The Usual Suspects / Rebeca Monzo

In Nuevo Vedado — according to popular opinion one of Havana’s best neighborhoods — something has been happening for several years that would have been unthinkable in the past: assaults with firearms, knives and even bare hands. It does not matter who you are; you can be targeted by criminals even if you have only one CUC to your name. Recently, this happened to a friend  of mine, who carelessly answered a call on her cell phone one night. She was attacked, jabbed in the buttocks and stripped of all her belongings by some youths who could not have been more than sixteen-years-old.

Two weeks ago all the outdoor furniture at a house in a neighborhood just outside Herradura was stolen. The owners —  an elderly man in his eighties and his daughter, who was at work at the time — filed a report at their local police station.

A few days after filing the report, the man, who stays home all day — a fact known to his neighbors and friends as well as to the robbers — received a visit from a uniformed police officer. Once inside the house, the officer told the victim that the robbers had been apprehended but that the police were unable to recover the stolen items and gave him a form to sign stating that he was being giving 3,000 CUCs in compensation. The man in question then signed the form and was handed a roll of bills by the officer, who immediately left the premises. Once alone, the man began calmly counting the money and was astonished to find there were only 2,000 CUCs.

How is it possible for an officer of the law, acting on his own, to show up and settle the criminal’s debts without a trial being carried out, a sentence being handed down, and the amount and means of compensation being determined by a magistrate?

Could it be that, out of fear of being discovered or a desire to protect a close family member, the officer decided to handle things himself and in the process stiff the victim?

This remains an open question.

21 November 2014

Fortunate Accidents / Rebeca Monzo

Some of the most spectacular recipes in gastronomy have been the result of accidents that occurred during their preparation.

I remember that during the second half of the 1960s, while fulfilling diplomatic duties in Paris, I would frequently visit the Cuban embassy and there I met and established a lovely friendship with Chef Gilberto Smith, his wife, and children. Smith, knowing my fondness for culinary pursuits, would invite me to participate in the finishing and presentation of his famous dishes.

During one of these exchanges, he shared with me how his exquisite and famous recipe for “Lobster au Café” (coffee-infused lobster) came to be: “Some lobsters I was cooking were sticking to the pot, almost burning, and all I had on-hand was a big jugs of fresh-brewed coffee reserved for guests. I emptied the jug’s contents, firefighter-style, over the lobsters, and from this emerged the famous recipe that I later perfected.”

A few days ago, this story was on my mind as I worked in my kitchen from early morning on, preparing dessert for a luncheon to which I had invited a couple who are friends of mine. My mother always used to tell me that she liked to make dessert first, just in case something came up that interrupted the proceedings.

I had left on the double boiler a very soft pudding I make that many people confuse with flan. I got busy doing other things when suddenly I detected an aroma coming from the kitchen that was like a cake baking. I ran to see what was happening and noticed that all the water in the double-boiler had evaporated. I quickly removed the top pan so that the pudding could cool and, upon turning it over, part of the pudding remained stuck to the caramelized sugar on the pan, ruining the look of the pudding.

I couldn’t serve it that way to my guests, but neither could I discard it. I immediately set to preparing another dessert. This time, using a bit of cornstarch I had in my pantry, I made a type of soft “floating islands” custard. On this go-round there were no problems. It was then that I got the idea to present both dishes together as one.

I found some deep, wide-mouth crystal water glasses. On the bottom of each I placed a bit of the pudding, filled the rest with the soft custard, crowning each with a bit of burnt meringue, a mint leaf, and grinding some cinnamon over the top to give it a more pleasing appearance.

The dessert was a success, enjoyed and much-praised – but when they requested the recipe and asked what the dish is called, I could think of no other name than “Copa Rebeca” (Rebeca Goblet).

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 November 2014

Where Is the Anomaly? / Rebeca Monzo

After reading an article, “Not Very Anomalous Anomalies,” published in Granma on November 7 and written by journalist Pedro de la Hoz about Halloween, cheerleading and those little stars-and-stripes flags, I couldn’t wait to get to my laptop to respond and refresh Mr. de la Hoz’s memory.

First of all, it should be pointed out that for some years now a small group of young people — and others not so young, myself included —  have been celebrating, as best we can, not only these but many other dates that have become as intrinsic a part of our culture as Christmas, Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany — holidays which were  banned for fifty-six years.

Though we are part of a global village, each country manages to keep its own traditions alive without being too worried about adopting new ones from other continents. A good example of this is Japan. Attractive, pleasant and joyous customs are not imposed by decree; they are assimilated spontaneously.

This is not the case with the well-known yellow ribbons, which have been imposed on us in schools and workplaces by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, labor unions and the Communist Party, yet which have nothing to do with our cultural heritage. Not to mention that they come to us via that famous enemy country which our media rails against daily in spite of the fact that Cuban artists, intellectuals and athletes continually turn to it in hopes of improving their lives.

