HAVANA TIMES — I grew up hearing that I was extremely lucky to have been born in a system whose government promised social justice. The working class, disadvantaged throughout history, finally had an 8 hour working day, would be paid according to their profession and had the right to a free education and medical care. This was something that only existed in socialist countries, I was assured.
Having been born into the working class, I didn’t have a TV until I was 12 years old, when my stepfather was given a black and white one for his work efforts.. We weren’t the first ones to get a hold of those prized TV sets in the ‘80s either, when people could finally see the world as it is: in color.
Like all the other children I knew, I had the right to choose three toys once a year, thanks to a schedule that established six days for buying them. I used to look at the display of foreign goods in shop windows with my eyes lit up until it got to my turn, and they’d already disappeared. Only jacks, balls, spinning tops and skipping ropes made nationally remained.
I never had a school bag, or sneakers. My mother used to sew vinyl covers together to help me carry my books and notebooks, and I only wore my school shoes.
However, they promised me that I wouldnt have any less, nor any more, than what I needed because wealth, hoarded by a select few in the past, was finally in good hands that were distributing it equally. Having lived on the outskirts of the city since I was 7 years old, I felt like everyone around me had more or less the same as me.
When I was in the 8th grade, the social climate created because of the Mariel exodus (1980) shook my confidence in this sense of justice that had been instilled in me up until then. When I reached 9th grade, I discovered that I couldn’t aspire to go to the ENA (National Art School), from the municipality where I lived. Years later, I couldn’t travel as an overseas worker in the German Democratic Republic in spite of me meeting all of their requirements (age, school education, two years working experience) because of a judgement handed in by a neighbor, a member of the Communist Party.
However, the most radical change in my vision came in the ‘90s. A visit from a foreign friend opened my mind to an unknown and parallel Cuba. Hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, nightclubs, stores with objects that sparkle even more than the toys I used to look at in shop windows when I was a little girl.
Tourists, strangers to the country I could no longer call “mine”, could go places I couldn’t enter. Wealth existed but it wasn’t for everyone and it couldn’t be bought in the currency I earned my living in.
I had a friend who, infused with Communist fervor, enrolled in the Los Camilitos military school, where he became friends with the sons of high-ranking government officials. He went to their houses, to their parties; he saw how they drank whisky loaded with “ideological deviation” glass after glass, eating inaccessible and even prohibited dishes. They went for trips in their yachts, they drove their cars, and some even went to Europe on holiday.
I had some other foreign friends and I learned that it’s not only socialist countries that have free medical care and education.
On leaving one of Cuba’s tourist resorts with them, I watched the sea of bikes, of sweat-filled faces, wrinkled with fatigue and despair. It was them, “the ones below”, just like had happened in every other time in history and in all those countries where men they taught me to call “evil” ruled.
It was them, the workers, those who have no voice and no vote, disadvantaged by history, those who had finally been “redeemed”.
It was 1994 and I saw them leave on poorly made rafts, worse than Mariel. I know many who reached the Promised Land, others who disappeared and many who have suffered psychological trauma or irreversible physical consequences for having attempted to make this dangerous journey.
Today, 22 years after this sight, workers are still not able to live off their salaries, are unable to demand an increase, can’t even think about the word “strike”, and many choose instead to work in the independent sector where working days aren’t even 8 hours long anymore.
Thousands of Cubans are still trying to leave the island, to reach those countries where wealth is still being distributed badly, where they haven’t achieved the dream of social justice, where they’ll forever be “below” the rest.
Today, I remembered a speech that was repeated to death in my childhood that used to excite me, a speech which with some modifications remains valid and some still believe, and I ask myself, and I ask them, how can we have failed for over half a century if we’ve truly only ever had good intentions?