As Elie Wiesel reminds us, there is no more eloquent witness against injustice and evil than eyewitness memory. A colleague of mine at Yale, the theologian Miroslav Volf, who spent time in prison in Croatia simply because his father was a Protestant minister, has argued that evil can triumph multiple times: first when an injustice is committed, and over and over if the record of that injustice is wiped out and the memory of it denied.
In 1959, when Fidel Castro took power, the population of Cuba was only 6 million. But except for the scale, life there was much like it was in the Soviet Union. Imagine having lived in a repressive state, and then from the moment you reach the United States constantly being told what a wonderful place you came from and how wonderful the Castro revolution has been to your people. Imagine being told constantly—sometimes directly, sometimes insinuated—that you are simply selfish, you didn’t want to share your property with other people, and that’s why you are here. That’s my story and why I wrote my memoir. I face this every day still, even recently at the UN, because I come not from Europe but from the “third world.”
Cuba was a Spanish colony until 1898, when the Spanish-American war freed Cuba from Spain. In 1898, the population of Cuba was 2 million; slavery had existed until 1888. Cubans had been fighting against Spain unsuccessfully for forty years, but in 1898 the U.S. marched in and took over. In 1902, the U.S. granted independence to Cuba (which it did not do for the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the other two colonies it won from Spain). Cuba got its own constitution, but under the Platt amendment, the U.S. had the right to intervene in Cuban affairs any time it felt its interests were threatened.
Cuba’s first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, had spent most of his adult life in the U.S., teaching at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state. Between 1902-52, the U.S. intervened directly and indirectly numerous times, removing presidents and ensuring that other presidents were installed.
Between 1900-30, one million European immigrants arrived in Cuba, completely changing the island. Contrary to prevailing myths, the country was not quite a third world country in 1959. In fact, at that time, it had more college-educated women than the U.S. per capita. It had more TV sets than all of Italy. It had a very prosperous economy and a huge middle class. Yes, there was poverty, but the country also had a high literacy rate and a liberal 1940 constitution. But unfortunately, the country was politically immature, subjected to one dictatorship after another and a great deal of corruption.
In 1952, an army coup brought to power Fulgencio Batista, who ruled with an iron fist. He made sure that the opposition met its end very quickly. But there was a degree of press freedom. Cuba had several TV stations, more than 80 radio stations, and more than 60 newspapers. There was censorship, but it was not extreme. You simply could not say anything contrary to Batista’s regime. Castro took on Batista, beat him, and succeeded him, but his was only one of 17 different revolutionary groups fighting against Batista. The first thing Castro did when he marched into Havana was to ensure that these other revolutionaries quickly disappeared. By 1960, he was expropriating American property and foreign investments and also beginning to abolish private property. Before long he had declared Cuba a Marxist-Leninist state.
From the beginning there were opponents of the regime, even among men close to Castro who had fought with him. But promised elections were never held, and people kept disappearing. There were already exiles in 1960, and the CIA decided to help them invade Cuba. While the vast majority of the men who landed in the Bay of Pigs invasion had fought against Batista, they were not there to reinstate Batista, but to f