I have been to Korea a couple of times and the memory of it feels like a weight on my chest. People there work from sunup for a monthly salary that only gets them through a week. They do not know what the internet is and have never used email. They arrive punctually for political rallies and applaud mechanically, as they have been taught to do since childhood. When they leave, they look as though they feel they have wasted their time. They disparage American imperialism and capitalism but seem to have a certain envy of people from there, with their mobile phones and brand-name shoes.
That is Korea. In the hills fourteen kilometers north of Mayarí Arriba in Santiago de Cuba there is a little house belonging to Empresa Forestal Sierra del Cristal filled with men subject to the same gag orders and shortages as their counterparts in North Korea, where our arms are being sent without consent from us, their owners.
People in North Korea do not need to import more armaments. They already have enough — nuclear ones too — and they are not being brought in to make them happy. Like us, what they need besides the essentials of life are to have the tools of freedom put in their hands, not in those of the huge state which wastes them on surveillance.
These include computers, cell phones, flash drives, photo and video cameras, satellite antennas for internet and television, books and manuals on digital technology, human rights, peaceful resistance, a free press and civil society. They need access to Twitter, Youtube and Facebook so they can learn to publish whatever they want. They need roundtrip tickets to anywhere, to learn and bring about their hopeful ideas about the reality of their twin brothers in the south who enjoy an excellent standard of living.
Because Cuba’s foreign policy should never be that of “happiness now in your own home.” As we become more free as people and more prosperous as a nation, Cuba should not forget all the people in the world who are going through things as bad so bad as we are going through. Human solidarity, at the end of the day, is what has been preached for 50 years in our schools and media, though not always with peaceful, innocent or disinterested intentions.
Cuba and the world need to change a great deal. The humble workers cutting timber in the Korea of Crystal Mountain, where I got the traveler pretext for this article, deserve a better life. The North Koreans of the peninsula, which have similar scarcities, too.
And we Cubans need better international politics, one that in addition to looking after ourselves, also includes solidarity with all human beings who are down — regardless of their flag — with the oppressed, not with the little men clinging to eternal and total power: some day our shops will carry internet and computers and books, instead of hidden arms. Some day.
A lighthouse at the entrance of a bay: a sexual metaphor, or a social one, if we see the bay as part of that Cuba that isn’t fertilized, even if the lives of millions of Cubans have been spent in an attempt to make it fertile.
This lighthouse does shine; not like the resumes of the army general and his officers, in which are divined the economic and social long night they promised to patient Cubans. It’s not a bad lighthouse nor is it like the mists that raise the unanimous applause of the still mute Parliament, or the journalists’ repetition of those numbers only useful to spotting the rear ends of the millions on the island who don’t even have money to buy toilet paper.
The same day that the current president of the Republic talks about the deteriorated civic values, the monstrous malformations in the conduct of Cubans, of cancers of the spirits that grow as much as the economic problems, his police shamelessly mistreating and arresting peaceful people who confront them only with civic values. What did he talk about then?
Because of this I don’t believe the current president. So I am publishing this photo of a lighthouse where I arrived after a dawn of mosquitoes, at the entrance to Manatee Bay, in the north of Las Tunas province. A lighthouse is my own metaphor that there are indeed sure ways to improve this island without the trauma of an infinite reform that hasn’t made us the slightest bit happy here.
Of course it’s not easy to get there: by the dark mountain path there are guards and trails to get lost in, but it’s better to walk with a bad helmsman and an old map. Those who still insist on guiding us with the same mistaken lighthouses as always, the fairy fires that lead us again and again into the reefs or the swamp.
Now, what we need are not more energetic or exhaustive speeches: we need to rectify this bad light and build our own lighthouses, new goals and distinct paths other than those designed in the offices upstairs, to see if, sometime, something really changes down here.
New and true lighthouses, for this island that at the same time is a drifting boat and the promised land. It’s what we are trying to do.
Fifteen kilometers to the south of Ciego de Ávila, in the center of Cuba, there is another failed town, the outbuildings of the demolished central Stewart, that today is called Venezuela. One more ruin.
Venezuela was once a thriving town. More than 7500 workers earning their bread and some constant progress in a sugar refinery that became the third in production capacity in the whole country. One million sacks of sugar produced in 1952. Big old wood houses that still exists, though leaning a bit and unpainted. A Union capable of hard battles for their workers’ progress, without limits, even against governments or companies, as it should be. Hundreds of residents members of different political parties, lodges, religions, cultural societies, choosing to buy amid different newspapers or crowds of commercial brands.
