Political developments are deeply felt at USF, as ties to Cuba are strong within Tampa and the USF community.
Roots of Hope, a student organization, connects Cuban youth in the United States with their contemporaries on the island, and the College of Arts and Sciences offers classes – through the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC). These initiatives allow students to learn about the complex relationship between the United States and Cuba.
When Fidel Castro, the communist president of Cuba, announced his plans to step down Feb. 19 after ruling the country for 49 years – and later, when his brother Raul Castro was named president Sunday, according to the New York Times – Cubans and Cuban-Americans at USF had reactions varying from pessimism to ambivalence to restrained hope.
With just 90 miles separating them from their homeland, the experience of Cuban and Cuban-American students differs slightly from the average international student, explained USF graduate student Jorge Barrera, who was born in Cuba and raised in Miami.
“We live it every day,” he said. “It’s in the news all the time because of the large Cuban community here. Papers like the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel have whole sections dedicated to what’s going on in Cuba, and you have Cuban refugees risking their lives every day to come to Florida.”
Alicia Gomez-Fuego, a freshman in the prenursing program, came to the United States from Cuba when she was nine years old, four years after her father left on raft in search of a better life in Tampa. He left, she said, because of repression under the Castro regime.
He was a doctor in Cuba and was nearly kicked out of medical school because of his religious beliefs. In addition to the repression, her father could not feed his family on his salary – just $4 per month.
“Even if you were a doctor, it didn’t mean you could feed your family,” she said. “You had to know somebody who knew somebody who had a farm,” she said, referring to the high cost of food in relation to salaries.
Gomez-Fuego is not optimistic about Cuba’s future after Fidel Castro, however, but hopes that things will get better for the sake of her family still on the island.
“Maybe Raul is just going to be the next (Fidel) Castro,” she said. “I have to have hope that it may be better because my family’s still there.”
She predicts that if Cuba does take a democratic turn following Fidel Castro’s resignation, many Cubans living in the U.S. would return home – at least for a visit.
“If things change democratically, I would definitely want to go there and see if I could help,” she said. “I don’t think I would live there. To me, there’s no better country than this one.”
Students like Gomez-Fuego who are passionate about creating change in Cuba are joining Roots of Hope. Frank Hernandez, a junior majoring in history, is the leader of USF’s Roots of Hope.
Hernandez was born in Miami. Members of his family on his father’s side came to the United States on “Peter Pan flights” which were flights organized by the Catholic Church and the U.S. government to get first-born children out of Cuba before Castro sent them to ‘socialist training camps.’
Hernandez’s maternal grandfather served in the military and later served as a sergeant in the Havana police department before Castro gained power.
“My grandfather was hunted down shortly after Castro’s rise to power, not because of anything he did – only because he served the previous government,” he said. “My grandfather hid for weeks after the revolution in chicken coops until a member of the new regime took a liking to my mother and aunt and was able to sneak them out of the country.”
Hernandez’s initial reaction to Fidel Castro’s resignation was that he made his announcement only to pander to the international community. Hernandez said Castro has not been in power since he fell ill almost two years ago.
“Later, I realized that this is a step, hopefully a step for change,” he said, but “true change will not come until the citizens of Cuba are allowed to choose their leader. Trading one dictator for another dictator will not designate change for Cuba.”
Hernandez joined Roots of Hope to help his peers who still live in Cuba.
“Roots of Hope allows me to express my love for a country that I hope one day will allow its citizens to be the authors of their own life,” he said.
Andres Valenzuela, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, was born to a Cuban mother and Chilean father.
“By my mother being Cuban, I have numerous amount of family still trapped in Cuba. I say trapped because that is what a communist country is, a place of no escape,” she said.
“The resignation of Castro is a big deal to all of us Cubans. This is the first sign to change and reform,” Valenzuela said. “Although Fidel’s brother is taking over, many of my family has said that he is a little better than Fidel in the whole economical views. I guess a little is better than nothing.”
Valenzuela thinks Roots of Hope is a great way to unite Cuban people for one purpose. He said groups like Roots of Hope raise awareness to how diverse USF’s campus is. He and others on campus are working together to organize a club for Cuban Americans called the Cuban-American Student Organization (CASA).
“With this organization, it will get us one step closer to uniting our people and getting us closer to our culture and old country,” he said.
Jorge Barrera is a graduate student in the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) at USF.
“That’s no surprise,” Barrera said in reference to the news of Fidel Castro’s resignation. “When the news came out, I was mostly indifferent because it doesn’t mean any real change. He’s still there behind the scenes.”
Barrera said as long as Fidel and Raul Castro and the vice president are still alive, nothing will change.
“They were all part of the Old Guard,” he said. “Until they all get flushed out, nothing’s going to change. There are some guys that are somewhat reform-minded, but they can’t speak up while those guys are still there.”
Barrera believes that Castro resigned to preserve his legacy. Castro knows he is near death, Barrera said, and he doesn’t want to be known as a dictator who clung to power until he died; he wants to be remembered for giving over power.
“Dictators have a reputation of staying there until they die off,” he said. “Maybe he wants to bring some legitimacy to his so-called presidency.”
Barrera said many in Cuba fear that Cuban-Americans will come back in droves and take control of the country if and when it returns to democracy.
“We have to be careful about the Cuban-Americans in Miami – who are well off – about going to Cuba and dictating about how things should be,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear in Cuba that Cuban-Americans are going to come reclaim farms they had 50 years ago.”
To Barrera, change starts with the Cuban people.
“To me, the key is the Cuban dissidents,” he said. “Those are the real heroes, those are the ones that are suffering there – trying to establish some kind of reform. We have to nurture that, and we have to encourage them. I think that they are the key segment to move in and make some real change.”