Pablo Ivan Romero Rovetta
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.”
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.
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.