American Expatriates Cling to Cuba’s Socialist Ideals


The wall of windows at Lorna Burdsall’s seventh-floor apartment overlooks a bay ringed by trash. The vintage red elevator, installed before Fidel Castro seized power, is decrepit.

Still, the American widow of “Red Beard"--the socialist revolutionary who went on to become Cuba’s top intelligence chief--says her 47 years in the Caribbean country have given her few complaints.

“The heat is one of the few things that I haven’t gotten used to in Cuba,” says Burdsall, 73, apologizing for not hearing the doorbell at first because she had retreated to her air-conditioned bedroom.

Burdsall, who moved to Cuba from New York in 1955, is one of more than a dozen Americans who call this communist island home, still clinging to the ideals of a socialist revolution as capitalism expands its hold around the globe.


“I would like to be a good communist, but I don’t think they exist,” the white-haired, fiery grandmother says. “Socialism, however, is a good step toward that perfect society; it’s an interim.”

Her sentiment is rare in a time of fading allegiances to the left. Since the collapse of communism and the rise of globalization, leftists throughout the world have struggled to maintain unity and, in the United States, that challenge has deepened since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The left has been limping along for decades, but whatever legs it had were lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University who specializes in American culture. “Leftists are looking for a place for their beliefs and Cuba is one of the last hopes, a remnant of communism.”

In Burdsall’s sparse apartment on the outskirts of Havana, there are no outward signs of her revolutionary life except for faded photos of herself with the Cuban leader, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and her husband, Manuel Pineiro, known as “Barbarroja” for the thick red beard he grew while he was a guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra.


The Cuba that Burdsall now calls home is a world away from the place she discovered after marrying Pineiro, whose older brothers owned a distributing agency for Hatuey beer and Bacardi rum. He was studying business administration at Columbia University when they met.

“He was dancing the most fabulous mambo,” Burdsall recalls.

After marrying him, Burdsall put her career as a dancer on hold to follow her husband and his dream of starting a revolution in Cuba. Shortly after their arrival, Pineiro was engrossed in the pro-Castro underground working to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

“When we came, it was very dangerous,” she says. “We moved around a lot. The conditions were terrible. I remember ants in the soup and staying in places where the rats would eat my high-heeled shoes.”


Burdsall became pregnant and, before long, was keeping weapons and ammunition in her baby’s room. The guns--like her husband--eventually ended up in the Sierra Maestra, where Castro and his rebels were training to overthrow Batista.

Two years after their victory in 1959, Pineiro was named deputy minister of the interior and went on to head Cuba’s security and intelligence operations. He later helped train leftist groups throughout Latin America. “He was completely committed to the revolution,” Burdsall says.

Burdsall resumed her career in dance, founding the Compania Danza Contemporanea and becoming the national director of dance and modern dance under the culture ministry.

She traveled frequently to the United States and divorced Pineiro after 20 years of marriage. He died four years ago.


Today, although still committed to her husband’s dreams, Burdsall openly criticizes Cuba. She says low wages and a dependency on U.S. dollars have forced some doctors--who earn the equivalent of $20 a month--to work as piano players to earn the coveted currency.

But she believes that the good outweighs the bad.

“I think that if Manuel were alive today, he would say that most of the things they set out to accomplish in the revolution were achieved, particularly in the areas of education, medicine and the arts, but it’s only logical that some would be disappointed with the way some things turned out,” she says.

Cuba convert Michael Fuller’s journey to the communist nation in 1994 was motivated by politics, not love. He came as a member of the “solidarity brigades,” an international group dedicated to helping Cubans that he joined while living in Spain.


“I thought about returning to Spain, but all things pointed to me staying. My very presence was an act of solidarity,” says Fuller, 37, a native of Syracuse, N.Y.

Fuller, who lives on the outskirts of Havana and works as a writer and teacher, says he’s committed to Cuba’s communist policies.

“I eat great. I don’t miss ownership, and I have come to accept the philosophy,” he says. “I suppose I could use a car, but I don’t miss the commercials on TV, and I’ve gained serenity here. I’ve also gained a family and faith in the future.”