My first visit to the United States was in 1943. My father decided to send me to Natchez, Miss., to complete my high-school education, spending two years. It took an additional half-year to get my diploma.
I felt very aberrant in this new environment in spite of an extremely nice welcome. The first thing I learned was that the South had a different president – Jefferson Davis – than the one in Washington, D.C. Abraham Lincoln, whom I had learned was a giant, was the most hated man in the South, and John Wilkes Booth, who shot President Lincoln, had become a Southern hero.
I went back to Cuba in 1946 and got a job in my family’s business. I never attended college and conveniently blamed it on intermittent student strikes at the University of Havana.
IN THE EARLY 1950s Cuba was plagued with serious political turmoil. A former president, Gen. Fulgencio Batista, produced a coup in 1952. The Cuban Rebellion followed in 1959, and a counter-revolution in 1961 took place. An American invasion using Cuban exiles landed on the island. They were defeated by Fidel Castro, and he ruled Cuba until finally stepping down in 2011. In August 1961 my family and I went into exile in the United States, and began a new life.
Just two years after my arrival, President Kennedy was assassinated – by the CIA, I believe. I just could not believe it, and kept on asking myself: Why? And the CIA? We did not have to wait long to find out the “why.” Actually Kennedy and Castro were engaged in the possibility of a permanent relationship between America and Cuba. This, together with the buzz that Kennedy would pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam in his second term, brought, I believe, two big “nos” from the CIA.
Before my arrival in the United States, I was fairly informed about the Rev. Martin Luther King and the American civil rights movement. But it is one thing to know about it and another one to face the barbarism. I found my new country in intense contradiction.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY’S death brought President Lyndon Johnson, who was able to revise Kennedy’s social programs, such as Medicare. LBJ became very close to MLK and assisted him in every aspect – something that Kennedy was not too keen on for political reasons. The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, became MLK’s bitter enemy, and MLK was taped constantly by the FBI (with the acknowledgement of Attorney General Robert Kennedy) to discover any communistic traces.
MLK was shot in 1968. There is no proof that Hoover’s hate prompted him to eliminate the black leader. Hoover became one of the most despised officials in our history but he was unremovable – he had dirty laundry on everyone he targeted, especially on every U.S. president during his tenure at the FBI.
LBJ inherited the Vietnam War. There was no hope at all that he would pull out, as he might have desired. There was Robert McNamara – among The Best and the Brightest, as journalist David Halberstam said – who previously pushed JFK to escalate the war, and Gen. William Westmoreland and the rest of those generals having a feast. Meanwhile, LBJ had congressional approval to send 400,000 troops. Then came President Nixon, who followed up by bombing Cambodia back to the Stone Age. Vietnam became our longest war, ending in 1975 with more than 58,000 dead Americans.
I always have admired LBJ. He was a very compassionate man, mostly for the blacks and the poor. He could have been one of our greatest presidents if his legacy would not have been tainted by the Vietnam War – the most horrendous, evil and stupid war – that made our country, I believe, the most hated nation in the world.
IN 1980 WE elected President Reagan, our Great Communicator. Reagan was responsible for the killing of peasants, women and children, in his war against the “Contras” who were fighting dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala. Reagan still is one of the most popular of all of our presidents.
How could we forget our very bright President Clinton, doing his best after he left office to demolish candidate Barack Obama, already on his way to the inevitable nomination, still pushing for his wife in North Carolina, creating a feud that still persists with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn? Clinton’s vulgarities on his sexual adventures made news around the world.
For eight years we had to endure President George W. Bush, who took our country to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence information, and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. How could we ever forget his “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard an aircraft carrier, dressed in a flight suit – and, even worse, British Prime Minister Tony Blair validating this clown?
Not many Americans are aware that our nation has an incarceration rate higher than any country in the world, or that we are a very violent nation with more crimes committed than in the whole of Europe.
BUT WE ARE quite conscious that our mercenary makers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are getting paid for backing the National Rifle Association, which represents their constituents who vote for our constantly proliferating gun culture.
I understand why many friends have left their homelands for good. One of our biggest problems is that we really believe America is unique and the best nation in the world. “My country, right or wrong.” “Europe is a socialist continent.”
Hope arrived in an unexpected way. In 2008, we elected a black president. I received calls from friends in exile who were very happy indeed. President Obama had quite a bumpy start, which went on and on, before the end of the first year. He was called a sort of a communist, not an American. The bottom line of all this was the surge of our dormant racism.
It was first lady Michelle Obama who, by the midterm election, made her husband a contender. Two years later, the most extraordinary thing happened. With the participation of blacks, the youth, women, Latinos and scholars, he won his second term. This would be the time, I believed, he would lead our country to follow the right path: national health care for all Americans; to close, once and for all, the abyss between the haves and have-nots and make our billionaires and millionaires pay their dues; turn our nation into a true democracy; and make our schools the best in the world – have our pupils better than Korea’s and Japan’s and terminate our rampant illiteracy.
It seems like Obama is running for a third term, looking scared, like some Big Brother is watching. Incredibly, he tried to negotiate with his new Republican friends on Social Security to bring our deficit down.
We have lost our direction. There is no leadership to show us the way. The world has incredible and fantastic methods of communication to get us closer to the rest of the universe. But we are isolated. We don’t read and are becoming more ignorant; we don’t know our basic history.
Is there a solution for the next generation or the one after that? There is hope. Historically, when our country becomes disoriented, a new Roosevelt or Kennedy, or someone from another political party, comes along – not to make us richer, but wiser and compassionate
(The writer is a retired insurance executive who left his native Cuba in 1961. He lives in Aiken, S.C.)