Post-Marambio Era / Yoani Sánchez

A week ago Max Marambio, alias El Guatón – The Fatso – was due to come to this Island, appear before a court, explain certain matters. The owner of the joint-venture company Río Zaza, however, has preferred the protection of his Chilean homeland, as he is an expert – like no one else – in the unpredictable results of putting oneself in the hands of Cuban justice. Accused of bribery, embezzlement, forgery of bank documents and fraud, he who was once the favored protégé of the Maximum Leader just received – instead of pats on the back – a warrant for his arrest.

I miss Marambio even without having known him, because with his departure the number of families on this Island who can drink a glass of milk whenever they like has been greatly reduced. The informal market that supplied itself from his warehouses collapsed as soon as he left, and the underground networks that diverted his products either dried up or doubled their prices. When the lieutenant colonel turned manager escaped to Santiago de Chile, we realized the role that this man – forged at the right hand of power – played in what we put on our tables. He didn’t do it for altruism, clearly, but at least he diversified the boring local production and managed to make a tetrapack something that was not a collector’s item.

Marambio’s fortune was amassed where Cubans cannot invest a single centavo: in those joint venture companies opened to those with foreign passports but not to those with national ones. His personal history was a preview of what we will see, a prediction of how ranking military will transform themselves – dressed in suits and ties – into ideology-free entrepreneurs. Despite his agility with yesterday’s weapons – a Kalashnikov, slogans, Marxist dogma – we remember him for other strategies: bank accounts, trading favors, investments. His former comrades in the struggle will show him no clemency when judging him in court, because the paunchy Chilean ended up turning himself into a commercial competitor, not to mention that he knows too many stories – secret ones – about them.

August 8, 2010

The Wait / Yoani Sánchez

My mother shifts from side to side. She stands first on one leg and then the other, while I wrap my skinny 7-year-old arms around her hips. What is the line for? I don’t know, perhaps we’re at the bus stop, or outside a shop where they had plates, or in front of the drugstore to buy some aspirin. It’s a long line in the sun and it seems that our turn never comes.

She fans herself. Keeps shifting from right to left. With this movement my mother – almost oblivious – is teaching me the art of waiting, the exercise of patience to deal with the long lines that are waiting for me.

August 7, 2010

Forbidden, But Possible / Yoani Sanchez

The smoke gets in my hair, my clothes, and overnight I take on the smell of tobacco although I am one of those Cuban adults who has never smoked. The man at the next table has consumed a pack and a half of Hollywoods in the short time he’s been here, using an empty beer bottle as an ashtray. On the wall there is a sign showing a cigarette with a red line through it; the white background of the poster is stained with nicotine. There is no remedy, I’m a passive smoker even though my country adopted a decree in 2005 that should protect my lungs in.

I passed unscathed through that first “drag” — shared while sitting in a circle — that kids try to prove how grown up they are. Thirty-two percent of my compatriots, however, ended up hooked from this youthful prank, and today spend a good part of their personal resources on Criollos, Populares, or H. Upmanns. This is one of the highest smoking rates in the region, perhaps comparable to the high levels of alcoholism, although the latter is not officially declared. Though half the homes on the Island are exposed to smoke, in our house we have an ex-smoker, a teenager who doesn’t seem interested yet, and this humble servant who used to dunk the packets in water to discourage her father from the vice.

The resolution to protect those who don’t smoke is strict and very modern, but in practice it only worked for a couple of weeks. I don’t know anyone who has been fined for violating the rule against smoking in public places or on public transport, and you can still see people selling different brands of cigarettes close to elementary and secondary schools. Notwithstanding my abstinence, a couple months ago I was diagnosed with emphysema and the doctor gave me a wink while saying, “You smoke, right?” I feel like buying myself a dozen of the strongest cigars, taking long drags, and blowing the smoke on the damp paper of a law that is not complied with, or on those who have ensured that these regulations aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. But I don’t know, I suspect that if I did I would received one of the few fines imposed in the last five years.

