Everything Needs Changing in Cuba

By Veronica Vega

HAVANA TIMES – Ernest Carralero Burgos is one of those young Cubans who had to grow up without one or both of his parents because they left for many years to work on an international mission or because they emigrated looking for an alternative way to support their families. 

As a child, he lived in Holland and was going to stay forever but he ended up coming back to live in Cuba because of circumstantial factors. 

When he was a teenager, he used to write for Havana Times in the Diaries section. Today, he writes and contributes with Diario de Cuba. He writes prose and poetry with generous, pinpoint language which is permeated with the dizzying imagination of videogames which is matched by the coarseness of his time. A time where speed and the virtual world replace the tangible. And where in reality, things are ironically what they are and not what their names impose on them.

HT: What do you remember about the time you used to live in Holland?

Ernesto Carralero Burgos: One of the most vivid memories I have is about my first day at school. I was waiting for them to hold a morning assembly and it turned out that there wasn’t a morning assembly, just like there wasn’t a uniform. You just turned up, the bell rang and you would go to your classroom. Nothing was said about anniversaries, for example, they didn’t remember the day that William the Silent died[i]… Just like I was surprised to find that their flag wasn’t up anywhere, and I had to ask what it was like. That’s when they showed me, but not because it was waving about in every park or corner in the city. And the thing is the Dutch knew that they were Dutch and were very proud of this.

HT: How did these impressions change when you went back, as an adult?

ECB: I’m not very impressed by how high buildings are, or technological advances, but I was very impressed by the small things. Details such as traffic lights making a sound so that blind people know when they can cross the street; the fact that if you recycled bottles at a store, your shopping bill would be cheaper… Or just how incredibly clean everything is. Advertising also caught my attention, billboards which had “Coca Cola” plastered all over them instead of “We will resist!”. Seeing that there wasn’t this political saturation everywhere.

HT: How does having one or both parents live in another country influence your growth as a young person?

ECB: I believe it makes you more independent. You grow up a little bit faster, although I always had my whole family around me, which is a wonderful thing, but it does help you to make your own decisions at a much younger age.

HT: When you were a student, did you believe in Cuba’s official discourse?

ECB: Never, not even when I was in primary school.

HT: How did you deal with the contradiction of having to defend this discourse in the classroom, in exams?

ECB: It was really quite simple. I always liked history and one of the first books I read, when I was in 4th grade, was a biography about Napoleon Bonaparte. Generally-speaking, my teachers knew less than I did. On the other hand, if they asked me, let’s say: “analyze the figure of Camilo Cienfuegos”, I personally had nothing against Camilo, I thought and I still think that he was a good man, just like Jose Antonio Echevarria who was a convinced democrat or Frank Pais, who was an anti-Communist, were. Did they fight for a revolution? Yes, that’s true and when this revolution became the monster it is today, they weren’t even alive anymore. You can’t blame them. If I myself had lived during the Batista dictatorship, I might not have placed any bombs but I definitely would have fought against him.

As for the rest, all of my classmates knew what I thought, I remember that I once took in a CD with a program of Maria Elvira [from a Miami TV channel] and we watched it. Strangely enough, in high school, the secretary of Youth (the Young Communists’ Union – UJC) suggested I join the organization because she said that it was young people like me who could change the country. At pre-university, I was the UJC’s ideological secretary because my classmates decided that I was the best one for the job because I was the least Communist. Of course, it wasn’t the same UJC that existed in the ‘90s, it had already lost its buzz. I took on the role for about a week because that was how long the organization worked at my school, then everything came crashing down and I handed over my card.

I guess that things were different higher up, where those who go to [to political events in other countries like] Panama to shout at [members of Cuban] civil society that are there, and they don’t even really believe in what they are saying. If they believe that the Revolution is really great that’s only because they know how much they can benefit from it. Financial benefits, opportunities to travel, even though this requires that they behave like gorillas to prove that they are a part of this macabre system.

HT: How did you manage to adapt to life in the military service? What were the best and worst things about that time?

ECB: The first three months were the worst, it was a dreadful shock, I felt like I was drowning. I can affirmatively say that that was the worst time in my life. The best thing was the people I met there, people who I never would have struck up a relationship with under normal circumstances or maybe even run into because we came from completely different worlds. I enjoyed getting to know marginal people, to watch their behavior and that was the best thing, yes, the friends I made.

HT: Do you believe it was a traumatic experience?

