In the shadow of Castro
The 1950s-era car that illustrates the cover of Bill Vidal’s memoir, "Boxing for Cuba," says what everybody knows about the island nation: It’s a land trapped in time.
Vidal emigrated from Cuba in 1961 as part of Operation Peter Pan with his two brothers after the rise of Fidel Castro and spent three years living in an orphanage in Pueblo before his parents left Cuba to join them. When he returned to the island nation for the first time in 2001, he saw a country that suffers the weathered look wrought by a 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo.
Although Vidal considers the recent introduction of property rights in Cuba as a welcome sign, he doesn’t think the country will make much progress toward democracy on its own. President Raul Castro, who succeeded his ailing brother as president in 2008, has slowly announced free-market reforms, such as the recent introduction of loans for people who want to renovate their homes or invest in private business.
"As long as we keep the wall around them, the things that are going to change — even though what’s happening is for the better – are going to be very slow. And it’s going to be at the whim of the Cuban government," said Vidal, the newly named CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver (See "Executive Edge," page 14). "I think we can in essence invade them with our ideas and really bring faster change to Cuba."
Travel to Cuba is picking up, thanks to an ease in restrictions adopted by the Obama administration last year that led four of the largest U.S. airlines to begin operating about 25 weekly flights for charter companies, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce plans a nine-day trek to Cuba in August.
"When I went back to Cuba, what I realized was the senselessness and the cruelty of the embargo and the silliness that Cuba is the only country that Americans can’t go to," Vidal said. "I think if we could lift the travel ban, I think you would see new ideas being injected into the Cuban people. And all of a sudden they won’t just want property rights.
"They will be clamoring for more capitalistic opportunity for them."
Vidal’s reunion with long-estranged family members and the culture he left behind inspired him to write "Boxing for Cuba," a memoir published in 2007 that chronicles the struggles his family faced. Golden-based Fulcrum is planning to reissue an updated version of the book as well as a Spanish translation. Vidal also recently sold the movie options to a Los Angeles production company.
Vidal scoffs when he hears rhetoric about the United States becoming a socialist nation.
"To me, that’s all silliness in this country. In Cuba, it was reality. There was a complete shift of the government and policies," said Vidal, whose family lost businesses and property after the Castro regime seized private assets. "The Catholic Church got thrown out of Cuba at the time. It felt like God had left the island."
The often painful journey Vidal described in his memoir was one he worried would vanish from his family’s collective memory.
"It’s hard to understand this, but my parents and my brothers and I have never really discussed all of the details of when they sent us over here, what happened, what led them to that decision," he said. "My father had passed away … and I wanted to find some of those answers. On my way back from my first visit to Cuba, I realized that if I didn’t write the story, it would die with me."
Vidal also hoped his family’s story would bring greater understanding of immigration.
"People who are coming here as immigrants are not having a heck of a lot of fun," he said. "They are working hard to survive. And it’s very difficult to do. Fortunately in this country you can do it, and my story shows that as well."
Watch our three-part interview with Bill Vidal at www.cobizmag.com.