August 3, 2010

Losing a Tooth, Winning a Number / Yoani Sánchez

Months ago I dreamt I lost a tooth. That tiny one on the side that’s been with me for more than thirty years. An incisor that has never moved and that I should care for, knowing it can’t be replaced. If my grandmother were alive she would have interpreted these dream experiences as “an omen that someone is going to die.” Anna associated dreams in which molars, eyeteeth, or front teeth fell out with the loss of a loved one; she had dentures and had buried almost all of her friends from her generation.

I analyzed the superstition coldly and remembered that in our illegal lottery the number eight is also called “death.” It wasn’t hard to find the neighborhood ticket seller; despite a five decade crack down, the well known bolita is present on every block in my country, with the most popular and well-established lottery being the one run by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution themselves. A clandestine network collects the risky money until the bolitero hears the winning numbers on Venezuelan or Miami radio and delivers to each bettor their respective winnings. So, any daily situation can be reinterpreted as a prediction, and you can bet on the numbers between 1 and 100 in hopes of winning a tidy sum. In colloquial speech, when someone says “butterfly,” “horse” or “buzzard” they are referring 2, 1 and 33 in the clandestine raffle, and “nuns” are a reference to the number five.

So I ventured out and put twenty pesos on the number that signifies a funeral. As I expected, I didn’t win anything. Still, I’m not about to give up, to the point where I still poke through the daily paper, Granma, to look for some figure to improve my luck. The first reward I enjoyed from the lottery was when, being a teenager, I ventured on a striking 90 (the number that corresponds to “old man”), taken from a headline in the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party. Believe me, many Cubans read that paper to hunt for clues to guide them in our most popular sweepstakes, not to find real news. Like a secret code, we analyze announcements, dreams, political billboards, anniversaries… signs of reality that are translated into numbers for the forbidden lottery.

August 1 2010

Car Museum

There is a detail of our reality that fascinates tourists and surprises collectors around the world: the number of old cars still running on the streets of the country. Right now, on some Havana street, a 1952 Chevrolet purrs along, and a Cadillac, older than the Minister of Transportation himself, is in use as a shared taxi. They pass by us, rusting out or newly painted, on the point of collapse or winning a contest for their excellent state of repair. These rolling miracles make up a part of our country, just like the long lines, the crowded buses, and the political billboards.

At first, visitors show surprise and pleasure on seeing the theme park created by these vehicles. They take pictures and pay up to three times as much to sit in their roomy interiors. After asking the driver, the astonished foreigners discover that the body of that Ford from the early 20th century hides an engine that’s just a decade old, and tires adapted from a Russian Lada. As they earn the trust of the owner, he tells them that the brake system was a gift from a European friend, and that the headlights are originally from an ambulance.

Summer people marvel at the taste of Cubans in conserving such relics from the past, but few know that this is more by necessity than choice. You can’t go to a dealership and buy a new car, even if you have the money to pay for it, so we are forced to maintain the old. Without these artifacts of the last century, our city would be less picturesque and more immobile every day.

Summer Vacation

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are on summer vacation, among them students who enjoy almost two months until September comes around. The summer break happens at the time of the highest temperatures and all analysts believe that the social pot reaches its maximum pressure point at the beginning of August. The combination of heat, scarcity and the school break, especially irritates those adults who dream of keeping their family cool, fed and quiet. Many parents are forced to stop working because they have no one to leave their children with and in most workplaces productivity declines during July and August.

In summer the beach is inviting, especially on a narrow island where the coast — even at the widest point — is less than 60 miles away. But swimming in the sea also involves some difficulties, particularly with regards to transportation and because once we are lying on the sand next to the ocean, we discover that nearly all the food on offer must be paid for in convertible pesos. This goes for the umbrellas, too.

Sooner or later boredom leads us to the corners of the house that need repair. The chair that wobbles, the sink’s half-clogged drain, the outlet that sparks, the old clothesline that no longer supports the weight of the laundry, and the toilet tank that has sprung a leak. In short, the many corners that deteriorate over time and to which we must dedicate hours when we have some days of leisure. Thus, by the end of the vacation, talking among our colleagues we hear more about the difficulties of repairing the kitchen light than of the warm Caribbean waters.

