Francis Sanchez, 6 April 2017 – A group of people who loved him, met this April 5 to remember the poet Pedro Alberto Assed, who recently died. In the library of his city, Ciego de Avila, Cuba, the young writer Heriberto Machado called us together, and I had the opportunity to speak from my emotion and memory about a great poet and friend, remembering how for so many years his house was the gathering place in the center of this city.
His aunt Lourdes told us about her “most beloved nephew,” and from her we heard anecdotes about a special child, his training, his love for his son Astor, and how loneliness and anguish shaped his temperament from when he suffered, at an early age, the divorce of his parents. continue reading
We heard him recite his poems, thanks to the fact that I had recorded him back in 1998, with his reflections on the need to write poetry to “try to slash loneliness.” José Gabriel Quintas, Mayda Batista and Pedro Evelio Linares (writers of different generations) also related with gratitude what Assef meant in their lives, because he was “an essential poet, of tormented solitude,” which he expressed himself as such at all times and conveyed his passion for poetry.
Pedro Evelio described his current goal of collecting Assef’s work, published and unpublished, and requested collaboration from those who have copies of his texts, especially those written or published outside Cuba.
We review the poems that we liked. Ileana Alvarez read “This book is not mine,” a text that is impossible not to read a posteriori as a testament, in which the poet speaks of death flourishing through him, solitude, and explicitly dreaming of the desire to finally merge with the sea:
I am at the edge of the sea and of night.
My eyes are cold and my hands are icy.
Loneliness has made me an animal,
a skinless bird with a wounded memory.
Whom do I tell
That death is born in me,
With whom the shock of
the strange flower that juts from my mouth.
I’m already the sea
And I return to be the sea
When I finish this poem.
This gathering, in the Literature room of the Provincial Library, finally made us become more aware of the vitality of the poetry of Assef, a Cuban poet, universal, and we remember him in the words of the essayist Luis Álvarez Álvarez, quoting from the prologue of the poetic anthology Interior Station (2003) that I prepared when he was already living in the United States:
“The poetry of Pedro Alberto Assef appears concentrated, written, if I am forgiven the brutality of expression, about himself, as if there was no paper capable of the sharpness, tormented loneliness that, like a last confidence, is confessed in each one of his pieces. Accomplice of this intense intonation, it is the verse that perhaps could not be described but by an overwhelming word of another era: burnished, polished with rough cloths over and over again, foolish, vain, as an imitation of a gasping and content Sisyphus. Hence his work with verse and traditional lyrical forms, integrated into a contemporary expression, at times colloquial and irreverent. […] It is a poetry of anguish, of the impossible submission to solitude, which leaves in macerated pulp the fundamental inquiry of the poet, his confession of loneliness of flesh and spirit.”
Note: Pedro Alberto Assef (1966-2017) died in Texas on 17 February of liver cancer.
Francis Sanchez, April 5, 2017 – Decimismo in Cuba is a phenomenon that in recent years has not stopped growing, widely overflowing in rural culture, orality and festive traditions. A world of the Cuban décima with its own laws, with its own myths and knowledge, that for a long time also encompasses book culture, historiography, as well as ways of living and popular philosophizing.
Among the broad public, the décima has reached a higher degree of presence as a common form and shared code, allowing many writers to give a less passive use in iconic aspects of the stanza and its traditional transmission, allowing any hybridizing and a more essential homage. Some poets, therefore, while still considering themselves as “decimists” — there is no other stanza that defines a guild, where the repentista, the improvisational poet, and the writer coincide — often blur the formal boundaries and reveal themselves against the norms of folklore. continue reading
But there is an illusion that skillful decimists are responsible for performing among the public: that achieving a décima is the most difficult poetic test. It is totally uncertain. And these same magicians have spread other rumors, such as that, for example, accepting a forced foot makes an improvisation more embarrassing, when — for the person who makes a living by it — it means the opposite.
The risk always will be to achieve the leap of a work and a poetic quality, transcendent, taking off from any point of support or rupture. The world of decimismo, in Cuba, is full of virtuoso performers who are not even half the poets that they seem. Among their free habits are usually the tour de force, the gloss table, the permutations — putting a novel, a saying or the geography of Cuba in octosyllables, for example. Typical of this juggling is the delirium of ranting without getting out of the “golden jail” defined by the form.
