I came to the United States from my native Cuba just before I turned 3 years of age. In keeping with the long tradition of America opening its hearts and homes to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," as stated by Emma Lazarus in her famous poem, my family and I were quickly welcomed into American society.
My father was a jockey in the thoroughbred racing business, so we moved around a lot, living in Baltimore, Maryland, and Charlestown and Wheeling, West Virginia, often for no longer than a couple of months at a time. We rented furnished apartments, mostly in private homes. Everywhere we went, we were warmly welcomed, and we often returned to the same homes season after season. We eventually settled in Miami, where my father was able to purchase a permanent family home as he continued his business travels. For the next several years, however, we still made annual visits to see the family in Cuba.
On our last visit to Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro took power, my father was almost shot for voicing a complaint about the new regime. Upon our departure, he told us to take a good look out the airplane window — that we would never see Cuba again. My parents promptly petitioned for U.S. citizenship, and at age 11 I took my own solemn oath of citizenship.
While I was very proud of my Cuban heritage, I realized that the U.S. was a very different and better place. Here people always seemed to be kind and generous, the laws seemed fair, we could go about our business without interference, and we didn’t have to fear people in uniforms.
Growing up in Miami, I made good friends, learned to trick or Treat at Halloween, became a devotee of TV heroes like “Roy Rogers” and “Superman,” and even joined a Little League baseball team. As I became more and more assimilated into American society, I learned the meaning of American values through my avid reading of U.S. history and biographies of famous Americans.
America was truly a place that strove to achieve the goals set forth by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his famous “Four Freedoms Speech" in 1941: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
Beginning in the 1960s, America strove to deliver on many of the goals set forth by President Roosevelt. The Civil Rights Bill was passed to eliminate many forms of discrimination; Medicare was established to provide a safety net of health care for the nation’s elderly; school lunch programs were expanded; and food stamps were created to reduce the ravages of poverty.
On a personal level, thanks to American generosity in the form of a combination of scholarships and student loans, I was able to attend college and became the first member of my family to earn a degree.
This was also a time when America not only valued, but was enthralled with science, technology and mathematics and the benefits they could offer. Many advances in medicine were developed, we were able to put a man on the moon, computing technology grew by leaps and bounds, and we eventually established the worldwide network of rapid communications and space-based navigation that we rely on so much today.
Internationally, the export of American ideals led to the replacement of many dictatorships around the world with budding democracies. Through the strength of international alliances and American perseverance, we eventually put Soviet global expansion in check. Through government and private outreach, we implemented programs to improve the lives of those in Third World countries. And, in keeping with our long traditions, we continued to hold our doors open to accept refugees from around the entire globe.
During most of these years, I had the privilege of serving our country as a member of our armed forces. When my draft number came up during the Vietnam War, I remembered my oath of citizenship from long before, and joined the Air Force to become a pilot. I served proudly, and steadily rose through the ranks, first on active duty, then as a member of the Air Force Reserve. I married an American, settled in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and started raising a family.
Over the years that we lived in the shadows of the nation’s Capital, we watched many changes of administration — from Republican to Democrat and back. To my family and me it really did not matter which party was in charge. Our lives continued to go on — there was always an orderly transition from administration to administration, because America was a nation of laws and not of personalities. Also, while my wife and I may have had political differences with our friends and neighbors, it never got in the way of our being friends and doing things together.
That has all changed.
For the first time, I found my wife being publicly ridiculed for her political stances. My family and I were told that “we should leave the country” because I was an immigrant and didn’t really belong here. I found out that a right-wing extremist group had put a bounty on my head because of a public stand I had made on some basic human rights. It was a real shock!
On a broader scale, it has become “normal” to point to immigrants as the source of the nation’s problems, to treat children in inhumane ways, to ignore public laws, and to turn a blind eye to these deviations from our long-standing American values. We wondered what had happened to the America we had grown to know and love. Has America suddenly changed, or has something happened to remove the veneer of civility that had long permitted our nation to grow and thrive despite the differences among us?
For more than two centuries, the Great American Experiment has been held up as an ideal to the nations of the world, an ideal to which many of them have aspired. This constitutional, representative democracy ran counter to the centuries of rule by fiat by kings, military generals, despots and strong men.
Because of the natural tensions that occur among the diverse members of our American society, we have managed to keep the experiment going successfully only through our adherence to the rule of law, civility in our relations with each other, and a die-hard commitment to the common ideals that have bound us together as a nation.
The current national political atmosphere is very damaging to our values and, in turn, to the security of our nation. I fear that unless we act swiftly and determinedly, our Great Experiment could come to an end. History shows how rapidly great civilizations can unravel and meet their demise.
We are now at a crossroads. We can continue the recent pattern of un-American behavior exhibited by many, or take a step back, consider the potential consequences of such behavior, and return to civility and respect for the rule of law.
I want our country to return to the one that adopted me, the country I came to love. I hope it’s not too late to put this evil genie back in the bottle.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Carlos E. Martínez is a fellow at The American College of National Security Leaders, a consortium of retired admirals, generals, ambassadors and senior government executives committed to strengthening the United States’ national security.
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