When Dan Nuñez planned his trip to Cuba, he expected to learn more about the island’s political history. He didn’t expect to experience it firsthand.
Nuñez, 32, was hanging out at a Cuban discotheque just after midnight on Nov. 25 when news broke that Fidel Castro had died.
“Two men in uniform came in — not full military garb, just the blue shirts I learned to associate with people who have a little authority — and they made a beeline for the DJ booth, and the music cut out,” Nuñez said. “A guy took the microphone and said, ‘El Presidente se murio’ (the president died), and then said that they were closing the discotheque out of respect.”
The lights went on and they were ushered toward the exit.
The Lansing-based artist was visiting Cuba with his parents, who had emigrated to the U.S. over 50 years ago. They were scheduled to fly back to Miami the next day, and Nuñez was worried about how the news would impact the country. At that point, he wasn’t even sure which Castro had died.
“I was terrified it might be Raúl,” Nuñez said, referring to Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who has been running the country since 2006. “I began to freak out immediately, because I remember all these stories my parents have told me. Leaving Cuba is not a given.”
His first instinct was to stock up on food from a snack bar. Next, he picked up an Internet card from the resort lobby. There is only one Internet service provider in Cuba, and most people connect to the Internet with pre-paid, one-hour access cards. Back in his hotel room, Nuñez was able to get online and piece together what had happened.
“I saw that it was Fidel who died,” he said. He turned on the TV and watched the state media’s three-hour propaganda reel until 4 in the morning.
The next morning, Nuñez broke the news to his parents, and the three took an awkward, mostly silent taxi ride from the resort in Varadero to the airport in Havana. Nuñez was surprised to find that the capital city seemed largely unfazed by the news.
“I didn’t see a bunch of people dancing or a bunch of people grieving. It was a bunch of people doing what they’ve been doing,” Nuñez said. “It was business as usual. You wouldn’t have known, except that every television was running the propaganda loop.”
The family boarded their flight to Miami without incident, and a very different scene greeted them when they landed. Castro’s death won’t have much immediate effect on the country’s political situation, but the demise of a dictator who drove thousands of Cubans out of the country was big news among émigrés in the United States.
“In Miami, where people like my family had to give up everything and start over, they were dancing in the street,” Nuñez said. “I went to Calle Ocho, which is basically a Cuban town, and they shut down the street. There were more flags than I have ever seen. It was spontaneous and beautiful. There was this catharsis that was palpable, that was 50 years in the making.”
Nuñez’s parents, like many Cuban immigrants, fled to the U.S. in the early 1960s to escape Castro’s revolution.
“When my parents emigrated, it was legal, but it was crazy,” Nuñez said. “My grandparents were doing well before the revolution. When a communist revolution takes place, if you’re doing well, that’s not a great place to be.”
Nuñez’s parents, Antonio Nuñez and Margarita Sanchez, both 68, grew up near each other but did not know each other before coming to the United States. They were sent to the U.S. alone as children. Their parents remained in Cuba, thinking that the revolution would soon be quashed by the U.S. and that they would be able to return. Sanchez, 12 at the time, landed in an orphanage in Philadelphia, while Nuñez, then 14, moved in with some relatives in Miami who were not thrilled to have another child to look after.
Sanchez eventually moved to Miami, where she met Nuñez. They both graduated from Florida State University, he with a doctorate in neuroscience and she with a master’s degree in social work. They married in 1977. Nuñez is associate dean at Michigan State University’s graduate school, while Sanchez is a retired social worker.
“They’re the American dream,” Dan Nuñez said. “They came here with nothing, saved up and invested in their education.”
Before this trip, neither of Nuñez’s parents had been back to Cuba since they left as children.
“Once we started to normalize relations, my mother immediately started making plans to go, because she cared so much about maintaining this heritage,” Nuñez said.
The family split the trip between Havana, the island’s cultural center, and the resort city of Varadero.
“We spent six days in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which is beautiful and historic and maintained,” Nuñez said. “If you walk a little bit off the beaten path, you can get to the real neighborhoods, which aren’t running on tourism. But even those are beautiful in their own regard.”
Nuñez was impressed by the resilience of the Cuban people in Havana.
“Everyone was better to one another than I see in Michigan. People looked out for each other,” Nuñez said. “There’s a lot of poverty, but there’s a lot more kindness than I expected.”
The experience in Varadero, however, was much different. The coastal town caters to tourists from around the world.
“It’s mythologized for having the whitest sand and most turquoise water,” Nuñez said. “It was unreal — and by that I mean it was pretty fake. It was like Cancun spring break.”
For Nuñez, the trip emphasized the difference between American Cubans, who idealize the country they left, and the Cubans who remained to endure the country’s economic and political hardships.
“The dichotomy between their reactions shows that things have moved on in Cuba, while the immigrants in Miami are still living and dying for this,” Nuñez said. “Cuba isn’t what people in Miami who left Cuba think it is.”
And he will always remember the feeling when he learned of Castro’s death.
“It was absolutely surreal,” he said. “And it was terrifying until it wasn’t.”