14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, Havana, 27 August 2016 – When I was small, I suffered from asthma for several years. I remember that my grandmother would not let me leave the house if it was slightly cloudy; I also had to wear shoes and thick socks although all the other children of the neighborhood ran barefoot through the gutters filled with puddles where one could experience the pleasure of feeling the mud between one’s toes.
Overcoats, blankets and mosquito nets did not manage to improve my health. However, a sports instructor did manage the miracle of not only an improvement but the definitive cure of this illness that tormented almost my entire childhood.
Contrary to the opinion of my relatives, the then-student of Physical Culture who for us would always be Loriet, taught a group of us adolescents in the seventh grade that “the body and spirit can be shaped by a force that is greater than all illnesses or limitations, a transformative and colossal force call willpower.” At first these words sounded strange and distant to us. Only years later did we understand their significance.
I began training in taekwondo, drowning every time I ran 20 meters or did 10 pushups. Unable to breathe, I looked towards everyone around me to approach the nearest person, I suppose in search of some support in order to feel more secure. On one occasion, someone protested to the teacher, saying: “Don’t you see that this boy is purple?” However, Loriet displayed not the least pity or concern, at least not visibly. He just told me instead: “None of them can help you, only you can manage it yourself, the problem is yours and you have the option of overcoming it, but you have to work hard, learn to breathe and recover without yielding and continue advancing. I promise you that this will not last forever.” And so it was!
After two years, my health took a radical turn. I could endure whole afternoons of practice and fighting, I added weight training with the teacher Mario (the strong) and even participated in some city competitions in both disciplines. For the coming “green” medical checkup, as they call it in the Compulsory Military Service, no one remembered any longer my nights of intensive therapy, eating a breakfast, lunch and dinner of aerosol hydrocortisone. I passed each test, and they gave my condition “Fit 1,” thus totally ready for the rigors of military training, which by luck was commuted for me mostly because of the “mission” of teaching physics and mathematics in senior high school, given the province’s lack of teachers and my notable educational results.
Later I continued occasionally practicing taekwondo, even in university. I did not win many fights in competition, but I always felt proud of having overcome my own natural vulnerability.
I give you a little of my own history in order to talk about something much more important that concerns not only me but all Cubans born on the Island after ’59. I am referring to the false paternalism that the government still continues assuming with the pretext of protecting us when in reality it deprives us of the possibility of exploiting our strengths as individuals and, as a whole, as a nation.
For four generations, we have carried an umbrella against foreign propaganda, an overcoat to avoid ideological deviations, anti-communism socks, safety goggles for different information, and a powerful aerosol that kills any germ of personal creativity or inspiration for entrepreneurism.
Even today, when the times have changed, the world has changed, people have changed, still there appears on television a young journalist warning us of the “grave dangers” that “so-called inter-connected societies” bring, like the “loss of privacy” or “the alienation caused by the game Pokemon Go,” when the vast majority of Cubans cannot even access a landline.
Nothing is more advisable for managing any tool than to use it in a natural and everyday manner. The lack of practice by our citizens with respect to basic elements that characterize modern societies is visible in the behavior that we adopt on finding ourselves exposed to an environment where the minimum personal effort is required to find solutions or answers for ourselves. Simply, we are not accustomed to solving our problems without depending on someone or something.
During my last airplane boarding at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana, I carefully observed the conduct of several people, especially those who had to be between 50 and 60 years of age. Cubans that I bet had some university degree were incapable of interpreting posters, signs or signals of any type in the airport, or on or inside the airplane. Facing the simple issue of finding a departure gate or a seat identified by a number, the first reaction was not to try to understand the symbols or signs, but they opted to ask constantly about the slightest detail, brandishing the easiest argument for their insecurity: “It is that I am not accustomed to these things.”
Something very different drew my attention when I left Cuba the first time and lived for four months among Europeans. There people spent several minutes before a map at a train station or configured a mobile app that offered the needed information, but rarely did they yield to the temptation of asking or complaining without first making an effort. That attitude of absent-minded ease is very widespread and, unlike Cubans, there exists a respect or almost a cult of self-management, the capability, initiative and talent of getting along with ease in any circumstance. Because there and in other parts of the world (coincidentally the most developed) it is autonomy and not dependence that has been instituted as a value in society.
It is not unusual to see three French teens comfortably disembark in Latin America with a map and backpacks, in stark contrast with a Cuban engineer who lands in Paris who, if someone doesn’t pick him up he might die of cold without daring to tackle the subway system by himself.
I could cite thousands of daily examples of how our dependent personality manifests itself, but the essential reflection that I want to share is that it is not a change of system that is going to bring a change of attitude in Cuba’s citizens and, therefore, a better and more prosperous society, but the reverse: without a change in the people, in their expectations, values, behaviors, they will never be able to overcome the system and its effects. Because the system does not consist only of a government and a system of laws, but it consists of the whole of the beliefs, myths, schemes and behaviors that we daily assume, accepting and resigning ourselves to suffer as from a chronic illness, one that can be overcome with a minimum of risk and individual effort from each of us.
A totalitarian and repressive political system can suffocate a society like asthma can suffocate our lungs. If we shed the overcoats, thick socks and mosquito nets on which we depend and go out to run, to discover and confront our obstacles, surely we will discover how incredible and marvelous it is to be able to breathe deeply all that oxygen that was always there, waiting for us.
Translated by Mary Lou Keel