by ill-prepared Cuban expatriates and a naive US administration. The embargo after the missile crisis was well founded, but not for 60 years. The wet-feet, dry-feet immigration policies for Cubans are ridiculous. I agree with Obama that we should try to normalize relations with Cuba. Exposure to our culture and economy are far more powerful weapons than the isolation of the past several decades. Expose the Cubans to what could be a new standard of living. Let's let them upgrade that 1957 Chevy to a new 2016 vehicle. It won't be as pretty but it will be more reliable and fuel efficient. It's a version of the old honey and vinegar parable.
I hope the demise of Fidel Castro opens a new era of US-Cuban relations. I hope it also begins a new era of increased freedoms for the Cuban people. In a better world, Cuba would be more like other Carribean islands and Mexico. Safe and friendly neighbors. An island deeply connected to South Florida. Maybe even a reverse migration back to Cuba.
Will the new administration continue the detente?