Wednesday 16 September 2015

Dramatis personae of a previous life in Havana

The blue of the sea in the distance, seen from the vantage point my classroom afforded me on the second floor of our old, derelict building, contrasted sharply with the inimitable act of him rolling his sleeves. The former pointed at freedom and possibilities. The latter, as I found out later, was the preamble to a performance of ill-disguised cruelty, a pantomime of power, a display of male bravado.

We noticed that the rolled-up sleeves and his beard were a way to divert attention from his ever-expanding pot-belly. This might have been Havana in 1990 and the economic crisis with the resulting food shortages might have been hovering over the Cuban capital like barbarians at the gates but his waistline took no notice of the fast-becoming desperate situation.

Perhaps his performance was a sort of masquerade with which to hide his tired-looking face and the sweat patches on his striped shirt. Perhaps all this was coupled with the fact that the subject he taught was a tough one to deliver. How could it be otherwise, though? Political economics of capitalism and socialism. A term for each system. Roughly five months each, plus an exam at the end of each semester to make you decide whether you wanted to join “the rafters” or stick it out on the island with the dying economy, the ubiquitous corruption and the loss of hope. He couldn’t, however, bring himself to doubt. Doubt in his case was the single bullet in the gun in a game of Russian roulette. You never knew if the next attempt would be the last one. A doubt begat questions and questions meant uncertainties. In front of him a classroom of late-teenagers in their second year in uni. To cap it all, they were linguistics students, doing the course that could open up the doors to information, access to alternative sources of knowledge: English. Still the language of the enemy. No, uncertainties would have meant conflict. He hated conflict. Or rather, he hated conflict when he could not win it. No, there would be no uncertainties. Even if that meant war.

The war was declared during that first lecture in September; the moment he rolled his sleeves up.

The beard, the demeanour, the glasses, the sun-kissed neck, the air of someone who understood you, you, late-blooming adolescent who was finally getting to grips with the world even if someone was pulling the carpet from under your feet because they would be flogging it off to the highest bidder next. I remember it all. Even if after the carpet-pulling, you fell over, you got back up, dusted yourself off and indulged in yet another bout of world-understanding. You knew that after he nodded and nodded and continued to nod as you asked your questions and displayed your uncertainties, as you gathered your books and walked towards the door, you knew that he would go straight to the dean’s office, knocked on his door and reported you. For what? For thinking. You knew that capitalism came in the first term and socialism in the second, but the order did not matter. You were supposed to hardly notice the former whilst praising the latter. Even after the first images from the fall of the Berlin wall found their way clandestinely to Cuba. Oh, yes, they did show the other – sanitised – images after. The ones accompanied by commentary that was so partial you had not realised they hated (East) Germans so much. And then, it was the turn of the Soviets. Meanwhile all the hitherto unexpected changes were explained in our lectures in an articulate and cogent way.

But it was for the final exams at the end of each that SL (I’ve chosen to use his real initials) reserved his better thespian skills. The two-teacher examination board, the two classrooms, one for waiting and the other one for the actual test, the silence, softly interrupted by nervous whispers and the heavy steps (because he always made sure they were heavy) approaching, the slow entrance and the shirt sleeves being rolled up, like a butcher, first one and then the other, the whole time his eyes fixed on his hairy, beefy forearms, until he raised them and with one look he seemed to catch us all at once, his voice booming, just the one word, but delivered in the same way as the sword brought down by the executioner on the head of his terrified victim in years gone by: Next!

© 2015

Next Post: “Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On”, to be published on Saturday 19th September at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Glad you were able to live in the larger world, and that Cuba's isolation is ending at last.


  2. Powerfully captured.
    That poor sad damaged man. And his victims...

  3. Wow. I like your stories from your past.

    I may have told you this, so I apologize if that's so. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s, taking an environmental physics class, I had a Cuban professor. She (yes, a woman who was a professor of physics) and her husband (he was a math professor) had escaped in the early 60s and were teaching in America. We were talking about electrical power distribution systems and was making a case for a more de-centralized system for efficiency. All a sudden, she jumped on me and said, "You sound just like the communists." I was shocked and was afraid I had just failed her class. I didn't, I actually made an "A", but I was also nervous to express ideas in that class knowing what she had undergone.

  4. This was a compelling read. I enjoyed your perspective and first-hand experience. You're an excellent writer.

  5. Living in such an isolated world like that would sure be rough.

  6. Such sad times - for all of you. I suppose what shines through this for me is your sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of such intransigence. (This is meant as a compliment!)

  7. One cannot imagine unless told what hardships are endured. You have an excellent way of writing and telling the likes of me at the same time.

  8. I found this so enlightening, CiL.
    It made me realize that we can walk down the street and pass a multitude of strangers...and have absolutely no idea of what they may have suffered.
    It is good to know that Cuba's isolation is finally coming to an end.:)

    Have a great day! :))

  9. How poignant and beautifully written.

  10. Any revolutionary change must continue to evolve with the times and the needs of the people. In our fast-moving world it's easy to get bored with the status quo that clings tenaciously to stagnated ideas no matter how much a regime attempts to repress knowledge of the outside world from diluting the party line propaganda they try to drive into the heads of the citizenry.

    .Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  11. Yikes. Sounds quite oppressive, but really no different from here in a capitalist system, where they witch hunt socialist.
    Tow the party line -or- its how a system protects itself from such revolutionary things such as independent thought
    and questioning. Ha.

  12. It is not unusual to encounter "tyrants" in a class room here in the United States, but their tyranny extends only as far as the door to the hallway and their reach does not include ramifications which are political or social in nature. Your youthful Cuban experience in this situation is not unlike a traumatic event, I would imagine, and must dwell with you, always lurking over your shoulder. It seems you maintained a clear vision despite it.

    Besides revealing a slice of the inner CiL, this piece reinforces your par excellence as a writer. The first few paragraphs painted a literal portrait through words which, seems to me, to be the essence of good writing.

  13. You really took me there with you, Cubano. I still feel the turmoil and tension. I really love the new cover photo by the way. I love London town as well.

  14. Real hardships and very challenging sort of living. It's one's resolve that sustains sanity of facing such difficulties.In a way, it becomes even educational in time!


  15. it must be surreal, talking about capitalism in your class. :)
    i am glad cuba's isolation is ending. china is communist only in name.

  16. Such a fabulously-written look into a totally different world (for me!). The fear that this man strikes into people's hearts is palpable. It's important that you share these stories so people know what life was like back in Cuba at this time. And you've certainly come a long way!

  17. Wonderful! A dramatic person as well as dramatic personae on display here--that gesture of the rolled-up sleeves is so telling, though also a very original thought of yours. I really enjoyed this, Cubano--a great drawing of a person and situation--succinct and vivid. Thanks. k.

  18. Thank you all for your comments. Have a nice weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  19. a story like coming from an old book :)

  20. One of the saddest things about living in an oppressive society is the stifling of critical thinking and self-expression in students, because the imaginations and creativity of our young people is the gateway to a better future for all of us. I'm so glad you had the opportunity and courage to relocate to London. Yours is a voice that should be heard.

    I'm curious. Did you have an appreciation for British cars when you lived in Cuba, or did that develop after you moved? When I think of cars in Cuba, I think of old American-made vehicles.

    Happy weekend!



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