by Ralph Rewes
© 1968-1998 by Ralph Rewes
WHEN YOU DARE TO APPLY
1968.Under the so-called socialist legality, a man under 27 has no right to travel abroad. He is subject to the Military Service regulations and so was I. On my 27th. birthday, I applied for my exit visa at the Ministry of Interior Affairs. You might think that if you did everything by the book, you would have to face no retaliation. Wrong.
Forced to trade their regular jobs for agricultural jobs only, most decided to risk persecution and started their own small businesses; they had little choice and hungry children to feed. Soon they met the ever-growing demands of a starving market for cakes, cookies, corn bread, guava paste, seasoned tomatoes and green cherries (tasting like olives already out of the market).
Private enterprise, no matter how weak, easily beats Socialist theories by providing more efficiently than the State and its almighty resources.
Officials had a hard time with these entrepreneurs; few people were willing to tell on their providers. The clandestine market got out of hand and the Party put an end to it the only way it knew: by practically arresting every applicant. They notified every exit-visa-applicant to report to the nearest police station. They made sure that a minimum number showed up every day to avoid crowds.
The police gave out applications for work with fine print at the bottom that read: "I accept the State's job offer on my own free will. However, it is understood that if I refuse to comply, by doing so, I give up my 'right' to leave the country."
Two types of jobs were available construction work at its lowest level hammering street pavement or cutting sugar canes in secluded camps away from the city. It was clear to me that those remaining near their loved ones in the city were going to have a very hard time with overworking conditions, enough to prevent them from doing any enterprising after quitting time.
A LABOR CAMP FOR VOLUNTEERS
I chose the sugar field. They sent me to Guasimitas, a farm far from the city of Holguín, but still within its municipality. The gas-car that brought in the first group of applicants made it in 2 hours. We got there at 10 am. In the morning, Guasimitas looked fine, except for suspiciously barbed wire fences.
Our accommodations were barracks with clean bunker-type (one on top of another) hammocks hanging from two poles. We sat there all morning. The farmers there were typical Socialist workers. They didn't even know who we were. They mistook us for some Communist brigade and asked us for the name of our brigade (Communists named their brigades with propaganda clichés). One of us shouted jokingly, "Brigada ¡Voy Abajo!" ("We're Splitting" Brigade).
Our first aggravation was lunch: Russian canned meat dark and topped with abundant lard. We called it "stinking-bear meat." We thought only the thirty men already gathered were to share the barracks. But, in the evening, one hundred and forty men crowded them. Once in a while, somebody else dropped in. The farm was so out of the way it was really difficult to find it. Many got disoriented and didn't reach Guasimitas until midnight or later.
OVERCROWDED AND JITTERY
It took us two days to realize our predicament. When we asked when could we go visit our families, they answered: "Any time you want. You are not in jail. However, come the telegram authorizing you to fly out, and you are not here well, you know. But you are not in jail. However, we will take that responsibility every fifteen day when give you a pass to go home. This pass will vouch for your absence in case you get that telegram."
We began to work as long as we wanted for which we got paid a ridiculous amount of money few cents a day. Then, they began to set production goals increased the number of hours. To make sure we comply, the Party posted a soldier to keep an eye on us.
Lunch turned into a daily obsession. We stood in line for half an hour to get our daily "sweet potato" with some black beans floating in a dark liquid, with a side order of sticky rice. We got to miss Russian meat, turned a delicacy for holidays. "Hunger is the best cook," and trays hardly needed scrubbing.
"In the future, we will erect a monument to the egg," we said. Eggs were available in the black market at affordable prices. They were easy to smuggle into the albergue (Communist word for barracks) and, boiled, they were as good as currency. With eggs you could pay for candies, preserve and fruit to those who had a surplus stored at home.
Officials carefully gathered us in such fashion that few had a friend or an acquaintance among the rest. Being strangers to each other, no one was willing to trust anyone else. Everyone feared his neighbor was a confident. The only free expression allowed were political jokes. If questioned, one could retreat and say: "It was a joke."
Now in the USA, I bless my luck every morning when I shave. Russian or Czech blades Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death) nearly maimed us every morning. Victims called them Manly Tears. It was only natural to make jokes about them.
Men with relatives or friends in the USA asked them to put some Gillette together with their letters. (A dangerous practice later stopped by the US mail after some post office employees got cut while handling the mail.) I remember one fellow who said he received a blade from his Miami cousin and a note that read: "Here is your Gillette, if your situation gets unbearable, cut your throat."
OUT OF FREE-PRISON FARM
I had always been allergic to cold dry weather, and I got bad asthma. At fourth asthma attack I had the soldier thought I was going to die, so he sent me to see the Party's secretary in a small town five miles from the camp. When I got there, I must have looked terrible, for he dismissed me from the farm at once and sent me to Holguín to see a physician.
The doctor at the hospital, after careful examination, certified that in my condition, I couldn't work in the farm another day. I went to the police station with my certificate and after a look at the paper and a long look at my face, the chief of police sent me home.
Not used to hard labor, many people got sick or had accidents and were sent back home. This flow of sick persons back to their homes challenged Party's purpose. Applicants had to be kept busy or the clandestine market would flourish again.
Every sick person had to be really sick. Only a certified-Communist physician could issue such certification, and approved by the hospital administration. There was no way to get a phony certificate.
THE GATHERING OF THE SICK
Police found a solution to this problem. They corralled everyone with any kind of handicap or illnesses including arthritis, ulcers, diabetes, asthma, hernias, etc. and locked them over 8 hours a day in a former nightclub ballroom. This place had been refurbished to accommodate a large number of tables where four sick persons at each table sorted coffee beans.
An attendant constantly poured coffee beans on a pile already laid on each table. Good beans went out for export; bad beans, left for domestic consumption. By the way, we naïvely thought that France and Italy didn't how about this slave production practice. We thought they would be shocked at this truth. We were wrong! French and Italian representatives who paid us a visit let us know that they couldn't care less!
Officials repeated the phrase, "You're not in jail. You can leave any time you like." However, a sergeant and a soldier watched our steps. In reality, that hall, as Guasimitas, was a huge mousetrap. Any invasion, invented by a delirious Castro, and we all would have been shot right on the spot.
We work from Monday through Saturday and Sunday mornings. The young men had military drilling, as "reservists," with the only one purpose to wear them down.
The placatanes (big wigs) resolved to send back to the country anyone not close to death. "The country air will cure you," they said.
A TOUCH OF GOOD LUCK
One week later, a sergeant came in and went up to the platform where orchestras used to play. With little explaining, he began to call out the names of those returning to the cane fields because they were not that sick.
My name was in that list. We all had to be ready to leave next day. I felt the ceiling falling on my head. Ten times more isolated than Guasimitas, the new place had a really scary name: "La Tumbita" (Little Tomb).
I left the place feeling lower than down, dragging my feet. Two blocks away from home, I saw a relative coming to me running me and yelling something that I could hardly understand. It was not until he was in front of me that I understood what he was saying, "Hurry home, man. Emigration is there now. You got your telegram!" I thought he was joking. "C'mon, this is no time for jokes!"
But, it was true. The official made a careful inventory of everything we had. Once something was accounted for, it became the property of the Socialist State. We had two weeks to complete the whole process. It included collecting the receipts from the utility companies; a letter from the bank showing that we did not withdraw any money from the moment the Varadero flights began, and a letter from the head office of department stores stating that we owed nothing.
The CDR (Committee from the Defense of the Revolution), had to testify in writing that none of our property had been sold. Then we had to give up the privileges we were receiving from the Revolution, such as returning the ration cards. We took all collected documents to the Emigration Department where an officer questioned us for over two hours.
Finding nothing wrong, the emigration officer put all the papers in an envelope, sealed it and handed it to us. "Give this to the customs official at the airport in Varadero." We have been approved.
ON OUR WAY TO THE TUNNEL
We left for Varadero four days before the date of our flight. We needed those days to be sure to get to the airport on time.
We left Holguín at 6:00 PM for Matanzas, final stopover before Varadero. The trip was suffocating. The previously lavish Italian-made train (Fiat) of the past was now falling apart for lack of parts. Built for air condition, every wagon had turned into a furnace.
They sold us a skimpy salami sandwich and a Son (the tasteless Cuban coke) and that was it for the whole 24 hour trip. Hungry and suffocated by the heat, many children cried the whole night through. Water in the train fountain was lukewarm and made you gag.
In Matanzas, we waited five hours under a scorching sun to hire a taxi. Once in Varadero, we went to the State Tourist Office for accommodations. The clerk explained that new regulations prohibited to rent rooms to any one leaving the country; a standing employee ID was requested so nobody could fool the State. What to do then?
I had a knot in my throat. My mother looked so frail, so old after the long, arduous trip. I was afraid she was going to faint any moment. She seemed to be hard-hit by the separation, not only from her friends, but from her long time home and her husband my father had decided to stay in Cuba and wait for a change.
