HAVANA TIMES — I usually say that writing for Havana Times is a repositioning, readjustment exercise for me, like being able to publicly express the truth in Cuba generally is.
I try to write about the country I live in, rather than ordinary Cubans’ problems, the country which doesn’t appear in the media or on national TV.
Reading any government media can provoke serious psychological damage in somebody who hasn’t developed a tolerance for the violent contradictions in human nature (I myself am one of them): bewilderment, rage, impotence. Sometimes, the extent of nonsense, insincerity or cynicism of these articles is such that I burst out laughing. Of course, this isn’t a healthy laugh.
Flicking through a copy of Juventud Rebelde newspaper, last month, I found out late about the “Cuba in your backpack” project, which covered the entire country as part of the celebrations for the 55th anniversary of the Cuba’s Union of Young Communists (UJC).
Out of my own deliberate misinformation, I didn’t know that this event had already been held twice already. According to an article by Hugo Garcia (JR, March 14th), in this third edition, when asked the question: What would you take from Cuba in your backpack? In the city of Matanzas, the answers of workers from various government businesses and institutions such as Cupet, Telecentro TV Yumuri, an educational institute or residents in the La Marina neighborhood, “surprised us again”.
According to the reporter: “A young Cuban would give priority to small busts of Jose Marti and Camilo Cienfuegos; others would take a handful of earth from their backyard, the Cuban people’s strength, integrity, joy and values, their music, the flag.”
The article reminded me of a time when my teenage son was with several of his classmates and I approached them and asked:
“Do you feel proud to be Cuban?” “Would you wear a T-shirt with the Cuban flag?”
One of them answered in the same tone as he would have if he were speaking on a school stage or in front of TV cameras:
“Of course. I love my flag and my homeland.”
My son then told him that there weren’t any problems with me (of being told off or reported) and to ease the tension, he said:
“I am proud of being Cuban but not of my people. Cuba has become a nation of hypocrites.”
Then, there was a serious pause that weighed heavy, or maybe it was a certain sadness. And more impromptu opinions began to flow:
“I would put on a shirt with the Cuban flag, but not if it had other symbols, like that of the Party, or Che’s face or “the Cuban five”.
“I like my country but I would like to get to know others.”
“I want to travel, not emigrate, but if I find a country which I like more than this one, I’ll stay.”
“Why do I have to lose my citizenship?”
“Why can’t I go to see my family abroad? I would like to be able to pay for the trip myself.”
“Why can’t I leave and enter Cuba freely?”
“Why aren’t foreigners asked “if they stayed”? They live wherever they want and stay how long they want without having to give explanations.”
The natural love for their country appeared more and more strongly as they felt more and more free to express themselves, more freely from the grip of obligation.
“Cuba is unique, it’s special.”
“I would stay in my country if I were treated as a human being.”
“If they really patched up relations with the United States, I wouldn’t leave.”
“Yes, I would like to be able to decide what happens in Cuba.”
This experience made me want to create an anonymous survey, with similar questions. I haven’t done it because of my fearfulness, and I know I’ll then become the target of likely hostility or suspicions (I always clarify that I don’t have what it takes to be a true journalist).
However, I have to admit, the government newspaper article that motivated me to write this article made my imagination run wild. I though about what rafters might have carried in their backpacks before the “Wet-foot, dry-foot” policy was revoked: Marti and Camilo statues? A handful of earth from their backyard?
The love for their homeland which they felt forced to leave; they could only carry the minimum so as to ensure their survival. In times of war, even memories get in the way. They might take photos of their loved ones held closely to their chest (not those of martyrs imposed on us as heroes), or amulets of their true faith.
But, what do Cubans who leave legally take in their suitcases? Whether that’s because they qualify for the Family Reunification Program, because they married foreigners, or are invited as tourists (to visit their relatives, take part in professional events, etc), to countries where they can then request political asylum. Many prepare their baggage knowing that they have decided to leave, even though they don’t entrust their secret to anybody.
And, what do officials who desert the country take in their suitcases? Or high-ranking officials’ children who leave despite their great privileges on the island? Or Cubans who leave to work on a mission with the secret hope that they will find a way to stay in their host country or in another they can get to? Statues of Marti and Camilo? A handful of earth from their backyard?
And what do they take with them that doesn’t physically weigh, the things that Customs won’t pick up on and which can’t be confiscated?
Withdrawal, pain, anger, frustration. Ambitions. Their longing for freedom.
If only we could tell the truth… I think this list would be neverending.
And, what would Cuba be like if freedom of expression were a legal right, which was applied and respected, in every regard?
National TV and press would be full of complaints, reports and dissent, also proposals and projects. Debates and networks would be created.
We’d have to see then if so many plaster busts would have a place, and what would replace them.