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Cubans in the Tri-Cities Remember Life in Cuba and Reflect on Fidel Castro’s Death

“There is hope for me and for the exile community that this will signal a change.”

December 9, 2016

Her voice cracks and her eyes well up when Martha Claro Sanchez, a Cuban political refugee living in Kennewick, talks about Cuba and the political persecution she suffered. As a devout Evangelical Christian, she refuses to rejoice in anyone’s death, but she is willing to celebrate what the death of Fidel Castro — a controversial dictator that for nearly half a century led Cuba as a communist state — means for the Cuban people.

On Nov. 25, Raúl Castro, Cuba’s current president, announced the death of his brother Fidel Castro, 90.

For many Cubans living in the Tri-Cities — more than 3,000 miles away from the island nation — Castro's death symbolizes the end of an era. Their reaction is not elation, but one of quiet relief from exile, and for some, the momentary respite from painful memories.

Claro has been living in Kennewick for over four years. In Cuba. she was an attorney imprisoned for insubordination when she tried getting a reduced sentence for two young brothers who were wrongfully framed for the possession of marijuana. During her investigation, she threatened to blow the whistle on the police chief for misappropriation of funds in hopes of getting him to reduce or remove the men’s sentences. She ended up spending five months in jail, another six under house arrest, and many more years feeling like an outcast in her own country.

“I was constantly humiliated and persecuted,” says Martha Claro Sanchez, a Cuban political refugee living in Kennewick.

“I was constantly humiliated and persecuted,” she says.

Claro heard the news of Fidel's death as she was stepping down from the airplane in Miami, where she was visiting family. She said she was in state of disbelief.

There is hope for me and for the exile community that this will signal a change.

“I thought I was dreaming. I am Christian, I don’t rejoice in anyone’s death, but I am happy because he was one of the two pillars of a communist regime. There is hope for me and for the exile community that this will signal a change,” she said.

Joe “Pepe” Vera, a Richland resident, remembers moonlighting as a street vendor in Havana, selling plastic flowers and homemade cigars to financially support his young family in the late 1980s. Even though he was an engineer, his state salary wasn't enough to make ends meet. He became so desperate to leave the country, that at one point he considered building a “balsa” — a precarious raft — to brave the 90-mile stretch to the coast of Florida that has claimed the lives of many Cuban refugees.

Joe “Pepe” Vera and his wife, Irina, of Richland, Wash. “I don't celebrate anyone's death, but I am greatly satisfied that his death means there is no longer the main symbol for the cause of why so many Cubans decided to emigrate,” says Vera.

“I had a friend who went to jail. When we met back in Miami, he told me that I had left right on time because they had started investigating me. It was during the Perestroika in Russia, when I noticed they started banning books and publications from Russia. It was that time when me and a group of others would get together and started to express ourselves openly against the status quo and the things happening in the country,” says Vera.

He was finally able to leave to Moscow, Russia — the birthplace of his wife Irina — in 1992 by claiming he was going to visit his sick mother-in-law. He bought a return ticket, and his wife left on a separate airline, so the authorities wouldn't suspect he was leaving and not going back. A year later he left for Miami.

“We got to Miami with less than a $100 in our pockets. It was all we had to our name,” says Vera.

I don't celebrate anyone's death, but I am greatly satisfied that his death means there is no longer the main symbol for the cause of why so many Cubans decided to emigrate and so many Cubans lost their lives...

Vera now works as a nuclear safety specialist for Hanford’s Tank Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP) project.

“I don't celebrate anyone's death, but I am greatly satisfied that his death means there is no longer the main symbol for the cause of why so many Cubans decided to emigrate and so many Cubans lost their lives on the Florida strait in search of freedom, the cause of so many atrocities in the past 50 years,” he says.

Lou Galindo, a West Richland resident, has never set foot in Cuba. She was born in Miami. Her family fled Cuba after Castro deposed the government of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. They rebuilt their lives in Miami, with the hope that Castro’s rule would be short lived and they would be able to return to their homeland. They never did return.

“Revolutionaries had come to my parents’ home and threatened my father, saying that if he didn't join the revolution they would come back and murder his family,” says Galindo.

“When I heard the news, I actually felt physically lighter, like an invisible weight that I didn't even know I was carrying had been lifted off of me. We know his death doesn't mean immediate freedom for all Cuban people — and it’s bizarre to celebrate someone’s death — but, we celebrate because it really does feel like a darkness has lifted, like a scary monster has been slayed,” Galindo observes.

Lester Martinez, a Kennewick resident, was a political activist that belonged to the Republican Party of Cuba, an opposition party. In 1964. He spent five years in prison for denouncing the Cuban government and for his involvement with opposition groups. On several occasions, he refused to join his children and family in the U.S. because he wanted to continue fighting for his country.

Lester Martinez (left) pictured with his son Fabian. Currently a Kennewick resident, he was a political activist that belonged to the Republican Party of Cuba, an opposition party. In 1964. He spent five years in prison for denouncing the Cuban government and for his involvement with opposition groups.

“He was constantly being harassed, mistreated, and persecuted. They would show up at our house constantly just to check up on him,” says Fabian Martinez, his son. Fabian lives with his wife, two daughters, his grandson, and his parents in a modest home near Downtown Kennewick.

Lester blames Castro for destroying Cuba’s economy and for denying the Cuban people their basic human rights, suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press. He doesn’t think much will change with Castro’s death.

“I do not rejoice in anyone’s death. I would have been more satisfied if he had been brought justice when he was alive, accused of the crimes he committed in his lifetime. Things will most likely stay the same for Cuba, but I do sincerely hope I am wrong,” says Martinez.

Top image credit: Marcelo Montecino on Wikimedia Commons.



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Elsie Puig

Elsie Puig is a freelance writer and web designer living in Richland, Wash. She contributes regularly to Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business and Living TC. She has a strong background in journalism, digital marketing and communications. She is currently pursuing her online M.A. in web design and online communications from the University of Florida.

More stories by Elsie Puig

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