Twenty Years Thinking about Cuba

Interview with Havana Times reader Julio de la Yncera.

By Erasmo Calzadilla

Julio de la Yncera during a visit to Havana.

HAVANA TIMES, July 28 — When Julio de la Yncera discovered Havana Times, he got on line to comment on our entries (from the bloggers of the magazine).  As Havana Times, and especially me, likes to know about the people who read the magazine, I decided to interview this Cuban who immigrated to the United States over two decades ago.

When did you leave Cuba?

I left Cuba around 20 years ago, but apparently Cuba hasn’t wanted to leave me.  I left in 1989; the Soviet Union still existed and there was no Special Period economic crisis.  A few months after arriving in the US, the socialist camp ceased to exist.

Where were you born and raised on the island?

I’m from Pinar del Rio Province, from the municipality of Consolacion.

Although I travel to Pinar del Rio a great deal, I’ve never visited that famous municipality.

Did you like living there?  Do you or did you miss your hometown?  Would you ever go back there to live if you could?

Yes, I liked it, and I remember a lot about the town where I grew up. I remember how the bells of the Catholic Church would wake me up on Sundays.  I recall my childhood friends and riding my bicycle.  I think that all of us who are outside of Cuba have nostalgia for the island.  On I’ve even seen some of the Russian cartoons that used to come on TV back then.  I suppose that each generation has something a little different to remember about Cuba.

I used to hunt for ground crabs with my grandfather.

I also remember that when we used to go fishing we would hunt for ground crabs with my grandfather, and then we would cook them up and eat them; they were so good you couldn’t help but lick your fingers.  This happened when we used to go on vacation in Boca de Galafre, a beach on the south coast of Pinar del Rio.

As for returning, I’ve asked myself that same question a number of times.  I’ve almost lived as much time outside of Cuba as in it, and many of the people who were around me then are no longer there; some because they died, unfortunately, and others because they left the island like me.  I suppose that I would like to visit and to help with what I could.  Almost all my family lives off the island now; I don’t have any family ties that connect me to it, and most of my friends also live abroad.  There are other people who are still there and who I think a great deal of though.

How old were you when you left?

When I left I was 26.

You were pretty young.  So what did you do for work then?  What kind of music did you listen to?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Havana and worked in a vocational school in Pinar del Rio as a teacher for three years.  I liked the music from the US and England: The Beatles, Bon Jovi, Air Supply etc., but I also listened to some of Silvio [Rodriguez]; I didn’t like Pablo Milanes.

Have you followed the evolution of Cuban music?  Do you like it now?

As far as following its evolution, I’d have to say no.  But I’ve heard some of the contemporary music and maybe some that’s not so current.  For example, I like this song I heard by chance on YouTube called “Lucha tu Yuca” (Struggling for Your Yucca), though a can’t recall the name of the singer right now.  I also like Frank Delgado a lot, for example one of his songs that’s titled “Letter to Harry Potter,” and the music of Los Aldeanos and Pedro Luis Ferrrer.

I’ve heard “Porno para Ricardo” (Porno for Ricardo) but I don’t like the lyrics or the music very much; notwithstanding, I still think he should have his space.  An interesting personal phenomenon is that here I’ve learned how to appreciate the music from there a little more.  For example, I have music by the Buena Vista Social Club, by Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Secundo.  I think the music they produced was stellar; it’s a shame that they lived so much time in anonymity.  I also listen to Lecuona, one of the greatest composers from Cuba; I like his work tremendously.

From the past, I like Celia [Cruz] a lot – with her “Azuucaar!” Plus there are other songs like “El Yerberito” that are now classics; also Benny Moré… In short, my list is now long since I have access to everything I want to hear, without the government telling me what I can and cannot listen to.

Did you know Willy Chirino, who’s from your same town?

I have never seen Willy Chirino, and right, he’s from Consolacion.  My parents know him personally though.

Why did you emigrate?

I wanted to help change my country for the better, but I wasn’t able to because the changes that I thought would improve it were considered inadmissible, and I believe they still are.  I had wanted a president for Cuba who was truly elected by us and who would follow the desires of the majority, instead of ordering us around.  I wanted a country where anyone could express what they wanted, without fear to being kicked out of school, losing their job or simply being looked at as weird.  I also wanted the elimination of the immigration permits for entering and leaving the country.

