The Yellow-and-white bungalow in Coral Gables is much like its neighbors: unpretentious, neatly kept, with an outrageously green lawn fed by the drip-drip- drip of the South Florida weather. In the backyard, a lone man works on a new pool. In a yard so small, the cool water will practically lap at the back door. Julio Gomez urges me inside, out of the heat, so he can show off his treasures — paintings his family and friends sneaked out of Cuba. I’m curious to see them. I sneaked a few of them out myself.
That was more than 15 years ago, and I always wondered what happened to Julio. But life intervened: I moved, and then I moved again, looked after two parents with critical illnesses, got married, got distracted by other people’s stories. Though I went back and forth to Cuba repeatedly in the 1990s as a correspondent for Time magazine, I never saw Julio again. I tried to justify it to myself: Everyone I know has friends they’ve left behind and lost. But Julio was one of those people you meet as a journalist who proves to be hard to forget. He was a smart guy, caught in a modern hell. I had left him behind, and my conscience was playing head games with me. In the end, he found me — through this column.
When I met Julio in 1994, he was an orthopedic surgeon at Enrique Cabrera Teaching Hospital outside Havana, the first hospital established after the Cuban revolution. The early ’90s were horrendous in Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the island without its main trading partner. Cubans were bone-thin, surviving on rice and beans, rum and — if you can believe my fellow reporters — the meat of household pets. The Cubans have a crazy sense of humor that helps them deal with adversity (you’ve heard about the three failures of the Cuban revolution: breakfast, lunch and dinner), but things were dire. At Julio’s hospital, supplies were in such short supply, he could perform surgery only for emergencies. He didn’t even have cotton bandages to put under children’s plaster casts. People were smuggling medicine into the country to treat loved ones. Aspirin was rationed to 20 pills a year per person.
Julio invited me to his mother’s home with one goal in mind: to get his family art collection out of the country to a brother in Miami. Most houses in Havana, at that stage, had been stripped of anything of value as families sold their treasures to survive. Theirs wasn’t a fancy house outside, but I remember marveling at the French and Italian pieces inside, as well as art by some of Cuba’s most famous names: abstracts by Amelia Peláez, arguably their greatest female artist, as well as works by Enrique Caravia y Montenegro and Servando Cabrera Moreno. To find these artworks surviving amid the deprivation of Cubans’ everyday lives was stunning. That day, Julio and his mother entrusted me with one of their cherished paintings, as well as with family photos from the 1940s and ’50s. Now, as I peruse the walls of Julio’s home in Coral Gables, I marvel at his ingenuity. The walls are covered from the floor to the ceiling with these paintings and pictures, most carted out of Cuba by me and by others. In a back bedroom are the family portraits I brought over, including his mom’s wedding photo. “It’s my dream house,” Julio says as he shows me around.
Julio provides only glimpses of how hard his life has been. His aging father, an accountant who believed in Fidel Castro’s revolution, died on the island. (They kept hard-to-obtain gasoline in mineral bottles in their bathroom; not to take his dying father to the hospital, he says, but in case the funeral home had no gas to pick up the body.) He admits he grew dispirited at work, worn down from the lack of equipment and medicines. At one point, he realized the authorities were spying on him, reading letters that he sent out of the country.
In 1996, Julio got lucky. A visa to work in the Bahamas as a doctor came through. But the promised job fell through, and he knew the visa would be revoked. He’d have to go back to Cuba. He was jobless, broke, desperate to get his mother and his boyfriend off the island. To make money, he worked in a flower shop and even took up massage, using his highly prized surgeon’s skills to soothe rich clients who had sore backs. He gave $3,500 of his savings to a boat captain who said he would sneak him into Florida. The captain absconded with his money.
He was telling his story one day to several German boaters when, on a lark, they offered to drop him off in the Florida Keys. He was 41 when he arrived in the United States. He won political asylum. Miraculously, the Cubans sent his medical-school transcripts so that he could become a doctor in the United States. Today, you will find Dr. Julio Gomez, medical director, overseeing a facility that’s run by CAS-Florida Medical Centers in Miami’s Little Havana. Unlike his hospital in Havana, this one offers MRIs and PET scans, and it is alive with the constant chatter of elderly Cubans.
“Here, I found out that I could get a nice salary and still be helpful to the community, to the people around me,” says Julio. “That’s the spirit I had when I went to medical school — to help somebody.” He drives a BMW now. The new pool is just about finished. He saved his family’s art. He’s doing the work he loves. He is happy. That’s why he called: He wanted me to know.