A Review and the Reviewers / Rebeca Monzo

Photo: professors and students of Public School #10 in the 1950s.

By the end of the 1940s everyone working as a teacher in Cuba was an accredited professional in education. In the 1950s there were many illustrious professors in our country, teachers who were recognized internationally for the work they had published, which was used as textbooks both at home and abroad. They included Valmaña, Baldor and Añorga, to name but a few authors of textbooks used even today by teachers and students throughout Latin America.

After 1959, when private schools were seized by the government, an absurd law was promulgated which “invited” teachers actively working in primary and higher education to retire after only twenty-five years of service, which was the case for many, regardless of a teacher’s age. This and other issues forced many teachers, who also saw themselves disparaged for having been trained under capitalism, to go into exile. Most would retire and very few were able to continue teaching given the adversities they faced. Subsequently, the quality of education began to decline as young people from the countryside had to be trained as teachers hastily, in order to fill the void the government itself had created. These so-called “Makarenkos” were trained according to the methods of a Soviet pedagogue of the same name.

In the 1970s there were still good teachers in many schools who helped mentor the newcomers, but low salaries, the lack of incentives, and the growing evident deterioration of teaching facilities, lead to the gradual increase of high turnover across the teaching sector, especially in elementary and high schools.  And yet, considering the time, the universities relied on a luminary lineup of professors on faculty.

Another factor that incited the decline in the quality of education was that teachers found themselves pressured — so as to not affect their performance evaluations, which were based on rank and not quality — to commit fraud.  This lead to many teachers revealing exam questions in advance to their students and, on many occasions, even whispering the answers in their ears, so as to secure positive evaluations.

Facing the rapid decline of education and the lack of teachers in specific subjects, many parents decided to turn to retired teachers to review and, in some cases, even teach the subjects to their children.  Other parents, in a better economic situation, achieved the same effect with their kids by giving costly gifts to the current teachers on staff.  The quality of education kept falling more and more; and students and families lost respect for teachers.  Then, as the coup de grace, came the so-called “emerging teachers”, trained by quick, low-quality courses, and the replacement of teachers by televisions in the classrooms.  These marked the final blow to the quality of education.

Alongside this decline, the number of people seeking to earn a little more income by privately tutoring and charging for it, to be sure, swelled progressively.  The “reviewers”, they were called.  This was, until the recent appearance of the new licenses, a clandestine service.  Now reviewers exist legally, but the government is already looking for ways to disparage this service, seeking to vilify active teachers who also work as reviewers and, as such, are not authorized to apply for a license.  The media mount the charges against them, accusing them of a lack of ethics and civility, without having the courage to face and divulge the fundamentally economic causes that have provoked this situation — the miserable salaries teachers are paid, which are not enough to satisfy their minimal needs as citizens — and overlooking that, if once again they feel cornered, teachers begin to flee the country, creating a new vacuum in education, each time harder to fill.

A legal solution is necessary to resolve this man-made chaos, without harming teachers or students and, above all, the nation’s future.  Reviewers exist precisely due to the increasingly low quality of education.  This is the responsibility of the entire citizenry in general but, first and foremost, of the Ministry of Education and its highest echelons.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

15 October 2013

Alvarez Guedes: Let’s Keep Everything Among Cubans / Ivan Garcia

alvarez-guedesIn spite of being censored on the island, the Cuban comedian who passed away on July 30 in Miami at the age of 86, left us a saying indelibly etched upon all of our lives.  If someone was trying to be a wiseguy, you would say: “Hey, don’t get cute.  The only one capable of making a living telling stories is Álvarez Guedes.”

After Fidel Castro closed the daily papers and reigned in freedoms of expression in 1960, those of us born after know well how the secret police pursued and banned the humorists who, with laughter, criticized the daily comings and goings of the olive green madhouse.

