Miami’s ‘historic’ Cuban exiles laid the groundwork for the unending fight against oppression | Opinion

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On July 11, 2021, a series of anti-government protests took place simultaneously in towns and cities throughout Cuba. These protests were the largest rejection of totalitarianism and curbs of civil liberties by the Cuban people in recent memory.

Without hesitation, the Cuban-American exile community supported its brethren on the island. And, for those of us who began fighting Cuba’s communist regime from its earliest days, the July 11 mass protests were a source of pride, and vindication.

We are called “The Historic Ones.” I am not sure if that label is a tribute or a pejorative. We are the generation of Cuban exiles that saw the creation of Cuba’s totalitarian state beginning in 1959 and beheld the nation’s sociopolitical devastation.

We are the generation of aging heroes of the Cuban urban resistance of the 1960s, of the Bay of Pigs invasion, of the uprising in the Escambray mountains, of the Pedro Pan exodus and of the Vietnam War. We are a generation of Cuban Americans that has fought valiantly defending freedom in both our adopted homeland and our place of birth. The youngest of our generation are now in their 70s, and we are necessarily passing the responsibility and the honor of defending freedom to a new generation.

We are a generation that stood alone against the tide and refused to salute the emerging totalitarian regime in our homeland. And yet, nowadays we are sometimes derided as intransigent old men and women who refuse to see a new reality that, according to some, requires accommodating the Cuban regime. We persist in a lonely intransigence reminiscent of that notorious 1936 image of the one man in the crowd who refused to make the Nazi salute to Hitler.

I urge the reader to look up this iconic photograph. It is a picture of hundreds of shipyard workers in Hamburg, Germany, pledging alliance to the Führer with their right arms outstretched in the Nazi salute. If you look closely, you can see a man (just right of center) who keeps his arms folded to his chest even though he is surrounded by countrymen in the spell of Nazi fanaticism. He alone is refusing to salute, and, in retrospect, he is the only one on the right side of history. We, historic Cuban exiles, were also on the right side of history.

The identity of the man who refuses to salute Hitler is not known with certainty but is believed to be August Landmesser. He joined the Nazi Party in 1931, but four years later, when he became engaged to a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler, he was expelled. Unwilling to renounce his relationship, Landmesser was imprisoned and eventually drafted into penal military service. In 1944, he was killed fighting in Croatia. Eckler was arrested by the Gestapo and held in several concentration camps. It is believed she was among the 14,000 murdered in the Bernburg Euthanasia Center in 1942. Theirs was a love story without a Hollywood ending.

I bring up Landmesser to spotlight the daring and courage of historic Cuban exiles who saw what others failed to see. Like those surrounding him in the picture, those surrounding us in the early days of the Cuban Revolution were tragically wrong. The historic Cuban exiles rejected the Cuban regime when others embraced it. We resisted totalitarianism in the face of mass hysteria.

The historic Cuban exiles transcended their fears, endured disparagement and experienced separation from family and friends. And yet, we are a generation of happy warriors that never has given up the dream of freedom for our homeland.

We have not yet succeeded in bringing freedom to Cuba. But we have succeeded admirably in transmitting love of country — for both the United States and Cuba — to our children and grandchildren. They inherit our struggle with an innate understanding of freedom. They apprehend the free flow of information, economic freedom, human rights, political liberty, transparency, freedom of speech and empowerment of the individual as a way of life.

Their freedom-fighting tactics will be different from ours, but we are passing the torch to a generation that values freedom as a philosophical and moral achievement. It is a generation that will not be entranced by the spell of communist fanaticism and will, like us, and like the man in the picture, refuse to salute totalitarian dogmas.

Dr. Jose Azel is a retired scholar of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban & Cuban American Studies. His latest book is “Liberty for Beginners.”

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