At First Sight

Esteban Diaz

When we arrived in Havana, we were welcomed at Terminal 3 of the José Marti International Airport, without us even being familiar with its namesake or understanding the importance given to that Cuban intellectual.

A group of people was in charge of taking us to our school, our “new home” as they called it. From the very beginning contact with Cubans was smooth, as if we had found ourselves among close family members. The sympathies were mutual, and one could note a special appreciation for Argentina; there was always the comment that we came from the “land of Che.”

For the first several days they kept us quarantined in the dorm as a precautionary measure against any illnesses that we might have carried from our countries. The first contact we had with Cubans was with those who worked in the cafeteria, cleaning, and health care. We were also in closer contact with our instructor, who was responsible for seeing to any problems with our delegation, and who made us aware of the regulations.

This same instructor had had experience with Argentineans in previous years; apparently the southern countries had a bad reputation for being very rebellious, he explained to us. At that time we were very immature and undisciplined in dealing with regulations.

Nonetheless, there were situations that -even after reflecting carefully- we didn’t consider to be acts of rebelliousness, such as wearing a beard, having long hair, or wanting to organize political activities without arranging them through the Cuban government. For us the regulations appeared excessive with respect to certain issues, and we wanted explanations about the reasons for the requirements.

We didn’t think that these actions were inappropriate or that they harmed the Cuban people in any way. We didn’t receive many explanations; they told us that we had to respect the distinctive character of the Cuban people, that it was in very bad taste for men to have long hair and beards, and that we had come here to study-not to be involved in politics.

To me these words sounded markedly contradictory to Cuban life and with what the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) professed at the international level. At first sight, it could be clearly seen that they had forgotten that their principal leader, Fidel Castro, wore a beard, one that by no means could be considered discreet. Likewise, we felt that a communist party that called itself Marxist should not fear or prohibit political discussion.

Their concerns -those that they admitted- were that the international press would endlessly attack Cuba with accusations of “youth being brainwashed to support socialism,” “future guerrillas being trained here,” or that “Cuba was preparing an offensive at the international level,” etc.

Firstly, the youth who organized those activities were conscious of this; for that very reason they tried not to seek the direct support of Cubans. Student participation was genuinely voluntary and very participative, as was demonstrated over the course of those days.

During that time, the students from several countries demonstrated unconditional support for Cuba. They spoke about how to achieve throughout all Latin America the same advances as those of Cuba in the areas of health care and education. Freedom of speech was allowed in that the audience was the critic and judge of any speaker. Cubans were always invited so that they could relay their experiences to us in the form of advice.

Despite always being willing to speak about these issues with Cubans, especially with the school’s management, all political activity was prohibited. We were told to follow the regulations, with no possibilities for further explanations or discussion. Although prior to traveling to Cuba I had read articles that commented on these positions of the CCP, those remarks did not completely dissuade me.

But why did our school’s administrators (meaning the CCP, since the great majority belonged to it) so arbitrarily prohibit political activities and forms of thinking? From comments made directly to me, many students spoke of feeling discouraged. Others, on the other hand, believed there was a need to follow the regulations without questioning. They asserted, “We must trust the administration.”

I particularly disagreed with that latter position; I decided to continue observing the events as objectively as possible and to firm up my ideas over time.