From Moscow to Miami
The six little wood-framed paintings, modestly Impressionist in style, depict a street scene, a shady lakeside park, historical monuments. They are glimpses of Odessa, a port city of two million on the Black Sea. They hang in Alvaro and Ludmilla Alba's sparsely furnished living room in Little Havana.
Alvaro Alba, who is Cuban, misses Odessa. It is where he met his wife and where he studied history at the State University of Odessa in the mid- and late-Eighties, the early years of glasnost and perestroika, when the Ukraine was still part of the USSR. Where he watched the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union and of Soviet communism. And where everyday life, buffeted though it was by political and economic tumult, retained a simplicity and openness he grew to esteem.
In his time there, Alba was supposed to be in the final stages of his transformation to socialism's New Man, el hombre nuevo, the selfless, intelligent, top-of-the-line product of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution who would be expected to lead the future Cuba. He was among the continuous waves of young men and women sent from the island to study -- to hone their revolutionary fervor along with their intellectual acuity -- at universities in Soviet bloc countries. For Alvaro Alba and many of his contemporaries, the uncurtaining of the Soviet system prompted by glasnost led them to question and ultimately to reject Castro's model for Cuba, the opposite result expected by their revolutionary families back home and a step not lightly taken because of the Cuban government's probable retaliation.
But few of the Soviet-educated, perestroika-inspired Cubans thought their decisions to renounce fidelismo would propel them to the United States. They had grown up privileged and happy, for the most part, with no special hunger for their superpower neighbor's materialistic excesses, alluring pop culture, or uneasy race relations. Their frame of reference extended farther east than north. Twenty-nine-year-old Alba, a devoted scholar of Russian and Cuban history who dreams of being a professor at the University of Havana, never cultivated the notion of living in the United States. Yet here he is, along with the thousands of other exiles who can't go home until Castro falls. Waiting in Miami, where, as Joan Didion put it, Havana vanities come to dust.
Alba arrived with about 100 other young Cubans who landed in several groups at Miami International Airport this past January, February, and March after twenty-hour flights from Moscow. They are here because they were lucky enough to be classified as refugees by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, under an immigration program conducted by the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation. Most of them couldn't have returned to Cuba without risking ostracism or imprisonment because of their active opposition to Castro. They were trapped in Moscow, unable to work legally, many under deportation orders, many with passports confiscated by the Cuban embassy, some in hiding. They had no way out other than the foundation's privately funded immigration program, called Exodus, which assists Cubans living in third countries to relocate to the U.S.
Twenty miles north of Alvaro Alba's squat white bungalow on SW 22nd Terrace, in a third-floor walkup just off the Palmetto Expressway in Hialeah, Natalia Perez guards her own reminders of Odessa. Chief among them is her daughter Maylen Rodriguez, who was born there three years ago this past January 17, the day she first touched U.S. soil. Maylen, her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother also are in Miami thanks to Exodus. Like the Alba family, they saw emigrating from Moscow to the U.S. as their only alternative. Taking that alternative, though, has cost them dearly; neither Natalia Perez nor her mother, Tamara Danilchenko, expect to see their husbands again.
They don't have a car and seldom socialize with their friend Alvaro Alba, but the two transplanted families stay in touch. Their ties go back to Havana, before their lives and their society began coming unmoored. Danilchenko, a 52-year-old native of southern Russia with deep-set blue eyes and blond hair, spent more than two decades in Cuba, where she taught Alba Russian literature at the preparatory school affiliated with the University of Havana, before he left for Odessa in 1983. Three years later her daughter Natalia began her studies in linguistics at the State University of Odessa, as Alba was in his last year there.