All the anthropological phenomena of socialization have a positive interest for culture and identity processes, they can certainly tone the muscles. But in making décimas, round and chanting stanzas, there is no significant record for the poetry. It is the finding of the poem from there, the poetry itself, the poetic thought — inseparable from its unique pragmatic realization — the true value that transcends soft amusements.
Reading or listening to the form of the décima and not what happens through the measured verse, leads a large part of the knowledgeable public to integrate the microcosm of decimismo, to attend to the mimetic virtuosity, minimizing the prowling for the truth of poetry, for its most vivid and original appearance. Nevertheless, if it presents itself as it always will be — as we have senses in the best works for the decimist Jesus Orta Ruiz, and of Eliseo Diego or Angel Gaztelu, for example — another surprise.
Francis Sanchez, 29 March 2017 – Cuba is the country with the second highest levels of depression in Latin America, exceeded only by Brazil. The statistics appear in a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) released in Geneva. From this report, paradoxically, this data is omitted by Cuban publications that otherwise echo the report.
The state discourse may not know how to handle this data, along with another which places us among the countries with the highest suicide rates. But, are depression and suicide not, in general terms, typical disorders of developed societies? As is the aging of the population. Why, then, aren’t our rates of depression, anxiety and suicides considered, as is increasing old age, as national achievements? continue reading
Surely we Cubans are not depressed, nor do we suffer anxiety, for the same reasons as Brazilians, Swedes or Japanese. We run little risk of addiction to work. Rather, it is the complete opposite. Our work places are a façade to “mark time” and “resolve things under the table.” A very true and repeated axiom is: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”
Not having work to do, does not mean that we are exposed to leisure (good for enjoying extreme activities such as family vacations or lying on the couch of a psychoanalyst). We live day by day “struggling” for sustenance.
Although our war is so asymptomatic that it does not deprive us of the luxuries of sadness and the abysses of madness. In catastrophes, it is often the case that the effort to breathe increases (during wars, when fewer people commit suicide). Countries of Central America, where the gangs swarm and great atrocities are committed, show more satisfactory rates of depression.
Despite the regrets, we must have some self-imposed sources of frustration. The truth is that we are taken for the cliché of the tropical couple with the smile from ear to ear and the pair of maracas. Might this have something to do with the permanent state of pretending? With the naturalized and institutionalized lies?
Between immobility, lack of economic and political opportunity on the one hand, and the state’s chauvinistic and triumphalist discourse on the other, there are few reasons for hope. Our everyday problems, even if they are the same as those inherent in life in any other country, may be swallowed by us in a special and not recommended way. Never forget that we have been the only people of this hemisphere politically and ideologically converted into a “mass.” By discarding the individual will, even the masks were eliminated from our carnivals.
Many want to assign us the role of the most amusing. Besides those in power, as expected, including the Latin American peoples, their academics, their social leaders who manage to constantly mobilize people if they so much as raise the price of transport by a single peseta, they say that they envy us, and they ask us to continue resisting.
But lately, for some years now, I have noticed that political jokes are no longer whispered in the streets as they were, for example, in the Special Period. After many turns of life or history, and a lack of imagination to visualize the future, maybe everyone already knows the end and no one is amused?
I remember that in the worst years of the 1990s we laughed at the hunger, the blackouts, there were parodies on the quota of two hamburgers for each identity card, at the infinite marches, etc. Then came the anecdote of how, on a billboard, under a slogan that adorned streets and roads (“We are happy here”), a daring soul wrote at night: “Imagine out there.” The story included the curiosity that, at dawn, even the policemen could not stop laughing.
14ymedio, Havana, 7 March 2017 – The poet and essayist Francis Sanchez has returned to the blogosphere this week after six years of not updating his personal blog. The writer from Ciego de Avila announced he would continue to publish his ideas “without censorship” on his site Man in the Clouds, now with a new web address.
“I am not the same,” says Sanchez in the first text he posted on the web after his long digital silence, a pause that attributes to the social pressures he experienced following the opening of the site in October 2010.
