Among the sharpest memories Guillermo “Bill” Vidal has of being sent from his childhood home in Cuba was of waiting in the airport. There he was in 1961, he and his two brothers and so many other kids, distraught, excited, scared, separated from their parents by glass.
“It was terrible,” he says. “It was called La Pecera, the fishbowl, and all the people leaving would be put inside the waiting area and the parents would be on the other side. They would be looking at you through the glass of the boarding gate. We were on one side and we would touch the glass and they would put their hands on the other side and mouthing, ‘I love you.’”
Like many Cuban Americans, Vidal now looks at President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the United States will seek to reestablish a diplomatic and economic relationship with Cuba with nuanced feelings. For the most part, they are overjoyed. Some are skeptical. Some are of a generation that stills hears the voices of their parents, who believed Castro robbed them and should be punished until the regime collapses.
In the first years following the revolution and Fidel Castro’s seizure of power from Fulgencio Batista, 14,000 children like Vidal left Cuba for the U.S., under the auspices of the Catholic Welfare Bureau. They were relocated with relatives or placed in foster homes and orphanages. Operation Pedro Pan, the exodus was called. Peter Pan kids, as they would come to be known. Many were joined by their parents later. Some were not. They would grow up to become professors, lawyers, doctors, business and city leaders, or, as in Vidal’s case, the mayor of Denver.
“We never thought we would be here forever,” says Ledy Garcia Eckstein, whose parents sent her and her brother to the U.S. in August 1961. “I mean never. We lived in Iowa, my mom was there for I don’t know how many years, and she wouldn’t let me buy an electric beater. She would say, ‘I don’t want to be burdened by all that stuff when I got back to Cuba.’”
Vidal’s father was of the same mind. “He called life in the United States exile and when you are in exile, you can never plant roots. You can never establish relationships. We were as Americanized as you could get. We were going to high school and college. We were looking at a future in the U.S. and they were looking at a future in Cuba. When they sent us away, Papí, said, ‘We’ll see you in a couple of months.’”
After decades of politics and embargoes, Vidal and Garcia Eckstein greeted the news of closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba as a development long overdue.
“Whatever we can do to normalize relationships is what I want,” Garcia Eckstein says. “As a student of politics, I know that a policy that doesn’t work for 50 years or more is a policy you don’t keep doing. It doesn’t make sense. The purpose [of the embargoes] was to get rid of Fidel and Raul [Castro] and it hasn’t worked, so let’s see what we can do to help the people of Cuba back into the 21st century.”
Maria Halloran’s parents sent her to the U.S. on April 20, 1962. It was just before her 12th birthday and she would wind up in an orphanage in Denver. Her parents joined her a year and a half later.
“And like everyone else, we did not think we would stay here because previous regimes were short-lived and here we are 52 years later. But I never thought what happened today would happen in my lifetime,” she pauses, her voice breaking. “We had given up. We really had.”
The move has not been universally praised throughout the larger Cuban exile community. Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, a conservative political advocacy nonprofit, blasted the decision, calling the president naïve. “The truth is that renewed American economic activity in the island will only help the regime line its pockets, and thus strengthen its repressive hold on the country.”
Upon hearing Aguilar’s reaction, Vidal was quiet for a moment and then said he felt “great reverence for that opinion. It was my father’s opinion.
“My father felt he gave up everything and that he was living a life that was not of his own choosing. . . . But under current policy [it] is the common people who are suffering. I went back to Cuba and I saw two things. The embargo was cruel to people who are not responsible for the government in place. And, two, the minute you start getting Americans to travel to Cuba with their ideas and entrepreneurs with their business savvy, when you open the doors, it will spark people to do the things we have been doing for centuries and that will overrun the government.”
Nelson Valdés, a writer and a retired professor who taught at University of New Mexico, is not as certain. His stepfather sent him to the U.S. from Cuba on April 13, 1961, four days before the Bay of Pigs. He was 15, a teenage boy with wanderlust, under the influence of François Truffaut and his movie, “The 400 Blows.”
But Valdés believed, as many others did, that he would return to Cuba. He did, eventually, in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter issued a directive saying U.S foreign policy should include normalizing relations with Cuba. But the effort collapsed, a Cold War casualty.
Carter’s move was a controversial measure to defy the anti-revolutionary zeal and return to Cuba but all this informs Valdes’ view that while Obama’s message is “generally positive,” it also carries with it the distinct odor of paternalism.
“The very concept of ‘normalizing’ relationships is a very peculiar one, because Cuba has never had normal relations with the U.S.,” he says. “What may be normal from a U.S. viewpoint may not be normal from the Cuban.”
Washington Post reporters Danielle Paquette and Jonnelle Marte contributed to this report.