There is a popular online video of Rafael Cruz, pastor of Purifying Fire Ministries and father of Sen. Ted Cruz, giving an anti-Obama speech to a fervent Tea Party crowd. He trots onstage to “Eye of the Tiger” and begins with a bit of personal history.
“I grew up in Cuba under a strong, military, oppressive dictatorship. So as a teenager, I found myself involved in a revolution. I remember in that time a young, charismatic leader rose up, talking about hope and change. His name was Fidel Castro.”
“When my son was 8, 9 years old,” he says later, “our conversation around the dinner table centered on politics every day. I remember over and over I would ask him, you know, Ted, when I faced oppression in Cuba, I had a place to come to. If we lose our freedoms here, where are we going to go?"
My mother came to the U.S. from Cuba as child refugee with Operation Pedro Pan in 1962, living in foster homes and a camp run by Catholic Charities until her parents were able to follow three years later. She is politically moderate, but Papi Cruz’s speech was more than familiar to me, from visits to Miami and time spent with family members who are also Cuban exiles. Even my father, a Salvadoran, half-jokingly calls the president a communist.
“Ese Obama es comunista!” an old woman screamed at me once out of the blue, when I was in Miami during the 2012 presidential election. I hadn’t said a word to her. I was tying my shoelaces, about to go for a jog, and looked up to see her standing over me.
“You young people,” she said. “You want a movie star. You didn’t live what we lived.”
Apparently Marco Rubio also knows a thing or two about these kinds of conversations. In an interview with GQ in 2012, Rubio says, “I'm not making any comparison between Barack Obama and Castro from Cuba — but I was raised in a community of people who were told that if government had more power it could equalize things and it could give them more than others, and at the minimum undo some of the unfair things that had been done to them, and they were very skeptical of that given the experience that they had had.”
White Cuban conservatism, once an afterthought for GOP primary candidates who would stop in Miami to headline a quick anticastrista rally on the way to the nomination, has become a driving force in the Republican Party. It has not only reared its two major token Latinos, but provided a base of support for Jeb Bush, its wannabe token Latino, who resides in Miami and has deep ties with the Cuban community.
Some connect this particular conservative flavor to John F. Kennedy’s mess, the Bay of Pigs invasion, or with Republican support for the embargo. But for the most part, it is incredibly simplistic, and has its roots in the past crimes of one man. Fidel is big government. You are either Fidel, or you are Ronald Reagan. There is no in between. “A young and charismatic leader rose up, talking about hope and change.” So charisma in politics is suddenly a bad thing? So we should only trust old, angry white guys?
Its second pillar, perhaps shakier than the first, is the myth that Cuban émigrés rose to prosperity in the U.S. with zero help from the government. Government is always bad; government can never “equalize things.” Government intervention is satanic, unless, of course, it is passing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which, in addition to making the path to citizenship (amnesty!) for Cubans easier, provided $1.3 billion in direct financial assistance, including Medicare, free English courses, scholarships, and low-interest college loans. Many banks offered start-up loans to Cuban businesses that had no collateral. Imagine if the families fleeing violence in Mexico and Central America were given that kind of reception. Maybe they, too, would have a chance to become as successful (and as staunchly pro-American) as Cubans in Miami. But they weren't lucky to come from a major pawn in a Cold War chess game.
None of which, of course, is to say that Cubans didn’t work hard. My grandparents came to the U.S. in their fifties and immediately got menial jobs. Though he had three children to support, my grandfather refused to accept a single welfare check. But my mother and her two siblings all attended college on what was then called the “Cuban loan.” Can anyone picture Cruz and Rubio’s GOP supporting a “Salvadoran loan” anytime soon? An Iraqi or Syrian loan?
What Fidel took away, the damage he did, is hard to understand for those who didn’t experience it directly. The rage he still provokes is well-deserved. Even I feel it sometimes when I see video of him standing at a podium, giving one of those endless speeches (similar to Cruz’s infamous 21-hour filibuster). He turned his back on those whose courage had helped bring him to power, and destroyed what was then among the most advanced, culturally rich societies in Latin America. He tore apart families, including my own, and worst of all, he got away with it.
But it’s beyond frustrating to see his name so baselessly invoked by people with such a slippery grasp of history. Rafael Cruz, who portrays his 1957 beating by Batista's soldiers in Cuba as the climax of his revolutionary saga and the impetus for his escape to the U.S., was unable to give the reason for his arrest to the Times.
"I'll have to think about it," he said. "I don't quite remember."
Rubio, who vaulted to national prominence by telling the story of his parents at the 2012 Republican National Convention, can’t get the facts of their emigration straight. He initially led audiences to believe that his family left Cuba in order to escape Fidel, but in reality they had left at least two-and-a-half years before he came to power.
“My parents and grandparents came here from Cuba in '58, '59’, he told Sean Hannity in a 2010 Fox News interview.
They came in 1956, the senator’s office later clarified. When questioned about the confusion by The Washington Post in 2011, Rubio replied, “I’m going off the oral history of my family. All of these documents and passports are not things that I carried around with me.”
Going off the oral history of his family is a tenuous thing on which to base one’s political narrative. In another speech, at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Rafael Cruz quotes George Santayana: “If we do not learn from history, you (sic) are bound to repeat it.”
Learning from history is one thing; letting its grip pull you (and the country that gave you refuge) into an endless muck of empty fear and rancor is quite another.