The Topeka Capital-Journal (Kansas)
Sunday, August 22, 2004

Going home

Having left communist Cuba as a 12-year-old boy in 1961, Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray returns to his homeland, knowing that future visits might be restricted by new U.S. travel policies

By Pedro Irigonegaray
Special to The Capital-Journal

EDITOR'S NOTE: Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray has made three trips to his homeland, Cuba, in the past 43 years. His most recent trip was in May. The Topeka Capital-Journal asked Iringonegaray to write an essay about his trip and the memories and feelings it evoked.

Situated approximately 90 miles from U.S. soil, Cuba, my homeland, is an island of great natural beauty. From its warm tropical waters to its tall mountain peaks, from its palm-tree covered valleys to its white sandy beaches, the island offers its inhabitants and visitors a tropical paradise in which to live and play.

In La Habana (also known as Havana), one finds magnificent examples of colonial period, art deco and modern architecture. The city has suffered much decay during the past 45 years. It is sad to see such a beautiful city so badly neglected. Centuries-old structures rich in history and tradition speak of the time when Spain ruled the island. Cuba's geographical location, size and wealth have been great motivators for those who wished to possess it.

This past May, I returned to La Habana for the third time in 43 years. Invited by the Cuban government, I joined other Cubans living abroad, some now American citizens like me, for a national conference sponsored by the Cuban government to discuss a variety of issues.

For many years, I have advocated a need for an alternative to the status quo that defines our relationship with Cuba. Our Cuba policy, which has been in effect since the early 1960s, has been one of confrontation. During the last 45 years, we have not engaged in dialogue with our neighbor. Dialogue is essential to understanding. If we do not speak with one another, how can we really say we understand.

Cuba is governed by a communist dictatorship. Cuba's people are not free to openly criticize their government. Freedom of the press is not possible when the press is owned and controlled by the government. Cuban jails have within their walls individuals whose opinions were sufficient reason for their incarceration. Sadly, many have died and many more have suffered greatly in their quest to see the island live free and in peace.

But how do we fix it? Is it our responsibility to fix it? Or is the responsibility that of the Cuban people? I suggest Cuba and its people are responsible. Let's not stand in the way, rather let us help.

The conference in La Habana was not far from where I used to live. I left Cuba in 1961 as a 12-year-old boy with my mother, Maria Antonieta. We left behind my father and two sisters, our extended family, our home, friends, language, traditions and culture in a desperate journey for freedom and peace.

Unlike many others, I was fortunate to be reunited with my immediate family. My mother, father, two sisters and I reunited in the summer of 1961. We were truly the product of political chaos. Fortunately, here in Topeka, we found peace, freedom and much love. Topeka, the heart of America, became home. We had made it to the U.S.A.; freedom, peace and opportunity welcomed us.

In May 2004, I found myself just a few blocks from my former home discussing policy with the same government from which we had fled. I returned to Cuba as a 56-year-old man to share my commitment to fundamental principles of human rights and freedom.

With my Washburn University School of Law education and 30 years of professional experience, I felt prepared to return to Cuba to address issues of law and their importance to a free people. But whose law?

Is our system better? If so, why? I argued that for a judicial system to be both just and have the appearance of justice, it must be first independent. An independent judiciary is critical to a free people. Without the ability to question government, one's status in society is simply too vulnerable. An independent judicial system, well financed and well staffed, is the best gatekeeper I know for the protection of all citizens' rights.

At the conference in La Habana, both government officials and the invited guests had an opportunity to address the assembly. As I stood at the podium preparing to speak, I paused for a few moments to observe the great hall and its people, knowing that outside the doors liberty was still a dream.

I told the audience I had returned not as a Cuban citizen but as an American citizen, a lawyer and a friend to the Cuban people. I made it very clear that I believed in defending the people's fundamental rights to speak freely, to gather without fear, to express themselves politically in a multi-political party process, to travel freely, to read what one chooses and to write without fear.

I shared with the audience the love and opportunities I had received from my adoptive land, the United States, and its people. I shared with them that I had brought with me to Cuba some of the ashed remains of Rob Richardson, a man who had been a lifelong friend to me. Rob died a year ago. His wife Karol and some friends spread most of his ashes in Miami, where Rob and I as young men had spent many summers. Rob had always wanted to return to Cuba and asked me if he could not make it that I spread some of his ashes there. I spread Rob's ashes in the sea during a beautiful sunset just west of La Habana.

