Mystical Poland / Mario Lleonart

To be in Poland on June 4, just when they were celebrating the 24th anniversary of those first partially-free elections, an immediate result of the roundtable returning life to this historic land, was not by chance for me. Nor was the visit to the concentration camps at Auschwitz on June 14, just as the opening day of the site was remembered with horror.

Practically speaking, June 4 opened my visit to this Central European country, and June 14 closed it. When I weigh every minute of what I hope has been my first, but not my last, visit to Poland, I can only conclude that, above all, it was a mystical experience for which God had prepared the way for me.

Now I seem to be awakening from the lethargy I was left with after such a short but intense trip, perhaps prompted by the invitation from our friend Yoani Sanchez this last Friday, the 28th, at 7:00 pm, to debate “Travel and Return,” I will offer in my blog small reflections of the imprints of my journey.

1 July 2013

Custom Brushstroke / Regina Coyula

My husband needs alcohol to live. He is not an alcoholic, but being a bit dramatic, he uses it twice a day to inject insulin. He has the equivalent of a pharmacy version of a ration book, popularly known as “the card,” through which his medications are filled and he also gets ten disposable syringes and a 240 ml bottle of alcohol every month.

That’s in theory, because in practice in the time he’s been an insulin-dependent diabetic, the bottle of alcohol has been elusive. So he’s given a pig in a poke, in this case aloe syrup in place of alcohol, but he only realized it a couple of years ago when he came to use it because the bottles are the same.

In April,when Alcides went to buy his medicines, they were out of alcohol again, and on the recommendation of a neighbor, my husband asked for a “diversion.” A diversion is a paper that authorizes you to buy from a pharmacy other than your regular one. It was almost seven at night, and as the diversion was for a pharmacy situated very close to Rafa’s school, Alcides thought it was a good idea for Rafa to go for the alcohol the following day.

Rafa came back empty-handed. The diversion had to be filled the same date as on the paper, they told him at the pharmacy at 23rd and I, so again Alcides went to the neighborhood pharmacy for a new diversion, but please, for the following day.

This was useless, the diversion has to be on the date of the paper as established by the Company, and they can’t give you a paper for the following day because this violates the provisions. Alcides tore up the paper in the pharmacy and ended up buying a 250 ml bottle of alcohol for 3 cucos and 15 chavitos.

This month has been different. Alcides joined the usual line at the busiest time for that diversion; when they served him he couldn’t buy the alcohol because the new manager (there’s always a new manager) had left it locked up. Tremendous disappointment, but it wasn’t the clerk’s fault, so he returned the next day.

Needless to say that having made the line the day before, no excuse for doing it again. With another employee, he asked for the bottle of alcohol. They had it, but he couldn’t have it. The alcohol at the pharmacy was for the colostomy patients. He asked for a diversion but didn’t get it, because the next day it was possible that the medications would come.

I have Alcides own version, so I guess things got worse. The line stopped, Alcides, who is too old to be played with, another employee, trying to appease him, suggested they give him the alcohol for the colostomies. My husband continued to insist that the pharmacy didn’t belong to them, that the alcohol had to be on the shelf with the other drugs, because it’s not meat that spoils and he has the right to his bottle of alcohol.

The employee threatened him with the police, Alcides invited him to make the call to get them up-to-date with the business that has the medications; the employee, making use of the power you have when you have no power, refused to provide the alcohol.

Very picturesque, but don’t tell the story in front of Alcides, because he’s not amused.

1 July 2013

Prison Diary XXXIII: The Barber and His Eternal Condemnation / Angel Santiesteban

A few days ago, from the urinal, I heard a conversation between two inmates in the laundry, which made me turn around and look them in the face.

It was the barber, who was commenting to his listener on Martí’s letters to his mothers, and hers to her son. He quoted them from memory, and I enjoyed the emotional scene. Of course, I ended up being part of the conversation.

When I left, I told them that dialog seemed surreal to me, given the circumstances we found ourselves in, and even more, while they washed their clothes. Before we parted I expressed the need to write at some point about this experience he’d lived, and we shook hands.

That encounter made me remember that I always witnessed the barber talking about the books he read, calling my attention to the contrast between his intellectual analysis and his tattoos and gold teeth.

Since then, we began to greet each other as the beginning of a friendship that he was assessing against the surveillance they had on me, and that motivated transfers to other barracks and even provinces of inmates who maintained a closer relationship with me. I didn’t want to compromise his transfer to the camp where he would finish the five years that remained after having served the first eight.

