It only took hearing seven sparse words in Spanish to turn my childhood loathing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy — whose centennial we honor this May 29 — into a lifetime of reverence and idolatry.
Born almost 12 years after his assassination and raised as a Ronald Reagan-obsessed young Republican in a Cuban-American household, my early impressions of Kennedy were hardly the nostalgic, tear-stained odes to Camelot shared by most Americans. Rather, the phrase I remember most bandied about during large family gatherings when JFK’s name came up was a scornful, embittered “El nos traicionó!” “He betrayed us!”
The Bay of Pigs fiasco, for which Kennedy accepted full responsibility, was, decades after the fact, still an open wound that in my exile family’s eyes forever cemented Fidel Castro’s dictatorship over their lost homeland. They never forgave the young president. Their harsh feelings about the man become my own.
Alone, however, in dissent among my relatives, was my maternal granduncle Gustavo Areces. Tio Gustavo was JFK’s staunchest defender. Surprising, because he was the one person in the family who unquestionably suffered the most at the hands of Castro’s tyrannical regime, having spent 13 years — from 1966 to 1979 — as a political prisoner tortured in a dungeon.
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Why would he, I asked him one day in the fall of 1988, of all people, stick up for the American president that forever lost Cuba to Castro and that the rest of my kin considered a traitor?
The memory of his stunning and neatly delivered answer, moves me to this day.
“Vivimos aqui en libertad, gracias a el.”
“We live here in freedom, thanks to him.”
In early 1961, Tio Gustavo fled Cuba and sought refuge in the one place he knew he would be safe — the United States. Following his example, on July 26, 1962, my mother, aunt and grandparents boarded a plane for the 57-minute flight from Havana to Miami and began, unbeknownst to them that day, a permanent exile. They would never again set foot on Cuban soil.
This was possible only because of an undertaking known as the Cuban Refugee Program, one of the first official actions taken by JFK as president in January 1961. My father and paternal grandmother were among the beneficiaries. The subsequent deluge of Cuban refugees resulted in Kennedy expanding the program into the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962.
And for those that might scoff and say Kennedy made the obvious decision in welcoming Cuban refugees to the United States fleeing a simmering geopolitical hot spot, we should recognize that not every American president extends the compassion and opportunity my family received from Kennedy. Consider the untold numbers of Syrians who perished or are currently languishing in their decimated nation, unable to escape the wrath of Bashar al-Assad or ISIS or the masses of Central American refugees fleeing gang violence and seeking shelter in our country under the current president’s closed-door, hard-line, no-refugee policy.
For me, the historical conclusion was now obvious, the familial legacy undeniable. The one man directly responsible for my family’s safe harbor and eventual sanctuary as permanent, legal citizens in this extraordinary nation of free men and women was John F. Kennedy.
This was not a man to revile, but a man to revere. And a man to thank — profoundly.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, Kennedy’s life and his storybook thousand days as president will offer much for my fellow Americans to commemorate: his inspirational call to service for country and courage in confronting civil rights; his remarkable initiative to put a man on the moon; and that little episode where he likely saved the human race from nuclear winter through his masterful handling — the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But for this American, I will not “ask not” what President Kennedy did for me.
What this man, whom I never met, did for my family and by extension for me was to give a gift, leaving a debt I can never repay. What he did was to grant the Amandi Rodriguez family the gift of freedom, and with that freedom the chance to escape political enslavement as fellow citizens of the country he so loved and so ably led.
Fernand Amandi is the principal of Bendixen & Amandi International, a Miami-based public-opinion research, strategy, and media communications firm.