Cuba is now front and center in the United States. Not a day goes by when there is not an article on Cuba from a major media outlet or a press release from a federal agency. With a major lobbying blitz underway to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, Cuban-Americans who insist on the maintenance of a hardline policy towards Cuba are viewed as pariahs to progress. They have become stumbling blocks to the new honeymoon that is now in vogue in the United States with everything pertaining to Cuba. These Cuban-Americans have been called all kinds of pejoratives – from Batista sympathizers to unauthentic Hispanics.
But, Cuban-Americans have been exposed to so much suffering that the cat-calls by some biased and uninformed Americans will not deter them from exposing the suffering of the Cuban people at the hands of the Castro brothers or discussing their own hardships in the Diaspora. It is difficult to comprehend the anger and resentment felt by most Cuban-Americans without having experienced a similar odyssey. But, make no mistake about it, their anger and resentment are well-justified.
With the following heartfelt story of a heinous act committed by the Cuban authorities against a close family member, it is my intent to explain the deep distrust that exists between the Cuban Government and Cuban-Americans — which cannot be bridged by happy talk and the reopening of embassies.
While this is a small example of the hardships that most Cuban-Americans have suffered, it serves to illustrate their saga by recounting a personal story.
My late father, Claudio Ponce, led a life of comfort that he closely cultivated by mingling with movers and shakers in La Habana. Shortly after Fidel Castro rose to power in 1959, my father, at age 42, made the painful decision to take us out of the country for good. My parents strongly believed that it was unacceptable to turn over the upbringing of their children to the Communist state. They realized the evil of a Government that was intent on inculcating in the minds of its youth that Communism was the religion of the enlightened many and that complete submission to the wishes of the Government offered the only guarantee to a successful life.
And, while I did not see eye-to-eye with my late father on many issues, I respect his decision to take us out of this Cuban Inferno. Many of my close friends have speculated that with my rebellious personality and with my perennial quest to fight for just causes, I would have been shot by a firing squad or thrown in prison if I had remained in Cuba. I am not an individual who easily succumbs to someone’s plan or ideology. I am free, I enjoy saying I do, I don’t, I will, or I won’t. I have never aspired to be just a space, a no one, a number, a sheep. Living in the United States has allowed me to thrive academically and professionally, and to now enjoy a happy retirement in Florida. For this, I offer my eternal gratitude to my parents.
My father never adjusted to the American way of life. He never mastered the English language, and had to take a downgrade in his employment status because his accounting degree was not from a U.S.-accredited university.
To bring meaning to his life in the United States, he immersed himself in activities having to do with Cuba. He became president of the Casa Cuba of Washington, DC – a Cuban-American organization that promoted the history and culture of Cuba. He brought to the DC area many renowned Cuban-American cultural idols of pre-1959 Cuba, including mounting a musical show in 1976 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to honor our Nation’s bicentennial. Over the years, Salsa Queen Celia Cruz, Mr. Babalú Miguelito Valdés, Fernando Albuerne, and Xiomara Alfaro serenated Cuban-American audiences in the Nation’s capital.
My father’s response to the existential question of how he would be remembered was that he kept the Cuban roots alive in the hearts of the Cuban-Americans in the DC area. While he devoted many hours to bringing joy to the Cuban-American exiles, he, nevertheless, felt the need to keep Cuba alive in his own soul.
Part of my father’s nostalgia emanated from the fact that it was in the Cuba BC (Before Castro) that he accomplished most of his dreams. It was in this Spanish-speaking society that my father was at the top of his game. He was respected by all, led a successful life, was married to a professional woman who was ahead of her times, and had two healthy children to brag about. Life was good back then.
But the good times came to an end when he emigrated to the United States in 1966 – a country with a different culture, different language, and a different way of looking at things. To alleviate his homesickness, he yearned for four oil paintings that he had left in my aunt’s house in La Habana. With them around him, he thought he would feel more like the man that he had been in Cuba.
While he painted many oil paintings, he took immense pride in these four. He painted them with the mentoring of Valentín – a graduate of the famous San Alejandro Academy, considered the oldest and most prestigious fine arts school in Cuba. The four paintings depicted scenes from the Mediterranean – as he was fond of seascapes because he was born in a fishing town in Cuba (Caibarién). He felt at peace with himself when he was near the sea.
In any country in the world where democracy is the law of the land, artists have sole ownership of their creations. My father felt an emotional connection with his paintings, and he liked to keep them all. To him, there was no price tag to compensate him for the spiritual connection that he felt with his paintings. But, in Communist Cuba, you gave sole ownership of all your personal possessions to the Cuban Government after emigrating to United States. This was their way of punishing Cuban-Americans who left and went to live with the Great Satan — the Yankee Imperialists!
Based on Cuban law, my father’s paintings belonged to my aunt while she remained in Cuba. My father realized that this was a problem. But, there is always a solution to even the most difficult challenges.
On one of my mother’s trips to visit her mother in La Habana, my father concocted a subterfuge to get the paintings out by concealing them in my mother’s luggage. To play it safe, my mother hid just two of the paintings after removing their frames. And, it worked!
My father was so happy at having two of his paintings with him again that he invited some of his relatives and friends in Miami to a viewing and a toast at his home. On this special day, my father looked and felt younger. He had a defiant look in his smile. He felt good at the fact that he had defeated the Cuban Communists at their own game. There was a sparkle in his eye projecting a feeling that he could take on any obstacle thrown in his path. Once again, he felt like he was in charge of his own destiny!
But success breeds overconfidence. And, so, my father planned the next secret mission with my mother to bring back the remaining two paintings on her next trip to Cuba. While my mother followed the same protocol as the first time and hid the two paintings in her bags, the Cuban security agents at the airport discovered her plot and forbade her from taking them out of the country.
To my father’s extreme chagrin, these two paintings are now the property of the Cuban Government. Although my aunt in La Habana was still alive (she has now passed away) and could have kept the paintings, the Cuban officials wanted to punish my mother by confiscating them. My father never got over this extreme humiliation, and he passed away dreaming of his two lost paintings!
My father speculated that one reason that could explain the Cuban agents’ action was that they may have thought that the paintings were the work of a very famous Cuban painter by the name of Fidelio Ponce de León. But to my father, his paintings meant more to him than those painted by this Cuban master. To his immediate family, these lost paintings were part of his legacy.
The confiscation of two of my father’s paintings was unjustified and at odds with the property rights that prevail in capitalist societies. These paintings belong in a Ponce home, and not sitting in a Communist Cuban residence.
Some legal scholars opine that in a Cuba Libre, the Cuban Government would have to arrange for the restitution of stolen properties to their rightful owners. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “restitution” as a legal action serving to cause restoration of a previous state. This is impossible. These four paintings were the crowning jewel of my father’s collection. Every time that he looked at them, he felt great joy and pride. But such powerful feelings were felt by a father who was at the prime of his life in his beloved country and in his enchanted city – La Habana. When he left Communist Cuba, he lost his soul. Thus, there is no way that anyone could offer restitution or restoration to a previous state. My father is no longer alive.
The rightful compensation that the Cuban Government could offer would be the reunification of my father’s paintings with my family. It is only my mother, my sister, and I who can keep alive my father’s legacy with our children. We deserve to have his paintings in our households. This is where they belong!
I am optimistic that the other two paintings that remain in the possession of the Cuban Government will be returned to the Ponce family in the near future. I am a believer in the redemption of the human race and sinners.
My father’s two beloved paintings are proudly displayed in my living room. They are a testament to my father’s artistry and a constant reminder of the sacrifices that he endured so that I could become the man that I am today. I am honored and humbled to look at them each day.