14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 22 April 2019 — That day I did not want to watch national television but rather some documentary on the ‘Weekly Packet’, but when I turned on the screen there was Ramiro Valdés, speaking before the National Assembly about the “diversion of resources,” the official euphemism used to talk about stealing from the State, and how “ethical values” had deteriorated in Cuban society with the arrival of the Special Period. In his tone and choice of words there was a nostalgia for the 80s, for that “golden” decade before the economic crisis.
I perceive a similar recollection in many Cubans over 40, who consider that time as the best we have experienced in the last 60 years of socialism on the island. The longing leads them to see everything that happened in that decade through rose-colored glasses. With a highly selective memory they remember markets full of products, bread and eggs for sale freely without having to go through the rationed market, an average salary being enough to feed a family, and public transport operating with numerous routes and sufficient vehicles.
They forget the shadows of those years and only emphasize the lights. Their melancholy over the lass of those times ignores the control the Plaza of the Revolution exercised over every aspect of our individual lives. Those were the years when we could shop only in state stores, watch only the television controlled by the Communist Party, and travel outside the country only on official missions. Every pair of pants, shoes or shirt that we wore had been acquired through the ration card controlling industrial products, as had been any furniture in our homes not inherited from parents or grandparents.
The repressive structure functioned like clockwork and the ‘80s had started with acts of repudiation around the Peruvian Embassy, crowded with 10,000 Cubans wishing to leave the country who had been granted diplomatic protection there. With every worker in the country tied to the state sector, the coercion mechanisms to achieve social docility were highly effective. The so-called ‘verifications’ – consisting of a neighborhood inquiry and investigation of the behavior of anyone who wanted to ascend the career ladder, get a voucher to buy a refrigerator, or win a scholarship to study abroad in socialist countries – were fully greased and seemed omnipresent.
Making contact with a foreigner was considered a crime and having correspondence with relatives who had emigrated a probable stain in one’s file. The prevailing atheism placed a mask on those who professed some religious belief and in the ritual “tell me about your life” – indispensable to enter a job or achieve a promotion – you had to confess if you had a religious belief and if you practiced it.
People were much more afraid to issue a critical opinion than they are now, the dissident groups were reduced to their minimum expression and, between ‘schools in the countryside’ where teenagers were sent for their high school years, and the pioneer camps for younger children, the children of that time received a complete brainwashing and ideological indoctrination.
All writers who wanted to see their works published had to jump through the hoop of official censorship or see their writings languish in a drawer, musicians could only record their music in official studies, painters exhibited their works only in government managed galleries, and taxi drivers drove only vehicles with the blue state license plate.
Although totalitarianism was in its moment of splendor as far as control of society, the economic situation was not the result of the efficiency or productivity of the country, but rather of the “pipeline” of subsidies that arrived from the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was sustaining a bubble of false prosperity, a bubble that burst as soon as the USSR itself fell apart and the old comrades exchanged the hammer and sickle for a market economy.
The ‘80s should not be remembered for the cans of condensed milk that abounded on the shelves, nor for the markets where it was possible to buy juices from Bulgaria at very cheap prices or canned fruits from some member country of the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME/ or Comecon in English), much less for the stacks of intensely colored magazines with bombastic titles promoting a failed model.
Looking at the ‘80s, we must evoke them in their proper measure: the decade in which the cage was more effective, in which Fidel Castro had enough birdseed at his disposal to make us silently accept the bars.