You might think that a whole magazine on Cuba would be space enough to say everything you wanted. But somehow it never quite works out that way. The issue that follows is based on a three-and-a-half week whirlwind visit during which I interviewed more than 70 people from one end of the island to the other. Some of these meetings were pre-arranged, others spontaneous and informal. About a quarter of those people appear in the articles that follow. The rest, for better or worse, will stay with me. But there is one who stands out – and whom I want to tell you about now.
I met Alberto Jones quite by chance in the Guantánamo airport near the end of my trip. We were queuing up to feed our carry-on luggage into the x-ray scanner and when I mumbled something in broken Spanish he caught my Anglo accent. We began to chat and his story slowly unfolded during the flight back to Havana.
He is a Cuban of Jamaican descent with a doctorate in animal pathology now living in northern Florida. A soft-spoken, unassuming kind of guy – a gentleman. He spent four-and-a-half years in a Cuban prison in the 1970s for ‘slandering the name of Che’, a trumped-up charge foisted on him for trying to expose bureaucratic corruption in the laboratory where he worked. After being released from prison he tried diligently to clear his name – in vain. The only employment available was sweeping the lab floor. In desperation, he and seven others left for the US in a small boat in the exile wave of 1980, rowing 140 kilometres across the choppy waters of the Straits of Florida.
Today he runs a cleaning-supplies business. But his real passion is the small aid agency he set up to help his fellow Cubans. Several times a year he travels home with two large suitcases crammed with donated medical supplies. I was amazed by his dedication, given the monstrous injustice he had suffered. So I asked him whether he still harboured any resentment or anger.
‘I was invited to a reception for solidarity workers in Havana a few years ago,’ he replied. ‘Fidel was there. When I finally made my way to the front of the line to shake his hand he asked my name, then glanced at his aide. They exchanged whispers. He turned to me, clasped my hand and looked into my eyes. “How did it ever happen, Dr Jones?” he said. “How did it ever happen?” That was enough for me. I had my apology and I was at peace.’
Alberto Jones’ story made me even more intensely aware of Cuba’s complexities. Fidel Castro’s socialist experiment has dramatically improved the lives of ordinary citizens and there is much to defend. But there are also worrying problems.
Like Dr Jones the Cuban people are aware of their country’s shortcomings and they want to do something about them. But they bristle when pushed and bullied. They want and need international support, but on their own terms.
Cuba has always aroused fierce passions on both the Right and the Left of the political divide. It still does. This issue is an attempt to highlight the complexities of a debate which is too often terribly polarized, to add grey tones to the stark black-and-white views of the country which can pass for informed opinion.
for the New Internationalist Co-operative
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