It got to the extremes.  One evening, a retired reporter once told me that an urgent meeting was called in the offices of Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, to disclose and analyze an erratum that occurred in the previous day’s print run.  In a column of newsbriefs, a humorist had drawn a skull and crossbones that, when held up to the light, ended up transposed on the chest of a photo of Fidel Castro.

This stirred up the hornet’s nest.  The ideological censors never had much imagination.  The poor type-setter was interrogated by the counterintelligence hounds, seeking out a double-meaning that he swore on his mother he hadn’t intended.

More than a few times, from his office in the Palace of the Revolution, the Comandante would walk down a secret hallway that led to Granma’s editorial department and review the features, news, and articles that sat on the starting grid awaiting publication.

Believe me, these aren’t simple rumors.  Ask any Cuban comedian about the difficulties and censorship they’ve encountered in their work.  Some were let go.  If it hadn’t been so serious, it could’ve been thought of as a farce.

During their performances, while the public laughed, a dour agent of the secret police would take note of the jokes supposedly harmful to “the figures and institutions of the Revolution”.

Of course, the man who transformed jokes into an artform was thoroughly banned from the Cuban media.  Considered “counterrevolutionary” by the regime, his tales reached us as contraband from the other side of the Straits.

Guillermo Álvarez Guedes was born on June 8, 1927, in Unión de Reyes, a town full of troubadours and rumberos in the province of Matanzas, just over 140 kilometers east of Havana.  He was the second-to-last of seven children produced by the marriage of Conrado Simeón Álvarez Hernández and Rosa Guedes Fernández.  Eloísa, his eldest sister, who passed away in 1993, was a magnificent radio, theater, film, and television actress.

Guillermo’s first public performance was at the age of six, in a neighborhood cinema house.  At 13 he left home, doing odd jobs for a theatrical circus.  At 19 he went to New York, where he earned a living washing dishes, cutting grass in a cemetery, and as a porter in a hotel.  In 1949 he was deported back to Cuba and began working first for Unión Radio, and then for Radio Progreso, on the Poor Man’s Attorney show.

He was 22 years old when he was signed on by Gaspar Pumarejo.  He played an improvisational singing peasant with three giants of Cuban humor: Germán Pinelli, Aníbal de Mar and Leopoldo Fernández.  But the role that would make him famous was that of The Drunk, beginning in 1951, on the stellar Casino of Joy on CMQ-TV.  That’s when he teamed up with the one and only Rita Montaner on Rita and Willy, short-lived due to differences between Montaner and the producers.  Then, on Fridays at 8:00, he would have a lead role at the side of Minín Bujones.  In 1953, he was a cast member of the musical review The Courtyard, sharing the stage with Carlos Pous, Luis Carbonell, Benny Moré, Rita Montaner, and Olga Guillot.  That was also the year of his cinematic debut as an actor and producer.  Let’s Keep Everything among Cubans would be his last film (1993).

In 1957, Álvarez Guedes and his brother, Rafael, partnered up with the pianist and composer Ernesto Duarte and founded Gema Records, the label responsible for the international launch of Cuban artists of such stature as Bebo Valdés, Chico O’Farrill, Rolando Laserie, Elena Burke, Celeste Mendoza, and Fernando Álvarez, and of groups like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.

He made his last show in Cuba with Rosita Fornés.  On October 23, 1960, he emigrated to the United States with his wife and two daughters.  Celia Cruz was a passenger on that same flight.

The first LP of his jokes, of the more than 30 that he recorded, was premiered in Madrid in 1973, as an homage to the Sevillian flamenco-dancer Pastora Imperio.  His only LP in English, How To Defend Yourself From The Cubans, has sold more copies than all of the ones recorded in Spanish.  In 1983, at age 56, he packed the house at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

An anecdote: in the 80s, as a teenager, at the home of a classmate, on a beat-up, old tape recorder on a very low volume setting, almost inaudible, I heard a collection of jokes by Álvarez Guedes for the first time.

My friend’s relatives, who lived in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood of Central Havana, had managed to sneak the cassette through customs by hiding it inside a cookbook.  Álvarez Guedes’ stories, like the athletic feats of one Atanasio Pérez, always reached us as contraband.

With the death of Álvarez Guedes, we’ve lost one of the best exponents of Cuban theatrical humor, an innovator of modern comedy; but we’ve especially lost a human being who knew that his countrymen on the island lived between hardship and Orwellian single-mindedness, and we needed to laugh.

We’re grateful for his legacy of stories, preserved today in so many Cuban homes on cassettes, CDs, DVDs, or flash drives.

Like no one, Sir Guillermo knew how to leap over the walls of censorship.  Humor and laughter can never be contained.  Álvarez Guedes proved it.

Iván García

Translated by Yoyi el Monaguillo

1 August 2013

Disconnected / Rebeca Monzo

I’ve been totally disconnected for days.  When I say this, I’m referring to the inability to receive news from abroad by shortwave, and especially the lack of Internet.  Of course, the majority of the Cuban population is in this very same situation… at least I enjoy a couple of hours online on Monday and another couple on Friday, although not always.  You take what you can get!

On these days of absolute information blackout, I’ve made a tremendous effort to stay in front of the television set in order to monitor Telesur and the National News Bulletin, as well as national radio, in hopes that they’d shed some light on the dispute about the North Korean ship that was transporting “obsolete armaments” (missiles and fueled planes), which were loaded in our country and hidden crudely under sacks of sugar.  The result: absolute silence.

If I’ve been able to glean some other new information now and then, I owe it to a friend who, in exceptional conditions, enjoys a daily session of Internet connection.  He’s the one who’s kept me more or less updated on the developments of the Panama Canal with respect to the ship, its captain, and its crew, as well as President Martinelli’s announcements.  However, upon not receiving any information from my country’s media, I consider myself, like any other citizen, as having all the right in the world to speculate on this sloppy incident.

This circus-like spectacle, put on by who knows by whom, eludes any type of coherent analysis.  We are in the midst of the 21st century, where the monitoring and immediacy of information is practically uncontrollable.  How did they expect to transport that “delicate merchandise” on a North Korean vessel (a UN-sanctioned country) which, on top of that, already had a prior record of drug smuggling?  What explanation are they going to give about this fact, that won’t be like the dull press statement already issued by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Could it be that they were looking for a crude pretext to abort any intention of political rapprochement with the neighbor to the north, in order to cover up the inabilities of the Cuban regime, as well as the lack of any true will to effect real and profound changes in domestic policy?

They should take care, because the harvest has been very poor and there’s not enough sugar to keep covering up such sloppy work.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

24 July 2013

Landy* and Lunacy / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The nutcases approach me.

In Cuba it was the same. The United States need not be the exception.

Crazy. Beautiful. Docile. The sufficient causes of great massacres lie at the margins of great truths.

Cubanness, for example.

There is no genocide more perfect than Cubanness.

It began with torture on a ladder, and a poem bad and then some forged two hundred years later.  A mirror of tackiness.

Remember the slap that Antonio Maceo gave José Martí?  It wasn’t a punch, it’s written in the confiscated pages of the victim’s Campaign Diary.  It was a slap, which is how women in Cuba are hit when they misbehave or, as in this case, when they don’t shut up and they think they own all the explanations.

Martí as a faggot among the mass of mulatto machos from the mountains.

Maceo, with thousands of deaths under his belt, who, according to another war diary, killed an informer, a black woman who sold sweets in the rebel camp.  She didn’t choke from the rope, due to her rickets, so the bronze tyrant** lowered her hanging body so that he could break her neck and finish her off.

I love my country’s history.

My beautiful and lovely homeland.

Trucks drove up the Sierra Maestra with arms and drove down with coffee.  Batista’s little criminal soldiers, who couldn’t even kill flies, had to be paid 500 pesos (the ones that could kill weren’t there, but rather awaiting some declaration from the Sierra Maestra itself to go behead the leaders of the urban underground).