Unfortunately, there was no way for us down below to influence those who governed, because no communication channel existed.  It seemed that the leaders were isolated in their ivory tower and buried in a personal monologue about which we had no opinions to give.

Obviously I didn’t agree with that situation, where the alternatives were to either struggle against it at the risk of being imprisoned or to go into exile.  So, I ended up emigrating. I’m not surprised that today many people in Cuba are struggling for the same things that others of us felt.

There will always be people who want freedom and democracy for Cuba since that desire derives from something we possess at birth: free will.  This is evidenced from the time we’re kids and we rebel against our parents’ orders of that we believe are unfair.  This is innate in each individual and it’s impossible to eliminate it.  Logically, free will also brings us into conflict with the paternalistic State that drowns out the individual and prevents us from deciding personal questions for ourselves.

I prefer, as do many others, to make my own decisions (whether they’re good or bad, they’re mine) before following those made by someone else who knows nothing about each one of our personal histories and life experiences.  That allows me to learn from my own mistakes and to savor the victory of good decisions.

Tell me about your coming to the US

I remember when we got to the US people would ask us about Cuba and we would speak in whispers.  That was a habit we brought from there, especially when you said anything critical of the government.  They told me: “Here it’s not necessary to hide what you think.”  It was a trauma that we developed in Cuba.  I remember having a number of nightmares about Cuba.  A little later I learned that this is what here they call PTSS (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome).  This happens when someone has been subjected to a very stressful situation for a while.

I remember the big difference in seeing salespeople in stores coming up to me and kindly asking if they could help me, instead of the dry “What do you want?” that I would get in Cuba, in the best of cases.  On the island, you would have to try to get the clerk to end the conversation they were having with another friend or co-worker.  I also remember my astonishment that the water always worked, or going to the store and nothing ran out, and not having to wait in lines, etc.  In short, I was amazed at seeing a society where everything worked the way it should.  There are lots of differences I could write about on this point.

Did you already have defined political ideas at the time you left?

I’m not really sure what you mean by defined ideas, but at that time I did want my country to change, but there was no way of struggling for that without winding up in jail.  I believed that people should have freedom and not be punished for expressing what they thought, that this wasn’t a sin.  In fact, I don’t believe your way of thinking is very different from mine; I believe that, like me, you too want something better for Cuba.  The difference is that I don’t believe in socialism as an economic system.  I think that as a social system, it’s a disaster.

Where do you live at the moment?

I live in Maryland

Can you tell me exactly where that is?  What’s the atmosphere like?  Do you like living there?

Maryland is one of the states of the United States. I suppose that it must be around a three hour direct flight from Havana to any airport in the area where I live; it’s really not that far away.  In part of the area of Maryland and Virginia is the city that serves as the seat of government of the United States: Washington D.C.  That means that we have access to all amenities of an important city, such as theaters, museums and historic sites.

The atmosphere is very peaceful.  On weekends we go for walks, and I can, for example, enjoy an organ concert at the National Cathedral or simply eat some of Maryland’ famous crabs from the east Chesapeake Bay.  Then too, there’s always riding bikes along roads that skirt the Potomac River near the city of Arlington, Virginia, or perhaps taking a trip to New York and going to a Broadway show or taking in any of the many tourist attractions in that city.

Spring in Maryland.

Yes, I like where I live a lot.  We’re near the coast, which reminds me a great deal of Cuba in a certain way. It’s much colder here in the winter, and that season lasts much longer here.  The seasons are well defined; one can enjoy an explosion of flowers in the spring and the colors in autumn.  We’re also not very far from Canada, from Toronto, where we often go for family reasons.

Have you ever gone back to Cuba?

I returned to Cuba in 1998 at the insistence of a friend who was getting married.  He wanted me to be there for his wedding.

What were your impressions? Had there been many changes since your leaving?

