Lala Mooney, born in communist Cuba, was imprisoned there at age 19. As protests erupt in the Caribbean nation, Mooney, mother of Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about what life there is like.
“At the economic level, we lost everything,” Mooney says. “My mother’s family owned a sugar mill and they put a gun on my uncle’s desk and say, ‘Sign it over.’ We lost everything.”
Mooney says her father was dean of engineering at St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic University in Havana, which the communist regime of Fidel Castro confiscated in 1961, expelling American and European Anglicans who administered it.
“Once we were in prison, my father said, ‘There’s no sense for me to stay here if they put me in prison.'”
“Engineering was a very important topic in Cuba,” Mooney adds, “because Cuba was [one of the biggest] producers of sugar in the whole world, and engineering is how you run the sugar mills.”
We also cover these stories:
- In a speech, President Joe Biden criticizes election reforms passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
- Democratic state lawmakers from Texas, fleeing a vote on an election bill there, hold a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in support of congressional Democrats’ legislation to impose election requirements on states.
- So far, no Democrat has signed on to a resolution from Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., to support the protests in Cuba.
“The Daily Signal Podcast” is available on Ricochet, Apple Podcasts, Pippa, Google Play, and Stitcher. All of our podcasts can be found at DailySignal.com/podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a review. You also can write to us at [email protected]l.com.
Rachel del Guidice: We’re joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Lala Mooney. She is the mother of Congressman Alex Mooney, who represents West Virginia’s 2nd District. Lala, thank you so much for being here with us today.
Lala Mooney: Thank you. It’s an honor.
Del Guidice: You just wrote a book, congratulations, that’s titled “Leaving Cuba: One Family’s Journey to Freedom.” Can you start off by telling us about your story and why your family fled Cuba?
Mooney: Well, I never thought this was going to happen, but when Fidel Castro took over, he said, “I’m green like the palm trees and I’m not red and communist.” In two years, the country was upside-down.
And my dad was a professor of engineering at the university. I was a university student. They closed the university. … Then they came to my dad and they said he had to give them all the names of all the students and all the information. And we felt very persecuted.
And then what happened was on the day of Bay of Pigs, on that day, Fidel Castro sent his army out to pick up prisoners. And you would not believe that in one day they picked up 100,000 prisoners.
How did he do it? He had planned it. He had the biggest army in all Central and South America. And he had forbidden anybody to have any arms but he had bought himself a lot of arms from Russia.
He didn’t have where to put all these prisoners so he put them in the big places like the army barracks and the theaters, any place.
My dad ended up at the entrance of Havana in a fortress called La Cabana and at nighttime he could hear the executions and … a few times he even talked to people that were about to be executed and he helped them say prayers and he helped them write goodbye letters to their family. He himself was not involved in actual underground so ultimately we were allowed to leave the country.
I was put in prison in a woman’s prison in Guanabacoa. And there I witnessed one of the worst things, which was when they want to transfer some prisoners to a worse jail, the prisoners did not want to go, so they plan a strategy on Mother’s Day to give them visits from their mothers, put them all in a separate room, and then they brought firetrucks and 500 firemen, and with the force of water, they force all these women to get into the vans to go to the other place.
One of these women was pregnant and the beautiful thing is, on the one side, the fireman aimed the hose at her stomach—they wanted to kill the baby—so all the other women surrounded her and saved the baby. And beautifully, a couple of months after that, the baby was born. And I witnessed that. I could see it from my prison cell.
Del Guidice: Wow.
Mooney: You get the impression that no matter what you do, these people are going to be mean and also that this was the advice of the Soviet Union representatives that were by then telling Fidel what to do.
Del Guidice: You mentioned that you were imprisoned in 1961. What was that experience like? And what do you remember from it? And how old were you when you were in prison?
Mooney: I was 19 and it was very scary. On the night I was questioned by the militiamen and I saw my dad there, also was going to be questioned. And here this man who was the most important man in my life with his head down.
