Letter to a young man leaving Cuba
This letter, written in May of this year,
reflects something of today’s generational change in Cuba
and something of the island’s new political language seeking to explain it.
It was headed by this biblical text, from St. Paul’s instructions to Timothy:
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,
but set an example for the believers in speech,
in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity…
Watch your life and doctrine closely.
Persevere in them because if you do,
you’ll save both yourself and your hearers.”
1 Timothy 4:12-16
I ’m sure you don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, as perhaps you were born in that same year or at best you were finishing primary school. For you and your friends, the death of Ché is an event as remote as the era of the Russian revolution was for those of us who went out on the Literacy Crusade in 1961; as remote as the last century.
Although you were alive to celebrate the birth of the new millennium, you feel more 21st century than 20th. If someone were to tell you that you’re a transition Cuban, you would give them a strange look. This phrase had a certain glory in the sixties; now not so much. On the other hand, if someone were to tell you you’re a citizen of the special period, you might shrug your shoulders or make a cutting remark, but basically you would be more in agreement.
Most of your childhood and adolescence coincided with that special period. Unlike the old folk, you haven’t had to experience it as really bad times, or worse, a breakdown of dreams, but rather as life’s only horizon.
By the time you arrived,In your 22 years, which, the experts say is a generation and a half, you haven’t experienced epics like the Bay of Pigs or the October Crisis, or even the Angolan war. You feel that the biggest difference with the old, however, wasn’t the lack of those heroic moments but of those dreams. The more television pours out its repeated images on the screen, the further the revolutionary saga moves from you. You’ve seen them so many times they don’t tell you anything.
everything was done
But it’s not this that you’ve missed as much as the projects those before you were able to do. By the time you came along, everything was done, established by those who had demolished the old order (“the past” to them) and built and regulated the new. You weren’t here in time for that construction; you think the country invented by others (“the past” to you) no longer exists and only a rather hopeless old order survives. The worst, however, isn’t to have been born into a pre-established order, because this happens to everyone, but rather your uncertain chances of changing it. In any event, you don’t want to spend your life trying to do so, because this is the only life you have, and you aspire to have your own roof over your head, a job you like that allows you to do what you can with your ability and efforts, without transport and electricity hardships, and to plan to go somewhere on vacation once a year, even if you have to do without other things. You think the only way to achieve such a life is to hop over this horizon and look for others.
I don’t want to dissuade youI don’t know when you decided to go and perhaps a part of you still has doubts. Perhaps it came to you the first time you knew a friend was no longer here; or when they took a roll-call at an old school reunion and you realized that many former classmates had left; or perhaps your partner got it into her head and doesn’t stop talking about it all day long; or because that same partner has taken out Spanish citizenship, and with her passport you can now both go and live in Europe or any other country, even the United States; or because your relatives in Miami, Madrid or Toronto can give you a hand; or just because you need to breathe different air.
This letter is based on the belief that you think for yourself. My intention isn’t to dissuade you or warn you, and much less to foist a patriotic speech on you. I won’t try to talk to you like your father, counselor or spiritual guide; or as a messenger of a religious faith, a revealed truth, with the voice of experience or a teacher’s authority. I invite you to think out between the two of us your reasons, but above all the context and meaning of your decision to leave the country. To put your arguments in order so you can pull out something clean that may be useful. Don’t think I’m doing this just for you. I have my own motives because your decision to leave affects us all, especially those of us who have never thought of leaving.
You’re a child of socialismI suggest we start by looking together at what we have around us. You hear it said that young people have no values, renounce socialism, want to leave the country and aren’t interested in politics. Perhaps those who think this way identify values with their own values, politics with rallies and speeches, the defense of socialism with certain commandments, amongst others, that this system is only for committed revolutionaries: that one is only a Cuban citizen as long as one lives in the land one was born in: or that having another travel document is equivalent to selling out to a foreign power.
I warn you that not just “some officials” think like this but many other good people, well-rounded citizens, for whom defending the homeland isn’t just a declaration. In fact, when these people talk about defending the social gains of the revolution, most of them are thinking about free education and health care, and—if this is the extent of the revolution and socialism on the social level—it’s logical for many to say you should pay for them if you want to move to some other place “where you’re not going to defend them.” You, on the other hand, think these rights were won by the revolution for everyone, and that therefore they’re yours simply by virtue of having been born on this island.
You’ve heard that, according to the Constitution, Cubans have more basic rights than they are aware of and that social justice and equality are just that: principles and values that have to be really exercised, without restrictions of class, race, gender, sexual, religious or ideological orientation, because they represent everyone’s most important achievement:
a person’s full dignity. Well, if you agree with that perhaps you’ll be surprised to hear that you’re a child of socialism. If you care about the welfare of all society, the democracy of citizens, liberty (including that of all those around you) and national independence, I warn you that you are more politicized than many inhabitants on the planet, including probably most of those in the country where you’re going.
You’re not a nonentity to the LeftYou also have, like those other good citizens I just mentioned, your own assumed truths, those you share with your friends, and never question. For example, you all think that you’re nothing to the Left, and that you achieve nothing. I’m telling you, however, you that this system of ours consults you and asks you to participate because your participation and your opinions are needed for most policies to work, although neither you nor many bureaucrats understand this.
In fact, while they still think it’s vital to oil the chain of command and fulfill the plan, and you think you’re a nonentity in the system, when you ask for the floor to criticize the party line, reclaim your rights anywhere, protest inequalities and privileges, applaud a criticism that doesn’t mince words, ask that policies not be just statements but produce results, even when you reluctantly go to the main square so there’s a quorum for Joseph Ratzinger’s Mass, you’re actively contributing to politics and keeping alive a fabric without which this system would languish: what sociologists call consensus.
Indeed, this is the fabric that also sustains capitalism. The difference is that capitalism doesn’t require you to actively participate. As long as you don’t try to subvert it, you feel you’re informed and can decide who’ll govern by going to vote (or not) every so often.
Of course, over there you can express many opinions and hear thousands of others, choose among several candidates, find out who they are and what they think, their plans and proposals for the country’s major problems, and go vote (if you’re a citizen) for the one you like.
You’re tired of hearing Perhaps you’ve sometimes wondered why this system of ours, which has its elections, can’t give people who think like you the possibility of expressing their political opinions on television, propose as many candidates as they want (at all levels, not just at the bottom), listen to them, question them and learn how they think before voting for them and their proposals. You’ve always heard that a televised political debate, an open list of candidates and an open debate among them is nothing more than the politicking of capitalism and that if we open up this arena, Americans, the Miami mafia and dissidents will use their money to manipulate it and confuse the public. And “we can’t give the enemy even a little leeway.” Etcetera.
You must also have heard, however, that we ourselves could end this thing we have more certainly than the enemy. And that the enemy and his plans can’t be the reason for us to stop talking about our problems, because at the end of the day the truth will out. You’ve heard it said by the top leaders, over and over again, but for nothing, it’s just the same old arguments.
You’re tired of hearing announcements of changes that never happen, and that they don’t depend on “objective factors,” but an “old mentality” that’s still holding the reins.
Have you read Ché?By the way, now that I’ve used a phrase of his, I wonder if you’ve ever read Ché Guevara. Until very recently you saluted every morning remembering his name. I guess you admire him as the hero of a thousand feats of war and, especially, for being willing to die for his ideas.
You’re familiar with the heroic guerrilla, but all you know about socialism’s political thinker is just a few out-of-context phrases on unpainted fences and walls, and certain common places, such as the issue of the “new man” and “moral versus material incentives.” Why didn’t they make you read “Socialism and Man in Cuba” in school?
Ché didn’t believe in the infallibility of government or what he called the vanguard. He would say: “The State sometimes makes mistakes. When one of these mistakes occurs, one notes a decline in collective enthusiasm due to the effect of a quantitative decrease in each of the elements that make up the mass. Work is paralyzed until it is reduced to insignificant amounts. It is time to make a correction.” He also warned that citizen participation is essential: “Man under socialism, despite his apparent standardization, is more complete. Despite the lack of a perfect mechanism for it, his opportunities for expressing himself and making himself felt in the social organism are infinitely greater. It is still necessary to deepen his conscious participation, individual and collective, in all the mechanisms of management and production.”
The participation of elected You also think that participation can’t just be a matter of marches, rallies and meetings where your presence changes nothing nor does it affect “management mechanisms”; quite the contrary, it’s reduced to “achieving goals” and other formalities. You feel that this participation lacks commitment, sincerity and spontaneity. If you were asked to give an example of formalism, you would perhaps mention the youth organizations and the mass media, whose style and rhetoric “turns off” you and your friends; or the CDRs [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] the FMC [Federation of Cuban Women], where you also don’t feel like you’re participating in anything substantial.
young people is very low
I don’t know if you know that here, where you can vote and be elected into a position in Popular Power from the age of 16, the presence of young delegates in provinces and municipalities has been declining: from 22% (1987) to 16% (2008). Their average presence in the National Assembly fell to 4% in the nineties and although it grew in the last elections, they still are less than 9% of the representatives.
As you may have heard, the percentage of old people in the country has increased and today it’s higher than it’s ever been (17.73%), while that of children and young people has decreased. However, those in your age group (16-34 years) still form 31.41% of the total population able to participate in the political system, much higher than those over 60, who account for only 21.6% with that right. Obviously, the presence of young elected officials is well below their percentage in the adult population.
Whatever the cause of this very low statistic, it’s obvious that the more young people like yourself leave the country, the smaller your presence will be in political office. And if you live abroad you won’t even be able to vote, much less hold a post of any responsibility. As you see, your decision to leave also has far-reaching implications for those of us who stay.
People leave from all countriesOf course, leaving the country is nothing new. Since before 1959, increasingly more people have left, especially to go to the North. In fact, we were on the way to reaching a figure like today’s, with more than a million native-born Cubans overseas. In the sixties, hundreds of thousands left, including the upper class and many professionals. At the time of the 1980 Mariel boat lift and the 1994 rafters, many thousands more left, among them administrators, workers and many who didn’t work. In these migration waves of the last thirty years, there weren’t as many young professionals and women as now.
However, some will tell you that many more leave from other countries—Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, just among our neighbors—than from this island, and nothing happens. There are more Dominicans, Jamaicans and Guatemalans than Cubans trying to get the US or elsewhere. And certainly, the remittances from those who’ve left keep the economies of both their relatives and the country afloat.
Why so much trauma in the case of Cuba, if the same happens in many other countries? Shouldn’t we start to think of ourselves as just another Caribbean island instead of considering ourselves unique and this very normal experience as a national tragedy?
You know what happens On the other hand, others think we’re different because people leave here for political not economic reasons. Some even see us as an island completely hemmed in by sugarcane, where no one knows what’s happening outside. But surely you’ve heard what the world says about Cuba and Cubans. Although you don’t have Internet at home, you have an e-mail box, you listen to the BBC or Radio Caracol [one of the main radio networks in Colombia] or Radio Exterior de España, [a 24-hour overseas station mostly for Spaniards living abroad that broadcasts on short wave, satellite and the Internet], or other of the many Spanish-language stations you can pick up on any radio. You probably talk to some of the millions of tourists who walk our streets; you must have a cousin in Hialeah or Alicante or a friend who travels because of being a doctor, academic, musician or official. By any of these means or from speeches you’ve heard here, you may have noticed that it’s become fashionable to talk about exodus and the Cuban Diaspora.
Have you noticed that no one refers to the Japanese in Sao Paulo, the Turks in Germany or the Spaniards who’ve been spreading throughout Latin America since the time of Christopher Columbus as an exodus or a diaspora, even though there are many more of them than of us? Why is that? These resounding words come from the Bible, where they’re used to describe the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt to the “promised land” and their subsequent dispersal throughout the world.
You’ll be one more of the diasporaWill we perhaps be today’s Jews, another “chosen people” doing penance for their sins? Should I then talk to you of the Church, God’s vicar far from the exoduses, from the mission of reconciling? As you can see, language isn’t totally innocent. Anyway, this penchant for believing ourselves exceptional and this sea of words doesn’t help us much in clarifying who we are and what’s really happening to us.
