Finding Relatives in Cuba

I was going to wait a while longer to post this, but el jefe is complaining about the lack of postings this weekend, and now is as good of a time as any for this.

Val’s post a few days back about the Center for Democracy in America’s Top Ten reasons for changing U.S. policy towards Cuba was basically nothing more than “more of the same” from those who seek an opening with Cuba. I’m not going to add anything to Val’s responses to the ten items, but I think the following may provide a little more perspective on the real situation in Cuba.

One of my long-time hobbies is genealogy, something that I’ve sadly put on the shelf since I started blogging. However, my dad is into genealogy as well, and recently we had a neat discovery. I have a lot of information regarding my ancestors in Cuba, primarily through my dad’s and other relatives’ recollections. Nevertheless, we have always wondered about the possibility of any unknown relatives back in Cuba. Virtually my entire immediate family plus cousins left Cuba, and only a handful remained.

Last summer my dad saw a message posted to an online genealogy message board from someone in Cuba with the same surname as one of our ancestors. After a few more messages were exchanged, it became obvious that this person was indeed related to us, a not-too-distant cousin as it turns out. Through him, we found out about some other relatives in Cuba whom we had lost touch with.

Imagine my surprise when a few days later I receive an e-mail from my dad with our cousin’s e-mail to him attached. In subsequent e-mails, our cousin managed to scan and e-mail some old pictures he had of my dad, grandfather and even a young yours truly that his father had received via snail mail in Cuba by my late grandfather.

What an experience it was to know that what was essentially a total stranger had pictures of me and my family stored away in some old chest. What a testament to my grandfather’s attempts to keep the family united despite the heartache of separation and exile. Through a chance meeting online, we were able to reunite with a relative we thought we didn’t have, someone who knew more about us than we could have ever imagined.

In the past few months, we’ve exchanged plenty of e-mails and pictures. Our e-mails are warm and cordial, but for my cousin’s sake, focus solely on our lives and old relatives that had come and gone. We never even hint at mentioning politics. Recently, my cousin sent us a letter for all of us to read. I won’t divulge much details since I want to protect his identity as much as possible. What he wrote was heartbreaking: a long and painful story of hopes and dreams dashed. Hopes and dreams which were dashed not because of a lack of merit, but because of a certain religious persuasion and the Cuban government’s prejudice against those of that particular denomination. Things that he couldn’t tell us via e-mail for fear of retribution by the government, he poured into the letter all of his heartbreaks and broken dreams.

What’s the moral of this story? There are two. First, that family bonds transcend political boundaries and policies imposed by governments. Who would have thought that a cousin we’ve never met who was born and raised in the revolution would know so much about some unknown relatives in the United States? Who would have known that I would be able to e-mail a relative in Cuba, and that he would be able to receive them in minutes? Of course, he’s lucky to work in a government facility where he has some e-mail access, despite living far from Havana. Many Cubans aren’t so fortunate.

All the restrictions in the world can’t stop this. Ordinary Cubans like my cousin know much more about life in the States than many want you to believe. Anti-embargo and travel restriction folks always point out that Cubans are waiting for outsiders to show them what it’s like elsewhere, and that the U.S. policy towards Cuba prevents Cubans from knowing what happens outside the island. The fact is, most Cubans already know, either through legal or “illegal” means. They know that we live in freedom, and that they live in a web of deception and injustice.

This leads to the second point, which I’ll present in the form of two questions: Will an open U.S. policy towards Cuba really help to promote change in Cuba? Will it convince the regime to stop the decades of injustice towards its own people? My experience tells me that it won’t. If pro-engagement politicians and groups are really interested in change in Cuba, they need to focus more on promoting change from within Cuba, not changing U.S. policy that will mainly benefit those in power and leave the average Cuban empty-handed. Let’s look at Europe’s failed engagement policies as the clear example of what not to do.

Pro-engagement activists always use the line that “after 40+ years, it’s time for a change”.

You know what? They’re right.

Of course, the change that’s needed isn’t exactly what these people have in mind. The dissidents in Cuba need our support, and it’s only through those few groups and blogs that are dedicated to shed light on those brave souls who are fighting the real fight that this is being accomplished. If only those politicians and activists cared more about freedom in Cuba than their wallets, we would have seen some change by now.

Meanwhile, all we have on both sides of the Straits are e-mails with faded pictures and the hope that one day we’ll be able to meet and embrace our long-lost relatives in a free Cuba.

4 thoughts on “Finding Relatives in Cuba”

  1. It is said that all Englishmen are descended from William the Conqueror, making them all cousins. Francisco Santa Cruz y Mallén, Conde de Jaruco, in his monumental Historia de Familias Cubanas (10 vols., 9 published), showed that all Cubans are descended from the Sotolongo family, one of Cuba’s oldest. The Sotolongos are a cadet family of the Royal House of Aragon. Hence all Cubans are descended from the Catholic kings and all Cubans are related in some degree of consanguinity to one another.

    I should say at this point that this is NOT the case with Fidel Castro, whose father was a Spanish immigrant who arrived in Cuba centuries after the Sotolongos and whose mother was Syrian.

    Years ago I used to play a game with my friends that involved proving to them that we were related. This could always be done by linking both our families to the Sotolongos with the help of Jarucos’s opus.

  2. Manuel,

    I’ve been wanting to check out Santa Cruz y Mallen’s work for a long time. Perhaps I’ll get the chance one of these days.

    Interesting about Cubans descending from the Sotolongo family. However, as you noted with fidel, many other Cubans only have to go back 2 or 3 generations to find Spanish ancestors on both sides, which means that they would not descend from the first families to arrive in Cuba.

  3. Wonderful moving post Robert and I agree, we have to do everything we can to help the dissidents. They’re the ones on the front lines, and they need us.

  4. Robert:

    You can find La Historia de Familias Cubanas at the Main Public Library in downtown Miami. It sells (when it can be found) for about $1000.

    Jaruco’s work chronicles the genealogies of 841 Cuban families from the time of their arrival in Cuba to the 1940s (that is, your grandfather’s generation).

    Here you will find a complete list of all the families chronicled there:

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