Cuba and the Ability to Face Up to Adversity

The Advantages of Being Poor (Part III)

Veronica Vega

Foto: Juan Suárez
Cold sugar cane juice. Photo: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — When I look back on the decade they call the “Special Period” (avoiding the significance of the economic disaster of the 1990’s that the population would experience in wholly unpoetic ways), the first thing I remember are the power cuts, the protracted intervals of time between the “flashes of light”, as people silently and vengefully referred to the few hours of electricity we enjoyed at the time.

To get through the long, hot nights, I would soak my T-shirt in water again and again and cover the window with a tulle, which served to keep mosquitos out and filter the occasional breeze into the room.

My memories always take me back to the silence, to the oceanic peace that would suddenly emerge from the muted television sets and audio equipment, giving the sky a sudden predominance. It was impressive, particularly if the power cut found you out in the balcony: the night seemed to descend and rub up against us, and the light from the stars would enthrall us with their millennia-old enigmas.

It was impossible for me not to think that, day after day, year after year, our boisterous world was distracting us from events that pulsate at the heart of our existence, where we could find answers, instead of the uncertainty and the stress that, having no other visible alternative, we end up calling “life.”

I grew up without a television or electronic toys. My sisters and I would make rag dolls and build beds for them out of books and match boxes we glued together and wrapped in colored paper. It was a fascinating world filled with fantastic stories that even robbed us of sleep.

I sometimes think that the control over time we exercise with photographic and video cameras, with recordings where it is possible to hoard up our preferred experiences, serves to deprive us of the infinite value of the moment, our sense of the irreversible, something we will have to face up to one day when we lose someone we love, with the real (not the virtual) destruction of the past, with the implacable succession of new images, sensations and circumstances.

I recall what it meant for us to suddenly hear a melody we liked, seeing that a movie about to be shown was one that had made a deep impression on us. One would submit to the moment, absorb it with one’s entire soul, for one didn’t know when it would be shown or played on television or the radio again.

I often wonder whether this naive sense of power stemming from the ability to retain information, plan one’s pleasures, archive one’s memories in images, hasn’t ultimately made us incapable of living in the present and obsessed with denying our aging process, unable as we are to place it in step with our inner growth and the accumulation of wisdom.

How can one deny old age without denying the wealth of knowledge one accumulates in one’s lifetime? It has always struck me as absurd that our years of work experience should be considered an advantage and our chronological years should be seen as a handicap.

If there is something we can reproach progress for is having weakened human beings in terms of self-control. The virtuosity of machines, our high-tech prodigies are useless if humanity does not come to terms with those things it cannot change: attachment, suffering, mortality.

When I see the new generations of Cubans impatiently, voraciously consuming new technologies, making progress their only country, I realize we have lost the best part of poverty, what Einstein was able to define as no one else could: “Creativity is born of anxiety as the day comes from the dark night. It is in crisis born of invention, discovery and major strategies. He who overcomes crisis surpasses himself without being overcome.”

I realize they are lacking in something we had (and have inevitably been losing): the ability to react to adversity with nobility.