Yesterday, after a dramatic performance by the guards, the barber was surprised with more than 300 pills. They say he ratted out a prisoner who was indebted to him. They also say that his quantity of medications in their original packages could only get into the prison through a soldier. Others argue that they are medications of the inmates who have psycho-pharmacological prescriptions, and that for nearly a month they hadn’t been given, which had caused the nervous alterations they suffered, played out in brawls, physical aggression, altercations with the guards, fire-setting attempts which sometimes succeeded, and even epileptic attacks. Medications that have been sent by the families to make sure they get them.

It’s noteworthy that for every indiscipline committed by such patients, they are taken to the courts held weekly where, according to the seriousness, they add other penalties and suspension of benefits for good behavior.

For most of these patients they substitute oral treatment for intravenous or muscular injections, as a result of which these areas are considerably damaged.

The truth is that the barber finds himself in the dungeon to the surprise of many, including me. I imagine him desperate almost insane, on learning that he has to begin from zero the conviction he had, not to mention the new charge of drug trafficking.

Now he has to serve nearly twenty years in prison, he’ll be an old man when he gets out, in about 2033 with luck, if he doesn’t commit another felony.

Such are the days in prison, among addicts and assassins.

Gods have mercy on them, their families, and those who cross their path.

Ángel Santiesteban-Prats, Prison 1580, June 2013

1 July 2013

Some Considerations / Fernando Damaso

The 52nd National Baseball Championships ended with the triumph of the Villa Clara team, and after a few days passed, some considerations came to mind: most along political lines and a few with regards to baseball.

I do not understand the presence of the flag of the 26th of July Movement next to the Cuban flag in the Sandino stadium. When the so-called Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (26th of July Movement, 13th of March Revolutionary Directorate, and People’s Socialist Party) were merged into the United Party of Socialist Revolution, which later came to be called the Communist Party of Cuba, it was agreed to deactivate these organizations and their symbols, using them only on important occasions related to them (the 26th of July flag on the anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, the Directorate’s flag on that of the Assault of the Presidential Palace, etc.), and to adopt, then, the flag created for the Party.

This has been complied with by the other organizations, but not by the 26th of July Movement which uses its flag indiscriminately on any occasion, without anyone protesting or any protest against this violation of the agreement.

The Cuban flag should fly alone, sovereign and independent, unescorted by any other, except in specific activities, where it flies with those of other countries. It is the only one that truly represents all Cubans. The remaining represent only a part.

Why in the stadiums and other sports facilities are vivid images of political leaders present, when this was banned on the triumph of the revolution so as not to fall into the cult of personality? Would it not be better and more pleasing to the eye, to have images corresponding to outstanding athletes in their respective sports? I have never seen in any foreign sports facility (except in the countries of the extinct socialist camp and in some current stragglers) party flags and pictures of political leaders.

Why did a baseball series have to be politicized to the point of absurdity, establishing in the closing ceremony (no one knew until then) a dedication to the so-called Five Heroes, with the presentation of the champion trophy presentation  made by one of them along with their family members, with a bland political intervention? Do there not exist in Cuba important and respected sports heroes to do it? Baseball is the national sport and its fans have different political views, it is not lawful to restrict it to one of them.

Now, something about sports. Why not allow each team, respecting generally established rules, to design their own uniform, avoiding the current impersonal eyesores mass-produced with a single design? I’m sure we would gain in aesthetics, the players would feel better, and it would be clearer to the spectators.

I think the best reward for the players, who really deserve it, ignoring the speeches of the occasion and the obligatory expressions of gratitude, both false and irrelevant, would be to improve their economic conditions and allow them to rise in their careers without any ceiling and, please, maintain decent conditions on the playing fields, to where playing is a pleasure and not a risk.

22 June 2013

Self-employed… Even on Vacation / Regina Coyula

In January, in the heat of migratory reform, I wrote about the tour packages to nearby destinations like Cancun or Panama prepared for wealthy Cubans, because these trips (and the revived Tour of Cuba as well) were to be paid for in hard currency.

But despite the abundant payments of future Cuban tourists, the plan was shelved; the directors of the Ministry of Tourism decided not to lead the flight of hard currency, since presumably everyone would take hard currency to spend on their off-shore vacations.

The functionaries are a little dull and lacking in imagination, because to get hard currency out of the country, there’s no need to go for a stroll, don’t they see?