Things started early, don’t be fooled.

The armored train cost a pretty penny, but it paid off.

It seems that Martí too hired this or that anarchist for some selective assassinations there, in the very same metropolis that, in the end, won the war against Spain (the bloodiest that a New Yorker like him could imagine).

None of this is mine, I say it as a warning to those “democreformers” who follow my writing with guilt, trying to excommunicate me from their big bland cake of a homeland (anyway, I don’t want to chew on those scraps).

All is apocryphal and I disown responsibility among so many spokespersons.  They’re only nutcases.  Beautiful little nutcases that approach me and tell me their stories.

In Cuba as in the United States.

I still don’t understand exactly why.

Maybe they see in it my eyes.

They see that my eyes are the only eyes in the world that won’t forget their historical horror.

They’re right.

Never.

I love them so much that I couldn’t survive if one sensible day they ceased to approach me.

You, come to me now.

Translator’s notes:
*
Landy is a nickname used by Orlando’s closest friends and family.
**This is a pun on El Titán de Bronce (The Bronze Titan) the historical sobriquet by which Maceo is known among Cubans.

Translated by: Alexis Rhyner and Yoyi el Monaguillo

12 June 2013

Just Another Sunday / Rebeca Monzo

Due to media secrecy, which is institutionalized here on “my beloved planet,” we have had to find out about this mess, involving Cuba’s “sugary missiles” on board a North Korean ship, in snippets from here and there.  Naturally, this has exacerbated our native tendency towards speculative imagination.

In the end, another Sunday has caught us by surprise which, for me, is the most boring day of the week.  I always promised myself that if one day a gentleman suitor should approach me named Domingo*, and I like him so much that I couldn’t leave him, I’d call him Tito.  Maybe something similar happens to you, especially in the evening hours, when the imminence of a new Monday at work approaches us.

Well, if you’re also a member of the club for those who can’t stand Sundays, why not spend a little time today on your family and flatter them with a simple yet delicious recipe made by your own hands, thus turning Sunday into something less ordinary?  Here you have my suggestion:

Coffee custard

Ingredients:

1 liter of fresh milk

1 cup of sugar

4 tablespoons of cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

4 eggs

1 demitasse of brewed instant coffee

1 cinnamon stick

1 lemon peel

Procedure:

Boil the milk together with the cinnamon and lemon peel.  Lower to medium heat and add the four egg yolks and cornstarch, which should be dissolved in a small amount of milk or water.  Pour this mix into the milk, while gently stirring it with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps from forming.  Once you have a smooth consistency, add the vanilla extract and coffee, while gently stirring.  Lower the heat.  Make a meringue with the egg whites of the four eggs.  Remember: it’s two teaspoons of sugar for each egg white.  You can add lemon zest.  Once it’s ready, bring small dollops of the meringue to a flame with a fork, to make toasted meringues to decorate the custard with.

Bon apétit!

* Translator’s note: Domingo is a common first name in the Spanish-speaking world ; domingo is also the Spanish word for Sunday.

 Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

21 July 2013

Che Guevara: Hero or Villain / Ivan Garcia

libro_CheThe life of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna is most like a legend.  The truth is simmered over a slow flame along with countless inaccuracies.  Since the date of his birth until the date of his death in the Bolivian village of La Higuera, mix-ups abound.

According to the official Cuban historiography, Ernesto Guevara, alias Che, was born on 14 June of 1928 in Rosario, Argentina, and was assassinated on 8 December of 1967 in Bolivia.

The American biographer and journalist John Lee Anderson offers another version, by pointing out that the date listed on Che’s birth certificate is false. He alleges that the reason must have been to cover up the pregnancy of Celia de la Serna, Che’s mother.  At the time of her marriage to Ernesto Guevara Lynch on 10 December of 1927, she was three months pregnant.

