Spanish Brigade Member’s Perceptions on Cuba (II)

“Everything has an end, nothing lasts forever,” as goes the song by Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe.

Pablo Ivan Romero Rovetta

HAVANA TIMES — Outside the offices of the Cuban Friendship Institute (ICAP), I said goodbye to my closest fellow brigade members with whom I had shared the first part of my stay in Cuba. They climbed in the taxi that took them to the airport, while I stayed behind to pack my luggage after watching them disappear.

Spanish Brigade Member’s Perceptions on Cuba (Part 1)

A Cuban friend who had seemed upbeat and sincere led me to my new home in Vedado. For anyone who’s never been to Cuba, I recommend the option of renting a room, which isn’t only more economical but can give you the chance of living in an ordinary house with a typical family, bringing you closer to Cuba than staying in some hotel room.

The brigade members had asked me why I was staying ten extra days in Havana when I could have taken advantage of the time to visit other cities such as Trinidad and Villa Clara.

What’s certain is that I wasn’t interested in tourism. I had come to get to learn about real Cuban life (to the degree possible) and Havana seemed like a city that was worth settling into during my stay. In this way I could take my time and get to know it.

On the porch of the building, in the Vedado neighborhood, a huge sign with the pictures of the Cuban Five would greet me every morning (“Cuba is your home!” it read), and another one of Fidel and Raul greeting me daily with the message “Unity and Victory.”

Time in Havana goes along at a different pace than in the countryside. I felt freer, things were more relaxed and I had the opportunity to hang out with Cubans and talk with a lot of people. The variety of opinions and outlooks was wide, in contrast to the simple left/right duality presented by the media in both Cuba and Spain.

The second night I finally got to meet Isbel, Jimmy, Erasmo and Irina. They asked me about the brigade while we drank a few beers in a square in Vedado. Following that, we all hung out for much of my stay, allowing them to give me their vision of Cuba, which I considered interesting.

The next day they took me to an independent children’s project created by an artist couple. Finally, in this liberal environment, I felt like a fish in water.

We were also accompanied by a couple of US anarchists from San Diego. We all took advantage of this mix to spend the whole afternoon in Almendares Park exchanging our opinions and talking about politics in general.

The people associated with the Critical Observatory didn’t mince their words. Their criticism was tough, direct, and made me rethink a lot of things that really are difficult to accept for a person on the left.

One night, drinking rum on the Malecon with some of the people still there from the brigade and several Cubans who we had met at the CIJAM camp, we got into a conversation with a rapper who was smoking a cigar and drinking rum. Between the alcohol and a few rhymes (I too am a rapper) we talked about Cuba.

He defended some things — like free health care and education, and how he was convinced that there wasn’t a single child in Cuba who doesn’t get an education — but otherwise he was highly critical.

He criticized the restrictions on leaving the country, censorship, absurd wages and how he had been picked up the night before for talking with a foreigner.

The rapper called himself a follower of Camilo Cienfuegos, and said he firmly believed that Fidel betrayed both him and Che.

“…revolution is changing everything that needs to be changed…”

“The Titanic sank in the middle of the Atlantic and they found it, but Camilo sank right here off the coast and they never found a trace,” he said.

Then, after reeling off a whole repertoire of homophobic jokes, he finally said something that stuck in my mind, though it had been bouncing around in there before. What he said was, “Actually health care and education aren’t free; you pay for them with your life.”

More than one Cuban had hinted to me about things like this. We can say that no one is excluded from the educational system for economic reasons, but their education isn’t “free.” The government doesn’t give anything away for free.

As a socialist, I feel good that they apply the profit from people’s labor for social purposes, for funding public services, but the absurdity of Cuba is that people’s wages aren’t enough for them to even eat.

With salaries at around $15 a month (an amount that does if fact stretch farther than in any other country, but nevertheless still isn’t enough to live on), people have to “invent” in the street in order to buy beans or whatever. Also, given the travel ban aimed at preventing the muscle and brain drain (or “theft,” as Fidel would say), we can’t say that these services are really free in Cuba.

This isn’t the situation for all of the people who for years have benefited from the educational and public health systems, but I believe that there’s systemic problem. I’m critical because — like the slogans on the walls of Havana reminded me — “Revolution means changing everything that must be changed” – right?

“Fifty years ago here there was a dictatorship, and Fidel and others fought against it. Now we have another dictatorship and it’s up to us to struggle like they did. I’m not leaving,” he said. He left me his telephone number but I wasn’t able to find him again.

