Guns and Butter: The Story Behind Suarez Bakery

The story of one family’s journey to freedom, and what that freedom cost


Published:

Peter Taylor

(page 1 of 3)

Carlos Suarez has this recurring dream. In his native Cuba, someone is pulling him out of bed in the dead of night, then pushing him and his brothers and sisters into a waiting car. At a hidden, moonlit runway, the driver slams on the brakes and hustles Carlos aboard a small prop plane. From the plane’s porthole he sees his father, alone on the runway, tears rolling down his face, waving goodbye. Then Carlos wakes up.

A few years ago, Carlos, owner of Suarez Bakery in Charlotte, mentioned the dream to his mother. “That’s no dream,” she told him, “that was real.”

It was 1960 and Carlos’s father, Roberto Suarez, was running for his life. A year earlier, he’d helped his high school friend Fidel Castro overthrow Cuba’s dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro rewarded Roberto by making him chairman of the board of Cuba’s most important bank. Before long, Roberto realized Castro was breaking every promise he’d made to the Cuban people. The day Roberto resigned his post he became a marked man.

In the next year, Roberto would go underground, running guns to Cuba and planning an assassination attempt on Castro. But on this night he had to get his wife and children to the United States.

Once the Suarez family was settled in Miami and Roberto began working to support his family, he rarely spoke of Cuba again. Carlos says he didn’t learn of his father’s gun-running exploits until he read his autobiography, which was published in 1995. “My father never talked about Cuba,” says Carlos, who was three when he was put on that plane. “That’s my parents; that’s their lives,” he says. “Sure they hate that sonofabitch Castro. But they didn’t let him stop them from moving on with their lives.”

Despite Roberto’s silence and Carlos’s denial, Fidel’s revolution affected all the Suarezes, including Carlos and his eleven brothers and sisters—some tragically. In fact, the fifty-year-old revolution continues to affect them in ways that may defy even their own understanding.

 

With his long, steel-gray hippie hair, parted down the middle, Carlos doesn’t look like he actually owns Suarez Bakery, the sweet-smelling community institution that has held down its spot in Park Road Shopping Center since 1992. He looks like he just shuffled out of the August Jam—Charlotte’s 1974 version of Woodstock up at the Speedway—a little dazed and confused from the extra-long, bitchin’ sets by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Black Oak Arkansas. In fact, Carlos was there that hot August weekend when he was seventeen. He still listens to the same bands, his hair probably still the same length. He looks like he might work at the bakery—the humble little guy who comes in at night to clean and never talks. Or the sad-eyed mechanic who comes out of the back telling you, “Yeah, it’s the transmission; there’s nuttin’ I can do with it.”

But Carlos can do everything with flour, eggs, sugar, and yeast—petit fours, éclairs, Napoleons, doughnuts, cakes, cookies, and bread. In the late 1980s he spent three and a half years with what amounted to a master pastry chef who taught Carlos everything he knew about baking.

“No one in Charlotte makes a ganache like Carlos,” says Ann Neill. Ann’s husband is Rolfe Neill, once publisher of The Charlotte Observer, who himself is addicted to Carlos’s éclairs. Others feel his turnovers are a revelation, made with his highly perishable puff-pastry dough that lives for only forty-eight hours.

Helen Schwab, the Observer’s longtime food critic, remembers, “I was ecstatic when a friend told me, years ago, that I could get Cuban bread there. … On a Saturday when it’s baking, it wafts through that whole parking lot like a benediction.”

A benediction and a blessing was how Roberto, thirty-three, an anti-Castro freedom fighter, looked at the only job he could get when he rejoined his family in Miami in 1961: humping bundles of newspapers for $1.86 an hour on the loading dock of the Miami Herald.

That’s pretty tough stuff for a guy with degrees in finance and economics from Villanova and Havana universities. When his education and talents were discovered, he was bumped up into management. After eight years in Miami and ten years in Charlotte, he rose from controller to general manager, then founding publisher of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, and finally president of The Charlotte Observer.

Had Knight-Ridder conducted a thorough background check, they might have discovered that before he became a rising star in newspapers, Roberto Suarez schemed to remove Castro from power. In one of his last acts of sabotage, he planned an attempt on Fidel Castro’s life.

