My October Crisis / Reinaldo Escobar

"The Nation On the Brink of War" -- The Missile Crisis referred to in the official Cuban press.

“The Nation On the Brink of War” — The Missile Crisis referred to in the official Cuban press.

By Reinaldo Escobar — One of my recurring journalistic fantasies consists of managing to reveal some hidden secret. Among my darkest objects of research are two in the month of October: The Missile Crisis and the death of Camilo Cienfuegos. On this occasion I will speak of the first, but as I have no access to the archives I will tell when I myself experienced in that critical episode in our recent history.

I was 15 and was working in the coffee plantations of Guisa, in the Sierra Maestra. That was the first great mobilization of Cuban students for volunteer work, according to agreements reached at the First Confgress of the Secondary Students Union (UES), held on 6 August of that same year, 1962. Thousands of us students participated in this harvest which yielded – according to published data – the highest output in history, over 27 million pounds of coffee.

On Monday, 22 October, more or less at the time that president John F. Kennedy imposed the naval blockage on our island, our backpacks were stuffed with coffee beans, without anyone noticing any alteration in the routine. And so the week ended. Without telephones, electricity or portable radios.

(…) I saw a photo of Fidel displaying the five fingers of his right hand with a headline (…) “The Five Points of Cuba”

The first of November I had to “go down to the town” to visit a doctor because I was suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea. On throwing myself off the cart that left me in Guisa, I ran into a bar where I found rustic facilities to relieve my cramps. At eye height, there were a few sheets of the newspaper “Revolution” – the newspaper Granma didn’t exist yet – stuck on a nail. On looking over the first page, I saw a photo of Fidel displaying the five fingers of his right hand with a headline that said, as I remember, “The five points of Cuba.”

Stunned as I was, I was pulling off the sheets – which someone had had the delicacy to put in reverse chronological order – one by one. My feelings at this moment, apart from the physical, were many. On the one hand I felt guilty for not being behind one of the “cuatro bocas” – the “four mouths” as we called the Czech-made machine guns – at the supreme moment when “the maximum leader” proclaimed “we are all one in this hour of danger.”

(…) While our world was about to burst, our brave little brigade was gathering the coffee beans, abandoned to its fate

At times I had the insane idea that while our world was about to burst, our brave little brigade was gathering the coffee beans, abandoned to its fate, without even knowing the risks, with no one coming to rescue us, to protect us. But every time I this worry came to me, I rejected it because this should be the anguish of my overprotective mother, and not of a “soldier of the Revolution” always ready to give “the last drop of his blood.”

Fifty-two years have passed and there are few things still unrevealed about that crisis. If there is any revelation left to me after telling this personal story it is the detail of what our little group was called, twelve beardless boys answering to the name “Lenin Peace Prize Brigade.” We had been baptized thus because this was the name of the award Fidel Castro had received seven months earlier, from the hands of the Soviet scientist Dmitri Skobeltsyn.

I must confess that at that time I could not hear the contradiction that a leader decorated for his peaceful vocation had been about to trigger the last war in human history.

Shortly afterwards I realized the horror encapsulated in that situation, but it was already over.

The elections we didn’t have / Reinaldo Escobar

1948 Election Propaganda : "The wise distinguish"

REINALDO ESCOBAR, Havana. 6 October 2014 – This Sunday news agencies around the world, especially in Latin America, awaited the results of the first round elections in Brazil. The question of whether Dilma Rousseff will remain president of that vast country, simply the question, will be one of concern and anxiety to many people in Cuba and I’m not just referring to those in the offices of the Plaza of the Revolution who could see this or that project at risk, should the continuity be broken.

The actual experience of political change is a phenomenon alien to our country for the vast majority of the people. In fact the “youngest” Cubans who ever exercised the right to choose between one president and another, are now 88-years-old, because they would have had to be 21 in 1947, which would have allowed them to choose between three candidates: Eduardo Chibás, from the Cuban People’s Party (known as: Orthodox); Juan Marinello, for the Peoples Socialist Party (Communist); and Carlos Prío Socarrás, from the Authentic Party, who was ultimately the winner of that last contested election.

