by Irina Echarry
HAVANA TIMES, April 6 — For several months in Havana Times, comments on articles have appeared possessing a very Cuban feel. Not out of paranoia, but from curiosity, I began to wonder who this person could be who comments daily about almost all the postings if very few people in Cuba have access to Internet. When I read that she lives in Italy, I became especially interested in asking “Giraldilla” a few questions to learn about who she is.
As soon as I contacted her she agreed to the interview. The following are her responses.
HT: Where were you born? By your comments it seems it was in Havana? But in what neighborhood?
Giraldilla: I was born in Havana in El Sagrado Corazon, when that was a hospital in the Vedado neighborhood.
HT: Why do you love Havana so much?
G: I love Havana because it is where I was born, where I grew up, where I have my family, my friends, my memories of childhood and my youth. It’s my roots.
HT: When and why did you leave Cuba?
G: I left in 1996. One year before I met the man who would later become my husband. Thanks to a friend who had had a several-year relationship with an Italian, this Italian had another friend who by chance came to Cuba that year on vacation. To tell the truth, he had planned to go to Brazil but changed his mind at the last minute. I met him at my friend’s birthday party. He spent a lot of time in Cuba and we begin to go out; ultimately started a relationship. Later he invited me to Italy and here I am. We’ve been married for 15 years and we have a 14-year-old son.
HT: You left Cuba in a difficult year. What did you do before going to Italy? Did you study something here?
G: I worked in a pharmacy in Vedado. I completed all of my studies except for the university.
HT: How was the atmosphere in which you grew up?
G: I grew in a serene atmosphere. My parents were separated. They were very revolutionary although they changed with the years (I still wonder why). They changed so much that my mom eventually left and went to the United States.
HT: What type of music did you listen to? Where did you used to go to have a good time? (assuming you went out).
G: I don’t have a specific kind of music. I like to vary what I listen to a lot.
I used to have fun – boy did I have fun! When I was in high school I didn’t miss a single party that my friends at school gave where the only thing to drink was water. I would go to the movies, I loved discos and I’m a good dancer, though these days they play the music so loud I can’t take it. Things changed with age, but I would go out with friends to sit out on the Malecon seawall, more or less the same things youth in Cuba do today to have a good time.
HT: So you used to live in Vedado. What do you miss most about Havana? Some place, a scent, a sound? For example, since I live near the sea, it bothers me a little when I’m in some place where there’s no body of water nearby.
G: I miss everything. When you live in Cuba and leave, you think that you won’t miss anything. You tell yourself: “I won’t miss any of this shit, not even in my dreams.” But that’s not true; you miss it a lot. What I miss most is Old Havana. My dad lives there and I remember that when I was a little girl I would spend the weekends at his house. I would go with my grandmother to the bakery and I would smell the scent of the bread being taken out of the oven. But that smell would mix with the odors of the streets and the collapsed buildings. That was the characteristic smell of Old Havana.
HT: Old Havana continues to have a scent like the one you describe, though they have restored some of its buildings…
So when you say that you thought like this, that you “wouldn’t miss this shit, not even in your dreams,” I imagine that you thought or felt like you were living in shit. Why? If you had a good time, studied and lived in a serene atmosphere… what made you want to leave the country?
G: When you take away a human being’s freedom, you take away everything. People have to be free to decide about their lives, free to travel, free to belong to a political party, free to do what they believe best. A government can’t decide for you. I don’t know why they hold on to those freedoms that the people didn’t give them. I didn’t want to continue living like that. I wasn’t looking for a way out, because I never thought of hopping on a raft like so many people did and continue to do. Fate decided for me, and I took advantage of the opportunity given to me. I don’t regret to having done it. I live well here in Italy. I have my Italian and Cuban friends, I have my family, my work; I have a life here. I know that for many Cubans who leave things don’t turn out so well, but — thank God — for me, up to now I can’t say I’m sorry.
HT: Was your decision made on a whim or did you think it over carefully? I ask you because I have a friend who recently told me that he should never have left here…that he should have thought it through better, and this is even after having been abroad about the same amount of time as you.