College students at CUJAE and even the University of Havana organized their own Halloween festivities. It was also celebrated by the musicians at the Tropical, at the 1830, at the Diablo Tun Tun and at the Hotel Capri’s Salon Rojo, which to my mind is perfectly fine since they were options one could freely choose.* Also, as far as I can tell, none of these locations would be considered sacred, so where is the anomaly?

Translator’s note: CUJAE is a Cuban university that offers a variety of engineering degrees. The Tropical and the Salon Rojo, or Red Room, are Havana nightclubs. 1830 is a Havana restaurant and salsa club. El Diablo Tun Tun is a piano bar and musical venue.

8 November 2014

To Better Illustrate a CNN Report / Rebeca Monzo

To the Directors of CNN:  I have inserted here just a few photos of our city (Havana). There are many hardships borne by the residents of any neighborhood, including Miramar, with respect to garbage collection. The state-run company, Comunales, which is charged with this task, alleges a lack of trucks and containers.

Neighborhoods that are located far from the city center do not even have garbage cans. Thus, the waste is thrown into the river, on the train tracks, or — in the best of cases — is hung from nails on the trees.

It would be very good if, when you are broadcasting a report based on statistics, that you do this from the location that is the subject of the report, and not just base your information on numbers provided by a totalitarian regime.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

31 October 2014

The Misery That Unites Us / Rebeca Monzo

Patchwork portraits by the author

When the ill-named Special Period began in 1989, three years had passed since I had quit my job with the Cuban National Commission of UNESCO (with all that that implies), where I worked as a secretary. I was making 148 Cuban pesos (CUP) a month at a time when a pound of ham that tasted artificial and weighed half that amount once you removed the excess water cost 6.00 CUP. I was earning only 6.20 CUP a day.

Around this time, thanks to my very good and late friend Poncito, I had found out about the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists (ACAA) and how much it was growing. So, after submitting three samples of my work and letters of recommendation from two of its member artists, I was admitted to the organization, which allowed me to be my own “immediate supervisor,” improve my quality of life and work from home, which had become a veritable artist’s studio. Continue reading

The Little Box or the Hospital? / Rebeca Monzo

The little box or the hospital?

A friend, whose name I withhold in order not to harm him, tells me of a neighbor “partner” of his who works in the Ministry of the Interior and who became, what we call here a “super salary,” who confessed to having raised the following complaint at his work center:

“I earn 690 CUP (Cuban pesos), which here is considered a good salary. Recently they passed by my office taking note of colleagues who were interested in buying the decoding boxes for digital television; this equipment, according to what they explained to us, has the purpose of converting the digital signal into analog for those people who, like me (the majority), cannot immediately replace the less modern televisions that we own.

To my understanding, they are of two prices: they cost 30 and 38 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), depending on their functions. I, of course, would opt for the more economical which, multiplying its price by 25 CUP, as they do in the stores, becomes 750 CUP and I earn 690 monthly, therefore I would have to take 250 CUP from my salary for three months until matching the price of said box, and make do however I can during those 90 days, which means that during this period of time I will not be able to buy milk, pork meat or vegetables and will even have to neglect my grooming a little, besides which with the remaining 440 CUP I will have to pay each month for gas, electricity, water, phone and some other essential grooming article like soap, which would be impossible because that would far surpass my meager budget.

“What to do then?  Get used to not watching television when I arrive home, tired after a long work day, because of not acquiring the little box, or failing that, go after acquiring it, directly to a hospital?”

Translated by mlk.

30 September 2014

Three Lies in One / Rebeca Monzo

A few years ago they began selling salt in little one-kilo bags — it previously had been sold in bulk — with a ration book allotment of one bag per couple every three months. As a result it was out of reach of most consumers. At first it was white and fine, as though it had been imported, but that did not last long. For a long time now it has been available in the same plastic bags with three key features highlighted on the label: fine, iodized, non-clumping. In reality it is thick, dirty, gray and damp. It looks like the kind used by industry for tanning leather.

Just yesterday I heard on the radio that Cuba had officially licensed a testing lab that will certify the quality of products that are imported and exported. This was presented as a great achievement, as big news! Then I remembered that back in the 1950s almost all products consumed in this country — especially those that were imported — prominently displayed two internationally recognized seals of approval: one from Good Housekeeping and one from the University of Villanueva.

For more than three decades now we have been buying naked products — in other words products without labels — especially toothpaste and toilet paper, which came unwrapped, resulting in largely unsanitary paper. I hope that from now on they will take this initiative seriously and revamp products they guarantee — or simply drop false claims on packaging like the ones on bags of salt and other products in the market — so that the consumer will no longer continue to be misled.

19 September 2014

An Overdose of Purses / Rebeca Monzo

First of all, forgive me for the near abandonment of my blog. It is because of purses — an internationally recognized term for the small handbags I make — as well as other articles of personal and decorative use.

One of the main reasons, among others, for this has been the large stack of work with which I am now dealing in an effort to have enough items for a one-person patchwork exhibition at a gallery in Miami, to which I have been invited. I have also been very limited in my access to the internet as one of our “benefactors” has been on vacation and my finances do not allow me to patronize the cyber-cafes due to their high prices.

Here are some photos of my currently completed work that I hope you might like. I promise to show you others later as well as to provide information regarding the location and date they will be shown.

 

 

12 September 2014

New Organized Robbery / Rebeca Monzo

The great problem created by the government of my planet itself with the dual currency, now, with the new authorization of being able to buy things in some TRD (hard currency collection) stores with either currency, is that it has become more complicated for both the customers and the employees, who work at each cash register in these establishments.

The other day I was at La Mariposa in Nuevo Vedada to buy some soft drinks–those that cost 0.50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) whose equivalent in Cuban pesos (CUP) is 12.50. I offered 13.00 CUP in payment for which they owed me 0.50 CUP in change, but as the cash boxes don’t have this currency but only CUCs, they couldn’t give me 0.05 CUC because this would be the equivalent of 1.00 CUP, and so I would get 0.50 CUP over. Their not having change in smaller values means that the client loses the difference. I decided to return the soft drink.

Today my friend Mirta came over and brought me the receipt for a purchase she’d made of a liter of oil in the same store. She, indignant, told me exactly what I’ve told you. Well, I told her, if the famous character Cantinflas lived in Cuba today he would be totally nondescript.

These new headaches and “wallet-aches” that we customers and even the employees of these stores have to suffer are, in my modest opinion, nothing more than a new way of organized robbery.

6 September 2014

To Rigola I Shall Not Return / Rebeca Monzo

Two years ago, after a lot of red tape, long lines and pointless waits at Immigration, the Spanish embassy and the Plaza Military Committee, I finally managed to get the son of a friend — a woman who lives overseas and who had granted me power-of-attorney — exempted from military service so that the family could be briefly reunited.

Then, a few days ago, she, her husband and her son decided to come here on vacation to visit family. Everything seemed to be going very well. The joy of being reunited with family and friends helped mitigate the enduring economic hardship and deterioration of the country, which are very noticeable to anyone who comes back after spending time abroad.

The night that marked the return to the “mother country” finally arrived but a new odyssey had just begun.

After checking their luggage and paying the 25 CUC per person airport exit tax, an immigration official informed the couple that they could leave but that their son would have to stay behind because he had not yet completed his military service. Of course, the parents decided to stay with their son, but this meant losing their airline tickets, the exit tax they had already paid and the time spent waiting for their bags to be returned. There was also the anxiety and aggravation caused by the incompetence of the system.  Continue reading

Despicable Manipulation / Rebeca Monzo

Yesterday, July 28, I read in the Trabajadores [“Workers”] newspaper about the speech given by 6th grade pioneer Wendy Ferrer during the main event of a celebration in Artemisa marking the 61st anniversary of the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks. I could not help feeling shame and indignation over the vile manipulation that was so evident in the discourse read by this child.

To my understanding, the words and phrases used were not typical of a school-age child. If they were so, it would only be an even more lamentable proof of the terrible distortion fed to our students, a political manipulation that takes precedence over the true history of our country, and over true education. This is truly unfortunate. I believe that it is a civic duty to clarify for this girl, or actually for her teachers, some of the very sensitive aspects of her speech:

I completed my primary school studies — starting with a marvelous and unforgettable Kindergarten, as we then called what are today known as children’s camps — up to 6th grade in a public school, No. 31 of the Los Pinos suburb. Never, in our humble school, did we go without a school breakfast, as was provided in all public schools of that time. Nor did we ever lack notebooks — which I can’t forget included an imprint on the back of the tables for multiplication, addition, subtraction and division — or pencils, which were provided to all students at the start of — and midway through — each term. At that time, public education accounted for 22.3% of the national budget. There was also a private education sector, with wonderful schools founded and directed by great educators. Continue reading

What it Costs to Eat! / Rebeca Monzo

This week I invited to lunch a couple who are friends of mine.  I have among the more “respectable” pensions in this country: 340 CUP (Cuban pesos) — the type of currency which is also used to pay salaries.

I set out early in search of the necessary elements and ingredients to prepare for my friends a “criollo” [traditional Cuban] menu. They live outside the country, and I wanted to treat them to a home-cooked meal. Since there would be four of us to feed, I purchased the following:

Four plantains to make tostones, 10 CUP for the four; 1lb onions, 30 pesos; 1lb peppers, 20 pesos; two small garlic heads, 6 pesos; one avocado, 10 pesos; 2lb rice, 10 pesos; 1lb black beans, 14 pesos; 3lb pork steak, 120 pesos; one large (3lb) mango, 7.50 pesos. After that, I stood in line to buy one loaf of Cuban bread for 10 pesos.

As you might have noticed, a simple luncheon for four cost me “only” 257.50 Cuban pesos. My guests brought a bottle of wine.

The meal was a success and we had a great time, but as you can imagine, my pockets are wobbling until my next pension check. Now you see what a simple meal costs on my planet!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 August 2014