Where the 'human face' survives

October 2, 1991

By Rosemary Evans

Which small country, often in the news, never provides TV journalists with images of police violently charging protesters (with or without tear gas), of faces consumed with murderous hatred, of fleeing civilians, of cars in flames? That country is Cuba.

How can there be a country of 10 million — black, brown, white and beige, Jewish, Chinese, Lebanese and Syrian — without racist violence, without ferocious nationalism?

Cuba has suffered 32 years of US economic blockade, yet has rationed food, housing and clothes fairly; it has low rents, free education and medicine and almost total literacy; it is a country without drugs, pornography or organised prostitution. It also has a wicked sense of humour: "If the North Americans don't like living 90 miles from communism", says a popular slogan, "let them move!"

Cuba is now in great danger since the USSR has announced the withdrawal of its few troops. A US invasion from Miami is possible, as are attempts at destabilisation: all the nightmares of 1961 may return.

But the country which won its independence from Spain after two wars 100 years ago, and economic independence from the USA in 1959, will not give in easily. Antonio Maceo, the great general who led the Mambise forces against the Spaniards, said: "Whoever tries to invade Cuba will find only the earth of our country soaked in blood, and he himself will die in battle". In our days, Carlos Puebla sang: "Whoever comes to invade us, let him bring his last will and testament".

And Fidel said: "To take from us our socialist motherland, they must first take from us our lives; and to do that, they must also come prepared to die".

Can there really be socialism with a human face? I worked four years in Cuba in the '70s and '80s, when the world was not in such chaos. These were the finest years of my life, when I realised that humans can live in security, with dignity and without greed. I saw many instances of how Cuba's revolutionary principles operated.

At the news agency where I worked, a chauffeur was brought before the board for "negligent driving" (cars had to be available for the night staff). The charge was brought by a senior editor, who had been the young chauffeur's nervous passenger. The journalists' union provided a jury of four, and any employee of the agency could go along, listen and take part in the discussion. Both the editor and the chauffeur put their cases with typical Cuban eloquence and flamboyance.

The jury asked probing questions of both sides. It transpired that the chauffeur had driven badly for some days because he was nervous about his wife's first and dangerous pregnancy. The night when the senior editor had been so shaken was the night the baby was due. The chauffeur apologised to the editor and they shook hands. A toast was drunk to the baby, who by that time had arrived safely.

A colleague named Ibanez had returned to Cuba shortly after the revolution, having escaped from Batista's police to New York, where he had worked for many years as a journalist — hence his English was perfect. He worked in Havana on a Cuban paper, was fanatically pro-revolution and completely trustworthy, but he was already in his 60s, and somehow his style seemed old-fashioned in the new young Cuba.

What to do? Ibanez was bitterly hurt when told the paper could no longer employ him. As his interests were the revolution, English and journalism, he was offered a job at the same salary teaching English to young journalists. (Ibanez was also noted for carrying round an old alarm clock in a bag, as he could not get his North American watch repaired, and watches were scarce in Havana. This ferocious alarm used to go off at irregular intervals, causing everyone to jump in terror and then laugh.)

One day, looking down onto a main street from a high office window, I saw people queuing for oranges. As a foreign technician I was fed at my hotel, and therefore did not need a ration book, but I went down to see what was happening. I joined the queue, and when my turn came, the seller told me I could buy them only with a ration book. Fair enough, I thought, and turned to go, when there was a gentle tap on my shoulder.

A very thin old man behind me asked if I was a foreigner. Yes. Was I working for the revolution? Yes, up there in the news agency. "Then", he said, pressing his ration book into my hand, " you are our comrade. Cuba wants to thank you for helping us to a new and better life. Take my orange ration!"

He kept insisting, I kept refusing, while the queue behind began to grumble. In the end I won, we shook hands, he bought his oranges, and I returned thoughtfully to the office, inexplicably on the verge of tears.

I was on holiday in Havana in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and in October 1962 at the time of the missile crisis. On both occasions I remember the calm dignity, the fearlessness of the young milicianos, male and female, who gathered round the TV sets to hear Fidel's every word, clutching their rifles and later singing the national anthem, followed by the magnificent "Internationale" — fervently, but without histrionics.

I remember the death of 21-year-old Eduardo Garcia, a miliciano killed by American bombs the night before the invasion, in April 1961. He was alone on duty at the time of his death, and before dying he crawled along the pavement to write in his own blood the one word: "Fidel". Did he mean "faithful" or "Fidel". Or both?

Next day this poem appeared in a newspaper:
"He was young
"Before his eyes were opening a new world
"And a new way of life.
"He was poor.
"He had known weariness, sweat,
"back-breaking toil
"And the empty pocket.

"He was a patriot.
"Cuba and the Revolution were his life.
"He died, killed by Yankee bombs
"At dawn of the fifteenth of April.
"His name was Eduardo Garcia.
"He was a miliciano of Cuba."
There are many Eduardo Garcias today in Cuba who will fight, as their Mambise ancestors fought the Spaniards, for their sovereignty and independence. They will fight for all the revolution has given them, for socialism with a human face.

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