Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cruz family tales: "Inspirational fire" or hot air?

Rafael Cruz
According to the New York Times, Sen. Ted Cruz and his father, Rafael, have embellished stories about their family's experiences in Cuba. The paper reported:
MATANZAS, Cuba — Since he was a boy, Senator Ted Cruz has said, all he wanted to do was “fight for liberty” — a yearning that he says was first kindled when he heard his father’s tales of fighting as a rebel leader in Cuba in the 1950s, throwing firebombs, running guns and surviving torture.
Those stories, retold by Mr. Cruz and by his father, Rafael, have hooked Republican audiences and given emotional power to the message that the Texas senator is pushing as a contender for the party’s presidential nomination...
But the family narrative that has provided such inspirational fire to Mr. Cruz’s speeches, debate performances and a recently published memoir is, his father’s Cuban contemporaries say, an embroidered one.
I dug into the same story during the summer of 2013. I, too, wondered whether Rafael Cruz was exaggerating his exploits. Parts of his version of events seemed implausible. I reported the story for about a week, but couldn't nail it down.
Times reporter Jason Horowitz managed to track down some former friends of Rafael Cruz. They told Horowitz that Cruz had belonged to the youth brigade of the 26th of July Movement in Matanzas, but did little but march in protests.
Defenders of the Cruz family were quick to attack the Times for its expose (See "New York Times Partners with Castro Regime to 'Smear' Ted Cruz").
I wasn't out to smear anyone. I just thought it would be an interesting story. I found a man who had gone to school with Rafael Cruz in Texas. He remembered Cruz as a pro-Castro activist who talked about smuggling guns to Cuba for the revolution.
I went to Cuba to try to find others who knew Cruz, but didn't have much luck and dropped the story.

I did locate two Havana residents who remembered Rafael Cruz's father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz y Díaz.
Gladis Susen, who was 75 when I interviewed her in 2013, said Bienvenido Cruz managed an appliances store near El Capitolio in Havana.
Bienvenido Cruz "was a beautiful person," Susen said. She said she bought a television and a sewing machine from him.
Customers paid him in cash and if they didn't have enough money, he offered them credit.
Susen said she last saw Bienvenido Cruz in 1960. He was visiting the sanctuary at El Cobre near Santiago de Cuba.
Cruz's former appliance store near El Capitolio is now a cafeteria, above.
Another Havana resident who knew Bienvenido Cruz told me the elder Cruz also ran a store along Calle Neptuno. That location was in ruins when I saw it in 2013.
While trying to learn more about the Cruz family history in Cuba, I hit a wall. I had more questions than answers. Did Rafael Cruz move from Matanzas to Havana at some point? How important was Havana to the family's story? Was the family wealthier than Rafael Cruz has let on? How often did family members return to Cuba after the revolution? When did the family turn against Castro?
Calle Neptuno appliance store in ruins
I wanted to hear Rafael Cruz tell the story, so I went to an event in Tampa where he was speaking. I introduced myself to him in a hotel lobby before the event. I told him I had been to Cuba and had talked to people who knew his father. I said I had photos and video that he might be interested in seeing. He said he had to rush to a meeting, but I thought he'd see me afterward. I mean, wouldn't you be curious about your homeland, your old neighborhood?
Apparently not.
When I approached Cruz again, I heard him tell an assistant something like, "No, I am not talking to that guy."
I got the impression that if I had been someone who knew nothing about Cuba, he would have gladly shared his exploits. But I had been to the island. I had talked to people who knew his father. And, I suspect, that was a red flag for Rafael Cruz.


Antonio said...

Interesting story. Then again, a good chunk of Miami and Cuba is filled with people who claimed to have marched with and fought with Fidel. When Batista fled the total number of rebels under arms in the July 26th movement did not exceed 2,500. I think you can easily find 25,000 Cubans (On and off the Island) right now who would claim to have fought with Fidel.

Antonio said...

I once heard a story of a Cuban-American that was very young in January 1959, and there was a family story about his tio, who was probably called Pepe, who was living in Havana the entire time the July 26th movement was in the mountains, and then threw on a pair of green fatigues and grew a beard just for the attention from women. Within a few years, he decamped to Miami.

I think had I been living in Cuba at the time I would have done the same. Sorry for the multiple posts.

alongthemalecon said...

Thanks for your comments, Antonio. I'll bet you are right that there are many old-timers in Cuba who say they fought with Fidel Castro.

Rich Haney, Cubaninsider said...

The NY Times, without even talking to Cubans on the island who remember the Cruz family, also severely questioned many of the tangents Ted Cruz and his dad have related about Rafael's pro-Castro/anti-Batista/anti-Castro background/turnaround, as well as their circuitous Cuba to Canada to Texas route. It's reminiscent, I think, of the other Cuban-American Senator running for President -- Marco Rubio. Rubio's bio when he reached the Senate still maintained his parents escaped the tyranny of Castro's Cuba for the freedom of Miami, until it was pointed out that their "escape" was in 1957, which would have been at the height of Batista's tyranny.

alongthemalecon said...

Thanks for your comment, Rich. While looking into Rafael Cruz's story, it struck me that his father ran the two stores in Havana. It seemed to me that he may have been more affluent than the family has let on.