ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 05

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War

Author | Autor: Fernando Morais

Translated by Alison Entrekin

It was very hot in Havana in the late autumn of 1990. Nature’s only blessing, at
this time of year, is that night falls earlier, before six in the evening, sweeping
the city with a fresh, gentle breeze coming over the waves of the Caribbean. Although
it was a Saturday (December 8, 1990, she would never forget this day),
Olga had decided to spend her day off doing volunteer work at Tenerías Habana, the
state-owned company where she worked as an engineer. At around 7 p.m., now fully
dark, she got off the bus on the tree-lined Quinta Avenida and walked a block to the
modest apartment where she lived with her husband, René, and daughter, Irmita, in
the formerly elegant neighborhood of Miramar, half an hour from downtown Havana.
When she had left home, late in the morning, Olga had suggested to René that they
leave their six-year-old girl with her grandmother and take the opportunity to see a
Brazilian film directed by Miguel de Faria Jr., Estelinha, which would open the Havana
Film Festival at Yara cinema, in the centre of town, that night.
When she got home, Olga noticed that the lights of the apartment were out — a
sign that René was running late and that the film festival would have to wait for another
day. As she walked in and turned on the lights, she saw that Dandy, her daughter’s
dog, had torn up a pile of old newspapers, scattering pieces of paper everywhere.
When she went into the kitchen to get a broom, she heard a neighbor say:
“Look, the lights are on. She’s home.”
Seconds later there was a knock at the door. She opened it and found herself
staring at two gentlemen with a serious air about them. One said:
“Are you Olga Salanueva, René González’s wife? May we come in?”
Her reaction was immediate: her husband, a pilot and skydiving instructor, had
been in an accident.
“Who are you? Where’s René? What’s happened to him?”
The man tried to calm her:
“We’re from the Ministry of the Interior. Please, sit down, we’ll explain.”
“Explain what? My husband! What’s happened to my husband? Is he hurt? Is
he alive?”
“Did you know your husband was going to fly today?”
“Yes, I did. What’s happened to him?”
The answer, she would remember later, was like a blow to the head with a
baseball bat:
“Your husband has deserted.”
“René? Impossible! René’s a veteran of Angola, a member of the Party! Where
did you get such an idea?”
“René stole a plane from San Nicolás Airport and fled to Miami.”
“I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! That’s slander!”
Despite her state, the man remained dry and unflappable:
“Do you have a radio? If you do, tune into Radio Martí.”
Created in May of 1985 by President Ronald Reagan to broadcast anti-Castro
propaganda to the Cuban population, one could tune into the station on any shortwave
device, even Olga’s small battery-operated radio. With her heart racing,
she turned it on and her husband’s voice filled the apartment, crystal clear, in the
interview that had been playing over and over since mid-afternoon:
“I had to leave. In Cuba there is a shortage of electricity and food. Even
potatoes and rice are rationed. The fuel for our planes is counted drop by drop.
For me, Cuba is history.”
Olga’s dismay was more than justified. René, 34, over six feet tall, thin, with a
pronounced nose and blue eyes with discreet circles under them, was a war hero
decorated by the Cuban government. He and Olga, who was a hand shorter and
three years younger than him, made a good looking couple. She was attractive,
with a purposeful air about her, well-defined eyebrows and thick hair. In addition to
being from working-class families, they also shared a like for children and dogs and
were both active members of the Communist Party, which they had joined just a
few months earlier. Their main difference was in their origins: Olga was a legitimate
habanera on both sides of the family, while René was an American citizen, born
in Chicago. Also a die-hard communist, his father Cándido, a metal worker, had
migrated to Texas in 1952 in the hope of becoming a professional baseball player
— at the time, baseball was as popular in Cuba as it was in the United States. His
much-dreamed-of career as a pitcher, however, never amounted to anything beyond
a few training sessions on the fields of big-league teams. Faced with returning to
Cuba, where the repressive dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1933-59) awaited him,
or trying to make a living as a manual laborer, he chose the latter. He moved to
Chicago, went back to being a laborer, and married Irma Sehwerert, granddaughter
of Germans and daughter of Cuban migrants, with whom he had two sons — René,
born in 1956, and Roberto, in 1958. And it was in Chicago that the family received
news that Fidel Castro had taken down Batista’s dictatorship. In April 1961, when the
United States tried to invade Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, Cándido decided that it was
time to return to his native land with his wife and children.
