My Father and Berlin / Yoani Sanchez

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

The rumble of a train comes through the window. In Berlin there is always the sound of a train somewhere. I look out and see a very different reality from what my father saw in 1984 when he first came to this city. A train engineer, he had won — based on volunteer hours and a great deal of work — a trip to the future. Yes, because in that era the GDR was the horizon many Cubans aspired to visit someday. So, this man of locomotives and greasy hands was also given a bonus to buy some clothes before he left for Europe. He chose a jacket and pants combo, along with an immense suitcase in which my sister and I played at hiding ourselves. He arrived in East Germany in the middle of winter and stayed only two weeks on a guided tour, whose main purpose was to demonstrate to the lucky travelers the advantages of that model. And my father came back convinced.

At the airport on his return he arrived smiling from ear to ear and with a bag in hand. Inside was a pair of shoes for each of his daughters, which turned out to be the greatest achievement of the trip. That and the memories. For decades he has been telling us about his stay in the GDR. Adding details each time, until it has become almost a family legend that we listen to when we gather for any commemoration. In the light of today the wonder of that engineer is captured in the fact that in Berlin he was able to sit in a café and ask for something to drink without having to stand in a long line, that he had bought some small gifts for his kids without showing a ration book, and that he had taken a shower in hot water at the hotel where he stayed. I was surprised at every little thing.

Now I am the one in Berlin. Thinking that my father would not recognize this city, that he would not be able to reconcile it with that other one that he visited in a year as Orwellian as its date indicated. Of the wall that divided it in two all that is left is a museum piece painted by various artists; the hotel where he stayed was probably demolished, and the name of the woman who translated for him, and watched him — so that he wouldn’t escape to the West — is not in the phone book. The suitcase also no longer exists, the shoes lasted us just a single school year and the reddish tinted photos that he took in Alexanderplatz have been handled so much you can’t see them. However, I’m sure that when I return my father will try to explain Berlin to me, to tell me how he entered a bakery and was able to eat a turnover without presenting a ration card. I will laugh and tell him he’s right, there are dreams that after so much time are not worth ruining.

8 May 2013

Señor Capitol / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The Capitol building in Havana is beginning to emerge from its long punishment. Like a penitent child, it has waited 54 years to return to its status as the site of the Cuban parliament. Visited by everyone, it was a natural sciences museum with stuffed animals — plagued with moths — and in one of its hallways the first public internet site in the Cuban capital opened. While the tourists photographed the enormous statue of the Republic, thousands of bats hung from its highest decorated ceilings. They slept upside down during the day, but at night they swooped around leaving their feces on the walls and cornices. It accumulated there for decades, amid the indifference of the employees and the giggles of teenagers who pointed at the waste saying, “Look, shit, shit.” This is the building I have known since my childhood, fallen into disgrace but still impressive.

Visitors are always captivated by the history of the diamond that marks the starting point of the Central Highway, with its share of cursing and greed. And on observing this neoclassical colossus, these same travelers confirm — what we all know but no one says out loud — “It looks a lot like the Capitol in Washington.”  In this similarity lies part of the reason of the political exile suffered by our flagship building. It is too reminiscent of that other one; an obvious first cousin of what has come to pass for the image of the enemy. But since, by decree, no architectural symbols are erected in any city, its dome continues to define the face of Havana, along with the Malecón and el Morro which stand at the entrance to the Bay. For those arriving from the provinces, the photo in front of the wide staircase of this grand palace is obligatory. Its dome is also the most common reference point in paintings, photos, crafts, and whatever trinket someone wants to take back home to say: I was in Havana. While they insisted on downplaying its importance, it only became more prominent. The greater the stigma attached to it, the more enthralling its mixture of beauty and decay. Among other reasons because in the decades after its construction — right up to today — no other construction on the Island has managed to surpass it in splendor.

Now, the National Assembly of People’s Power will begin to sit exactly where the Congress of the Republic of Cuba once met, a congress the official history books speak so badly of. I imagine our parliamentarians meeting in the chamber of upholstered seats, surrounded by the large windows with their regal bearing, under the finely decorated ceilings. I see them, as well, raising every hand to unanimously — or by huge majorities — approve every law. Silent, tame, uniform in their political ideas, eager not to offend the real power. And I don’t know what to think; whether, in reality, this is a new humiliation — a more elaborate punishment — in store for the Havana Capitol; or if, on the contrary, it is a victory, the triumphant caress it has been waiting for for more than half a century.