Without Fanfare, But Without Results

Image taken from adn.es
The July 26 event started early, in fear of the evening rains and to avoid the sun that makes the neck itch and annoys the audience. It had the solemnity that is already inherent in the Cuban system: heavy, outdated, and at times dusty. Nothing seemed to jump out of the script; Raúl Castro didn’t take the podium, nor was the speech addressed to a nation waiting for a program of changes. His absence at the microphone should not be read as a intention to decentralize responsibility and allow someone else to speak at such a commemoration. The general did not speak because he had nothing to say, no launching of a reform package, because he knows that would be playing with the power, the control, that his family has exercised for five decades.

In previous speeches, on this same date, the phrases of the Cuban Communist Party’s second secretary have created more confusion than certainty, so this time he avoided analysts reinterpreting them. Enough doubts have already been created with his 2007 predictions of mass access to milk, his unfulfilled forecast of having Santiago de Cuba’s aqueduct completed, and the unfortunate phrase “I’m just a shadow,” with which he began his speech last year. Perhaps because of this he preferred to remain silent and leave the address to the most unyielding man of his government: José Ramón Machado Ventura. Some portentous cannon shots shook the city of Havana just as the first vice president approached the podium and began his harangue filled with platitudes and declarations of intransigence.

Referring to the postponed measures to address the economy and society, Machedo Ventura declared that they will be made, “step by step at a pace determined by us.” The old confusion with the first person plural, the well-known ambiguity of the apparently consensual. The pace, the velocity and the depth of these long-awaited apertures are decided by a small group which has much to lose if they apply them, and time to benefit if they delay them. Some will say Raúl Castro’s silence is part of his strategy to avoid bluster and bravado. But, more than political discretion, what we saw today is pure State secretiveness. To make no public commitments to change, no visible implications of transformation, can be a way of warning us that these do not respond to his political will, but rather to a momentary despair which — he thinks — will eventually pass. By saying nothing, he has sent us his fullest message: “I owe you no explanations, no promises, no results.”

Waiting for Orders

An acquaintance of my mother, who lives very near to a Lady in White, told her that they are under orders not to assault these women in light clothing with gladioli in their hands. The same lady, who until recently wore a sneer of disgust when talking about the masses at Santa Rita and the pilgrimages on 5th Avenue, today was on the point of shaking hands with Laura Pollán and asking for her autograph. Perhaps another neighbor, who screamed “The worms are rioting!” last March on national television, is now confused and waiting for new orders to return to her rants. The mechanisms of false spontaneity have been exposed by this truce: the manufacture of that supposed popular response is confirmed by this interruption in the attacks.

From the point of view of the official discourse, the people who have been released from prison in recent weeks deserved to be prey. Using this argument, and certain known pressures, they mobilized Party militants and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to participate in so-called “repudiation rallies” where they spat on, insulted and knocked about the Ladies in White. Now the energetic troublemakers who came to “defend the Revolution against the mercenaries in the pay of the imperialists” should be expecting some explanation to justify the prisoner releases. It would be interesting to go to a meeting of the Party nucleus to see what secret revelations they come up with, because if none are offered they will end up seeing themselves as pawns in the control of those who incite them one day and then the next day command them to keep quiet.

My mother’s acquaintance doesn’t hide her confusion. “There’s no one who understand them. Yesterday they called us to insult them, and today we’re not allowed to touch a hair on their heads,” she says. The truth is that here, where it seemed like nothing would ever happen, we are suddenly in a situation where anything can happen. At what point did history begin to change? Perhaps in the damp, dark, vermin-filled punishment cell where Orlando Zapata Tamayo decided to sacrifice himself; or in the sterile, chilly intensive care ward where Guillermo Fariñas stuck by his decision to die if they were not freed; or in the streets of Havana, where some defenseless women defied an omnipotent power by screaming the word freedom, where there was none.

  • The truce — brief and fragile — appears to be limited to Havana as in Banes Reina Tamayo continues to be a victim of the same methods.

