Accessories and Sandwiches / Regina Coyula

The school year has just begun, the first for many children. Filled with enthusiasm and wonder, these little ones are unaware of the disruption their new status as students creates for many Cuban families.

Along with the canasta basica,* the school uniform is the last holdout of the ration book as far as manufactured goods are concerned. It is provided to each student upon enrollment in the form of a ticket to buy subsidized uniforms, which he or she must treat with great care since there won’t be any more given out until the fourth grade.

As everyone knows, education in Cuba is free but other expenses related to a child’s schooling come directly out of the family budget. I am not referring only to shoes, a backpack or a lunchbox. The first parents’ meeting will confirm what families already know from their own experiences or those of others.

There are always parents who offer to buy paint and others who offer to paint. There are always collection drives for cleaning supplies and sign-up sheets for mothers to clean bathrooms. It is now standard practice to start the school term every year by collecting five CUC per child to purchase fans.

Teachers and administrators adopt a stance of giving in to these family initiatives in a game of role playing in which it is assumed that the Ministry of Education will provide everything that is needed to do the work and that the family wants what is best for its children.

All this and other things that follow are part of an unwritten but demonstrably effective methodology, which only gets better from one school term to the next The youngest children must not bring backpacks, only luncheras (lunch boxes). If they bring soft drinks, they must be in plastic containers, even if they are in cans. Everything must be able to be kept at room temperature.

Special emphasis is given to the lunchtime sandwich. No roast beef, ground meat or fish. Chicken must be shredded, ham sliced. Even better if it is the ever popular perrito (or hot dog).

Every pre-schooler must bring a sturdy shoebox to store all his or her projects for the entire school term. They must also bring scissors for cutting paper, crayons, an eraser — all items available only in hard currency.

The classroom is a place where the disparities that have become entrenched in society are there to be seen. Every student has a right to education but equality ends there.

From the moment they arrive at school, even before morning classes begin, their footwear and accessories tell a story of which the students themselves are ignorant protagonists and about which their parents will speak in private with cynicism or shame, depending on their personal ideas about what constitutes success.

Translator’s note: The “basic basket” is an allotment of foodstuffs intended to provide Cubans with a minimum of 3,100 of calories per day. The items include beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil and coffee. There is also a monthly allotment of meat, chicken, and eggs. Prices for these goods are heavily subsidized but the items themselves are often in short supply.

5 September 2014

Vacations / Regina Coyula

With the heat, my summer option is to sit in front of the TV, but not in front of the summer programming which doesn’t interest me, rather to decide what I watch because in the end I have a TV for the halfway intelligent.

“24” with its thrilling season has been the thriller. And it’s not that I don’t know that later in the third season Jack Bauer will save the world once again with the help of Chloe alone, but he’ll still end up screwed; it’s that in this tacit agreement, I’m disposed to believe in Super Bauer if it’s told well.

Also the action movie, Die Hard, 5? 6? 7? Bruce Willis, Bauer’s putative uncle, does his thing in a Moscow unrecognizable for those left in the USSR.

Not everything is banal. movies like “Siberian Education” or “The Map in the Clouds” have added the dramatic note. Light humor comes at the hands of “Modern Family”; thanks for not putting canned laughter in “Breaking Bad,” excellent black humor, the best of the summer. “The Hammer and Tickle,” a Canadian documentary about USSR and Eastern European humor, made me laugh and made me think of copies, and the current drought of good jokes, in great measure due to the fact that so many of these jokes were island adaptations of the originals beyond what you see, over there.

But the best has been the arrival of Piura, the new puppy in the house. Perky, smart, loving, she’s already the boss of everyone. And like all my dogs, rescued. It’s an odd vacation idea to spend my days cleaning up pee and a good part of the night consoling a little puppy who’s afraid of the dark, but the dogcatcher understands me.

That’s been my vacation. It’s a really nice personal project that has grabbed my attention.

29 August 2014

Message for Yadira / Regina Coyula

I’d like to be able to have a conversation with the Cuban-American Yadira Escobar. The photo in her blog tells me that she is young, and the information she provides about herself indicates that she emigrated when she was very little. I have read much about how Yadira would like to return to Cuba, and I have also read about what her dream Cuba is.

Yadira is a self-proclaimed lover of freedom. Neither the Marxist collectivism nor capitalist individualism agree with her idea of what Cubans want; however, she missteps in inciting our academics, university students, and specialists of all kinds to be at the ready to plan the national course.

I can assure young Yadira that there is an intellectual contemplation coming from many places and many walks of life on Cuba, but their mark cannot always be found in official channels; it needs to be sought out in alternative sites, and in many cases, it is plagued, silenced and demonized. Continue reading

What We Don’t Talk About / Regina Coyula

My husband has dengue fever. Or chikunguya, what the difference is can only be known after a long-awaited test. We needed to find our family doctor because he kept going from house to house inquiring of people with fever or other suspicious symptoms. The doctor, after a physical examination and posing a series of questions, filled out a paper and referred him to Fajardo Hospital.

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to wait in line for this.”

At 11:30  Alcides went to the hospital with one of our daughters who arrived at just the right time. I stayed at home cooking, so they could eat lunch after returning from the hospital.

At four in the afternoon, my brother arrived and took me to Fajardo. At that hour the shift doctor still had not seen the urgent test results. Alcides had to wait for a long time because the line that he “didn’t have to wait in” was much bigger than the line for people who arrived for other reasons. Finally, it was his turn. A young Guinean doctor with enviable patience attended each case, filled out a stack of papers and still had the Hippocratic spirit to be friendly.

I signed a paper to take responsibility for Alcides. What worries the doctors (at the hospital as well as at the neighborhood clinic) is that his platelets are very low and his leucocytes very high, but I’d rather go to the clinic every day to have the follow-up analysis than to leave him in the hospital. I don’t like anything about the Emergency Room, disorganized and lacking in hygiene, and I have no reason to suppose that the rest of the hospital would be any different.

In the waiting room the patients never stop complaining. Why if you come with a referral directly from your clinic do you have to repeat the same procedures with the doctor on duty instead of going directly to the lab? No one knows what the “guidelines” say. Later, there were only two doctors and they were overwhelmed. Those missing must be on overseas missions like Barrio Adentro or Mas Medicos; to the claim of our being a “Medical Powerhouse” should be added: … “for export.”

Having a case of dengue fever in the house isn’t news. The list of patients in the four surrounding blocks fills two pages in a school notebook. “We haven’t found the source,” my family doctor tells me with concern. I comment, “They shouldn’t focus so much on individual homes, rather they should clean up the neglected lot on the corner, and if they haven’t found the source, there they’re going to find all those who haven’t appeared yet.

As the situation is worsening (I would speak of an epidemic, but the health authorities seem not to have received “the orientation”) the priority is the source. Yesterday they came and fumigated and asked about home sources (if you have vases, plants in water, drinking bowls for pets, water deposits in the house, and I already know the list by heart and can recite it). Later the supervisor showed up to ask about the program to check for sources in homes; later the supervisor’s boss came by to ask about the program to check for sources in homes.

And at the lush wilderness on the corner? No one asks about the sources there.

28 July 2014

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet / Regina Coyula

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet…

…or thought I was, which is worse. In keeping with this, I would have become a “fine poet of felt verses,” as literary criticism says when it has nothing better to say. Common sense and love of writing have left me here, where I feel so comfortable. I found a very yellowed piece of lined paper bearing this text typed by an Underwood, following an interminable train ride from Santa Clara to Havana taken along with a group of youths who were returning from a rock festival. Speaking of Frank Abel, does anyone know what has become of him?

HEAVY METAL

To Frank Abel Dopico 

The rock-and-rollers love the nocturnality of trains

then

the rockers run away from home

they beg for money at the station

and they go to another province

to imagine what it’s like to travel.

In the parks

the rockers are blue

they make love and urinate in the solitude of sidewalks

all pleasure they find in the cross-eyed hands of Jimmy Page.

They have a calling to be cops, the rockers

they raise the decibels

exorcism by percussion

it’s the train and it’s Led Zeppelin

there is a monastic silence in the rockers

they tear their hair and they huddle to weep in the corner of the car.

They don’t think of the following day

they clasp their hands and kiss the crucifix.

The sweet rockers

rehearse with amphetamines and other complications

to imagine how it is

to travel.

(June 19, 1990)

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 July 2014

Go Around / Regina Coyula

It’s an ordinary apartment in a quiet Havana neighborhood. You have to knock and go inside to find out if owner knows about the recommendation you have been given. There are no introductions. A girl leads you straight to a room in the apartment that is not a room but rather a little store, well-organized and well-stocked, given what it is.

“How much is this wallet?”

“Um, I don’t know if they told you but I don’t sell, I rent,” she says.

Huh?

“Yeah, I have a license to rent party clothes. What you have to do is leave a deposit for the full value of the article. If you don’t return it after ten days, I deduct it from my inventory.”

“Ten days, right?”

I leave with my wallet and a smile. “If you can’t go over, go around.”

9 July 2014

Postcard from a Journey (3) / Regina Coyula

Nuevitas is my third and last stop on this whirlwind of a trip. The Santiago/Nuevitas journey takes eight hours, two of them in the 16-kilometer stretch between Manatí and Camalote. My trip is the next to last before this itinerary is suspended, pending the repair of the roadway. A passenger who appears to be a regular suggests making the round through Guáimaro, but the driver informs him that around there the roadway is worse. The news spreads through the bus, almost all the passengers know each other and the crew, complaints are heard, but there is nothing to be done.

It is a monotonous journey, a plain copped with trees — and notice I say trees — of the marabou weed variety. I see cows, the only ones during the whole trip; a slender herd, beige spots against the green pasture.

I’m startled by the ghost of the Free Algeria sugar mill in old Manatí. Some rickety structures and two chimneys testify to it. I grew up hearing the phrase “without sugar there is no country,” it was something so understood that to bump up against the ruins of the industry that gave us the title of “the sugar bowl of the world,” inevitably causes me to think of who bears the responsibility for a disaster of such proportions.

Nuevitas, seaport… I don’t manage to distinguish the port, the nitrogenized fertilizer factory releases a yellow smoke and there is threat of a rainstorm. The cloud cover is refreshing, there are no trees; Nuevitas is an industrial city, irregular but monotonous. The “mini train” is the substitute for the bus, an open wagon thrown over a tractor, horse-drawn carriage and bicycle-taxis.

An unexpected event turns out to be amusing. My visit coincides with the police citation given to the lawyers of the Cuban Law Association. A man wearing a cap and dark glasses take photos of us, to which I return the gesture, which disconcerts him, causes him to cross the street quickly and disappear from sight.

It’s almost 4 pm and I’m dying for breakfast. The only restaurant in the city is Nuevimar, where we are the only diners besieged by a legion of flies. The water in the glass looks cloudy and tastes bad. The service is slow, I’m hungry but also apprehensive. I make up for all this in a privately-run bakery that features a varied selection. I’ve had no coffee, and the deprivation is giving me a headache.

The lawyers are very sorry for the unexpected police intrusion; I’m exhausted, sleep-deprived, having traveled more than 19 hours in less than three days; and the trip to Havana is still ahead and due to my lack of experience I’m going to be cold in the Chinese-made Yutong bus. So, I prefer to sleep a little in the bus and train station until the 7pm departure of the bus.

From the window I manage to see a bit of the coast, I don’t see a port nor ships. Nuevitas reminds me a little of Cojímar, but without the charm of Cojímar.

I arrive in Havana at 5 in the morning. A boatman asks me for 7 CUC to take me, then reduces the fee when I threaten to find another taxi. At 5:30 I’m already at home, sleeping.

Click here to view the slideshow

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

2 July 2014

Postcard From a Journey (2) / Regina Coyula

Five hours of traveling to Santiago de Cuba. It’s still early but it’s already hot. I love Santiago. I realize that it is a city with its own personality and pulse. Music plays loudly, the women seem to wear a smaller size than they need, no one is in a hurry, everyone knows each other, or so it seems, by the familiarity of the way they treat each other which I don’t escape.

I wonder if at any moment this city isn’t going to go up or down, I don’t see even a single street that isn’t on an incline. I talk with everyone, in Santiago it’s the easiest thing in the world; people complain about prices, or the shortages that are seen everywhere, but it doesn’t reach the level of criticism I see in Havana, although clearly, my view is superficial.

This hot Habanera looks for any pretext to get into an airconditioned place. Lunch at El Baluarte, a restaurant that trades in national currency. The portions are small, but my last impression of the State food service in Havana is horrendous, this doesn’t seem as bad to me. I continue to go up and down the streets, commenting to my host that Santiago is a city that lives with its back to the sea, and he says I’m right, but takes me to a place known as Velazquez’s Balcony, with a spectacular view of the bay.

One peculiarity of the alternative transport in Santiago is the motorbikes. They have no license to carry passengers, but everyone uses them and they take you where you want to go. I talk with my driver who brought his bike from the former GDR where he was qualified to work in the Celia Sanchez textile factory. When they closed the business, he appealed for his bike and said they’d have to kill him to take it from him.

I asked him about the number of houses I saw under construction. Almost all are victims of hurricane Sandy,he told me, and I didn’t comment, but it’s clear that in the urgency to build technical standards have been overlooked and those thin boards portend future problems.

I remember my cousin Mayito Coyula with his observation that when you’re going to be operated on you always want the best surgeon and yet building houses is left in the hands of the equivalent of the orderlies.

Dinner is at a “paladar” (privately run restaurant) on Enramada Street; the prices are like those in Havana and the customers are all foreigners except my table. The best food and the best service of the whole trip. I go to Santiago without being able to eat a mango sponge cake.

1 July 2014

Postcard From a Journey (1) / Regina Coyula

Like Silvio, I think the people are screwed; unlike him, however, it didn’t take me so much time to realize it, but traveling outside Havana let me see it first hand.