30 April 2013

Ian Vasquez Interviews Yoani Sanchez at Cato Institute / Yoani Sanchez

Ian Vasquez interviews Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez on the future of Cuba. The interview occurred on 20 March 2013.

A video of the session with Ian Cato and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, with Ted Henken translating, from that day is available here.

Published by the Cato Insitute on Apr 25, 2013

Lima and Dust / Yoani Sanchez

1366304602_Cielo_de_lima1-300x300
Lima’s Sky “The Color of a Donkey’s Belly”

To every city we attach a face, to every place a personality. Camagüey strikes me as a sober lady with a long ancestry, Frankfurt is punk hair and skinny ties, Prague is the blue eyes and crooked smile of that young man who — just for a second — crossed my path. For its part, Lima’s face is indescribable but covered in dust. The dust of Lima swirls and settles everywhere. It flies over the cliffs that drop abruptly into a sea which, for Caribbeans, feels too cold, too choppy. Tiny particles of earth and sand that stick to your body, to food, to life. Dust on the native fruits, on the recently served ceviche. Dust in your “pisco sour” cocktail that leaves your tongue wanting more and not wanting any. A layer of gold, unreal, that coats the windshields and the newspaper sellers who defy the red lights to unload their merchandise before dark. The dust which we all become after the final day, but which in Lima carries us forward in life.

Lima seemed to me a girl with copper skin. Reserved, with something of that mysterious silence of those who come from the mountains. And with healing hands. Because in Lima I recovered my voice, and that is not a metaphor. I arrived after more than fifty days of intense travel, hoarse and feverish. I left recovered, coddled by my friends, with my energy restored having witnessed a city that has outgrown itself. I submerged my feet in the Pacific for the first time, I climbed the hills of the village of El Salvador to see people gaining ground against the aridity of the soil and poverty. I saw the historic center with its churches, its tourist attractions, its religious processions. Because Lima is a host of cities, some whimsically superimposed on others. It’s like a young woman whose body has outgrown her clothes and they no longer fit. Thus, the traffic bottlenecks and the many cranes raising buildings on all sides. This city has a face put together in a hurry, an eye here, a mouth there, a forehead taken from everywhere; it is mestiza, chola, German, Swiss, Chilean, Spanish… and very much Lima.

18 April 2013

Mario Vargas Llosa: A Nobel Long Overdue / Yoani Sanchez

mariovargasllosa

The literature of Mario Vargas Llosa has prompted several key turning points in my life. The first was 17 years ago, in a summer of blackouts and economic crisis. Under the pretext of borrowing “The War of the End of the World,” I approached a journalist expelled from his profession for ideological problems, with whom I still share my days. I keep that copy with its yellowed cover and detached pages, because through it dozens of readers have discovered this Peruvian author censored in the official bookstores.

Then came university, and while preparing my thesis on the literature of the dictatorship in Latin America his novel “The Feast of the Goat” appeared. The inclusion in my analysis of that text about Trujillo did not sit well with the panel evaluating me. Nor did they like that among the characteristics of American caudillos, I highlighted exactly those also flaunted by “our” Maximum Leader. Thus, for the second time, a book by the now Nobel Prize winner in Literature marked my existence because it made me realize the frustration of being a philologist in Cuba. Why do I need a title, I told myself, that announces I am a specialist in language and words, when I can’t even freely unite phrases.

So Vargas Llosa and his literature are responsible, in a direct and “premeditated” way, for much of what I am today: from my matrimonial happiness and my aversion to totalitarianism, to my having reneged on philology and turned to journalism.

I am prepared now, because I fear the next time one of his books falls into my hands its effect will last another 17 years, or once again slam the door on a profession.

BHIiY7_CYAAEXbF6 April 2013

Cubans, period

Freedom Tower, Miami

Freedom Tower, Miami

Years ago, when I left Cuba for the first time, I was in a train leaving from the city of Berlin heading north. A Berlin already reunified but preserving fragments of the ugly scar, that wall that had divided a nation. In the compartment of that train, while thinking about my father and grandfather – both engineers – who would have given anything to ride on this marvel of cars and a locomotive, I struck up a conversation with the young man sitting directly across from me.

