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Bridgeport police chief reflects on childhood in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s death

BRIDGEPORT--Bridgeport Police Chief A.J. Perez was born in Cuba and lived under the Castro regime until his family came to the United States in 1968.

"Castro is one of the most brutal dictators the world has ever known," Perez said of Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba who died on Friday at age 90.

Perez spent the better part of his childhood in Cuba. "People believed that Fidel had come to liberate them, to make it better," said Perez. "And what he did was he enslaved the country and took it for himself."

That may explain why crowds cheering his death flooded the streets of Miami's Little Havana neighborhood after the news broke.

Perez said he grew up in extreme poverty, often eating grits for every meal. "He [Castro] would keep the people hungry. He would keep the people in the streets, basically. He would keep the people unclothed."

The Cuban people, according to Perez, were conditioned to stay quiet. "This is the way we've been brought up -- programmed to not question anything. And if you do question, be prepared to pay the price."

Perez said that if a child spoke badly about Castro in school, their parents would get a knock on their door at night from a neighborhood group designed to enforce the revolution, threatening arrest. "'You badmouth the revolution, you speak ill of Fidel Castro, we're gonna to put you in jail,'" Perez recalled them saying. "'We're gonna take your kids and we're gonna put them in a camp.'"

Perez said Castro asked his father, a weapons trainer, to stay with the revolution. His father decided said he was going in another direction, and felt he had done his service to his country. He was subsequently blacklisted and could not find work beyond menial jobs.

"He didn't have a dime in his pocket," said Perez of his father.

When Perez was 12, his family came to the United States, thanks to a lottery system that allowed some people to emigrate from Cuba. Perez already had an aunt already studying abroad in Bridgeport, who also provided affidavits to the government about the family.

His first taste of life beyond Cuba came from a steward on his first flight to Miami. "She brings me a glass of Coca-Cola," recalled Perez. "It was one of the most wonderful experiences I could ever imagine I had."

Perez's parents quickly found work in Bridgeport and decided to stay. "We are so grateful to the United States of America, a country who opened up their arms and gave us freedom, gave us hope," said Perez.

Castro's death came as good news to Perez. "It's the beginning. It's like somebody cracked open the door."

He admits, though, that the road to a better Cuba is long. "The only people that can free Cuba are the people who live in Cuba. Whether its the army or whether its the people itself, nobody else."

Perez said his experiences in Cuba have changed his perspective on life, and made him grateful for what he has in Connecticut. "America is great," said Perez. "It doesn't get any better."