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A Cuban refugee's story: Why leaving his family in 1960 helped create a new generation of Cuban-Americans

81-year-old Cuban refugee tells his story
Cuban refugee Reinaldo Rodriguez in Cuba with his wife and daughter late 1950's.
Posted at 11:38 PM, Aug 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-03 08:20:12-04

TAMPA, Fla.  — Sometimes in life, it's hard to see your life's impact on other people, especially your family. But, the actions of one man who escaped Cuba in 1960 can be seen and felt in the generations of Cuban-Americans that might not call the United States home if it wasn't for him.

"I am a family man," Reinaldo Rodriguez told ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska.

Rodriguez said his journey to America started when Fidel Castro began to gain ground in the revolution. Rodriguez had a front-row seat to history. And, at 81-years-old wants to tell his side of the complex Cuban historical narrative.

"He starts killing the people from the farms with our uniforms," Rodriguez said. "So, it looks like we did it we didn't they did it, and people start getting mad and growing against Batista, and that's how he got in power Fidel Castro."

Rodriguez said that he and his brothers, Angel and Gustavo, were all soldiers for the dictator Fulgencio Batista. At one point, his brothers were put in prison for fighting against Communism.

Rodriguez refused to surrender to Communism, so he got a boat and urged his brothers to leave the island with him. But, whether it was fear or just not wanting to leave their families behind, his brothers remained. Rodriguez left his wife and young daughter on the island, hoping one day to be reunited.

"When I came, I came for a reason to get my wife and my daughter out of Cuba, and I did. I stayed by myself for seven months and one day, but I got my family out of Cuba," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has never told his story publicly. But, seeing the protest on the island and the horrific conditions people are living under, he allowed his great-niece to interview him and post the video on Facebook. The video has been shared hundreds of times and had thousands of views. For more than 11-minutes, Rodriguez talks about his life, family, and through tears of sadness, remembers the life he lost.

"Cuba was a great country until Fidel Castro got in power, and he destroys everything. Communists destroy everything," Rodriguez told his great-niece Angie Rodriguez.

To this day, Rodriguez believes a higher power got him to the United States to restart his family. When he escaped in September 1960, he says the boat he was on got stranded at sea. Hungry and running out of water he prayed to La Caridad del Cobre or "la Vírgen de la Caridad," a popular Marian title of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"Don't let me die cause we are ready to die in the boat, and it starts raining, and we got water," Rodriguez said.

Today, Rodriguez is too weak to walk, too old to fight. So, his words from what he witnessed in the past are now his weapons for future generations.

"I will tell my fellow Cubans keep fighting, don't quit cause I believe in God, and God is going to help the people in Cuba," Rodriguez said.

Over time, Rodriguez says he was able to rescue 55 family members. As a result, he now has eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. He hopes one day they will see a free Cuba.