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U.S. woman still happy in Cuba after 40 years

Lorna Birdsdall
Lorna Birdsdall  

In this story:

May 4, 1998
Web posted at: 7:34 p.m. EDT (2334 GMT)

From Correspondent Susan Candiotti

HAVANA (CNN) -- There are a few hundred Americans living in Cuba, ranging from artists to journalists to former financier Robert Vesco, a fugitive from U.S. justice.

Among the expatriates is Lorna Birdsdall, who left a comfortable Connecticut lifestyle 40 years ago to live in the Western Hemisphere's only communist country.

Some call her an oddball, and she agrees.

"In a sense, I am an oddball," Birdsdall says. "But everybody likes me as an oddball."

In 1955, the introverted young Juilliard School dance student married her Cuban boyfriend, Manuel Pineiro, a student at New York's Columbia University.

vxtreme Cuban or American?

The move to Cuba, however, was unplanned.

"Suddenly he called me up on the telephone and said 'Can you come down here?,'" Birdsdall says. "And I said, 'Oh, sure.'"

Pineiro became a member of Fidel Castro's inner circle and for years served as head of intelligence.

Birdsdall oversees placement of a discarded Russian parachute as a prop  

Defending the Cuban revolution

Birdsdall and Pineiro divorced 20 years ago, and when Pineiro died last month, Birdsdall and Pineiro's second wife were comforted at the funeral by Castro.

"That was a very emotional moment," Birdsdall says with a catch in her voice. "It's hard even to talk about it."

Birdsdall once directed Cuba's modern dance company, and she continues to be involved in theatrical productions in a country where resources are limited.

"People who come to Cuba say 'What can I bring you?'" Birdsdall says. "And I say, 'Well, just bring me a Kmart.'"

While she may miss some of the conveniences in this economically depressed island, she doesn't miss them enough to move back to the United States.

"I'm defending the Cuban revolution in the sense that I live here and I work here," Birdsdall says. "Let's imagine there is no free speech, no free press. ... I mean, are people suffering because of this?"

Birdsdall says the U.S. embargo of Cuba is ridiculous, but she sees hope in the recent visit by Pope John Paul II.

"I think Fidel was touched also," she says of Castro. "I saw an expression on his face that I think I had never seen before."

Birdsdall and granddaughter
Birdsdall enjoys visiting her granddaughter  

'I'm Lorna'

These days, Birdsdall spends a lot of time with her granddaughter, a budding artist and dancer. She lives in a small but comfortable apartment on one of the top floors of an apartment building. And she still reads her weekly copy of The New York Times, even though it arrives a few days late.

"It's news to anyone who hasn't read it," she says with a laugh.

Birdsdall hopes U.S.-Cuba relations will improve, but she finds it a challenge to describe herself.

"I don't know what I am any more," she says. "I'm a Cuban, I'm an American. I'm a ... I don't know. ... I'm Lorna."


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