After the first exchange of greetings, of mistreating the German language with “Guten Tag” and clarifying that “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch,” the man immediately asked me where I came from. So I replied with “Ich komme aus Kuba.”

As always happens after the phrase saying you come from the largest of the Antilles, the interlocutor tries to show how much he knows about our country. “Ah…. Cuba, yes, Varadero, rum, salsa music.” I even ran into a couple of cases where the only reference they seemed to have for our nation was the album “BuenaVista Social Club,” which in those years was rising in popularity on the charts.

But that young man on the Berlin train surprised me. Unlike others, he didn’t answer me with a tourist or music stereotype, he went much further. His question was, “You’re from Cuba? From the Cuba of Fidel or from the Cuba of Miami?”

My face turned red, I forgot all of the little German I knew, and I answered him in my best Central Havana Spanish. “Chico, I’m from the Cuba of José Martí.” That ended our brief conversation. But for the rest of the trip, and the rest of my life, that conversation stayed in my mind. I’ve asked myself many times what led that Berliner and so many other people in the world to see Cubans inside and outside the Island as two separate worlds, two irreconcilable worlds.

The answer to that question also runs through part of the work of my blog, Generation Y. How was it that they divided our nation? How was it that a government, a party, a man in power, claimed the right to decide who should claim our nationality and who should not?

The answers to these questions you know much better than I. You who have lived the pain of exile. You who, more often than not, left with only what you were wearing. You who said goodbye to families, many of whom you never saw again. You who have tried to preserve Cuba, one Cuba, indivisible, complete, in your minds and in your hearts.

But I’m still wondering, what happened? How did it happen that being defined as Cuban came to be something only granted based on ideology? Believe me, when you are born and raised with only one version of history, a mutilated and convenient version of history, you cannot answer that question.

Luckily, it’s possible to wake up from the indoctrination. It’s enough that one question every day, like corrosive acid, gets inside our heads. It’s enough to not settle for what they told us. Indoctrination is incompatible with doubt, brainwashing ends at the exact point when our brain starts to question the phrases it has heard. The process of awakening is slow, like an estrangement, as if suddenly the seams of reality begin to show.

That’s how everything started in my case. I was a run-of-the-mill Little Pioneer, you all know about that. Every day at my elementary school morning assembly I repeated that slogan, “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.” Innumerable times I ran to a shelter with a gas mask under my arm, while my teachers assured me we were about to be attacked. I believed it. A child always believes what adults say.

But there were some things that didn’t fit. Every process of looking for the truth has its trigger, a single moment when a piece doesn’t fit, when something is not logical. And this absence of logic was outside of school, in my neighborhood and in my home. I couldn’t understand why, if those who left in the Mariel Boatlift were “enemies of the State,” my friends were so happy when one of those exiled relatives sent them food or clothing.

Why were those neighbors, who had been seen off by an act of repudiation in the Cayo Hueso tenement where I was born, the ones who supported the elderly mother who had been left behind? The elderly mother who gave a part of those packages to the same people who had thrown eggs and insults at her children. I didn’t understand it. And from this incomprehension, as painful as every birth, was born the person I am today.

So when that Berliner who had never been to Cuba tried to divide my nation, I jumped like a cat and stood up to him. And because of that, here I am today standing before you trying to make sure that no one, ever again, can divide us between one type of Cuban or another. We are going to need each other for a future Cuba and we need each other in the present Cuba. Without you our country would be incomplete, as if someone had amputated its limbs. We cannot allow them to continue to divide us.

Just like we are fighting to live in a country where we have the rights of free expression, free association, and so many others that have taken from us; we have to do everything – the possible and the impossible – so that you can recover the rights they have also taken from you. There is no you and us… there is only “us.” We will not allow them to continue separating us.

I am here because I don’t believe the history they told me. With so many other Cubans who grew up under a single official “truth,” we have woken up. We need to rebuild our nation. We can’t do it alone. Those present here – as you know well – have helped so many families on the Island put food on the table for their children. You have made your way in societies where you had to start from nothing. You have carried Cuba with you and you have cared for her. Help us to unify her, to tear down this wall that, unlike the one in Berlin, is not made of concrete or bricks, but of lies, silence, bad intentions.