All that was reduced to One. And often to Zero.
Only one union trained to tell their workers that they must continue working in silence even if the receive less each time; one school where the boys learn a bunch of things that won’t give them any prosperity after graduation if they stay in that town or country. Very little to eat in the street, the farmers market selling very tiny potatoes, some bananas and malangas (a tuber resembling sweet potatoes),amid very fertile soil.
A fish market of chopped fish 30 kilometers from the Júcaro port. A boring museum with the stuff of Indians, Cuban independence warriors, union workers and bourgeois that soon will be another office in this poorly preserved town-museum. The headquarters of the Union that used to give battles against the masters in the republic, demolished.
Huge billboards with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez announcing a future that neither they nor their followers will be able to give to their people. Eternal silences in the nights. And the refinery, that majestic mass of human labor, that factory that 60 years ago exceeded the million sacks of sugar, became a silent ruin.
And that is only the visible part. There isn’t freedom, which is not easily measurable, because people get used to silencing their wishes of progress to avoid jail or being fired from jobs, they get used to the same newspaper, radio and television; to the same politicians, to the same useless currency. They adapted themselves to thinking about running away, very far, without home or family when they can’t take it any more: that custom is the worst thing that happened to Stewart, to Venezuela.
This is Venezuela’s mute drama. That could happen to the other Venezuela, if they don’t learn the lesson of others and vote badly or remain silence in these decisive days, in which I forget that stupidity of not meddling in the problems of people of different flags; between the solidarity for other men, and respect for the very dubious sovereignty made to protect bad governments, I choose solidarity. And I also believe, as did José Martí and Bolivar — liberator of foreign lands — that homeland is humanity.
Talking with Henry Constantin, expelled for life from the country’s universities.
The worst of a prolonged war, is not the hunger of the siege, nor the exhaustion, nor the despair, nor the dead left in the dust of no man’s land. The atrocious, the unbearable, what kills the desire to live, is that you know the color of the eyes, the gestures, the intimate shirt of who tomorrow may be the enemy. Waldo Leyva
I had to do something petty so they wouldn’t kick me out of the University of Havana, where I studied for a degree in biochemistry while the classrooms and professors’ chairs of the country were bleeding their biggest names. Probably just remain silent. Like that shame two decades later that still stings your face like a slap, when you run across despicable acts like that the Ministry of Higher Education (MES) and the Superior Art Institute (ISA) imposed on Henry Constantin, a student expelled from the Audiovisual Communication program, from the Faculty of Audiovisual Media Arts (FAMCO). It would seem that Cuba never tires of repeating the same grotesque and perhaps convenient script.
I’ll never forget the stifling impression provoked by the graffiti, “To be young and not to be a revolutionary is a biological contradiction” (Salvador Allende) in the old charitable hospital in Luyano where my father had just died on August 13, 2000, on the almost prehistoric 74th birthday of Fidel Castro. My father was neither young nor revolutionary. And I felt that imported slogan like a sentence of civil or physical death that one day would touch me. In fact, it already touched me. To Henry Konstantin (b. Camagüey, 1984) it happened again just last week.
His visibility has cost him the record of being expelled by force from three Cuban universities. In 2006, midway through the third year of a degree in Journalism from the University of the Oriente (Santiago de Cuba), they expelled him for technically not meeting the minimum attendance requirement. His research project on the poor acceptance of the official press at the village level was precisely a poor acceptance in an academic department. Rafael Fonseca, professor of Research Methodology, was charged with the task of disproving such daring theories from the cradle. Not without the concomitant complicity of professor Isel Fernández Campanioni, head of the Department of Journalism and Social Communication, who had approved fifteen “days off” for Henry Constantine for a family situation (including the birth of his son), and later those same “unexcused absences” were the key piece in the mini-act of repudiation with which he was tossed from the classroom.
It is here that they separated him from the Federation of University Students (FEU) and the Union of Young Communists (UJC). But the small importance of “absences” still left a glimmer of hope for rehabilitation: he lost a year on the street, but the offender could return to present evidence in order to re-enter higher education.
Henry Constantin persisted and in 2008 returned for his third year of a Bachelor of Journalism, this time at the “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas. In his practicum at the end of the course he prepared a report on the repercussions of the figure of Hubert Matos on the press media of Camagüey in the early 60’s. The journalist Alexander Jiménez cut him off him with a counterproposal, better to focus on José Martí. Konstantin Henry understands the wink, but chooses for his topic the theme of journalistic censorship suffered in life and death by The Apostle.
On Radio Cadena Agramonte, his practicum tutor, Miozotis Fabelo Pinares, correspondent of Radio Rebelde, is in charge of disapproving the script of Henry Constantin, for a host of structural technicalities and thematic despotisms. In closing, she renders insult in a report where each protest of the student means another aggravating factor, which even implicated the ideological representative at the provincial Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). A suspended internship is not counted, so the punishment is repeated, and he loses another year, wherever the university decides to place the student.
Henry Constantine decided to continue attending classes while his appeal was resolved at ministerial level (it would take months and he would not like to repeat another year if the case should turn out in his favor). They warned all the “cadres” and “factors” of the high study center. They considered him in resistance and even applied a disciplinary proceeding in absentia, which culminated with his body pushed outside the perimeter of the university, with threats of violence by the breath diluted by the alcoholic breath of the personnel who complied with the order.
The case fell into the hands of human rights activists and was denounced in the independent and foreign press. “It was politicized,” as it is customary to say in Cuba with a look of resignation. So MES decided to go for the most violent headline: Henry Constantine could never re-enter any university in the country. Then he decided to play dirty.
Change of scenery and in 2009, having ranked first in the national proficiency testing and in Spanish and History, he enrolled in the Communication Studies of the ISA. He omitted the truth, which is a vengeful way to lie. He simply declared his aborted stay at the University of the Oriente. In addition, he was already collaborating by then on the alternative magazine Coexistence (directed by Dagoberto Valdés) and managing a blog about travel on the rebellious portal Voces Cubanas.
Fate disposes. Returning from a couple of years of political nightmare, it was reiterated to Henry Constantin, this time with no legal right to file a claim, as they had caught him at fault when it was discovered that he had been expelled for life from higher education. After several intimate warnings (“I am sharpening a knife to put a little spin on it when I poke you,” he was warned cheerfully by one of his interviewers/interrogators from the FAMCO Disciplinary Committee), the ousting coincided minutely with Henry Constantín’s recent joining of the board of the magazine Coexistence and his preparation — with filmmaker’s credit — of the alternative audiovisual “Citizens’s Reasons,” with critical journalist Reinaldo Escobar in the role of moderator.
A last resort of hoping to stay at his dorm at ISA for the 48 hours he was given to remove himself, also did not work. Victor Gonzalez, dean of students, led a sort of joint operation, between the leaders of the FEU and guards on duty, the next day (Thursday, May 26, at almost midnight). With all his belongings gathered in nylon bags, Henry Constantine was forced to ride in a car that drove him to La Coubre Station, where for the first time in his entire career he was given a pass to buy a ticket home from the “waiting list.” Soon after, that same morning, they came down on the ISA students who publicly expressed their stupor as witnesses to the incident.
Caught in the “biological contradiction” of “being young” and not being “revolutionary,” Henry Constantín should commit suicide now, leaving a pathetic note to the rector of the ISA or perhaps the Minister of MES. As he still retains the will to survive a sick era of exclusions, exhausting one generation after another since the very beginning of modern times, Henry Constantin, suddenly homeless in the “capital of all Cubans,” sits down to talk with me with our backs to our city and faces to the black sea of another moonless midnight in this Havana so humiliating for its inhabitants.
“The least important are the political ideas,” he says, letting me scribble notes and interrupt to pry into the details of his biography narrated here,” nor even each student’s projection of what he thinks. What is really serious, throughout my university expulsions, and those of other guys I know, what has been the most sad, is the human damage in the environment of punishment. The friends who refuse to defend you, roommates who are silent, the lover who forgets everything they felt, the professors who let the “volunteers” in the classroom (as not one teacher did when they were after the medical students in 1871), who having shared the same classroom, the same food, the same parties, now you attack without warning.”
“The destruction of a student in Cuba, for his ideas, the damage precisely because of this sharp spiritual deformation takes over everyone around him, and that is rooted in fear. The message to my classmates of the national student body, more than making them think about what the political, economic or social system Cuba should have, is how in the end do they recover the annulled human condition, and their faith in others and in themselves.”
“This time, in the case of ISA, which has been the most independent of the state schools across Cuba, where I observed for two years, it is obvious that my expulsion was due to a higher necessity, and cyclical. Nor are the events of these days random and their victims have been, always, people with some relationship with the blogger Yoani Sanchez, the lay leader Dagoberto Valdez: examples are Pedro Pablo Oliva, Servando Blanco, Juan Carlos Fernández … On the earlier occasions it would all arranged to make it look like it was about events, without regard to my personal views, but the ISA had in its hands the excuse to kick me out, and they only did it now.”
