E. Tenn missionaries witness history from Havana

The Castro brothers, shown here in this July 1, 2004, file photo in Havana, Cuba. Fidel Castro announced Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 he was resigning as Cuba's president, ending a half-century of autocratic rule as a communist icon. His brother, former Minister of Defense Raul Castro, right, is seen as the heir apparent. (AP (file))
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KNOXVILLE (WVLT) – On Sunday night, Cuba's national assembly chose Raul Castro, 76, Fidel Castro's younger brother, as its new president.

A pair of Morristown residents were visiting the island nation last week when its long time leader announced he was stepping down.

They sat down to talk to us about why they were in the communist nation, what the Cuban people think about the move, and what is next.

It has been illegal for US citizen’s to travel to Cuba for more than a half century.

But Ralph Masingill and Sanford Cooper, both missionaries, were able to visit the country with a special travel visa.

"I wanted to see what Cuba was really like," Masingill said.

He ended up getting a close up view of what life is like for Cubans, something he equates to “prison.”

"All Cubans are intimidated, they all are persecuted in some way," said Masingill.

While he was there, he was taken into custody by Cuban police, held behind locked doors, interrogated, and accused of breaking visa rules, specifically, riding in Cuban cars and going to church meetings.

Masingill said even his visas and passports were taken.

The day after he was let go, news broke that Castro was stepping down.

"That's really probably one of the reasons we were able to get out of there," he said.

But before Masingill and Cooper left, they did get to talk to Cubans about the historic announcement.

"They had shock expressions of happiness,” said Cooper, who is also the pastor of Gateway Church. “I never thought I'd see this day."

With more than a half century as the nations leader, three quarters of the Cuba population has known no other leader besides Fidel.

According to the missionaries, some of the Cuba’s they talked to were a little suspicious about Castro’s announcement.

"They would say, ‘I wonder what he's really up to, I wonder how this is really going to turn out,’" Cooper said.

For both Morristown residents, it was a trip to remember and the experience of a lifetime.

"I am grateful to be an American and I hope I never forget the courageous brave people over there," Masingill said.

One of the reason’s Castro is stepping down is likely due to his poor health.

The leader of Cuba’s late 1950’s communist revolution has been in failing since he entered the hospital in 2006 for intestinal surgery.

While in the hospital, he transferred power to the current president-elect, Raul Castro, who had long served as the country’s defense minister and second vice-president.

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