Florida and national news media in the past two months have been full of stories and photos of Americans joyously traveling to Cuba. But these accounts, the opening of relations with the Castro government and attempts by President Obama to end the U.S. embargo have rekindled distressing memories for longtime Longboat Key/Sarasota resident Carol Siegler. Siegler felt compelled to share her family’s account of life in Havana during the revolution in the following open letter to President Obama. — Editor
My Dear Beleaguered and Legacy-Driven President Obama:
Your pronouncement of lifting the Cuban embargo during your recent speech at the Alicia Alonso Teatro Nacional in Havana was for many of us an unnecessary and reckless act.
With the disastrous and deceitful 1959 Castro Marxist revolution, we, as U.S. citizens living in Cuba at the time, endured complete expropriation of all our business interests, bank accounts, homes, etc.
Since then, our family and many other U.S. citizens suffered and witnessed 57 years of the Castro regime and its deceitful and destructive revolution.
Shortly after the Castro coup d’etat, the revolution that supposedly would liberate the Cuban people became a blood bath. Some of the prominent Castro leadership and “barbudos” (Cubans who fought for the overthrow) began to question the Marxist trends of the revolution. Without hesitation, they were put on trial in an open arena, found guilty and immediately put to death by firing squad. For some, the alternative was indefinite incarceration.
This was a singular moment for the Cuban people. It no longer was their revolution.
I feel it important to personalize this brutal time with the story of a family friend, Howard Anderson, a U.S. citizen living in Cuba. One of his housemaids maliciously turned him in for espionage to the Cuban authorities. Before the American ambassador could see him in jail, Anderson was tortured and killed. This tragic event was not publicized at the time.
My own parents, Charles and Wilma Shapiro, who moved to Cuba from Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1920, resided outside of Havana at the time of the revolution. They had hired Castro soldiers to guard their home when it was obvious that a regime change was coming. One early evening, the guards did not appear, and at sunset, several armed soldiers invaded my parents’ home looking for money.
My father, who had accepted Castro as the reformer for the Cuban people, suddenly saw the revolution for what it really was and decided to take steps to protect the family. He withdrew money from his bank and within hours distributed the money among his trustworthy Rotarian friends.
Without a doubt, someone at the bank shared this information, prompting this invasion into my parents' home. Among the intruders was a Czechoslovakian soldier. His accent was identifiable. No doubt, the Russian presence was already actively there.
One young Cuban soldier told my mother in a whisper that he never would have been part of this home invasion had he known the intent. The communist involvement was now glaring!
Everyone in the house was terrorized. My father was hit with a bayonet across the eyes. My mother was disrobed by force and suffered multiple injuries. This was reported in the New York Times the next day in a small article on a back page.
The Castro revolution, as we all know, strangled any incentive of the good, hard-working Cuban people for the last several generations. And at the tragic expense of the Cuban people, the Castro brothers have enjoyed invulnerability and inordinate wealth.
Mr. President, as we watched you speak, we were able to view on our TV the theater audience. It was stunningly obvious that the attending audience consisted of impeccably dressed Cubans, a remarkable contrast to the Cuban people in the street who are poorly clothed and scraping by. That said it all!
Mr. President, in your eagerness to achieve normalcy with Cuba, you forget that the Helms-Burton Act was established to protect U.S. citizens who suffered expropriation of their business holdings, bank accounts, homes and, in some cases, their lives. A provision of the bill states that only Congress can repeal this act.
Mr. Castro has blamed the U.S. embargo for everything that has gone wrong with his revolution. The Cuban people have been brainwashed to think that the U.S. has been responsible for the misery and hardships they have suffered for 57 years.
Of course, it is important to note that the Canadians, Russians, Chinese and Spaniards have been supplying Cuba’s needs over the years. As a matter of record, Spaniards have been compensated for their lost properties. How did we miss that opportunity?
