When United States President Barack Obama recently made history by becoming the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, the world paid attention.
As he spoke during his visit, in the company of Cuban President Raul Castro, many held on to his every word, anxious for what could potentially be accomplished in the communist nation.
Fort Hays State University President Mirta M. Martin was one of the many who gripped Obama’s words, but after they were spoken, she was left feeling confused, betrayed and completely heartbroken.
“I think there is a need for the American people to know the rest of the story, and to understand why the president’s actions toward Cuba have evoked so much pain,” Martin said as tears began to stream down her face.
“The American people do not know that for 60 years, there’s been an island filled with people where atrocities have taken place.”
Alongside her sister and grandmother, Martin was exiled from Cuba when she was 6 years old, away from her mother, father, and two brothers.
“The government decided who was going to leave and how, and in this case, it was just my grandma, my sister and me who could leave,” she said. “To dehumanize the situation, they put us in what was called a fishbowl in the middle of the room.”
The four walls of glass separated her from the rest of her family, so even in their final moments together, they were unable to say goodbye.
“They kept us there for hours, and I remember my brothers, who were just 1 and 2, just sitting on the other side, Indian-style, with their head against the glass, and we couldn’t touch,” Martin said. “I remember my parents on the other side. I remember my grandmother away from her husband.”
It was not until 13 years later Martin saw her mother and two brothers, and 33 years later when she laid eyes upon her aged father. Many in her family, however, she never saw again.
The crushing memories flooded back and stung the heart of the university president when she turned on her television Tuesday to see Obama embracing Raul Castro — a man Martin said she views as a dictator who annihilated, destroyed, and separated families, killing innocent people along the way.
“For close to six decades, the Cuban people have been suffering, and yet, the president of the free world, the face of democracy in the world, is hugging Cuba’s Hitler,” she said. “It’s unconscionable, and the American people just don’t understand.”
Obama’s visit was made with the goal in mind to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, and to lift the economic embargo, therefore improving economic ties, but Martin said while this is important, its priority should be far down the list.
“I’m not stupid. Of course the embargo hasn’t worked, but the embargo has nothing to do with anything,” Martin said. “I’m all about the embargo being lifted, but diplomacy takes place before the deals are cut, not after.”
Martin compared Obama’s opportunity to that which former U.S. President Ronald Reagan faced during his speech that called for Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall which divided West and East Berlin.
“The president could have said, ‘Castro brothers, bring down your walls. Let the dissidence out. Let the people visit their families. Apologize to all those you’ve killed, who you’ve put behind bars. Apologize for six decades of suffering by the Cuban people,’ ” she said.
Martin described the intentions behind Obama’s visit as a “slap to the face,” and said the damage that has been done to those exiled from Cuba, and the suffering that continues there, needs to be faced, and the Castro brothers held accountable.
“He needs to understand the pain he has caused,” Martin said of Obama. “He needs to understand there’s people who still don’t have any rights, any civil liberties. He needs to understand that freedom of speech is only a dream in an island that’s 90 miles away from American shores. He needs to understand the people who murdered, who annihilated a generation, who destroyed families, are still the same people with whom he’s shaking hands with today.”
Martin said she believes March 22 will be a day that will live in infamy in the memories of the Cuban people who have been exiled.
“The president does not know what he has done,” she said as she wiped tears away. “He just does not understand.”