When Cuba Had No Christmas / Ivan Garcia


The first time Juan Carlos saw a Christmas tree, he was 43-years-old and working as a bricklayer inside the house of a top counterintelligence officer.

“That was 19 years ago.  Those were the harsh years of the so-called Special Period. People had nothing to eat.  Avocado was a luxury and a pound of rice was 60 pesos.  Due to all sorts of vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, men and women succumbed to illness and some even lost their natural teeth.  Back then, I was a civilian worker for the Department of the Interior and our crew was asked to work on painting and remodeling the home of a State Security bigwig.  The guy was living at full throttle luxury.  His kitchen was a quarter size bigger than the tenement room where I was living.  That was the first place I ever saw a Christmas tree.

Cubans are not atheists or Muslims.  No, sir.  Before Fidel Castro’s autocratic regime, the poor and rich celebrated Christmas if on different budgets.

The same could be said for Three Kings Day (Epiphany), and Easter celebrations.  But our radical commander launched a crusade against reproducing the slightest hint of the bourgeois lifestyle.  He opened fire on the Church, on free thought and on abstract painting.  Down with the Three Kings.  Now, our New King Magus dressed in olive green fatigues.

In 1959, Fidel climbed aboard an aircraft and made it rain toys for children of the Sierra Maestra who’d never owned such a thing.  But in one fell swoop, by the end of the 60s, he eliminated all mom and pop shops and Christmas.

Gustavo, a 72-year-old retiree, remembers, “Only New Year’s Eve parties were left standing, and even those came to be used to celebrate the anniversary of the Revolution.  The pretext used to eliminate Christmas and the Carnivals of February was that such events shut down sugar cane production.  In his madness, Castro had invested all of Cuba’s resources to attempt the production of ten million pounds of sugar per year.  The effort failed.  Cuba’s economy payed dearly for such folly.

Just like the State openly frowned on the Afro-Cuban and Catholic religions — Castroism was the only acceptable religion — Christmas had to be suspended until further notice.  Of course, you can’t really change anyone’s beliefs by edict.

“Some neighbors would very discretely place Christmas trees in their family rooms.  They’d also shut the windows so neighborhood whistleblowers who patrolled for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) couldn’t see any of the tiny Christmas lights.  When pig was roasted, the aromas were carefully masked and Christmas Carols were barely audible,” reported Aida, a 69 year-old housewife.

It was a long journey through the desert.  Even parties had to be authorized by the state.  The government tried to micromanage every detail of your life.

To avoid being singled out as a counterrevolutionary, you had to attend political meetings and participate in government parades.  If you aspired to housing, a Soviet TV or an alarm clock, you had to list accumulated merits in the workforce and enumerate your revolutionary accomplishments.

You gained points if you’d fought in Angola or Ethiopia, if you were militia, if you worked lots of volunteer hours, and if you could quote good chunks of the Maximum Leader’s (Fidel’s) speeches by heart.

You lost points, if you owned a Bible, went to church, got mail from relatives in Miami, listened to the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, liked Levis blue jeans; with these characteristics you did not qualify to buy an Inpud refrigerator or two-speed Karpaty motorcycle.

To blacklist you, any envious neighbor or political extremist could turn you in to Special Services if you were caught celebrating Christmas or giving your kids any toys on January 6 to celebrate the day the Three Kings (the Three Wise Men) arrived at Jesus’ manger.

To keep himself in power, Fidel had to do all kinds of ideological backflips.  In Europe, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the U.S.S.R. — the mecca of Communist looney wards — had disappeared.  Somehow, he had to cling to whatever branch could sustain him.

The regime eventually sealed a pact with a docile Catholic Church.  People who once professed a belief in Yoruba syncretic spiritualism (Santería) again nailed old and familiar amulets on their doors.

In December 1997, Pope John Paull II visited Cuba and Christmas returned.

But all along, the official Nomenklatura never stopped celebrating Christmas if you take into account all the roast pork, all the traditional sweet Spanish nougat and all the wines consumed.

Maybe those folks could indulge because they thought of themselves as being above the rest.