When I got off the plane, the first thing I ran onto was a soldier dressed in an olive-green uniform.  He was fully armed with an AK 47.  The customs employees apparently select some passengers to check the contents of their baggage, and I had the misfortune of being one of the people they selected.  I remember that after examining the contents of my suitcase, when the customs official attending me saw that I had 15 rolls of film, she asked me why I had so many. I responded saying that I was going to a friend’s wedding and that he wanted me to take pictures.

The official then asked me if she could have a roll and I told her she could.  She was afraid that her supervisor would see it and indicated to me how to stand so it wouldn’t be seen when she put the roll of film in her pocket.  Then she saw the batteries and began explaining that her son had a toy that didn’t have batteries.  This time I immediately told her no, because I needed them for the camera’s flash. I was also carrying a computer book that my friend wanted.  She thumbed through it to see if it had anything negative against Cuba.  She wanted me to give it to her but I again told her no, explaining that I had bought the book for my friend and that it was a personal gift for him.

Ten years after having left Cuba, these first few minutes gave me sour impression.  First there was the intimidation by a guard who had nothing to do in the full view of all of us, unarmed civilians, and then there was the corruption – right there in the airport itself.

Much later I was able to appreciate the discrimination that existed between those who possessed dollars and those who had only domestic currency.  Those with dollars could make purchases in stores full of goods, while those who didn’t could only buy using their ration books.  Those stores that sold goods in domestic currency had very few products available, and these were of very poor quality.

Also the buildings looked more deteriorated.  And as for books —something that especially interests me— they weren’t as inexpensive as they used to be, and they weren’t that good.  The few that were there were sold in dollars.

I noted a lot of sadness in the faces of people I visited.  Many of them told me about the Special Period crisis of the 1990s and everything they had had to go through.  I think I became a little bit like a kind of confessor.  I remember one time I was filming in front of a butcher shop and on the other side of the street a boy lifted up a plastic bag with a bundle inside and yelled, “Look, this is all I have to eat: soyburger!”

I was a little surprised that people were less afraid to express or even shout their dissent.  Back in my time, someone would have probably come out on the step and accused the boy of being a traitor or a “worm.”

It made me sad to see Cuban children whose parents couldn’t buy them candy or chocolate at the dollar stores, though these were produced right there in Cuba and only sold in that currency.  I found this a great injustice.  It seemed very unfair that Cubans were paid in one currency but had to buy goods with another one. They were doubly exploited: Firstly because the wages they received were so low (between $15 and $20 a month), and secondly because to buy in these dollar stores they needed to change their domestic money to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) at an exchange rate was not in their favor.  My parents had told me that before the revolution, Cuban domestic currency was worth the same as the US dollar. However, during my visit the exchange rate was 24 Cuban pesos for one dollar, if I’m not mistaken.

Julio, I read your comments in Havana Times attentively, and from what I can tell, I’m not as radical as you in some aspects.  My fear is that something worse could come over this country if the current system ends up falling.  I don’t like the division between rich and poor and I feel it’s socially harmful. I know that such division sometimes brings well-being and prosperity, even for those who aren’t so rich, but from my point of view the advantages don’t make up for the disadvantages.

It seems that your fear stems from the differences between those who have money and those who have less or are completely poor.  I have greater fear of another situation occurring here in Cuba: the increasing difference between the ruling elite and the working masses; in other words, the difference between those who hold power and those who have no means to influence them.  If you’ll note, an interesting similarity exists between power and money, but there are also differences.  To have power in Cuba you must belong to the select circle.  In this circle, few are allowed; to enter you need to meet several requirements and of course have the approval and support of the “maximum leaders” (Fidel and Raul Castro).

In contrast, you don’t particularly need the approval of anyone to have money in a capitalist society, nor does it depend on your political inclinations.  I find that difference concerning approval to be important. On the other hand, I find that if the sole way of being heard in Cuba is belonging to that elite; consequently, it’s very difficult for the voices of the 11 million Cubans who live there to be heard – not to mention those of the two million who live outside of the island, which are all quite dissimilar.

Money can buy power, and power can also generate money.  Money can buy power when it offers the masses benefits that are in fact are paid for by those same masses, benefits like education and health care. As you know, those services cost and are paid for with the money that the State doesn’t pay to working Cubans.  It’s kind of implicit tax.

