Iván García, 19 April 2017 — When evening falls, Yainier and a group of friends who live in El Canal, a neighborhood in the Cerro municipality, 20 minutes by car from the center of Havana, grab a table by the door of an old bodega, and between swigs of rum and Reggaeton, they play dominoes well into the dawn.
They are six unemployed youths who live by whatever “falls off the back of a truck.” They also sell clothing imported from Russia or Panama, joints of Creole marijuana and toothpaste robbed the night before from a local factory.
They note down the domino scores they accumulate in a school notebook. The duo that gets to 100 points earns 20 pesos, the equivalent of one dollar, and if they really kick ass, they can earn double that amount.
The winners buy more rum, and between laughter and chatting, they kill time in a country where the hours seem to have 120 minutes. No one has a plan for the future.
In the seven or eight hours they pass playing, they usually talk about women, football or black-market businesses. Politics is not a subject of conversation.
The dissident, Eliécer Ávila, lives a few blocks away from where they’re playing dominoes. He’s an engineer and the leader of Somos Más (We Are More), an organization that supports democracy, free elections and free speech.
Probably Ávila is the most well-known dissident among Cubans who drink their morning coffee without milk. His debate in 2008 with Ricardo Alarcón, then the president of the one-note national parliament, was a success on the Island. The concerns of the young computer engineer and Alarcón’s incoherent answers circulated clandestinely on flash drives.
Eliécer, together with Antonio Rodiles, Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Julio Aleaga Pesant, figure among the most well-prepared dissidents in Cuba. Born in 1985 in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, Ávila has leadership qualities and good speaking skills.
His project goes over the heads of people in the neighborhood, like the six domino players, who are indifferent to the reality of their country. How to achieve anything is a problem to solve for a repressed local opposition, which up to now has no power to convoke a meeting. Without going farther, in the slum area of Canal, where most inhabitants are black and deathly poor, almost no one is interested in demanding inalienable rights in any modern society.
One of those neighbors is Raisán, a mulatto with discolored skin, who religiously pays his dues to the Cuban Workers Center, the only labor organization that’s authorized on the Island. However, he recognizes that the Center, which supposedly ensures his salary and labor demands, doesn’t even attempt to manage them.
“Brother, this has to change. You can’t live on a salary of 400 Cuban pesos — around 17 dollars — while it costs 10 times that to eat or dress yourself,” says Raisán, after making a list of the daily hardships that the government never solves.
There’s a dichotomy in Cuba. Ask any Cuban his assessment of the performance of the State organizations and you can publish several tomes of complaints. People are tired of political rhetoric. The citizens want better services, salaries and living conditions. But they don’t have the legal tools to carry out their propositions.
Creating a movement or party that looks out for their interests, changing the political dynamic and demanding the democratization of society, continue to be taboo subjects. Although the dissidence requests these rights, it still hasn’t managed to gain the confidence of the beleagured citizens, for whom the priority is to find food and money sufficient to allow them to repair their houses, among other needs.
State Security, the political police, short-circuits any initiative that tries to insert the opposition inside the population. And certainly it’s the fear, typical of a tyrannical regime that has more severe laws for dissenting than for certain common crimes. Fear is a powerful wall of containment that repels nonconformists.
Cuban society continues being excessively simulated. It always was. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, after the assault on the Presidential Palace by the Revolutionary Directorate, March 13, 1957, the authorities called for an act of reconciliation with the dictator, and in spite of the rain, 250,000 residents of Havana responded in a spontaneous manner.
The same thing happened in 1959, after Fidel Castro took power. In silence, without protesting, Cubans saw how Castro knocked out democracy, dismantled the legal judicial machinery, buried the free press, eliminated private businesses and governed the country like a vulgar autocrat.
The answer to discontent always was to emigrate. A considerable segment of the citizenry didn’t support – nor do they support – those who bet on peacefully reclaiming their rights, inserting themselves into politics and denouncing the frequent attacks on human rights.
People prefer to look away or continue coming to the game, seated in the stands.
To get Cubans to understand that the best solution to their complaints is democracy, free elections and a coherent and independent judicial framework, which supports small and medium-sized businesses, until now has been a subject that stopped with the internal opposition. Which has tried, but without success.
Translated by Regina Anavy