Cuba is Going, But into Exile* / Juan Juan Almeida

According to the authorities, Cubans are now allowed to travel, they can own businesses, and now Cuba is the world champion of freedom. However, even so, desertions from the country continue apace. Within the span of a few hours, ten dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba via Puerto Rico, two tennis players who competed in the Davis Cup, and the members of the women’s Cuban field hockey team, all decide to cross the border to the United States.

Raúl can say what he wants, but judging from events, things — meaning Cuba — are going from bad to worse.

* Translator’s Note:  The first part of the title of this post, “Cuba Va”,  is a play on the title of – and lyrics in – a song by Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez. In the sense that Rodriguez uses the phrase, it can be interpreted as “Cuba will survive” or “Cuba will prevail”.  But the phrase can also be read literally, as in “Cuba is Going” — which is the sense in which the blogger is using it.

Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

13 June 2014

Producers of Shoddy Work: Beware! / 14ymedio, Katia Tabares

Wooden toys (14ymedio)
Wooden toys (14ymedio)
  • The 2014 ONDI Awards to outstanding Cuban designers cause us to reflect on the limitations suffered by these professionals.
  • Several winners from years past no longer live in Cuba – they have moved on in search of new professional horizons.

14ymedio, Katia Tabares, Havana, 27 May 2014 — Within the first minutes of conversation with a designer, one realizes that caution is in order. Just as if, while facing a dentist friend, we might smile on just one side of our face so that our cavities wouldn’t show, when we find ourselves around these design professionals, it is best to watch ourselves. Their trained eyes will spot the poorly-lettered sign we’ve hung on the door, the kitschy centerpiece on the table, and the cut of our shirt that binds our arms. Then will we have fallen under the “dictatorship” of visual, functional and decorative quality. May Design have mercy on us!

This is how I felt this past weekend while viewing winners of the 2014 ONDI Awards, given every two years by the National Office of Industrial Design. Exhibited in the gallery of La Rampa cinema, in the capital neighborhood of El Vedado, these images represent a wide variety of conceptual and esthetic solutions. The first prize went to Luis Manuel Ramirez who developed a lighting system and other objects for the home, featuring quality, good taste and potential adaptability to multiple circumstances.

If we attend the exhibition accompanied by the smallest members of the household, they might remain attached to the toys designed by Adriana Horta Ramos and Eduardo Velazco Alvarez, who won the prize in the student category. Using wood as their primary material, these novelties for children ages 3 to 6 are a major cut above the plastic and tacky products that populate the display windows of our stores. continue reading

There is much to admire, as the laurels were distributed among various categories, such as Visual Communication Design, Industrial, Furniture and Apparel, in addition to a Design Project Award. From simple pieces for daily living such as Ernesto Iglesias Diaz’s functional spice containers that won Honorable Mention, to the interior design of the New Varadero International Hotel by Carla Oraa Calzadilla, recognized for its optimum use of space, lighting and furniture selection.

One of the honors went to the project to update the interface of the Infomed digital portal, used by Public Health professionals. It is accessible from the so-called “intranet”, for those users who possess an email connection and nationwide navigation capability. For years this portal has been crying out for an upgrade to its disheveled appearance and is now on its way to achieving it. Yondainer Gutierrez Fernandez and Yelene Bequer Crespo have taken on this task, although the actual carrying-out of their proposal remains to be done.

Cuban design is trapped between two contrary forces: the quality of its professionals and the few opportunities for these professionals to make their ideas reality.

Cuban design is trapped between two contrary forces: the quality of its professionals and the few opportunities for these professionals to make their ideas reality. The exodus of a good portion of the graduates of the Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI) points to the dearth of possibilities for the professionals of this field in our country. If right now there were a celebration in the works to bring together previous years’ winners of the ONDI Awards, we would have to await their arrival from all latitudes of the planet where most of them reside.

The material restrictions, the devaluing of good design in projects ranging from a cafeteria interior to a school uniform, make it so the graduates of this specialization see little hope of gaining true recognition for their work, beyond prizes and awards that hardly make good living room decorations. At certain levels, our society underappreciates the detailed work of these adepts in typography, color schemes and drafting. Bureaucrats and high-level officials don’t seem willing to bend toward the “exquisiteness” of good taste. They inhabit the realm of shoddiness, improvisation and arbitrary form.

Our streets are filled with political billboards that look like they came out of a word processor equipped solely with Times New Roman font, bold, red only, and exclamation points galore. Coarse writing, overused symbols, out-of-date visual cues that don’t even work on children, continue to permeate televised ideological propaganda and the design of many public places. Timid official discourse is accompanied by an equally moth-eaten esthetic.

However, a breath of hope traverses these days on 23rd Street in the area around La Rampa cinema. If at least half of the design projects exhibited within these walls were carried out, we would no longer be ashamed to stand before a designer and smile, show off our shirt, the home decoration, the recently painted sign. We would have gained at least a few centimeters on that bad taste that extends in so many directions.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Five Grey Years: Revisiting the Term / Ambrosio Fornet

By Ambrosio Fornet / See here for background information on this series of posts.

1

It seemed as if the nightmare was something from a remote past, but the truth is that when we awoke, the dinosaur was still there. We haven’t found out — and perhaps will never know — if the media folly was a reaction to an insidious rescue operation, a whimsical expression of favoritism, or a simple show of irresponsibility.

It doesn’t matter. Seen from the perspective of today — the chain reaction it provoked, of which the cycle we are beginning is a link — it was a suicidal act. It threw down a challenge without having the slightest idea of the adversary’s level of expertise, nor of the solidity of a cultural policy that has reinforced itself like an irreversible phenomenon by means of practices that have been going on for three decades now.

This battle having been clearly won — I won’t say the war because the swaggering is not so much the expression of a political tactic as it is a world view based on suspicion and mediocrity — we can open a path to reflection telling ourselves, simply, that what is happening is fitting. We have proof of this in the decision of the Ministry of Culture to support Desiderio [Navarro]’s initiative, coinciding with Abel [Prieto]’s, insofar as filling the void of information and analysis which has prevailed up to now in the area of cultural — that is, anti-cultural — policy, since the first half of the seventies.

As incredible as it may seem, the person who directed the “Imprint” program dedicated to Pavon — whose script had been written by a friend — assured us that she didn’t know who the character was or, more exactly, that she didn’t know what “imprint” the character had left on Cuban culture during his term as President of the National Cultural Council.  Nor would she know it afterwards, because it was covered in a careful mantle of silence in the program. It wouldn’t do to mention a rope in the house of a hanged man. continue reading

Well, we had not left our amazement when a little voice began to hammer our ears: “And why so hard to believe? Why did the young director have to know? Have you, the old people who lived and suffered through that stage, written a book or pamphlet, published a series of articles, led a series of talks on the subject?

In recent years the reporting of individual violations of the perverse display of prejudice, the cynicism of the explanations has been made by the victims in interviews, articles, awards acceptance speeches, but the analysis of the phenomenon was being postponed as have been other things that deserved to be discussed, and for the same reason: to avoid jeopardizing the unity. Along with the historical validity of our national project, the unity is the only thing, in fact, that ensures our superiority over enemies and adversaries.

But just as we should not forget that in a place permanently besieged, as is our country, insisting on differences and disagreements equivalent to “giving ammunition to the enemy” …, it must be remembered that the covenants of silence are often highly risky, because they create a climate of immobility, a unanimous mockery that prevents us from measuring the true extent of the dangers and the integrity of our ranks, in which often slip loquacious opportunists.

We know these drills and maneuvers conducted in Europe and especially in the USSR, and in the latter case, I believe, because even our own militants, among them not a few heroes of labor and descendants of heroes of the war, had been definitively demobilized by the bureaucracy and routine.

Without being a specialist in the field, I dare ask the unfathomable question: “Why not go the workers, especially the communist militants, to defend the Revolution in the USSR?” Very simple: “Because no instructions from above were given.”

We need to stand firm in our trenches, which, of course, are not the best places to exercise democracy, but that does not mean we can afford to abandon the practice of criticism and self-criticism, the only exercise that can set us free of triumphalism and save us from ideological deterioration.

2

I would not want to weary you with ramblings and criteria that many of you share and that could get us away from our subject. This, as suggested by the title of my talk, proposed by Desiderio, aims at the reasons and practice of Five Grey Years.

I invented the label for methodological reasons, trying to isolate and describe that period so I looked at its dominant trait and featuring contrasts with the previous stage, characterized by its color and its internal dynamics (although not without, as we shall see, frustrations and surprises [1].

But before we go on I would like to make a couple of points clear. First, from where I speak, that is, from what life experience, from which ideological and political position I project my views and reviews on the subject, and in general on issues of culture, their production and reach, with an emphasis on literature-especially-narrative, which is the only field I know from experience. I quickly speak like this because I fear to say anything that seems incomprehensible or strange to some of the young people present.

I come, obviously, from a world that marked my position on many of these problems: the world of pre-revolutionary Cuba, the former republic. From a young age I wanted to write. I would not dare to say I wanted to be a writer because it was a job without a professional profile that could attract suspicion or derision.

“I did not tell anyone I wanted to be writer,” [2] José Soler Puig confessed to a friend, “because people laughed and even thought that was a job for feminine men”

And Virgilio Piñera, in a public message addressed to Fidel in March 1959: “… We, the Cuban writers, we are ’the last card in the deck’, we mean nothing when it comes to economic, social and even in the field of the Letters itself. We want to cooperate shoulder to shoulder with the Revolution, but this requires that we remove the miserable state in which we struggle.” [3]

As you can see, the level of self-esteem of the guild was on the floor. Perhaps the writers’ anecdotes, vain or boastful, irritated or amused his confreres in the corridors of Madrid or Paris, but here were tales of aliens, since the writer was literally outside the circle of his closest friends and the four cats who read Origenes [Magazine] (lucky cats, by the way).

It still seems a miracle that two years after the message of Virgilio I was already editing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and testimonials of mountain children at the Ministry of Education, led by Herminio Almendros, and soon also Proust, Joyce and Kafka for the National Publisher, led by Alejo Carpentier.

From this perspective it became clear that we began to consolidate an alliance between political and artistic avant-garde. The Revolution — the real possibility of life-change — appeared to us as the political expression of the avant-garde artistic aspirations.

So when it began to show its hairy ear of homophobia and then masked the socialist realism, we felt quite confused. What did this have to do with phenomenon so deep, they really had changed the lives of millions of people, making the illiterate literate and feeding the hungry, not letting a single child go without a school, promising to sweep away racial discrimination and machismo, placing in bookstores, at the price of fifty cents or a dollar, all literature, from Homer to Rulfo, from Daphnis and Chloe to my uncle the employee … what did an event of these dimensions have to do with my sexual preferences or the pilgrim image of a virtuous and virile artist, always willing to sing the glories of homelands?

We, the young people whom we thought were the heirs and representatives of the artistic and literary vanguard could not communicate that vision … a serious problem, since in dogmatic circles gaining strength came the idea that aesthetic discrepancies concealed political differences.

Moreover, one could not deny that the new responsibilities also discovered their own shortcomings. If suddenly we had the opportunity to address the millions of potential readers, we could not help but wonder: What now, how to write or, in the case of publisher, to publish?

Is “what everyone understands, what the officials understand,” as Che ironically said? Do we have what “the people like”, thus leaving it stuck in the lowest level, or what I like, so that people refine their tastes and one day become as educated as I am?

Populism, paternalism, elitism, high culture, popular culture, and mass culture for the masses … ghosts of ideological dilemmas and, finally, beginning to traverse on our way, often taking us by surprise …

What I mean is that you have some patience, because it is impossible to speak of the Five Grey Years without referring to the origins of certain conflicts that were incubated in the late seventies. [4]

I will only refer to those who, as mentioned, touch us more closely, others, like the microfraction, for example, beyond the limits of our subject (although they continue to be associated with it because it was a bad sectarianism widespread among intellectuals and political cadres directly linked to the field of ideology).[5]

3

Socialist realism — literature as pedagogy and hagiography, methodologically oriented toward creating “positive heroes” and the strategic absence of antagonistic conflicts in “among the people” — produced in us, my petit bourgeois friends and I, the same reaction someone experiences when a fly is found in the glass of milk.

Among the Cuban narrators no one, as I recall, had accepted the invitation, but the newly established National Press published heavily edited Soviet novels (some respectable, indeed, such as Sholokhov and those of Alexander Bek — The Highway, by Volokolamsk and Men by Panfilov, actually two parts of the same epic — that accompanied many militants in the frequent demonstrations of the time).

In any case, I, as a young intellectual with no political ideology other than that of Fidel’s (I used to say at the time that I had become a Marxist by watching television, i.e. listening to Fidel), I had two things absolutely clear: return to the past? It was not going to happen. Accept as cultural horizon a manual by Konstantinov and normative aesthetics? No way.

But I would not want to fall into the same thing we criticize, and I know when it comes to defending our truth, our point of view, we tend to be as categorical and dogmatic as the adversary. Socialist realism was not “intrinsically evil”, what was intrinsically evil was the imposition of this formula in the USSR, where what could have been a school, one more literary and artistic current, suddenly became the mandatory official doctrine.

Of the various roles that plays or that literature and art can play — aesthetics, recreation, informative, teaching — the commissars moved the latter to the foreground, to the detriment of the other, what the people and particularly the working class needed was not just simply reading — opening new horizons of expectations — but to educate themselves, assimilate through reading the norms and values of the new society.

This admirable purpose — admirable in theory, and especially since its foundation dating back to the Enlightenment was not aware that “if art educates,” and I quote Gramsci for the umpteenth time, “it does as art not as educative art, because if it is educative art it ceases to be art and an art that denies itself cannot educate anyone.”

We did not even suspect that the legacy of scholastic Marxism was as strong among us, or at least among some intellectuals from the Popular Socialist Party, but one of our most brilliant and respected essayists, Mirta Aguirre, wrote in October 1963:

“Today, in the hands of dialectical materialism, art can and should be a form of exorcism: a form of knowledge that contributes to sweep the minds of men free from the Caliginous shadows of ignorance, a valuable tool for replacing the religious conception of the world by its scientific conception and quick Marxist resource of the defeat of the philosophical idealism.” [6]

One was tempted to ask: can and should art be all that? Or, with a certain nonchalance: is that all that art can and should be? If it had, it would not have taken long to discover that our bewilderment had a shady class origin, because what really happened was that certain ideas were “precarious and on their way to extinction; some intellectuals and artists, “instead of engaging to remove traces from themselves of the ideological remains of a collapsed society,” stubbornly insisted on justifying them. [7]

Actually, what we saw was that under that rigid and precarious artistic guidance model the line between art, education, propaganda and advertising was becoming blurred. The funny thing is that capitalism produced tons of publicity and advertising without mentioning it and even cleverly disguised it under the labels of information and “entertainment.”

But socialism was young and inexperienced; in the famous controversy of December 1963 between Blas Roca and Alfredo Guevara around the display of several films (the Sweet Life by Fellini, Accatone by Pasolini, The Exterminating Angel by Buñuel and Alias Gardelito by Lautaro Murua), Guevara pointed to the newspaper column of Blas Roca — a very respectable man, in other respects — as a column that so superficially addresses the problems of culture, art and film in particular, reducing its significance, if not its function to that of the revolutionary illustrators, seen by others in its immediate perspective. [8]

Needless to clarify, because in politics, as Marti said, the real is not seen — that these aesthetic disputes were part of a struggle for cultural power, for control of certain areas of influence. This became evident in 1961 with the controversy over the movie PM and the subsequent closure of the publication Lunes de Revolución, a measure that led to the creation of La Gaceta de Cuba, a literary publication from the Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) that has lasted until today.

The movie PM turned out to be a historic controversy because it gave rise to “Words to the Intellectuals,” Fidel’s speech which fortunately has served ever since — except during the dramatic pavonato interregnum — as a guiding principle of our cultural policy.

