COLUMBIA -- Maria Smoak will never forget guerrilla fighters firing machine guns in her neighborhood as Fidel Castro took control of the Cuban government.
Nor will Smoak, 55, shake the memory of soldiers searching her family's home just as they were planning to flee the country.
In 1960, Smoak's mother and father decided the family should leave because they heard rumors that children would be sent to communist indoctrination camps. The family hatched an escape plan in which Smoak, her mother, siblings and grandfather would head to New York to visit a relative. Her father would follow two weeks later.
Smoak's father, Louis Gonda, now 86, bought 16 suitcases so the family could pack for the trip.
"When they brought the 16 suitcases to the house, within an hour, a Jeep full of soldiers came and searched the house all over," she said.
Someone had reported the unusual purchase.
The soldiers didn't find anything that would lead to her father's arrest, but the military began watching the house, Smoak said.
Shortly after the home search, Smoak left Cuba. The family went through a tense 15 days as they waited for her father. He arrived safely.
No one in the family has returned to their original home in the province of Camaguey.
"Once you left, that was it. You lost everything."
Today, Smoak holds hope that Cuba will change now that Fidel Castro is out of the picture.
Reports of his resignation Tuesday spread quickly through the state's Cuban community.
"A friend called at 8 a.m. and said, 'Guess what?'" Smoak said. "I couldn't believe it."
About 2,500 Cubans live in South Carolina, according to the Census Bureau. Some are like Smoak, who fled after Castro came into power. Others are children of Cuban exiles who have only heard stories about their homeland and have never visited.
Smoak described her feelings as "cautiously optimistic." She hopes Cuba's next president opens the country so its people have a chance to emerge from poverty. However, that will take time and, more importantly, will depend on Castro's successor.
"It's not going to change overnight," she said. "It's taken 40 years to get the country into the state it's in."