Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Cuban revolution: Exiles' stories

The Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959 provoked a large exodus of people, most of whom headed for the US. And in the following 50 years, there have been waves of Cubans seeking exile abroad.

Five Cubans based in Miami spoke to the BBC's Emilio San Pedro about their lives.

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Francisco José "Pepe" Hernández

Francisco Jose "Pepe" Hernandez is president of the powerful exile lobby group, the Cuban American National Foundation. He arrived in Miami in 1960 and later participated in the failed exile-led "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba aimed at toppling the government of Fidel Castro.

He is a member of what is known as "Historic Generation" of Cuban exiles - those who arrived in Miami in the early days of the revolution:

I arrived in Miami the first time as an exile in the summer of 1960. I later returned to Cuba to continue working in the "underground", or opposition to the Castro regime. I later participated in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and was jailed in Cuba for two years. I then returned to the US in 1964.

Those of us who arrived at that time believed we were just here for a brief period. None of us had even the most remote idea that our stay in the US would last 50 years. In our minds, we were just here for a short stay - some of us working to survive and others fighting for freedom in Cuba.

Obviously, that was not to be. And, it wasn't until the end of the 1960s that we understood that our return to our homeland would be a lot more difficult than we had imagined and would take a lot more time.

At that point, we began to concentrate on building our families, seeking new careers or professions and obtaining economic and political influence.

Proud of Miami

I think it's extraordinary to think looking at Miami now that it was nothing more when we arrived than a sleepy country town.

Today, it's a large metropolis with skyscrapers that can be compared to those of any major city in the world - and above all it has an extraordinary international mix. It is truly, as many call it, the gateway to and even the capital of Latin America.

We Cubans are extremely proud of all that we did to to work to turn Miami into what it is today. We have without a doubt played an instrumental role.

Ester Elena San Martín

Ester arrived in Miami in 1971, aged 18, on what were termed the Freedom Flights, which allowed thousands of Cubans to leave the island for the US as a result of an agreement between Fidel Castro and US President Lyndon B Johnson.

She married a Honduran national, has three children and lives in Hialeah - perhaps the most Cuban of middle-class neighbourhoods in Miami:

I arrived in Miami on 5 August 1971. It was 1230 or so in the afternoon. It was raining. I remember clearly that when the plane landed in Miami there were all these people in green raincoats, something which harked back to the olive green worn by the military in Cuba. I turned to my father and said: If this is Cuba, I'm not getting off.

Coming here was a huge change in my life. I went from being a spoiled girl and had to become a responsible adult and get to work. There was nothing else to do but work. We had to work to start making a way for ourselves here.

We left there because some government opponents had hidden in my grandfather's farm. So, our house was singled out as an anti-government house. I remember one November morning when many Cuban soldiers entered our house and pushed us out - myself, my sister and everyone else there. They threw us to the floor and were pointing weapons at our heads. For more than four hours we had a man with a machine gun behind us.


My dream is to see a free Cuba. I dream of one day being able to take my children to Cuba but as long as that system is in power there - I won't return. There has to be democracy in Cuba like we have here - a system that will allow me to come and go as I please. But, regardless, I will never go back to live there. My children are American and grown-up and their lives are here. I could never make them go there to live.

I'm very proud and happy to be living here in the United States. I consider it to be my country. I miss Cuba but I feel happy here. I feel free. I feel that I have rights and benefits and everything - everything I need to realise my potential as a person.


Diana Contreras

Diana arrived in Miami 1980 at the age of 15 - one of some 125,000 Cubans who left during what became known as the Mariel boatlift.

It began in April after a driver crashed his bus through the fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana and thousands of Cubans took refuge in the compound, Diana and her mother among them.

Fidel Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel, setting off a five-month exodus of Cubans.

Today, Diana is a sales manager for a major hotel chain; she's married and has a daughter:

I sought exile in the Peruvian embassy for 11 days together with my mother. Then Fidel opened the ports and said all who wanted to leave could.

