Our Golden Years / Rebeca Monzo

Artwork by Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 30 September 2018  — I was preparing for my golden years with the expectation that they would be enriching, that my social life that would be an active one. I collected books and music which I would share with friends. I certainly did not expect to face a very difficult financial situation. My expectations were predicated on the assumption that I would enjoy a minimum level of comfort. It would also be the time when I could most enjoy my family. There was nothing to suggest that I would not be able to continue working to support myself, that my children would no longer live in Cuba, or that I would barely know my granddaughters or not be able to care for them. I have had to rethink my life, to look for other options while weighing the cost of starting over.

By the end of the 1980s I had decided to quit working for the country’s sole employer: the state. I was able to join the Association of Cuban Artists and Artisans. This decision improved my quality of life and provided me a modicum of independence. My income was no longer tied to a job that paid poverty level wages. continue reading

An artist does not grow old; she remains creative her entire life. This has allowed me to remain financially solvent. Even though I have not been able to achieve all my aspirations, I am happy with everything I do.

Today, I consider myself to be a reasonably independent person, someone who has achieved a lot. I don’t get stuck, I don’t get depressed, I don’t get lonely. Instead, I change course. I spend what little free time I have with friends, which partially fills the enormous void.

But in spite of all my physical and emotional efforts, I still do not have the basics. I cannot count on having a good diet. My clothing, a refection of foreign fashion trends, is provided by relatives who live overseas. Even thinking about a vacation is out of the question. Going to Varadero, or even to a hotel pool, is a luxury. In spite of advances in telecommunications, family interactions are practically nonexistent given the very underdeveloped state of technology here. Because I lack the necessary support and am horrified by local hospitals, I live in fear of getting sick. Given the imbalance between income and prices, it is impossible to save. The most basic, routine expenditures are major concerns. As a person who has always tried to do the right thing, I find all this frustrating.

I move in a social circle of elderly people which is shrinking. The loss of friends becomes ever greater. Many leave for Miami, others for the cemetary. Relations with younger people are also reduced because they have other interests and, it should be added, few of them like to spend time with us. They often see us as a hindrance, in a general sense, and believe our disappearance would improve the quality of their lives.

In the 1960s those of my generation lost a large portion of their families and friends to large scale emigration. We had to build new families and make new friends. Then in the 1990s we had to do this all over again.

Near the end of 2000 I was able to travel to Miami where I met with lost family members as well as friends from childhood and adolescence. As childeren they had been evacuated out of Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan, with hand-painted signs pinned to their chests. They are all retired now and enjoy a high standard of living. They have nice homes and modern cars. When they came to see me, they were well dressed and, with great tact, gave me a lovely wallet with cash inside. Me, the “barbarian” who had stayed in Cuba.

Who is the real barbarian? There were no outright rebukes but I felt I had been brought down a notch.

In Cuba the old class structure was replaced by one based on absolute power.

I belong to a generation that remains trapped between a pre-1959 Cuba and one that has no relationship to established social norms. This makes us misfits, unable to adjust to the current chaos. We are paid our insignificant salaries and pensions in Cuban pesos but are expected to live as though we were paid in convertible pesos.

Manuel, the Distinguished Meringue Maker / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 2 September 2018– Some years ago a well-mannered gentleman appeared in our neighborhood selling the most delicious baked meringues. He told us he was living, not in the best of conditions, in a distant suburb on the outskirts of Havana. On almost on a daily basis he walked the streets of Nuevo Vedado, where he had found some customers.

Recently, which is to say a few years ago, privately operated sites began springing up in our neighborhood where one could buy bread, cookies, candy and meringues, the latter supplied by Manuel, who also continued walking the streets in his normal street vendor way.

Several months ago we lost sight of him. All the neighbors were asking, “Have you seen Manuel?” His delicious meringues were still available at certain designated spots but we no longer crossed paths with him. We missed chatting with him — this older, cultured, pleasant man with a unique demeanor  — when we made our purchases. continue reading

Today, I inadvertently crossed paths with him for the first time in months at one of the sale locations. We had a brief conversation during which I discovered that his absence was due to the fact that, after several years of retirement, he had decided to accept an offer to return to teaching at the University of Havana, where for years he had been a professor. His main source of income, however, remained the sale of meringues, which his family had taught him how to make.

On planet Cuba it is very common to find distinguished and elderly professionals living not on their salary or pension paid in Cuban pesos but on little freelance projects which earn them hard currency. This is a finer point not addressed in any article of the pitiful draft of the proposed new Cuban constitution.

Happy Independence Day / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, Havana, 4 July 2018 — My sincerest congratulations this 242nd anniversary of the independence of the United States of North America, to a people who exemplify democracy and progress.

Wishing with all my heart that relations between Cuba and the United Statest will advance and be consolidated.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

A Thwarted Robbery / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 29 May 2018 — An older woman, whose son opened a bank account and got an ATM card to make her life easier, went to the Water and Soap store on La Rambla in Havana’s Vedado area to buy some cleaning supplies. When she handed the card to the cashier, she was informed that the “little machine” had rejected it and that, therefore, she had to pay in cash. The woman did this but, upon leaving the store, decided to check her bank balance at a nearby ATM. It indicated, to her surprise, that the purchase amount had been deducted from her account.

She returned to the store, went to the cashier and told her what had happened. The cashier replied that she was sorry but that she could not give her a cash refund, that the woman would have to go to Fincimex in Miramar and explain her problem. The woman went there and the employee waiting on her informed her that they did not handle problems like these and that she should contact the CIMEX Corporation. The woman went there and was informed that she must write a letter explaining the problem and deliver it to the management at Water and Soap. So the woman did this and, after her long ordeal, was finally refunded the money. continue reading

Having solved that problem, she decided to go the nearby ATM to get some cash in order to buy some things without having to use the card. But just as she was about to receive the money, there was a power failure. The automatic teller returned her card but did not give her the cash. To resolve this new problem, she had to go to the bank that services the ATM and make the necessary arrangements there. That’s how easy things are on my planet!

In the Peak of Health / Rebeca Monzo

Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana

Rebeca Monzo, 24 May 2018 — How is it possible that international organizations rank our planet Cuba near the top when it comes to public health services?

There are only a very small number of hospitals that the government can point to as examples of quality health care: Camilo Cienfuegos Clinic in Vedado; Cira García Clinic, formerly Miramar Clinic; Cimeq Hospital, which serves government officials, their families and friends; La Pradera, for very special cases; and the famous Kohly Clinic, which is reserved for very high-level officials and their closest relatives. Most of the other hospitals, which — like those previously mentioned — were built before the Cuban Revolution, are the ones available to the rest of us, the “average Cubans.”

In spite of their solid construction, these hospitals are in an overall state of decay due to neglect. And the level of cleanliness and hygiene in them leaves much to be desired. continue reading

Not long ago, a very close family member of mine checked into Calixto García. Along with other medical instructions the hospital gives patients upon admission, it recommends that they and those accompanying them be sure to place all personal items inside sealable plastic bags to prevent contact with the small roaches that are routinely found on the small bedside tables next to each patient’s bed.

Leaks in bathrooms and the lack of shutoffs at sinks and showers, from which water shoots continuously due to the absence of requisite items of plumbing, are other major problems. The patients, most of whom are elderly, are in constant danger when walking through corridors due to the chronic presence of puddles of water, putting them at risk of falling.

Something that caught my attention and struck me as unimaginable was the day the nurse on duty went from bed to bed, asking patients and their caregivers if they had seen anyone running away with a window. It seems the “pantry” of the recently renovated ward had just been robbed.

Such extraordinary incidents have become almost routine in most hospitals. Facilities being robbed of their plumbing is, unfortunately, now a common occurrence.

Another incident that made an impression on me was the day that I had an accident and hit my forehead, causing a deep gash almost to the bone. My neighbor took me on his motorcycle to the clinic to which I was assigned.

When I got to the emergency room, it was closed and I had to spend several minutes walking around the facility, looking for a doctor who would help me. After a while, a doctor showed up. She checked the wound, told me they could not help me and said I should go to the Orthopedic Hospital so they could do an X-ray before suturing it.

She did not give me a referral so, when I arrived at the hospital, I went to the emergency room doctor and explained what had happened. He said he was sorry but that they could not help me and that I should go Calixto García or Fajardo. We finally decided to go to the latter because it was closer.

