Cubans Have Lost Their Smiles

That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 21 October 2022 — We are a dozen people waiting in line. The woman in front of me has her lips pursed as if she is avoiding saying anything. The young man in flip-flops and jeans turns his head from side to side from time to time, while next to him a teenager does not take her eyes off her phone and frowns. The man at the end of the line has released some insults for the delay and even the store’s guard can’t stop complaining. No one smiles, no face even hints at a gesture of joy or complacency.

For years I had to explain to my foreign students who came to learn Spanish on the island that the laughter of Cubans should not be interpreted as synonymous with happiness. “Even at funerals, and despite the sadness of the death of someone close, people will make their jokes and can burst out laughing,” I described. But the stereotype that people in this country felt content and lucky to live under the prevailing political system was as difficult to eradicate as lice in elementary school classrooms.

So, I drew on more data. I spoke to them about the repression, the domestic conflicts fueled by the housing deficit, the high divorce rate, the drama of the suicides about which the ruling party jealously guards the numbers, and the dream most shared by Cubans, that of emigrating to any other place in order to leave this Island. However, my explanations that a thousand and one dramas could hide behind those smiles tourists saw in the streets did not achieve any effect. The cliché of national contentment was stronger than any argument or statistic.

But even the most widespread and enduring clichés may one day run into the reality that proves them false. That laughter on the lips or the cackles set off by anything at all have disappeared from Cuban streets. The faces of sorrow and annoyance are seen on all sides and, instead of those jocular and hilarious phrases of yesteryear, now emerge complaints, insults and offenses. It gives the impression that a conflict is always about to break out with fists or that anyone might jump down another’s throat at the slightest difference of opinion or friction.

A French friend who worked in Cuba for a foreign firm for many years returned a few days ago after more than five years in Europe. “What has happened to the people?” he asked me. “No one laughs,” he added when he saw that I didn’t understand him. He concluded with a phrase that made me realize that we all have long, serious faces 24 hours a day: “All the faces I see are sad, even the children don’t smile.” We don’t even use that mask that we put on so many times to exorcise pain or dissatisfaction. We have stopped even wanting to pretend that we are happy.

After that conversation I walked down the Avenida de los Presidentes in El Vedado, turned onto Calle 23, continued to L, approached Infanta and quickened my pace towards Belascoaín. Not a single laugh the entire way.

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