Art credit: Andrea Terrero
Written by: Marian Gutierrez
I am a fake Cuban. When people ask the basic icebreaker, “Where are you from?,” I never respond with “from Tampa,” but rather I state that I am Cuban. Growing up in Miami and speaking Spanish as my primary language, I have always been the most in touch with my culture. Yet, because of the circumstances that my country has been in, because it is my country, regardless of what my birth certificate says, I have never visited. Why would I ever want to visit a place that does not respect me and my rights as a woman, as a foreigner, but most importantly, as a human?
The definition of human rights is basically a given, in the word itself. They are rights that every human is given, simply because they were born. Philosopher John Locke wrote that all people are equal, and because of this, we are promised our God-given and natural rights: life, liberty, and property. It is considered that human rights are to be inalienable, meaning that they can never, or rather should never, be taken away from the person who possesses them. However, these rights have been violated by the Cuban government for over six decades and have affected multiple generations, to the point where many have chosen to leave home, and never return.
The “Cuban Revolution” took place from 1953 until 1959, before what is now considered “Fidel’s Cuba.” This was when the people went against former president Fulgencio Batista’s tyranny and corruption and fought for what they believed would benefit the people of Cuba. At the time, young lawyer, Fidel Castro, led the fight against Batista and promised Cuban citizens the restoration of their rights and a more equal system, through Communism. In this promised Eutopia, Cuban citizens were expecting equality of all sorts: financial stability, prosperity, and freedom. Little did they know that, like many promises made in politics, this one would be broken the minute Castro took office; instead, they would be equally hungry, equally poor, and equally oppressed.
About fifty-two miles away from Cuba’s capital, Calimete, a small rural town, can be found inside the province of Matanzas. In Calimete, known for its red soil and farms, resided Cecilio Barreto, a “guajiro” teenager, who quickly noticed the changes in his town when Castro took office. Barreto states that he remembers one of the first things the Castro government did was take away the weapons they used to hunt because they would “no longer need them.” Castro’s guard later showed up to his house and took away his tractor because “it would be used to transport those in the government.” Food became scarce, and what was once a farm filled with livestock, became empty. Barreto states that he never agreed to Batista’s dictatorship, any dictatorship at all, but that what Castro brought to Cuba was a different level of control. He states that Castro’s government would take parts of their land and say that it was too large for them, in the first place, and would not allow them to practice any religion. Barreto says he was once told, during the home raids, by one of Castro’s guards, when they found a picture of Virgin Mary, that “There is no God that isn’t Fidel Castro. We only worship Fidel.” Barreto states that they controlled what you could and could not say and would torture you, simply if you were related to someone that the government considered to be a criminal. Barreto says that he remembers seeing his friends and family killed and tortured in front of him because they stood up for what they believed in. People were falsely tried, all the time, and for these, and many more reasons, Barreto states that life during Castro’s Cuba was worse than during Batista’s dictatorship.
Willing to fight for what he knew was right, Barreto gathered a group of people who believed the same as he did and hosted protests in different municipalities. Although Barreto’s protests and actions were peaceful, there were others who took advantage of the situation to vandalize and cause terror in the cities. These protests and rallies started to receive attention from the public, including the government and, eventually, led to the arrest of all protestors, including Barreto. In 1963, he was falsely accused, yet found guilty, of “conspiring against the government” and “terrorism.” Barreto was sentenced to 15 years of prison in “Isla de Pino,” but was granted supervised parole, after six years, for good behavior. At the age of 82, Barreto describes his experience as a political prisoner as being one of the hardest things he has ever had to deal with, in his lifetime. He says the cells were dark and cold, and they were fed small portions that would leave them hungry. Barreto states that the worst experience he had during this time was knowing that nobody was safe. Guards would falsely accuse them of misbehavior, resulting in them not being fed, or worse, physically punished. Barreto states that, during the time he served, he shaved 12 of those “punished” peoples’ heads, yet only three returned from their retrials. They would later find out that those who did not return were executed, no questions asked. He states that one winter they spent 60 days nude, simply because the government decided they were not worthy of something to keep them warm.
After leaving prison because of what he describes to be “God’s grace,” Barreto went back to Matanzas and had two children. Jesus Barreto, Cecilio’s eldest and my father, states that growing up as the son of a political prisoner was something he was proud of, yet struggled with. Those who were “re-educated” used him and my aunt as targets for their hate. They would be made fun of and receive threats, which led them to learn how to fight for themselves, at an early age. Jesus states that his professors would deny him superlatives in class and say, “since their father was bad, they deserved bad.” Up until 1993, when they migrated to Miami, Florida, they had to deal with both the decreasing society of Cuba and people who knew no better. Although almost 30 years have passed since my family left Cuba, they have never returned. Barreto states that his heart will forever be with his island, but until the dictatorship is abolished, there is no need to be in a place that did not protect him and his family.
My grandfather’s story isn't just “history,” or “something that occurred in the 1960s.” It is the daily struggle that many Cubans still face and are forced to live, within the present time. According to Nick Miroff in Castro Town: Fidel grew up here, but he came back to destroy it (2016), the country’s import percentage for food (in 2016) was 70 percent, making the island only 30 percent self-sufficient. Furthermore, arrests and executions because of protests are still occurring, till this day. According to the Human Rights Watch Organization, over 1,000 people were detained during the protests in July 2022 all because people were tired of not having enough food and medicine at their disposal. My grandfather's story, is only one in many, one that i'm proud of, and one that defines why I will never visit a country that purposefully does so much harm to its people, even if I consider it as part of my identity.
Luckily, this is not the reality for Americans. U.S. citizens have rights and freedoms that younger generations of Cubans have yet to experience. Therefore, it is the duty of everyone who resides in the U.S. to, not only be well-informed on these issues, but to also be an active member of our political system. As students, especially on the Padron campus, we are the future of our communities and home countries, making it extremely important for us to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Whether it is Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Honduras, (and sadly, there are many more) our countries are deteriorating. Use your right to vote. Use your right to protest and gather for events that fight towards justice and values that you align with. Call on your elected officials and advocate for improvement in foreign policies that can aid, not only Cuba, but other countries. But, most importantly, fight, so that others can experience the same freedoms that, to us, seem so normal.