Reports from Cuba: ‘Chernobyl’ and the reconstruction of memory

Yoani Sanchez writes in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

‘Chernobyl’ and the Reconstruction of Memory

I was 10 years old and my world was the size of the matryoshka dolls that adorned my living room. It was 1986 and in Cuba we were experiencing another turn of the screw of nationalization with the rectification of errors and negative tendencies process, while the official press reached its highest levels of secrecy. In April of that year the Chernobyl accident occurred in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union), a nuclear disaster that we – along with the Soviets – were the last to find out about.

Under the strict monopoly of the Communist Party, the island’s media hid, for months, the explosion in the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Power Station that exposed enough radioactive material to spread almost entirely across Europe. The details of that catastrophe, the horror caused by the accident and the forced evacuation of the inhabitants of Prípiat, a city located 3.5 kilometers from the reactors, were barely mentioned in the Cuban newspapers.

While millions of parents over there were putting their children to bed without knowing if they would see a tomorrow, over here we were oblivious to the tragedy that had been unleashed. The camaraderie between Havana’s Revolution Square and the Kremlin, in this case as in others, involved sweeping the problem under the information rug, even if it was a highly explosive story, if one might say so. The few details released, after months, spoke of a controlled situation, of the punishment of those at fault, and of the heroic response of the Soviet people.

We would have continued to believe this if other fragments of the story had not, over time, breached the Island. Some of them from the mouths of the so-called children of Chernobyl, who for more than two decades received treatment on Tarara beach, a development east of Havana where I spent several summers in student camps located in houses confiscated from the Cuban bourgeoisie. The situation of those infants, many of them orphans, and the serious health problems with which they arrived, did not fit with the official story we had been told.

How could there be so many people affected if that accident was just exaggerated by the Western media, as the apparatchiks told us, and was also quickly controlled by the warlike Soviet comrades? Something was wrong in that story and then we knew it.

The Chernobyl series, broadcast by the American channel HBO, is already circulating in Cuba, thanks to the alternative networks that distribute content. Its five episodes have probably been seen, so far, by a greater number of viewers than those who tune in to the official television news. Such voracity is due to the fact that several generations need to fill a hole in our history and reconstruct the memory of an event that they hid from us.

Filling in the memories we never had can be a painful process. Our first impression on watching the initial scenes is the familiarity, the objects that populated our childhood, the way of speaking of the opportunists, the constant camouflage of reality that is a fundamental pillar of these totalitarian regimes. They are Soviets, but they are so similar to us that at times there is a sense of the tragedy of our own history.

Then comes the conviction of how little value is placed on human life in these circumstances. Of people as numbers. Individuals as a gears in a superior engine that does not skimp on sacrificing its own, the ordinary citizens who are sent to a certain death without knowing the magnitude of the disaster and the risk. And the lie. Deceiving the world, covering the truth, hiding the problem, threatening those who could relate what was happening; in short, appealing to one of the cards that kept the USSR standing for more than 70 years: Fear.

With its dark tones, almost black and white, the atmosphere of Chernobyl  can become stifling at times. It makes you want to scream all the time, but 33 years after that event it would be a scream too much delayed… As the end approaches the indignation grows. How could something like this happen and we be so marginal? Why did we never know how close the world was to a nuclear catastrophe of irreversible proportions?

Beyond the license for fictionalization for which some have reproached the series, beyond those who criticize its approach to the health effects of radioactivity, and beyond the sparks that it has provoked in the Russian authorities, who have announced the filming of an alternative Chernobyl, the series has a special value for Cubans in particular because at the time of the accident they were building the Juraguá Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos, a cousin of the Ukrainian plant. Knowing the inefficiency, secrecy and triumphalism of the Cuban state company, that would have been a time bomb.

Personally, and in addition to the horror that this HBO production has caused me, I believe that Chernobyl  leaves us with the hope that everything ends up being known and that it is of little use to disguise or silence a reality, because there are voices that will eventually tell it. I await, then, all the documentaries about Cuba and its taboo subjects that the future will bring us.


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