René had never again set foot in the country of his birth. When Olga met him, in
1983, he was working as a flight instructor at flying clubs in the interior of the country.
And although he was only 27, he was already a veteran of the Angolan Civil War —
nothing very out-of-the-ordinary in Cuba, where more than half a million people,
or 5% of the adult male population, had participated in military missions abroad.
But René wasn’t anonymous among the approximately 300 thousand Cubans who
had fought alongside the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA,
backed by the USSR, which was fighting the National Front for the Liberation of
 Angola, FNLA, and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA,
the former sponsored by the United States, China and Zaire, and the latter by South
Africa. When he left, after two years in the African jungles, a period in which he
carried out 54 combat missions driving Soviet tanks armed with 120-millimetre
cannons, he bore on his chest the medal that Cuban government officially called the
Medal for International Fighters.
December 8, 1990 started like any other day for him. He woke at 5 a.m. and
ran eight kilometers through the tree-lined streets of Miramar. Back at home (an
apartment so small that the only place where he could stretch and do fifteen minutes
of sit-ups was the exiguous space next to his bed), he took a cold shower, woke Olga
and had a quick breakfast with her. They didn’t have time to talk a lot, because the
mini-bus that picked up San Nicolás de Bari Civil Airport employees in Havana and
drove them fifty kilometers to the airport, where René had worked for two years as
an instructor, drove down Quinta Avenida at 7 a.m. on the dot. As they said goodbye,
she reminded him of what they had agreed to do that night:
“Don’t be late because we’ve got the movies at eight.”
“I’ll be back at six, don’t worry.”
Still mortified by what she’d heard on the radio, Olga didn’t even notice when
the men left. It didn’t sound like a forged recording, nor did René appear to have
been forced to say all that nonsense. She turned off the radio and called her brotherin-
law Roberto, a lawyer who had also fought in Angola. Lacking the courage to
break the news to him over the phone, she just said that something had happened
to René and asked him to come quickly to her apartment. Roberto wasn’t worried.
He knew his brother was an excellent pilot, and that the San Nicolás aircraft were
regularly serviced — sometimes by René himself. The flying club’s airplanes were
so safe that, if he wanted or needed to, the pilot could even turn off the engine
mid-flight, glide and then touch down in a pasture or on a beach. In the worst-case
scenario, he’d had to make an emergency landing. There was no reason to worry. His
calm only lasted until he opened the door and found an outraged Olga with swollen
eyes. She embraced him, crying:
“René’s deserted. He’s gone to Miami.”
Roberto’s eyes bulged:
“You’re insane. Who told you that?”
“Listen to Radio Martí.”
She turned on the radio and the interview, playing over for the nth time, filled
the air. In his unmistakable voice, René was complaining about the problems that
had converted him into what in Cuba was considered a traitor of the Revolution: not
enough food, not enough money to buy food, not enough transport, not enough
this, not enough that.
“Turn off that radio! I don’t want to hear all that crap! That’s not my brother!”
bellowed Roberto.
“It isn’t the René I married either, nor is it my daughter’s father. Roberto, it must
be some kind of set-up by the gringos!”
It wasn’t. At midday, after the parachute drop of the young Michel Marín, the
last skydiving student that morning, René saw that the small airport was almost
deserted. He took advantage of the fact that the two control tower employees were
on their lunch break, cut the cables of the radio communication system with pliers
and stuffed the microphone into the pocket of his overalls. He leapt down the stairs
and climbed into the cabin of the only aircraft parked outside of the hangars. It
was a green double-wing Antonov An-2, made in Russia forty years earlier, used in
Cuba for crop dusting and towing gliders. By the time the ground staff realized that
something strange was up, the plane was already in the air.
René knew that, although communication was down in the tower, in instants
the Cuban radars would be warned of his desertion. And the minute his aircraft
was detected, Soviet-manufactured MiG fighters would take off from San Antonio
de los Baños Military Base, just minutes outside of Havana, and would force him
to return. To throw control off his scent, he flew close to the ground, at an altitude
below the range of the radar network. And, contrary to what any pilot headed for
Florida would do, he didn’t make a beeline for the island of Key West, in the Florida
Straits, a flight path that would have taken only forty minutes. Instead, he crossed
Cuba and, when he got to the sea, turned northeast toward the Bahamas. Only
when he was certain that he was outside of the twelve miles of Cuban airspace did
