A Cuban Story
Ah, the emails we receive. You may remember a recent news story about Amir Valle, author of "Jineteras" who is now in exile in Germany. I posted about his comments on the Independent Libraries in Cuba at Blog for Cuba, and as a result I received a translation of his "Fidel and I", and his permission to share it with you, our readers. He is currently exiled in Germany with his wife and one of their sons.
If you're Cuban, you live with a constant intruder. He lurks in almost every corner of your psyche; and for those living on the island, it’s worse—he controls every aspect of your life. Consequently, every Cuban has a personal relationship with fidel, albeit unwanted.
Sr. Valle writes about his:
Fidel Castro and I
© 2006 by Amir Valle
People have asked me: “What does Fidel Castro mean to you?” And in the past few days, since the announcement of his transfer of power to his brother Raúl Castro, I’ve lost count of the journalists, colleagues, friends who have, almost unsympathetically, tossed this question in my face.
The curious thing is that never, in all the time I have been capable of reason, had I stopped to think what significance this name—Fidel Castro Ruz—might have in what some could call “the story of my life.”
I remember the speeches. I must confess that, since childhood, I have never felt any interest in political matters, unlike other children I saw then and that I see today, mixed up in the repetitive rhetoric of the morning speeches, the political acts, looking to score a point by that emulation where someone was always evaluating their behavior. Later, with the years, discussing the matter with those who were once that type of child also, I knew that, yes, they participated in that fun simply because their parents pushed them, because it was a way of standing out in the crowd, or because they saw it as the fashion: one had to shout, like the adults were shouting, against imperialism. They didn’t have a clear concept of what they were doing, obviously. And it must have been normal, since we can suppose that a child at that age is discovering the world through play, and not losing the precious time of his development in the political indoctrination that has been so typical of Cuban education since the triumph of the Revolution in ’59.
The figure of Fidel compared to that of the other greats. They were gods, incorruptible beings, perfect. I remember that one of my primary school teachers punished me one day when it occurred to me to ask a question, out of my absolute innocence, when they were teaching a history class about the installations in the Sierra Maestra, the armory, the little school, the hut from which Fidel gave his commands… My question paralyzed the teacher: “And where were the bathrooms, Ma’am? Because I imagine that those men, too, had to do their business.” I spent the whole morning facing the wall, sitting in a chair, until my mother, a teacher at the same school, came to get me. She gave me a smack and told me I should never again lack respect for the teacher, nor for our heroes.
Since that moment Fidel was the great inquisitor, even if I did not know him, could not define him. But they had pushed us to be like him, he who was more perfect, greater even than Ché, more enlightened than Martí. That’s what they said. And it was annoying. I was a kid that sailed through classes, that never needed to study, and really I never did study back then because I preferred to read from the fantastic library that my parents had at home, rather than force myself to follow a set of parameters for “pioneer emulation,” to be like someone for whom, moreover, I had to stand for hours and hours waiting around when I had to form part of the human chain of Young Pioneers that would welcome oh so many African, Asian, or other socialist country presidents whom that man invited to Cuba, or to be like a man who, on more than four occasions, obliged me to listen, standing in the sun and rain, to incredibly long speeches that the child I was then did not understand, even though I found some comfort in performing the routine with my little friends when Fidel stopped talking and the teacher would say, “Now, kids!” so that we would yell, “Go on, Fidel, give it to the Yankees! Carter’s a sissy, Fidel has guts”! and that mountain of other slogans that everyone now knows.
Fidel then was also that man my father would listen to seated in front of the television, although I cried my eyes out because that day they wouldn’t be showing cartoons on TV, or because the speech was on another channel and my father would say, “I’m going to hear the speech, understand?” and there was no discussion.
But my father was on Fidel’s side. He has his story. He took part in the Revolution and continues believing that it is still pure and possible. Blind. Or perhaps determined not to admit that he has thrown his life away, that Fidel has betrayed him, because he has passed almost half a century struggling for something that has yet to arrive, despite all the supposed effort.
I say this because Fidel, as I see him now, is the person I blame for the shadow that has been cast over my relationship with my father, for the fact that sometimes we distance ourselves from one another, that we have preferred not to speak of Cuba, nor about the country, nor our daily lives, because all those things can lead to a discussion that continues to push us apart. At first he didn’t believe me when I spoke to him and told him what they did to others, to those who had decided to value different opinions. There had been no repression, he said. There had been no deceit in the Revolution, he said. It’s an honest plan, he said. And he had to see up close everything they did to me for saying what I thought, for confronting those who wanted to condition my intellectual success on my participation in the work of the Revolution, those who did not look well upon me because I respected and defended the friendship that connects me to many “dangerous dissidents,” like Raúl Rivero, Manuel Vázquez Portal, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, just to name a few. When he saw all the abuse, all the censorship, all the legal tricks to “make me invisible,” including the ministerial resolutions that branded me an “enemy agent” and a “mercenary,” among other things, I thought that he had opened his eyes. But he said: “Fidel knows nothing of this… It’s the work of mediocre government officials who think they are masters of absolute power.”
