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FIVE YEARS IN REVOLUTIONARY CUBAA MEMOIR
By Carroll English
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Carroll English
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHOW I CAME TO GO TO CUBA
In college I changed my major several times—from agriculture (because I came from a family of farmers) to home economics (because I enjoyed the homemaking arts) to education (since all the women on both sides of my family had been teachers). I ended up with a BS in education from Florida State University, with a minor in Spanish. During my last year of college, reality was bearing down on me, of course. I knew that the protected life of student would soon be over, and upon graduation, I would be needing employment.
At that point in 1959, I didn't feel ready to settle down to teach who-knew-what in some little weed-overgrown town in south Florida where we were third-generation Floridians, as my father was hoping I would do. At this juncture in life, I wanted to see the world while I could. (My father himself had lied about his age during the First World War and joined the navy at 16, becoming acquainted with the European part of the world. During WW II he served in the Seabees in the South Pacific, experiencing the other half of the globe under Uncle Sam's auspices. Thus, my interest in seeing the world came from having heard Pa tell his adventure stories all my life!) And it seemed like the best way for me to see the world was to continue to expand my horizons from within my religious framework, the Methodist Church, which had at the time a variety of outreach programs. I hoped to be able to make a social contribution and experience distant cultures at the same time.
From childhood I had been a happily faithful attender of church and Sunday school. As a teenager I had continued active in youth folk-dance and discussion groups, then very popular in my denomination. Through the programs extant at the time within my church, I had in college traveled to New York City to visit the United Nations, to Washington to visit our representatives in the federal government, and to the Texas-Mexican border to participate in a church-sponsored work camp. In the work camp, we assisted to build, repair, and paint parsonages and churches of the Spanish-speaking congregations in the lower Rio Grande Valley, also teaching vacation-Bible-school classes to the Tex-Mex children in those little chapels.
Since I had avidly pursued Spanish in high school, I could somewhat defend myself in the language, and often served as translator for the work-camp group as we interfaced with the Spanish-speaking population among whom we worked. When we made a little foray into Mexico on a week-end lark once, I was almost detained at the border on suspicion that I was a Mexican trying to enter the U.S. with the returning group of Americans. While this occasion was a bit scary for me, it also made me happy at my achievement of a passable accent in Spanish after just a couple of years of the language in high school and a year in college.
My interest and proficiency in Spanish derived from the fact that I had been fascinated as a tiny child by the Cuban radio stations we could get in south Florida where I was born and reared. In those days there were no Mexican farm workers everywhere, as there are today in that state, and my family was mystified by my interest in what was a totally dead language to them. Even though there was no opportunity to study it until my junior year of high school, I grabbed onto it then with maximal interest, continually mumbling my vocabulary lists and verb conjugations to myself between classes and en route to school or home. I thus "tested out" of the first couple of levels of Spanish in college, based on what I had picked up in high school. This allowed me to go right into the 300 level at Florida State University.
By this time, I had seen too big a picture of the world as I was graduating from college to be willing now to just "settle down" in some little "Podunk" town and marry some guy who had never been anywhere or done anything out of the routine, and to live a conventional life. (Not that there is anything wrong with any of those things, I now very well recognize! There are times now when I feel that I missed a lot of what life normally is about by not living a more conventional life.)
Fortunately for me at the time, my natal church offered the means out of this dilemma of what to do with myself as I finished college. It gave members, especially young people, a chance to labor on the mission field for a period of three years without further obligation, in order to examine missions as a possible life vocation. Thus, I signed up for a stint at this, eagerly looking forward to where on the whole wide earth I might be sent for the next chapter in my life.
By that summer of 1954, I had been assigned by the Methodist Mission Board to Cuba as a short-term missionary. I was among the "LA-3's," or those going to Latin America for three years. Though it was designated as a three-year term, I stayed for five years, due to personnel turnovers of fellow missionaries in the field. (1954-9) And looking back, I can express considerable gratitude to the church and whatever destiny or karma placed me in that place at that time for that opportunity, as my life forever since has been greatly enriched by the experience!
