Ángel Santiesteban, 9 March 2015 — I recognize that at times I don’t mention writers living in Cuba for fear of harming them, although I know how most Cuba intellectuals think, I know, I’m aware of it, because of what they do, the game continues and what will they get in return for faked docile behavior in support of totalitarianism.
14YMEDIO, Francis Sanchez, Ciego de Avila, 18 August 2014 – The anecdotes, the identities and the composition of the family of the Cuban Revolution’s Maximum Leaders, after become a taboo subject due to steps taken by themselves, has become the subject of public interest and a source of constant speculation. A delicate area, the private and mythical environment of the Castro Ruz brothers acquires historical content from rumors, with unnamed girlfriends, faceless wives, children and many family members rarely seen together even in photos.
And in this “complete photo of the first family,” that was never taken and probably never will be, is the disturbing “presence” of an odd woman who carries the same last names with pride, defending the family lineage, but at the same time rejecting the stamps these names have placed on Cuban history. A strong, secluded, argumentative woman who appears, because of this, doubly cursed.
On the 15th of February 2008, with the uploading to the internet of Issue 1 (January-February), the magazine Convivencia was born in Pinar del Río. Since then, six years have passed of uninterrupted bimonthly publication. The new publication invited one to live on a horizon at once broad and intimate, democratic, heavy with possibilities and without the scourge of restrictive determinations. “A dawn for the citizenry and civil society in Cuba”, the title of the first edition’s editorial, would become the motto of the magazine.
The beginning of the new alternative project within Casa Cuba, passing between the homogeneity and impersonality of the official press, brought a signal of hope or possible restoration of diversity from the westernmost of the Cuban provinces, after the retirement had taken place in 2006 of the bishop José Siro González Bacallao to a farm in Mantua.
Confusions and disappointments have taken place, at times imperceptibly, but knowing the difference between one and the other helps us to understand and to hope. Let us see. It is known how, during the nineties, a weave of publications belonging to the Catholic Church was assembled in Cuba — although sociocultural in ecumenical spirit — that allowed intellectual communities in many provinces to have a means of expression for the first time. I met Dagoberto Valdés in that setting: we founded the Catholic Press Union of Cuba (UCLAP-Cuba) in November 1996, in the church La Merced of Camagüey.
The new magazine movement was thriving (Vitral in Pinar del Río, Palabra Nueva in Havana, Amanecer in Villa Clara, Enfoque in Camagüey, Cocuyo in Holguín, Iglesia en Marcha in Santiago de Cuba, etc.) and independent of state control, which, as it must be supposed, would influence the State to respond by assembling a national system of editing houses and territorial magazines.
The unique impact of Vitral, its operation, its alternative editions, compelled the Government to strengthen the world of Pinareño culture in proportions that would have otherwise been unthinkable. Great sums were thus expended on projects such as, for example, the beautiful Ediciones Cauce and the Hermanos Loynaz Centre, elements that taken together would subsequently pay for themselves by achieving such a rich diversity there that this province would stand out in the civic, cultural, and editorial spectrum of the country.
The magazine Vitral, the Church, Dagoberto Valdés, and Pinar del Río were key points of reference in a phase of optimism that was marked by the first visit of a Pope to Cuba. Days of illumination were lived then — before, during, and after the brief crossing of Wojytla, the Pilgrim Pope. “Have no fear,” he said in mass in the José Martí Civic Plaza on the 25th of January of 1998, and at some moment everyone or most of the people present there were springing up — we were springing up — calling out “Liberty, liberty.” Either we no longer had fear, or we did not want to have, indeed, any more fear. Two days before, John Paul II had held the Encounter with the World of Culture, in the Great Hall of the University of Havana. Continue reading “The Experiment of Hope / Francis Sanchez”
At the request of Angel Santiesteban I am publishing here the letter sent by the well-known poet and writer Francis Sanchez, in which he attached an article he wrote.
I don’t know if you can open your mail, if you can read this message. I just want to say: Be strong “boy,” we love you.
In an independent publication that I do, I am going to publish this text about you, I wrote it a little while ago but didn’t publish it, I am sending it to you, you can do what you want with it.
I hope everything gets better for you. You are free because you are “the captain of your own soul” (Invictus).
SMOKE SIGNAL FOR THE RELEASE OF ÁNGEL SANTIESTEBAN
Today it’s Ángel Santiesteban. The magnificent author of books that have won prizes in the main Cuban literary contests, our friend, has apparently dissolved in the rare environment of this country, ceasing to have a voice, or to be publicly mentioned.
He became “crazy” when he started to think out loud. He had created a web site, the blog The Children Nobody Wanted, with which he was “marked” because now everyone knew what he thought, how he dissented, and what limits someone intelligent, young, was willing to cross, away from the dead point that signifies the inertia of the mass. But could he really? At what price? Continue reading “Francis Sanchez: Smoke Signal for the Release of Angel Santiesteban”
Almost thirty years after the fall of the communist bloc, the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima is still dealing with “Moscow” through the ongoing influence of the Soviet Union, to which he himself fell victim, dying after having been ostracized after the principles of dialectical materialism were brought to bear on him. Though long dead and gone, he still divides opinions in Ciego de Ávila, a town in the country’s interior whose residents never really knew of the obese author, sometimes referred to as “the immobile traveler.” A popular restaurant here, which until not long ago was known as Moscú (Moscow in English), has reopened its doors to the surprise and confusion of many. It is now known as Paradiso.*
The name change can only be attributed to an interest in reducing the complexities of a writer and his work into a tourist plaque. It is a longstanding practice that can be seen in Dublin with James Joyce, and in Cuba and elsewhere with Ernest Hemingway. Curiously, if in the end Lezama seemed more exotic, more odd than “normal” for a sophisticated poet in a Caribbean environment plagued by the cliches of political propoganda, it was because of the social isolation he suffered after the importation of a system marked by the socialist excesses of Soviet five-year plans, utopian visions and repressive methodologies.
We already know what “links” Lezama with the city of the Kremlin. We also know how that city’s infuence spread throughout Cuba, reaching into even the most remote corners and psyches of multiple generations. What is more difficult to understand is how the city of Ciego de Ávila chose to associate itself with the poet it chose to honor, considering he could not stand to spend so much as one provincial night in a room in Santa Clara. Yet at a point very near the Central Highway there is now a state-run restaurant — recently opened, spacious, elegant, full of mirrors — named for his novel, which censors prevented from being released in Cuba when it was first published.
Nothing in the building recalls its “Moscovite” past. Nor is there any evidence that the writer, who looked like a corpulent mollusk, ever lived at 162 Trocadero. It amounts to a simple name change and an announcement that invites any passersby to spend some time on the corner of Maceo Street. “Gallery-restaurant” appears to be the new term for this transformation, a metaphorical acronym for a food-service business, as though the association were not apparent.
Very quickly the debates started, and they were not about the menu possibilities but rather about the settling of scores, which in Cuba historically involves culture, daily life and even geological strata.
In Invasor, a provincial Communist Party newspaper, a reporter mentions the resurrection resulting Lezama’s current popularization, noting that “he was silenced in this country during the bleak period of the cultural five-year plan.” The writer adds enthusiastically, “A name of such reknown as Paradiso will undoubtedly serve as a moral challenge to Cuban culture through gastronomy.”
But in the same publication another columnist laments tossing the corpse of the beloved former superpower out with the trash. “I would not dream of trying to erase the name of the restaurant because… it is the iconic representation of what the Soviet Union was, a state… which held out its hand to feed us.” And though the writer acknowledges Lezama’s right to compensation now that the poet has once again been returned to the national pantheon after having lived like a lost soul for whom no one lit candles, he quietly adds, “it is good that we pay homage to Lezama and his legacy, which we did not always do, but there is no need to get carried away.”
A quarrel over the super-deceased. The sublime fat man and the Soviet superpower. It could be called “The Tragedy of the Century,” except now it is being replayed in a minor key as a municipal farce.
To know the final result means waiting to see how the people of Ciego de Ávila choose to call the establishment from now on, by the old name or the new one. There is nothing to guarantee that invoking the title of a novel destined for perpetuity will prevent a restaurant from succumbing to sudden collapse or gradual neglect, a common characteristic of Cuba’s state-run economy. There is also the challenge of maintaining a satisfactory relationship with the world of Paradiso. Running from the stove and refrigerator to the the tables and counters increases the risk of fatigue.
