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A Tampa family was on both sides of the Cuban Missile Crisis

TAMPA — Like most of the world, it was from President John F. Kennedy that Daisy Carbonell Rocamora and George Carbonell learned of the Soviet nuclear weapons that started the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But on that day in October 1962, the brother and sister were living on opposite sides of the confrontation.

From Tampa, Rocamora watched on television as the U.S. president discussed the growing crisis. Her brother was in Cuba, listening to the speech on a shortwave radio.

Their experience was shared by many Cuban families split between the island and Florida as nuclear war threatened 55 years ago. But their situation differed in one major way.

Their divide wasn't because part of the family was in Florida after fleeing Cuba to escape Communism. George Carbonell was in Cuba because his father, Carlos Carbonell, had to leave Tampa to escape harassment for actively supporting Fidel Castro in the years prior to the Cuban leader's turn to communism.

The tumult remains an emotional topic for Rocamora.

"It was so sad the way people treated my dad," said Rocamora, 80, who still lives in Tampa. "He was not communist. He just wanted Cuba to be free. Then the missiles were there. I was scared. I was stuck in the middle."

The Carbonells moved from Cuba in 1948 at the request of Isabel Carbonell, the family matriarch and its only U.S. citizen. She wanted her Cuban-born children raised in her native city of Tampa.

"My father didn't want to leave Cuba," Rocamora said. "He was the type of man who would cry during the Cuban national anthem."

It was patriotism coupled with his distaste for Fulgencio Batista — who seized the Cuban presidency via a military coup — that led the late Carlos Carbonell to pledge support to Castro when the revolutionary visited Tampa in 1955.

He joined the Tampa branch of the 26th of July Movement — the name of Castro's army. From here, they raised funds and collected medical aid and weapons that were sent to Cuba in support of the revolution. George Carbonell recalled finding a box of grenades in his father's closet.

On New Year's Day 1959, when Castro declared victory, Cubans throughout Tampa celebrated the fall of Batista. And the Carbonell patriarch and his fellow local 26th of July Movement members were declared heroes.

"Don't let anyone tell you otherwise," said George Carbonell, now 73 and living in Fort Lauderdale. "Tampa supported Castro."

That changed as Castro began to embrace the Soviet Union.

Carlos Carbonell was labeled a traitor by those who once hailed him. He was fired from his job at a bakery and threatened with violence. His home was splattered with red paint to denote communism. George Carbonell was kicked off his baseball team. The family was questioned by the FBI.

"Mr. Miller," Rocamora said of the FBI agent who investigated. "He came so much I remember his name."

In December 1960, Carlos Carbonell moved to Cuba to take a job as a pressman for a magazine in Havana. He was worried for his family.

His wife and son joined him while daughter Rocamora remained in Tampa rather than uproot her American-born kids.

From the start, it was clear the Carbonells were not safer in Cuba.

They lived near the coast and often saw small-scale American military attacks against Cuba. During one offensive, George Carbonell said, U.S. gunfire sprayed an apartment building and nearly killed an infant in a crib.

Then on Dec. 2, 1961, Cuba officially became a communist state. Life became even more tense after the United States discovered the Soviet missiles on Oct. 16, 1962.

"We could only learn about it from Kennedy," George Carbonell said. "Cuba's government was closed. They didn't tell us anything."

He watched as the Cuban military assembled on the beach near his home and later ducked for cover when tanks shot at a U.S. spy plane.

He wondered if he would survive an American invasion while his sister worried that the nuclear missiles might be fired at Florida.

And with phone service between the nations cut off, the family members couldn't check up on one another.

"I was scared for my kids and I was scared for my brother," Rocamora said.

The Soviet Union eventually agreed to move its nuclear weapons, and the crisis eased. The Carbonells sought a return to Tampa.

As a U.S. citizen, Isabel Carbonell was allowed to leave the island with her Cuban citizen son. But the Cuban government denied the exit request of Carlos Carbonell, so a year later he snuck onto a flight to Mexico.

Back in Tampa, he was questioned by the FBI on a few occasions but for the most part returned to a quiet life.

Carlos Carbonell died in Tampa in 1996 without ever returning to Cuba.

"That broke his heart," Rocamora said. "He loved Cuba."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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