The domestic terminal at Jose Marti Airport is the original airport building. After checking your luggage you have to go up an escalator.  “It’s almost always broken,” a regular traveler told me. Upstairs you  get in another line to pass through a little door in groups of five. Behind this is the x-ray control and then you enter a large area of souvenir shops, closed at five in the morning, with a snack bar at the end where there’s nobody, all of which leads to a large waiting room.

Neither the poster of Santa Lucia beach looking like paradise, nor the other two that you sit against, managed to overcome my claustrophobic impression of that room without even one window. Continue reading

The Deluded / Regina Coyula

There are those who walk without watching who walks behind, if they seem mysterious speaking on the phone it is for the purpose of mortifying a little the listening elves, they take for granted that some neighbor(s) take(s) note of their movements and visits, but it does not interest them. They live with the decision to behave as free beings without allowing the government’s barriers, within which all that is not expressly authorized is prohibited, to constrain them in the least.

Others prefer a stealthy attitude, they communicate with signals, they have designed an alternative vocabulary and they live under the conspiracy theory in the category of major players.  They sleep with one eye open, they see ulterior motives in everything.

Not many of the first group are free, nor are many of those controlled by paranoia watched.

Translated by mlk.

18 June 2014

A Chronicle Owed / Regina Coyula

To Carlos and my traveling companions

When someone asks me what I thought of Lima, I amswer that I was not in Lima but in Miraflores, an area of the city located along the seacoast where the green spaces are impeccable, and the traffic-filled streets are clean and crowded with the Toyotas and Kias. Even the dogs and cats are looked after by the local government. There are tall buildings, enormous stores and restaurants. That’s Miraflores, a district of Lima where anyone would enjoying living, even in spite of high walls and electrical fences.

I was invited by the Institute for Freedom to participate in a seminar on digital journalism and communication technology. These were luxurious conferences, attended by people highly-qualified in their fields. I went to learn and I learned a lot. I also had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. It felt strange to be treated so cordially in the markets, restaurants, stores and when asking for directions on the street. Continue reading

Brief Inventory of Personal Fears / Regina Coyula

As with almost everyone, as a girl darkness was a problem. I loved playing hide and seek, crouching in the bushes, but when evening came, the shadows became something dangerous, boogeymen coming to take me away, and I would run to the safety of adults and the light.

Another of my major fears at that time was that I would get sick on vacation, With chronic throat problems, tonsillitis threatened to rob me of the beach; and I had reasons to fear the colds all around me or a certain burning when I swallowed, or too strong a fan overnight.

Those fears gave way to others, trivial or important, but no less for this: the fear of failing an exam, losing a boyfriend, getting fat, of not sounding too combative in an era of ideological definitions given my petty bourgeois ballast.

Ultimately, the beach lost its charms for me years ago, because of the sun that pursues us everywhere on this little Caribbean island; I now had boyfriends and all it would take was for me to look at something to get fat. Coming from the bourgeoisie haunted me like a ghost in my youth, I couldn’t compete with those who maintained the discourse of the barricade, but they lived in the old houses and according to the manner of the overthrown bourgeoisie.

I continued to be a scaredy-cat, just my fears changes. I had a panic attack they day they did a caesarean to get my son out. I remember dressing in white and walking with a gladiolus in my hand to honor Orlando Zapata Tamayo on the anniversary of this death, and when a car stopped to ask directions I almost had a heart attack. Last December 10 (Human Rights Day) was another good occasion to be afraid.

Very recently, happy on returning from a seminar on citizen journalism and social networks in Lima, Peru, I was taken to the “little room” by customs officials. My luggage wasn’t overweight, there was nothing illegal, but they did a detailed search of my luggage, and retained for “customs inspection” SCAN0000, a laptop with charger and mouse, a camcorder with two tripods and four memory cards, two external drives, all new in their original box, in addition to my camera, my tablet, a USB drive and my phone, the latter not even having a charger; articles that on leaving Cuba didn’t need to be declared for personal use.

The other suspicious articles were four books written by my husband, which also left with me, a book about social networks I was given, and the folder with the conference agenda and my handwritten notes.

I spoke to you of far. All these valuable articles often upsetting the balance of saving money, how not to feel a punch in the gut to see them disappear into a sack, no matter how much you’ve got all the right paperwork. At that time it came to mind the cases of theft in customs. But that wasn’t the greatest fear.

With my hands crossed over my knees so as not to show my nervousness, I saw how a piece of my privacy was handled with impunity. The little I said was to make clear the arbitrariness of which I was the object. I didn’t waste energy, because those officials face other officials; the political police who ordered the measure.

Then a strange fear is provoked, because I gave no thought to abandoning my openly critical stance towards the government. The fear that set my adrenaline flowing, confirmed for me the nefariousness of a regime which, far from serving its citizens, is allowed to ride roughshod over them, over their sovereignty.

It’s time to recover this sovereignty.

4 June 2014