Some customers may recoil in terror if they are forced to swallow the size of this project along with a bowl of broth. It is enough to make one fear the suggestion by one of the aforementioned journalists: “It might be worthwhile for the restaurant’s workers to at least be familiar with the novel’s plot summary so that they might be able to share this information with those who dine there.”
Perhaps it was suddenly suggested to me by the partisan propaganda which always lays a guilt trip on the will of the majority — yeah, the runaway slaves who can’t be allowed to govern themselves — while the saving ideas inevitably fall from above, from that select club of the intransitive neurons.
Perhaps proving the burden of remorse like that state of deep coma that socialist agriculture crosses being only the fault of those who are closest to the earth, those below — as the great novelist Mariano Azuela would say — in this social pyramid where the bureaucracy gives orders.
At best I was beating my conscience, living as I had always lived in the midst of an extraordinarily fertile savannah, for not having ceded to the State my part in this social contract — not of work, but of simulation — that is summarized by a useful and popular saying in Cuba, symptom of the post-classical era or of eternal bankruptcy: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
I definitely had never employed many hours of my life even in that metaphysical wage relation, comparable to the poetry by which the “beautiful pretense” marks the count of Salinas. I could repent suddenly for not have participated either in many voluntary working days under the precepts of Che Guevara, in search of the New Man throwing to the ground all the molds, those “Red Sundays” in which the united proletariat dispersed the fossil fuel and marched from the city to the field to get the harvest from the scrubland using the happy method of the gods Orpheus and Bacchus together: singing, dancing and drumming with agricultural instruments.
The truth is that, one morning, desiring to see what kind of means of production, specifically hoes, the governmental apparatus had put within reach of the people to make more realistic the new act of contrition to which it called the masses, after labeling them as stupid masses, whose support cost two eyes from the face: you get sick of vagrancy, indiscipline, unproductivity, and finally, being like “pigeons” with beaks always open. . . I went through the stores to see what hoe we had within reach of our wallet for ridicule our yearning for leisure.
I walked through the city with the suspicion that my search would be in vain. But, by luck, I had been mistaken. In the last establishment on my list, a little hardware store, I finally located the service of sale of hoes to the people, or better,to beexact: the sale of one hoe. There it waited, alone, abandoned. With the digits of the price it was enough to explain to me its marginal status among the merchandise, because it could barely be seen placed in a corner. It cost $22.45! Without doubt that seemed more like the number that identifies the photo of an assassin behind bars. With reason my hoe had its head down.
As is logical, I deduced that the exposed sample in the pillory of the ridiculous prices did not gather all the responsibility, it would be treated only as a sample, representing the shame of many more tools of its kind that would wait neatly inside of boxes for the return of the collective faith in agricultural work. But that clerk caught me in my error. There existed no more in the warehouse. This was the only one, or maybe, a Platonic archetype and, at the same time, its concrete manifestations: the Hoe. I wanted to make myself the discovering fool, apparently upset, if the scarcity was due to high demand, and the sharp clerk got me from my disguise with a crafty smile, telling me the price in case I had not seen it: “$22.45!” We laughed together.
No one remembered when it had arrived there, even if it was in the way among the other products, like a dead animal that would not decay, nobody claimed it but neither did the administration send it to the other world. Obviously, neither did I make a sign of paying for its rescue, because I was dissuaded by that prohibitive figure, the equivalent of more than an average monthly salary.
Hereinafter I inevitably became accustomed to visiting it each time I passed nearby, to see how it was doing. One day I asked if the price was an exclusive karma or if the ones that came later would cost the same. Of course, still no employee of that establishment could know it, first one had to begin to come out of there. One afternoon I found that they had reduced the sentence from $22.45 to $14.20. I had the slight impression that curiosity ended up acting on its destiny.
Some days and weeks have passed, the Hoe is still hanging there. Some other time I will come closer to the counter to look at it from top to bottom.
The documentary images of the great Agrarian Reform show the happy faces of those farmers with almost no teeth, almost with no speech, that raised for the first time, thanks to the Revolution (1959), a property title to the land they worked. Nevertheless, in those rural pictures of multitudes that shook awake the memory of Robin Hood, there is missinga figure just as good-natured. If the epic camera man could repeat a portrait of the same group through the years,registering the morphological changes, we would see him come out of anonymity and overshadow, each time more, the poor people who apparently disappear behind his embrace, growing fat and at the same time polishing their manners, meanwhile decking himself out with the highest technology of the bureaucracy itself, including demagoguery.He is the most favored figured with the great share, because since then it would grow indefinitely at the cost of its advantages as alegal person: the State. The Commander-in-Chief already said it then: “If they question us, what are the earthly limits of the State? We answer them: They extend from the Punta de Maisi to the Cabo de San Antonio, and they embrace the lands included between the north and south coasts of our island.”
In the end, one must ask oneself: Will there not be something working in a twisted way under the very same earth? Will there be a curse that the Utopia will return to the ideal of the primitive community as far as making the excess production rain the same over everyone, not catching, just sprouting on this coral island? In a country where the need for progress always encouraged the cultivation of the noble crust, after consummating the seizure of the map on the part of the supreme will to uphold the common good, supposedly, above all every individual interest, increasing the literacy rates, education levels and hygiene, with the result that everywhere this same social control rises to the surface in the form of a chronic ruin.
At the same time it slowed and frustrated the access of natural people, that is, of flesh and bone, the control over the means of production — with this, so individual and difficult to collectivize: a real hoe, handy, truly serviceable — and its direct benefits, the omnipresent State channeled the maximum instruments of its institutions in stimulating, rewarding, socializing other types of “hoes.” We ourselves found in a very illustrative dictionary, Popular Cuban Speech Today1 , that “hoe” is an adjective and common substantive with the meaning “sycophant” and many synonyms: asskisser, minion, bootlicker, brownnoser, groveler, flunky, doormat. There are “multiple intellectual servants” making “the protective ring of power and carrying out its orders”2 , weapons of pleasure for the autocracy, with an effect much more illusory and indigestible, parasitic, sterilizing in the long run.
These other “tools”, belonging to the sector better “read and written,” they give to themselves by the ton at every crossroad of a society whose roads all lead to State ownership and, through it, to a centralized bureaucracy. They satisfy only the high demand for luster in the social superstructure, while the economic base continues being the unpromised wasteland.
1 Argelio Santiesteban: El habla popular cubana de hoy, Ed. de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, 1985, p. 243.
2 Ángel Rama: La ciudad letrada, Ed. Arca, Montevideo, 1998, p. 32.
[In this part of an unedited interview, which I don’t know when it will be published, I respond to the question: “Ciego de Ávila: Love or scorn?”]
I have tried to invent the province lovingly, although for that I had to give a primary form to that love without obligation until it was more or less justified physically. You know what I mean: it was given to me to work on magazines, research, anthologies, events, etc. Anyway, I was wasting my time, “plowing the sea” as we say. I knew that eventually the community where I had lived would not forgive me, and so it has been — fortunately, I must say.
Reality and abstraction merge dramatically in provincial life, love and scorn depend on knowing how to distinguish and connect them. In a highly centralized society, all imaginative communication hangs on a few strange threads, and this is experienced with more tension at the lower levels of the social order, as in the small political boundaries. The pressure that, with regards to my fantasies, exerted by the corner I inhabit it Cuba, my residence in the absence of water surrounded by water on all sides*, definitively results, for me, in a candid inferno. At times I explain it to myself as a liquidation and generational auction.
As much as the redefining of historical stages may seem trivial to me, I am one of those young people — tempering here classifications such as poet, writer or intellectual — who burst on the scene at the beginning of the ’90s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so-called “Special Period.” I understand my way through this historic turning point that continues up to today, this dismantling of large belief systems, which helps me to explain my particular agonizing relationship with my environment.
We go out into the street — similarly some of us take up poetry — to earn a living by tooth and nail, expecting freedom and giving it to ourselves. Iconoclasts, we trample on the fears of many of the people we’ve grown up around. We defend our right not to be State employees and not to fall prey to the famous and feared Law of Dangerousness.
