Another passenger and the same island
The majority of Cubans believe that something’s going on up there, after several Latin American presidents have chosen to visit us in such a short space of time. However, the complications of daily life don’t permit us to be attentive to what happens in the corridors of the chancelleries or at the state dinners. Our eyes and ears are focused on several problems, like the high cost of living, the schizophrenic dual monetary system, and the obsession with emigration that consumes so many young people.
To draw conclusions about the sudden interest in these leaders to travel to Cuba is an exercise that would steal too much time, without putting anything on our plates or in our pockets.
The Chilean dignitary, who arrives in a few days, will find a scene divided between the official truth and the reality in our streets. A nation that has stopped looking out the window for the possible transformations and no longer conjugates the dynamic verb “to change.”
After several months of waiting, Raúl Castro has not been able to push through a package of measures for greater openings, for which the vast majority have been waiting. The July 31st announcement of the illness of the “invincible” Commander-in-Chief, many thought would finally mark the beginning pragmatic brother’s turn, the one who had waited so many years in second place. His first speeches delivered phrases like “structural changes,” “a glass of milk for everyone,” and even alluded to extending “an olive branch” to the North American government. Confident in his words, many waited for his assumption of power on February 24, 2008 for him to put his own personal imprint on this country, molded under the willful mandate of Fidel Castro.
But when the hot summer came, even the most optimistic had begun to doubt the supposed openings that the foreign press trumpeted so much. Of the great popular demands, they’d only managed to meet a few cosmetic desires. Cubans could, finally, contract for a cell phone in their own name and stay in a hotel. The anticipated agrarian reform had sunk into a ridiculous usufruct system of land use, which even today is mired in the inefficient State bureaucracy. A couple of wicked hurricanes helped to highlight the national disaster and turned people’s eyes hopefully to other lands. The deteriorating housing stock couldn’t stand up under the fierce winds of Ike and Gustav, leaving hundreds of thousands of houses with collapsed roofs or none at all. The State had to accept foreign food aid to alleviate the food crisis that came over us.
The last illusions were gone by the end of the year, when Parliament met and extended the retirement age by five years and talked of eliminating certain gratuities. There was no mention of any need to end the absurd migration system that forces Cubans to get a travel authorization to leave the country. The eradication of this permit has been one of the desires shared most strongly by Cuban families, trapped in the plight of having children who emigrate. Nor did they tell us, our disciplined parliamentarians, one word about the possibility of opening small and mid-sized private enterprises, which could alleviate the terrible food services and the poor quality of much of the industrial products. Legalizing the purchase and sale of cars and homes was glaring in it absence in the National Assembly, which seems more concerned about applauding than addressing problems.
The path of civil rights
Caught between two currencies, the citizens of this island have learned that to survive we must do exactly the opposite of what the political hurdles demand. The national sport seems to be stealing resources from the State, and among the population illegal work is called by the euphemism of doing something “on the left.” Many of those exiled who were reviled as “worms” are today those who sustain thousands of households across Cuba. A young songwriter already described it in one of his refrains, “the eggs that we threw at you when you left with the scum, now I would eat them my china, those who passed through water know the glory.” Even Pepito, the mischievous character of our jokes, has opted for silence faced with so much despair. People in the street have come to say that the last great joke told by this timeless boy of stories, was to leave on a raft to cross the Straits of Florida.
The road where there has been the least progress seems to be, however, that of the rights of citizens. The third millennium has found us with the same limitations in association, expressing political ideas and influencing decision making. The crime of “illicit association” paralyzes those who would like to found a party or an innocent association for the preservation of the environment. On its part, the legal figure of speech of “enemy propaganda” stigmatizes every form of expression—print, radio or television—attempted contrary to the government. State control over the media remains intact, even though technological developments have helped people find parallel paths to keep themselves informed. Illegal satellite dishes, the controlled internet, and books and manuals brought in by tourists, have shaken the government’s monopoly on providing the news.
These are times of worry for the present, and screams of panic for the future, given the low birthrate and the aging population. The official version is that in Cuba women are better prepared professionally and this has resulted in a drop in births. However, everyone knows that the lack of housing, the prolonged economic crisis and the desire to emigrate function as more efficient contraceptives than any studies undertaken. A “country of old people” is predicted by those who note the low number of new babies and the constantly increasing exodus of the young and daring. A popular sarcastic phrase warns “the last one to turn off El Morro,” a reference to the old lighthouse that illuminates the exit of Havana Bay. None of this could have been seen or felt by the leaders who have dropped in these last weeks, because for them there are only smiles, the low figures for infant mortality, or the shiny laboratories where they fabricate sophisticated vaccines.
President Bachelet may not sense any change in motion, either, but the hands clinging to the helm are those of a generation that is now passing its seventies. She will hear the full report of conquests and little or nothing of the dark statistics that place us ahead in Latin America in abortions, suicides and divorces.
If she manages to distinguish any spot in the triumphalist picture they paint only in their own eyes, someone will be in charge of pointing out that it’s the fault of the blockade of the neighbor to the north. Her heavy official program will be loaded with scientific centers, remodeled hospitals and no lack of little Pioneer groups reciting some poem. Everything around her will have the objective of showing her the beautiful face of a country that needs a lot of make-up to hide the wrinkles and scars.
Why Bachelet’s visit
One question on the minds of many citizens is whether the Chilean dignitary has come to the island to give a boost to the government, or because she’s worried about our fate. The analysts and political scientists have a hard time understanding that in Cuba there are two agendas: that which comes from power and that shown by the people. If she takes away only the first, we can expect that Ms. Bachelet will issue strong statements calling for the release of the five Cuban spies imprisoned in the U.S. and the extradition of Posada Carriles, accused of blowing up a plane in 1976. If she follows the official agenda exactly, she will declare that it’s not enough for Mr. Obama to close the prison at the Guantánamo base, but that he must also return the territory to Cuba and, obviously, declare an immediate end of the U.S. blockade.
If we run down the list of the people’s desires, she could be an excellent partner to ask for those “structural reforms” that they’ve been talking about for two years. It would be a lot to ask her to mention the point about the political prisoners, but coming from her, with her record in the time of Pinochet, it would be a natural.
Let’s suppose she doesn’t come alone and that one of her companions can skip the official protocol and do that which her high position makes difficult. Something so bold as to meet with people from the opposition and the emerging civil society. Let’s go further and conjecture that some small portion of the Chilean delegation could talk with the Ladies in White, with independent journalists or with someone who could offer a different version of the State explanations. They might then feel they have their feet on firm ground and are not in the country of wonders, through which various Alices have made an illusory journey. To not do it, would make us, the Cubans, feel that she hadn’t come to visit us, but rather a group of septuagenarians who hold the power.
Nevertheless, the brief visit of the Chilean president could not stretch far enough to manage to reconstruct the fragmented mirror that is Cuba today. She can only look at the golden charm that has been prepared for visitors, while the dark mercury of everyday life will be forbidden. She will not see us standing in the long lines for bread, waiting for the late bus, or preparing the improvised crafts on which so many launch themselves on the sea. They will show her none of that, but I have the impression that she will sense it and feel it. She knows, in advance, that beyond the tinted windows of her car, there is a country with little resemblance to what they will show her.
This article appeared in El Mercurio, on Saturday, February 7, 2009