G: Well, when I left I didn’t have the permanent exit permit; I arrived on a tourist’s visa. If I didn’t like Italy or found that my husband wasn’t like he was in Cuba, I already had my return ticket back to Cuba. I say this about my husband because when foreigners go to Cuba, they’re on vacation and free of any problems. They’re only thinking about having a good time. It’s necessary to see how they act in the daily life. So, like I said, if I found out that my husband was a jealous person and that he treated me bad, I could always return. But everything turned out fine and we decided to extend my visa an additional three months to begin the steps for marriage.
HT: What was the reaction of your family and friends when you decided go live in Italy?
G: My family and friends knew that sooner or later I was going to leave because I had had an Italian boyfriend for a year, so they were expecting it. Their only concern was that I would be alone in Italy without any friends or family.
HT: Did you experience any sharp ideological confrontation? I know a young woman who when she was leaving Cuba wound up fighting with her father for not having the same political ideas. The relationship was so bad that recently, when she came here for a visit, she didn’t go to her parent’s house… Did anyone try to make you change your mind?
G: No, fortunately I didn’t face any sharp ideological confrontation like that. Though the members of my family had been revolutionaries, now none of them are. My parents had changed a long time ago and none of my friends ever were revolutionary. Mine was an atmosphere of gusanos (counter-revolutionaries, literally “worms”), as they say. But when I go to Cuba, I land happy to see everybody.
HT: So now we’re in Italy. What was the first impression you had of that country? And what place in Italy are we talking about?
G: My first impression was the cold. I arrived in Italy on February 7, and in that month the cold that comes down is a bear. I arrived in Rome, which isn’t so cold since it’s in the south. But we live in the city of Rimini, which is in the north-central region. It’s a big, major industrial city that also lives off of tourism since it’s on the Adriatic sea; it has a beach that’s famous all over Italy and Europe.
So, like I said, I arrived and my husband was waiting for me at the airport with a big plastic bag. Inside was everything: gloves, a scarf, a wool sweater, a heavy coat. I thought he was exaggerating because it didn’t seem so cold there to me. I put all those things on and we went to catch the train for Bologna and later to Rimini.
I should point out that here in winter, at 4:00 in the afternoon it’s already dark. When we got to Bologna, I got off the train and I thought I was going to die from the cold. It was a cold that I never thought I’d ever feel. Even with the coat on I was freezing.
But there were other things. Just imagine, there were modern cars, clean streets, supermarkets full of things so that you didn’t have to go from market to market, well-maintained houses, painted buildings… But in Italy, everything that shines isn’t gold. If you have money you live well, if you don’t – you’re screwed. If you don’t earn much, the same thing happens like in Cuba: you can’t make it to the end of the month.
HT: Did you feel welcome? Did you already know the language or did you have to learn it?
G: My husband’s family welcomed me with open arms. The first time I returned to Cuba my sister-in-law, the oldest one, came back here with us. I learned the language here in Italy. It’s not so difficult. There are words that have the same meaning and are even written the same way.
HT: You’ve been very lucky. In addition to your husband’s family, which welcomed you from the beginning, you had to adapt to another society, other customs, other laws. Was that easy for you? Did you experience xenophobia?
G: Irina, the way Italians think and do things is very similar to Cuban ways. Why do you think Italians like to go to Cuba so much? It’s because we’re very similar in the ways we do things. I’ve never had problems with racism. The police have never asked me for my papers. The Italians are more racist with the Romanians and the blacks. I’m white, but I have a Cuban friend who is black and I can see the difference in how they look at us when we’re together.
HT: What happens when you say you’re Cuban?
G: When I say I’m Cuban, the only thing they say is that Cuba is a pretty island.
HT: Pretty? From a distance it’s easier to see it like that. What do you do there for a living? What places do you go to often?
G: I work with my husband. We have two perfume stores, one near the beach and another one in the old part of the city, more in the center. By the way, wish me luck, because we’re going to be opening another one at the end of the month.
We like to go for walks in different cities, visit museums, go to restaurants.
