TAMPA — There was a time when his neighbors celebrated the support Abelardo Arteaga gave to the Cuba of the Castro brothers. Fifty-five years ago this Jan. 1, Cubans in Ybor City and West Tampa danced in the street when the Cuban revolution declared victory.
Much has changed since that day in 1959. Cuba embraced Communism. The Soviet Union fell. Fidel Castro relinquished power to his brother Raul. Eleven U.S. presidents tilted against the Castros. Today, Congress debates what to do next with Cuba.
Yet through it all, Arteaga, a Tampa native, has never wavered in his support of the island nation.
At 91, Arteaga is the elder statesman among those in Tampa who would eliminate the trade and travel embargo imposed by the U.S. He has challenged it from the beginning. He has sparred with those who note that the revolution brought its own oppression, against people who speak in opposition.
Arteaga has donated food, clothing and medical supplies. He purchased a bus with a wheelchair for a retirement home in Cuba.
His efforts have drawn attention.
Cuba honored Arteaga in 2007 at its Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., with an honorary citizenship, complete with a Cuban passport to make travel easier.
Some pro-embargo activists have challenged Arteaga over the years. The interior of his home has been splashed with red paint. He has been called names. He even left the U.S. temporarily and sought refuge in Cuba.
But he said those who have sought to silence him have failed.
“I’m not a bad person,” he says, “I only want to help Cuba. I do it peacefully. I have never hurt anyone.”
“He is my hero,” said Maura Barrios, an academic advisor for USF’s Department of History and friend of Arteaga’s who has worked alongside him in sending aid to Cuba. “He has been through a lot but has never stopped fighting for what he believes in.”
Arteaga is spry for his age, mentally and physically. He strides around the house rather than shuffles. He can talk for hours without struggling for breath. And he still gets a schoolboy’s glimmer in his eye when his wife, Consuelo, enters the room.
“Sometimes it is better to watch her walk away,” he said with a chuckle.
His hair and pencil-thin mustache have been bleached white by age, his body frailer than in photos from yesteryear.
He mostly shows his years in his stories.
His parents were drawn to Tampa from Cuba during the advent of this city’s cigar industry in the late 1800s. He was born in Tampa during a time when indoor plumbing and electricity were a privilege his family did not have. The Great Depression was a reality for him, not a chapter in a school book. The same is true of Tampa’s moonshine era.
“My father was arrested for it quite a few times,” he said.
His father was also part of Tampa’s original band of Cuban freedom fighters.
Thomas Arteaga saw Cuba’s famed poet and revolutionary leader Jose Marti during his visits to Tampa, heard his voice, and was inspired by his message that Cubans around the world needed to unite to overthrow their nation’s colonial ruler, Spain.
Arteaga has heard whispers that his father fought briefly in the Cuban War of Independence, but he has no proof. He is certain his father supported the war in other ways. He donated a share of his weekly cigar-roller earnings to Marti, as did many Tampa Cubans in those days — and he built homemade bombs for the war.
They were crude, Arteaga said — nails and other dangerous items glued to homemade dynamite.
“I hate war,” Arteaga said after telling the story. “I don’t think violence is ever the answer. Unfortunately, I have seen many occur in the world in my life.”
He has also seen his share of corruption.
When he was 7, during the Depression when work grew scarce, Arteaga’s family relocated to Cuba to live with relatives. He quickly learned Cuba may have won freedom from Spain but was still ruled by tyrants.
His sister needed medical treatment. He doesn’t remember what for. But he’ll never forget the price — her voting card.
This was typical in pre-Castro Cuba, Arteaga said. Hospitals would barter services for voting cards to turn them over to the right politician at election time. The hospital got favors in return.
“I thought that was how life was,” Arteaga said. “I thought Cuba would never be free or have a leader who cared about it. Fidel never accepted this.”
The New Year’s Eve celebrations in Ybor City and West Tampa paled in comparison to the party held the following morning on Jan. 1, 1959, when word of Castro’s victory swept the city. An impromptu parade connected the two Latin communities.
Deposed President Fulgencio Batista was a vicious tyrant, Arteaga said, and Castro reminded many Cubans of Marti. During the revolution, Castro promised to return Cuba to its people.
Arteaga had never been involved in politics before that New Year’s Day. He was focused on himself, he said.
He moved to New York City from Cuba in the 1940s, married, had children and established a career as an upholsterer. When he returned to Tampa in the 1950s, the Cuban population buzzed about the revolution, but he paid it little mind.
The victory celebration was so grand, however, it inspired Arteaga to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Castro has long claimed Batista and his henchmen looted hundreds of millions of dollars from Cuba’s treasury, leaving just $70 million with which to run the country. For the new government to survive, it needed financial aid.
Arteaga joined Tampa’s Patriotic Movement for Aid to the Cuban Farmers, which preached that the agricultural industry was the backbone of Cuba’s future. To support it, the movement raised money and collected farming items for Cuban farmers. It sent along a new tractor.
Then, diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. grew cold and Castro became a public enemy. Those in Tampa who once supported the Cuban leader were treated the same.
The abuse was constant. If it wasn’t threats of violence, it was red paint attacks, curse words or visits by the FBI.
“I was questioned a few times,” Arteaga said.
To this day he is confused by the treatment. The farmers needed aid to produce food for the Cuban people. Why was it wrong to help, he wonders.
“Everybody in Tampa supported Fidel Castro and the revolution in the early years,” said USF’s Barrios. “Then the revolution turned socialist and the opinions of a lot of people abandoned that position. There was a lot of repression and silencing of those who directly supported the Revolution. The Arteaga family was unfortunately one of them.”
Arteaga said he did not feel safe, so in 1961 relocated to Cuba.
His wife and daughters remained in Tampa, but were supposed to follow soon after. He was hired as an upholsterer at a hotel in Havana. He purchased a plot of land on which to build a home. But after a few months he had second thoughts. He loved Cuba and wanted to support it, but he thought it would be too difficult for his children to adjust to an alien nation still searching for stability under a new government.
“It was the early years and very disorganized,” he said. “My children come before politics.”
He returned to Tampa in early 1962 and, according to Arteaga, marched into the FBI office and told them to either charge him with a crime or leave him alone. He said they chose the latter. He would never be silenced again.
Arteaga doesn’t care if someone dislikes the Castro brothers or their form of government. That is their opinion, he said, and everyone is free to have one.
What bothers Arteaga is when people allow that opinion to affect the people of Cuba. Why should they suffer, he questioned, because of political differences?
“I wanted to help them for many years,” he said. “I just needed a way.”
Pastors for Peace, a ministry that delivers humanitarian aide to Latin American countries, became his tool.
Barrios said Arteaga was one the organization’s most ardent Cuban supporters in Tampa in the early years.
Not only would he raise money and donate his own money for the cause, but he would personally travel to Cuba to make sure the goods made it safely. Because direct travel from the U.S. to Cuba was illegal in the late 1980s, he would do so through Mexico, a practice that broke federal law.
“The Treasury Department would threaten to throw me in jail or fine me for going,” he said. “I didn’t let them scare me. I was doing what was right and they never did anything to me.”
The passport issued to him by the Cuban government solved that problem.
“The passport says I am a Cuban citizen born in Tampa,” said Arteaga. “That is exactly who I am. I have two countries I love.”
Though healthy for his age, Arteaga said he knows that at 91 that can change quickly.
He has one wish left.
“To see the embargo lifted,” he said. “I don’t know if it will happen, but it should. It’s not right.”