Across the highway from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, 80 Cuban exiles and family memberssome who fled the island more than a half-century agoare gathered at Carmen’s Cuban Café to swap stories, eat slow-roasted pork and laugh. Sipping mojitos, the men form a light-blue sea of linen guayaberas, a relic of pre-Castro couture that is today reserved for dignitaries, performers and tourists.

Several women show off classic, colorful dresses and blouses, and a few gather before two large flagsone American, one Cubanto lead the group in singing the American and Cuban national anthems.

The annual event, held this year during Memorial Day weekend, celebrates Cuban Independence Day. Although no longer officially recognized in Cuba, the May 20 holiday commemorates the United States’ transfer of power to Cuba in 1902. In exchange for ending its four-year occupation of the former Spanish colony, the U.S. kept land rights to Guantánamo Bay, the power to intervene to preserve a “stable government,” and implicit control over the country’s affairs, an arrangement that lasted nearly 60 years.

An older man and woman recount the first days of the 1959 revolution, which, led by Fidel Castro, rejected American influence and made “anti-imperialism” a rallying cry of a new Socialist state. The man, a former doctor who had moved to the U.S. before the revolution, was vacationing with his family in Havana when Castro’s forces marched triumphantly through the city. He hid his children under the kitchen sink.

The woman, who ran a food distribution company that was expropriated by the government, flew her children unaccompanied to the U.S., where they stayed with foster families until she could join them.

“And they said you were just a bunch of refugees,” her son-in-law says, relishing new details in an old story.

“Just a bunch of refugees,” she repeats, chuckling, as she switches from Spanish to English.

Over the past 50 years, the Cuban exodus to the U.S has swung elections, inspired academic studies, spurred CIA-led battles and provided both relief and anguish for Fidel Castro and the 10 U.S. presidents whose terms he has outlasted. Now President Barack Obama has begun the diplomatic dance with Cuba (the U.S. and Cuba have no official high-level relations) and rolled back some of George W. Bush’s most ineffective stances toward Cuba, primarily related to the migration of Cubans.

More than 5,000 Cuban exiles live in North Carolina (PDF, 68 KB), and many of them settled in the Triangle. Alfonso Sama, who’s lived in Durham for the past decade, escaped the country on a raft in 1962. Tony Asion was sent here by his parents in the early 1960s, as one of thousands of parentless “Pedro Pan” kids. Beba Rodriguez missed the 1980 Mariel boatlift, arriving in the U.S. two years later by obtaining an exit visa through Panama. Ezequiel Casamayor and Noelmis Sevila, political dissidents, were flown by the U.S. government to Raleigh as refugees in 2008.

They are united by their flight, but are nevertheless a loose confederacy of exiles. While some fled in the weeks after the 1959 Revolution, others stayed and supported Castro’s vision, only to sour of it later. Still others were born into communism, and enjoyed the fruits of a Soviet-supported paradise (albeit one with no room for dissent) before succumbing to the poverty that its collapse left behind. The relative few who have earned priority refugee status in recent years tell stories of humiliation, and time spent in jail, for their political activitiessome of them encouraged by U.S. efforts like Radio Martí.

“In no singular moment did I decide to leave Cuba,” says Ezequiel Casamayor, 65, who arrived in North Carolina last year with his two sons, two granddaughters and daughter-in-law. “I was part of the opposition there, fighting for a change on the island. But every day was harder to survive in Cuba. If you aren’t communist, there is no life for you there.”

Casamayor was a 16-year-old kid from the neglected eastern province of Oriente when Fidel Castro’s band of guerillas seized power from a U.S.-supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who had overseen a deeply unequal country. Casamayor says he welcomed Castro’s sweeping education and health care initiatives, which radically reshaped the island. But the reforms also provided an excuse for Castro to delay presidential electionswhich never came.

“Like all of the jovencitos (young ones), I thought Fidel was good,” says Casamayor, who speaks in direct, assured Spanish. He wears a tucked-in polo shirt, has a square jaw and a flash of silver hair, and punctuates his sentences with a slow tap on his dining-room table.

Along with 100,000 other young Cubansincluding Beba Rodriguez, who later helped Casamayor’s family resettle in North CarolinaCasamayor volunteered with the Cuban National Literacy Campaign of 1961, which reduced Cuba’s illiteracy rate, especially in poor and rural areas, from nearly a quarter of the country’s population to virtually nonexistent in one year.