“In addition, the audiovisuals of official television in the program “Cuba’s Reasons” presented copious warnings about the situation of intellectuals, bloggers and Cuban artists, and the ISA, the so-called University of the Arts, with its history of liberal thought, artistic irreverence, and a thunderous two-day hunger strike in October 2009 (where I collaborated on its documentation and dissemination), still seems a land lost to government control. It’s not by chance that the university was chosen by the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party for the political-ideological process of closing down Cuban universities, conducted in early 2011. Henry Constantín expelled for the third time is just one more step in the adjustment of the broken mechanism of the Cuban state.”
In the back, the Cuban flag waves high above the world. Far ahead, the Hicacos peninsula stretches across the horizon. Varadero, the only town on the island that has been spared the rust, grows right there. Just don’t look down, at where we stand. Cardenas, the neighboring city, is just a mishmash of oil, industrial waste, and urban trash. And all the patriotism inspired from that highest flag and the shining glory of the nearby Varadero beach cannot change the picture.
Cardenas, Ciudad Bandera — Flagship City — was not splashed by one drop from the Gulf of Mexico’s disaster created by BP. The contamination that saturates this stretch of land is caused by human activity in the ocean, the waste from Varadero beach, and the industrial presence along the shore including none other than the emblematic and prosperous distillery. Yet, the real disaster is the complete lack of concern of those who are supposed to respect and revere the place where our flag was first raised. All this in a country where there are laws to punish the flag itself.
Under these circumstances, the idea of attaining sustainable growth is more like the uncertainty of walking endlessly towards under-development without a sign of relief.
Cubans have not been taught to honor Cardenas as is the case with La Demajagua or Dos Rios. What happened in Cardenas in 1860, although of little influence on immediate political changes, was extremely relevant for the history of the island and at least two other countries: Spain and the USA. Yet, we, as people, are afraid to learn our history, the real one not the convenient heroic one that exists only in books and in the heads of some who benefit from their own version.
That year, the Spanish-Venezuelan Narciso Lopez entered the city of Cardenas. He waved in his hands the flag that has become our symbol to the human race and so it will be as long as we think the concept of nation is bigger than humanity itself. Back then, that idea did not call for too many emotions. The flag was just a rag designed by Teurbe-Tolon and it was meant to be carried by Lopez during his invasion of Cuba. It also provoked complex political associations for it resembled the one used by independent Texans years earlier to separate from Mexico and join the Union. The profuse blood shed of 1868 and the cautious American foreign policy turned a flag with northern flare into the flagship of an army of independent republicans.
In Cardenas, the population, Spaniards and Cubans alike, calmly allowed Narciso Lopez to land. People were not willing to change their world. Life was about getting by, as it is today, while the city grows thanks to tourism and the seashore rots under their nose. Maybe the citizens and officials of Cardenas think the city or the coastline do not belong to them. Perhaps they believe their space ends at the front door of their houses and offices. They are not yet convinced that the city, like the country, belongs to all of us.
Meanwhile, the flag in front of which we should kneel stands tall, two hundred meters away from a swamp of waste. A small swamp that pushes itself beyond the horizon all over the island.
There are regions in my country where I still cannot enter. At least not unless if I am loaded with official documents, authorizations, guarantees, and recommendation letters. An entire list can be made out of these things. I’m used to it: In Cuba, one can write – actually, those in power have already done so – an infinite list of the things that are restricted for Cubans. There is a list of web sites which I cannot enter, a list of magazines and newspapers which are not allowed to be read in libraries (the list includes any which display my rulers committing any errors worth silencing), another list of films, such as “Before Night Falls” and “The Lost City”, which I can’t find in any of the state video stores or movie theatres. As for musicians that are prohibited from receiving any radio or TV play – Alejandro Sanz, Willy Chirino, Porno Para Ricardo, etc. The most outrageous situations is that of the people whom we are not supposed to call by phone or visit in person – but I do it anyway, and that’s why I probably am included in that list, too. There is yet another list which consists of historical people who cannot be mentioned without evoking much offense – commanders Eloy Guiterrez Menoyo and Huber Matos, president Estrada Palma, and so on. There are dozens of lists which are composed of well-off people the same way that there are those made up of everyday people in Cuba. But it is these outlawed regions of our geography which interest me the most on this Travel Report.
