Hello, my name is Tyler Tietjen. For my ninth-grade oral history project I chose to interview my grandmother, Liliane Anita Tietjen. I decided to make Mrs. Tietjen the subject of this interview because of her experiences living in Cuba in the 1950’s and her first-hand knowledge of the rising of Cuba’s well-known dictator, Fidel Castro.
Over the course of this podcast I will give you some background information on important dates and events during the 1950’s that led directly to Castro’s ascent to dictator of Cuba.
On October 28th,1492 Christopher Columbus discovered Cuba and claimed the new land for Spain. Spain continued to govern Cuba until The Cuban War for Independence ended in 1898. In 1902 Cuba’s first president Tomas Palma was elected. However, Cuba’s most famous leader was a dictator named Fidel Castro. Castro held the title of the 23rd President of Cuba for more than 31 years from 1976 until 2008 and publicly declared Cuba a socialist country in 1961. Castro accomplished this by founding a revolutionary party called, “The Movement” and by taking part in the Cuban revolution. Castro seized his power from President Fulgencio Batista. Batista was president for 7 ½ years during that time he cancelled any upcoming election and called his system of governing the people, “disciplined democracy”. However, many of the Cuban people were becoming increasingly disillusioned with Batista and with the people looking for change the door was open for someone new to lead. In July 1953, “The Movement” led by Fidel Castro launched an attack on the Moncada Barracks where Batista and the Cuban army was stationed. Castro’s attack failed. Most of his militia was killed and Castro was arrested.
Castro was tried and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, Castro ended up serving less than 2 years when Batista pardoned him in May of 1955. Castro wasted no time, in November 1956, Castro had a militia of 81 men. They attacked Batista’s forces in Havana. 19 men survived including Castro retreated to the Sierra Maestra mountain range where more then 150 people joined the cause of over throwing Batista. The group changed strategies and used guerrilla tactics to counter the Cuban armies use of conventional warfare. By 1958 Batista understood that the war was lost and escaped to the Dominican Republic. Now there was no one in the way Fidel Castro was given the leadership role of the army of Cuba. On January 8th 1959, one week after Batista fled Cuba, Fidel Castro entered Havana celebrated leading a parade through the island. On October 19th 1960, the United States of America begins an economic embargo with Cuba due to unfavorable economic and political circumstances. By January 3rd 1961 The United States of America completely breaks off any diplomatic relations with Cuba.
This was the environment that my grandmother remembers as a young child and is the period of history that is the focus of my podcast. Most of the horrible human suffering I researched happened in Cuba was before my grandmother was old enough to understand exactly what was going on around her. Liliane Anita Tietjen was born on October 5th 1950 in a small South American country called Uruguay. Her Father owned high end, tourist hotels in Uruguay, but had been taking trips to Cuba for years looking to expand his hotels to Cuba. In the summer of 1952 the family moved to Havana Cuba. My grandmothers’ father’s name was Otto. He had found a wealthy partner high ranking within the Batista regime. Otto’s partner would be responsible for ensuring that the right wheels would be greased so the hotel could open without many delays. Together Otto and his partner opened, “The National”. The hotel would cater to the highest level of political dignitaries and rich tourists. My grandmother remembers the hotel as lavishly decorated with cream colored marble floors, white arches held up by large stone pillars, colorful silk chairs, large hand painted murals, and lots of flowering plants both inside and outside the hotel. My grandmother’s family lived inside the hotel so it would be easier for Otto to run the hotel daily.
In 1953 the hotel National was doing very well, although my grandmother can remember seeing X’s drawn in graffiti over Batista posters none of her family could have guesses that on the other side of Cuba, “The Movement” was planning an attack on the Moncada barracks. Otto took my grandmother to the docks to watch one of the rebels Fidel Castro being shipped off to a prison on Pinto island for his part in the assault on the President. That was the day things began to change for her family. More and more Cubans wanted change and talk about another revolution was causing tension even within the hotels staff. In 1955 when President Batista granted Castro amnesty a fight broke out inside the kitchen of the National between a loyalist and a revolutionary. Castro’s 1956 attack on President Batista in Havana happened two blocks from the hotel. During the fighting my grandmother helped her mother pushing the mattresses and box springs against the windows so no one could see inside their hotel room. My grandmother was placed inside the bathtub with her mother in case of any stray bullets.
When the rebels retreated to the Sierra Maestra mountain range things quieted down enough to move the mattresses from the windows and assess the damage. During the next two years my grandmother’s family had nearly no people checking in to the National hotel. Her family decided that no matter who would win this war they needed to leave. So, Otto began to try and secure green cards for his family to enter the United States of America. This was very dangerous time for my grandmother’s family because the political allies that helped them thrive were now gone and Castro’s’ revolution was to create a socialist government. In a socialist society there is no class system, no rich or poor everyone is equal. In theory that’s nice, but that would also mean there would be no privately-owned hotels. One month after Castro’s triumphant precession through Havana my grandmother’s family boarded a plane to Miami. She remembers her mother crying because they could only take one suitcase each with them. The government took possession of everything else they owned.
From Miami they took a train to Virginia, luckily my grandmothers father spoke English and was able to get a job managing a hotel in Virginia. My grandmother said that her first memory of America was even though Cuba was a tropical paradise she couldn’t remember a time where she saw so many people happy. Within 6 months my grandmother spoke English, and her mother a year after that. They were one of the last families that would be allowed to leave Cuba legally. Many years later my grandmother saw on the news there were people trying to leave Cuba for the United States on rafts. Once Castro made Cuba the first communist country on the Western hemisphere in 1965, things got much worse. The people on those rafts were starving and all she could think of was how lucky her family was to get out when they did.
Before I interviewed my grandmother for this podcast I had heard some of these stories, but I never really understood until I did the research for this podcast. Most of the time I even forget that my grandmother is not from this country. My mother Tara Tietjen, was the first person in our family to be born in the United States. The strangest thing I learned from this interview was if my great grandfather Otto hadn’t gotten permission to enter the United states my family’s history might have been about escaping communism on a raft.
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