Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Today we’re going to discuss the memoir “Cuba: Another Side of the Story: Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood”, by Iris M. Diaz. After a comfortable early childhood in economically growing but authoritarian mid-century Cuba, Diaz lived through Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution and eventually fled to the United States. It’s an honest, poignant memoir that isn’t focused on politics, but centers around her own personal story, and how she made her way in a world that radically transformed around her. But her relatively sparse comments about politics and life through Cuba’s transition to Communism do still tell us a lot about what those changes mean for a country.
The memoir begins with Diaz’s experiences as a young child.
El barrio was a mixture of the wealthy, middle class, and poor; a reflection of what Cuban society was like in the 1950s. Everyone lived under the same sun, moon, and stars but our worlds were very different. We lived in the middle class section, surrounded by a few affluent families who kept to themselves and the unlucky ones who had to live in … an old abandoned mansion two blocks from our apartment… As I grew to become more independent, I played with both the rich and the poor, learned to communicate with both but never felt I belonged to either. (p.21)
Diaz shares many of her memories about her friends and neighbors, the groups of children playing in the street, local attractions like the ice cream carts and nearby beach, and crazy city characters she liked to people-watch. Her father was usually absent, but she lived with her mother and her grandmother, who she was very close to. They sent her to a series of private bilingual schools, which taught her both Spanish and English, a fortunate choice which opened up many opportunities later. As a young child, she didn’t personally worry too much about the political unrest on the island, which had already begun:
Cuban politics for me was like an intermittent static noise in the middle of a concert. It was there, but my everyday routine masked what was brewing in the background. I would see pictures of bombings or political prisoners brutally tortured… but the pictures did not invade my reality… Those were my years of innocence. [p.35]
It was clear that there were some serious problems in the country, with a vast gap between the rich and the poor. Diaz felt an obligation to help the ragged beggars who showed up at her church every Sunday, and felt sad when she saw how shabbily her nanny’s family lived compared to hers. In any case, within a few years there seemed to be an implicit agreement among large numbers of people of all classes that the dictator Batista’s government was not working, and something had to change.
As Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution heated up, violence grew on both sides. Finally, on New Year’s Eve of 1958, Batista fled the island, and Castro had won. But many Cubans soon realized that despite his lofty promises, they had just exchanged a cruel monarch for one that was even worse.
How were we really doing? We were losing our sanity. Many had become blind followers of a man who preached lawlessness and murder. That night the crowd repeatedly interrupted Castro’s speech with cries of “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!” They were yelling what Castro wanted to hear. I heard them and couldn’t believe how easy it was for them to yell, “¡Paredón, paredón!” (Shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!) Under Fidel’s spell, crowds of Cubans had become insensitive to the act of murder. (p.126)
By this time, Diaz was in high school. Under the previous governments, there had been lively political discussion among her neighbors and classmates— but that quickly came to an end. If even a child was heard to utter something disloyal, their entire family would now be in grave danger:
Overnight there was a bizarre transformation in the Cuban soul. … Anyone suspected of being a traitor was harassed. Neighbors would stand around their homes and chant, “¡Gusanos, que se vayan!” (“Worms must leave!”) Gusanos means worms, but Castro gave it a new meaning, the lowliest of creatures, a traitor. Those accused of treason could not do anything but listen to the chant and pray the milicianos wouldn’t show up to take them to jail. If the milicianos showed up, the chant changed to “Paredón, shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!” The family was taken to prison and the neighbors, after having yelled the bloody revolutionary chant would go home with the feel of blood on their hands. (p.136)
…Neighborhood spies turned you in to the police whenever they felt like it. The police didn’t need proof to arrest anyone. They could throw you in jail just for improper conduct or suspicious behavior. The spies turned in anyone they felt like because they were rewarded for each man or woman they turned in to the authorities. Neighbors turned against neighbors, children turned against parents. No one could be trusted. (p.141)
Aside from the political dangers, another consequence of Communism was the collapse of basic infrastructure. Tiny details that even the poorest can take for granted in a functioning society, like bus services, food in the stores, and a working electrical grid, started to fade away. Diaz’s family tried to cope with this using humor, creating a set of new jokes based on their situation:
“Did you know that SOB Fidel is changing the Cuban language? He calls city buses aspirins, because they only show up every four hours.”…
“Oye, I got a better one, do you know why they call steaks Jesus Christ? Because people talk about them, but nobody sees them.
“Do you know why refrigerators are now called coconuts? No? Well, because the only thing you’ll find inside is water.” (p.157)
Diaz engaged in a few minor acts of rebellion, conspiring with a neighbor boy to gradually save up tiny amounts of spare food and medical supplies for a supposed anti-Castro revolution. But when her grandmother caught her, the whole family was horrified at what might happen to them, and decided they needed to send her to the United States as soon as possible. After the failed Bay of Pigs counter-revolution, Castro’s men had become even more aggressive in seeking out potential traitors, arresting people by the tens of thousands.
Sending Diaz away to the United States was not easy: American money was required to buy the plane tickets, and that was very hard and expensive to obtain in Communist Cuba. After months of struggling, her mother managed to get the money, and got the plane ticket. Diaz;s case was not unique: parents all over Cuba were desperate to get their children out of the country as soon as possible. And their fears were justified, since it would not be too long until travel was totally cut off, making every Cuban citizen effectively a prisoner.
During this period, the government already laid claim to everything its citizens owned; travelers like Diaz were only allowed to leave with five dollars to start her new life. They were not even allowed to carry any valuables that they might be able to sell. As she left, she was stripped of her grandmother’s ring, which looked like it might be worth more than that. Can you imagine starting a new life in a new country with only five dollars in your pocket?
The final part of the memoir doesn’t deal with politics very much. With the help of some generous relatives who took her in, Diaz managed to finish high school and college in the U.S. After a brief attempt to become a nun, she moved to New York and began a series of jobs in theater and entertainment. And finally she achieved her own happy ending: she realized her lifelong dream of buying a small farm with horses on which to live out her retirement years.
[Closing conversation with Manuel]
Diaz mentions a nice quote by 19th-century revolutionary Jose Marti, which summarizes her view of the Cuban revolution:
“Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand on.” [p.121]
To learn more about her experiences and the Cuban revolution, be sure to check out the book for yourself: “Cuba: Another Side of the Story: Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood, “ by Iris M. Diaz.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.