In this Cuban so many of us dream of there will be no need to clarify what kind of Cuban we are. We will be just plain Cubans. Cubans, period. Cubans.

[Text read in an event at the Freedom Tower, Miami, Florida, 1 April 2013]

Coconut Flan / Yoani Sanchez

I’ve found a Cuba outside of Cuba, I told a friend a few days ago. He laughed at my play on words, thinking I was trying to create literature. But no. In Brazil a septuagenarian excitedly gave me a medal of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre. “I have not been back since I left in 1964,” she confirmed as she handed me this little gem that had belonged to her mother. During my stay in Prague, a group of compatriots living there seemed to be more aware of what was happening in our country than many who vegetate, inside it, in apathy. Amid the tall buildings of New York a family invited me to their house and their grandmother made a “coconut flan” in the style of our traditional cuisine, so damaged on the island by the shortages and scarcities.

Our diaspora, our exile, is conserving Cuba outside of Cuba. Along with their suitcases and the pain of distance, they have preserved pieces of our national history that were deleted from the textbooks with which several generations have been educated or rather, raised to be mediocre. I’m rediscovering my own country in each of these Cubans dispersed around the world. When I confirm what they have really accomplished, the contrast with what official propaganda tells me about them leaves me with an enormous sadness for my country. For all this human wealth that we have lost, for all this talent that has had to wash up outside our borders and for all the seeds that have germinated in other lands. How did we allow one ideology, one party, one man, to have felt the “divine” power to decide who could or could not carry the adjective “Cuban.”

Now I have proof that they lied to me, they lied to us. Nobody has had to tell me, I can grasp it for myself on seeing all this Cuba that is outside of Cuba, an immense country that they have been safeguarding for us.

30 March 2013

Spicy, Spicy / Yoani Sanchez

la-fotoMexico does not allow for half measures, does not admit that we remain unscathed. It’s like spice on the tongue, tequila in the throat and the sun in our eyes. Five days in the land of the feathered serpent and it was hard for me to board the plane because intense desires spoke to me about staying to explore a captivating and complex reality. I’ve seen modern buildings a few yards from the ruins of the Great Temple; incredible traffic jams on the streets, while on the sidewalks people walk with the calm of those who are in no hurry to arrive. I have also seen the smiling La Calavera Catrina, alternating seamlessly with the the vibrantly colorful of the people in La Ciudadela shopping center. With her sarcastic laugh, feathered hat and exposed ribcage she challenges me. Someone gave me a taste of a dessert, it was intensely sweet, sprinkled with sugar; but then I bit into a tamale and the kick of chili on my tongue made me cry. Mexico doesn’t allow for lukewarm feelings, you love it or you love it.

So my Aztec journey began surrounded by contrasts. From Puebla to Mexico City, meeting friends and visiting several newspaper offices, radio stations and, above all, speaking with many many journalist colleagues. I wanted to know first hand the rewards and risks of practicing the reporter’s profession in this society and I have met a great number of concerned, but working, professionals. People who risk their lives, especially in the north, to report; people who think like I do about the need for a free press, responsible, and tied to reality. I have learned from them. I have also gotten lost in the network of tiny shops and kiosks in the city center, and have felt the pulse of life there. A life I had perceived from the air before we landed, when at dawn on Saturday I saw the great anthill that is Mexico City, the many cities it contains, burning with life, despite the early hour.

For a moment, I had the impression of living in a fragment of the novel Los detectives Salvajes by Roberto Bolaño. But I wasn’t seeking, like the protagonists in this book, a cult poetess, lost in oblivion. In reality I was trying to look at and find my own country through the eyes of the Mexicans. And I found it. An Island reinterpreted and multiple, but close; one that raises passions in everyone and leaves no one unscathed. A friend asked me before I left, “What does Mexico make you feel?” I didn’t think too long: “Spicy,” I replied, like a spice that provokes an electric shock, and brings tears of pleasure and torment. “And Cuba,” he insisted, “What does it make you feel?”… Cuba, Cuba is bittersweet…

Surprising Sentence for Angel Carromero for the Deaths of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero in a Car Crash / Yoani Sanchez

From Uncommon Sense

Angel Carromero has been sentenced to four years in prison for the traffic accident that killed two opponents of the regime, Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero. The Granma Provincial Court issued the sentence Monday, October 15, after the public trial which took place on October 5. According to the official website Cubadebate, the leader of New Generations of Spain’s ruling Popular Party is considered “guilty of the crime of murder while driving a vehicle on the public right-of-way.”

This case which has kept Cuban and Spanish public opinion guessing, now enters the appeal phase after the court ruling. Both the defense and the prosecutor can challenge the decision before the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court. It is expected that once confirmed or reduced, the Havana government will proceed to apply the treaty on serving of sentences signed by both countries. In which case, Angel Carromero could serve his sentence in some Spanish prison.

This young man of 27 has been judged according to article 177 of the existing Criminal Code, in which it is established that “the driver of a vehicle who, violating traffic laws or regulations, causes the death of a person, incurs the sentence of privation of liberty of from one to ten years.” Initially the prosecutor demanded a sentence of seven years, which has been reduced by three in the sentence dictated by the court. However, the family of the Oswaldo Paya, the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement, demanded an independent investigation of the facts of that Sunday in July near the city of Bayamo.

Of the four involved in that unfortunate event two died and the Swede Jens Aron Modig returned to his country without any charges being presented against him. Angel Carromero was involved in a police investigation that has had wide repercussions, including in the official Cuban press. Many denounced that the case has been used by the Island’s government against the internal opposition, and has even served as a mechanism to pressure Spain’s Popular Party administration. As of today, a new scenario opens for all parties.

According to the official version of events, Carromero was driving at an excessive speed and lost control of the car on a road under repair. With improper use of the brakes, the car left the highway and crashed into a tree. The official note released this Monday asserted that the trial had analyzed “wide material evidence” and had complied with “the established legal safeguards, in accordance with the seriousness of the facts.” However, at that trial held over a week ago, Oswaldo Paya’s children along with dozens of activists who tried to reach the court, were not allowed access. Arrests, home detentions and threats marked the day during which the trial was held, which Granma newspaper itself had previously announced would be “oral and public.”
The Spanish government, for its part, on hearing the sentence, has reaffirmed that its main motivation continues to be that Angel Carromero “return as soon as possible” to his homeland. “Right now there is a process of analysis and study (of the sentence), with the objective that he will return here as soon as possible,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed to the AFP press agency. For its part, the Cuban Consulate welcomed “with relative satisfaction” the “sensible reduction” of the sentence the prosecutor had asked for against the young man. The Consul General on the Island, Tomas Rodriguez-Pantoja, explained that by not exceeding five years the sentence left a “range of options” to implement the bilateral convention on the serving of sentences.

However, for both the defense and for many Cuban dissidents, the sentence is excessive. Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, expressed himself opposed. “I expected absolution due to the extenuating circumstances that were present in this case. Among them the bad conditions of the highway and the worse road signage,” the activist said. For their part, many official voices — many of which are anonymous or using pseudonyms — commented on Cubadebate and other websites that the sentence seemed “too short.”

Along with the extenuating circumstances raised by Human Rights activists on the Island, is added that fact that the families of those killed in the accident did not themselves file charges against Angel Carromero. An element which has led many to believe that the sentence imposed on Angel Carromero would be minimal and symbolic. Thus, the announcement this Monday has unpleasantly surprised those who supported the idea of a possible acquittal.

Once the sentence was announced, Ofelia Acevedo, Oswaldo Paya’s widow, confirmed her opinion that Carromero “should have been at home a long time ago. Perhaps he will not have to serve the sentence in Cuba and will be expelled from the country.”

16 October 2012

My Dirty Piece of the Sea / Yoani Sánchez

Uprising called the
Uprising called the “maleconazo” /5 August 1994 / Photo by Karel Poort

In 1994 I spent many hours sitting on the wall of the Malecon. I preferred the area between the Gervasio and Escobar streets, which I called “my dirty piece of sea.” That was a border between the abyss and the abyss. On one side the rocks and the waves, on the other a sequence of ruined houses and starving figures looking out over their balconies. Still, this place allows me to escape the day-to-day strangulation of the Special Period. If my stomach burned from emptiness, there was still the hope of finding someone hawking — in a whisper — pizzas or paper cones of peanuts. When the power cuts made it impossible to be in my hot room, I also went looking for the sea breeze as a relief. On that concrete I loved, cried, stared at the horizon wanting to run away, and even passed a few nights.

