By Jancel Moreno
HAVANA TIMES — I received a message on Facebook, it was from a Cuban in exile in San Jose, Costa Rica, who was asking me to give him an interview so that the world could know a little bit about his life and what he claims was his life in Cuba.
The following interview belongs to Lester Sosa Gattorno, a 37 year old Cuban who is now living in Costa Rica.
HT: Describe what your life was like in Cuba.
LSG: My childhood was beautiful, because when you’re that age you don’t have the maturity to understand certain things like the political and social landscape of the country. When you’re a child you don’t notice so many things, and let me tell you that at school we were told that the Pope was evil, that he fed the opium of religion to the masses, and that religion was a form of counter-revolution.
As I grew physically and intellectually, in the advent of my teenage years, there was a great awakening in me and great joy. I began to see things for what they really were, a hunger and thirst of insatiable faith. I began to practice my Catholic faith more regularly, I was an activist at my church but I was always a member of Christian groups and movements and evangelism programs.
I remember that we went out with the Catechism of the Catholic Church under our arm, going from house to house and sharing what the Catechism said with my neighbors. That’s when everything became bleak. I began to receive threats at my school, I was a boarding student at the Jesus Menendez IPUEC in Santa Clara, Villa Clara.
And it was all because I was a practicing Catholic. They threatened to expel me from the institution and warned that I would never be a member of the UJC (The Young Communist League), to which I responded that I would be always loyal to my convictions and my faith, I’m not going to reject Christ and nobody can take my faith from where it is deeply rooted in me. At the end of the day, I wasn’t interested in belonging to the UJC anyhow, and if they were going to expel me, what could I do? Just pack up my things and go home.
I believe that my calmness and conviction didn’t give them the courage they needed to commit such evil deeds against me, although they did tell me that as long as I didn’t practice or incite anything within the institution, everything would be fine, in spite of me being a victim of persecution, persecuted by my classmates who were in fact UJC members.
HT: What motivated you to leave the Island?
LSG: I remember that the first time I was given the opportunity to emigrate abroad, my answer to my parents was DON’T EVEN DREAM OF ME LEAVING CUBA! If I was conscious of anything at the time it was that my answer wasn’t founded on ideological reasons, because I wasn’t a follower or party member of this absurd ideology. My answer at that time was emphasized, more than anything else, because of the simple fact that I didn’t want to be separated from what I most loved in this world and that is my family, especially being separated from my grandmother, who rest in peace, I owe a part of my upbringing and the values I hold today as a man and a professional to, as well as from my parents who sacrificed so much to take us out of our poverty and give my brother and I a future.
Reasons later motivated me to change my mind and be in favor of my parents’ idea to go in search for a better future for us in an unknown land, taking on a culture that has the same language as our own, but a different idiosyncracy.
I fled Cuba because I was running from political and religious persecution which I was a victim of back in 1996-1997. I left because I got tired, like thousands of Cubans, of having so many basic needs unmet because of great shortages back then, I got tired of being blackmailed and that my own brothers who were members of the Party or Government treated us, their brothers, like garbage, in exchange for bonuses. I don’t know who was more miserable, us or them, who still sell their dignity for a few cents. However, I left more because I saw that in Cuba, our youth no matter how much they study or learn, don’t have a decent future guaranteed.
HT: How did you manage to leave?
LSG: We had an aunt, who in the 1980s when there was a mass exodus of Cubans, had the opportunity to emigrate to Costa Rica, at the time looking for a way to get to the United States. They settled here in Costa Rica and thanks to them and under the governments from 1990-1998, which I believe were led by Rafael Angel Calderon Fourier and Jose Maria Figueres Ferrer, the way was opened up for Cubans to request that their relatives on the island come to Costa Rica for family reunification, which were the kind of visas that the government of this country was handing out back then, as well as tourist visas provided that there was somebody who could take on the social burden of who they were inviting.
It was then that we could immigrate to Costa Rica, through my aunt. It was a long and exhausting process that I could maybe share with you at another time, and it was like this because of the Cuban government, which put more and more obstacles in the way. They kept asking for more and more documents and each individual document was becoming more and more expensive. We had to pay for them, as if everything they stole or took away from us the moment we left our beloved Homeland wasn’t enough.
HT: What did you feel when you reached a new country?
LSG: It was a shock, it was a gathering of emotions, between the sadness I felt for having left my family behind, as I had to leave at just 16 years old and make the journey alone, given the fact that my parents weren’t given an exit permit from Cuba, a story which is also worth telling another time so as to reveal the hurdles and dirty tricks of a government which calls itself “uncorrupt”, but is in fact more so than any other government that calls itself capitalist.
I also felt joy, because I felt like a free man from the moment I stopped seeing land through the plane window and all I could see was the Caribbean sea and its immensity from the air. I also felt frustration as the days went by, like I told you before, even if we speak the same language, every people in Latin America have their own dialect, their own idiosyncrasy and it was a great cultural shock for me in the beginning.
Because since God doesn’t abandon anybody, and this time he didn’t make an exception for me, I found a friend here, my Parish Priest who years before was a missionary at the parish church I used to go to when I lived in Cuba. He supported me a lot in my adaptation process to the cultural and social aspects here.
The beginning is difficult for every emigre, because you have to start all over in a different place, which is like being reborn, the only difference being that you are already an adult and so you have the skills and development to look for a source of income for your household. Moreover, in Costa Rica, we received a lot of support from several people who aren’t from our family. The Costa Rican people have large hearts and a generosity which offered us a helping hand and gave us a lot of support, both in morale as well as financially.
HT: How are you getting on in the “absurd and feared” world of Capitalism?
