Tio Aruturo agreed to speak to my classes again.
We are in the midst of the Cold War study and just finished with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tio and his family lived through the CMC and left Cuba during the Johnson airlifts; in doing so, they sacrificed everything for freedom. This was a sobering lesson I was so excited to share with my students.
Just the day before, a young man had written that the best way to study history was through written primary documents. When I read this line, I had to pause; I thought of the first hand stories I've been privileged to hear--I had to disagree with the young man's premise--the best way to learn history is from the people who were there. Hearing their stories can be stronger than reading their stories...yet, so few people are still alive to tell of those crucial historical moments.
The first time we spoke to Tio, we had a speaker problem and he had to shove his story into 20 minutes; this time he had two 45 minute class periods. I basked in his phone presence and the stories he told. So intent on listening carefully, I took very few notes and I'm desperately trying to hold on to all he said.
The story begins with Cuba's independence from Spain. A series of leaders led to Fulgencio Baptista becoming president. He came to power through his goodwill that toppled the previous corrupt government; he was liked and trusted and was voted president in 1940 through free elections. He served Cuba well by strengthening the economy, developing public works, and expanding education. But he had a flaw that allowed him to enrich himself--he made money from being the president. When his term was up, he moved to Florida and invested the money (reported as huge sums) he'd made from his service.
The eight years following his presidency, Cuba fell under corrupt leaders again. Baptista returned and the citizens were happy to greet him; he took control in a bloodless coup--but something had changed--drastically.
Baptista returned as a vicious dictator. He took control of the press, the economy, the university and began embezzling huge sums of money from the thriving sugar economy in Cuba. He rigged the election so he was the only man running.
Along comes the revolutionary Fidel Castro. Again the people had hope. He promised free elections... While promising he was not a communist, he slowly stacked government positions with communists. Elections weren't free, and then the devastating day when Castro joins with the Soviet Union and declares communist Cuba.
Tio's mom was an attorney who worked in the sugar industry. When she refused to join the communist party, she lost her job. They lost their home. The father, mother and Tio started listening to the Voice of America short wave radio at 4:00 a.m in the morning. If caught, the father would have been sentenced to five years in prison.
Tio's grandfather had been a farmer all his life. Each morning he rose early to take care of his farm. One morning he rode his tractor to his fields and was greeted by government officials who told him it was no longer his farm. He turned his tractor around and headed for home, but they stopped him because the tractor was no longer his either. It was a long walk home.
Tio's family held on, after all, how long could Castro last? The economy had tanked and only held on with Soviet assistance.
People started leaving Cuba in boats and very soon overwhelmed the Florida Coast Guard.
President Johnson miraculously negotiated with Castro, airlifts that allowed people to leave Cuba.
When Tio's family got on the list, government officials came to his home and inventoried all the possessions. When his family was informed they could leave, the inventory staff came again to make sure they hadn't given anything away or sold the silverware, the furniture, or any of their possessions. When Tio's father wasn't on the list, his mother said she couldn't leave without her husband. A soldier pulled her aside and said, "If you don't go now, you'll never get out of Cuba."
Imagine the weight of making such a decision.
Tio, his sister, his mother and his grandparents left that day. Tio was only able to leave because he was 11 years old. Men between the ages of 14-45 were held captive as military capable. They left with only 12 pounds of clothing and no money.
They arrived in America with nothing but their precious freedom.
As we listen to Tio, I jump up to the board to write key phrases, key truths he has expressed.
Corruption precedes upheaval.
No one wants to leave their home country.
The US could have obliterated Cuba, but they used constraint; they let Cuba be Cuba.
Castro later admitted he wanted war and was willing to risk nuclear annihilation to teach America a lesson.
When our time is almost up, I ask Tio, "Having left a country because of an oppressive regime, you know how important good leaders are. How are you feeling about his upcoming election?"
Tio laughs. "Well, like many Americans, I am torn. I haven't yet decided. But I have faith in democracy. I am optimistic. Democracy works and it may take a long time to recover from the bumps, but it does recover."
This is exactly what my students needed to hear. It's what I needed to hear. I think of the shambles our country was in during and after the Civil War. We pulled through. I think of the Great Depression. I think of the divisive 1960s and the Vietnam War. I think of the gas shortages in the 1970s, of the '08 housing market crash. We pull through. We live in a democracy. We have free elections and a constitution.
This morning I remembered I had a place in this democracy. I will no longer feel discouraged and desperate about the presidential candidates. This morning I started looking at the alternative candidates. I will no longer be backed into voting for a republican or a democrat to stop a democrat or a republican. I will vote for a candidate in whom I have confidence and trust.
I have the freedom to do so.