“After five months I was forced to stop updating it,” recalls the author. “All the bloggers, in Cuba, we were accused of being cyber-mercenaries.” This situation that caused many acquaintances to close the doors or cross “the street in search of another sidewalk” when they saw them. continue reading
In those years the official press deployed an intense campaign against the alternative blogosphere. National television dedicated a chapter to it on their Cuba’s Reasons program, where it was suggested that it was a “new strategy in the United States war” against the island.
In those years the official press deployed an intense campaign against the alternative blogosphere
In March 2011 Sanchez published the post Closed for Demolition in which he said goodbye to his readers. Now he returns to the digital space with the intention of writing about “readings, art, society, reality and imagination, human rights, and everything unpredictable that beats inside a very long etcetera”.
The creator of the magazine Inverted Tree has published three texts in his new stage as a blogger, one of them dedicated to the poet Pedro Alberto Assef, born in Ciego de Avila in 1966 and recently deceased in a hospital in El Paso, Texas. In the text he calls him an authentic writer and possessor of an “exhaustive lyrical knowledge.”
Another post reproduces a fragment dedicated to the figures of Julián del Casal and José Martí in the book of essays Sacred Companies that Sánchez wrote “in four hands” with his wife, the essayist and poet Ileana Álvarez. The volume was presented at the most recent Havana Book Fair in February.
“I can not calm anyone nor calm myself announcing what’s going to happen or what I’m going to write tomorrow. I do not really know, I do not want to. I am only attentive,” Sanchez tells his readers.
For Francis Sanchez’s blog translated into English from May 2012 and before see here: Man in the Clouds. For later entries see here.
Francis Sanchez, 1 March 2017 – I am re-opening this blog where I will publish my ideas without censorship. It’s been years since October 2010 when I started “Man in the Clouds” and after five months I was forced to stop updating it. All of the bloggers in Cuba were being accused at that time of being “cyber-mercenaries” – does anyone remember?
To say “blogger” – with the sense of self-determination and spontaneity that assumes this practice is outside control of the state – caused more fear than saying “zombie” (in the movie “Juan of the Dead,” of the same year, there is a scene very illustrative that remains as a testimony).
There were campaigns even on national television. Many of those who knew me in my small city – from people in my family to a priest – and some who secretly gave me access to the internet, closed their doors to me, or crossed the street to the other side. And “Closed for Demolition” was the last post I published (31 March 2011), saying goodbye to the readers. That episode I left untouched on the original site, because it explains itself.
The image of “being in the clouds” is frequently used to point out a person’s lack of practical sense. From my childhood, when I started to get interested in poetry and reading, I already suffered such accusations. But, the widespread “practical sense,” from the time I had the use of reason, is sometimes limited to unhealthy abilities for someone adapting himself socially, such as submission, lying, faking, egoism and many forms of civil cowardice. I have grown up confusing the call to virtue with the obedience of being silent, postponing dreams and my own ideas.
I return, now with a new digital address (Spanish version: www.francissanchez.net ). I am not the same, after several years. However, I will continue where I started, because I will continue to write what I think (and I will publish the photos I take), about readings, art, society, reality and imagination, human rights, and everything unpredictable beating within a very long etcetera. I cannot calm anyone or calm myself by announcing what will happen or what I will write tomorrow. In reality, I don’t know, nor do I want to. I am only attentive.
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.
Among those I don’t mention is Francis Sánchez, a writer from Ciego de Ávila, whom I have accompanied for years in his intellectual development, and then, that call to his conscience to express his political feelings. To this end, he has faced fierce government criticism, harsher in the province than in the capital, being more isolated from the international media and with fewer Human Rights activists. Thus, he has had to swim upstream and against continue reading
the current most of the time.
I know his family, whom I don’t name so as not to cause them to be hurt; I have visited his house, I have crouched in that space of creative lineage, I have accompanied his sons and bought them fish food (they are already teenagers), and they consider me a family friend, to my personal pride. I also thank them that through them I met Laurita in Mexico who helped me, against their will, to create this blog “The Children Nobody Wanted,” and I will always be grateful.
It has been gratifying to know that — despite the pressures of State Security, the Provincial Party and the cultural marginality of the functionaries who direct this organization — Francis has answered his call to conscience, resisting the tension of knowing himself to be walking a tightrope, on the razor’s edge, and he has exhibited his work “Cicatrices” (Scars), in the gallery of the artists and human rights defenders Luis Trápaga and Lía Villares.
Take care brother, they are lurking, and fabricating a case against you and it will be like an absurd journey into hell, that you won’t believe until you see the total darkness. In any event, there at the point of no return, my voice will be with you, my cry joined with that of your family. I send you a huge hug and my pride in our friendship, and the mutual need to express ourselves honestly in our time, feeling the light that crosses our body, in that full transparency brought to us by the true artists, and first of all by our José Martí.
I ask the international community to keep Francis Sánchez and his family in sight, preventing another institutional abuse to silence his voice, his art, which is so painful to the dictatorship.
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.
Her request for political asylum in Mexico City on 29 June 1964 was a bombshell. She started the day with a press conference that had a huge impact: “The person addressing you is Juanita Castro Ruz, sister of the Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro.” continue reading
Nearly half a century later, Juanita again comes to the fore with the publication of the book “Fidel and Raul, My Brothers” (Aguilar 2009), with the subtitle “The Secret History, Memoirs of Juanita Castro as told to Maria Antonieta Collins.” The testimony was ready back in 1999, after months of confidential interviews, but ten years passed before the protagonist would agree to the printing.
Recalling her departure from Cuba, she casts aside the possible label of traitor, stating that from the beginning she had felt flagrantly deceived, because from the days of the Moncada attack and the Sierra Maestra front, when Cubans died confronting the Batista dictatorship in order to recover the 1940 Constitution, her brother Fidel always said that he was not a Communist.
Among the new confessions, this time perhaps the most incredible, is that she came to belong the CIA—although she clarifies that she never accepted money—in those difficult days in which, in Havana, she took advantage of the paralyzing influence of her last names, to come to the aid of many whom she sometimes didn’t even know, saving them from a summary trial or getting them out of the country. Her house came to be, according to these memoirs, a refuge and an always full transit center.
Anguish and contradictions abound in a woman who conscientiously confronted a beloved part of her own biological being
But the basic need that has led her to gather together her memoirs, she says, it to tell the truth about her family’s past, her brothers’ childhood, the history of the grandparents, and especially her mother, Lina Ruz, and her father, Angel Castro, on seeing how they have been slandered by historians who in attacking Fidel seek explanations in a supposed dark and cruel family origin, in Biran, a farm ruled over by a supposedly unscrupulous father, one who prospered based on criminal acts.
“I’m sorry to disappoint the pocket historians and the instant psychologists,” she says. Of her father, she opines, “Angel Castro Argiz was a man who cared for others. No one who came to him asking for a favor, asking for help, was refused.” And she is nostalgic for the atmosphere of the little place in the former Oriente province, now converted into a museum: “Biran—where we were like a big family because we all knew each other.”
Anguish and contradictions abound in a woman who conscientiously confronted a beloved part of her own biological being, her family and her country. Someone who has not lost, for example, her affection for her youngest brother, Raul. “Musito” to his mother. She favors him, and presents him to us in very human situations, as at the death of their mother, Lina Ruz, crying and inconsolably talking to the beloved body. An image that contrasts with the description of another brother in power.
Her memories leave a sense of transparency. However, this doesn’t mean that the reader should accept everything she describes. Memory is never inoffensive. Even at times when it is just interpretations. And Juanita’s has been a very particular and unique angle on Cuban history, with advantages and disadvantages, precisely for being so close. The most natural—to give one example—is that the memories of the taskmaster Angel’s daughter are more emotional and sweet than a subordinate of his could have, without lying.
She broke with the CIA when they asked her to give a powerful new statement to the press
She broke with the CIA—this is another hot testimony—when they asked her to give a powerful new statement to the press, similar to her request for asylum, but this time with a very different objective: to dispel the fears about the advance of communism. The United States, then, to avoid the danger of a nuclear confrontation, had reached an agreement with the Soviets which demanded the US end its support for anti-communist groups in Miami.
Perhaps Juanita appears more like typical Cuban of whatever shore, and of the island of Cuba itself, when she is shown as vulnerable, unjustly attacked, manipulated and, ultimately, in the midst of the waves and the storms, alone: “In this fight we are all pawns in a game of chess,” she affirms.
