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Cuban revolution upends a generation

The year is 1940. Fidel Castro is just a boy.

In five years, he will enroll in the University of Havana, where Marxist-Leninist philosophy will spark his interest.

In 13 years, he will launch his first attack against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

In 19 years, he will march into Havana, victorious.

That event — in January 1959 — will change the island nation forever. Over the next 50 years, many who don't agree with Castro's regime will flee in defections and mass exoduses of families: on airplanes, smugglers' boats and tiny makeshift rafts, sailing across the Florida Straits. Many will die.

But on this day in 1940, it's time to celebrate.

Aurora Santiesteban has been born in the town of Holguin. As tradition dictates, her father buries a jug of rum mixed with wine and fruit.

The next-door neighbor helps, and then takes his 1-year-old son, Pedro, to the hospital with a tiny ring for Aurora.

The Cuban fathers hope their children will one day marry.

They will.

Twenty years later, the jug will be dug up again and another toast made when Aurora and Pedro give birth to a baby boy.

Just months later Pedro will land in jail for conspiring to overthrow Castro. Aurora will flee Cuba with their baby. And Pedro Jr. won't see his dad again until he is 17.

This is both the story of one family and of an entire generation.

Pedro …

is a high school student in Miami in 1955 when people travel freely across the straits. He meets several Cubans who want to get rid of Batista.

Two of them are brothers: Fidel and Raul Castro.

In a Little Havana apartment, Fidel brews espresso as he speaks to the group of men about the need for social justice in Cuba. He talks for so long, the coffee burns. He pours in some sugar and serves it.

"How is the coffee?" Fidel asks.

"Great," they answer. "Very good, doctor."

Fidel turns to Pedro. "How is the coffee, student?" he asks.

The 16-year-old replies: "It's horrible."

Castro laughs and turns to the others. "This is the only sincere man here."

Pedro rises as a student leader in the revolution, training in guerilla warfare in the Dominican Republic. Two days after Pedro turns 20, Castro's victorious army rolls into Havana.

To Pedro, it's a beautiful moment, the culmination of a long struggle. But soon things start to shift.

Castro begins to speak out against elections. And the government wants to send Pedro, a police officer, to study in China and Russia. Communism isn't what he fought for.

Pedro joins others in a counter-revolution. Amid the strife, he has one moment to celebrate: his wife gives birth to a baby boy, Pedro Jr.

When the father holds his son, he worries what his future will hold.

He continues to fight.

In March 1961, Pedro gets a call from a woman storing arms in her home. She wants him to get the weapons because she has relatives coming over.

Pedro smells a trap, but they need the weapons. He and his best friend get the two suitcases full of weapons. When they get into their car, they leave two machine guns within reach.

A state security car tries to stop them.

They take off, zooming along the Malecon, the famous road and seawall hugging the coast of Havana. Pedro gets on his knees and shoots through the back window. Bullets whiz past his ears.

The tires pop. The car bangs into the Malecon wall. Pedro knocks his head against the dashboard.

When he opens his eyes, gun barrels surround him. At night in jail, he hears the cries of men about to be shot.

"Cuba libre!" they scream.

When Pedro's wife visits him he gives her small tokens, a tooth brush or a pillow case, to give to his friends' parents, to tell them their sons had been killed.

Pedro is sentenced to 30 years.

He tells his wife to leave Cuba with their newborn son — while they still can.

Aurora …

has returned to live in Cuba after attending school in America. At the same time, a young man from her province is training for a revolution.

Fidel brought hope for change.

But one day Aurora's family awakens to find their bank accounts frozen. Her father is a bank president and Fidel had changed the currency overnight. All they have left is their home.

Aurora is a wife and new mother. Her husband, too, has lost faith in the revolution. As he spends his nights planning an attack, she spends hers alone in a Havana home, with their infant son — and a .38-caliber pistol.

One night, she hears a noise. The door cracks open. She thinks of the government raids, the executions, the bullets that fly frequently in her neighborhood. She cocks the gun.

