The cellphone rang nervously and I jumped in my chair. It had been more than a week since the telephone service was virtually cut off and suddenly that little gadget with its keys and screen gave a sign of life. “Camila Vallejo will be in Havana tomorrow,” a voice on the other end said and hung up. After the days we lived through during the visit of Benedict XVI to Cuba, I confess that the news of a new arrival didn’t raise my hopes.
We were still trying to complete the reports of the arrests during the Papal days and the living room of my house was a hive of friends telling stories of cell blocks and house arrests. The vice-president of the University of Chile’s Student Federation (Fech) came at a bad time, I thought. But then I realized that the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Young Communist Union had just begun, and it all started to make sense.
The two islands in which I live were all mixed up in my head: the Cuba of the official celebrations with smiles and slogans, and the other one, that of dissidents forced into cars and prevented from attending a Catholic Mass.
The tracks Camila Vallejo would follow once she arrived in our capital would be difficult, almost impossible, to know beforehand. On one side was the circle of protection — and control — that surrounded her, and on the other, the “long shadows of the watchers” who follow me everywhere.
To make it more difficult, the events on her agenda would occur inside schools or political institutions, where the public is winnowed to the most reliable. So Camila and I would travel in two dimensions that very rarely touch, in two worlds separate and incommunicado, between which all the bridges have been blown up.
But there remained at least one terrain where some type of dialog was possible. I took my cell phone, the same one that had come to life just days before. I wrote a short text message and sent it to the phone number of the social network Twitter, an accidental and blind road numerous Cubans use to narrate the island in 140 characters. “I would like to talk with @Camila_Vallejo but the official circle around her is unassailable,” read my short trill into cyberspace.
By then, two men in plaid shirts had prevented me from approaching the Auditorium of the University of Havana where she presented her book, “We Can Change the World.” As I approached, one of them questioned me: “Get lost, you will not gain entry here.”
I confirmed, then, that there would be no blonde wig nor bushy mustache that would serve to as camouflage to allow me to sneak into the place. I resigned myself.
A few hours before my tweet appeared on the great World Wide Wed, Camila Vallejo visited with a group of young people from the University of Computer Sciences. She and Karol Cariola, secretary general of the Chilean Communist Youth, were met with a wave of smiling faces, applause and admiration.
In the audience, dozens of young people paid silent attention to her stories about the situation of education in Chile, the students’ demands, and the details of the street protests. A University Federation that was not able to organize a single spontaneous March in the last 53 years, heard the anecdotes of asphalt and strikes that came to them from the south.
Among those listening were, without a doubt, the most promising computer scientists in our country, but also the police who crawl the web. There was the creme de la creme of “Operation Truth,” in charge of denigrating on the internet those with views contrary to the system, and attacking sites critical of the government of the island.
Camila and Karol talked opposite our virtual soldiers, before our riots of thought. Those who use not rubber bullets but insults, not fire hoses but stigmatization and slanders about the defenseless nonconformists.
The other meetings ended up marking the strictly official character of the charismatic Camila Vallejo’s visit to our country. She exchanged opinions and hugs with the secretary general of the Young Communist Union of Cuba, the grayest of all the obedient leaders this organization has had. The Chilean was still enveloped in the glamor that always accompanies her, but subjected to the hidebound and obedient protocol of her Cuban counterpart.
A curious paradox, from her anti-hegemonic posture in her country, Camila passed to sharing a word and a smile with the hegemony of official Cuban thinking. She also shook hands with the current president of the University Student Federation (FEU), Carlos Alberto Rangel, who fulfills the sad role not of representing the interests of the student body to the powers-that-be, but rather the reverse.
So the leader of an organization without autonomy posed for a photo with the promising figure who, in 2011, shook Chilean reality and raised in passing strong sympathies and antipathies in the rest of the continent and the world. The Cuban FEU tried, in this way, to reap a share of the irreverent aura that accompanies Camila Vallejo, knowing that disobedience is a posture that, for five decades, has not resonated on the wide steps of the University of Havana.
Each handshake offered by these cadres formed in opportunism, was like an urgent ritual to appropriate the image of the young rebel. However, whenever their eyes met they realized that, had she been born here, they would have pushed her — without mercy — to exile, to prison, or to wearing a mask.
On her personal blog, Camila Vallejo had fanned the flames of the controversy before arriving in the largest of the Antilles. “Cuba is not a perfect society, nor does Chile have to follow its path,” she declaimed, and this single phrase already marked a distance with relation to the most outdated postulates of our official discourse.