But on the morning of August 5 of that year, the Malecón became a battlefield. Around the ferry dock to Regla people were gathering, encouraged by the hijackings of several boats throughout the summer. An extended sensation of the end, of chaos, of “zero hour” was palpable in the atmosphere. Those waiting to take “the next boat to Florida” were the poorest, those with the least to lose, those ready for anything. Their disappointment was great when they learned there would be no chance of getting on any of these boats. Undoubtedly, that was the spark of the popular revolt that broke out immediately afterwards; but the fuel of the protest was hunger, scarcities and desperation.

A contingent of construction workers, disguised as “enraged people,” lashed out against the unarmed crowd with stick and iron bars. The order from on high was clear: crush the rebellion, but don’t leave behind any imaged of anti-riot troops repressing the people. The epithets launched against the outraged of that day were “lumpen, vermin, criminals and counterrevolutionaries.” The majority of them would emigrate in the coming weeks, on homemade rafts, or simple truck cabs mounted on inner tubes. Others were sent to prison for facing the shock troops. Fidel Castro showed up in the middle of it all — only once the situation was under control — and the official media displayed his presence there as the confirmation of a great victory. But the truth is that after a few weeks the government had to permit farmers markets to relieve the misery. Without the pressure exercised that August 5, we would have ended up like a “Democratic Kampuchea” in the middle of the Caribbean, like the experiment of a stubborn tropical Pol Pot.

I no longer like sitting in front of my dirty piece of the sea. Some of the horror of that August 5 is still there, sandwiched between the cracks in the wall.

Photo by Karel Poort taken from http://desarraigos.blogspot.com/2009/08/el-maleconazo-fotos-ineditas-del-5-de.html
Photo by Karel Poort taken from http://desarraigos.blogspot.com/2009/08/el-maleconazo-fotos-ineditas-del-5-de.html

6 August 2012

Rosa’s Little Shoes

It is rare to find a Cuban who doesn’t know some poem by José Martí, at least some snippet of those simple verses we learn by heart in elementary school. From the time we’re little, in the morning assemblies at school, in Spanish classes, at all the political rallies we attend, we hear over and over the lyrical verses of our national hero. The over exposure to him leads to the point where many associate him with the current state of things, and in the very poor areas, where the electricity often fails and food is in short supply, they have even vandalized his busts.

But back to the Apostle’s poetry, especially the most famous of them, with its childlike tone, full of ribbons, flowers and images, which has the title “Rose’s little shoes.” Any child under ten could rattle off its sweetened octosyllables and narrate the story told in its verses. But could also recite some of the many parodies that have been written, especially those of a political nature that make a mockery of the system. Marti is the most parodied of our authors, which is not a mark against him, but rather proof of the familiarity people feel with his work.

Among the many jokes we draw from the work of this universal Havanan, is one taken from “Rose’s little shoes,” where the protagonist — named Pilar — meets a poor little sick girl at the seashore. Without consulting her mother, the rich girl takes off her shoes and gives them to the little needy one. She completes her generous gesture with a phrase, “Here, take mine, I have more at home.”

That brief line, written almost 150 years ago, is now an infinite source of jokes, wisecracks and imitations. It is used to indicate the social differences that are becoming more obvious and traumatic in a society where the official discourse continues to talk about equality. The most profound of the jokes among the students, obliged to wear school uniforms, has do to with their ability to rate the buying power of each person by looking at their feet. Although one of the slogans most repeated by the Cuban government is that there are no children walking barefoot through the streets of this Island, the big question is where do parents get the money so that their children aren’t walking with their heels on the asphalt. It’s enough to walk past store windows and look at the high prices of leather, to realize that a salary alone — the fruit from working for the State — won’t be enough.

The drama of shoes for children becomes more poignant when school is about to start and the markets are crowded. It is not unusual then to hear the parody of Jose Marti’s poem everywhere, especially when the first day of class hundreds of eyes will look over what is shown below the pants and skirts. The cost of a pair of shoes, the cheapest, is equivalent to the average monthly wage of any worker.

