On November 6, 2008, published my first digital article on the site Kaosenlared (Chaos on the Web). Three months earlier I had graduated in journalist at the University of the Oriente, did not have this blog, and was about to begin working at the radio station where I would be located during my Social Service. It wouldn’t be too long before Kaosenlared would censor the articles I submitted to their “Area of Free Publication,” and that I would be fired from Radio Bayamo… among other reasons, for articles like this one.
That first text on the web was titled, “We Too, Cubans Under 35,” (a title that today — it makes me smile to say so — I wouldn’t use even under torture). Its content, however, is still pleasing to me. And its fundamental protagonist, my compatriot Eliécer, still awakens the same admiration in me as when I sent these words into cyberspace.
Very soon I will write about the fabulous interview Eliécer Ávila gave to Estado de SATS. Today I want to introduce the theme with this extensive article (perhaps longer than it should have been: it was a cry of relief) which, at a distance of three years, I still subscribe to from beginning to end.
We Too, Cubans Under 35…
(6 November 2008)
It has been some time since I read a text titled “We Too, Cubans Over 35” published on the site, Kaosenlared.
I venture to re-contextualize its title every time someone writes, opines, and debates the events surrounding the young Eliécer Avila, a 5th year student at the University of Informatics Sciences (UCI), who has become a kind of daily sport for those who follow the Cuban reality, whether from within or from outside the country, whether they are a militant within the Cuban Revolution or against it, and know a lot or nothing about what it means to live today, in 2008, on this Island.
For my part, I would I would like to start laying some foundation on which I base my opinions.
Eliécer Avila and I have a lot in common. I would dare to assert that without knowing each other in the flesh, it wouldn’t take five minutes of dialog for each of us to recognize the other as someone close, a brotherhood as if we’d been friends since childhood. The reasons I can explain are more or less as follows:
We are both from what is euphemistically known in the Cuban capital as “the interior,” and hence known in traditional and at times burlesque slang as the guajiros of this country — the peasants. For more details, we live in provinces located in the eastern part of the country: he in Puerto Padre, a town in Las Tunas, and I in Baymao, the capital of Granma province. The distance between our towns is about a three-hour journey.
Within a few months, Eliécer will probably graduate as an Information Engineer, while I, also in a few months, will get my degree in Journalism from the University of the Oriente, Santiago de Cuba.
But more important still, we both form a part of the same generation: he is 22, I am 24. Despite what he seems now, Eliécer has grown up literally in the countryside, developing a good physique and ideas pragmatic enough for the hard work of agriculture, and I have grown up in the semi-urban life of a provincial capital, involved more with artistic-intellectual tasks, but I can affirm that we are both products of the exact same educational system, the same social canons, and above all: we have both grown up under the influence of everything that has happened on this Island for the last 25 years.
Which means: we have suffered, while still children, the horrible economic crisis that came upon us in the early years of the ’90s, and although we weren’t as acutely aware of it, because of our young age, we knew that it wasn’t “good” that we didn’t have milk for breakfast, or toys, that we bathed without soap, and brushed our teeth without toothpaste. We knew that the bad moods, the irritability, that our parents exhibited most of the time wasn’t normal; we knew we had to sit at the table every night, eating what little had been cooked, under the light of candles because electricity was an unimaginable luxury.
Eliécer and I “came of age” as teenagers, students, at the time of the Battle of Ideas in this country, with the complex political process unleashed by the case of Elian Gonzalez. I can’t speak for Eliécer, but I venture to say that it is quite probable that he, as in my case, studying in the 10th grade in my High School of Exact Sciences, had to sit for hours on the floor of the hallways, along with 700 of my classmates, barely able to hear the speeches and interventions aired by Cuban televisions during the Open Forums. I repeat: not seeing it, barely able to hear it. We were so many for one television that to distinguish anything on the tiny screen was virtually impossible.
Worse still: when we ourselves had to form part of the public at these Forums we were taken from our schools to the town in question a day ahead of time. They took us there, at times, in falling-apart and poorly lit trains which, if they didn’t exude melancholy and sadness, it was only because they were transporting a mass of teenagers overflowing in adrenaline.
Once we arrived, we were “housed,” also on the floor, of schools, or institutions without rooms or bedrooms, huddled against each other, most of the time without water but with a symbolic snack in the morning, facing the endless speech of some fresh and well-fed leaders who harangued us about effort and dedication.
If, from our posts, we couldn’t smell the fresh lavender above, if we couldn’t take in the aroma of those who had recently bathed and lived with air conditioning, it was because we were so far from them in our plaza, there where the sun made our eyes water and exhaustion filled our vistas with images of grey.
And we grew up in these school with horrible food, horrible living conditions (mattresses, showers, bathrooms), destitute, studying difficult materials on empty stomachs with the tropical heat soaking our uniform shirts, worn and translucent from years of continued wearing.
I have heard Eliécer Avila, speaking boldly, referring to himself as “we who have studied, we who did everything right,” and I have felt the same sadness, the same excitement that he probably felt at the time. Why? Precisely for that reason: because we are “those who did everything right.”
We are the ones who endured the difficult conditions of the Cuban educational system, the standard of living of our population and, in consequence, the hardships of our parents barely able to support us in our education which is free only in theory; we are the ones who have chosen to be useful to society (he as an engineer, I as a journalist), instead of the so-called easy money, easy and sometimes dirty.
But then we come upon a paradox that is an open secret in Cuba: very little, if anything, helps us to be professionals. It’s useless, as in the case of Eliécer, a country boy who comes to a brand new school like UCI — The University of Information Sciences. If he wants to go to the university, prepare himself academically, have an objective for some possibility of bettering his quality of life in the near future, if he wants to prosper not just as a person but economically, and be useful to his society and be able to support himself and his family, then the best thing he can do in Cuba is to forget those studies and dedicate himself to thinking about how to subsist working for himself, which, by the way, faces him with another dilemma: how to gain an honest living, how to live comfortably without violating any law in this Socialist Country, is a utopia of the highest nature.
In the case of Eliécer, I think about the raising of animals that he insinuated in some comment. He knows, we all know well: the irony of our situation is that he can study, the doors of that and any Cuban university are open to him and to everyone who wants to hang a title on their wall, but his income would be notoriously greater selling pork at the local market, than serving his country as a licensed engineer.
Here, then, we see those who “have not done everything right.” And we see ourselves, young people like Eliecer, like me; those who populate the universities of this country. We see our “misguided friends” who choose to abandon their studies and dedicate themselves to the day-to-day, living from some shameful business or simply wearing a white apron and selling fritters from some corner of our town.
What is painful is that those friends greet us with respect, with admiration for our intelligence and intellectual level, and those friends are the same ones who pay for us to go to some nightclub, who give gifts to our family, who enjoy the many beauties of a country that we barely know.
We are the rising generation in this country, and it turns out that we are full of doubts. Of dissatisfaction. We are full of questions that no one takes the trouble to answer, and we know the reason is obvious, because they don’t have answers to them.
We are a generation that grew up just as our parents began to stop believing in words like Conscience and Selflessness because, in the 30 years under these slogans, they achieved little or nothing for themselves or their families
Needless to say, then, for us that fervor that flooded the plazas in the 1970s awakens only an anecdotal and distant interest. Young people like Eliecer and like me, and like so many thousands of Cubans — because we are “those who do things well” — have respected those who have faith in good intentions, but not because we are captive to the same effervescent rhetoric that filled our parents, and for which they broke their backs (or, as Eliecer says, “lost their teeth”) in voluntary work which, they thought, would create for us, their children, a more comfortable country.
That has been the development of our consciousness. So we have been shaped by this socialist Cuba. Thus, we have matured as thinking beings, who are offered all the possibilities in the world to excel, to develop our intellect, but who are then required not to use that intelligence to question the course our country has taken.
So, I was one of the countless who was surprised by the footage of what happened in that meeting at UCI. And to clarify: I am talking about the entire footage, which contained the intervention of Eliécer along with various others of his classmates, and the full answers of the President of the National Assembly of Cuba, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada.
I must confess something: my feeling after seeing the intervention of this guajiro, of this neighbor of my territory, was basically envy. Although during his discourse I experienced various sensations (I laughed out loud several times, for sure), what I was left with at the end was a healthy envy, my only thought being to write an email to the student himself, saying what I had felt, as a Cuban like him, as a young man like him, and thanking him on behalf of those of us not in that room for what, in “good Cuban,” is called having the balls to be worthy of the ideals of Marti, to say what he really thought. That email was never answered. Today, after learning of the days of stress and analysis to which he was subjected, I understand that his silence was the result of strict orders.
But I speak of envy for one simple reason: Eliécer had the opportunity that thousands of us, thousands of young Cubans, have long desired, and what’s more, he took maximum advantage of it. He had the perfect opportunity not only to put on the record the many dissatisfactions we’ve held within, the many things we think are wrong with the society we live in and that we want to improve, but also to say it to Ricardo Alarcón, one of the respected figures in Cuban politics.
Apart from the countless interpretations and pros and cons that this event has given rise to, I dare to say something: “participatory socialist democracy” cannot be working very well in a country where there is such an uproar because some young person questions its leaders, and their decisions.
A people’s civil rights can’t be working very well if they are suddenly shaken from all sides, just because one voice suddenly arises in a meeting and “dares” to say “I don’t understand this, nor this, and I would like you, as president of the National Assembly of my country, to explain it to me.” We can be unsatisfied with the answers from Alarcón, but although significant they don’t seem to me to be the core of this issue: the reaction to this event that comes, not from “the enemy” this time, but from the Cuban people themselves, is the principal denunciation that something is not going well here.
Let’s say we put on the Internet a video of a French person questioning the government of Sarkozy; let’s say we publish material referring to the words of an Argentinian, or a Chilean, disagreeing with what happens in their nation. I would like to know how many inhabitants of those countries would go from house to house copying this material on the sly, reproducing it in their homes behind closed doors, and debating it in their family circles as the most important news of the day.
I don’t pretend to analyze in detail the responses that Ricardo Alarcón offered to that expectant student body. Everyone saw them, everyone heard them. They are, I believe, part of History. If I had to choose a fragment of his discourse as “the icing on the cake,” as an elixir of the unusual, I would pick the moment in which he argued that if the six billion inhabitants of the earth all decided to travel, “the aerial traffic jam would be enormous…” Let me quote a recurring phrase of Holden Caulfield, the character from Salinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye“: “That killed me.”
So it’s not about the nonconformist Eliécer. It’s not about creating a leader, nor manipulating his words to take greater advantage of them. The even more important fact is that at least one of the millions of Cubans who ever attended a meeting with a senior leader decided to express, at the most unexpected moment, all of what many of us just like him think, but that no one ever deigned to listen to.
We, Cubans under 25 who believe in the love of our country, who give thanks (as Rafael Sanzio did for having been born in the same century as Michelangelo) for having been born in the land of Martí, Céspedes, Agramonte, but also of Felix Varela, Capablanca, Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, we owe a hand to this son of peasants and to the peasant that he is himself, to this well-built guy with rough manners and the jocular ways of a native Cuban, for having fired the discordant starting pistol of those of us who do not think everything is fine, at a time and place where they only expected to hear the uniform music of the usual concert.
November 29 2011