On Sunday October 9, Juventud Rebelde published "Strange Disconnection", a report by students from the Faculty of Journalism about the problems associated with the use of the new technologies in the universities. The last thing they imagined was that this would lead to one of the biggest surprises of their lives.
During the past few days, some of my friends have been annoyed with me because they’d heard from others about something that, they tell me, I should have told them myself.
They’re probably right. I’ve tried to explain away my attitude with words such as discretion, lack of time, etc. But the truth is that I preferred to keep quiet about it because if I told the story, they’d surely think I was joking.
On Sunday October 9, Juventud Rebelde published "Strange disconnection", an article written by students from the Faculty of Journalism, one of which was me, about the problems associated with the use of new technologies in the universities. The following day I was surprised to receive an unexpected phone call.
"Good afternoon, is that Luisa Maria?"
"Hold on, I’ll put you through…"
"Luisa, it’s Fidel."
These three words left me petrified. Was it really Fidel on the other end of the line? Fidel! I couldn’t be sure. I cannot recall precisely what happened in the minutes that followed. But I do remember that he told me he was calling about the article "Strange disconnection": "I thought it was very good, very critical, especially because you’re able to criticise yourselves, the students."
At the beginning of the conversation he stressed his interest in the problem discussed in the article, that is, the use of technologies in the universities and the student’s needs. He commented on the new information and communications technologies in society today, and recalled the efforts that have been made in Cuba over several decades so that the country wouldn’t be left behind, despite the difficult conditions. Nevertheless, Fidel told me, we know that unfortunately the state of many of the higher education institutions is not the best, "so I want you to tell me what the situation is, I want to listen to you, and for you to tell me how you see things as a student. Go on, over to you."
What to say? Of the thousand ideas that besieged my mind, where to begin? Three or four seconds of silence elapsed, after which at the other end of the line I heard a gentleman say: "Go on, don’t be nervous, tell me the first thing that comes to mind". I began Â where else? Â at the beginning.
"Look, Comandante, the situation regarding technology in the universities is not the best. At present there are very few computers given the demand for their use. We students have a lot of learning activities that require the use of computers. What’s more, those we have are very obsolete and tend to break down often."
Then he interrupted me, as he would on innumerable occasions, to ask: "How many students are there in the country? How many computers are there? What do you use the computers for most often?" There was a whirlwind of questions. He asked about the cost of the computers, of associated devices such as printers and scanners, of the quality of the equipment we have, among other related questions. So we ended up talking about gigabytes, RAM memory, hard discs, microprocessors. At one point in the conversation el Commandante commented on the importance of technology in keeping ourselves informed about world affairs. I think this is one of his latest obsessions.
"The people cannot live without knowing what is going on in the world. Do you think it’s possible to live calmly without knowing about the disasters that are happening all over the planet, the war in Libya, the great strikes. And we don’t have any TV programme dedicated to talking about these things. There’s the Hilo Directo (Direct Line) section in Granma. I’m going to read you what they published today."
He read all the headlines for today, Monday October 10, then asked: "Do you think this is sufficient? No, surely not? The people need to know much more". We spoke a lot about the international situation, which concerned him greatly, then returned to the topic of computers. He asked about my compaÃ±eros:
"Tomorrow, around this time, will you be meeting? Because I’d like to talk with all of you."
"Yes, Commandante, we’ll be together all day."
"OK, so we’ll talk tomorrow. Thanks very much for your time."
"Thank you for calling."
"See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow."
The following day, Tuesday October 11, at 3pm, we were all in my lounge room. We couldn’t decipher what Fidel had meant when we said "around this time", if we’d talk with him now at 3.30pm or afterwards at six. I need hardly explain that every time the phone rang we all jumped and there was a stony silence.
The minutes ticked by slowly. Around 5.50pm we began to worry and wonder if he’d ever call. At six on the dot: Riiiiiiinnnnggggg! It was him again. By the look on my face my friends understood that the call had finally arrived. Very informally, Fidel asked me what was happening. I told him we were all here, ready to talk, and that the others were aware of our conversation the previous day. I also told him about some new information that we’d gathered together.
He had also checked up on many things, and he told me one-on-one that we’d talk about the cost of computers, about why it’s better to use the computer labs than laptops. One thing led to another and somehow we got around to talking about agriculture. "Did you know" Â he said Â "that I’ve been compiling information on crops of great economic value that can affect the nutritional levels and the health of our people." He spoke in detail about the agricultural situation of our country and of the world. I listened, and it seemed like I was hearing an expert on the agricultural problems of today. Once again I was astonished. Fidel certainly knows all about this topic. I still haven’t been able to absorb the experience of these days, and I probably never will.
