HAVANA TIMES, April 9 – Something strange often happens when I am with a foreigner and I criticize the system we have in this country. They’re taken aback and rebuke me for being ungrateful, naive, and ignorant, in daring to criticize the reality in which I live because I don’t know what the reality is like in other countries. Theirs, for example.
Many of them are young students from neighboring countries on the continent, even from the United States, that do not have the opportunity to get a university education in their home country. They can do so here. For free, too.
I understand their gratitude. But then I wonder: what have the studies of so many young foreigners cost Cuba so far?
I suspect that it is the funds generated by the Cuban people that have sustained the altruism of our government. I suspect that we are the true debtors of these young people and perhaps I should be the first to take offence if they failed to show their appreciation.
At the other extreme are the foreigners from the first world. When they tell me I am wrong, I guess they must be right. They have traveled, have seen the world and are in a position to make comparisons.
Sometimes I feel the same confusion when reading the comments made by some of the readers of HT. I even start to hesitate before writing a new commentary.
I cannot pinpoint the moment I experienced this feeling for the first time, but I know that I became aware of it in 2005.
That was the year I met a Welsh woman and an Argentinean woman, both Marxists and in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution, who had come to stay in Cuba. They exuded enthusiasm, were eager to help the country in some way, wanted to live like Cubans.
They came from the United States and spoke perfect English. They got jobs as translators.
I visited them quite often in the apartment assigned to them from their work, and there we talked about Marxism, socialism, revolution and Che Guevara.
It was a spacious apartment, comfortably furnished, two-door refrigerator (which I had not seen before), gas cooker with oven (I was still cooking with kerosene), a normal apartment in other words.
To them it did not seem all that big. So different from mine in Vibora Park, with two rooms for four people, a small dining room, a narrow kitchen with a small fridge. Not that there was much to keep inside it.
There on the 19th floor of the Focsa building, from where the cars running along the Malecon looked like toys, Marx and Che sounded like music to my ears.
LIVING LIKE CUBANS
They wanted to live like Cubans, they kept saying, that’s why they had come.
What did living like Cubans mean? What Cubans did they want to live like? Like ministers, state officials, (certain) top athletes? Like me?
I do not know if they ever went by public transport, if they ever tried to climb into one of those “camels” we had at the time. We went together to hip hop concerts and both times we took a taxi.
Not one of those cars from the middle of last century we call almendrones which I only take when I have to, and pay the ten Cuban pesos with regret. The three of us traveled by real taxi with uniformed drivers, and paid for in foreign currency. We completed a trip in less than ten minutes that normally would have taken me over an hour on my own.
When they mentioned living like us, did they realize that the paltry salary you get is barely enough to eat badly? To live dependent on a ration book, fearing every day it will be withdrawn and disappear? Each time they remove a product from the card, I tremble.
Would my friends have been in conformity with the official sources of information, with the impossibility of setting up other political parties, even if they were parties of the left? Would they have questioned the lack of freedom of speech and a free press?
But even if my friends had decided to get by on a ration book in a small house with a microscopic salary and even if they had gladly renounced certain personal liberties, one thing would certainly have created an insurmountable gap between us, and that was the fact that they could opt out, take their passports and book a plane ticket and say goodbye to all that.
I remember once having to attend one of those marches that were registering record turnouts. The newspaper said we could go to the march from our homes. There were points of transportation for the march in each municipality. But there was no transportation for anything else. So the only way you could get to work after the march ended was to attend the march first.
I went with my friends. Although we walked together, the distance between us was immense. Euphoric at the experience, they chanted slogans demanding the return of the Five Heroes and the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, the terrorist. I had seen it all before.
I thought about all the times I had had to attend a march or an open forum, under the threat of losing a day’s salary. I also thought about the fact that at the age of twenty-eight, I had no home of my own and no room of my own. And I had no hopes of seeing anything of the world beyond the Cuban coasts.
I felt like sitting on the sea wall of the Malecon seawall, but I was prevented. A policeman told me to move on, indicating an advancing wave of people.
My friends said that even my frustration at not being able to see the world, was a privilege. In other countries, people were too illiterate to think about expanding their horizons. Or were too hungry to be able to afford the luxury of worrying about anything other than filling their stomach to make sure they were still alive next day.
And I had to admit they were right.
A month after this talk, my friends announced they were leaving Cuba. It was less than a year since they arrived. I never quite understood why they left. I know that their eagerness to help the country had been received with more suspicion than gratitude, that the environment they worked in was hostile.
They were going to France. From there, they assured me, they would continue supporting the Cuban Revolution.
I thought about how much I would like to support the Revolution from France or anywhere else in the world, at least for a while. Being able to discover from over there that I live in a marvelous country, where things are going well, where there is freedom and justice, and being in a position to afford to miss the benefits of the Revolution.
Perhaps the reality of the situation is blinding me to the facts, because I am too close to it, because I am caught up in it, because I am suffering because of it…
It has been seven years since we parted. I heard about them recently. They are fine. Separated, but fine. They have their jobs, their plans, during the holidays they sometimes take a trip abroad.
I am 35 years old. I still do not have a place of my own. I share a room with my sister and my niece. I have seen nothing of the world, but I hold on to my plans and my dreams. I have my health and my loved ones. I guess I can also say I’m fine.