If it’s not you, who? If it isn’t here, where? If it isn’t now, when?
By Victor Manuel
HAVANA TIMES — Not too long ago, I met Ania Luisa Almenara on Facebook, a young English and French degree student in her 5th year of University in the city of Ciego de Avila. After swapping our contact information, we began to talk about some aspects of Cuban reality and I decided to interview her and to share her words with you.
HT: What is your student life like at your Cuban University?
Ania Almenara: When a person goes to university, they are full of hope, with a lot of passion, you’re starting a new chapter in your life and you want to live it to the fullest. You want to make friends, take part in festivals, in sports games, in competitions, etc.; and of course, you’re eager to learn the profession you have chosen (or got given).
My first two years were amazing, they weren’t perfect, but they were a lot of fun and useful. Luckily or unfortunately, I was a part of the integration process that took place in the country after the 204-2015 academic year, which meant that my major changed in my third year onwards. This sparked an exodus of professors, and the few students who remained on the degree program were left in the hands of other professors who don’t master (or master very little) the specialist subjects they are supposed to be teaching us.
As was to be expected, it was the students who were most affected by this in a negative manner, who receive lectures every day that aren’t to the standard we need, which can be seen reflected in our grades and in the poor performance we have as translators/interpreters. Several situations that we have had to face because of this integration process come to my mind, which has been a “great success” according to national media, but I can vouch for the fact that this has been an utter failure in my province (Ciego de Avila).
For example, in my third year, the university needed our help to teach English classes to other degree students, nobody wanted to go ahead and do this, and they nearly almost begged us because they really needed it. In the end, four of us students agreed, who were teaching assistants for an entire semester and we weren’t paid for a single month’s work due to poor management on the part of the professors responsible and because of bureaucracy issues.
On the other hand, there was poor management of work experiences (we are supposed to do them in our 3rd and 5th years). But, in our 3rd year we didn’t do anything related to our degree’s specialties but rather did what visiting students do, and in our 4th year, we were at home for a whole month not doing anything quite simply because the place where we would do our work experience hadn’t been organized. Our degree is currently in the process of being wiped out, only 5th and 6th years students remain, once we graduate, it will officially be withdrawn.
These are just a few examples of the many things we have experienced at university. In a nutshell, I can just say that, in my 5th year as a university student, the only thing I feel is great deception. In my department’s corridors, you can pick up on the both the students’ and professors’ demotivation. I don’t feel like I have experienced university life at all.
HT: As a young Cuban and a university student, what are your aspirations?
Ania: The first thing I want to do is graduate. I believe that this is the main aspiration of any young university student. I love languages, and I love translation even more, so once I graduate, I hope I can work as one and continue to get better in this profession.
My true passion has always been theology, but, as far as I know, there aren’t any Theology degrees at Cuban universities. I’m not going to lie; I belong to this growing number of young people who would leave the country if they had the chance, especially in order to be able to study Theology at university level.
Let me tell you that I belong to the generation of students who used to fall asleep in video classes, who had to hold onto their doubts in Biology class because the teacher’s specialty was Physics, that when the time came to apply for a degree, I didn’t know what to put on the form because we had never been given any information about the degrees on offer, and I had to take a math entrance exam when I had only applied to humanity degrees.
In short, I belong to the generation of young Cubans who have faced a string of nonsensical events just because of the simple fact that nobody said anything, or didn’t say it with enough force so as to bring about change. As a result, my conscience wouldn’t let me rest in peace if I left without having done anything to change the situation. The easy way out is to run away from the problem, but facing the problem is what makes you grow. An old Chinese tale took me out of the abyss and if you let me, I’d like to share it with readers with the hope that it will have the same effect on them that it had on me:
A large mountain covered a small village with its shadow. Because there wasn’t any sunshine, children grew up rickety. One fine day, the villagers saw the eldest of them all heading towards the edge of the village, holding a ceramic spoon in his hands.
“Where are you going?” they asked. He answered:
“I’m going to the mountain.”
“To move it.”
“With this spoon.”
“You’re crazy! You’ll never be able to do that!”
“I’m not crazy: I know I’ll never be able to do it, but somebody has to make a start.”
HT: How do you see the country’s future? What plans do you have for the future?
Ania: I’m not the kind of person who thinks about or plans a future. Don’t get me wrong, of course I think about the future. It’s just that I don’t give it as much importance as I do to the present, which is the key to everything: if you don’t do anything in your present, you can’t expect anything from the future.
There is a Hasidic verse that says: If it’s not you, who? If it isn’t here, where? If it isn’t now, when? I don’t need to explain it, do I? Every effort made in the present isn’t enough, we have to do more. I don’t like to make negative future predictions for anything or anyone, the human subconscious tends to make those predictions come true.
So if you ask me how I see Cuba’s future, the only thing I can say is that I see a beautiful and prosperous future, where Cubans don’t have to emigrate in search of social and financial wellbeing, where everyone defends our Cuban identity because we feel compelled to ourselves and not because we are being forced, where we can enjoy freedom of speech and free press exists, where Cubans are worth more than foreigners, where professionals receive an income that not only covers their basic needs but also gives them a little extra for the things they like and little luxuries. I would even go out on a limb and say that, if we manage to achieve this Cuba, most Cubans who emigrated would return to enjoy the paradise on earth that their birth country became.
