By Hilda Landrove
HAVANA TIMES — A few weeks ago now, the online Cuban community was shocked by a video made by Diego Dreyfus, a Mexican actor turned “personal development” guru who shared his opinion about freedom, the lie that capitalism sells you about freedom and, in contrast, the real existence of freedom in the paradise that is Cuba because of the Cuban people’s capacity to live without material needs. All of this while standing in the middle of a street in Old Havana and its corresponding dose of dramatic excess.
The heart of his logic argues that the Cuban people’s happiness lies in the absence of desire or anxiety due to the related absence of technology. This is perhaps the weakest point in his argument, if not the most utterly wrong in the entire video.
Comfortably positioned in his view as a tourist, he expects this superficial, passing impression to be enough to give an account and his opinion about something which he only understands by looking at laughing children who walk through the frame of the video and the ones that he calls at the end, with a triumphant expression, to share the complete scene.
You only need to be briefly immersed in the Cuban people’s everyday life to realize that an absence of desire for any kind of technological device and novelty products on the market doesn’t exist. Their anxiety for technology is almost proportional to its absence and, like reggaeton, part of the Cuban youth’s collective imagination.
Dreyfus, and a considerable number of tourists who arrive in Cuba, leave out the obvious, maybe so as not to question the “island stuck in time’s” morbid glamor which makes a city and life in ruins so attractive.
His argument continues to compare an alleged state of existential happiness which Cuba supposedly represents and it proves the illusory quality of freedom in capitalism.
He notes that in a world saturated with material things, slavery lies in the illusion that you can access happiness or fulfillment via these and it therefore, essentially, produces a sea of anxious slaves who chase after the latest cell phone and walk about waiting for the crumbs of a time that they never reach.
He takes his own example and says: “even me, using two watches, what an idiot.” The argument he presents isn’t that elaborate as it seems once it’s summarized, but this is the main idea. Plus, the entire video has all the dramatics to imply an appeal to the viewer to wake up and realize their own slavery, rather than reflect upon the concept of freedom.
In order to do this, he constantly asks: are you free? And he gives some reasons which justify the implicit response: No, you aren’t free, unlike these Cubans who are happy in their misery, while the emotional tone of the video escalates and ends with tears and sobbing (which of course couldn’t be left out).
As I discovered in later conversations when several friends repeated: “but he’s right about freedom”; while the first argument is so obvious and false that it doesn’t leave a lot of space for controversy, it isn’t that simple to disregard the second argument and say it’s useless.
However, the problem doesn’t lie in each of these arguments separately, but in these arguments together. That freedom doesn’t depend on consumption levels, that capitalism isn’t the option that can solve everything, that you can be awfully miserable in the middle of apparent wealth and this can hide a less obvious form of slavery, but it’s just as harmful as any other, they don’t need lies just like happiness doesn’t organically stem from misery; and much less that this happiness palpably materializes in Cubans on the island. However, we will have to thank Dreyfus for the video’s inherent contradiction, for making a discussion we need come to light, a discussion we need to constantly be having.
The discussion we should be having is about an understanding which conceives freedom as a power which is always put in practice but is never realized completely, where freedom is understood as the existential search and growth, and a freedom which is limited, which exhausts its dictionary definition: “the people’s ability and right to choose their own way to act in a society” and “a person’s state or condition who is free, who isn’t in jail or subjected to someone else’s will, nor constrained by an obligation, duty, discipline, etc.”
In the passionate defense of the many so-called personal freedoms, free market and democracy as the final solution to humanity’s problems, this kind of understanding argues that if freedom entails not being socially restricted, then all you need to do is enforce a set of rights and the result will, necessarily, be a free society.
It’s easy to recognize the limits that this implies, and there are many consistent questionings of what freedom is; maybe the most important of these being the one that reveals that x system needs a series of functional values to be imposed, like competition or individualism.
However, recognizing this doesn’t mean the opposite, that the absence of basic freedoms, which are understood to be any human being living in society’s inalienable right, aren’t important and much less that these aren’t necessary.
This is precisely where Dreyfus went wrong. Recognizing that freedom doesn’t end, that it doesn’t lie where the liberal world of rights and consumerism wants it to, doesn’t legitimize holding a people down in misery and without access to a series of essential and basic freedoms; it just means that this isn’t enough and that we can aspire to more.
Glorifying or thinking that a country, which has systematically limited a majority’s rights in order to benefit an authoritarian elite, is glamorous and beautiful does very little to the very idea of freedom.
In addition, thinking that happiness is proof of the people’s conformity with the conditions they live in is disrespectful to this same people that Dreyfus just took a tiny snapshot of in order to construct his incoherent speech.
Ending the video with an image of him surrounded by these happy children can’t be coincidence or that, in his own country, he takes another position and tries to convince us of money’s good nature, giving us techniques so as to acquire it.