There I was immediately seen by a young medical student in the emergency room who cleaned and stitched up the wound with “kid gloves.” He suggested I go to a small waiting room where there was stretcher, which I did very carefully because there was water on the floor. The only three questions the doctors there asked me were the following: name, address and age. They did not take my blood pressure, or do an X-ray, or ask if I felt nauseous, or if I had ingested anything right before the incident.

Draw your own conclusions with respect to basic health care services provided on my planet, where hygiene — a fundamental aspect of health — is quite precarious.

The Several Faces of Eva (Based on a True Story) / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, Havana, 13 March 2018 — She is a beautiful woman, petite, pleasant, with a great sense of humor and very well-educated, intelligent, a Master’s degree in science with a lot of achievements and scientific honors accumulated over her long career.

She lives in the heart of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, in a building from where she used to have a beautiful view of one of the most important and architecturally most beautiful sports facilities in our city, with the blue sea, almost always serene, as a backdrop: Martí Park. continue reading

This park, like the whole city, including the building where she lives, has been deteriorating with the passage of time, and with the government’s abandonment and neglect, become of a ghost of the gleaming era now long in the past.

Martí Park, with its marvelous stands, in an architectural style very advanced from the splendid 1950s, is today a refuge for drug addicts, criminals and the “homeless,” who even stage clandestine dog fights and other criminal acts there, and it has also become a habitat for rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other insects.

Eva’s balcony is directly facing this pitiful panorama. As she lives alone and works in a scientific center, which requires her to be away from home for more than eight hours, she fears that the criminals nearby are aware of this. To protect herself, every so often she stands on her balcony and looks over, sometimes dressed as a fireman, others with a cap and the jacket of a sports uniform and, on occasion, with a big straw hat and fake mustaches, in order to make it look as if several people live in her house, so that the undesirables don’t get up to anything crooked.

This has been going on for many years in this park, although at this time, because the equestrian monument of Major General Calixto García, which was located in the roundabout next to this facility, has been moved to the Playa Municipality (due to the deterioration it suffered from the constant penetrations of the sea), and the land in the park is full of debris and machinery which is being watched over, the crime established there is more controlled.

This situation, at least temporarily, has brought some tranquility to my friend Eva.

Public Health in Cuba / Rebeca Monzo

Waiting for healthcare in Cuba.

Rebeca Monzo, 7 January 2018 — First of all, to be properly treated in any hospital, you have to have a friend who is a doctor or a friend who is very close to the doctor you are going to see, in addition to bringing a gift — something already established — to be able to enter the office at all, without asking where the end of the line is and to “set a good precedent.”

The journey to be seen in the normal way is long and tedious: first you must go to the family doctor, where you are probably seen by a student, or a recent graduate without experience. They will ask you questions and fill out paperwork, without listening or paying attention, and will give you a referral to go to the polyclinic you are assigned to, where there are always long waiting lines and you will almost never find a specialist, so you will need to return constantly until there is one, as they work in hospitals and from time to time come to the polyclinics to practice. continue reading

If your case is serious, they will send you to the hospital, where a foreign student may attend you, because almost all of our best Cuban doctors and specialists are out of the country, serving on a “mission” in Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela or any other place in the world, which has contracts with the Cuban government to supply doctors and health specialists, who receive only a small percentage in foreign currency of the money that these countries pay to the government of the island for these “missions.” This exchange, which benefits the government greatly and the health professional very little, is called “solidarity.”

In our polyclinics and hospitals, at the moment, the most visible characteristic is the lack of hygiene and medicines and, in some cases, even a lack of professionalism, except for honorable exceptions that prove the rule.

The employees in charge of cleaning do not have the necessary products and resources nor do they receive decent salaries to promote good hospital hygiene.

Lamentably, as in all agencies and service centers in the country, politics is the priority and not hygiene, nor good service, nor professionalism. Where this is painfully more notable is precisely in polyclinics and health centers, where the sick population has to face all kinds of difficulties that threaten good hospital service.

