—In a few words, I’m going to try to describe what happened to some of the public lands where I used to play as a boy growing up in a Havana suburb.
In the same area where the Electric Company built houses for the middle class before the prodigious year of 1959, the newly-formed revolution built a neighborhood that would become a model to be repeated across the country.
The basic unit of these densely concentrated areas is a five-story building with 30 apartments. This model is repeated intermittently and with little variation creating a homogenous effect that, either accidentally or intentionally, promoted the central idea of the rebels: equality for all men and women.
My neighborhood, known as Reparto Electrico, was designed especially to house military personnel and their families, almost all of rural origin, who came from other provinces to work at the newly-created military units. Such neighborhoods would soon become part of the accustomed landscape on the city’s outskirts.
These families of grateful farmers who felt emotionally, morally and professionally committed to the revolutionary process would serve as a political counterweight in a city where the idea of revolution had always been a hard pill to swallow.
The middle and lower classes and even those who had taken part in the fight against the Batista dictatorship were, by nature, resistant to the communist ideology of the new government.
The military professionals and their families came from the provinces enthusiastic about the revolution and about being able to live in Havana. Their socialist conscience was not forged in the urban workshops and factories, but rather in organizations based on order and command where ideological training was undertaken by professionals and the admiration of leaders was cultivated with special attention.
And these noble servants of the revolution, in their majority healthy and morally sound people, who were grateful and ready to make personal sacrifices, had their children here, in a place where they played freely without fear, without class differences, running through the abundant empty unpaved lots.
The problems for us children didn’t begin until we started to grow up and think for ourselves. I still remember my first political encounter with my father. I was a teenager and had begun to listen to the American music that was popular at the time. One day, this man whom I greatly admired, ceremoniously took me aside to tell me that this was the music of people who were the cause of many of the world’s evils. I was mortified and he, very proud of my discomfit. I stopped listening to my Madonna tapes, at least for the time being.
The conflicts would worsen later on, but that’s another subject, I merely refer to this as an example of the revolutionary conscience of those parents. They were people who didn’t hesitate to pick up and march to far-off Angola, leaving their wife and children, to put their life on the line defending a people attacked by capitalists. In characterizing their revolutionary principles, it should be noted that for them socialism had nothing to do with a profound cultural movement as its founders had understood it.
These parents were incredibly courageous, but their lack of vision caused them, then as now, to destroy with their feet what they built with their hands. Within the walls of their homes, many of them continue to behave as patriarchs of their plantations, as the masters, as the powerful men whose authority cannot be challenged.
For them, being part of the revolution means not questioning those values, but instead blindly reproducing that obsolete mentality. Patriarchal ideology, with its mean spirit, its exclusion of those who don’t give in to their will, and with its owner mentality, does not mesh with the idea of a revolution that encourages people to give up selfishness and egoism for the sake of the common good. But they don’t realize this.
It’s almost as if they lived a double life: a public one of abstract ideals and slogans (but not any less meaningful); and another personal life where machismo, racism, selfishness, homophobia and xenophobia go hand and hand. In the best case scenario, this double life is stressful; in others it becomes a peaceful coexistence, like a double standard, but not cynically so because they do not see themselves as being immoral.
One fine day, the Special Period came to Cuba with the fall of the Socialist Camp and the food on plates became scarce. The old patriarchs remembered their rural country origins and began to appropriate -discretely at first and then completely openly- the barren plots of land between the buildings, planting little gardens or setting up small workshops.
The distribution of the land was done without planning, the plots were not distributed equitably but grabbed up by whoever happened to be there, converting what used to be public areas where children played into private areas.
Those empty lots used to be the parks that were and still are missing from Reparto Electrico, although no one would use that name to describe them.
It didn’t occur to anyone to cultivate these lands collectively, as any good revolutionary would have done. Instead they fell into the hands of those who reacted quickest, fencing in the best lands, while the others were left with nothing. Today, when someone needs a space to park a car for example, they have to rent or buy the space at a high cost from their crafty neighbors.
Today improvised structures, one alongside another, are used as pig pens, whose rotting smell penetrates the neighborhood but which has miraculously not yet caused an epidemic. Other plots are used as mini factories with hammering, loud talking and music all day right under the windows of the residents.
If a child “trespasses” over one of these pieces of land they are harshly scolded, as if they really were on private property.
These communists, many of them sincerely still consider themselves as such, no longer remember what was repeated to them so many times in their political training classes: that the origin of inequality is private property and that it must be eliminated to eradicate social inequities. Or maybe they believe that the revolution is only an international concept that has nothing to do with the small universe of their homes and neighborhoods.
They are fervent promoters of those television commercials advocating energy and resource consciousness; but they forget that in 1968 they themselves were the bastion of another much more radical campaign against the small owners of the time, a campaign that completely eradicated the private sector in Cuba, putting everything into the hands of the Socialist State.
All discussions in Cuba inevitably end in a comparison with the previous regime. Some might accuse me of defending the times when the Electric Company was king, or calling for a return to point zero, but it’s not about that.
Instead, it’s about creating a sense of identification with collective property in the community and fighting against future appropriations. It’s about remembering that the revolution is not a matter of expropriating foreign companies in favor of the state or small owners, but rather a profound transformation of conscience, in case anyone today still cares to remember that.