These past few days, from the reaction of some who read what I and other Cuban Americans said in a full-page ad in the Miami Herald about our visit to the island, I’ve learned even more about the sort of lifelong pain that is almost impossible to remove from many souls. I also have been reminded that kindness and forgiveness can heal and help.
Fifty-one years ago, with my father next to me, I stood near an airport runway in Mexico City. I was there to help as our family had been helped just six months earlier.
On Christmas Eve 1964 — at that same spot we were standing, just about the same time of night — our family of four had arrived in Mexico City. A man at the fence awaited for people like us — Mami, Papi, my sister, Pilar, and me, age 12. He told us, “My name is Eugenio. I will take you to a better place.”
Our fellow Cuban found us housing; later we came to America. We have, hence, been so blessed.
But that night back then, it was our turn to help. Eugenio, our man at the fence, had secured passage to the United States. So my father would take Eugenio’s place at the airport fence by the runway. That night, and many more to come, my father and I would wait to see if a plane would arrive with other escaping Cubans — and then help each as much as we could.
That night, the final time I saw Eugenio, he put his hands on his knees. Bending down and looking right into my eyes, he said, “Son, your job is to take care of those who come after you.” At that moment I really didn’t understand the value behind those words. As I grew, I came to know what Eugenio meant and what my father was about to do: Wait for strangers and help make their lives better.
Doing a good deed for others did not mean — nor does it now — that we could forget the pain that every Cuban exile has experienced because of the Castro regimes. I can never forget all those who suffered and still suffer. Forgiveness is not the same as saying, “All is fine.” But to forgive and move on is to reject hatred of any sort.
In 2000, I went back to Cuba for the first time. I found the place oppressive and couldn’t wait to leave. How could people live this way? Then, almost a decade later, I heard no laughter. People still spoke with hand signals for fear of retribution. A few years later, and for the first time, I heard a group criticize the government with police nearby, yet no one was beaten or arrested. Yet I am aware the arrests and abuse still occur.
As I returned to Cuba these past two months, I saw the faces of lost lives and lost dreams. But I also saw new dreams in those faces.
Those dreams and aspirations, much like ours when we arrived on these shores, need help to become reality. But who on the island can help? Who has started a business? Who has marketed a product or service? Only those who have traveled this path can help. It is we who can help nuestra gente — our people.
Life in our adopted country has been an extraordinary learning experience. With that experience we can teach others. We can share what we know with our brothers and sisters across the Florida Straits. Who else can really teach them?
We have seen much. We have seen the Cuban government now encouraging people to leave the government payroll. We have seen emerging small and medium-size businesses. We’ve seen farming cooperatives where individuals distribute profits to their partners. We’ve seen it in private restaurants — the so-called paladares employing people who might earn in a week what they once earned in a month.
I studied under Jesuit priests, as have my sons. Jesuit values can be said in these words: “Caring for others.” Eugenio, the man at the fence, was not a Jesuit.
But surely he had a Jesuit mission and heart.
Today, I can fully comprehend what he meant when he said to the 12-year-old Miguel: “Take care of those who come after you.” I’m up for the task.
Cuba’s truth today is not the truth of a decade or five decades ago.
If you doubt what I say, go and see for yourself.
Michael “Mike” B. Fernandez is chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners.