Cuba’s Amelia Calzadilla and Her Freedom to Choose

Photo: Henry Pérez.

Cuba’s Amelia Calzadilla and Her Freedom to Choose

3 / enero / 2024

When Amelia Calzadilla landed in Madrid with her three children one November day, she had not only overcome the fear of flying but also bid farewell to a place she didn’t want to leave. The day she left Cuba, State Security made sure she left.

In January 2021, the 32-year-old Cuban began live streaming on Facebook as a means of denouncing and challenging the Cuban government for its mismanagement. In one of the broadcasts, she states, “My political stance is being a mother,” a phrase that, like many of her live sessions, went viral. She started by denouncing the high cost of electricity and the obstacles to obtaining liquefied gas services. While she “exploded” on social media, her discourse resonated with the reality of other Cuban mothers.

Amelia’s mother had tried to become pregnant nine times, and the only successful pregnancy was that of the girl who studied at the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​at the University of Havana, and became a voice for the Cuban population amid political apathy.

Her Last Day in Cuba

Days before leaving, Amelia remembers that her house was in constant disorder. She took the time to spend long hours with her grandmother, others with a friend and her cousin, always accompanied by her mom and dad. The farewell strategy aimed to prevent anyone from visiting them on their last day. She failed.

On the day of leaving Cuba, the house filled up. The suitcases were packed at the last moment, and amid chaos, there was some joy and peace. However, her mother was silent. Silence is a sign of concern in her family. Amelia, with the rigidity of a general, repeated to herself, “I’m not going to cry, I’m not going to cry.” She wanted her loved ones to feel that she was leaving happily.

Her father was the first to break the tension hidden behind the apparent calm. He said, “I know you’re going to a better life.” Gradually, the emotional barriers began to crumble. In the final hug, her daughters —María Amelia, nine years old, and Amanda, seven— were infected with the adults’ tears. The promise of a plane ride and a new house didn’t matter. With them, Amelia also broke down.

To alleviate the sadness of the moment, her father-in-law asked the children to shout, “Amelia, scoundrel, remember my size.”

“It was a completely absurd phrase typical of Cubans, but that —though it may seem unbelievable—worked,” she says, still crying, sitting in the living room of her new home on the outskirts of Madrid. That moment allowed her to gather strength to instruct her children to get in the car, close the door, and not look back. The mere reference to a family member’s clothing size was the encouragement Amelia needed to believe that one day she could help improve the lives of her loved ones, and for that, she needed to leave.

Her concern for what she was leaving behind was so great that days before, she had bought a bit of meat, lamb, some eggs, and ground beef so that her parents wouldn’t have to go out to “fight” for food as she did every day.

“You shouldn’t leave thinking you’re seeking security, stability, freedom. That shouldn’t happen to anyone,” she protests vehemently. The unchecked migration of Cubans signals the seriousness of the country’s conditions.

When Amelia arrived at the “Jose Marti” International Airport, State Security was waiting for her. They weren’t dressed in military attire, but they were the same agents who had detained her on June 24, 2023, after expressing solidarity in a live session with the right of political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer’s wife to see him. She thought they wanted to intimidate her or make her sign a document preventing her from returning. Quite the opposite, they were there to expedite her departure, perhaps to ensure she left, and that people didn’t recognize her.

On a crowded flight with families, including children and even babies, who also left Cuba that day, State Security removed Amelia with her three children and four suitcases from the line, ensuring they passed quickly through all the controls.

She thought, “At home, I forbade myself to cry, now I have to forbid myself to feel fear.” She feared they might stage a hate rally or a scandal, detain her in front of her children, traumatizing them.

She recalled activist Marisol Peña Cobas, whose seven-year-old daughter received a summons for questioning in April 2023. Why wouldn’t they do the same to her children? But none of that happened, and when the flight took off, the children fell asleep, and once again, she entrusted herself to God.

Spain, First Impressions

When the Immigration officer at Madrid’s “Adolfo Suarez” Airport treated her kindly, asked few questions, and wished her a pleasant stay in Spain, Amelia thought that man wasn’t real and felt she had arrived at a refuge.

Although it was a cold day, the sun seemed stunning, like a large yellow bulb that didn’t provide warmth.

Amelia with her husband. Photo: Henry Perez.

The first two weeks, the change in climate made her sick, and she lost her voice. Her youngest child, four years old, has also had trouble adapting to the low temperatures. At times, he has turned cyanotic due to the cold, and his lips have become very dry.

They took him to the hospital for constant vomiting. The diagnosis indicated that he was not well-nourished. It hit her hard. She felt her role as a mother questioned and had to tell the doctor the story she didn’t want to talk about. She had to explain that they came from Cuba and that, like many Cubans, her child ate but was not nourished because hot dogs filled the stomach but didn’t provide nutrition.

People leave Cuba with vices, concerns, habits, or any toxic relationship with food. Some come ready to choose rice; others want to repeat hoarding routines as if food were running out tomorrow, and there are those, like Amelia, who worry because the bread doesn’t turn green, doesn’t mold, or acquire a bad smell.

When Amelia left the island, she believed that life outside was better, especially economically. The Cuban economy suffered setbacks such as the nearly 50% depreciation of the Cuban peso against the dollar and the euro in the informal currency market in 2023. However, she feels that the Spanish way of life also promotes security and inclusion.

“You are totally surprised because they not only teach the child to live with ethnic and religious differences; they teach them to respect them,” she explains based on her children’s school experience. They attend a public school where they can receive classes in Islamic, evangelical, Catholic religion, and for those who profess no religion, there is a subject on social values.

