The Standard Journal
Cuba Libre: Local pastor visits homeland for first time in 49 years
One local pastor who has long been a world traveler recently took a trip to reconnect with his roots in a place his family once fled, and that Americans have been kept away from for decades.
Dr. Idel Suarez, who heads up the Seventh Day Adventist’s International Missionary Society headquartered in Cedartown, said that it has long been a goal of his to go back to the island of Cuba since his family fled in the late 1960s to the United States when he was still just a baby.
That wish finally got fulfilled this past month when he took his father back to his home country for the first time since he was a year old.
“I was born there, and raised here in the states,” he said. “It has been 49 years since I’ve been there... I go back and Fidel Castro is dead.”
Suarez said the view that Americans have seen only sporadically since the beginning of the embargo under the rule of Fidel Castro matches up much with expectations. Cars that are decades old still cruise up and down the streets, reminders of a bygone era of American life that is kept alive due to the trade embargo. Architecture remains much like it was before the communist government took over in the revolution of 1959.
The differences now, he said, are that with the return of American dollars has come a shortages in stores for common people as tourism now becomes a big focus and food goes more toward the beds and breakfasts, since hotel accomodations aren’t quite there yet.
“I grew up hearing how horrible Cuba was, that you had trouble getting food and long lines to get food, and there were secret agents everywhere,” Suarez said. “I’ve toured the world, and I’ve been to 77 different countries. Cuba is no different than any other Latin American country. So on that side I was happy to see that it’s just like any other country. It could have progressed a lot more... but you transport yourself back to the 50’s.”
One thing that is noticeable to Suarez: there were no handlers to direct his movements, no one watching or listening to his every action and words.
“I felt safe, totally safe,” he said. “I went anywhere I wanted, and spoke to anyone I wanted, and I felt that people had the freedom to talk.”
A thing that shocked Suarez as he toured around the country: no billboards, not even that many promoting communist propaganda.
“You don’t have billboards advertising items, and you don’t have a lot of stores,” he said. “You go into a town and there’s a mom and pop shop everywhere, or big businesses here. But you don’t see that in Cuba. The taxis are private, the bed and breakfasts are private. Restaurants, some of them are private and they had pretty good food. Those were a few things that were shocking.”
“Anywhere I go in the world I usually see advertising everywhere, and it wasn’t there,” he added.
Suarez also noticed a number of Americans on the streets during his visit, all rushing to get to Cuba to see what the country is like before it changes from it’s somewhat frozen place in time.
They are also coming to see former family members, just like he got the chance to do.
“I went to see an uncle who was still alive and 95 years old. We went to the center of the country, and took a taxi,” Suarez said. “He was really happy to see me, and I was excited to see him. It was a really touching moment when we had to say goodbye.”
Neighbors and cousins were also there for the visit, but no one he’d ever met in a variety of professions.
“We all cried. It was a very touching moment,” he said.
He got a chance to take his father to the former family store, which now housed families in apartment, and then to another pharmacy where his f ather worked before he earned enough to open the family business.
Suarez took pictures in the store, but managers stopped him in the only time he said he was barred from taking photos, but said he would have taken the offered opportunity to return after the store was closed if there had been time to take more for his family.
His family fled from the com- munist regime in 1968 after his father’s opposition to the government got him into trouble with authorities, forcing them to give up the pharmacy he owned and operated and becoming refugees in the United States.
“Castro was responsible for taking away our family’s pharmacy, our house and car and everything,” he said.
Though he plans to return to Cuba, he wants to do so in his capacity with the International Missionary Society. His hopes are to get in touch with officials at the University of Havana and provide joint education opportunities in a variety of ways, and see if the missions organization can help with any resources.
“I want to write to them and see if we can establish some mutual educational exchanges,” he said.
The trip to Cuba is a repeat for Suarez, who has visited 77 countries on his travels around the world and in his role as the head of the International Missionary Society. He said his next planned trip is to a new location, Nepal, where he hopes to get a glimpse of Mt. Everest but has no plans to try and climb the peak.
“To be in Nepal is going to be great,” he said. “I’ve been in India, Sri Lanka and China, but not in Nepal. And we have a growing mission there among the Buddhists, so that’s my next big trip.”
He also plans to go to China and Israel in coming trips as well.