The trip to Cuba also offered me the rare opportunity to visit my extended family and friends. I have two aunts living in La Habana. They are what remain of my paternal family. Unlike my mother's family, my father's side of the family decided to stay in Cuba after Jan. 1, 1959, and defend the revolution. The difficulties and conflicts created by our family's political split were very difficult. On my mother's side, Fidel Castro was seen as a ruthless dictator whose communist ideology would deny citizens their freedom. My father's family saw the revolution as a way to separate Cuba and its people from the political and economic tentacles of the "American Octopus," to allow Cuba the experience of real independence and self-determination. The great divide became a political divorce.

During my trip in May, I was met at the airport by Andre, the son of a Russian Ph.D. physicist and a Cuban Ph.D. electrical engineer. As a little boy, Andre became a surrogate grandchild to my paternal family after we had left the island. He is like a brother to me. Andre is a physician. Tony, a Cuban boyhood friend, and I spent many hours playing as children. Tony is a little older than me. His parents were both Cuban doctors. Tony is a retired neurosurgeon. He went to Africa as a Cuban doctor; he is referred to by his colleagues as an internationalist. Andre and Tony are my friends. They are the best friends a person can have. They take care of my aunts in Cuba. Without them, my aunts' lives would be very difficult indeed.

I very much want Cuba and the United States to re-establish normal diplomatic relations. The embargo against Cuba presently enforced by the United States is causing great harm to both countries. What is its purpose? What is the benefit?

Undoubtedly, Cuba is governed by a dictator -- I have met him personally. He's flesh and bone, and like all flesh and bone, he will soon be gone. If we are interested in providing Cuba with real opportunity for change, for democracy, then I suggest we support Cuba with American freedom.

The United States today has diplomatic relations with Vietnam, a nation where more than 50,000 of our children died. We have diplomatic relations with China, the world's largest communist dictatorship. We have begun the process of negotiating with Libya, and the former Soviet Union now provides us with many friends and trading partners. Why not Cuba?

Cuba has a land mass the size of Pennsylvania. It's the 15th largest island in the world and sits just 90 miles off our border. Let's make a difference there, not with bullets, guns, bombs and blood, but with the power of our ideas, freedom and democracy.

Cuba's populous is well-educated and able to self govern. It is not up to the United States to govern them or choose their government. If we care for democracy, as we say we do, then let us lift the embargo's grip and allow our people to spread the news of freedom, justice and peace in Cuba. Let's allow Americans the freedom to travel to Cuba and share ideas.

Thousands of Cubans seeking freedom and a better economic life have perished in open ocean waters simply trying to reach American soil for a chance at a life denied to them in Cuba. This sad chapter of Cuba's history must come to an end.

The antagonism between the United States and Cuba must come to a stop. As educated men and women, we must find a solution. As free people, let us join hands with the millions of Cubans who wish to be free and independent. Let us remove the threat of violence, of intervention or control, and once and for all make it clear to the Cuban people that those principles we have fought and died for as Americans are truly the right of all people. Let us treat Cuba with an American policy that supports free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of faith, freedom of political expression and the freedom to openly criticize government. The ability to question one's government is a fundamental right of a free people.

Cuba's judiciary system is not independent. It is part of a vertically structured authority system whose authority flows down from the Communist party's leadership. Cuba's government does not have three separate and equal branches of government. It has only one, the Cuban Communist party. Perhaps a change would be of value to the Cuban people; however, this must be their choice.

Cuban people are more than able to handle their own domestic affairs. We should simply stand aside and let them sort it out. Removing our threats will facilitate evolution toward democracy. We have had enough revolution. I am convinced that America's continued threats to Cuban sovereignty will simply prolong the resolve of those on the island to defend what they have. Would we think any differently if we were being threatened?

Cubans are ready for freedom. Let us encourage freedom -- let us walk side by side with them. Let an evolving Cuba deal with its past and plan its future.

Let us return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba. We took it illegally. Let us allow our friendship with the Cuban people to empower them to concentrate on internal matters and not an external threat.

It is time to give freedom a chance. Let us all dream of a day when we will soon walk hand and in hand with our Cuban brothers and sisters in peace and joy.

How the people of Cuba will deal with its history and those responsible for it is an internal Cuban issue for Cubans to decide. I trust a free and independent Cuban populous to make the right decisions for themselves and their future.