There are relatively few icons of 20th century world politics that loom larger than Fidel Castro. While most everyone has seen his face on TV, in a newspaper or history book, the thought of him appearing in one’s living room is practically unimaginable. That’s not the case for Alina Fernandez.
Growing up in Cuba in the years following the revolution, Fernandez saw the dictator as more than just a face on television. He was her father.
Over the years, however, she became disillusioned with the propaganda of the Communist regime and in the early 1990s escaped the country using a fake passport and made her way to Spain, and then later emigrated to the United States, where she’s been living ever since.
On Sunday, she’ll make an appearance at AASU’s International Week to talk about her experiences growing up in Cuba and her relationship with Castro, which she details in her book Castro’s Daughter: An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba. We spoke with her by phone last week.
Was there a specific moment when you knew you were you going to have to leave Cuba, or was it something cumulative?
Alina Fernandez: It was something that accumulated. I was trying to find a reason to leave and convince my parents. I had to try different ways. I finally had to escape. I had to wait until I was almost 40 years old.
Did you feel like you were in danger there, or was it something that was necessary?
Alina Fernandez: I worked in a lab with computers here. I was sick of life. Leaving Cuba is so realistic. Anybody that knows better wants to leave. It’s too much.
In 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was nothing in Cuba. Fidel gave a speech. He explained that the chicken farmers couldn’t take care of the chickens any more, and he would have to distribute the chickens throughout the population. Every Cuban received two little chicks to raise at home in order to be able to defend themselves against famine or hunger.
It’s crazy. That’s the kind of life you’re living. You have electricity for only 8 hours a day. It’s madness. I don’t know how to describe that.
Do you still have family there?
Alina Fernandez: My only family is my mother, who is still there.
Are you able to keep in touch with her?
Alina Fernandez: I can get in touch with my mother by Internet or by phone. The rest of the family are viewed politically as the enemy.
What was it that made you decide to go to Spain first? Was that the easiest place to escape to? Or was there something specific that drew you there?
Alina Fernandez: What happened was that I had some friends who were able to convince some other friends to use their passport. I left with a falsified Spanish passport. That’s how I was able to leave the country. That’s the only way I could do it.
What was it that brought you to the US from Spain?
Alina Fernandez: One of the persons that helped me out was Elena Amos (wife of John Amos, one of the founders of AFLAC), she and her husband founded that company. She was a very wealthy Cuban–American woman and always concerned about helping people from Cuba and was involved in politics. She’s the one that helped me.
She waited for me in Madrid. She said, “If you stay here, this government is friends with your father. My recommendation is for you to come to America and from there, we can put on some pressure.” She was right.
Was there a big culture shock when you arrived in the US?
Alina Fernandez: I had to learn a new language. That’s enough. When you live in Cuba, there is nothing that compares to here.
For the radical left in the US, Che Guevara is a bit of a pop culture icon. He’s on T–shirts and posters and stuff. Is there a disconnect between the history and the mythology?
Alina Fernandez: Absolutely. Che Guevara was responsible for executions in half of the country during the Revolution. He’s a pop icon. What can you do about that?
As you travel around the country giving talks, what is the response generally?
Alina Fernandez: What I do is I mix personal anecdotes, which I consider funny sometimes, and what happened during the first years of the Revolution. Nothing has changed since then. I think that people can relate to that.
I also explain, which no one knows in this country, how enormously influential Cuba has been in the 20th Century ideologically all over the world. I’m not here to complain, but to share experience with other people.
Cuba’s been back in the news, with talks about hundreds of thousands of people being laid off by the government and the potential increase of privatization. From your perspective, does that seem like steps toward change, or is it a symptom of government problems?
Alina Fernandez: If I give you a list of the new employments that are allowed now, you’re gonna laugh. It’s nothing.
Alina Fernandez speaks at AASU
When: Sunday, Nov. 7, 3 p.m.
Where: AASU Student Union Plaza, 11935 Abercorn St.
Cost: Free and open to the public
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