PM was a modest free-cinema essay, a little documentary of Saba Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal which had passed unnoticed by television in a program sponsored by Lunes de Revolución, i.e. by Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The two — Franqui and Guillermo — had one great virtue: a vision of a modern and dynamic art, literature and journalism, as evidenced by the Revolution newspaper and its literary supplement, Lunes (Monday).

But both had also a major flaw, given the circumstances: they were anti visceral, and hated anything that smacked of the Soviet Union and the PSP. The ICAIC  refused to display PM in theaters, sparking the controversy. [9] One would say that at some point both the leadership and the intelligentsia ICAIC PSP rose to the top leadership of the government these dramatic questions: Who are the ones to make films in Cuba? Who are the ones to institutionally represent our writers and artists? The answers were falling from the tree.

But something had slipped from our hands, because during the second half of the decade events occurred that would have dire consequences for the normal development of revolutionary culture: the establishment of the Military Units of Assistance to Production (UMAP), for example — which lasted three years and left a few scars — and the institutional rejection of two prizewinning books from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) literary competition (The Seven Against Thebes by Antón Arrufat, and Out of the Game, by Heberto Padilla), not to speak of passing stories, albeit symptomatic ones, such as the hostile climate aroused among certain functionaries by the appearance of Lezama’s Paradiso (1966), owing to its supposed exaltation of homoeroticism (it was said that copies had been ordered removed from some bookstores).

The unfortunate UMAP initiative, the idea of young homosexuals as well as religious people — above all Jehovah’s Witnesses, who by conviction rejected the use of arms — fulfilling their military service in work units, not combat units, seemed related to the male chauvinist vision of those bourgeois fathers who would send their most rebellious or fearful sons to military schools to “make men out of them.”

I remember having told the friend to whom I previously alluded, when he asked me about discrimination against homosexuals in Cuba, that this attitude had nothing to do with the Revolution, that it was coming to us from ages past via the dual track of Judeo-Christian morality and ignorance, but that perhaps the emotional climate of that permanently besieged place (Cuba) — which included the constant exaltation of virile virtues — as well as the obsession for straightening out so many twisted aspects of the old society, caused us to want to straighten or restore homosexuals, too, who not surprisingly had always been referred-to by euphemisms such as inverts or effeminates. [10]

I totally reject the idea, because it seems to me cynical and inexact, that this naive or stupid voluntarism has anything to do with the aspiration to form a “New Man” — one of the most cherished longings of man, preceding even Christianity — such as was articulated in our environment by Che and as we would ourselves repeat, alluding to Plautus’s homo homini lupus — so quoted by Marx — when we would speak of a society where man would not be wolf to man, but rather his brother.

Now, I am convinced that the pathological level homophobia, as institutional policy, during the Five Grey Years, is a subject of concern not so much to sociologists but to psychoanalysts and priests, that is, to those professionals capable of peering fearlessly into the “obscure abysses of the human soul.” It also would not be superfluous to reflect on those repressive or “disciplinary” methods invented by the bourgeoisie and so well-studied by Foucalt in some chapter of Keep Watch and Punish.

4

The prizewinning books by Padilla and Arrufat in the UNEAC competition were published with a prologue in which the institution asserted its disagreement with them: they were works that served “our enemies,” but now were going to be useful means to other ends, one of which was to “outline openly the ideological struggle.”

It was then — between November and December of 1968 — when in the magazine Verde Olivo (“Olive Green”) appeared five articles whose authorship is attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, an unprovable conjecture because the author used a pseudonym — the sadly famous Leopoldo Ávila — who has yet to be revindicated by anyone.

The first article expouned on the conduct of Guillermo Cabrera Infante who, just a few months earlier, in the magazine Primera Plana of Buenos Aires, had declared himself a fervent enemy of the Revolution…after having strenuously served it during several years as Cultural Attache’ in Brussels.

The two following articles dealt aggressively with Padilla and Arrufat; and the last two, with issues in the intellectual sphere, among them the level of “depolitization” from which, in Ávila’s opinion, our own writers and critics were suffering [11].

I don’t need to emphasize the tense climate that prevailed in those months, because already a group of colleagues — Cubans (Retamar, Desnoes, and I) as well as Latin Americans (Roque Dalton, René Depestre and Carlos Mari’a Gutiérrez) expounded our ideas on the matter in a round table of sorts that we held in May of 1969 and which was published, first, in the magazine Casa de las Americas (“Americas House”) and later in Mexico, by Siglo XXI (“Century XXI”), under the predictable title of The Intellectual and Society [12].

The ideological tournament announced by Avila was hinted at in occasional skirmishes, but had been gradually acquiring an increasingly international character due in part to the attacks on the Revolution that various intellectuals had made in Europe — Dumont, Karol, Ensensbert — and in part also because one of the panelists that had awarded the prize to Arrufat and Padilla, the English critic J.M. Cohen, decided to participate in his way in the debate.

To all this was added the appearance in Paris of the magazine Mundo Nuevo (“New World”), edited by the Uruguayan critic Emir Rodriguez Monegal; very soon thereafter his countryman Angel Rama, relying on reports in The New York Times, denounced the publication as a “cultural facade of the CIA” [13]. In the opinion of the specialists, Mundo Nuevo’s ultimate purpose was to dispute Casa de las Americas convening power and to undermine the image of the “committed” artist or writer that the Cuban Revolution had been proposing as a model for the intellectuals of our America [14].

It was this model, to be sure, that for us served as the reason or basis for the famous “Letter to Neruda” which towards the end of 1966 we caused to be circulated throughout all corners of the continent, and was also what prevailed a year later in the Preparatory Seminar of the Havana Cultural Congress, where it was revealed that a large contingent of our intelligentsia was working out, from Jose Marti’s thoughtand Marxist viewpoints, an anti-colonial school of thought, more in keeping with our reality and with Third World problems than with Eurocentric ideological currents running on both sides of the Atlantic.

The magazine Pensamiento Critico (“Critical Thought”) and the excellent catalog of social science publications that the recently created Instituto del Libro (“Institute of the Book”) was already promoting also fulfilled and important role in this bold process that we would call “consciousness raising” or “cultural decolonization”, and to which, for sure, none of the famous instructional manuals recently imported from the USSR, could contribute anything.

The Havana Cultural Congress was held in January, 1968, with hundreds of intellectuals and artists from the world over participating, in a climate of revolutionary optimism which objectively, nonetheless, was reduced to its minimal expression because hardly two months earlier Che had died in Bolivia — an event that was frustrating the nascent continental emancipation project that had started gestating in 1959.

Meanwhile, the international prestige of Cuban culture had grown thanks to the professionalism and creativity of artists and writers, on the one hand, and the work of cohesion and dissemination accomplished by the Casa de las Americas and the ICAIC on the other; there was the vigorous presence of the cinema, ballet, graphic design, theater, music (with the nascent Nueva Trova), the Conjunto Folklorico, and literature (this last manifesting two emerging modalities: the testimonial/novel and the Narrative of Violence). Observing such a panorama anyone could have said, alluding to Avila’s diagnosis: “If all this is the product of a depoliticized intelligentsia, may God come and see it”.

6

I would like to conclude this here with the general scheme of prehistory — viewed from a more or less fair perspective, more or less distorted by a participant who, as is natural, tends to bring his own perspective — but I’m afraid the rodeo isn’t over yet. There are still factors, as it were, objective and subjective, national and international that have to be taken into account to get to the point afterwards. So I ask you, please, a little more patience.

What occurred with Out of the Game following its publication we now see as the early stages of the “Padilla case”. He continued living a more or less normal life and announced (I don’t know if he actually gave) a recital at UNEAC of the poems in a book in progress that would have the suggestive title Provocacions — don’t be dirty minded, I was alluding to Arnold Hauser’s observation in the sense that works of art are, justifiably, challenging invitations to dialogue.

In December of 1968 Padilla even had a skirmish with Cabrera Infante in which, upon rejecting his support, he accused him of being a “counterrevolutionary who intends to create a difficult situation for anyone who has not followed his same path”…[15].