On a trip to Cuba in 1999 with my brother and sister, whose lives were completely shattered by the Castro revolution, we stayed at the Melia Hotel. The first strange prohibition we noted was that Cubans were not allowed into the hotel unless they were hotel employees.
While there, my former classmate at Ruston Academy in Cuba, Natalie Revuelta, visited us. She was a social belle who fell in love with Castro when he was a prisoner in the Isle of Pines. Castro fathered her second child, then cast her aside.
As our guest, she was allowed into the hotel for lunch. To our astonishment, she proceeded to fill her large handbag to the brim with food to take home. It was hard to believe that 40 years after the revolution, people could not buy enough food to feed their families, yet the hotels had every delicacy one could desire.
In another heartbreaking incident, we attended a meal at what turned out to be the expropriated home of one of my sister’s Cuban friends. Her friend was a member of a prominent Cuban family. I will never forget the experience of dining on the family’s fine bone china while sitting beneath their beautiful paintings on the walls around us. I was at a point of tears observing my brother and sister holding back their emotions, not wanting to upset the others on our tour and not wanting to cause a political situation. It was a tense luncheon.
Mr. President, you may be interested to know how our family originally came to Cuba. In 1910, my father, Charles Shapiro went to Cuba on a hunch to sell outerwear to Spanish merchants. Cuba was a sugar-producing island. There was no manufacturing of any kind, and the only imports were from Japan.
At the time, my father filled a necessary niche in the Cuban economy. His business thrived and, of course, over time extended credit to the merchants with whom he did business.
As luck would have it, in 1920, there was a sugar failure and a moratorium declared. All debts were canceled! My father, then a married man and the father of two, immediately went to Cuba to try to recoup whatever money he was owed. His customers were not required to pay by law, but they persuaded my father to start a manufacturing business in Cuba. They promised to be his first customers.
My father then bought a few knitting machines and opened the first textile factory in Cuba. He was successful and loved Cuba! In time, my mother, Wilma, a willing adventurer, moved to the island to be with him and brought with her myself and my two siblings. I am the youngest.
Over time my father sold his knitting mill, dye house and brand names, including a popular undershirt known as “Camisetas Perro.” The brand name still exists and is currently being sold in Miami.
Soon afterward, my father purchased the largest and oldest department store in Havana from an elderly Spanish merchant friend. The two had struck up a friendship over many games of dominoes during their daily siesta. The store was known as Los Precios Fijos.
In 1960, at the age of 65, my parents left Cuba under duress with the shirts on their back and nothing to show for their years of hard work on the island.
Mr. President, it is difficult for me to end this letter on a positive note, which would be my preference. It has been disconcerting to hear the popular remark that the large expropriated corporations have over the years written off their losses. That may very well be the case. However, my intent by way of this letter, is to represent the less affluent American individuals who suffered severe loss, both financial and personal. The expropriation has taken a significant toll on our lives over the years.
The perception and supposed major difficulty facing compensation for expropriated properties is that the Cuban government claims it does not have the necessary financial resources. And to add insult to this injury, the Cuban government is demanding compensation for its losses during the years of the U.S. embargo. This is difficult for anyone to accept.
Meanwhile, many U.S. businesses have become almost single-minded in their determination to do business in Cuba.
My creative solution to this problem would be to tax companies that want to do business in Cuba. The monies accrued from this proposed tax could begin the process of remuneration for expropriated properties. Over time amends could be made.
Mr. President, your hope to lift the U.S. trade embargo from Cuba is well intentioned. Unfortunately, you are dealing with ruthless and intransigent operatives. My family and I know about them first hand.
Any thought of lifting the embargo must be matched by consideration from the Castro regime. A good start would be the release of political prisoners and an end to the unmerciful beatings of the “women in white” as they march for the release of their families in jail.
Yet there seems to be no move to action in this direction from the Castro regime.
We hope you will not sacrifice our interests for yours. As I see it, your life’s journey involves first serving your lovely family and then, as president of the United States, serving the American people.
We hope we are included among them.