By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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After more than three hours, Aruca and Castro stood to shake hands again. "He said then: 'You have said some things here that we were not aware of,'" Aruca recounts.
On the drive back to his hotel in the early-morning darkness, Aruca says he had a chance to reflect on what had just taken place. He had finally had a chance to sit down with the Cuban president, and, he says, "I think he understood what I was saying.
"I know there are people in Miami who think I see Fidel Castro every week," he continues. "But that was the first time I have had a chance to sit down and explain my opinions to Castro, when he was at ease and ready to listen. I finally got to have a decent conversation with him, and it happened at a very propitious juncture, when we are moving toward normalizing relations.
"That was the first time. I know there are people in Miami who won't believe that. But it's true."
Francisco Gonzalez-Aruca is an only child, born and reared in Artemisa, a sugar-mill town about 60 miles west of Havana, where his father, Francisco "Pancho" Gonzalez, owned a small grocery store. The store provided a comfortable living for Gonzalez, his wife Lilia, and their son until the late 1950s, when a protracted tiempo muerto, the dead time between sugar harvests, left many townspeople broke. Gonzalez extended credit, and the debts piled up until both the store and the family's house were repossessed by the bank in 1957. From the age of eleven, Aruca -- whose friends have always called him by his mother's family name -- attended Havana's Colegio de Belen as a boarding student, and after the loss of the family business, his parents moved to Marianao, a suburb of the capital, so he could finish his education at the Jesuit school. Aruca's father took a job as a salesman at a department store, but his spirit was broken. Suffering from diabetes and depression, he hanged himself from the bedroom door in May 1960. He was 54 years old.
Aruca, twenty years old at the time, came home from his job at a bank to find his father's body. "I was studying law at night while working at the bank," he recalls, "and he was very proud of me. It was a real shock. He was a gentle, generous man who never got used to living in Havana. You carry something like this with you forever. Was there something missing? You ask yourself. It's awful."
After Aruca announced his return to Miami radio this past August -- taking out a series of ironically wry ads in El Nuevo Herald in which he referred to himself as "El Fosforito en nuestra oscuridad informativa" (the Little Match in our information blackout) -- Aruca says he heard Armando Perez Roura, over the airwaves of Radio Mambi, charge that Castro's policies had caused his father's suicide. "Nonsense," Aruca says.
Nonetheless, from the perspective of 35 years, friends of Aruca speculate that his father's suicide may account for his workaholic ways, his drive to put ever more money between himself and the financial brink. The immediate result in 1960, however, was to change the way the would-be lawyer viewed the world, especially the new reality in Cuba. Like many Catholics, Aruca says, "I was taught that communism was intrinsically perverse, and there was no compromise with it. I had to fight against it."
He began to work with Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (MRP), the organization headed by Manuel Ray, an architect who had served as Castro's minister of public works. Disaffected, Ray's new slogan was "Fidelismo sin Fidel." Aruca was named propaganda director of the student wing, and helped to design and distribute anti-revolutionary leaflets and to organize strikes. But his days in the underground were short-lived. Arrested on January 5, 1961, he was hauled down to G-2, the state security offices, charged with counterrevolutionary activities, tried ten days later, found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years. Short, skinny, and just twenty years old, Aruca was sent to Havana's La Cabana prison.
Within mere days of his incarceration, Aruca saw a way out. "On Thursdays and Fridays, women and boys up to age fifteen came to visit, and I soon realized that because I was so small, and looked so young, this could be my chance," he says. "So I got hold of a shirt, stole a pair of pants, cut my hair, shaved my arms, and one visiting day I told my mother to leave early. I didn't want her to know, because she would get nervous. I went back to my cell, changed clothes, mingled with the other visitors, and not ten or twelve days after arriving at La Cabana, I walked out."
After two days hiding out in Havana, Aruca says he entered the Brazilian embassy and asked for asylum. He spent eighteen months there, living amid a shifting tide of fellow asylum-seekers in the one-time servants' quarters behind the embassy before finally obtaining a safe-conduct pass from the Cuban government. He flew first to Ecuador, then to Colombia, and eventually to Miami.