Capitol or Bat House

I managed to sneak into the stairway when the workers went to the dining room to scarf down their lunch. It was the summer of 1992 and the temptation to climb to the cupola of the Capitol was stronger than the “keep out” warning written in red letters. Up above, the cobwebs the structural shoring, and the openings in the molding, alternated with objects covered in dust. From the height I looked down, where a shiny dome marks kilometer zero of the national highway.

Havana’s Capitol has been humiliated by its past, punished for seeming too much like Washington’s and embarrassed for having sheltered — once — the congress. Like a symbol of that republic demonized by the official propaganda, the imposing building has suffered the fate of the castigated. The Academy of Sciences established itself there, filling its spacious interior with partitions, and an ancient museum of stuffed animals located just below the chamber. Several bat colonies camped inside, spraying the walls with their feces and making holes is the decorative embellishments. The nooks and crannies of the facade became the most popular urinal in a several bloc radius.

A few years ago word got around that an Italian millionaire had donated a set of lights for this architectural gem. But by bit the light bulbs burned out and the colossus of stone and marble once again went dark. To the surprise of those who already took for a condemned site, billboards have recently been erected around it announcing the restoration of the majestic building. Hopefully the repairs won’t take longer than the brief years of its construction, and the Capitol will become — one day — the site of the Cuban parliament: a magnificent building that houses real debates.


Heralds of the End

Jumping out of bed, there’s a loudspeaker roaring outside. I don’t understand what it’s saying, but I wash my face as if it were the last time. Maybe it’s the start of the war so often announced in recent days. My son sleeps late and I have the desire to wake him up and warn him, but I don’t understand the words coming from the loudspeaker and the truck has already moved away toward the avenue.

When are those who terrify us going to give an account of themselves? Those who have spent decades dangling the ghost of the cataclysm in front of our faces. It is very easy to forecast and call for war when you have a bunker, soldiers, a bullet-proof vest. To those heralds of the end, let them try being here, amid the buzzing of the loudspeaker and the child who opens his eyes and asks, frightened, “Mommy, what’s happening, why is there so much noise?”

Exclusion, the Real Counterrevolution

The term “revolutionary” has a different meaning in the Cuba of today than we would find in any Spanish language dictionary. To deserve such an epithet it is enough to exhibit more conformity than criticism, to choose obedience over rebellion, to support the old before the new. To be considered a man of the cause, requires one to manage a convenient silence and to watch arbitrariness and excesses March by without pointing them out to the highest levels of responsibility. A word that once gave rise to thoughts of ruptures and transformations, has evolved into a mere synonym for “reactionary.” Paradoxically, those who believe in safeguarding the essence of the “revolution” are precisely those who show a greater political immobility and who promote — with more animosity — the punishment of the reformers.

Esteban Morales, who until recently enjoyed the privilege of appearing live in front of the TV microphones, learned of such semantic mutations by dint of suffering them. A Communist Party member, academic, and specialist on issues relating to the United States, he had the dangerous idea of writing an article against corruption. His questions dealt primarily not with the daily diversion of resources — as we call stealing from the State — which is how many Cuban families manage to make it to the end of the month, but rather the ethical decay that has established itself higher up, in the estates of power, where embezzlement and misappropriation reach lavish levels. He had the unfortunate experience of putting into writing that, “there are people in government and state jobs who are positioning themselves financially for when the Revolution falls.” It is a conclusion anyone can draw just by looking at the fat necks of the managers, the shiny Geely cars belonging to the officers of CIMEX corporation, or the high railings surrounding the houses of the commercial hierarchy, but Morales committed the audacity of pointing it out from within the system itself.

Imbued with the calls for constructive criticism, calling things by their name, speaking openly, Esteban Morales thought his article would be read as the healthy concern of one who wants to save the process. He forgot that others with similar intentions had already been labeled as divisive, manipulated from the outside, addicted to the honey of power, and ideologically deviant. For less than this, journalists had lost their jobs, students their places at the university, and economists, lawyers and even agronomists had been stigmatized. Once punished with an indefinite suspension from the core of the PCC, the previously trusted professor has started down a road that we know well where it starts, but not where it ends. Experience says that the route of sanctions is never traversed in the reverse direction. Those ousted eventually realize that those they used to consider the “enemy,” could at some point prove to be people imbued with the original meaning of the word “revolution.”

