EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two part series that shares the experiences of Norman resident Eli Naser, a Cuban immigrant who survived the Castro regime’s rise to power in Cuba
Article written by LINDA CARD
For most of us, the recent political and social upheaval in this country has left us sharply divided and unsure about our nation’s future with the rise of communism and the renewed interest in Socialism. For one Norman resident, it is a hauntingly familiar and disturbing course he has seen before. He does not want to see it happen in this, his adopted country.
Eli Nesar was born in Cuba and immigrated to the U.S. when he was thirteen. He was seven years old when Castro came to power.
Eli’s Father immigrated to Cuba from Syria in the 1930’s in search of a better life. He met Eli’s Mother and Eli is their only child. Both of his parents are now deceased.
What are your happiest and saddest memories of life in Cuba?
“I remember my childhood in three distinct periods
Life before Castro was happy. I played with the neighborhood children, enjoyed family picnics and outings to the river and parks to play. Food was plentiful and my family liked to cook. His Mother insisted on teaching me as well. “
Childhood photos show a happy little boy dressed up like Zorro or posing with his friends in their cowboy boots and hats, silent proof of the strong ties and American influence prior to Castro.
Those same photos were left behind in Cuba by order of the Cuban government but returned to Eli much later in life when relatives would visit and bring them.
What Eli remembers of after Castro came to power was the immediate seizure of all personal weapons. Being caught with a gun was an immediate death by firing squad. “The situation in Cuba was so desperate, whole families chose to leave illegally by trying to get to the U.S. soil of Guantanamo, only to be blown to bits by the mine field surrounding it. (The Gitmo mine field is second in size only to the minefield dividing North and South Korea) Or they tried to raft across the 100 miles of open water to Florida in whatever they could tie or weld together that would float. No one knows how many rafts were sunk by Cuban gunboats and their passengers machine gunned in the water and left for the sharks. The Cuban gunboats made no attempt to rescue them. Then there are the rafts that made it past the gunboats and sank at sea with no survivors. The relatives the rafters left behind in Cuba suffer repercussions from their actions as well. It was another way Castro tried to keep people from leaving.”
In a way, time stopped in 1959 for the island nation.
“Cars there are American made pre 1959 and what Russian vehicles were brought to the island. The Cubans have managed to keep these vehicles running for 60 years on rebuilt and re-machined parts. Cuban mechanics are some of the best in the world. They have to be. Cubans applied that same skill and determination to raft building”
Political neighborhood watch groups called the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) were formed.
The CDR kept an eye on everyone for any suspicious activity. Eli’s Father, who had been a police officer under the Batista regime, was jailed for a year when a man he had arrested went to the CDR and accused him of being a counterrevolutionary.
He vividly remembers the scarcity of food. Everyone was issued food ration cards.
“I went with my Mother many times, to wait in line for hours to buy groceries only to find the shelves empty when we got inside. We had no choice but to go back the next day and hope there was something left. The recent supply shortages here caused by the pandemic brought those memories sharply back in focus.”
After his family applied for immigration, the situation worsened. His family was luckier than most because his Father could work enough to support them even if it was a meager existence. He remembers a lot of times when his parents went hungry so he would have something to eat. That something to eat was often nothing more than hot water with sugar in it.
Persons who applied to immigrate were termed Gusano, meaning earthworm. As a Gusano child I could not receive milk. Milk was reserved for the children of faithful party members. I could no longer play with the neighborhood children. It was not good for the neighbors for their children to play with me any longer. I spent a lot of time in the house raised by female relatives”
The fact that his family attended church brought further scrutiny of their every movement.
“My parents kept me out of the Cuban school system for years to avoid the communist indoctrination that was being taught. I returned to school when my parents were threatened with arrest if I did not. I went from being an “A” student to being an average one on purpose. Students who excelled were sent to Russia for further education and communist indoctrination. Students who failed their studies were pulled out of school and sent to the sugar cane fields as “volunteer” labor. The average students simply did their work got their daily dose of propaganda and went home. Propaganda which I silently rejected.”
Eli remembers the Bay of Pigs invasion vividly. There was a soldier with
a Czech made automatic weapon actively patrolling the street in front of his house to make sure none of the residents tried to aid or support the invasion.
“When President Kennedy sent U.S. supply ships to Cuba full of medical supplies in exchange for the release of the participants from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Castro decided to fill these ships for the return trip to the U.S. with gusano and others he deemed undesirable. One of my aunts was told to get on the ship. Another Aunt left as part of the Mariel boatlift operation. My maternal grandmother and another aunt came on the Freedom Flights in 1967 and finally my Father was also able to come by way of Mexico in 1967. You will find Cubans in countries across the world. They will go to any country that will take them, including converting to Judaism to find sanctuary in Israel
Interviewers notes. Information for this article is excerpted from both an oral and written interview. Eli also shared photos of his life. The raw interview plus the photos and additional related information will be available on the Norman News Facebook page.
The Rafter’s museum is located in Miami and there are several sites on the internet including cubanrafters,com which have photographs of some of the many rafts Cubans have built to successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully reach the freedom of the United States.
The story of the floating truck, as well as a story about a white fan Eli related will also be available.
The Brothers to the Rescue incident concerned an airplane belonging to two brothers who would fly over the rafters checking on them The plane was shot down by a Cuban gunboat and both occupants died in the crash. That full story is on the internet.