US, Cuba announce embassy re-openings

(By Deutsche Welle) The US and Cuba have laid the Cold War to rest. While some see dialogue as a path to reform, Cuban exiles believe the White House has strengthened the Castro regime. Spencer Kimball reports.

Sebastian Arcos Bergnes suffered under two Cuban dictatorships. Bergnes was arrested by the regime of Fulgencio Batista after being discovered with a cache of weapons in 1956. He served three years in prison for participating in Fidel Castro’s revolution. But Bergnes was never a communist.

His son, Sebastian A. Arcos, describes the family as middle class Catholics with “solid democratic credentials.” “They joined the Castro revolution to get back to the constitutional cores established by the 1940 constitution and became disillusioned immediately after Castro turned to the left,” Sebastian told DW.

As Castro consolidated power, Sebastian’s family began documenting the regime’s human rights abuses, particularly in the jails. Political prisoners were often subjected to beatings, deprived of medical attention and had their sentences arbitrarily extended. The reports that Sebastian’s family compiled were smuggled out to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

The family was split up after trying to escape the island in 1981. While Sebastian served a year in prison, his mother and sister fled to Miami. A decade passed before Havana granted Sebastian permission to leave Cuba and join them in Florida. His father was allowed to leave in 1995 for medical reasons. Bergnes died from cancer two years later.

“I left for the US in 1992 as a political refugee and have never been back,” said Sebastian, now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

‘A political exile does not return’

There are many Cuban-Americans with stories of persecution and flight. Jose Azel joined the anti-Castro underground as a 12-year-old boy, serving as a courier and participating in acts of economic sabotage. After the regime closed Azel’s Catholic school, his father feared that his son would be indoctrinated. He put him on a cargo ship in 1961 bound for Florida where Azel joined his older brother in Miami.

More than 14,000 children left Cuba in the early 1960s. Operation Pedro Pan was the largest recorded migration of unaccompanied minors in the history of the Western Hemisphere. Like Sebastian, Azel has not returned to Cuba. He never saw his father again.

“By definition, a political exile does not return until the conditions that brought about his exile change,” Azel, now a scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, told DW. “An economic immigrant returns when his personal conditions allow him to,” he said. “I would never under any conditions return until there is a change.”

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