Explaining death to a child is always a difficult task. Some parents reach for a metaphor and others lie. The adults justify someone’s death to children with phrases that range from “he’s gone to heave to live on a cloud,” to the tall story that “he’s gone on a trip.” The worst is when these inventions transcend the family and become the political information policy of a State. To falsify to people the actual incidence of death, is to rob them of their maturity and deny their right to transparency.
In 1981 an epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever broke out in Cuba. I was barely six, but that situation left me deeply traumatized. The first thing they told us in school was that the disease had been introduced by “Yankee imperialism.” The Uncle Sam of my childish nightmares no longer threatened us with a gun, but rather with a huge Aedes aegypti mosquito, ready to infect us with bonebreak fever. My family panicked when they began to learn about the dead children. The emergency room at the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital was a hive of screaming and crying. My mother asked me once an hour if anything hurt, her hand on my forehead checking for fever.
There was no information, only whispers and fear, a lot of fear. By not speaking publicly about the true source of the evil, the population could barely protect itself. In my primary school we kept running to the shelter—underneath the Ministry of Basic Industries—in the face of the “imminent military attack” that was coming from the North. Meanwhile, a small stealthy enemy ran rampant among people my age. That lie didn’t take long to become obvious. Decades later dengue fever has returned, although I dare say it never left, and all these years the health authorities have tried to hide it.
Now there is no one else to blame, as if hygiene hasn’t deteriorated in our country. It is not the Pentagon, but the thousands of miles of damaged plumbing leaking all over the Island. It is not the CIA, but the inefficiency of a system that has not even managed to build new drainage and sewer networks. The responsibility doesn’t point overseas, but directly at us. No laboratory has created this virus to kill Cubans, it is our own material and sanitary collapse that keeps us from being able to control it.
At least that story for children, where the evil always came from abroad, no longer works. The tall story, which presented us as victims infected by American perfidy, is accepted only by the most naïve. Like children grow up, we have found that the Government has lied to us about dengue fever and that those were not paternalistic falsehoods, but sophisticated lies of the State.