Because of a character flaw, Padilla could not remain for long in second place; he took advantage of a survey conducted by El Caiman Barbudo (“The Bearded Caiman”) to attack the editors because they were interested in Urbino’s Passion, the recently published novel by Lisandro Otero, while at the same time belittling Three Trapped Tigers by Cabrera Infante.

Every so often we would hear it said that he was very active as an impromptu consultant to diplomats and foreign journalists travelling through Havana, whom he would instruct on most dissimilar subjects: the destiny of socialism, worldwide revolution, emerging Cuban literature…

And one fine day in April of 1971 we received lamentable rumors, which later were confirmed as fact: that he had been jailed — for three weeks, according to some, or for five, according to others — and that he was going to make some public statements at UNEAC.

These turned out to be a pathetic mea culpa and a hasty list of accusations against friends and acquaintances, both absent and present. Knowing Padilla as we knew him, knowing that his long experience as a press correspondent in Moscow had turned him into an incurable skeptic, it is difficult to believe that his statement — so reminiscent of the shameful “confessions” in the Moscow trials — was not designed as a coded message, aimed at his colleagues all over the world.

Be that as it may, what is certain is that the message, the self-fulfilling prophecy, arrived at its destination. But already days prior, at his arrest becoming known in Europe, the process had been initiated which on this side of the Atlantic would result in the First National Congress on Education and Culture [16].

6

In effect, on the 9 April 1971, there had appeared in a Paris daily, Le Monde, an open letter which various European and Latin American intellectuals were addressing to Fidel to express their alarm at the arrest, which they saw as a possible new outbreak of sectarianism on the island.

It was like entering the lion’s den without taking proper precautions. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that letter — and the unusual fact that among the signatories appeared Carolos Franque, now become zealous prosecutor of the Revolution — which precipitated the decision to convert the advertised First Congress on Education to First Congress on Education and Culture.This event took place in the conference rooms of the Habana Libre Hotel between April23-30.

In his closing address, Fidel would accuse as arrogant and overbearing those “bourgeois liberals”, instruments of cultural colonialism, that interfered in our internal affairs without the least notion of what our real problems were: the need to defend ourselves against imperialism, the obligation to attend to and provide for millions of children in the schools…

“One has to be completely crazy, infinitely unconscious,” he said, “disconnected from world reality” to think “that the problems of this country can be the problems of two or three lost sheep…”, or that someone, from Paris, London or Rome, could set themselves up as judge to dictate what we should do. Therefore, intellectuals of this type would never return here as judges in our literary competitions, nor as collaborators in our publications…[17]

Seen from the current perspective, this reaction might seem unmeasured, although consistent with a total policy of affirming national identity and sovereignty; in any case, what is certain is that the situation in its entirety marked a point of rupture or chilling between the Revolution and numerous European and Latin American intellectuals who up until then had considered themselves friends and fellow travelers [18].

It remains a representative document, as a revolutionary manifesto of that moment, which it certainly transcended to become a cultural manifesto of the Third World the essay by Retamar Caliban, written just two months after the closing of the Congress.

The country then was going through a period of accumulated tensions, among which stood out the death of Che, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, which the Cuban government approved, although with much reticence,, the so-called Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 — a process perhaps premature, perhaps even unnecessary of the expropriation of small enterprises and private businesses — and the aborted [sugar cane] harvest of ’70 or the Harvest of the Ten Million [tons], that despite being “the biggest in our history,” as proclaimed by the newspapers, left the country exhausted.

Forced to undergo the imperialist economic blockage, in need of a stable market for its products, especially sugar, Cuba had to radically define its alliances. There occurred a major coming together with the Soviet Union and with the European socialist countries. In 1972 the country would join the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (CAME), which would structurally link our economy with that of the socialist camp.

7

From the Congress on Education and Culture emerged, with Luis Pavon Tamayo at the helm, a transformed CNC, none of whose directors, as far as I can recall, had any natural ties to the avant garde. The links of continuity had been carefully broken or at minimum reduced. Judging from their actions, the “pavonato” was just that: an attempt to dispute the power, or rather, to remove from power those groups that until then had imposed their predominance on the field of culture and that apparently were not, save a few exceptions, “politically trustworthy”.

The only ones saved, although with their faculties greatly reduced, were those who belonged to autonomous institutions headed by prestigious figures, such as those cases already referenced from La Casa de las Americas and the ICAIC.

We know that in this type of conflict not only are esthetic disagreements or personal phobias resolved but also, and perhaps above all, questions of power, of control of processes and of the hegemony of ideologies.

It is enough to cast a glance at the situation of the publishing houses, the theaters, the magazines, the galleries, the artistic spaces, in short of the promotion and dissemination of artistic and literary culture in the ’60s to realize those groups that we considered the avant garde were the ones who, directly or indirectly, controlled the most important of these.

An obtuse bureaucrat could opine whatever he wanted regarding Farraluque or the theater of the absurd, but Paradiso and La Soprano Calva (“The Bald Soprano”) were there, right at hand; he could reject pop or Death of a Bureaucrat, but Raul Martinez and Titon remained there, engrossed in new projects.

In 1970, to celebrate Lezama’s birthday, his 60th, there appeared in Bohemia a long interview (reproduced in Cuba Internacional), a complete testimonial record in La Gaceta de Cuba and the volume of his complete poems (including the dates) published by The Institute of the Book it collection Letra Cubanas (“Cuban Letters”) [19]. That is, there were tensions and disagreements, but things were not so simple: what the publishers and magazines published, what the galleries exhibited, what the theaters released, what the ICAIC filmed served to show who it was (those of us) who pulled the strings of the “cultural industry”, even to where our ideology became hegemonic, despite the rejection and suspicion of it among those professional ideologists whom we would charitably call the “guardians of doctrine” (headed by a high-level Party functionary who, according to rumors, was Pavon’s political godfather [20].

If I had to summarize in two words what happened, I would say that in ’71, to our detriment, the relative equilibrium that had favored us up to that point was broken and, with that, the consensus on which the political culture had been based.

It was a clear case of before and after: following a phase in which everything was consulted and discussed, although the parties might not always come to agreement, came that of authoritarian order: a political culture imposing itself by decree and other such means, of exclusions and marginalizations, converting the intellectual field into a moor (at least for those carriers of the virus of ideological diversionism and for the youth with proclivities towards extravagance, that is, fans of long hair, the Beatles and tight pants, as well as the Evangelicals and the scapularies).

We were all guilty, in effect, but some were more guilty than others, as could be seen in the case of the homosexuals. Upon them weighed not only suspicions of a political nature, but also scientific certainties, proceeding perhaps from some positivist manual from the late 19th century or from some precept of the Cultural Revolution in China: that homosexuality was a contagious disease, a type of leprosy incubated in classist societies, whose propagation it was necessary to try to impede while avoiding contact — not only physical, but even spiritual — of the infected with the most vulnerable sectors (in this case, the young).

As incredible as it may seem to us today — in effect, the sleep of reason engenders monsters — it is not preposterous to think that this was the foundation, let’s say theoretical, that served in ’71-’72 to establish the “parameters” applied in those high-risk sectors of labor, as were the teaching profession and, above all, the theater.

It had been concluded that the simple influence of the teacher or the actor over the adolescent student or spectator could be risky, which explains that in a commission of the Congress of Education and Culture, upon tackling the issue of the social environment’s influence over education, it should be determined that it was not “permissible that through artistic quality known homosexuals should gain a prestige that would influence the formation of our youth”. Even further: “The cultural media cannot frame the proliferation of false intellectuals who pretend to convert snobbism, extravagance and other social aberrations into expressions of revolutionary art…” [21]

In centers dedicated to teaching or the theater, those workers who would not meet the requirements or “parameters” that would qualify them as trustworthy individuals — that is, revolutionaries and heterosexuals — would be transferred to other workplaces.

The purification or “parametrification” process would be done under the strict oversight of an ad hoc commissioner known from then on in our circle as Torquesada (who not too long ago, incidentally, appeared on another television program, although not as an honored guest).

