Recently, in response to the loss of life inflicted by the pandemic and a worsening of food shortages, protests erupted throughout the island calling for relief and in some instances for the end of the dictatorship.
The tone and intensity of the demonstrations was heated enough that it prompted Cuba’s new president – Miguel Diaz Canel – to call on the regime’s loyal citizens to pour into the streets and show their support for the government.
Diaz Canel himself, went to speak to the citizens directly. As he walked by a house in the town of San Antonio de Los Banos, where the protests had started, he stopped to talk to a woman who was sitting by her window.
He greeted her.
She recognized him and smiled in response.
Not far off, a group of antigovernment demonstrators could be heard as they marched under the vigilant eyes of the police.
‘What do you think of all of this?’ he asked the woman.
‘I knew it was going to happen, sooner or later,’ said she.
‘I understand,’ replied Diaz Canel, ‘but we have to be disciplined.’
The woman was careful to measure her words.
‘I understand… but it’s too much. Why haven’t we been able to get the vaccines?’
‘China has helped us out but they have only so much to go around. They’re helping people all over the world,’ said Diaz Canel.
‘I thought we were producing our own vaccines?’
‘We have been working on it but we don’t have enough resources. It takes the inputs from many specialized sectors in other countries, for everything to come together and produce the vaccine. But if we didn’t have the embargo, we would’ve been able to deal with it.’
The woman looked down at her windowsill.
This was her chance to speak up.
She had never had the opportunity to speak directly to the president of Cuba. She had briefly met both Fidel and Raul Castro a few times in her 62 years – Cuba was a small country – but never was in a verbal exchange with them. Now Fidel was dead and Raul had retired. Diaz Canel was the first president to follow the Castro brothers.
‘Why is it that we always blame the American embargo for everything we cannot solve?’ she finally asked.
There it was. She had said it.
Diaz Canel was surprised by the firmness of her voice.
‘We don’t have the chance to trade…’ he began but she cut him short.
‘We could trade with all of Latin America… with China and Vietnam and Europe and Africa and Canada… but if we don’t make enough things to trade, isn’t that our own fault? Why do we keep blaming the Americans? Why don’t we, instead, give people incentives to work? Give them incentives to create?’
Diaz Canel’s expression showed his irritation but he didn’t back off. ‘Look, we have one of the highest rates of literacy and one of the lowest rates of infant mortality… we send doctors all over the world to help other nations…’
The woman just stared at him, a faint smile in her eyes, as if saying… ‘So we do… and yet…?’
Diaz Canel paused and smiled at the irony. Yes, Cuba was sending doctors all over the world but the country was not dealing effectively with the pandemic. Nor with providing enough food for its citizens.
‘Something is wrong, isn’t it?’ she pressed. ‘Look, I understand that the revolution wanted to create a new man… but 62 years later it hasn’t delivered. We’re a creative people but we are blocked.’ She hesitated briefly before continuing for she knew she would say things that might come back to hurt her, but something impelled her to speak her mind forcefully.
‘The government is overcontrolling the people… we’re not made to be so restrained… no one is… people need space to come up with ideas and try them out. I’ve been a teacher for 39 years… we’re not equal… every one of my students is different… some are more intelligent than others… some have more courage than others… some are stronger than others… some are more imaginative… some are more ambitious… some more tenacious or hard working… and we need to let them interact freely with each other so they can find their place in the world. There is a role for government… yes… a role for a system that keeps the peace and helps resolve disputes and protects people from being taken advantage of… but in the end, Mr President…’ She wanted to reassure Diaz Canel that she understood clearly whom she was talking to and was grateful for the opportunity, ‘… in the end, Sir, we are not equal… like you and me are not equal… and that is okay. That doesn’t mean that we should not be kind to each other, on the contrary, that is the more reason to be so… but I really believe… from having seen so many children grow up before my eyes… that Cuba will be much better off… if the government backs off and lets people invent and trade and maximize their individual possibilities… whatever they may be. In the end, Mr Diaz, all of us have a better chance of capturing who we really are… if we are allowed to be unequal… for that is the only way that every person will come into their own powers.’
Diaz Canel nodded lightly. He looked off. The sounds of the demonstrators nearby were now fading somewhat. He had listened carefully to the woman and acknowledged that it had taken him a bit of effort to do so… but was thankful he had.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
She thought of not telling him… but no, she could not do that to herself. She had been waiting a long time for this moment, and so had her mother before her who had blessed her with her name.
‘My name…’ she began, as she looked directly at Diaz Canel, ‘is Viva… my middle initial is L., for La, and my last name is Libertad. I was born on the 1st of January 1959 in Havana, just as Fidel and his troops came roaring triumphantly into the city. My mother, in the early days of December and already in her ninth month of her pregnancy, had changed her last name to Libertad. She wanted her new child, whether boy or girl, to have Libertad branded into them.’
‘Viva La Libertad,’ said Diaz Canel. ‘Pretty name.’
‘Thank you,’ Viva said. ‘And thank you for listening.’
‘You are welcome,’ he replied.
And with a nod he bid her goodbye and walked off down the street, his entourage in tow.
She looked after him and wondered whether Diaz Canel would remember their conversation, and whether one day, in the near future, her beloved Cuba might change course and let her people have a go at finding their own strengths.
She was a realist, too… but she didn’t want to lose hope.
Oscar Valdes. Oscarvaldes.net