PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At 10 years old, Alina Fernández learned that the mysterious man who made frequent nighttime visits to her house was in fact her father, Fidel Castro.
As Fernández grew up, she watched her country fall apart as her father took control. Their relationship never developed further after learning of his identity.
In 1989, Fernández joined a dissident group in Cuba and began fighting back against her family’s oppressive regime. After bolstering the dissident cause for several years, the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Fernández to flee the country.
Conditions in Cuba had always been poor, but by 1993 they became unbearable for Fernández, who cited her daughter’s education as a primary reason for defecting. Her daughter was attending one of the best schools in the country, but she still had to ride a bike 10 miles to get to school. Educational funding was defunct and resources were too scarce to even operate a school bus system.
Fernández and her daughter were among the lucky ones. Outside the elite, conditions were considerably worse.
But even as an elite, the severity of the crisis in Cuba forced Fernández to leave both her homeland and her family behind.
Escaping Cuba proved to be no easy task. Fernández had to leave her daughter on the island. “You have to realize the desperation it takes to turn a person’s core to iron to withstand the hardship of escape and the possibility you may have no hope of ever seeing your child again,” Fernández said.
Fernández escaped by disguising herself as a Spanish tourist. She wore layers of makeup, put on a wig and even gained weight to pass herself off as the Spaniard whose passport she was using. After successfully making her way to Spain, and subsequently gaining asylum in America, Fernández had her daughter to think of.
She repeatedly made appeals to Castro himself, but to no avail. She was eventually able to smuggle her daughter out of Cuba without the help of her estranged father.
When asked if she had anything to say to her father after landing on American soil, she simply responded, “I’ve never spoken of Mr. Castro as my father. Please.”
Since then, Fernández has been an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. In 1995, Fernández took her first public stance on Cuba.
“Now that I’m in exile, I feel I need to do something. You can’t just bury the past,” she said.
Fernández organized a “flotilla,” a small formation of ships, to engage in a peaceful demonstration 12 miles off the coast of Cuba.
“All this flotilla does is call attention to the Cuban problem,” Fernández said. “The message to those on the island is that even though those of us in exile may err sometimes in our effort to promote change in Cuba, we are still one people.”
Fernández has been especially critical of Castro’s economic policies which allow crushing poverty to plague her homeland. “You don’t have to speak about freedom or all the other big words. The only thing you should focus on is the total poverty in which Cubans have to live,” she said. As Fernández knows all too well, poverty in Cuba has always been — and continues to be — a major problem.
In an effort to shed greater light on that problem, Fernández went on to host a daily radio program that focused on Cuban and Cuban-American issues. Her success on radio eventually landed her a role as a contributor on CNN.
Fernández eventually told her incredible story in her autobiographical book, “Castro’s Daughter: An Exile’s Memoir of Cuba.” That book is set to become a movie and is currently slated for a 2015 release.
Now, all these years later, Fernández’s message is one of hope despite the poverty and oppression that still dominate her home country. With Raúl Castro taking over for his brother Fidel in 2008, signs point to a possible turnaround for Cuba.
Fernández described her uncle Raúl as “a very rational, organized, and caring person,” though she recognizes the potential for power to corrupt that personality. She predicted that Raúl Castro would bring about a bevy of economic changes, but that he would be careful not to affect the political system in any substantive way.
Fernández’s prediction turned out to be sagacious. Raúl Castro has made great strides toward a more capitalist economic system. Those capitalist reforms have helped stem the tide of poverty in Cuba. However, corruption still runs rampant and political freedom remains a dream for Cubans everywhere.
That dream is very much alive in Fernández despite having cut ties with her family at an early age. Her estrangement from her family remains a specter for Fernández.
“It’s hard, sure, but there are many hard things in life and I know I’ve got to do this for my country,” said said. “I want to make up for at least a bit of the great mess my family made in my country.”
The split from her family and her country has left Fernández a unique breed: a patriot without a home.
“During these long years, I’ve become a tree that is getting older and older but has no roots,” she said.