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Yoani’s Blog: Generation Y

Interview with Pedro Argüelles

Click Here for Audio of Interview with Pedro Argüelles

Transcript, translated:

Yoani Sánchez: What is your current situation? Where are you and what have they told you?

Pedro Argüelles: I’m in the provincial prison of Canaletas in Ciego de Avila. And what I have been told is on Saturday, July 10, I went to the office of the head of the prison and there they put me through on the phone to talk to the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He informed me that I was on the list of those who would leave for Spain if I would agree to go. I told him that no, I had no interest in leaving my country. He asked me about my wife as well, if she would have any interest. I said no. Well, he told me, he would report back and he said goodbye. That is all I have been told, they haven’t told me anything more, I’m here waiting for events and their development.

Yoani Sánchez: Pedro, do you think these releases will strengthen or weaken the dissident movement and independent journalism inside Cuba?

Pedro Argüelles: Well, look, whether or not it will affect the strength honestly I can’t say right now because I am here inside and I’ve been here seven and a half years, here in the prison. I know there are new groups, I know there are new people doing independent journalism, carrying on the civil struggle. I think it doesn’t weaken it because in any case there are new pines, as our apostle Jose Marti said, and well, since 1976 when the first cell of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights was created in the Combinado del Este prison, that was the first cell, and we could get to this point because there have been relays, reliefs, there have been people who have carried on, people who died, new people coming out into the public arena. So I think that, ultimately, here we fulfill the law that everyone has the right and the freedom to decide for their own person, my brothers who would like to go I have absolutely nothing against them, that is their sovereign decision, it is their freedom. I make use of the thoughts of Marti who said that the duty of a man is to be where he is most useful. I believe that here is where I am most useful, that this is my place to fight for the rights and freedom inherent in the dignity of the human person and this is where I want to be. I don’t want to be in any other place, here on the front line of combat facing the Castros’ totalitarian regime.

Yoani Sánchez: And what will Pedro Argüelles do once he is outside Canaletas prisons?

Pedro Argüelles: Continue what we started in mid-1992 when I joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights here in Ciego de Avila and then in 1998 founded the Ciego de Avila Independent Journalists Cooperative. Continue to denounce human rights violations and continue with the independent press and civil struggle. In order to achieve what we have so longed for and suffered for, the transition to democracy in Cuba.

Yoani Sánchez: Well, Pedro, thank you very much and we really hope that your name is among the next to be freed. We wish so much to give you that embrace so long postponed.

Pedro Argüelles: Some day it will happen, and I too am longing to meet with all all these new pines that have arisen.

Yoani Sánchez: Well, thank you very much.

Pedro Argüelles: A hug.

The First Sip of Water

After 134 days without solid food, or even a sip of liquid, Guillermo Fariñas lifted a red plastic cup to his lips and drank a little water. It was 2:15 in the afternoon on Thursday July 8, and from the other side of the glass in the intensive care ward where he was being treated, dozens of friends watching him burst into applause as if they had been witnesses to a miracle.

Fariñas had won one battle but still remains in a fierce war against death, because the land that has seen the action of this singular belligerency is his own body — ultimately the only space available to him to carry out this campaign. His intestines are now like fragile paper conduits distilling bacteria through their pores, his jugular vein is partially obstructed by a blood clot which, if it detached, could lodge in the heart, brain or lungs; or more precisely, in his heart, his brain or his lungs. He has suffered four staph infections and at night a sharp pain in his groin barely allows him to sleep.

His shriveled esophagus was not ready for that first sip of water. It created such a pain in his chest that for a minute he thought he was having a heart attack, but he endured it in silence. On the other side of the glass, expectantly watching, were those who for days had been keeping a vigil outside the hospital, praying for his life, and others who had come from very far away to ask him to end his martyrdom and to be a witnesses to his victory. Not wanting to dampen the celebration of his jubilant colleagues applauding the triumph of his cause, he managed to turn a grimace into a smile.

