The temptation was really great to title this post "Romeo and Yuliet," but I disdain the facile (cursi in Spanish), even if, as in this case, it's a pretty good snapshot of reality. Like the characters in Shakepeare's play, Joe Papp and Yuliet Rodríguez's story is simple though not on that account less poignant: an American young man falls in love with a Cuban girl; but their love is thwarted not by their parents but by the "Father of All Cubans," who is not in the least adverse to allowing the sale of "his" children to old depraved men like himself in order to promote tourism to his floating plantation, but not in the least open to allowing love to run its normal course when it involves one of his slaves and an "abolitionist devil" from up North. Yes, Fidel Castro can be quite possessive about certain slaves, especially his most prized ones, the athletes who compete for his greater glory and represent in themselves his most successful experiment in social engineering.
Cuban athletes are champions. Fidel's cows never were. Cows were always his passion, not people. He would have preferred to create a "New Cow" than a "New Man." But the only "new cow" that he ever managed to bioengineer, the immortal Ubre Blanca, was barren. The "New Man" was the consolation prize. The exemplars of these "New Men" and "New Women" are his stable of athletes. Yuliet Rodríguez was one, Cuba's 12-time cycling champion. She was not expected to fall in love with a young American cyclist and want to leave Castro's "Socialist Paradise," but she did.
Joe and Yuliet met at a cycling event in Havana in 2001. They pursued their courtship in a dozen countries, wherever Yuliet travelled abroad to represent Cuba at cycling meets. Everywhere that she went she tried to defect without much success, or, rather, with tragic results. From Russia, she tried unsuccessfully to reach Italy, where Joe lay injured in hospital after a bicycle crash. On a return flight home from Spain, after another competition, she tried to defect during a pitstop in Mexico and was offered the option of returning to Cuba or being sent to Venezuela. In Venezuela, she went into hiding. Joe and Yuliet had already married in 2004 but it did not avail Yuliet much with U.S. authorities, who did nothing to expedite the visa of an American citizen's wife. Fearing that Yuliet would soon be captured and deported to Cuba, Joe spent his last dime trying to get her smuggled to the U.S. from Venezuela. He went to Kennedy Airport to wait for her but she never appeared. Only later did he learn that she had been apprehended by Venezuelan authorities and summarily deported to Cuba, where, of course, she immediately became persona non grata, without even the miserable stipend that she had received as an athlete from the regime.
Yuliet was pregnant and close to giving birth. Joe sent several thousand dollars to Cuba so that she would have money to subsist and be able to pay for the delivery, or, to be more precise, so that she could bribe the doctors so that her baby wouldn't be aborted without her knowledge, as is routinely the case in Cuba with difficult deliveries, as hers promised to be. The money was stolen by the person who was entrusted to take it to Cuba. Yuliet literally spent her final trimester in a state of near starvation. The baby -- this little American citizen, Joe Papp Jr. -- was born prematurely by Caesarian section in Havana. Miraculously (because there is a God who does not always turn his back on the innocent), the baby survived. Yuliet is still waiting to be reunited with her husband and Joe Sr. to meet his son.
Needless to say, Joe's experiences with the Castro regime have given him a perspective on it that no other American enjoys and few Cuban exiles. And he has not remained quiet. Perhaps because he's an American and can't easily be silenced. He has done everything in his power to publicize his Yuliet's plight. Others may perhaps have advised caution, as this case might have been easier to "solve" without publicity. But I think Joe was right. The only protection that Yuliet enjoys is that she is the wife of a U.S. citizen and his son that he is an American citizen. To make that fact known as widely as possible is Joe's only defense against the kidnappers of his wife and son. In this he has been greatly assisted by the fact that he is a gifted writer and his own best advocate. He has chosen, however, to be something more: an advocate for the freedom of the entire Cuban people. His identification with our cause and passion for Cuba is such that he reminds me of Henry Reeve. Those acquainted with Reeve's history know that it is impossible to praise Papp more.
His blog I also recommend in the highest terms. It is there where you can discover for yourself his love for Cuba and the Cuban people and the vast resources of his intellect and his heart. Some day, perhaps, he will hang up his bicycle and give a workout to his hands on the keyboard as strenuous as he is wont to give his legs on the peddles.
I know that there are some who think I don't like Americans, but really it is the "Ugly American" that I dislike. The "Ugly American" is not the prototypical American by any means. Sadly, Cuba has suffered greatly and suffers still by the actions of a few "Ugly Americans." Joe and other Americans like him compensate for their crimes and represent a more hopeful epoch in Cuban-American relations which will dawn once Cuba is free.
Read more about Yuliet in Joe's blog, Pappillon: