NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. (WPRI) – Gladys Santana was nine years old when she and her family fled Castro-controlled Cuba.
“I remember playing hopscotch with my brothers outside,” Santana recalled. But on the day after Fidel Castro’s death, she also remembered darker times, including a day when armed men wearing green uniforms descended upon her family’s home. They wanted to post pro-Castro propaganda, but Santana said he mother stood up to them.
“We were kids,” she said. “All we could do was scream and say, ‘No, no, no!’ And they ended up leaving.”
Santana now resides in North Attleboro and works with fellow Cuban exiles at the Havana Cafe on North Washington Street. The walls are covered in posters and mementos that paint Cuba as a simpler, sunnier place; there are no signs of Castro, Che Guevara or the unhappier state of affairs she and others fled. While some of her co-workers at the Cafe have returned to Cuba to visit relatives, Santana refuses, saying the country lacks democracy and freedom.
She and others told Eyewitness News that Castro tore families apart and tainted the otherwise beautiful island nation.
“I’m happy he’s dead,” said Santana, “But there’s people in Cuba who are suffering and they’re in jail because they went out to party and celebrate.”
Santana’s grandfather was a U.S. citizen and veteran, and in 1971 he received a call from the U.S. government offering assistance to leave the country.
Santana said government officials told her family, “If you want to leave, go to the embassy with your family and we’ll take you out on the next flight.”
“Sure enough, that’s what happened,” she said. Her family of eight was among the roughly 260,000 Cubans airlifted from the country by the U.S. government in the span of eight years.
By the time Santana was 18, she was training in the Florida everglades as a sharp-shooter, honing her skills in case American troops were needed back in Cuba. She said she was the lone female among 700 men and learned how to disassemble and reassemble her weapons blindfolded.
Still a staunch denouncer of communism, Santana doesn’t believe Castro’s death will change the current state of affairs in Cuba, but she’s hopeful things will improve when current President Raul Castro’s reign comes to an end.