She has a very Cuban gesture of feeling herself the most miserable in the world. And on this point, it is appropriate to concede to her the sad merit of being a symbol of the pain and intolerance that divides Cuban families. “No doubt I have suffered more than the rest of the exile because on no side of the Florida Straits am I offered a truce, and few understand the paradox of my life.”
Expressed by her, it is no less pathetic and we see the opinion that “hatred has always prevailed over our reason.”
Luckily, toward the end of the book she invokes the future, allowing the opportunity for love, not prophetically, but with an intimate appeal to the smallest of the seven siblings, her “Musito,” once he has replaced Fidel in power: “Raul, in your hands could be the democratic transition for Cuba… To evolve with dignity could be your great opportunity in history…”
The book of memoirs is written in a pleasant colloquial style, like a good novel of 51 chapters, narrated in the first person. We “hear” the voice of a woman who has lived and stands before everything and everyone with clear and direct style.
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
Among the few photographs that came out of those I took at that meeting, I save one in which I appear standing next to Dagoberto Valdés on a wing of the second floor. He was attending as a representative of Vitral, while I found myself in that hall as a young writer who was creating, along with others, a similar magazine: Imago, founded in 1996 and belonging to the diocese of Ciego de Ávila.
The opportunity of that encounter with the world of culture and John Paul II has been moreover the only day of my life in which I have seen Fidel Castro in the flesh, dressed strangely in a collar and tie there below in the first row, likewise to hear the religious leader, and, certainly, he seemed to me then very pinched, perhaps as an effect of the contrast with the image I had formed in my mind. I think I took some pictures from afar with my modest camera, but they did not come out.
Why stir up such memories to refer to the fifth anniversary of the magazine Convivencia? I have come back to the mentioned photo, and to another in which I am raising up a little Cuban flag in a very packed square, and with an enormous Heart of Jesus covering the façade of the National Library. Without a doubt, a new phase of the old and complicated experiment that time and again has seemed easy was being tested or beginning, although in the long run it shows signs of error: the experiment of hope. The hope of liberty.
Cuba must open itself to Cuba
Up to what point hasn’t the search for a spiritual and collective liberty been a controlled trial, condemned to failure? Who motivates our reactions and rations out our actions? Who distributes the social reach of intimate or true result?
Apparently a return of Cuba to the universal accord of democracy is tried once and again, and what is sad is that we who live out this trial from below and within, repeating it it, putting into every expression all of the energy and urgent need of our mortal nature, at times simply cannot get nor give answers.
The international repercussion of the first visit of a Pope to the island brought back to us, with great underscores, the petition that Cuba open itself to the world and that the world open itself to Cuba. It was urged at the coexistence between hemispheres without the great polarities of the Cold War. Without a doubt, that invitation impressed well, but although such a call-up and the wake of open expectations aimed to create a point of rotation in the tradition of rigidities, they continued giving preeminence to the problem of the role of a nation constructed for an international political conflict.
An emblematic scheme has continuously been inflated which has been incapacitating, agonizing for we who live it from within and beneath in Cuba, scheme or favorite script of those who enjoy power, and some who covet it, where this tale would supposedly have only two actors obliged to share one same scene: Cuba and the world. An enormous tale of love-hate. A libretto not for liberty, but rather to depersonalize.
That assumption, used as a straitjacket, has served to pretend justifying a stop to civic liberties and rights on the island. It has been brandished to silence or make invisible all the rest of us subjects who fill what they wish to present to us merely as a great international “scenario”, historic laboratory table, when it is no more than the area and the time of life, like the life of every human being: inexorable, unrepeatable. Lives, or unique novels where everyone is either protagonist of himself, or has been no one.
In light of the suspicion that we suffer artificial experiments, ill-constructed scenarios, we human beings have a metaphysical dilemma which remodels our civil condition: to open up to ourselves, to be, to live as we consciously are, then it will only be possible to build other reliable ontological and social figures, to open up among ourselves, to coexist. Cuba must open itself to Cuba.
Not for fun have despotisms based themselves historically in a false gigantism that claims to annul faith in free will and the mortal, real, imperfect but infinitely worthy nature of the human being: from the untouchable castes, representatives of the afterlife, kings that were considered the direct descendants of gods, up to leaders and political groups that in modern history have declared themselves “the vanguard of society” or claim to head up scientifically superior social classes.
