Exiled Cuban Finds Hope and Home in the United States

by Susan | December 16, 2016 11:10 am

The news of Fidel Castro’s death in November sent many Cubans into the streets of Miami to celebrate.

The leader of Cuba was responsible for not only the senseless and brutal political murders of many Cubans, but also the mass exodus of Cubans to the United States since he took over in 1959. Luckily for Lantana resident Berdie Archer, her father knew Fidel Castro, which is the reason they left Cuba just in the nick of time.

Berdie Archer was born Bertha de Castroverde in Cuba. Her maternal grandfather, Jesus Maria Barraque Adue, was a former senator and the attorney general under President Gerardo Machado.  They lived in a compound much like the Kennedys called the Quinta Santa Marta, which had its own guard shack, chapel and the first Otis elevator. They threw many lavish parties, moved in all the right circles and the media followed their every move.

Then came the collapse of the Machado government and the beginning of the reign of Fulgencio Batista, the President and later Dictator of Cuba. Her grandparents fled overnight as their counterparts in the Machado government were being executed.  They left behind their beautiful compound, most of their belongings and their beloved family as they made the trip to Miami, which would save their lives.

Batista’s rule was brutal. His increasingly corrupt and repressive government divided the upper class and lower class further, and caused widespread violence. He controlled the information put out by the media and was known for his public executions. The people wanted change and word on the street was that change was coming with a new young leader moving up in the ranks by the name of Fidel Castro.

“I can remember hearing the bombs going off,” said Berdie. “It was a very frightening time to live in Cuba. People were looking for change, but even talking about it during Batista’s reign could mean death.”

Berdie’s father knew Fidel Castro. They weren’t friends, but they attended the same Jesuit school together. Berdie’s father recalls Castro being a communist sympathizer even then and always getting into trouble. Berdie’s father did not like nor respect Fidel Castro one bit.

“I can remember our house was across from the Miramar Yacht Club and the men would be out back talking after dinner,” said Berdie. “They were hopeful about Fidel Castro but my dad knew better.”

After Berdie’s brother had bomb shrapnel land in his eye in 1954, her father decided once and for all to leave Cuba. They began the proceedings to leave legally.  They were one of the last families to make it out legally before Castro took over.

“With Batista you could only take certain things, so we left a lot behind,” said Berdie.

Hanging in Berdie’s Lantana living room is a famous painting and one of the few items they brought with them from Cuba.  Painted by famous Cuban artist Armando Menocal, the painting was taken by U.S. Customs when they first arrived in Miami from Cuba, only to have it returned to them a year later.  She cherishes it along with her memories of Cuba, but her family made it clear when they got to the U.S. that they were now Americans.

Her family worked hard and established themselves in Miami as well as other cities in the United States. Her dad was hired as the director of sales in a hotel in Miami Beach, so they were able to get the rest of the relatives to Florida as refugees and help them get jobs. Others came through Operation Peter Pan (via the Roman Catholic Church), which smuggled them to churches throughout the U.S. When they first arrived, they would live with Berdie and her family but they were soon working and living on their own.

They brought her uncle, Waldo de Castroverde, over in 1959 and, while still in high school, he went to work for the CIA against Castro. He was one of the prisoners captured in the Bay of Pigs. 10 of the men captured were sent to the U.S. to negotiate the freedom of the others and her uncle was one of them. As soon as he was released, he went right back to helping the CIA. 

Berdie’s Uncle Waldo spent the majority of his life trying to overthrow Castro and was finally recognized by Congress and President Obama five years ago on the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs along with other surviving Cuban revolutionaries.

“It was such a nice gala and so well deserved,” said Berdie. “Gloria Estefan’s father was part of that brigade as well.”

Unfortunately those who chose to stay, suffered. Her mother’s cousins were students at the university with Castro and they were working against him in the political underground called Radio Mambie. It’s no surprise that he had them both jailed as political prisoners for over 20 years. One of them, Alberto Muller worked for the el Miami Herald (part of The Miami Herald), now known as el Nuevo Herald in Miami for many years.

“They were malnourished and tortured,” said Bertie of the cousins. “They would take them out and ‘play’ that they were going to execute them, only to put them back in jail and start the torture all over again.”

Those who stayed behind also saw their homes, factories, property and businesses confiscated by Castro’s government.  There is still no such thing as owning a business in Cuba in the purest sense. The government is always the majority owner, taking the majority of the profits. To put it in perspective, in Cuba, the average income is $25 per month.

“My grandparents’ property was subdivided by Castro into apartments for upper military officers residences,” said Berdie. “It’s still there.”

As for going back to Cuba, Berdie may one day visit, but as long as the Castros are still in charge, it won’t be the same.

“I have so many beautiful memories there,” said Berdie of her childhood. “I hope to go back to visit, but this is my home now.” 

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