Both of their families suffered in the Cuban Revolution: They lost banks, farmland and sugar mills.
But they took different paths after that.
East Hampton resident Maria de Lourdes Alcebo Duke believed in engaging with Cuba and sponsored exchange trips to the Communist-run island nation. Baldwin resident Margarita Grasing couldn’t bear to go back.OpinionEditorial: Re-engagement is best way to change CubaMore coverageCommentary and analysis about U.S.-Cuban relations
Now, as the world marks the anniversary Thursday of the Obama administration’s historic decision to re-establish relations with Cuba after more than a half-century of hostilities, both women — who fled the communist country with their families in the 1960s — are on the same page.
“I didn’t think I was going to be alive when this happened, after all these years of work,” said Duke, known as “Luly” and a member of the family that founded Duke University.
“It has given me renewed energy.”
In August, Duke attended the reopening of the American Embassy in Havana as an invited guest.
Since the late 1990s, she has run Fundación Amistad, a nonprofit that organizes exchange trips and humanitarian missions to Cuba to foster better understanding between the two countries — just 90 miles apart.
Like Duke, Margarita Grasing fled Cuba with her family not long after Fidel Castro seized power. But she has never gone back, and at 72 doubts she ever will. Grasing remembers the Cuba of her youth — a “paradise.” Going back now to see the state of Cuba today would be too painful to confront, she said.
She shares Duke’s support of a normalization of relations between the two countries but said Cuba continues to clamp down on its citizens’ civil liberties.
“If it’s going to help the people on that island, I’m all for it,” said Grasing, who runs the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre Inc., a nonprofit social services agency. “The U.S. still has to understand that it’s a dictatorship on that island and that human rights have been violated for years.”
Ironically, it was the ousting of one dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and the emergence of another, 34-year-old Fidel Castro, that led the Eisenhower administration to sever diplomatic ties with the government and close the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Jan. 3, 1961.
A half-century later, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba is a momentous milestone, but obstacles remain to a full normalization, including economic disagreements, said Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba — a limited substitute for an embassy — from 1979 to 1982.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba and settling billions of dollars of claims for damages by U.S. companies and citizens must be addressed, he said. American corporations and Cubans who fled when Castro assumed power contend the island nation must compensate them for confiscated businesses and land. For its part, Cuba says it is owed billions from the United States for damages incurred by the embargo and aggressions such as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t been able to move as far ahead as I would have wished, but at least we’re moving,” said Smith, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy. The situation is “certainly better than when we weren’t even talking.”
Duke is among those who could file claims for compensation. During the revolution her father lost tens of thousands of acres of farmland used to grow sugarcane, she said. Her grandfather lost a sugar mill. An uncle, an avowed counterrevolutionary, was shot to death by a firing squad.
Grasing said her father lost seven commercial banks he spent his life building. Her family left shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion. During the CIA-led assault involving Cuban exiles, planes flew over the Grasing family home and soldiers nearby shot in the air.
Duke said attending the reopening of the U.S. Embassy all those years after Castro’s regime confiscated so much of her family’s wealth brought tears to her eyes and those of many others who witnessed the historic event last summer.
“It was just extremely emotional to walk through the big gate and see the words Embassy of the United States on the wall of the building, and the seal,” said Duke, an invited guest of Secretary of State John Kerry.
When Duke left Cuba in 1960 at age 14, her family moved to Miami, a hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment among Cuban exiles. It wasn’t until years later, with her marriage to the late Anthony Drexel Duke, a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, that she considered ways to help her native country.
She also was influenced by her husband’s brother, the late Angier Biddle Duke, a U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Denmark, Spain and Morocco, and chief of protocol for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Duke first returned to Cuba in 1995. She founded her nonprofit three years later. Since then, the group has sponsored some 250 missions to Cuba. The organization has brought professionals and students for exchanges, and even arranged a series of exhibition games between baseball-obsessed Cuba’s teams and an amateur Hamptons club. Other trips included delivering humanitarian aid.
“I always felt you needed to do something for the people of Cuba,” Duke said.
The process of re-establishing relations has been “long — and it will be longer,” she said. “But I do think the frame of mind of many people in the U.S. is to move forward and lift the embargo.”
“I think the embargo should be lifted, it never worked,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. . . . If the free world can get in there and help that country . . . I’m all for it.”