HAVANA TIMES — After watching a documentary about North Korea, when I went out into the street and looked around, I was relieved to have been born in Cuba. In the film, the descriptions given by torture survivors of the grisly official barbarism was so stifling that I could get a sense of the control that begins to take over the minds of millions of human beings and ends with the complete elimination of all autonomy.
But I had forgotten that comparisons can be misleading. However, very soon I had the opportunity to remember that.
On September 3 my son left for high school in the Alamar neighborhood, where he was starting the eleventh grade. From comments from his peers, he learned that only eleventh grade students would be leaving that same week for the countryside. That was a mere “detail” that hadn’t been shared with us parents at the end of last school year; nor did anyone mention it to me when I went to pick up the form to buy my son’s school uniform.
In the morning, after a speech about the obligation to go to the school in the countryside and the honor this involved, it was explained that the real purpose of this mini-migration was to free up classroom space for technology students in the capital; they would be undergoing training there for the upcoming population census.
Later the 11th graders were taken to classroom where they had to sign a document that pledged their commitment to go out into the country.
However, since my son refused to sign it, he asked the vice principal how his presence was going to be recorded because they hadn’t taken attendance. She responded by saying that because he didn’t sign the pledge of commitment, he could be considered absent.
Of course that answer made me think of the solid machinery of coercion that I’ve seen function in Cuba, all over. Depending in any way on any state institution implies infinite variations of pressure, which generate fear and uncertainty, operate automatically, and of course move from the top down.
Because of this, some of my relief of not living in North Korea left me. Control that establishes fear — while stunning reason and paralyzing the will, and by extension the dynamics of development — is monstrous wherever and however it’s applied.
It didn’t surprise me to find out that almost all of the students signed that commitment without the knowledge or even the consent of their parents.
They have incorporated an automatic apprehensiveness mechanism, since elementary school, in response to “what they’re going to write in your permanent file” or “what the teacher demands of you,” or about how “they can make you repeat a grade,” or “they might not give you a recommendation for a college prep program or a tech school or even for the university itself.”
On the other hand, no one has ever concerned themselves with informing them about their rights.
Nor are these discussed with the parents, for whom this unforeseen “school in the country” session would create unexpected inconveniences. I heard questions and comments like: “how are we going to get ahold of a suitcase?” “My son doesn’t have any shoes or clothes for out there,” “How much will it cost for a ride out into the provinces?” and “where are we going to get food to take to her this weekend?”
The protests were confined to whispers. Nobody complained about how pressuring a minor to sign a pledge that their guardians know nothing about is a violation of parental rights. They too feel like they have to obey unquestioningly.
I was once told by a friend (a foreigner who was visiting and who photographed a copy of the Cuban constitution) that she was frankly amazed that such a document was available to the Cuban people. She was convinced that it was inaccessible or forbidden to us.
Now where did that idea come from? Does it come from our apparent ignorance of our own laws, or even worse, from the vast civic apathy that we cultivate? And even worse, we have to ask whether it comes from the conviction that even knowledge of the laws doesn’t protect us.
I once had the opportunity to write for a blog that (intentionally) publishes false information about Cuba. Although I racked my brain thinking of what journalistic invention might make sense (to me), I couldn’t think of any.
But today I had the thought that you can write about your hopes, the Cuba you’d like to see, describing it as a reality, even it was only to invoke it.
In this way I would speak of the high sense of dignity and self-respect of Cubans. I would talk about how new generations have inherited from their parents the confidence that each one of them counts, and that power is not conceded to anyone, since each individual takes it and defends it.
In the schools here we see our children and teens so “calm and relaxed,” like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said, with the only security being their morals. Free of stupor, the compulsion of the masses, manipulation and opportunism. Free from fear.