HAVANA TIMES, Nov 20 — I met Andres two months ago. We would often catch the same bus and eventually started talking, or — more accurately — I listened; being in his sixties, he has a lot more to tell.
On one of our trips together, I asked him if he had taken part in the 1970 sugarcane harvest. He smiled. By sheer chance, that very afternoon he had with him the little flag he had carried during that harvest. He showed it to me saying, “I participated in that one and others.”
He’s an engineer; he taught during times when there were teacher shortages; he served on nine international missions for Cuba; he came up with production innovations that saved the country tons of money, and he has worked for over forty years.
As I listened to him, I couldn’t take my eyes off his mouth. Andres is missing all his teeth. But that was something I would never think to ask him about. As it happened, he was the one who raised the issue in another conversation.
All of them had to be pulled out because his mouth was in such bad condition. That was more than six months ago, but he still hasn’t been able to come up with the money to get his prosthesis. It costs 50 convertible pesos (about $55 USD), or slightly more than twice his monthly salary.
I told him that he could get one free through the government. His reply was: “And it could take just about the same amount of time I’ve already been waiting, with the only difference being that the quality of the material is of poor.”
“Teeth are what gives a person presence,” he said sadly. Notwithstanding, he has other pressing needs that are even more important. His apartment is falling down on top of him. For a long time he tried to get the materials assigned to him to make the repairs. Now, none of that’s necessary; people are allowed to buy the materials from the government – legally, and in local currency.
Thinking aloud, he said, “But I would need to stop eating.” He earns almost 500 hundred pesos, and a sack of cement costs 112 pesos.
He could also try save up money to buy an apartment, which is also legal now. But calculating his income and what it might cost for a small one-room flat, the sixty-year-old man would have to save up for about fifteen or twenty years.
The day he showed me his flag from the ‘70 harvest, we both were on the same bus going home at night as well. Suddenly, he realized he had left it at a certain place during the day. It was now past 9:00 p.m., so the establishment had already closed. If he went back, nobody would have been there.
So the next morning he showed up before anyone had gotten there to open the place up, before 7:00 a.m. He had woken up at 5:00 just to be sure. Fortunately, he recovered the flag. I thought about the slogan on it: “With the shield or over the shield.”
For whatever is needed
For years I saw images of the first decades of the revolution. I had heard stories about people who participated in the massive Caturra coffee tree planting and the sugarcane harvest of ‘70, also called “The Harvest of 10 Million Tons” (though that quantity was never reached). But people spoke with pride about their efforts.
People sacrificed their careers to be where the revolution needed them. “For whatever is needed, Fidel, for whatever.” I felt nostalgic for those days I hadn’t even lived through, for the sacrifices that I couldn’t make because I hadn’t been born.
I went for to school in the countryside as required during my junior high and high school years, and for my first two years of college. They said it was part of the curriculum and added points in one’s academic record, and therefore it had weight when it came time to applying for certain university programs.
Some older students had described their experience at the farm school as a lot of fun and stimulated my curiosity. The truth is that even in those times when the work was very hard in the fields, never did I do it with the idea that I was sacrificing for the good of the country or building a better future. At best, I was trying to win one of those emulaciones (incentives) that seemed so important at that moment.
Spared the disillusionment
Now, listening to Andres and seeing him, I realize that I’m really pretty lucky. I didn’t have time to come to believe in the slogans we shouted during elementary school; nor did I have use for making any sacrifices or dreaming of some future society.
The fall of the socialist camp and the Special Period hit when I was fourteen. That glorious future was ashes before it even materialized. I didn’t suffer any disappointments and I had no resentments for “having spent the best years of my life” laboring on a chain of mistakes and failures.
Andres, on the contrary, has a record of services rendered to the revolution that’s longer than could be summarized here. However, though he has many things to recount and he seemed eager to have done it all, when I said I wanted to interview him for an online magazine, he hesitated and then declined at the last moment.
Nor is his real name is Andres. I understand him. He has ceased to believe. He feels that the latest measures taken by the country’s authorities to improve the economy have the chances of a “finger in the dyke,” but he still carries in his genes a fidelity that he observes with respect.
However there are questions that cannot be avoided and may never be answered: What did all of those years of sacrifice go for? What really happened to Commander Camilo Cienfuegos? Where are the other versions of the history of our country? How many things didn’t happen the way we’re told?