Iván García

Photo Credit: Front cover of winning lottery number sporting a Criollo Christmas image and published in the magazine Carteles in 1959.  Up until 1959, we had Christmas cheer on the Island.  You could find the popular A Cuban Merry Christmas postcard celebrating the Cuban book and reading fair, and the advertising sign for A Boy’s Cuban Christmas printed by the Ministry of Culture and with pictures of the Three Magi done by René Portocarrero.  The Book of Cuban Recipes, launched for Christmas and edited by the Ministry of Education, carried a special introduction: “This Christmastime, a book of traditional Cuban recipes was especially created so every young city-dwelling housewife can come to know and enjoy the traditional cooking that forms part of our national heritage and still endures in various parts of the country.”

But during the 60s, Christmas started to disappear from the life of Cubans, and only a few kept up with the tradition from behind closed doors (Tania Quintero).

Translated by: JCD and others
17 December 2013

Is Cuba Now Celebrated by UN As Custodian of Human Rights Despite Blatant Violations? / Angel Santiestebad

Detaining of a Woman in White, Havana, 10th of December 2013. (EFE)

We are all too aware Cuba’s dictatorship does not possess the slightest modicum of remorse or self-reproach, so we cannot ask such a State to behave honorably. The Cuban dictatorship is not worthy of respect.  Time to stop looking in vain for something that is just not there.   Best we just resign ourselves to reality.  If anything, the serious question that begs asking is why certain governments keep close ties to our two warlord brothers.  Not easy to stomach how some apparently respectable and democratic nations accept having Cuba take on the presidency of CELAC.*

Before allowing Cuba to become a bona fide member, the proper thing would be for the UN to kick Cuba out of the Human Rights Council.  Just how on earth has it become possible for the Castro brothers to — without any trace of unease or embarrassment –  shamelessly mock the international community of nations under the auspices of the UN?

In Cuba, on Human Rights Day what the State commemorates is the opportunity to violate as many human rights as possible.  On that Day, all manner of human rights are violated in a proud and peerless display of the Regime’s totalitarian access to military and judicial might. Dozens of women from the honorable roll call of Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco) were beaten and arrested in front of people who remained silent for fear that any alliance to the voice of opposition — no matter how humane or reasonable — would spell reprisal from oppressive government forces.  Once again, people did nothing to stop the abuse and humiliation of their fellow citizens.  At the home of Antonio Rodiles — a.k.a. the SATS headquarters for open thought — Calixto Martínez, Kizzy Macías and Rodiles were all taunted and later arrested in order to contain the initiative for Human Rights meetings that openly challenge the regime and its totalitarian laws.

I am convinced and pray to God that one day soon we will be able to celebrate the Rights every human being born on this planet has the right to enjoy in order to be protected from Fascist states.  The very fascists states shaped after WWII but unknown in Cuba.

When that day dawns, we will exalt those brave enough to suffer mental and physical abuse under this regime.  And those who keep silent or feigned support to the current dictatorship will only feel shame.

Fair to say that despite the State’s hatchet men and the well-oiled machinery of repression, Human Rights Day on December 10 was still felt on the Island archipelago.

Down with Dictatorship!  Nation and Freedom!

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats

Lawton Prison settlement. December 2013

Translator’s note: CELAC – Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.  An organization created to promote deeper intergration within the Americas.

Translated by: Shane J. Cassidy and JCD

16 December 2013

The Rice Boobytrap / Rosa Maria Rodriguez

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Count on earthworm remains, bits of assorted garbage, tiny jaw-breaking pebbles, and the odd piece of moon rock mixed inside the minute ration of the people’s rice being offered by the State; this is the quota for December which was released for sale November 30 in the bodegas (ration stores) in Vibora and everywhere else.  Go figure why the government chose December — a time when many families celebrate various Christmas or New Years gatherings and meals — to get rid of a large portion of dirty and off-color rice more fit for bird than human consumption.  All that the store manager at my “designated” bodega could say was that the grain crop available was from Pinar del Río (West of Havana) and was the only rice supply being distributed to consumers in the Tenth of October (Diez de Octubre) municipality of Havana.

I went to another local bodega and got the same song and dance.  My gripe upset a neighbor to the degree that I got scolded for taking a stance.  I was soon reminded how some brownie point seeking official would be chomping at the bit for the opportunity to nag us for hours on end — and pep-rally style — about the great job the State does for the people by providing free rice.  Beyond that, we would also get some impromptu group shouting slogans thanking the Department of the Interior for poultry, pig or any other State farm for giving us such piss poor quality products.  Fine.  But nearly inedible State products are unnerving: Cuban family members trying to put decent food staples on the table are forced to endure unbelievably time-consuming and exhausting hardships just to make a meal edible.

