Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, who represents Secaucus and North Bergen, wishes his mother, who passed away in 1999, had lived to see democracy in her native Cuba.
Inés Prieto came to the United States in 1970 with Vincent, then 10, leaving President Fidel Castro’s dictatorial brand of Communism behind.
Just as other Cubans and Cuban-Americans wait, the Prieto family also is waiting to see what will happen in their homeland now that illness has forced Castro to step down.
Prieto was neither impressed nor enthusiastic about last week’s development.
“Fidel’s rule has ended, but the Castro regime will still continue under Raul [Castro],” Prieto said last week. “There will only be real change in Cuba when the country is able to move towards a democratic form of government, and the people there are able to hold free elections and enjoy the types of freedoms we have here.”
Prieto, who was born right after Castro came to power, said he remembers some of the hardships growing up in Cabaiguan, a small town in the central-Cuban province of Las Villas.
Growing up in Cuba
“I have a lot of vivid memories,” he said. “Everything was rationed. I can recall the long lines outside of stores when things would come in. Sometimes items would run out.”
He added, “You were given six ounces of meat per person per week. You got a quarter loaf of bread a day per person. You were given one pair of shoes a year.”
Prieto and his mother were among the last Cubans to come to the United States on what were known as the “Freedom Flights,” which allowed Cuban immigrants here to sponsor relatives still living on the island to enter this country.
Prieto’s grandmother and uncle, who were living in Miami, Fla., sponsored his mother and him. They lived in Miami for a brief time before eventually moving north to Union City. Eventually, Prieto moved to Secaucus.
Left older brothers behind
Inés had to make the difficult choice to bring one of her four children with her while leaving three others behind in Cuba.
“Seeing her struggle to get me out is something that is always stuck in the back of my mind because I’m one of four brothers,” Prieto said. “I’m the youngest. And the policy that was set in Cuba was you were considered military age at 13, so you were not allowed to leave the country [if you were of military age]. So, she just barely got me out.”
Prieto’s older brothers had to remain in Cuba and serve in the military there.
One of Inés’ greatest accomplishments was getting her other three sons out of Cuba and eventually bringing them to the U.S. with the rest of the family. Prieto said that his mother had to get his brothers out through intermediary countries. One brother went to Spain, another went through Costa Rico, and the third got out through Jamaica.
“Getting them out of Cuba was a goal of hers,” Prieto said.
He said his mother frequently discussed pre-Castro Cuba, perhaps in an effort to paint an image of the country she hoped would one day exist again in the future.
It’s an image Prieto – who believes the U.S. should continue its embargo against he island nation – hopes the country will be able to move towards after the Castro regime is truly over.
“I don’t know what will happen when Raul is no longer in power,” he said. “But I certainly hope that there will be an opportunity then for a more democratic country to begin to emerge.”