We must choose between surviving for thirty days or providing our children a pair of sneakers, sandals or boots. Luckily people are not satisfied and almost everyone does something illegal to send their children to school smug and comfortable. There are also generous family or friends who donate clothing and shoes, already used, to others who need them most. Those who have no clandestine business, “divert resources from the state” or appeal to the family that lives across the Straits of Florida. Ironically, it is the exiles who end up making the official propaganda come true. The high-sounding phrases of the political billboards are based on the thousands of dollars each year that enter the country through remittances.

But the parody of Marti’s poem does not attack those who have better shoes thanks to inventiveness or a relative, but others, those who have gotten them through privilege. “Take them, take mine, I have more at home,” comes the sarcastic whisper of the son of a colonel or of a trusted diplomat posted abroad. And so the caricature of Pilar and her generosity is evoked again and again when someone brags about owning something that ordinary Cubans can barely dream of.

For example, the teenage grandson of some general, driving his own car, will hear the cute verse tossed at him when he boasts of his four wheels and their gleaming tires. It is also a way of saying: we are watching, we know that everything you are flaunting came to you by way of ideological loyalty. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “Yes, I know, you have more at home,” for the braggart to feel unmasked and the conceited to comprehend the ephemeral nature of the crumbs that come from power. Because history has these ironies, this way of making fun of everything and everyone. The nineteenth century lyricism — by the grace of necessity and humor — converts verbal material into scorn, sweet revenge on those who have less. And at some point far away, Marti’s taciturn face, believing that his Pilar with her straw hat and ribbons will be remembered as an example of kindness, not used as a spear against the false discourse of egalitarianism.

31 May 2012

From Cuba Libre in El Pais

El Chupi Chupi and the Dilemma of Limits / Yoani Sánchez

I disagree with what you say,
I totally disagree with it,
but I would defend with my life your right to say it.
Voltaire

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 22 November 2011 — I press the headset until it almost touches my eardrums, but still the music in the collective taxi is pounding in my head. It’s the third time today I’m forced to hear the same song, a lascivious reggaeton capable of making those of us riding in that 1950s Ford blush. The most popular song has won the fanaticism of some, the repulsion of others and even a strong critique by the minister of culture, Abel Prieto, on national television. It would seem that no one can remain unmoved, tranquil, while listening to that “Dame un chupi chupi, que yo lo disfruti, abre la bocuti, trágatelo tuti*.” Either you wiggle your hips or you cover your ears, there’s no middle ground.

The El Chupi Chupi video has been nominated for a Lucas Prize, but a few days ago it was categorized as “horrible” by the president of the Cuban Music Institute himself. The many fans of the composer Osmani Garcia and his controversial lyrics don’t know if he will remain in the competition and the media has almost stopped airing the song. Hundreds of people have already sent in their votes — via text messages — in favor of giving the popularity award to this reggaeton artist. They hope to dance to his creation during the gala this coming Sunday at the Karl Marx theater. But a television presenter declared — half joking half serious — that “there will be no ‘honey nor caramels’ at the event this weekend… because they’re bad for your teeth,” in a clear reference to the likelihood of presenting the controversial rhythm with its direct sexual allusions.

If all of the television, newspapers and radio in Cuba were not the private property of the one political party, there would also be space for these kinds of productions, even though many don’t like them. The current problem is that if national television broadcast it, it would be as if it had the endorsement of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) itself, as if the entire political discourse would have to recognize that its “New Man” is more interested in amusing and lewd tunes than in the anthems of the working man and songs about utopia. I am confident that some day there will be stations devoid of ideology, that in adult programming they will present topics far beyond melodic preferences or the blushing point that everyone accepts. Controversy will arise, of course, and generate debate, but no public official will be able to erase it with the stroke of a pen, because musical tastes don’t change through censorship. If they doubt it, let them climb into a collective taxi in Havana right now.

Translator’s note: Roughly: “Give me a suck, which I enjoy, open that little mouth, and swallow it all.”

The Instant Creation of Emerging Teachers

Cuban schoolchildren repeating slogans at the morning assembly.