Anderson’s version is supported by the Argentine biographer Julia Constenla, to whom Celia personally confirmed Che Guevara’s true birth date and the circumstances of her pre-marital pregnancy.

As far as the official Cuban media are concerned, Che was born a month later.  As such, the 85th Anniversary of his birth was celebrated last Friday, 14 June.  Surrounding his death, another curious bit arises.

In Cuba’s elementary and high schools it is taught that Che was assassinated on 8 October of 1967 in the Bolivian hamlet of La Higuera.  Scholarly texts highlight that he could have been captured in Quebrada del Yuro, after being injured in the leg due to an automatic rifle malfunction.

The Castros regime loves epic odes.  They speak little of how José Martí died in an absurd skirmish dressed like a wedding guest and trotting along on a white horse.  A perfect target for the colonial Spanish army.

When a security guard at the Peruvian embassy, Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, died on 1 March of 1980, the official Cuban press blamed the driver of the bus that crashed violently against the embassy gates with the intention of requesting asylum.

It was never mentioned that the true cause was the ’friendly fire’ of his own comrades.  During the United States occupation of Grenada in 1983, the Cuban media got ridiculous.

In a fervent paean of praise, in the best North Korean style, an official  announcement told us that the valiant Cuban collaborators who defended the airport they were building in Granada died embracing the Cuban flag in battle against the U.S. 82nd Division.

A few days later it became known that there was no such fight.  Nor did anyone die gripping the national flag: the supposed officer in command of the troops ran away and requested asylum in the embassy of the erstwhile USSR.

Thus, historians should read the official versions of the “legendary guerrilla expedition in Congo or Bolivia” led by Che with a magnifying glass.

Ernesto Guevara has as many followers as he has detractors.  To the extent that in May of 1968 in Paris, disgruntled students utilized his image as the guardian of their protests.  His photo (taken by Alberto Korda in March of 1960 in the port of Havana, at the site of the explosion of a Belgian freighter that was transporting light arms) has been seen around the world.

Che has become a marketing icon.  The “disgraceful capitalists” that he so hated sell countless products with his image.  And his relatives in Havana collect copyright royalties.

Guevara, also nicknamed el Chancho (“the pig”) for his scruffiness and lack of personal hygiene, which gave him the air of a Buenos Aires hippy, was the archetype exalted dogmatist.  His motorcycle tour throughout various countries of the Southern Cone and Guatemala, defined his harsh, gloomy, and ascetic character.  His trip etched into his mind a one-way theory: the only way to be sovereign in Latin America was through armed struggle.

And by November of 1956, when he joined 81 Cuban expeditionaries on their voyage on the Granma yacht, he was a convinced communist.

He became a commander in Fidel Castro’s rebel army thanks to his temerity in battle and his discipline under the threat of atomic bombs.  There are various documented witness accounts of his exaggerated disposition toward violence during that era.

He was a soulless tyrant during many executions.  He pulled the trigger without regret against those he considered enemies and traitors of the cause.  Once the revolution triumphed, Che Guevara took control of La Cabaña, a military fortress adjacent to Havana Bay.

One of the first measures undertaken by the new government was to establish a judicial committee, charged with investigating citizens who were associated with the Batista dictatorship, supposed war criminals, and nascent political opponents.

Between January and April of 1959, approximately one thousand persons – other sources cite several thousands – were sentenced to death or lengthy prison terms in summary trials without due legal process.

The figures of those executed by firing squad vary.  Between 550 and 3,000.  In his post as military chief of La Cabaña, Che was responsible for the trials and executions.  He expressed his opinion on the executions publicly before the United Nations on 11 December of 1964:

“We have to say here that which is a known truth, that we have expressed always before the world: executions, yes, we have executed; we execute and will continue to execute as long as it is necessary.  Our struggle is a struggle to the death.  We know what the result of a defeat would be, and the gusanos* also must know what the result of the defeat in Cuba is today.”

