Archive for February, 2012

Ask the Author – Carlos Frias

February 28, 2012

  Question 1: Prologue, Page 1 – Your father says he can never, will go back to Cuba as long as Fidel Castro is in power. Would his life have been at risk if he went back while Castro was still in power?

Carlos Frías answers:

1– My father’s passport was stamped as invalid, Cuba’s way of saying he is no longer welcome in the country. That’s why he is considered an exile, along with all the others. I don’t know how much his safety would be in danger these days; certainly in the years after he left, he would have been subject to all kinds of retribution. That said, if he went and said the wrong thing to the wrong person and was turned in by the CDR, they would use his exile status against him. I only have to point to the Jewish-American man who is jailed there for trying to set up Cuban Jews on the island with internet connections.

  Question 2: On page 22 you wrote, “I pass a line of people, a mass really, easily five hundred bodies waiting outside a movie theater.”  Is the entertainment paid for by the government, or do the Cubans have to use their own money to see these films?

Carlos Frías answers:

2– Nothing is for free in Cuba. It may be a minimal cost (a couple of pesos, which might amount to 50 cents) for the movie, but everything has a price. Sure, healthcare may be free, but the level of care the average Cubans get is abysmal. The best doctors are sent overseas as sort of Cuba’s “better angels” while those at home are left with this new type of “family practitioner” doctor that is more quickly trained and pumped into the system… But I digress. Yes, the entertainment costs money, even the baseball games. Interestingly, they charge foreigners more for any of these events, a way to tap a little more money out of visitors.

Question 3: Did Felipe ever talk about wanting to marry Alina and did he ever ask her to come to the United States during the first few years after he fled Cuba?

Carlos Frías answers:

3– By the end of the book, you will learn much more about the relationship between Felipe, Alina and Felipe’s wife here in the states. So I don’t want to give it away. But I will say this: Felipe never had any intention of bringing her over, as far as I know, nor did she ever say that he had promised to do that.

Question 4:

On page 87 you wrote that “The Cubans have a long-standing partnership with the largest remaining communist government in the world, even as Cuba has rejected taking on the ‘Chinese model’ for a hybrid communist-capitalist economy.”  As a result of this partnership, do the Chinese Cubans have any special privileges? Are they able to more freely travel to China than other Cubans?

Carlos Frías answers:

4– Cubans who can prove Chinese and/or Spanish descent (both have communist ruling parties, by the way) can visit those countries. I don’t personally know any Chinese Cubans who did that, but did know several Cubans who proved Spanish ancestry to visit there. They apply through the government and the whole process can take years. But when you have nothing better to do, time is something they have in spades.

Question 5: On page 108 you wrote about the treasure your father buried before he left Cuba. “My father’s goal was always to return here. To dig up this urn and recognize his past life through age-old trinkets.” Were any of the items in the urn ones that the Cuban government wouldn’t have allowed your father to take when he left his country?  What items were he (and your uncles) allowed to take with them when they left Cuba?

Carlos Frías answers:

5 – Guys, I’m not exactly sure what’s in that urn. My dad said he remembers money, American and Cuban. Also a watch, maybe. There were other things, but he can’t remember–all of which makes finding it that much more enticing. As for what they could take, my father and his brothers were allowed one suit case and $150 cash. That’s it. One of my late uncles, Julio, on my mother’s side, bought a watch with his $150, figuring he could just wear it through. He did, and it is still in our family.

Question 6: On page 142 you wrote about Cardenas being “the city of the crab because you could go off any shore and find crabs, to eat, to sell.”  Was there a fishing industry in Cardenas or anywhere in Cuba, and are Cubans allowed to fish today?

Carlos Frías answers:

6- As you can imagine from an island country, fishing was a huge part of Cuba’s economy. More than that, it was a pastime for people there. My uncle Julio used to love to sport fish in the Cardenas. It’s right on the water, and you could literally walk off the coast and cast your line into the water. Now, I don’t know all the reasons why, but Cardenas and even Matanzas (the city just to the northwest) which were thriving fishing towns, aren’t today. You still find one major fish market in Matanzas though. We drove through on a day when it had closed already.

Question 7:

On page 140 you wrote about Jorge’s unconditional release and being accepted as an immigrant to Venezuela.  Earlier in the book, on page 83, Manuela wrote that if her son pursued advanced education he would never have a chance to leave the country because “he would be considered a professional.” Why did the Cuban government grant your cousin Jorge an unconditional release and how did Jorge become a resident of the United States?

Carlos Frías answers:

7– The details of Jorge’s release are sketchy. He never told me the exact details and I didn’t ask. He said he had some backroom dealings to get all the paperwork in order to get into Venezuela. From there, it really got precarious. There is a goon squad in Venezuela that checks in on doctors and other Cuban citizens to make sure they are going to work/home. Really. Like a Gestapo. My cousin hid out at the home of several Cuban friends, hiding in compartments under the floorboards, and finally hopped a crop-duster that flew him across the border of Venezuela. Over the next three months, he moved from country to country with his then-14 year old daughter (once, spending a night in detention in Guatemala) until they crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. It’s a long and harried story that he hasn’t given all the details to, but he has told me enough, as you’ve read, to know that it’s no simple task the escape the island prison that is Cuba.

Question 8:

On page 185 you wrote that “since Cuba started to revitalize hotels for tourists in the late 1990’s, Varadero was strictly closed to any Cuban national who does not work there.” From which countries did the tourists you saw on the beach come from? Did you and your family members have to set your towels in a spot “reserved” for Cuban nationals?

Carlos Frías answers:

8 – Indeed, parts of the beach are closed to Cuban nationals. One of my cousins from the states once visited Cuba and stayed at the hotel Varadero Internacional. But when the Cuban cousin he was with tried to go inside, a hotel worker kicked him out. This apartheid is no way to treat your own people… We set up our towels in a section where Cuban nationals are allowed and they were packed in, taking up just about all the space on the sand as we watched wide open spaces that were off limits sit unused… Most of the tourists I came across were European (French, Slavic countries, Germans) with some Canadians mixed in. Because Canada is so close, many Americans up north fly to Cuba through Canada. And Cuba has several internet businesses where you can buy things for your family, set up through Canada. The prices are exorbitant (we bought a $50 nebulizer for one of my ex-wife’s family in Cuba for something like $150) but it’s what’s available. And all the money goes into the Cuban government’s pockets.

Question 9:

On page 189 you describe your experience at Varadero Beach. “Now I know why my mother so desperately wanted me to come here.  So I could feel what she felt.” From my internet searches, Varadero Beach is touted as Cuba’s most famous and beautiful beach. Does it look different (more pristine, more exotic) than the beaches do in Florida?

Carlos Frías answers:

9 – The sand is like confectioner’s sugar, in some ways very similar to the beaches of the Gulf coast of Florida. And because it’s the Caribbean, the water has this sapphire blue color that we don’t have even in Miami’s beautiful beaches, which are more of a green-leaning aquamarine. It’s very similar to the beaches you see in other Caribbean countries, but to Cubans, there’s no place like home…

Question 10:

On page 230, you describe Magaly and her brother as “both young but full of ambition and determination.” What would be the motivation for any young Cuban to become a professional and to have such ambition?

Carlos Frías answers:

10- I think theirs is just the innate ambition of youth, the desire to grow, to take on the world–a feature which, unfortunately, the Cuban government takes out of most adults through the sheer steadfastness of a closed society. Many of the youngsters can still imagine a world where they put to use all that they’ve learned. It’s only when they begin bumping into the outer limits that they either must find a way out, or watch as a part of their soul extinguishes like the fire in so many adults.

Question 11:

On page 236, you wrote about the apartment that Maria Laura and her children live in. “Estela purchased it when it was built in the 1950s with a loan from the U.S. Federal Housing Authority. When Estela and her family left, in 1961, Maria Laura’s family remained here.”  Does Maria Laura’s family own the apartment or the land it is on?

Carlos Frías answers:

11- Well, the apartment is one unit inside a high rise. And the family doesn’t own the property because there is no such thing as private ownership in Cuba. Every house and privately owned home became property of the government. In most cases, the last family to live there became their residents as long as they continued to live there. In some case, as with Maria Laura’s family, it stays within the family. In other cases, the servants who lived on the property (say, a guest house or in a guest quarters) took over if the owners fled the country. Some exiles here in the states retain the documentation to their homes in hopes of one day recovering them. I mean, if you left a beautiful mansion in El Vedado (by the ocean, in Havana), wouldn’t you dream of seeing your children live in it one day? Unfortunately, the Cuban government turns that into fears for the people who are living in those homes: “They’re coming to kick you out and take your house…” It’s a point of contention, but as of yet simply a moot point, no?

Question 12:

On page 19 you wrote, “He knows the drill: stamp the visa, not the passport.  This way there is no evidence that I have ever visited Cuba.”  And on 252 you wrote, “As a matter of routine, and without a word, the agent stamps the visa and keeps it, leaving no record in my U.S. passport of my entry into Cuba.”

Because you entered Cuba through a third country, Mexico, and this method of entry is “illegal” weren’t you concerned about the U.S. government finding out?  By publishing this in your book how worried were you about repercussions from either government?

Carlos Frías answers:

12 – As to the travel issue: Because I was a working journalist there on assignment, I had legal standing with the U.S. to be in the country. However, thousands of Cuban family members living in the U.S. had traveled to Cuba illegally every day, through a third country like Mexico. Cuba devised this system of keeping all record of travel to it secret because it knows it would hurt its economy if it caused U.S. citizens to be jailed for going there and taking their dollars with them. It’s a self-preservation issue for Cuba. It wants the dollars to keep flowing in. (Little known fact, despite the so-called embargo that Cuba blames it’s failures on, no other country sends more food and medicine to Cuba than the U.S. That’s a fact.)

Question 13:

On page 275 you wrote, “Magaly is here.  In Miami.  I know she has been planning her escape for months.”  How did Magaly escape to the U.S.?

Carlos Frías answers:

13 – Magaly did what many Cubans do: She paid someone to help smuggle her into the country. She went through a detailed process where she pays someone in Mexico to legally “invite” her to visit the country. She pays all the paperwork–and the plane ticket–to fly into Mexico. When there, coyotes help smuggle her to the Mexican border, where she either walks across the legal border entry point (or takes a bus, as she did) and declares herself at the U.S. border agency as a Cuban seeking asylum. In the process, though, she will have spent nearly $10,000 to pay all the fees regarding her travel, the coyotes who pay her stay in Mexico a couple days and her get her on that bus, and the coyotes who she paid to invite her to Mexico. It’s an entire cottage industry.

Question 14: On your facebook page you have a photo of Alina (Julia) with you, your wife, your cousin, your father and your Uncle Felipe. Who is the man to the far left in the photo?

About Julia being reunited with Felipe you wrote,” There was even more to this story, after they met again, and maybe I’ll write it  soon.” What was it like for Julia to see Felipe again?  Was your Tía Teresita at that meeting too?

Carlos Frías answers:

14 – After all these decades, Alina finally accepted the invitation of a half-brother who lives in New York to come to the U.S, where she decided to stay. When she came, that group of us went to go see her when she visited a niece in Miami, including my uncle and his wife, Teresita. (The man to the far left is Felipe; Teresita is the woman standing to the right of Alina.) She has gone on to live in New York with her brother.