Most exasperating of all: Why can’t rice ever be “deregulated” so restrictions can be lifted and we can buy whatever we would like or can afford to pay?  Instead, like helpless slaughterhouse pigs, we always get the same condescending mantra: “Eat the stuff or eat the stuff.”  For consumers, the outrage ultimately becomes subsumed in listless apathy — or oddly enough — a pact of collective silence when the State decides to run roughshod over our rights.  Almost imperceptibly, people do murmur. Many are alarmed the local rice crop might suffer the same fate as our potato production when a substantial Cuban government subsidy to Bolivia all but eliminated potatoes from our sight for most of 2013.

An elderly neighbor tried to console me by saying, “Listen: If you cook it, it’ll taste O.K.”  But honestly, after wasting three whole hours sifting and washing rice to clean the grain, I could care less about the flavor, the quality, or whatever the rice’s appellation of origin might be.

Translated by: JCD

3 December 2013

Obama – Raul Handshake Overlooked On The Island / Ivan Garcia

Obama-Raul-castro-SudafricaIn Cuba, most news reaches us via Miami.  Look, given such limited access to the internet where one official hour puts us back a whopping 4.50 convertible pesos (i.e., the equivalent of one week’s pay for a laborer), people resort to foreign short wave radio or whatever illegal cable connection the neighbor down the street managed to set up but charges 10 cuc to let you listen to the news.

Don’t ever think you’ll get any real news about Cuba from local newspapers.  Out of the six pages of dull newspaper made from sugar cane pulp, the national press only publishes Pollyanna stuff and overly compliant economic indicators.

Out on the street, we think of our newspapers as pure science fiction. Good for nothing except to help keep track of the baseball season, to get a peek at the TV guide, or as a good substitute for toilet paper.

The cut and paste ordeal to get information is a lengthy process.  While Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro were shaking hands in the Johannesburg soccer stadium, Rebel Radio a.m. (Radio Rebelde) went on and on about the sugar cane harvest and the great and successful efforts made by our cooperative social service units.

Moraima, a 29 year-old housewife found out about the event because she’d been watching TV through some illegal cable connection.  She comments, “every day, I watch channel 23 News and a few Oscar de Haza programs.  That’s how I get a whiff of unreported local Cuban news ranging from the latest crime, to another dissenter arrest, to the North Korean ship in Panama or to the handshake between Obama and Raúl.”

While the Obama-Raúl thing sent a large part of the exiled Cuban-American community living in Miami into an uproar, in Havana the whole thing was little more than just another bit of news.  Gerardo, a 74 year-old retiree thought the encounter was positive, but his main morning concern was being able to buy a leg of pork.

“Pork meat is sold in agro-markets for 24-25 pesos per pound.  But I was hunting for the 21 peso bargain I’d get if I could find a state slaughterhouse carrying it.  I was in line for an hour and a half, but I finally got my pork leg for Christmas Eve dinner.  Maybe the handshake will bode well for the future — I’m not really certain — but the good news is that I’ll have food to last me for a few days.  Politics is a dirty game.  Government reforms do not benefit retirees.  I don’t have relatives in Yankeeland, so no one sends me dollars. Whether those two shake hands or tell each other off doesn’t really matter to me.”

Common folks in Cuba are just tired, that’s all. Tired of a bunch of stuff.  Of bad government.  Of the now ancient embargo used as a pretext by the regime to justify depriving us of scarce goods and services.  And worst of all, tired of not having any political voice or say.

A 38 year-old teacher, Zoila feels like a pawn for the State.  “Whatever we think about the future we’d like to have is nothing the government cares to take into account.  Any one act like Obama’s handshake can easily morph into cheap and superficial politics. Our government leaders don’t want to change.  All they are doing is stalling for time.”

In Parque Central located in the heart of Havana, people could be seen rushing around stuffing plastic bags with whatever they could find.  A loaf of bread.  Two and a half pound of tomatoes.  Maybe some dry fruit.

On baseball hill just next to the statue of José Martí, countless fans argued over baseball or predicted results for the European Champions League soccer matches.

