By Erasmo Calzadilla
HAVANA TIMES — During my brief time in California last November, I met Olivia Espin, a Cuban who left the island in 1961, worried about the direction the revolutionary process was heading in. We conversed at length, as only those who have much in common can.
During the time we spent together, I asked her a load of questions about the first years of the revolution. Below is a summary of some of her answers.
HT: Tell me a little about your life in Cuba before the “accident.”
OE: I was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1938. My family had ties to Vilma Espin’s family, I think her grandfather was my grandfather’s first cousin, or something like that. I never actually got to meet her and didn’t know she existed before she became famous. If our last name had been more common, I don’t think I would have ever found out we were related.
My father was a lieutenant in the marines, but, when Batista won the elections, in 1940, he canned all officials who weren’t loyal to him. My father was left out of a job and we moved to Havana in search of new opportunities. He started a school on Calzada de Reina which proved a total failure. I grew up surrounded by great financial difficulties, in two rooms located at the back of the school.
The coup of 1952 was a day of mourning and fear for my family. As a kid, I used to go to Santiago de Cuba on vacation, to see relatives and to have a bit more space to move in than at my dad’s school in Havana. I was a teenager and didn’t do much during the 50s, but I was aware of the constant fear that we lived in. In fact, I was visiting Santiago de Cuba the day they attacked the Moncada garrison on July 26, 1953.
HT: Do you recall any particular experience related to the attack on the garrison?
OE: Not really, save that everyone would speak in whispers. They said that they had done more than the government was willing to tolerate. Later, they caught Fidel, Raul and the rest. Monsignor Perez Serantes, the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, intervened on their behalf and convinced Batista’s government not to execute them.
HT: Did you later take part in the revolution in any way?
OE: All of my friends were in favor of the revolution and full of hope and enthusiasm. Several of them were killed by the police under Batista.
The idea of bringing about social justice seemed essential to us because we were very much aware of the serious problems that existed at the time. Young people always follow ideals and cling to utopias. We believed the rebels would cure all ills.
After the revolution triumphed, I volunteered to teach women members of the militia and in the Rebel Army, with the intention of helping and contributing to social change. They were times of hope and enthusiasm.
HT: How and when did you begin to disagree with the course the revolutionary process set?
OE: In the beginning, Fidel Castro denied being a communist or a Marxist, and anyone who dared accused him of this ended up in prison. But it became clearer and clearer that things were moving in that direction.
In 1961, I was a teacher at a girl’s school and all teachers had to take training courses on revolutionary doctrine. I didn’t want to teach teenager girls communist doctrine because I didn’t believe in it and I feared the disasters this doctrine could bring the country. Many of my friends grew disillusioned also, but said nothing because disagreement was against the law. The atmosphere was again one of fear, like in Batista’s days.
My first impulse was to try and do my bit and work to try and keep communism at bay. Then, I decided to leave, for a year or so, because I thought this was transitory. Had I known I wouldn’t be going back, I may not have left, I don’t know. In 1961, I went to Spain with my mom and, in 1975, I moved to the United States permanently, after living in several Latin American countries and Canada.
HT: What did you know about communism? What were you so afraid of?
OE: In countries that had gone the communist way, freedom was being trampled on in the name of equality, justice and even itself. Under Batista, we were afraid of cruelty and physical danger. Under the revolution, we began to fear speaking our mind.
Anyone who wanted to do something for the revolution had to do so within the parameters dictated by the government. For instance, we couldn’t continue our classes with the women in the people’s militia, government leaders didn’t want such classes taught at an institution outside of their control.
A different time, while on a bus, I was harassed because I didn’t yell that I supported Fidel Castro. At university, if you spoke in favor of teachers who weren’t considered loyal to the revolution, people started harassing you with questions and comments. Those teachers were of course laid off when the institution lost its autonomy.
Incidents of this nature were announcing what was to come. In addition, the government confiscated the small businesses that acquaintances had, like a neighborhood grocery or laundry shop. They didn’t take anything from my family because it had nothing left. My dad had lost his school and worked as a teacher at other places.
HT: What ties to Cuba did you maintain during exile? I know of people who cut all ties with their country of origin and of others who remained closely linked to it. Have you ever felt an interest in returning, to struggle for what you believe in?
OE: I’ve never forgotten Cuba. When people I ask where I’m from, I always say I’m Cuban. I went back several times in the 80s. The last time I went back was 2011, fifty years after I first left. I haven’t been following Cuba as those obsessed with the issue in Miami have, but I’ve tried to keep abreast of things reading serious news, not the gutter press or the sensationalist news.
During my time studying at the University of Florida, I worked with other Cubans to publish the magazine Nuevos Rumbos (“New Roads”). There, I published an article about women in Cuba, which earned me a visit from the Cuban consul in Montreal (while working as a teacher in that city). Some years later, while a teacher at the University of Boston, I organized a conference about Cuban women and invited several authorities on the subject. As a result, a Miami radio station accused me of being a communist and a group of people came to shout, protest and create problems for us. From their perspective, I was a communist for dealing with the issue of Cuban women, and because none of the guests devoted any time to the issue of female political prisoners.
HT: I can’t help but ask you this: how do you view the impact that the revolution has had in the lives of women?
OE: It’s a complex question and you’re asking me to be brief. I’ve actually focused on “women and immigration.” What I could say on the subject is based on impressions and anecdotes.
It is very painful for me to see young women becoming prostitutes because they earn more selling themselves to tourists than at the profession they studied for. Also, I’ve noticed the bulk of housework continues to be the woman’s responsibility.
Thanks to the process that began in 1959, many women have had greater access to education and work. The government has encouraged women to become professionals. This is true, but only to the extent that it serves their political interests. True gender equality has never been part of their plans. Decades ago, Fidel Castro promised a revolution within the revolution, another unfulfilled promise.
HT: Many say the revolution has caused anthropological damage, that is to say, profound and harmful changes in the culture, values and mindsets of people in Cuba. As a psychologist who knows the world, what is your opinion about this?
OE: I don’t have a well-formed opinion about that, but it does seem to me that people in Cuba have become louder and are less courteous. For many, stealing from a workplace is something normal. This way, they solve their problems in a dishonest way. In 2011, it struck me to see people begging for change on the street and young women prostituting themselves by hotels. When I left, the revolution had put an end to those things, I didn’t know they’d come back.
Also, I am moved by the poetic, artistic and historic culture we share, a way of looking at the world I haven’t found in the United States and that is part of my essence. Being in Cuba offers me that which I can’t fully find elsewhere, not even in Miami. I don’t know whether you find this sentimental, but it’s something I need.
To close this interview, let me say this: there’s part of me that has never ceased longing to go back to Cuba, despite the years. I would like to go back but, the way things are, I would find it impossible to live there. It’s not so much the material privations, it’s the fact I couldn’t stand people telling me how and what to think.