For one Cuban-American man, Thanksgiving is a painful reminder that
he is separated from his family still on the island.
By Ana Veciana Suarez
Today Jose Cohen will celebrate Thanksgiving as a free man in a
democratic country. He will bow his head for the blessing, help carve
the gleaming turkey and savor his friends' efforts with the black
beans and yuca. But today, too, Cohen's thoughts will wander to the
people he loves most, the people he has never introduced to this
His wife, three children and both parents remain in Cuba, hostages to
a capricious government that refuses to grant them permission to
leave. Cohen is convinced this is the way Fidel Castro punishes him
for leaving a high-powered job as a Cuban intelligence agent and
taking to the sea during the 1994 exodus that brought tens of
thousands of Cubans to Florida shores.
This will be his 10th Thanksgiving away from his family, but the pain
of separation has not eased. In fact, it has only grown more intense.
Surrounded by friends, not far from two brothers who also escaped the
communist island, the tableaux of clans gathered around the dinner
table is simply a reminder of what he doesn't have.
''It's a beautiful tradition, and I admire it greatly,'' said Cohen,
39, ``but these holidays are always sad for me. You see the families
together, you see them enjoying each other and that's when you think
of how long it has been since you've hugged your son and kissed your
His daughters -- Yanelis, 20, and Yamila, 17 -- and son Isaac, 13,
remain in Havana with their mother, Lazara. They've had U.S. visas
since 1996, as have his parents. When he last saw Isaac, the boy did
not yet talk. Yanelis and Yamila were little girls, playing with
dolls on the front door stoop. Now they're young women, frustrated by
a system that does not allow them to continue their education past
middle school because they are not revolutionaries, because their
father left for the United States.
Such separations are not unusual. Most of the Cubans who fled the
island in rafts were young men. Many left families behind. They hoped
to work hard and send money home, become citizens, then bring their
relatives to the United States.
Cohen abandoned the island with barely enough time to bid farewell to
his family because his life was threatened. A University of Havana
mathematics graduate with a specialty in cryptology, he had been
recruited for the intelligence service as a young man and risen
through the ranks. He had a promising future. But the more he saw of
the system, the more disenchanted he became.
''There was a lot of corruption and incredible nepotism,'' he said.
``The people who govern the islands are unscrupulous gangsters.''
He said he knew he could not remain uninvolved. ``What would I tell
my children? How could I live with myself?''
He and a small group of agents began to work against the government,
but they knew it would only be a matter of time before they were
discovered. When Cubans began to leave openly in rafts, Cohen, his
brother Isaac and two other agents fled.
''I knew I could not remain in Cuba and that I was worth more to my
children alive and in another country than dead on the island,'' he
said. ``But I never, ever thought a government, with all the eyes of
the world watching, could hold three children, a wife and two old
people hostages for so many years.''
Though other 1994 rafters have been able to visit the families they
left behind, Cohen will never be able to return to his homeland while
Castro is in power. In his absence, a tribunal condemned him to
death. He says he knows of no other Cuban family that has been denied
exit permission for so long.
He has sought help through many channels, including Mexican President
Vicente Fox and Gregory Craig, the Washington, D.C., lawyer for Elián
González's father during the highly publicized rafter case. All to no
avail. In the meantime, the wound of separation runs deep.
He hears of the small torments his family must endure. His wife is
not allowed to work -- the family survives on the money he sends
them. His son was assigned a homework essay titled My father, Fidel.
And when his daughter Yamila refused to attend a public demonstration
in support of Elián's father, government agents organized a public
act of repudiation against her.
Cohen is able to phone his children at his parents' home, but those
calls are taped. He is convinced he knows little of their real lives
because they do not feel free to tell him.
His own life in the United States is uneventful. He spent his first
four years in the Washington area, where the U.S. government had
taken him for debriefing. He took a painting job at a company owned
by a friend and worked at Amway, now known as QuixStart, during the
evening, becoming so successful in marketing that he was able to quit
his day job. In 1998, he moved his business to Miami because
he ''missed the warm weather and Cuban culture, everything that I
remembered of my country.'' He joined forces with a Cuban-American
chemist to produce beauty and health products to sell on the Internet.
He has his own apartment in Miami Beach, an office in the Doral area,
investments in the stock market. ''I learned the capitalist system
very quickly,'' he said. And he fills his hours with work. It's what
gets him from day to day.
''What my children have of me is this vague recollection of a father,
of who I really am,'' he said. ``But we don't give up hope. Their
dream remains to come here.''
Source: New Herald
Herald staff writer
Elaine de Valle contributed to this report.