At the Payret, about fifty people queued up waiting for the movie theater to let them in to see an Argentine flick brought in by the International Festival of New Latin American Film.

Meanwhile, beggars were sorting through garbage cans.  And a pair of very old people begged for money right next to the Inglaterra hotel.  And workers hired to repair the Capitol building were selling their own lunch for 25 pesos.

Obispo street was a beehive of pedestrians swarming in and out of stores.  Some discreet street vendors offered cigars.  Others, girls.  Blondes, mulatto, black. Young men were also an option.

Our bus service is still in crisis.  Bus stops are stuffed to the gills, and people feel antsy and are upset about not being able to get where they need to go.  And even at the cusp of winter, temperatures in Havana still hover at unbearable 86 degrees of Fahrenheit humidity.

When people are forced to live like this, it is logical that a greeting between two heads of State might be overlooked.  That’s a fact even if the two men happen to be Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.

Iván García

Photo Credit: Martí Noticias.

By request, we are resubmitting the article, “Nothing To Do With Mandela” taken from Spain’s newspaper, El País on December 11, 2013.

At Nelson Mandela’s funeral service, more world leaders came together in one fell swoop than world history can recall.  Despite rainy weather, one hundred world leaders collectively sat on bleachers at Soweto’s soccer stadium to pay tribute to a man of principles.

The man had the strength to fight in the name of freedom, the level-headedness to redress his thinking, the courage to disagree among his own rank and file, the empathy to step into his opponents’ shoes, the magnanimity to embrace forgiveness, the brains to build bridges, and finally, the decency to accept a timely retirement.

In light of Mandela’s track record, why would leaders stomping on the core ideals of the South African leader wish to render tribute?  Case in point, the three ogres: Raúl Castro, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang.  Front-row-center, the fearsome threesome certainly hardened the mood and turned all the magic in the air sour.

Right on cue, Obama drove the point home: “There are leaders here today who praise Mandela but silence protest.”  The words were intended for iron-fisted leaders who gravely overstep to crush human ideals, religious beliefs or the acceptance of gender preference.  Only official protocol could possibly explain how despots were invited to attend and got the opportunity to grandstand for absolution under Mandela’s glow.  Tyrant and apprentices filled the gallery.  Simply review the list of shameful human right violators from anywhere: All were in Soweto.

Well, almost all human rights violators went to the funeral.  A few hardliners stayed at home.  For instance, the President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir was absent, but probably due to the fact that the International Criminal Court is hot on his trail.

Fortunately, Caucasus strongmen ignored the news and the event.  Also absent (for reasons of their own) were big human rights abusers like Russia, China and Iran.

But it was Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Rusnok, whose silent microphone was on long enough to record him saying that a full agenda made going to a funeral out in the “boondocks” inconvenient and something for which he was not in the mood.  No way to save face with mourners after that kind of faux pas.  Rusnok apologized, of course.  But he, at least, certainly expressed an honest opinion.

Translated by: JCD

14 December 2013

On Property Rights (VIII) / Cuban Law Association, Mérida de la C. Pastor Masson, Esq.

Mérida de la C. Pastor Masson, Esq.

Following a corresponding written order, in relation to article 168, we will refer to the nature of joint ownership constituted by the participating State or its agencies, organizations, policies, etc., with a participating natural person and, which can be extinguished by a cause such as: Participation and allocation of goods in accordance with its nature.

A purchase by the State or any of its agencies or organizations from participating natural persons.

A purchase by natural persons from the participating State so long as this does not include a farmstead.

The sale of a said property and subsequent distribution of monies shall be allotted to co-owners (State and natural persons) in accordance with corresponding quota allocations.

In all all cases, purchase and selling operations shall –  let us be clear — be carried out at the official price should this be already fixed or, otherwise, shall be appraised and established by the government body empowered to conduct said proceeding.

From this chapter, we only need to mention that pursuant to article 169 which refers to joint co-ownership derived from matrimonial or community property, said communal holding would be in danger of dissolution when, under certain circumstances in case of divorce, the community of marriage had been dissolved by what our Family Codes 29-42 specify as intent to “malign.”  Future updates on this topic are currently under review.

