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.
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.