Another invitation of John Paul II’s extended in that giant plaza had more effect in my heart, where for the first and only time –also surely the last one– I found myself among the multitude when he invited us to be “protagonists of our personal and national history.” Words taken as though by an annotator under a shell in an old theatre, at the bottom of our hearts that were wounded, half forgotten, thrown into the trash, to put them in our ears when the sky seemed clearer.
This last quote of John Paul II’s appears crowning the first editorial of the magazine Convivencia, where one can also read a programmatic maxim that became perhaps the necessary echo rising up from the earth, inevitable, personal: “We believe in the strength of the small.”
A renovation of the interior of Cuba
Somehow, despite the poor quality of the roads inside the country, and all of the broken bridges, I always get the magazine Convivencia. I believe in this inner weave, cell to cell. It is the same ethical motivation — for me in the final instance an active choice will always have a metaphysical reason — for which I also endeavour to make Árbol Invertido, “inland literary review”, without more interest but also with less illusion than this– the word which opens and closes the editorial “Tierradentrismo” from the first issue of the 2nd period of ÁrbolInvertido, corresponding to January-April of 2013: to be.
Convivencia is. A word with a very deep power of announcement. It does not enter the game of artificial paradises to substitute one old utopia for another, supposedly new or better, in that poor tradition of idealisms with which spiritually insufferable, baseless policies have sought to adorn themselves. It sounds like the future and is full of reality. Soft yet hardy. Open. Abundant. It changes. It flows. It grows upon itself. It branches out. It shelters. It explores. It deluges and demands. It arrives and it leaves. Coexistence as a challenge, a possibility, arises from the condensation of life experiences.
Convivencia looks like itself. Imperfect. It imagines, it reflects the image, the metaphor of Casa Cuba that it has made its own from the identifier that appears on each title page. If a person can accept themselves, or better put, should do it, as a plural being, box of echoes, impulses, defects, good and bad memories, the alternative of a civil society that bases itself on the creative relation of different peoples seems no less concrete.
From its structure, as a “socio-cultural magazine”, comes a model of inclusive edition. Through its pages run the popular outcry or murmur, the calculus, the song of the artist, the prayer of the believer and the intellectual discourse, among an infinity of themes dear to natural people. The Casa of the magazine Convivencia is not held up by the nails of so many dogmas, but rather moving upon the crests of the waves, in a spiritual impulse, when it is defined as “from Christian inspiration.” And I believe that here, in its entrance to tremblingly small things in the middle of the night, in its contribution to the light of spirituality, can be felt its most transcendent consequences.
We are not in need of another restoration, we who within a same residence felt that time and space were running out. Let them take them from us. Because definitively, a lasting “spiritual response” from anyone who feels oppressed may be based on the great ignorance of the institutions of hatred, not recognizing their perceived authority: do not do it with fear, but neither with more hatred.
One of the gratifying testimonies that I have found in Convivencia was that of doctor Hilda Molina. I did not know her until I read this account of her life, it being revealing that a scientist like her — founder of the Cuban and Latin American schools of Neurological Restoration and the International Center for Neurological Restoration –, after living close-up the dogmas of practiced atheism and even suffering uncountable problems when she decided to express herself differently, would arrive at the following affectionate, perhaps idealistic? conclusion:
“Nevertheless, any reconstruction of material sort will prove useless, if we do not prioritize from this precise moment onward the spiritual reconstruction of our afflicted country, the rescue of its confiscated souls; and the resurrection of its faith, and its hopes.”
Convivencia is and resembles a too-ideal house, so real that it has only been possible for some as a miracle and for others, of course, as a great sin. It is occupied and under construction. It opens and connects communicating veins. It is filling a stronger void: the hope in the necessary restoration of the “inside” of Cuba, in the soul.
Every time that a new issue of Convivencia arrives before my eyes from the other side of the walls of Havana and all the unexpected, I aspire to relive, to star in a free reading of the infinitely small time and space that is mine to live in, to embrace. An edifying read, personal, making contact with other experiences no less authentic. Can one ask for more?
