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For Charlotte man, a return to his native Cuba explains the last 55 years

Jorge Guzman, center, holding some of the memorabilia from his exodus to America from Cuba as a child, including his passport as a child, left, and a photo of the plane he flew on, right. He is surrounded in his home by left to right daughters Reagan,11, Taylor, 8, and Emme Britt, 5, and his wife Nancy. Jorge Guzman was born in Cuba and lived there until he was 8, when in January 1961 -- two years after the start of Castro's revolution -- his parents put him on a Pan Am plane bound for Miami as part of a slow, quiet exodus of 14,000 Cuban children to America and freedom. Recently, after 55 years, he returned to Cuba for the first time.
Jorge Guzman, center, holding some of the memorabilia from his exodus to America from Cuba as a child, including his passport as a child, left, and a photo of the plane he flew on, right. He is surrounded in his home by left to right daughters Reagan,11, Taylor, 8, and Emme Britt, 5, and his wife Nancy. Jorge Guzman was born in Cuba and lived there until he was 8, when in January 1961 -- two years after the start of Castro's revolution -- his parents put him on a Pan Am plane bound for Miami as part of a slow, quiet exodus of 14,000 Cuban children to America and freedom. Recently, after 55 years, he returned to Cuba for the first time. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Jorge Guzman was sure he’d been a good son, but he had no clue why his parents had sent him away from Cuba.

He was 8. It was January 1961, two years after Fidel Castro’s revolution had overthrown Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, plunging the boy’s native country into constant turmoil.

Castro had promised equality. But Cuba’s more well-to-do – including Jorge’s family – found their property seized, private schools were closed or nationalized and students were drenched in Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Armed guerrilla fighters stood guard at every corner.

To avoid indoctrination, Jorge’s parents made the agonizing decision to slip him into a secretive two-year exodus called Operation Peter Pan that flew more than 14,000 Cuban unaccompanied youths, ages 5 to 18, on dozens of commercial flights to America.

His parents had told Jorge he was flying to Jamaica to visit friends when he climbed aboard a Pan Am plane at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport.

Instead, the plane landed in Miami.

“The flight attendant said, ‘Welcome to Miami’ and I thought ‘My gosh, I got on the wrong plane,’ ” said Guzman, 63, who has lived in Charlotte off and on since 1975. He wouldn’t return to Cuba until recently after 55 years.

“Then this 16-year-old kid ... walks up to me and broke the news: ‘Your mom and dad love you very much. But they’re not coming here.’ 

Castro took everything

Cuba has always fascinated Americans. The interest has increased in recent months with President Barack Obama planning to visit the communist island later this month to continue talks on restoring diplomatic ties. Last week, American Airlines applied for permission to fly nonstop from Charlotte to Havana.

Even at 6, you remember these things for the rest of your life. You remember the chaos ... the guerrillas in from the mountains riding around in Jeeps. You remember seeing the buildings with bullets holes and blood-stained walls.

Jorge Guzman

Yet Jorge Guzman and his family, proud of their roots, had promised they wouldn’t return until Castro died.

His life there was idyllic. Guzman and his parents lived with his grandparents in a seaside house in Santa Fe near Havana. His father, also named Jorge, was an accountant and part owner of a sugar plantation six hours south. They had maids, cooks and a nanny who looked after the younger Jorge. His private school was a bike ride away and after eating lunch at home, he’d take a swim in the ocean before returning to school.

His Cuba began to unravel around Christmas 1958, when Guzman was 6.

On a Sunday afternoon, his father had taken him to see a double-feature at a nearby movie theater. During the intermission, a bomb exploded in a theater bathroom.

“Even at 6, you remember these things for the rest of your life,” Guzman said. “You remember the chaos outside the theater, the guerrillas in from the mountains riding around in Jeeps. You remember seeing the buildings with bullets holes and blood-stained walls.”

A week later, Jan. 1, 1959, Castro’s overthrow was complete. Initially, many Cubans supported Castro, so disgusted with Batista’s rule.

It didn’t last long, after Castro admitted he was a Marxist.

Guzman remembers a neighbor, a “beautiful woman in her 20s,” telling other neighbors that she wasn’t sure Castro would be good for Cuba. She was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. “We were all fearful,” he said. “You no longer knew if your friends were your friends. There was no happiness.”

