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LUTZ — In a way, credit for the opening of one of the Tampa area's newest Cuban restaurants belongs to Fidel Castro. If not for the late Cuban president, Jose "Pepe" Diaz said, he might never have become a chef or opened La Yuma Cuban Cuisine in Lutz. "He's being ironic," said his daughter and restaurant co-owner Thania Clevenger. Diaz, 76, learned his trade as a prison cook in Cuba after he was jailed for speaking out against communism. Calling what he did "cooking" may be a stretch, though. The fare was usually bland Russian meat from a can and all Diaz had for seasoning was paprika, which he overused. "They called me Paprika Pepe," Diaz said, with his daughter translating. Still, he said, when he eventually was released from prison and moved to Madrid, Spain, he landed a job as a chef at a five-star restaurant — based on his claim he had years of cooking experience. On his first day, he was given a filet to prepare. The head chef quickly realized he had embellished his culinary experience. "The chef said you have a lot of courage," said family friend and La Yuma employee Juvenal Alfonso, 33, conveying Diaz's recollections. "So, he taught him to be a chef." A year later Diaz made his way to Miami. There, he met his wife Tania, 61, who fled Cuba in 1970. Together, they would go on to operate restaurants in Miami and Key West before moving to Lutz this year to partner with their daughter on La Yuma, a name Cubans use for the United States. The business at 16411 N Florida Ave. opened in early March. "This restaurant is the representation of the American dream," said daughter Clevenger, 33, a Tampa attorney. "That's what we are." Diaz, born and raised in the town of Yaguajay in central Cuba, originally fought for Castro against Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, who ruled the island through fear and the military. Among those he met in battle, Diaz said, were Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, two of the Cuban Revolution's top leaders. "I hated Batista," Diaz said. "I hated his exploitation of the villages, his robbery, his theft, the murder." Castro, he explained, portrayed himself as anti-Batista, someone who cared about bringing freedom to Cuba. But within a year after revolutionary leaders declared victory Jan. 1, 1959, he realized Cuba was not the country he fought to create. He began publicly denouncing the new government. In 1963, Diaz, then a civil engineering student, was arrested. "They said he was a danger to the government," Clevenger said. He spent a year in a prison in Sancti Spiritus before he was transferred to an agricultural labor camp in Camaguey. He joined others deemed anti-revolutionary or considered by the government to be socially abnormal. Most cut sugarcane for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They had no showers, bathrooms or clean drinking water. Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals were treated the worst, Diaz said. He was given the option of kitchen duty or the fields. The choice saved his life. "There were a lot of things I saw at those camps that are hard to talk about," Diaz said. "A lot of people died." He was released after four years and told to leave Cuba. But as he waited for a visa, he had to work in the fields under government supervision to be sure he did not support the dissident movement. Five years later, in 1972, he moved to Spain. Now working in suburban Lutz, he finds the culture much dfferent from the hustle and bustle of South Florida. But he is happy to be here, working with his daughter, and hopes his restaurant brings a Cuban flare to the area. "This is a good place," he said. "I respect it and everyone treats me with respect."
via TheWorldNewsOrg World News