And the following morning in prison, they would bring the newspapers with the names of the people executed. And one person would read them aloud. … If I knew the person, I couldn’t even say I knew the person or cry because we knew that inside the prison there were spies. It was just incredibly desperate.
Del Guidice: Can you tell me about the day that your home was invaded by the soldiers? What happened that day? I know you had shared a story about something that your boyfriend had given to you for protection that was illegally given to you, a gun. Can you go through that story? What that day was like and what you remember from it?
Mooney: Right. Well, that very morning, my boyfriend came and he had had a gun and he want[ed] to hide it. The reason was he was afraid they were going to check his house. He brought it to my house, thinking that I wasn’t under any problem. I put it inside a shoe box. And then I’m like, “What if they come here?”
One of my dad’s workers was there and I said, “What do I do?” I didn’t want to tell my dad. He said, “Let me bury it.” He buried it in the ground. And then a couple of minutes after that, I look out the window and my house was surrounded by militiamen. And one of them signaled the other ones to go in like if it was a fortress or something.
They came in and they checked the whole house. Everybody goes to the living room and they checked the whole house. They were looking for any evidence that we were against the government. But fortunately, they did not see the gun.
I could see the militiaman with their boots walking over the area where I knew it was buried. But strategically speaking, the guy who buried it, buried it among two little tiny bushes and there were a lot of bushes around it so you could not see that the earth had been removed that morning. If that would have been found, my dad would have been killed.
Del Guidice: Wow. How was your family impacted specifically by the Castro regime? Did you have family members who passed away in prison? And I know you had shared a story too about your mother and how visits to her home caused her to go into shock and some pain that she experienced. How was your family directly impacted by this regime?
Mooney: Well, at the economic level, we lost everything. My mother’s family owned a sugar mill and they put a gun on my uncle’s desk and say, “Sign it over.” We lost everything. Once we were in prison, my father said, “There’s no sense for me to stay here if they put me in prison.”
Before that, before he was even able to think about the decision, he was still in prison, they came and they told my mother something that really scared her, which was—there was a Villanova school in Cuba. Most people don’t know it but my dad was a dean of engineering. And this was very important. Engineering was a very important topic in Cuba because Cuba was [one of the biggest] producers of sugar in the whole world and engineering is how you run the sugar mills.
… My dad had a little laboratory with a small-size engine, model of a sugar mill. And they told my mother that my dad’s students had hidden their ammunition and explosives and some plastic to-do bombs. And if that were to be found, then my dad would be blamed and executed.
And my mother couldn’t take it so my mother went catatonic, which you hardly ever see anybody that way. She couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move. She was just frozen like this. We took her to the doctor and the doctor said the only way to get her out is to do electroshocks. They put these wires on her head and I left the room while they shocked her. Then I came back and helped take the wires off.
And then she came out, real peaceful and real subdued. We hid her, we didn’t take her back home. We hid her in some other relative’s house, waiting for my dad to be free.
… At that moment, we discovered that we had a connection to the Brazilian Embassy and the Brazilian Embassy asked the Cuban government to release some prisoners. And they did release my dad.
Once he was free—we have very common name, Suarez—there was a ferryboat that was bringing things to Cuba and so the owner helped us in getting my dad into the ferryboat. My dad went to the bottom of the ferryboat where there were some freezers and he hid in one of those freezers. When the police came to check, they didn’t see him. But later on, once the ferryboat was in the seas, he said it was like rats coming out of the basement of the ferryboat. The people are hidden there.
Once my dad came to America, then in two weeks, we were able to come legally. We were able to get documentation. And at that point, the Cuban government did not control everybody, let some people go. We don’t know why, maybe because they knew we were going to take everything or maybe because they still did not have enough control.
We were able to come. Two of my own, two of my dad’s brothers were left behind. One of them died in prison with cancer. We never know the conditions. We never know what happened.
