Translated by Victor Gonzalez
I was on a visit to Cuba in May 2018, when the Cubana de Aviación airliner that services the Havana – Holguin route crashed to the ground shortly after takeoff, leaving more than 100 dead and a sole survivor. I remember my fear of having to fly in an airplane just a few days later to leave the county, my need to consider the statistics: if something so terrible had just happened, there was little chance it would happen again. I remember the commotion, people sharing the most horrific videos of the crash from cell phone to cell phone. But above all, I remember the Cuban press coverage of the event. In front of every father and mother mourning a son, in front of every daughter mourning a mother, there was a Cuban journalist from an official outlet asking, “What do you have to say to the government? What do you thank the revolution for?” The answers, of course, were not always as expected. It’s more difficult for people who are mourning to keep up political and ideological appearances. We’re more visceral in times of suffering; we often say things we’d never say in better times. Masks fall off when we have nothing left to lose, or after losing a son, a mother, or a brother. Especially when all hope is lost. Over several days of watching the disaster coverage, I learned that something in Cuba was irremediably broken. To turn a humanitarian tragedy into political fodder, a media circus of gratitude for the revolution and its government was, to say the least, a grotesque act.
In my country, it’s been a long time since the pain stopped being human and started becoming political. This was confirmed on Sunday, July 11, 2021, when thousands of people took to the streets in more than 60 cities to express their discontent. But police silenced them with their nightsticks, following direct orders from the president of the Republic, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, that “revolutionaries” take to the streets. “The order has been given,” he said, pounding the words with his hands onto the table of history. Nobody told me this, I saw it. Nobody paid me to see it. On the contrary, Cubans around the world have carefully watched these unprecedented times in our country’s recent history. We have watched with astonishment and pain, with uncertainty, and with the still looming fear—“best to not get involved”—that has been inoculated in all of us our entire lives.
Nearly two weeks after these events, Cuba continues to politicize the pain that caused so many people to take to the streets with demands for medicine and better living conditions. This is because the people who went out to march on July 11 shouted ‘liberty’, which easily translates to free and democratic elections every four or six years, or a plurality of political parties, or social and economic mobility. But people were also in the streets—at least in Palma Soriano, where one of the largest demonstrations (the second to receive news coverage) took place—because they’d had no electricity since 6:00 a.m.
I won’t talk about the deplorable economic and spiritual disillusionment that has suffocated Cuba for decades, or the marked difference that divides the population who are able to receive some form of remittance from those who have no external support and have to wait several hours in line for food, who invent ways to survive each day and ask neighbors for old bread. I will not talk about the country that says, “if you don’t like it, go away,” as if you hadn’t been born there and didn’t carry it inside you, as if your friends’ and families’ pain on the island did not hurt you. I have spoken on the subject many times in recent years. And, fortunately, people whose vision I greatly admire have analyzed the root causes of the demonstrations and have shared very valuable testimonies about the subsequent repression. The words of Cuban academic Odette Casamayor in Literal, published in the heat of the moment, speak of inequality and the loss of utopias. The writer Abilio Estevez analyzes, from his personal experience, the complexity of what happened in “Vengo de vivir entre los bárbaros.” Playwright Norge Espinosa has written, from his home in Havana, “Cuba, entre el límite y la frontera”, a look at the need for reconciliation in the country of hopelessness. Meanwhile, independent journalists in El Toque are providing regular coverage of the demonstrations, broadcasting only news they are able to verify beforehand. They’re also analyzing the legality and/or illegality of everything that has happened to demonstrators after the protests. Although no official figures exist, it is estimated that more than 500 people were still imprisoned or arbitrarily detained while I was writing this article. In other words: more than 500 people disappeared after the protests. Among them are at least nine minors.
On July 14, Alejandro Hernandez published the enlightening text “Fiesta y velorio en La Habana” in Infobae, where he presents Cuba as “a society where the disconnection between the reality of the street and the official propaganda was, and continues to be, increasingly abysmal.” In English, Ruaridh Nicoll has written for The Spectator, The Guardian and other European media outlets with the privileged eye of a foreigner who loves Cuba but is amazed to see its people lose their fear. Actor and playwright Yunior Garcia has also spoken and written from the inside on behalf of the people who have been putting their bodies on the line since November 2020, to publicly show their disagreement with how the Cuban government treats artists, intellectuals, and dissidents. García is one of the most visible members of the 27N movement. And I don’t want to repeat ideas when so many talented and brave people have raised their voices with firmness and clarity, with understanding and a desire for change.
I do have questions. A lot of questions. Some are for those who deny there is need for change in Cuba. Others are for the Cuban government, though it’s highly unlikely they’d listen to me, the same way they don’t listen to the people living on the island. These questions arrive amid the same overwhelming feeling of chaos over the past few days. I believe that in Cuba, just like anywhere else in the world, pain should also be human.
Why is it that when we grew up in Cuba hearing that the revolution was made by the poor, for the poor, the poor are now being called marginal, or “that sector”, or a mistake of the revolution? In Cuba, there are no private or religious schools. Every being that walks on that island has had a public, state and socialist education. Every “marginal” person that inhabits the country is the product of 60 years of education that has been not only revolutionary, but doctrinarian. Why call those who go out to protest delinquents, or marginal? Wasn’t what they call revolution by them and for them? Shouldn’t any political system that claims to be not socialist, but leftist, have a humanistic vocation?
The Cuban government has stated on official television that the CIA and the Cuban-American mafia are orchestrating another attempt to destabilize the country. This is a story that has been repeated many, many times. The truth is that the country seems quite destabilized. Schools and universities have not been able to reopen during the pandemic, and the health system has collapsed in several cities due to the increase of covid cases, which has come in several waves, as in most countries around the world. On national television, it has been stated that some of these U.S. groups have blackmailed Cubans into protesting and creating a narrative of police repression on social networks. The proposed payment was ostensibly one or two cell phone refills. That’s right, according to them, the political opposition is being paid off with refills. If this were true, what conditions do thousands of people in Cuba live in that would cause them to go out to protest against the government in exchange for a cell refill—the equivalent to 20 dollars, and with a one-month expiration date?
Why does a political process that began as a revolution and has since turned into an ineffective and immobile government have more of a right to survive than the people with whom it shares the country? Why does Cuba belong more to the “revolution” than to me, or to the thousands (yes, thousands) of people who came out to protest on July 11?
Why are those who do not agree with the government’s management of Cuba called confused, counterrevolutionaries, ex-Cubans, or imperialist lackeys instead of being recognized, simply, as a sector of the population that wants change, as happens systematically in all countries around the world?
What new project can we Cubans dedicate ourselves to, if it is not possible to change our minds inside the country or organize projects as an alternative to those run by the government? How can we express discontent with any social situation when the right to peaceful demonstration does not exist on the island either, when those who suggest alternative or artistic forms of demonstration are accused of inciting crime and put in jail, as has recently happened with the visual artist Hamlet Lavastida?
Why prevent the existence of a non-official press in Cuba and of other, non-communist political parties? What intentions does it reveal when the State wants, in the 21st century, to have complete control over not only the press, but even the comments of users on social networks? For what other reason—if not to control the flow of information on these networks—did the Cuban government cut off the Internet throughout the island after the protests?
What will the Cuban government do to improve the lives of its people if the United States does not remove the economic embargo on Cuba tomorrow, or for another ten years? Let’s be clear, there are a bunch of shameless politicians in the United States who have only reached the Senate—and have remained there for years—under the pretext that they want to free Venezuela and Cuba of totalitarianism, yet do nothing humane to achieve it. Conservative politicians like Marco Rubio, who do not want Cuba to be free because they would lose their fake identities as defenders of human rights. So, if the U.S. government does not lift the economic embargo, what is the Cuban government going to do to improve life on the island? What are they going to do to ensure that tourists do not have more rights and better conditions than nationals? When is the Cuban government going to allow national citizens living abroad to invest and do legal business there?
It is said that the biggest mistake the Spaniards made when they launched their conquest in America was their failure to understand that their knowledge alone was not enough to appreciate the new universe they’d found, one full of different cultures. Why don’t the defenders of Cuban politicians realize that, if they do not live in San Antonio de los Baños, Palma Soriano, or, if like me, they have not lived in Cuba for years, they probably do not fully understand the country?
Hence, how limited will the understanding of the subject be among those who have never lived there, or whose knowledge of Cuba is reduced to three or four tourist vacations, or a former Cuban lover? Why not listen to the people who are there, in the eye of the hurricane, on the street, living day-to-day life? Not those who drive around Mantilla, or those who have been paid a million dollars to give a concert; no, because they don’t understand anything anymore either. Why not listen to the motives of the people who took to the streets, of those who went out to protest on July 11?
Why reduce the discomfort in Cuba to a group of brainwashed young people with Internet? If the struggle is only of that particular group, why are there so many images of elderly women protesting in the streets, and videos of so many mothers looking for their missing children after the protests? Why, if those mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, helped build what they call the revolution do they not have now, 62 years later, the right to build something else, to change their minds, to want to try other political paths? Why can people in other countries change their minds, but not in Cuba?
No one with a broad sense of justice should wish for the military intervention of a foreign country in their homeland. But people also have to understand that, if a State imprisons a person for hours without following the due process of law, without providing information on the whereabouts of that person, that State is effecting a forced disappearance. Where are the people who disappeared on July 11? Why has the filmmaker Anyelo Troya, photographer of the video clip Patria y Vida, been sentenced to one year in jail, when artists and intellectuals have no other social function than to circulate ideas and leave behind their testimony of what is happening around them?*
Why is there no room in Cuba for Cubans who think differently from the government? Why does Cuba belong only to revolutionaries?
* Anyelo Troya was released after the original publication of this article. However, many of the people released after July 11—including journalists, artistas and minors—are being held in house arrest in flagrant violation of their freedom of speech.
Victor Gonzalez is a first-generation Cuban-American storyteller and former college administrator based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, and other alt-weekly publications. His Twitter handle is @ChubbyVictor.
Dainerys Machado Vento is the author of the short story collection Las noventa Habanas. She has been included on the Granta magazine list of the best young storytellers in Spanish. She is currently completing a Ph.D. in Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Miami. She is Cuban, and her Twitter handle is @Dainerys_MV.
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