Ted Cruz and his Cuban roots trigger Havana memories

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My late friend Carlos Guerra, a founder of the Chicano movement in Texas, is undoubtedly turning in his grave over the incredible political rise of that state’s likely next U.S. senator — Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, walks to a news conference, the day after defeating Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a runoff primary election, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, in Houston. Cruz, who is not what some expected the first Hispanic Senator (as he will likely get elected) to be, says his tea party supporters helped him pull off an upset in the Republican primary runoff . (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Brett Coomer).

In the mid-1960s, Carlos had grandiose political dreams for Mexican Americans in Texas as he helped organize what would lead to the creation of the National Council of La Raza, MALDEF, the Southwest Voter Registration Project and La Raza Unida party.

“One day, we will elect our first governor in Texas and our first U.S. senators and there will be no stopping us,” Carlos told me in those days while he hit up the Ford Foundation for seed money and learned his politics from the then chic liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

There seemed to be inevitability in what Carlos envisioned, but unfortunately he never saw it come to pass. After his years of civil rights activism, he became a newspaper columnist for the San Antonio Express-News. He died in 2010 while on a fishing getaway in Port Aransas.

Even in his last years, Carlos sometimes talked wistfully about the election one day of a Latino to one of Texas’ big political offices. Of course, Carlos thought the eventual winner would be a Democrat, and he hoped it would a Latino Democrat with a progressive agenda.

He even wondered if he had already met one or maybe even two of the Mexican Americans who might possibly be elected governor or U.S. senator – San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and his twin brother, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro.

Both had impeccable academic credentials. They were Stanford graduates with law degrees from Harvard.

“They are almost too good to be true,” Carlos told me in 2009 when Julian was elected mayor.

Like most, Carlos likely never saw the Tea Party coming.

Admittedly, the Tea Party struck Texas like one of those deadly tornados that have destroyed farms, towns and cities.

And Ted Cruz? He was around in the last decade of Carlos’ life as the state’s solicitor general, and his educational background was as pristine as that of the Castros: A Princeton B.A. and a Harvard law degree.

Read related: Ted Cruz, Luis Fortuño join speakers at Republican National Convention

But Cruz was also a Cuban American, out of step with the traditional Latinos in Texas, the overwhelming number of them being Mexican American and Mexican nationals in the process of immigrating.

And Cruz was a Republican, a conservative and ultimately became what Carlos never thought a Texas Latino to ever be – the darling of a movement now knocking the socks off American politics, the Tea Party.

The irony is that Carlos had a connection to Cruz’s ancestral homeland that he rarely spoke about.

In 1967, Carlos and I bonded during a surreptitious visit to Cuba through Mexico as part of a group made up mostly of members of the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society. Carlos, a student at Texas A&I, was a founder and leader of one of the Chicano movement’s most aggressive arms — MAYO, the Mexican American Youth Organization.

I was the odd man out in the group — an undergraduate from a conservative Baptist university, Baylor. I was also an ambitious reporter at my hometown daily in Waco, and I succeeded in talking myself on to the trip. I had hoped to interview Che Guevara.

In 1963, the U.S. had imposed regulations in its embargo of Cuba that effectively banned travel by Americans to the island. But U.S. citizens continued to travel there, though for reasons other than what they did during the pre-Castro era, when Cuba boomed as a tourist and gambling destination.

Most of the Americans traveling there after 1960 were students, many of them activists. Carlos happened to be at the same meeting in Austin, along with a handful of others from the fledgling MAYO group.

Late that summer, we were among three dozen or so young men from the Austin meeting who flew from Mexico City into a small airstrip outside Havana on a ten-day “information mission,” as it was called.

Read related: Ted Cruz: It’s likely the first Hispanic Texas senator is Cuban, not Mexican

Most in the group were from the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society. All but Carlos, myself, and a Chicano activist from Colorado were white. But it was hard to tell about anyone’s ethnicity. Everyone’s skin was heavily tanned from the scorching sun, and many of the New Leftists spoke Spanish.

It was a watershed period for sympathizers of the Cuban revolution. In those first years after Fidel Castro came to power, more than a million Cubans learned how to read and 50,000 new homes were built. So many new doctors were being produced by the revolution that the country claimed there was one physician for every two hundred and fifty residents – a 400 percent improvement over the last years before the revolution.

Carlos was suspicious of everyone in our travel party, believing that at least several were FBI undercover agents. It made sense. The FBI had infiltrated most of the activist groups of the 1960s. That was to be expected, Carlos said. The trick was to steer clear of anyone openly advocating violence or the overthrow of the U.S.

“We stick together, carnal, and don’t trust anyone we don’t know,” he said.

So we did. We anticipated that there would be a hard-sell indoctrination, but we were wrong. It was like a vacation as we toured farms and nationalized plantations, spoke to peasants, visited schools, interviewed students, and spent evenings eating with local Cubans.

This was Cuba only five years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis and eight years after the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had unseated the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. economic boycott was already in place, but Cuba was still some time away from appearing to be a country whose time had stopped in the 1950s.

We had been assured that we would also have a chance to talk to government officials, including some of the leaders close to Fidel Castro, and we wondered if this would ever happen.

Finally, on our sixth day in the country, we were given a tour of El Capitolio, which had been the pre-revolution seat of government. It was empty and in need of repair, and the guide said it being converted into a Cuban institute of arts and sciences.

We moved on to the National Library, to the gray marble tower monument to Cuba’s national hero, Jose Martí, in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and then behind the memorial to the offices of Castro himself.

I don’t know why I thought we would get a private audience with him – that came with some two-bit deputy ministers of education, health, and agriculture – but we met Fidel in what seemed like a long assembly line of visitors, possibly not altogether different than what any head of state must endure with visitors. I thought there would be some reaction from Castro when the aide introducing the guests mentioned my name. Surprisingly there was none.

“He didn’t hear,” Carlos muttered as we passed. “He’s hard of hearing.”

“Are you serious?” It hadn’t occurred to me that Carlos was putting me on.

“The price of all that gunfire from the revolution.”

It was a while before I began to appreciate Carlos’ wit and humor, and I don’t know what we were really expecting to see or experience. We weren’t revolutionaries, nor did we want to join the Cuban revolution. But in our own way I suspect we were like many who fall in love with the romance of revolution – little of which was to be found in the Cuba we visited.

Carnal, I thought it would be different,” Carlos said toward the end of the trip. “Didn’t you think it would be different?”

“Well, I came for Che,” I said.

“He’s not even Cuban, carnal!” Carlos shot back.

And Che had not been in Cuba. There had been reports of Guevara in several places, including Bolivia where he would be killed later that year.

We both were in agreement, I believe, that we had been surprisingly underwhelmed and didn’t know what the future held for Cuba.

It never occurred to us that part of Cuba’s future was likely to be back home in Texas.

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