The Dream of Leaving Cuba
By Fernando Aramis
HAVANA TIMES — For the vast majority of Cubans, being able to leave the island legally has long been – and continues to be – a pipe dream, an unattainable goal. This is especially so for those who live in the interior. Some have achieved this through sacrifice and tenacity, many a time at the cost of being left with practically nothing, driven only by the prospects of living somewhere with a few more opportunities. It all boils down to the possibility of change.
I was born in the city of Bayamo, the second settlement established by the Spanish in 1513. I grew up in a family that was fully committed to the revolution, the son of Edaldo Pastor Tamayo Llanes (a musician) and Ofelia Carrillo Pita (a nurse).
As a child, I would dream of one day taking the stage and knew that music would be the career I would follow, not knowing, at the time, that any linked to art in Cuba would have far greater opportunities to travel abroad than the average worker. I only dreamed of being able to sing and becoming a star, like another folk musician from Bayamo named Pablo Milanés. While listening to the music of the singers I admired, I imagined that, one day, my music would also be played on the radio.
In 1988, I graduated as a music instructor and began working at a small, forsaken town nestled between Bayamo and Holguin called Cauto Cristo. I had been sent there for the mandatory community service, a norm that consisted in being sent to work wherever the revolution needed one to go, in exchange for having received free education.
I worked at the cultural center for a year, only to find out that I would not be getting a raise in salary at the end. According to the head of the said institution, I’d arrived late for work on several occasions. That was the first deception I had with the State apparatus.
Disillusioned, I quit and left without finishing my community service. Still dreaming of moving to Havana, I returned to my native town, put together a music duo and got the band hired by the Provincial Music Center in Bayamo.
I couldn’t understand why everything was so difficult in a society that boasted of being just, where, it was said, and it is still said, that there are opportunities for everyone.
A year later, in 1990, they again to burst my bubble and I was reassigned, against my will, to the municipality of Niquero. Ironically, that had been the site of the Granma yacht landing. The revolution was demanding I complete my community service, a task I took on with all of the conviction the matter required.
There, the revolution had another surprise in store for me. Far from everything I loved, they put me up in a filthy and dark room. It was a particularly warm welcome. Needless to say, I would not stay there for very long. I left without looking back.
Chasing the dream of earning official qualifications as a musician, to be able to move to Havana with this under my belt, I moved to Las Tunas. In Cuba, everything is categorized and, in order to be an artist, having official qualifications is a must. The process involves a commission of artists who evaluate your work and ultimately decide your future.
After living in the province for a year, my evaluation was turned down because I needed a minimum of two years’ experience in the arts sector to be judged. I was a mere two months away from fulfilling that requirement. That was yet another absurd law. Had it not been because of the friends I made there, none of my experiences there would have been worth anything. Forlorn once again, I slung the guitar over my shoulder and carried my sack of dreams back to my hometown, my hopes fading but still breathing.
I couldn’t understand why everything was so difficult in a society that boasted of being just, where, it was said, and it is still said, that there are opportunities for everyone. During this whole time, after my return, I sold pru (a sweet, effervescent drink made out fermented herbs) at the railroad station in tow and sold Bayamo coffee illegally in the municipality of Florida, Camaguey.
I couldn’t believe or conceive of my fate. Perhaps I spent that entire time in a fairy tale, from which I would not wake up until fate took me and my father to Varadero, the most beautiful beach I’d ever known, a country within the country.
I can only think of the worker who gives his everything and has absolutely nothing to show for it, those who save up for an entire month, even two, to be able to buy their daughters a daypack for school, the person who doesn’t have the same opportunity I have to travel.
There, I got to know the island’s other face, the power of money, prostitution, girls who would leave their studies to go sell their bodies, dreaming that an Aryan-looking man would take them far away. A song I titled Cuando cruce la frontera (“When I Cross the Border”) was born there, a kind of prediction about the future. Cuba is not an island, it borders with Varadero. Sometime later, at the entrance to Varadero, they set up a large sign that read: “Border Point.”
Convinced that world would not fulfill my expectations in life, I moved to Havana around 1996, when I was 26. I recall that, my first night there, I slept at the entrance to the church on Linea Street.
I had to spend two years in this beautiful and magical city to reach that impossible dream, a dream that became possible for me thanks to music. To be honest, I was lucky, if such a thing exists. Perhaps it was merely the unbridled desire to fly, to get to know other ways of living and thinking. I know not everything was bad, but it was certainly difficult. This is a brief account of my experiences on the island, told in broad strokes.
I can only think of the worker who gives his everything and has absolutely nothing to show for it, those who save up for an entire month, even two, to be able to buy their daughters a daypack for school, the person who doesn’t have the same opportunity I have to travel. Other experiences and misunderstandings were in store for me in Havana, the Canary Islands and Quito, Ecuador, but that is another story.
*Fernando Aramis: I was born in Cuba, I grew up in Cuba, I studied in Cuba, I cried in Cuba, I laughed in Cuba, I cursed Cuba, but I am neither from here nor there nor anywhere – I am simply an earthling.
3 thoughts on “The Dream of Leaving Cuba”
Very nice to read your article. Cuba has its unique challenges. Your personal experiences makes the challenges more understandable. I live in Toronto and have witnessed some Cubans who settled here and some want to go back. Cuba has its problems but it also has a humanist charm and way of connecting with others that many first world cities lack. Many in modern cities are locked in isolation and lack of connection with others and nature. Even after 20 years many still do not know the names of their neighbors and each is suspicious of the other. Having visited Havana recently, it was like a breath of fresh air and like leaving the Toronto prison of isolation. Personally I also dream of leaving Toronto one day as soon as I can afford to do it.
The Cuban crossroads is a strange place to be….on one road is a 200,000 dollar car, on another a retired teacher on a 15 dollar a month pension…on another a farmworker who made 3 dollars for his days work….and on the last road is a government sign that says “this road is closed “
I feel for this man. At the same time that Cuba is seen as so unique, and the Cubans, so tenacious a people , so adept at problem solving, to be Cuban and live on the island knowing as he said, that it would be saving for two months just to get a backpack for his daughter, I can only feel his pain from a distance.
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