Opening Statement



Thursday, 15 January 2015

Santiago School Diary: Rumours of War!

March 1996


Let's take a break. This story isn't about "Cuba and the Night". It's from my daytime diary while I was at the Toronto Friendship School. The donations are delivered. Whew! Was glad to get that out of the way. Scary stuff. The police, customs, everything. Maybe nothing for me to worry about. Worse case scenario? They could've been confiscated. I sent packing back to Canada. But my Cuban amigos y amigas? Can you imagine living with such fear and necessity? Over something so seemingly innocuous. I'll be damned if I pay taxes on donations. Nor could they. Well anyway, the school supplies, clothes, toiletries, and medicine are job done!

I settled down into a room at Josef + Luisa's house near the city centre. Walking distance from the school. Spent my days there. Talking Cuban School Project business with Willy. Monitor the construction. Usually teach a class. Reading or Conversational English. Everybody liked to practice. Most staff and students hadn't actually met a foreigner before. Until recently it was illegal to even talk to us on the street. Often I'd just end up sitting in class talking with the students and staff about the lesson and everyday stuff. Let them practice. Get a better understanding of their needs. They want to know everything about life in Canada. Even simple things you or I take for granted.

I remember one exercise in particular. The students were using a Spectrum English workbook. The new vocabulary introduced using a fairly simple even banal narrative. A man is looking to rent a one bedroom apartment. He is unhappy with the price. For $600 he gets a small one bedroom place. But the landlord points out it has a large living room, with a nice kitchen, and new bathroom. The students are pondering this among themselves working at their desks, quite amazed. Most are out of work. A first since the revolution. It's after the collapse of the Soviet block. No future prospects. No more aid. Anybody with a job is lucky if they earn $5 a month. Everyone's living crammed in one or two small decrepit rooms with two or three generations of family. Often the kitchen is a fire pit out in the courtyard. They are very lucky if they have proper washroom facilities with running water, toilet paper and a toilet seat. They are rereading the lesson in our rooftop classroom shack. Surrounded by shacks on top of more shacks. By towering palms. In a world far removed from our own reality, or that of the man in the story. The students are rather bemused by his plight. No doubt somewhat envious too.

Willy's mom brings my morning espresso upstairs. The sharp brew tingles my senses as I take a sip. One of the adult students offers me a cigarette. It's okay to smoke in class. The acrid smoke crawls between my fingertips. Joins the cloud of tobacco smoke in the air. Small pencil stubs scratch down today's vocabulary words in the thin yellowed notebooks Matilde stapled together for the students. Otherwise? They'd have nada. 

An old battered fan puffs out more hot air, a futile attempt to deal with the stifling heat. Our mid morning idyll is punctured by the sudden swoosh of a jet fighter screeching low across the city roof tops. A poignant reminder of the latest international crisis Cuba is now in.

"Eeeets the Americano's!" a young girl blurts out. She blushes. Looks back down at her work. Embarrassed by her fledgling English. The class chuckles. A few guffaws. Then, an awkward silence. 

In the weekly newspaper the Ministry of Defence has bravely boasted "The fighting and victorious spirit of our people is invariable in the face of any threat. We are ready to fight. Everybody knows that."

But today most thoughts in the school room are of less heroic concerns. I can hear the quiet whispers in Spanish. When are the food rations arriving? Did you line up overnight? Who has seen any eggs? There aren't tourists in Santiago! Little work. No tips. So and so helped a tourista last year -got $2! A cousin swam across the bay to the American naval base in Guantanamo! Now he's in Miami! Ooooh! Miami! I hate America! He goes there but doesn't send us any money. How soon he forgets! No. No. He can't send it to you. It's not allowed. I'd love to go to America anyway. Si! I'd get a one bedroom apartment with a large living room, a kitchen and a bath. Si! Si! Me too! Then a garbled, heated debate.

"Que pasa?", I ask, "Whats happening?"

Willy explains, "There is a rumour in the streets. A big secreto. It's taken on a life of its own. Everybody is getting caught up. Wondering if they should go."

"Go where?"

"The word is that the Americans are going to open the gates to the naval base at Guantanamo on Saturday. Anybody who wants to flee to America can go! They will let you in! Protect you. Take you to the United States where everything will be different. So much better. No more problems. The students will visit each other in their one bedroom apartments."

"Si!", one girl boasts. She flashes me a smile, "If you come to visit, I can cook you something to eat!"

Willy adds a word of caution. "Don't believe everything you read or that you hear in the street! Right, Mr. Chiarelli?"

"Er ... Um ... It certainly would be different for you in America all right. But the rumours? I don't know. Somehow I can't see it. I'm sorry to say but I don't think they want you all over there. Not really ..."

"No? But then why would they open the gates?" 

There is a nervous pause. The students excitedly join in our discussion, "Si! It would be madness! So many people would want to go!"

"Fidel would never allow it. He will try to do something." 

"No. No. The Americano's know."

"They will protect us! If we try to go they will shoot to stop the soldiers' Cubano!"

"Oh? Our soldiers will shoot back!"

"And then we will never get as far as the gate because ....."

A horrible silence. A few quiet breathes. The sinister reality slowly starts to sink in. Boxing in and tainting the now impossible dream. Heads quietly bow back down to laborious study. Pencils feverishly scratching away.

How much does the apartment cost? The apartment costs $600 a month.

How many rooms are there in the apartment? The apartment has a .....

Nothing more is said. The week passes without incident. The gates at Guantanamo remain shut. A lone jet fighter flies overhead each and every day. Very unnerving. Flags wave in the town square and from every rooftop. There do seem to be a lot of soldiers in town.

As much as I wish their dream could come true, I am damned glad that nobody tried to tempt fate, and nothing happened ......

[Some revisions/ footnotes to follow]

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