Lanterns: For the First Time in Over Half a Century, I have Hope that Cuba Will be Free


For the First Time in Over Half a Century, I have Hope that Cuba Will be Free

My early childhood experiences were filled with happiness. I lived in a paradise, which I naively believed would last forever. Our family owned a large sugar cane plantation in Cuba. We were well-to-do and lived quite comfortably. The freedom I enjoyed romping in the farm with my brothers and cousins, gave me the impression that I lived in paradise.

My first encounter with one of life’s unavoidable obstacles came when I was just seven years old. I was sitting in my father’s lap in his rocking chair next to Mom’s rocking chair. My mother was crying uncontrollably and I did not know why. My father held me by my shoulders and looked into my eyes and said, “I will have to go soon. You must now be the man of the house and take care of your sister and mother and brothers.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. But then through the window behind us, I heard a vehicle approaching. That fateful day on April 19, 1961, I saw a military Jeep, with an army truck following close behind it, pull up in front of my house. A dozen militiamen scrambled out the back of the truck with rifles and machine guns in the ready and proceeded to surround our house.

 The Lieutenant in the Jeep pulled out his revolver from his holster, walked to the front door, and knocked loudly, with the butt of his gun on our front door. “Paco, we wish to speak to you.” A friend in the police headquarters had previously warned my father that they were coming to arrest him, and had advised him to run. But, my father chose not to flee. He refused to leave his six children and his American wife at the mercy of Castro’s men.

A few minutes before the militiamen arrived, he had warned my mother of the events that would shortly unfold. She was now crying uncontrollably by his side, as they handcuffed him, and took him away. I did not quite understand what was going on at that time, but I knew instinctively that my paradise had ended.

My father had been a gunrunner for the underground resistance against Castro’s communist dictatorship before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion. One of the members of his underground group had been arrested and had ratted out the rest. Dad had been singled out, as one of the leaders.

I watched in horror, as the militiamen ransacked our house looking for evidence until they finally drove off with Dad in the backseat of the Jeep. As the dust of the tires from the speeding Jeep kicked up in a cloud, Dad turned his head and looked back at us, for one last glance, before disappearing around the corner. I did not know what fate awaited him, but I later found out-- what happened to him on that fateful day.

Dad was taken to the edge of one of the sugar cane fields. The men scrambled out of the truck again and promptly assembled into a firing squad formation. He was roughly removed from the Jeep and placed in front of them, with a blindfold. The Lieutenant shouted with authority, “Ready… aim……..” and paused for effect. Then he said, “Paco, I will give you one chance to save your life. I need you to name all the men who were in your group.” But, my father put on his best poker face and insisted that he was being framed because they wanted to take over his farm.

The officer said, “Fine, then we will continue with the execution. Ready…aim…..…….fire.” The guns roared, and the bullets whizzed by, over the top of my father’s head. “I will give you one last chance Paco,” said the young officer, “If you refuse to cooperate, you will force me to do what I do not wish to do.”

“I am being framed, I tell you. I have no idea what you are talking about.” Dad well knew that if he talked, others would die as well.

“Very well.” The anger and frustration in the officer’s voice was now clearly evident. “Men get ready… aim………. Fire.”

But, the bullets whizzed by above his head again. Still, my father continued with his charade. The frustrated young Lieutenant finally realized that Dad was not going to talk. Yanking the blindfold off his head, he pushed him back in the Jeep and drove him to prison.

He was in the prime of his life, thirty-five years old with jet-black hair when they arrested him. Three months later, he was being detained in San Severin Prison located in the Cuban Province of Matanzas. The prisoners were poorly fed, and for this reason, they allowed their families to visit occasionally bringing some much-needed food, medicines, and vitamins. 

Each prisoner was allowed one “java,” a paper bag, with rope handles attached to them. Since only a few visitors were allowed per prisoner, my mother decided it was best to take just me because I was the oldest brother with her.

San Severin had been an old, Spanish dungeon, which they had converted into a prison. A ramp extending around the top of the wall was filled with visitors anxiously waiting to see their loved ones.  The open court below was filled with the prisoners milling about in their khaki colored uniforms.

I peered over the wall to the crowd of prisoners below scanning for my dad.  “Where is he, I can’t find him?”

 My mother leaned down and pointed, “There he is.”

 But, I was still unable to recognize him.

“There he is,” and she paused briefly, realizing why I could not recognize him. “His hair is white now, but don’t tell him that we noticed it.” My Dad’s hair had turned completely white in a few months’ time.

After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which took place not more than twenty kilometers (12.5 miles) from a section of our farm, my mom thought it best to move my family to Havana to be with her parents.

