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Locals with ties to Cuba wary of recent political discussions

NATCHEZ Until Cuba renounces its core socialist ideals, two locals with ties to the island nation know things won’t change for the better.

The United States and Cuba announced Wednesday plans to renew diplomatic relations after more than five decades.

Ellen Ogden Hefley, a Natchez resident who was born in Cuba, expressed concerns with the recent announcement of the United States renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Hefley’s father, pictured in the photo she’s holding, was a businessman in Cuba and managed to get his family out shortly after Fidel Castro took over the government. The portrait behind Hefley, which was painted in Cuba, is one of the several keepsakes she has in her Natchez home. (Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat)

Ellen Ogden Hefley, a Natchez resident who was born in Cuba, expressed concerns with the recent announcement of the United States renewing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Hefley’s father, pictured in the photo she’s holding, was a businessman in Cuba and managed to get his family out shortly after Fidel Castro took over the government. The portrait behind Hefley, which was painted in Cuba, is one of the several keepsakes she has in her Natchez home. (Rod Guajardo / The Natchez Democrat)

The series of executive decisions to improve diplomatic ties with Cuba include the opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and increased travel and cash-remittances by U.S. citizens to the island, among other things.

As the announcement made waves across the country, Ellen Ogden Hefley had a momentary gleam of hope for the Cuban people, with whom she spent the first 11 years of her life.

The Natchez resident was born in Cuba after her father joined the family business, a merchandise brokerage firm that brought food products and commodities to the island.

Until Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government in Cuba in 1959, Hefley’s life in Cuba was one she’ll always remember fondly and treasure.

But it was the firing squads and bombings implemented by the communist leader that raced back into her mind this week and quickly burned out the hope she thought could be ahead for Cuba.

“My gleam is darkly shadowed by the memory and thoughts of the 55 plus years of the Castro brothers and their soldiers as they inflicted great horror on their own people,” Hefley said. “I’m thinking about the Cuban people themselves, who are still under communist rule, and I just don’t think that will change through all of this.”

Hefley and her family managed to escape the island unharmed on Feb. 6, 1960, after a family friend and Cuban attorney implored Hefley’s father it was time to leave.

Hefley remembers the day as if it were yesterday, her mother picking Hefley and her sister, Anita, up from a kickball game.

“She said, ‘Come on. We’re going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras,’” said Hefley, whose family is from New Orleans and was involved with parade festivities that year. “We never returned.”

Hefley knew she wasn’t leaving behind the same Cuba she once adored, a place where her family belonged to a country club where tennis, swimming, golf and bowling were offered.

She was leaving a place where big, black “Xs” were drawn on the sides of buildings to indicate that the government had seized property and the owners were likely killed or imprisoned.

“Our parents didn’t tell us much about what was going on because they didn’t want us to worry, but I knew what was going on,” Hefley said. “We’re just so thankful for our family to leave with our lives as so many people perished under this regime.”

Those lives, as well as the vivid memories Hefley hangs on to nearly 54 years after leaving, are the only things she could help think about during the announcement earlier this week.

“There is nothing normal with this relationship with Cuba — a corrupt communist country whose leaders, the Castro brothers, are well documented as murderers and thieves,” Hefley said. “Have we conceded to a military dictatorship that brutalizes its own citizens? Can we trust the communists to change their way?

“The issue of Cuban rights violations remains untouched on the table.”

Former Natchez resident Joe Mitchell echoed Hefley’s distrust for the current Cuban leaders and any sort of positive change that can come with them still in office.

Mitchell has traveled to Cuba nearly 25 times for various purposes, including consulting and translating work to delivering medicines for the Cuban people.

Mitchell’s travels have allowed the former development director for the Natchez Children’s Home to see and experience the warmth of the Cuban people.

But Mitchell has also seen a nation of residents held back and kept in the dark.

“Personally, I don’t see democracy coming to Cuba,” Mitchell said. “No one alive there has lived under democracy, so their total lives have been dependent on that government.

“They probably know it’s better elsewhere, but that’s all they know.”

When Mitchell heard of the announcement earlier this week, no part of him thought the conversations to renew diplomatic relations would benefit the Cuban people — at least not yet.

“My personal feeling is that I just don’t trust anyone involved in it,” Mitchell said. “I’ve seen too much of the politics of all this to think this will benefit the Cuban people I know and care about.

“I care deeply for those people, and I hate to see them abused like they have been abused, but I don’t think as long as Fidel is alive anything good is going to come.”