The Sense of Shame

Foto: @moniquewray via Twenty20

by Ivette García González

“The most terrible of all feelings is the feeling of one’s hope having died.” Federico García Lorca (1898-1936)

I clearly remember the family debates, especially with my brothers, back in the ‘90s, at the beginning of the so-called ‘Special Period’, one of the most original euphemisms of the Spanish spoken in the island.

I was very young, though still the eldest sibling. Like my contemporaries, I was very close to the paradigm of Soviet socialism, which we imagined was perfect and then suddenly collapsed. I irradiated enthusiasm, lots of hope, and a sacrifice mentality ready to be put to the test, along with my inclination for debate, controversy, and leadership.

The stubbornness of my parents, revolutionary fighters in the mountains, the plains, and a number of internationalist missions I can’t even remember, was also invariable. They were military types for whom the smallest concern in our minds could be seen as hypercriticism, challenge, ideological subversion, and so on, as it happened in the block, at school, and at the workplace.

One day in 1993, the worst of those years, I snapped. In a near uproar, I told my mother that you couldn’t eat dignity; that I felt frustrated because I had done everything they’d taught me in order to be a successful woman, or at least someone with a job and a future, and yet… That, to make matters worse, they hadn’t even taught me to be a believer, so I could then find spiritual refuge in the church and get some of the help (food and hygiene products) that they distributed in various places. Just like that, I blew up!

It was an outburst, not at all my usual behavior.

But it was only good to let off steam. I ended up feeling worse, crushed, when she said to me with a vacant look and tears in her eyes: ‘but daughter, then what’s left to say for us, who sacrificed so much, including, like me, even the raising of my children? …But we have to remain strong! Remember that communists die with their boots on as your father says.’

My attitude was understandable, she knew that. About six hours earlier I had left my house, on the other side of the bay, carrying my four-year-old son and a bag with the milk bottle. I was exhausted after carrying water all morning and worried that the milk would turn, as it often happened. I had spent more than two hours in line to board the small ferry boat that crosses the bay from Casablanca. Then I had walked (there was no transportation) from the Avenida del Puerto to the 20-story building where my mother lived in Centro Habana, close to Infanta, only to find when I got there that there was a power cut. That meant going 16 floors up the stairs carrying all that, bursting into the apartment to boil the milk, and bathing and feeding the child before dark because we didn’t have anything to give us light either. And then… surprise! There was no gas for the cooker either! And that’s when I went ballistic.

But, I repeat, it happened because we’re human and I reached a breaking point. In spite of all the difficulties, I lived with lots of optimism, debating with my brothers, who had recently graduated in Medicine and Accounting. Those were formidable encounters. I felt I had the possibility and the responsibility of responding to their concerns and dissatisfactions, especially since I was the eldest, worked in the social sciences, and was a militant communist.

I defended everything passionately and with arguments: that the social pyramid in Cuba would straighten out and professionals would once again occupy our rightful place; that the situation was momentary and was caused by external factors: the collapse of socialism in the USSR and the US blockade; that we all had a personal project and a collective project, which was the Revolution, and that we should choose the latter; that the problems – thinking of the growing migration that they considered an option – would not be solved from elsewhere, but from within Cuba; that we had to be a part of it, that such was the true measure of a revolutionary, that it was our commitment. The whole shebang!

I remember that when I ran out of arguments faced with so much criticism for problems that truly were happening, I would say to them: ‘you know what? I have no more answers. It’s a matter of faith if you will. I know we’ll get ahead.’

My speeches were futile, they went with their personal projects, I stayed in Cuba by myself and they started to jokingly call me ‘la cubanísima’ (‘the top Cuban’). I made sacrifices and moved on without giving up my profession or my ideas, and without asking for or living off remittances! I’ve taken pride in that and lived with a clear conscience, although it’s been hard. I’m not an exception, that’s the story of many Cubans of my generation and of others too, though every time we look around we painfully notice a lot of absence.

30 years have gone by.