In Cuba, it’s always said that those benefits are free, but the truth is that they are not; we all pay for them. We pay when we do volunteer work for the State, when we students go to the Escuela al Campo (Boarding school in the countryside) to work without receiving wages for our economic contribution.  We pay for those benefits for the rest of our lives in the low wages that the State pays us.  As you can see, the cost of those benefits is extraordinarily high.

Power can also generate money through corruption.  How many officials have they been booted out from the high circles of the elite for corruption during the past 50 years?  But how do we know if such corruption existed only among them and not higher up?

It’s curious that other countries also enjoy similar benefits, even better ones (for example in Canada, England, France, and many others).

I’m also afraid of the devaluation that the régime has carried out in relation to those who were born in Cuba. I’m referring to how foreigners enjoy privileges that are not accessible to Cubans.  Until very recently, they were the only ones who could enter hotels and use dollars; likewise, they were the only ones allowed to be owners of capitalist joint-ventures with the Cuban government.  This is something that no Cuban can do. Foreigners are in fact authorized to generate capital from the people’s sweat, but not another Cuban.  Why the distinction?  Why the devaluation of Cubans?

Thinking a little more about the fear that you feel, I think that it’s the fear that they —those who hold power— instill in us to maintain that power.  But wouldn’t you prefer to live in a country where everything or almost everything works?

To you, the system has treated you unjustly, and you still find it good?  That’s difficult for me to understand.

It’s like having a friend who treats you bad all the time but you’re afraid to make new friends because he told you that other friends would never be as good as him.  How can you know?  You don’t have real points of comparison since the only information you have is what they’ve allowed you to have.

Believe me, there’s a big deal difference between what they say in Cuba about this system and what truly exists here.  I have always wondered: if I had to categorize the political economic system of Cuba, what name would I give it?  Two categories come to mind: state monopoly capitalism and slavery.

I have never left of the country, but from what I’ve seen on the news, documentaries, movies, books etc., I find that in addition to the “middle class,” a great number of people also exist in the United States who live in poverty.  They came to people’s attention with the events behind Katrina, for example.  Internationally, the US maintains unequal trade relations with many poor countries in the world, thereby accentuating their misery and taking advantage of them.  If that isn’t enough, America protects its privileges with an arsenal of all types nuclear weapons.  You seem quite offended by the poverty in Cuba, for the privileges granted by dollars, for the injustice of the double currency and the low wages – in short, for injustice.  But doesn’t it seem to you that the US government has been and is very unjust as well?  Do you struggle with the same energy against that other injustice?

Yes, it’s true that here there also exist poor people and those with few economic resources. I will explain to you something that I never heard from the Cuban government:

In the United States there exists a kind of social safety net.  There are agencies that help low-income people find housing and pay their rent.  These also assist with food, electricity and heating bills, etc.  The government does this with a portion of the taxes that we pay.  These are also provided to people who are retired and receive Medicaid and Medicare, which are government health programs for seniors.  These services also extend to children whose parents cannot pay these expenses.

With regard to the poverty, I could tell you that the passport to get out of it is education.  I believe that having a university degree is essential.  Here in the US, unfortunately, education is quite expensive.  But it’s not impossible for the poor to study, so the government helps by lending them the money.  The government here doesn’t force people to do what they don’t want to do, but of course if someone doesn’t study they’ll have less of an opportunity to get a good paying job.

With regard to trade between the United States and other countries, which you call unequal, I think I disagree.  Trade takes place when an agreement exists between the buyer and the seller of a product. Those countries don’t necessarily have to sell to the United States; they can trade with whatever nation. What really happens is that the world market price is set by a capitalist mechanism of supply and demand.  If a product is scarce, it costs a lot; and if it’s abundant, it costs little.  The price of diamonds is explained this way, just like gold.  On the other hand, sugar, something that Cuba and Brazil produce in abundance, has very little value, so little that it seems it’s not profitable for Cuba to produce it.

I don’t believe that the objective of nuclear weapons in the United States is to protect trade.  Their reason for being, as I understand it, was the Cold War of that time between the two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union.  The basic idea is something like this.  If they launch an atomic bomb at us, we will launch a counterattack against them, and vice versa.  As you’ll notice, neither of the two ever used nuclear arms against the other, or against any other country, except for the United States against Japan at the end of the Second World War, a story that we can go into one day.

