April 16, 1961: The Day They Sang Us The Script / Reinaldo Escobar

A few months earlier, when I was still a student in the seventh grade, I’d had my first major political debate with none other than my history teacher, a gentleman named Rodriguez, gray-haired and with an easy and passionate way with words. We debated about whether “this” was or was not communism. I remember that, in order to defend the Revolution from the teacher’s attacks, I explained that we were living a human process that proclaimed the slogan of bread and freedom.

My knowledge of geography was precarious, so I didn’t understand why my teacher asked me if I even knew what had happened, barely five years earlier, in Hungary, a place I’d never heard of, although it sounded to me as if it were some style of dancing. Repeating something I’d heard recently in a barber shop, my riposte to my opponent was that Cubans would never impose communism and that what had happened “in that Hungary” had nothing to do with us.

On the afternoon of April 16, 1961, in fired up with grief over those killed in the bombing of the previous day, and facing the imminent threat of invasion, Fidel Castro “let drop” the adjective socialist to describe “this Revolution of the humble, with the humble and for the humble.” Of course he also described it in the same sentence as a “democratic” Revolution, something that no one has ever celebrated as “the declaration of the democratic character of the process.”

At that time television was not as common in Cuban homes as it is today. I’m not sure if the event was transmitted live, much less if it was rebroadcast for the great majority who would have been at work at the time. The next day the newspapers did not announce that a new political destiny for the nation had been proclaimed, but rather that the country had been attacked.

History is rewritten with touch ups for the details that need highlighting, while the most uncomfortable are erased. The young people who will march in the Plaza of the Revolution this coming Saturday will perhaps have the idea that that memorable April 16, whose 50th anniversary they will commemorate shouting slogans and brandishing rifles, was a day people spent remarking, happily, on the declaration of the socialist character of the Revolution, but it was not. They spoke of a possible war, of survival, of death.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the proposal to introduce a new political and economic system in the country had been made in a calm and measured way, after previous debate and allowing different opinions to be expressed, so that later, in a plebiscite, people could cast their votes. I imagine my teacher Rodriguez in this discussion, reminding everyone about what happened in Hungary, and others, ignorant like me, saying that that had nothing to do with us.

14 April 2011