Cuban Native and UW System Regent, José Delgado Knows The Price Of Free Speech

MacIver News Service | Oct. 9, 2017

By M.D. Kittle

[Madison, Wis…] – José Delgado can still hear the gunshots echoing off the walls in Havana’s La Cabana´, the Fortress of St. Charles.

Delgado, an adolescent at the time in his native Cuba, knew what those sounds meant. More enemies of Fidel Castro and his communist government – opponents of oppression – were dead.

“Talk about a chilling memory,” Delgado told MacIver News Service in an interview this week. “I was 14, but I was fully aware of the danger my father was in. He would not go along with communism so he was a target.”

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“I knew a lot of people getting executed.”

So it should come as no surprise that intelligent and outspoken boy of post-Revolution Cuba, the boy who boarded a plane for the United States in 1961 not knowing if he would ever see his parents again, would grow up to be a champion for free speech.

On Friday, Delgado once more stood up for the First Amendment of his adopted country. He was one of 17 members of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents to vote for a measure giving campuses across the state the power to expel students who repeatedly disrupt speakers or attempt to stifle speech.

The vote was near-unanimous. Only Tony Evers, superintendent of the state Department of Public Instruction voted against the rule, asserting it would chill expression.

While Delgado said he respects Evers, the chilling has come from students and faculty members who have demanded “safe spaces” from speech they find offensive. These self-appointed arbiters of what is acceptable expression and what isn’t have become increasingly disorderly and violent in pushing their crusade.

The free speech policy comes nearly a year after a crowd of left-wing, “social justice” warriors attempted to shut down a speech by national conservative columnist Ben Shapiro. Student protesters, decrying Shapiro’s very presence as racist, stormed the stage and began chanting, “Safety! Safety! Safety,” “Shame, Shame, Shame,” and other such slogans the “safe space” crowd fancies.

Similar demonstrations, some violent and destructive, have occurred at campuses around the nation.

“In comes kind of a wave of screaming and threats of violence when people are talking for speech, and that brings back memories that I cannot accept,” said Delgado, of Waukesha.

The businessman who oversaw the first multi-state transmission-only utility in the U.S. and first-term regent says he wants the students at Wisconsin’s universities to know exactly what’s at stake. He points to his childhood to drive home his message.

‘More Repressive’

Delgado, an opinionated 70-year-old who says he feels no obligation to act his age, was 11 in 1959 when Castro and his band of revolutionaries overthrew Cuba’s military dictator Fulgencio Batista. Delgado’s uncle, who fought in Castro’s army, died attacking the family’s hometown. His father was a banker, but the family was “very revolutionary.”

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And then the revolution for freedom turned into a bloody regime of oppression. Delgado described Castro’s campaign to bring communism to the Western Hemisphere a “steady betrayal of the hopes and expectations” of many Cubans.

“The government got more and more repressive,” he recalled. “The part that was most obvious to me was the part that had to do with expression of ideas.”

He remembers watching on TV mobs descending on the homes of respected and prominent Cubans, citizens who may have disagreed with the Castro government. The crowds would demand blood. And they would get it.

The Delgado family, at first, had impeccable revolutionary credentials, the regent recalled. But “slowly but surely…the latitude for debate was getting narrower and narrower.” Castro’s regime, in the name of communism, began grabbing up businesses. First foreign-owned entities, then larger Cuba-based corporations, and finally small firms.

Delgado’s father eventually left the bank, after it was confiscated by the communists. A kind of civil war developed in the family. His uncle Carlos, a “big shot” in the Castro government, told Delgado’s father to stifle his criticism of the regime. “My father would scream, ‘So what did we fight for?'” Delgado said. “I was about 12 during those debates, but I remember my father with tremendous anger talking to my uncle.”

The schools got more repressive. It was clear that opposition to the government was not welcome and, in many cases, deadly.

One day the outspoken young Delgado went too far. At his grandparents’ home, he and his communist uncle got into a heated argument. Delgado told his uncle how “stupid” communism was. “And he looked at me and then he said, ‘Listen, I’m going to ask you to shut up because we are executing people younger than you for saying less. And if you get in trouble, I will not be able to help you.'”

“I found his words very persuasive because I realized, communist or not, he was trying to save my butt,” Delgado recalled.

“I cannot tell you the bitterness I gained at that point that my own uncle had to admit that you can get shot at any age for saying the wrong thing,” he added. “This was, in fact, the ‘gain’ that we had from the revolution. From there it got worse.”

No More Crying

In November 1961, Delgado’s parents put their four oldest children on a plane bound for Miami, an escape route provided by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and the U.S. State Department. Operation Pedro Pan, from 1960 to 1962, airlifted more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. to flee the clutches of communist indoctrination. The Delgado children relocated to foster homes in Chicago, praying they would see their mother and father again.

That decision was not up for democratic debate in the Delgado house.

“In my home there were two votes, and they were usually perfectly united,” Delgado said. “I was not asked if I wanted to go; I was told, ‘You’re leaving.'”

Many of his friends who arrived in the United States at the same time would never see their parents again.

It was becoming very dangerous to resist the Castro government. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion only escalated the repression and the violence against opponents of the communist regime.

The day before the children left Havana, Delgado’s older brother, a serious 16-year-old who seemed “10 years older than his age,” advised José to leave his tears in Cuba.

“I began to cry, and he said, ‘Well, you better cry all you want because after tomorrow there is no more crying,” he recalled. “The next time I cried was his funeral, about 16 years later.”

Lessons From Castro

Delgado’s parents were finally able to flee Cuba, six months after they sent their children to Chicago. They escaped thanks to Delgado’s Uncle Carlos, who used his sway in the Castro government to get them out. Delgado said being reunited with the trailing members of his family was “like every Christmas Day for the rest of your life in one.”

“Because of Fidel Castro, I learned what it is to live without any money. I tell people I was never poor, because when my family came, I never felt poor,” he said. They lost everything when they fled Cuba, but they had each other and that was everything. “We were alive man, and we were together.”

He learned another lesson from Castro: the price of liberty, and the value of free speech.

To the critics of the Board of Regents’ policy, Delgado says the speech rules are compatible with the System’s liberal tenure policy. It’s designed to protect a diversity of thought and dialogue to advance the University of Wisconsin System mission.

“Now this is to be expanded to the ability to talk in public,” Delgado said. “When you look at some the stuff going on…at some very important universities, you shake your head and say, ‘No, this is indoctrination, this is not education.’ And you say, ‘Not in Wisconsin, not while I’m here.'”

“I’ve got a total of seven years (on the board), and I’ve gone through about 3 1/2 (years). If someone wants to do this without a fight from me, they can do it after I’m gone…I cannot make you listen, but I can certainly prevent others from preventing you from listening. You have the right to listen.”