Abuelo (grandfather) and Abuela (grandmother) lived directly in front of the American Embassy, overlooking the ocean. On my tiptoes, I could see over their fourth-floor balcony, as the waves crashed into the “malecon” (the sea wall), spraying foam skyward ten to fifteen feet, and spilling into the street. “Where is America Abuelo?”

 Abuelo would point to the ocean’s horizon and say, “It is that way, but it is so far that you cannot see it from here.”

My world had changed drastically. The days of roaming freely through the farm were now replaced by living in a crowded city apartment with only two bedrooms. Instead of freedom and joy, my heart was filled with anguish, and the uncertainty of not knowing, if I would ever see my father, and my farm again.

Dad had made my grandfather promise him that if anything were to happen to him, he would take Mom and the children to the United States, where they would be safe. At first, my mother resisted. She felt that she would be abandoning Dad if she left for America. But, when the American Embassy was ousted from Cuba, she finally relented, and decided for our sakes, to do as my father wished. We would have to leave all that my family had worked for behind.

Sadness was etched on my Mom’s face, as we drove silently to the airport that day. I had never been on an airplane before, and I had no idea how long this flight was going to take to reach that mythical faraway land we called America. I only knew that America was so far away that I could not even see her from the height of Abuelo’s apartment. My brother Frank asked my mother, “Mom how many days will we be flying?”

 She laughed, and for a few precious moments, her anguish gave way to her beautiful smile. “God willing, we will be there by tonight,” she answered.

1961, my family arrived in Miami Florida, while my father remained imprisoned in Cuba. We had brought our suitcases with clothes and many of our family photographs, along with a few items of personal value. But, we were not allowed to keep anything. They took everything we had at the airport, even my mother’s wedding ring, which made her cry. All we were left with were the clothes we wore on our backs. Abuelo said that it did not matter because we were flying to freedom. 

How quickly life comes at you, and in a single heartbeat our lives can change forever. Some obstacles, we have the power to avoid and change. Others, like a torpedo to our broadside, we cannot avoid. In these difficult and painful times, we must persevere and endure, if we hope to come out on the other side.

I was fifteen years old when I saw my father next. After enduring untold barbarities, which I cannot even write about, my father served five years and was eventually released. He arrived in America during the time of the Freedom Flights. My little brothers did not even remember him.

Dad never lost hope that one day the people of Cuba would be free. He died of cancer at the age of 87. A few nights before he died, he told me as I sat next to his hospital bed, “The only thing I regret is that I will not be alive to see Cuba free. I told him that he would see it from heaven.

But then Obama came into power and legitimized the Castro regime. The little hope I had left vanished in a puff of smoke as he signed a deal that would institutionalize the Castro regime.

Most Americans do not realize that every penny that comes from US tourism in Cuba goes directly to the communist party and their military. Meanwhile, that American money literally given to the Cuban military was used to send military equipment to North Korea.

The Cuban people are still starving and can barely find enough food to stay alive. Meanwhile, since Obama's visit some 10,000 dissidents have been jailed in Cuba's political prisons. The 50 political prisoners freed as a show when Obama was there were arrested after he left along with another 50 more.

At the beginning of the communist regime in Cuba, they were financially propped up by the Soviet Union. But as in all communist countries, the economy of the Soviet Union collapsed. Venezuela with their oil money then took over as their financial crutch. But, since Venezuela has adopted a socialist government their economy has now also failed and they could no longer keep the Castros financed.

Just when things were getting ready to change inside Cuba, Obama came and bailed out the Castro regime with his idiotic treaty that did not even require one single change in the Castro policies of repression on their people.

Today, for the first time since I arrived on these shores on June 30, 1961, I have hope that Cuba might really be free again. Trump has ended the Obama bailout of Cuba. The Castro regime has no more people left to bail them out. My thoughts are, well done, President Trump. My father who was a tortured political prisoner in Cuba for five years is now smiling from heaven because finally, an American President cares about the people of Cuba and the oppression they have had to bear.

I cried during Trump's speech and wished that my father had been next to me when we heard those words of hope.  “With God’s help, a free Cuba is what we will soon achieve.” Trump continued,  "We will not lift sanctions until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized and free and internationally inspected elections are scheduled."

Many days I spent with my father drinking a Cuban coffee and smoking a cigar wondering if this day would ever come. Today, I will drink a Cuban coffee and smoke a cigar in memory of my father.

Viva Cuba Libre!

Written by Henry Patino

2 Responses

Henry, this just melted my heart. <3 Thank you so much for bravely sharing both your and your father's stories. I think sometimes in the States, we forget what freedom looks like...and how desperately others long for it.

Wow! Excellent article Henry. Thank you for bringing us there on your journey. Every American should read this! Freedom is often taken for granted by Americans and this is a heartwarming story of why we should not take our freedoms for granted. You are a great American patriot!

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