They put us in a boat - it was called Isabel, I'll never forget that. They put us in the boat and called us scum.

When I arrived I blocked everything for several years - it was a psychological trauma and I didn't remember anything. Then when I became an adult and had my own children, I began to remember those events.

I spent a lot of years not letting on that I was a "marielita" (that is, one of those who arrived during the boatlift). I used to say I had come here because my grandfather had lived here a long time, and I said I came by plane, even though I had never flown before. I said that for years because the truth embarrassed me. People's opinion of the "marielitos" was terrible.

I know how it was because I lived through it. The people who took refuge in the Peruvian embassy were professional, of a certain high level.

But Fidel completely manipulated the image of the "marielitos", saying they were all criminals, they were all mad, they were jailbirds, bad people.

So I never said I was a "marielita". Imagine applying for a job, it was like having a criminal record.

So I was ashamed for years. I was full of hate and resentment and wanted to know nothing of Cuba.


Miguel Castillo

Miguel was one of tens of thousands of Cubans who left the island in the 1990s on makeshift rafts. He took to the open seas in search of a new life on a precarious vessel which, like most other rafters, he had built in hiding.

Miguel says it took him four attempts before he was successful. He left the island with several other people, including a pregnant woman, on a small raft. Today, he works in construction but he's also a musician and a rapper and goes by the name of El Balsero - the Rafter:

We took four days to build that raft, one nail and screw at a time. I made the skeleton out of wood. Freedom has no price. We built the raft and decided to go for it. Then rumours started circulating on the streets that Fidel had authorised a mass exodus and people started worrying that it was part of a plan to have us end up at the US naval base in Guantanamo. I said that I didn't care where we were sent - Guantanamo or anywhere. The main thing was to leave Cuba.

The seas were choppy the day we left. But, somehow I felt that was my day to gain my freedom. Our friends got into the water to push our raft into the sea. Forty-five minutes into the journey things got really bad - the waves and the currents. It was incredible. The very first night our raft overturned because of the bad weather. We spent eight days in the water.

As soon as we were rescued by the US Coast Guard, we were greeted by other Cubans on board the vessel that had also been rescued. They all chanted "Freedom, Freedom". I started to cry and knelt down and kissed the ground and said "Long Live a Free Cuba without Castro".

I arrived in Miami on the 23 November 1995. The first thing I did was sign up for English classes. I worked at night and studied by day. I learned to do a bit of everything. Today, I work in the remodelling of homes.

I'll tell you one thing. I never left Cuba. I live in Miami, in the United States but I never left Cuba. It makes me sad to have to be here because I can't be free in my own country.


Idania Álvarez

Idania is the lead singer of a traditional Cuban musical group called: Yo Soy el Son - I am the Son (a Cuban song and dance). Along with her husband and the group's other musicians, Idania crossed the Mexican border to the US where they sought asylum in January 2008:

We arrived in Miami after having worked in Mexico for 11 months. We left Cuba in February of 2007 to work in the Mexican city of Puebla and participate in the inauguration of a new franchise of the famous Cuban bar, El Floridita - the first to be opened in Mexico. Eleven months later, after reviewing our professional possibilities, we decided to cross the Mexican border into the United States - which we did on the 13 January 2008.

All new beginnings are difficult but I have to give thanks to life because we knocked on the right doors at the right time and now we have regular work. That doesn't happen every day.

Rich roots

One day shortly after arriving, we picked up our instruments, put them in a van and we arrived here at this nightclub - Casa Panza - and we've been working here regularly since. However, I should point out that, like all beginnings, it wasn't easy at first.

As a human being, my aspiration is that all of those who are able to arrive in this great country have the desire and the impetus to push forward, as we say in our country. I wish that all of my relatives could be here and I would also like to see an end to all of those negative and ugly things that happen in Cuba.

As a musician, I simply came here to defend the rich roots of the traditional music of Cuba. I defended them in Cuba, in Italy and Mexico and now here. The day I can no longer perform that Cuban music will be the day I no longer work as a musician. It's what I hope to do my entire life.

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