By Maribel Acosta Damas, Cuban journalist, specialized in Television. She is a professor at the Faculty of Journalism of the University of Havana and holds a Ph.D. in Communication Sciences.
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Lucía Topolansky is the most voted senator in Uruguay. She was vice president of the Republic between September 2017 and February 2020, the first Uruguayan woman in that responsibility.
It is a symbol of the country, and not a fashion star. Guerrilla who was imprisoned, who escaped and was imprisoned again until the end of the dictatorship; tireless social fighter until today, empowered woman in the Frente Amplio government, companion in struggle and life since her youth of former Uruguayan president Pepe Mujica. Lucia is a simple woman, with straight words, a warm voice, an impressive chronological and affective memory; of life anecdotes, and plans, dreams and actions in her 76 years …
I met her years ago in Uruguay. Now the challenge was to interview her on WhatsApp. The dialogue flowed between the Havana neighborhood of La Víbora and La Chacra de Montevideo. Communications were excellent! A kind of plan A, B and C, as we are trained in Cuba, they gave us several copies of the recording, just in case … My son, a young music student put together a whole tech racket… he was still excited! And when the phone rang, she was on the other end of the line with her invariable River Plata accent:
Lucia Topolansky-. Hi, how are you?
Maribel Acosta Damas-. How are you Lucia?
LT-. Very good. Here we are working a little at home, because as I am 76 years old, I still cannot participate myself to all the legislative activity.
MAD-. And is he in good health?
LT-. My health is perfect, what I try is to avoid getting infected with the pandemic …
MAD-. And how is Pepe?
LT-. El Pepe is phenomenal! The problem that he has, apart from his 86 years, is that he cannot be vaccinated due to a previous disease that he had, so those of us around us have to take great care not to infect him because he has no chance, even with the vaccine, and on the other hand, the vaccine will take a while to arrive …
MAD-. And how do you feel on the farm, are you very bored, because you are used to active social life?
LT-. No, I never get bored at home because I live in the rural area of Montevideo …
MAD-. … I was there with you in 2005…
LT-. Ah good!!! We here always have things to do. Now we have planted tomatoes, corn, sunflowers, we have chickens … There is always something to do here … The one who gets bored is because he is very clumsy … And later, with the computer, I work in the Parliament’s committees remotely, I do everything I can do with all those new zoom mechanisms that now exist and that … and I am following reality and we do some meetings in my house because we do them outdoors and from a distance, a few companions, but political activity is missed. We are now in the opposition and there are no demonstrations in the street, there is nothing. So it’s very, very difficult to keep up.
MAD-. And how are they handling the Covid issue in Uruguay?
LT-. From the health point of view, we have been quite good because our government left the current government with a very solid integrated national health system, which in Latin America is the one that invested the most in health with 9.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. That with a good computer platform that allowed telemedicine, helped a lot. We are also a country with little population.
Our biggest problem is the border with Brazil, which is where part of the pandemic and the people who came from abroad have come from. At the end of the year festivities, we had an increase in infections and now we are here in summer, that made the numbers of infections rise…
And what happened to the health system is that it lost the epidemiological thread. Now they are trying to take it up again and waiting to see if the world will deign to sell us a vaccine.That’s the reality. Derived from this, our biggest problem is not health, it is economic because there were many people who lost their jobs.
MAD-. In the midst of this complex scenario, you nominated Cuban doctors for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021. How was this process?
LT-. We knew about the Cuban doctors program when it started. It caught our attention. We followed up. We saw what had happened in many African countries, in Pakistan and in other parts of the world. When in 2005 we won the government in Uruguay, the first delegation of Cuban doctors came here and there we met them live and direct. We met several delegations and they helped us to install an eye hospital because in Uruguay there is a quite aging population and one of the problems we have is cataracts. So the cataract operation was still not being done in Uruguay.
We were beginning to carry out health reform in the country; And the private ones charged a ridiculous amount, for each lens, for each operation! Then in an old hospital there was, the cataract operation was reformed and installed. The collaboration of the Cubans made it possible to perform almost 100,000 cataract operations and that was a marvel for the people who were practically blind, who had not met their grandson who had been born. That operation was called Operation Miracle. At the beginning, the operated ones traveled to Cuba but later the operation was done here, personnel were trained and that hospital is going very well.
