Innocent, Roberto Batista, 11, thought he was going on vacation to New York with his nine-year-old brother to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1958 with his godparents. Or so his parents told him. It was December 30, the militias led by Che Guevara had started the offensive on Santa Clara, the last stronghold before Havana, and Roberto’s father, the dictator Fulgencio Batista, was about to fall. But he didn’t know about that.
Upon his arrival, descending the stairs of the plane, he found a group of people waiting for them on the other side of the fence. “They insulted us, they harassed us, they humiliated us … We didn’t know what they were talking about,” he tells elDiario.es. “At the time of picking up the suitcases, the same scene was reproduced, but with an aggravation: the flashes of the journalists. I was scared. I was scared.”
As reported then by The New York TimesThere were only five sympathizers of the Cuban rebels. Among the screams was heard that of “war criminals.” “They left the airport in two limousines for the Waldorf Towers. A suite often occupied by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor was reserved for them,” read the news story that day. Already at the hotel, there was a new assault by journalists.
“That night we went to bed shaking. The shock had been very strong. We turned on the television on January 1 and saw how Havana had become a battlefield. When they told us that our parents had left for the Dominican Republic, we felt very alone. Abandoned, “says Roberto Batista.
Those first hours in New York marked him deeply, and continue to do so. Then he realized that he would have to deal with his father’s political legacy forever.
For many years, his response was to avoid the topic. The elephant in the room, which would be said in English. “If Cuba came out in a conversation with friends, colleagues or acquaintances, I could not speak. I did not have enough courage, knowledge, or strength. It was like a feeling of very great inferiority to that monster that was Cuban politics,” he says . “If the subject could not be avoided, a range of afflictions would reappear that not even years of psychiatric treatment have managed to cure.”
“If I went down the street and heard something with a Cuban accent, it would paralyze me. It would enter me like a tremor. The departure from Cuba influenced me a lot and I received a bill whose wounds have not yet healed,” he confesses. “I think I did not want to seek the truth because everything that touched Cuba made me shudder, it hurt and I didn’t have an answer. Therefore, until I was 50 or 52 years old, I tried to live with my back to Cuba.”
One night, working late, something changed and he thought: “I have to learn more about Cuba. I cannot go on in this ignorance or in this comfort in quotes.”
“It took years, but from that night on I started very slowly with some conversation, some reading, the press … It wasn’t until 2017 that, working in New York, I was able to attend the Fifth Avenue Public Library and read the Cuban press from late 1940s and early 1950s, “he says. He went there, read, stressed, took his notes … but the pandemic, he says, forced him to stop research on his own history.
After delving into his father’s legacy as a public figure, Roberto Batista sat down to write his memoirs, recently published in ‘Son of Batista’ (Verbum). “Writing this book has been very painful. Very difficult. And these memories are the result of grief,” he says.
The book starts from a premise: “How can a son judge his father?” Its pages are a sentimental reflection in which a son describes a loving father in the family environment. However, it also includes political deliberations that for so many years he had tried to avoid: he judges the 1952 coup and the dictatorship as a “mistake”, criticizes the Cuban revolution and boasts of his father’s economic management in a constant attempt to clean up his image. .
He also doesn’t shy away from the thorniest topics, although he doesn’t delve too deeply into them. From corruption, violations of rights or even his father’s relationships with the mafia. However, he believes that much of what is written about Fulgencio is “a black legend product of Castro’s propaganda.”
“The painful unknown of the origin of the domestic patrimony remains […] The hurtful and heartbreaking of that doubt accompanies me, but if I want to reach some personal peace, I must express myself honestly. It is worth asking myself: did my father harm me? I will continue to interrogate history, “he writes in the book.
Roberto says that “never” has the Batista surname “hurt” him, but he has felt “observed and judged.” “I thought I was entering a place and people looked at me thinking ‘here comes the son of the dictator’, ‘they are thieves’ … but I have carried the surname with a certain pride and determination,” he says.
However, in his professional career he confesses that he always tried not to reveal his family past. “I thought that my last name in a city as much of the Democratic Party as New York could crash and maybe I couldn’t get a job. I was afraid that something had been put on me here,” he told a co-worker in his last office when he was he found out who his father was.
While with his brother in New York, his father remained in exile for a few months in the Dominican Republic under the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a period that he remembers with great pain. “When we talked to him on the phone, he cut himself off and machine guns were heard as if they were killing him,” he says. Trujillo, he says, treated him very badly and Roberto never understood why his father went into exile there. A few months later, he went to Salazar’s Portugal and later to Franco’s Spain, where he died in 1973.
During all those years he made several requests to enter the United States, but Washington never accepted him. “He always thought he was a friend of the Americans and then there was no reason to deny him entry. That was clearly spoken at home,” he says.
After a life of exile, at 74, Roberto Batista has not set foot in Cuba since Christmas ’58. “I have not returned and I am not going to return until democracy is fully restored,” he says, convinced.