Patriotism vies with reality for Cuban children
The drills serve to reinforce the most pervasive ideological lesson in Cuba's schools: that the United States is evil and that Cubans must always be ready to defend themselves.
That old message, fashioned after the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis in the early 1960s, is fed constantly to children here even when there are no tensions between the United States and any other country, as there are with Iraq now.
But it is an especially poignant message today when most families in Cuba have relatives in the United States and when, faced with enormous economic difficulties, the Cuban government has allowed dollars to circulate freely on the island.
Nowadays, when children come home from the war drills, they slip on shoes bought with dollars sent by their grandparents in Miami or, in some cases, they work odd jobs catering to American tourists to earn dollars themselves.
In the mornings, William Jose Diaz, a 12-year-old Pioneer who is in
eighth grade, swears to defend the Cuban flag against ``los Americanos.''
In the evenings, he rushes to open the doors of tourists cars. He works
outside Pain de Paris, an expensive bakery in Vedado. Most nights, he
makes at least $2. When someone handed him $1 recently, the boy rushed
home to buy bananas for dinner. Stark message
They know that the government issues only two school uniforms during elementary school -- one in kindergarten and the other in fifth grade. And that they are no longer able to buy toys because the government did away with the yearly ritual of selling toys to children on the 26th of July, the anniversary of the beginning of Fidel Castro's armed uprising in 1953.
The contradictions of their young lives -- hearing one message in school and another, radically different, at home -- confuses some children. Their teachers want them to fight the Americans; their parents want to join them or, at least, to get some of their dollars.
``Mom,'' a 7-year-old girl recently asked her mother, ``if William
Clinton is so bad, why do we want to go live with him?'' Some parents are
Some parents are candid
Some parents fear that their children will be ostracized if their teachers know that they live in a non-revolutionary home. Parents who make a living in what the government considers illegal activities -- renting a room or selling cigars without a license -- also fear that, if their children talk, the government may confiscate their goods, fine them or, in some cases, jail them.
The burden of living in two distinct realities affects some children in psychological and physical ways. Teresita, a 14-year-old ninth grader who lives in Old Havana, said she had never told her best friend that her parents desperately want to leave the country.
She has also never told anyone that, when the doors are locked, her
mother rants against Castro, blaming his government for the scarcities in
their home. Two months ago, Teresita began to shed the hairs of her arms
and legs. The doctors told her that she lacked some essential vitamins in
her diet; the mother thinks it is a result of stress. Song unbearable
``You want your children to be a full member of the family, to know how you feel about everything,'' said the mother, a member of the Communist Party who long ago grew disenchanted with the revolution but outside the home pretends to be as enthusiastic as ever. ``But I worry sometimes how all this is going to affect her and how much contradiction she can really absorb in her young mind.''
Yet the girl's mother, in a fit of anger, recently ripped to pieces her red Communist Party ID and threw it out the window. It was her daughter who ran three flights downstairs in a panic to retrieve the picture from the sidewalk so that no one would ever know what her mother had done.
While Angel helps his daughter with her homework, he systematically
deconstructs everything she has been taught at school. She is now learning
about Jose Marti, a 19th-century patriot who fought to free Cuba from
Spanish colonialism. In Cuba today, Marti is also regarded as the
intellectual precursor of the revolution. Angel tells his daughter that
Marti would never have supported Castro's government. The little girl
giggles and rolls her eyes. No alternative
Some parents try to exert control by taking their children late to school to avoid the morning ritual where students salute the flag, sing the national anthem and repeat revolutionary slogans. Others are turning to religion, hoping that lessons in catechism will open their children's minds to other points of view.
The Roman Catholic Church is taking full advantage of it. To make the shift easier for children, it is incorporating some of the messages children hear in school into Sunday sermons. It is not unusual for priests now to somehow link Cuba's patriots to religion.
At a recent Mass here, Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino drew cheers from his mostly young listeners when he reminded them that the full name of Antonio Maceo, one of Cuba's most revered martyrs, was Antonio de la Caridad, a clear reference to Cuba's patriot saint, Our Lady of Charity.
Priests in some churches are also enticing children to attend Mass and catechism classes through a system of bonuses and rewards. Children receive bonuses for every Mass and catechism class they attend. Once a week, they can exchange the bonuses for gifts like gum, clothing, pencils and toys, all donated from churches abroad.
``They get things they want and need and we get an opportunity to show them the church's way,'' said the Rev. Jesus Maria Lusarreta, a priest at La Milagrosa, where more than 400 children attend catechism weekly.
During his five-day visit to Cuba in January, Pope John Paul II
referred to Cuba's youth in two of the four Masses he held. At the first,
in Santa Clara, some parents nodded in silence when the pope said,
``Parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of
their children.'' Time-consuming
Sometimes they sleep over in the school to await so-called Domingos de Defensa, Sundays of Defense, days in which the children practice what it is like to be under attack and receive their lessons in a bunker.
Marta Perez Herrera, deputy director of Pepito Tey, an elementary school in Old Havana, said that, beginning in third grade, children are trained by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, who teach them everything from patriotic symbols to military moves. At a recent practice session in a park, uniformed men were training young children to march as one.
While the children marched, a 16-year-old girl in tight pink shorts stood in a corner a few blocks away eyeing foreigners. The girl, Yanel Noa, said she dropped out of school because she did not want to work in the fields, a requirement for all students in high school.
Had she continued in school, she would have become a dancer, she said. For now, she lives off the charity of a special friend: a 32-year-old married American man who often travels to Cuba loaded with cash.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald