Face-Off: Rider parent, exiled as a child, recounts his family’s losses

unnamedWhen Peter Morales finished school, he found a job at the discount airline People Express, and, from there, got a job with Continental Airlines (now United), where he still works as a mechanic.
“I’ve been there for 30 years now,” he said.
Looking at his daughters, including Julia Morales, a senior English major at Rider, he added proudly:
“We came all this way and we’re doing good. This is what happens when you have a good system of government, a good system in place for the people to make their own money and do their own work.”
One might never guess that this man in Red Bank, New Jersey, was an exile from communist Cuba.
“We left Cuba in ’69,” he said. “I was 7.” At the time, he said, Cuba’s 10-year-old communist regime was imposing stricter regulations on almost everything, including the schools.
Unsurprisingly, Morales isn’t happy about President Obama’s Dec. 17 decision to lighten five decades of U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba. His perspective is common among the nearly 2 million U.S. residents who identify themselves as being “of Cuban origin.”
“What [the communists] do is try to make everyone equal. Everyone has the same things,” he said. But it doesn’t work, Morales says, adding that his family found this out first hand.
“We lost a lot,” he said. “My mother’s family lost their wealth, and all their land.
“After Fidel had been in power for a few years, it was coming out that he was a communist. The people who helped put [Castro] in power realized it was the wrong thing to do. My father and the younger generation were starting to revolt against Castro.”
The turning point for Pedro Morales, Peter’s father, came when a friend asked him to bargain with Che Guevara, Castro’s right-hand man, for the release of the friend’s two sons, ages 19 and 21. Guevara would only release one of the sons, and forced the father to choose which son lived and which died.
“That’s the day my father turned against Fidel,” said Peter Morales.
Pedro Morales and his wife decided to defy the government directly. “They felt responsible because they had helped Castro overthrow the government,” said Peter Morales. “So they were trying to help people escape from Cuba.”
Pedro Morales got into a confrontation with the police, and was arrested on a flimsy pretext. “[We] thought [he] was dead, we didn’t see him for over a year,” Peter Morales said. “But he had been sent to a work camp, working in sugar cane fields. To get himself home, he took a machete and cut his foot. They allowed him to go home on leave.”
As soon as Pedro Morales arrived back home, he told his family to get their things. “We’re getting out of here,” he said. They needed to leave right away, because Pedro Morales had committed one last act of defiance against the Cuban government while at the work camp.
He had been studying to be an accountant before joining up with Castro during his college years. The administrators of the work camp discovered this, and because they needed someone to keep the books for the camp, they chose him.
“They had no way of keeping records of how long people were in there,” said Peter Morales. “They put him in charge of that.” But that proved to be a mistake: Pedro Morales fudged the numbers, letting some prisoners go free much earlier than they were supposed to.
Before the authorities could trace it back to him, the family was on an Iberia Airlines flight to Madrid, Spain.
Fortunately, Pedro Morales had family in the United States, and when he asked them for help, they delivered. “They sent money and my father worked.” In 1971, they came to America.
Peter Morales, despite all his success, feels pain for Cuba.
“We need to keep the embargo going. It’s not useless,” he said. “Taking it away serves no benefit at all for most of the Cuban people. The embargo may hurt the people, but it in turn hurts the government, which is important.”
He feels as if the U.S. government has forgotten about the terrible things that have happened under the Castro regime. “A lot of people have been killed, my family and other families forced to leave. We lost all our property and everything we had,” he said. “We had to start all over here. And now [the U.S. government] wants to go back and make friends.” Peter Morales feels that he speaks for the Cuban-American community when he says, “We are against this.”
“I’m glad we have what we have here,” he said, “but everything we had, our legacy in Cuba, everything that would have been my children’s, is gone. I can’t forget that.”

-Meghan Meehan

Senior journalism major

 

Printed in the 02/18/15 issue.

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