MAD-. Does that hospital still exist providing ophthalmic services?
LT-. Yes, it still exists. The doubt we have now is that the opposition won the elections in 2019 and they do not have any sympathy for that service. We are going to fight for its defense, especially with the Retirees Association … And resuming the link with Cuban doctors, in our government, after Operation Milagro [Miracle], came the collaboration in prosthetics, uppers and lowers.
That was also wonderful because the possibility of being able to walk with a prosthetic leg changes people’s lives. Then we saw that this solidarity was a generous solidarity, because we were not in an extreme catastrophe as Pakistan could have been at the time with the earthquake, but it allowed us not only to set up these undertakings but also to train people and above all to solve the problem at a large number of Uruguayans. That for us is unforgettable!
And when we found out that he was in this process for the Nobel, we did not hesitate! What’s more, Pepe told me that he also wanted to join, what happens is due to a matter of paperwork, he did not reach the formal part of the application but he did start talking about the issue and also supports that I know about that award. The greatest importance of that award is symbolic.
It is for the world to recognize that there may be people who collaborate out of solidarity, out of vocation. We also saw everything that Cuban doctors did in Brazil during Dilma Rousseff’s term and how in those remote places of the deepest Brazil, where there is no medicine, doctors appeared who began to care for people. It was like night and day! Unfortunately, The current government of Brazil backed down with that program, but I think that when solidarity is so generous there is no doubt that it deserves the Nobel.
MAD-. You have visited Cuba several times, right?
LT-. Yes. I have been to Cuba about three times. I got to know Cuba in 2000. It was a difficult year. I was delighted because despite all the economic difficulties with this criminal blockade of more than 60 years, people were moving forward. Then I came back two more times and got to meet Fidel.
MAD-. How did you meet Fidel?
LT-. One of the times we went, Pepe was President of Uruguay. Fidel was already ill and we went to his house and he gave us a class on how to make sheep’s yogurt and the experiments he was doing. And the truth is that it was a pleasure to hear it. I had seen Fidel up close twice. In 1959 I was in the 3rd year of the Liceo and there were floods in Uruguay. The Cuban Revolution was just beginning and Fidel came to Uruguay; and with the one who was later the President of the Broad Front, General Líber Seregni,
Fidel toured all the places of the floods and later participated in a political act in the town square. I was a girl from the Liceo and I went to listen to him because at that time we did not really know what the process of the Cuban Revolution was like. Many years later, in 1985, when the dictatorship was no longer in Uruguay and Dr. Julio María Sanguinetti ruled, he invited Fidel to come and I saw him for the second time but I had never had the opportunity to speak to him until I met him in Havana. It is one of those experiences that I had that you keep for the rest of your life.
MAD-. You have always been a defender of popular causes, of the paths of the poor, your link with the city of Montevideo and its causes … and the question always assails me, how does a woman of a bourgeois origin like yours have given herself to social justice causes?
LT-. Look … when I was at the Liceo, I started going with a social worker to do social work in the peripheral neighborhoods of Montevideo, which were very poor areas, especially of people who in those years emigrated from the countryside to the city in search of Job opportunities. And there I realized that there were several Uruguay with people with different conditions. Then I got to know the world of cane cutters, which was one of the most exploited sectors in the country. And so I realized that there were other realities that not everyone was talking about and that were not headlines.
Those years were in turn of the rise of what was called the Church of the Third World, there were some in Uruguay of that line of work and we discussed a lot and there one began to become politicized, I was linked at the student level. We fought to make the bus ticket accessible to students and in this way I was getting closer to the political struggle.
What happened is that Uruguay until the end of the Korean War in the 1950s was quite good economically because the war favored commercial exchange prices and as the Colorado Party, ruling in that period, had a strong social democratic imprint, there was a certain margin of well-being and a series of interesting laws had been voted in favor of the workers such as the one known as the Law of the chair, so that people would not be standing for a long time in the workplace.
Women had won the right to vote, the right to divorce of their own free will for the woman; and this meant that Uruguay had a sui generis situation in the Latin American context. But with the end of the war that ended, here came the crisis, which later generated the dictatorship. In those years there was a lot of struggle … The economic deterioration hit the people a lot and we joined that struggle. In 1964 Uruguay had done something remarkable: the People’s Congress, where it brought together trade unionists, students, academics, small and medium merchants, small and medium producers; to all progressive people.
The discussion was, is there a possible Uruguay where we can live better? So we worked a government program. As a consequence of this, the unity of the Central Obrera was achieved in a single center, which was an enormous advance in the struggle. Afterward, the Broad Front was created. In other words, we found a formula to bring together all the forces of the left that allowed us to enter the government in 2004. We have just completed 50 years of that coalition and we hope to celebrate another 50 and more. This is how we were able to reach the government and generate changes in Uruguay, and it was within the framework of those changes that we were able to generate the programs with the support of Cuban doctors.
MAD-. Hasn’t so many years of struggle brought you frustrations or regrets?
LT-. Ayyyyy !!!! In fighting what you have to know is that when you fall you have to get up. The only fight that is lost is the one that is abandoned. We have that slogan and we have no intention of abandoning the fight because there is still a mountain of inequalities and equality is something that seems increasingly questioned in this world; the concentration of wealth in the world hits on equality and the rights of the people.
MAD- It’s true… I ask you then, do you consider yourself a feminist? He also defends the causes of women …
LT-. Look, there are tons of definitions of all kinds about feminism. I believe that what we should never forget is the class struggle. It is not just about women coming to government, political and leadership responsibilities. In some countries they put quota laws and others. However, there are women who will always be excluded due to a question of social class. So for me they are two struggles that go hand in hand; the class struggle and the feminist struggle. Not all definitions of feminism carry both components. I think we must rescue a bit of a manifesto from the French Revolution, The Manifesto of Equals, which says: “Equal even under the roof of the home”, speaking of men and women. I go for that concept.
MAD-. And has it been like this for you at home with Pepe Mujica?
LT-. Jijiji… Yes. I have been lucky in my life in that section, but we still see many situations of domestic violence in the world. Now with the confinement due to the pandemic, more have appeared. There is still trafficking in women and girls, sexual abuse … that happens and in Uruguay too. Although in Uruguay we advanced early in many aspects – in 1910 the woman in Uruguay voted and for some years the termination of pregnancy was approved – we must always be vigilant and it does not only go through the quotas of parliamentary representation … I fight there for times with my gender colleagues …
MAD-. Lucia, why didn’t you have children?
LT-. Because I was always running in life! Hehehehehe !!!!! I was very young the first time I fell prey, I escaped; later I fell prey again and spent almost 13 years in jail and then the times of life led me to other paths. I dedicated myself to the militancy but that situation did not shock me. One makes choices in life and I embraced a cause that to this day I consider fair, I have continued with it with successes and errors and I think it is worth it. That was my life option.
MAD-. Speaking of options… what is your assessment of Cuba? How do you look at it?
LT-. I look at Cuba from many angles: José Martí represented Uruguay as Consul between 1884 and 1892, when he lived in the United States; to tell you a historical fact. When I was about 10 years old I had the opportunity to meet the Cuban dancer Alicia Alonso. She danced at that time, before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, with the New York Ballet and they came to Uruguay. The tickets were very expensive but my grandmother decided that the three female granddaughters had to see that because it was wonderful. Then she got the tickets and told us, almost threatened us: “You guys take a good look at how that lady dances because you’re not going to see anything better in the world!”
And I still have those images in my memory to this day! That was a tremendous contact with Cuba! Then there was a Cuban exile in Uruguay named Juana Callorda, She was a nurse and at night she took care of my other grandmother who was very old, and at night we would go to talk to her and she would tell us about Cuba, who Fulgencio Batista was and she told us a lot of things … Those were the indirect approaches that I was having … I am also an inveterate reader of Alejo Carpentier, that wonderful writer … and then I started reading about Cuba and I read the history of Cuba.
And when Fidel starred in the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, I found out because they talked about it here … but of course, it was a quite distant world for me in those years! And after 1959 that world came closer because it was in those years that I met Fidel and then in 1963 at the Meeting of the Alliance for Progress in Punta del Este in Uruguay, Che Guevara came to Cuba. He later came to Montevideo and gave a talk in the Paraninfo of the University. The presenter of that talk was Salvador Allende and I was there.
We did not imagine that those two people; who presented Che and Che, were going to star in such important events in the history of Latin America! A Committee to support the Cuban Revolution was created. I was active there. I remember that we made a collection to buy a tractor and send a tractor to Cuba. I was following the process, reading, finding out about things … but it was almost just that I had the opportunity to get to know Cuba. I have always had that bond, I think it is a beautiful people, tremendously cultured, that has had to suffer more than 60 years of blockade… It is incredible because one reads things and cannot believe it !!!I know Nueva Trova and I would have liked to meet Haydée Santamaría … Cuba is a very valuable people that has been very cornered … One always hopes that it will end sometime …
MAD-. Do you think that the Cuban medical contingent Henry Reeve will receive the Nobel Peace Prize? Will they give it to them?
LT-. I would not know how to answer it because I do not know the composition of the Nobel committee well, but they would have to give it to them because I do not know another group of doctors from any other country that has had their attitude. I do not know. There are Médecins Sans Frontières organizations and others that are tremendously respectable, but I have never seen this deployment… If there is something left over for Cuba, it is doctors!
But that obsession with education and health in Cuba brought these results. And they also had the generosity of not keeping it at the borders, they spread it out to the world, even in countries far away from the island. I recently read an account of some Argentine doctors who met Cuban doctors in Africa when they went to fight Ebola, when no one wanted to get close … In those years when Pepe and I met Fidel, He was worried about the impact of Zika in Africa… Look, all the things that happen can be debatable for and against, but hitting Cuba for the solidarity of medicine is impossible. If I were the Nobel tribunal, I would have no doubts about the award for Cuban doctors!
MAD-. In general in these times of pandemic we have had more time to think. You, who have been more at home, who have surely had more time to analyze your reality, how do you reevaluate your political project, now in the opposition?
LT-. I still believe in my political project. Of course, many times the historical circumstances change and one adjusts the forms but the essences are the same. As long as there is inequality in the world, as long as there are so many people without eating and so much food wasted in the world, as long as there is a painfully long list of injustices; one cannot sit idly by. That is why I believe in my people and in my struggle.
MAD-. In these times of pandemic, the words solidarity and generosity seem to have been redefined. What do you think?
LT-. May the world learn from this shock! I think that from this shock we have to learn the meaning of solidarity and that there are things that cannot be commodities such as health and that we must respect nature. But I do not know if we will be up to reading the teachings of this time because the interests are incredibly powerful and with the networks, fake news etc … people get confused with colored balloons …
MAD-. How do you perceive the Latin American situation today?
LT-. The situation in Latin America is difficult but I never lose hope. I hope that the Chileans who are in the process of drawing up a new constitution, will finally put an end to everything that Pinochet left behind, and can move forward and make fundamental reforms that improve the living conditions of their people. I do not know what will happen in Peru, it is a waste country. Now we are expectant with Ecuador. I wish the best to the new Bolivian president Luis Arce and also to the Argentines who are struggling with a terrible economic heritage.
Let’s hope that the Brazilian people realize that this gentleman they have as president is not recommended. I think we are fighting and I believe in the ability of Latin Americans to fight. What hurts me the most is that we have not managed to maintain integration organizations; integrate, fight together. I believe in the great homeland, in the dream of the liberators! In America everyone is on their own and it would seem that we are angry with each other. It hurts me. The role of the OAS has been a disaster, UNASUR undid it. Let’s hope CELAC can survive. I have more questions than answers. These are the challenges we have.
MAD-. Do you know that Cuba has four vaccine candidates finishing their clinical trials and the Cuban government as well as the island’s scientific community have declared their willingness to put these vaccines at the service of the whole world, especially Latin America?
