Cuba with Two Generations, One Reality

Osmel Ramírez Alvarez

Foto: Lisabeth Cadogan

HAVANA TIMES — My nephew has already turned 17. It wasn’t long ago that he learned to get over tears and stumbling blocks and, now, he strikes me as a man through and through. He gets good grades at school without trying too hard.

Recently, my sister told me, in a desperate tone of voice, that the young man had no interest in going to university. “He would rather have a business and make money, like his father does,” she said to me. “He’s going to be ignorant, and my son has the potential to be a professional,” she added.

I understood her concerns, promised to have a chat with him and did. He surprised me with a well-thought-out argument. “Why waste my time studying? It’s five years we’re talking about! It’d be better for me to set up a business and make money. My dad would probably help me out.”

The worst part is that he ended up using me as an example: “Look at you, uncle. You studied so much and you don’t practice your profession, because it doesn’t pay the bills. You have to do other things and even work the land.”

“That’s all very true,” I replied. “But who told you I didn’t get anything out of my studies? I do what I need to get by, but I have professional goals and I work to achieve them. You should do the same.”

“Being successful with a business is a process,” I said, “and you can do both things at once. After you’re done with your studies, you’ll be able to continue down the road you want, and what you’ve learned will help you whatever you do.” I persuaded him because I was prudent and didn’t ask him to give up anything, only rearrange his aims a bit.

I managed to calm my sister down this way. He will be able to follow in his father’s footsteps without the need of closing any doors. A happy ending, for now.

Now, let’s leap over to another story. Ramon is the name I’ll use to protect the identity of a peculiar neighbor of mine, who’s already over 80. He is an intransigent communist, of the kind that gave it all and are still at it.

“I’ve taken part in 11 sugar harvests, put in hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours and I’ve got plenty of medals, to say nothing of acknowledgements. I’ve got enough to fill a sack,” he said to me, jovially, showing some of these to me. To do a list of all these awards one would need an entire afternoon.

Photo: Lisabeth Cadogan
Photo: Lisabeth Cadogan

He seemed happy when he spoke but, from time to time, he would go quiet and appear to reflect on things. Knowing of his problems, I said to him: “Between the two of us, friend, your generation was deceived. They spurred you on with high hopes of a better future. You worked for free, filled the country with tunnels and trenches, planted millions of trees that later dried up abandoned and gave your lives to sow coffee and sugar cane. Now, in your old age, you depend on welfare so as not to starve, your children are frustrated and your grandchildren forced to leave the country so as not to be swallowed up by the storm that took all of you.”

I looked deep into his eyes to see his reaction. He’s been screwed over, but, being a communist, he could well have resorted to any of the hackneyed formulas they’ve got. But he didn’t. He also looked at me inquisitively, essayed a smile that looked like a grimace and said, nodding: “You’re absolutely right, Osmel, that’s how I feel a lot of times, but I can’t accept that and I prefer to keep going. I’m still in the Party, I help out at the CDRs and I work with former combatants. If the other way of seeing things prevails, I’m finished and, at this stage in the game, I would rather “die the way I lived,” as Silvio Rodriguez suggests we do.

“But Silvio Rodriguez is a very rich man, while you, who were responsible for big projects in Cuba and abroad, can’t even get a subsidy to repair your home, which is about to collapse on top of you.”

“I built the Ministry of Defense building in Angola, I was quite the respected person there. I’ve never felt that way here.” He paused and concluded: “Now, my pension isn’t enough to put food on the table, and the woman who works at the pension office told me I was better off than she was.”

But some of his neighbors who have never worked a day in their lives are treated as “charity cases” and receive a subsidy. Talking about that irritated him a bit, but he quickly regained his pose.

The feeling of disenchantment prompted sarcasm in him and he said, referring to his medals: “Any day now, I’ll take these cheap metal trinkets to the recycling place. They’re completely useless and no one remembers how hard we worked to earn them.”

“It was different before. You didn’t even need money to get by. Today, everything is expensive and everyone gets the same exchange rate, it doesn’t matter whether you gave up a kidney for this revolution. The people they called traitors and left the country hated by everyone own the country today. They drive around in modern cars and enjoy everything here, because they have dollars.” He finished on a high note, however: “We’ll see what happens. Raul knows what he’s doing. Things will be better one day.”

Photo: Lisabeth Cadogan
Photo: Lisabeth Cadogan

I dared talk to him that way because I know he’s a good man. At certain points, I saw his eyes go glassy and I almost cried as well. Many a time, I come across hateful statements about communists. The same is true of the government, in the way they refer to those who are opposed to the revolution. They are labeled unpatriotic, mercenaries and even mobsters.

I’ve had a different experience in this regard. I have excellent friends with plenty of good qualities who are communists. Some are more radical than others. They are well aware of my neo-socialist ideas and we respect one another, while we continue to debate and differ on issues. Others are staunch enemies of socialism and we also debate without any problems.

One of them, who died tragically three years ago, was even pro-USA. “We have to give everything to the Yanks, they’re the best,” he would always say. We differed on that point, but I admired him for everything else about him.

I of course feel more comfortable among those who share my ideas, but I learn a lot from everyone and am pleased to be able to maintain a relationship with them, beyond our differences. That is the beautiful Cuba I dream of for the future.

My old communist friend needs to finish his life at peace with his own history and makes great efforts to avoid taking off the gloves. I understand his situation. My nephew is the product of our turbulent and mad times. It is our duty to keep him from being dragged along by uncertainty.

Two different generations that share the common denominator of all that have lived under the revolution in this past half century: they have become lost, and will continue to do so, if we don’t see real and positive change in Cuba. That’s the sad truth.

5 thoughts on “Cuba with Two Generations, One Reality

  • Nice article, and telling. It’s funny that in the United States, “serving your country” almost invariably means joining the military to shoot sophisticated weapons from a safe distance at poor people in foreign lands w/ strategic or economic importance. Maybe you come home, or not, maybe w/ ptsd, or not, maybe to find a decent job, or not. There is, ironically very little glory in it,nor reason to be proud. No wonder such immense and constant efforts have to be made, quite successfully, to convince us that these working class canon fodder are somehow protecting our freedom from communists, jihadis, ect who inexplicably want to invade and destroy us b/c they hate our “freedoms”. The Cuban/Communist version has its deceits and failures as well, but on the whole its trabajo voluntario, literacy campaigns, internationalist missions, are incomparably more noble and benign than anything Capitalist society give one the opportunity to participate in. El viejo can die knowing that he tried to make the world a better place and he deserves honor and respect for his sacrifice.

  • Your post show that you are a good person who has empathy for those who gave so much–and have received so little (though perhaps I am mistaken; perhaps he feels that, despite his poverty and the lack of appreciation by both the government and the younger generations, he feels that his efforts and sacrifices were worthwhile). Considering the crime and violence of Cuba’s neighbors, the Revolution has had some really positive effects. Your story reminds me of a German film about a GDR militant who falls into a coma and years later, when she wakes up, her son tries to convincingly recreate the GDR as if it still existed in order that his mother not die of a broken heart. The film is both comedy and tragedy. In any event, I hope Cuba’s future contains a synthesis of the best qualities of both socialism and capitalism. Consider the alternatives up here. Would Trump be so popular (at least amongst the white working-class and lower-middle-class native-born sectors of the population) if our system was working? Conversely, would Bernie be so popular, amongst the young, if our system was functional?

  • Many of my Canadian friends did not go further than high school but knew how to work and many are worth multi millions. Most made it in fishing and invested their money in houses. It must be remembered Cuba is still back in the 1950’s and there is great opportunities for those that work hard and smart.

  • My wife’s grandfather is exactly the same as the elderly man in this post. If my wife didn’t send him his blood pressure medicine, he would die. The medicine is available in Cuba but a monthly supply costs 3X more than his monthly pension. Yet, he believes Cuban medicine is the best in the world.

  • Communism has failed. A new model that blends state socialism and a market sector is emerging. Central control economics just does not work. Markets can be regulated. Taxes can be used to fund public goods. A country needs to feed and shelter itself. Any system that can not at least provide for these minimal things ends.

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