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As a young man, Cesar Pacheco and his friends gathered on Havana's Malecon to pick up radio stations from Miami.  Everything they heard was much more interesting and beautiful than the Communist programming available in Cuba, he said.

Pacheco, who is now 40 and living in Denver, comes from the generation that was born after the revolution that swept Fidel Castro into power in 1959 and changed the island nation into a socialist state.

Pacheco said he was always apathetic about the revolution and wanted to explore the world of capitalism.

In 2000, Pacheco fell in love with an American exchange student in Cuba. They married, and Pacheco left everything behind in search of a better life in the United States.

"I had never set foot on a plane. It's difficult for Cubans to do," he said in reference to the strict travel regulations imposed by the government. "But I knew that in Cuba I couldn't be happy."

Like Pacheco, thousands of Cubans have taken refuge in the United States, for personal, political and economic reasons. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Cubans in this country.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, approved by the American congress in 1966, the majority of Cubans can live in the United States legally.

According to 2010 Census data there are 6,253 cubans in Colorado.


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Unlike other Latin American nations, Cuba does not celebrate its Independence Day (from the United States on May 20, 1902). Nonetheless, some of Denver's Cubans would like to use the occasion to express their desire to return to a free Cuba.

"I miss the customs of my people, but I will not return to Cuba and live like I did," Pacheco said.

Cuba is situated in the Caribbean Sea, south of the United States and the Bahamas, east of Mexico, north of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and west of the island of Hispaniola. As a Spanish colony, Cuba was an important producer of tobacco and sugar. At the end of the 18th century, Havana was the gateway to the New World.

In modern times, Cuba experienced political instability until the arrival of Fidel Castro and a group of revolutionaries that called themselves the July 26th Movement. After various confrontations with dictator Fulgencio Batista's troops, Castro's group triumphed, establishing a socialist government.

Enrique Socarras, chef of Cuba Cuba, stirs up a Cuban paella combining seafood, chorizo, chicken and valencia rice in a saffron infused seafood broth.
Enrique Socarras, chef of Cuba Cuba, stirs up a Cuban paella combining seafood, chorizo, chicken and valencia rice in a saffron infused seafood broth. (José Guzmán/Viva Colorado)

Mario Martinez, a 68-year-old Cuban who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, remembers how Castro promoted the revolution and general elections that never took place. Martinez said he was a member of Castro's forces until he recognized the reality.

"I saw so much injustice that it made me mad, and I left his army to help those who were fighting against the revolution," he said.

At 18 years old, Martinez was among the exiled Cubans who were trained and armed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and invaded Cuba's Bay of Pigs to try and bring down the government.
More than 1,000 people, including Martinez, were jailed for two years in Cuba until they were ransomed and released, he said.

Martinez cannot return to the island but he continues to fight for a free Cuba, he said.
Seven years ago he founded Cuba Corps, a nonprofit formed of exiled Cubans in Miami that provides money and medicine to Cubans still on the island. The assistance goes mostly to children 5-12 years old

who receive books, movies, medicine and vitamins, Martinez said.

"We want these children to grow up with an open mind and to be able to be children without political restrictions," he said.

The average Cuban earns $20 to $50 a month, which goes for food, Martinez said. Education, housing and medical care are all provided by the government.

Kristy Socarras Bigelow, a Cuban American who lives in Denver, grew up in Miami surrounded by the Cuban culture.

Picadillo is served over white rice with a fried egg on top, black beans and plantains on the side.
Picadillo is served over white rice with a fried egg on top, black beans and plantains on the side. (José Guzmán/Viva Colorado)

"The music, the food, everything was Cuban. I ate rice and beans before I tried French fries. My parents didn't allow me to speak English at home, and because of that I still speak the language and I am proud to be a Cuban," she said.

Her parents' influence inspired Socarras Bigelow to open the restaurant Cuba Cuba in Denver along with her brother and her husband 10 years ago.

The majority of the dishes on the menu are family recipes that have been passed down for generations, some that no longer exist in Cuba, she said, in part because of the embargo imposed by the United States on the island.

"I am not a supporter of the embargo because it affects the people, not Fidel Castro. They shouldn't do without because of politics," she said.

Cuba Cuba is one of the few places where Denver's Cubans gather and where others can learn about the country, Socarras Bigelow said. For this reason, she is bringing Cuban sandwiches to Boulder in June.

In May, Raul Castro, who replaced his brother Fidel as president of Cuba in 2008, announced a series of reforms to improve living conditions on the island and to open relations with other countries. Among those reforms is the possibility that Cubans would have fewer travel restrictions.

For some, this is a ray of hope.

"When you travel, it opens your mind. Like Jose Marti said, 'To be educated is to be free,' and then no one can fool you, no one can tell you stories, no one can enslave you, because you know better," Pacheco said.


Country profile

CAPITAL CITY: Havana, with more than 2 million inhabitants.
LANGUAGE: The official language is Spanish
INDEPENDENCE: October 10, 1868, from Spain and May 20, 1902, from the United States.
POPULATION: More than 11 million people (2010).
GOVERNMENT: Totalitarian communist state. The current government assumed power by force on January 1, 1959. The Cuban Communist Party is the only party allowed.
EDUCATION: Primary and secondary schools are free and obligatory. The literacy rate is 99.8 %. The University of Havana was founded in 1728 and there are many universities on the island.
MONEY: Cuba has two currencies in circulation: the Peso and the Convertible Peso. The exchange rate is currently $1.08 US Dollars per Convertible Peso.
ECONOMY: The Cuban economy is organized under socialist principles and is controlled primarily by the government. The GDP growth in 2010 was 2.1%.
GEOGRAPHY:  Cuba is an archipelago of islands in the northern Caribbean Sea, where the Atlantic meets the Gulf of Mexico. Cuba is the 16th-largest island in the world.

U.S.-Cuba relations and the embargo

Fidel Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961. Relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban government expropriated U.S. properties and moved to adopt a one-party communist system. In response, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba on October 1960 and then broke diplomatic relations in 1961.

The commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba impedes economic transactions between the two countries. Despite this situation, the United States is among the top five commercial partners of Cuba, 6.6% of imports to Cuba come from the United States.- U.S. Department of State


RECIPE

Picadillo

Ingredients:
3 lbs ground beef
6 olives manzanilla
1 tsp capers
1 tbsp garlic
3 tbsp raisins
1 tbsp garlic powder
1/2 tbsp oregano
1/2 tsp cumin
1 bay leaf
1 cup diced yellow onion
1/2 cup green bell pepper
1/2 cup red bell pepper
1/2 cup tomato paste
3/4 cup diced potato
Salt & pepper to taste
3 cups beef broth

Directions:
Sweat garlic, onions and peppers in a 6-8 quart sauteé pan over medium heat  for about 8-10 minutes then remove from pan and set aside. Brown the beef in the same pan over high heat until cooked and then drain fat. Add oil to the pan, then add onion mix to the beef and add remaining ingredients, simmer for 45 minutes. Serve over white rice with a fried egg on top, black beans and plantains on the side. Serves five.

Courtesy of Kristy Socarras Bigelow of Cuba Cuba Café and Bar