By MIGUEL PEREZ | NorthJersey.com
When Rafael Aleman first came to New Jersey, he figured he’d return to Cuba in a year or two.
But that was in 1967, long before Aleman got married and had three daughters and three grandchildren, long before he became an American citizen, before he opened a Paterson supermarket and ran it for 32 years, before he bought the Wayne home where he spends his retirement mowing the lawn and working in his garden.
“Like most Cubans, I had no intention of staying here,” said Aleman, 71. “I always thought I would be going back soon.”
Yet now that Fidel Castro’s government could be coming to an end—with the dictator temporarily relinquishing control to his brother, Raul, after undergoing surgery to treat gastrointestinal bleeding—many Cuban-Americans like Aleman are dealing with a soul-searching question:
Will they finally go home after Castro dies or choose to remain in the United States?
After planting roots in American soil for decades—buying homes, building businesses, raising families—answering that question is harder for them than one might expect.
Their response usually begins with two words: “It depends.”
The post-Castro future depends on whether a democratic government is established or the communist system is preserved under Raul or another potential dictator. It also depends on whether there is enough housing in Cuba to accommodate those who would return and whether family ties force many to remain here.
For Aleman, who has now lived here longer than in Cuba, going back to the city of Camaguey to live out the rest of his life is not an option.
“My family is here,” he says. “What am I going to do in Cuba? Where would I live? There is no place for us to live in Cuba. I may go there to visit. But that’s it.”
Even those who arrived much later than Aleman have already settled here.
“I would go back to help out, to help rebuild Cuba,” said Justo Delgado, 62, of Union City, who came from Cuba in 1980. “But my wife is Dominican, I have an American child and I am a U.S. citizen. I am very grateful to this country for the treatment I have received here. This is where I want to die.”
Going back isn’t even a consideration for many Cubans if Raul Castro takes over. Fidel’s younger brother, who has been designated his successor, is likely to be just as repressive as his elder, they say.
“Definitely, if Raul remains in power, no Cuban is going back to live there,” said Remberto Perez of Tenafly, “because it would be a continuation of the tyranny, more of the same. It would not be a transition or a change.”
Perez is the New Jersey representative of the Cuban-American National Foundation, an organization planning to open a North Jersey office this week to promote “no to succession and yes to transition.”
There are others like Aleman, however, who see things differently.
Cuban exiles need to avoid the desire to go back seeking revenge against communists who may have done them harm, they say.
“The American government should try to negotiate with Raul, even if the Cuban exile community doesn’t like it,” Aleman said. “The harm has already been done. We should now look for a peaceful transition.”
Cuba is sustained by tourism, remittances from exiles and subsidies from the leftist Venezuelan government, he noted. If most of that income was suddenly cut off, there would be chaos, he said.
“You can’t have a coup that would leave 11 million people without food,” he said.
While negotiating with one of the Castro brothers is considered a rare, moderate and even liberal position in Cuban-American circles, some say it won’t be necessary.
“I’m going back,” said Cuban bandleader Carlos Barberia, as he held up a drink and offered a victory toast in a Union City restaurant. “Raul will not be able to control the Cuban people from taking the streets. He will have to flee.
“I’m setting up my orchestra in Havana again.”
Regardless of where they see themselves spending their post-Castro future, most Cuban-Americans dismiss the notion that they are returning to reclaim the homes and property they left behind.
“I left a house that is still occupied by my niece,” Aleman said. “But my wife had a house that was taken over by strangers, and it would be absurd for us to think that we can reclaim it. If you want your property back, you are going to have to buy it, and even that will take time.”
Perez said exiles don’t need to reclaim their properties.
“A huge majority of us already have a lot more than we ever had in Cuba,” Perez said. “What was left behind, in terms of housing and other properties, has little value in comparison to what we have here.”
The quest for freedom is plenty enough motivation, Perez said.
“We have to keep telling the Cuban people that we are not going to Cuba to kill anybody or to claim anything, that our only interest is in a transition toward democracy,” he said. “What we want is to help. What we want is an open government. If the communists want to run for office, let them.”
If Cuba changed to a democratic form of government, how likely would you return to live on the island? (From a 2004 poll of 1,811 Cuban-Americans.)
# Not at all likely: 46.2%
# Not very likely: 18.3%
# Very likely: 17.1%
# Somewhat likely: 15.2%
# Don’t know/no response: 3.1%
NOTE: Percentages are rounded. Source: Institute for Public Opinion Research and the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University, Miami.