During the time I was in Havana I realized certain things that I think a common tourist doesn’t. Many tourists often say that there’s freedom of expression in Cuba because people on the street talk to them and criticize the government.

Ignoring the fact that freedom of expression should be more than being able to speak on the street, the truth is that I realized that this wasn’t even entirely true. In many cases the people I was around had to speak more quietly or shut up completely if another person was nearby when we were talking about something “delicate.”

I went to a number of bookstores, where I was amazed by the prices of the books. I purchased a number of works that in Spain are very difficult or almost impossible to find. However, I saw that these same books were everywhere. Plus, there was no variety in the social and political literature.

What I found were Cuba: Territory Free of Illiteracy, The Diary of a Guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro in the Face of Natural Disasters, The Bay of Pigs Invasion, etc.

Another brigade member had a lot of questions about the country too. To her there were many good things but many other things that didn’t add up or make sense. I invited her to a meeting with members of the Critical Observatory to at least hear a different version from that of CIJAM’s and to draw her own conclusions.

We met in a dilapidated house in the Marianao neighborhood, where I talked to the Cubans there about the “15-M”or “movement of the indignant” in neighborhoods in Madrid and how that movement functioned. It was a good day, relaxed, but there was something that had everyone nervous.

Five grams of pure cocaine had “magically” appeared in the home of Mario Castillo, who quickly reported the finding to the police. This event has already been criticized by the Critical Observatory in its blog (in Spanish).

Although they claimed to have never seen anything like that before, it was inevitable that they were on edge for possible attempts to criminalize the movement.

My last day was spent in Alamar with Erasmo and Irina in a family atmosphere; as usual, we talked about politics and society in Cuba and Spain. It was sad to see the day turn dark and to witness my last afternoon on the island. We walked almost two miles from East Havana to catch a bus to take us through the tunnel under the bay. Riding with us were dozens of families and young people returning from having spent Sunday at the beach.

I quickly said goodbye to Erasmo in front of the Capitolio Building, caught another bus to Vedado, and got off at G Street among a mosaic of “urban tribes” (emos, punk rockers and such). I left my things at home and came out again, this time to say goodbye to Havana.

I was walking by myself, but since it was late I couldn’t call anyone at their home and no one was going to answer me on their cellphone. I bought a Mayabe-brand beer and sat out on the Malecon seawall facing both the US Interests Office and the Anti-imperialist Plaza to watch the sea so that I could try to jot down a few lines.

“I’m saying goodbye on my last night in Havana, watching the sea from the Malecon. Behind me are Cuban flags, in front of me are dreams of immigration,” I wrote, while sitting there confused. I was thinking of everything I had seen and experienced during that past month.

In Cuba I had seen a governance model different from ours. It had its own specific problems, while at the same time not being exempt from the problems we suffer. It also has good things, like other models have their own good things.

I agree that it’s probably the “least inequitable country in the Americas,” where it seems to me that even the elites are limited by the system (“upscale” Miramar neighborhood is hardly comparable to the private wealthy neighborhoods in other Latin American countries), and though there is poverty and hunger, I didn’t find that desperate misery I’ve seen elsewhere.

It’s an extremely safe country, and that gave me a sense of tranquility despite everything.

It seemed important to me that the government subsidizes basic commodities, there’s easy access to culture (as long as it doesn’t rile the system, of course) and almost a zero level of indigence (though there is indeed substandard housing and overcrowding).

I think that repression in Cuba is very subtle but effective. I got a sense that the civilian population was suffocating. It was ironic that on a continent like Latin America, so rich in social movements, that Havana conveyed a sense of immobility.

Anyone who sticks out from the norm or creates waves within the state structure (which sometimes means disagreeing with it) will see themself gradually stigmatized to the point of triggering harassment or them being labeled a “mercenary,” etc.

One Cuban student told me that there’s no personality cult in Cuba because there are no large statues of Fidel or streets named after him.

Clearly, if a “cult of personality” is synonymous only with North Korea, then Cuba doesn’t fall into that category. Nevertheless I still got the impression that a form of it exists. Portraits of Fidel and Raul are everywhere: in stores, offices, schools, day care centers, jobs, government buildings, etc.

His quotations adorn walls and billboards. Everything good in the country emanates from them, as if they’re divine sources of some kind.