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
He was sentenced to years in prison for “violence” against his ex-wife, ultimately a minor offense for the Cuban state, compared to opposing government control. Then they took him down to the dungeon they take the criminal with no respect for his ideas.
No one, of course–neither the most influential official, nor the most sublime writer–should be above the law or feel free to disrespect the integrity of others. However, we know too little about the outburst with which he was charged and the judicial process. Painful ignorance, although illuminated, because it now consists of a valuable clue — for whomever doesn’t know — about the lack of guarantees in the environment of these events. Do the minimal indispensable conditions exist so that, in Havana, Angel will receive a fair trial?
Recently we have seen the national press go on and on about this type of demand relative to the sentences against the five compatriots in Miami, accused of espionage. Here, in Cuba, we don’t even have the ability to inform the friends of Santiesteban, his colleagues, his readers, to know the arguments of the contending parties, to get an opinion.
Before they forbid the circulation of this words, his books were in high demand and we saw him constantly on TV and in the press to satisfy the interest in his literature.
Angelito — as he is known, though he has never disguised his image as someone of flesh and blood, someone no less human than the characters in his stories — before he began to say that he thought in his blog, was the main guest t book fairs in every province, attracted readers, officials, journalists …
However, today he is another “mysteriously disappeared” intellectual. I know, for example, that they recently suspended the presentation of an anthology, “I’ve Seen the Trains Pass, Union Edition,” because it includes one of his stories.
However, unlike so many protagonists of Cuban culture who have been suddenly “made invisible,” because a microphone captured them at home saying something compromising, or because they went into exile — where they continue to go on with their lives and their work — Angel has ended up in prison.
An indication of something worse, perhaps the saddest thing, is what happens to us when we stay “outside” in our own country, that is, on the other side of these bars. Be cannot receive information, or express our concerns or contribute our opinions.
The right to express an opinion, which is a power, has been confiscated from us and, indeed, this illustration the “alteration of order” possible in such conditions, when a writer dares to leave the mold of fiction. Living in impotence, in a forced ignorance about our social reality, about the fate that has overtaken the country and that is reserved for us and the people we love, including those applauded by the institutions of the State itself–as was the author of “The Children Nobody Wanted,” winner of the Alejo Carpentier prize, and “Blessed are Those Who Mourn,” winner of the Casa de las Americas Prize–is not the punishment imposed on all the inhabitants of the island like culprits in a maximum security prison? Do we all behave badly? As sad or even sadder, this time, has been proving what we human beings confined in social enclosure are capable of, to get a respite.
One of those days I saw a letter that circulated on the mail network with the title “8th of March: Everyone against violence,” written and signed by the lofty members of the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba (UNEAC), calling on colleagues from all corners of the country to support the conviction the writer had just received.
They invited the list to grow even more as a sign of rejecting gender violence. So apparently enough supposedly agree on the legitimacy of the right to join the stoning of another rebel intellectual who had already passed through the official process of “disappearance.”
Once I reviewed the string of signatures that signed on to the call, I asked myself: could each and every one of them feel knowledgeable enough to take sides, and so quickly, in a litigation about which nothing had been divulged in Cuba and where the accused maintained his innocence?
I will avoid slander, avoid assuming that those who gave their signatures and became a part of a heavy chain, are neither writers nor artists, after that have done something I believe is incompatible with the decency of the intelligentsia: climbing on the apparatus of power to add pounds to crush an individual. In this case, it is a writer, possibly another in the list of victims of the totalitarian system.
But I would ask them, those who stamped their initials: do you really believe that “up there” needs your little bit of “moral weight” to crush people? Sure, I understand them, and I offer my condolences for their situation, because soon they’ll be facing a higher court, in the exam that is periodically performed on the flock to separate their names in other ways: the black lists and the lists of the privileged. I will say that the saddest, the most painful, is that this type of human and the collective class capable of generating Cuban culture in the difficult situation being experienced.
My current statement about the “reappearance”, for the release of Angel Santiesteban, can’t go beyond, not venturing further from the same request for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association, among the other basic human rights, not for him, but paradoxically for all those we have left “outside,” or rather, on the other side of these bars.
Dear members of UNEAC (take note) Revolutionarily, ME
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.
Francis Sanchez, 18 April 2011 — 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.