By Alex Gunn, Public Health in Cuba, Summer 2011
The Malecon is a boardwalk where locals go to hang out and relax
Thus far in Cuba, we have interacted with a lot of different people. We have met a babalawo, a priest in the Santaria religion, taxi drivers, college students, professors, medical students, restaurant owners, and even the son of a general in the Cuban army. Despite the difference in backgrounds and roles, each person has spoken in a certain way; each one has a subtle undertone with the words they say and how they say them that have. This undertone has to do with the difference of the words that they are saying and what they actually mean. It is very confusing. There is the official thing that they have to say and there is what they actually believe. This happens everywhere, but the gap between the public and private beliefs is huge in Cuba.
An example of this is when a medical student gave a lecture on the education system in Cuba. He said that their system is the best because it is more encompassing. However, after the lecture we ate lunch with him and there were moments where he contradicted things he said in the lecture. They were very subtle and hard to catch because of the language barrier. At first, I thought I just misinterpreted in what he said because of the Spanish. The director of the our program, Adrian, describes this practice as doublespeak (from Oswalt’s 1984). It is very extreme in Cuba because of the vast gap between the government and the people. In everyday language, there are two rhythms going on at the same time, what they are saying and what they actually mean. Adrian even described it like salsa music because there are two sets of beats in the music, which makes it very complicated to learn. I can testify this as we have taken 4 salsa lessons so far and I am so confused because the instructor will say to move a certain way but then move a completely different way. Mostly, this just leaves me bamboozled.
The other day, we went over to our professor’s house and watched La Cena Ultima, The Last Supper. On the surface, the movie is about a slave uprising in 1791, however, there are very clear references to Cuba in the 1970s, when the movie was made. A telling scene is when a slave tells a story from Santaria about Olofi, an Orisha. He says, “When Olofi made the world he made it complete with day and night, good and bad, Truth and Lie. Olofi was sorry for Lie, who was ugly, and gave him a machete to defend himself. One day Truth and Lie met and had a fight. Lie cut off Truth’s head. Headless, Truth took Lie’s head. Now Truth goes around with the body of Truth and the head of Lie.” This correlates with how Cubans talk; how they can say one thing but mean something totally different.
Recently, for class, we read an article by P. Sean Brotherton that cited the obsession with statistics by international organizations and the Cuban government. In my last blog post, I talked about that Cuba has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the western hemisphere. However, behind this number are thousands of stories that paint a different picture. Like the metaphor from La Ultima Cena and the idea of doublespeak, the statistics show something that is not actually happening. This is what makes Cuba so mesmerizing, the complexity of everything here makes us want to investigate more and more. You can read about this country from your dorm room in Chicago and get to Cuba and it be completely different.
This truly is a country full of irony.