Disenchanted With Castro’s Revolution

A WSJ article takes a hard look at life in Cuba today for a 56 year old woman and her family. An excerpt:

In 1981, with the blessing of her husband, Ms. Vallejo used an opportunity of a trip to Finland to get eye treatment to take a ferry to Sweden to try to defect. But Sweden’s then-socialist government of Olaf Palme handed her back to the Cubans, who swiftly exacted revenge. Her husband and mother both lost their jobs, and they began to be constantly harassed by party officials. On the door of their family home, someone spray-painted “Gusanos,” or “Worms,” the Cuban words for counterrevolutionaries. When Ms. Vallejo would run across teachers at the university, they would spit in her path.

Ms. Vallejo and her husband sank into a depression that lasted until 1988, when Mother Teresa visited Cuba to open up one of her charity’s missions. Because Ms. Vallejo was active in the Catholic church, she served as Mother Teresa’s interpreter. During the visit, the late sister befriended Ms. Vallejo and told her God had a mission for her: To care for Cuban children with cancer. “After our first visit to the children’s ward (in Havana’s main oncology hospital), I cried and prayed to God that I wouldn’t have to do this,” says Ms. Vallejo. “But, somehow, Mother Teresa knew exactly what we needed.”

For the next 15 years, Ms. Vallejo and her husband visited the children in the cancer ward several times a week, organizing parties, bringing presents and trying to cheer them up.

The entire article referenced is copied in full at end of post.

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Disenchanted With Castro’s Revolution

JANUARY 28, 2009 – WALL STREET JOURNAL Staff Reporter

On Jan. 8, 1959, 50 years ago this month, Fidel Castro rode into Havana on a column on tanks to mark the triumph of the Cuban revolution, cheered on by throngs of flag-waving Cubans and heralding what many hoped would be a new dawn for the island, the hemisphere and the world. It was a day that would forever mark Carmen Vallejo’s life.

The story of Carmen Vallejo and her family is, in many ways, the story of the revolution itself and its legacy over the past half century. Like many other Cubans, the Vallejo family strongly supported the revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and brought Mr. Castro to power. But the ensuing years brought disillusionment, disappointment and despair..

Today, Ms. Vallejo, 56, feels trapped by the events of 1959. She can’t travel outside Cuba or hold a prominent job, the result of a failed attempt to defect in 1981. Desperate to find meaning in their lives outside of politics, she and her husband, Rey, have dedicated the past 19 years to helping Cuban children with cancer. But even that mission is met with hostility from a government that never forgives those who question it.

“Having a totalitarian system means total control. They don’t like it when someone else tries to resolve problems for people,” she says.

Such talk is rare in Cuba, where most people are afraid of getting jailed for speaking out against the government. But Ms. Vallejo has spent her life coming to terms with her country, her family’s role in helping the revolution, and her fate. Her favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova, a Russian who lived under Stalin and wrote about the despair of totalitarianism. Ms. Vallejo has underlined the following lines from one of the poems: “I am not one of those who leave my country. I am, unfortunately, where my people are doomed to be.”

Ms. Vallejo’s family had an unusually distinguished revolutionary pedigree. Her father was a prominent Cuban physician named Rene Vallejo, who served with the Third U.S. Army in postwar Germany, running a hospital that cared for the sick and war wounded. There, he met a Ukrainian nurse who had been in a Nazi forced labor camp and passed herself off as Polish to avoid being sent to the USSR. The couple married before returning to Cuba.

After about a decade in Cuba, Mr. Vallejo left a successful medical practice and took his two brothers to join Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains to topple the Batista regime. Later, he rose to the rank of commander and became Mr. Castro’s personal doctor, aide de camp and close friend. Mr. Vallejo’s wife, Maria Witowska, also helped the cause, using her home to hide rebels and send supplies to Mr. Castro during the revolution. After the revolution, she became his personal secretary. A picture of her taken by Alberto Korda, the photographer who took the iconic portrait of Che Guevara, still hangs in Carmen Vallejo’s Havana apartment.

Children with cancer celebrated a patient’s birthday at the library of Havana’s main oncology hospital. Ms. Vallejo and her husband, Rey, visit a couple times a week to organize parties and cheer up the patients.

During the first few years after the revolution, Mr. Castro remained so close to Rene Vallejo that the comandante often spent the night at Mr. Vallejo’s home, staying up for hours discussing politics. “I never liked Fidel because every time he would come to our house, I was rushed by my father into a bedroom and told to be quiet,” says Carmen.

But the Vallejo family slowly fell out of favor with the revolution. Her father, having spent time with the Americans in World War II, encouraged Mr. Castro to make amends with Washington. He was heavily involved in a then-secret attempt to re-establish U.S.-Cuban ties in 1963, according to Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the Washington-based National Security Archive, a nongovernmental research institution. That effort, which had President Kennedy’s blessing, ended with the president’s assassination.

