His name was Ricardo. He was speaking to my group of American Students in a private home on the south side of Havana. It was our last day in Cuba and these students had seen the poverty of the streets, the crumbling conditions of once beautiful buildings, the unhealthy conditions of rural hospitals. They met a man who had been incarcerated for nearly three decades for his opposition the Castro regime and they had viewed the Libreta (ration booklet) of a family that could not afford to supplement the government’s meager allotment of food. But Ricardo was the first man who had agreed to speak with them freely.
“I’ll answer your questions honestly,” he said.
There were conditions, of course. There always are. First, the students had to agree not to write about him or to use his name on the Internet. He told of a friend whose family suffered a long string of “problems” after the friend’s opinions were published on the Internet. Second, the students could not take pictures or video of him. (Well, maybe a few pictures if you give him a copy.) Third, his children really need shoes.
I was only half listening to the interpreter, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying about shoes. He didn’t ask for shoes. He didn’t ask for money for shoes. No Internet. No video. And, by the way, his children don’t have shoes.
As he began to tell about his life and his work in the sugar fields, I noticed something being passed around among the students. When it got to me, I saw that it was an envelope stuffed with dollars and chavitos (Cuban Tourist Dollars). It simply said “shoes” on the envelope. Apparently my students understood perfectly what he was saying.
“Do most Cubans want the Castros to die or lose power?” a student asked. I was stunned by this abrupt introduction to the Q and A, but our guest was not fazed.
“Many do, but many don’t,” he said without elaboration.
“How can some Cubans not want something better?” another student asked.
I was with them. How can it be that some still believe Fidel’s smooth tongue after fifty years of broken promises and unfulfilled rhetoric? How can they buy Raul’s promises of a more open system and a better economy? How can it be that they won’t fight for better health care, or freedom of speech? I didn’t understand. Ricardo was as interested in hearing the questions as my students were in hearing his answers. He explained the history and economy of Cuba and the “diabolically brilliant” mind of Castro.
“Fidel has convince many people that the problems of Cuba are the result of the American ‘blockade.’ He tells them that if they give in, the U.S. will take Cuba and its heritage and destroy it. People will be without health care and food. The rich capitalists will use up Cuba’s resources and leave it in worse condition than ever.”
He had a point, I thought. It brought to mind our involvement “helping” other countries.
“But I’ve heard that Raul Castro has made changes,” said one student with his native sarcasm. “He’s had public meetings to seek input for a more efficient system, loosened restrictions on access to tourist destinations, and allowed cell phone use. Right?”
“Yes, some of the rules have changed,” Ricardo agreed, “and that’s good for the image of Cuba abroad, but it changes nothing for me. A night in a hotel – a cheap hotel – costs three months of my salary. And while I’d love to have a cell phone, I could have had one before if I had a rich Miami relative and put it in his name. Legal or not, I cannot afford a phone and my ability to afford one is controlled by the Cuban government. We have a phrase: Raúl Castro es el mismo perro con diferente collar,” he said. Same dog, different collar.
“Oh, and we have a joke about those public meetings,” he said. “At the first meeting, a party leader came to the large auditorium and it was filled with people. He talked about the sweeping changes meant to improve conditions. When he was done he asked if anyone had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked why the chocolate in our stores so bad? The leader said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but he would check on that and report back at the next meeting.”
“At the next meeting the room filled again and the party officials made their comments. When they were finished the party leader asked again if there were any questions. A different man raised his hand. The leader asked him if he too wanted to know about the chocolate in the stores.”
“‘No, the man said, I want to know where the man is that asked the question about the chocolate at the last meeting.”
When Ricardo finished the story he chuckled at his own humor. The students were horrified. “That’s not funny,” I heard one of them say.
“It’s a joke, but that’s how it works,” Ricardo said.
“But the man in the joke, what happened to him – hypothetically,” asked a girl on the edge of tears.
“Maybe he got a threatening message. Maybe his son lost some privileges at school. Maybe he got a ticket for an expired license. Maybe his paycheck was docked for that time three weeks ago when he was late for work. Nothing official, but he got the message.”
“We tell jokes about it because if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying,” he added. “I still don’t understand why more people don’t want things to change. Why they follow Fidel or Raul. Why things are so slow to change even after Fidel has given up his presidency,” I said.
Ricardo took a long breath. “There’s a story we tell in Cuba,” he said, “another joke. It will help you understand the psychology of some Cubans.”
I looked around the room. Ricardo had the undivided attention of every student.
“There were three men walking down the beach together,” he began. ”One was an American, one was a Cuban, and the third was a Russian.”
Ricardo laughed. “Already you know this is a joke, right? Because Cubans are not allowed on the beaches with the tourists. . .”
A few students chuckled nervously.
“But let me continue. They came upon lamp that was partially buried in sand and covered with tarnish and dirt. The three of them had heard of such lamps and they frantically cleaned it and polished it. Finally a genie emerged, thankful for his release. I’m sorry, said the Genie, but I only have three wishes and therefore I can grant only one to each of you.”
“You are first, he said to the Russian.”
“I would like to own all of the oil fields in Siberia so that my family might be wealthy for generations to come, the Russian said. “
“Your wish is granted, said the genie.”
“And you, he said pointing to the American.”
“I would like to be wealthier than Bill Gates, said the American.”
“The Genie snapped his fingers and granted the American’s wish.”
“And you, he asked the Cuban, what do you want?”
“I know of a man who lives in Havana, said the Cuban. He has a beautiful house with many bedrooms and bathrooms. It has a swimming pool and a three-car garage. He also has a home on Varadero, the most beautiful beach in the world. He has four cars, and money in three different banks.”
“So, the Genie said, you’d like to live like this man lives?”
“No, said the Cuban, I want HIM to live like I do.”