Pain of communist Cuba still vivid for Tampa woman
BY LAURA C. MOREL
Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA – Isela Perez sleeps in on most days, when her only tasks are to
clean the house, watch Fox News and keep up with her telenovelas.
But on Saturday, the 85-year-old wakes up early.
Her little house is quiet as she makes a cup of instant coffee; the
strong Cuban stuff no longer agrees with her.
In the kitchen, she keeps plantains. In a bedroom, newsletters about the
homeland she left half a century ago, by a local activist group that
publishes scathing political cartoons. One, referencing President Barack
Obama's move to normalize relations with Cuba, shows the president
propping up "tyranny," embodied by a teetering Fidel Castro. "Got your
back," the president says.
Cubans on the island don't feel the same rage, she says. Neither do
American-born children of exiles, who never had to worry about firing
squads. Her Obama-loving grandson hardly speaks Spanish.
And then there are those who lived through the revolution, who narrowly
escaped, who are angry and have been angry for a long time. They're a
They get together on Saturday mornings. Isela looks forward to this
meeting all week.
– – –
Her life in Havana, she said, was perfect.
She met her husband in a resort in Pinar Del Rio. She was swimming when
he entered the water and raced her across the length of the pool.
During a party, he asked her to dance. He was tall, gallant, educated.
Isela was smitten. Afterward, the man asked her father if he could visit
her. He was 42. She was 20. They were married in four months.
She became a schoolteacher. He was a Firestone factory accountant. They
had a daughter and son and lived in a house with Italian mosaic floors,
a glass front door and a white iron fence. On Fridays, her husband
bought her roses.
On weekends, they visited her parents, had picnics, watched movies at
the theater, went to the beaches of Varadero, where the sand is as thin
"It was a family life. Tranquil, full of peace and love," she said.
Then, Fidel Castro's revolution grasped the island.
– – –
Isela was in the hospital after giving birth to her son in 1961 when the
Bay of Pigs erupted. From her room, she could hear the screams, the
gunfire, the military tanks trudging outside as people yelled, "Viva Fidel!"
At home, the revolution took hold of everyday life. With food shortages,
every family received monthly rations, including one bar of soap. After
every bath, Isela plucked the soap from the shower so it wouldn't
dissolve before the end of the month.
The roses ran out. Her husband now had to buy carnations.
Rumors circled that children would be removed from their parents. Then,
her husband came home with a revolutionary uniform. Isela had had enough.
For about 20 days, she stood in line with her father so she could apply
to leave for the United States. He would stay in line during the day,
and Isela would take his place at night. Neighbors brought them coffee.
With no restrooms, the stench of urine surrounded the building.
Once they declared they wanted to leave, she and her husband were forced
out of their jobs. A neighborhood spy accused her of wanting to become a
prostitute in America.
It was 1965 when the day finally came. She packed as much as she could,
not forgetting the family albums. But a government official showed up,
and told her it all had to stay behind. He'd let her take one change of
She would never return.
– – –
Fifty-one years is a long time.
Long enough for Isela's parents to die in Cuba and her husband to die in
Long enough for Castro to grow ill and cede power to his brother Raul.
The bearded revolutionary has traded his military uniform for Adidas
tracksuits, his ponderous public speeches for sporadic cameos in which
he holds up a newspaper to prove he is still alive. His country is
undergoing a new revolution, in which the American dollar and normalized
relations are expected to transform its people.
Saturday was his 90th birthday. In years past, this was cause for
national celebration. But this year, the party was subdued.
Still, Isela insists she will not return to the island until he is dead.
She knows this means she may never get to see her aging brothers. She
knows there is a good chance the old dictator outlives her, and she
never sees her homeland again.
– – –
Isela parks her Ford Focus in front of a two-bedroom home in West Tampa,
the clubhouse of a group that calls itself Casa Cuba.
Outside, a banner across a barred window reads: "It is better to live in
the exile dying every day than in the motherland licking the boots of
She opens the front door. "Buenos dias," she says to a small group of
This group used to have hundreds of members. Many of them have died, and
the roughly 100 that remain cannot regularly attend meetings. One fell
and was recovering at the hospital; others stopped driving and have no
one to bring them.
They play dominoes together and attend funerals together and, on this
morning, they pray, asking God to give them and others the strength to
keep fighting for freedom in Cuba.
Isela, the club's vice secretary, jots details of their discussions in
Around them are books about Cuban history and mementos from the island,
and a ceramic plate that reads:
We will return.
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