HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 22 — A few years ago, I read the novel Quo Vadis, though I don’t remember the author’s name. The story takes place in ancient Rome during the emergence of Christianity, when the practice was forbidden and its practitioners persecuted. I, of course, was on the side of the Christians and was pleased that the main character, who was a “bad guy” at the beginning, later became good (that’s to say, a Christian).
Am I Christian? No. In fact I don’t profess any faith. I wasn’t interested if the Christian god was the true one or if those worshipped by the Romans were false. Even now I don’t know if there is any true god. For me it involved the right to choose what to believe in (or not), though maybe I also identified with the Christians because they were the ones persecuted by those in power.
Eight years after reading Quo Vadis, last week I saw the movie Agora, by director Alejandro Amenavar. This story takes place in fourth century Alexandria, when the Christian religion was no longer forbidden and its practitioners could freely practice their faith. They would win over followers by performing miracles, distributing food among the poor and insulting the pagan gods.
Both faiths struggled to impose their respective visions of the world, and they eventually become wrapped up in bloody battles because the insults to the respective gods were not responded to passively. It was necessary to give one’s life for one’s god if necessary, but above all to take the lives of others. That was exactly what was done by the pagans as well as the Christians. The slaves didn’t have to choose; their task was to defend the faith of their masters.
Only a few minutes went by on the screen before the pagans had to give in and abandon their library in which they had taken refuge. However, the once-persecuted Christians were not satisfied with that victory; they not only destroyed the statues of the pagans, but also the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge guarded in the sanctum.
The pagans, who had struggled so zealously to impose their faith, ended up converting to Christianity not because the Christians had demonstrated the superiority of their religion, but because they were the ones who held the power. In the end, what was imposed was the law of the strongest. To hold important positions, it was necessary to be baptized. After all, as the French Protestant Henry IV would say centuries later —when he was offered the reign over France on the condition that he convert to Catholicism— “Paris is well worth a mass.”
How much have human beings changed since the fourth century? Not at all. Cubans, after achieving the victory of the Revolution in 1959 with a social program that would bring social justice to all, threw eggs and stones at those people who left the country because they didn’t agree with the new system. Members of my family told me about how bags of feces were thrown at such people. No one can say that the protesters were sent by the government, but nor did the State intervene to stop them. No one went to jail for trying to stone those who sought to leave. Those who did the insulting and stoning did so in the name of the Revolution.
There is always a god, a revolution or a leader in whose name people scream and attack.
Just like the pagans of the fourth century, many religious Cubans renounced their faith or practiced behind closed doors in order to keep their jobs or to become members of the Communist Party of Cuba, because the Party is well worth forgetting a mass.
To teach classes at the higher educational level or to become a tour guide, it’s worth belonging to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). If you’re not willing to defend the Revolution, if you do not support the Revolution (or at least appear to support the Revolution), there are jobs they simply won’t offer you.
“The universities belong to revolutionaries.” “The streets belong to revolutionaries.” Those are our slogans. And it’s the power who defines what a revolutionary is. As was once said, “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing”; but it seems that it’s the power that determines the diameter of that circle, and you can be outside of it even while being on the left.
Justice has a color when seen from below and another very different one when viewed from above. Those who call for the struggle for justice, shortly after coming to power create all the mechanisms to remain there. “A dictatorship is not established to safeguard the revolution; a revolution is made to establish a dictatorship.” I’m not smart enough to create such an ingenious word game, and if I were I would lack the courage to write it. But I’m not brave. I panic over the idea of a “glorious death” (anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 will remember that phrase).
In Eastern Europe, after the fall of the socialist regimens and the installation of “democratic” governments, communism has been criminalized. To wear a T-shirt with the image of Che can mean you being carted off to jail. Right…everything is quite democratic. In the name of one freedom, others are violated.
I still don’t know who the “good guys” are – the Catholics, Protestants or the atheists, or the communists or social-democrats. I still don’t know if there is a right side. I only feel more and more fearful of those who are able to come to power – the fanatics and even the leaders.