27 June 2013

Prison Open and Minds Still Closed / Rosa Maria Rodriguez

The new immigration law that went into effect on January 14 of this year, returned the right to travel to most Cubans, although it’s a right euphemistically recovered, because only a privileged minority can manage a trip abroad.

Now many are asking themselves if the more than five decade closure and violation of this inalienable right had any justification in national security and politics, or if it was a simple whim because since January we can see that opponents of the regime have left and entered our country freely and what happened? What star fell? Not even one of those on the epaulettes of those who oppress us. For so many years they have hijacked, among others, our right to travel, and now there are more than a few who question whether so many restrictions and abuses happened just to reaffirm dictatorial power, domination and submission.

Two constants dominate the social dialogue on this topic: one, is that no one receives wages commensurate with the current cost of living in Cuba that will allow them to self-finance an excursion to any coordinates beyond our borders — it’s expensive enough to do it within our national territory — and the other, is the dependence on funding the cost of the trip from the outside. There are many who compare this situation with the historic event of the abolition of slavery and the attitudes of those first freedmen, who didn’t know what to do with their new condition, and how to pay for their expenses on becoming a salaried employee.

They strangled Cuban society so much for so many years, that I don’t doubt they would also review, rectify and allow the ex-prisoners “on parole” who were sanctioned to exaggerated penalties in 2003, who also can travel abroad, since they only owed the State, not society, the specific cruelty of a group of dictators who like overseers in colonial times, still persist in putting Cubans in the stocks of lack of liberties and trampling on their rights.

27 June 2013

Ah, the Homeland… / Miguel Iturria Savon

The border fence between Morocco and Spain’s enclave in Malilla

“You barely talk about your country,” A friend of my wife tells me at a gathering in Valencia. I smile, because this traveling satirical traveler, not mythic even in his native Santander, where he sometimes goes to visit his mother and sister. Before leaving us he gave me the Dirty Trilogy and the King of Havana, by Pedro Juan Gutierrez, whose pages had such a negative impact that he postponed his visit to the island for almost a decade. And he admits his “sorrow and frustration after trekking through this tragicomic and bittersweet Cuba with the exception of Trinidad, Varadero and Viñales.

Yes, I do not usually talk about Cuba, about which I have published some books and hundreds of articles in the digital press. I’m not lazy but in the face of such discursive, traitorous and demigod banality, I limit myself to answering specific questions about my country and its challenges. In addition, the island is not the center of America nor the world and we run the risk of being mono-thematic and boring to our friendly hosts, immersed in the problems of their family, environment and country.

I don’t think, as my friend Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo does, that “There is no country with virtue. Every country is a virtual shaving”; although in the case of Cuba, the word has lost its drawing power. Not even the “patriotic” and corrupt gurus of the only Party still believe the tiresome rhetoric about sovereignty, nation, homeland and freedom. After decades of tyranny and slogans the concept is devalued and neither emotion, nor a million employees and soldiers who are paid to sustain the regime.

I guess that thousands of exiles and hundreds of peaceful opponents on the island are in harmony about the significance of the word nation, as well as the mythification from exile during the 19th century of Padre Félix Varela and the poets José M. Heredia and José Martí, icons of the fledgling nation and creators of literature.

They have pronounced, from the podium, so many beautiful and moving phrases about the Homeland and the Nation that I’ve learned to be cautious with these “useful” and fickle voices. In short, the Homeland is usually “the land of my fathers,” “the soil where I was born,” the garden we build, the family that embraces us, the wall that we try to cross, the country where someone waits for us, or the “promised land” of the marginalized who flee misery, wars, and the lack of opportunities on their “native soil.”

30 June 2013

Everyone’s Task / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

If we observe the behaviour of the Cuban economy in 2012 and the first half of 2013, what becomes clear is that, in spite of the “updating” and new “guidelines” (which amount to nothing more than a simple wish-list), there are no significant achievements to indicate that at least we are on the right path.

Neither agriculture (a real disaster), nor industry, nor construction, nor transport have shown improvement. On the contrary, they remain laggards, failing to make a collective contribution to the country or to improve the lives of its citizens.

The only successes to be reported are in what is referred to as international collaboration (the hiring out of professionals at low-cost) and tourism. Reaching a level of two million visitors a year (a ridiculous figure for any country in the region) has been billed as “a great achievement” in spite of all the many projects and all the foreign capital invested in this sector.

What is really going on? The effectiveness of the few measures taken so far has been limited by absurd restrictions and excessively slow implementation (so in that sense nothing is new). They hinder development and, worse yet, do not completely free up productive forces or allow for economic expansion in all areas.

Politics continues to be focused on the economy. Out of fear of having to pay the costs for decades of mistakes and volunteerism (which by necessity will have to be paid), the economy is being sacrificed. Bets are being placed on an uncertain, miraculous future, the discovery of oil, a change in U.S. policy, a Latin American economic union, and even effects from widening the Panama Canal and the possibilities presented by the port of Mariel. The hope is that one of these developments will get our chestnuts out of the fire.

Cuba’s economic problems, as well as its political and social problems, have been multiplied many times over. They must be resolved by all Cubans — those here and those overseas — with our resources, efforts and intelligence. As long as this participation is premised on accepting absurd and archaic political restrictions, and as long as a small group of “chosen ones” retain control of the thunder key — the only ones capable of doing anything in spite of their multiple failures – very little will be accomplished.

28 June 2013

Poland, Walesa, and a Journey to Freedom / Intramuros, Dagoberto Valdes

Dagoberto Valdes and Lech Walesa

By Dagoberto Valdés Hernández

For years I had a dream. Today it has been realized. Poland has always been part of my cultural, religious and freedom identity. Disappearing several times on the map of Europe, “semper fidelis” Poland maintained its nationality thanks to its rooted ancient culture. I learned from Poland, and its greatest son, Blessed Pope John Paul II, that culture is the soul of a people and the soul is immortal. Since then I have dedicated my entire life in Cuba to rescuing, promoting and cultivating the cultural identity of my Fatherland.

Later, I had the inexpressible honor to participate in the preparation for the Polish Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998. And to be one of his colleagues at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Now I have arrived in twenty-first century Poland. I walk the path of his roots. The path of his history. I drink from the sources. Thanks to Lech Walesa Institute.

As luck would have it I arrived in this country on June 4, the anniversary of the elections won by the Solidarity Union. I’ve met its leaders. Heard their testimonies of their lives. Their love for Cuba. On Thursday June 6 I personally met the living legend of the last stage of Polish history, President Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize winner and and legendary leader of the Solidarity Trade Union.

Just after eleven o’clock he came hurrying to the headquarters of the Institute that bears his name and where he continues his work. He entered the meeting room and sat with confidence. He greeted us. He spoke briefly and quite frankly about his impressions of Poland and Cuba. Respectfully and cordially he gave us the floor to ask him questions or to give him news of the Nation  where he said he wanted to go one day when we have freedom and democracy. Each one expressed his thoughts and his admiration for his work and the history of his nation.

Personally, I enjoyed the meeting. I looked at the lapel of his suit and found there, as always, the blessed image of Our Lady of Jasna Gora, Queen and Patroness of Poland. I heard him mention with deep devotion the name of Blessed John Paul II, his role on the long road to freedom in Europe and in his homeland. The support the Polish Pope always gave to Solidarity and its leader. His visits before and after the change. Continue reading

We Are Now Going to Hold a UPEC Congress / Reinaldo Escobar

The themes of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) congresses over the years could be confused in both their wording as well as their ineffectiveness and the subsequent failure to fulfill them. I remember one, “For a critical, militant and creative journalism,” and others that decency prevents me from presenting here.

Once again the professionals of the press are engaged in another congress. Obviously they didn’t invite any independent journalists or any bloggers. In any event, I offer a slogan as the title of this post, maybe they will even use it.

28 June 2013

Letter from Padre Jose Conrado to the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party re the Victims of Hurricane Sandy in Santiago de Cuba

sandyMr. Lázaro Expósito
First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba

Mr. Secretary:

I am writing to you in your capacity as the highest political authority in our province of Santiago de Cuba. I am aware that, given the hierarchical structure of the Church, by rights it is not for me to undertake this effort, but rather for my Archbishop, Mons. Dionisio García, and I have repeatedly suggested that he do so. But following the dictates of my conscience, and from a basic sense of personal responsibility toward our people, on the eve of my perhaps definitive separation from the people of Santiago de Cuba whom I love so much, I am addressing this letter to you.

In recent months we have experienced the tragedy of a people who have lost everything or almost everything they had to survive: as you know more than a hundred thousand Santiago de Cuba families have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. We have watched with amazement the delivery of aid for our people from so many countries.

And with amazement we watched how this aid was sold for hard currency, or at inflated prices, in flagrant violation of the the intent of the donors who gave it freely. We have received information from reliable people who have followed the trail of the transports and have seen how this aid, above all the roofs, were stored in State or military warehouses, while the population was informed that these materials had already been exhausted.

With amazement we have seen government or military installations repaired in record time, while the people continue without roofs over their heads, with their houses uncovered.

We are witnesses to the frustrations of the people, to their desperation and helplessness, to a voiceless and threatening silence that makes us think that at any moment they could explode with an uncontrollable and justified rage, which could have dire consequences for the coexistence of our citizens.

Many times, on going to offer them our humble aid, almost all of it sent by other Cubans on the rest of the island, poor as the victims themselves, we have heard, “You are the only ones who remember us, the only ones who have assisted us”!

Mr. Secretary, the people perceive you to be an honest man, who works hard to fulfill his obligations and who cares about the people. We have also heard that corruption and incompetence surround you on all sides and, much to your dismay, hinder your work. All of this saddens and worries us.

As a priest, I have renounced having my own family. Along with some of my colleagues, when our families, parents and siblings decided to abandon our country, we decided to stay to serve our people in their misfortune. These people are our family: our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters. We live for them and we are willing to die for them. If today we raise our voices, at whatever risk it might entail, including being misunderstood, it is to seek a solution to so much misery and pain, and because we are not inclined to stare at the bulls from the other side of the fence, but to commit ourselves and to help with all our strength.

I ask in the name of God, in the name of truth and justice, and calling on your true patriotism which I do not doubt, that you seriously investigate what has happened and quickly remedy it.

Padre José Conrado

Padre José Conrado

I also ask that you yourself communicate with the president of our country, General Raúl Castro Ruz, so that, with the full weight of the State, repairs can be undertaken on so many totally and partially destroyed homes, something so important for these families affected by Hurricane Sandy. The call to the solidarity of our people you have already demonstrated in your generosity and ability during the hurricane and in the face of its devastating destruction. Thus, we make possible the Nation José Martí dreamed of, “with all and for the good of all.”

Padre José Conrado Rodríguez

Translated from version appearing in Penultimos Dias

26 June 2013

Filling Stores with Bolivian Clothing / Juan Juan Almeida

No doubt you heard that last week, on June 13 and 14, representatives from Cuba and Bolivia met in Havana to take part in their countries’ first business forum and first round of negotiations to explore various possibilities for economic exchange and for strengthening bilateral relations.

It is a bad omen, I tell you, that such an important meeting took place in the Hotel Nacional, in the Tanganana Room to be exact, which coincidentally is named after the cellar that forms part of the aged facility’s foundation and where, according to legend, Franciscan monks hid valuable treasure.

The treasure is no longer there, only vestiges of the old legend remain and any business agreement between Cuba and Bolivia will last exactly as long as a Palestinian peace plan: one round.

But that is my very skeptical opinion. According to official sources, this transcendental encounter was led by important officials from both countries, who share a common enemy. The United States, Chile and the hole in the ozone layer would seem to be disconnected strands but they carry a direct message and a clear meaning. The meeting was more a political consultation than a business gathering.

Teresa Morales, the Minister of Economic Development, led the delegation from the South American country. You might remember her name from the very descriptive headlines of well-documented articles that appeared not long ago about the hundreds of demonstrators in the Altos district demanding her resignation for — and I quote — ”her inability to resolve the problem of access to staple foods and for exacerbating the shortage of basic goods and services.”

Judging from all the signs and signals, cooperation between the future partners promises to be unruly and counter-productive, which is typical of fraternal governments which ignore laws and citizen demands.

Cuba was represented by Estrella Madrigal, a fat, bland mid-level director with limited decision-making authority. She, like many, augments her diet with unproductive trips, presents from businesspeople and some small change here and there.

Other than a speech limited to the matter at hand — joint economic ventures — she spent all her time drinking mojitos, eating canapés and urging the participants to take advantage of the enormous possibilities offered by membership in the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). She expressed her support for SUCRE (Unified System for Regional Compensation), a proposed common currency to be used for all joint operations. In addition to speaking about investments, she referred to the siphoning off of goods on consignment.

With corrosive cleverness Cuba offered the Andeans one-of-a-kind, exclusive access to the thousands of empty shelves in its monolithic chain of stores so that they might sell Bolivian-made textile products, footwear and cosmetics. The risk would be all theirs; nothing would be paid for in advance.

The accord has stimulated the sparkling wisdom of Cuba’s people. Some have even dared predict, with some degree of fear, that Bolivia’s traditional multi-colored woolen shawl — the aguayo — will be become by decree the national attire. No matter what happens, it all depends on who pays more.

26 June 2013