Ernesto Oliva Torres: Cuba’s Young Activists Are Fighting Back

EspañolErnesto Oliva Torres must feel part like the protagonist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and part superhero. A young Cuban living under the Castro dictatorship, he’s an activist with the Jose Maria Heredia group, and a leading member of the Youth Wing of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), an organization working for the defense of civil liberties on the island.

Intrigued as to how this double life came about, we interviewed Torres to find out what life — or rather survival — is like under a communist regime.

What do you think about the US embargo of Cuba?

Within the UNPACU, we agree that the US government embargo on Cuba should be lifted. But this should only be done if and when a genuinely democratic government exists in Cuba. If this doesn’t happen, normalized relations will only serve to perpetuate the Castroist cadre in power, improving the materiel and resources available to those repressive organs of the state which deny the Cuban people their freedom and rights.

The streets of Havana.
The streets of Havana. (Yusnaby Pérez)

What does it mean to be a politician today in Cuba?

There are two types of politicians in Cuba today: politicians belonging to the regime, and opposition politicians. The first group go about joining organizations that promote the government, and keeping a submissive, servile, and sycophantic attitude towards the regime and its leaders.

In the second group, however, you behave like a genuine citizen. You express yourself freely, and without hypocrisy, on any political, economic, or social theme that affects the people, assuming the likely reprisals that follow the exercise of dignity under a totalitarian dictatorship.

In Cuba, the equality promised by communism simply doesn’t exist. In today’s Cuba there are millionaires, a small privileged cadre within the government, while the great majority of the population live steeped in misery. They have to deal with a minimum monthly wage of 9.00 CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos, US$9), problems with the supply of drinking water, communication, transport, food, and accommodation, among many other difficulties.

Ernesto Oliva Torres currently lives in Santiago de Cuba.
Ernesto Oliva Torres currently lives in Santiago de Cuba. (Twitter)

What’s your opinion of the 1952-9 Batista dictatorship?

We believe that at that time, despite the fact that there was also a dictatorship in place, there were often greater freedoms and rights than there are available today. The Batista regime was an authoritarian dictatorship, which respected private property, the freedom to open businesses, and educational autonomy. While there was censorship, the media were freer than they are now; citizens had the right to leave and enter the country freely. In 1958, Cuba was the 29th strongest economy in the world, had the most automobiles in Latin America, and Havana was the city with the most number of cinemas, 358, in the world.

We’re living nowadays under a totalitarian dictatorship, which has only served to ruin the country. We lack basic freedoms and rights, and our economic situation is extremely precarious.

What’s the internet connection like on the island?

Ordinary citizens, if they want to connect to the web, do so in ETECSA centers, where you open a personal account worth 4.50 CUC ($4.50) per hour, which you can then top up from 1.00 CUC ($1). The connection is slow. Fourth-year university students are allowed restricted access to a greater range of websites, which is then withdrawn once they graduate. But the majority of citizens don’t really know what Facebook, Twitter, email, Google, or other social networks are, because they simply don’t have access. Even many senior officials in the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) don’t have free web browsing privileges.

Only those people who have relatives in other countries to send them money have regular web access. What happens more often is that people, men and women, prostitute themselves to foreign tourists to get enough money to communicate with family members abroad. Buying an internet-enabled telephone in Cuba is illegal: to get one you have to have relatives abroad, find it on the black market, or sell your body.

The phones of those citizens who oppose the government are disabled during any potential political disturbance, and their calls are always being listened to by the Political Police. If you want to communicate with anyone in Cuba, it’s a massive challenge.

How much does one day’s worth of food cost? 

In Cuba, eating an everyday basic meal is also a challenge. Many people go to whatever work they can find without eating breakfast, because they don’t have anything. Lunch sometimes happens as late as 6 p.m., because there won’t be anything to eat at night. You eat as late as you can to keep yourself going until you get up — this is very common in Cuba. It’s a sad sight to see parents telling their kids, when they say they’re hungry, that it’s natural to not have enough money to buy them something to eat.

Imagine a household of four people where the mother and the father work for the minimum wage, meaning a joint income of 450 pesos ($16.90). If they buy four loaves of bread daily which each cost one peso, that will reach 120 pesos in a month, leaving them only 330 pesos left ($12.50). And if that’s just on bread rolls, which are not even enough for one person per day, imagine trying to provide food for the entire family every day of the month. This is the situation facing many people today.

What does the rationing card include?

The rationing card is a small notebook which details the products of the basic food basket that each citizen receives monthly. The state uses it as a tool to show the masses that it supposedly cares for them. We’re given a quota of: rice (5 pounds), beans (1o ounces), sugar (4 pounds), oil (250 ml), salt (1 packet of 1 Kg per three months), chicken (17 ounces), eggs (5 units), chopped soya (8 ounces), and powdered milk (3 Kg for children).

Even if you utilize it in the most efficient way possible it’s not enough to survive on. In terms of the quality of the products, it’s dire. The beans and the chicken are often low quality and dirty, and the salt and sugar are usually bulk-bought and poor standard. Despite the fact that Cuba’s an island, it’s really difficult for Cubans to get their hands on seafood products, and so many people gather in the butchers when chicken arrives. It looks like they’re celebrating a wedding.

Despite all these problems, the government keeps a broad range of high quality food products, national and imported, in shops where they can be bought with CUC for elevated prices. For example, beef costs 10.50 CUC ($10.50), a tin of sardines 2.75 CUC ($2.75), and fruit juice, 2.25 CUC ($2.25), and so on.

A bodega in Cuba where rationed products are purchased.
A bodega in Cuba where rationed products are purchased. (Yusnaby Pérez)

How does the system of using pen drives to share information work? 

It’s something which Cubans are using the break the censorship implanted by Castro more than 55 years ago. Television programs have to align with communist ideology, and they’ve never screened any program which so much as mentions capitalism in a positive light.

Cuba, when it opened itself up to tourism, created a breach through which the rest of the world’s reality could enter: hotels installed satellite TVs in their rooms. So employees began to use pen drives to record programs and commercials, passing the information by hand from one person to other. As a result, a black market in different television recordings been created, allowing Cubans to change their manner of seeing things, and see that society could take a different path.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

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