During the July 4 holiday week, the daughters of Melchor Gaston and Maria Luisa Sanchez gathered with their families for a big family reunion on St. Simons Island.
At one time, the island was home for one of the four sisters at the reunion. Bea Skeens and her husband Don reared their children here. Bea taught Spanish at Brunswick High and Don was the head of the grounds of all Glynn County school system facilities including the impeccable turf at Glynn County Stadium.
There were about 65 of them in a photo on the steps of the Casino bandstand. The four sisters and their husbands sat in the white rocking chairs as their sons, daughters, their children’s spouses and grandchildren filled the steps.
The Sanchez sisters spent their early years on another island, and that’s why the following week some of them were watching FOX News, One America News, CNN, Spanish cable channels and reading the Miami Herald and Spanish language newspapers to catch any news of the unrest in Cuba, the place they once called home. They saw people in the streets protesting the lack of food and medicine, which the communist government promised to deliver but never has. Unlike many American protests, there was no looting perhaps because there is little to loot in Cuba.
A Christian Cuban minister who came to America a few years ago said he had recently gotten his annual allotment of chicken — a leg and a thigh.
The Spanish Bea taught was the language her family spoke at home in Havana 60 years ago. The fourth of six sisters, Bea was 10 when Fidel Catro’s guerrilla army marched into the capitol and took control, the dictator Batista having fled.
“My bedroom window looked out onto the street. I remember seeing the men and women in green with rifles in the street. I was so scared,’’ she said.
Some people thought things would be better under Castro especially with free elections. Instead, the economy has all but collapsed, and Cuba swapped one brutal dictator for another.
Before then, the Sanchez family had it pretty good.
“My father’s family owned the successful sugar mill Ingenio Dolores in Cienfuegos and had been very active in Agrarian reform with the Christian Democratic Party, and my mother’s family owned and operated a large cattle and dairy ranch in Nuevitas, Camaguey both stolen by the Castro government,” Bea said.
Cuba exported a lot of sugar in those days. Now, it can’t even produce enough for domestic needs.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, the son of Bea Skeen’s cousin, said, “What should be contemplated right now is a coalition of potential military action in Cuba,’’ similar to U.S. actions in Panama and Yugoslavia. All but one mayor of neighboring cities has sided with the demonstrators.
On July 11, the Christian Liberation Movement called on Cubans to keep up the pressure on communist authorities to open general elections. The country is suffering its worst ever scarcity of essential food and medicine, and COVID-19 is running rampant, the CLM said.
Cuba has its own three-shot COVID vaccine but the vaccination rate is under 10 percent, the Christian Liberation Movement says, because people don’t trust the government.
After Pope John Paul II visited in 1996, the officially atheist Cuban government lightened up on the Catholic church and it came out of hiding. Churches are supporting the demonstrations.
One of the churches Castro shut down was a Catholic church near the sugar mill. Its members removed the stained glass window from the church and hid it from the communists, Bea Skeens said.
“They moved it from house to house,’’ and now it’s back in a church, she said.
All of Melchor Gaston and Maria Luisa Sanchez’s family made it out, and they’ve prospered in the U.S., but some go back to visit those who remained who, Bea Skeens said, “are like family to us.”
On those visits, they take food, medicine and other things Cubans, except for communist officials, can’t get. Until a few days ago, they had to pay a duty on it. The Cuban government lifted the fee, which was a big important source of revenue, but will reassess it after Dec. 31.
Meanwhile, the demonstrations are going on all over the country, not just the ones you see in the big cities like Havana. Bea Skeens, her sisters’ families and other families for former Cubans are watching with very mixed emotions.
“We’re glad it’s happening. We just hope it’s for the best. We just wish there was something we could do,’’ she said.
President Biden called on the Cuban regime “to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment rather than enriching themselves.”
That’s not likely to happen although the Cuban embassy in Washington had only to look outside to see the words “Cuba Libre” in large white letters on the street.
The children and the grandchildren of Cubans who fled are demonstrating on free soil. They gathered last week in a Miami park around a 62-foot-tall monument with the names of more than 10,000 Cubans who the Castro regime murdered or who died at sea trying to reach this country. An estimated 5,000 are being held as political prisoners. Fidel’s brother, Raoul, led a counter demonstration of communists Saturday. At least 200 demonstrators have been arrested or have disappeared. There are likely far more as the government cracks down.
I don’t speak much Spanish. I barely know enough to order Mexican food. But for my longtime friends I say, “Cuba Libre.”