Most of us have given up our studies halfway through, or at least when any hope in the logical scale of social advancement through the bureaucratic system collapses. We are the laborers in clandestine businesses and the black market, ignorant of the Revolutionary modesty and ethics that calls on us to die of hunger before letting ourselves be corrupted by the supposed vices of capitalism. Then, we even define ourselves as poets when some official comes by asking how we’re different from the lumpen.
We ruined meetings, accusing the bureaucrats of the presidency, we questioned, we spoke up, we played the classic opportunistic chess poorly because we captured pieces in all directions, we didn’t have the grace to get in good with the boss. We asked, of course, that the Hermanos Saíz Association cut itself off from the other political organizations and become independent. We had nothing and aspired to much less. We flat out refused to be domesticated. We had to reject the first time someone edited and approved a poem we were going to recite in an activity the following day, for the first time we told the “secret” agent who always presided over the Literary Workshop to shut up.
We went to church and tried to carry the Virgin on a procession when it was frowned upon and prohibited. Our poems spoke freely of religious beliefs, suicide fantasies, different sexual preferences, or the sublime desire to emigrate; we severed ourselves from the tyrannical deadly placenta, killing the mother and burning the city. We quoted each other and shared the experiences of the exiles, making direct comparisons with the cursed readings and tragic events of Stalinism.
We had to stop using, in essays and criticisms, classifications such as “Revolutionary literature” that had been commonplace until then, and mandatory tests to pass to the next level. Unthinkably, a recognized group shame came over us with the introduction to the anthology Usted es la culpable (You are Guilty), in 1985, where we almost asked forgiveness for living.
Following the takeover, by the powers-that-be, of colloquial discourse after the Triumph of the Revolution, no generation had been so free. At our side, many of the authors of the decade immediately before, those of the great axiological bankruptcy, and especially those who had not swelled the diaspora, suffering the ravages of the ideological uproar: self-censorship, delusions of persecution, deep remorse, psychological scars, as a consequence of the forced learning when the control of artistic activity was still staged, a shock treatment undertaken directly by police dressed as peasants.
The churches overflowed and every Sunday, Mass-as-catharsis brought a collective prayer for those who threw themselvesinto the sea on a raft. We walked the country from house to house listening to banned radio or the cassettes of so many musicians targeted on the blacklist. Nobody lowered his voice while standing in line to echo jokes and anonymous parodies of poems and songs. There was a euphoria paradoxically coinciding with the consciousness of hitting bottom. Our psychic freedom was so spontaneous and vital that we felt ourselves above reality, noting our own detachment and spiritual independence, ignoring the fact that the macrosocial circumstances would remain the same as those suffered by other generations in the hard gray years.
Perhaps we trusted that sooner or later history would have to catch up with us and put itself in tune with our inner world and everything out there would be removed. What happened afterwards? Of course we didn’t change life. We just spent our youth and there was another turn of the screw they gave — and continue giving — others.
I hardly know if I distinguish good from within an experience so tight that it leaves me short of breath, but when I look around I notice that the generation of the ’80s that didn’t emigrate, for the most part they have adapted better, continued the evolutionary heritage of the coloquialists, the Generation of the ’50s, skilled in reaching the power on high and touching its intimate and popular fiber.
Just as there is a “historic” generation that toppled the Batista tyranny and took the baton for life, there is a poetic generation that, within the aesthetic ideals of the process acquired, early on, the same equivalence as the supposed opponents of the old bourgeois sensibility which has been accruing the benefits of power from this extra prestige, not for its abilities in literary recycling and contamination, which has been great over the years thanks to the porous and open nature of the predominant collectivist discourse, but because they distinguished themselves by making the “sacrifice” and occupying the political responsibilities, the positions, the institutions, as so well described by Virgilio Lopez Lemus in his book Palabras de trasfondo (Background Words).
Then the deviations of the young who, at the end of the ’80s answered their parents, reclaimed space, perhaps these were only the sins of transition. Even many of those wizened poets of the triumphalist and opportunistic discourse, against those whom they fought, simply adapted new coordinates, expanding the range, deceiving the thematic present, adding a seasoning of drops of pessimism, metaphysicality or perplexity, and in the end looking too much like their caustic children, sharing the same balance of elite institutions, lifted into power but brought down by the same sociological reality.
I think the majority of the youth of the ’90s — well, of course, I can only speak for myself and a few that I appreciate, within the scope of my knowledge — we still have the stigma of the excesses of frustration and freedom into which we launched ourselves, because it was real, unvarnished. The little we experienced, I think we did it with our backs to the public that had followed, up to now, the spectacle of the internal struggles for the discourse of truth, of facts, to always reach someone with the best and most updated code of the great changes of Cuban history (of this resignation someone has called “boring”) when, along the way, we have seen that this history is never that new, never so distant no matter how overly sentimental or unbearable it has become at times.
We touched, and we are touching, a spiritual flame, energy that did not separate any layer of reality toward another magnetic center. And there was exactly nothing left for us to do, amid essential conditions of maladjustment, to enjoy the good life, save a demonstration of domestic, or minor, virtues, typical of the domesticated.
The truth is that we must have endurance to live in peace in a “huge” village and a “tiny” hell.
*Translator’s note: From a poem by Dulce Maria Loynaz
I met him in 1998. That year, on October 12, he received the “José Vasconcelos” prize in a ceremony at the National Hotel in Havana. The gold medal, conferred by the Hispanic Affirmation Front (HAF) to intellectuals of the Castillian language for lifetime achievement, had already gone to figures of the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and León Felipe. He was added to the select group with no less dignity, like a venerable man of letters whose patient and helpful work had contributed to the appreciation of Cuban literature beyond our shores. Coincidentally, that day the same institution in Mexico gave, with exceptional character, the Young Talent Prize to Ileana Álvarez. In the next few years we would share various times, invited always to activities in which the HAF and its president, Mr. Fredo Arias of la Canal, continued enhancing the knowledge of Cuban literary heritage, influenced especially with its “savior” influence.
It was the next year, in Holguín, where we traveled to pay homage to the poet Lalita Curbelo, that I asked if I would be allowed to turn on a small recorder, in the middle of some chats which he adorned with his rich knowledge and anecdotes of who had been not only a researched, but also a protagonist and exceptional witness to the vicissitudes of literature and Creole society for the better part of the twentieth century. Then, the century was drawing to a close, a good excuse to ask my interlocutor for a brief overview, a review not only of those hundred years but also his own unique look.
At the start I wasn’t excited about anything more than the idea of collecting, as a curiosity, part of the treasure of these conversations, and learning something about someone who had preferred to dedicate his energies to study and the promotion of other authors and tradition, from a university chair, as well as a writer, or — though he sneered at old age, keeping very active — directing the Cuban Academy of Language. I wanted to take advantage of this situation facing a young man who asks, in a classroom, partly because he doesn’t know and partly to be provocative.
When I got home I prepared the transcript and sent it to him with this message: “Here I have made a verbatim copy of the interview I managed to record in those hectic days of our stay at the Pernik Hotel in Holguin. As I promised, I am sending it to you for your review and editing of everything you want to clarify, and then return it to me.”
But time passed and passed … and every time I phoned, he would ask for another extension. Until we met around the table again and I didn’t give him any more cracks at it: I thought perhaps he would loosen his tongue with regards to some simple themes that, looking closely, were still uncomfortable, at least as long as the people involved were living. He asked me to let the water run under the bridge a little more. The truth is, that except for this interview I kept it to myself and since then it has remained unpublished.
When he passed on physically, Salvador Bueno (Havana, 1917-2006) closed an extensive work that he worked on until his final hour, consisting mainly of research, essays, articles and anthologies, which began in 1950 when he published Outline of Modernism in Cuba (Talleres Tipográficos de Editorial Lex, La Habana), a conference he had held at the Universidad del Aire on September 3.
Then in 1953, the National Commission for UNESCO would print A Half-Century of Cuban Literature (1902-1952). His History of Cuban Literature, adapted to the current official program in the institutes of secondary education in Cuba, appeared in 1954 with the Minerva seal and later would be reissued after the triumph of the Revolution.
Among his outstanding monographs was The Negro in the Hispanic American Novel (Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1986), with which he had obtained, in 1978, the Candidate of Doctor of Sciences in the Literary Academy of Sciences of Hungary. The milestones of poetry also always received the benefit of his attention, from Image by the poet Milanés, a reprint of the Journal of the National Library José Martí (Havana, 1963).
In his later years, he fulfilled the responsibilities of President of the Cuban Academy of Language with the same humility that Dulce Maria Loynaz had left this institution on dying. What then was the main promoter of the collection of Cuban Classics, thanks to funding from the FAH, but with the seal of the Academy, he returned to life and put back into circulation many indispensable books, always with his prefaces and notes.
Now in the last stage of his life he received other awards that came to validate the homage of his Mexican friends. He won the International Fernando Ortiz Prize, in 2000, then on the same date the National Award for Cultural Research, and four years later, the National Social Sciences Award.
When he’d already let more than a little water run under the bridge, I think it’s necessary to deliver to others that part of his words that I picked up one day.
Francis Sanchez: Your love of literature, is it a family inheritance?
Salvador Bueno: I can’t say that in my family there was some ancestor that was dedicated to literature. Although my father was a great reader and also, according to what he told me, when he was very young he wrote some articles. I think that in the stages of Cuban life that I lived, there were those who got me interested in literature, as the necessary expression of a man, that is of the whole society.
I studied at the Havana Institute in a tumultuous era, when there was even an attack by the army and the police. I think on March 3, 1934 they threw tear gas. There is even a chronicle published by Pablo de la Torriente [Cuban writer, 1901-1936], about the terrible things that happened there, in a place where there hundreds of boys and girls.
As the police were already fired up, any gesture of rejection was sufficient motive to set them against us. In that situation we had long periods of truce, most of the time the strikers were the same students, although it was always the government that closed the classrooms.
After the fall of Machado the opened the institutes for what they called lightning courses, but then came the strike of March 1935, and they suspended classes again, and it was the same in other months. All this inclined me, as well, towards reading. In the long periods where there no student obligations I dedicated myself to reading everything that fell into my hands, not just works of pure creation, like novels, stories or poems, but also I read critical essays, histories… I read a lot, both good and bad, from contradictory positions, which I think ultimately opened a very wide spectrum for me.
FS: And in the beginning, as a man of thought, were you marked by the social aspects?
SB: That vocation was born and developed over all the years at the Institute of Havana, then in the Institute of Vibora and finally at the University, because the agitation continued throughout all these years. I entered the University in 1938, and Abel Santamaria in 1942. The situation of unrest that existed in Cuba was very big, especially among students. Among teachers of all types and kinds, they were very good for the students because not only were they very good at their material, but they also maintained a civic position that they drove us to follow. For example, there was Vincentina Antuña who conveyed his concerns to us, so this way they also directed us. I think those years of struggle were invaluable to me in that sense, because I learned from books and beyond the books.
FS: Talking about the matter of your own work, what do you think of Cuban poetry of the twentieth century compared to the nineteenth century? That upward spiral — as Lezama said — which would certainly mean the poetry of the nineteenth century, in relation to what was being written then in the rest of America, do you believe that it had continued during this last century?
SB: I think that in the first fifteen years of the century, the poetry written in Cuba was delayed relative to the rest of Hispanic America. However, from that stage of disillusion rose great powers like Regino Boti, José Manuel Pobeda, Agustín Acosta and others, And in this what, despite what the frustration of the Republic meant, they found better ways to express themselves in taking into account the situation in the country.
Pobeda, for example, demonstrates a poetry and a prose of total skepticism, but also with a great anger … There’s a poem he called “Dirty rag,” dedicated to the flag, where he tells people precisely that, that their flag is a rag. So it was afterward that the other poetry arose, between 1920 and 1930, where we also find notable authors who were reacting against their predecessors without totally separating themselves from them. They are poets like Tallet and Regino Pedroso, who on the one hand leaned greatly toward social concerns and at the some time possessed a skepticism that they were going to try to placate.
Then comes an important event, the revolution against Machado, which means a new frustration for Cubans, because when we expected that the leaders that emerged after the fall of the tyrant would improve the situation of the country, the opposite happened. The most obvious case was that of Grau San Martin, who was elected by a huge majority, and also with tremendously enthusiastic demonstrations, this Cintio Vitier who spoke very well in the novel De peña pobre. There was joy because finally a popular president was elected, and then there was widespread frustration.
So, I think that with those relapses will there will always arise the spirit of the Cuban rebel who stands in front of those gaps and faces the same skepticism that comes from such experiences. So we have the case of Chibas who is, I would say, a reformer, but around him there is a series of guys who later will be the starting point of the generation of the century. And besides, in poetry (it seemed as if we were not already talking about poetry) there were the great teachers who were born early in the century, Nicolas Guillen in 1902, Lezama in 1910… These important figures will manage to be heard. Guillen for his particular expression, for his own communicability, which he managed, perhaps, more easily than others.
FS: Do you think it’s an exaggeration to refer to Origins as a movement.
SB: No because without a doubt it was a movement. It had to do with Lezama, and the youngest, Eliseo, Cintio, Fina, were the ones who gave it vitality. So much so that when the Revolution came that required taking positions, and Lezama and they were left in Cuba. Although they say he tried to leave but the truth is he stayed in Cuba when his sister left. He was a man who lived very immersed in his own environment. I remember once at his house he confessed to me that he couldn’t live without the dampness that left stains you could see on the walls, although, in the end, with his asthma, it was precisely those water stains that killed him.
FS: With the Revolution, what significance did Lezama continue to have for you?
SB: I will tell you something that is certainly going to amaze you, many people no longer remember that Lezama Lima was vice president of UNEAC (Cuban Artists and Writers Union). I have a card with his signature. The UNEAC ID card had be to renewed from time to time, but I kept mine, I save it like a treasure, a UNEAC card with Lezama Lima’s signature as vice president, that is acting vice president, because when Guillen went abroad he stopped fulfilling the functions as one of the first vice presidents.
FS: When was that?
SB: UNEAC was founded in 1961 and this was in the first ten years. Also, in 1959 they offered a series of conferences on the steps of the University, they would invite there the most distinguished poets and writers, contributors included Tallet, Regino Pedroso, and also Lezama, but his contribution is almost unknown although it was published, because Ciro Bianchi included it in a boo where he brought together a lot of the works of those who were dispersed and little known.  The initiative of offering this conference on the steps, his contribution, his thinking, was very good. That is, some have wanted to accentuate Lezama’s withdrawn personality, or his anti-Revolutionary character, but you have to read his work carefully.
FS: In the second half of the twentieth century, we have the poetry that is already within the Revolutionary process.
SB: There’s even a debate about what has been called “First generation poetry of the Revolution,” some who had been publishing before the Revolution, as is the case with Robert Fernandez Retamar, and even those who began to publish in the first years. Then, in 1959, those Cuban Book Fairs started, and there we find a selection of poetry from the young, prepared by Retamar and Fayad Jamis . You have to pay attention to what they say in the prologue, and the authors that are included there, is something fabulous. They increasingly emphasize the desire to identify with the priorities of identity, but also the desire to penetrate their own personalities, and in this way I think they they achieved the best results of this first stage of the poetry of the Revolution, that is, that which comes with full force from the young people who founded El Caimán Barbudo (The Bearded Cayman) in 1966, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, Víctor Casaus…
FS: Do you think that in this 20th century we have some intellectual that is head and shoulders above that we will be able to recognize as the most significant figure?
SB: I think without a doubt that the intellectual figure most important in this century in Cuba is Fernando Ortiz, and I think that in the new century new generations should know him completely and follow his direction. His works should be republished, and we must always insist on the fundamental messages of his work.
* “Salvador, un sillón ocupado en las letras cubanas” (Salvado, a Chair Occupied in Cuban Letters) won the Orlando Castellanos Interview Prize in the cultural magazine Videncia (Clairvoyance), 2010. Jury: Gina Picart, David Leyva and Juventina Soler. This is only a fragment.
1 Cintio Vitier published the first part of his novel De peña pobre in México, in 1978.
2 Aludes to a text compiled by Ciro Bianchi in Imagen y posibilidad, Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1981.
