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I was a young teenager when Fidel Castro came to power. But I remember it well. I remember my mother exclaiming with joy at the triumph of this brilliant orator and revolutionary who came down from the Sierra Maestra. Nothing like this had been seen in the Caribbean, or in Latin America, or in the world, for that matter. My mother loved it that Fidel, like herself, was a lawyer, and that he spoke in poetry and reached the heights of international acclaim.
She and my journalist aunt and my actor-director uncle and their friends in our island home, Puerto Rico, celebrated the triumph of the Cuban revolution in January 1959 as if it were our own. The fierce adulation of Castro ran deep and outlasted the early waves of anti-Castro hardliners who chose to live in Puerto Rico.
After Miami, Puerto Rico became home to the second largest Cuban exile community. While they went on to own successful businesses and enterprises, provoking admiration and envy, many Puerto Ricans were still fixated on Fidel. They envisioned the Cuban revolution as a model of sovereignty, something that had – and has - eluded Puerto Rico.
“The stories of the two islands are permanently intertwined,” says Warren James, a New York-based Puerto Rican architect. There is a deep historical and cultural connection between the two islands that dates back to 1898, the end of the Spanish-American war, when the United States seized Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain.
This relationship between Puerto Ricans and Cubans was palpable with Fidel’s death, touching off memories and bone-deep emotions on both sides. Nothing had passed into memory, nothing had faded, and it was all there in full force this weekend.
“As Fidel Castro’s body is being prepared for cremation and a state funeral, thousands of Cuban people of faith and democracy activists are detained and arrested in record numbers by the Cuban secret police,” says Kristina Arriaga, a Cuban American who grew up in Puerto Rico and is the executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “His death marks the end of an era but his repressive regime lives on.”
Arriaga remembers her father’s words on his deathbed five years ago in their home in Puerto Rico. At the time, her father no longer recalled her or her siblings or mother, but when a news broadcast started with a story about Cuba, Fidel appeared on the screen. “My father’s eyes narrowed in recognition, and he uttered, ‘That man.’”
“As far back as I can remember,” Arriaga wrote in an essay about that day, “that man, Fidel, was a permanent fixture in my household.’’ She went on to detail atrocities, imprisonments, firing squad executions, and persecution of homosexuals, priests and nuns in a reign of terror.
“In 1977, while thousands of Cuban men and women languished in prison for crimes they had never committed, facing daily beatings and torture, Barbara Walters aired an interview with Fidel that hailed him as the romantic savior of the Cuban people," she said. "Thus continued the love affair of most of the world, including many Americans, with Fidel.”
Mariola Montequín, who was born in Puerto Rico of Cuban parents, harnessed lifelong anguish, saying, “Let’s celebrate today not just the death of a bloody tyrant but the death of division, the death of repression, the death of fear for the Cuban people.”
With pride, she alluded to a bottle of Montequín Ron which her grandparents had brought to exile in Puerto Rico hoping to one day celebrate Free Cuba, and now she would celebrate at Christmas.
For all the talk of a special relationship between Puerto Ricans and Cubans, schisms exist and none perhaps runs deeper than on the subject of Fidel Castro.
On Saturday morning, soon after hearing the news of Fidel’s death, Nelly Cruz, a well-known publicist in San Juan, posted a sympathetic note on Facebook that said, “Rest in peace, Fidel Castro Ruz, the Latin American leader of highest stature in the world and who was always a supporter of Puerto Rico and its fight for sovereignty.” She was immediately trolled in the harshest way by anti-Fidelistas in Puerto Rico.
Looking back to another time, Yrsa Davila, a Puerto Rican executive of Cuban ancestry, tells me that in the 1970s to 1980s, the Cuban revolution was a model for activist Puerto Ricans who hoped that their island would one day win independence from the United States. “Everyone wanted to go to Cuba and feel revolutionary,” she recalls.
But she wasn’t entirely sold. She saw families torn apart by the Castro regime but she also saw right-wing factions who persecuted young Fidel supporters.
“On balance, I recognize the merits of the Cuban revolution - but by no means overlook the dictatorial system, fusilamientos [firing squads], abuse against the homosexual community," said Davila.
Castro definitely left a mark, she says, “and he has not died, he lives in every one of the Cubans, regardless of ideology. That merit must be acknowledged.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1960s, with parents who feared a communist takeover of the island if it were to become independent, Arnaldo Cruz-Malavé, head of Latin American and Latino Studies at Fordham University, went on to college in United States and joined student movements in the 1970s who saw Fidel as the foremost leader of anticolonial struggles and “an unyielding supporter of Puerto Rico’s inalienable right to self-determination.”
But in time, Cruz-Malavé says, “we would come to temper our admiration for Fidel and the Cuban revolution as we began to question the revolution’s policies toward intellectuals and sexual dissidents during what historians have called the ‘gray five-year period’ of the early 1970s, a time when we in Puerto Rico and the United States engaged both in radical nationalist and gay liberation movements.”
Politically, Fidel’s death brings symmetry to Cuba and Puerto Rico, says Andrés Lopez, a lawyer and Democratic Party fundraiser in San Juan.
“As a kid, growing up in the shadow of the Cold War, our view of Castro’s Cuba was entirely colored by Cuba’s relationship to us, Puerto Rico,” he said, explaining that with the specter of communism in Cuba, the U.S. tried to market Puerto Rico as a “showcase of democracy.”
But it was a myth, he said. Puerto Rico was, and is today, almost entirely populated by American citizens who cannot vote for president or for the Congress that makes laws that affect Puerto Ricans’ daily lives, hardly the perfect democracy. At the same time, on Cuba’s end, support for the Castro myth has seriously eroded.
“Amazingly, now as an adult, I have seen the old Cuban and Puerto Rican myths collapse in the same year,” Lopez says.
Warren James, the architect, looks at it differently. While Cuba was closing in the 1960s, Puerto Rico was opening.
“We saw the Cuban revolution from the other end of the telescope. Today, I think, on the one hand, of my extended Cuban family in Puerto Rico and in Cuba. There is no going back. We live in two rooms in the same house.”