Some years ago I was walking with a female friend of mine down a long Havana avenue. It was the early ’80s. The opening up of markets and the granting of some minimal freedoms led many to believe that the rationing card, known simply as la libreta, the book, was about to disappear. I remember that when I applauded the idea my friend stopped short and shouted, in the middle of the street: “Not la libreta! Please! That’s the only thing that guarantees us any security.”
I stared at her. I couldn´t believe my ears. Even in those early days of what was bit of a boom, la libreta was a total joke. You could barely make it half a month on what they “gave” you. I’ve been mulling over that episode for over 30 years now. Security? What security?
That subjective feeling of being secure is as vital to people as oxygen. No matter what you’re protected from, or how. You can be sure that your house is yours, that you have a doctor and a free hospital, that your health care is safe, and that – even if you lose some of your personal freedoms – there are enough police and government agents to protect you. It’s just this – security – that ideologies, politicians and even the great religions, seek to sell. The primary function of any institution or leader that seeks to fully win over the human heart is to provide his followers with the utmost sense of security.
In a way, he who provides security holds the reins of power. And he who protects, rules. And the safer and more secure we feel, the greater the degree of autonomy and individual freedom we hand over to the Invisible Power. This is true of some cultures more than others, but almost all of them, regardless of their geographic location or era, have handed security over to men, and not to institutions. Nobody is immune from this tendency to surrender. Human beings, intrinsically attuned to detect danger and death, assign to a parent, a boss, a leader, a wife or a husband a measure of their own freedom in exchange for security.
I have long pondered what my friend and hundreds, millions of Cubans fear if there is change: losing their security. Never mind that this security is as delusory as a nightmare, or that the ration book is woefully insufficient, that the hospitals are in ruins, and without doctors, that the schools are without teachers, that wages are paltry and the cities are falling apart. For millions of Cubans, even today, Cuba’s libreta and its hospitals, schools, salaries, and Cuban cities “have problems, but they’re secure.” Many feel they should not be given up for anything or anyone because it could all be worse.
“It is there, in the subjective judgments of most of the people where Cuban Communism has achieved its greatest and most sustained success. And where its enemies have failed.” Like clockwork, some aging Cuban leader repeats, like a mantra: “The Cuban Revolution does not abandon anyone.” Now, we know that this is not entirely true, nor is it entirely false. The regime knows very well how to choose the recipients of emergency aid. Although it is insufficient, almost negligible, it is aggressively publicized in the mass media, day and night, until the average Cuban feels safe after a hurricane, an accident or some other calamity, including war.
Meanwhile, with reference to the media, democracy is actually not a very secure place. “Why change things?” many ask. What the Cubans have heard and seen for over half a century is that in other countries elections are bought and presidents and representatives are assassinated. Elections? What for? Some time ago the Cuban regime bought the right to serve as the people’s paternalistic guardians, the quasi-divine and infinite right to govern. For this it used not only weapons and money – though there was plenty of that. Force and money does not win over hearts for long. Thus, the regime seduced millions of parents, children and grandparents with the failsafe message of filial love: paternalistic security. A “Fatherly State” that, although it hurts to maintain so many (Is that pain real?), cannot avoid it because it constitutes its very raison d’etre.
Can anything be done for a people who, despite feeling like adults, cannot shake off the overprotective bonds that render them dependent, ineffectual, irresponsible … in short, that deprive them of their freedom? A people cognizant of the fact that they are constrained by an Absolute Power but, at the same time, feel like they owe it something, as if breaking with thePater and setting off in search of their own lives meant betraying their own existence. Unfortunately, over on this side, we have not quite understood that, like the character in Orwell’s 1984, with tears in his eyes and after suffering countless humiliations, many good Cubans remaining on the island are still capable of saying that they “love” you-know-who. Stockholm Syndrome, yes, but it’s still a kind of love, after all …
By the way, over here politicians also make impossible promises to provide an illusory sense of security: mass deportations and unbreachable walls, full employment, and international supremacy, with the results visible in the polls. Therefore, an effort to effect change, to bring about social development, cannot be limited to the material sphere. The material dimension without the existential component, without a discourse of peace, reconciliation and convergence, is fruitless. The human heart is not transformed by cruises, cell phones, computers or cars. On the contrary, it tends to become hardened and insensitive. Real change will begin when a woman walking down a long Havana avenue asks, in amazement, why on earth her food is rationed. And when she asks this without hatred because in her heart there is no longer any place for it.