By Hannah Imbert  (Café Fuerte)

Young Cubans during a rally in remembrance of Che Guevara. Photo: Kaloian Santos Cabrera
Young Cubans during a rally in remembrance of Che Guevara. Photo: Kaloian Santos Cabrera

HAVANA TIMES — What were Cubans once renowned for? What was it that set us apart as individual in an extremely peculiar nation? Some, those who make an effort to remember, those who are willing to rummage through the millions of recollections that crowd in the vast continent of our memories, will likely mention camaraderie, a good sense of humor, a lively spirit and the constant disposition to tell jokes – the satirical, suggestive remark that always accompanied a good cup of coffee or the stride of a mulatto woman. Cubans rose above their problems and built statues to perseverance and optimism.

What kind of people are Cubans today, or, at least, as a general rule, what kind of people are most Cubans? We are completely different. Having done away with the nation as an identity, as a unifying concept, is one of the painful achievements that those who have been leading the island astray for more than half a century will one day have to answer for.

Cubans are no longer any of the things that made us stand out among the inhabitants of the planet. Those qualities foreigners were looking for when they visited this Caribbean isle vanished into thin air and, though it breaks my heart to say it, we will need many, many years to get them back – and it will only happen after society understands what was lost and who are chiefly responsible for that loss.

It is not only painful for me, also a Cuban, but for those who remained there and try to do something for the nation, for culture, for the past. It pains me because of those people who still greet others politely, who do not “steal,” for those who continue to offer their guests the pathetically bad coffee people get through the ration booklet.

Silent Aggressiveness

Not long ago, I returned to Cuba and had the terrible feeling it was no longer my country, or, at least, that it wasn’t the country my nostalgia was trying to preserve. The streets of Havana are saturated with violence, a silent aggressiveness that is worse than the aggressiveness of weapons and declared wars.

Zombies have taken over avenues, buildings, homes, parks, movie theaters, farm and livestock markets, even universities and concerts. Cubans have been swallowed up by an apathy that seems to have seeped into their blood and DNA. Everyone speaks about the same things, think about the same things and considers leaving Cuba the only solution to their problems.

In the meantime, while looking for the hole in the wall where they can make their escape, Cubans, no matter what their age, educational level (already low for nearly everyone) or purchasing power, are constantly on the defensive. They fight, they talk back and they look for trouble.

Try not to frown at a man who doesn’t offer you his seat on a bus like a gentleman would, for, right there and then, as though you were actually within one of Dante’s circles of hell, this fellow (probably not a bad person) will explode with all of the pent-up pressure of an erupting volcano. His rage isn’t aimed at you, exactly. The look you gave him was just a pretext for him. He is raging against his job, his empty refrigerator, his battered furniture, the torn-up soles of his shoes, his neighbor who’s a colonel and drives a shiny new Lada and gets his groceries at a fancy hard-currency store every weekend. He’s raging against the system, but you are the person at hand getting the brunt of all his frustration.

The Death of Elegance

It’s better, therefore, to look the other way in Cuba. And don’t you laugh, for anyone might think you’re making fun of the way they dress or how skinny they are. Forget the suggestive, refined and delicate jokes that made the shy blush and put women wearing curlers in stitches.

The local flavor, the noble spirit of Cubans, the fellow always willing to lend a hand and pass the spoonful of sugar needed to make a dessert or the onion used to season a pork steak, all of these things have died. The elegance, the politeness, the good manners, the refinement of Cubans have died. Movie theaters are falling apart and, at half-time, they fill up with euphoric teenagers who tear apart the seats, yelling out the goals and mocking their rivals (“That Messi is a sissy!”)

It’s not just the hunger, lack of doctors and medicine, police repression, artistic censorship and decadence. They have killed culture, understood as a set of know-hows, beliefs and norms of conduct of a given social group. Those things that made us uniquely lively and honest, that made people around the world admire us, sank into disgrace and mediocrity, like the buildings that collapse when the sun rises after the rain.

I know I’m a pessimist, but, how sad it is to be asked what people in Cuba are like today.

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