Memories of a Cuban Exile

By: Joyce K. Almodóvar Jiménez

It was a lovely summer day in the province of Las Villas in Cuba and Manuelito was running with his friends in the fields that surrounded his small town. However, a heartbreaking sound completely disrupted his happiness.

With firm but trembling steps, he and his friends came across an agonizing cow being attacked by a flock of voracious vultures that couldn’t wait for the animal to be dead.

“I began to cry, while throwing rocks to those beasts to the let the cow die in peace,” his now corpulent body shudders and his firm, but old shaking hands kept playing with his glasses while becoming lost in those bitter memories of his childhood. “It was all futile, I couldn’t do anything.”

That was the first encounter he had with cruelty and death, something that marked him forever.

His family, the Alzugaray, was an affluent family from the now extinct province of Las Villas, in the central region of Cuba. His father, a doctor was his inspiration to study that profession. However, his dream was momentarily shattered when the Castro revolution started.

“I was just a kid who had just received my high school diploma, excited to start my studies in Medicine and be like my father,” said Manuel, while returning to his old days in La Habana. “The changes that life takes are fascinating and bittersweet.”

While registered in the University of La Habana, the different movements against and in favor of the Castro regime, plus the indiscriminately executions, Manuel decided to join forces with the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (Trans.: Student Revolutionary Directive).

For his participation against the government, he was arrested.

“I had to make a decision, I had to escape prison,” Dr. Alzugaray continues, while shuddering at the memories. “I used a false identity and other methods that I definitely prefer not to remember.”

In 1962, he said farewell to everything he knew at the moment, his family… his beloved Cuba, in order to look for help for the internal resistance.

The US Army was his only choice in order to gain the military experience he and the rest of his companion needed to allow them in a future to return to Cuba and cooperate in the liberating task.

However, it all changed when the United States changed their plans in the middle of the battle.

“Kennedy failed us,” the indignation was completely visible in this man’s face. “I couldn’t continue in an army under the mandate of a traitor. They were going to prosecute anyone in their territory attempting to attack the Cuban regime.”

Dr. Alzugaray was referring to the Bay of Pigs incident in April 1961, were it took place the unsuccessful attempt by a group of seaborne forces of armed Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, sponsored by the American CIA under the Kennedy mandate in order to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. However, after acknowledging that the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Cuba were winning the battle, Kennedy ordered cancellation of further airfield strikes to attempt to deny the United States sponsorship in the invasion, leaving the Cuban exiles on their own in their battle. Because of this, more than a hundred Cuban exiles were killed in action and 1189 were held as prisoners.

Dr. Manuel Alzugaray with his wife, Conchita and two of his three children, Manuel and Santiago and his granddaughter, Emma.  September 2008.

Dr. Manuel Alzugaray with his wife, Conchita and two of his three children, Manuel and Santiago and his granddaughter, Emma. September 2008.

Unable to return to Cuba, he resigned from the army and fled to Spain, with nothing in his pockets, only his latent dream to follow his father’s steps in the medicine career. There, he met his future wife and mother of his three children, Conchita, another Cuban exile.

“We had nothing,” said Mrs. Alzugaray “we did every single job available in order to pay for his medicine studies at the University of Salamanca.”

At the end, all sacrifices paid off; he graduated with honors and returned to the United States where he specialized in orthopedic surgery.

Still struggling with his personal aspirations, his ambition to fight for his ideals were still latent and waiting for the day that he could make a bigger contribution to the cause.

As the result of that ambition, The Miami Medical Team Foundation (MMTF) was established in 1980. As a non-profit, humanitarian and self-supported organization, the MMTF goals has always been to send medical and surgical help, along with medicine and medical equipment to Third World countries with desperate needs.

“It was not only Cubans that were suffering, but people from everywhere. I had to do something.” said Alzugaray, his eyes glaring with passion.

Some of the Miami Medical Team Foundation members in Haiti after the earthquake. February 2010. Dr. Alzugaray, third from the right, first row.

Some of the Miami Medical Team Foundation members in Haiti after the earthquake. February 2010. Dr. Alzugaray, third from the right, first row.

“I can still remember the day that we all went to our first trip…” says Dr. Alzugaray, once again, immersing his gaze in something that was inexistent for me. “We all went to Nicaragua.”

One day in September, 1983, when his oldest son was only 11 years old, Manuel Alzugaray kissed them goodbye not knowing if he would come back to his family safe. After all, he was going to a real but silent battle between the Nicaragüan Democratic Forces (NDF) and the Somoza regime, to help hundreds of combatants with medical and surgical care. In improvised tents, an army of doctors was helping an army of soldiers.

“Everyone was skeptical about our participation there. We were Cubans, like the ones that were helping the government,” continued Dr. Alzugaray.

“They were illiterate peasants fighting for freedom, in one way or another; we had to gain their confidence in order to help them.”

It had been a long day when the commander of medical services from the NDF invited them to visit an agonizing soldier.

Dr. Manuel Alzugaray with a commander of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces in September 1983.

Dr. Manuel Alzugaray with a commander of the Nicaraguan Democratic Forces in September 1983.

The commander led them to an old house destroyed by the time filled with darkness and a humid earthen floor. In the last room of the house, there was a man battling for his life while resting in a military stretcher. The pestilence reminded him of his first encounter with death.

Dr. Alzugaray discovers the cause of this young man’s grief, what appeared to be a bullet hole in his right leg, now a swollen laceration with gangrene.

The young combatant was wounded far from the campsite and while being transported, he lost a lot of blood and while they were waiting for him to die, the man was holding to live.

Dr. Manuel A. Alzugaray giving medical assistance to an earthquake survivor in Port Prince, Haiti. February 2010.

Dr. Manuel A. Alzugaray giving medical assistance to an earthquake survivor in Port Prince, Haiti. February 2010.

Manuel knew that the only way that he was able to safe this man’s life was by amputating his leg, and so he did. In a room filled with flies, bad illumination and old medical equipment, he proceeds with the operation. The surgical procedure that

required strong sedatives, a blunt saw and a direct blood transfusion, was a success. In 1984, the Miami Medical Team Foundation gave Vicente, the man that Dr. Alzugaray saved, a leg prosthesis.

This, as many other stories, is what inspires not only Dr. Manuel Alzugaray, but all Miami Medical Team members to continue their mission. As of today, the MMTF has visited and helped a total of 19 countries; among them are Nicaragüa, Angola, Afganistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti and Cuba.

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