Poverty in Cuba offends me because I think that it’s unnecessary.  It’s a situation created intentionally to engender dependence by people on the government.  I don’t know if you ever heard the story of how the Spaniards conquered the Indians of “Our America”: exchanging trinkets and other tidbits for gold, silver etc. Although it’s a very simplistic description of colonization, I find that the story applies well to the relationship between the Cuban people and the ruling elite.  The trinkets are the “free” education and health care.

Fidel Castro promised to turn over from 30 to 50 percent of the profits from Cuban companies to the Cuban people.  If you read History Will Absolve Me, you’ll see.  If we look at the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), from $400 to $600 per month are produced on average by each Cuban.  But as we know, the Cuban government pays them from $10 to $20 dollars a month. My question is: What happens to the rest of the money?  I want to know what happens with each cent.  Why does that information remain concealed?

Yes, the government of the United States has been unjust, it’s not perfect.  Like all human creations, it’s plagued with errors, but gradually it has been correcting itself.  For example, not more than 50 years ago, not a single Black person in this country could have dreamed of being president; they couldn’t even think of sitting in the same bus seats with whites.  How then can we explain Obama?  Obama is president because there’s democracy here; all citizens are entitled to vote and to elect the person they want for that position. These are elections in the full sense of the word; not between two potatoes —a small one and another one that’s a little bigger— but between two people with concepts that are very different about how to solve the nation’s problems, something that has not existed in Cuba for much more than 50 years.

I remember seeing something like this in a book: In life, one has a backpack and in it are placed the things that interest the person and what they want to keep or remember.  Unfortunately, not everything fits inside that backpack.  The moral is that one has to pick their battles.  For example, here in the United States, a major problem exists with math education.  I created a website,, where anyone can learn something about mathematics.  I did all of it in my spare time without asking for a dime for the help I’m offering.  I’ve also written to senators here in my state on the problem of illegal emigration in the United States.  I also asked them to eliminate the embargo and demanded the right of Americans to travel to Cuba. This last issue I find a little hypocritical; on the one hand they criticize Cuba for its lack of freedom, including the freedom of travel, and on the other hand the government here doesn’t allow American citizens to travel to Cuba if they want to. It’s an inconsistency between words and deeds that doesn’t set well with me.

I believe that it’s important to take note that the elite in Cuba actively suppress sources of information for the masses.  They have created a sole possible source of information for the great majority of Cubans.  Do you think that the difficulty in accessing the Internet —suffered by you and almost everyone who lives in Cuba— is by chance?

I don’t think that it’s by chance that the same elite controls the entry and exit of Cubans onto and off the island.  This has a double purpose: it’s so that people who they need cannot escape and so that people do not become “infected” and learn that other societies, without being like Cuba, function better.

As for Entry and Exit permits, I see these as control mechanisms to punish those who dare to open their mouths and criticize the government, as happened to Yoani Sanchez and others who once were part of the system, Hilda Molina for example.  Actions like these give the impression of a government guided by personal whim.  It’s a system of the carrot and the stick, designed to reward or punish the masses and to classify them according to the role that is expected of them.

That role is the one of obeying —not of raising any criticism— and accepting all commands that come from the elite.  You will note that the behavior of that elite is more like that of a mafia organization than that of a government.  A government is put in place by those who vote for it to solve their problems, not so that it dictates order to the people.  In the first place, that elite should not exist; the government should be similar to the people, not superior to them or above the laws of the nation.

With regard to the information that you have in books and other sources, like I told you it’s filtered so that you only see what they need you to.  Information can be filtered by saying only half truths; that would be filtering by omission; it’s also done when one asserts something as being true when in fact it’s not.

I don't know if you hyave ever eaten sushi?

It’s difficult to communicate experiences to someone who has not lived them.  For example I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten sushi.  It could be described as consisting of rolls of rice with algae and completely raw sea food, which could be salmon, tuna, shrimp or crab, etc.  This type of general description is what you would find in a book, but there’s a big difference between a description like this and the concrete experience of eating sushi.  Once you get over the initial displeasure of eating raw meat, you may find that you like sushi.  I suspect that the same thing applies to capitalism.  Neither you nor I ever saw the capitalist system working in Cuba since we were both born after the revolution.

