The Value of Choosing

By Armando Chaguaceda

Simon Bolivar, photo: Patxi64
Simon Bolivar, photo: Patxi64

It was April 2002, and the confused and heartbreaking news coming from Venezuela had confirmed the worst: the extreme right had deposed that country’s democratically elected government and trampled over the most popular and participatory constitution in the history of the continent.

As the events were unfolding, a group of friends marched in silence to lay flowers at the statue of South American Liberator, Simon Bolivar, in a park in Old Havana.

No one had officially summoned us; no one would pass around a list verifying who was absent (and who would be subsequently disciplined for their lack of “revolutionary fervor”).

A look of suspicion was visible on the face of the park’s custodian when we explained that we were there as Latin Americans and free citizens. I’ll never forget his bewildered expression, the same one we have seen many times over when our circle of friends organized activities in different neighborhoods of Havana in 2004, 2005, 2006…

Open forums in parks, commemorations of popular martyrs forgotten by traditional anniversaries, and accompaniments to events and performances of alternative artistic groups are among the best memories that I have of Cuba.

In all them, the value of autonomy – to choose one’s thoughts, feelings and actions – did not come from the hand of institutional privilege, but from feeling a part of a living community, of a transcendental and, at the same time, concrete spirituality.

The “moaning” and fears by functionaries and friends faced with possible provocative acts by anti-government dissident groups and police harassment, the criticism and self-criticism, heated disagreements and the capacity to join and leave these networks, arguments and commotion freely were part of this school of citizenship created at the Almendares, Ceiba, 21st & H parks; and in the bookstore/coffee shops in town, as well as in public libraries.

The practice of “debate by invitation,” so dear to certain forums of metropolitan intellectuality, was – as a rule by consensus – banished in our gatherings.

Still, not everything was idyllic: la cubanidad (Cuban nationalism) sprouted in the heat of these sessions, accompanied by assaults on others words and impetuous retreats. The emerging solidarity sometimes resulted in us collecting money for something to eat, or to print the scarce flyers when we were without institutional support. Sometimes the poor attendance showed that the announcement had been ineffective.

When we found ourselves lost in the density of philosophical thought, somebody would crack a joke and our dilettantism evaporated. There was not a lot of room for fame and applause; that’s something I always liked.

Sure, spaces are born; they grow and die – many times of their own dynamics and before exhausting all of their potential. But there’s no better promise than knowing that more than a pleasant memory will remain with those who were moved by these activities. Likewise, there remains the learning by the younger participants, who will certainly know how to organize these better in the future. The twin kingdoms of freedom and commitment must live and last.