This placement at that moment in history put me in an island nation which was ripe for revolution, due to the tenure in office of its iron-handed tyrant at the time, Fulgencio Batista—who was supported and sustained by the United States government in order to protect U.S. interests there—e.g., sugar, iron, and nickel companies owned by Americans, but above all, to maintain our military base on Guantánamo Bay. The base maintained our military presence in the Caribbean in the expectation that Communism would not dare to enter this theatre so close to the mainland of the United States of America. However, it was an illusion that it protected us in any substantial way from Communism, as later we were to discover that it was the very Achilles' heel, so to speak, through which Communism made its primary incursion into the Western Hemisphere through Castro's revolution.
Prior to traveling to my assigned field, I was among a group of varied Protestant neophyte missionaries who received preliminary training in Meadville, Pennsylvania. My fellows and the training faculty alike joshed me throughout the course for being sent to one of the major vacation playgrounds of the Western world—where, the implication was, I could hardly be expected to do any serious service. Being young and naive, I was caused to wonder whether I would indeed be doing any real work, given their jibes. Did they know something I didn't? I was not a playgirl type.
In any case, 1954 to 1959 when I was there, included the time building up to the Cuban revolution, the two years of the revolution itself, and some six months after Fidel Castro and the revolution came to power. I taught at the Escuela Agrícola e Industrial Evangélica near Mayarí and Preston at the far-eastern end of the island for the first two years, and then was sent to Colegio Buenavista, a school for girls in Marianao, a suburb of Habana, for the latter three years.
Our agricultural students in Oriente province were from deep in rural fields and mountains, with a portion of them being from the small towns of that province and its neighboring ones.
At the ag school I taught English and a general orientation course called Understanding Myself that included fundamental housekeeping skills which all students were expected to learn, along with some crafts skills, some basic good manners, etc. I also played the piano at morning devotions, and did the payroll (of Cuban workers, such as the indigenous man who plowed with oxen for us, the Jamaican who ran our dairy operation, etc.) I lived in one of the girls' dormitories, which was like living with a number of sisters, as the female students were close to my age and were very warm and friendly—so typical of the Cuban character of that day.
In my final three years at Colegio Buenavista in Habana province, I taught fifth grade in English and some sixth-grade subjects, such as music and science. There was often a choir for me to direct, and the intramural sports program fell to me to conduct. Our team rarely won in its skirmishes with other girls' schools of the city, as I didn't really have any training for this and am not a fiercely competitive person myself. I've always believed that rabid competition causes more harm than good. My philosophy about sports has always been that if you're going to play, just play and have fun and do the best you can.
This memoir is based on some passages that I sporadically recorded in a diary largely pertaining to the revolution, including also some excerpts from letters written home. The account is intermittent because I only wrote when salient events came to pass or when classes had to be suspended because of revolutionary activity in our area, making daily activity so dangerous that lives could not be risked to attend classes—at which times I had the leisure to write. I've also added some memories which came to mind in the process of inputting here the passages regarding political activity.
Of course every person's perspective is unique to him or her, according to background, training, life experiences, observation skills, etc. This is my account, and I will be as honest, sincere, and accurate as my faculties allow me to be.
HOW I SAW THE CUBAN REVOLUTION: (TAKEN FROM MY DIARY)
The last election day under Batista's dictatorship:
November 3, 1958: Today was Tuesday, my birthday, (26 years of age)—a date around which elections are celebrated every two years in the United States. Likewise, Cuba's dictator Batista has selected the same first Tuesday in November for the national voting charade. This particular election has long been anticipated by everyone concerned with Cuba at home or abroad. People expect the worst, but with a (rumored) 20,000 militia to maintain the peace, the polls were opened. The great sorrow was—not the expected antics of rebels ripping up the country—but that a mere smattering of the population of voting age ventured to the polls. The streets of Habana and Marianao (where we live) were deathly quiet. The Chinese fruit vendor on the corner was the only person active in business in the whole neighborhood. All stores, banks, and schools were closed. Not even post-office employees worked today.
Miss Buck, the director of Colegio Buenavista, the girls' school where I live and work, heard several bombs go off last night and the night before. "Sources" claimed that some eleven bombs were exploded in the area, but we have no reliable information on this. We heard a shot tonight in our neighborhood. "Things" are happening, but we rarely get dependable knowledge of them through the rumor mill. These explosions and gun firings are sending a terrorist message to the population of Cuba:—probably something like: "Don't you dare go out there and participate in the political process! Drag your feet. Don't let the tyrant Batista think he is winning in any way!" Actually, it would not have mattered what the vote count was, as Batista would have won anyway, as dictators do. Thus, there was not much motivation to risk your life to go vote for a candidate you hated—or reveal yourself to the rebels who would not have appreciated your attitude of participatory citizenship.
President Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar, formerly a foot soldier in the Cuban military, had brought himself to power some years previously with a coup d' estat or a golpe de estado or a "blow to the state"—a military takeover. In these days of the new revolutionary menace, however, he is receiving the effects of the causes he put into action as a younger man, isn't he? "By what measure you give, so shall you receive."
Batista and his wife are very much reminiscent of Eva ("Evita") Perón and her Argentine-president husband, Juan Perón of the same era, in that they all consider themselves as benevolent parents to their respective nations of children. Both Eva Perón and her Cuban counterpart make big shows of their largesse at Christmastime by giving away massive quantities of gifts to poor children. While the two men make speeches about their fatherly generosity, their military fists of power are, behind the scenes, bashing anyone or anything that stands in the way of their getting what they want. Just the mere presence of a tyrannical rule such as Batista and Perón have established over their populaces is an immense insult to the people they govern and their intelligence! It is so galling! You continually feel treated like a child, and the expectation is that you will be compliantly obedient like a "good" son or daughter at all times!
We have heard that last Saturday night rebel hijackers forced a Cubana Airlines plane off its scheduled route from Miami to Varadero (Varadero is in the province adjacent to Habana at the western end of Cuba), demanding that it land at Preston (headquarters for the United Fruit and Sugar Company) at the far-eastern end of the island. The pilot obeyed the hijackers' demands but was unable to bring his plane down on the tiny runway there. He circled helplessly for an hour until ultimately the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into Nipe Bay below, killing all of those on board—all this taking place right out in front of the agricultural school there where I had worked my first two years in this country. Not many of the teachers and students remained at the school on account of the dangers of being anywhere but at home during times of political unrest. All of those left stood on the shore of the bay, watching helplessly throughout the entire process of the plane's destruction. Then it was they who had to dive beneath the murky waters to retrieve the bodies and artifacts. So sad and sobering for them!
Surely this tragedy could not help the rebel cause, I protest to myself! How can the rebels go on killing, destroying, forcing, terrorizing, etc., and still captivate the hopes, visions, and sympathies of the Cuban people! This is the expectation and nature of terrorism everywhere, though. And when enough people have been harmed or killed, ultimately the feelings of common folk become so aroused that they can be easily manipulated by a leader—and the desired chaos ensues. This is the stuff that war-makers use towards their ends!
The American Embassy in Habana is said to have sent investigators to the scene of the Oriente plane crash and expressed to the government on behalf of the United States an attitude of its being fed up with the kidnappings and confiscations by the rebels. These rebel capers were in the beginning seen as clever and amusing—but are very tiresome now. The Castro forces have grabbed jeeps, heavy equipment, men, and goods from the various American-owned mines and sugar companies in that vicinity. Some of the men I knew at Preston were taken as hostages by the rebels to be used to prevent the strafing of rebel mountain hideouts by government planes. Nothing seems sincere in such circumstances! All parties are using everything and everybody to force the accomplishment of their aims and desires!
All this activity is exciting to the common Cuban mind because of the anticipated freedom to be wrested from the dictatorship of Batista. The rebel leader, Fidel Castro, plays continuously upon pro-underdog sentiments, a vulnerable spot in the national thinking and feelings in a country where the vast majority of citizens are of the worker-farmer, lower-class segment of the population. Later we will go into detail about how Fidel systematically and constantly appealed to the Cuban mass of "little people" in order to build up a revolutionary force sufficient to taking over the country.
But if the U.S. government expresses anti-rebel sentiments too strongly, it seems entirely possible that Castro is liable to turn anti-American, which could affect the thousands of American citizens living and working here or visiting Cuban shores. Anti-American feelings have not been characteristic of Cubans in recent decades, but popular sentiment is with Castro now, so things could easily prove adverse for us residing here if he should get very upset with the United States at this point!
Excerpted from FIVE YEARS IN REVOLUTIONARY CUBA by Carroll English Copyright © 2010 by Carroll English. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsHow I Came to Go to Cuba....................1
How I Saw the Cuban Revolution....................11
Biography of Fidel Castro....................79
Appendix: Excerpts from Letters Written Home....................127