HAVANA TIMES — I met Abraham Ortiz in late 2003 in a course on narrative techniques. For seven years we had shared the dream of being writers and the frustrations of living in Cuba. His life changed in 2010 when he married a Spanish woman and left the country. After a year and seven months, he has returned…to visit.
HT: Now you live in the First World and you can compare. What can you say to Cubans wishing to leave the country and others who consider this the most perfect and democratic nation in the world?
Abraham Ortiz: A system can be the most perfect and democratic but not be functional. You can find an iron dictatorship where everyone lives well. You can have a lot of freedom of speech but people eat poorly. Though freedom of expression doesn’t really exist.
In Spain you can’t say whatever you want. What people need is to meet their individual needs on their own. According to pronouncements here in Cuba, we’re the most democratic country in the world, but there was a time when everyone wore the same style shirt.
Your TV was like mine or was obtained by the same mechanism: the state educates me, I would study and then start working, but I would have no buying power. I have to wait for a leader to discover that it’s cheaper for people to have these (Chinese) TVs instead of those old Caribe B&Ws, and replace them at the national level. What’s normal would be for me to meet my needs through my work, but under “socialism” this isn’t possible. You have to hope that those who head the state remember you.
It happens with everything. When people all over the world began to have tape recorders, here these were prohibited. They later legalized them, but then there were problems with VHS players, and later people had trouble buying DVD players. Then you couldn’t have a computer. Then you couldn’t get a cellphone. This system is afraid that people can manage their individuality. In theory, there’s democracy, but it doesn’t work.
The four synonyms of the Apocalypse
HT: What do you think of Spain, where supposedly there’s democracy but protests are suppressed and criminalized? Our situation here makes us idealize other countries. People are crazy about going anywhere.
AO: Bombs are falling in Syria, but I just saw its embassy here with a line of people who want to go there.
HT: Do you mean that any place is better to live in than Cuba?
AO: Any country is better for managing your individuality. Before I left, (our mutual friend) Bernardo told me something vital: You don’t leave Cuba to solve your problems, but to change your problems. In Spain and France, state control is much greater than here. But here the state is a single person, there it’s many.
In Cuba there are four synonyms of the Apocalypse. People, revolution, state and Fidel are synonymous. If you speak ill of the revolution, you’re speaking ill of the people, if you speak ill of the people, they can do almost anything with you. It’s the same if you speak ill of the state or speak ill of Fidel. When those four words are synonymous, they justify a series of excesses and laws that limit people’s individual development.
During a meeting of the fifth-year students to organize our rankings in college, one student pounced on another student who had made a joke about Fidel three years before, and that it cost him a level in his ranking. Those are the luxuries that “socialism” gives: limiting people’s freedom without considering the consequences, because everyone must respond to an ideology.
HT: But here, although you didn’t finish your graduating project, you were able to work as a professional, you were a teacher. In Spain you’re a waiter.
AO: I support the words of Marti: “Being educated is the only way to be free.” One must study because knowing frees you. You should make yourself independent, though we don’t always do that.
HT: Is the aspiration of someone who studied physics to work as a waiter?
AO: Social being determines social behavior. Here, I may have continued being a poorly paid teacher. There, I don’t mind being a waiter, but I’d rather work in something related to what I studied. Possibilities exist but they depend on my effort. I’m continuing to study to show that I’m fit for a position. Not just for the title, like here. There’s something that doesn’t exist here: efficiency. Where four people are required, twenty are employed. There, they have sixteen people out of a job trying to replace those four.
HT: Have you ever felt discriminated against for being an immigrant, Latino and black?
AO: Yes, but that doesn’t affect me. Here (in Cuba) I feel it less, but it affects me. Discrimination is a problem when it’s economic. If you decide that I can’t sit on the bus but I have the same purchasing power as you, I can build my own bus. In the United States, some whites didn’t allow blacks to sit in the seats on buses. Change came not because they became less racist, but because blacks — who were facing discrimination in public transportation — decided to walk. Whites realized that if blacks didn’t take the bus then they wouldn’t pay their fares – a situation that was no longer profitable for the white-owned bus company.
