Spanish Brigade Member’s Perceptions on Cuba

Pablo Ivan Romero Rovetta

Pablo

HAVANA TIMES — After spending a month in Cuba, Erasmo (who I consider a friend) suggested that I write about my experiences there in an article for Havana Times. As a regular reader of the website, the idea excited me, but I wasn’t quite sure what I could convey beyond a few subjective impressions of a foreigner trying to discover what was true about Cuban “socialism.”

The Brigade

I landed at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport on the night of July 3, along with six other activists. We were received by members of ICAP (the Cuban Friendship Institute), who helped us get through customs with our baggage and over 300 pounds of materials (medical supplies, sports equipment and stationery) sent by the Bartolome de las Casas Spanish-Cuban Friendship Association in Madrid. A nearly empty bus took us to our destination: the Julio Antonio Mella International Camp (CIJAM), in Artemis Province outside of the capital.

An overwhelming sea of emotions swept over me when, traveling along the dark highway, I saw the first houses…the first people. “I’m in Cuba!” I said to myself…“Cuba, the hope of the world”…the country in which virtually everyone on the left around the world puts their faith, heart and energy. This was the country that I had spent so much time planning to learn, trying to understand it through everything I could get my hands on. Now I was looking at the first propaganda billboards.

Our lodging was at the camp, which was pretty basic. The rest of our brigade had arrived two days earlier, so the whole program had already started. Murals of Che, Marti, the Cuban 5 and other iconography of the Cuban Revolution made it clear where we were. A friend, excited, said to me, “We’re finally stepping on socialist soil.” But I wasn’t so sure… I’d have to see what I’d find.

The next day we got up at 5:45 a.m. On the speakers they play the sound of a rooster and a series of songs to help us wake up, ones like “Guajira Guantanamera” (which we ended up hating owing to the sheer repetition of it), “Yolanda,” “Fusil contra fusil” (Rifle against Rifle) and “La Victoria” by Sara Gonzalez, etc.

We had breakfast — which consisted of coffee, a boiled egg and a piece of dry bread (with butter or mayonnaise if you were lucky) — before getting ready to go work in the fields. They had us get in a wagon that was pulled by a tractor that took us to the cooperative in the town close by, Guayabal, where we all pulled up weeds by hand the whole morning.

I wondered how the cooperatives worked, whether they conformed to democratic principles and were directed by the participation and votes of the workers. I didn’t have time to ask though, but I’d soon understand that virtually nothing in Cuba escapes state control and a top-down hierarchy.

We were volunteer members of the European Jose Marti Brigade, a “solidarity-with-Cuba” organization, which is really one of many political activities that the Cuba government works with to give it a positive image to the world.

The aim is to present “Cuban reality” (the official version, of course), so that we later return to respective countries to organize support for the Castro government.

We participated in the brigade until July 20, doing volunteer labor in the fields of the cooperative or on the land of the camp itself including its self consumption plots. It wasn’t a killer job (four and a half hours a day wasn’t so bad), except for the omnipresent sun and the sweltering heat.

In the evenings we had the luck of getting to know Cuba itself…well, at least through lectures in the camp auditorium. True, they were interesting lectures, at least for those of us who came from other countries, but they were completely pro-government.

Still, one didn’t have to be that bright to realize that there were… gaps. Uncomfortable questions were dodged and indeed remained unanswered. I wondered, was it a question of the individual speakers or a common pattern in the operation of this little island?

The nights were practically shows for tourists. Groups would come to the camp playing Cuban music, people would drink rum that they bought at the store (which was cheaper than buying it on the street), along with Bucanero brand beers or mojitos from the bar.

When the live music ended, the evenings would continue with reggaeton and dozens of the tourist/brigade members dancing and celebrating. It was a nice atmosphere.

CIJAM is a small bubble. All the symbols of the regime are concentrated within it, including the barracks’ murals, banners, speeches and music. It’s a showcase of what many people expect to find in Cuba.

I know there were all kinds of people in the brigade. I know that many people were like me, somewhat skeptical in looking at what they saw. And I know that others believed strongly in the official line, in Fidel and the party, but at least they were consistent with their own communist morality.

Notwithstanding, I couldn’t help feeling that many people were attracted by the symbolism, and that they cared more about the aesthetics and the abstract meaning of what they were doing more than they did about the situation of the Cuban people. And CIJAM offered them just that – attractive symbols.