And now, 30 years on, we go back to the most radical changes, which at their root and in their effects resemble those made in the ‘90s. Profound reforms in critical moments, when we’re on the brink of collapse. And then, the memories again…

I remember Esteban Morales, who was my professor, saying more than once: ‘It’s a mistake that in the political discourse we keep saying that these are changes we’re forced to implement, that we would prefer not to apply them, etc. That doesn’t show conviction, or permanence, or stability. On the contrary, it sows uncertainty, etc…’

In these 30 years, we came out of the ‘Special Period’, such as it was: a situation of the extreme shortage of everything, basic or not, of maximum austerity and with no chance to even stick to a plan; it was survival, we depended on solidarity and on a ship to dock with rice so we could eat. In 1993 that fall was completed when the GDP dropped by -14.9%, and the next year we began to have a discreet growth of 0.7%, although that could still not be perceived in the small economy, it was growth. There was light at the end of the tunnel.

Ten years later, in 2004, the growth was 5.8%. Of course, sometimes the number was misleading because behind it was the non-payment of external debt. In short, the annual data of the Cuban GDP during that time show such high volatility that reading tendencies in them is pointless, as Dr. Tania García has adequately put. But it did grow, until 2016 when the recession began; yielding every year a percentage lower than what was planned, which even brings into question the objectivity of the plans and the planners. At the close of 2019, the bottom line of 2016 repeated: 0.5% growth! And if we add to that, according to Benavides, that 37.3% of the working-age population is unemployed, the scenario is one of chaos and the crisis is structural and permanent.[1]

Actually, since the light at the end of the tunnel came closer and the economy improved, the reforms of the ‘90s were reined in, especially the ones concerning private enterprise and decentralization. There came Venezuela, the CUC, and the tax on the US dollar, in addition to an amicable and extraordinarily generous international policy, with services and products that we often didn’t have in Cuba. Those were the times of the ‘I’ll move to Bolivia’ or ‘I’ll move to Venezuela’ jokes.

What’s happened since the last third of the ‘90s and brought us to this point, fixed in the social psychology the material shortages – which for the people never disappeared – in direct association with the Special Period, though strictly speaking, they were no longer part of that extraordinary situation. They are the consequence of the erratic domestic policies and the successive practices, of the inability of the State to manage the empire it appropriated by keeping under its control what really should have become social many years ago, and of the predominance of a conservative, dogmatic and bureaucratized thought in the making and implementation of decisions. And to all of that, we must always add the US blockade, which along with COVID-19, are now cropping up as the (always external) causes of the current crisis.

I then bring to 2020 what some professors and friends used to say when we looked at our skinny selves in the ‘90s: ‘having been here and having survived those years gives me an unquestionable right to speak, at least!’ Because 30 years is a lot of time in the life cycle of a person! Because all of us who believed in success with faith and commitment in the ‘90s saw our best years slip by! Because it’s no longer possible to continue with only faith and commitment.

Faith and commitment are not enough.

It is known that the majority of the measures announced last July 16 had been approved and listed in guiding documents years ago. Not the dollarization, of course, let’s not get confused, but the wholesale market, for example, had already turned 12 since it was announced with the Party guidelines. All of them had long been repeatedly demanded by economists, entrepreneurs, and people with common sense. Yet they are adopted now when the domestic scenario, the blockade and everything else are at their worst; when, like in the ‘90s, the pressure cooker’s about to blow and we have to let the steam out somehow.

It’s not enough that the package has arrived with respective declarations and that, in terms of strategy, it’s both correct and bold. In reality, they owed it to us and most of it remains only a headline. Only three of the measures are clear and in effect. One was the people’s dream: the elimination of the tax on the US dollar. Another, the creation of the shops in FCC (Freely Convertible Currency), which include the retail market and the widely demanded wholesale marked for private businesses – which was never conceived that way –, could be an ‘indispensable’ or ‘necessary evil’ today for the State and its institutions, but it’s still a desperate and unpopular measure, and an insult to these self-sacrificing people, whose dreams of social justice brought us here.

