Ernesto Pérez Chang
HAVANA TIMES — Of the feelings that assail most Cubans today when they confront our country’s harsh, everyday reality, one of the most devastating, in every sense of the word, is the feeling of transience.
No matter where you are, it isn’t hard to come upon people of different ages talking about their vision of the future, where Cuba figures simply as the country they had the terrible misfortune of being born in and the place they must get out of as soon as possible.
There is no longer any room for the doubts that, in a somewhat distant past, retained previous generations of Cubans, who set their hopes in the promise of positive change in the relationship between political power and citizens.
Alarmed by the constant failures of a system that, in their eyes, trampled the most intimate aspirations of their parents and grandparents, few are those who freely opt to remain in the country, feeling that it demands an immense commitment in exchange for a personal existence fraught with restrictions and that it forces them to adopt veritable strategies of duplicity, of sheer survival.
For such people, the world becomes a zone of repression and self-repression, torn apart by the constant pressure between what one wants to be and what one has to be, a world caught between desire and convenience, beclouded by the devastating certainty that one is going nowhere.
Born of similar feelings – disenchantment, hopelessness, apathy – the sense of transience is one of the many passive resistance strategies people use to adapt to a system with which they publicly or privately disagree.
The commonplaces we hear almost everyone repeat, phrases such as “when I get out of here”, “the day I manage to leave the country”, “things are different abroad”, “things are impossible in Cuba”, “don’t forget we’re in Cuba, kiddo”, “you’ll have to leave the country to get anywhere”, join the chorus of similar pronouncements by those who continue to age and are convinced Cuba’s problems cannot be solved as long as ideological commitments and the government’s obstinacy prevail over common sense and curtail the political freedoms of citizens.
The only prospect for change, at the personal or family level, that those who have been invaded by the sense of transience see, entails giving up on the idea of living in the place of their birth and seeking a means of escape or an act of salvation. It is frightening to see how these attitudes become generalized, but it is far more disquieting to realize they are not an option people choose but the reaction of people who feel cornered.
It is not a choice between Cuba’s “supervised freedoms” and the freedoms felt to exist in a place beyond the seas. It is a question of ending a protracted and senseless imprisonment, through the possibility of choosing which they have been denied through pretexts of every kind.
A possibility, to be sure, which presupposes that a veritable financial miracle will grace their lives. Before, the sense of transience consisted in the idea of leaving only for a while, so as to return after favorable political changes had taken place. Now, the feeling is a final and definitive decision, the radical determination of people who, on seeing the doors of their country close behind their backs, feel that they are putting behind a prison term and that the time has come to bury the past deep in the ground, in order, perhaps, to resurface like a human being and not as the cog in the machine of a failed social experiment with no apparent end in sight.
Seen through the prism of our feelings of transience, the idea of returning to the place of our birth will always be associated to the innumerable, negative images of our past and, above all else, to the fear of once again enduring isolation and the compunction to renounce, once and for all, to the personal freedoms secured elsewhere, so as to be condemned to a life of survival, endurance and silence. Such fears can take hold of any human being, whether they have lived in Cuba or not – it is the fear of voluntarily submitting oneself to a world of nightmares or, worse still, to a world of death.
To a considerable extent, the place of our birth is a place where phrases such as “this is forbidden”, “don’t say that”, “you best keep quiet”, “don’t work yourself up” and “not now” resonate. The feeling of impossibility slowly delineates the contours of our personal space, to the point that our individuality degenerates into submission and our aspirations for personal realization are displaced and postponed.
Most Cubans sense this reality and, denied the possibility of revolt, of disobedience, live in a provisional, transitory world. Everything, from family to friends, from the country as a whole to one’s personal belongings, culture, language, ideology – everything is fleeting for those who await the moment in which the country of their birth will disappear irreversibly on the horizon.
If they ever return, it would be to find that other unfamiliar and artificial place they were once denied, the country in the glass display they saw, not only in tourism magazines, but in official speeches as well. The country they dreamed of living in and enjoying, provided their feelings of transience didn’t make them blot out that brightly-colored abomination, manufactured, not to sustain the economy, but to sell the world the image of a Cuba inaccessible to those devoid of financial means, that is, to the majority.
A while ago, I ran into a high school friend. I hadn’t seen him in more than twenty years. After giving him a hug, I asked him the customary questions: how he was doing and where he had been. He glossed over more than two decades of his life in a few minutes.
He’d worked very hard, he’d “struggled”, he told me, and only needed a bit more money to leave the country “for good”, as he stressed with boundless joy. I asked him if he had other plans, if he’d gotten married and had children. He replied only with a smile, as though the answer to the question was just too obvious.
I understood, particularly when he told me the story of his many let-downs again, that now his mind was set on leaving the country, to be able to do what he has postponed doing for so long.
“Here, you accomplish very little, maybe nothing, hell, you know,” he told me, ending his verdict with these words: “Cuba is a provisional country, bro.”
The words have been going around my mind for days, robbing me of sleep. My friend has the same age I do: forty-two.