And then another one is a beautiful story because his son rescued him. His son ransomed him. He rented a boat in Miami and is one of only two or three cases ever. And he came to Cuba, he ransomed him. And that weekend, Fidel was having an international panel gathering so he said, “I’m freeing this man because he’s old, he’s sick, and he has a son that’s very brave.
When they release him, my uncle said to his son, “OK, who’s maneuvering the boat?” He said, “Me.” And he said, “Well, you don’t know how to do it.” He said, “I’m going back to prison.” When he looked back, the police car was gone.
Del Guidice: What a story. What a courageous man.
What was it like for you to go from living in Cuba to then coming to the United States and living here? What was that transition like? What did you notice about, obviously, living in Cuba in that communist regime and then coming to the United States? What was that transition like?
Mooney: OK. It was very interesting. I would always sit any place looking at the door because I didn’t know who was coming in.
And I got a job in a hospital, in an emergency room. I was the secretary and people would buy me a cup of coffee. “I’m going to buy coffee, Lala, bring you a coffee.” You know what I would do with that coffee? I would throw it in the bathroom because why would people give me a cup of coffee unless they wanted to poison me? And it took me six months to get over it and finally I said, “This is not true. I don’t have to be that scared.” Isn’t that something?
Del Guidice: That is something. Wow. Were there any other things that stuck out to you as maybe weird or just something to get used to where you have this one mode of living? You’re used to living in this communist country, not being able to trust anyone, and then coming to the United States and just having it being a totally different environment.
Mooney: I really have to be very thankful to the Catholic Church and the people in America. My dad had studied in Villanova in Pennsylvania, so he told us, “In America, do like Americans.” The transition was an easy one.
Del Guidice: Wow. You have an amazing story. I wanted to ask you, too, so your son is a United States congressman. He represents West Virginia’s 2nd District. What was it like to raise a son who went on to be a congressman? And also tell us about your other children.
Mooney: It was wonderful. I myself was raised in a boarding school, so I was in a boarding school in Havana and I could only see my parents on weekends or on festivities.
I really enjoy my children. My son, Alex, he joined a debate club and I sat there and I help[ed] him prepare his debate and I helped him in many little ways.
I really enjoy mothering. And I really enjoy the American way in the schools where they have a lot of sports and they have a lot of freedom for the children. But I also have to thank the Catholic Church and religion in general. I believe in God and I believe in this case, that you have to do things for your country.
Del Guidice: What is the state of Cuba like now that you’ve been here? I know you mentioned you’ve been back several times. What have you witnessed when you’ve gone back? Is it better? Is it worse? I know you’ve talked about some of the misconceptions that people in the states think that things have improved. What have you seen?
Mooney: OK. This is the most important part. There is such a myth that Cuba is doing better. Cuba has one of the most powerful intelligence apparatus in the world and they have convinced everybody.
And when I went there, my first trip was in 1999. Rachel, I cried every day. The Cuban people had to console me because the condition was so desperate. And my relatives [would] fix dinner for me, they wouldn’t eat with me because there was no food. The water on the shoes—I ended up giving them my shoes and came back in flip-flops.
The situation was very extreme. And the technique that they use is to keep people hungry. They have a ration card. They don’t have enough food so everybody steals. Who do they steal [from]? They steal from the government.
When the journalists, American journalists, there’s one in The Economist, go visit Cuba and they ask people, “How do you do?” “Oh, I have a ration card.” But nobody have seen the ration card. And they’re not going to say, “OK, I’m stealing.”
So if you work in a school, anytime you go next to where the beans are, you grab a bag of beans and you put it in your purse or in your pocket. They have a whole bunch of black market kind of strategies.
Del Guidice: Wow. That is really sad. Can you speak a little bit to the emotional state of the Cuban people? … You just recently here at [The Heritage Foundation] talked about your new book and had mentioned the high rate of suicide in Cuba and also the problem they have with prostitution. Can you speak to those two issues that you’ve witnessed when you’ve been there?
Mooney: Well, the suicides is very important because I have a friend, Maida Donate, who at that point was working in Cuba in the health department and they assigned her to do a study. They did an intensive, statistically careful study of all the suicides in three months in all of Cuba. And they classify them and … the numbers that came up was that Cuba has practically the highest suicide rate in the world.
