Monday, July 23, 2018

Harold Cárdenas on the Special Period

This semester I'll have the pleasure of teaching, for one last time, 'Cuba: the Special Period', a subject offered in Spanish to second and third year Spanish language students at La Trobe University in Melbourne. In the second class we'll examine the crisis of the early 1990s, the harshest years of the Special Period, through the lens of the personal experiences, thoughts, feelings and reflections of Cubans who lived through those years. Searching for appropriate tutorial readings online, I came across the following commentary by Harold Cárdenas Lema (introduced to readers of my blog in my previous post) and decided to include it. To help fill in any gaps in my student's comprehension, I translated it with the instruction: don't read the translation until you've tried to understand the Spanish text yourself. How many will succumb to temptation?

Harold's gritty reflection on the meaning of the Special Period is a good example of what raises the ire of Cuba's state censors and, more widely, what he terms the orthodox current of the Cuban Revolution. Many within that current will be upset or displeased that the draft of Cuba's new socialist constitution, which will be the subject of a public consultation process in coming months, opens the door to gay marriage. Activism, enlightened leadership—including that of Miguel Diaz-Canel—and a gently rising tide of Cuban public opinion have combined to make this possible.

The special generation of the Fucked Period

By Harold Cárdenas Lema

La Joven Cuba

September 14, 2014

Translation: Marce Cameron

The children who grew up in the Special Period knew only scarcity and nostalgia for an unknown past. I am one of those kids. We are the special generation. 

There are things one doesn’t talk about, things one’s distorted memory tries to eliminate by any means or return to us wrapped in a blanket of longing. The Special Period is one of those “things”, because while it has a name, the name says nothing. It was a period that was neither left behind, nor all that special. Rather than sweetening it with that euphemism we should call it by its name: the Fucked Period.

I don’t find it surprising that in our family we have so few photos of these years. It’s as if at the end of the 1980s a lot of things happened and then, for most of the 90s, only some shameful things shyly captured in photos. In these images we see thin parents and grandparents, as if Valerio Wyler, the Spanish governor of Cuba, had returned to the country. We see faces with half-smiles and the innocence of those who were perhaps not fully aware of what was happening. A clarification: we Cubans are not so special. On the contrary, we could be Argentinians, but we did live in very unusual circumstances.

At home, we didn’t know how to prepare ourselves for the Fucked Period, but prepare we did. My dad used to travel overseas for work. After his second last trip he sat us down at the dining table and solemnly told us that the socialist bloc would go down the tube, that he had already seen the writing on the wall in Bulgaria. A year later he took his last trip: a few days before returning from Angola, a land mine left him dying in a Luanda hospital. My mum’s response in the months that followed was impulsive but correct: buy all the food and basic supplies for the long economic winter her husband had foreseen, thanks to which we survived the 90s a little better.

When the scarcity set in there was nothing of value left in the house. The toys disappeared and I learned to amuse myself with whatever I found lying around—old clothes racks, and cement blocks used in construction, fuelled my imagination for years. Something did remain. The little Russian dolls accompanied us stoically, and what they lacked in beauty they made up for with the nostalgia for the previous decade that they aroused in our parents.

The first signs of consumption were colourful. We kids learned that the high tech beer cans had value as collectors items, and plastic wrappers could be collected in albums that conferred status on their owners at school. We were indulgent onlookers. The real consumers were those who had family overseas and no longer had to hide it. A positive consequence was that necessity brought us closer to Cubans who had emigrated; we were able to subordinate politics to family ties.

New sounds emerged, such as the cry of joy in the barrio when the electricity came back on; and we learned geographic strategy. When the electricity went off at night we would search for a vantage point in the city from which we could see who had electric lights, and if we knew anyone from there we’d pay them “a visit”. Somewhere in my subconscious lay the memory of a fridge with raisins and enough little bottles of yogurt and condensed milk to get through the winter; but I’m not sure if this was a dream or a memory.

They were hard years which we kids and teenagers got through better than our parents, who gave us their food and saw many dreams dashed or subordinated to survival. Even so, the teachers were better, some social services functioned better, and there was something that kept us very united and sustained the social consensus. What was it? Maybe the belief that we could return to the 80s. But when the social stratification was very marked and we understood that an uncertain future lay ahead, the country began to change.

The special generation grew up in this context, without knowing—or with hazy memories of—the 80s, but living through a time full of contradictions. This explains a lot. It explains why many of my classmates were not interested in going to university, and why many others emigrated. We’re left with the memory of their empty chairs at school, symbolic of a imperilled future and an uncertain present.

The Fucked Period is always remembered for its sacrifices and the high degree of dignity that characterised it, but we paid a very high price for that dignity. Fortunately, the act of reliving through remembering works better for the good times than the bad times, because I’m not sure we could live through it again. Nor would we want to.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you're not signed in with one of the accounts listed in the drop-down menu select "Anonymous" and include your name, or a pseudonym, in the comment. If you have suggestions for improving the blog or its content please email Marce Cameron. All the usual norms of posting etiquette apply. Comments must be respectful in tone, consistent with the blog's aims and relevant. Comments will be moderated accordingly.