‘I still see the United States as the land of liberty’ – The Ledger

Thomas R. Oldt  |  Special to The Ledger

When we consider our country’s treasured independence, achieved through war, death and sacrifice, our thoughts this Independence Day turn to the freedoms individuals seek in becoming United States citizens – economic opportunity, social justice, domestic tranquility and the pursuit of happiness. In short, those “blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” the Constitution’s preamble so eloquently envisions.

Most of us included in that posterity gained our citizenship through the happy accident of birth – that is, our personal civic fortune is derived from nothing more than good luck. Our parents or grandparents, great-great grandparents or ancestors from many generations ago made the journey to this country and thus assured their progeny of citizenship, requiring nothing of their offspring but a heartbeat in order to share in those blessings.

Excepting native Americans, we are all either immigrants or descended from immigrants – unwillingly in the case of enslaved Africans, out of dire circumstances for others, a leap of faith for most of the rest. But whatever the path, America’s strengths have always been elevated by the energy, initiative and creativity of those who came to our shores from afar.

Today, with birthrates among the native-born insufficient to sustain population growth, thus eventually aging the country out of financial support for its social welfare programs – hello, Social Security – it is more important than ever that we continue to welcome immigrants so that America may constantly renew itself.

We can’t do that if we close our shores. We will deprive ourselves not just of growth but talent, ideas, youth, idealism, and the strong work ethic that is almost a universal trait among those who arrive with little in the way of material resources but much in the way of hope and ambition.

Such describes the family of Tonmiel Rodriguez, who emigrated from Cuba when he was seven. Now 39, Rodriguez is a University of Florida and Stetson Law School graduate whose Bartow law firm is primarily devoted to criminal defense work.­

Q. Why did your family decide to leave Cuba?

A. My family on both sides were ministers of evangelical churches, very involved in church leadership roles, especially on my dad’s side. The revolution was very anti-religion and they viewed us as a threat. And so my dad was very much persecuted – he and other people in the church. He was sent to work camps, was arrested and harassed continuously by the communist government for things that would seem totally ridiculous to us – wanting to observe the sabbath, or preaching, or just congregating. It was difficult for a person to exercise their religion freely – and still is, though it has eased up somewhat from the aggressive anti-religion of the young revolution.

It’s long been clear that the government’s political oppression extended to many other aspects of Cuban life.

I grew up with those stories and to a certain extent experienced it. I remember as a child being at the dinner table and if you wanted to say something that was even mildly critical of the government you had to speak in very hushed tones. You felt like Castro could hear what you were saying – or a neighbor would hear and you would potentially get in trouble. So you grew up with a fear of the government, a fear of your neighbor because they had – and still do, I believe – designated neighborhood communist party people so that if anyone was talking anti-revolutionary ideas it would be reported. You grew up with caution, fearful to speak your mind. That fear, the lack of the ability to express yourself, to do and think what you wanted, was always present.

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Q. Given the government’s stance and your own family’s circumstances, how were they able to leave?

A. My dad didn’t have much of a formal education, but when he was younger he was able to find a good music teacher. He developed the ability to play violin and direct courses and he had a gift for that. The church here in the United States would visit from time to time and wanted my father to come over to help with their music program. There was some sort of special status Cubans had at the time and so we ended up arriving here and being able to stay permanently.

Q. Did you or your parents speak English when you arrived here?

A. No. No English.

Q. How did you become an American citizen?

A. Our status when we got here was permanent residents. My parents became citizens before I did. Like them, I went through the process – I applied, filled out the application and passed the examination, which for me was very easy. There were a lot of civics-type questions, and at the time I was in my twenties and had my bachelor’s in political science.

Q. If a citizenship-type exam were required before even native-born Americans were able to vote, what percentage of this country do you think would be eligible to cast a ballot?

A. I’d say less than 15%. Those are pretty basic questions, but if you’re not exposed to that history, that kind of education, you may not pass.

Q. Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did it have anything to do with your upbringing?

