Monday, May 21, 2018
Human Interest

Pain of communist Cuba still vivid for Tampa woman

TAMPA — Isela Perez sleeps in on most days, when her only tasks are to clean the house, watch Fox News and keep up with her telenovelas.

But on Saturday, the 85-year-old wakes up early.

Her little house is quiet as she makes a cup of instant coffee; the strong Cuban stuff no longer agrees with her.

In the kitchen, she keeps plantains. In a bedroom, newsletters about the homeland she left half a century ago, by a local activist group that publishes scathing political cartoons. One, referencing President Barack Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba, shows the president propping up "tyranny," embodied by a teetering Fidel Castro. "Got your back," the president says.

Cubans on the island don't feel the same rage, she says. Neither do American-born children of exiles, who never had to worry about firing squads. Her Obama-loving grandson hardly speaks Spanish.

And then there are those who lived through the revolution, who narrowly escaped, who are angry and have been angry for a long time. They're a dying breed.

They get together on Saturday mornings. Isela looks forward to this meeting all week.

• • •

Her life in Havana, she said, was perfect.

She met her husband in a resort in Pinar Del Rio. She was swimming when he entered the water and raced her across the length of the pool.

During a party, he asked her to dance. He was tall, gallant, educated. Isela was smitten. Afterward, the man asked her father if he could visit her. He was 42. She was 20. They were married in four months.

She became a schoolteacher. He was a Firestone factory accountant. They had a daughter and son and lived in a house with Italian mosaic floors, a glass front door and a white iron fence. On Fridays, her husband bought her roses.

On weekends, they visited her parents, had picnics, watched movies at the theater, went to the beaches of Varadero, where the sand is as thin as salt.

"It was a family life. Tranquil, full of peace and love," she said.

Then, Fidel Castro's revolution grasped the island.

• • •

Isela was in the hospital after giving birth to her son in 1961 when the Bay of Pigs erupted. From her room, she could hear the screams, the gunfire, the military tanks trudging outside as people yelled, "Viva Fidel!"

At home, the revolution took hold of everyday life. With food shortages, every family received monthly rations, including one bar of soap. After every bath, Isela plucked the soap from the shower so it wouldn't dissolve before the end of the month.

The roses ran out. Her husband now had to buy carnations.

Rumors circled that children would be removed from their parents. Then, her husband came home with a revolutionary uniform. Isela had had enough.

For about 20 days, she stood in line with her father so she could apply to leave for the United States. He would stay in line during the day, and Isela would take his place at night. Neighbors brought them coffee. With no restrooms, the stench of urine surrounded the building.

Once they declared they wanted to leave, she and her husband were forced out of their jobs. A neighborhood spy accused her of wanting to become a prostitute in America.

It was 1965 when the day finally came. She packed as much as she could, not forgetting the family albums. But a government official showed up, and told her it all had to stay behind. He'd let her take one change of clothes.

She would never return.

• • •

Fifty-one years is a long time.

Long enough for Isela's parents to die in Cuba and her husband to die in Florida.

Long enough for Castro to grow ill and cede power to his brother Raul.

The bearded revolutionary has traded his military uniform for Adidas tracksuits, his ponderous public speeches for sporadic cameos in which he holds up a newspaper to prove he is still alive. His country is undergoing a new revolution, in which the American dollar and normalized relations are expected to transform its people.

Saturday was his 90th birthday. In years past, this was cause for national celebration. But this year, the party was subdued.

Still, Isela insists she will not return to the island until he is dead. She knows this means she may never get to see her aging brothers. She knows there is a good chance the old dictator outlives her, and she never sees her homeland again.

• • •

Isela parks her Ford Focus in front of a two-bedroom home in West Tampa, the clubhouse of a group that calls itself Casa Cuba.

Outside, a banner across a barred window reads: "It is better to live in the exile dying every day than in the motherland licking the boots of the tyrant."

She opens the front door. "Buenos dias," she says to a small group of early arrivals.

This group used to have hundreds of members. Many of them have died, and the roughly 100 that remain cannot regularly attend meetings. One fell and was recovering at the hospital; others stopped driving and have no one to bring them.

They play dominoes together and attend funerals together and, on this morning, they pray, asking God to give them and others the strength to keep fighting for freedom in Cuba.

Isela, the club's vice secretary, jots details of their discussions in cursive.

Around them are books about Cuban history and mementos from the island, and a ceramic plate that reads:

Volveremos.

We will return.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @LauraCMorel.

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