It will please you to know that although at that time there were still no Marielas equipped to speak with accuracy and wisdom, there were, of course, tribunals to enforce the law. Through their respective trade unions and sheltered by Labor Justice law, the parametrized appealed to the Supreme Tribunal and it determed — in a historic, unprecedented case — that the “parametification” was an unconstitutional measure and that the claimants should be indemnified. [22]

I need not add that to the prejudices regarding sexual conduct were added prejudices about intellectual conduct itself, especially because many members of the “lettered city” [translator’s note: “law degreed professionals”] conceived of their social mission in their capacity as judges, as society’s “critical consciences.”

We know that from ancient times, writing and related activities correspond to the particular conditioning of societies divided into classes and castes, and that, therefore, as much as possible must be done, starting with teaching people to read and write, to at least reduce the resulting inequities; but to pretend that these inequities can be abolished with the stroke of a pen and, even more, that the functions performed by intellectual and manual laborers are interchangeable, makes one think of demagogueries or absurdities.

I remember a journalist around that time who would go around to the cane fields of the country exclaiming, with sincere or fake enthusiasm, “You should write, machete-wielders!” I would have given anything to see their faces and imagine a possible reply: “And you come and cut sugar cane, you scoundrel!”… because manual laborers also have prejudices, which tend to come out when they sense demagoguery or moral duplicity.

From the old society we inherited, some or others of us, the notion that the majority of intellectuals and artists — at least those who do not engage in any truly gainful activities — are a class of “parasites”. That a guiding center of the culture should contribute to reinforcing this prejudice was an unforgivable show of pharisee-ism and incompetence.

In any case, the CNS had made clear that the “old ones” needed to be corralled, including those of us who by then were hardly even 40yrs old… but therefore anyway we were already contaminated, so that the cultural power could be ceded to the younger generation, with the intent of them utilizing that power through experienced and politically trustworthy teams.

Very quickly there became established throughout the country a network of “literary workshops” charged with developing the new writers and the Amateur Movement was frenetically pushed. It was what the country folk, at least from my era, would call “to temper with carbide”. Everyone was in a hurry and the relay could not fail.

8

I believe that at last –  at last! –we are able to broach the topic suggested by Desiderio as the point of departure for this debate. The mountain can now give birth to its mouse.

In the avalanche of e-mails that were arriving these past few days was one from the storyteller from Santiago, Jose M. Fernandez Pequeno — who today resides in Santo Domingo — who helps me specify exactly an important fact: when did I begin to use the name The Five Grey Years to designate this phenomenon that today we also call the pavonato?

“I believe I was present at the defining moment for the crystallization of the label Five Grey Years,” says Pequeno, evoking the Storytelling Congress that took place in Santiago de Cuba in November of 1980 (and with which materials, by the way, I prepared a pamphlet entitled Forecast for the 80s). In Pequeno’s opinion, it had to do with conjuring the memory of that “unfortunate period,” still so present, so that we could continue to “go forward and grow as persons and as writers. We had to trace a dividing line, and in that sense “I believe that the name served its purpose” [23].

I recall that I would drop it here and there, along the way, at meetings and congresses of UNEAC and the recently created Ministry of Culture, and I further recall that it produced varying reactions, of acceptance or rejection, per the labor background of the individuals with whom I was speaking. But the first time that I used the term in writing was in 1987, in a literary criticism text published in the Casa de las Americas magazine. It said, in discreet footnotes: “Bureaucratic tendencies in the cultural sphere that manifested during the Grey Five years […] note that I don’t define the meaning of the term, as if it went without saying — but the brakes on, but did impede the later development of the various literary trends”.

And further on: “The Grey Five Years, with its emphasis on the didactic, favored the development of the police novel and literature for children and adolescents” [24]. These were elements that objectively, in my judgement, contributed to the grayness of the era, because the “emphasis on the didactic” placed literary creation in a subordinate, ancillary position, where there was hardly any room for experimentation, play, introspection and formal research.

But here I should insert a parentheses so as not to commit the sin, as the adversary would, of being dogmatic and simplistic. Supported by some university chairs, the CNC had let it slip into the ear of the young writers the malicious suspicion that socialist realism was the esthetic of the Revolution, an esthetic that dared not speak its name, among other things because it was never officially adopted in any instance by the Party or the government [25].

And because not all were young and not all was under the control of the CNC and its apprentices, the Five Grey Years, as a moment in time, was also the era of publication or gestation of some master works of our novelistic literature, such as Concierto Barroco (“Baroque Concer”) by Carpentier, and El Pan Dormido (“The Dormant Bread”) by Soler Puig. It was a son of the latter, by the way — Rafael who sadly died in a car accident — who would announce by way of two books of stories, riding from one era to the other, that something new was happening in Cuban storytelling.

And at the end of the decade some young people — I’m quoting a commentary I made at the time — “actualized the discourse” of our storytelling reinserting it in the line of development of Latin American storytelling, what with how they prepared the way for the works of the ’80s to be born with the mark of “that rejuvenating urge, at the discursive as well as thematic level” [26].

That is, already by then the deleterious effects of that normative esthetic that had been so diligently promoted by the workshops and university chairs had started to evaporate. I will go so far as to say that in 1975 the pavonato, as a project of political culture, was in its final throes.

But it is true, as I believe, that the defining characteristic of this era is he binomial dogmatism/mediocrity, the loss of power could not signify its total disappearance, because mediocre and dogmatic individuals are everywhere and they tend to turn into diligent allies of those political corpses that even after death win battles.

I have no qualms in asking the forgiveness of so many comrades who, having personally suffered the pavonato’s abuses – the cruelest of which without doubt was their civil death as professionals, at times for prolonged periods – consider that the term. Five Grey Years not only is euphemistic but even offensive, because it minimizes the degree of the wrongs perpetrated and therefore decreases the responsibility of the guilty.

The majority of those comrades — not all of them “parametrized ones”, for sure, some simply “punished” for their ideological divergences, the ones that would be corrected by working hard en agriculture or industry — proposed the alternative Black Decade [27].

I respect their opinion, but I was referring to something else: to the cultural atmosphere that I have been describing, in which in addition there was bred a revolutionary fervor and what had been searched for and a passionate cause became goals to be met. If the indicators change, it follows that the chronological markers and the coloring should change as well. If instead of defining the pavonato by its mediocrity I define it by its malice, I would have to view it as a dangerous and grotesque phenomenon, because there is nothing more fearful than a dogmatist bent on redeeming and nothing more ridiculous than an ignoramus dictating lessons.

There are events of the period — including the final days of the period – that can be considered crimes of perverted culture and even of perverted patriotism, as was the veto that in 1974 was imposed on the publication in Cuba of Ese Sol del Mundo Moral (“That Sun of the Moral World”), by Cintio Vitier, a Jose Marti-based and Fidelist essay that explains like few others why the immense majority of Cubans are proud to be so. As good guardians of doctrine, the censors warned right away that it was not a Marxist vision of Cuban history. So it appeared in Mexico before it did here; in fact, here it took 20 years to be published, I don’t know if because of dogmatic inertias or of simple editorial laziness [28].

Perhaps never in our environment a sigh of relief so unanimous been heard as that produced before the television screens on the afternoon of the 30 of November of 1976 when, during the closing session of the National Assembly of Popular Power, it was announced that a Ministry of Culture would be created and that the minister would be Armando Hart.

I believe that Hart didn’t even expect to take this position to start to reunite with the people. Old and young. Militants and non-militants. He didn’t ask if one liked the Matamoros or the Beatles, if he appreciated realist painting more than abstract, if he preferred strawberry over chocolate or vice versa; what he asked was if one was willing to work.

I had the impression that the confidence that had been lost would be quickly reestablished and that consensus would again be possible. I remember remarking to my friend Agustin Pi — the legendary Dr. Pi — how surprising was that sudden change in atmosphere, and while I expected that he was going to speak to me of Hart’s impeccable revolutionary path or of his intellectual merits, I heard him say, with a vocabulary that already at that time had fallen into disuse , “It’s just that Hart is a decent person”.

I believe it was in that precise moment when I was absolutely certain that the confounded Five Years were truly a five year period and it had just ended. It’s not that the tensions definitely disappeared, those conflicts of opinion or of interests that never stop emerging in a living culture, rather that the relations were always of mutual respect and authentic interest in the normal development of our culture.