It allowed people to feel excited singing the “Internationale” in several languages, with fists raised while beneath palm trees and Cuban flags. It enabled them to talk about revolutionary heroes and solidarity between peoples.

It permitted them to feel like they were participating in what is often considered the last really socialist country (something not so difficult to achieve given what the others were). And all of this was provided to them without them having to face the not-so-pretty true face of the island.

During the political/touristic show, one thing that was a must was a tribute to the “Cuban Five, Prisoners of the Empire.” This was to take place on July 5. One of the political prisoners’ mothers was coming to visit and tell us her experience, so the camp director asked those of us in the Spanish brigade to do something as part of the event.

We didn’t know quite how to respond, so he told us that it would be good it we were to do some role playing or put on a little theatrical piece or something like that. So we came up with something half improvised the day before.

Nevertheless, when it came time for our presentation we found out that — magically — the skit that they had asked us to put on had been our idea from the very beginning and that it was something that we performed “at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol Square every fifth of the month.”

I had spent very little time on the island, and I was already worn out hearing about the Cuban 5. I’m not forgetting that this was a tragedy for them and their families, of course, but I think the Cuban government needed some new heroes to promote nationalism.

The staff organized an exhibition on the Cuban 5 at our CIJAM camp and told us that they were going to display it all over Cuba…even in prisons – and idea that blew out a chip in my brain. How the hell can you go to people who you’ve put in prison and talk about the wrongful conviction of “the Cuban Five”? How cynical can the Cuban government be?

Some of my friends and I were seeing too many things that they weren’t been able to hide from us.

The argument for justifying a single party and having a limited number of mass institutions is that there exists monolithic homogeneity among the Cuban people in relation to the revolutionary goal.

But all one has to do is talk to just a few people to realize that this just isn’t true. There are 11 million people and 11 million realities. Perhaps this homogeneity had more of a presence during the revolutionary fervor; but 50 years later — with new generations — I don’t think so, I’m sorry.

Another thing was the prices; these would drive us crazy. We could find super cheap products in local currency, which we assumed were state-subsidized; but the first time I walked into a shop that sold items in hard currency, I almost passed out.

How can a liter of milk cost more in Havana than in Madrid? And how can they consider products like shampoo or razor blades to be “luxuries”? Everything became even more unsettling when we learned that Cubans earn less than $20 a month (something they didn’t tell us in the discussions with the brigade).

Whose fault is this? The government? The blockade? The country’s poverty and lack of resources?

We didn’t understand Cuba.

We heard certain critical comments from Cubans concerning things like banned authors (who weren’t prohibited, but “simply” not sold in bookstores), State Security, voluntary actions which didn’t seem so voluntary, etc.

Sometimes we would leave CIJAM as a brigade. They took us to Havana, to Artemisa and we spent three nights in Pinar del Rio Province. We rode in Chinese Yutong buses escorted by the police. I don’t think the police escorted us for our safety, since this is one of the most peaceful countries in the Americas, yet there they were.

But what for? To stop Cuban traffic, getting Cubans out of our way so we could arrive on time and without problems to the ceremony of the day? We were embarrassed and mad.

At each site as we were received like an important delegation. In Havana, a military orchestra was waiting for us to place a wreath on the Jose Marti statue in Central Park. In other areas, coming out to greet us would always be a local party leader, a community representative or some foreign student who would sing a song while a small orchestra played “Hasta Siempre,” “Guajira Guantanamera” or, hopefully, “Chan Chan” or “El cuarto de Tula,” which sometimes seemed to be the only four songs ever composed on the island.

In Pinar del Rio they took us to see a cigar factory, a children’s day care center and a CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution).

The first was disappointing: people working for a few dollars a month in front of a portrait of Fidel, without even shift rotations or the power to make decisions. It was neither a cooperative nor a collectivized factory; it was the same logic of capitalist production — one of alienation — except that the function of the capitalist in this case was carried out by the state. The fact is, I don’t think those workers were any less alienated than those in the capitalist world.

At the day care center the feeling was different. It was a nursery, a real nice one, and very accessible. The children welcomed us with a little theatrical presentation with dancing and drawings that touched the emotional chords of all the brigade members.

To me it would have seemed like a normal nursery school, a decent one, if it hadn’t been for the huge portraits of Fidel and Raul at the entry, or the signs announcing “We Salute July 26!,” which, I suppose, were also drawn up voluntarily by three and four-year-old kids.

