HAVANA TIMES — In 2007 I met a young foreigner who — inspired by the work of Cuban internationalist doctors in Africa — had decided to study medicine in Cuba. Can anyone deny the incredible work done by our internationalist doctors throughout Africa and in Venezuela, Haiti and other countries?
This too is part of the situation in Cuba. When the national and international press show these doctors caring for people who are without access to health care in their own countries and are threatened by death from curable diseases, these media sources aren’t lying. They are showing an important part of the truth.
See Part One of this commentary
The face of truth that the media doesn’t show us is what was presented in “Leaving Cuba on a Mission” by my Havana Times colleague Rosa Martinez. A friend of hers decided to head out on an international aid mission to meet the financial needs that weren’t covered by her salary. Her daughter, though, will have to spend at least a year without her mother in order to have a bicycle.
I need to take a pause to confess something. I was thinking about this commentary for almost a month, but I hadn’t made the decision to write it. And after I did write it, I held up on sending it. The problem is that trying to reflect the truth about a phenomenon is difficult, and perhaps presumptuous.
If I had sent it on Monday, as I had finally intended, it would have read as follows: “I know a young ophthalmologist who worked in Venezuela for three years so that he would get a new house built for him or would get the materials to repair his present one. I don’t know if you finally got it.”
There are times when we should bless the slow pace of our public transportation system. Thanks to that, just this morning I ran into the main character of that little anecdote. But I need to make a correction: he didn’t spend three years in Venezuela, but seven.
The promise of obtaining a home in a more or less acceptable condition, and materials at cost for the repair of it (signed in a contract) was never fulfilled. “I can stop to say anywhere, neither the Party nor the city council have taken responsibility for this. I’m repairing my house at full steam, with the money they paid me, which wasn’t a lot or a gift, because the Cuban government ended up keeping a large part of it.”
Those were her words, but I don’t know whether she would repeat this in an interview and give her name. She still works for the government and could lose her job, which she and her teenaged daughter depends on.
Ten years ago I talked with a doctor who was faced with a choice of going to South Africa or staying here in a neighborhood clinic. Over there they paid doctors very well, but there were also a lot of diseases that frightened her. Three months later I met her son. The mother finally chose to leave. “We needed to find a better life,” was the boy’s explanation.
What was most ironic happened to me two years ago. The doctor’s office that I was assigned to closed due to the lack of a physician. After several attempts to be attended at another one that was relatively close by, I decided to get there before 7:00 a.m. and when I got there I met an older woman who had spent over a week trying to see a doctor.
It was around 9:45 when we left, without any doctor having shown up. She had two children, both of whom had graduated in medicine and both were on aid missions in Venezuela.
A month ago, the country celebrated another International Workers Day with a massive parade that included workers, students and athletes. The national and international media reflected the massive popular support for the revolution.
My sound and selfless advice? Beware of the massiveness.
I have a friend whose son attends senior high school. There, students had to sign a commitment to attend the parade. If they failed to attend they had to provide justification. Their absence in the parade threatened their receiving any support to go to the university.
That was why I took part in the “battle to rescue Elian Gonzalez.”
I was a teacher in a technical school. I got there one morning, like my colleagues, ready to begin my workday. But that day I wouldn’t be teaching; instead I wound up in the street demanding the return of Elian. They sent students home but they had to return at 1:00 in the afternoon to participate in the march.
The teachers explained to us that our day’s salary was conditioned on our attendance in the march. But if you might think that the absence in such a march would only mean the loss of a day’s pay – big mistake.
“One’s absence in the march will be considered an attitude problem,” explained the principal.
Believe me – the lack of mastery over the subject material ones teaches is less problematic than an “attitude problem.” An attitude problem leads directly to poor final evaluation.
And a poor evaluation means you’ll receive lower wages throughout the following year. An attitude problem will be in your personnel file and will follow you wherever you go.
That operation was repeated throughout the duration of the “battle for Elian’s return.” We came to school prepared to teach and ended up on a bus route to the Anti-imperialist Forum.
Did I ever rebel?
By now, the readers of Havana Times know my Achilles heel. I’m a coward, though I’ve had my light outbursts of courage. Once I delayed getting to school until after the buses had left and I sat at the desk, doing my work day. They could only dock me for the minutes I was late instead of the whole day. I guess that was more skill than valor.
On another occasion, I signed the attendance list but refused to board the bus. People looked at me in amazement. I myself watched in amazement. Nothing happened, but my department head advised me not to do it anymore. The rest of the time, I got on the bus as docile as a cow. Uniformed even.
At some point we were given a T-shirt with the picture of the little boy on it and a sign reading “Free Elian.” They required us to wear and carry these in every march. Many people continue to wear those shirts.
We couldn’t afford the luxury of throwing away a piece of clothing, whether it was a political sign or not. Here, one rarely gets more clothing. In my case, the t-shirt held up well and I wore it regularly for years.
Once, only the girls from the school, students and teachers, were privileged to march to demand the return of Elian. That was the Friday before Mother’s Day and the slogan was: “Free our son.” Those girls between 15 and 17 years of age had to shout “Free our son.”
We walked along the Malecon seawall towards the United States Interests Section. I was looking for the right chance to slip way, just like I had always done. However, I was stopped by a wall of young soldiers wearing black berets, stony faces, and holding their hands behind their backs.
I never knew of anyone who voluntarily chose to attend those marches and shout out demanding Elian’s return. But, like I said earlier, be wary of anyone who tries to sell you the truth. And beware of me, as I’m just an ignorant Cuban, as someone told me recently.
I can only tell you my story, trying to show you my version of the truth.