The post with which I inaugurated this blog was about how I could not enter the Cape of San Antonio in Guanahacabibes – in the far Western part of Cuba – for the simple reason that I was not a tourist. At that time, the functionaries of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment denied me the entrance, just as the orders mandated they do so to every Cuban resident on the island. While I was getting over that frustrating trip, a few vehicles with tourist license plates swiftly passed by, heading towards the Cape. They braked right by me, asking (in Andalusian and Italian accents) the solicitous guard where their destination lay as he opened the entrance gate.
In the extreme opposite of the country, halfway from between Baracoa and the Yumuri river – on the North coast – there lies another one of those “border” spots. In it, some locally known cavers, carrying all sorts of official authorizations, waited for almost an hour under the mid-day sun until the official decided that they could pass towards the Maisi Point.
The Sabana-Camaguey archipelago, which borders the northern coast of the central provinces, is also prohibited. It’s made up of a strip of hotels from Santa Maria Key to Paredon Grande, with very little terrestrial access – some anti-ecological and enormously steep embankments from Caibarien to Turiguano – where vehicles which transport Cubans are carefully searched by police officers, who check to see how many documents people are carrying, or who make them get out of the car and stay there. And you can’t just go in under the pretext of simple tourism. If you don’t have a hotel reservation, or if you don’t have any credentials such as being an employee or participant in an already registered event, then you can’t go in.
The same thing occurs in Sabinal, which is less exploited touristically, and also in Romano Key, the largest and most conserved of the keys. As if it wasn’t enough, there is at least one of those small islands which requires a double authorization project: Paredon Grande. Any Cuban who gets there must show his/her permits, and since the terrestrial path goes through Coco Key (where in the entrance of Turiguano they already searched through the papers) then it turns out that you would get searched twice.
But on the Isle of Pines, which still has the official name of “Island of Youth”, it is an even more ironic case. Up to well into the 20th century, Cuban sovereignty was not well defined in terms of this rugged area and with regards those supposed North-American colonizers. And now, in the 21st century, for a national resident to access that minor southern island (the most extensive and inhospitable) it requires even more permits and processes, moreso than a European Union citizen trying to pass from one country to another. And let’s not even mention Largo Key, which lies about 100 kilometers to the East: I’ve only been able to see it from an airplane.
But it isn’t just land that is forbidden. There are also bodies of water which surround the island (and which are supposedly considered territorial waters) which the authorities consider to be malignant for Cubans. A couple of youths from Smith Key (or “Granma Key” as it is officially known) who are owners of boats which are used to explore the interior bay of Santiago de Cuba, opened their eyes wide in disbelief when I suggested to take a look into the exterior part of the bay, where the Morro Castle starts to rise. “That’s forbidden”. And this is a national mandate: any Cuban who is riding upon any sort of water vessel must be heavily armed with authorizations, if not he or she runs the risk of spending the night in a prison.
In all of these cases ecological protection, which is the justification for restricting or controlling the access to protected zones in the world, is discarded simply because of the differences which exist for a foreign citizen and a national resident who wants to visit any of these areas. The foreign visitor would be content just to go in and take a quick look, while a Cuban, when he or she has no reservations (if the area is a hotel zone) could wait up to three months while searching for authorizations from up to half a dozen functionaries — and that really is a valid justification! And, mind you, this is always with the risk present of having such access being denied just because of trivial whims.
Where our internal exile is really colossal is in Caimanera, the city closest to the perimeter of the US Naval Base in Guantanamo. We Cubans consider the territory where the Base is located to be part of our country, and we hope that one day it will really be that way. Of course, we can’t enter that place, but in addition, those who run this country have really gone to the extreme, so much so that in Caimanera, a city which is fully national, no Cuban can get in unless they are pre-authorized and justified by an application filled out by any family they have who are residents of that town, and even they, the family, have to inform the authorities first.
The reason for so much discrimination is really shameful: trying to keep Cubans from leaving the country illegally (perhaps our island is a jail, which is supposed to be the only place where anyone can escape illegally from), protecting the environment, (which they protect from us Cubans who go by foot, and not from foreigners who drive down such zones with their polluting automobiles which can easily exterminate any endangered species), and to prevent diversions of naval vessels and any provocations to the Base…
Out of all these excuses, and out of all the flagrant discrimination which they conceal, we can reach some painful conclusions. The most obvious: that Cubans who are residents of their own country are not considered to be citizens who possess inviolable rights before the State (whose sole purpose is to guarantee these rights), and instead, our role is something very different. We’re supposed to be people who live in a place where others rule, and where our value is below that of politics and the interests of our rulers. The colossal fear which these individuals have of losing authority through illegal exits, improbable clandestine disembarkations, or through the psychological pressure of a conflict with the Naval Base, can never make sense in the 21st century to continue discriminating against its own citizens. This only accelerates the need to get the leaders out of the way, for they have already lost the opportunity to fix things. Today, the goal is very clear: tear down all the silent walls and discrimination which the fears of an older generation erected, be at peace with our own people, and reconstruct our pride.
