In 1969, three balseros — Cuban refugees — paddled a makeshift raft made of tractor tires, old pipes and wooden planks through the crystal clear cays of Cuba’s northern coast.
Many people who had made this trip disappeared, died from the sharks or were just never seen again, said Raúl D. Garmas, a resident of Copperas Cove, as he recounted his life as a Cuban dissident.
“Estabamos tres,” Garmas said. “We were three. We were trying to help a young man from the east escape the firing squad.”
One of the rafters, Jesus Mirival Hernandez, 24, was a counter revolutionary, convicted of crimes against Castro’s government.
Hernandez was imprisoned with Garmas during his first incarceration in 1964.
Garmas remembers the first night he spent in La Cabaña, the notorious Spanish fortress in Havana, which was used by Comandante Che Guevara as a prison camp after the war.
Reportedly, Castro’s army executed hundreds of counter revolutionaries, political prisoners and members of the Batista secret police in La Cabaña in the years after the revolution.
The 23-year-old Garmas tumbled into the cell packed with counter revolutionary youth and one of them placed a finger over his lips.
“Shhh. They are executing three of ours who were just taken out,” the prisoner said.
“I sat down and listened — if you were quiet you could hear everything,” Garmas said.
The soldiers called for attention and just before they fired, each of the doomed prisoners yelled, “Viva Cuba libre.”
El Pueblo Cubano
On the morning of Jan. 8, 1959, Garmas — then 17 — was working as a clerk at a T-shirt stand in Havana when history walked by his door.
A triumphant Fidel Castro was marching his army of bearded soldiers into the Cuban capital, an event that would mark the beginning of the dictator’s 50-year rule.
“Two friends of mine said, ‘Hey Raúl, let’s go to the palace to hear Castro speak,’” Garmas said. “I remember being worried at the time to leave the shop because I was afraid people would steal the money from the register.”
In the months that followed, Castro took control of the country, instituting commercial, industrial and agrarian reforms, and nationalizing the Cuban economy in his communist experiment.
“In just three months, Castro controlled everything,” Garmas said.
Initially sympathetic to the revolution, Garmas changed his opinion within a year.
“Most of the youth with vision changed their opinion of Castro,” Garmas said.
Garmas had grown up as a guajirito, a country boy from the village of Rancho Veloz de Las Villas, a town of about 10,000.
He remembers eating wild fruit from the trees, exploring caves along the coast and playing the guitar.
Before Castro, Cuba was a Switzerland, he said.
“The people lived, the people ate, the people had dreams. We had the latest cars, as good as in the USA.”
Today, Cuba suffers from half a century of isolation imposed by a U.S. embargo and the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of support in the 1960s.
In modern Havana, cars from the 1950s line the streets, many of which the Cubans have reconstructed over and over again from decades-old parts.
In the first days of the revolution, Castro passed a new law every day, Garmas said.
All of a sudden farmers were not allowed to bring coffee from the east. Or bring a pig across provincial borders.
“It was based in nothing,” Garmas said.
The laws were supposed to eliminate the latifundistas or rich landowners, who controlled most of the farmland, and spread wealth throughout the country.
“But it did the complete opposite,” Garmas said.
A family of four was allowed just one chicken a month, Garmas said. Eight eggs a month. “The situation was desperate.”
Attempts to flee
Garmas was thrown in prison in 1964 after a first attempt to flee the country in a raft.
After serving three years, he was released.
Three years later, he found himself again paddling toward freedom on a raft in the Gulf, this time to help his friend Hernandez escape the firing squad that had been the fate of many of his friends.
The plan was to push the boat into the channel and ride the Gulf Stream toward Florida, hoping to be picked up by an American fishing boat somewhere along the way.
But as they entered the open water, lighted only by the lighthouse of Bahia Cadiz, the current pushed them back toward shore, toward Cuba, Garmas said.
They paddled harder but the current was too strong and it pushed them directly into a military checkpoint.
As the naval guards approached the raft, they began firing.
Hernandez was shot 36 times and Garmas was thrown back in jail.
“Murió el lado mio,” Garmas said, shedding a tear. “He died by my side.”
Garmas was sentenced to a second prison term of 10 years. He served seven before a Spanish judge ruled that he would be given permission to leave Cuba legally.
Garmas, 70, now an American citizen, lives in Copperas Cove with his wife of 37 years, Maria Delgado, and has begun writing a memoir he calls “Los Hombres Que Conocí” — “The Men I Knew.”
His story of political imprisonment, poverty, happiness and disappointment, is focused on the many great men he knew, many of whom he met during his 10 years as a political prisoner in Cuba.
His friends, he said, are true heroes; that great men who make his life just a common tale of his generation, the young men who rose with the revolution.
“Una vida,” his wife said. “One life.”