3 Refers to the selection, Poesía joven de Cuba, Ediciones del Festival del Libro Cubano, La Habana, 1959.
I had promised to publish two other parts of my last post, “Closed for Demolition”. Many days have gone by without my being able to do so. I will no longer do it, because definitely what I had in mind would only add essay-type content. The fundamental thing, the denunciation, is already done, and what remains is the testimony. I will save those texts in order to add other pages to new projects.
I am very grateful to all those who have written comments and who have offered me solidarity because, although it may seem minimal, it is an indispensable nourishment for moving ahead with life. In some way, although at times there is a delay in my being able to know it, I have always ended up becoming aware of what they comment and write to me. But it is true that I could not publish with the necessary frequency, or safety, without harming other people who were helping me. Thank you.
The blog “Man in the Clouds” is a marvelous chapter of my life that I do not regret. Of course, neither am I the one who is closing it–“for now”, I hear the little voice of temptation tell me–I specifically denounce my fear–not so much for me, but for my family–and the things that cause it, because no one is to blame for feeling fear. “No one. Absolutely no one,” says the magnificent writer Eliseo Alberto in the memoir “Report Against Myself.”
What will be most difficult in closing or cutting off is the need for complete freedom of expression, an inalienable right that connects hears and does not depend on any cable. So we will keep on seeing each other in this beautiful site.
The television series “The Reasons of Cuba”, which launched a new catalogue of agents infiltrated into Cuban society, with the direction the revelations took, places in evidence a new period of control or official pressure on national culture and intellectuality, as if the margin of natural life we had left for our development were not already very miserable. The supposed master act of these “agents” did not happen before or after it came out on television, but only now that they have come to achieve something with true impact, and it is this: the mixture of anger, disappointment, nausea, fear, shame, pity, remorse, etc. that can be found by following the tracks that they left among all the manipulated people–colleagues, friends, neighbors, work mates, etc.–whom they tried to provoke and attract with false projects that they made up themselves. Revulsion is said to be a paralyzing feeling. Now, when the coaxial cable that has arrived at the Cuban coast is about to begin to function, and at all levels they are trying to limit access to the new technologies, flagrantly violating the privacy of the mail, which is a violation of the Cuban Constitution, perhaps the punishing blow is taking shape, the censorship that we intellectuals have been waiting for since the “email crisis” of 2007. To criminalize intellectuality and that natural attachment to freedom of expression.
[I have decided to publish, before this blog is closed down, some texts that I didn’t publish at the time because it was practically impossible to do it because of obvious difficulties or because as time passed I doubted that it would be the best idea. Due to recent events, I think it is best not to leave them unpublished. They are the following texts: the article “Guatacas” (Hoes), the poem “La palabra Abedul” (The Word Abedul) and the documents “Carta abierta a un amigo” (Open Letter to a Friend) and “Aclaración al lector” (Clarification to the Reader). The last work that must be published on this blog is “Cerrado por demolición” (Closed for Demolition), which will appear in three parts or submissions: “La cosa en la red” (The Thing in the Net), “Puntos negros” (Black Points) and “Nosotros y las nubes” (We and the Clouds).]
I. The “Thing” in the Net
When I opened this blog, only some five months ago, I told the story of a night full of nightmares, the time that my wife almost collapsed and I was at her side for us to survive impotence and frustration together for reasons that are explained in the post “Mass Layoffs. Dissolve the public?” Now this blog called “Man in the Clouds” is closed down or nailed to the air with this article which, under the title “Closed for Demolition” I plan to publish in three parts or submissions, after I have once again lived through a night of horror. Cuban television has just shown, at the top hour of eight-thirty at night, a new chapter of the series “The Reasons of Cuba”, with the title “Cyberwarfare”.
I had promised myself to try to never hurt, much less attack, other people in my writing, as well as to not defend myself from that type of low blows when I became a target because of my points of view–to encourage personal disagreements or mudslinging, supposedly among intellectuals, is an undertaking of destruction and ethical poverty in which the principal investors in immobility and censorship are accustomed to place their ample resources, betting on empty, on despair and generalized revulsion–but it seems I have no alternative but to break the second of my resolutions and defend myself. I will do this because essentially it won’t even be self-defense, which is a luxury impossible for me to properly undertake given the very excessive and even abstract disproportion between my attacker and myself. It seems the critical hour has come and I want, while I still can, to denounce injustice and put my ideas and my position down in writing.
The faceless apparatus of the political police accuses me, among the few “independent bloggers” that exist in Cuba, to be in the pay of the United States government. “Cybermercenaries in Cuba” wrote an invisible hand on the Google search engine and, to the horror of my family, I do not know which shady search engine could have produced as a result of this television program showing a page of my blog on the small screen. Enrique Ubieta, who often shows up to defend the powerful “Raison d’Etat”, author of some book he was asked to produce and director of the newspaper “La calle del medio”, at one point says to the camera that this is obviously some ambitious guy who, like somebody who sets up a fried food stand, is trying to get through the economic crisis very easily by getting on the Internet for money paid by Washington. It is unbearably false that my blog be shown here, even a single page for a fraction of a second, but it happened and I saw it, and the most horrible part is that it is linked to my profound impotence. I don’t have to say that I have never set foot inside the USA Interest Section in Havana, nor have I earned or aspired to earn a cent for writing or recording my ideas on a personal blog. A blog that began one day in search of my own breathing room as a marginalized intellectual. A marginalization whose degree has increased a lot since, in early 2007, I published my text “La crisis de la baja cultura” (The Crisis of Low Culture), loaded with a strong dose of social criticism, at the same time as those events that some have called “the email crisis”.
To write, create and reflect, defending the hypothesis of full internal freedom, is something that I have had since I was a child, like breathing. But it makes no sense for me to try to run faster than the lies, since a larger truth is common knowledge, atrocious and popularly incorporated into people’s daily survival mechanism in the face of despotism and the Mystery Syndrome in Cuba: the key is not to predict the problem you might get into, but the one the want to create for you. I, like any individual, lack legal mobility inside a monotonous system, and the most I can hope for is that they pardon my life in order not to air dirty laundry in front of third parties. The structure, the true apparatus of power, works in the shadows. The convictions and activities that any individual may be involved in that show any degree of rejection of the system will be just one set of little crystals under a magnifying glass, a microscope or a telescopic viewer, according to each clinical evolution.
Some months before, a video had leaked through–circulated on a flash drive to another–that was of a conference given to some colleagues by a specialist from the Ministry of the Interior, entitled “Enemy Campaigns and Policies for Confronting Counterrevolutionary Groups”, in which the theme of the new technologies was addressed. On the topic of the blogosphere, he made the following comment:
“They want to create in our minds the concept that the blogger is a kind of enemy of the Revolution. If we take on the bloggers now, we will really make an enemy for ourselves.”
The presenter doubtless was alluding to the process of criminalization that, before the Internet and blogs, over time had made against other technologies that had empowered people: video cameras, video cassettes, computers, printers, mobile phones, to give just a few examples, as well as concepts such as civil society and branches of science like sociology. Which reminds me that, in 1998 when I got my first computer with a printer connected, a cultural assembly registered a complaint against the “danger” that was in my house, which was made by the director of the provincial library. The operating strategy, nevertheless, apparently was going to suffer a radical shift, going from the supposed precaution of a private meeting to the public offensive tactic of the establishment of a new prohibitive code that, following the war manual, reduces a problematic social reality to an epithet, a discrediting term for a person who asks for rationality, but gets echo, euphoria, unconditional repudiation: “cybermercenary” is the new word that overwrites so many other terms that have historically been put in the mouths of the masses.