This is true even in some of the newly restored hospitals such as the Calixto García, where the last generation stretchers are in precarious and depressing hygienic conditions, as is the furniture of the waiting rooms, and the bedside tables in the wards full of cockroaches, dehulled and dried out, bathrooms with broken facilities, leaks and puddles of water, where patients must walk at risk of slipping and falling.

When patients are admitted, the doctor who sees them informs the patient’s companion that they must bring sheets, pillows and pillow cases, a fan, soap and other hygiene items, as well as plastic bags to store belongings, so that the cockroaches do not crawl all over those items owned by the patient.

Despite the lack of hygiene and medicines, we must recognize that our doctors are excellent people, but how can it be said in the media that our country is a world benchmark for healthcare, when there is no protection of life here and medical errors ‘cover the earth’.

Where is Cuban Culture? / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 21 October 2017 — The mass media in our country boast a lot about Cuban culture. And it’s that which is our biggest weakness right now.

Starting on January 1st, 1959, when they started to prioritise politics and pass new decrees and laws, which steadily grew more distant from our famous 1940 Constitution, which was never re-established, our moral, social and civic concepts began to weaken. This was when the family, in a state of disintegration, and schools, faced with loss of professionals who had up to then imparted education, were their most important bastions. continue reading

Yesterday afternoon, in a TV Cubana programme, Palco Indiscreto, the journalist who runs it, astonished me by courageously raising this very delicate topic on an official channel on the occasion of Cuban Culture Day. He said that we received lots of education, but we lacked an overall culture, in spite of our great musicians, dancers and artists in general.

That’s true, because culture includes formal education, good manners, respect for others, knowing how to talk and behave, qualities which unfortunately we are losing, including university graduates, whose language and manners leave much to be desired.

We have lost our respect for other people, respect for third-party property, respect for our familiy elders, or what’s left of them. As well as respect for keeping to schedule, adhering to accepted commitments, for keeping the city clean and tidy, the love of nature, including neglect of animals, trees and gardens, being careless about dress when going out into the street, good manners, health, how to greet people properly and to make an apology.

What with these great losses, which the educational institutions and society in general have not worried themselves about maintaining or rescuing, how can we pretend to be proud of being a cultured country?

Hopefully, one day we will be able to genuinely proudly celebrate October 20th, the Day of Cuban Culture.

Translated by GH

Centralism Again? / Rebeca Monzo

Pushcart vendor on a Havana street (CC)

Rebeca Monzo, 25 August 2017 — Once again the Cuban government wants to “tighten the screws” on initiative and private business.

It has suspended issuing “until further notice” all self-employment licenses, which run the gamut from the smallest, most humble pushcarts to family-run restaurants and homeowners who rent out rooms to tourists. Word has it that taxes will also go up — an exploitative move considering that they are already extremely high — and that there will be an increase of 240% or more on the price of basic necessities, whether priced in hard currency (Cuban convertible pesos) or Cuban pesos.

Meanwhile, poverty-level salaries and pensions remain the same even as taxes increase on merchandise Cubans need to survive under an absolutist regime.

Being allowed to once again rent or sell our properties, or to travel abroad, does not amount to some gift from the totalitarian system. It is simply Raul’s way of reinstating some of the rights that he himself usurped from us 58 years ago.

Let’s see how well they lead to the famous changes the regime has bragged so much about. Far from opening up and facilitating the country’s economic growth, it retrenches ever further into statism and intolerance. Given the dual currency and lack of universal internet access, foreigners are losing interest in investing in the country with each passing day. Does that mean that perhaps they will try once again to impose centralism on us?

A Neighborhood Dressed in Blue / Rebeca Monzo

“Hard Currency Landlord” — Homes rented to foreigners must post this sign.

A neighborhood dressed in blue.

At the time of the “accident” in 1959, Nuevo Vedado was the latest Havana neighborhood to be developed. Its residents included professionals and famous artists from radio and television. It was an elegant neighborhood, with any number of homes — primarily one or two-story single-family residences — noted for their striking architectural designs, many of which had garnered national and international awards.

Its principal artery, 26th Avenue, was lined with red and yellow acacias (now almost non-existent) and beds of pink and white oleanders, which gave the neighborhood an indescribable beauty. The properties there, now encircled by high fences and imposing ramparts, were demarcated only by perimeter walls not much higher than a foot and a half or borders of small shrubs.