While in Odessa, Natalia fell in love with another Cuban university student, Jorge Rodriguez. They were married in 1988; Maylen was born two years later. Rodriguez, an archaeology student, was disturbed by the chaos of the Communist system breaking down around him, according to his wife. He was glad to leave the Ukraine when the couple graduated in the spring of 1991. But the world had changed by then, even if outwardly the Cuban revolution remained intact. Moscow was drastically reducing its material and financial support of the Castro regime, which emphatically rejected glasnost and perestroika. Life in Cuba had taken on a new desperation. "It got worse and worse," Natalia Perez says. "We lacked so many things, and Castro continued to talk as if all we needed to do was believe in him." She repudiated the revolution and came to see Castro's intransigence as a symptom of insanity. She wanted to leave Cuba forever, and since her mother was Russian, she knew she could eventually obtain a tourist visa to Russia. At least that would get her out of Cuba; she'd figure out what to do from there. Her husband, while not enthusiastic, agreed to make the move with her.
By late 1991 the travel papers were ready. But her husband, it became clear, was not. "He simply didn't want to confront the reality of Russia," Perez says calmly but with a slight tremble at the corners of her mouth. "It was like a huge weight over him." She and Maylen flew to Moscow without him. Perez's sister Tatiana, a former cartography student at the University of Moscow, joined them in January 1992. Their mother, Tamara Danilchenko, arrived in March for what she expected to be a six-month visit; her father had recently died and her mother was ailing. The sisters had heard that U.S. immigration officials would be interviewing Cubans in Moscow to determine if they qualified for refugee status, and they made up their minds to apply. Nearly four months would pass before they told their mother of their plans.
Early 1992 was a trying time for dissident Cubans in the former Soviet Union. Since 1990 the Cuban embassy had been seizing some students' passports or issuing others visas valid for only short periods; if the students hadn't left Moscow by the expiration date, they would be considered illegally outside Cuba (salidos ilegales), a serious crime. Other students found their stipends from the government cut off or reduced, making it impossible to continue in school. Without valid papers from the Cuban government, it was almost impossible to work legally. Many had to take jobs on the black market or depend on friends or family for food and shelter. And though the expatriates did encounter many who were sympathetic to their plight, Russian law did not allow them to apply for resident status.
Alvaro Alba was more fortunate than most. Since 1989 he had been working legally as a Moscow correspondent for the Spanish newspaper ABC. (He had received his master's degree in Odessa two years earlier.) During the week, he commuted downtown from an apartment in south Moscow; on Fridays he took a two-hour flight to Odessa to be with Ludmilla, their infant son Oleg, and her son from a previous marriage, Ivan.
Alba was also active in an organization called the Cuban Union, formed in November 1991 as a support and information network for dissident expatriates, and served as an editor of the union's newspaper, Cubinez, published clandestinely outside Moscow. (An earlier above-ground paper called Inter Cambios was closed by Cuban officials.) Even before the Union was officially born, some of the Cuban dissidents had written to Cuban American National Foundation president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez seeking to emigrate through the Exodus program. A coup against then-Soviet President Gorbachev in mid-1991 had failed, but the Cuban expatriates understood that the new atmosphere of openness was still tenuous. If Communists regained control, the anticastristas would surely face more harassment and almost certain deportation. When foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa made a widely publicized visit to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozirev in December of that year, a contingent of Union members approached Mas on noche buena, Christmas Eve, at the Czech embassy compound. Mas promised to do what he could to help them get to the U.S; the real hurdle was getting the immigration service to interview the Cubans as soon as possible. (The INS, coping with requests from prospective refugees from all over the world, ranks its responses according to what it believes is the severity of the threat to those seeking help, according to spokesman Richard Kenney in Washington, D.C.)
Then in January 1992, Union members took the unprecedented step of staging a demonstration in front of the Cuban embassy on Mosfilmovskaya Street. The gathering was to be a peaceful protest of human rights violations in Cuba and a denunciation of the recent execution of Eduardo Diaz Betancourt, a Miami exile arrested in December with two other men when they landed in Cuba with a cache of arms. For several months the Cubans had wanted to organize a march in front of the embassy, Alba says, but scheduling problems had prevented them. Finally about 30 Cubans and another dozen Russian supporters agreed on Saturday, January 18. Russian human rights advocates had staged a protest at the embassy the previous October without incident, but this time the dissidents, upon approaching the building, were surprised to find shouting Cuban embassy employees, who quickly encircled the marchers. Then, according to the Cubans and subsequent news accounts, the embassy people began knocking down and beating many of the demonstrators. Among those injured was a pregnant Cuban university student, a female member of the Russian Committee for Human Rights in Cuba, and several Cuban Union members. Alba, carrying Oleg in his arms, was attacked when he began unfurling a homemade banner that read, "Down with the bearded Stalin!" Russian police eventually restored order. In a scornful speech a few days later, Castro castigated the demonstrators as gusanos rojos, red worms, a variation on his term for Cuban exiles, gusanos.