Although apparently, indifferent to our conversation, one of the clerks came to us as soon as she had a chance, and whispered: "Wait outside." We did. She stepped out and gave us a note. "Here. These people may rent you a room." And she rushed back inside. My mother began to cry.
We rented the room for three twilight-zone days. We were actually living in Limbo. We didn't even dare to talk about the trip. Every day, my father stood in line from 10 am on for two hours to get a place at a restaurant. Big hotel restaurants were already out of limit for nationals.
We pretended to be indifferent; but tension grew stronger and deeper by the moment. It was like this until the eve of our departure, our last trying moments in Cuba. To get to the airport there was only one way. Passengers had to hire a taxi (State-owned) and pay the equivalent of $25 for the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. wait the longest in our lives.
AT THE GATE OF THE TUNNEL
Our taxi driver took us to the parking line in front of the airport and park his car somewhere in a long line of more than two hundred other taxis. Then, he said something terrifying: "I'll go home for dinner. I'll be back before they open. Don't worry!"
We were petrified. He could have an accident; none of us knew how to drive. What if they decided to open the airport earlier?
Few minutes before ten and the driver hadn't showed up. The lights went on at the entrance of the airport. The car in front of us began to move passing a stalled vehicle. A soldier came to where we were and demanded from us to start our car or move it out of the way. I would have done it, but the driver had taken the keys with him.
All at once I felt an unbearable stress, fear, despair. People appeared from nowhere and volunteered to push our car forward. In the stalled car, a woman was screaming hysterically, a man was shouting. Finally, their car moved. Then, our driver showed up!
At the entrance, soldiers shouted commanding us to move in faster. My father was told to leave at the gate. They didn't want mushy farewells.
IN THE TUNNEL
The huge hall of Varadero International Airport was almost full by then. The faces of the people reflected their anxiety. The nasty, shouting soldiers who pushed them were behind. Inside, well-mannered government officials talked to you nicely and in a well modulated voice. Why the sudden change? There were Swiss Embassy officials present a show was for the sake of appearance: Marxist æsthetics, you know.
Through loudspeakers, Cuban officials started calling the unlucky ones who had illegally sold something from their former property. Their flight to the USA was then frozen until restitution was made.
Everybody sank into a dreadful silence. They called five names and stopped. Selfish sighs of relief filled the air. Then the loudspeakers blasted the frightened audience with a recorded speech by Castro. Sick humor.
At midnight, they read the names of those chosen to be on the first flight. One by one they moved toward the last questioning. At two in the morning, they called the persons selected to leave on the second flight. Nobody slept except the children.
They called us at last, numbers 66 and 67. They went through every piece of paper, asked the same questions and searched our only suitcase (one for both of us). It never reached the thirty pounds allowed. How could it? We were permitted to take, in addition to what we were wearing, one pair of shoes, two pairs of pants, three shirts, three pairs of socks and three sets of underwear.
A customs official gave me a tag. "This is to claim your baggage in Miami." It was music to my ears. We went back to the room and try to rest a bit if possible.
As a last test of endurance, two emigration officers, a man and a woman, came in the hall and stared at us all. We were petrified again. They picked at random a few passengers, took them to a room next door and conducted a full strip search.
At 8 am, the first airplane landed. It brought a crew from an American TV network to film a disgusting, pre-staged show. People got furious when they saw the director asking a militia woman to help an old lady going up the ladder of the plane. But they had to keep their mouths shut. We were still there! We had too much to lose.
One member of the crew commented out loud "how well dressed they are. They don't look like refugees." Then I couldn't help risking myself. I told him in English: "Didn't you know that Cuban officials don't let you go unless you wear a jacket and tie? You didn't do your homework, you ignorant jerk!" He didn't answer.
THE WELCOMING ANGELS
Now, we were ready for American Immigration officers. It was a spelling examination. If by chance your name was misspelled, back you went to what they called casa piloto. This was a windowless, arm-guarded house, where victims waited in desperation for three days or more until the American officials clarified the spelling error.
The time between the departure of the plane and its return back from Miami seemed eternal. So many things could happen to spoil these moments of happiness. An accident. Castro changing his deranged mind. We clenched our hands and looked at each other.
Finally, we heard the rumbling noise of the plane, the beautiful rumbling noise of our plane. There it was! Closer, closer. It landed. Its doors opened. We walked slowly up the ladder. Everybody had poker faces. Nobody laughed. Nobody cried. We were dead serious. On the plane, we sat down, slowly, still fearful. Somebody asked, "when are you going to close those doors?"
Clank! The doors finally closed. The plane started to move. It was on the air now. "Let's us be grateful were are finally out!" Everybody began to laugh.