These days the neighborhood is festooned in blue, the color of signs advertising hard currency rental properties. The houses’ current owners, mostly university professors who cannot live on their poverty-level wages and retirees, have resorted to renting out rooms in their homes and apartments. continue reading

Nuevo Vedado is home to one of the tourist market’s main transit hubs: Viazul station, whose buses leave daily for Viñales, Varadero, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos. Due to limited parking available for buses in the area, the station cannot meet the high demand, so it is surrounded by private taxis, which offer the same ride for only 5.00 CUC more than the buses with the added advantage that tourists can be picked up at their respective lodgings.

Among the other big tourist attractions are the city’s zoo, Metropolitan Park (Bosque de la Havana), Civic Plaza (now Revolution Plaza), the National Theater, the Colón Cemetery and the newly famous Art Factory (formerly El Cocinero cooking oil factory), the “coolest” place in the city, where famous figures from the worlds of art and culture can regularly be seen.

In addition to all these attractions, we are surrounded by wonderful restaurants, bars and cafes with various options and prices points for every wallet. The result is a better quality of life for the area’s residents thanks to the increased and ongoing influx of tourists.

Rebeca Monzo, 31 March 2017

Planet Nothing

Rebeca Monzo, Havana, 16 June 2017 — Cuba is a distant planet. It has nothing to do with the rest of the world, because nothing functions there as in the majority of civilized countries. This “planet” is ruled by the whims of its ancient rulers who have spent almost 59 years doing whatever they please.

Now is when we were supposed to be doing better, thanks to the massive arrival of a tourist trade that for decades overlooked Cuba as a destination because of the innumerable restrictions imposed by the regime–and which now has no choice but to “loosen its grip” in this regard, because the country does not produce goods and is totally bankrupt. Curiously, almost all the tourists I talk with remark that they come to Cuba because they want to experience it before the great changes that are coming. It must be that they want to “feel” firsthand, rather than watch a movie about, a true Jurassic Park. continue reading

Nobody knows what is being done with the money collected via remittances [from Cuban émigrés abroad to their relatives on the Island] and tourism, being that the stores are practically empty, the public transportation service is worse every day, the city grows ever dirtier, and buildings continue to collapse–structures whose extreme deterioration is due to the government never having taken care of them adequately.

Yesterday at the the Panamericana chain store location on 26th Avenue between 17th and 15th Streets in Vedado, I was struck with consternation to see the huge line of people waiting to enter. I asked an employee who told me that they had only one cashier, because the other three had quit their jobs, as had the workers in the personal and household cleaning supplies department. Only one cash register, in the groceries department, was open to the public.

We go on floating in a state of absolute stagnation, where “nothing from nothing” is our daily reality.

Ed note: Rebeca has a room for rent on Airbnb if you are going to Havana. (Additional note: this “advertisement” has NOT been posted at her request or even with her knowledge.)

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The First Tangible Labor Strike / Rebeca Monzo

A classic American car used as a shared fixed-route taxi. (14ymedio)

Rebeca Monzo, 21 February 2017 — New bureaucratic regulations governing the routes of shared fixed-route taxis have led to the first tangible labor strike by drivers. Of course, strikes have gone on for many years in our country due to the poverty-level wages paid to workers in the bureaucratic and service sectors. As the old saying goes, “the government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.”

The best known example of the current strike involves boteros (literally “boatmen” — the taxi drivers of cars from the 1940s and 1950s). After bureaucrats set the prices for certain short trips at 5.00 Cuban pesos, the so-called national currency, drivers refused to pick up short-haul passengers. continue reading

After paying a high fee to the government for a license to operate, it is not profitable for a driver to charge 5.00 Cuban pesos when 0.25 CUC* (roughly the same in the other currency) does not even cover the high cost of fuel. Furthermore, anytime a car brakes, there is wear and tear on the tires and battery. And whenever a car door opens to let a customer get in or out, more fuel is consumed. Consider that a tire in this country costs approximately 160.00 CUC, about the same the price as a battery, not to mention that spark plugs go for almost 3.00 CUC apiece.

