Raul turns 90-years old next week and he and his wife Betty will celebrate with a family that owes its roots to an island nation neither has seen in more than 60 years, and its heart to a couple willing to do anything to help out its members.
Dr. Raul Suarez only planned to stay in the United States for a few months when he accepted a surgical internship at Michael Reese Hospital in 1955. At that time his father, Jose Antonio Suarez, served as vice-president for Standard Oil in Cuba and Raul’s family lived in a beautiful home with manicured gardens and spectacular views.
Raul intended to return to the island he loved and work as a surgeon there.
Fate intervened in the form of a spunky surgical nurse named Betty Olson and a dictator named Fidel Castro.
“I never thought I would stay here,” he said. “But I met Betty in surgery and we got married and I never went back and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
The couple married in 1958 and began to build a life in the Chicago area. They planned a trip to Cuba in 1959, when they received an ominous letter from Raul’s mother, Zoila.
“Raul’s mother wrote me a letter and addressed it in my maiden name,” Betty said. “She said, ‘Don’t come. It’s not safe. Things are bad here.’”
On Feb. 16, 1959, after leading a coup that overthrew the U.S.-backed government of Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro assumed the office of Prime Minister of Cuba. His Marxist inspired regime swept swiftly over the island and forced the evacuation of thousands of Cuban elite.
Raul’s parents left behind almost everything they owned.
“They had to leave everything,” he said. “The house, cars, everything. My mother built a false bottom on her purse and some of the jewelry was hidden there. And that’s how she got some of the stuff out.”
The couple fled to Raul and Betty’s house in the Chicago suburbs where they lived for the next five years, until they moved into a place of their own.
Meanwhile, Raul’s oldest brother, also named Jose Antonio but called Tony, continued to deal with the Castro regime in Cuba. A law school classmate of Fidel’s, Tony began his legal career working for Castro. In fact, Tony served as the prosecuting attorney in the case of American Alan Robert Nye, who was convicted of plotting to assassinate Castro. Though sentenced to death, Nye was allowed to leave Cuba on the condition that he never return.
Eventually, Tony grew disillusioned with the Castro government and made plans to leave the island. He negotiated transport on an American ship docked in the Havana harbor and expected to be reunited with his family in Chicago.
Instead, the rapidly unfolding Cuban Missile crisis diverted the American ship to Nicaragua, and Tony landed in prison there.
Alerted to Tony’s situation, Raul and Betty began sending money to support Tony.
“For almost a year we had a lawyer that we sent money to so Tony would have food,” Betty said. “Finally, someone said he would never get out of jail ever if you don’t come down there and get him out.”
Raul flew to Managua and met with Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza, who agreed to release Tony. But, that was only the first step.
“Then we had to go from embassy to embassy to see where he could go,” Raul said. “They said Argentina would take him with a stop in Venezuela. So, Venezuela is where he went and that’s where he stayed. He was able to bring his wife and children over and they lived a really nice life in Venezuela. They became millionaires and had a beautiful home.”
In addition to Raul’s parents and Tony, the Suarez’s helped several family members escape Cuba and get settled in the United States.
Their niece Nora was pregnant with twins when she came to live with them. Betty took care of the twins.
“They were beautiful babies. She named one of them Betty Louise after me,” Betty said.
Raul’s youngest brother Carlos and his wife Bertha also came to live with Betty and Raul.
“Bertha was beautiful,” Betty said. “A beautiful girl. We were able to get her a job washing surgical instruments and eventually they were able to get a place of their own.”
Though they’ve never been back to Cuba, both Raul and Betty have fond memories.
“Cuba was beautiful,” Raul said.
“We had some really good times and I learned to eat Cuban food,” Betty said. “It was great. I grew up a Norwegian in Wisconsin and we ate a lot of meat and potatoes, so I thought Cuban food was just great.”