If Cubans Could Choose Their Own Heroes

Verónica Vega

Against the dark and the cold.  Illustration by Yasser Castellanos
Against the dark and the cold. Illustration by Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — This month, when mothers are traditionally honored, I remembered how we were instilled with admiration towards Mariana Grajales at school. That extraordinary woman who fought for Cuba’s independence became a symbol of self-sacrifice, encouraging her children to go to war.

Like most children, I’d read those stories without becoming fully involved in them and, many a time, without even understanding them. Textbook heroes didn’t seem all that different to me than plaster busts and I could not imagine the horror of the battlefield, nor grasp the seeming contradiction that a person meant to protect others should consider it her duty to urge her offspring to die by gunfire or the bayonet, wielding only a machete.

Now that I have my own take on the world, after absorbing new things and discarding others, now that I can make my own opinions about what was imposed on me and what I’ve gradually discovered on my own, I often wonder whether it wouldn’t have been more fair for Mariana to let her children choose their own path, and I am infinitely pleased to see that those who seek political changes in our country today do not consider violence an alternative.

I think about women like Yoani Sanchez, Larisa Diversent and Tania Bruguera, who have shown us another side of courage, women no student in our country will be taught about in civics or history.

The first is admirable for having decided to share her particular take on Cuban reality without accepting any censorship, the second for sharing her legal knowledge and helping common Cubans defend themselves with their own country’s laws and the third for defending her right to express herself through art, the right of her audience to see her work and the right to enter and leave the country of her birth freely.

I also think about the many people whose lives we could learn from, people we are unaware of because we lack information, because they work anonymously or because they are hidden from us.

Elsewhere, I mentioned that, when I saw Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi at age 25, I regretted this hero had not been among the many whose statements and biographies they made us memorize. I recall that phrase by Reina Maria Rodriguez, about our “dead loves on the shelf” (the authors one adopts to survive), and I understand the reaction of adolescents who replace the revolutionary martyrs who have been imposed on them with movie, music, sport and even pornographic stars.

For some time now, I’ve kept photos of my dead loves under a pane of glass on my desk. These include Van Gogh, Isadora Duncan, Antoine de Saint Exupery and Erneto Sabato.

During an exercise I once proposed at a narrative workshop (consisting in writing about an author dear to them), a participant wrote about Mark Twain and, describing the moment he saw his children salute the flag and repeat the slogan of “We will be like Che Guevara!”, he’d add: “And like Tom Sawyer as well.”

At the time, I gathered that, without delving into the indoctrination and violation of basic rights that children are subjected to in Cuba, this person had found a means to become reconciled with his reality, by mentally incorporating a character of his choosing in it.

As a primary school student, I was also forced to take part in this ritual, without understanding its meaning. Many years later, I would ask myself:

“Why wasn’t I allowed to choose the person I wanted to be like?”

“Why, if it was a question of imposing an example to follow on us, was it a violent and radical foreigner? Why not Jose Marti, whom they were happy to call “the best of all Cubans”?”

The other side to this is that rituals serve no purpose when they are carried out insincerely or when they are inherited as empty shells of what they were. It is no secret that, for the new generations, these heroes and their supposed virtues are increasingly foreign. In addition, official information is increasingly fragmented, as children and teenagers study using alternative sources of information, such as Wikipedia.

In the meantime, as we await the needed and profound changes to Cuba’s program of studies and teaching methods, they could at least include examples of peaceful individuals, such as Irena Sendler or Mother Theresa. Since religious belief has been decriminalized, why not broaden the list to include exemplary mystics, such as Saint Francis of Asis, at a time when even television acknowledges the country’s crisis of values and urges people to once again be compassionate in response to the confusion, intolerance and lack of solidarity of our day.

I do not believe it impossible for teachers to begin advancing exercises in which students are free to choose, on the basis of less restricted and rigid information, who their heroes and heroines are.

21 thoughts on “If Cubans Could Choose Their Own Heroes

  • You obviously don’t understand the meaning of the word ‘oligarchs’ and likewise don’t know who the Damas de Blanco are either.

  • The ladies in white are the oligarchs who cannot adopt to the change in Cuba where the majority of the once voiceless people now have a voice. They long for the return to the glory days when only they had all the say in how the country should be run. Isnt democracy about the majority? Why is America and you want to decide the economic pathway Cuba and its leaders should take? America is only for the rich and the oppressors. The Castro brothers are interested in the voiceless majority and that hurts people like you who keep harping for their removal. The majority of the once voiceless are grateful to the Castro brothers for liberating them from the ladies in white who are traitors of the working class majority and the dignity of the human being. Long live the Castro brothers, Long live the 1959 Revolution, Long live the Revolutionary Spirit of the Cuban People!!!

  • You really are daft if you call the Castros “benevolent”. Just ask the Ladies In White how much benevolence they receive from the Castros.

  • Rather live under a benevolent dictator than a brutal , uncaring and bought and paid for “elected” official.

  • Were the classrooms occupied by students at the times of your visits and did you notice the slogans and posters provided by the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba?

  • You are still missing the point. In order to form a more perfect union, no government should pause to reflect upon the flaws and failings of other governments except to avoid making the same mistakes. My argument against Castro tyranny is no less valid when you “expose” the weaknesses of the US system. A man who beats his wife is no less guilty of abuse because his neighbor cheats on his wife. There is no moral equivalency argument to be made. The Castros are dictators and what happens in Colombia, Mexico or Saudi Arabia will not make that any less reprehensible.

  • What it does Moses, is expose the transparency of your argument that the lack of elections in Cuba renders everything illegitimate. In Colombia, yes the government may murder campesinos organizing marches, in the US all policy decisions may coincide with the interests of the one percent, so what if in neither place there is no accountability to the mass of citizens, and access to public office requires the approval of the ruling strata – all is forgiven because elections are held.That is, unless the people elect the FSLN, Chavistas or an Allende.

  • How many classrooms ? Pretty many, I guess. In Havana, Pinar, Banes and Manzanillo. Is that enough ?

  • Dan, if in your failing efforts to defend the indefensible Castro regime you continue to retreat to the argument that it’s worse somewhere else, let me do you a favor. I agree that nowhere is perfect and in some cases, certain problems that exist in Cuba are worse somewhere else. Do you feel better? So how does election fraud in Mexico or Colombia justify non-elections in Cuba?

  • Google election fraud in Mexico. Or better yet Union Patriotica in Colombia. Read “DEmonstration Elections” by Edward Herman. That’s a pretty novel idea. It’s ok to kill dissenters as long as you hold elections.

  • You carefully avoided finishing my phrase which was:
    “what would happen to them if they were in other socialist countries in Central or South America”
    They would join the Mayors of a dozen Venezuelan cities in jail. That speaks volumes!
    South American socialist countries have a tradition of personalising power – Venezuela’s ‘chavismo’ and Argentina’s ‘kirchnerismo’ under Christina Fernandez de Kirchner being examples.
    But do please answer questions as I am doing.
    How many Cuban schools have you entered and how many classrooms within them?
    You stated that:
    “Indoctrination of Cuban students pales with what American kids get.”
    So Dan, do please answer the question!

  • Haha! If I had any doubts about my blackness, I’m sure a short trip to the grocery store or bank would reconfirm my obvious ethnicity. Some white lady would clutch her handbag a little tighter as l approached or some minimum wage segurity guard would follow me around just to let me know what they thought about folks who looked like me. I don’t need to read the Pledge. I recited it every day before class began in elementary school. The phrase “….for which it stands” is existential and aspirational. The countries you named are democracies. The citizens of those countries have the power of the ballot box to reject their governments when that government has engaged in the abuse of power. Cubans don’t have that right. As a result, pressure from the International community is the only response that the Castros face in the wake of the tyrannical abuse of power.

  • Moses, you raise a good point. Why do Capitalist Colombia Honduras and Mexico feel there will be little political cost to killing dozens or hundreds of government opponents in Washington’s backyard ? And read the pledge. It doesn’t say why strive for liberty and justice. It says we have it. Are you sure you’re black ?

  • “What would happen to them in other Socialist countries”? That speaks volumes Carlyle.

  • Interesting but not relevant to the thread.

  • It is interesting that the Pledge of Allegiance was Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister and a Christian socialist. He had intended to include the words “equality” and “fraternity” but couldn’t get it past the other committee members who were against equality for women and Afro-Americans. It was only in 1954 that the words “under God” were included as part of the ongoing cold war.

