In the 1950s, my grandfather owned a pharmacy in the Cuban seaside town of Manzanillo. After Castro’s band of guerrillas landed in a mangrove swamp a few dozen miles away, my grandfather let his clerk, Alberto “Beto” Pesán, join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains. He continued to support Beto’s family, and was soon secretly donating medicines to the rebels. Like most Cubans, he was happy when, in January 1959, Castro arrived to a hero’s welcome in Havana to take over the country.
Up until then, Castro had been all about democracy and liberation, but within months it became obvious that something was going terribly wrong. Mass executions of Batista loyalists, carried live on television, horrified the public. Fear of summary arrests, seizures of property, attacks on the Church, cancellation of elections, criminalization of the free press and of private commerce — such was Cuba’s vertiginous descent into Stalinism. Just a year and a half after Castro came to power, Cubans — and disproportionately, the very urban middle class that had formed the core of Castro’s initial support — were fleeing by the tens of thousands.
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