I read Carlos Eire’s “Waiting for Snow in Havana” thinking it would help me better understand my friend Maria, who bought 36 copies and sent them to her relatives. You see, both Eire and Maria were among the 14,000 children airlifted from Havana to become orphans in Miami sometime between 1960 and 1962, when right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista was replaced by revolutionary left-wing dictator Fidel Castro. They were part of the not-so-well-known-outside-of-Florida “Peter Pan” or “Pedro Pan” Airlift. Unlike the Peter Pan character in the children’s book who would never grow up, these kids had to grow up fast. The reason for the massive emigration was that middle and upper-class parents thought their children were to be taken from them to study and work on collective farms in Cuba or the Soviet Union and they feared for their safety.
Eire’s book is largely a memoir of his childhood in Havana — which at times he compares to paradise — but also a story of his early experiences in the U.S., which were far from paradisiacal. The turquoise sea, tangerine sunsets and views of the Gulf of Mexico from his elementary school classroom are images he frequently brings up from the past; he contrasts these to gray skies, frigid temperatures, cold beaches, and disturbing scenes from his life as an orphan in the US, moving from camps to private homes, to foster homes.
Mr. Eire’s father was a judge, which put his family among the elite — not a good location in the social strata after the revolution. Their lives were not those of the super rich, but were comfortable. The author confessed that he had never had to take care of himself, had never even buttered a piece of toast. Among the many changes caused by the revolution were the confiscation of the houses of the wealthy to become homes for leaders of the revolution, the declaration of existing money as worthless and the subsequent emergence of ration cards so that everyone had to stand in long lines to buy what few goods were for sale. Also common were the daily round-ups of people considered to be “Worms ” — a name for the enemies of the revolution — to be imprisoned or placed in front of firing squads. His parents sheltered him from as much of the horror as they could, although he was aware of relatives who had been jailed and tortured and one who was killed. Mr. Eire says that he spent most of the time in denial about what was happening around him, and he still lives with questions, vivid images, anger, a sense of loss, and fears from childhood. I imagine that he and my friend Maria have this in common, but reading the book did not give me a picture of her childhood. No worries, though. She has promised to share her story with me soon.
I’ll end with my favorite quote from the book, because it describes not just the author’s life, but life itself: “It has taken me such a long time to realize that few things in life are simple, that so many things are mixed. Good and evil dancing with each other so tightly, only one subatomic particle between them, while indifference looks on as a chaperone. with her two lazy eyes, neither one of them capable of focusing.”