In 1976 citizens were led to believe they would become voters

Since then the concept of elections has become fuzzy, especially since 1976 when citizens were led to believe they would become voters, because they could approve a slate of candidates created by the will of those who were unwilling to relinquish power.

What is curious is that the commentators of whatever media, privately owned by the Communist Party, will speak with the greatest naturalness of the matter of 26 October, when the mystery of the Brazilian second round elections will be cleared up. They will address the subject without daring to say a single word that would make their readers wonder why Brazilians and other Latin Americans have that right and we do not.

If the multi-party system is that “multi-trash” system that renamed the only ex-president still alive, the re-election of Dilma Rousseff should also be considered illegitimate. If Aécio Neves emerges as the winner, they will have to turn to one or more psychiatrists to explain, with the “maneuvers of imperialism,” the irrevocable decision of a free people.

Street people / Reinaldo Escobar

Callejeros-Habana-Buenos-Aires_CYMIMA20140928_0001_16 (2)

In the two photos that I compare here I am not intending to insinuate that it’s the same in Buenos Aires as in Havana, because there will always be people sleeping on the street.

The Havanan (or maybe he is from another province) who sleeps shirtless in the full sun on the centrally-located Avenue of the Presidents at the corner of 23rd, in the heart of El Vedado, has left his shoes in reach of anyone who might steal them, figuring, perhaps, that there’s no one more poor than he. The pants he is wearing are tied with something that clearly isn’t a belt, and one could wager that he has ingested a goodly dose of alcohol. In the background, a reminder of the World Cup, the Argentine flag flies accompanied by one from Germany and another from Brazil.

The Argentine (probably an immigrant) protects himself from a slight chill with perhaps too many clothes and has something like a briefcase for a pillow. His image could illustrate the drama of many unemployed, people who have seen their lives shattered with the latest crisis. Behind him are more or less luxurious cars, contrasting with his misery. On the walls are the libertarian slogans of some graffiti artists that nobody has bothered to paint over. The street looks clean and everyone who passes by ignores him.

If they are sleeping they are dreaming of different, but equally unattainable, things.

28 September 2014

Puro, Buy My Stimulus” / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 12 September 2014 — Passing near the Chinese cemetery on 26th Avenue, a young man leading his bike by the hand, said to me, “Puro, buy my stimulus.” I confess that it took me a few seconds to decipher the code. Clearly the “puro” was a reference to my youth, but what was difficult to understand was the “stimulus.” How can you buy such a thing?

As he explained to me, it was a plastic bag that contained a quart of vegetable oil for cooking, two bath soaps, and some ounces of detergent that he’d been given at work as a “stimulus” for having stood out in socialist emulation.

I didn’t believe a single word and committed the journalistic folly of rejecting his offer. If I had said yes, now I’d have a photo here of the products, laid out on the wall of the cemetery with the graves in the background.

When I told the story to my friend Regina Coyula, author of the blog Bad Handwriting, she told me this is the latest scam. The allusion to having been chosen as the vanguard, a standout, or special prize winner, makes you think that the potential seller is a “true believer” who has no recourse but to sacrifice the material honors his political-social conduct has earned him, to alleviate his urgent needs.

To buy the “stimulus” is almost a sado-political vengeance, but selling fake merchandise, that is oil that isn’t good for cooking, soap that doesn’t produce lather, and lime instead of detergent, is already a mockery… the old scam in new clothes.

From Digital Pages to Paper Books / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, photo from her blog

Regina Coyula, photo from her blog

Note from Translating Cuba: Regina Coyula turns to the crowdfunding site INDIEGOGO to bring books by Cuban writers from a warehouse in Spain to the Miami Book Fair.  PLEASE HELP HER. No donation is too small! (And you get a book or books! Or artwork by Rebeca Monzo! Or a handmade case for your glasses!)

14ymedio, Havana, Reinaldo Escobar, 2 September 2014 — Regina Coyula combines her work on the blog La Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting) with collaboration on various digital media. She is not determined to bring a mountain of books by Cuban authors from a warehouse in Spain to the Book Fair in Miami. Among the maelstrom of tasks involved in coordinating such an initiative from Cuba, she found a few minutes to chat with the readers of 14ymedio.

Question: Your name is associated with blogs, daily vignettes, and social criticism. We’ve learned that you’re now involved in a publishing project. Do you find it a very different scenario from independent Cuban blogs?

Answer: I’ve found myself in this project, #Desevillamiami (From Seville to Miami). This is me, I like books and editorial work, especially after coming to know the Renacimiento publishing house. Most companies in the book business turn unsold books into pulp, but Abelardo Linares, who runs this publishing house, saves them and has two warehouses full of them. In some cases he has ten or a hundred copies left, but he doesn’t destroy them. And from there the idea of this project arose, basically to retrieve the books. Continue reading

University (for the Tenacious) / 14ymedio, Henry Constantin, Reinaldo Escobar

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 28 August 2014 — Henry Constantin is a native of Camagüey province, born in Las Tunas on Valentine’s Day, 30 years ago. He has been expelled from university three times for his ideas, but still believes he will obtain his journalism degree.

This slender, plain-spoken young man has founded two independent publications and has just returned from a cultural exchange program. For years he has been part of the reporting team of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), and today he invites the readers of 14ymedio to share the challenges he has faced in his classroom journey.

Question: You hold the sad distinction of three expulsions from university. What was the first time like?

Answer: One day I wrote this question on the board: Who was the Cuban nominee for the Nobel Prize? My fellow students did not know, neither did the professor, so I wrote the name of Oswaldo Payá. Continue reading

El Zanjon In Baragua Times / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Cartel-entrada-zanjon_CYMIMA20140825_0004_1314ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, El Zanjón, 25 August 2014 – No one remembers when the old Spanish barracks were demolished and or the decades passed since the allegorical tally of what happened there. Although the official history vilifies this place, a sign on the central highway tells us we are nearing El Zanjón, whose name also appears on the ID cards of the three hundred people who live in the small village.

On 10 February 1878, the seven agreements of the Pact of Zanjón were signed there, putting an end of the Ten Years War. Thus, the two fundamental objectives that had caused the war were frustrated: Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery. General Arsenio Martinez Campos would be the big winner in an accord that many Cubans considered a shameful page in the national history.

The vast majority of the Liberation Army fighters accepted the pact, with the exception of Antonio Maceo, who a month later starred in the Baraguá Protest. That attempt to keep the struggle alive only lasted until mid-May of the same year, and shortly after Maceo, the Bronze Titan, abandoned the Island for Jamaica. Continue reading

Four Cardinal Points / Reinaldo Escobar

puntos-cardinales_CYMIMA20140814_0005_13

They are difficult to count, not to mention uncountable, the projects carried out in order to find alternative solutions to Cuba’s problems. When I say “alternatives” I’m obviously referring to a broad set of programs, documents, statements not coming from governmental institutions, but from that disjointed amalgamation of opposition parties and civil society entities, both within and outside the Island.

Many of these platforms have tried to encourage an essential unity, few have managed to do so. One of the reasons for the failure of this unity of purpose is the inclusion of one or another point that has led to disagreements. Another reason is the effect of what could be called “strongman rule in reverse,” which consists in opposition leaders refusing to support a specific program because of the presence among its signatories of others with whom they have differences. Continue reading

“I am optimistic I will see prosperity in Cuba” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, 8 August 2014, Reinaldo Escobar – Pinar del Río born and bread, and a member of the editorial board of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), Karina Gálvez has made some important decisions in her life. She wants to continue to live in Cuba, to help change the country from civil society and some to recover the piece of patio that the authorities confiscated from her parents’ house. Today she talks with the readers of 14ymedio about her personal evolution, the Cuban economy, and her dreams for the future.

Question: Isn’t it a bit contradictory to be an economist in Cuba?

Answer: When I graduated, the final subject of my thesis focused on the economic effectiveness of the use of bagasse (sugar cane stalk fiber) for boards. The result of the investigation was negative, because making boards in those conditions was expensive and the product quality was very bad. But they ignored us.

Q: Since the conclusion of your studies you have dedicated yourself to teaching. Did you ever instill in your students that socialism was the best way to manage an economy? Continue reading

Stubborn Like an Islander / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The Islander (14ymedio)

The Islander (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 8 August 2014 – In the land of San Juan y Martinez, Bernabé Pérez Gutiérrez planted his first crops and fathered fourteen children. It was during the last years of the 19th century, and the immigrant baptized his farm The Islander, in memory of the Canary Islands where he’d come from. Today, his great-grandchildren are trying to keep one of the most important tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio running, with the their great grandfather’s same stubbornness and his love for the furrow.

The Islander is a family cooperative inserted into a larger entity called “Rafael Morales Credit and Strengthened Services Cooperative (CCS-F),” consisting of 64 tobacco producers, occupying over 250 acres. It also includes dairy and pig farmers. Only ten of these farmers lease their land (under usufruct), while others jealously hoard their property titles.

What distinguishes The Islander is not only the quality of their tobacco, their fruit or their flowers, nor even the hard work of the members of the Pérez González family. Its hallmark is that this site has been, since the time of Barnabas an example of a sustained endeavor that refuses to be subjugated, neither by the misfortunes of nature nor the whims of the bureaucracy.

Continue reading

“We want to contribute to personal and community reflection of pastoral agents” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Erick Alvarez

Erick Alvarez

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 August 2014 – To mark the publication of a letter sent by five young Cubans to Pope Francisco, 14ymedio interviewed Erick Álvarez Gil, coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) in Havana. At just 28, this young man joined the organization in 2009, and holds a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications.

Question: What are the antecedents of this document?

Answer: This letter was sent on the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, and also two years from the time Oswaldo handed a letter to the Cuban bishops in 2012, which reflected some of these concerns and also touched on the issues of relations between Church and State, and Church and Society. These ideas are still dormant and still a source of concern to us, so we went back to the idea of a letter and put it in the hands of the Pope and also sent it to the Cuban bishops, priests, religious, missionaries, and the most committed laypeople in the Cuban Church.

Q: As I understand it the letter is dated May 5 and was delivered to Pope Francisco on the 14th of that month, but only now has been disclosed to the public. Why the wait time between sending the letter and publication?

A: We didn’t send the letter to any media, the aim was not that the letter would be published openly. Our objective was to send it to the main actors of the Church in Cuba and the more committed lay people. We did that late last week and, as happens in these cases, it is already public. Continue reading

The Many Faces of the Buquenque / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Buquenque (14ymedio)

Buquenque (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 1 August 2014, Havana – When you walk through Fraternity Park, amid the bustle of Havana, you hear the cries of masculine voices calling out possible destinations for trips to diverse places in the capital. Near the Aldama Palace they shout out that there are two spaces left for Boyeros and Santiago de las Vegas. A little further on to the left, under the shade of the laurels, they invite you to go to Cotorro, and on nearly reaching the Capitol they announce cars for Alamar. For the most part they are American cars, Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, made before 1960, with the exception of the odd Lada or Moskvitch, devoted to the singular transport that combines the characteristics of a taxi and a bus.

This type of transport is popularly called almendrones [almonds], which for 10 or 20 Cuban pesos (depending on the distance) run on fixed routes. At the origin points a new figure appeared one day, a character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”

For a long time buquenques thrived outside the law, charging (chiseling, some say) each driver 5 national pesos for the service of bringing him passengers, but recently the legislation that protects self-employment opened a space for them. Of course it didn’t call them buquenques, but the job appears as number 53 on a list of 201 activities as “Taxi trip manager.” In the “description of scope” the law defines the work content as: “Manages passengers to fill the capacity of vehicles at stops authorized by the corresponding Administrative Board.” If properly registered they should pay the national treasury 80 Cuban pesos every month.

Put this way, one imagines a coat and tie and even a web page to make reservations, but it’s not like that, rather it’s a shouted offer, often unnecessarily loud, where the volume of the shouts, and a certain authoritarian air, almost orders the passenger to get in the car. Continue reading