Letter From a Young Man Who Has Left / Ivan Lopez Monreal
Ivan Lopez Monreal, Translator: Courtney Finkel, Translator: Regina Anavy
Site manager's note: This letter is not from one of our regular
bloggers. It is from a young Cuban who has emigrated to Bulgaria, and
was written in response to a post on (the now "paused") blog "La Joven
Cuba," detailing why young people should not emigrate from Cuba. The
letter is "going viral" on Cuba-related websites and we thought our
readers would want to read it.
Dear Rafael Hernández:
I have read with great interest your "Letter to a young man who is
leaving." I feel it applies to me, because two years ago I left Cuba,
I'm 28 years old and I live in Pomorie, a spa city situated in the east
of Bulgaria. The reason why I write to you is to try to explain to you
my stance as a young Cuban emigrant. Without solemnities nor absolute
truths, because if leaving my country has taught me anything, it's
discovering that such truths do not exist.
Maybe some of those who have left in the last few years (there are
thousands of us) are clear about the moment they decided to do it. Not
me. Mine was progressive, almost without my realizing it. It began with
that oh-so-Cuban resource that is the complaint. Trifling, perhaps.
About what isn't available, about what has not come, about what happens,
about what doesn't happen, about not knowing. Or not being able to.
The complaining is not serious, what's serious is that it becomes
chronic, like an illness, when nothing seems to resolve itself. And one
can accept that that's how it is, and that it's your country for better
or for worse, or move on to the next category, which is frustration. Or
discover that the solution to the majority of the problems is out of
your hands. Or they won't let you do it. Or even sadder: they don't seem
To abandon or to remain in your country is a very personal decision that
should never be judged in moral terms. I chose this route because I
wanted a different future from the one that I foresaw in Cuba, and I
left to look for it knowing that it could go badly, but I wanted to run
that risk. I'm not going to lie and say it was painful. I did not cry in
the airport. On the contrary, I was happy. In fact, I freed myself.
You are right to say that my generation lacks those emotional ties that
generate experiences such as the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis or the
Angola war. But make no mistake, I have also had my epics. At best not
as epic, but certainly equally devastating. In these twenty-two years
mentioned, I have watched the country for which my parents fought
degrade itself. I have seen my elementary and secondary school teachers
leave. I have seen families argue for the right to eat bread.
I have seen the Malecon full of nervous people screaming against the
government, and even more nervous people screaming in its favor. I have
seen young people building rafts to flee to who knows where, and a mob
throwing cat shit against the house of a "traitor." Rafael, I have even
seen a dog eating another dog on the corner of 27 and F in Havana.
And I have also seen my father, who was in Angola, his face pale,
without answers, the day a hotel custodian told him that he could not
keep walking along the Jibacoa beach (across from the international
camping area) because he was Cuban. I was with him. I saw it. I was ten
years old, and a ten-year-old boy does not forget how his father's
dignity goes to shit. Even though he had returned from a war with three
You talk to me about the social conquests of the Revolution. About
education and medicine. I am going to talk to you about my education. I
had good teachers, and when they left they were substituted for others
less prepared who, in turn, were replaced by social workers who wrote
"experience" with an S and who were incapable of pointing on a map to
five capitals of Latin America (they didn't tell me this, I lived it).
My parents had to hire private tutors so that I could truly learn. My
parents did not pay them; my aunt based in Toronto did.
To be honest, I owe a good part of my education to the clients of the
Greek restaurant where my aunt worked. But there is more. In my older
sister's time it was extremely rare that a student receive a grade of
100%. In my time a 100% came to be something common, not because we
students had become more brilliant, but because the professors lowered
their requirements to cover up the school's failure. And you know what?
I was lucky, because those who came after me had a television instead of
I have very little to say about medicine, because you live in Cuba. And
except for remaining free, which I admit is still commendable, the state
of the hospitals, the precariousness of badly-paid doctors and the
growing corruption push the health system even more toward that third
world you did so much to avoid. And the truth is that, today, a Cuban
who has hard currency has more opportunities to receive better treatment
(giving gifts or even paying) than one who doesn't, even though it's
illegal. And even though the constitution says otherwise. As sad as it
is to admit, Rafael, the education and medicine available to today's
Cubans are worse than those which my parents enjoyed.
You say that the country exerts a great effort, that there is an
embargo. And I respond to you that there is also a government that takes
fifty years to make decisions on behalf of all Cubans. And if we have
reached this point, it would be healthiest to admit that it has failed,
or was unable, or didn't want to do things differently. For whatever
reason. Because its failure is also full of reasons. And instead of
digging in with its historical figures in the Council of State, it
should give way to those who come after.
Rafael, it's very frustrating for a young person of my age to see that
50 years have passed in Cuba without producing a generational
change-over because the government has not allowed it. And I'm not
talking about giving the power to me, as a 28-year-old. I am talking
about those 40-, 50- or even 60-year-old Cubans who have never had the
chance to decide.
Because today's people who are of that age and who hold positions of
responsibility in Cuba have not been trained to make decisions, but
rather to approve them. They are not leaders, they are officials. And
that includes everyone from ministers to the delegates of the national
assembly. They are part of a vertical system that does not provide room
so that they can exercise the autonomy that corresponds with their
positions. Everything is a consultation. And contrary to the old the
saying: instead of asking for pardon, everyone would rather ask for
You say that in my country one can vote and be elected to a position
from age 16. And that the presence of young delegates has diminished
from the 80s until now. You even warn me that if we continue on like
this, there will be fewer young people who vote and therefore fewer who
are eligible. And I ask you: what purpose does my vote serve? What can I
change? What have the delegates of the national assembly done to spark
my interest in them?
Let's be honest, Rafael, and I believe that you are in your letter, so I
also want to be honest in mine, we both know that the national assembly,
as it is conceived, only serves to pass laws unanimously. It is ironic
to call an institution that meets one week a year an "assembly." Three
or four days in the summer and three or four days in December. And
during those days it limits itself to approving the mandates from the
Council of State and of its President, who is the one who decides what
happens and what doesn't happen in the country. Sadly, I cannot vote for
this president. And I'm not sure I would want to do so.
A few days ago I heard Ricardo Alarcón confess to a Spanish reporter
that he doesn't believe in Western democracy "because the citizens are
only free the day they vote, the rest of the time the parties do what
they want…" Even if that were the case, which it is not (at least not
all the time, and not in every democracy), he would recognize that since
I was born, in 1984, voters in the United States, for instance, have had
seven days of freedom (one every four years) to change their president.
A few times they have done this for the better, and others for the
worse. But that's another story. A young person my age from New Jersey
has already had two days of freedom to, for example, throw out Bush's
Republicans and elect Obama. Cubans have not been able to make a
decision like that since 1948 (not including Batista's elections, of
course). And if you tell me that the capacity to elect a president is
not relevant for a country, I insist that it is. And more relevant for a
young person who needs to feel like he's being taken into account. Even
though it may be only for one day.
You probably think that we who left chose the easier route, that the
more difficult one was to stay in order to solve problems. But I have to
tell you that my grandparents and my parents stayed in Cuba to wrestle
with those problems. To give me a country that would be more advanced,
equitable, progressive. And the one they have given me is one in which
the people celebrate being able to buy a car and sell a house as if it
were a conquest. But that is not a conquest, it's recovering a right
that we already had before the Revolution. Is this what we've come to?
Celebrating as a victory something so simple? How many other basic
things have we lost over the years?
For my parents it's painful to assume that failure, and they don't want
it for me. They don't want me, at 55, to have a salary I cannot afford
to live on, neither the salary nor the ration book. Because it's not
enough. And they don't want me to survive only by turning to the black
market, to corruption, to double standards, to pretending. They prefer
that I be far away. At 28 years old I have become my parents' social
security — how else do you believe two people could survive on 650 pesos?
Yes, Rafael, hundreds of thousands of us Cubans have had to leave so
that our country doesn't collapse. What Cuba receives in our remittances
is superior, in net value, to nearly all of its exports. Yes, the
country has lost youth and talent, and instead of opening a realistic
debate about how to stop the bleeding, it remains anchored to an
ideological immobility that is nothing more than fear for the future.
And what do I do in a country whose rulers are afraid of the future…?
Wait until they die…? Wait until they change the laws out of generosity
and not out of conviction? What do I do in a country that continues to
reward unconditional political loyalty over talent? What do I aspire to
if what I am and what I do is not enough? Do I become a cynic? Or do you
motivate me to face the consequences and say what I think out loud? Some
young people from my generation have already done so, and where are they?
Let's remember Eliécer Ávila, a student of Eastern University who had
the courage to ask Ricardo Alarcón why young Cubans could not travel
like other people, and who was retaliated against by the system. He was
not to blame for the presence of a BBC camera there, nor for the
ridiculous response that Alarcón gave him (the barbarity that planes
would fill the sky and crash into each other). Today Eliécer lives as an
outcast for political reasons. And he is not a terrorist nor a mercenary
nor an unpatriotic person, he is a humble young mullato man, an
academic, who made the mistake of being honest. How sad to have a
revolution that ends up condemning someone for being honest. You want me
to stay for that, Rafael?
Leaving your country and your family is not an easy path. Nor is it the
solution to anything, it is only a beginning. You go to another culture,
you have to learn another language, you have some very bad moments. You
feel alone. But at least you have the relief of knowing that with effort
you can get things. My first winter in Bulgaria was very difficult, I
found work as a driver and I spent four months loading and unloading
washing machines to save money to be able to travel to Turkey. A dream I
had when I was a young boy. And I went.
I did not have to ask permission to leave nor did my plane crash into
another. I could complete Eliécer's dream. And it made me happy to have
done so. I've known other realities, I've been able to compare. I've
discovered that the world is infinitely imperfect, and that we Cubans
are not the center of anything. We are admired for some things just as
we are hated for others.
I have also discovered that leaving has not changed my leftist
convictions. Because the Cuban left is not the left, Rafael. Call it
whatever you want, but it is not the left. I am part of those who search
for social progress with equality of opportunity and without exclusions.
Think what you want to think. Without sectarianism or trenches. Because
that only serves to confront society and substitute dogmas for truths.
Finally, Rafael, chance wanted me to end up in a country that was also
governed by one party and a single ideology. Here there was no Velvet
Revolution like in Czechoslovakia, nor did they demolish a wall like in
Berlin, nor did they shoot a president like in Romania. Here, as in
Cuba, the people did not know their dissidents. Here there were no
fissures, and nevertheless, in a week it went from being a socialist
state to a parliamentary republic. And nobody protested. Nobody
complained. I cannot help but ask myself: did they spend 40 years
Since then it hasn't been a bed of roses; they have faced several
crises, and the population has even come to live with poorer quality
than what they had in the 80s, but curiously, the vast majority of
Bulgarians do not want to go back. And the socialism they left behind
was more prosperous than what we Cubans have today. But in this country
they don't think about the past, they think about the present. In
bettering the economy, in resolving the inequalities (they exist here,
as in Cuba), in fighting the double standard, the personalities and the
corruption that the state generated for decades.
The day that this present matters in Cuba, no doubt, we will see each
other in Havana.
Ivan López Monreal
Translated by: Regina Anavy, Courtney Finkel
August 22 2012
Saturday, August 25, 2012
Letter From a Young Man Who Has Left
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