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 11 February 2010 — It was a sober meeting attended by several representatives from the municipal Ministry of Education. A murmur passed among the parents, seated on the same plastic chairs used by their children in the morning. The date was approaching for the announcement of who would continue their studies at the senior secondary school; it appeared that at this meeting they would tell us the number of pre-university or technical school slots assigned to our school site. Thus, the news at the end about “comprehensive general teachers” took us by surprise, because we had come to believe that their existence would be extended until our great-grandchildren reached puberty.

Educating adolescents – through accelerated courses – to teach classes ranging from grammar to mathematics, turned out to be a categorical failure. Not because of the element of youth, which is always welcome in any profession, but because of the speed of their instruction in teaching and the lack of interest many of them had in such a noble endeavor.

Faced with the exodus of education professionals to other sectors with more attractive earnings, the emerging teachers program was developed; with it the already ailing quality of Cuban education fell through the floor. The children came home saying that in 1895 Cuba had lived through “a civil war” and that geometric figures had something called “voldes” which we parents understood to mean “edges.” I particularly remember one of these instant educators who confessed to his students on the first day of class that they should, “Study hard so you don’t end up like me, someone who ended up being a teacher because I didn’t take good notes.”

On top of that the tele-classes arrived, to fill a very high percentage of the school hours from the coldness of a screen that cannot interact. The idea was to make up for the lack of training of those standing in front of the students with these lessons transmitted by television. The tele-teacher substituted in many schools for the flesh-and-blood version, while teacher salaries increased symbolically, but never exceeded the equivalent of 30 dollars a month. Teaching became, even more than being a priest, a sacrifice.

Thus, standing in front of the blackboard were people who had not mastered spelling or the history of their own country. There were young people who signed a pledge to become teachers, but who already regretted it after one week of work. The incidents and educational deformations that this procedure brought with it are written in the hidden book of failure of revolutionary plans and ridiculous production goals that are never met, with the difference that in this case we are not talking about tons of sugar or bushels of beans, but about the education of our children.

I breathe a sigh of relief that this long experiment in emergent education has ended. However, I do not envision the day in which all those people with preparation to teach leave the wheel of their taxis, come out from behind the bar, or exchange the tedium of working at home to return to the classroom. At least I could feel more relaxed if, in place of a television screen, Teo could receive all his classes from a corporeal teacher with a mastery of the content. I think that in this case we will have to wait for the great-grandchildren.

Adios to Schools in the Countryside / Yoani Sanchez

gallo

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 July 2009 — The idea of combining study with work in high schools looked very good on paper. It had the air of an immortal future in the office where they turned it into a ministerial order. But reality, stubborn as always, had its own interpretation of the schools in the countryside. The “clay” meant to be formed in the love of the furrow, was made up of adolescents far away—for the first time—from parental control, who found housing conditions and food very different from their expectations.

I, who should have been the “new man” and who barely could have become a “good man”, was trained in one of these schools in the Havanan municipality of Alquizar. I was fourteen and left with a corneal infection, a liver deficiency and the toughness that is acquired when one has seen too much. When matriculating, I still believed the stories of work-study; at leaving, I knew that many of my fellow students had had to exchange sex for good grades or show superior performance in agricultural production. The small lettuce plants I weeded every afternoon had their counterpart in a hostel where the priorities were bullying, lack of respect for privacy and the harsh law of survival of the fittest.

It was precisely one of those afternoons, after three days without water and with the repetitive menu of rice and cabbage, that I swore to myself that my children would never go to a high school in the country. I did this with the unsentimental adolescent realism that, in those years, calms us and leaves us knowing the impossibility of fulfilling certain promises. So I accustomed myself to the idea of having to load bags of food for Teo when he was away at school, of hearing that they stole his shoes, they threatened him in the shower or that one of the bigger ones took his food. All these images, that I had lived, returned when I thought about the boarding schools.

Fortunately, the experiment seems to be ending. The lack of productivity, the spread of diseases, the damage to ethical values and the low academic standards have discredited this method of education. After years of financial losses, with the students consuming more than they manage to extract from the land, our authorities have become convinced that the best place for a young person is at the side of his parents. They have announced the coming end of the schools but without the public apologies to those of us who were guinea pigs for an experiment that failed; to those of us who left our dreams and our health in the high schools in the countryside.