  • Thank you Informed Consent. I perhaps made the error of thinking that if as he claims, Dan is an immigration lawyer it was indicative of some modicum of intelligence and experience of debate – the courts strike balances between the cases presented by defence and prosecution lawyers and I have some personal experience having served as a director on a major multicultural organization dealing with immigrants and the courts.
    I had as you will have noted observed that he possesses a nasty vindictive mind but that is not necessarily an indication of inflexibility or diminished IQ. Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, the Kim family of North Korea, the Asad family of Syria and Ghadafi all possessed similar vindictive minds but others could not challenge them. Fortunately for those of us like you and I who enjoy the freedoms of the Western World, we are able to challenge those like Dan who display wilful blindness to the plight and distress of others and that is why I do so.
    As an immigration lawyer, Dan ought to have some compassion for others and if he doesn’t then he is unqualified for the profession he purports to follow..

  • Trying to reason with Dan may be a wasted effort. – Over the last few decades, research in the social, cognitive, and political sciences has shown again and again that earnest, lasting change on a contentious issue is an extremely rare thing.

    The body of research shows that on issues from climate change to vaccines to evolution to anything else, really, it seems impossible to change a person’s mind about anything with even the slightest personal or political charge. The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova recently provided a beautiful survey of this literature, and it seems that the best you can hope for in your persuasive efforts is wasting your time; the worst is that you just make the other person more entrenched and sure of their beliefs-

    I can already see my wife saying “I told you so…”

  • If the Castros believed that they could “disappear” Sra.Sanchez and Sra. Soler with international impunity, they would have long been dead. What’s your gripe with the Pledge of Allegiance? This may come as a shock to you but a significant majority of Americans still believe in some form of a higher power. Americans are highly aspirational. “With liberty and justice for all” reflects our high ideals. Do you object to these principles? Che Guevara, on the other hand, is hardly someone I would want my kids to be like.

  • You have just demonstrated Dan a total lack of understanding about the plight of Cubans and why Veronica Vega wrote as she did. You do not comprehend courage, for that is what Yoani Sanchez has demonstrated – it is unimportant whether you or I agree or disagree about what Yoani Sanchez writes – what matters is the level of courage she has. Mark Twain was a great American author. (period)
    Trying to scare or intimidate those who seek freedom by talking about what would happen to them if they were in other socialist countries in Central or South America is similar to your trying to intimidate me previously by indicating as an Immigration Lawyer that I should be frightened of what the Castro family regime might do to me following reading my contributions to these pages. It demonstrates a nasty vindictive mind that seeks to harm!
    Apart from being irrelevant, you have no basis upon which to declare that the indoctrination that Cuban children experience pales in comparison with that which American children receive. How many Cuban schools have you entered and how many classrooms within them? In my case it is several and my wife works in the Cuban educational system,
    The US government properly tells American children that they are fortunate and owe allegiance to their country. But it does not tell them that they have to vote for one party and one party only, they have freedom of choice just as you choose to use your freedom to denigrate your homeland at each and every opportunity.
    I try in life to have some respect even for those I disagree with, but find it impossible with you. I cannot say – as I have about Raul Castro Ruz, that he is intelligent and has a lot of street smarts – that I find anything in your comments to respect.
    Note that Veronica wrote of those Cubans you so admire:
    “I understand the reactions of those adolescents who replace the revolutionary martyrs who have been IMPOSED upon them with movie, music, sport and even pornographic stars.”

  • A course about Yoanni Sanchez ? Hero status for her ? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Just a few hundred miles away in Central and South America, a dissident can easily end up dismembered and lying dead along some road, and their death won’t elicit the tiniest of blips from the politicians, press, or human rights groups which become incensed if Berta Soler gets hit by a tomato. I don’t know what you expect from the Cuban education system, Veronica. Indoctrination of Cuban students pales with what American kids get. Cubans pledge to be like Che but Americans must pledge loyalty to a nation under God, w/ liberty and justice for all.( ?!) My German friends could not believe that when I told them. My daughter goes to an inner city school. I was there once in the hallway and saw a display of “Hispanic Heroes”, obviously distributed to many schools. And who were the chosen 10 “heroes” ? They included Gloria Estephan and the illustrious loba feroz, Illiana Ros-Lehntin. Mark Twain, who you mention, may get superficially covered in American schools, but rest assured, no student will learn that he proposed altering the Stars and Stripes for the Skull and Crossbones based the the genocide of 1 million Filipinos. So it’s the same thing here. Warren Buffet is available for the hero category. Eugene Debs is not.

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