After all, you will also soon be “a diaspora Cuban,” which is always better, of course, than being called “an exile.” When you get there, you’ll see for yourself that some went to the diaspora and have ended up in exile. The causes of this enmity are found both there and here. In certain countries, the anti-Castro industry, with ramifications for many sectors, has created a labor market where it’s possible to get a job or a life style only if one takes a radical anti-Castro stance.
Your personal decisionAs you will see, it’s politically correct over there, unlike here, to speak ill of everything that happens here and that rule can be very strict in some places. Others, however, have become like that because they had to pay a high price here and not just in money. They felt punished, subject to prohibitions and separations, obliged to pay a personal fine they found unfair and onerous, just because they decided to try their luck elsewhere.
has a greater meaning
It doesn’t matter that the economic and family origin of emigration has been officially recognized; many people unconsciously still resent those who leave, the cost of which exceeds all short-term revenues and incomes, because it leaves an indelible mark on people and thus, on the real body of the nation. The price of this enmity is, of course, incalculable.
As you can see, although your decision seems to be just personal, it has a greater social and political meaning. I repeat that nothing I’ve said up to now was intended to change your plans. I’m sure that no paperwork, obstacles, family constraints, fees or punitive measures would stop you if you want to go. Those whose children have left know this very well; all groups and hierarchies have experienced it.
If you were an artist or a writerSome seem to forget, however, that on this subject of migratory policy there have been successful experiences (for example, in the cultural sector), which should have an instructive effect. If you were an artist or a writer, you wouldn’t have the dilemma of staying here forever or leaving forever. You could decide to work abroad for years and finally return to your home, only to leave again whenever you want, as many others have done. Or to stay over there, keeping in touch and collaborating with projects here, returning again and again, as others do. The truth is that most of our artists and writers haven’t left the country permanently. It’s clear that in “strictly economic” terms their value as human capital, for the country’s interests, is many times greater than the migratory taxes. This alternative policy has paid off not only for them but for all of us.
Travel will broaden youSo don’t tell me again that politics doesn’t interest you, because the truth is that all this matters a lot to you, as it does to most other young people like yourself who live abroad, watching what happens here.
If you were to be asked about your feelings as a Cuban, you would perhaps say that you’re proud of who we are, of our cultural heritage, traditions, independence struggles, beliefs, values, patriotism. So you see that your “apolitical stance” is very dubious, whatever they say or whatever you think of yourself.
Now, if you really want to connect directly with the world’s realities and learn about them for yourself, it’s probably something hard to do just with Internet, an antenna or an mp3. Leaving Cuba, in addition to seeking your fortune, will give you the chance to grow. Nothing contributes more to political education than travel, than getting to know other peoples and their cultures, values and beliefs; feeling directly and even experiencing their problems in order to realize where you’re from. If you had had the chance to travel and return, many times, the context in which you’re making your decision now would be different.
We’ll continue to count on youI want to end this letter, naturally, with a farewell. We don’t want you to go but, if you’ve already decided, no bureaucratic barrier will stop you, and what counts most now is that you not go forever. We don’t want you to leave altogether and in order to ensure that, the first thing to do is to insert a wedge so the door stays open. Wherever you are, remember one thing: whatever happens, you belong here. Don’t break away or turn your back on us or let yourself be provoked by anyone, from over there or from here, into becoming an enemy. Get up every day remembering that this boat we keep on rowing only moves if we all push together. You can also row from over there, so that it stays afloat and gets to a good port.
Don’t let that useless bug of loneliness or nostalgia get to you or resign yourself to the idea that you are far away or stop being aware of everything that’s happening to us. We’ll continue to count on you.
We’ll wait for you always, as for one who’s on a trip. Be proud of being a citizen of this country. Being a Cuban is more than a passport and the homeland more than a flag. Some will tell you that we’re a virtual, imaginary island, a diasporic land and use other metaphors but you and we know that Cuba is a real place where we share tangible things like risks and results, costs and aspirations, among others. This is how it should be and will be if we push ourselves hard enough. Good luck and safe return.
Rafael Hernandez is the director of the Cuban magazine Issues.