A. It had a lot to do with it. Rights and the law were always something that intrigued me. You can’t overstate the appreciation that I had – and have – being here in the United States, even though I was young, but especially as I grew older and understood American history, the founding fathers and democracy. I was a history buff when I was very young. There wasn’t a lot to do in the little town I grew up in near Miami, but there was a public library. So after school I would go there and just read history books. Even at that stage I began to appreciate American history. It was very emotional for me, appreciating the rights of citizenship I saw in the United States, and so there was always this attraction to the law. That’s one thing. The other was I grew up seeing my dad with books of biblical analysis. He would be reading and studying and preaching and analyzing things, so it was just very natural, based on that upbringing, to read and try to understand history.

Q. How would you compare the rule of law in Cuba to the rule of law in the United States?

A. There is no comparison. In Cuba there are laws and there is a constitution and years later I actually read it. It says a lot of beautiful things – rights they give citizens – though in the United States we have a different idea. We don’t believe the government gives you liberties, that we have God-given rights. Regardless, they have some version of it but the reality is that it’s a one-party system. The law is what the communist party says it is and it is applied in a way they want it applied. So for the most part trials are show trials – the idea of a jury trial is very foreign. The idea that a judge might come to conclusions different from the party line doesn’t exist over there.

Q. The communist party permeates the entire system, so words in the constitution really have no practical meaning.

A. No. Can you imagine here in the United States having one party able to dictate to the courts what a rule should be?

Q. Do you fear that could happen here?

A. It’s always a possibility. We’re only human, and it’s the adherence to those constitutional principles that can save us from that. To the extent we adhere to the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty and the rule of law, we will be fine.

Q. When we don’t even agree on basic facts, how is it possible to adhere to those standards?

A. At the end of the day there has to be a consensus around basic principles. Once that consensus breaks down, then society as we have known it could very well crumble because in a democratic society it’s that consensus around very basic ideas that keeps things going as far as our institutions and rights and liberties are concerned.

Q. A disturbing percentage of voters do not believe the current president is serving legitimately. What does that say about our consensus around basic principles and the state of our democracy?

A. It says we are a divided country in terms of who we trust and the sources of information we consume as citizens. Does the media have responsibility to provide accurate information? Yes. Would that help alleviate a lot of political problems we have today? Yes. But the history of the media is rooted in opinion and punditry. Having read history, I don’t know that’s ever going to change. It wasn’t that much different in the 1700s, in revolutionary times. There were many different pamphlets and newspapers, each with their own ideas, very slanted views. So in some ways things haven’t changed very much from back in the day.

Q. As much as America is a geographic location, it’s also an idea. What is that idea to you, and has it changed during your lifetime here?

A. I still see the United States as the land of liberty – that concept is still there. There’s been an attempt to tarnish it somewhat. But it’s still very much a reality. People want to come here because as an immigrant with zero money, zero background, no means whatsoever you can work hard, apply yourself, create wealth and make something of yourself. That’s still very much a reality here, even today.

Q. Does July 4th have a special significance to you, apart from the obvious?

A. When I think of July 4th, I think of the founding fathers, who they were as individuals – especially John Adams, a lawyer who had everything to lose except his very strong principles. One of the stories that’s always impacted me is as a young lawyer, Adams decided to represent the British soldiers who were responsible for the Boston Massacre, one of the most dangerous moves he could have made for his career. No one wanted to do it. The respected, experienced lawyers didn’t want to touch it. He took the case and the jury found them not guilty. He believed deeply in the American Revolution, yet he defended the British soldiers. The founders put it all on the line. They could have been executed, but they had this belief in liberty. It’s very popular to point out their faults, but at the end of the day they were men living in their time and they were excellent, given the circumstances in which they lived.

Q. What do you think are our greatest challenges as Americans and what are our greatest strengths as a country?

A. The greatest challenge is to protect those core principles that have defined the United States since the founding – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to pursue your calling. Our biggest strengths are that we have a constitution, the rule of law. You can go to court with your complaint and have a fair shake, have a judge or a jury hear your case and trust that their decision is not based on bias, financial interest or political interest. Look at other countries that have great material resources – Brazil, Mexico, many others – but don’t have the same rule of law. That makes all the difference for commerce and that, in turn, influences the standard of living of the individual, which influences everything else.

Thomas R. Oldt can be reached at tom@troldt.com.