Translated by: JCD

11 December 2013

Rodrigo Malmierca’s Hidden Grudge / Juan Juan Almeida

A veritable media sandstorm blasted away just a few days ago in Brazil when at the IX Plenary Session between Brazil and Cuba, the Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca openly declared that any political entity without the branding initials of Cuba’s Communist Party — CCP for short — would never be allowed to run in a Cuban election.

In light of Malmierca’s remarks, a group of Cuba savvy and well-informed people who understand Cuba’s reality first hand, countered by producing serious, sensibly-minded, and razor-sharp studies and retorted that Malmierca’s sly words — or threat-in-the-making — could only serve to further isolate Cuba.  On that note, the Brazilian group discretely suggested that a fairly unobtrusive way to avoid widespread buffoonery during future Cuban elections would be to demand all upcoming political parties register under names capable of generating the acronym of CCP.  A sample roundup of CCPs: the Christian Civic Party (CCP), the Cuban Constitutional Party (CCP), the Conservative Cuban Party (CCP), the Cuban Catholic Party (CCP).  (Others variations are possible.)

FYI: Current Minister Malmierca is a big-name, bright individual but more muted and deadpan than a double-blank tile in a heap of dominoes.  Pre-Internet 1980s knew Malmierca as an all out rebellious and non-conformist youth.  No doubt the modern Cuban blogger dissidence movement would have rung true for young Malmierca.  But back then — and about to graduate from the University of Havana with a degree in economics — the early Malmierca shunned the philosophical aesthetics language of the Cuban Revolution in ways comparable to modern protest.

Malmierca’s early life exploits read like a political police thriller of never-ending “demonstrations” known and talked about in every secret inner chamber but carefully concealed in folds of red velvet — the metaphor is a line borrowed from Eliseo Grenet’s lovely bolero, “Your mouth’s pearls” — to protect his family’s background (father was chief founder of State Security, former Vice Minister of the Interior, former Minister of the Interior, active card-carrying member of the Communist Party, and Freemason).

For better or worse, the young Rodrigo originally believed free thinking ideals were worth the effort, and he assumed whatever risks and consequences came in tow.  But out of nowhere, and as if by pure magic, he was recruited by the Cuban Central Intelligence Agency.  A once pure heart turned lethal.  Out came the plainclothesman guayabera shirt as urban camouflage for network spying.  First came ECIMETAL, then a role as advisor to the Cuban embassy in Brazil, later on, as ambassador to Belgium and the EU, next as representative of Cuba at the UN, and finally, as Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment.

Whatever prestigious jobs and assignments were culled for him and despite all the reassurance top appointments bring, Rodrigo Malmierca has never been a loyal pooch obedient to the call of one master.

In public, he is a man of few words and speaks only when necessary to avoid the risk of damaging his administrative legacy.  Seems he also understands that if a political system markets equality as a top shelf product, being different spells mortal sin.  Those in the know claim that deep down he has never forgotten his past.  The story goes that only Malmierca’s innermost circle experiences Pandora’s box unleashing the visceral grudge he holds against general Raúl.  Between these two men, an old adage is key: “Paying tribute to someone like you has merited my own substantial reward.”

Translated by: JCD

5 December 2013

Cuban People and Human Rights / Juan Juan Almeida

Once again, the subject of human rights is polarizing Cuban society.  Many would agree that keeping the topic center stage is an especially meaningful and noteworthy endeavour.

To be fair, we must acknowledge that the Cuban government deploys more than 40,000 doctors, nurses and teachers who volunteer time and expertise in more than 100 countries around the world.  Faraway patients who have lost both the will and the physical ability to smile get beaming Cubans to offer comfort and relief.  But in Cuba, the opposite is true: Basic sanitation is lacking to the extent that some people actually die from otherwise totally preventable illnesses.

Like any other, Cuban society longs for open rights to healthful rather than unhealthful care and wants to experience life in a seamless universe where societal freedoms coalesce with justice.

Good or bad, I am comforted by Article 8 of Cuba’s current Constitution.                I quote: “The State recognizes, respects and guarantees freedom of religion.  The Cuban Republic will enforce the separation between church and state.  Any creed or religion shall be granted the same rights.”

A dismal affair to realize how the Department of Religious Affairs (instituted and overseen by the Communist Party’s Central Committee since 1985) which acts to regulate, control and authorize the existence and/or activities of any current or future religious organization in Cuba, is able to violate the freedom of religion decree and many other legal edicts with total and complete impunity.

