The Swindled

Veronica Vega

Illustration by Yasser Castellanos

HAVANA TIMES — I don’t have a TV because I chose not to have one. So I don’t have any idea about what’s been on TV this summer.

But, I have returned to TV past during these summer days, thanks to a film bank. With the most varied catalogue I have ever seen, and at just 5 pesos each, I let my nostalgia run loose and I compulsively copied them onto my flash drive so as to have films from the ‘70s and ‘80s more than anything else.

This was the period in time when what I knew as “home” hadn’t been dismembered by exile and time. When most children and young people of the hour believed that we belonged to a process, to a nation.

When we aspired to draw out a furute, even though this was being pushed further and further into that foggy area of promises (proclaimed from a podium under the hot sun, with a hysteria that the exhausted crowd confused with courage).

Films that we used to watch together “as a family”, almost always thanks to a black and white TV which my step-father had a right to buy because of his work achievements.

However, these films only showed me that the security frozen into images was a part of the forbidden dream, which an anonymous percentage of Cubans disappeared for in 90 miles of water.

Watching a comedy with Goldie Hawn, (the type of film that used to fill our Sunday nights), while laughing between tears, I found myself asking myself where the “Marielitos” were in this huge country.

Cubans who were arriving in 1980 in packed boats, were a mix of honorable citizens with prisoners and schizophrenics. I asked myself how they had managed to integrate into this society full of comfort, which wasn’t so artificial yet? How did they have manage to become a part of the progress that stories from those born before ‘59 and got to know what bubblegum was, Coke, who had electrical appliances and cars that have survived generations.

Because the only thing that existed for us was the prosperity that Eastern European countries allowed us. Lines of young people who enrolled (or hoped to enrol, like myself) to travel to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, willing to work in any job and come back loaded with purchases.

We used to see Russian dolls, we read Sputnik magazine, the Moscow News, Soviet Films… we even came to believe that wealth (or poverty?) handed out was the only right we had, but we were dreaming big.

Yep! We used to dream that we would be a developed country with a subway running through the heart of Havana and that buses would be sparkling clean, on time and half-empty. We would have advanced technology and even astronauts.

Most of us didn’t think about freedom of expression, freedom of association or the freedom to create companies. We didn’t think about the freedom of being able to enter and leave your country. Wages didn’t get us to the end of the month, but we were compensated with “deviated resources”, with project frugality, with stocked agro-markets. We had tins of Spam, “Russian-Argentinian” meat, apples and black tea.

The winds of change came, from many miles away, with the Sputnik edition where the winner of Miss Moscow had been announced. They were the last traces of a culture that we had already assimilated and it was taken from us suddenly, it was cut from us with one blow. Like in Betty Boop and Woody Woodpecker cartoons which I was able to see as a child, in black and white.

The wall that fell down in Berlin, fell down on top of us. It enshrouded us in a dense and suffocating fog. Stunned, we didn’t know who to blame. Our energies became concentrated on fleeing, on surviving.

Tourists from the first world began to come, renting out modern cars with air conditioning. Who incited our girls and boys. Who made the foundations of machismo weak again and a poor man would share his wife with a stranger and a heterosexual man would become a pinguero (male prostitute). And “prostitution”, a word that had been wiped out by the Revolution, made a come-back this time as a “struggle”.

The country became a station, an abstract place. Our future moved so far away to the blue line on the horizon that many Cubans managed to reach with their rafts.

Garcia Marquez used to say that nostalgia is a trap.

Many of the films that I copied verified this for me, that a select memory is built from need, sugar-coating what needs to be sugar-coated.  I got tired of my journey down memory lane.  Of laughter mixed with tears. Of laughing, of imagining that everything that has been dismembered can be put together again.

I got tired of trying to complete a country which is always indistinct and inconsistent. Where nearly two decades later, children and young people of the hour don’t aspire to contribute with their opinion, their vision, and they are trained in more and more far-fetched strains of mimicry or silence.

A place where financial freedoms are given, then taken away, given and then taken again. Where everything built that is new and shiny isn’t for the Cuban people. At least, not for the masses who used to listen to those speeches under the sun, and plead for a future with this child-like hysteria that has now become exhaustion.

3 thoughts on “The Swindled

  • Whatever you do, don’t stop writing!

  • Esto es lo que he encontrado en mi una visita a Cuba. Gente que está orgullosa de su país, pero humilde al mismo tiempo. He visto un montón de cambios allí, desde Internet. No todos son buenos. Me gusta leer cuando escribas sobre Cuba. Como decimos en Irlanda, “usted ha golpeado el clavo en la cabeza”. Gracias.

  • I am an American documentary photographer who has been to Cuba eight times since 1998 for a total of approximately four months. I have traveled to every province and, in 2016, traveled for five weeks as a member of the troupe with La Cruzada Teatral Guatánamo-Baracoa to create a documentary photo exhibit. I am telling you this because I want you to understand I have genuine appreciation, respect and love for the people of Cuba in general and for specific individuals, for example, members of my Cruzada family.

    I first encountered an article by you, “The Ways of the Lord in Cuba,” in Havana Times on 07 January 2014. I saved that article because I was very impressed. Since that time I actively have searched for your articles and added them to my saved collection. Occasionally, I go back to re-read your articles and/or share them with friends and colleagues who also have authentic interest in the people of Cuba.

    I am not certain I have saved all of your articles since January 2014 because sometimes, as with La Cruzada, I am away from my computer for extended periods on various photo projects. However, after reading “The Swindled,” I am very happy I have made deliberate efforts to collect as many as possible of your articles.

    From reading your articles since 2014, I believe I understand you have genuine love for Cuba. While most are not as skilled at communication as you, I have heard the contents of “The Swindled” repeated many times by many of the hundreds of Cubans with whom I individually have spoken.

    From my perspective, with “The Swindled” you have spoken beautifully for many of your fellow citizens across Cuba. I found this article to be both beautiful and profound, thus rendering it “beautifully profound” and “profoundly beautiful.” My experience is that most Cubans I have met are unpretentious persons with gentle spirits, abundant dignity, pure hearts and boundless love for their country. With “The Swindled” I believe you have eloquently spoken for those people.

    I will continue to diligently search for your articles with keen interest because I greatly appreciate and value your journalistic skills, perspectives and insights. Thank you!

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