Guillermo Fariñas’s family allowed me to watch over him on this, the first night after the end of his hunger strike, and he allowed me to be a witness his suffering, his occasional crankiness, and his human weaknesses. Only then did I discover the true hero of this day.

Moratino’s Airplane

There is a lot of speculation these days about the possible release of the political prisoners. The official press, as always — half asleep between growth statistics and old speeches taken from the files — neither confirms nor denies these rumors. A careful reading of the daily paper, Granma, tells us that Spain’s Foreign Minister has arrived on the island to condemn the American blockade, talk about climate change, and to try to get the European Union to abandon its Common Position* against Cuba. If we let ourselves believe what the announcers, with their throaty voices and striped ties, say, nothing is happening here… Or almost nothing. But we all know that in the dark recesses of diplomacy, in the high political terrain woven on the backs of the people, things are moving.

Whispers come and go. In them, the word “liberation” has been stuck to a term with nefarious connotations: “deportation.” “They will go directly from the prisons to the planes,” a gentleman who keeps his ear glued to the radio told me, based on what he hears on the prohibited broadcasts from the North. Forced expatriation, expulsion, exile, has been standard practice to get rid of dissenters. “If you don’t like it, leave,” they tell you from the time you’re small; “Get up and go,” they spit at you if you insist on complaining; “Why’d you come back?” is the greeting if you dare to return and continue to point out what you don’t like. The ability to rid themselves of the inconvenient, the skill to push off the island platform anyone who opposes them, this is a talent in which our leaders are quite adept.

Moratinos would have to have a very large plane to fit all those who obstruct the island’s authoritarians. Not even a jumbo jet could transport all those potentially at risk of going to prison for their ideas or their civil actions. A veritable airline with weekly flights would be necessary to remove all those who don’t agree with the administration of Raul Castro. But, as it turns out, many of us do not want to go. Because the decision to live here or there is something as personal as choosing a partner, or naming a child; it is not permissible that so many Cubans find themselves caught between the walls of prison and the sword of exile. It is immoral to force emigration on those who might be released in the coming days.

One question, simple and logical, jumps out at us with regards to this issue: Wouldn’t it be better if the ones they carried on this plane were “them”?

P.S. A link to the Archbishop’s statement is here.

Translator’s note:
European Union Common Position on Cuba: Adopted in 1996, it makes cooperation with the communist regime conditional on improvements in human rights and political freedom. The text can be read at this link
.

Get Me Off The List

I happened to overhear a scrap of conversation between two nurses at a clinic near my home. “This coming week they will publish the list…” said one, while the other looked at her with alarm and answered something I didn’t manage to catch. A few yards further on a taxi driver, talking into his cell phone, said, “I was saved, there are a ton of drivers on the list, but not me.” The issue began to puzzle me. Although on this Island there are no shortages of lists and inventories — in some we are forced to appear and others they won’t even let us peek at — one of them is especially upsetting for my compatriots. I knew they were talking about the lists of those who will be unemployed, pages full of names of those workers who exceed the needs in each workplace.

About 25% of the current workforce could end up on the street after the layoffs already under way. Some employees have been advised a week before their company runs out of money to pay them, and they have been without any unemployment compensation to support themselves until they can find another job. Faced with the dilemma of staying home or working in agriculture or construction, the majority choose to dive into domestic life in the hopes of new opportunities. They figure they can work offering illegal manicures, or preparing food to order, and it might pay better dividends than bending their backs over a furrow or raising brick walls.

Today, the issue of layoffs is a worry shared by all Cubans, because at least one member of each family will be affected by the cuts. However, the official press only talks about the layoffs in Greece and Spain, telling us about the call for a general strike in Madrid or the collapse of the economy in Athens. In the meantime, popular rumors feed off the personal stories of those who have already appeared on the frightful lists. In workplaces employees crowd around the wall, running their index fingers over the lists expecting to come across their own names. No one can take to the streets to protest what has happened, nor will they appear on the TV that only mentions unemployment when it happens thousands of miles away.