But to prove lack of religious freedom in Cuba clearly exists, underground and  timeworn arguments and typically heated debates siding one way or the other seem pointless.  Suffice it to say that what is everywhere missing are basic freedoms that guarantee citizens will not be abused or discriminated against by their own government.

It seems shameful to me discuss how island family rights are said to endure in Cuba when many who are allowed to leave — under the auspices of expatriate charity — unfortunately end up barred from ever returning.  And what pitiful freedom can we speak of when blacks who once rose from their barracks to stake their claim on liberty are today forced to endure marginalized lives in filthy ghettos?

In Cuba, another nearly worn out topic is how apparently irresponsible — or at least misguided — government practices are the root cause of our bottomless and spiraling deficit.  For starters, emigration from Cuba increased while the nation’s birth rate decreased.  Next, our aging population has been systematically depleting whatever small pension system existed so that zero funds are available to cover the tab of average retirement.  That said, just what rights to gaining social security are we talking about?

Cuban television shows are mostly about how average Cuban people face everyday joys and sorrows and the unexpected good or bad twists of fate life throws our way.  What is never unveiled, however, are the intense days of suffering borne by those who are jailed helter-skelter for the sole crime of remembering that in 1950, the UN General Assembly proclaimed December 10 as a day when all member nations and special organizations would reflect on human rights as the standard for all people and all nations to achieve.

Translated by: JCD

12 December 2013

NADAVIDADES (Nada Christmas) / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

From Julian del Casal (1863-1893) all he kept was the winterphilia.

Weekly chronicles long for months of Cuban winter so the pleasure of silence can reign supreme on streets which would barely feel like Havana after twilight:

[...]  would that snow would begin to fall so tree rings and white caps on evergreen mountains would turn into the shroud of snowy folds we would all wear.

Storyline: After 1998, Cuban Christmases have become less and less worthwhile and plausible for me.  The subtle and old glow of a December 24-25 Christmas Eve has been lost.  Before, a certain floating sacrosanctness came from resisting the prohibition by official decree. Now the sadness has become all too tangible.

As Cuba blends in more substantially with the rest of the world, and as “demagoguery ” and  “democracy” endure or elude or mockery, and as people feel more enthusiastic the day after or maybe the day before committing suicide, I instinctively realize our future is doomed to repeat the same empty and repressive performance.

We live in an uninhabited Havana forsaken even by languishing films like “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” which movie houses never failed to play ever so punctually at every year’s end.

December 2002 caught me by surprise at The International Book Fair in Guadalajara (Jalisco, Mexico).  Starting the first days of the month, the city became filled with red flowers which I couldn’t name and ridiculously mixed up with all the artificial bric-a-brac decorations.

A civil servant and Cubanophile asked in good faith how revolutionary Cuba decorated for Christmas (the good man reminded me of a John Lennon Christmas tune).  Back then, regretfully, I hadn’t a clue about the value of applying rhetorical diplomatic language, so I rebuffed him but later regretted doing so.  I subsequently apologized with an e-mail and said, “we hang flags and miniature Fidel faces on our Christmas trees.”

Indeed, for the past couple of years, I have seen them once again at currency exchange locations in the city of Havana.  They look like Christmas stamps of Comrade Fidel.  The beard looks grey and is somewhat reminiscent of St. Nick.  The olive-green fatigues are the Santa Claus uniform.  The background is awash with a sea of human reindeer parading just in front of la Plaza of la Revolution.

It was the end of 2002 and a brave and soft-spoken poetess from Matanzas wrote me a poem about the embers and aftertaste of love as a Christmas gift; an unpleasant post-Padilla style nightmare flavor remains whenever I re-read her words:

[...] They cut short our childhood with empty slogans,

with tales of the sea and useless prisons.

They tore our hands away from building sand castles,

kept our legs from running ahead of death,

kept our voices from singing psalms, and our eyes from looking up at the stars.

They made us turn austere and sinister.

They wanted to erase our souls until all we had left with was weeping and rage

and the need to use memory as a shield to guard against so many lies.

Today everything is stuck in a void and a thickened peace clings to the night [....]