The day after the previously mentioned television program showed, the newspaper “Granma”, official organ of the PCC (Cuban Communist Party), would publish an even more inclusive and horrific accusation, which apparently left me before the masses labeled just as one more venal soldier, but with all the colors of the typical beast for whom the hunting season never expires in public spaces: pro-Yankee, traitor, terrorist, in other words a monster ready for lynching, packing and sending to hell. In a provincial town like Ciego de Ávila, where I live, going to hell is not a very long trip. These processes of demonization had already begun long before, with a harassment that became progressively less veiled. Now it is the spying, vigilance and persecution I suffer all the time. A meeting was even called by the First Secretary of the Provincial Party at which intellectuals and journalists were exhorted to avoid me. One fine day somebody robs me, takes my cell phone out of my wallet. Another day someone comes to let me know they have been recording and filming me. From one day to the next a literary activity that some careless promoter was kind enough to organize for me and my family is cancelled. Suddenly the television, on the program of March 21 previously mentioned, puts a moral price on my photo. And finally, as a climax, “Granma” publishes multiple accusations, which are also so exaggerated that I am able to refute them all at the same time. Luckily, the activity of a writer and the social reflections made on a blog have the objective of staying afloat, of opening oneself to scrutiny, letting the light in that so bothers those who live in shadows and speculation. So instead of saying “lie” a thousand times, I can limit myself to asking in what part of my texts I have advocated any of that which is imputed to me here:
“These bloggers […] have exhorted people to rise up in Cuba, have promoted violence, support the Cuban Settlement Law, justified the blockade, deny that the most reactionary sector of Miami is the enemy of the Cuban people, say that the case of the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles is a smoke screen and even go so far as to openly express [sic] the change of the political system […].”*3
The latter reproach is very confusing since the editing evidently failed, but it is worth doubting if, in order to straighten out the text, the “official organ of the party” would be willing to do without the Marxist dialectic that has theoretically justified the Cuban political system and which recognizes in social relations a non-linear process, an object of permanent transformation. Would it be inhuman to live according to the universal maxim, so romantic and absolute, of “change everything [everything!] that must be changed.” Or rather is it not monstrous that someone can decide what everything is for everyone? An identical paradox was presented to intellectuals in June of 1961, in a meeting at the National Library, under the banner of “Inside the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing” (this year is the fiftieth anniversary of this event), so that these [intellectuals] could entertain themselves for a long while “sucking on this stone”. Life would show that no one was going to find an escape from the rhetoric of power, no one except the subject master himself, much less intellectuals with the “original sin” of not being of the proletariat or revolutionaries and, meanwhile, they could give each other as many exclusions as there were stars in the sky and political power could be concentrated. Well, for good reason the “words of the intellectuals” are not known, although the ‘I’m afraid” said that day by Virgilio Piñera is still quite explicit.
I responsibly proclaim what I believe comes out naturally in my work: I would never associate myself with hatred or the shedding of a drop of blood; I do not approve of the blockade against Cuba; I reject any type of terrorism, fundamentally state terrorism. To express myself against all terrorism would lead me to be, for example, against the type that promotes revolutions by blowing up bombs in movie houses and parks, against the type that tries to destabilize governments by putting bombs in hotels, against the type that organizes paramilitary squadrons and causes people to disappear, against the type that converts society into an artificial political web capable of functioning millimetrically to produce the expatriation or social death of anyone whom it doesn’t like, against the type that sends out crowds to surround a man in his house with his family only because he thinks differently… By the way, regarding my rejection of violence, in a section of my poem collection “Epitafios de nadie” (Nobody’s Epitaphs) (Ed. Oriente, 2009), the poem “Medallista de plata” (Silver Medalist) about the sabotage of that Cuban plane in Barbados says: “[…] On what island, of what random face / did the assassin ask quickly quickly for a ticket? / It was forgotten here in his luggage. / Never open it again. The gold is for the sea.” In the same book, as a matter of fact, two other poems about such tragedies in contemporary Cuban history do not appear, since they were censored: the sinking of the tugboat Trece de Marzo and the events of August 1994 which some call the Malecón Uprising.
Many sectors or social groups have been categorized as traitors or fifth columnists, also lumped in a group, according to some strategy of doctrinal hardening, sometimes within something as simple as to say, “Whoever doesn’t jump is a Yankee.” These have included those young men who had to hide away to listen to the Beatles, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, poets of family life, ecologists, street artists of the eighties, hip hop singers, and a long list of others, each one in its own time. Over and over, we members of the Cuban family have been variously called “scum”, “country-sellers”, “worms”, and have apparently been worthy of repudiation, stonings and kicks, receiving and passing on the baton, the black speck. At the same time, in order to restrain that plurality embodying ideological differences and social criticism, frequently the traitorous pretext has been used by people who adopt a field of intellectual action that is internally mined because they were supposedly making up a scenario for a foreign invasion. A very notable Inquisition-like scene was set up against the authors of the books “Fuera de juego” (Out of the Game) and “Los siete contra Tebas” (Seven Against Thebes), prize winners from the UNEAC 1968, in poetry and theater, respectively. The “Declaration of the UNEAC”, signed November 15, 1968, and given out as a prologue to the poem collection of Heberto Padilla, demonstrated a mechanism that would remain essentially active, an overgrown apparatus that marks people and works for their circulation with an untimely meaning.
“Now then: whom do these books serve? Do they serve our revolution, slandered this way, hurt by such means? Obviously not. Our revolutionary conviction allows us to point out that poetry and that theater are our enemies, and their authors are the artists they need to feed their Trojan horse at the hour when imperialism decides to put into practice its policy of warlike frontal aggression against Cuba.”
Manuel Díaz Martínez, a member of the Poetry Judging Panel, tells us that, after a lot of maneuvering to avoid giving the prize based strictly on literary quality, the executive leaders of the UNEAC met with the different members of the panel to explain to them the problems that had come up with the books in question and there, at that time, Félix Pita Rodríguez in his role as attorney general, played the last card, the lethal disintegrating ray one, saying: “The problem, comrades, is that there is a conspiracy by the intellectuals against the revolution.” Díaz Martínez reveals: “Before such an accusation, I asked to speak and I requested him to give out the names of those “conspirators”. He didn’t give them. What existed was a government conspiracy against freedom of opinion.”3 Although Félix Pita didn’t say them, the names of those intellectuals would become well known in the following years, due to the weight of the suffering and ostracism that some of them, “counterrevolutionaries” like José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, would endure to the end of their lives.
I reject and denounce the epithet “counterrevolutionary”–the term mercenary is included a priori; it is always around the house–that they want to apply to me as a pretext for repression, for eliminating the right to live in a nation and a culture that are alive and open, because I practice an intellectual policy of resistance that is not that of collaboration, or of silence, or of exile; it is perhaps best described as existentialist. If it offends me, it is because it is untrue, the same reason for which I believe the term “revolutionary” intellectual is invalid since it, with a functionalism and a reductionist and exclusionary axiological economy, has been used to deny the natural rights of the artist or the intellectual–uncomplicate him, dehumanize him, emptying his thought and work–in the period following the triumph of the Revolution, inside Cuba. Both reductions are resonating figures that follow the same selective pattern, since they inform, more than on the particular qualities, on the will for power that dominates a social field reduced to its minimum expression.
The game of taking turns in power allowed inside such limits carries with it too much feigning, pretense, hypertrophy, traditional debate of the appropriateness of social criticism, a problem that soon became written in the annals of academia as exclusively applying to the topic of the function or the “role of the revolutionary intellectual” in society. The art of simulation, needed to survive, would lead many to cross the waters of that obligatory ideological baptism while barely touching them, adopting an essentialist vision of accepting the stereotype of such a mark in a decontextualized form. Manuel Díaz Martínez himself tells that, in the meeting of the Judging Panel at which a final decision would be made, he defended his proposal, declaring that “Fuera del juego” (Out of the Game) was critical but not counterrevolutionary–actually revolutionary in its criticism”.
This synecdoche could be justified for the hypo-statization of the figure of the “revolutionary intellectual” for the plain and simple flesh-and-blood intellectual, as has frequently happened, trusting that the rights earned for one, for the only existing or really accepted one, are going to be extended as if by contagion to the rest. This modest aspiration, nevertheless, perhaps hides in the end a conflict with the humanist tradition, when one tries to make obsolete an ideal model, on which have depended a good part of the achievements of Western civilization–to which the process of Cuban nationality belongs, however much this might be sometimes denied–in which intellectuals not only represented themselves to themselves and to others, like mirrors facing mirrors, but who aspired to express, catalyze, assign prerogatives, rights and rich possibilities of all of society as a whole. In this sense, the social and critical relevance of the intellectual is going to be subject to the universal norm of the average common man, because he thinks or exists, nothing else.