But she also made the mistake, as many do, of identifying our country with the government that directs it, our nation with the ideology in power. Camilla wanted to share with her readers a reflection “on the paradox of the discourse of those who criticize Cuba so rabidly, or those who feel love and respect for her,” not realizing that in that statement she was incurring a confusion as hard to remove as the roots of marabou weed are from Cuban soil.
The so abundant reproaches are not directed at our national identity, nor at the palms that grow in the plains, nor at a culture that, in the last three centuries, has produced writers, artists and musicians of universal scope. The contrary opinions are not aimed “at Cuba” but rather directed to a government that has penalized differences in thinking and kidnapped our voice.
If the injustice of identifying the millions of people who inhabit this island with a sole ideology is not dismantled, then the sad situation of citizens born here being called “stateless” or “anti-Cubans” for having opinions different from those of the Communist Party will continue.
I invited Camila Vallejo for coffee, precisely to debate these injustices and misunderstandings. I did it via Twitter, because I am aware that trying to direct a word to her in public would be taken — at the very least — as an attack. But the hours passed and the sign of a possible meeting never came.
A week earlier Benedicto XVI had also declined to listen to other voices from our illegal civil society. The Ladies in White had asked Joseph Ratzinger for one minute of his time, in exchange the Cuban government arrested many of them and prevented many others from leaving their homes.
With the recently arrive geography student it wasn’t necessary to trigger a wave of repression in the style already known as “Operation Vote of Silence,” it was enough to lock the visitor in the official circle from which she could not extract herself. The rebel Camila obeyed these rules.
Later I learned from the press that — like the Pope — she had been talking to Fidel Castro. She had been taken to the quasi-secret place where the elderly ex president writes his long and delirious texts. The patriarch of the Cuban Revolution received the young woman who, for a while, managed to infect him with her aura of youth, of the future.
The same Comandante en Jefe who dismantled all traces of student independence — burdening it with controls, informants and purges — declared his sympathy for the stories of rebellion told to him by Camila Vallejo. That man, who stood out in his own time at the university for his tendency to confront power, ended up cutting off all roads so the young people of today cannot do the same to him. He who shouted himself hoarse in his younger years yelling “Down with the dictatorship,” ended up creating another and preventing the anti-government slogans.
The vice-president of Fech left the meeting with him declaring that “all the Reflections Fidel has written constitute light and hope for Chile.” She made it clear that an exchange of ideas and sips of coffee at my table was an impossibility. Official Cuba had abducted Camila Vallejo.
I picked up my phone again, the only and immediate way for people like me — who, in a country like this, will never get one minute on television, nor space for some lines in the national newspapers — to express an opinion. I sent another message, but without much hope: “Yesterday @Camila_Vallejo met with Fidel Castro. Does she have one minute for irreverent and rebellious youth?”
At the moment when I wrote these lines, I didn’t know whether she had been able to read my tweet, or if she, too, is suffering the problems of lack of internet connectivity endured by so many Cubans. I had no more than sent this invitation when there was a frantic ring ring echoing in my pocket.
I confess that at that moment I thought it was a call from this twenty-something of the perfect face and passionate talk who is a member of the Chilean Communist Party. But in reality the voice I heard on the other end was a woman desperate about the arrests in the east of the country.
She wanted to tell me how the political police raided the home of a dissident and took him, his wife, and various colleagues in the struggle away, along with a good part of his papers and books that they found in passing. She also told me about the three daughters of the marriage who were left in their grandmother’s care, until we learn if their parents are going to be prosecuted for some crime or are only being detained to intimidate them into ceasing to express themselves.
The other Cuba that had not learned of Camila Vallejo broke in on my telephone, calling on me for greater attention and responsibility than some journalistic romp of pursuing a delegation that moved only in secure, filtered places. I could not determine the age of the woman who had called and described to me the repressive wave in Palma Soriano and Palmarito del Cauto. I never knew if she was mixed, black or white; young, mature, old… But in my fantasies I saw her with an almost perfect aspect, sculpted with the mastery of Greek statue.
As she spoke, I constructed in my mind some cheekbones and a magazine-perfect chin, dreamy chestnut locks, a discouragement-proof youth. But a sob broke my digressions, a whimpering on the phone unmade that perfectly proportioned face and confronted me with the decomposed face of the real Cuba. The face I had wanted Camila Vallejo to also see!
Translated from an article in the Chilean newspapre La Tercera.
7 April 2012