Assistant Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Carolyn Wolfenzon Niego recalls time spent in Cuba during the reign of Fidel Castro. The Communist dictator died recently after nearly sixty years in power.
I made my first trip to Cuba in 1988, thanks to a scholarship from the Municipal Ballet of Lima. For three months, I lived in Havana, studying ballet and sharing a large house with fifteen other Peruvian ballerinas. At 13 years old, I got to know a Communist country, and so many things caught my attention that it’s hard to sum them up. I was impressed by the fact that there were Cuban commodity stores where there was only one primary product of each kind, and Cuban pesos were the only currency, but there were also well-stocked tourist stores where you could pay in US dollars. Cuban children stuck their mouths to the glass of tourist stores and asked for foreign food; they especially begged you to give them bubble gum (bubble gum did not exist in Cuban stores, and they were really curious about trying it). I remember, once, a police officer arrested a Cuban woman for holding dollar bills in her hands: For a Cuban to have US dollars and even pretend to enter a tourist store was punished with prison.
Along the streets, there were stands that sold a single product: either guava pie or cheese pizza. Meanwhile, the streets were filled with signs saying slogans like “Long live Fidel! Long live the revolution! Homeland or death!” In other streets, used books were sold, but only those that were approved by the Revolution. Whenever I asked about certain authors, salespeople raised their eyebrows implying the obvious: In Cuba, you could only read what the Revolution wanted you to read. I saw shortened titles. Some students wrapped their covers to prevent the title from being read, in case the author was forbidden by the regime. Where I lived, there was only one telephone and a single landline for the whole neighborhood, so we had to yell from the window for whom the call was.
Getting to school was also an odyssey. The bus was known as camello (camel) and transported hundreds of men and women who squeezed inside (these buses had been discarded by the Russian government because they were old and impractical: They had a sort of spring in the middle and looked like a useless accordion.) However, what struck me the most about my experiences was the harsh discipline at the Ballet School. Lessons were given in the Garcia Lorca Theater, and all the ballerinas studied dance there on top of their eight regular school hours. Being accepted meant that it was almost guaranteed you would be a professional ballerina—from being part of the dance troupe to being a prima ballerina—as long as you passed your exams. Having artistic abilities but being rejected by the system meant you could not exercise the profession you wanted, anywhere in the country. There was so much anxiety in those young faces, because their future was at stake in a single exam.
A decade later, in December 1998, I went back to Havana on another scholarship to practice modern dance in the Revolution Theater. What I saw was as impressive as the tales by Reinaldo Arenas in his biography, Before Night Falls, or by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez in his Dirty Havana Trilogy. If, in 1988, there were two kinds of stores, now, there was only one: foreign stores, where Cubans could go, but they did not have either pesos or dollars to buy anything. There was no gas either for the camellos to work, and bicycles became the Cuban means of transportation and a means to make a living by transporting tourists with packages tied to heads and handlebars. Houses became tourists’ accommodations as a way for locals to make some dollars and supplement their ration cards, which did not last a week. The stands that sold guava pies or pizza had disappeared and the only places left to eat were the so-called paladares, illegal restaurants where owners secretly sold an extra serving of black market rice and beans. These servings could not be afforded by Cubans and eating meat was a luxury, even in the paladares.
Being ill and admitted to a hospital with drugs and medicines was almost a dream, as was having a landline. Now, there simply was no communication. But what struck me the most during this second visit, in 1998, were the faces of desperation on the people. The lady who accommodated us, using her house as a black market hotel, was forty years old, the same age as Fidel’s Revolution. She could not even fantasize through fiction (because she had no access to the books) how a different world would be. Fidel Castro taught a whole people how to read, but they could only read what he wanted; he provided health care for everybody, but the budget was not enough to equip the hospitals; and he created an equal society were all Cubans were second-class citizens. Castro murdered everyone who opposed him, he banned freedom of speech and normalized terror. That is why, in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the only dream was to escape.