The Cuban Revolution and Me

By Cindy Ermus

One need not witness a revolution to experience its power. I was not yet born “cuando triunfó la revolución,” as they say, in 1959. It was one of those major events that would divide the lives of those who witnessed it into “before the revolution” and after. But its influence does not end there. As the daughter of Cuban exiles and the granddaughter of a captain in Fidel Castro’s army, the Cuban Revolution has shaped my life, my identity, and my experiences in very real ways. To some extent, then, what follows is an exile piece with which I hope to provide some insight into the revolutionary experience, specifically the impact of revolution, not only on those who lived it, but on the generations that follow.

Photograph of Enrique Ermus.
My grandfather, Enrique Ermus. Unknown date. Family photo.

My paternal grandfather, Enrique Ermus, who died before I was born, was a member of the revolutionary 26th of July Movement and attained the rank of Captain while in the Sierra Maestra alongside the likes of Fidel Castro, Juan Almeida Bosque (who attended my grandfather’s funeral), Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Celia Sánchez.[1] He was one of the soldiers who participated, along with Frank País, in the Levantamiento del 30 de Noviembre (1956) to support the arrival of the infamous yacht, El Granma, to the province of Oriente (where my parents are from).[2] It famously carried 82 soldiers, including Fidel and Raul Castro, Guevara, Bosque, and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Map of modern-day Cuba.
Oriente is in blue.

He was also in charge of the rebel prison in the Sierra Maestra named Puerto Malanga (as opposed to the older Puerto Boniato).[3] My grandfather was a dedicated revolutionary, but his devotion to the revolution would not extend to his second eldest son, my father, who from a young age would develop equally ardent feelings against the revolution.

Photograph of Enrique Ermus and Almeida Bosque.
My grandfather (left) with Juan Almeida Bosque. Unknown date. Family photo.
Enrique Ermus at a baptism, with woman and man holding children.
This photo shows my grandfather (second from right) in what appears to be a baptism in the Sierra Maestra alongside Celia Sánchez and Father Guillermo Sardiñas. It now appears in: Nancy Stout, One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 250.

On three separate occasions, my father would be incarcerated for what was called a delíto de CIEN, an acronym for Contra la Integridad y Estabilidad de la Nación; that is to say, crimes against the integrity and stability of the nation. My understanding is that the “crimes” that fall under this designation have changed somewhat over the years, but at the time of my dad’s arrests in the 1960s, suspicion of counterrevolutionary activity or beliefs alone could warrant imprisonment. For example, the first time my father was arrested was in April 1968 when he was 15 years old. He and some friends had “planned” to escape the island – there was no indication that an escape would actually be executed – but when the brother of one of his friends went to authorities with this information, my dad was arrested and sent to the aforementioned Boniato Prison. There he remained for about 6 months in a cell near the one Fidel Castro spent time in when he was arrested after the attack of the Cuartel Moncada (Castro mentions the prison in his speech, “La historia me absolverá”).  By this time, the cell was already an attraction, like a museum display, and no longer in use.

Photograph of Jorge, Tony, and Enrique Ermus wearing uniforms.
My father, Jorge (left), with his two brothers, Tony (middle) and Enrique (right). Family photo.

Rather than scare him straight, my father’s experience in prison only made him more radically anti-communist as he befriended other political prisoners and witnessed the unspeakable abuses they were subjected to. He would be arrested two more times, both before the age of 20, for planning “salida ilegal del país” (illegal departure from the country). But it was the third that has left the most scars. He spent five long years as a political prisoner and it was on this occasion that he was subjected to the forced labor and physical and psychological abuses that I have only very recently begun to learn a little about (I have been offered few details, and I have never asked him to elaborate). El Aparato Rojo (the Red Apparatus), as some prisoners called the political system, was not kind to those who dared fall out of ideological line.

Then in 1979, my dad was among the 3,600 or so political prisoners that were granted the right to leave Cuba as the result of an agreement between Fidel Castro, the Carter administration, and members of the Cuban exile community earlier in 1978.[4] So on August 22, 1979 (a date they never forget; we call it our own “dia de la libertad”), my parents arrived in Miami from Havana via Jamaica, and soon thereafter departed for Los Angeles where my paternal grandmother lived – she had fled Cuba in 1967 – and where I was born a few weeks later. After only about a year in Los Angeles, however, my parents moved to Miami, where I grew up. My dad was 26 years old, and my mom was 23 and was over 6 months pregnant when she left her home in Guantanamo.[5] I always admired their bravery for leaving everything they ever knew, including huge families, while expecting their first child so that I could live in a country where I could write, say, and think whatever I desired – freedoms that they could not enjoy in their homeland. 

Newspaper add featuring a picture of Jorge and Elsa Ermus at an airport.
My parents, Jorge and Elsa, at Miami International Airport on 22 August 1979. My mom was 6 months pregnant at the time. When this was printed in the Diario las Americas, Cubans from all over the US wrote them letters, asking how they might be able to help their loved ones into the US. Interestingly, when my parents arrived in California, the FBI visited them at my grandmother’s house to find out who was coming in, why, and whether they had any information about the Castros.