Alba was born in 1963 to a military family deeply committed to Cuba's four-year-old revolution. His father, Alvaro Alba III, took his military training at the Moscow Military Academy during the Czechoslovakia invasion of 1968-69. His mother, Xiomara Cruz, taught at the military academy in Havana. Her brother, Carlos Castillo, was a top official in the department of state security. Like most Cuban children past the seventh-grade level, Alba spent the week in a government-run school (his was 40 minutes outside Havana) and went home to his family on the weekends. He excelled in his studies, having a particular fascination for the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish explorers of the New World.
The political parades with which Alba's school marked socialist holidays or celebrated Castro's beneficence were, for him and his friends, mere entertainment, an opportunity to get out of class. They laughed at the political slogans they were taught to recite and when they were sent to the country to pick oranges (young Cubans are required to put in time as manual laborers for the government), they went swimming more than they worked. Still, it was youthful irreverence rather than hard opposition.
"My family never questioned the legitimacy of the government; politics wasn't an issue with us," remembers Alba, who, in his khaki pants, pin-striped shirt, and neatly trimmed black hair retains the look of a clean-cut university student. "We were all in the Communist Party and supported the government 100 percent. There weren't any hippies or yuppies. We lived and studied without the outside world encroaching."
Or at least encroaching enough to make him seriously question Castro's world. As a typically restless teenager, Alba says he used to listen to Voice of America at night after the rest of his family was asleep. He caused a major household crisis when he forgot to turn the dial back to Radio Rebelde one night before he went to bed. The next morning, he recalls, his parents were horrified when they turned on the radio and heard the announcer lambasting "the dictatorship of Fidel Castro."
But it was the years studying in Odessa and a subsequent return to Cuba to work in 1987 that convinced Alba he had indeed been living under a dictatorship. He and many of the Cubans who came to Miami from Moscow tell essentially the same story of their metamorphoses from privileged future leaders to determined opponents of the regime. "You have to leave," says Javier Hernandez, president of the Cuban Union, now also living in Miami. "Inside [Cuba] they have the radio, the TV, all the communications. You're deceived. But when you go outside [Cuba], you can begin undeceiving yourself."
In some ways, the students' transformations mirror the intellectual changes experienced by youngsters all over the world when they come into contact with academia. "The educational process itself makes you think better," says Damian Fernandez, director of the graduate program of international studies at Florida International University. "There's a process of awakening. So the revolution has set itself up for failure by educating people, by expecting them to think. By sending them abroad, the [Cuban] government has empowered these people to turn against the state. That doesn't happen in countries where people aren't educated."
The catalyst for most of the pampered young intellectuals was perestroika, the dismantling and restructuring of the Soviet bureaucracy that Mikhail Gorbachev embarked upon after rising to power in 1985. The Soviets and their Cuban guests began to learn the truth about the great empire built by Lenin and Stalin A the purges, the gulags, the disastrous war in Afghanistan, the abuses of privilege by Communist Party officials. For the first time the people read works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and other dissident authors. And the Cubans got their hands on writings of Cuban dissidents such as Carlos Alberto Montaner, exiled in Spain. The students couldn't let any Cuban official see them with the material, Alba says, although it was no problem with Russian professors and authorities.
Reading Armando Valladares's account of his 22 years in Cuban prisons, Contra Toda Esperanza (Against All Hope), Alba recalls feeling a cutting coldness, the kind that might come upon learning you've been deceived for a long time, when he realized that one of the sadistic prison guards in the book -- a torturero, in Alba's words A was the father of one of his friends. "I knew him as the father of a family, as he was at home," says Alba. "But when he left home, that was when he revealed himself. This was one of the ways I learned about Cuba's other face, a moral abyss."
