Obama and Cuba on a personal note
Now that President Obama has made it easier for (Cuban) Americans to travel to Cuba, my cousins Rico (Spanish nickname for Ricardo or Richard --and I've changed his name to conceal his identity) and Irene and I are contemplating plans to travel t...
Now that President Obama has made it easier for (Cuban) Americans to travel to Cuba, my cousins Rico (Spanish nickname for Ricardo or Richard --and I've changed his name to conceal his identity) and Irene and I are contemplating plans to travel there later this year -- my grandfather's adopted homeland and the land of Rico and Irene's birth.
This is not a blog item about the policy implications of President Obama's decision to expand relations with Cuba -- one would hope the first step toward an ultimate normalization of relations. Let the policy experts debate the pros and cons. This is about my personal family history as it relates to that tiny jewel of a Caribbean island.
My grandfather was a Russian/Polish Jew who tried to emigrate to America in the 1920s, to flee the increasingly regular military assaults on Jewish villages or shtetl's in his homeland. There were quotas on Jewish immigration to the U.S. in those days, so he decided to get out quickly (before he was killed like many of his relatives) and went to Cuba to await his legal visa to the United States. He left with two of his brothers, one that was Rico's father.
The Jewish community in Cuba pre-Castro was pretty large, and thriving. I've heard estimates there were as many as 15,000 "Jubanos" as they were called. My cousin Rico likes to joke that some of them were even native-born converts lured into Judaism by the free food at the temples, which they preferred to the food doled out by local churches.
My grandfather and his two brothers set up a variety of businesses during the decade or more that he awaited his visa. The first, according to my father, was a tiny general store in the Cuban countryside called El Gallo de Oro, or the Golden Rooster. As he made money, my grandfather ventured into the Havana real estate market, eventually owning a small rental apartment building with some 20 units, and a bowling alley, among other buildings.
Rico was born in Cuba as was his wife. They were married in August 1960 on the same day that Castro ordered all professionals who wanted to emigrate to America to leave the island within two days, or remain forever a Castro captive. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and many people of means pretty much fled after Castro took over. Cousin Rico's firm was seized and taken from him during Castro's communist takeover, and Rico served time in jail for protesting what he saw as the theft of his business. So he and his bride packed everything they could fit into a trunk, and left the day after their wedding for Florida.
My grandfather did not fare as well. Having had all his worldly goods confiscated at the age of 55, he could not face the prospect of being penniless and old. By then he'd long-since obtained his U.S. visa and U.S. citizenship. He traveled back and forth between Havana and Cuba, running his businesses in Cuba and raising a family in New York. He fled to Key West after the takeover of his holdings and took an overdose of prescription drugs.
As the U.S. looks to normalize relations with Cuba, I hope President Obama keeps several things in mind. First, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans who are owed property taken from them or their ancestors by Castro's government. Second, by accident or by design (no one is sure which) lack of investment (and resulting over-development) has left Cuba as perhaps the last pristine, ecologically healthy island in the Caribbean. In that respect, five decades of U.S. non-involvement has been great for Cuba. Obviously many of its citizens would have preferred development and the economic activity it produces.
But since the U.S. has already been unable to ruin Cuba's ecology due to the embargo, when and if the embargo is lifted, let's try to keep it that way. After all, we've already ruined our own country and so many others in the Caribbean. Let Cuba stand as an example of green investment with a true commitment to preserve what we have not yet destroyed there.
-- Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.