When any Cuban can stare out to the sea from the Cape of San Antonio, without blushes or permits, then that will be a good sign.
Early morning hours. Eight students from “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas, passengers without tickets on a train. They are between cars, standing or crouching, shivering from the most intense cold in the world. In the door to the right, two cops: they don’t let them pass. At the door to the left, three railway officials: they have them surrounded. A man of enormous size and arrogance shouts from the station: the train will start only when those damn students who got on in Santa Clara without tickets get off. This happens at two in the morning in a place isolated even from itself: the town of Guayos, more than halfway to Camagüey, the destination of the boys.
There are many other travelers who don’t have tickets, and they don’t bother them, then why harass the young people?
Two months earlier, some of those same students boarded a train without tickets. That is normal in Cuba: the national railway doesn’t meet even twenty percent of passenger demand and there is a regulation that allows people who board without tickets to ride once they are on the train by paying double the established fare, to the delight of some industrious pockets. This system was applied to these boys, with the peculiarity that after having been squeezed (each one had to give a third of their monthly university stipend to stay aboard), they saw the money disappear into a pocket without getting any ticket or other proof of the transaction. So, it was the officials who got fatter.
What did they do then? They wrote about it in a letter to the State newspaper Juventud Rebelde, the national escape valve of anyone disgusted who can’t deal with the primary causes, and that let to a purification process in certain instances on the Cuban Railways. There were sanctions against a couple of people. We return to Scene 1.
The little train boss, fired up by that event, in a Mafia-like revenge decided to take it out on the Santa Clara university students, until one night we, forced by inevitable lack of transport, got on the train. Far from the station, the character noted our unmistakable presence and ordered us to get off. Faithful police and functionaries pushed us from car to car until they had us all cornered. And there, with shouts, threats of fines and jail cells, they demanded that we get off the train at the first stop.
We decided this was discrimination and vengeance and abuse and they had no right and in the end we decided to remain still and silent. We didn’t want to get off in Placetas. A girl explained to the police the reasons for the disobedience. The train boss swore definitely to stop it in Guayos: “I’m going to call the Party and whomever.” Instinctively, we move closer. The police smoke nervously, without looking us in the eye. A civilian with the suspicious air of a negotiator wants to know what we want. To go to Camagüey and pay what we owe. The shrieks of the train boss, obstinate about telephoning the station, feeling it all on the dark platform. Some hesitated: What if they arrest us? What if they kick us out of the University? No one answered the one who had spoken: his girlfriend looked at him and spit her gum out the window.
Welcome to the land of El Mayor*, says the most visible sign on the Camagüey train station. With our bags over our shoulders, still smiling still scared, we separate that morning at the station. We look back, the stopped train, its masters incapacitated and its servants hideous, in the early morning when some young men lost their fear.
*Translator’s Note: El Mayor is the nickname of Ignacio Agramonte (1841-1873), a hero of Camagüey in the fight for independence from Spain.
This is the third issue of La Rosa Blanca, you have to walk a lot in order to publish it, and walk even more to deliver it in a country mute and without internet. Every issue of La Rosa Blanca, which I’ll post in this blog as I’ve done before, since I don’t have any effective way to post it someplace else, is the sum of a few eventful trips to collaborators’ houses and loyal readers.
This magazine is also the end of many trips. In the province of Las Tunas, up north, I meet Christian essayist Frank Folgueira at his house, a stubborn historian focused on the history of another one of the towns – Manatí, which is also my birthplace – hit by the plague that is just ending. As if it were a national affliction, in Encrucijada de Villa Clara, in an old high roof wooden house from before the revolution, I meet Gabriel Barrenechea, suffocated by the gray vigilant atmosphere of his village, writing his stories and copious economics and political essays by hand.
Havana… and fourteen long flights of stairs to reach the apartment of two friendly Cubans, Yoani and Reinaldo, because La Rosa Blanca publishes some articles from Generation Y, which needs from channels like this one to be read in Cuba. Afterwards, down Tulipán street, we turn and continue for a couple of streets, in Nuevo Vedado, and underground – and under the sea which floods this island – we meet Rafael Alcides who breaks his self-imposed silence to offer us a few articles of unheard of tidiness.
