Being Free in Cuba

Veronica Vega

Photo: Catherine van Hooff

HAVANA TIMES — I apologize for reading HT comments late, even on my own articles, I have sporadic access to the internet.

Time frames are symbolic, but a new year is always an opportunity for us to settle debts. Therefore, I’d like to thank the readers who commented on my post “About Freedom”, apologizing for such a late response and to answer some of the questions put forward.

To my colleague, Luis Rondon Paz who asked:

– Can you call social alienation and a fixed lifestyle, with psychological, political and social barriers established by State institutions’ stigma and legitimization, freedom?

– Is freedom living in a society where a human being is always cared for when they conform to the hegemonic white heterosexual and conservative standards?

– Can you call a system free if a person is denied, directly or subliminally, the right to be happy and to have quality of life by taking away the development of their desires, needs and drive?

– Can you call a person free if they have worked all of their life just to eat, without having the chance to see any other alternative to their development as a social being?

– Can you consider a place free when your privacy is always being controlled?

I would like to start off by quoting a friend who I interviewed some time ago for HT: “Freedom begins with yourself.”

Societies take time to become organized and to establish a fairer concept of justice, it isn’t a war you win but that you sustain, because social values should imitate Nature as closely as possible, and evolve. However, guided by our own sense of justice, every one of us can defend human rights which haven’t yet been put into our legislation.

Individuals with a social conscience are in fact the ones who set the foundations for these wars which support the progress of human civilization.

For example, I have found out that in schools, at least in Havana, male students can now have long hair down to their shoulders, a 6th grade teacher told me. A 10th grade student claimed that every school can make their own amendment to this rule, in line with internal agreements. This battle which seemed to have been lost before it had even started two years ago proves that common sense wins out in the end.

Throughout history, there have always been people who live their lives guided by the own sense of truth, challenging seemingly uncrossable barriers. However, I agree that “freedom is an extremely relative concept,” like a poet friend of mine once said.

Before the rolling cameras of a French man who was making a documentary about Cuba, he said that in the interviews he gave in Miami, people didn’t believe him when he claimed that he had felt free in Cuba. I should clarify that this poet was the founder and coordinator of a project which created a Poetry Festival, he lived in a workshop of the Alamar Cultural Center which was always open to the creative process and artists. He led performances put on by the group OMNI ZONA FRANCA which shook up civil apathy and managed to create a dialogue with the same institution which controls and paralyzes the movement of alternative art, winning over their support for an entire decade.

The relativity of freedom can be fully appreciated in the case of Nelson Mandela. The South African leader confessed that his experience in jail freed him from a much worse prison: hate. It doesn’t matter how much you defend the cause of the unfair if the person fighting is trapped in his own feelings of seeking revenge. It’s a reverse destruction which will only be able to obtain external and partial achievements. Every conquest for something good should aspire to heal and integrate society. This is the only way to make sure that there are many beneficiaries: all of us.

Francisco de Assis, Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Marti himself and so many artists, ideologists, philosophers have discerned the flaws in the social order and ultimately rebelled, building their lives in line with their own understanding of what justice is.

With all of the objections I myself have with the socio-political system which we Cubans find ourselves a part of (not by a direct choice but by unspoken cooperation), I have seen that it is always possible to do something good. Even if it’s only to dig up the foundations of a wall so that it slowly falls down over time. The smallest changes and freedoms which have been introduced in Cuba recently haven’t been at the expense of nothing, they are the result of the visible effort of a select few and the invisible resistance of so many others.

On the other hand, even in the most developed societies, individuals are trapped in consumerism culture, in publicity, in public services, in law, and sometimes even in certain prejudice. Exaggerated individualism which results from this socio-economic model is just as much a sign of malfunction, of the failure to build a series of things where values which really make our species human and superior aren’t able to flourish (or be imposed).

With regard to happiness, no matter how standardized our economic conditions become, it is always dictated by very subjective inclinations and needs. Suicide rates in first world countries give away just how wrong this assumption is.

Another poet friend of mine very radically said: “man is only free to choose his slavery.” Analyzing this statement in-depth, we can see how we move between limits imposed on us by our own desires and attachments. Even the freedom to experiment many different forms of pleasure often becomes dependence, which is the opposite to being free.

The same tendency to standardize makes our dialogue with friends and acquaintances that have emigrated or are about to, to struggle to believe that I am happy. And it’s not because I’m in Cuba, but because of my own personal life project, which would have taken off (with whatever freedoms and limitations), anywhere.

One thought on “Being Free in Cuba

  • As always, some very interesting thoughts and insights.

    Freedom is not one thing. There are several dimensions to freedom: political, religious, intellectual, artistic, sexual, economic, speech, association, migratory and more. These various freedoms vary from country to country.

    As the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas wrote in his suicide note, “One day Cuba will be free. I already am.”

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