HAVANA TIMES — When I watch movies that are set in first world countries, the thing that shocks me the most is the self confidence that people have in excess.
Not a confidence that stems from financial superiority, but from a system where citizens can complain about officials, the State, the Government. It’s a kind of security, overflowing. The result of going to a cafe and being treated politely. Of being able to enter a hotel, an institution, without anyone rudely asking what you want or what you’re doing there. Of breathing in cleanliness and seeing order, beauty.
Of needing to urinate and having public toilets available where walls are clean, the toilet flushes, there’s toilet paper, water to wash your face and a hand dryer… These are a normal part of any city, especially in capitals.
This certainty they have that everyone tries their best to not bother anyone else on public transport, that nobody will push you or insult you without punishment. Because private spaces and what it means to violate them is well-defined. Because there are strict laws which have established habits. Because you can see them working, in practice.
And I still haven’t even mentioned their freedom of expression, or financial freedom, although this security is also the result of a living wage, of being able to move freely within and outside the country, of associating yourself without fear or giving your opinion and knowing that you won’t be repressed because of it.
In Cuba, people are waiting to be attacked, so there is an underlying aggressiveness, which is almost tangible. Impoliteness has become a native characteristic.
You can see the difference in tourists’ faces, their soft expression, and that’s not just because they are relaxed, passing through. When I was in France, this relaxation and peace of mind, especially in young people and teenagers, really caught my eye. Regardless of any ethnic differences, our young people have a tough facial expression which isn’t right for this age.
A Cuban’s challenging expression is the result of their daily struggle. A struggle which means getting on a bus, buying an essential product before someone buys it before you; having walked blocks under the scorching sun to get this product. A struggle to fill a plate with food; to repair a necessary device, to ensure a little bit of comfort. Comfort which is always on the verge of an abyss.
This aggressiveness stems from the Cuban people’s uncertainty of honest work paying for food, clothes, a taxi if waiting for a bus becomes unbearable (just like decades ago when the government told us that the public transport crisis was the precursor to progress, efficiency, abundance).
And young people who don’t have to carry the burden of this struggle on their shoulders reflect the over-protection of their bitter parents instead. The echo of their frustration and distrust. Their expression is one of bewilderment, indifference or cynicism.
Cubans recreate the abuse they have suffered, are suffering and will suffer until God knows when. Any incident in a public space can end up in an argument and complaints made by both parties reveal their mutual predisposition. The official is poorly paid and abused by their bosses; the citizen expects to be treated badly, to not receive the information they need, or to be scammed if they are purchasing something.
I have seen health professionals rebuking patients who crowd emergency rooms in polyclinics and hospitals, standing in the way and stopping air from coming in, instead of sitting down and waiting their turn. However, patients are only reacting to the experience that anyone can “cut in line”, out of desperation or a lack of respect, or because doctors themselves violate the line’s order.
Employees who work with the public inevitably have “a guard up”, sensing complaints and protests from an under-supplied, poorly served and unhappy population. On the other hand, the public is always tense, expecting the worse. They don’t believe any explanation they are given. They think everything is an extension of what the Government says (for decades now): lies, delays, empty promises.
Popular opinion seems to be that if you don’t have money to resolve something (a document, a place in line, a hospital appointment), then you have to “create a scene”.
I remember the case of a young teacher in training who was warned that she would be laid off because of her absences. The girl’s mother, a woman who used to throw gossip to the four winds, appeared at the school one day and even told the director to “fuck off”. However, the worst thing was that she got what she wanted. Her daughter kept her position at that school.
In a civilized country, I can’t imagine such an outburst leading to anything but legal problems for the woman and this would also have been detrimental to her daughter.
Aggressiveness is inherent in Cuba’s social landscape. If “you’re sweet, ants will eat you”, this is the mentality that Cubans have when they go outside ready to come to blows if they have to so nobody “steps all over them”. Of course, having a permanent guard up means that sometimes you will step on someone, even if it is in self-defense. But, being unfair can be forgiven.
Yet, giving in, reaching agreements, being weak (among ourselves) isn’t ever forgiven. We have to armor ourselves against daily uncertainties, against the broken dreams of so many generations, against the abuse that we have yet to face.