But the degree of ideal communicability and criticism that the advocates of a Manichean, convenient, simplifying power structure in Cuba unfortunately seems to be being reduced, more and more, to zero. Desiderio Navarro, in his presentation “In medias res publicas” (In the middle of the public thing) presented at the International Conference “The Role of the Intellectual in the Public Arena” (organized by the Prince Claus of Holland Fund held in Beirut in February 2000), stated regarding the Cuban situation:
“[…]the criteria for correct social criticism would not be [whether it is] the truth, but rather the degree to which its attention to detail, scrupulousness and rigor correspond to a certain measure of what is necessary or advisable. […] To not criticize the whole or to criticize less than is necessary or advisable is not a reason for condemnation and exclusion. This shows that “zero”, total absence, is in reality the ideal degree of social criticism.”4
So neither does the favorite strategy of official refutation accept within the public domain that any ideo-esthetic platform be established for debate unless it is not vertically controlled. In practice, this reaction has been made into law: close the social contract to the human being, discrediting his will as if he were a micro-organnism that obeys an infinitely superior infection process.
“The most frequent manner of attacking critical interventions by the intellectuals in the public sphere is not, as one might expect, pointing out the negative consequences that their critical statements could supposedly have or, even less, the demonstration of the supposedly erroneous nature of these statements, but rather the attribution of reprehensible hidden intentions to their authors […].”5
I am not falling off this cloud now. I knew the risk of being, of “inhabiting the language”, even those limits broken and contaminated by an alien reality. Limits where there is always a lack of oxygen for the creatures that struggle to keep the heat and tremor of their dreams. One day a beloved successful writer taught me: “I only start wars I know I am going to win.” This author, of course, had arranged to get in and out of scandalous activities without being unworthy of a certificate of confidence that is only issued from the vision of the winners. But true success is never the presence of anything, or proof of life, at least never in that despicable sense, not visionary. On the contrary, I think that if the plan for my freedom is condemned to failure in the small and circumstantial sense, it must move forward toward it in the larger sense: “I can no longer be free/I will enlarge my prisons.”6 If indeed our common home–although not the largest of those we live in–is history, country, a language of our present and shared being, it seems inhabitable for the people who are completely defeated and must leave outside their excess suffering, even having fallen; the imponderable of being can make us endure before the door.
1 The program was transmitted o the Cubavisión channel on March 21, 2011, and retransmitted on other channels the following day.
2 “The Reasons of Cuba”. Cyber warfare: mercenaries on the net”, Deisy Francis Mexidor, in Granma, March 22, 2011, p. 5.
3 Manuel Díaz Martínez: “Brief Inside Story of the Padilla Case”.
4 Desiderio Navarro: “In medias res publicas”, in magazine “La Gaceta de Cuba”, no. 3, May-June, 2001, p.43.
6 Verse by Manuel Altolaguirre.
This February 23 marks the first anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo after suffering a hunger strike that lasted 86 days. The official press hastened to say that it was just another fallen mercenary in service to the empire. But not everyone in the general public subjected to this propaganda saw it that way, even some avowed communists revealed their bewilderment in remarks circulated by email: can one give their own life, coldly, in exchange for money?
The old discredited argument against dissent, against differences, continues to transmit the classic standard of proof: supposedly all “others” are lacking not only good sense, true motives, but also lack the most minimal ideal or altruism. But now its lack of logic has left this argument without a leg. This victim was different, he had crossed the vast threshold of the pain of an entire people until he entered into death, carried forth by his own sturdy will, over to where Cubans, because of their culture and distinctive characteristics, do not charge or demand, but instead offer to give themselves freely to their fellow man. Apart from puppets, that other cartoonish idea of masochistic dissidents, that they are looking for ostracism and repression in return for a few perks they are thrown from the outside, does not even remotely fit the case. Zapata gave everything. He gave, and here this word acquires its full meaning, his life.
Absolute power, which is always marked by rigor mortis, does not permit even in theory a social actor who dissents legitimately. Seemingly the most elemental human condition is lost when a person questions or doubts the vertical power, receiving the exclusion that is reserved for monsters, that’s why the revolutionary songbook is full of dehumanizing terms such as “worm”, “scum”, “faction”, it has been used over the long course of Cuban history to institutionalize an overwhelming fear of disagreements.
One might ask the tribunal of untainted pure censors this question: what is the prototypical dissident for which they have planned, do they concede to a life the right to question, that those who choose to live could believe that a monolithic social model is unsustainable or impossible. Given this abundant reality and the ideological contradictions why don’t we see an opponent worthy of minimal respect emerge in the national arena, someone permitted to share the same space with them minus the stigma, and a judge that is chosen who will accept all parties: does some type of a priori approved opponent exist? A person who authentically challenges power and its axioms? Is there an application process to follow, some conditions to be met, at least on paper, which won’t cause oneself to deserve punishment or to have oneself compared to rats? Well no. This very complex reality and national history gives us the answer: it has not been planned for. In a Revolution, supposedly more sacred than the existence of the people caught in its vortex, one where the means disrupt the ends, simply put, a good citizen is “revolutionary” or they cease to be a citizen.
They corner and they crush the “vermin” on the pretext of preventing harm to human beings and the community. Denied as individuals the reasons or lack of reasons of the State that enforces a degraded standard of living, what mark of our uniqueness are we left, what tacit humanism, what borderline is there which can be used to avoid mistaking ourselves for the blind murderous deformities that illustrate the official bestiary. Harming oneself is the extreme attitude test, but also practically the only one that comes to a person already cornered and crushed in order to argue for their harmlessness and their human rights: actions like separating oneself from the sheep kept secure in a pen, the renunciation, the fasting or a tragic suicide… Zapata crossed those boundaries. Clearly, not even that was sufficient: official spokesmen cataloged it as perverse. Without a doubt, he made himself a martyr.
To continue the story starting from the same place. They had also wanted this February 23 to be for Pedro Arguelles’ birthday, one of the few prisoners who are left of the 75 condemned in spring of 2003, in spite of causing the government to promise last year to free all of them in November later that same year. So Arguelles had planned his visiting day, which occurs approximately every month and a half, for this date. Yolanda, his wife, had the bags prepared to bring to him, when she received his call: He decided to renounce this visit in order to pass his birthday in complete fasting as an homage to the memory of Orlando Zapata. He who has nothing, but still finds a way to find the strength and express himself civically, sacrificing the little that he still has.
Yolanda must wait another 45 days to see the man she loves and who makes her feel proud. “Stateless” usually encompasses peaceful dissent, here it’s synonymous with traitor and monster. Arguelles has seen his imprisonment prolonged including after the promise of the government, until arriving at that day which shared his birthday and the first anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata, precisely for rejecting the only condition which until now they have given to him in order to leave the jail: Abandon his homeland.
We are having a wake for our cadaver and, at the bottom of the deep future, trembles a flame, an idea much more daunting than the open eyes of a dead man: the soul in torment from the nation “with all and for the good of all.”
My watch was still running slow, probably because I needed to change the battery, so I went looking for a watchmakers when, about to turn a corner, I noticed that I was passing in front of a sort of bunkhouse, tenement block or similar poor dwelling. I remembered that there, years ago, lived Pedro Argüelles, one of the political prisoners convicted in summary trials in the dark spring of 2003. And the door was open. Some people bustled about in a family environment, filling or changing something in the narrow little living room where they could barely fit. His wife … was she still his wife? A quick glimpse inside was enough to see her running some home engineering operation just like she wore her age and her solitude. I went to greet her. A thin invisible line separated us.
It was the line of a fortuitous occasion and a door already open, but that separation, which at a simple glance seemed insignificant, surrounds like a moat those who dare dissent peacefully from a government which doesn’t permit individual liberties or fissures in power. Risking the step, to cross that dividing line, could only mean one thing: to fall, and I don’t know from what height — nobody knows until they touch bottom.
I sank myself in that grief that appears when feelings within the heart scrape against the fear of contagion, the instinct of self-preservation, and the passion or bravery that emanates from common human sense, with a difficult doubt to overcome. The doubt between finding myself before a temptation of demonic, self-destructive forces, or before a test of the angelic part of my soul where God still waits for payment on the debt that humanity has continued accumulating down the centuries of hate and injustice.