ECB: I believe “traumatic” is a very strong word. Would I ever repeat this experience? 100% no. Do I agree with nobody being forced into having to do military service? 100% yes. It’s true that they made me waste two years of my life, where the only thing I learned was to run away, to lie, to find ways to not be there. However, lying wasn’t ever a conflict for me because I wasn’t lying to my mother, my friends, my family. I was lying to people who were basically keeping me hostage. And it’s a strategic game: you lie to them and they pretend like they believe you. They are aware that if they don’t do this, the entire system would come crashing down.

HT: I have heard people call my generation the “lost generation”. I have heard a young woman say that her generation is the “generation of indifference”. How would you define your generation? If you feel like you belong to a generation and think you can define it with one word.

ECB: It’s hard to define it in one word. I think that my generation is the one trying to sort their lives out. Yeah, they would like to wake up tomorrow saying “Let’s go and demand our rights!” But, that’s not going to happen. Everyone is looking for their own space, trying to find a way to make a dignified living in financial terms, or working on a personal project. Because these super stories from the last century, of revolutionary fervor (and I’m not referring to this monstrosity which they continue to call “Revolution”, even though it has been 60 years, which is madness), but the spirit of “We’re going to change the world and we are going to dedicate our lives to this cause!”, I don’t believe exists.

If your personal project is like mine, doing whatever you can so we can live in a better country, you work towards this. However, if your personal project is to have a house on the beach, a car, set up a business, everyone creates their own future. And I believe that there isn’t any prejudice because I have friends who know that they are living in a dictatorship and their personal project is to have money, so they work in a private restaurant and we go out, we eat together, we laugh, they tell me about their work and I tell them about mine. It’s like living a normal life.

HT: Are they trying to recover a normality which was taken from us?

ECB:  Yes, but not trying; it just is normal, it’s happening. For example, they ask me: “What do you do?” And I tell them: “I’m an independent journalist.” They answer: “Ah, that’s good,” and that’s it.

HT: Has being an independent journalist changed your life?

ECB: Not so far as changing my life, no. I know that I am living in a dictatorship that is on the verge of collapse, falling apart, and when they don’t take out their claws, life seems quite normal. When they do take out their claws, it unnerves you, of course, but, at the same time, it also makes me realize that I’m on the right path.

HT: Have you experienced intimidation or repression?

ECB: Yes, my wife (who is also a DCC journalist and is pregnant) and I were summoned by State Security. At the “interview”, they told us that neither her or our child would come out of the delivery room (alive), as well as many other threats. They also said that they do things, but there involvement will never be known, because that’s their job. 

HT: How would you define the social system we live in?

ECB: It’s complicated because Communism doesn’t even exist, in my opinion; this is State capitalism and plus, it’s savage and crushes human dignity. Communism is just a nice word so that a small group can have political and financial privileges while they oppress the rest of the population. It’s the story of defending the poor so that they can continue to be poor. In Cuba, we have social classes, the same struggle other countries in Latin America have, but with a populist discourse. And I would say that at this point in time, it isn’t even populist, but the worst kind of oligarchy which doesn’t promise anything anymore and is holding onto power with what they promised 59 years ago. They say “hold on and you hold on” and “we gave you this and we gave you that.” They gave us what exactly? They didn’t give me anything personally-speaking, just a headache.

HT: Is there anything that can be saved from what this shattered Revolution managed to achieve?

ECB: I would say (and I’m going to say something that everyone says) the relative safety of Cuba’s streets. Even though it isn’t really because there are people who make their own guns, there are gangs, violent outbursts, but if you compare it to Central America where there are, let’s say 30 murders per day, it isn’t that bad really. I have Latin American friends who tell me that they feel better here in Cuba than they do in their own countries because they can walk down the street.

However, there is repressed social violence, because of so many sons of bitches, so much building frustration which, if the government were to waver, even for a second, it would explode. Just like all of this business of drugs and theories that it is the government itself who is distributing it because they know that they can’t erradicate it, but they can at least keep consumption balanced. I don’t know… it’s a sensitive issue and whatever I think about it is irrelevant because I don’t have any first-hand information. However, if things … one day, with all of the poverty there is, people might be willing to go into this business and we will find ourselves just like Mexico, with a frightening violence.

HT: When you used to study at public schools, could you give your opinion freely?

ECB: It isn’t about “if you can” but “if you should”, because everyone can stop for a moment anywhere and shout out whatever they want. I have always spoken my mind and nothing has ever happened, but I can’t be sure that it wouldn’t happen to somebody else. In fact, I have a friend from when we were at pre-university and a teacher (who was a Communist Party secretary) that told him she was going to fail him in a History exam because he was a counter-revolutionary. Luckily, another teacher defended him. Everything depends on whether there is a fanatic and how low they are willing to go. And it’s as if the country were becoming less dense in some way or another. I myself have had debates with this PCC secretary/teacher and she didn’t have any arguments to counter my own, and she had to give me 100 on my exams, even if she didn’t like it.

HT: Now you are studying Humanities at the Felix Varela Institute, an institution which belongs to the Catholic Church. Are you free to give your opinions there?

ECB: 100% yes. And it’s like you’re going from one extreme to another because writing for Diario de Cuba and studying at a Catholic university after doing my military service is like living in an alternative Cuba, at least politically-speaking. You live in total freedom. My work is based on writing the truth and I am encouraged at my school to tell the truth at all times, which helps me to keep my sanity.

HT: What is the teaching quality like, compared to state universities?

ECB: I have never stepped foot in a State university, but I have friends who have and from what they tell me, the quality at my university is much higher. Especially because it’s a Humanities degree and our subjects are Anthropology, Cuban History, Philosophy, Sociology, Economy…

I want to clarify that being at a preuniversity isn’t the same as being at university because I know of young people who have been kicked out of the Law, History departments just because they say what they are thinking. The government knows that university has historically been a rebellious place. In contrast, you can be in favor of the Central Bank being state-owned or private at my school, be in favor of neoliberalism or against it, give your opinion about why the country isn’t making any economic progress; you can say that privatizing education and healthcare is a viable option. And to be honest, universities are schools of thought, you should be able to think and speak freely.

HT: Is there any kind of religious dogmatism that prevails at your school?

ECB: No. In fact, we Catholics are a minority in my class. Even though the tropics blurs terms, Catholics aren’t so Catholic; the communist decides to baptize his daughter, he doesn’t go and do his voluntary work because a relative is coming from abroad, they get Spanish citizenship, so they can go and visit… you know, everything becomes relative.

HT: Are there any atheist students?

ECB: Yes, I believe there are atheists and there are a lot of people fascinated by Nietzsche. We are taught Theology because it’s a subject, and it’s very interesting, but we aren’t told to go to mass. Our professors are priests, but their premise is: “use your reason to discern, even what I am teaching you.” Reason and faith can’t be at odds with each other because otherwise you become a fundamentalist.

HT: What changes would you like for Cuba? Do you believe these changes are possible?

ECB: Well, everything needs changing in Cuba, and yes, I do believe that change is possible if Cubans don’t conform to the current state of things. When I was in 9th grade, I used to think that establishing a social democracy would be the best, a system like in the Netherlands, letting the State intervene up to a certain point… Then, I started moving towards the center, I thought that there were things we could take from both the Left and the Right. And now, I stand on the center-Right. So much time living in a Communist country, watching what a Leftist discourse can do to a country… and it’s frightened me.

I would vote for whoever privatizes but helps people with few resources to have access to an education and healthcare, so that what my wife and I are suffering doesn’t happen, where the government is using the public health system as a way to repress us because you have no other choice.

And then after establishing a democracy a dictator takes power, people who think differently can at least have children in peace because there are private clinics, even though they need to get a hold of money in order to pay for this service. What’s the point today of Cubans having access to allegedly free healthcare and education if they have to live off of 300 pesos per month? What does that mean? That when people are dying of hunger they can go to the doctor and get a free drip?

I also think that politicians lose themselves in analyzing the Right, Left and Center here in Cuba. The question we have to ask ourselves is: do we want a democracy or not? Do we want freedom of speech, free elections, a multi-party State? Those of us who think we do stand on one side, while those who don’t stand on the other. The key here is to be in favor of this window of opportunity and when we can vote freely, everyone will have the right to present their opinions, within established laws. Talking about Left and Right today is a dead-end discussion.

HT: You are going to be a father in a couple of weeks. Would you like your son to grow up in Cuba?

ECB: Yes, I would like that because I feel Cuban, and despite all the restrictions the dictatorship imposes on you, I believe I have lived a full life. And of course, I would like my son to not have to work so hard, but that will be his own decision. If he is willing to stay and try and change things, good; if he decides to break away from all of this and emigrate, good. I believe that the important thing is to find a meaning for your life and when you’ve found it, it doesn’t matter where you are.


[i] William I, Prince of Orange, the Silent (1533-1584), founded the branch House of Orange-Nassau, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish sovereignty in the Netherlands and is considered to be Father of the Fatherland. (Wikipedia)