Boteros are helping to solve the serious problem of urban transport in this country. These new regulations have led to an increase in the number of bus riders, which has in turn led to a deterioration in public transportation.

Why do these same bureaucrats, who say they have adopted these regulations to protect the pocketbooks of average citizens, not work to reduce to extremely high cost of food priced in the national currency and especially in the convertible currency? Obviously, the state guarantees them an auto, gasoline and spare parts, so they are not directly and personally affected by the needs and problems that the Cuban population faces.

In short, the botero is not forcing you to be his customer. It is the state which is forcing you by not attending to or solving, after so many years, the big transportation problems in our country.

Translator’s note: Cuban convertible peso, equivalent to about 6.63 Cuban pesos.

The Unhealthy Public / Rebeca Monzo

“19th of April” Policlinic in Havana

Rebeca Monzo, 20 January 2017 — Our media are filled with praise for the Cuban public health system. This is a subject that foreigners who visit our country pay a lot of attention to, due to the government propaganda and official statistics provided to international organizations, which tourists also show a lot of interest in.

There are two or three hospitals and policlinics shown off to visitors, which are “duly prepared.” Even so, and I know from experience, they are not in the optimal conditions that they should be.

I felt “fortunate,” when for the first time in all those years, I had to go to one of these “model” centers to receive physiotherapy treatment, due to two tremendous falls I took, thanks to the broken streets and sidewalks and in a terrible state, which proliferate in our city. continue reading

“Defective bathroom, don’t use.”

The staff in attendance in this department is good, friendly and prepared, but the conditions for delivering the best treatment don’t really exist. Numerous people come to this department, having suffered some kind of accident or simply suffering from the passage of years.

From the waiting room to the physiotherapy department there is a hallway through which all the patients have to pass, most of them old people with crutches or canes, and they must avoid a perennial puddle of water, where even the policlinic’s pets come to drink. Also, of the two bathrooms for the waiting room, only one is working, the ladies, which the gentlemen also have to use.

The different cubicles where physiotherapy happens are adorned with ragged and dirty curtains, some of them half off. Also, the furniture in the rooms is mostly covered in dust. It seems there are no cleaners or, simply, they are paid so little they don’t do a good job.

A cat drinking from a puddle in the hallway of the clinic

And if that wasn’t enough, the biological wastes are deposited directly into trash collectors, without being put in closed trash bags or incinerated as they should be.

Imagine, if this is the policlinic they show foreigners (only the best areas), you can imagine what the rest of the ones we ordinary citizens have to use are like. And don’t even talk about the hospitals, they’re worse.

Leadership and Dissidence / Rebeca Monzo

Rebeca Monzo, 6 January 2017 — The leadership and the dissidence seem more and more the same to me. Is it coincidence or lack of experience?

At this very moment, if suddenly there were free elections on my planet Cuba, supervised by the United Nations or other countries, I would not know who to vote for.

Lately, what I see and hear most among the dissidents is about travels abroad and buying things cheaply and so-and-so “stayed.” I don’t hear much talk about organizing and meeting to raise awareness among neighbors and friends, with the goal of winning supporters. continue reading

The Cuban people, in general, don’t know any of the leaders from the many existing groups. Not even their neighbors know who they really are and what they do, unless State Security visits them to alert them against the dissidents and presents a false picture of them. Of course, the government takes full advantage of the lack of internet that it has intentionally imposed on us.

Increasingly, sadly, the dissidence is more divided. Everyone aspires to be the “head of the mouse” but they are not resigned to being the “tale of the lion.” The heads of the groups are those who receive economic support from abroad and distribute it how they wish, along with the courses and trips to different events in distant countries, the content of which is shared with no one.

This, without counting those who have a police file on their “dangerousness” and then, at the first opportunity, leave the country for good. Apparently, without realizing it, they are giving the government what it wants.

How is it possible to change the destinies of a country if the opposition groups within the island are distancing themselves from each other and, therefore, it is so difficult to effectively dedicate themselves to spreading democratic ideas among the people?

It is time to reconsider and smooth things over and try to become united, ignoring differences, then denounce the most acute problems suffered by the Cuban people, and try to find solutions to them.

Being divided pleases the government, whose policy from the beginning has been precisely that: divide and conquer.

Translated by Jim