Then, compatriots of the government and the Communist Party, after 30 years faith and commitment are not enough because: 1) we at the bottom are not the ones responsible for the failed policies implemented and for the reforms that weren’t made at the right time; 2) we were in a nosedive long before the pandemic and 3) the blockade can’t be blamed for everything that goes wrong in Cuba; on the contrary, most of what hasn’t been done or has been done wrong have nothing to do with it, but with the political will of the government and the Party instead.

In the face of these new measures, I’d like to be able to say what Félix Sautié wrote a few days ago in an essay, and which I share in theory: ‘It’s necessary to give them a period of grace for their effectiveness to lead to success.’ But that would take that we were talking about Cyprus, that I had the faith of the ‘90s, and that the life cycle of humans was longer! How long will the period of grace be this time?

Come on, 30 years is a long time. During the last eight, practice and political discourse at the highest level contradicted each other on a number of issues: 1) the tax on the dollar, which would remain for as long as there were financial persecution against Cuba, and today, when it’s more intense, it’s eliminated; 2) the use of the shops in FCC, which we wouldn’t have for anything in the world and now we have 72 to begin with, and not only for high-end products, but for food and basic essentials; 3) the increase of prices, which wasn’t allowed for private businesses and now the State carries on, as before, with outrageous prices; 4) centralized planning, the crown jewel of the reforms for the allocation of resources according to the guidelines and now exactly the opposite and 5) the SMEs, recognized in theory, but hardly mentioned and tolerated throughout the years, to the point of being unofficially bundled with self-employment, upbraided in Granma a very short time ago, by the way, and now promoted even for the government sector.

Therefore, accepting that what’s been said is the strategy and what’s been done (the partial dollarization) is a necessary and momentary evil, in addition to not being the main thing in the mid and long term, it would be advisable to clarify and reach a consensus, carefully and with transparency, in a more participatory exercise, on key issues about which nothing has been said or which have been left as simple statements of theory:

  • How will each measure be implemented;
  • What’s the timetable for de-dollarization;
  • Which are the compensatory measures that by means of redistribution will mitigate the negative effects of the approved actions;
  • What’s the policy to be followed with the most vulnerable sectors;
  • How and in what period of time will the strategy be applied so that, by way of the indispensable decentralization, benefits may really come to the country’s municipalities, in most of which today there’s no awareness or implementation of the absurdly low 1% that companies working in their respective territories must contribute to the local budget;
  • What’s the period of time for reporting the collection of FCC and for its redistribution in socioeconomic benefits to the rest of the people who have no access to such currencies;

A matter of dignity and a sense of shame.

My parents are no longer with us and I’m still in Cuba by myself, with my children who – go figure! – have the same dissatisfactions my brothers had 30 years ago. Once again, as some of us said in the ‘90s, émigrés (until then traitors), or the Cubans in the island who have family abroad sending remittances, become more useful in practice because they can contribute to the country, while the rest of us on this side then had, and will have today (?), the mission of holding out, becoming parasites or remaining dignified and proud, yet causing in others a painful mixture of admiration and pity.

However, same as back then I didn’t become a believer so I could get donations of hygiene products or food through a church or lived off family remittances, I will not do so today. There’s no way I will live in Cuba with the dollars of my émigré family. It’s a matter of dignity and a sense of shame.

‘We’re in the Lord’s hands’, as religious people say. And since in Cuba we do get a choice in that and the spectrum is quite varied, perhaps now I will turn to religion, at least to find some spiritual peace and satisfaction.

Contact the author at ivettegarciagonzalez@gmail.com

[1] These unemployed are people who do not work in any of the formal and legally recognized activities despite being of working age. See by Joaquín Benavides Rodríguez: ‘Población, empleo, coleros, especulación y delincuencia’, in Habana Insider, issue 137, July 28, 2020, Havana, Cuba, p. 7, at https://www.facebook.com/abelardo.mena.75https://www.facebook.com/Habana-Insider-103018817721449/

Translated from the original