he turn the plane west, making a perfect zigzag in the air. The maneuver worked,
but it almost cost him his life: by the time René saw Florida’s first islets, he had
been flying for an hour and a half. He only had enough fuel left for another ten
minutes of flying. With sweating hands, he tuned his radio into the control tower at
Boca Chica Naval Air Station, thirty kilometers north of Key West, announced that
he was a Cuban deserter and that his plane’s fuel supply was almost depleted. He
received authorization from the U.S. Navy to land on one of the base’s three landing
strips and, when the heavy Antonov’s wheels touched down on American soil, the
aircraft’s fuel tank was practically empty. “Bold Defection” and “Dramatic Return”
read the headlines the next day, celebrating the feat. “After protagonizing a story
of heroism, valor and compassion,” said the Miami Herald, “the bold René González”
will have no problems being accepted by the Cuban community in Miami.
The new hero of the north shore of the Florida Straits, the stretch of sea between
Cuba and Miami, René had left a trail of desolation among family and friends on the
south shore, in Havana. The first, thankless task facing Olga and Roberto was to
break the news to both of their parents. It was especially tough telling Olga’s father
Esmerejildo, a laborer, and Roberto’s mother, Irma, old communist activists, Party
members since before the Revolution. Irma knew something bad had happened
the minute they turned up at her house, judging from their awful appearance. Olga
looked terrible and had obviously been crying a lot. They had barely walked in when
Roberto thumped the wall and said:
“René betrayed us, Mother. He betrayed us!”
Irma didn’t believe it:
“It’s not possible! I can’t get my head around it. It’s not possible!”
Unsure what to do, Roberto took her into the backyard and told her:
“Mother, he has betrayed us and there’s nothing we can do but accept it. We’ll
adapt with time.”
With her white head of hair and teary eyes, Irma refused to believe her ears.
She couldn’t understand why such a good human being like her son, someone
without any leaning toward consumerist temptations, could do something like that.
Deep down, not even Roberto was able to decipher his brother’s gesture. It might
be understandable if they’d had political differences, but to see someone with his
own ideological background desert “because of food” was, as Cubans say, to throw
vinegar in the wound. Although they were both American citizens, neither of them
had ever considered taking advantage of the fact and going to live in the United
States. Unlike many people who dreamed of leaving, he and René had lived in Cuba
because they wanted to. It was a personal choice. Both had gone to Angola as
volunteers. “We weren’t brought up to worry about material possessions,” Roberto
would repeat. “Our lives have never revolved around potatoes and beans.”
In spite of the widespread incredulity, however, the reality was that René had
stolen a plane and taken up exile in Miami — full stop. This was the hard reality
with which his family would have to live. Roberto experienced the most disparate
reactions. People who had known his brother seemed genuinely surprised, unable to
fathom what had led him to leave. Others reacted as if it were the most natural thing
in the world. “Don’t martyr yourself over it,” he heard several times, “because René
was just one more. It’s over, forget it.” Some didn’t even hide their admiration. “Good
on him. What was a competent pilot going to do here if there isn’t even fuel to fly
with?” said others. “This place is a shithole. He was right to leave.”
Just 160 kilometers from Havana, in Florida, the deserter was celebrated by the
Cuban community in exile. When he landed, all he had to do was present his birth
certificate, proving that he was an American citizen, for the military authorities in
Boca Chica to release him. He was taken to Miami, where he spoke to the journalists
waiting for him — among whom the Radio Martí reporter, whose retransmission,
hours later, would put Olga and Roberto’s doubts to rest in Havana. Without showing
any sign of regret, he appeared sure of what he had done. He said he had felt like “a
true Christopher Columbus” when he saw the first cayos, the necklace of islets in the
south of Florida, and revealed that it wasn’t a new project: “Planning my escape took
three months, but I had already said goodbye to Cuba many years ago.”
With time, Roberto’s “we’ll adapt” took on prophetic airs. Although deep
down each of them, especially he, Olga and Irma, continued to find it difficult to
understand, the truth is that months went by before René got in touch. The sparse,
scattered fragments of information about her husband’s fate that reached Olga
came through the waves of what the Cubans call the radio bemba — the informal
grapevine, Chinese whispers, rumors. Some said he was working as a laborer, while
others swore he was an employee at Miami Airport. All of them, however, agreed on
one point: René had taken up with extreme right organizations in Florida.

to the top