Caught up in a new current of open debate, sweeping reforms, and accelerating change in eastern Europe, could the Cuban students be blamed for thinking they'd go back home to at least some signs of the same exhilarating upheaval? Alba, returning to Havana in 1987 after completing his studies in Odessa, felt ready to be a part of Cuba's awakening. "We went back on a ship, loaded down with newspapers and books and all the things we had learned," he recalls with an ironic smile, "thinking Cuba was being affected by those changes, too." -- job as a government translator (Spanish-Russian) was waiting for him, and perhaps Ludmilla could join him soon.
Alba pauses, leaning back in his chair at a small desk, remembering his return to Havana six years ago. "La realidad se nos impus cents." Reality hit us. "There was no perestroika, there was no glasnost..." He trails off, and Dr. Celestino Vasquez, a friend who has dropped by the Alba's home, finishes the sentence with a chuckle: "There was no food." Alba doesn't laugh.
Javier Hernandez also went back to Cuba in 1987, but not so optimistically. The government had ordered him home from Moscow before he finished his doctoral studies at the Institute of Energy. His Russian wife, Elena Sineokina, a linguist, stayed behind; they were uncertain what would happen or what they would do. Hernandez's problem, he says, was simply that he refused to join the Communist Party and "submit to the political machine." Even though he was recognized as a brilliant inventor (he keeps a portfolio of patents for various electromechanical inventions as well as a certificate declaring him "the best in his field"), he says that wasn't important to the Party leaders in Havana who oversaw his work. "Being a good worker doesn't matter to anybody. If you don't join in with the others, if you don't submit to the system, they'll destroy you."
At age 33 Hernandez is a little older than most of the former students who are now in Miami. In 1979 he began his advanced engineering studies in Kirguistan, an Asiatic province of the USSR, now an independent republic. After finishing in 1983, he, his wife, and their young son Arthur spent the next three years in Havana. Hernandez worked as a researcher at an engineering institute while his wife studied Spanish. Most of Hernandez's patents date from this time, as does his "best in his field" commendation. He says he clashed with the system then, but managed to get along well enough to be allowed to continue studying in the Soviet Union, where political and economic reforms were making inroads. Even as the Hernandezes left Havana for Moscow in 1986, they recall Castro had already banned several Russian magazines and was showing no signs of acceding to growing international calls for reforms.
So Hernandez wasn't terribly surprised the next year when the government ordered him back to Cuba. In several months, however, he and his wife were able to leave again, this time on a tourist visa to visit her family. He never went home again. In Moscow, being married to a Russian citizen, Hernandez was allowed to work, he says, though not to own a business. He operated an electronics import company and an ice cream processing plant, naming his mother-in-law as owner. And he was able to aid other Cubans living much more precariously in Moscow.
One was Lazaro Heredia, the son of a top aide to Castro. Heredia had received a degree in meteorology at the state university in Odessa, returned to Havana to work on weather predictions, and was fired in 1991 after a series of politically charged confrontations with a supervisor. Cut off from his family, he managed to obtain a tourist visa to Moscow in March 1992. (Heredia's estranged wife, then living in Miami, paid his airfare.)
Javier Hernandez found a place for Heredia to stay and put him to work (not earning money) as one of the chief editors and writers on the Cuban Union's newspaper. Despite his technical training, Heredia, now 29, is a prolific writer of poetry and essays. One day in the late spring of 1992, as he sat alone writing in the Moscow house the Union used as a newspaper office, about six Russians "the size of the door," Heredia recalls, rushed in, beat him, took the computer keyboard, and ripped out the telephones. Heredia spent the next fifteen days in hiding; after five editions of Cubinez, the Union ceased publication of the paper. "That put a stop to everything," says Heredia.