I wanted to tell him, I remember this well, that I had seen a film about Nazism in which an old woman, when they took her to a concentration camp and showed her what had been done there, said: “The Fürhrer doesn’t know anything about this. If he had known, I am sure it would not have happened.” But I didn’t want to open the wound any further.
A few times I was near Fidel. A few. Very near. And I even dared to write the screenplay about his life in that documentary by Estela Bravo from which, later, I was disappeared, by the work of and thanks to the dishonest scheming of that journalist and her husband. I had never been interested in approaching him, like so many others, and saying: “Comandante, Comandante… I am …” Servile, as if he weren’t just another man, a human being with virtues and defects, with accomplishments and failures (both immense given his responsibility before the people and History).
The Fidel who travels with me, because, in some way we Cubans all drag him along with us, is also responsible for the fact that my professional friends are separated today: some in exile (Lidia, Sandra Marina, Valesy, Ivette), others in official posts where they are in some way hated for having to follow government orders to censor their colleagues (Rosa Miriam, Grisel, Rubén), and others in the saddest of silences: the invisible and mediocre labor of the provinces (the rest of those who graduated that year).
I wanted to ask Fidel my first questions as a frustrated journalist: Why was I sanctioned when I covered the final work on the oil refinery in Cienfuegos and wanted to write that it was impossible that it would go as planned, like Granma said and Fidel promised in a speech that year? Why did they force me to remain silent about many unusual things, many lies and irregularities that I saw and wanted to report while I covered as a journalist the construction of the nuclear power plant at Juraguá, also in Cienfuegos? Why, when I decided to write my important journalistic book about prostitution, did every Cuban institution shut its doors to me because my investigation did not fall under the plans of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation? Why did they never reply to the letters I sent everywhere when the Minister of Culture, Abel Preito, and the president of the Cuban Book Institute, Iroel Sánchez, in collusion with other powerful pseudo-intellectuals, ruled that my name should be eliminated from every anthology, every cultural program, every event, every editorial, owing to my independent position, the opinions I gave to the foreign press, my books about the social reality in Cuba, my collaboration with magazines and publications considered “dissident,” and the many other truths that I told them face-to-face? … and so many other questions.
I used to hope that, some day, life would give me the opportunity to ask Fidel in a public setting, under the banner of the democracy to which we all aspire, some of these questions:
• Does being part of the left mean being against independent thought, the plurality of beliefs and opinions, the diversity of criteria about how to form a society?
• Why, in order to be considered an honest person, must I follow the orders of those who cling to power and assume the right to think for me?
• Why is it that thinking differently, feeling different and considering different paths than those established by the Revolution is considered a sign of treason, and that those who think differently, feel different and consider other paths are called “unpatriotic,” “worms,” “mercenaries of imperialism”?
• Why, if with my books I have gathered the resources and the intellectual prestige to do it, am I not allowed to have the literary journal I have always dreamed of, and that requires me, in order for it to happen, to have the journal regulated by an official government institution?
• What reason of national security or otherwise justifies my having to request permission to enter and exit my own country?
• What actual reasons prevent Cubans from developing private projects, assuming the risks, the challenges and the social responsibility that all businesses take on?
• Under what criteria does the Cuban state assume the right to not permit my children to travel with me anywhere in the world if I can take responsibility for that trip?
• When will the day come in which the country’s supposed economic growth translates into the wellbeing of the population?
• When will the day come in which it is understood that it is possible to maintain national sovereignty while still respecting individual rights?
• Why did a Revolution that was born honest, that awakened the hope of all the world’s poor, that claimed to be a Revolution for everyone, end up covering with blood and suffering those who began to criticize it, those who tried to set it on the right path, those who assumed the responsibility every citizen should have toward the society in which he lives?
• Why did a popular Revolution transform itself into a society that is totalitarian, repressive and blocked by its own hatreds and fears?
• To construct a world that is more just for everyone, which we all want, do we have to defend ourselves against those who don’t want it with the same dirty weapons with which they attack?
• Why hide the defects of the Revolution, if everywhere it is written that a Revolution is always capable of perfection?
But Fidel Castro, just as they announced, appears to be sick. Very sick. And those of us who know him well know that it must be true: in no other way would he have ceded even a shred of his power, a man who has become sick with power.
I’ve been asked a lot what will happen when, sooner or later, Fidel Castro dies some day. It will be a sad day, I have said, because, as a Christian, any time a human being dies, whether he has done good or evil, one must respect his passing. Whether we liked him or not, his departure will leave a trail of sadness for those who loved him, for these people always exist.
With Fidel an era will end, an era, unfortunately, of betrayed dreams. I only hope, I said this in an interview once, that in this moment we Cubans will know how to put aside our fears, our caviling, our doubts, our accumulated hatreds and our differences. The reconstruction of our island, with liberty, with independence and without anyone’s interference, will depend on the answer we give at that moment. As a man of the left, I think we will then be able to go back, look at and retake that lost road of democracy toward a better possible world for everyone, that road once abandoned by Fidel Castro without even, to this day, explaining to anyone his reasons for doing so.
That is an explanation, I am certain, he will always owe us.