HAVANA TIMES — Last Sunday, I made a trip out to Alamar (a large peripheral neighborhood in Havana) to visit a couple that I am friends with. When my friend opened the door, she told me she thought some community activity or celebration was underway, because, since early in the morning, she’d been hearing songs by Silvio Rodríguez blaring out of the loudspeakers commonly used to play reaggeton music during public festivities.
I hadn’t noticed any festivities taking place around the neighborhood as I approached their building, I’d only seen some men gathered outside the entrance. An hour later, the loudspeakers had gone quiet and we were able to have a conversation. While my friend’s husband was getting ready to go out and buy bread, however, a loud bang went off and my first instinct was to curl up defensively on my friends’ bed.
I was too startled to ask myself what was happening, I just felt panic. I think I may have even blurted out a cuss word. After the second loud bang, we knew we were hearing shots: a war exercise, one of those defense simulations meant to prepare Cubans for the invasion that has loomed over the country for over fifty years.
My friend ran to her child’s bedroom to let him know there was nothing to worry about, that it was just a war exercise. But it was too late. The child, frightened to death, had already leaped off the bed. When I left about an hour later, he had not yet been able to go back to sleep.
At that moment, I suddenly remembered that, among the people loitering outside the building, I had seen an elderly man holding a rifle. I assumed my friends had not paid attention to their surroundings and therefore did not know about the military exercise scheduled for that morning, but they were not the only ones in the dark.
Other tenants complained that no sign had been posted, that no one had been previously informed, so that the exercise would not catch people by surprise. Not even the woman in charge of political issues at the building’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) knew about the exercise.
The tenants were venting their rather frenzied complaints on a uniformed man who looked to be in charge of the whole operation. Because of the distance and the firearms that were still being discharged, I was unable to hear his reply, but I could see the arrogant expression on his face, the way he dismissively waved his hand in the tenant’s faces.
Nothing in his demeanor suggested he felt the need to offer any apology for disturbing the tenants’ Sunday rest. He was acting like a military commander addressing his subordinates, someone who is not accustomed to being talked back to or hearing complaints.
Staging simulations of something as terrible as a war seems absurd to me, but I assume such things are inevitable in Cuba. Several generations of Cubans have lived in this state of siege, under the constant threat of war.
As in the game of chess, the threat has been more effective than the actual war. Any affront on those who dare dissent, any violation of a fundamental right, can be justified through that threat, a threat which, what’s more, obliges us to prepare for an all-out people’s war, to confront an invasion that has been in the making for the last fifty years.
With prior notice, one can perhaps prepare for these things and find them more or less bearable, even on the day when you can sleep to your heart’s content. But what can one do when there isn’t even an inkling of common sense to appeal to, not even enough to respect people’s right to their weekend rest, or at least to spare children, elderly people and pets a good scare?
I must say I was surprised to see the tenants complain. Getting angry is one thing, approaching a military officer and blaming him for the disturbance, telling him he had no right to frighten people like that, quite another.
Less than five people actually complained (I think all of them were women), but that was enough to make me feel a little better in the midst of this whole situation. These four people maybe represented ten percent of all the building’s tenants, but that didn’t surprise me. In Cuba, I’ve gotten used to the idea that those who dare complain, those who point out the system’s failings, constitute a minority.
While the women complained, an old man walked down a slope holding a rifle with childish enthusiasm…and considerable difficulty. Seeing him, I could not help but ask myself what would happen in a real war. What good would all that aged paraphernalia, those obsolete weapons, do us? What could that old man do, besides die heroically?
I should consider myself fortunate those shots were fired in nothing other than a pathetic war exercise. I hope it’ll always be like that, that the next time some loud bangs like the ones we heard that day once again bring out my cowardice, it is yet another exercise.
But I would be deeply grateful if I could be forewarned, as would my friends, their kids and neighbors, I am sure. It would be terrible if we were to perish before the conflict even started, suffering heart attacks caused precisely by those who train to protect us during the war.