But Casamayor says he was “troubled” by the subsequent shift in teaching methods, which incorporated Marxism-Leninism into the classroom. Years later, as a judo instructor, he says he was stripped of his teaching credentials and ordered to stay away from children, because he didn’t include communist ideology in his classes.

As a result, he decided to join a dissident group in the late 1980s and contribute to the U.S.-based anti-Castro radio station, Radio Martí, “to tell the world how Cuba really was.”

“The Cuban government made it seem like a paradise, but it was really an inferno,” he says.

Since 1990, he says, he had been in and out of jail, and suffered beatings and public “acts of repudiation” due to his contributions to the radio station, which, along with TV Martí, has cost the U.S. more than $500 million since 1985 (PDF, 2.9 MB).

Often viewed as a vehicle for U.S. propaganada, Radio Martí is intended to send messages of freedom and democracy to Cubans on the island, although the station is nearly impossible to hear there, Casamayor acknowledges.

His two eldest sons have also spent time in jail, Casamayor says, for opposing the Castro regime. (One is still in Cuba, awaiting his flight to the U.S., while a daughter has chosen to stay.)

Though Castro’s revolution initially held promise, Casamayor says many Cubans have now “given up hope, and are dying very sadly. It’s a very slow processfrom hunger, from misery, from a bad life. It’s no way to live.”

When the Soviet Union, which had subsidized Castro’s social programs, collapsed in the 1990s, Cuba’s economic situation worsened. However, Casamayor insists, “the day the Soviet Union fell, the misery in Cuba ended.”

“It was a deception,” he says of Cuba’s partnership with the Soviet Union. “But it was a deception that the people accepted, more or less, because we lived quite well.”

Casamayor, who says he never received any U.S. aid while in Cuba, says he thinks the U.S. granted him refugee statusand, eventually, resettlement in North Carolinabecause “they knew him” in the U.S. Interests Section, the quasi-embassy the United States rents from the Swiss government in Havana.

After Casamayor arrived at RDU, a federal refugee-resettlement agency placed him in a two-room apartment next to Interstate 440 in Raleigh, with his five family members and a dissident from Baracoa, Cuba, who stayed with them for several weeks.

Noelmis Sevila, 42, was not politically active until 2004, the year he applied for refugee status. Previously, he had trained at a Cuban military school to become an aviation mechanic, but describes an epiphany he had when he failed math and left the barracks.

“Life in military school was a good lifewith breakfast, lunch and dinner served. Leaving that for the street, I saw the reality of Cuba,” he says, gazing at his clasped hands.

Sevila says he contributed to U.S. radio stations, including Radio Republica and Radio Martí, and agitated peacefully against the government. Like Casamayor, he also sold goods on the black market, because as a dissident, he could not find work. He served time in jail, he says, for hanging a poster on his door that called Cuban municipal elections a lie.

Casamayor and Sevila were resettled through the Raleigh office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which in 2006 received roughly $11 million from the federal government to resettle 5,473 clients. (They enrolled 4,897.) For the 15 Cuban refugees the Raleigh office resettled in the last year, U.S. CRI-Raleigh director Shirley Thoms says the agency received roughly $425 per person to provide transportation from the airport, an apartment and trips to the Social Security office for one month. As refugees, the Cubans were also eligible for federal money for their first eight monthsabout $230 per month for the Casamayor family, and slightly less for Sevila. However, the majority of support came from Cubans who had arrived in earlier waves, whose help U.S. CRI had solicited.

Members of Raleigh’s Cuban community helped his family, Casamayor says, “with everything.”

“They took our hands like we were little kids. They showed us how to live here, and let us know that we would never be alone.”

That included everything from how to turn on air conditioning, communicate with teachers, pay bills, open tin cans and shop for produce they had never seen in Cuba. El Pueblo, whose director, Tony Asion, is Cuban, helped raise donations for groceries and clothes.

Sevila and the Casamayor family have moved into nicer apartments, and now have steady jobsSevila working maintenance at Food Lion, and the three Casamayor adults doing the same at a Wal-Mart.

“The only thing that was a problem was not having a job. But, if I have a job, and am making money, I’m goodI’m good in Cuba, and good here,” Sevila says.

“I have family in Cuba, and will send them money,” Casamayor says, referring to Obama’s recent announcement that he would roll back restrictions on remittances, and on Cubans visiting family on the island. “It is not a bad decision, but I believe that Fidel wants the U.S. to end the travel restrictions, so he can earn more money.”

Non-Cubans in the U.S. are still forbidden from traveling to Cuba, except as academics and journalists. However, Obama’s announcement has reversed the U.S. policy, tightened under President George W. Bush, that places limits on Cubans who want to send money to and visit their family on the island. In addition, the Obama administration has indicated its willingness to resume migration talks, which Bush abruptly ended, to avoid humanitarian crises like the Mariel boatlift, during which 125,000 Cubans fled to the U.S.

“Obama is a great person, with great ideas, and very good intentions,” Casamayor adds. “But, in reality, it seems that he doesn’t know who Fidel Castro is. Fidel is as cynical as his brotherand his brother [Raúl] is worse.”

Sevila says he will visit Cuba when he receives his permanent U.S. residency, which all Cubans receive after one year in the country. However, he says he’s “finished with Cuban politics” and only wants to see his family, who decided to stay behind.

“I want to go see them, spend time with them, and that’s it.”

Beba Rodriguez, a luminous real-estate agent with chestnut hair, followed her son from Florida to Raleigh when his wife was transferred to Research Triangle Park. She has since joined other Cubans in helping the newer arrivals adjust to life in the U.S. She and her husband stayed in Cuba when others fledduring the1960s and 1970s, which she recalls as fearful times.

Like Casamayor, she also volunteered for Cuba’s literacy campaign. As a 15-year-old from Havana, she thought Castro’s new government was “wonderful.” She was placed in the Piñar del Rio province in the west, where she taught tobacco farmers to read and write. They, in turn, taught her how to cultivate tobacco, how to cook, and “the facts of life.”

“But, when I came back from the alphabetization, in December 1961, it was a completely different story,” she says. “My mom says, ‘This is communism. This is not good. This is going to bring the country down’.”

Rodriguez’s family asked to leave Cuba soon afterward, but decided to give their exit visa to Beba Rodriguez’s recently married sister and her young family. Rodriguez stayed behind with her mother. She married and had a child. In 1970, she asked to leave again, but wasn’t granted an exit visa for 11 years, and narrowly missed her chance to leave on the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood surveillance groups, took note of her requests to leave, Rodriguez says, and she and her husband lost their jobs as a result.

“Asking permission to leavethat was the first revenge they took against us, removing us from our sources of income, which was very little of course,” she says.

Her husband, a former Labor Department employee, found another jobas a janitor. When their second son was born in 1975, the couple found work at an automotive spare parts company, though only after pledging to “incorporate” into the CDR.

“We explained to them that I’d already had my second child, and we needed to make a living, because we were starving,” she says.

In anticipation of the Mariel boatlift, her family in the U.S. paid for a boat that flew a Panamanian flagwhich Rodriguez now says was a “hoax.” Castro didn’t allow the boat to dock in Mariel, where hundreds of speedboats were picking up Cubans and dropping them off in Florida. She stayed away from the port, as her friends boarded strange ships, and waited another year before she was granted an exit visa.

“I felt terrible. I was so down and depressed,” she says. “We had high hopes that we would be able to leave the island, and everything crashed.”

Her family finally left Cuba through Panama, where they stayed for nine months before legally entering the United States in 1982. When they left, she and her husband weighed 40 pounds less than they do now.

“We were miserable, with a lack of nourishment, lack of liberty, lack of everything,” she says.

They arrived in Miami on a Saturday, and by Monday, Rodriguez had already registered her children for school, without realizing that she first needed to obtain Social Security numbers. That first day, she helped an assistant principal avert a crisis when a kindergartener from Nicaragua couldn’t find his older brother (no one at the school spoke Spanish then), and she was offered a job as an attendance clerk at the school.

In the 27 years Rodriguez has lived in the U.S., she has softened some of her views on U.S.-Cuba relations. She initially supported the economic embargo of Cuba, in place since 1962, but now regards it as a Cold War measure that “doesn’t make anything good, or bad.”

“He will keep blaming the imperialism for all of his mismanagement,” she says, referring to Fidel Castro without naming him, as is customary among Cubans.

She called Obama’s approach to Cuba “correct” so far, but urged him to lift the travel ban entirely.

“I think there should be no restrictions for North Americans, or Cuban-Americans, to travel to the island and send money to their families. Anyways, you’re trying to help your family there,” she says. “But, I would also like to mentiondon’t wait for any positive response from the Cuban government.”

Frank Castillo, a former U.S. Marine who still wears his dog tags and a Marine pin in his tie, was born in Cuba in 1959 and was exiled with his family to the U.S. by the end of the year. The Wake Med safety specialist and Scout leader says he didn’t realize “what being Cuban meant” until he volunteered, in 1980, to translate for some of the 125,000 Cubans who were granted special “entrant” status during the Mariel boatlift.