The night at the CDR was perhaps one of the best experiences. They took us to what were supposed to be the best committees in Pinar del Rio, where we were received by several charming old men and woman who provided us with fruit, coconut water, music and conversation.

The CDR, if it really works like they said, seemed to be one of the institutions with the most potential that I found in Cuba. But, like everything else, it had its dark side: state surveillance on each block and in each building.

On occasions I would debate (always good-naturedly) with the members of the brigade, but I’d get frustrated. Sometimes it seemed impossible to be critical of a leftist government, which one almost automatically assumes does everything with good intentions and while thinking about the well-being of the people.

It seems there’s nothing in Cuba deserving reproach. The good thing is that thanks to the government, whatever things are bad are either “well-intentioned errors” or the faults of others.

Cuban life is a simplified bipolarity between “revolutionaries” and “gusanos” (counterrevolutionaries, literally “worms” or “maggots”). Sometimes I was amazed by the officialist left’s ability to reject even the subtleties of corporate capitalist propaganda and yet blindly embrace the obvious Cuban “socialist” propaganda.

Anything negative was justified with the explanation that “the rest of the continent is even worse,” or rationalized by saying “yeah, but that happens in Spain too.”

However, Spain is a capitalist country and is against what I stand for. So if the country they’re trying to hold up as an alternative is making the same “mistakes,” what the hell am I fighting for?

Two and a half weeks as a member of the brigade was a confusing experience. Cuba generated many questions in me, such that I wound up not really understanding anything. I could see good things as well as bad things. Could the good be so good and bad be so bad?

I can’t conclude without mentioning the great people who work at the camp and in its surroundings – people like Yordan, the taxi driver from the neighboring village, who welcomed us like we had been lifelong friends; and the young students of international relations, solidly convinced of the good of the system but willing to give us their honest feedback about the problems of the country.

The second part of my trip would provide answers to many of my questions. In Havana, writers for Havana Times and members of the Critical Observatory were waiting to show me the other side of the coin…the other perspective of the Cuban left.


15 thoughts on “Spanish Brigade Member’s Perceptions on Cuba

  • I agree with all those who seem older in the comments, but could be younger in spirit than the writer of the article. I have a beloved friend, troubadour, not so popular, but among the best, as recognized by many of our best musicians and by the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers, who wrote a song about “people, who come to Cuba with a bag full of hand-me-downs and expect to get cheap tourism in exchange”. Unfortunately, we have met many of these. Not necessarily is Pablo one of them, I certainly hope he isn’t, but certainly I don’t know what he or other people expect to find here. These brigades weren’t initially created by Cuba. They were created out of solidarity to Cuba. The fact that the government has helped to sponsor them, doesn’t mean their only purpose is to have people “return to their respective countries to organize support for the Castro government”. Cubans also like to show (maybe even boast) what they have been able to achieve even after more than 50 years of blockade and sabotages from the US and old politicians living there; after more than 10 years from the fall of the Soviet Union, when we really touched bottom, during the Special Period. And then or now we don’t “suck any countries’ tits”. We pay our solidarity debt by educating professionals from other small and poor countries, we send doctors and professionals worldwide, and when countries like Haiti can’t pay, they don’t. When they can pay like Venezuela we buy their oil and gasoline. We have restored sight to hundreds if not thousands of blind people through the Miracle Operation. I know that our salaries being low, also has to do with that, but I’m happier for it. I remember as a small middle-class girl how I hated to see other children homeless, without education, shoes, their tummies full of parasites… There are many problems in Cuba, yes, I also suffer them and form them, but we surely don’t have those any more. I remember in the 1950’s when there were really no liberties and a young man would be killed just for being out late at night and young. I know young people never lived that and if there is something I sincerely wish for with all my heart, it is that all of those spoiled brats we have brought up in Cuba could easily visit other countries and see for themselves. Many are able to succeed abroad, thanks to the education received for free in Cuba, others don’t, and other really understand what is happening better and have a totally different standpoint. I’m not in Cuba at the moment, will be returning in less than a month. I can understand those who leave for economical reasons, searching for better opportunities. Not everyone has to be ready to voluntarily pay the toll of living in Cuba. But I hate it when they criticize Cuba, LEAVING SO MANY THINGS OUT OF THE PICTURE. I’m still happier to deal with our problems, than those of other countries. Although, I didn’t personally need a revolution; under capitalism I would have studied, most probably lived well as my Cuban-American schoolmates do today; I understand my country surely needed it and I fully support it. Just like I loved my parents (unfortunately both passed away already), although many times my opinions differed from theirs. Cubans, as a nation, have been dignified by the revolution, though I recognize the price has been very high. For many, like the Cuban Five, it was much higher than for me.

