By Diego Cobian from Vancouver, Canada*
HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 24 — We hadn’t seen each other in years. I glimpsed her among the hurried passengers arriving on the last flight, but I hardly recognized her. With hair that was completely white and her faced totally withered, I watched her from a distance as an airline employee helped her into a wheelchair and then pushed her to the baggage claim area.
With effort she was able to stand up, supporting her years with a cane I’d never seen before. As I was looking at her, what came to my mind were the dramatic documentaries of Estela Bravo on families divided by the ninety miles of politics and pride that lie across the Florida Strait. I had never suspected that at this bend in the road I too would find myself in the ranks of those who had left, leaving an empty seat at my place for Sunday dinner.
My grandmother’s lens had always been quite different from mine. She is part of the generation that spent their best years constructing the revolution in line with the orders and advice of its olive-green-uniformed “maximum leader.” Though I was still just a kid, I vividly remember her enthusiasm and desire to do everything necessary to strengthen the revolutionary process.
Harvests, voluntary labor, long nights doing guard-duty, and marches, repudiation meetings, military training, political discussions and even self-assertive comparisons of the situation before and after 1959 had become her life’s resume. To me, however, it always seemed that the revolution had unnecessarily gone too far and at too high a price. But through her binoculars, and generally through those of all my family, the revolution had not only been necessary, but rather it had also convinced them — with so much repetition of its message — that living while confronting the neighbors to the north was the only road to Cuba’s survival.
We left the airport, walking slowly as we laughed and hugged, while I barely managed to recall the long list of all the things we had to talk about and that we were bringing up in parts but without finishing any of them. She told me that after so many years of absence, my Spanish accent was different, that I was whiter, fatter and older, and — a few days ago when we talked in a café — she interrupted me with indignation to tell me that I’d also become more of a gusano (a counter-revolutionary maggot). I have to admit, embarrassingly enough, that she was right on all those counts.
Hiding behind a guilty laugh, I shifted the direction of our conversation, trying to prevent some of my comments from upsetting her. After I saw the grimace on her face, we talked about the coffee from here, which tastes like old, bitter, reheated grounds; we talked about how everything is so clean here, how the streets are so quiet and always deserted of people; how the sun is so timid, perpetually hidden behind a gray mantel of clouds; about the houses with two slopes, almost all the same as if they were children of the same father; about how close the Americans are, barely at the end of the street, and about the constant cold that boldly slips through the buttonholes of one’s coat.
Exchanging our stories, not long went by before we returned to find ourselves at another of those intersections where there are only two roads. Either we could turn to the right, where one has the freedom to say what they think, or we could turn to the left, to continue in harmony with the premeditated speech of the Commander-in-chief.
However, this time I decided to pause like someone who doesn’t know which way to choose, and I asked her where she thought the revolution was going today. Her three-word response was simple and unexpected. She didn’t know. They had changed direction so many times and said so many different and contradictory things that she had begun to simply focus on survival, she elaborated. Notwithstanding, she had no doubts about defending the revolutionary process. She still thinks the Castros are the best path for solving Cuba’s problems, that there exists a dignity that cannot be lost and that the shortages she has experienced don’t bother her because somehow they were necessary and were the fault of Yankee imperialism.
She assured me that the Zapata had died because of his stubborn determination to refuse to eat, which is the same thing but the other way around. She had no idea of who Guillermo Fariñas was, nor did she know that he had been granted the Sakharov Prize in Europe. She had heard something about the prisoners of the Group of 75, but she told me that they had decided to emigrate to Spain on their own, which is true – halfway. On the possibility of an exchange of seventy-five prisoners in Cuba for five spies jailed in the north, she told me that from the beginning it was clear that the island wouldn’t accept such a deal, though that doesn’t agree with what was suggested by Hector Maseda in his prison diary.
She also told me that the public health care system works and that she knows so first hand because she uses it often. “If we don’t have all the resources, the blockade is to blame,” she insisted. She has no idea of what kind of shape the island’s economy is in, but she feels it can’t be doing too poorly because there’s food, which surprised me. Moreover, even retirees have seen their pension increase in recent times and that for better or worse everybody is managing to get by, something I had already imagined.
However, there are details that she’s unable to understand, and nor do I. When the Canadian government issued her a visa to visit me this winter, she thought she could catch the next airplane and take her vacation without having to be accountable to anyone, like it should be. But she was frustrated when she discovered that Cuba reserves the right to prevent any of its citizens from leaving or staying in the country. “They’ve not only robbed you of that right,” I explained, “but they make me pay for it, and it’s not cheap.”
Canada issued her a visa in 20 days; Cuba took more than two months to finally grant her its insulting exit permit. I also told her that she is being rented for her trip because the island’s government forces me to pay it a monthly tax for the time that she’s here with me, which was another surprise that drew an expression of shock on her face.
“It wasn’t even me who invited you to visit grandmother,” I told her gently, not hiding the truth but nor trying to hurt her either. “The Cuban state doesn’t allow me to renounce its citizenship and nor does it allow me as a Canadian to visit you. Therefore I had to ask a foreign friend to intercede with my country of origin to be able to bring you here. To me it’s apparent that Havana is making a lot of money off this business of separated families,” I commented to her. The more people that leave the island, the government has less problems and generates more money from flights, letters of invitation, phone calls and remittances.
During the days that followed, and taking advantage of each circumstance I continued to ask her how things were going in Cuba, trying to get her to update me to the extent her tolerance would allow. What caught my attention was how much she knew about one version of history and how incredibly little she knew about the other. Cubans on the island aren’t even familiar with their own government, and nor do they need to be since they don’t have a chance to elect it.
I introduced her to the Internet and its tremendous capacity to access uncensored information about anything anyone wants to know. I showed her the newspaper and she read it with pure distrust, as if she already knew they would lie or give completely different information about Cuba.
She was surprised that Huber Matos was still alive and what he said about the revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos. She told me that the Ladies in White are a bunch of nearly invisible troublemakers who few see, and that in her opinion Cubans in Miami are neither Cuban nor are they entitled to any say about Cuba.
Likewise, all of the American presidents are scoundrels who refuse to sell the island food or medicine, while Hugo Chavez is the latest God since there are no blackouts in Havana thanks to him. But it was impossible for her to tell me how Cuba pays for its oil or imports; she doesn’t know the GDP of her country, she didn’t know that Cuba had an enormous foreign debt nor why the country functions with two different currencies or what is the actual value of either of the two.
She would like to stay, she admitted a few days ago when talking about her return. This was not only because this could be the last time we see each other, but also because — leaving politics aside — it’s natural for anyone to aspire to live like we do here. But the island and its past place certain demands, like a religion. There’s no way in the world that she would put her name on the blacklist of those who betrayed the Revolution, though she probably neither knows why or who’s idea it was to create such an opportune list.
She needs the Commandant’s speeches to justify her life, like I need my morning coffee to justify mine. She probably doesn’t miss a single Mesa Redonda (the prime time round table program), just like she doesn’t miss her evening telenovela, and certainly she believes everything they tell her, without being given a chance to first question it. In fact, to question is not a word defined in the revolutionary Cuban dictionary, and even if this weren’t the case, they only have one source of information on the island: The same one that pays for, publishes, censors and publishes that dictionary and all the other news.
I know all about missing one’s family; I’ve spent almost ten years in this training. I am not going to visit the island because there is a lack of any guarantees and also because I try to avoid anything that finances Castro’s recalcitrance. My family is the price and they have calculated it well.
I cannot be convinced that Cubans are no more than peons in their strategy of survival, one which is now financed by the same “scum” who they once shouted down in the middle of Revolution Square saying that they didn’t want or need them. When a politician loses the capacity to be leader, he has no other alternative than to accept the advantage of using little hidden cheat sheets with the answers to the test, something that I learned a long time ago, when I almost didn’t pass the second grade.
An authorized Havana Times translation from the original that appeared in Spanish on cubaencuentro.com.