Was Sirley Avila Right?

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Sirley Avila Leon

HAVANA TIMES — The story of Sirley Avila is well known. She was a delegate to “People’s Power” (the municipal council) in Majibacoa, the least populated municipality in Cuba.

In previous years, her constituents had succeeded in appealing to the government to establish a elementary school for their tiny village’s four students, who otherwise would have had to travel several miles daily to go to another school.

Because of the present economic crisis, that order was rescinded. Sirley therefore began a process of negotiations and demands, but she ran into a wall of silence in that no one acknowledged her protests and no press agency reported her demands.

She could only escape that confinement by appearing before the foreign press and by throwing her hat back into the ring to seek re-election as a municipal delegate.

Because of the first action, her name filled the headlines for quite a few days. But in the pursuit of her second objective, she was defeated after a pathetic exercise in gerrymandering that placed her at an absolute disadvantage. “Now,” she says, “I feel like an ordinary citizen of this country, with the right — by the constitution — to go wherever one needs to go to demand our rights.”

Sirley Avila has been a very brave person. Only she, her relatives and her adversaries know the amount of pressures, threats and trip-ups she had to get around in a totalitarian system, and in one of the remotest corners of the country.

For all that she deserves to be honored, especially if (as she stated) she’s continuing her grassroots work with the same dedication and bravery. Because of this, Sirley has probably received applause from all of the reasonable corners — with extremist and fundamentalist aside — on the new Cuban political chessboard.

Entrance to the municipality of Majibacoa, Las Tunas. Photo: ecured.cu

I join in that applause, and I would like — with all the modesty obliged by the stature of this woman — derive three conclusions.

The first is that the cracks in the totalitarian system continue to produce what the Granma newspaper once called “unusual circumstances” to which the system has no capacity to react, or it does so with increasingly more deficiencies.

The substitution of judicial proceedings against the opposition for express short-term arrests, tolerance in the face of phenomena such as the occupation of public facilities by religious groups and urban “tribes,” and the generalization of a climate in which people speak their minds without ancestral fears, are all indicators of a change in the relationship between state and society.

Sirley — who in the capacity of a delegate had one foot in society and the other one in the state — knew how to take advantage of the cracks and she touched the most sensitive nerves of the system. Only six years ago, Sirley would have been dragged to the nearest police station.

The second issue is the terrible fragility of the system. It’s like ice: hard and cold but very brittle. This is why they perceived a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” as posing a threat. This was someone who didn’t wave around any political slogan and who appealed to the right wing international press when the local authorities clumsily closed all roads to her in her wish to serve as a delegate to her municipal council.

This was not a voting district in the middle of the capital city; instead, it was a small, remote municipality far from everything, one that can’t have any more than 600 voters. Yet the state reacted to what they saw as a threat by adopting an insane scheme: altering the voting district and the electoral lists.

Sirley did nor err in responding to this either: She forced the system to reveal its worst instincts and roll around in them.

But there’s something about which Sirley is only partly correct: The idea that it’s possible to maintain a school for four children is wrong.

Official statistics indicate that for years the government kept schools in operation that had fewer children than the fingers on one’s hand, which speaks of an untenable situation.

The government’s posturing that suggests 1,455 schools for only 4,588 children is an example of how wasteful and demagogic has become the beautiful dream of education for everyone, which is now an expensive and low quality service.

When Sirley defended the right of children to attend school, she took a step into the future of Cuba. When she defended a school for four children, she situated herself in a past that will not return.

What the Cuban state is obliged to do is ensure is universal access. If this access is achieved by schools or boarding schools in larger towns, or with a transportation system based on traction animals or motorized vehicles, that’s another discussion in which the community must be involved and assume responsibility, as occurs in much of Latin America.

Cases like those experienced by the inhabitants of the Limones community in Majibacoa are part of the drama of the million or so Cubans who live in villages with 200 inhabitants or in scattered settlements.

They constitute what is known in demography as the “base line” of the national population, swollen by agricultural workers and their families.

This is a segment of the population that was always poor, but never more than now when the vast majority of them are losing the “revolutionary achievements” that allowed them to live more comfortably over the last fifty years (there are no longer sufficient quantities of subsidized food, social services provision is being reduced, and jobs are becoming fewer).

Rarely does one find people in these places who have family members abroad or opportunities for small businesses. And although it’s foreseeable that some of them are benefiting from the redistribution of land, this — without capital or technology — is only potential benefit at the moment.

In short, they are part of the contingent of the “losers” of the updating of the country’s economic model. Together with marginal urban residents, these are the new poor and the indigents of a mortgaged revolution that Cuba’s leaders want to prolong in a discourse that has become pure ideological mist.
(*) Published originally in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.com