When we ended our conversation I remembered being a child, a socialist Pioneer. In those days, in which life seems an adventure, I had the privilege of attending the Third Pioneers Congress held in 2001. In the plenary session, el Comandante was there all day with us, listening attentively to what we, some kids who had barely begun life’s journey, had to say. He gave a terrific speech as we were accustomed to. I’ve never forgotten the final moments: his happy eyes, those of a proud father, his firm hand waving goodbye and that beaming smile. I had tears in my eyes and I feared it would be the last time I’d see him in person. But no, life has many surprises!
He wanted to know everything in great detail
For any Cuban youth, conversing with the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro, as well as being an honour, is also an immense pleasure. Especially when the conversation is about a topic of great sensitivity for university students, such as the importance of the new technologies in our education and our capacity to make use of them, in an underdeveloped country such as Cuba, as much as we need to.
If we add to this the importance of an internationally recognised personality such as Fidel taking an interest in something that, for generational reasons, he hasn’t had much to do with, then the experience is unique. This world of gigabytes, networks, software and hardware that is part of daily life for those who have grown up with this technology is a novelty for those who, like Fidel, grew up with and were educated with large encyclopaedias, books and typewriters.
Listening to him was like having him there in front of me and while it may seem strange, I felt as if we’d spoken many times before. It still seems incredible that he called me by name, Ana Lidia, which made me laugh every time, and that we spoke about things that affect the Cuban people in daily life and in particular the new generations. He wanted to know everything, right down to the smallest detail.
How can we make the most of the available resources, how do we do our class work and what do we use the Internet for? A flurry of questions. We barely managed to respond. At this point I recalled the many times I’d seen Fidel on TV asking questions, and more questions. I never imagined that one day I’d be in this position. But despite the stress, we were able to convey our most immediate concerns to him, the real deficiencies and the vicissitudes we deal with in educating ourselves as professionals that can keep pace with an ever-more digital world.
We also spoke about the vocational interests of Cuban journalism students, and he was surprised to learn how frequently we meet to work as a team despite living all over Havana. "Hey, La Lisa, Alamar, Parraga and Vedado are very far from each other!"
Suddenly he changed topic: he was concerned about the lack of information the Cuban people have about international politics. Given this, he asked about the impact and usefulness of programmes such as Dossier, headed by the Venezuelan journalist Walter Martinez, and others included in the selection of programs of the Caracas-based channel Telesur that are shown daily on Cuban TV. He then commented on the need to take up vitally important issues such as agriculture in the Cuban press. It was then that he referred to research being done by our scientists to identify food alternatives in accordance with the environmental situation and Cuba’s economic conditions.
Curious to the end, his comments were as sharp as ever. With the vision for the future that he has always had, Fidel was interested once more in national and international topics and the everyday needs of those who, day after day, attend university classes to become Cuban professionals.
On the Hill of the Cross
Great news! When I left for the Faculty on Tuesday October 11, I never imaged what was about to transpire. Not even in our dreams would we have hoped for this.
We couldn’t wait to finish our classes. We had to arrive as early as possible at Luisa’s house. The corner of 23rd Avenue and F Street was packed with people and I had no idea if the traffic would ease any time soon, so we separated Â Ibis and Anita hitched a ride, Luisa would wait a little longer while Hector and I decided to walk there (from the corner of 23rd Avenue and F Street to the corner of 15th and 24th!).
At six he called. This time there was no doubt that at the other end of the line was Fidel, our Comandante! Sharing ideas with us, a team of rookie journalists, still students. My turn came, and during the first few minutes of the conversation I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up the dialogue, but the warmth of his voice was so down to earth and I felt so comfortable that time could have stretched like a rubber band. For his part, Fidel also enjoyed the exchange: "I’m very pleased to be able to converse with fifth year students who will soon graduate and begin their professional lives as journalists".
So perhaps the occasion was conducive to tackling a very wide range of both domestic and international topics during our phone conversation, though we also touched on personal matters:
"And you, Nadia, where are you from?"
"From Holguin, Comandante."
"But what part?"
"The city centre, close to San Jose park."
"There was an important dance event held there a little while ago."
I perceived that he attached great importance to being well informed. Given this he doesn’t limit himself to the news and the mass media but makes use of every possible source of information at his disposal. He asks, comments, suggests, makes value judgements and is capable of directing his attention to distant places without missing the smallest of details. Like compatriots living abroad, we refer to a symbol of our city, the Hill of the Cross.
Having taken the stage, his questions never end: "How many times have you climbed it? When was the last time? How long does it take you to get to the top?" He even asked very specific questions in an effort to hone in on the answer he wanted. "It’s a high hill, how many steps are there? There must be around 500…".
Then he’s interested in where we’re living, the Lazaro Cuevas residential college on F Street and 3rd Avenue in Vedado. Then he tries to locate it, referring to landmarks and calculating distances. According to the directions, he places it in the student district and maps out a possible route to the Faculty. He suggests this little walk would be good exercise for me. But his tone hints of reproach when I explain to him that most students catch the P2 bus to the University, just a few blocks away.
Later on in the conversation, he makes a proposal that takes us back to the beginning: "If you walk from the college to the University and then you go up the Hotel Colina, it’s almost as if you’ve climbed the Hill of the Cross."
"Comandante, I don’t think I have to go so far because I walk up the stairs of the college every day."
"On what floor do you live?" "The 13th."
"So you should be happy, because those on the second floor don’t get any exercise."
We laugh. Since then, every time I walk up those stairs I remember his words and I smile, as happened when we spoke.
Fidel is always thinking about the future
A serious tone, familiar and deliberate. This was the first thing I heard when I could barely understand his words. A captivating and cordial voice. What to say? What to do? I was amazed and emotional, glued to my seat, short of breath. "How are you Comandante?" was the only coherent phrase I managed to articulate.
But within a few minutes the tension receded and it was as if we were taking up an old conversation that we’d left unfinished some time ago. He asked me: "Well now Ibis, where do you live?" It was incredible that Fidel knew where Parraga [a Havana locality] was, that he laughed at how distant it was and wanted to know the bus routes between here and there! And I admired still more his ability to tackle everything from the big issues to everyday occurrences, those of the daily routine.
Then I heard a distant rustling of papers and I imagined him seated in front of a big table cluttered with papers and books. His voice changed to a more serious tone. He told me that he was reading about Mexico and he was worried about the high indices of violence in that country, because they were rising every year and the situation was beyond the ability of the authorities to control. He also referred to the constant migration of entrepreneurs from the countryside to the cities, especially [Mexico City’s] Federal District; and the grave consequences this could have for the country’s economy.
We also spoke of how these scenes of violence are common in a number of Latin American countries. A note of alarm could be heard in his voice when he pointed out that thousands upon thousands of people die as a result of criminal activities such as drug trafficking. But his anxiety was not confined to the problem, it went beyond it to the quest for solutions. I think Fidel is always thinking about the future, and in a holistic way; and struggling so that this thinking is transformed into deeds that benefit the masses.
To speak with Fidel was like conversing with a part of our history (and when I say our, I mean all of Latin America). I believe that I now truly understand the meaning of that phrase so beloved of [Sandinista movement co-founder] Tomas Borges: I now know that "all the glory in the world can fit into a kernel of corn".
We’ll see each other soon
In my head, images of my whole life began to flash by, as in a film Â the placed I’d been to, the things I’d done Â as I reached out to take the phone. Finally, it was my turn!
We all looked at each other. The images didn’t stop. I saw myself as a naval fitter and turner, a tyre repairer, fumigator, bank clerk and, suddenly, everything froze upon hearing his voice! So familiar. The same voice that generations of Cuban have listened to for decades…
"Hello Hector, how do you feel?"
"Comandante, I’m emotional, because I never thought I’d speak with you."
To which he responded with this wise craftiness:
"Ahh, well! I never thought I’d speak with you…"
I had to burst out laughing as you do when a friend tells you a joke. And there was Fidel, el Comandante, the man of a thousand battles, on the other end of the phone, concerning himself with and asking me about things in my life about which not even I have any qualms: he wanted to know if I watch TV, and when.
However, he was mostly interested in the topic of the Cuban Five, about which we spoke at length. Perhaps many will not understand and may even criticise my astonishment, this stubborn amazement that erased from my mind ideas, questions and concerns that I would have liked to share with him. But never it’s not every day that one receives a call from the historic leader of their country. With great tact, and indicating that our chat was drawing to a close, he said:
"Well, I’ve taken up a lot of your time today…but don’t think you’re going to escape from me."
"Don’t worry Comandante, we’ll see you soon."
By various authors, Juventud Rebelde, November 19, 2011Â