I understand that during decades of revolutionary fervor, many people admired and loved Fidel in a spontaneous and sincere manner. But when you’ve educated generations to admire his image, this isn’t something we can call natural or spontaneous – it’s simple indoctrination.

But of course, I couldn’t even remotely say that Cuba is the most repressive country in the Americas, as is claimed by the right-wing media in my country. On a continent where there are people like the former genocidal Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Cuba doesn’t come off looking too bad. But still, the crimes of others don’t absolve one of their own responsibilities.

We can say that Cuba isn’t the worst system, but less bad doesn’t mean it’s good. I can’t expect Cubans to accept their situation because “the rest of the world is worse.”

As a whole, I can’t defend the Cuban government because I think it is negative at the root: a single vertical, hierarchical party (how many convinced young communists have left because they were ignored?), and top-down hierarchical institutions, as well as a top-down, hierarchical system of production.

Cuba is an authoritarian state. The propaganda is obvious and stifling. It is noteworthy more for its repetitive character more than for its quantity (we’re probably bombarded with more propaganda in Spain).

The travel restrictions are shameful. The preferential treatment that tourists have enjoyed for such a long time is embarrassing.

Surveillance. I had the sense of this being a monitored society, between the CDRs and State Security (which, as I learned later, I was “lucky” to have on my side, presumably, for a couple of days in Havana). The government has eyes and ears on every corner.

There are military elites, which is something everyone knows. And where there exists an elite, there also exist those who live from the system as it is. And while there exists a class that depends on things not changing, it will strive to ensure that things don’t change… or that they change to its members’ advantage.

As Engels said in Anti-Dühring that “So long as the really working population were so much occupied with their necessary labor that they had no time left for looking after the common affairs of society — the management of labor, state affairs, legal matters, art, science, etc. — so long was it necessary that there should constantly exist a special class, freed from actual labor, to manage these affairs; this class never failed, for its own advantage, to impose a greater and greater burden of labor on the working masses.”

I think this paragraph, which refers to the origin of social classes, is perfectly applicable to today’s Cuba, and thus the root cause of human exploitation remains.

I think Cuba has not broken with the logic of capitalism. It is state capitalism, which may confront international capital (at least in theory) but behind closed doors it hasn’t essentially changed the way it operates.

Moreover, as Che was able to see there in the 1960s, if you accept some basic pillars of capitalism but not its rules of the game (the market) you will be doomed to a hybrid and ineffective economy.

I think there is a different form of exploitation in Cuba. I don’t consider it a state that is more “gentle” than others or that its leaders are more honest.

I came away with a more or less well formed impression, though I’m aware of the complexity of the situation in any country, and most of Cuban life is full of contradictions. I don’t live there; I can’t give lessons to anyone, but I cannot hide what I’ve seen or felt, though in the end this is merely my own subjective assessment.

I tried to listen to all the opinions I could. Still, except with those people who were close to me and with whom I trusted, I didn’t argue with anyone (I didn’t consider it legitimate for me to do so). I didn’t debate with those who dream of living in Miami or with those who defend the Cuban government and trust in its good intentions.

The conclusions of this article are the result of trying to put together all the pieces of this puzzle of Cuba that I collected over a month. I hope I’ll be at least minimally successful.

I left the island with several bitter feelings. On the one hand, I was saddened to see a people who had fought for so long, who had been battered by so many people (from their own governments to those of the United States and of other countries), a people that has gone through such difficult situations as the Special Period crisis and continues to either stagnate or take one step forward and two steps back.


On the other hand I know that I’ll miss that country. Its 1950s Chevrolets, pizzas in the street, its juices and sodas for a peso, its people, its landscape and the magical light of Havana at dawn or at sunset, its painted houses, “Chan Chan” and reggaeton, its streets of numbers and letters, its accent; its “candela,”  “pinga” and “asere.” (And a warning to the potential tourist who reads these lines: the tap water and sodas bought in the street can have their consequences: I returned to Madrid with parasites.)

And above all, I left many people for whom I developed tremendous affection. I have the good fortune of being able to send and receive email with some, while I’m forced to communicate with others through postcards. Still, it hurts me to think that perhaps I’ll never see most of them again. There are too many stories and people to fit them all into articles like this.

My flight took off at midnight from Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport exactly four weeks after the members of the Friendship Institute came to pick us up. Time passes so quickly? It’s frustrating.

Viva Cuba Libre”! (Although no one really knows what that means).


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