By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
To say Belén was the Cuban equivalent of exclusive New England prep schools like Choate and Philips Exeter Academy, however, would be to miss the point. Those schools had to compete with one another for their share of Kennedys, Bushes, and Rockefellers. In Cuba, Belén alone attracted the sons of the country's leading families.
"The physical structure of the place was imposing," remembers Miami talk-radio host Francisco Aruca, who attended the school between 1953 and 1959. "It was like a fortress." Old photographs of the school, including a wall-length black-and-white aerial view that hangs in the foyer of the modern-day Belén, suggest a cross between the Roman Coliseum and the Pentagon: a main building with eight large, seemingly impregnable wings assembled in a semicircle around a massive courtyard, fronted by a Neoclassical façade.
The school, which took students from first grade through the completion of their secondary education, was arranged into six divisions, each composed of two or three grades. Discipline was a central tenet. "They would ring a hand bell at 6:45 or 7:00 a.m.," remembers Aruca, "and you had three minutes to get up and into line. There was a line for everything: mass, breakfast, everything." Honors and awards, not surprisingly, were based on the military model. The top student in each division was called the division general; the top student in the senior division, the brigadier. Aruca admits he never made it that high up the chain of command, but he likes to point out that he often was put in charge of recess. "That was an honor that entailed responsibility," he recalls, no doubt quoting the priests who instructed him as a youth. "I had to make sure the equipment was on the field when students got there, then pick up all the stuff when they left."George Suarez, Region 4 director of the Miami-Dade Public Schools system, flashes a wide grin when reminded of the various tasks assigned to students at Belén. Suarez, who followed both his father and grandfather to the school, was one of Belén's most distinguished students; named brigadier in 1955, he graduated the following year. Four years later, while studying for the priesthood (a pursuit he eventually abandoned), he returned to Belén as an instructor. His brother Xavier, the former mayor of Miami, was still only a fifth-grader at the school.
The mid-Fifties were portentous years on the island, and at Belén. While President Fulgencio Batista's soldiers were having no luck cornering Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas in the Cuban countryside, students at the school knew exactly where to find the rebel leader. "There's Fidel!" Aruca remembers students shouting as they walked past the Belén class portrait of 1945, hanging on the wall in one of the school's assembly halls.
And Aruca, for one, became obsessed not only with Castro's life in the mountains but with his career at Belén. He recalls going to the school's library and requesting Fidel's senior yearbook. To this day the radio host and businessman (his Marazul Tours operates flights to Cuba and has made him a controversial figure in the exile community) can recite the cryptic inscription beneath the young man's photo, words Aruca interpreted as prophetic. "Fidel has timber," Aruca recounts, his index finger in the air. "The artist will have much with which to work." Knowing the Jesuits were not free with their compliments, Aruca set out on a comparative study. "I went through all the yearbooks in the collection, one by one," he says, smiling at his own youthful exuberance, "and there was never a prediction like that for any other student."
Castro's ties to Belén were well-known throughout Cuba. George Suarez recalls that on his triumphant march into Havana in January 1959, the rebel leader was handed the school flag. Castro reputedly took the school symbol in his hands and kissed it, pledging to visit his alma mater.
According to Suarez, Fidel did visit but not for two years, and then only Suarez caught a glimpse of him. "One day in early January 1961, I was making a phone call from the school's switchboard, just inside the main entrance," remembers Suarez, leaning back in his chair to get a better look around the corners of the past. "Someone comes running in, out of breath, and says to me: “Allí está el caballo.'" Suarez understood the slang phrase (literally translated: "The horse is here") to mean Fidel was outside the school. He remembers walking into the sunlight, looking across the bridge that separated the campus from the surrounding community, and seeing Castro's motorcade perched just on the other side. Suarez made it across the bridge and over to Castro's vehicle. "It wasn't a jeep," he recalls, painting the scene with great care. "Just a car, a sedan." In it sat Fidel Castro and four bodyguards. Everyone in the car carried a machine gun. "I asked him if he was there to see anyone in particular, but he just looked at me, stared back at the school, eventually nodded to his driver, and drove off."
Three months later, on April 17, 1961, 400 government soldiers seized the school. Suarez recalls the exact date because, at precisely that moment, on a beach south of Havana, a small army of Cuban exiles was launching the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Suarez and the rest of the faculty were herded into the school's auditorium and held at gunpoint while the buildings were ransacked. The episode, though terrifying, was not without its moments of levity. "A soldier would come down every couple of minutes with some device from the observatory," says Suarez, referring to the school's celebrated star-gazing and weather-forecasting facility. "And he'd say, “This is what you use to communicate with the CIA.' And we'd say, “No, that's what we use to measure atmospheric pressure.' Then he'd come down with something else and accuse us all over again." Suarez smiles wryly, shaking his head and muttering, "Comemierda."