When Fidel Castro’s people realized that, first of all, they said, “This is a national secret. You cannot tell anybody, and if you do, you’ll be punished.” Now, my friend ultimately left Cuba, went to Barry University, and wrote her master’s on it. You can see her, Maida Donate. It’s not fabricated. It’s there.
The beautiful thing, in a way, or hopefully, they maybe try to prevent suicides. But what they do is they said, “If you commit a suicide, the data, instead of saying that she committed suicide, say she fell off the truck or she drown or whatever. You must change the data.”
You cannot believe the data that Cuba produces now. One of the saddest parts in the data is that the rate of women committing suicide is as high as men. And that is not true of the data any other place. The desperation of the women is very noticeable. They have the highest suicide rate in the world, the women.
Del Guidice: What is the state of health care like as well in Cuba? I know you had mentioned, you told a story about a woman who is trying to get a diabetes medicine to her husband and what she was having to go through to do that. What does that look like in Cuba?
Mooney: Rachel, this was amazing. When I was in prison, the first prison I was [in] was a temporary prison. In the second floor there were women, first floor men. And in the middle, there was a guard. All of a sudden, one of the women prisoners is carrying on with this guard and we all notice it so we all sort of hid and they went into a room. We couldn’t believe it.
Well, the next day, this is a true story, her husband was in the first floor and he was diabetic and he needed medicine. So she had … made herself available to this guard and then the guard got him medicine for diabetes.
And the lesson to me was, what would I have done in that situation? Probably would have done the same thing. And that is the case of prostitution in Cuba, that people do it just because it’s the only way they can get ahead.
Del Guidice: That is so heartbreaking. I know you’ve been back to visit a lot. I think you said nine times. What is the role of the church in Cuba? And also, what is the state of religious freedom like there?
Mooney: I’m really proud of the church. What I hear from the young people is the only place where you can really talk. The church has done a lot of supportive work, not only the Catholic Church, but a lot of Protestant churches and even Jewish.
When I go, I bring medicines for them and I deliver them. I go to the synagogue, I go to the different churches. It’s so incredible. I bring the strips for the people that are diabetic. And then the church announces that the people can come and check their diabetes on Mondays and Fridays.
They cannot give you the diabetic strip because, you know. Each church, most of the churches have a pharmaceutical assistant and the public medical doctors call the church and say, “I have somebody here that needs hypertension medicine. Do you have any?” The church has taken that role, but also, at the spiritual level, also very important because people naturally want to believe in God, no matter what.
Del Guidice: What would your message be to many young people? A lot of my peers who are young Americans, they’re finishing school, they’re entering the workforce, and yet they’re attracted to communism, socialism. They hear lectures in school, they have friends who are getting friendly to the idea. Some of them visit Cuba and they don’t actually see the reality of it. If you could tell them one thing or tell them a couple things, what would your message be?
Mooney: Well, I tend to compare the case in Cuba with the case of abused children or children who are sexually abused. If you ask a kid who’s sexually abused, he’s not going to tell you because, first of all, he’s been threatened with death: “If you tell anybody I’m here playing with you, I’m going to do this and that.”
The Cuban people cannot speak. Those people who travel, first of all, the translators that are given, the interpreters are old communists and all afraid themselves. They cannot say the truth. What you see is not the truth and they’re constantly watching you and they’re constantly brainwashing you. You have to be smart and you have to seek the truth.
Del Guidice: Lala, I can’t thank you enough so much for being here with us today. You’ve shared so many incredible insights and thank you for your story and just thank you for being here.
Mooney: Thank you, Rachel. Bye.
“The Daily Signal Podcast” is available on Ricochet, Apple Podcasts, Pippa, Google Play, and Stitcher. All of our podcasts can be found at DailySignal.com/podcasts. If you like what you hear, please leave a review. You also can write to us at [email protected].