Meanwhile, Tamara Danilchenko had come to Moscow and was staying in an apartment with her two daughters and granddaughter. Danilchenko's father had died in Rostov-on-Don, her hometown in southern Russia, and her mother was ill. Because it was difficult to get permission to leave Cuba, she was planning to take full advantage of her luck in obtaining a tourist visa and stay at least six months abroad. But she was genuinely shocked when Natalia and Tatiana told her of their plans to emigrate to the U.S. Not that she wasn't aware of Cuba's ever-worsening economic problems, Castro's intransigence, and her daughters' disgust for the regime. But for her, life was not that bad in the historic Habana Vieja neighborhood where she had lived for the last 26 years. The teacher of Russian and Russian literature had her walls of books -- Ernest Hemingway and nineteenth-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin were her favorites -- and she had her friends and her husband. She had never renounced her Russian citizenship, but her soul was Cuban. "I consider Cuba my native land," Danilchenko says.
She met Jorge Perez Soublet in 1964 when, fresh from the Cuban revolution, he came to Rostov-on-Don to study. Danilchenko was his Russian teacher at the university. Perez Soublet, who had been part of the underground student movement against Fulgencio Batista before Castro came to power and later became an official in Cuba's Ministry of the Interior, was a dedicated fidelista. He remained devoted to the revolution over the years, even when his children turned away and lauded the downfall of communism in the Soviet Union. "He never understood the reason for perestroika," says daughter Natalia. "It was an explosive thing for him. We had a lot of conflicts."
Danilchenko adds, "He is a very good person, honest, noble. But he is a product of the revolutionary system of Cuba. He wasn't able to progress beyond that. Everything changes -- capitalism, socialism, even the United States -- but he hasn't." When he learned his daughters were set on moving to the U.S., Danilchenko says, Perez Soublet blamed her for putting them up to it. "That wasn't true," she insists in a tired tone that suggests she is finished insisting. Seated on the vinyl-covered sofa in their apartment's living room, she is dressed like her daughter Natalia: jean shorts, sleeveless flowered top, and plastic sandals. Maylen sits on the carpet spooning Fruit Loops from a plastic bowl. The room has only the sofa, a chair, and a fan for furniture.
"But he simply couldn't understand this betrayal," Danilchenko continues, her open hands chopping the air for emphasis. "If it had been some other country, it wouldn't have hurt him so much. But the U.S. -- Cuba's biggest enemy! He told me over the phone never to come back to Cuba, that he never in his life wanted to see me again. That he was going to file for a divorce. That he would never forgive me for taking away the children. It wasn't true! I don't concern myself with politics. But I had no other choice but to follow my children and live in the U.S."
In the meantime, daughter Natalia Perez struggled for months to come to terms with her own family crisis. Her husband, who had stayed behind in Cuba after she left for Moscow at the end of 1991, showed no signs of joining his family in Russia. Finally, before she got confirmation that she and Maylen would be moving to the U.S., Perez gave up on her marriage as well as her country.
Perez looked on her husband's refusal to accompany her and Maylen to Moscow as abandonment. She suspects he now must be unhappy with his choice and would be more than willing to come to Miami. "But for me he is neither husband nor father," Perez declares slowly, resolutely. "For me he doesn't exist." Maylen, whose dark, solemn eyes and upturned nose mirror her mother's, has finished her Fruit Loops and has climbed on her grandmother's lap. "I never talk about him, but she does," Perez says, nodding toward Maylen. "She has his picture. He does exist for her. When she gets older, I won't stop her from getting to know him if she wants to. She's the only one who can forgive him, or not forgive him."
Neither Natalia nor Tatiana Perez has any intention of returning to Cuba -- Castro or no Castro. Natalia looks forward to raising her daughter in the stability and prosperity of the U.S. and to learning English so she can get a job closer to her interests in languages and translation. Right now she assembles computer chips at Mini-Circuits Laboratory in Hialeah. Tatiana already has met a young man at her job at Gilda Bakery, and they'll probably get married soon. But their mother, who does not currently work, is still in limbo. "To start anew here I think would be impossible," she says, looking toward the sliding-glass door that leads to a tiny balcony. In place of curtains, a mattress leans against half of the door. "I lived most of my life in Cuba, and I miss it so much."
By the summer of 1992, the U.S. immigration service notified the Cuban American National Foundation that it would interview the Cubans stranded in the former Soviet Union. Those who qualified for refugee status -- who could offer proof they would be persecuted or imprisoned if they returned to Cuba -- would be allowed to resettle in the U.S. under the foundation's Exodus program. INS regulations governing "private sector initiatives" such as Exodus require that the refugees also prove they will not cost taxpayers anything for two years or until they become residents. They also must have medical insurance and a family member or sponsor to pay their resettlement expenses and vouch for them financially. Which is where the foundation was prepared to step in. Its Exodus program provides insurance; and in many cases foundation directors offer living expenses when refugees don't have family or sponsors. Over the last five years, says program director Joe Garcia, Exodus has brought 10,000 Cubans to the U.S. from third countries.
In July of 1992 immigration service officials interviewed more than 250 Cuban expatriates and their families, if they were there. Only 120 were approved. Many of the Cubans now in Miami can't understand why people living in clearly desperate conditions were turned down. Lazaro Heredia worries about his friends still in Moscow, many of whom helped found the Cuban Union and were injured during the demonstration at the Cuban embassy. "It's obviously just a matter of luck, getting accepted," he says. "Whether you were qualified didn't matter." (INS spokesman Richard Kenney maintains that acceptance isn't arbitrary but based on the evidence presented to interviewers as well as a review of each case by the State Department. Cubans, he adds, do not automatically qualify to enter the country as refugees.)
Some in Miami's exile community have problems with the whole batch of elite Cubans brought over from Moscow. "People criticize the kids," acknowledges Exodus director Joe Garcia. But he asserts they should be welcomed for rejecting the privileges they could have had by kowtowing to the Castro regime. "Yes, these are the sons of rich Communists in Cuba. These are the kids of those in power. Some of these kids' parents founded the Communist Party in Cuba. Nevertheless they took a risk; they made a brave move, and I think that should be respected. I was disappointed the INS denied so many when these people deserve refuge."
Deserving or not, the exodus from Moscow bore a dismaying resemblance to the pitfall-plagued Biblical one. After the necessary U.S. documents were signed in November, Garcia flew to Moscow to organize the trip to Miami. He arrived on Christmas Day and had no trouble finding seats for about 30 people on a commercial flight on December 29. The rest were to leave as flights became available. They threw a big party, and Garcia handed out money -- aguinaldos, or Christmas gifts -- to those who had to stay behind.
But when the first departing contingent arrived at the Moscow airport, they weren't allowed to leave because they didn't have exit visas. The exit visas had to come from the Cuban embassy, which wasn't about to issue anything of the sort. That was an unexpected twist to the story, Garcia says; his Russian contacts had told him not to worry about papers from the Cuban government, and there had been further cause for optimism because the law in Russia had just been changed to allow departures without a Russian exit permit. Garcia spent the next two weeks "bouncing from ministry to ministry" in minus-ten-degree weather trying to get some official, any official with any authority at all, to clear the way for the Cubans to leave. Part of the problem was the legal confusion resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Former Soviet officials still held power alongside Russian officials, even though theoretically those jobs no longer existed. The bureaucracy was a challenge even for high-ranking parliamentarians sympathetic to the Cuban's cause, such as President Boris Yeltsin's ally Alekhsei Surkov, a critic of Castro whom the Cuban expatriates referred to as their padrino, or godfather.
Garcia says he was threatened, nicely, by some Russian officials, and was almost always followed as he made his rounds from office to office, day after day. The tension was as bad for the Cubans waiting to leave, who didn't know where they'd be from one day to the next. For Javier Hernandez and Elena Sineokina, though, the ordeal was expected. "In Russia the ones who have power now are the ones who had power then," Hernandez explains. "Those are the Communists. Now there's private property, but the owners are former Communists. Se cambia el nombre, pero sigue el hombre. [The name changes, but the man stays the same.] In general, in Russia the sentiment is still pro-Castro."