I appreciate your attention and your patience. I hope that my digressions have served at least to offer to the younger generation some information and a perspective that they surely lacked. I recognized that the information is still very general and the point of view very limited, but here I only aimed — abiding by Desiderio’s suggestion — to provide the framework for a possible debate.

I repeat that in my judgement our culture – today as much or perhaps more than ever – is a living thing. For reasons of age I tend to frequently evoke the past, but it is an exercise that I detest when it threatens to become an obsession. At times, speaking before foreign groups about our literary movement, I encounter individuals, mostly men, who insist on asking me only about events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, as if after the “Padilla case” or the exit of Arenas via Mariel nothing had occurred in our domain.

I call that type of curious person Philosophers of Delayed Time or Egyptologists of the Cuban Revolution. But in evoking the Five Grey Years I feel that we are headlong into something that not only concerns the present but also projects us firmly into the future, even were it only for what Santayana spoke about “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That danger is precisely what we are trying here to avert.

Ambrosio Fornet

Havana, 30 January 2007

_____________________________________________
1. Sobre la dinámica intelectual del período, véase el recién publicado Polémicas culturales de los sesenta. Sel. y Pról. de Graziella Pogolotti. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2006
2. Cf. Miguel Sabater Reyes: “José Soler Puig fue mi amigo”, en Palabra Nueva, no. 157 (La Habana), noviembre de 2006, p. 54.
3. Virgilio Piñera: “Al señor Fidel Castro”, en: Diario libre, Sección Arte y Literatura (La Habana), 14 de marzo de 1959, p.2. (Se reproduce en Viaje a los frutos. Selección de Ana Cairo. La Habana, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 2006, p.58).
4. Ver Nota 12.
5. Refiriéndose a Aníbal Escalante, Secretario de Organización del PSP (y más tarde de las ORI), dijo Fidel: “Al triunfo de la Revolución, poseía gran autoridad, y desde ese cargo actúa prácticamente como jefe de su Partido. Era un hombre capaz, inteligente y buen organizador, pero con el arraigado hábito de filtrar y controlar todo a favor de su Partido.” Cien horas con Fidel. Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. 2ª ed. La Habana, Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado, 2006, p. 249.
6. Mirta Aguirre: “Apuntes sobre la literatura y el arte”, en Cuba Socialista, octubre de 1963. (Se reproduce en Revolución, letras, arte. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1980, p.201.
7. Ibid., p.219. La autora, por supuesto (ver p. 215) descarta la posibilidad de imponer las nuevas ideas mediante la coacción o la violencia.
8. Alfredo Guevara: Revolución es lucidez. La Habana, Ediciones ICAIC, 1998, p.203.
9. El punto de vista del ICAIC fue expresado por Alfredo Guevara en “Las revoluciones no son paseos de rivieras”, entrevista de Wilfredo Cancio publicada en La Gaceta de Cuba en diciembre de 1992. (Se reproduce en Revolución es lucidez, ed. cit. supra, pp.88-90.)
10. Cf. Emilio Bejel: Escribir en Cuba. Entrevistas con escritores cubanos: 1979-1989. Río Piedras, Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1991. pp.155 y ss.
11. Fueron recogidos por Lourdes Casal en El caso Padilla: literatura y Revolución en Cuba (ver nota 15).
12. “Diez años de Revolución: el intelectual y la sociedad”, en Casa de las Américas, no. 56, sept.-oct., 1969; y Roque Dalton, René Depestre, Edmundo Desnoes, et. al.: El intelectual y la sociedad. México, Siglo XXI editores, 1969.
13. Sobre la polémica con Mundo Nuevo, ver Casa de las Américas, no. 39, nov.-dic., 1966. Ver también el exhaustivo estudio de María Eugenia Mudrovcic: “Mundo Nuevo”: Cultura y Guerra Fría en la década del 60. Rosario, Beatriz Viterbo, 1997.
14. Cf. Claudia Gilman: Entre la pluma y el fusil. Debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina. Buenos Aires, Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2003.
15. Cf. Heberto Padilla: “Respuesta a Guillermo Cabrera Infante”, en revistas Índice (Madrid), dic. 1968, p. 9, y Primera Plana (Buenos Aires), no. 313, diciembre 24 1968, pp. 88-89. (Se reproduce en El caso Padilla: Literatura y Revolución en Cuba. Documentos. Sel., pról. y notas de Lourdes Casal. New York, Ediciones Nueva Atlántida/Miami, Ediciones Universal, s.f. En su introducción (pp.5-10) Casal hace un recuento de aquellos hechos y situaciones que, a su juicio, condujeron finalmente al “caso” estudiado.
16. La intervención de Padilla en la UNEAC puede verse en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971, pp. 191-203.
17. Cf. Fidel Castro: Discurso de clausura del Primer Congreso Nacional de Educación y Cultura, en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971.
18. La situación se agravó con una “Segunda carta”, de 20 de mayo de 1971. (Se reproduce en Lourdes Casal, El caso Padilla…, ed. cit. en nota 15, pp.123-124.
19. Véanse entrevista de Joaquín G. Santana, artículo de Benito Novás y textos de Lezama y bibliografía en Bohemia, 1º de enero de 1971, pp. 4-15¸ así como homenaje en La Gaceta (no. 88, diciembre de 1970) con textos de Armando Álvarez Bravo, Reinaldo Arenas, Miguel Barnet, Pablo Armando Fernández, Belkis Cuza, Reynaldo González y Rosa I. Boudet.
20. Y probablemente superior jerárquico en lo concerniente a la llamada “esfera de la ideología”.
21. Cf. “Declaración” del Primer Congreso Nacional de Educación y Cultura, en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971.
22. Por lo pronto, que debían abonárseles todos los salarios no percibidos desde su destitución hasta aquel momento.
23. José M. Fernández Pequeño: “Gris, gris, ¿el quinquenio gris?”. Mensaje electrónico del 18 de enero de 2007. (Agradezco a Aida Bahr –una de las organizadoras del Encuentro—la verificación de la fecha.)
24. Cf. A.F.: “Sobre Las iniciales de la tierra”, en Las máscaras del tiempo. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1995, pp. 56 (n.4) y 62 (n.12).
25. Por ejemplo, entre las Tesis y Resoluciones aprobadas por el Primer Congreso del PCC en 1975 no aparece una sola mención al realismo socialista, aunque numerosos pasajes reflejan la convicción de que es la ideología la que rige todo el proceso de producción y valoración de la obra de arte. Especialmente significativo es el pasaje en que se habla de “el nexo del arte socialista con la realidad” y “la cualidad del reflejo vivo y dinámico de que hablara Lenin” (en contraste con el realismo como copia fotográfica). No se olvide, por lo demás, que la condena del Che al realismo socialista, en El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba, fue categórica. (Cf. “Sobre la cultura artística y literaria”, en Tesis y Resoluciones del Primer Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. La Habana, Depto. De Orientación Revolucionaria del PCC, 1976, pp. 467-510, y esp. 506.
26. Cf. A.F.: “Las máscaras del tiempo en la novela de la Revolución cubana”, en Las máscaras del tiempo, ed. cit., p. 29.
27. Si no me equivoco, el primero en hacerlo fue el poeta César López, entrevistado por Orlando Castellanos. Véase “Defender todo lo defendible, que es mucho”, La Gaceta de Cuba, marzo-abril de 1998, p. 29.
28. Cf. Cintio Vitier: Ese sol del mundo moral. Para una historia de la eticidad cubana. México, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1975. La edición cubana, de Ediciones Unión, apareció en 1995. El libro entró en el plan editorial de Ediciones Unión en 1987, pero diversos factores –entre ellos el inicio del Período Especial—aplazaron durante años la publicación.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others

Link to original post

Postcard from a Journey (3) / Regina Coyula

Nuevitas is my third and last stop on this whirlwind of a trip. The Santiago/Nuevitas journey takes eight hours, two of them in the 16-kilometer stretch between Manatí and Camalote. My trip is the next to last before this itinerary is suspended, pending the repair of the roadway. A passenger who appears to be a regular suggests making the round through Guáimaro, but the driver informs him that around there the roadway is worse. The news spreads through the bus, almost all the passengers know each other and the crew, complaints are heard, but there is nothing to be done.