“Growing up, the stories I heard were, ‘We had this in Cuba, and we lost it all.’ Well, whatever became of it? What was it like under the regime?” he says.

The stories he heard in 1980 from newly arrived Cubans focused on political repression, and surveillance, but not the level of poverty that has hurt the country over the past 20 years. He says the latest round of Cuban refugees, which he has helped resettle, “is just hungry.”

“They’re desperate for some economic improvement,” he says. “From what I understand, the political system is so entrenched that if you want to get a different job, the paperwork is horrendous. You have to have this political connection.”

Tony Asion, a former U.S. Army pilot and state highway patrolman, was one of at least 14,000 children whose parents sent themaloneon “Pedro Pan” flights to the U.S. in the early 1960s to prevent their political indoctrination in Cuban schools.

“A lot of the things we take for granted, they had to struggle through,” he says of the new arrivals, for which he helped coordinate assistance and gather donations.

“Their advantage, of course, is that they do have a Social Security number, and they can get a job. To a certain extent, they had a benefit. But the difference is that most people who come here usually know somebody,” he says of other immigrants in the U.S. “These guys didn’t. They didn’t know anybody, and struggled with that.”

When Asion arrived in Florida at age 6, with his 9-year-old sister, they knew no one and stayed at foster homes and a group home that he compared to military barracks. One year later, he reunited with his family.

He describes the newest arrivals as mostly harmless political dissidents. “I don’t think any of these guys were a threat, to be honest with you. Some of them are very poorly educated,” he says. “They’re not your rah-rah, we’ve got to do away with government, type of guys.”

They are among the 20,000 Cubans the U.S. grants refugee status (PDF, 3.1 MB) to each year. Since 1983, 1,000 have been resettled in N.C. Cuban refugees include those admitted through a U.S. State Department lottery and family reunion applicants. But gaining priority status as a traditional “refugee” requires more than merely opposing the government or spending time in jail. Per the Refugee Act of 1980, it requires applicants to be of “special humanitarian concern” to the U.S.which can include refugees whose status occurred as a result of their collaboration with the U.S. government. (For the thousands of other Cuban entrants admitted as refugees, through the lottery or family reunification, or by arriving on their own, this standard does not apply.)

“If that was the case, everyone would want to get locked up to come to the U.S,” Asion says. “I’ve got family there who would say, ‘Tell me how.”

Castillo and Asion say they won’t return to Cuba, though Asion visited once in the 1980s. Castillo’s brother visited the island in 2002, after their mother’s death, and came back “disheveled, and emotionally distraught from the things he saw.”

“We actually thought about going to Cuba on vacation,” Asion says of his first reaction to Obama’s announcement. “But then I realized that I couldn’t lay on the beach at a resort, having somebody wait on me, while I know that just a few miles away, my family’s hungry. I can’t do that.”

“I have mixed emotions,” Asion says, on the potential for a diplomatic thaw. “Obviously, what we’ve done doesn’t work. I have family down there who are suffering as a resultI’m not going to say it’s the United States’ fault. I fault Fidel Castro for all the crap they’re going through. But the bottom line is they are suffering. If we can do something to alleviate that suffering, then more power to us.”

As Carmen’s Cuban Café clears out and the Independence Day celebration winds down, Alfonso Sama, owner of the restaurant, takes off his apron and sips a café cortado. He is 68, but looks about 50, and has a shaved head and several tattoos. In 1962, he escaped Cuba with three other men on an inflated raft they stole from the Cuban Army. After days at sea, they were captured by a U.S submarine and taken to Guantánamo, where they were later cleared for a humanitarian flight to the U.S.

“I saw that I was creating a dream for someone else,” he says of his decision to leave. He was in training to become a pilot in Batista’s army, and says he spent a year in jail after the revolution “just for running my mouth.”

Later, his motherthe namesake of Carmen’s, who raised Sama alone after her husband died when Alfonso was just 7joined him in the U.S. after obtaining a visa through Spain. He went on to open several clubs in New York City and Chapel Hill, before opening Carmen’s.

“The people who came in the ’60s had that drive to become something else,” he says.

He sees Cuba changing, with Castro handing power over to his brother, Raúl. He thinks the embargo will soon be lifted, which he says should be predicated on Cuba releasing its political prisoners. “He’s got to give,” he says of Raúl Castro.

Cubans in the U.S. can’t determine Cuba’s future, Sama adds. Instead, that decision lies with the Cubans on the island. “The young generation is always going to take over.”