One of Miami’s oldest cemeteries is so close to the Fidel Castro death celebrations at Café Versailles in Little Havana that its marble angels echo with conga-line cheers from Calle Ocho.
Most of the people interred at Caballero Woodlawn Cemetery-North on Southwest Eighth Street — the many Cubans buried there, for sure — hoped to live long enough to hear the celebrations.
There’s Jorge Mas Canosa, a Bay of Pigs veteran and founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, resting in his tomb under Cuban and American flags. A few rows over is Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuba’s president from 1948 until 1952 and an outspoken Castro critic. His grave is adorned with a Cuban flag mosaic.
And then there’s the grave of the family of Robert Fuller, a burnished bronze marker set in the lush grass. It’s not as flashy as the others, and Fuller’s body isn’t even there. But he’s important to students of Cuban history as one of a small group of Cuban-Americans who tried to overthrow Castro six months before the Bay of Pigs invasion.
“Grandma, I wish you were here to see this,” Robert Fuller’s niece, Katherine, said Tuesday, bending with a delicate pink rose in her hand over the grave of Jennie Fuller — Robert’s mother — and other relatives.
After Castro’s forces seized power in Havana in 1959, the new regime “repeatedly harassed and threatened” members of the Fuller family and sought to seize the 10,000-acre agricultural business they had operated since 1903, according to the family’s lawsuit against Cuba.
Robert Fuller, who had dual Cuban and U.S. citizenship, was born on the Holguin plantation in 1934 and felt Cuban, Katherine said, even after serving as a U.S. marine in Korea. In 1960, at 25, he joined an ill-fated mission to lead a boatload of poorly trained Cubans from Miami in hopes of mustering up a counter-revolution on the island.
Instead, the men were quickly captured, and Fuller confessed under torture to counterrevolutionary activities. According to an Associated Press dispatch from Havana on his trial, he told the court that he joined the invaders because the Castro government had taken over his father’s ranch, “earned by the sweat of his brow and very honorably.”
His mother, Jennie sobbed in the courtroom where, in front of jeering crowds, Fuller was sentenced to death by firing squad. The family asked to bring his body back with them to America. Castro’s people said no. Jennie Fuller left Cuba, never to return, and her son remains buried somewhere on the island in an unmarked mass grave, court records say.
In 2006, a Miami-Dade judge awarded the family $400 million in damages after Cuba ignored their lawsuit. A decade later, they haven’t seen a dime.
Katherine Fuller was born in Miami two years after her uncle was executed, and raised in both the Cuban and American traditions of her family. Now 55, she still lives in the city where her uncle is remembered as a hero. There’s even a street in Little Havana named after him.
Castro’s death was a joyful moment, she said, but also bittersweet. None of the exiled members of the family has ever returned to Cuba. Katherine always was too afraid when Castro was alive, given her surname’s notoriety on the island. More than anything, Fuller wonders why Castro ruined “such a rich treasure of an island.”
But she also knows that her own history and family’s legacy are intertwined with Castro’s. Her grandmother and other relatives have carried the pain of Robert Fuller’s execution all their lives.
Jennie Fuller grew her hair long and it flowed to her waist in a thick braid.
“We’d say to her, ‘Grandma, when are you going to cut your hair?’ ” Katherine Fuller recalled. “And she’d always say, ‘I’ll cut my hair when Castro falls.’ “
Jennie Fuller died in 2001, her long hair intact.
But the rose bushes she planted at the family’s Miami property in 1959 lived on.
On Tuesday, Fuller slipped the little pink rose from those bushes alongside a bouquet of lilies on the family’s Thanksgiving table, and expressed cautious optimism about Cuba’s future. She’s in favor of lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba if the Cuban government is willing to give people on the island more freedom, something President Barack Obama called for. She thinks it’s possible with Castro’s passing.
“I think what Obama has done is the first step,” she said, referring to the president’s relaxing of travel regulations.
Katherine is even considering a trip to the island now that Castro’s gone. Somehow it seems safer. She’d like to meet her other relatives, and see the plantation her grandparents once owned.
But first, there’s some living to do in Miami.
“We’re going to go to Versailles now,” she said softly. “We’ll have a coffee, and a pastry.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.