By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES, August 23 — Many Cubans would like a foreigner to send them a letter inviting them abroad, since this is one of the few paths islanders have to leave the country, whether temporarily or permanently.
Bernardo not only had friends willing to send him such a letter, they were also prepared to pay for his trip and help him to get established in Spain.
But unlike many Cubans, he didn’t feel the need to leave. He had a good income, a motorcycle and his job gave him the opportunity to travel abroad periodically.
Still, there was another reason for not leaving Cuba: a relationship of several years and a son who — while not his own — he had practically raised. What was it that could possibly have made him leave the country in 2004?
Bernardo: Professionally I felt that I had topped out here. I’m an IT expert. I’ve installed several large servers. This was work that only three or four people in the whole country could do, and I was one of them. All that remained for me here was a position as an executive, some job behind a desk and a nice paunch. I wanted to prove myself from a professional and personal point of view, to see how my life could be away from here. Through conversations with friends I got an idea of what life was like in Spain.
HT: And your relationship?
Bernardo: The original idea was for us to get back together outside of the country, though we were aware it might not happen. This was a risk I decided to take and she supported me.
A training course took him to Italy. At the Madrid-Barajas Airport he didn’t take his connecting flight back to Cuba. Instead, he called a friend in Barcelona and explained to him his situation. This friend then gave him the instructions on how to get to his house. Bernardo caught a bus in Madrid at 6:00 in the evening and arrived in Barcelona at 1:00 in the morning. There, his friend was waiting for him, and so his adventure in Spain began – though at that moment he still wasn’t sure if he would stay. But even before deciding, he got a job offer from a computer firm thanks to his solid background and knowledge. The salary that the owner offered him was the final push that got him to stay.
After that first job, he formed a company with a German investor, with that individual contributing the capital and Bernardo the knowledge.
Bernardo: I had to study a lot, despite being as well trained as I thought. And in fact I was, but I still had to study. There, the limit is set by money. You have to be able to provide the customer the service they request. Whatever invention they need, no matter how absurd it may seem, you have to be able to finance it. That implied a high level of preparation.
His salary allowed him to travel through all of Spain and to visit Portugal and France, where he learned how to sail. One of his more interesting experiences was bicycling with a group of friends in the “St. James’ Way Pilgrimage” (Spanish: Camino de Santiago).
But it wasn’t by telephone or e-mail that I communicated with Bernardo, nor was it during a visit by him to the island. After remaining for four and a half years in Spain, he decided to return to Cuba for good.
Bernardo: I looked toward the future and saw myself being a simple hired hand, like they call slaves of the 21st century when they’re in their 40s, 50s or 60s. Over there it’s a consumer society and one can obtain material things easily, like any sized modern flat screen TV or a car; similarly, you can go on vacation anywhere in the world.
But to have those things you have to pay the price, which means either working very hard or getting in debt, like many people do. I didn’t find that attractive. I value other small things, like time, friends… things that don’t require money or demand that you live in a consumer society, like going to the cinema, a concert or cultural activities…
There, I never went to see a play, and I can count on one hand the number of times I went to a concert. I also seldom went to the cinema, plus they only showed the latest feature films from Hollywood.
If I’d seen the possibility of working there for ten or fifteen years and after that time I had a certain level of economic solvency, the luxury of choosing my jobs and doing them when I wanted, then maybe I would have stayed. But that possibility doesn’t exist there.
HT: And here, Bernardo?
Bernardo: Do you want me to make a comparison?
HT: Comparing is something you can do, unlike me and the majority of Cubans.
Bernardo: Things here are pretty sad, because one can live and do very little work – or not work at all. That’s not healthy for the country. We can’t aspire to have lives like those people if we don’t work.
HT: That’s to say that people here could have the European standard of living if they worked?
Bernardo: Obviously, if capitalism were established here, perhaps people wouldn’t have that exact same standard of living, but something similar.
HT: Are you saying that for people to work capitalism has to be here?
Bernardo: It’s not that capitalism has to come here. Capitalism implies that — in order to survive — people who don’t have resources are obligated to sell the only thing they have: their labor power. Those who buy it want to profit from that, therefore they make you work to the maximum and pay you the minimum. Because of their situation, people feel the real need to work, because they have to pay their bills, they have to pay for health insurance, they can’t go to the dentist without money, the bank will take their home if they don’t pay… Socialism doesn’t impose those conditions.
HT: You just recognized that it’s not healthy for the country if people really don’t need to work to live. Can’t efficiency be achieved through socialism, or at least the kind of socialism that exists in Cuba?
Bernardo: What I mean is that the formulas for socialism that have been applied up to now haven’t solved the problem. They didn’t work in any country in Eastern Europe; but there are, for example, variations in China and Vietnam where they’re applying unique forms of socialism. I don’t believe that those formulas are the ones that we need here either, but they’re working for them.
HT: What do you mean by “working”? I understand that many people live in poverty in China.
Bernardo: You have to keep in mind the population of China. It’s difficult to satisfy the demands of the eleven million people who live here, so to satisfy those of a more than a billion people is impossible. In China they couldn’t apply the same form of socialism that they did in Eastern Europe or here. People have to work in a socialist society, but under capitalism they have to work a lot more.
I believe that socialism implies the will of the government to solve people’s problems; and that when it comes to setting priorities, social concerns take precedent over economic ones. This is why socialism often doesn’t work, because the economic aspect is neglected…
When we think of capitalism, we think that Cuba could end up being like the United States, Spain, England, but that’s no so. Cuba would develop a type of capitalism like that of the countries of the South. This is an underdeveloped country… perhaps we’re straying from the topic.
The point is: I wasn’t interested in what capitalism offered me, and actually I’m not that interested in what socialism offers me; it’s simply that I’m where I’m supposed to be, in my country, where I’m not a foreigner and there’s not some guy who’s going to be given priority over me.
HT: Don’t you feel that foreigners are prioritized over you here?
Bernardo: At times they might be, but not in a general sense. I receive free medical care through the Family Doctor Program, but they have to pay. I can go to the National Museum of Fine Arts and pay in domestic currency, while they have to pay in hard currency. It’s true that there have been measures that favored foreigners and discriminated against Cubans, like many things that have turned out wrong and continue doing wrong.
But for me, it’s generally something as simple as not feeling like a foreigner or an alien. What happens with emigrants is that as soon as they leave they begin to stop being from the place they left, but they never end up being from where they moved to, no matter how many years they live there. I didn’t want that feeling of “uprootedness” in my life.
HT: How was your return to Cuba?
Bernardo: It was Ok… but I had to go through all the cumbersome procedures and paperwork of the Immigration Office to be able to stay. In other words, my being able to live in my own country turned into something complicated. When you get here they tell you that you can’t stay permanently, that you can only remain here for three months, as if you don’t belong here.
They even tell you that they’ll pay for your ticket out and that they’ll give you a ride to the airport, but that you have to be ready to leave. There’s a certain amount of pressure, something similar to a prisoner or someone on parole who has to present themself every so often to a probation officer. They tell you the date by which you have to leave.
I simply didn’t leave when that day came. The next day I told the immigration authorities I hadn’t gone to the airport and the whole process began again. After being here in that situation for a month, they informed me that my case had been analyzed and they had decided that I could live in the country.
HT: Doesn’t that happen to any citizen in the world who wants to return to their country after emigrating?
Bernardo: No. Nowhere else in the world does a citizen who returns to their country have to go through this type of process, because this is the place where they should be, where they belong. Supposedly it’s the sole place where they can’t kick me out. They can kick me out of Spain, the United States or England, but they can’t kick me out of Cuba.
HT: Well, Bernardo, now you’re here, but you no longer have a motorcycle or that job where you earned a high salary. In short, you don’t have any of what you had before you left, nor what you left in Spain. Don’t you feel like you failed?
Bernardo: No. First, I think that I did what I wanted. When I wanted to leave, I left, and when I decided to return, I returned. I haven’t failed because I’m where I want to be. I don’t have to justify myself to anybody about the way I’ve led my life, nor do I have to prove anything. I know that I left and I made a good living abroad and I can do it again because I have the training that allows me to live abroad. I can live at the same level as foreign professionals. Failed? No. To the contrary, I believe I triumphed.”
HT: You don’t regret having lost that relationship that you had here?
Bernardo: It was a very nice relationship and it contributed to me greatly. But it ended, as do the relationships of millions of people here, people who never left. People spend ten, fifteen, twenty years together, and then one day it’s over.
HT: A while ago you told me that being in Spain you saw your future there and you didn’t like what you saw. What does the future hold for you here?
Bernardo: I don’t know. But I repeat: I am where I should be. Things might turn out completely screwed up for me in Cuba; it’s just that life here is what I prefer. I want my spirit to be at peace, and here I have that.
The whole time I lived in Spain I would go to bed thinking about what bills I had to pay: the rent, food, how much I should save in case I have a toothache. Here I don’t need to do any of that.
What I can tell those people who are thinking about leaving Cuba is that they’ll solve the problems they have here, but they’ll begin to have the problems from there. Problems don’t disappear, they just change.