HT: The Cuban revolutionary process which began in 1959, declared itself to be the “champion of the youth”, to what extent is this statement true? Does the future of our country really lie in the hands of Cuba’s youth?
Ania: It might be the case that, in the very beginning, in the early years of the Revolution, it was this. However, this has changed over the years. I can only speak about the short time I’ve lived up until today. We young people have (I don’t like to use the word “enjoy” like many people do because the meaning would give a different connotation) very basic benefits that help people develop, because, even though these services aren’t in the best shape, we have free access to healthcare and education. But, if we were to talk about how we use our free time, about freedom of speech, equal opportunities, well a lot would need to be said.
On the other hand, I don’t believe Cuba’s future lies solely in the hands of its youth. Cuba’s future lies in the hands of anyone who feels the need to do something positive for the country, of contributing their grain of sand to the present so that it is then reflected in the future. Age doesn’t matter, what matters is how each and every one of us contributes.
Maybe an 80 year old person does more for their country’s future than a 20 year old. If somebody is waiting for the youth to take action, I would recommend this person to stop sitting down themselves and to become an active agent of change. We young people need guides, leaders, and especially, support. I don’t believe that we can achieve much on our own if we don’t have good leaders and the support of civil society, generally-speaking.
HT: To what extent is the level of “unconditional support” of the new generations for the Cuban revolutionary process real?
Ania: Today, I believe there are very few young people who support the Revolution unconditionally. I can say that I only know one person who does things because it really comes from them to do then. However, the sad reality is that the majority of young people, I would dare to say 99% of young people, only show “unconditional support” because it’s convenient. The university is plagued with fake unconditional support. We all think about future work placements, about not being “labeled”, and not to mention the famous condition that “university is for revolutionaries”. But, at the end of the day, who can blame us? It’s what we have learned since pre-school.
HT: Throughout the history of humankind, the main social movements and changes have been led by young people. What do you expect from your generation?
Ania: Not only my generation, but those who are coming after us too. I would love for us to be cultured and nonconformist generations. Times have changed a lot, and so have young people’s interests. There are very few people who are interested in reading a good book or listening to decent music, especially Cuban music. I think that the first thing we need to do is to change our mentality to them see a change in our behavior. But, I don’t see very many people committed to bringing about this change in mentality. And gradually, over the course of our lives, we become accustomed to mediocrity and we give up on what could have been and never was. I repeat what I said before, if we don’t do anything in our present, we can’t expect anything from the future.
HT: Recently, President Donald Trump has announced a regression in US-Cuba relations. Could you share your thoughts about this with us? What do you expect to happen?
Ania: Donald Trump is designed to be an entertainer, not to carry out policies. He acts as if he were the ringleader in a circus, when he probably isn’t even directing his own movements, and the people like this. I honestly don’t know whether things in Cuba will get worse or better because of him. I don’t believe (nor would I like to think) that somebody from abroad could come and improve or worsen our situation. It’s true that we have a blockade against our country (referring to the US economic embargo on Cuba) and that we are very limited because of this. However, let’s not fool ourselves; let’s not blame the United States for our current state of affairs. I firmly believe that many of the problems we are suffering today have been caused by national policies and aren’t the result of the blockade. We, the Cubans who live on the island, could be a lot better off if we were to be aware of the fact that we are capable of resolving our own problems.
HT: As a Cuban, what would you like to share with the world? What advice would you like to give to humankind and to Cuban leaders?
Ania: We live in a Cuba, mostly, full of hypocrisy and apathy. I don’t like political events where attendance is compulsory; I don’t like voluntary work that stopped being voluntary a long time ago; I don’t like the fact that they interrupt the academic year to debate political issues; I don’t like them telling me to speak quietly, or to shut my mouth quite simply, when I’m going to voice a different opinion. I don’t like how my fellow classmates are worried about a future work placement based on financial gains and not on their vocations and passions, and I don’t judge them because I know that this is the mentality (and not the situation) which we have grown up with which forces them to think and act in this way. But, I sincerely do believe that there is still time for change, that there is still time to revolutionize these minds and that there is still time to save new minds.
The change we need is a change in strategy. It has already been proven more than enough that political speeches, or obligations, don’t have the desired effect on people. Young people need to feel motivated. So we need strategies to motivate our youth to defend our ideals, our history, our culture and our identity, but not because they are forced to, but rather because they feel they need to, from the heart.
This is a job for everyone, and when I say everyone, I mean politicians and artists, health professionals, the self-employed, teachers, engineers, technicians, designers, housewives, a comprehensive integration of all social sectors.
It will be difficult to break down the barriers of indifference and apathy in the beginning, but you just need to find the right people who, I’m sure, will help. First, there will be 3, then 10, 50, 1500. Until every social sector slowly integrates and then the entire country.
I believe that while a spark exists, even if it is the tiniest spark, to want to give meaning to being Cuban and patriotism, that will be enough to rekindle the flame, and this flame will then become a bonfire which will be impossible to be put out and will infect everyone.