In December of that year, my friend the poetess and I had our 31st birthday.  Joseph Brodsky was also 31 when he wrote “December 24, 1971″ (the very year my friend the poetess and I were born):

[...] Void.  But standing in front of the void you can see

a sudden light appearing from nowhere.

If only the Monster knew that the stronger he is,

the more believable and inevitable the miracle becomes [...]

Meanwhile, the Cuban press recounts memorable patriotic events time and time again. Obviously, the State rejects the absence of memory: According to Ricardo Piglia, what’s in the boxing ring is fiction authors vs. state fiction.  Just luck (bad) we are again reading recycled headlines and eye-witness accounts about the local Herod Fulgencio Batista’s bloody Christmas crimes which, despite being nearly half a century old, still seems useful garnish for the Revolution’s amniotic fluid.

From solstice to saturnalia, under papal license or puritanical prohibition, from mangers to despotism, or to the beat of Christmas carols or reggaeton, perhaps Christmas in Cuba lands me in a turn-of-the-century chronicle where a longed for millennium of winter would finally make it possible for us to enjoy the silence of twilight streets before they become Havana’s:

[...] what better shroud than snow for people who yawn from hunger and agonize from consumption?

From Penultimos Dias

Translated by: JCD  (Merry Christmas, 2013) 

30 November 2013

All Pay Homage to Mandela in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Mandela-600x330For Josefina, a 71 year-old housewife and south-of-Havana local, first comes Jesus Christ then Mandela.  She’d been cooking supper when the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s death broke through on the radio.

“Among books set by my bedside, I have a biography of Mandela which I’ve read three times.  Jesus Christ, Mandela and Martí are the three men whose principles and convictions I most respect,” is what Josefina tells us while sifting for the best grains of rice to make her supper dish.

On the island, authorities have officially declared three days of national mourning following Mandela’s death, and President Raúl Castro has sent his message of condolence to South African President Jacob Zumba.  In the missive, Castro II noted that, “one must not refer to Mandela in the past tense.”  During our three days of national mourning, all government buildings and military compounds will fly the Cuban flag at half-mast.

Produced by Telesur Network, Cuban television station channel 6 aired a documentary about Mandela’s life.  And just after 10 p.m., the station also broadcast the film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman in the role of Mandela.

On a scale from one-to-ten, if you ask any Cuban to pick and rate any idol, few would mention a modern political figure.  Most would bet on celebrities, musicians, or sports figures like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

In Cuba like in most nations around the world, politicians are rated very low. But when you speak about Mandela that is another thing.

Look, some people are loyal to Castro while others idolize Che.  Ask anyone and many just simply hate both of them.  But with Mandela something unique happens: Irrespective of ideology and religion, all revere him.

Niurka a Cuban doctor, spent two years volunteering her medical expertise in South Africa. “I was deep in South Africa, a great nation very rich and where people from different ethnicities coexist with different beliefs and different cultures. In spite of the differences everyone respects Mandela. After my return in 1997, I was involved in an event where Mandela shared a few words of gratitude with us. He was a cordial man who would look at a person’s eyes while he spoke to them. His diction was perfect and he was soft spoken which is something that caught my attention. I belong to that Cuban generation who grew up with Fidel Castro shouting slogans from a soapbox using sometimes profane language. Mandela’s image is forever engraved in my sight.

Even at the heart of his opposition, Mandela was able to gain considerable ground.  And in Cuba, Antonio Rodiles — Director of Estado de Sats, a cultural and social project where diverse aspects converge, and perhaps the most promising Cuban dissident — considers that Nelson Mandela’s political legacy is nothing less than remarkable.

Rodile comments, “Following 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s message was about constructive dialogue and remained free of hatred.  We could all stand to learn from him.  Cuba is Mandela’s friend, but what’s more, he might also become the example our government needs so opposing factions can learn to mend ways and work on behalf of the Cuban nation like Mandela did when confronted with critical moments in South Africa’s development.”

At night on Avenida G in Vedado, youth of any sort — emo rockers, freaks, hard rockers, haggard hippies, reggaetoneros and Joaquín Sabina, Pablo Milanés or Fito Páez groupies — are loaded on Parkisonil pills and cheap rum but what they celebrate with irreverence and spontaneity is Mandela.