It all happened in a flash. A kiss and I ask her how she’s been. Such a curious sample of that liquid or gaseous state in which one can find any fellow man, resulting from the formula of colloquial greeting, ordinarily preferred and established in the street, but here it implicitly included her other half, or as it might be, him, someone sunk in a cell in the prison at Canaleta. This prison, which rises so close to the outskirts of this same city, shares its boundary with the cemetery inside the urban connection, like two complimentary variants of a city turned upside down.
He communicated with her sometimes by telephone. He was almost blind, he could only see out of one eye and very badly, to read he had to stick the paper to his face. And the day before he had been called, again, by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, with the proposal that the prelate had come whispering within earshot of the other prisoners sentenced throughout the country: march to exile. Argüelles — different from most of the others — had already rejected such an outcome, and this time — according to what she, his wife, was telling me — he refused even to come to the phone.
I’ve said that everything occurred in a flash. But I could also say that I followed my path as someone who has been stabbed and doesn’t know it, he cannot or does not want to know from where the blow came. Does anyone have the right to offer, gladly, exile to another? I felt wounded not only as the Catholic that I am–of little standing, I wouldn’t recommend myself for any papal indulgence, though Catholic to the end, prepared to respond before any request for this religious identity that marks me in my transit through life and the labyrinth of the world.
I felt that pain, that nausea of frustration, that abyss which can lock itself in the chest of any person, independent of his ideas and beliefs. The family, a country under construction, or at least in the limelight of preeminent personalities and institutions, is this where those who deny the dogma are torn from the body of the nation? I was the same supposed escape rejected by Socrates–offered, then, by his disciples with the best of intentions–and, before submitting himself to this social death he preferred to drink the hemlock.
Exile is not, and never has been, synonymous with freedom. It has never belonged to the tradition of change or travel freely chosen, in which human potential flowers positively, open up and at the same time penetrate the future, guaranteeing that beautiful concert of the pollenizing of cultures. Exile comes by force of the community’s reasoning, although it might point against all common sense, or through the blind reasoning of the strongest, punitive — despotically. In Cuban history there was always the torture rack that tyrants used to free themselves not only of their opponents but of their ideas or uncomfortable attitudes.
Because of this a founding act of the Republic of 1902 was to repatriate the bodies of exiled intellectuals. Thus were brought home, among others, the remains of the priest Félix Varela (1788-1853). About the “Cuban saint”, Martí said that “he came to die close to Cuba, as close to Cuba as he could,” meaning in Florida. Welcoming the martyr who had suffered deportation for aspiring to a freedom beyond that of the confessional of a singular faith, incorporating him into the nurturing soil as truly as he then could be, when he was already just “beloved dust”, did not mean, however, the end of the trauma that kept feeding itself through the generations to extraordinary levels. A trauma that today, in addition to the communities and in particular the intellectuals dispersed throughout the entire world, has converted Florida almost into a second island.
Among sad omens everywhere, the note published by the newspaper Granma on July 8, 2010 seemed hopeful. One word, most precious to every soul, and therefore widely used by political spokespeople, stood out from within this brief text: “liberty”. Perhaps it sounded different on hearing it, in the sense that the message could appear as fresh as the new life that we all want.
For the first time the Cuban Church was acting as a valid interlocutor before a State that just a little while ago proclaimed itself atheist, and undertook a promise that only earthly powers could achieve, announcing that within four months the “prisoners that remain of those who were detained in 2003 will be placed in liberty.” But in the following days we came to understand that the phrase that followed — “and they will be able to leave the country” — hid this obligation: that the prisoners would have to go directly from their cells to the airport.
Now in the form of a note in Granma, scars had been exposed, games of appearances and intrigues in which a hypothesis, apparently so controlled as to let a specific group of citizens go free, must be unwrapped. It’s worth doing a textual analysis. We are faced with a use, rarely seen in the monotonous official press, of the technique of the “chinese box”: a narrator passes a word to another so he can pass it on, and that one puts itself inside another narrative, and this one in another, thus successively, like those Russian folk nesting dolls, matryoshka.
We have Granma, being the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, which won’t pronounce or emit such a serious decision, executable only at the highest level — including one we saw taken unwisely by the general-cum-president in a chat with the then-Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Miguel Ángel Moratinos — but it disregards the social content in the headline emphasizing the source of information, “Prensa Latina reported,” as if the agency founded by Cuba is reporting an event in a third country.
Then it turns out that the text, as evidenced by the header, belongs to the Archbishop of Havana, it is his “press release”. And, at last, the Catholic institution alleges that “the Cuban authorities advised”. Or it might be, says Granma, that the Prensa Latina agency says that the Archbishop of Havana says what the Cuban government said. A labyrinth, without a doubt. A huge game of echos, in a society where there has never been ample room for dialog and much less a choral concert, at the expense of citizens who despair in real life, hoping for hints of the future, a concept so impoverished of freedom, and therefore, truth.
The truth is the difficulty with which whatever twisted words might now come to disturb the compass of thought and experience, for example, of Martí, who would keep showing his own, suffered at the prow, between “the lives that now, in brutal exile, only hang by a thread?”; because “in exile / all men and homes are shipwrecked / unsafe ships surrendered to the sea!“. From a letter to General Máximo Gómez, during the preparations for his final voyage to Cuba: “The respect for freedom and thought of others, even of the most miserable beings, is my fanaticism: if I die, or they kill me, it will be because of that.”
Almost all the prisoners of the 2003 Black Spring have now left for distant shores. Among those who stayed behind bars, clinging to his irons, is Pedro Argüelles. Nothing would make one think, in the public life of his city, Ciego de Ávila, that here would come unfolding this drama that has at its center someone who can barely see the palms of his own hands. Or, almost nothing.
There is a notice stuck to the wall in the vestibule of the St Eugenio de La Palma Cathedral. It is a summary of the thought that the cardinal would offer the first of January of this year in the Havana Cathedral, celebrating the World Day of Peace. Whoever stuck their head in the local church could bring themselves up to date, standing in front of this piece of paper, near a bid that still stands, near a promise of “freedom” for the few who, like Argüelles, won’t accept a one-way ticket.
The cardinal, in January’s Mass that dealt with the message from Pope Benedict XVI with which he opened a new year — “Religious Freedom: Road to Peace” — when even the period the government had given to itself had expired, gave a review of the ideas of some liberties with names, and showed himself to be excited by the results of the mediation of the Church and in particular by his own role. The magazine “New Word“, by the Archdiocese of Havana, described his speech: it said “[he] has a ‘moral certitude’ that in the next few months other prisoners ‘sanctioned for some type of event connected with political postures or actions’ would be set free”. In addition, by the way, he invited his listeners to “free your hearts of old throwbacks and, feeling yourselves to truly be free, assume a vision in reconciliatory truth among all Cubans.”
What reconciliation is built on making the uniting nature of the Fatherland explode, exiling, launching into the sea precisely those who test the basics of love? That same cardinal has affirmed, illustratively, that “it never should have been necessary to renounce God to be able to enjoy one’s own rights.” He brings about a turn to that closeness of meanings that so pleased the Apostle — Jose Marti — between heaven and Earth, feeling and reading “Patria” instead of “God” to distinguish what should be necessary and what should be indispensable.
It would seem that the satisfactory exit from conflict depended on a unilateral decision — Argüelles himself protested, a little while ago, when the government of his country offered him to the United States in a trade; he warned that he wasn’t available as a piece of merchandise. Everything indicated that a gift from the high levels of power, anticipated with that “press release” from the Archbishop, would — through a pious act — bring Cubans bravely closer to faith, in reconciliation or in a profound repatriation.
A message of such importance consisted of a very long distance phone call. But, at the end, it’s the will of an isolated individual, “shipwrecked” but not lost at sea, limited to what little he can perceive and feel between the twilights, who — paradoxically — the process comes to depend upon. It depends on how he reacts to the real or imaginary voices that invite him to step firmly with his next step.
Of course, if I could have spoken to him, I would not have commended him to martyrdom either, to resolve the Gordian knot of interests in a conflict that generally ends drowning the “most unhappy being”. I would pray that he might find at least a tranquil path by which he could make it through the storm with his wife at his side. But perhaps with him the solution isn’t barred, detained, nor faith; rather that in him, miraculously, although it might be for a second, they are sustained in the vacuum.