A bit farther away, where Vedado and Downtown Havana meet, Yoss delivers dozens of writings of every kind, but always weighing more towards fantasy and science fiction, giving a breath of fresh air to the seriousness that national reality imposes on the magazine. I come back to Camagüey, and go to the only house where everything is discussed, freely and thoroughly, located in Agramonte, and I meet with the intellectual Rafael Almanza going through one of the thousands of pieces that make up his work.
Maybe, instead of coming back to Camagüey, I go from Havana to Pinar del Rio, where Dagoberto Valdés and Karina, Virgilio, Jesuhadín, Néstor, Servando and the others patiently try to inculcate a culture of tolerance in all Cubans. Or I’ll go to Bayamo, where my friend Ernesto Morales, who’s been just expelled from his post working as an official journalist – he’s finally managed to get that badge of recognition of his honesty and bravery – writes and blogs in the tense and isolated environment of the eastern provinces; or maybe to visit Elia, in Las Tunas, in search of Carlos Esquivel’s poems, a miraculous writer who has resisted the temptation of the big cities, and refuses to leave his indolent land.
From the work of all of them, and many others, comes La Rosa Blanca, which will later spread from computer to computer, from memory to memory, and even through old three and a half inch floppy disks, with the same silent fragility which characterizes its making. Here it is.
Without wielding any of the thousand of lethal objects that embellish our museums, Gullermo Fariñas finished extinguishing the scent of jail from a hundred or so brothers. And he gave hope to thousands of others. This July 26th, while the country wore a mask of red and black slogans to conceal the national apathy, and in Artemisa, Santa Clara and Havana our rulers and their panegyrists extolled for the umpteenth time the bloody impatience with which they attempted to solve the Cuban problems 57 years ago, Fariñas was resting at the Arnaldo Milián Castro Hospital of Villa Clara, marked by the fate of the new era of nonviolence that he has just consecrated in Cuba´s political history.
I have seen him on three occasions. On the first one, he smiled all the time: already his hunger strike, to demand Internet access for Cubans, had left its mark on his extremely lean body. He was cordial, although we didn’t know each other. A good man.
The second time – October or November 2008 – it was I who carried the load of my sincerity. I arrived at his house, the only one opened to me in Santa Clara, after being expelled with threats and violence from my Journalism studies at the University. A feverish Fariñas received me. “Tell me what we can do for you; we’ll go wherever you want.” The plural implied a courage that, just at that moment when I had been isolated, had the force of multitudes. In the improvised receiving room of his house in Condado, in one of the most modest and dreadful neighborhoods in Santa Clara, I breathed in the same straightforward determination that one senses in history books when reading about the bold men who at some point have wanted to make Cuba a better country.
The news of my preposterous second expulsion, signed by him, a hard-working, decent and respected journalist, resonated in hundreds of webs.
The third encounter was a very short time ago, behind the glass of the intensive care unit. The hunger strike for the political prisoners’ freedom has finished. I didn’t go very close – any germ on my clothes, in which I had just traveled more than three hundred kilometers, could be fatal to him. His gaze is lucid, amidst this era of geriatric dark clouds. He smiles thankfully at the visits of friends and acquaintances. His elderly mother takes care of him as if he had just been born; her alarm carries as much weight as her son’s tremendous decision. Fariñas takes advantage of the meager offerings on national TV; his mind is not that of a man who is ignorant of his environment, and even less of one indifferent about the future. Fariñas is full of ideas regarding what is happening in the country and what must happen so that the island where he insists on living – but living with dignity – will stop being the most incredible people-exporting paradise and the fief of one of the few governments in the western hemisphere – along with the African dictators of Burkina Faso and Equatorial Guinea, and the sultan of Morocco – obstinately asserting its own infiniteness.
The way out is guarded by copious and optimistic government propaganda.
More than fifty years ago, Che was among those who imposed their ideas amidst rivers of young blood from friends and enemies, of blasts and the smoke of gunpowder. Santa Clara, the city where comandante Guevara achieved his greatest glory, is full of tributes to the military man. But under those colossal monuments to violence, something has failed. An imperceptible crack, a tenuous and deep fissure that no one knows where it ends, goes around these streets: it starts under a hospital bed… and loses itself in the distance.
[Translator’s note: This post apparently got posted in the original missing the beginning… whether it starts in the middle of a sentence, a paragraph, we don’t know, as we haven’t been able to get in touch with Henry. If he adds the rest, we’ll add it here… but given internet access in Cuba… or lack of same… readers are advised not to hold their breath.]
but without the Catholic clergy or the heroism: the town where my father and grandfather were born has been consuming itself for years in that bonfire of miserable and faded Macondos, which for almost a half century have been sizzling and crackling throughout this island.
Alcibiades’ store was the most prosperous in town. Of the three or four there were, it was the best stocked: fine canned fruit-preserves from Europe, wines, spicy sausages and hams, crackers, and soft drinks of the best domestic and international brands… you didn’t even have to go with the exact amount of money: no matter how poor the buyer was, it was enough to be a person of your word to take home all that was necessary, and pay later, with no hurry.
With that method of honest work and duty, which did work back then, my grandfather made up for his almost nonexistent academic education. Long before the era of eternal promises had arrived, Alcibiades Constantín was already a respected member of the Order of Caballero de la Luz and the people of the region, who trusted in then President Grau San Martín’s sense of Cuban identity, had elected him to represent them. His discreet economic prosperity allowed him to help the local 26 of July Movement rebels. While he lived in Hatuey, he never ceased to work as a laborer in the Najasa sugar mill.
A short while ago, I returned to his town, the first one crossed by the central railroad line – to which it owes its existence – that goes from Camagüey to Oriente. Of course, all dust and teetering wooden houses. There’s nothing to eat on the streets, because there’s nothing to buy, except little government sandwiches surrounded by flies. Every night, every evening, every weekend, bored men and the remaining youth get together in any old place, in a doorway or under the trees in the plaza to drink rum, talk about the lives they don’t lead, and drink rum.
An obedient creature showed up that morning in 1968 in my grandfather’s store, with a piece of paper in hand: “Alcibiades, starting today this is owned by the people. Only thus will we all have a better future.”
* Translator’s note: Hatuey was a Taíno chieftain who has attained legendary status for having led an indigenous resistance in Cuba against the invading Spanish colonialists, thus gaining among Cubans the historical distinction of “First Rebel of the Americas”. He was eventually captured by the Spaniards and burned at the stake. There is also the Cuban town of the same name (presumably named after the chieftain) featured in this post, which the author makes use of as a pun.
I took a look around that place, because they had already told me about its crowd. And I saw them. One of them could not have been more than fifteen years old. The others, who were not more than 25, gave off subtle signals, between smiles, of having lived much more. Except for the youngest they all had tattoos, Bucanero beers in their hands and cigarettes. They looked at the arriving modern cars with ecstasy. Before dawn, they gradually settled next to the newly arriving, robust gentlemen who would immediately ask for hollywood cigarettes and more beer, or for the chauffeur of one of the three parked cars. The youngest and a girlfriend got into an Audi with tourist plates heading for Las Tunas.
It’s not pleasant to go to Guáimaro, the town with the most history in the Camagüey region, since the private buses that operate on the route from Camagüey take much more than an hour to arrive, and if one leaves from Las Tunas it’s almost the same.
I always passed through there in a hurry, headed somewhere else. And that is what this town has always been, a place for passing through. Guáimaro is almost at the border that divides two very discordant regions, culturally and economically: Camagüey and Oriente (the East).
Guáimaro is well-known for the abundant livestock that has always roamed its plains. Although in the newspaper Adelante, the official voice of the Party in the province of Camagüey, it is prohibited to publish how much livestock there was in Camagüey prior to the Revolution, everyone knows that today only a shadow remains. The milk, the meat and the cheese that comes out of here keeps a good part of the country alive.
What I related in the beginning, I saw on a Sunday, in the rápido that’s in front of the town’s terminal. A rápido, anywhere in Cuba, is a type of cafeteria that is open 24 hours and is outdoors, with little tables covered by an awning and of course, alcoholic beverages sold in divisas (foreign currency); in other words, it’s not a place for the normal Cuban. Later, I was told about the long, useless list that the authorities have compiled to track and monitor the teenagers who frequent the place.
The Guáimaro museum also opens at night. It is close to the road. It is the only house in Cuba where two constitutions have been signed, possibly the two most democratic. There were no more visitors. A few pieces of furniture, and graphics with brief information is all the visual tribute to the men who tried to turn a fertile farm into a country with civil liberties. The cold that comes off the huge house is incapable of reviving the bitter sessions of 1869 and the jubilation of 1940.
Late at night I returned to the terminal, to wait for some type of transportation. Meanwhile, the couples who had already been formed at el rapido began to slip apart. Sleepy, I managed to get out of there aboard a truck at three in the morning.