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Confessions of a Cuban Plumber

Confessions of a Cuban Plumber
July 22, 2014
Yusimi Rodríguez

HAVANA TIMES — Last Sunday, I washed some rotten lentils down the drain
and ended up clogging the pipe. I had no choice but to look for a
plumber and pay to have it fixed. I called a plumber who had fixed a
number of other things around the house, with whom I’d never exchanged
more than a few words of greeting and the inevitable “how much do I owe
you?” He is a polite and quiet man with a reassuring smile that seems to
tell you everything will be alright.

On this occasion, I stood next to him, watching him unclog the drain. We
started a conversation for the first time. Without turning away from the
basin, he told me he had been a photographer and, before that, a teacher
of Marxism in junior and senior secondary school. “I had my graduation
at the steps,” he said, referring to the steps of the University of
Havana (UH).

For a very long time, I’ve had the impression that a degree issued by
the UH is more impressive than one issued by another university. When I
say I am an English language graduate, people enthusiastically ask me:
“from the UH?” Their enthusiasm vanishes when I reply: “from the
Pedagogic Institute.”

Luis, the plumber, does not evince the pride of many from his
generation, particularly black men, who have their degrees framed and
hanging on a wall in their living rooms. Neither does he speak with the
pessimism of others who, today, feel they wasted their time studying at
university. His tone is casual, the same he uses when he asks me to hand
him a bucket to place under the sink.

Why does it still surprise me that this man in overalls, who finds it
increasingly difficult to crouch under sinks and basins and would like
to be a photographer again (because it requires less effort, though the
digital age has left him behind), graduated from the UH with a Social
Sciences major? I don’t know.

I’ve heard many similar stories and they still leave me in shock. The
most intriguing thing, for me, is the reason they leave behind the
classroom, the engineering project or the clinic. It took me a while to
get my answer in this case, because Luis kept losing himself in
anecdotes about city historian Eusebio Leal.

They were classmates for a while, and Luis described him as a “simple
and kind” man. Leal had every qualification for the position of City
Historian, save for the university degree. He would often miss classes
and exams because of his job. He would have to take these in the
classroom later, in the middle of a lecture. “He would hand in the exam
twelve minutes later,” Luis told me. “What about his grades?” I asked.
“Always the highest.”

I managed to get him to tell me why he quit his job as a teacher,
presuming the reason had been his low salary at the end of the 1980s.
His answer was even simpler: “I taught Marxism-Leninism and, by the end
of the 80s, when the socialist bloc collapsed, I no longer believed in
any of that, particularly the twist given to the subject here, by this
fellow (our Eternal Leader, Comrade Fidel Castro).”

When he quit education, Luis got a job in tourism. The hard years of the
Special Period didn’t hit him that hard, but one day, in 1994, at the
end of his vacation, he told his wife he would not be going back to his
job. “I was too old to have the police knock at my door. There was a lot
of corruption, people were stealing a lot. They didn’t simply take what
they and their families needed, they took things by the truckloads. I
got scared.” Around that time, he also handed in his Party membership card.

Now, he makes a living as a plumber and by selling pru (a traditional,
fermented drink from Cuba’s eastern regions). His older children live in
the United States. Perhaps, with their help, he can get his hands on the
equipment he needs to work as a photographer again.

After making sure the pipes were draining properly and charging me for
the job, he said goodbye to me. His story was interesting to me from the
beginning and I asked him permission to tell it. “I won’t use your
name,” I assured him, in the hope he would give me permission and allow
him to take some pictures. “Write it if you want,” he finally says,
“without using my name.” His name isn’t Luis, but that doesn’t matter,
because, as he says at the door, “my story could be that of any Cuban.”

I watch him go and think about other Cubans like him, about my own
father, people who believed in a bright future and even acknowledge some
of Cuba’s achievements, but who do not see any balanced relationship
between these achievements and what they cost the country.

Source: Confessions of a Cuban Plumber – Havana Times.org –
http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=105037

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