When you hear the word Cuba what comes to mind? Cigars, classic cars, bold colors or perhaps delightful food? Although accurate, there is another perspective… do the names Fidel Castro or Fulgencio Batista ring a bell? “The Cold War” and “The Revolution” had impact on us all, but this story begins in Holguin, Cuba, 1961 through the eyes of a 14-year-old Cuban boy.
Typical of any adolescent… Juan J. Suarez roamed the streets of Holguin carefree unbeknownst to the political war Fidel Castro was waging. Castro was set on eradicating the United States’ influence in Cuba making the island an “equal” state… or as Juan says today “if your family worked hard to earn their money, by default, the majority would belong to the government.” His parents were not aligned with Fidel’s strategy and agreed to send Juan on a journey to freedom.
Ironically, Juan’s American uncle, John Armstrong was stationed at the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay (also known as “GTMO” leased nearly 60 years earlier on Cuban soil) and had a plan set for Juan.
After kissing his mother and father goodbye for what he thought would be a brief separation, he began his journey. Juan traveled from Holguin to Santiago De Cuba then Guantanamo, where he was hidden for 3 days. He spent a night in Caimanera before sneaking on board the boat that would take him to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base (Map below for reference).
(Caimanera was the meeting point where migrant Cuban’s in the 1950’s and 60’s transferred daily to U.S. territory for various jobs that paid higher wages than Cuba).
Imagine approaching an international border between communism and democracy with a fake ID at the age of fourteen... Despite the intensity, Juan carried out the instructions outlined breaching the communist guard with no remarks. The strange baby-faced passenger took a seat on the boat among the daily travelers without a word. With his heart racing, the young Cuban made his way to U.S. soil with no immediate plan of return.
As the boat made its way to GTMO, Juan recalls spotting naval ships and marine guards from a distance. As the ship docked in Guantanamo Bay someone who recognized his face quickly pulled him off the boat asking, “are you a Cuban exile?” Juan recalls explaining he was at the base to meet his uncle and did not speak any English. Rather quickly, the guard made him a naval base ID to authenticate his arrival and shortly after that, he was reunited with his Uncle John.
For a full year Juan lived on the naval base under the guardianship of his uncle John Armstrong where he attended school, learned English and how to eat T-bone steak on U.S. soil.
Juan J. Suarez is now 71 living with his wife in Miami, FL. He has two children and two grandchildren. His memory of Cuba is struggle, pain, family detachment and self-exploration at a young age. To this day, GTMO houses about 30 exiled Cuban’s with similar stories to Juan who have not seen family members since the 60’s.
56 years later, Juan returned to Cuba thanks to the Guantanamo Bay Association which provided the opportunity to refresh his memory, meet and share stories with fellow exiles and visit the exact spot where he landed when he came from Caimanera. Juan’s story is dedicated to exiled Cuban’s who left their families behind in search for freedom and political idealism.
If you or anyone you know has a divine connection to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base you can also take a trip to relive your experiences by joining the association here. If you have any fond memories about your time in GTMO or you have a Cuban exile story we would love to hear more, drop us a line.