“I Learned to Care about Freedom”: A Cuban American Explains Why She’s an Activist

  • Wednesday, January 8, 2014

  • Updated Sunday, January 12, 2014 4:52 am

Wikimedia Commons/Luis Korda Castro (right) with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos entering Havana on January 8, 1959.

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If you’re an elected official in South Carolina, it’s reasonably likely that you’ve come across the name Magda Aguila. She is a Cuban American and now a resident of Greenville, where she runs an animal nutrition consultancy from her home.

When she talks to elected officials, however, the subject isn’t animal nutrition. What she wants to talk about with politicians is the danger of unchecked government expansion and the irreplaceability of individual freedom. She’s attended committee hearings, done “sign waves,” researched bills, called lawmakers, and confronted them in person with hard questions.

When I talked with her last week, I came armed with a list of questions, but it only took one – “How did you get interested in government and politics?” – to make the visit worthwhile.

“I grew up in Cuba, and I left when I was 13,” she tells me in a heavily inflected accent. “My father was not in politics, but politics played a big part of his life.”

In the 1950s he was secretary to the only labor union in Cuba. He kept the communists out of the union. My parents knew some of the politics in the 50s were rough, but nobody got persecuted for their beliefs. Nobody was persecuted or intimidated or roughed up for saying the wrong things. Anyway when Castro began to rise, dad tried to warn everybody that he was a communist, but nobody listened. Oh well, eh?

So when Castro took over, dad lost his job with the union and went back to being a bus conductor in Havana. The new government suspected him of being anti-Castro, which he was. Well, during the Bay of Pigs in ’61, my dad disappeared one day. We didn’t see him for three months. Castro’s men rounded up everybody they thought weren’t fully behind him, and they put them in jail. The jails ran out of room, so they held them in theaters, baseball fields, wherever they could find.

Dad ended up Morro Castle in Havana Bay. They put the prisoners in a dungeon, and when the tide came in, the water came up their chins.

They let him go, but he was never the same after that, my dad. Never the same.

There is a long pause, but I don’t say anything.

After that, my parents started looking for ways to get out of Cuba. Who wouldn’t, right? We had some family connections with KLM, the airline. They were pulling out of Cuba, and my father figured out a way to get us on a plane out of Cuba. It was the very last plane to leave. My mother, my father, and me – we all boarded.

While it was still on the ground, they were calling names and pulling people off the flight. They called our names, but the plane had already gone. We got out.

You asked why I got interested in being active in politics. This is why. This is where I learned to care about what’s going on in government. I learned to care about freedom.

Magda liked being active on national issues, but for years she only had a permanent visa and she felt uncomfortable with activism at the local level when she wasn’t yet a citizen.

“I felt that if you were not born in the U.S., you shouldn’t try to become an American citizen. Being a permanent resident, I had the same duties and privileges as everybody else. The only thing I couldn’t do was vote. I felt somehow that we who weren’t born in the United States shouldn’t be deciding who leads the country.”

But then I saw things that reminded me – in small ways maybe – of the kinds of things I had seen in Cuba. I saw No Child Left Behind, which in my mind was just the central government beginning to take over the job of educating children. It’s not that many more steps to indoctrination.

There were other things. More and more centralized control. There was the Patriot Act. So I thought to myself, ‘It’s probably time I got off my stupid high horse and applied for citizenship.’ So I did, and got it.

When I moved to South Carolina, I thought: Excuse me but I thought South Carolina was a conservative state. The corruption, the politicians who think they are above the law. What am I missing here?

I ask her why she remains so active. Why keep it up?

“When some of my activist friends are asked that, they say ‘Because of my grandchildren’ or something like that. I have two sons, no grand kids. The rest of my family – my mother and father, all of my relatives in Cuba – they’re dead. So the reason I do it, I guess, is for other Americans, today. Especially those of my friends who say, ‘If only we could get Obama outta there.’ I tell them, ‘Obama’s not the problem; he’s the symptom.’ This problem is much older than that.”

And what is the problem, I ask?

“For decades we’ve had the pedal to the metal heading towards progressivism. That ain’t going to change just because we send a Republican to the White House.”

Barton Swaim writes for The Nerve, an online publication of the S.C. Policy Council.

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