How I became a part-time revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba

BOB BOSSIN April 1 1970

How I became a part-time revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba

BOB BOSSIN April 1 1970

How I became a part-time revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba



I WOKE UP one morning in Waterloo, Ontario, and my watch had stopped. It was one of those grey, overhanging, lifeless Canadian winter days when it could be nine or noon for all you can tell by the sky. There was no one around, so I picked up the phone.

“Hello, Operator. Could you tell me the time, please?”

“I’m sorry, we do not provide that service.”

“Oh . . . urn . . . you couldn’t just sneak a quick look at your watch, eh?”

“I’m sorry, we do not provide that service.”

This probably does not seem very important now, but at the time — well, there is something distinctly Canadian about waking up and hearing the first human voice of the day say, “I’m sorry, we do not provide that service.”

“Why can’t you tell me the time?”

“Company policy, sir.”

“And you don’t make the rules.”

“No, sir.”

I still wondered why. I suppose there were several nefarious activities The Policy was designed to foil. I could be an obscene phone caller waiting for the rates to change, or an unsynchronized part of a plot on the life of the mayor of Waterloo.

The obvious reason for such a stupid rule is to stop people calling to ask the time of day. Of course, not awfully many people find themselves in a strange city with a stopped watch

and no clocks, friends or hotel desks. Even if they do, the rule is still stupid, because if you are at all like me and you ask someone for the time and they say, “I’m sorry, we do not provide that service,” you get pee-ed off and you start asking questions, like “Why?”, which takes a lot of time.

And I still didn’t know whether it was nine or noon.

“Okay, Operator, could you tell me how I can find out the time?”

“You could call the Sun Watch Company.”

“It’s Sunday.”

“A radio station, then.”

“Fine. I don’t know what the station is in Waterloo. Could you tell me?”

“I’m sorry, you will have to dial Directory Assistance for that information.”

The trouble is, the situation is structured so that it is the Operator who gets it in the ear, though it is not her fault, unless you start to consider the Nuremberg Trials, and that seems a bit heavy. The Operator has this Supervisor secretly listening in on her, like some interoffice narcotics agent. The Supervisor makes sure the Operator doesn’t get too friendly or give out classified information, like the time. One Operator I know says she gets only two bathroom breaks a day, of exactly five minutes each, and then she has to put a little red card on her board saying “Toilet.” Pity the diarrheal Operator.

At the risk of flogging all this to death, I’ll finish the morning. This actually happened.

“Directory Assistance.”

“Directory Assistance, I would like . . . well, all I’d really like is the time.” “I’m sorry,” etc.

“Yes, I know. Could you give me the number of a radio station?” “Which one, sir?”

“I don’t know. I’m from out of town.”

“I’m sorry, I cannot look up the number if you do not have the name of the party.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Operator, I need to know . . . when to take my medicine.” I lied. Men have done worse with less provocation.

There is a silence, then she says quickly, “CKKW, 744-7331.”

THIS EXPERIENCE may not sound as though it has a great deal to do with how I was trained as a revolutionary in Cuba. It does, though.

Actually, revolutionary training never entered my mind until I got back from Cuba, and kept reading articles about all these young Canadian radicals who’d gone down there and come

back, well, trained. The last one I read, on the front page of the Toronto Globe and Mail, alleged that a number of young supporters of the Quebec Front de Libération Populaire had come back skilled in Cuban guerrilla warfare tactics. I recognized one of the names. When I had met him, he had been in Cuba a year. The first three months he spent in the lobby of the Habana Libre Hotel (né Hilton), waiting to go cut cane. He spent the next six months cutting cane. Then he got sick and spent the last three months sitting around the lobby of the Habana Libre, waiting for a boat back to Montreal. I met him in the lobby of the Habana Libre. I suppose he was learning guerrilla patience in preparation for those long dull nights in the Gatineaus.

As far as guerrilla training was concerned, I learned to use a machete, cut tall weeds, and dislike rice. But the one really revolutionary thing I learned — and this is where the telephone policy comes in — is that people’s working lives and values do not have to be organized almost exclusively around the buck. Heaven forbid that Bell Canada should provide a service it isn’t profiting on directly, or International Nickel spend some of its profit to fight pollution in Sudbury.

IN CUBA posters are very big as pop art. Since the chief concern is not hard sell, the designer does not have to spend the better part of his creative energy finding surefire ways to show that if you smoke one brand of cigarette you lose your virginity two years earlier. He can put his effort back into color and design.

One of the finest examples of poster art was a series of 12 silk-screened drawings of North Vietnam. My friend Jack and I wandered into the work-

VIEWS: BOSSIN continued

shop where they were being made. We told them we were design students. It is odd how conniving takes hold of you. We could have told them we were blacksmiths for all it mattered. The system really gets in your blood. Stupidly, I asked if you could buy any of the posters. The printers laughed. There were only 650 „sets being produced, mainly for embassies, trade missions and the like.

Later, when we left, they gave each of us a complete set. “The posters are for the people,” one of the men said. “We are people and you are people. These are from us to you.” So somewhere there is a big wheel without a set of Vietnam prints for his office, and that suits me just fine.

CASTRO CANCELED his annual July 26 marathon speech and, instead, went to the countryside to bring in the anniversary of the revolution by working. So did thousands of other Cubans, and 10 slightly less enthusiastic Canadians. I remember the field was lit by boards of lights fastened to the fronts of a long row of tractors. I could see a fine steady rain falling through the beams of light, and long shadows of the men and women swinging machetes, almost dancing in rhythm. There was the smell of the cut grass, and the swish sound of the cutting. I was shiny with rain and muddy and tired, and my glasses kept getting wet. Twenty-five of us somehow piled into a Jeep to go home. The Cubans sang Que Linda es Cuba. We sang Alice’s Restaurant. We all drank rationed beer. No one got paid. And no one said he was sorry but he did not provide that service.

I am afraid I have over-romanticized Cuba. It is a poor country, underdeveloped for years. It has more than its share of problems, and it makes its share of mistakes. But incidents like these, the day they gave us the posters and the rainy night in the field, lead me to think Cuba will make it.

MEANWHILE, back in Canada, if you are in a strange city and want to find out the time, you can place a longdistance phone call to yourself at your home address. When there is no answer, or someone says you are not there, the Operator will say, “Would you like me to place the call again for you, sir?”

“When can you do that?” you say.

“In about 20 minutes,” she says.

Then you ask, “What time will that be?” She has to tell you. It’s The Policy. □