A life-long self-ascribed friki, Osmany, 36, hums a popular 80s tune which demanded the South African leader be set free, and also takes the opportunity to show me a tattoo on his back quoting the first black President of South Africa:     ’What kind of freedom can you offer me when as people we are not granted the right to public assembly? Only a free assembly of men can negotiate.’  “Like Mandela, I too want to be a free man,” says Osmany.

Cuba is a country where no one agrees on anything and everyone insists on being right.  But men like José Martí and Nelson Mandela are examples that live beyond the good and evil in us.

Iván García

Photo credit: Greg Bartley Camera Press, taken from the New York Times.

Translated by: Adriana Correa and JCD

7 December 2013

Towards a Just Cause

Heberprot-P 75  Human recombinant epidermal growth factor

Heber Biotec, S.A. Havana, Cuba

Last November, a group of Cubans and part of the exiled Cuban community living in the United States, co-published a document named A Humanitarian Appeal  which I already submitted here. Given the importance of the publication and level of interest shown by many who still wish to add their names to the petition, I am submitting the link directly: http://www.change.org/es-LA/peticiones/demanda-humanitaria

Translated by: JCD

12 December 2013

Either Planet / Cuban Law Association, Rodrigo Chavez

Lic. Rodrigo Chávez

For my eldest son, Roylier Javier Chávez Dubrocq.

Countless conversations will never happen given the pigheaded, volatile and dim-witted habit our government has for maintaining a monopolistic grip and control on the flow of information, or should I say, disinformation.  Essentially, the State not only keeps us in the dark about our legitimate rights, but is sole proprietor of our intimacy and our ability to move or even think.

My son is back where the four condemned Cuban “anti-terrorists and Heroes of the Cuban Republic,” as they are better known back here, are imprisoned. Thing is: on this planet, all Cuba is like a prison and subjected to the whimsy of just a few.  By whimsy I mean the sort of fanciful cravings and doings of the few that are concealed from view but completely inhibit the people’s access — let alone execution — to even the most basic of rights.

From that other planet — where all rights are seen, heard and spoken — we are routinely exposed to movies and TV shows where legal recourse and due process are recognized.  On that other planet, all information is publicly shared among  nations.  Routine comparison to what has been called a revolution here really ends up sounding like a complete misnomer.

Big difference: My son is now poignantly aware of what I told him years ago and he can effectively measure the difference between what he studied here but experiences as his true life over there.

For this reason, whenever we speak his words are upbeat but always underscore that the Cuba yearned for should be one where democracy, freedom and ample human rights are given.

We’ll get there one day, son.  Surely we will.

Translated by: JCD

9 December 2013

Festival of Classic Latin American Cinema / Rebeca Monzo

It’s common knowledge that  our country is celebrating a so-called Festival of New Latin American Film although nothing about it seems new.  On my end, I was not able to see any screenings in person because I am caring for my husband who is recovering from recent surgery and is home-bound.

Obstacles notwithstanding, movies were brought to my home for viewing*. I felt somewhat out-of-sorts because I had no say on the days or exact showtimes, let alone movie choice.  Unwittingly, I got two flicks: “Strange Factors” and “Unwanted Visitors.

The first movie was the worst: Very crude and unoriginal. I had the first one projected on the landing of the staircase which leads to my apartment. The other was surprising but predictable because from my balcony I could see the actors’ wardrobe and wheels: Plaid shirts and a Suzuki motorbike**.

Both movies had police state settings although the second movie was filmed in our living room.  Clean and respectful language was obvious, especially in the latter of the two films.  Both films shared a common goal: To communicate that I should not try to exercise the right of free assembly and association, particularly on December 10-11, International Human Rights Day, rights granted to us under the UN Charter to which our country is a signer.

From these surprising displays of power, one thing we’d like to make clear to everyone: We are human beings who love and cherish freedom. As such, we will continue to exercise our rights yet remain respectful and consistent spectators, never forgetting this old cinema with its grotesque, crude and outdated films.  This we’ll do until the moment the big screen spells The End.

Translator’s notes:
*Rebeca is being sarcastic in this article; the two “films” were in fact two visits — from her ’neighbors’ and the police — warning her not to participate in activities on December 10, Human Rights Day. (See link to a similar post by Regina Coyula.)
** That is the “uniform” and “vehicle” of the police in plain clothes.

Translated by: JCD

9 December 2013