Several Cubans living in Moscow told Garcia flatly to give up: "'They'll never let you leave here,' they said. And they told me, 'What you're doing is wrong, because these people will be hurt.' That was part of the thing, too; I couldn't leave because it would be seen as abandoning them." Finally the combined leverage of the U.S. embassy, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozirev was enough to break the bureaucratic logjam. The first two flights, carrying 30 Cubans and family members, touched down in Miami on January 17. Lazaro Heredia and Natalia Perez and her family were on those flights. Another contingent arrived at 3:00 a.m., Friday, February 5. Alvaro Alba and his family were on that plane. Two representatives of the Cuban American National Foundation and two Radio Mambi journalists, with whom Alba had become acquainted in Moscow, met them at Miami International Airport. (Amancio Suarez, Mambi's general manager, owns the house in which the Albas now live.) The rest of the Cubans arrived from Moscow in several flights that lasted through March.
After leaving Cuba in 1987 and joining the dissident movement, Alba emerged as a visible anticastrista in Moscow. He became a representative of the Valladares Foundation in Moscow and remains a director of the organization named for Armando Valladares. In February 1992, he made a half-hour speech before the Russian parliament calling for denunciation of Cuba's human rights violations. Back in Cuba, his mother was fired from her job at the military academy, Alba says. And Carlos Castillo, his uncle, died mysteriously in his state security office. Over several years, unknown to Alba, Castillo had been passing information to his cousin, an exile in Miami who was active in the anti-Castro commando group Alpha 66. The Cuban government told his family he died of a heart attack.
Now Alba works at Radio Mambi putting together daily reports on political events in Russia. At home in a back room he uses as an office, he is writing a book, a comparative study of Castro and Stalin (he notes many similarities in their lives and careers). His wife Ludmilla, who speaks neither English nor Spanish, is getting acclimated to English with an audio cassette course. She attends the Russian Orthodox church nearby on Flagler Street.
Living in Little Havana and working at the radio station that is the community's most strident voice of hard-line opposition to Castro, Alba is right in the eye of Miami's exile political turbulence. He appears comfortable with it, although he says he would like to see a little less passion and a little more cold analysis from exile leaders. But their passion, he adds, is understandable: "They're the ones who have suffered most, and because of this their speech carries the immensity of their pain. Those of us around the age of 30 look at the problem from another angle. We don't look at it as how much we've suffered; it's that we don't want to suffer. We look at how things will be in the future."
Alba comes back to his vision of his own future. He doesn't imagine it anywhere but in Cuba -- ideally as an academic. "I would like to have a stable position at the University of Havana," he muses, "teaching young people what Stalinism really is, what Castroism really is. Making sure the young people are educated so that they won't allow a repeat of an authoritarian system in Cuba."
Alba and other new Cuban arrivals from Moscow, who grew up thinking of the U.S. as "el ogro del mundo," with its Vietnam war atrocities, imperialistic meddling, violence, and civil rights battles, say they still carry some conflicting images of the country in which they now live. But most, sounding nothing at all like the New Men and Women of Castro's revolution, speak of Miami as "the dream," a city of welcome refuge that balances American wealth with Latin sensibility. A city where you can start with nothing and better yourself.
Alba was struck at first by the pervasive materialism of the U.S. and he still finds it somewhat jarring. "The Russian is more spiritual," he says. "For him the money isn't important. It's the quality of the man, the quality of the mind, of the soul, of the will. But little by little I'm getting accustomed to the fact that here everything has its price. It's another point of view." Adjusting is something that comes naturally to Cubans, Alba concludes. From the beginning, the Cuban soul has been a mixture of souls -- African, European, Asian, deeply spiritual, and crassly material. "Because of this, the Cuban can triumph wherever in the world he goes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Erika Now Projected To Miss South Florida
Fri., Sep. 4, 11:30am
Fri., Sep. 4, 6:35pm
Sat., Sep. 5, 11:30am
Sat., Sep. 5, 7:00pm
- Miami's Latin Builders Association Calls Donald Trump "Repugnant," Pulls Gala From His...
- Micky Arison Teases Internet With Miami Vice-Style Heat Jerseys