Cuba’s Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso and Me

Fidel Castro, Alpidio Alonso y Abel Prieto. (La Jiribilla)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yamil Simón-Manso, Gaithersburg (Maryland) | 13 February 2021 — Cuban artists and intellectuals recently staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture. The diversity of writings on the Internet referring to the same thing renders any analysis redundant, and we Cubans are up to here in redundancies. In addition, I have not visited Cuba for a long time and although Gardel’s song repeats that “twenty years is nothing,” for me, twenty years is an eternity. In terms of human development, Cuba seems to be stranded where I left off in 1994, particularly in terms of a lack of tolerance for dissent and diversity, as evidenced by events following the protest and the involvement of the Minister of Culture. But I don’t particularly want to write about that either. That’s obvious. Instead, I want to tell a story; the anecdotal is always more interesting and revealing than any academic writing.

I met the current Minister of Culture of Cuba, Alpidio Alonso, during our pre-university studies. I should add, as an aside, that I always addressed him as Elpidio until someone from way out there, from La Dalia, Yaguajay, corrected my error. We ran into each other several times while at the Central University of Las Villas, and I saw him for the last time when he worked at the Mechanical Plant in Santa Clara. Although we are more or less the same age, while we were pre-university, I was one year ahead, and I assume that, with the nonsensical stuff of that age, and if no special motivation exists, one does not pay much attention to students of the lower grades, thus I don’t remember us having much interaction at that time.

He approached me smiling and the first thing he said was something like: “Sh.., how great to see you, you have no idea how much I admire you”

That is why I was surprised when one day, traveling on bus number 3 to the university, I ran into Alpidio. He approached me smiling and the first thing he said was something like: “Sh.., how nice to see you, you have no idea how much I admire you.”  I have never believed myself to have special attributes or people skills, so I’m indifferent to this type of comment. However, I admit that his words moved me, they were fair and sincere. After all, it was a conversation between hicks, and in La Dalia, as well as in Punta Diamante, where I was born, the tradition was to speak the language without disguises, and to smile with the soul.

Why did Alpidio admire me at that time? I will try to be brief. It turns out that in the summer of 1980, in the pre where we were enrolled, an act of repudiation was organized against a student who was leaving school to be part of the Mariel Boatlift and against his father’s wishes, who came to pick him up. The director of the school summoned to his office groups of students responsible for the Federation of High School Students (FEEM), the Union of Young Communists (UJC) and various agitators, who were soon joined by almost the rest of the school, moved either by curiosity or simply being morbid. To leave the school and reach the road that connected the nearest municipalities you had to walk about two kilometers along a dusty embankment. This route became an unexpected and unimaginable Stations of the Cross that would last hours for that pair of defenseless beings.

Initially, the students only used shouts of “scum,” “traitors,” “pin, pon, fuera, down with the maggots.”

Soon, the verbal aggression turned into physical violence and they were thrown to the ground, dragged and beaten. Until that moment, I had been nothing more than a passive spectator accompanying the march, but then I began to feel uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. I jumped into the middle of that Roman circus and screamed out to Papito, the main instigator, with all my might. “This is a shame, whoever lays a finger on them again will have to answer to me.”

I do not have an intimidating physique at all, but I must have been very convincing, because the mood became more serene, although Papito later insisted on retaliating, wanting to strip the uniform off the boy and forcing him to stand on a concrete pile that The Coaxial Cable Company had abandoned and sing the National Anthem. I was also opposed to this, but they did it anyway.

Although I feel that I did the right thing at the time and I could even be proud of the way I reacted, the truth is that my attitude did not respond to heroic intentions, far from it. It was clearly an outrage, except for a blinded and debased mass. I treasured that experience and, although I never had too great an interest in a political career within the Cuban system, there is no doubt that this event would affect me enough to reject it when it was within my reach. It is not difficult for people with a modicum of dignity to choose between forced convenience and decency. That day on the bus I thanked Alpidio for remembering that sad event, because bad memories are plentiful in Cuba.

On that occasion, I asked him about his career as an electrical engineer and, with his feet on the desk and smiling, he replied: “I write poetry.” I asked him about induction furnaces and he told me: “What furnaces? Those have not been turned on since the days of Ñañá Seré”

The last time Alpidio and I met, it was by chance. Pedro Miret Prieto had visited the university bringing the trendy messianic plan, to produce stainless steel, and a group of university professors were sent to “explore” the Mechanical Plant. On that occasion, I asked him about his career as an electrical engineer and with his feet on the desk and smiling he replied: “I write poetry.” I asked him about induction furnaces and he told me: “What furnaces? Those have not been turned on since the days of Ñañá Seré” [the year of the flood].

He gave me the impression of being frustrated with his situation, but he was kind as always. The memory I have of Alpidio is that of someone intelligent, sensitive, as well as a decent person I liked. We said goodbye and I didn’t hear from him again until recently, when I found out that he is the Minister of Culture and the protagonist of certain events related to the protest, which makes him unrecognizable to me.

I do not intend to teach morality lessons or question anyone’s motivations for acting one way or another. We all know of the limitations Cuban leaders have to effect any change. All, without exception, have been trapped and survive immersed in (and to) serve a stupid, useless, foreign, extemporaneous and malevolent ideology that encourages them to repeat over and over again the sad events at Camarioca, El Mariel, Guantánamo and at the same time feel certain pride in the chaos.

My advice to the Cuban minister and leaders would be to reject that ideology that recently destroyed the richest country in Latin America in just fifteen years. Stop trafficking in “dead souls” and embrace the present so that our people can know and value it. An abyss has been created among Cubans, and the responsible party is that ideology which, more than a religion, is the result of a mental disorder. Reject it. All the Cuban people, from here, from there and from everywhere will be grateful.

Who am I to suggest such recommendations? Well, I could respond with some of the minister’s verses: I “drove a stake into the evil eye of The Giant, yet I’m still a Nobody.” I live happily somewhere in this world where I can freely separate folly from understanding, virtue from evil, but more importantly, I can separate fear from love.

This modest writing has no other claim than to make an appeal, from the site of the common citizen, to avoid violence, including the all-embracing State violence, exercised following the precepts of an ideology. There is nothing worse for a country than the attempt to shape intelligence from power. I clarify that I do not know Latin nor do I give a crap, but, for years  I have preserved a phrase that sums up the intention of my message and that can still be read in the Rector’s Palace in the old city of Dubrovnik, former seat of the Government and Prince’s residence: Obliti privatorum publica curate. The approximate translation is: Forget the private and worry about the public. I believe that this exhortation, to be public servants and not sovereign handlers of power, fits the minister and the Cuban leaders very well.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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