Socialism or death, pun intended
HT: What demands did you make to your elected representative before you left?
AO: We are run by a seniors club. I think they are afraid of having not having anywhere to go if they left power. Raul has a degree in accounting. He should know that a country with two currencies doesn’t develop. Although here there are actually more than two currencies. The plastic bags of toiletries and vouchers to make purchases in hard currency shops have also become such. It’s something the bureaucrats of “socialism” like: giving people toys to entertain themselves, like bags of toiletries and vouchers.
HT: Did you suffer any retaliation for your demands?
AO: No. Abroad people say that there is repression in Cuba, but such things happen all over the world, except for a few countries. I’m not in agreement with that, but it’s not a reason to change the system. What are they going to do now that the Spanish police are beating up people – change the system? In Cuba, repression isn’t similar to that in other places, in terms of violence.
The reason to change things in Cuba isn’t repression, but the lack of economic access for people to manage their lives. Economic censorship conditions all the rest. If you earn 13 CUCs (US $14) a month, where are you going to travel? What political party are you going to found? Socialism doesn’t elevate people, it lowers everybody. When you look around and see that everyone is equal, you think you’re fine. When you lack economic freedom, you don’t need other freedoms.
HT: I remember a quote of yours that I enjoyed a lot: “Socialism or death, pun intended.” But a few days ago I was surprised when you said that socialism is basically superior to capitalism. Aren’t you contradicting yourself?
AO: No. By saying “pun intended” I was attempting to give the phrase famous of the Cuban Revolution, “Socialism or death,” the double sense it really has. This is because socialism is death of the individual as a creator and manager of their own life. Here people don’t live their lives, but the ideology of someone else, which has created a scaffold that mobilizes, or immobilizes, the Cuban people.
Neither what the Russians had nor what we have is socialism. When you see the theoretical framework that supports socialism, you see that countries like Sweden and the Netherlands are more socialist than Cuba. In order to remain in power the “socialists” here demonized private property.
But what is really satanic is the distribution. If there is private property but the system sees that redistribution is more or less equal, there’s no problem. I consider socialism superior as a system, because it isn’t based on the voracity of appropriation.
Capitalism is more automatic and easier to build than socialism because each person acts for themself. Capitalism encourages selfishness and greed. If the government functions, it regulates and ensures that people produce for themselves, but in the end it must give something to those who can’t produce. Doesn’t socialism preach taking from one to give to another?
HT: What I remember is that our government has taken things away from us to benefit poorer countries. That doesn’t demonstrate the superiority of socialism to me.
AO: Right. We built an airport in Barbados and could have constructed another neighborhood in Havana. But I’m talking about taking away in an efficient manner from those who have more and giving a little to those who have less, or taking away from those who have more for the time when there’s nothing. Currently in Spain, many people are unemployed, but they receive help from the government.
The Pope recently said that socialism isn’t fashionable. But you can’t forget that many of the social gains of capitalism are socialist. There was a time when capitalism had to compete with socialism and capitalism had to adopt socialist measures. This is why people live well in most of those European countries.
HT: So why are there so many protests in Spain that lead to repression?
AO: Remember, you’re watching Cuban television.
HT: Are they inventing those images?
AO: No, but they can edit the news. When Katrina hit, we were talking for six months about its death toll in the United States. That same year three people were killed by flooding and negligence in Marianao, but nothing was mentioned.
In Spain, some protests are justified, some aren’t. When the economy was good in Spain, the public sector received perks, but measures undertaken by the socialists made the economy inefficient, so those perks had to disappear.
HT: So socialism is not superior, because, according to you, those “socialist” measures were inefficient to the Spanish economy.
AO: You can create mechanisms to ensure that these measures are not exceeded. Socialists sometimes lose perspective.
To be continued…