Video by Christina Soto | Broadcast Reporter and story by Adrian Sainz | Associated Press
MIAMI — Joaquin Palacio adored his grandfather’s tobacco farm in Cuba’s lush Pinar Del Rio province.
As a boy he learned to plow the land, grow crops and ride his black horse, Centella. Before Fidel Castro, it was a place for vacations from the family’s home in Havana, and a classroom for learning responsibility and hard work.
“It was a good life. There was no conflict, no issues,” Palacio said Monday, wearing a fishing shirt as he sat on a sofa surrounded by tropical trees in the backyard of his son’s home in Miami.
Like tens of thousands of other Cuban exiles, Palacio was joyous as word spread of Castro’s death late Friday. But he also found himself overcome by nostalgia.
The retired mechanical engineer thought back to the day on the farm in 1960 when his father announced he would be leaving for Montreal to join his brother, who was in college there. At 15, he was one of the many boys sent away to avoid obligatory military service under Castro’s communist government.
“I remember my dad said, ‘I just want you to spend a year there, make sure you learn English,'” Palacio said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no way the United States is going to allow a communist regime 90 miles away. You’ll be back here within a year.'”
He never saw the farm again.
Fifty-seven years have passed since Castro took power in early 1959. The rebels rolled down from the mountains into Havana behind a fleeing Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-allied dictator who had run out his welcome in an increasingly corrupt Cuba. Many welcomed Castro initially, but before long, Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, and cast Cuba’s fortunes with the Soviet Union.
His government confiscated property, including his grandfather’s farm and the factory where Palacio’s father made children’s clothing. At least 582 people linked to Batista were shot by firing squads, and Castro acknowledged holding 15,000 political prisoners.
Cubans fled hoping they’d soon recover the lives they left behind. They took little or no money and many didn’t know the language or customs of the United States.
Most never returned.
The failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 discouraged many who thought Castro could be toppled. The Cuban missile crisis made trying to isolate the island a Cold War priority, cemented by the U.S.-led embargo that restricted most travel.
Many exiles pledged never to return until Fidel and his brother Raul Castro, who replaced him as president in 2008, were gone. Even after travel became easier in recent years, many have refused to spend a dime on the island, believing the money will go to the regime.
Today, Havana’s once-elegant buildings are crumbling. Farming isn’t providing nearly as much food as it did during the Soviet era, and the power grid struggles to keep the lights on. Raul Castro has said he won’t retire as president until 2018, and even then, he’ll continue leading the Communist Party.
All this makes Fidel Castro’s passing bittersweet for Palacio, now 72. Like many exiles of his generation, he’s had to accept that he’ll never see the old Cuba again. The farm likely belongs to someone else; the business is long gone.
“What am I going to back to? My family is here,” Palacio said. “My wife Alicia says, ‘Maybe we should go back and visit.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to give that bastard my dollars. I have no plans of ever going back. It’s not what it used to be. It took me a while to realize that.'”
Max Alvarez, 68, has a similar nostalgia. His parents sent him away at 13, after Castro closed his Catholic school. Sailing away with five nuns on a cargo ship to West Palm Beach, Florida, he gripped the guardrail until he could no longer see the skyline of Havana. He arrived in the United States on July 4, 1961. Independence Day.
A lifetime later, Alvarez owns a company that distributes gasoline to 500 stations in South Florida. He wears a gold watch and a gray suit in his sunlit corner office, showing a reporter the 1958 yearbook of his Marist school in Havana, which he photocopied after a friend brought the original from Cuba.
He weeps, recalling the day when he was 9 years old and his mother took him to the principal’s office to return a pencil he said he found in the school hallway. It was a teaching moment: If you find something that is not yours, return it.
“I go through these pages quite often, to make sure that my children have the same values that these people provided to me,” Alvarez said, squeezing his copy. “Basic values: Loyalty. Honesty. Respect. Family.”
Alvarez’s older brother Lucas went to Spain to avoid military service, and to work as a teacher. The very day Max left Cuba, his mother received notice that Lucas had died while swimming. His mother was heartbroken, and spent a year in bed. She eventually received electroshock therapy in Cuba. Years passed before they were reunited in Florida.
“I’m just one of hundreds of thousands of people who were broken and destroyed — people who were innocent that had nothing to do with politics,” Alvarez said.