  • Not that two wrongs make a right (though maybe a “right-ist”) one wonders why Pablo is so negative about Cuba when back home in Spain the unemployment rate for those under 25 now approaches 50%, far worse than the rate of unemployment here in the States during the Great Depression (1930-1940)? I tend to agree with Okasis, and Lawrence W. Though Fidel and the Generation of ’59 have made many mistakes, at least they tried to do something about the plight of Cuba, and of all underdeveloped nations. It is easy to make pronunciomentos from a comfortable armchair; less so when faced with an existential situation, as was the Cuban Revolution from 1959 ’til–now! IMHO, History WILL absove Fidel!

  • ‘Okasis”, very well said. I thought something should be written since Yusimi’s article, Admiring The Leader, about the tendency to tear leaders down. It’s epidemic now in capitalist societies, replacing them with junk figures – pop icons of some sort, safe for the establishment? Are young socialists unknowingly being infected with unsavoury capitalist practices?

    One does start to wonder about whether Pablo should be entirely excused for what he wrote on the basis of youth and naiveté. A friend I sent his article to questioned a couple of statements in it. He felt Pablo displayed a certain prejudice writing, “The aim is to present “Cuban reality” (the official version, of course), so that we later return to respective countries to organize support for the Castro government.” Is that really what was taking place or did it represent a Cuban reality that didn’t agree with Pablo’s perspective?

    My friend also felt Pablo displayed a bit of ignorance and disrespect writing that Cuba “is often considered the last really socialist country (something not so difficult to achieve given what the others were).”

    Pablo’s contamination is obvious, living in a capitalist country while Yusimi seemed to be struggling to keep his perspective. Hopefully both will gain more wisdom with age

  • There is no such thing as a ‘human nature’. We are both at the same time constructed and constructors of our own nature. In the past it was ‘normal’ for a man to possess another, or to work for a landlord in exchange for protection. You speak of ‘selfish, racist, sexist, and materialistic’ aspects of humanity. Just take a glimpse of your society 100 years in the past. It was certainly a lot more racist and sexist, yet less selfish and materialistic. So this ‘nature’ you speak of is malleable.

  • After I read this essay, and the responses, I was struck by the similarity to Yusimi Rodriguez’ article Admiring The Leader. I assume it is generational, but I do not understand the general antipathy towards Heroes and Leadership.

    Is mediocrity truly so admirable that it is necessary to sneer at those who are willing to do something outstanding? How many of these commentators done something worthy of universal admiration?

    Geraldo is serving TWO life terms for trying to end terrorism against Cuba. Is that so unimportant that people feel the need to bitch about money spent to publicize his plight?

    How many of you are familiar with the name Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier? They are also Political Prisoners in the US serving life sentences on trumped up charges.

    Mumia was a Black Journalist and Community Leader when he was arrested in Philadelphia. He was sentenced to death and served most of the years since in Solitary Confinement. His sentence was finally commuted to Life just recently.

    Leonard Peltier was a leader of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. He was one of the demonstrators at Wounded Knee [on one of the Sioux Reservations] in North Dakota. During a shoot-out, 2 FBI Agents were shot [the FBI said the Indians fired first]. On the questionable testimony of a supposed witness, Peltier was convicted of Murder. He is serving Life in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, and has been imprisoned for almost 40 years.

    These men are Heroes too, just like the Cuban Five. Those of you who find the time and energy to write dismissively of people like these should look in the mirror and ask yourself what you have done for your Country and Humanity lately.

    Pablo has obviously suffered huge indignities during his trip to Cuba. He had to eat the same food most Cuban’s eat, and pull weeds for half a day to earn his keep. He was subjected to horrible, repetitive, patriotic, music and entertainments most evenings. On the weekends his hosts showed him tourist attractions and took him to visit other communities. Horror of Horrors, he was also subjected to Government Propaganda!

    Call me old fashioned, But I’d rather there were more Heroes. The world has plenty of people waiting for someone else to save them. Too bad they don’t have the grace to stop with the Whining while they sit around waiting for salvation!

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