Her husband hears the click of a pistol and sees a shadow upstairs. He reaches for his gun and aims.


It is her, shaking and crying.

After her husband is captured, Aurora sees him in prison. She tells him she doesn't want to leave Cuba. She doesn't want to leave him.

But he tells her to go, that he'll hang his orange towel outside his cell window, waving goodbye.

As she leaves, she sees it.

Aurora, her son and parents secure spots on one of the last flights to Miami. They are told they can take nothing with them.

But Aurora's mother tries to sneak her grandmother's rosary in a false bottom in one of the suitcases. The soldiers find it.

They look for more and rip open her son's teddy bear with a knife. Her parents are jailed.

Aurora boards the plane alone, with her child.

In Miami, Aurora lies about her work experience to get a job. She has never worked a day in her life. She lives with her two sisters, and eventually their parents join them.

Aurora's husband remains jailed.

A decade passes and she sees a psychologist. The wait is torturing her. He tells her she needs to change her life, or she will destroy hers and her son's. Her husband tells her in letters that she can move on.

She does.

Pedro "Pete" Jr. …

has a stepdad by the time he is 12. But his family keeps his faraway father in his mind.

He visits relatives after church on Sundays in Miami and meets ex-political prisoners. "I knew your dad," they say.

He is a great man, they tell him. A fighter. He sacrificed his youth for the freedoms of others.

In 1976, Castro releases thousands of political prisoners including his father. Two years later, his father is allowed to leave for Venezuela. And on Valentine's Day 1979, he arrives at Miami International Airport.

Pete waits behind the rope at the airport with his huge extended family.

The 17-year-old is nervous. What will he say to the man who had been only a legend in his life?

In the crowded airport, the son spots his father, the hero who has aged since the few old photos.

"Dad, dad!"

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or

Time line

1959: Rebels led by Fidel Castro overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista.

Jan. 1: Batista resigns and flees Cuba. The first exodus of refugees, mostly wealthy and upper-class Cubans, begins arriving in Miami.

Jan. 5: Castro designates Manuel Urrutia as acting president, becomes commander in chief of the armed forces.

Jan. 8: Castro leads victorious rebel troops into Havana.

1960: Cuba signs trade agreement with the USSR.

1961: The United States restricts travel to Cuba. Castro announces that Cuba is a communist state. CIA-supported Cuban exiles invade at the Bay of Pigs but fail to overthrow Castro.

1962: Washington bans Cuban imports. President Kennedy orders blockade of Cuba to force removal of Soviet missiles.

1980: Castro lifts emigration restrictions, and more than 125,000 Cubans enter the United States by landing in Florida (the Mariel Boatlift).

Early 1990s: Cubans begin taking to the Florida Straits in rafts.

August 1994: Castro declares he will not stop emigration; some 40,000 Cubans take to sea heading for the United States.

1999: Elian Gonzalez is rescued off the coast of Florida, igniting an international custody battle before he is reunited with his father in Cuba.

July 2006: Castro undergoes gastric surgery and temporarily hands control to brother Raul.

2008: Castro resigns as president Feb. 19.

Source: Times files and the Miami Herald.

fast facts


Pedro Fuentes-Cid, 69, is a lawyer in Tampa and Miami and spokesman for the Precidio Politico Cubano, a group that protects the rights of political prisoners worldwide. He has an office in West Tampa, to be closer to his son, who lives in Holiday. Little by little, on camping and fishing trips, they have built a relationship.

Aurora Moss, 68, lives in Dunedin. She and Pedro are good friends. Aurora says she will probably never return to Cuba. But before he left, her father buried his property deed in a pipe under the family house. She still hopes that one day, her grandchildren will inherit the estate.

Pedro "Pete" Fuentes Jr., 48, hopes he can one day knock on that door and dig up his grandfather's buried treasure. But he would never kick out the people that lived there. It's not home anymore.

Cuban revolution upends a generation 01/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:21pm]
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