In fact, my parents’ experiences have offered me an acute appreciation for the lengths to which human beings will go to attain certain freedoms and escape oppression, especially given my dad’s experiences as a political prisoner. In many ways then, the Cuban Revolution has affected me personally. For one, it determined that I would not be born in the same country as my parents – a country that I have felt both a strong longing for and, for political reasons, a sense of estrangement from, my whole life. Like all members of an exile community, I feel as though a part of me remains somewhere else. In this case, somewhere I have never been. I have never met, for example, most of my very extensive family with whom, at most, I have only ever spoken to on the phone, or in recent years, communicated with online. I have also witnessed the emotional trauma of exile. Many of those who flee their homes for political reasons feel forced out, and wronged. Their exile remains a sensitive, emotional topic for the rest of their lives, and I have seen the suffering that a longing for home can cause.

By extension, I have learned that I can be rather sensitive about questions or issues pertaining to Cuba and the exile community. For example, having so often heard dissident Cubans call Che Guevara a cold-blooded murderer, and hearing anecdotal stories of the atrocities that he committed, I cannot help but feel annoyed when I see representations of him on shirts and posters, if only because it strikes me as unlikely that the person displaying it understands or appreciates the complicated history that the symbol carries. I also feel a little uneasy when I see travel advertisements for Cuba (outside of the US, of course) that display the island as a tourist’s paradise where everyone is happy and fed. And I cannot help but get teary eyed when I hear the song, Nuestro Dia (Ya Vienen Llegando), by Cuban musician Willy Chirino (perhaps now I’ve said too much!).

But the Cuban Revolution has provided me with some positives, as well. For one, I was raised by people who do not take their freedom for granted, and who thus instilled in me a deep sense of appreciation for my ability to think, speak, write, and act as I see fit. Also, as a Cuban-American, I live within the complex and richly diverse experience of two worlds. Culturally, I feel both Cuban and American. I was born in the United States, but I grew up among Miami’s community of Cuban exiles, listening to talking heads discuss Cuban politics on TV all day, watching Qué Pasa, USA? reruns, listening to Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan on the radio, enjoying Cuban food on a daily basis, and, to this day, enjoying a hot cafecito con leche every morning. Moreover, my first language was Spanish – which remains the language in which I speak to my family – but I learned English in school. In my experience, then, bilingualism came easily (as did my skills in the “language” of Miami, i.e. Spanglish). Certainly, too, my interest in the history of revolutions, and as a Miami native, in disasters and port cities, owe something to my upbringing.

In sum, I am, in many ways, a product of the Cuban Revolution. I embody one of the countless trajectories that have been laid out by the political event that placed my father in a political prison and that drove my parents to abandon their native country. I continue, of course, to have a complicated relationship with Cuba. For example, I have always wanted to visit the country to which I feel such strong cultural and personal ties, but to this day, I have never been. And the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba has only brought these complicated feelings to the fore, since we (Cubans and Cuban-Americans) have been obliged to take a stance on the controversial issue. In fact, I have been asked countless times for my feelings on this, and I can say that I will not soon forget the date of December 17, 2014, and I am very hopeful for the future. I am hopeful that the increased exposure to the rest of the world will show the people of Cuba that things can be better, and that this will then serve as the most fundamental modicum for change. As José Daniel Ferrer of UNPACU recently said in an interview, the people can’t want what they don’t know.[6]  So I welcome the changes, and look to the future.

Cindy Ermus is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She specializes on disaster and crisis in 18th-century France and the Atlantic world. She is on Twitter at @CindyErmus.

Title image: A Cuban and American flag wave from the balcony of the Hotel Saratoga in Havana

[1] In his, Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria: Cuba 1959-1969, Ernesto Guevara refers to my grandfather as “Hermo.”  Ernesto Guevara, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006), 67.

[2] One of my mom’s earliest memories is of her family having to run and hide under her house, in a bomb shelter of sorts, as forces fought outside her home in Guantanamo.

[3] Fidel Castro Ruz, La victoria estratégica por todos los caminos de la Sierra (Madrid: Ediciónes Akal, 2012), 41.  Ernesto Che Guevara, Diary of a Combatant (Minneapolis: Ocean Press, 2013), 331.  Boniato and malanga both refer to vegetables, somewhat similar to potatoes.

[4] To be clear, the Mariel began months later and represents a separate set of events.

[5] A few more days, and she would not have been permitted to travel since 7 months was the cut off point.  How different my life might have been if I had been born in Cuba!

[6] Ferrer is the head of the Unión Patriótica de Cuba or UNPACU (Patriotic Union of Cuba).  “No one wishes for what they don’t know, and no one loses their fear if they don’t see that others have liberated themselves, that they have lost their fear.” See Nora Gamez Torres, “The man behind Cuba’s largest opposition group”.  For an opinion piece that discusses positives of the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba, see “Five Reasons to Support S.299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act (Flake/Leahy)

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