In the city where I live, I like the fact that I live in front of the beach. I only have to cross the street, although I don’t have a chance to enjoy it at all. Here in summer we work like mules, every day, Monday to Sunday, from morning till night, because since that’s tourist season, we have to take good advantage of the summer. I like the freedom we have. Life is easier.
HT: How can you talk about freedom and an easier life if you work so much?
G: Without money you can’t do anything. Money can’t bring you happiness, but it helps, so you have to work. Here people work a lot in summer but later in the winter you can enjoy what you earned from your work. It’s not the same thing to cry in front of an empty refrigerator as to cry in front of one that’s full.
HT: Here in Cuba it’s necessary to work too. What happens is that people aren’t able to fill their refrigerators with the wages they take home. It took you a long time for you to come back to Cuba to visit? How did you find Havana?
G: The last time I went was in December 2007. I hope to go in December of this year. I’m starting to miss Cuba’s air.
Havana I found had changed a great deal, Old Havana especially. The historic district has been cleaned up considerably, but if you step outside of Old Havana it’s the same as before, like when I was little: the same dirty streets, the same tenements and the same collapsed buildings. The changes have been made for the tourists, not for regular Cubans. And later, I found it very expensive. Everything costs more, in the hard currency stores as well as in the agricultural markets.
I imagine that when I go back this time it will have changed even more and become that much more expensive.
HT: Many of those who left the country in 1990s said it was due to economic reasons. However you mentioned that your decision was influenced by the lack of freedom. Did you find it in Italy?
G: Yes, you’re free to travel wherever you want without the need for a friend or relative sending you a letter of invitation. You’re free to belong to whatever political party you want or not to belong to any of them. You’re free to buy a car or a house without having to be accountable to anybody or to ask for permission. You’re free to say that you don’t like the Italian government and go to protest in the plaza.
HT: In your opinion, what changes does Cuba need for people to feel better? Do you believe that the transformations that are happening in the economy will improve the country’s situation? If so, why?
G: The most important change that Cuba needs is a change of government. We’ve had enough of the same government for 52 years… enough of the same ministers who’ve been in power for 52 years. They’re over 70 years old and they still cling to power by tooth and nails. They don’t let new young parties form. They don’t want to have elections where they have to confront other parties; they want to remain in place with the same totalitarian party. Without them they won’t accept anything. We’re stuck with them until death.
HT: And what type of government do you propose?
G: I’m not proposing one type of government because that would lead to the same problem. Elections have to be like in almost all other countries, with several political parties presented – from the right, the center-right, from the left, the center-left… Each one presents their plans and programs to the people and later elections are held. The country would then be governed by whoever wins the elections with the most votes. The people would decide on the party that governs.
HT: Wouldn’t you like to return to struggle for change?
G: The day the Cuban people, everybody together, begin to struggle for a better Cuba, I will be in the front ranks.
HT: There are many forms of struggle. Right now there are people who don’t know one another but they are all doing something to improve the places where they live, gradually working towards their goals.
And now to conclude, what led you to Havana Times? I’ve read in your comments that you like our site. I also know that you have the chance to read other sites about Cuba. Why do you consider HT worthwhile?
G: I stumbled upon Havana Times by chance, but the best things happen by chance. I was reading news about Cuba on the Internet when I read an article that was titled something like “My cousin…” (I don’t remember exactly), and I liked it a lot. I was able to make a link with the website. That’s how I discovered it. The other blogs I read are Generation Y, Sin EVAsion and Octavo Cerco, as well as others.
To read websites that talk about Cuba…that tell you what’s happening on the island and are written directly by ordinary Cubans, it’s the greatest – it’s the real Cuba. Read what’s written in Cubadebate (the government website) and you’ll see the difference: a perfect Cuba, where everything works just fine. It’s the Cuba of lies.
HT: Is there anything else you would like to say to those Cubans who read you?
G: I send a big kiss and a strong hug to all Cubans, those who live in Cuba and those who live outside the island, and I hope we see each other in December!
HT: Thank you for your answers… and good luck with the new perfume store.