From: The Australian
Memories of Cuba
Journalist and political adviser Luis M. Garcia was a good little communist until his parents decided to flee the Castro regime, writes Justine Ferrari
June 10, 2006
IN one of life’s surreal moments, Luis Garcia and his family went on holidays in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis. As the rest of the world held its breath, Garcia and his younger brother Jose Antonio swam in the warm Caribbean sea in sight of US warships moored off the coast of Cuba’s Playa de Morales.
The boys built sandcastles and laid roads in the sand, turning rocks into trucks to carry missiles to protect the revolution, while their mother worried. “When my mother looks up at the horizon, she can see the ships. There are five, six, probably a dozen huge, grey American ships anchored just off the coast,” Garcia writes in his memoir, Child of the Revolution.
“The ships look really close, as if you could almost swim to them, and they look threatening, making my mother even more nervous than she already is, which is plenty.”
Even after moving to Australia in 1972, Garcia’s mother, Gisela, still could not shake the fear of political instability. The day Gough Whitlam was dismissed, Garcia arrived home from school to find his mother in a terrible panic, waiting for her family to arrive home.
“The government was falling and she was sure the tanks would be out in the street any minute and people would be arrested,” he says. “That was the first time she realised Australia was a very different place. It was a much welcome anti-climax. It was probably when she decided this was the right place to be.”
Garcia, 47, is the same age as the Cuban revolution, born the year Fidel Castro and his guerillas seized power. Before Castro, the Garcias had run a successful shop in the small sugar town of Banes, about 15 hours’ drive from Havana.
Banes is near Cuba’s largest harbour, where the Russian missiles were shipped in, which put the town unwittingly in the middle of the incident now judged to be the nearest the world has come to nuclear war.
While Cuba has an attractive romanticism that lures tourists to see the faded glory of Havana, sip mojitos, smoke a Montecristo and listen to the salsa from the Buena Vista Social Club, growing up there was very different.
Garcia’s childhood revolved around Lenin, Marx, Che Guevara and, of course, Castro, as well as queuing for food while hankering after pork and chewing gum. Never stand between a Cuban and a pork chop, he says, while chewing gum was a rare and highly prized commodity among neighbourhood children.
As a good little communist, Garcia’s world was turned on its head when his parents decided to leave Cuba after 10 years of the regime. It was not a decision to be taken lightly.
Garcia’s father Juan Luis was sent to a labour camp for three years to cut sugar cane, and the police took a stocktake of everything in the house from the plates in the kitchen to the pillows and clothes in the bedroom. It now all belonged to the state.
“Once we decided to leave, we knew anything we did, any little thing could jeopardise you leaving. Even at the airport, they took my mother and aunt away and strip-searched them, which I remember so vividly,” he says.
“I remember thinking at the time they’ll come back and say, ‘You’ve got to go back. You’re not leaving.’ My father was a nervous wreck. And that experience is not just theirs.
“It’s the experience of anyone who left Cuba at that time. Any petty official in an olive green uniform could put a black mark next to your name and that was that.”
After a few months in Spain, the plan was to move to New York, where Garcia’s aunt and uncle, who had put up the money for them to leave Cuba, now lived.
But they ended up in Australia, largely because Juan Luis couldn’t say no and the Australian embassy persisted with offers of free
air fares and even money to buy luggage to convince the Garcias to call Australia home.
Garcia says it was easier to start again in Australia than it would have been in the US.
“Florida is like Havana with airconditioning. Here it was much easier to leave that behind and start again and draw a line that separated the past. It would have been much more difficult in the US.”
After finishing high school in Sydney and completing a university degree, Garcia landed a cadetship with The Australian Financial Review and then spent many years at The Sydney Morning Herald, mostly covering NSW politics.
“No job opens as many doors,” he says of journalism. But becoming a journalist was not a conscious reaction to his communist upbringing, where the trade in information was heavily controlled. Nor was deciding to work for NSW Liberal MP Kerry Chikarovski, first as a ministerial press secretary and later as her chief of staff when she became Opposition leader.
Yet there’s no doubt Garcia was politically aware from a young age. He says the disintegration of his position as a political adviser, as Chikarovski lost the leadership, was the low point of his career.
Now a partner with Sydney-based corporate communications firm Cannings, Garcia has never been back to Cuba, despite marrying a Cuban and applying for a visa when he was planning his honeymoon.
“I was a journalist and they never said no, but I never got a reply back. I decided even though I would like to go back I’d wait until there’s a change in government. Sadly for me, it seems to be going on and on and on forever.”
Garcia believes the oppressive Government in Cuba will die with Castro, who turns 81 in August.
“Everyone knows that things will change but there’s this waiting game for the biological solution,” he says.
“I doubt very much whether I’d go back to live in Cuba. I certainly miss it but I’m Australian and my kids [he has a son and a daughter] are Australian. But there must be something about the place that has this incredible hold on your mind, because my father is really only first-generation Cuban. My grandparents were Spanish. I think when you leave the place that was your initial home, it’s a joy and a burden that you carry with you.”