This possibility has represented a strong contrast to Cuban education, where children belonging to the religious organization Jehovah’s Witnesses are obligated to receive political education they don’t desire and that is not encouraged in their homes. There are no alternatives to public education conditioned by the principles of the Cuban state.

Since she’s been in Spain, she says her stress levels have started to decrease, and she feels her parenting methods are shifting from imposition to conversation. Searching for footwear and food, dealing with mosquitoes, power outages, and many other daily problems didn’t allow her to relax in Cuba or express affection to her children in peace and dialogue.

The Cuba Left Behind

Amelia grew up in a house with exposed ceiling beams. She slept in a small add on room, and when there was a power outage, on the floor near the balcony, so the sea breeze would refresh them. Her only distraction was visiting the 13 de Marzo Park in Central Havana with her grandfather. She didn’t have toys on Three Kings’ Day, but she had marches, TV roundtable discussions, and Russian dolls.

The precariousness of the Cuban housing situation has plagued the population for years. In July 2023, 109,185 homes affected by several past hurricanes remained unrepaired. Amelia acknowledges that the overcrowded living conditions of many families, like hers, lead to patriarchal models being passed down from generation to generation. Grandchildren grow up in the grandparents’ way of life, and mothers continue to bear the burden of care in the “there is none” society.

Amelia with her family. Photo: Henry Perez.

Despite everything, Amelia Calzadilla did not want to leave Cuba. When her husband obtained Spanish nationality through the Democratic Memory Law, they planned for him to travel regularly and help improve the household economy.

However, since she started her live sessions on Facebook, especially the one she did in June 2022 about difficulties with cooking gas and the high cost of electricity, she couldn’t work. Some acquaintances told her they preferred to give her money rather than offer her a job. Others suggested doing occasional translations, earning 50 or 60 MLC or USD so she could cover the month. Her family of seven—three children, parents, and husband—couldn’t survive that way.

“There came a point where I had to give up on the idyllic idea of staying put,” she says, “and fight for what I believe is right and have all the courage in the world to face it, even if I ended up in prison.” But she also knows what it means to have a relative imprisoned in Cuba without food to bring them, and with a decaying transportation system. She didn’t want to become that kind of concern for her loved ones.

She wanted to be the heroine of many people, those who admire her, but above all, of her children. She feared that, amid so much surveillance, in a society where a considerable part of the products are obtained on the illicit market, the government would fabricate a crime for her and she’d end up in prison.

The Live Sessions and the Explosion on Social Media

Amelia treasures her live sessions. Between January 2021 and September 2023, she did twelve live broadcasts on Facebook from Cuba. The third one, dated June 9, 2022, with just over eight minutes of duration, put her in the public debate on the situation in Cuba.

Before that, she went through a state of political apathy. She didn’t want to know anything about the government and intended to seal off her family space. Then she couldn’t. The decisions made by politicians had direct consequences on her home.

Amelia explains that Cubans depend on a severely deteriorated public sector for education, health, cooking facilities, and recreation. It is so poorly managed that even if a person has money, they cannot meet their needs, such as finding a working X-ray machine to examine a sick relative, for example.

The deterioration reaches all sectors of Cuban society. The Statistical Yearbook on Health and Social Assistance for 2022 recorded 46,663 fewer workers than in 2021. Deaths of adults and babies from sepsis also increased by 122% between 2020 and 2022. Faced with this situation, she believes that people choose apathy over confrontation because they feel overwhelmed.

Her viral live session reminds her of the image of a desperate and exhausted girl, screaming because she is weak. However, other women exploded with her, and that was a reality check. She wasn’t alone. People connected with her discourse, while the official press rushed to categorize her outburst in an article published on June 11, 2022, as a “typical example” of “irritation management” that offers no solutions.

“For a website with significant reach like Cubadebate to speak ill of you, lie about you, is a significant violation of human rights,” she thinks.

On the street, she found another response. People asked her, “Are you Amelia Calzadilla?” and thanked her. She expected older people to scold her for her audacity, but instead, they thanked her for putting their feelings into words. Even a Communist Party activist approached her and said, “It’s good that you said it. It needed to be heard because sometimes we say it within the Party, and they don’t listen to us.”

That’s why she trusts in change because more people prefer it to living in “continuity” (more of the same).

Is There a Future for Cuba?

Amelia doesn’t like to cry, not even in the privacy of a conversation with her husband. She has cried for Cuba many times, out of helplessness.

“It’s tough to leave Cuba without knowing when you’ll return, without having a plan to see your loved ones,” she predicts. Her only plan now is to survive each day, not get lost when she goes out, process her residency papers, find a job.

She never wanted to distance herself from her mom and dad, so she needs her country to change. In Spain, she has found Cubans who could help with their experience to transform Cuba, and then she remembers a phrase from her grandfather: “There are things that are not repairable, but they are repairable.”

For her, Cuba is repairable because everything needs to be restored, economically, socially, legally, and adapted to people’s needs. The country is not made for Cubans when, for example, a high percentage of the population that has asthma, goes to the hospital to treat respiratory problems, and finds no epinephrine, hydrocortisone, oxygen tanks, not even mouthpieces.

Many people have advised her to distance herself from the island, to “refresh.” She refuses. Every morning, she wakes up and remembers she is eight thousand kilometers away from home and starts planning a way to stay close, maybe a YouTube channel.

In Spain, she is free to act, but in Cuba, she was free to think. Freedom for Amelia means that in her children’s schoolbooks, there is no Che or Fidel who conditions their thinking. Nobody should feel more pressure than to be true to themselves nor be afraid of another’s reaction for thinking differently. Nobody should feel the system singles them out because their freedom bothers it, because their freedom doesn’t suit it. That’s what she wishes for the future Cuba.

This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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