When U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Havana on March 20, 2016, the first visit by a sitting American president to the Caribbean island nation in 88 years, he arrived on an island of broken hearts.
The Cuban Revolution is a melancholy one. Broken promises. Broken dreams. Broken hearts.
The despair is seen in the unloved buildings, apart from the ones spruced up for Obama’s benefit, which reflect decades of social and political upheaval in which multitudes of Cubans were forced to abandon their homeland against their will. It is seen in the faces of Cuba’s youth, anxious for the past to be put far behind them and for their “future” to begin. It is also seen in the long lines of Cubans at embassies throughout Havana who, not willing to let life pass them by, are desperate for a visa that will let them leave.
And as the United States and Cuba move towards normalizing relations, and Obama even declared that “the embargo is going to end,” the end of the Castro regime also draws to a close.
So it’s instructive to reflect on a little-known story of how a Mexican woman broke Fidel’s heart.
On July 7, 1955, Fidel Castro abandoned Havana, exiled to Mexico by Fulgencio Batista and landed in Mérida, in the Yucatán peninsula. He would return to Mérida, at first on reconnaissance missions, and then because he met a young woman with whom he fell in love: Lía Cámara Blum.
She was eighteen years old, a young teacher. She spotted him at the bus station in Valladolid. Fidel Castro was traveling throughout the peninsula, careful to evade Batista’s spies, who were everywhere. He wanted to determine if the Yucatán was suitable for launching an attack on Cuba. Having concluded that leaving from either Cozumel or the ports of the Mexican Caribbean would be too risky, he was taking the bus to Mérida.
When he boarded that bus on a Saturday afternoon in Valladolid, Lía Cámara Blum, a passenger, stared at Fidel Castro as he walked down the aisle.
She smiled at him. He smiled back.
Then he sat next to her, introduced himself as “Alejandro González,” and, after finding out she was a teacher, asked if she minded talking about history. “Of course not,” she said. Then he began to ask her about the Mexican Revolution.
They immediately liked each other.
He found her intelligent and well-spoken. She found him polite, well-educated, and inquisitive.
When the bus arrived in Mérida, she told him she lived on Calle 61 in the city’s historic center. He told her he would be staying at the Hotel Reforma. He asked if he could have her telephone number. She consented. He wrote her telephone number on a box of matches and he invited her out on a date.
She said she would be delighted and that he could come by that evening.
He arrived at her family’s home at 9 PM. She answered. Accompanied by her mother, Socorro Blum de Cámara, the young couple went out for dinner.
In 1955, the Tulipanes, a restaurant that showcased popular bands and dancing, was one of the most popular places in Mérida. Apart from the music and dancing, they enjoyed venison and she introduced him to regional appetizers that reflected Maya cuisine. In the course of the evening, he confessed he was divorced and had a son. She said she didn’t care.
Lía Cámara Blum recounted, decades later, that she knew “something big was going to happen in his life.”
The following day, Sunday, he showed up at her home after breakfast. Pedro Cámara Lara answered the door. The Cuban exile asked if he could have permission to take his daughter, with his wife as chaperone, to the port of Progreso.
Don Pedro was impressed by this polite Cuban visitor and agreed.
The young man intended the trip to be a final reconnaissance of the facilities at the port of Progreso; being accompanied by two Yucatecan women would be a great cover. He was concerned that Batista’s spies, who wanted him dead, were following him.
The Cámara Blum family did not appreciate the danger they incurred by being in his company until, years later, Batista’s secret files were opened and their names were included in secret reports.
Alejandro González would visit the family whenever he was in Mérida.
He and don Pedro became friends. Alejandro González admired Mexico and the Mexican Revolution. Decades later, Fidel Castro wrote: “Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the twentieth century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government. Every other nation in the region was ruled by tyrants.”
Ridding Cuba of a tyrant, Fulgencio Batista, would be the purpose of his return to Cuba once his preparations were finalized. Don Pedro dismissed such talk as nonsense, the exuberance of a youthful dreamer, a “crazy idealist”—and advised him against wanting to change the world.
In Mérida, Alejandro fell in love with Lía. They would go out to dinner, have ice cream in the park, and see movies at the Cinema Mérida. It was in the darkened Cine Mérida movie house that he declared his love for her.
Lía told him she was in love with him as well.
But he also told her his love for his country was equally strong: He would have to leave Mexico, but he would send for her. When she asked why he had to leave, he quoted José Martí: “We light the oven so that everyone may bake bread in it.”
He promised again he would send for her.
Lía was stoic.
It would not be until he overthrew Fulgencio Batista, months after he returned to Cuba—and his photograph was flashed in headlines around the world—that Lía learned Alejandro González’s true name: Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.
Months of silence between the lovers followed.
Not until he consolidated power in Cuba did he send Lía a note inviting her to travel to Havana. She arrived in Cuba in 1960 for the Latin American Youth Summit. She was welcomed as a “revolutionary.”
Ernesto “Che” Guevara introduced her as the future First Lady of Cuba.
All the while, she had doubts as the Revolucion began to take a more sinister, authoritarian turn.
Lía could not be part of Fidel’s Revolution; she could not stand the possibility of a public life in a foreign country next to a man whose heart she loved but whose thinking she no longer trusted.
“I cannot be your Eva,” she told Fidel, thinking of Eva Perón, the loyal wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón. She quoted José Martí: “A selfish man is a thief.”
She kissed Fidel Castro one final time.
Lía Cámara Blum returned to Mérida. Fidel Castro went on to rule Cuba for decades. Fidel would break the hearts of millions of his countrymen as completely as he broke Lía’s.
The lovers, both still alive, have never seen each other since the day Lía left Havana.
In Cuba, hearts are broken every day.