Perhaps the reason Roberto never spoke about Cuba with his kids was because he wasn’t just an anti-Castro freedom fighter. Two years before he tried to assassinate Castro, he helped put Castro in power. Hours after Castro’s forces routed Batista, Roberto’s photo ran on the front page of The New York Times. Maybe the reason Carlos had never seen that picture of his father until this article was because Roberto was ashamed to tell his children that he and the Cuban people had been betrayed by a family friend—Fidel Castro.

 

“Castro and Cuba made my father who he was, totally,” says Ana Suarez Fleming, Carlos’s youngest sister.

Roberto Suarez was no peasant-turned-guerilla. His forebears came to Cuba from Spain in the 1500s. Born in 1928, Roberto was sent to the most prestigious boarding school in Cuba, the Jesuit-run Colegio de Belen. In his early teens, Roberto joined the school’s basketball team. One of his teammates was a boy named Fidel Castro.

“I think Fidel had some issues with his father,” says Carlos. Fidel was the illegitimate son of a wealthy planter and his maid. It wasn’t until Fidel was in his late teens that his father acknowledged him by finally giving him the family name. His passions were sports: track, baseball, and basketball. But Fidel was also looking for a father figure. He found one in Belen’s coach, Otelio “Cappy” Campuzano.

Campuzano was a celebrity in Cuba. An all-around athlete, he represented Cuba in 1926 at the Central American Games. Fidel spent many hours with Campuzano.

The coach’s daughter, Miriam, remembers Fidel and Roberto Suarez as frequent guests in their home. In fact, the first time she saw Roberto she was convinced he was the man she would marry.

As a young girl, Miriam remembers accompanying the team to an away game—and an episode on the train she’d never forget. Miriam, then about ten years old, brought a box of cookies, hoping to share them with Roberto, fourteen. She found him in the same compartment as Fidel. After sharing the cookies with them, both boys thanked her. But when she got up to leave Fidel, fifteen, grabbed the box from her. “No, no, no,” he instructed. “Take a few for yourself but leave the box here.”

In 1950, after graduating from Villanova with a degree in finance and economics, Roberto returned to Cuba and married Miriam. Working with his father in real estate development, Roberto seemed assured of a prosperous future.

In 1957 Roberto joined the anti-Batista movement. When he was caught and jailed as a subversive, his father got him released, then put him and Miriam on a plane to New York, leaving a newborn son with their nanny. They had named their son Armando Fidel, after the hope of Cuba.

In New York, Roberto, then thirty, created a documentary, book, and radio program, each telling the story of Fidel Castro, the oppressed Cuban people, and Castro’s dedicated guerilla fighters in the mountains. He showed the film in Manhattan and in one day raised close to $100,000. Roberto handed off the money to Castro’s man in Miami, who took it straight to him in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba.

Roberto Suarez also drove other things to Miami destined for Castro: firearms, ammunition, explosives, and on one trip, a bazooka.

On New Year’s Eve, 1958, Roberto and his wife celebrated in the apartment of other Cuban exiles in New York as Castro routed Batista and took control of Cuba. Fidel appointed Roberto chairman of the board of the Financiera Nacional de Cuba. Che Guevara was his boss.

“There were early signs that something was wrong,” Roberto later wrote. Some executions were expected. But the bloodletting continued longer than was necessary or humane. “He had betrayed the revolution,” Roberto wrote.

Unhappy with the increasingly oppressive regime, Roberto quit his post. When his work establishing revolutionary cells became too dangerous, he took a nom de guerre and went underground, always moving, never sleeping in the same safe house twice, one step ahead of Castro’s intelligence network.

When a rumor circulated that the government was about to institute the patria potestà, which permitted the state to raise citizens’ children, Roberto told his wife, “You’re leaving Monday [with the children].”

On Monday night, October 31, 1960, Carlos’s “dream” began. Friends helped Miriam, twenty-eight and pregnant, pack eight children—including Carlos and his identical twin, Miguel—into a car. Roberto drove them to the airport. Later the same night they landed in Miami in a punishing rain. Carlos remembers waking up the next morning to a TV playing the Three Stooges in a bewildering new language.  

“Leaving Cuba,” Roberto wrote in his autobiography, “meant the end of a dream.”

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