LT-. I knew they had a project called Soberana [Soveign]. I got some information on that. Unbelievably I got it through the BBC. I learned that test agreements were made with Iran. What I thought about that is that both Argentina and Mexico have vaccine production capacities and both are friendly governments of Cuba. After the investigations are done, large-scale productions are necessary. We in Uruguay have a significant number of scientists who have been working. We do not have the capacity to produce vaccines because the laboratories have closed them. Our scientists gave information about what Cuba was doing, what happens is that there is a lot of censorship at the level of the information world …
MAD-. We can send you information about Cuban vaccines. There is a lot of public information about this …
LT-. Yes. We are interested in having direct information on the countries. Knowing how far you have advanced because if there is something really important it is the exchange between scientists.
MAD-. I admire your work as a senator at this time … the work in the opposition must be very difficult when you have been a government for so long …
LT-. When I entered Parliament I was in the opposition. I worked for 5 years as an opposition in Parliament. After I worked the 15 years in our government and now I am back on this journey. Our fundamental role is to control that we do not go backwards in what we have advanced, to be able to put the needs of the people in the resonance box, which is Parliament. Now we are presenting fifteen laws that have to do with social projection, because they talk a lot about the fiscal deficit but they do not talk about the social deficit.
Also, we are collecting signatures against a very nefarious law that had the votes to approve it and we are working to see if we can repeal it through the referendum mechanism. I have fought in many different circumstances, this is one more. This opposition situation hit the younger people more because there were comrades who were 10 or 15 years old when the Broad Front won and they don’t know any other government than ours. That has been rough for them, but for those of us who are old and have many scars in our history, we know with which oxen we have to plow … hahahahahahaha …
MAD-. How is your day and Pepe’s there on the farm in times of Covid?
LT-. Well, we have many agricultural activities, what’s more, we have collaborated with the popular pots, because there are neighborhoods where it was necessary to organize soup kitchens and popular pots. So you have to help supply them because the government provides very little, and with products from our farm and from our neighbors we always bring a pumpkin, vegetables, tomatoes, eggs … also that is a motivation that one has … And we also do the work for internet and reading, studying …
We don’t waste time here … We also have three advantages: We do not have economic distress like many people who have had to go through this pandemic; second, here we have space and life. It’s not a tiny apartment where you’re locked up, is it ?! And besides, we have many years in prison, so we know what it is to be locked up !!! Hahahahahahaha !!!!!!Wherever you look at it, we have an advantage !!!
MAD-. Don’t you and Pepe fight with so much time together?
LT-. No, not at all, quite the opposite !!!! Hahahahahahaha… !!! We talk a lot… In the morning, Uruguayans drink mate, so that is a good time for conversation because mate makes sense when one takes it shared and on the road. Now inside the house there are no problems but when you go out they ask you not to share it because of the risk of contagion. That has been something hard for the Uruguayan and part of a culture and a feeling.
Pepe and I get up early because we like the morning, the most beautiful time, less hot … And in the morning when Pepe and I drink mate, we talk a lot and then when we close the day we also talk … My house, along the entire trajectory of Pepe and me, it is a house where many people come. Now we have to regulate it a bit … some come to consult something, others to talk, others to take a photo … to the point that I call our house the Oracle of Delphi hahahahahahaha … despite the pandemic that has not stopped although there are fewer people who come from abroad, because normally everyone who comes to Uruguay passes through our house…
MAD-. What is the first thing you will do when the pandemic ends and you can go out?
LT-. To fully integrate myself into my parliamentary work as a first duty, and then continue with that plan of mobilizations, we have to hold a congress of our Broad Front … There are many things ahead !!!!!
MAD-. Do you think Pepe can give me an interview too?
LT-. Yes. We can combine it. There are no problems. We combine it and it is done. Sometimes during the day he has several conversations. The other day he was speaking with the President of Mexico. And then we try to make an agenda. This phone I’m talking about is from the companero who supports us. It’s like a seven jobs because he runs errands for us, if we have to fix something at home he helps us hahahahahahaha… everything… you fix it with him who takes the agenda to Pepe… and that’s it !!!
MAD-. Thank you Lucia, for such a beautiful afternoon …
LT-. I want to give a hug to you and in your name, to all the Cuban people … do not let up, the fight pays and for Latin America we hope that better times will come!
(Taken from Cuba in summary )