Learning How to Live in Cuba

Yusimi Rodriguez

How do people change like this? Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, April 3 – I’ve always thought of Avelino as one of the most upright and morally consistent people I’ve ever known.  He’s also one of those who identify most with the Revolution.

I think of him as the model rank-and-file member of the Communist Party of Cuba, someone who never missed a speech by our leader, who studied Marxism-Leninism in depth, didn’t miss a single day of volunteer work, regretted not having participated in the “Harvest of ‘70 —only because he was not in the country— though its goal of ten million tons of sugarcane was not achieved.

He was the type who didn’t permit religion to be spoken of or practiced in his home (until it stopped being an impediment to Party admission and later when the Pope visited us).  He was someone who would confront anybody who dared to criticize our revolutionary process.

Until the early 90s his work kept him outside the county most of the time.  However, when the Special Period economic crisis hit, that situation changed. This was when he began working in the food service industry as the assistant manager of a restaurant.

During this time it became more difficult than usual to get things, particularly food (not to mention articles so basic as soap, detergent, deodorant or shampoo).  Meat, for example, as well as rice, oil and even bread —to cite only a few items— were almost impossible to obtain.  To work in a place where you had access to those things was the Cuban equivalent of standing at the gates to heaven.

It was taken for granted that if you worked in a restaurant your home wouldn’t be short of cooking oil, at the very least.  But this was not the case with Avelino.  In his house they continued to lack everything.  As a member of the Party he had to set the example and—going even further— he had to fight the corruption he saw all around.  His wife told him: “You better learn how to live.  Up till now you were never here, but this is the reality.  Let others take what they need and you too grab what you can.”

All the same, Avelino remained faithful to his convictions.  When he discovered that other employees were stealing, be reported this to his boss, who was also a member of the Communist Party.  Yet when he realized that his boss too was “in the family,” Avelino took the next step and reported him to the local delegate, who was likewise a member of the Communist Party.  The delegate sent several inspectors to the cafeteria, where they found a great amount of money and goods missing.  But guess who lost their job as well as their membership card to the Communist Party of Cuba: Avelino.

The years passed.  Avelino worked at several places and finally got a position as a manager of an auto parts shop.  I was in that area recently so I stopped by to see him.

We started talking about the educational system, each of us sharing stories about people we know who were giving classes without being properly trained or teachers accepting bribes to pass students.

Is this what awaits us all? Photo: Caridad

However, I was thrilled to be able to tell him about a young woman I know who’s been a teacher in a secondary school for more than ten years and has never accepted a bribe or passed anyone who didn’t have the knowledge.  She’s well respected in her municipality, I told him.

In fact she had been proposed for an important position in the school because people such as her are needed to again raise the standards of our educational system.  I told Avelino I was excited that in our country there existed the aim of reversing the negative things that have developed in recent times.

Avelino’s response was that my young teacher acquaintance was an idiot.  “If she doesn’t take bribes she’s going to starve to death, because salaries in education or any other field aren’t enough to make ends meet.  And if she accepts the position she’s doubly stupid.  Here they tell you they want to put an end to corruption, but that’s all a smokescreen.  This country lives off corruption, and the government knows it.  That woman needs to do like everybody else and take what’s hers.”

I realized that Avelino has learned “how to live,” like his wife had told him – only that now she’s no longer his wife.

How does all this happen?  How do people change like this?

More than sadness, I felt fear. The impossibility of changing things doesn’t frighten me so much as conformity…being convinced that you shouldn’t even try to change things.  When you get used to living off corruption, even if it’s low-level, you don’t feel like you have the right or the moral standing to criticize what’s done by those above you, you just adapt.

The worst thing is that I was hearing this from Avelino, and every time I tried to rebut him, he left me with no argument.  He believed and he sacrificed; he lived the story that I described in this post, he’s witnessed it.

Being almost twice my age, he told me, “You’re very naive,” as I felt my soul shrink.  Is this what’s in store for me?  Is this what awaits us all?  We really can’t change things?  Please, someone, tell me he’s mistaken.

3 thoughts on “Learning How to Live in Cuba

  • What a sad, enlightening, sad, sad article. Yusimi, you write brilliantly.

    We transformationaries need to i.d. the root cause of bureaucratic degeneration and social corruption in all countries that have tried to carry out “socialist construction.” To paraphrase what grok said in another article in this edition of HT, little seems to have been learned from the uniform failures of “existing socialism.”

    I’m part of a new movement that traces the root cause of the uniform degeneration and corruption to the theoretical Marxian foundation for building a post-capitalist society. That foundation is explicit in the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto, especially the last two pages of that chapter.

    By establishing “concentration of all the instruments of production in the hands of the state” as a fundamental principle, rather than as a hypothesis for experimentation, Engels and Marx locked future socialist efforts into a dysfunctional, nonsensical mess.

  • This is simply a material effect of the failure of socialism in the rest of the World — but most especially the effect of the yanki blockade of Cuba. The U.S. oligarchy know very well that this is the sort of demoralizing effect they want to produce in Cuba thru the many mechanisms and knock-on effects of their relentless assault on the cuban economy.

    It’s a mistake to recognize the personal, concrete effects of these phenomena — and then leave it at that. If you don’t step back and take in the bigger picture, you not only are not doing a proper marxist analysis — you are simply drawing the wrong conclusions. Which is the same thing. Unfortunately, too many people in Cuba — and on this publication — are doing precisely that. And so the yanki blockade continues to work its mischief, as intended.

    As I have stated a few times here: your only possible way out — short of the re-igniting of revolutionary ferment in the World — is thru the ALBA federation.

  • If only Avelino, like the principal character of Voltaire’s novel, had kept repeating that: “This is the best of all possible worlds.” Alas! He has turned from a Candide into a pessimist, like Martin. We live in times where we are “loosing our religion,” yet in its place neither consumerism nor acquisitiveness offer much salvation, and we are too shrewd to embrace the supernatural beliefs of our ancestors. Can Art and Literature be our new religion? Yet the best of both have always been connected with something greater than “art for art’s sake.” Accounts like this depress me, yet these draughts must be quaft down, likea bitter liquor. My prayer? That the Cuban Revolution will not sink in a sea of pettines and corruption, that somehow new generations will arrise to renew it. If some, like Avelino, looses heart, others will take up the batton in history’s never-ending marathon.

Comments are closed.