A victim of Castro's tyranny tells his story

Friday, January 2, 2004

On the first day of January 1959, 8-year-old Carlos Eire awoke to a tropical sun peering through the wooden shutters of his Havana bedroom. There were "galaxies of swirling dust specks" in the soft light and he "stared at the dust, as always, rapt."

The child watching those tiny floating particles could not have known how much his own boyhood galaxy had just changed. Thanks to the power-lust of a young revolutionary, this innocent would soon lose his safe place in a simple world of lizards and lightning bugs, of parents, aunts and uncles, and be rocketed past childhood into a new realm of harsh and lonely survival. The State Department's Operation Peter Pan would take him to liberty in America but Fidel Castro would exact a steep toll for his flight to freedom: He would have to suffer the trials of a poor, homeless orphan.

Last month, Mr. Eire, who is now the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, won the National Book Award for "Waiting for Snow in Havana," (Free Press, now in paperback) his personal story of how the Cuban Revolution wrecked his family.

In winning the prestigious prize Mr. Eire joins the ranks of such notable writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Tom Wolfe, David McCullough and poet Elizabeth Bishop. Yet, impressive as that may seem, the author's true joy in the award appears to be its potential for awakening the world to the horrors of Fidel's island slave plantation.

Mr. Eire's book has a universal human appeal as the inspiring story of gut-wrenching loss, tenacity and struggle and eventual redemption. Despite enormous tragedy, much humor and tenderness also make their way into his recollections.

Yet, the book is also a history lesson about how the glorious revolution was a fraud from the start, unable to stand on its own merits. While truth welcomes scrutiny, the revolution required the opposite. It needed suppression, most especially of young minds, to survive. With the advent of Castroism the state laid claim to the Cuban child.

Under threat of tanks and firing squads, those who resisted this Soviet-inspired indoctrination could take only one path: shipping the children out of Cuba to freedom. Mr. Eire sets the record straight about why so many Cuban parents made that sacrifice, giving up their children to liberty with the hope of reuniting later.

In a telephone interview from his Connecticut home last week, Mr. Eire told me that it was the tragedy of what happened to Elian Gonzalez and how the world viewed that event that pushed him to write the book. On orders from Attorney General Janet Reno, the six-year-old Cuban refugee was seized and sent back to Cuba in 2000. With this sensational case, Mr. Eire says he had an "awful realization that no one seems to understand the magnitude of repression in Cuba.

"The quantity of the killing is not that of Stalin or the Third Reich but the quality is," he told me. He says that he began to think that "narrative might be the only way to open people's eyes." Sent out of Cuba on their own in 1962, 11-year-old Carlos and his 14-year-old brother Tony spent the next three and a half years in camps and foster homes, often hungry, persistently homesick and feeling abandoned. When their mother, crippled from polio, finally got to the U.S., Carlos was nearly fifteen and his childhood long past. Ahead of him were night jobs like washing dishes so he could help support the family and a struggle to finish school. He never saw his father again.

Yet despite the bitter pill, what emerges from Mr. Eire's story is a beautiful tale of self-discovery in freedom that contrasts sharply with what he would have experienced back in Castrolandia. Moral and intellectual inquisitiveness such as Mr. Eire pursued in America is a crime in Cuba.

Which raises the question of how any honest assessment of Elian Gonzalez's future -- more precisely one by Bill Clinton and Janet Reno -- could possibly have concluded that sentencing the child to a life of intellectual, ethical and spiritual oppression was a good thing.

The fact that Mr. Eire, a victim of childhood separation from loving parents still sees it as the better choice for a young soul over life in Castro's hands, is a powerful statement about Cuba's repressive machine.

Mr. Eire made something -- indeed much -- of his life. Had he been given a chance in freedom, Elian too could have navigated his own course of self-knowledge. Now the best he can hope for is that events that are out of his control might fall his way.

"What occurred to me," says Mr. Eire, "was that Elian Gonzalez had no autonomy, no say in his life and in a way he was just like Cuba and the Cuban people. That's how it's been for many years for Cuba. We've been pawns. For so many years we were pawns of the Soviets." In his book-award acceptance speech, Mr. Eire remembered Cuba's political prisoners. "Had I written this book in my native land, I would be in prison. As we sit here enjoying this dinner, there is one country on earth, Cuba, which is dead set and has been dead set since 1959 on repressing thought, repressing expression. There is no freedom to write, there is no freedom to read." The message was not unlike that contained in a Dec. 10 Human Rights Day letter addressed to the Cuban people and signed by such diverse political actors as Madeleine Albright, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Vaclav Havel and Mario Vargas Llosa. "We express solidarity with all brave men and women of Cuba still struggling for their inalienable rights and human dignity under the difficult conditions of an oppressive, totalitarian regime," the letter read.

Mr. Eire's speech drove the point home: "There are people in Cuba now in prisons that aren't even fit for animals. Their crime? Writing. There are actually several people who are in prison for establishing libraries. It is to these very, very brave men and women that I would like to dedicate this National Book Award, the people in prison who cannot speak their minds without paying the heaviest price of all. And may it not only snow in Havana some time soon, may they be able to speak freely once and for all."

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