Children of the Cuban missile crisis, we bear within ourselves certain visceral memories unimaginable to students today. Sitting in our classrooms, watching the clocks tick off the implacable hours, we awaited a word from our President and cast sideways glances at one another as we began to wonder – Have we celebrated our last birthdays?
In 1962, I knew less of Havana than I did of death. Most of what I knew had come from television and film – especially Desi Arnaz and his Babalú– or from adult gossip about cigars, rum and fishing the jewel-like waters that separate Cuba from the Florida Keys.
Even as an adult visiting Key West, my exposure to that “other world” just ninety miles away was limited to enjoyment of Cuban coffee and pastelitos, the lilt of the music and the entirely kitschy “buoy” that claims to mark the southernmost point of the U.S. It’s not a buoy, of course, and several locations are farther south. While the claim of “90 Miles to Cuba” is correct, you still can’t get there from here as an ordinary citizen, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to get here from there.
It took years for me to experience Cuba as more than a vague threat, a song, a pastry or an accessory to Key West. It happened one lazy summer afternoon while I was chatting with a customer who’d stopped by his boat, Cuban Gold, to work on a project of his own.
As our conversation meandered along, I mentioned my interest in Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, adding that I’d read about her in a blog named for Desi Arnaz’s most familiar song. Gary stopped and looked up. “I know Babalú,” he said. I was surprised, and my curiosity must have shown. By way of explanation he added, “I was raised in Havana. And my father died in Cuba.”
Indeed, he did. Gary’s father, Howard Anderson, was stationed in Cuba with the Navy during WWII. He met his future wife there, an American citizen born in Cuba. After their marriage, Gary’s grandfather was lonely, so Howard and Dorothy moved their young family to Havana and lived there until 1959. By the summer of that year, conditions in post-revolutionary Cuba were becoming dangerous and the family chose to return to Miami and rent a house.
As the months passed, stories and rumors of expropriated business holdings became rampant. Howard returned to Cuba to protect his assets, including a chain of filling stations and a Jeep dealership. In March, 1961, he was arrested by military intelligence agents and jailed in solitary confinement. Charges included being an agent for the anti-Castro group Acción Cívica and conspiring to smuggle arms into the country. While not a formal agent of any group, he did carry messages for the CIA and provided radios to the anti-Castro movement, justification enough for an arrest according to the regime.
He might have escaped with prison time had he not come to trial just as Cuban exiles supported by the United States began their failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. On April 17, 1961, the day of the invasion, an infuriated court charged Anderson with conspiracy. He was convicted on that same day, and sentenced to death April 18.
Writing in the September 15, 2006 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Evan Perez recalls Mr. Anderson’s last letter to his wife from a jail cell in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province.
“Mr. Anderson said his fate was sealed. As his trial began, air-raid sirens could be heard outside the courtroom… ‘It is unfortunate that this invasion took place, as under normal circumstances I am sure that the tribunal would not have been ruled by passion but by their own revolutionary laws,’ Mr. Anderson wrote in neat, square letters. ‘I hope and pray that you and mother will forgive me for the troubles that I have caused, especially this present big one.’ He was executed four hours later.”
The notice in the April 20 issue of The New York Times was spare and unsparing.
MIAMI, April 19—A Cuban firing squad executed two Americans early today in Pinar del Rio on charges of counter-revolutionary activity. Seven Cubans were executed with them on similar charges.
The United States forwarded a stiff protest to the Cuban Government against the executions of the Americans, declaring they violated “the elementary standards of justice practiced by the civilized nations of the world.”
The American victims were Howard F. Anderson, 41 years old, owner of a string of service stations in Havana, and Angus McNair, 25, whose parents live in Coral Gables, Florida.
Gary Anderson’s sister Bonnie was five years old when her father was killed. An award-winning journalist with years of experience that include two decades with NBC News and CNN, she also is the author of NEWS FLASH, a 2004 exploration of the decline of independence and truth in media.
As a daughter, she has been determined to preserve and honor her father’s memory. As a Cuban American, she insists that the world face the reality of Castro’s Cuba. On December 3, 2006, her feature column in the Miami Herald detailed some of her family’s experience, and her frustration with the current state of affairs. The full text can be found online; these portions provide a sense of her passion and her thought:
My father, Howard F. Anderson, was only one of 20,000 people tortured and executed by Fidel Castro. Before my Dad’s execution by firing squad, he had most of his blood drained from his body to be used for transfusions for the revolutionary troops.