The Marxist government took the family’s sugar plantation. It took his Aunt Elsa and Uncle Marcelo Lescano’s house. They were ordered to leave immediately by soldiers who barged in.

‘We all cry and cry’

Rumors spread that the government intended to send the brightest students to Russia for total indoctrination.

Uncle Marcelo, a Havana lawyer, was told of a plan to get Cuba’s children out of the country, using a special visa program organized by the U.S. State Department and the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Once we get in the car, my sister and brother-in-law cry and cry and cry. We all cry and cry.

Elsa Lescano, Jorge Guzman’s aunt

Guzman’s parents decided to add their son to Operation Peter Pan. His mother wanted to take him, but she’d discovered she was pregnant.

The day Guzman left, his family, including his grandparents and the Lescanos, packed in a car to see him off.

The children were crowded into a room with a glass wall that separated them from their families. It was called “La Pecera,” The Fishbowl. Guzman watched his family as he waited to board. Some of the children, upset at the separation, crossed the glass wall and lost their seat.

The parents thought they’d be reunited in a matter of weeks, certain the new government wouldn’t last.

After the plane took off, the family was devastated.

“Once we get in the car, my sister and brother-in-law cry and cry and cry,” said Aunt Elsa, who now lives inDelray Beach, Fla. “We all cry and cry.”

In Miami, Guzman was processed and housed at a camp “in the middle of swamp” for several weeks. Then on Feb. 6, 1961, he and dozens of other Cuban children were flown to a Catholic orphanage in Philadelphia called St. Vincent’s Home, where “we saw our breaths for the first time, and experienced coldness for the first time.”

Two months later, on April 17, anti-Castro Cubans backed by the CIA attempted a counterrevolution called the Bay of Pigs. The operation miserably failed, but the State Department made it easier for Cubans to enter the United States.

In November, his parents and baby brother Carlos landed in America. Ultimately, they went to Pepperell, Mass., where they had relatives. They came with a suitcase and nothing else. “My father was in his late 30s, and he lost everything,” Guzman said.

They couldn’t get their son until his father got a job. Guzman spent his first American Christmas at the orphanage. “It was the worst Christmas I ever had,” he said. “I knew we were so close, but yet we couldn’t be together.”

The following month, his father got a job as a printer and the family reunited after a year. Guzman’s grandfather had stayed behind in Cuba to protect the family property, but once he realized nothing could be saved, he decided to join the family in America.

On Dec. 23, 1965, the day he was to fly out, he died from a heart attack.

‘There is no greater love’

Guzman moved to Greenwood, S.C., when he was in ninth grade. “Cubans weren’t made to shovel snow,” he said. He graduated from Clemson with a civil engineering degree and now works as a salesman for a Swiss company.

As the 55th anniversary of his flight to America approached, Guzman still was waiting for Castro to die before he returned. Then last year, Aunt Elsa called. With U.S.-Cuban relations thawing, she felt safe to go back. She was 78 and wanted to relive “gorgeous memories,” and make sure her father’s grave was properly tended.

There was no future for me in Cuba. When I got on that airplane without my parents, I lost my youth. But I do know this: There is no greater love than parents willing to put their children on an airplane so they can have a shot at a better life.

Jorge Guzman

So in November, they went: Guzman, wife Nancy, and his two daughters from a previous marriage; and Elsa and her two children. They flew into the airport that he’d flown out of as a boy. Once on the streets of Havana, it was as if time had stood still for 55 years.

“Listening to the Cuban songs and language and seeing the military presence still there, with the old American cars, it was like a day hadn’t passed,” Guzman said. “The people were so nice – it was obvious they lived a hard life.”

They hired a cab driver in a 1956 Ford Fairlane.

They found his grandparents’ house, destroyed by a hurricane and roughly rebuilt with scrap lumber. They took Elsa to the cemetery, also in disrepair. She choked up Saturday recounting the scene. She cleaned up the grave, and found someone to look after it.

For Guzman, their return explained the last 55 years.

“There was no future for me in Cuba,” he said. “When I got on that airplane without my parents, I lost my youth. I became an adult very quickly. But I do know this: There is no greater love than parents willing to put their children on an airplane so they can have a shot at a better life.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061; @dperlmutt

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