Site manager’s note: This letter is not from one of our regular bloggers. It is from a young Cuban who has emigrated to Bulgaria, and was written in response to a post on (the now “paused”) blog “La Joven Cuba,” detailing why young people should not emigrate from Cuba. The letter is “going viral” on Cuba-related websites and we thought our readers would want to read it.
Dear Rafael Hernández:
I have read with great interest your “Letter to a young man who is leaving.” I feel it applies to me, because two years ago I left Cuba, I’m 28 years old and I live in Pomorie, a spa city situated in the east of Bulgaria. The reason why I write to you is to try to explain to you my stance as a young Cuban emigrant. Without solemnities nor absolute truths, because if leaving my country has taught me anything, it’s discovering that such truths do not exist.
Maybe some of those who have left in the last few years (there are thousands of us) are clear about the moment they decided to do it. Not me. Mine was progressive, almost without my realizing it. It began with that oh-so-Cuban resource that is the complaint. Trifling, perhaps. About what isn’t available, about what has not come, about what happens, about what doesn’t happen, about not knowing. Or not being able to.
The complaining is not serious, what’s serious is that it becomes chronic, like an illness, when nothing seems to resolve itself. And one can accept that that’s how it is, and that it’s your country for better or for worse, or move on to the next category, which is frustration. Or discover that the solution to the majority of the problems is out of your hands. Or they won’t let you do it. Or even sadder: they don’t seem to matter.
To abandon or to remain in your country is a very personal decision that should never be judged in moral terms. I chose this route because I wanted a different future from the one that I foresaw in Cuba, and I left to look for it knowing that it could go badly, but I wanted to run that risk. I’m not going to lie and say it was painful. I did not cry in the airport. On the contrary, I was happy. In fact, I freed myself.
You are right to say that my generation lacks those emotional ties that generate experiences such as the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis or the Angola war. But make no mistake, I have also had my epics. At best not as epic, but certainly equally devastating. In these twenty-two years mentioned, I have watched the country for which my parents fought degrade itself. I have seen my elementary and secondary school teachers leave. I have seen families argue for the right to eat bread.
I have seen the Malecon full of nervous people screaming against the government, and even more nervous people screaming in its favor. I have seen young people building rafts to flee to who knows where, and a mob throwing cat shit against the house of a “traitor.” Rafael, I have even seen a dog eating another dog on the corner of 27 and F in Havana.
And I have also seen my father, who was in Angola, his face pale, without answers, the day a hotel custodian told him that he could not keep walking along the Jibacoa beach (across from the international camping area) because he was Cuban. I was with him. I saw it. I was ten years old, and a ten-year-old boy does not forget how his father’s dignity goes to shit. Even though he had returned from a war with three medals.
You talk to me about the social conquests of the Revolution. About education and medicine. I am going to talk to you about my education. I had good teachers, and when they left they were substituted for others less prepared who, in turn, were replaced by social workers who wrote “experience” with an S and who were incapable of pointing on a map to five capitals of Latin America (they didn’t tell me this, I lived it). My parents had to hire private tutors so that I could truly learn. My parents did not pay them; my aunt based in Toronto did.
To be honest, I owe a good part of my education to the clients of the Greek restaurant where my aunt worked. But there is more. In my older sister’s time it was extremely rare that a student receive a grade of 100%. In my time a 100% came to be something common, not because we students had become more brilliant, but because the professors lowered their requirements to cover up the school’s failure. And you know what? I was lucky, because those who came after me had a television instead of a teacher.
I have very little to say about medicine, because you live in Cuba. And except for remaining free, which I admit is still commendable, the state of the hospitals, the precariousness of badly-paid doctors and the growing corruption push the health system even more toward that third world you did so much to avoid. And the truth is that, today, a Cuban who has hard currency has more opportunities to receive better treatment (giving gifts or even paying) than one who doesn’t, even though it’s illegal. And even though the constitution says otherwise. As sad as it is to admit, Rafael, the education and medicine available to today’s Cubans are worse than those which my parents enjoyed.
You say that the country exerts a great effort, that there is an embargo. And I respond to you that there is also a government that takes fifty years to make decisions on behalf of all Cubans. And if we have reached this point, it would be healthiest to admit that it has failed, or was unable, or didn’t want to do things differently. For whatever reason. Because its failure is also full of reasons. And instead of digging in with its historical figures in the Council of State, it should give way to those who come after.
Rafael, it’s very frustrating for a young person of my age to see that 50 years have passed in Cuba without producing a generational change-over because the government has not allowed it. And I’m not talking about giving the power to me, as a 28-year-old. I am talking about those 40-, 50- or even 60-year-old Cubans who have never had the chance to decide.
Because today’s people who are of that age and who hold positions of responsibility in Cuba have not been trained to make decisions, but rather to approve them. They are not leaders, they are officials. And that includes everyone from ministers to the delegates of the national assembly. They are part of a vertical system that does not provide room so that they can exercise the autonomy that corresponds with their positions. Everything is a consultation. And contrary to the old the saying: instead of asking for pardon, everyone would rather ask for permission.
You say that in my country one can vote and be elected to a position from age 16. And that the presence of young delegates has diminished from the 80s until now. You even warn me that if we continue on like this, there will be fewer young people who vote and therefore fewer who are eligible. And I ask you: what purpose does my vote serve? What can I change? What have the delegates of the national assembly done to spark my interest in them?
Let’s be honest, Rafael, and I believe that you are in your letter, so I also want to be honest in mine, we both know that the national assembly, as it is conceived, only serves to pass laws unanimously. It is ironic to call an institution that meets one week a year an “assembly.” Three or four days in the summer and three or four days in December. And during those days it limits itself to approving the mandates from the Council of State and of its President, who is the one who decides what happens and what doesn’t happen in the country. Sadly, I cannot vote for this president. And I’m not sure I would want to do so.
A few days ago I heard Ricardo Alarcón confess to a Spanish reporter that he doesn’t believe in Western democracy “because the citizens are only free the day they vote, the rest of the time the parties do what they want…” Even if that were the case, which it is not (at least not all the time, and not in every democracy), he would recognize that since I was born, in 1984, voters in the United States, for instance, have had seven days of freedom (one every four years) to change their president.
A few times they have done this for the better, and others for the worse. But that’s another story. A young person my age from New Jersey has already had two days of freedom to, for example, throw out Bush’s Republicans and elect Obama. Cubans have not been able to make a decision like that since 1948 (not including Batista’s elections, of course). And if you tell me that the capacity to elect a president is not relevant for a country, I insist that it is. And more relevant for a young person who needs to feel like he’s being taken into account. Even though it may be only for one day.
You probably think that we who left chose the easier route, that the more difficult one was to stay in order to solve problems. But I have to tell you that my grandparents and my parents stayed in Cuba to wrestle with those problems. To give me a country that would be more advanced, equitable, progressive. And the one they have given me is one in which the people celebrate being able to buy a car and sell a house as if it were a conquest. But that is not a conquest, it’s recovering a right that we already had before the Revolution. Is this what we’ve come to? Celebrating as a victory something so simple? How many other basic things have we lost over the years?
For my parents it’s painful to assume that failure, and they don’t want it for me. They don’t want me, at 55, to have a salary I cannot afford to live on, neither the salary nor the ration book. Because it’s not enough. And they don’t want me to survive only by turning to the black market, to corruption, to double standards, to pretending. They prefer that I be far away. At 28 years old I have become my parents’ social security — how else do you believe two people could survive on 650 pesos?
Yes, Rafael, hundreds of thousands of us Cubans have had to leave so that our country doesn’t collapse. What Cuba receives in our remittances is superior, in net value, to nearly all of its exports. Yes, the country has lost youth and talent, and instead of opening a realistic debate about how to stop the bleeding, it remains anchored to an ideological immobility that is nothing more than fear for the future. And what do I do in a country whose rulers are afraid of the future…? Wait until they die…? Wait until they change the laws out of generosity and not out of conviction? What do I do in a country that continues to reward unconditional political loyalty over talent? What do I aspire to if what I am and what I do is not enough? Do I become a cynic? Or do you motivate me to face the consequences and say what I think out loud? Some young people from my generation have already done so, and where are they?
Let’s remember Eliécer Ávila, a student of Eastern University who had the courage to ask Ricardo Alarcón why young Cubans could not travel like other people, and who was retaliated against by the system. He was not to blame for the presence of a BBC camera there, nor for the ridiculous response that Alarcón gave him (the barbarity that planes would fill the sky and crash into each other). Today Eliécer lives as an outcast for political reasons. And he is not a terrorist nor a mercenary nor an unpatriotic person, he is a humble young mullato man, an academic, who made the mistake of being honest. How sad to have a revolution that ends up condemning someone for being honest. You want me to stay for that, Rafael?
Leaving your country and your family is not an easy path. Nor is it the solution to anything, it is only a beginning. You go to another culture, you have to learn another language, you have some very bad moments. You feel alone. But at least you have the relief of knowing that with effort you can get things. My first winter in Bulgaria was very difficult, I found work as a driver and I spent four months loading and unloading washing machines to save money to be able to travel to Turkey. A dream I had when I was a young boy. And I went.
I did not have to ask permission to leave nor did my plane crash into another. I could complete Eliécer’s dream. And it made me happy to have done so. I’ve known other realities, I’ve been able to compare. I’ve discovered that the world is infinitely imperfect, and that we Cubans are not the center of anything. We are admired for some things just as we are hated for others.
I have also discovered that leaving has not changed my leftist convictions. Because the Cuban left is not the left, Rafael. Call it whatever you want, but it is not the left. I am part of those who search for social progress with equality of opportunity and without exclusions. Think what you want to think. Without sectarianism or trenches. Because that only serves to confront society and substitute dogmas for truths.
Finally, Rafael, chance wanted me to end up in a country that was also governed by one party and a single ideology. Here there was no Velvet Revolution like in Czechoslovakia, nor did they demolish a wall like in Berlin, nor did they shoot a president like in Romania. Here, as in Cuba, the people did not know their dissidents. Here there were no fissures, and nevertheless, in a week it went from being a socialist state to a parliamentary republic. And nobody protested. Nobody complained. I cannot help but ask myself: did they spend 40 years pretending?
Since then it hasn’t been a bed of roses; they have faced several crises, and the population has even come to live with poorer quality than what they had in the 80s, but curiously, the vast majority of Bulgarians do not want to go back. And the socialism they left behind was more prosperous than what we Cubans have today. But in this country they don’t think about the past, they think about the present. In bettering the economy, in resolving the inequalities (they exist here, as in Cuba), in fighting the double standard, the personalities and the corruption that the state generated for decades.
The day that this present matters in Cuba, no doubt, we will see each other in Havana.
Ivan López Monreal
Translated by: Regina Anavy, Courtney Finkel
August 22 2012