In 1982 René Castellano arrives as a Cuban contract worker in the small Saxon town of Roßwein. His is the first Cuban group to be sent there — only men. He has just turned eighteen, is the youngest of the group. Almost every day he goes disco dancing. A motorbike accident puts an end to his time in the GDR. In 1989, he is deployed from Cuba to Angola: This is the diversion that will bring him back to Germany years later.
After finishing school in Cuba, René Castellano learns on the radio about the possibility of doing an apprenticeship in a European socialist country. That sounds interesting. He would like to go abroad, make things happen. In his hometown of Bayamo Cubatecnica, the state organization brokering these work contracts, has an office. There he gets his information. He is offered training in the GDR, the career would be his choice. He decides on industrial fitter and applies for a four-year stay in the GDR. Although his mother is unhappy, he wants to leave. Soon he takes off for Havana. There, the 64 selected men receive a one-week preparatory course and uniform winter clothes. René is very excited.
The group arrives in Berlin-Schönefeld on May 1, 1982. There, the counsellors receive them and take them to Saxony in two buses. The Cubans are surprised: in every town people wave flags at them. Only later do they realize that they are not the reason for the marches, but the May Day. René Castellano likes the “little old town of Roßwein” very much. His group receives a friendly welcome. He also likes his accommodation in the newly-built residential home. Together with a Cuban colleague he moves into a two-room flat of about 35 qm2 with kitchen and bathroom. The locals call the residential home “the new hotel for the Cubans”.
Study and work
In the first two weeks they attend a German crash course, followed by six months of a mixed program: two hours of German — before or after work, depending on the shift they are working — and the rest of the day at work; qualification in simultaneous employment as stipulated in the agreement between Cuba and the GDR. René Castellano’s colleagues at the Roßwein VEB axle, spring and forging factory “Hermann Matern” are outgoing and train him well. After six months the German lessons are replaced with technical lessons. But René learns German very quickly anyway: three days after his arrival he meets Michaela, they quickly become a couple and later have a child. So he has a lot of contact with Germans and learns the language quickly. After a year, he is assigned as an interpreter for the group.
Study, work, and then dancing!René Castellano, Leipzig 2022
Leisure, rivalry and photos
René Castellano goes to the disco almost every night. The young Cubans attract attention. “German men mostly wanted to booze, they were not so romantic, not so elegant,” is how German women explained their interest in Cubans, René recalls, “they were rather dull and we simply were nicer.” When a German calls him “pig” for buying a woman a “Pfeffi”, a peppermint liqueur, a fight erupts.
René really enjoys riding his motorbike, a MZ TS 250, which he uses to visit all the newly arrived Cubans in the area. Thus he gets to know the entire south of the GDR. Many of his colleagues buy cameras and take photos. Prints are generously distributed. René Castellano’s photo albums with pictures from this time have remained in Cuba. Today, in Germany, he occasionally receives photos from his time in East Germany via WhatsApp, like on the occasion of the death of a former colleague.
Being good-looking and well-dressed is important to René Castellano and many of his Cuban colleagues. They purchase jeans and smart clothes from Polish contract workers who live in the same residential home. Items with the logos of Western brands are highly coveted, but also cause trouble. Their Cuban group leader tries in vain to brand this style as capitalist and disgraceful. Most of the time René ignores the desperate attempts to stifle interest in fashion with ideological lectures. On one occasion he grinds off the studs on his jeans so that the eagle on them is no longer noticeable. The eagle is considered a symbol of the USA and especially scorned. No problem for a fitter.
The group leader could rant all he wanted.René Castellano, Leipzig 2022
Work and qualification are going well. René Castellano is awarded the title “Hero of Work”, is able to complete his training a few months before the end of the four years and receives his certificates. Shortly afterwards, he has a motorbike accident and is hospitalized with severe shoulder and leg injuries. When his wounds become infected, the doctors battle above all to prevent permanent damages. But the works doctor in charge of him advises him to leave the hospital. She argues that since he has already received his training certificate, there is no reason to stay. She proposes to certify that he is unable to work so that he can be discharged from the hospital and return to Cuba early. René agrees. He leaves his girlfriend and seven-month-old daughter behind in Roßwein. “That was really depressing. But back in the socialist times, you couldn’t say, I’m staying here! There was the agreement between Cuba and the GDR. You definitely had to go back. My wife didn’t agree, and so we parted ways.” René is eager to return soon to East Germany.
Back in Cuba
When René Castellano arrives in Havana, he is immediately admitted to the hospital. The doctors are very alarmed by his inflamed wounds, and he instantly needs further treatment to prevent having his leg amputated. Thus the plan of returning soon to the GDR shatters. After his discharge from hospital, he is drafted into the military and posted to Angola with a Cuban construction company in 1989. As an aid measure, Cuba has been sending tens of thousands of soldiers and civilian forces to Angola since 1975. In the civil war between South Africa and Angola, Cuba supports the Angolan and Namibian independence movements. The deployment of the Cubans is considered an important factor for the independence of both countries.
Those were tough times: the accident, returning to Cuba, no contact with my daughter, the deployment to Angola.René Castellano, Leipzig 2022
Surprising turn of events
In Benguela, Angola, René Castellano meets by chance with a group of East German workers posted there as a brigade of a combine from the Industrial Association of Vehicle Construction (IFA). As his German is good, he quickly makes friends with them. René returns to Cuba in 1990, but they keep in touch.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic union of the socialist states catapults Cuba into an enormous economic crisis. A large part of the population lives in extremely poor conditions, including René and his Cuban family. In this situation, one of his German friends from Angola sends him a plane ticket and an invitation to Germany. A stroke of luck for René. He redeems the ticket as soon as possible. Since 1994 he has been living in Germany again.
My heart is divided: Cuba, Germany. Fifty-fifty.René Castellano, Leipzig 2022
Today René Castellano lives and works in Leipzig and is involved in the association La Estrella de Cuba e. V.
Isabel Enzenbach conducted the interview in 2021,
Text: Isabel Enzenbach
Research and research protocol photos: Isabel Enzenbach