One Family's Journey From Communism To Freedom
May 25, 2001
Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of Freedom Day for my wife and her family. On June 1st, 1971 Guillermo and Luisa Ramos, along with their children Ana, Rebeca, and Guillermo left Havana, Cuba for the last time. They came to Miami, Florida where they experienced freedom for the first time. Their children had lived their whole lives under the Communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro.We had dinner with Jorge and Donna Herrera last night. Jorge was also born in Cuba. Although he was only five when his family escaped, he understood the emotion this anniversary represented for my wife, Ana. Donna and I could only try to understand. No one who has not lived under a totalitarian regime could ever really comprehend it. Ana was 11 on Freedom Day. Her sister, Rebeca (who now goes by Becky) was 10, and Guillermo (now Willie) was 6. They had entered a new world.
I asked Ana what she was feeling on this important anniversary. Her answer was simple: "Gratitude!" Gratitude toward God for delivering her family from the evil that is Communism. Gratitude toward her parents for their bravery. Gratitude toward the great nation that opened its arms to them.
The Bible says that God knows the end from the beginning. Even though Ana, raised under an atheistic regime, didn’t know God, He knew her. He knew that during her college years this young agnostic would come to know Him in a personal way. He knew that she would raise a daughter to love God and love freedom. Ana is grateful to Him for her family’s deliverance.
The children were too young to truly understand what leaving Cuba meant. But their parents knew that just applying for a permit to emigrate meant the start of a long period of persecution. The father’s mechanic shop was taken by the "government". They were ostracized by many of their neighbors. Their children were called "gusanos" (worms) by their schoolmates. They knew they would never see many of their family members again. Yet they had the courage to endure five years of persecution while they awaited permission to leave. And they were willing to face the uncertainties of life in a country where they knew nothing of the language and little of the culture. Their children will always be grateful for that.
The United States has a long history of welcoming victims of oppression. Many countries don’t want the burden of families who arrive on their shores penniless, with small children to feed. But our country embraced this family and thousands of others. Cuban immigrants are known for working hard and not looking for handouts. All the Ramos family wanted was the opportunity to come to the Land of the Free, and a chance to prove themselves. They will always be grateful that the United States gave them that chance.
Their parents are dead, so I talked with the children about their life in Cuba, and about how their lives changed when they came to Miami thirty years ago. Life in Cuba was difficult for anyone who was not a member of the Communist Party. Their family of five slept in one room. There was no freedom of religion. Children had little to look forward to, unless their parents were Communists. Their future was a life of manual labor. College and professional or technical jobs were reserved for the children of Castro’s lackeys.
Guillermo Ramos had two deadlines in mind when he applied to leave Cuba. The first was when Ana, the eldest, would reach the age of 12. At that age children are required by the government to "volunteer" to work in the fields, far from their families. They work 12 hours a day doing back-breaking labor in the hot sun. At night they are housed in crude barracks, boys and girls together. The young girls are often raped by the boys and the guards. Many return to their families pregnant at 12 or 13 years of age. Ana was three months shy of this deadline when her family finally received permission to leave.
The other deadline was when their son, Willie, would turn 15. That is military age in Cuba, and if he had been 15 when the family left, he would have had to stay behind. This has happened to many families over the years. The pain of escaping, but leaving a child behind was too much to contemplate. So Guillermo & Luisa Ramos started planning their family’s exodus early.
Shortly before they left, government inspectors were due to come to Ana’s grade school. The principal tried to make her wear the neckerchief of the Young Pioneers, the Communist equivalent of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Ana refused to wear it. She was crying when her father came to the school, because she was afraid they would not be allowed to emigrate.
When the time came to leave, government inspectors came to their home and inventoried every item in it. You see, when you live in a Communist state, you own nothing. Everything belongs to the government. The one thing of value the Ramos’ had in their home was a good mattress. They exchanged it with one of their neighbors for an old straw-filled sack and slept on that for a month before the inspectors came, so that their friends would get their mattress instead of the government. They left with literally nothing but the clothes on their back. Little Willie was not allowed to take even a cheap plastic toy.
When they arrived in Miami, kind people gave them ham sandwiches to eat. The mother, Luisa, wept with relief. She said that it was the best ham sandwich she had ever eaten. Becky remembers crying when she saw a department store. I asked her why, and she said, "It was so beautiful. The sign was red, my favorite color. There was no color in Cuba." No color? In the old movies, Cuba was full of color, a happy country. Under Communism, it is a gray country. Concrete buildings are mostly left unpainted. No one owns their business, so there is no need for colorful advertising. A country that was once known as the jewel of the Caribbean, visited by the rich and famous and heads of state, is now crumbling after decades of a Communist economy.
The Ramos family slept on the floor of the one bedroom house of a relative for their first few weeks in Miami. Guillermo was ill from the vaccinations he needed before entering our country, but the next day, and every day after that, he walked miles in the sweltering Miami heat looking for work until he found a menial job. He rented a small house for his family. He worked hard at that first job, then got a better one, eventually starting his own small mechanic business. Luisa kept the family together and made a home out of whatever housing they could afford. Though they had little, she taught her children to be grateful for what they had, and to thank God for their new life.
Why am I telling you such an old story? Aren’t things different now? Isn’t Cuba better place to live? Hasn’t Castro mellowed in his old age? No, No, and No! Why do you think thousands risk their lives every year to escape Castro’s "paradise", knowing full well that half will die before they reach Estados Unidos, the land of Freedom? Why do you think privileged Cubans, the musicians and baseball players who are allowed to travel to other countries, regularly elude the secret police who accompany them and defect? These are the best educated and the best treated of their countrymen, yet they hunger and thirst for freedom like the rest.
I asked Willie what his life would have been like in Cuba if his parents hadn’t made the decision they did. He said, "I’d probably be dead." He told he that he was so young when he left Cuba that he didn’t really understand the way things were. But he felt that as he grew old enough to realize what Castro had done to his country, he would have escaped or died trying.
Cuba is closer to Florida than Washington, D.C. is to New York City. The same Castro that allowed Russia to place missiles in his country is today financing and training Communist forces to overthrow nations to the South of us. When the U.S.S.R. fell, Castro’s commitment to Communist ideals never wavered. Today he is the enemy of the United States just as much as he was thirty years ago. Today he is the enemy of freedom everywhere just as much as he was in 1959 when he took power in Cuba at gunpoint.
I often hear people ask why so many expatriate Cubans won’t "let it go." Why can’t they put their life in Cuba behind them? Why do they still despise Castro after all these years? Perhaps this story will cast some light on the passion so many Cuban-Americans feel about the country of their birth.
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