[Note: Anderson v. Republic of Cuba, No. 01-28628 (Miami-Dade Circuit Court, April 13, 2003). “In one final session of torture, Castro’s agents drained Howard Anderson’s body of blood before sending him to his death at the firing squad.”]
Other political prisoners who watched the execution from their cells told me years later that my father refused a blindfold, and he whistled as the bullets tore into his body. One of the few memories I have, since I was only five years old at that time, was that my Dad whistled when he was angry…”
“As a journalist, I refrain from generalities. But I do believe there are few Cubans on the island and even fewer Cuban exiles who have not had a family member either executed or imprisoned by this megalomaniac. What I fail to understand is why there seems to be so little national compassion for the pain that Cuban exiles have experienced. Americans show compassion for cancer survivors, for DUI and rape victims, for people suffering from depression, physical and mental abuse. We show compassion for famine victims in Africa…genocide in Ethiopia… So why, I ask, are Cuban exiles not afforded the same support and compassion?”
Despite my Anglo name, I was born in Cuba. My mother was born there. Her parents are buried there. My father was buried there until Castro was so ticked off by an article I wrote in 1978 as a Miami Herald reporter that he had my father’s remains dug up and thrown out.
I am most proud of being Cuban American, and I want the rest of the world to understand our pain. It is part of our daily lives, no matter where we live. It is the ache of losing a country, but it is more than that, too. It is a loss we feel in our blood and in our bones… Our pain is part of our spirit. The most we can hope for is compassion…”
A month after [my mother’s] death, a New York judge ruled that we should receive millions of dollars of the frozen Cuban assets held in this country because of Fidel Castro’s murder of my father. It is a very welcome decision, but very bittersweet. Fidel Castro is alive and he knows he has been tried, convicted, and sentenced to pay for his heinous act. But the fact that my mother isn’t alive to see this final measure of justice is a soul-deep wound that I wll live with for the rest of my life.
I weep for her. I weep for us, and I weep for all who have been the victims of Fidel Castro.
Today, two American entertainers are back in the States after their own trip to Cuba. Looking at the photos of Beyoncé, listening to Jay-Z’s assertion that, “I done turned Havana into Atlanta”, I can’t help but marvel at the sheer naiveté – or stupidity – of it all.
I wish Beyoncé had told her fans the story of Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and their struggle for justice. I wish Jay-Z had demanded to speak with Cuban dissident rapper Angel Yunier Remon, languishing in a Cuban prison because of his criticism of the Castro regime. I wish they had acknowledged the death of Oswaldo Payá or spoken of the efforts of his daughter, Rosa María Payá, to achieve justice for her father. But they were tourists, with other things on their minds.
There was no reason for them to think of Howard Anderson, who whistled in front of his firing squad because he “whistled when he was angry”. There was no need for them to consider his wife Dorothy, notified of his death not by a compassionate knock on the door but by a radio broadcast out of Cuba. Cosseted and contained, they had no need for the courage of a family who chose to endure the pain of testifying at trial in order to make clear the significance of what had happened to their husband and father. Perhaps they imagined there was no reason to speak as Bonnie spoke, using her skills as journalist and writer to send her words around the world where they continue to resonate today, strong and vibrant as the day they were published.
Call it romanticism, call it too much time in the afternoon sun, call it an over-heated imagination if you will, but I talk to my boats. The constancy of the wind and the repetitive nature of the waves seems to affect them, turning them a bit like children who adore hearing the story of their lives, retold a thousand times. They love hearing how they came to be, and the meaning of their names. Like any of us, they love to dream, and I’m quite certain they spend countless hours wondering where the winds and tides will lead once they’ve been freed from their moorings and slips.
Now and then I pass by Cuban Gold and ponder the mystery of how a boat purchased with funds won back from a murderous regime came to fall into my care. As the heat and humidity rise and the lush perfumes of tropical summer permeate the air, as the pelicans dive and the wind rises steady from the south, I’ll talk to Cuban Gold. I’ll tell her yet again the story of her name. I’ll whisper what I know of the beauty of the island for which she is named, and sing the endurance of the people who live there.
I’ll encourage her with tales of other boats that have dared the jewel-like Straits and imagine with her the satisfactions of riding a great wave of joy into Havana Harbor. I’ll promise her that as she takes her ease beside the wall and basks in the admiration of walkers along El Malecon, she will be for the people a token of what they are meant to be – beautiful, proud and free.