Cuba History Lessons

Fernando Ravsberg*

A society that knows its history avoids repeating mistakes. Photo: Raquel Pérez

HAVANA TIMES — In a recent interview, Cuban writer Leonardo Padura points to Hugo Chinea as the functionary who used to blame and threaten him “every time he wrote an article for the magazine El Caiman Barbudo) that in any way could have been taken as a criticism.”

Chinea apparently ran a department of Cuba’s Communist Party dedicated to preventing ideological contamination of the country’s culture. The functionary replied that “poking around” in the past was a tactic of certain press used to “tangle up old negative issues with the present in their eagerness to discredit.”

This was not the first time intellectuals rose up against those who persecuted people for being religious believers, critics, gay or just weird. A few years ago they protested en masse when a TV program paid tribute to some of the censors of the ‘70s and ‘80s as if they were some kinds of promoters of national cultural.

What was therefore demonstrated was that it’s not so easy to rewrite history and silence the past. Many of those who suffered marginalization, contempt and mistrust are not asking for revenge, but they refuse to forget – and that’s their right. No one can be required to surrender their memory.

The whole thing left me thinking about how difficult it is to know the history of Cuba if we constantly run into such taboo topics.

The fact that “poking” into the past becomes suspect explains why many Cubans hardly know about some events in their national past.

Collective memory doesn’t seek to “tangle up old negative issues with the present,” but to gather the experience of the nation with the understanding that if a people don’t know their history, they risk repeating the same mistakes again and again.

Some believe that analyzing the failures of the past can be a counterrevolutionary act, but the truth is that if Cubans knew the disastrous result of censoring intellectuals perhaps they wouldn’t put the same straightjackets on journalists.

What’s more, silence is the worst option when you have enemies as powerful as those opposed to the Cuban Revolution. Mariela Castro seems to understand this, which is why she’s attempting to write the history of the UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) (1).

The daughter of the president intends to “learn from history, approaching it with honesty, transparency and responsibility.” I doubt very much that what can be told about UMAP will surpass what has already been written by the government’s political adversaries.

The number of inmates in Cuba was just recently disclosed. The figure is high but it represents half the number of prisoners previously alleged by dissidents over the past decades when the government effectively ceded them a monopoly over information on that issue.

The history that is taught is out of touch with today's Cuban reality. Photo: Raquel Pérez

Nevertheless, much remains to be updated. A few days ago I attended a history class. The teacher taught that the “Revolutionary Offensive of 1968” (which nationalized all commerce, small businesses and even the street stalls) was a decisive step towards the construction of socialism.

I asked her to explain to me how was that “constructing” anything if now the government is promoting self-employment and small businesses and turning over hair salons to the workers. The woman replied that she was only “teaching what’s in the books.”

I can only imagine the confusion of young people if they happen to contrast the history that’s “in the books” with the transformations taking place today in the country. It will be an arduous task to convince them of the need for change without acknowledging that mistakes were made.

Moreover, the story begins to show through in other places. In Spain, a book (2) was published in which the assertion is made that “Marquitos” (Marcos Rodriguez, an informant whose actions in 1957 led to the murder of several student leaders) was a member of the old Communist Party (PSP).

It was for that reason that the deputy minister of the Armed Forces in the 60’s, Joaquin Ordoqui, an old cadre of the PSP who was closely linked to the USSR, was dismissed and held under house arrest until his death in 1973, accused of protecting and covering up for the traitor.

Another book (3), written by a German and based on intelligence service files of the former socialist countries, reveals that “the unselfish assistance of the Soviet Union” included strong pressure to force Cuba to adopt the Soviet model.

The puzzle is being put together and is helping us to understand the present better, though there are still many pieces missing. Cuba has its academia, historians, files and even living sources, but the weight of its secrets remain paralyzed, leaving it to others to account for the island’s own history.

(1) UMAP: Military Units to Aid Production were farms that in the 60’s are where religious believers, gays and other citizens considered ideologically strange were sent to be “reeducated” through work.
(2)Un asunto sensible” (A sensitive issue), Miguel Barroso, publisher Mondadori.
(3) “Fidel Castro,” Volker Skierka, Mreditorial.

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.