Ms. Vallejo thinks her father simply ended up being too much of a free spirit for Mr. Castro to fully trust. “He had respect for every person, for every individual, and the regime does not care about individuals,” she says. Whatever the cause, after Mr. Vallejo’s death in 1969, he was largely airbrushed out of Cuban history, and today few Cubans know of his role in the revolution.

Ms. Vallejo’s mother, Maria, meanwhile, became suspect for her Catholic beliefs. She gave her daughter a first communion ceremony in 1960, raising eyebrows among Communist Party officials. Soon, she was demoted from Mr. Castro’s personal secretary to translator. She grew increasingly disillusioned about having survived Stalin and the Nazis only to end up with another totalitarian regime.

Before her death in 1990, Maria Vallejo wrote a letter to her dead mother: “My life is wrecked. I ask myself: What am I doing in this land? …. What sentence do I have to pay and why? Why do I have to suffer like this? …. Must I always, always have to suffer? Will they keep humiliating me? Why? What did I do that was so wrong? …. Mother, come, don’t leave me alone. Why didn’t you tell me the world and its men were so cruel?”

Carmen Vallejo suffered the privations of ordinary Cubans, despite her family’s prominence in the revolution. A lack of vitamins during her college years left her with damage to her left eye.

In 1981, with the blessing of her husband, Ms. Vallejo used an opportunity of a trip to Finland to get eye treatment to take a ferry to Sweden to try to defect. But Sweden’s then-socialist government of Olaf Palme handed her back to the Cubans, who swiftly exacted revenge. Her husband and mother both lost their jobs, and they began to be constantly harassed by party officials. On the door of their family home, someone spray-painted “Gusanos,” or “Worms,” the Cuban words for counterrevolutionaries. When Ms. Vallejo would run across teachers at the university, they would spit in her path.

Ms. Vallejo and her husband sank into a depression that lasted until 1988, when Mother Teresa visited Cuba to open up one of her charity’s missions. Because Ms. Vallejo was active in the Catholic church, she served as Mother Teresa’s interpreter. During the visit, the late sister befriended Ms. Vallejo and told her God had a mission for her: To care for Cuban children with cancer. “After our first visit to the children’s ward (in Havana’s main oncology hospital), I cried and prayed to God that I wouldn’t have to do this,” says Ms. Vallejo. “But, somehow, Mother Teresa knew exactly what we needed.”

For the next 15 years, Ms. Vallejo and her husband visited the children in the cancer ward several times a week, organizing parties, bringing presents and trying to cheer them up.

Children with cancer in Cuba get free treatment courtesy of the state, but they also face additional horrors in addition to their disease, including a lack of the latest treatments, clean sheets, air conditioning and even basic food. Aimee Linares’s son Nelson, 7, had a malignant tumor in his intestines. During bouts of chemotherapy, the only food the boy seemed able to digest was apples, which the hospital couldn’t provide. His mother would walk the streets until her feet blistered looking for a single apple for sale.

Ms. Vallejo and her husband’s group began attracting attention from foreign diplomats stationed in Havana, and soon got donations from abroad, mostly from Europe and the U.S. A hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., began a program to send chemotherapy medications that were unavailable in Cuba, and bringing Cuban cancer specialists for month-long stays to learn the latest treatments.

But in 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Cuba arrested scores of dissidents and threw them in jail. The European Union broke diplomatic relations. The following week, the children’s ward ended visiting hours, making it impossible for Ms. Vallejo to carry on her work. Ms. Vallejo says she learned from the hospital staff that party officials were punishing the group for their contact with foreign enemies.

The couple convinced a local priest to let them organize a cancer support group at the church held every Saturday. Parents with children at the oncology hospital come and meet with former patients who survived or children who still have cancer but are living at home. During a recent Saturday, the children were busy drawing with crayons (a luxury in Cuba) while the adults talked with Sergio Davila about his four-year-old son Brian, who has leukemia.

“I feel like crying when I see him, but I know the thing he needs most is for me to be strong, and smile,” said Mr. Davila, 47, who is from another city and has been living in Havana since his son entered the hospital. He sleeps in the hospital corridors.

Despite the altruistic nature of the group’s work, the Cuban state still interferes, throwing up bureaucratic obstacles and harassing the children’s mothers. Recently, some Western diplomats were going to throw a Christmas party for the kids, many of whom had never seen a Santa Claus. Secret police turned up at the homes of several parents and told them not to send their kids to the party because it was being held by the enemy. “I told them that I didn’t care what country someone was from as long as they could put a smile on my little boy’s face,” says Ms. Linares.

Ms. Vallejo says the group has given her life meaning again after she lost all hope of ever leaving Cuba and building a normal life. Looking back on 50 years of the revolution and her family’s role in it, she has only one thing to say: “No more revolutions, please. My life has taught me that change should be gradual. No more revolution. Never again.”
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About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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