It is a monotonous journey, a plain copped with trees — and notice I say trees — of the marabou weed variety. I see cows, the only ones during the whole trip; a slender herd, beige spots against the green pasture.

I’m startled by the ghost of the Free Algeria sugar mill in old Manatí. Some rickety structures and two chimneys testify to it. I grew up hearing the phrase “without sugar there is no country,” it was something so understood that to bump up against the ruins of the industry that gave us the title of “the sugar bowl of the world,” inevitably causes me to think of who bears the responsibility for a disaster of such proportions.

Nuevitas, seaport… I don’t manage to distinguish the port, the nitrogenized fertilizer factory releases a yellow smoke and there is threat of a rainstorm. The cloud cover is refreshing, there are no trees; Nuevitas is an industrial city, irregular but monotonous. The “mini train” is the substitute for the bus, an open wagon thrown over a tractor, horse-drawn carriage and bicycle-taxis.

An unexpected event turns out to be amusing. My visit coincides with the police citation given to the lawyers of the Cuban Law Association. A man wearing a cap and dark glasses take photos of us, to which I return the gesture, which disconcerts him, causes him to cross the street quickly and disappear from sight.

It’s almost 4 pm and I’m dying for breakfast. The only restaurant in the city is Nuevimar, where we are the only diners besieged by a legion of flies. The water in the glass looks cloudy and tastes bad. The service is slow, I’m hungry but also apprehensive. I make up for all this in a privately-run bakery that features a varied selection. I’ve had no coffee, and the deprivation is giving me a headache.

The lawyers are very sorry for the unexpected police intrusion; I’m exhausted, sleep-deprived, having traveled more than 19 hours in less than three days; and the trip to Havana is still ahead and due to my lack of experience I’m going to be cold in the Chinese-made Yutong bus. So, I prefer to sleep a little in the bus and train station until the 7pm departure of the bus.

From the window I manage to see a bit of the coast, I don’t see a port nor ships. Nuevitas reminds me a little of Cojímar, but without the charm of Cojímar.

I arrive in Havana at 5 in the morning. A boatman asks me for 7 CUC to take me, then reduces the fee when I threaten to find another taxi. At 5:30 I’m already at home, sleeping.

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Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

2 July 2014

Sarasota / Rebeca Monzo

Map of the Ringling Complex.

I still remember with much fondness the circuses of my childhood, but above all the marvelous and spectacular Ringling Brothers, that would arrive in our country in December — in the early days encamping in the old Sports Palace on Paseo and Primera streets, facing the sea — and later, towards the end of the 1950s, in the then-resplendent Sports City.

Carmen, punctual as is her wont, came to get me at 5am so that we could go together to the meeting place from which the bus would depart that would take us from Miami to Sarasota. We were the first to arrive, even before the bus, because we are both like that, super-careful in meeting our commitments. Little by little the other tourists began arriving until the full group was assembled.

The tour guide was a “cubanaza*”- very amusing and active, with a great love of the arts – who specializes in putting together these types of excursions, all with a cultural purpose. And so, between storytelling, laughs and songs – including interesting raffles of books and small paintings created by some of the tour participants, among whom were writers, a poet and even a painter – we made this long trip which turned out to be most pleasant.

Arriving in Sarasota, the tour personnel provided us with ID wristbands and maps of this lovely place, so that each person could choose their companions and where to begin their journey through this grand cultural complex, a major attraction and pride of this city, which has been converted from the mansion, art gallery, theater and other property that belonged to the family of John and Mable Ringling, which they bequeathed as a heritage legacy, and which since 2000 has been under the guardianship of Florida State University.

Everything, absolutely everything, impressed me because of its grandeur and splendor, but what most amazed me, owing to its magnitude and level of detail, was the impressive scale model of the great circus industry that gave life to this family empire, whose spectacles I enjoyed every winter in my beloved Havana, up until 1959.

The family mansion, called “Cad ´Zan” by its owners — which in the Venetian dialect means “John’s house” — was built by the architect Dwight James Baum in 1924, in the Venetian baroque style, impressive for its luxury and excellent state of preservation.

Another great attraction is the Museum of Art which displays collections of the most famous European painters: El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez, Veronese, Gainsborough, and other great masters. The building is surrounded by splendid gardens, where the sculptures look to be enjoying the marvelous surroundings. We also visited the Asolo Theater, built in 1798, dismantled and transported from Italy to be added to the Ringling complex in 1948, becoming the only 18th century theater in the United States of America.

We returned well into the evening, satisfied and exhausted from so much walking and enjoyment of this well-organized and enjoyable excursion to one of the most interesting corners of this beautiful State of Florida.

*Translator’s note: “Cubanaza(o)” can be said to be a sort of “super Cuban” – someone who is almost a caricature of the Cuban style of speech, mannerisms, attitudes, etc. The term as used by a fellow Cuban to refer to another is often – as in this case – one of endearment.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

16 May 2014

Not Everything About a Cuban Athlete is Worthwhile / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Taken from "Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers," published in LA Magazine.

There have been so many escapes by Cuban baseball players and boxers that they have stopped being news. The stories behind some of these defections could make a Hollywood script.

From the late-90’s land and sea odyssey of Havana pitcher Orlando “Duque” Hernandez, who signed with the New York Yankees, to the unusual escape of the fabulous shortstop Rey Ordóñez, who jumped over a wall during his team’s warmup in a tournament in Buffalo, New York, in 1993.

Within the plot of an escape there is a blend of diverse ingredients. There’s a bit of everything:  human traffickers, drug cartels, and sports scouts.

Some rafter-ballplayers have tried escaping several times. When caught, they opt for the mea culpa traditional in authoritarian societies. continue reading

There is talk of repealing the embargo barriers that keep Cuban athletes from competing in ball clubs in the United States. But let’s not be naive. The olive-green autocracy loves to play the role of victim.

Before discussing whether Major League Baseball or the professional boxing associations should review their policies for hiring Cuban athletes, the regime should be required to give financial freedom to the athletes.

Let everyone choose their own representative. And set a tax rate similar to that of other nations. It is hard to accuse the team owners of using their athletes as merchandise when the state is doing the same thing.

Even more embarrassing: until last year, coaches and athletes with foreign contracts only received 15% of the money they earned.

Now the state is trying to negotiate with the Major League owners, because the contracts of Cuban ballplayers totalling more than $600 million is a good excuse for fattening its bank accounts.

People in Cuba enthusiastically follow the performance of Pito Abreu or Dayán Viciedo, who started the season with hot bats. Abreu, the home run leader with 10, stokes the dreams of Creole fans.

Fans on this side of the straits want to have a home-run version of the Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera or the Dominican Papi Ortiz. And they believe this man’s last name is Abreu. But the passion goes beyond sport.

There is currently an issue inspiring debate in every corner of Cuba. Many do not approve of the alleged accusations used by Aroldis Chapman and Yasiel Puig to camouflage their future intentions.

This human damage caused by the revolution of Fidel Castro, of encouraging anonymous reports, tip-offs, and confessions, is a clear sign of the ethical and moral decline in society today.

Some Cubans would betray their mother for a trip abroad, a government apartment, or a vacation on the beach. As with lab rats, regime officials used the bait of “prizes” to divide.

Some local athletes, on their way to stardom in foreign clubs, have left people in jail, accused of promoting the “defection of athletes.” This conduct cannot be justified by the reprehensible behavior of a segment of human beings who climb to high position by trampling on corpses.

It is always sad when our sports idols act so miserably. I sincerely hope that Yasiel Puig and Aroldis Chapman can prove their innocence.

We all make mistakes. But some faults can cause reputations to suffer. One of them is betrayal.

Iván García

Photo: Taken from “Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers,” published in LA Magazine.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 May 2014

Reporters Without Borders Alerted To A New Black Spring in Cuba / Angel Santiesteban

 Towards a new Black Spring in Cuba? Reporters without Borders have expressed their concern for the situation of aggression against Cuban journalists, arbitrary sentences, death threats and barriers to access registered information over the last few days. The press agency and organization for the defense of freedom of expression Hablemos Press has been the target of the hostility of the Department of State Security.

