Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.
Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.
“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.
This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years.
The poet Virgilio Piñera blamed Cubans’ misfortune on our insularity. “The damned circumstance of water everywhere,” he wrote in “The Isle in Weight.”
He was probably right. Not having control over one’s future and with an average monthly salary of twenty dollars a month means that for some people the only option for improving their quality of life is to obtain a visa.
Regardless of ideology, race or education, almost no one wants to travel abroad to visit museums and learn about other peoples and cultures.
Whether they be members of the regime or the opposition, their purpose in travelling is to come back with lots of stuff and a decent amount of money.
When you talk to some dissidents who have travelled to the United States or Europe, they describe how comfortable their hotels were, how much they ate and how advanced the technologies they encountered were.
They go into great detail when talking about the luxurious stores or the prices of home appliances. Government officials do this as well; it is only in speeches and public forums that they condemn capitalism.
A year and a half after passage of an emigration law allowing Cubans to travel overseas more easily, fifty independent journalists have been to various countries.
I am waiting to read more reports on Cubanet from the likes of David Canela and Alberto talking about what they have seen in American cities they have visited. A lot of people have been to Florida but I have not anything on the aspirations of the latest generation of Cubans living on the other shore. And those who go to Madrid don’t usually venture out to Cañada Real, preferring Lavapies or Chueca instead.*
They cite a lack of time, though they always find time to visit the Ño que Barato store in Miami. I do not know if it is from apathy or spiritual poverty but, with rare exceptions, independent journalists do not write about the men and women from the places they have had the privilege to visit.
Preoccupied with academic get-togethers, my colleagues are missing a golden opportunity by not reporting on life and local customs of the populations in these localities.
You can’t ask an ordinary Cuban to join the activism in support of a democratic society, when the supposed dissident and journalist leaders, dazed by trips abroad, have disengaged from political proselytizing in their communities.
The merit now is in accumulating flight hours and visas. It is important to participate in academic events and economic forums or to pass courses at prestigious universities.
But I wonder who will support guys like Cecilio, medical specialist, to learn to fight for his rights to a fair wage, or to convince him that if the Castro autocracy approves the UN covenants, it will open a door to a democratic society.
Not even in the most difficult years of the so-called Special Period have we seen so many Cubans dreaming of leaving the country on either a permanent or temporary basis. They see the future outside their homeland.
A visa to the developed world is their priority. Cuba is hurting. It is a real tragedy that every year more than twenty thousand of our fellow citizens leave in a legal and orderly way for the United States.
In the first months of 2014 fourteen thousand Cubans crossed the border between Mexico and the United States. No one knows if the forty thousand people who have left the island since the new emigration law took effect on January 14, 2013 will return.
In addition to these numbers, there are also the hundreds if not thousands of people who take to the sea in rubber rafts. We are more of an island than ever.
At this rate, there will be no one to defend the hijacked rights and face off with the Castro brothers. The regime could win the case by default. It is already winning.
*Translator’s note: Cañada Real is a shantytown on the outskirts of Madrid known for crime and drug trafficking. Lavapies is a neighborhood in central Madrid with a large immigrant population. Chueca is a square in central Madrid popular with members of the gay community.
20 September 2014