LSG: Honestly, the term “feared” world of Capitalism is something which socialists and communists in Cuba use to frighten the Cuban people, to manipulate their minds and make them believe that their absurd ideology is better, and here I want to stress this point and give a comparison.
In Cuba, if you don’t work, you can’t buy food which, according to what the government sells to international opinion, is given to Cubans per month, is given, listen up properly, “the government gives Cubans per month,”, when we know full well that we have to buy this food that enters in the rations booklet and half of the time, the basic food items aren’t complete because of shortages.
In the absurd and feared world of Capitalism, if you don’t work, you can’t buy the basic foods just like in Cuba, the only difference being that here basic products are never in shortage. I had the opportunity to study in a public school here where education is of a very high quality, I studied Science and Literature at high school, I studied a university degree, I got a job in what I had studied for five years and it was a well-paid job.
Not like in Cuba where you study, you get a university degree and a professional doesn’t earn more than 12 to 20 USD a month, which isn’t even enough to put food on the table half of the time and is definitely not enough to buy clothes or go out with your family.
In the absurd world of Capitalism, I had the opportunity to have my own company, which I could have never dreamed of in Cuba because of political persecution and a government in power which doesn’t allow private property to exist, in spite of them telling us they do, but with thousands of restrictions subjugating Cubans with high tariffs that only favor the State and not the people, like in our beloved country.
Here we have the opportunity to live with basic commodities which everybody longs to have at home, access to Healthcare and Education which aren’t necessarily private, but a social security system which in the majority of cases, is like the one in Cuba. Only here, employees contribute a compulsory percentage of their salary to social security in order to receive high quality medical services such as medicines without the need to pay extra for these services, more than the 9% they contribute from their salary per month anyway.
In summary, I have nothing to be envious of in socialism or communism that the feared and absurd world of Capitalism can’t give me in the same conditions, the only difference being that here I am free and I have access to what I want thanks to my hard work, in Cuba I would I be screwed, because I wouldn’t have access to even 3/4 of what I can access here.
HT: How many years has it been since you left?
LSG: Exactly 20 years, I’m a Costa Rican citizen and I feel a part of this beautiful country, but I have never lost the Cuban essence, this “divine spark” as I call it which defines me as a Cuban, my dialect which identifies me wherever I go and this cheerful and generous personality and impetus to help others who identify us, this flair for speaking, in short, lots of things that identify me as a pure-blood Cuban.
HT: What do you want for your Island?
LSG: I think a change in our country, that Cuba opens itself up to the world and that the world opens up to it too. Pope John Paul II said on his visit to Cuba in 1998, that there should be freedom in all respects, that Cuban youth have a future without the need to seek out other lands where they can develop themselves, and a source of transformation. I want a more prosperous country like it used to be in the past, and only Cubans are able to bring about this change, whether that’s Cubans on the island or those of us who are in exile. I long for a free Cuba, free from the ideological burden that has enslaved the nation for over 5 decades. I long for a people who are no longer living in extreme poverty, a people who can put their ability to come out on top to the test and make our country what it was before: the pearl of the Antilles.
HT: What would you change in Cuba for you to want to go back?
LSG: Mainly the ideology that has sunk the country into poverty for the last 5 decades. I would open Cuba’s borders to the world and I would seek for the world to open its borders to Cuba; that they stop seeing it as a stronghold of communism, but instead as a sister nation; that they get to know our essence, the Cuban people’s human warmth; that they stop seeing us as a sexual paradise in all regards.
I would find a way to give Cubans more opportunities to develop themselves both on a professional and personal level.
I would find sources of investment that create more jobs for the Cuban population giving Cuban youth and Cubans in general, a better and more dignified future.
I would integrate it into the global economic and social model so that Cuba gets to know the world and the world gets to know Cuba.
HT: Compare your life before and after leaving the island.
LSG: Here, we have to take into account points of view, when I left I was only 16 years old, I had very little knowledge of the world and what living abroad in the world outside of my country would imply. I grew up with the idea that had been instilled in me that Cuba was the world and the world was Cuba. Even so, I can say that my experiences as a teenager were very harsh, no matter how much the government says the contrary to the rest of the world, I am living proof of these lies.
I have worked ever since I was 9 years old, selling avocados on the street, tamales at bus stops, candies and lollipops at baseball games, lemons during the holidays and collecting leftovers to feed the pig that was killed in December at home.
I did all of this while studying, in my free time or during my holidays. I know what going to the fields is and going on a train at 4 AM in the morning with a backpack full of rice to sell in the city by the pound in order to get by as the money we had wasn’t even enough to put food on the table. The rationed wasn’t enough to eat the entire month and you had to go out and buy on the black market where everything was a lot more expensive. I sold tilapia, made polyester brooms to save some money and put clothes on my back, that was my life in Cuba where the Castros say that children live happily.
Leaving Cuba opened up my eyes even more and I realized that capitalism is the same thing, the only difference being that here it’s easier to get a get a hold of things and they are much cheaper. I worked and studied the same but I had money to pay for my studies and eat, I had money to buy clothes, here I work for a fair wage and not a miserable salary which doesn’t get me by at all. Here, I can cover my basic needs and give myself the luxuries I want.
Here, I am free and I don’t need to sell on the street in secret, or sacrifice my free time to work to cover my basic needs or some small desire. Here, I am the owner of my own business and I have the opportunity to bless other people by giving them work so they can put food on their tables. This is my life outside of Cuba.
Note: I would like to thank you for the opportunity to present this brief summary of my life and my path as an emigre outside of the frontiers of my own country. I have left out many anecdotes so as not to make this interview too long.
Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing and thank you, especially, for taking me into account, I know that many people like me value the great risk you put yourselves at in by doing this and we value the amazing work you are doing. I send you, a big and sincere hug from San Jose, Costa Rica.