Its founder, Roberto de Jesús Guerra, was a victim of a violent aggression perpetrated by an agent of the National Revolutionary Police on June 11th in Havana.

His wife, Magaly Norvis Otero Suárez, correspondent of Hablemos Press, indicated that she is presently confined to her home without the ability to walk, having suffered an injury to her knee and a broken septum. continue reading

Four days earlier, Raul Ramirez Puig, Hablemos Press correspondent in Mayabeque province, was threatened from a vehicle whose occupants warned him that “anything” might happen to him.

The arbitrary detention of journalists is also occurring very frequently on the island. Mario Hechavarria Driggs, who is also a collaborator with the Centre of Information for Hablemos Press, was detained by agents of the Department of State Security on June 8th.

Yeander Farres Delgado, journalism student, was held for questioning while taking pictures of the Havana Capitol Building, headquarters of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. He was released five hours later.

“Despite the apparent political opening of the Castro regime, the methods used by the authorities to silence dissident journalists are every time more brutal,” said Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders. “Since the last journalist detained during the ’Black Spring’ was released, in 2011, we are witnessing a reinforcement of the repression,” he added.

Hablemos Press denounced, this past June 11, the multiple death threats they have received in the last two months. Journalist Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez received several calls to the newsroom of Hablemos Press. Later, on June 12, she was cited by Department of State Security agents, who pressed her to change the tone of the articles she posts in the information center, which displease the Castro regime.

The Cuban authorities — via the state-owned telecommunications companyEmpresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA) — have even blocked the mobile phones of Roberto de Jesus Guerra, Magaly Novis Otero Suarez, and their colleague Arian Guerra (they were disconnected from the island’s sole network), to prevent them from communicating with each other.

“What is happening with the right to information if Havana suppresses telephone communication at will, while the use of the Internet is so limited on the island?” asks Camille Soulier, head of the Americas division of Reporters Without Borders. “We ask the Cuban state that it reestablish without delay the telephone line of the Hablemos Press journalists.”

Reporters Without Borders also laments the detention conditions of independent journalist Juliet Michelena Diaz, held April 7 in Havana and accused initially of “threats against a neighbor in Centro Habana” and later of “attempt” (the charges against her changed within a week). Her trial is still pending.

Also imprisoned is Yoenni de Jesus Guerra Garcia, Yayabo Press journalist, detained in October of 2013 and condemned in March of 2014 to seven years in jail. The blogger Angel Santiesteban-Prats, jailed since February 28, 2013 on trumped-up charges, is among the 100 “heroes of information” published by Reporters Without Borders.

Cuba is in last place among the countries of the Americas – and 170 out of 180 countries worldwide – in Reporters Without Borders’ current “Freedom of the Press” tally. Read more here.

Translated by: Shane J. Cassidy. Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

16 June 2014

Messages from Jorge de Mello / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate

The worthwhile exchange of ideas, so necessary to form a true state of opinion that finds solutions which are reasonable, satisfactory and intelligent–has finished. Today I received, after the meetings, this mysterious email in which one of the participating intellectuals in the debate (his name for now is XXXX) and everything seems to remain in a war between the ICRT and Mincult [Ministry of Culture], it is said that that is the tactical thing. Will we return to the anonymous message, to the rumor in the hallway, to the “politically correct”? Incredible!! That is the tactical thing?

ANSWER FROM XXX TO A RESPONSE OF MINE:

I believe that you are not mistaken in some of the things you say, but it seems to me that the matter is a little more complicated. And at this moment, I believe that the tactical thing is not to absolutely push against the Ministry of Culture which, after all, also has been attacked by the TV and those who are behind the appearance of Pavón and company.

From Jorge de Mello in response to Orlando Hernández

Landi:

I have received, literally with exclamations of joy, your letter to Arturo Arango. You have placed your finger in the trigger and your eye is on the real target. That’s the way to talk, brother, that’s it. Today I have been writing a similar thought, in terms of content and points of view, answering a letter to Abelardo Mena, but of course never with the conceptual clarity and formal quality that you do. That’s why I won’t send Mena my letter. I will send yours adding myself to the opinion. continue reading

I congratulate you with all my heart, that is the real Orlando I have known for almost 30 years, the brave and illustrious brother with whom I have shared so many ideas, sufferings, and joys. I also congratulate you because you have woken from a certain state of inertia that has been affecting you recently.

We all need ideas as clear as yours, especially during these times, and they will be necessary in the times to come.

A grateful hug

Jorge de Mello

P.S.: After writing to you the previous note, I decided to also send to you my reply to Mena that I have mentioned.

Abelardo, I agree with you, suspected that something like that would happen, told you so a couple of days ago, it all seems like more of the same. In so many opinions and reflections, from here and there, not once has the essential word, “Liberty,” been mentioned. What kind of society are we that we fear saying that word? What has happened to us?

The brief and considered reflection of Cesar Lopez, in which he recommends that we remain alert, ends with these words: “I am honorable, and afraid.” I admire the sincerity of the poet. In the opinions of the other prestigious and courageous intellectuals there is also fear, but we have to discover it amongst the rhetorical twists and turns, in the way that they avoid putting their finger in the wound. One would have to ask, why so much fear?

We are all afraid because we know that the immense bureaucratic machine that permitted the “pavonato,” and that is now trying to redeem it, is stronger every day.

It now shows off, after the so-called “centralization,” more power than ever — political/economic power that is unproductive, obtuse and harmful, which paralyzes the soul of the nation.

I believe that this should be the issue for analysis —  but in an open and truly revolutionary discussion that is not directed by those same powerful individuals who dominate the bureaucratic apparatus and its indescribably repressive mechanisms — so that an exchange can take place without restrictions, without censures, and include all the “thinking heads” of the country.

There are many revolutionaries and patriots who think with their own heads amongst educators, scientists, workers, students. What is happening is not a problem to be discussed just within the artistic domain.

I sincerely believe that this halting path (of tacit concessions and opportune tactics) that we have seen up to now in this little e-mail war, is not enough to light the way to our immediate future — which up to now I foresee as very dark, given that the bureaucrats continue to call the shots. All indications are that the protest will end, as you well state, in an administrative purge of some television official, in a new “explanation” and a call back to sanity to the intellectuals who wrote the letters. It appears that once more we’ll be left with no view of a possible solution to our old problems. Besides fear, I admit, I also feel shame.

As you well know, I am only a cultural laborer (and proud to be so), I am not a recognized or important artist or intellectual, which is why I’ve silently and hopefully read, without making pronouncements, all that I have received via e-mail.

I have read various opinions stating that those who do not have important work can use this moment in an opportune way to stand out, and things of this nature.

But because I have a brain for thinking, I make my own observations and want to share them with you in a very personal way. My observation might be more or less correct, but these ideas are what are going through my head and my heart at this moment.

Changing the subject. Where do you live now? Are you following the Virgin’s shadow, or are you my neighbor again? It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other.

Hugs,

Jorge de Mello

From Jorge de Mello to Orlando Hernández

Landi

The fact that the program director who provoked this just protest was praised on another TV program, in the moment that all were expecting an apology, a correction, is a hard and overwhelming blow.

Padura considers that act a coincidence, Desiderio a provocation, to me it is nothing more than a show of force, of power, made with the objective of demonstrating that the powerful will not give in even an inch, as has always been the case. When has one of the “leaders” of the country apologized publicly?

Never has something like this occurred, and mistakes have been made, small and big, many of them with dire and painful consequences for the nation.

Hopefully this last demonstration of strength and arrogance won’t reach its objectives, causing the fear and deception necessary to paralyze the discussion and the state of opinion, so interesting and necessary for our society, which was being created.

How I wish I were wrong…

Last night I received this answer from Mena to a comment I made, don’t circulate it, but it’s interesting, I believe things are going as he says. How sad, what a deception!

Hugs,

J.

Translated by: Dolores M. Goizueta / Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison