HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 21 – Jorge Luis Otero Bacallao was born in 1960, only one year before the proclamation of the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution. He was one of the best students at his high school and was guaranteed an opportunity to study a profession.
In that period, top students could opt to study at home or go abroad and study in other socialist countries. Jorge applied for one of the later and won it. He was supposed to have studied architecture in what was then Czechoslovakia. It didn’t turn out that way however. Jorge Luis wasn’t granted the opportunity that he had won.
They called him to the University of Havana, where an administrator explained to him why not. “This is a revolutionary process,” the school official said, “It’s the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Jorge replied that he had in fact been born and raised under socialism, didn’t know any other social system, and that he was entitled to the scholarship. The administrator told him that no one was denying him the right to study, and that this was a right the Revolution guaranteed to all its citizens, but what they couldn’t do was send him to study abroad in a socialist country, because he was a “potential emigrant.”
The problem was that the youth also had a Spanish passport since he was four, since that was his father’s country. In fact, his older brother had been a sent to Spain in 1969.
Jorge Luis therefore registered in the architecture program at Jose Antonio Echeverría University (CUJAE). Then, in 1980, when his brother came to visit his dying mother, a meeting was held at the university to expel the younger brother from the Young Communist League (UJC), an organization which he had belonged to since 1976.
That could have also resulted in Jorge Luis being expelled from the university, however he was lucky that his classmates and the school’s UJC chapter supported him with the argument that he had never hidden the fact that his brother lived abroad. In the end, Jorge Luis was finally able to graduate as an architect.
At the end of the 1980s, Jorge Luis traveled to Nicaragua on his job as a skilled aid worker in the wake of Hurricane Juana (that disaster hit the Bluefields in October 1988).
In 1999 he visited Miami, New York, Puerto Rico, Caracas and Madrid to visit family and friends. He also became a Spanish national by claiming the citizenship of his father.
This was his chance to experience another social system, because —like he had told the administrator at the University of Havana— he had been born under the socialist system and wasn’t familiar with any other one.
Where does Jorge live now?
Many will wonder: Where does Jorge live Luis now? For many, perhaps the answer is obvious, given the vicissitudes of what I’ve just described – and which were typical of the time.
However, Jorge Luis lives in Cuba, and not because he hasn’t had more opportunities to leave of the country. In fact, being a Spanish citizen he can travel whenever wants to, assuming he has the money.
In 2001 he was in the United States; in fact, when the Twins Tours disaster took place. He also traveled to France and Italy. In 2003 he returned to Spain, and two years later went to New York City and Miami. In 2007, he was once again in Spain and then in Puerto Rico and Miami. The following year he returned to Spain; his only remaining sister lives there, as does his only nephews. His oldest brother, who lived in the United States, died in an accident.
Jorge’s parents died in Cuba when he was still an teenager; therefore he had to raise his sister while studying for a career. She now resides in Madrid with her children, where he travels almost every year – staying six or seven months, working, and then returning here.
But why does a man whose closest relatives live in Spain, has citizenship there and can even work there insist on returning to Cuba?
“Because I love my country and the way Cubans live,” was his answer when I asked him that question.
Jorge Luis enjoys the life in his neighborhood in Old Havana, the way in which neighbors help each other out. “Here you’re never isolated,” he told me. He loves the music in people’s houses, and “if they turn up Haila or Havana Charanga too loud, I fire back with Spanish music and castanets.”
It doesn’t bother him to leave home and find dog poop at his door. He cleans it up, of course, but it doesn’t bother him, because that too is part of life in his neighborhood. He also feels very pleased with the work being overseen by City Historian Eusebio Leal in Old Havana to recover the “Historical Heart of the City,” though he feels there’s a great deal still to be done.
Now he’s experienced both socialism and capitalism, and he can compare them. He thinks neither is perfect and that the ideal would be to take the best of each. He also recognizes the achievements of the Cuban Revolution in the fields of health and education.
Despite the shortages, he believes this is not a country that can be associated with famine. He doesn’t like people to exaggerate the needs that exist in Cuba, and he’s had heated arguments because of this. They’ve even ended up branding him a communist, though that’s not the case.
When he reached the age to leave the ranks of the UJC and join the Party, Jorge Luis didn’t want to go through the process since it would have meant him being restricted from visiting his family abroad. Later things changed, allowing Party activists to travel to other countries to see their relatives, but he was no longer interested in belonging to the Party.
For several days I’ve been thinking of that conversation I had with Jorge Luis. I’ve heard people tell similar stories about things that happened in the 70s, things even worse that were done in the name of socialism. But I’ve never met anybody who experienced them personally.
However, what I’ve not been able to stop wondering is if the administrator who considered him to be a potential emigrant is still alive, if she’s still in Cuba and what she would think if she knew that —after so many years— Jorge Luis Orteo Bacallao continues to live here.