Don’t you find it suspicious that the elite prevents your access to certain information, including the ability to experience the other system?  Haven’t you ever wondered why?  What is there to be afraid of if its system is “better”?

Sure, capitalism has many problems, and as in any democratic society, everyone struggles together to fight to eliminate or reduce those problems.  In contrast, in a society like yours, you can’t even go out into the street to protest against pollution spewing from the Nico Lopez Refinery in Havana.

In capitalism, a separation exists between the State and the economic entities (corporations), whereby in a certain form there is no conflict of interests; the government must respond to the interests of both: the corporations and the people who vote.  Now then, in the case of a government like Cuba’s, economic interests and those of the people melt into one another.  You’ll note that this generates an implicit conflict of interest, because it’s not possible to represent at both at the same time. That’s why it’s not possible for the Cuban State to allow strikes or demonstrations in support of the environment.  This is not only the case of Cuba but also of all countries that were communist.

There is also the horrible combination of capitalism without democracy and with a single party system, like in China and Vietnam.  Although capitalism in such societies increases the standard of living, freedom doesn’t exist; and without freedom, capitalism can also be very harmful to people.

The protection of individual freedoms should be a priority of any society that wants to advance.  I have never seen a socialist system that grants the individual the same freedoms that I possess here in the USA.  Right now, if I want, I can read Capital or The Communist Manifesto or any other book.  Everyone in this society has access to that information.  We can also visit communist countries with no problem and communicate our experiences and observations openly without fear.  Can you do the same thing? No. why?

You commented in Havana Times that there is no connection between the people and those who govern in Cuba.  Is there such a connection where you live?  Do you believe that in Cuba the difference is one of degree or of quality?

Yes, it’s like that here in America.  In Cuba a connection doesn’t exist, while here it does.  For some reason I saw the need to write to the vice-president of this country.  I complained to him about the slowness of a bureaucratic procedure that was being carried out.  I sincerely thought he wouldn’t answer me, but his office did – and this was during the Bush administration.

In Cuba they tell you and order you.  I never saw us telling the Cuban government what we wanted them to do; on the contrary, they ordered us around.  That’s not government; that’s dictatorship.  Those who govern are there to serve and listen to the people, not the other way around.  If they don’t listen to us, we should and can choose others who in fact will.  That explains why they are not seriously interested in solving the problems of Cuba: in any case, they will remain in power.  If they had to compete with other politicians it would be very different.  It would be a good stimulus for them to really work and solve things.

What do you think about the current release of political prisoners? Do you believe that it’s a turning point for the Cuban government regarding the treatment of dissidents?

To me it seemed to be a good first step.  I hope it’s not the sole one that the Raul Castro government makes in that direction.  It would please me enormously if they also eliminated the Entry and Exit permits, if they would promise to not imprison any other prisoners of conscious for political reasons, and if they were to take many more steps.  I hope the prisoners who do not want to emigrate are released.  I have hopes, lots of them, though I would like to see everything change much more quickly.

Would you return if the current political régime changed?

The truth is that I really don’t know the answer to that question; the future is not written.  I believe that I would indeed like to help Cuba become a free country, and not one controlled by a select group.  I’d like to see a country where there didn’t exist any difference between those who are considered “revolutionary” and those who are “non-revolutionary,” and one where people gain importance not for their support of the ruling class but for their contribution to the solution of the problems that affect the people and the country.  I think that the day will have to come when there will be no exclusions.  Cuba belongs to all Cubans, and all of us Cubans are Cuba.

Thanks Julio for giving us the chance to learn something about your life and your opinions.

9 thoughts on “Twenty Years Thinking about Cuba

  • August 1, 2010 at 3:41 am

    I am glad you are as obsess with freedom as I am, we should all be. I think is because I did not have it for so long that I am obsessive about it. Without freedom there will not be more humanity.

    Just a dull world full of dictators satisfying their own whims. That will be real tragic. Hopefully this will never happen.

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