Guevara was assigned various ministerial portfolios.  His performance was dismal.  He was convinced that, in order to eradicate the “bourgeoisie vices inherited from the old society”, a “New Man” must be forged.

That is, the prototype of a robot made of flesh and bone, obedient to orders from above, focused on his work like a slave, and barely given to rumba and alcohol.  Of course, with a license to kill “Yankees in any corner of the world”.

From his posts among sectors of the Cuban economy, Che launched the confiscation of national and foreign businesses, central planning, and “volunteer” labor.  He internationalized the armed struggle.  From the Congo in Africa to an uprising in Salta, Argentina, and the failed rebellion in Bolivia.

Personalities from diverse ideological and professional backgrounds have expressed their admiration for Che, like Domingo Perón and Jean Paul Sartre; the soccer players Diego Armando Maradona, Leo Messi, and Thierry Henry; the boxer Mike Tyson; the musician Carlos Santana, the actor Pierre Richard; the writer Gabriel García Márquez; the Chechen leader Shamil Basayev; the rock group Rage Against the Machine; the Sandinista leader Edén Pastora and presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.

His motto, “Ever onward to victory” was used as a crutch by the deceased Venezuelan head of state Hugo Chávez.

Among progressives and subversives of half the world, with a discourse that favors the poor against gringo hegemony, there is never a lack of someone with a tee-shirt or a protest sign with his image.

Perhaps Che Guevara’s greatest achievement was that he risked his own hide to demonstrate his truths.  The shadows of his personality are better forgotten.

Iván García

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

30 June 2013

A Farewell to Souls / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo


The first time I saw Havana was when I walked it holding your hand.

The city smelled of coarse capitalism, of drinks and meals suddenly very expensive, of transparent dusk, of lateral light, of placards that no one will renovate now, of Fidel Castro the cadaver, of dirty grey, of a stampede of guayaberas and neckties, of restrained madness, of cool air from the secret police’s modern sedans, that smell exactly like the modern sedans of the Cuban exile.

The tyranny of the market is universal.

The first time I walked Havana holding your hand I understood that I was losing it forever.

You didn’t know anything.  You still don’t know anything.  But, yes, all of it was a trap.

Castrismo in Cuba is a question of genetics and it is carried into the future like a curse of phobia against Man, against those who are different, against the Other.  Fears and mediocrities that make us miserly, mean, very mean, precisely against that which we love most and least want to see laughing with the rabid laughter of freedom.

The soul of Cubans is a roofless jail, open to the sky.  That is already the most immortal legacy of the Cuban Revolution.  There is absolutely no totalitarianism, rather only sadness.

You and your skirt of fine white fabric looked like eternity.

And eternity is ephemeral, we know that already.  A vision.

Havana passed by slowly at our side and didn’t touch us, we wouldn’t have allowed it to touch us.  That cowardly, shitty, abusive, ignorant city, where it’s impossible to say “I love you.”

The city was only a set.  Cardboard streets.  Cane pulp façades.  Prop arches.  A dictatorship of backroom deals where only assassins survive.  Little men of cotton padding.

Because only death could go on being real.

Death like a gleam of wisdom in our eyes.

Death like a promise that Havana will soon be an uninhabited planet.

Death like that gentle breath that we needed.

Death like the very sense for loving.

Death like the dead waters of Havana Bay, where the smokestacks hoist their flags of stinking incense, little cocktails of churches and animals decapitated in the middle of the street in the anonymous name of a god.

Ah.

I looked at my hands, with yours inside them, and told myself: it can’t be.

I wept under the rain of one cold front after another, we lost track of those tears among those belated little drops from the sky, and I talked and talked to you about attack ships on fire in my imagination, in a Cuban novel that would unfold among those stars that we watched burning out up there, on Orion’s pelvic sword; I talked and talked to you about infrared beams cracking on the edges of the main gate at Colón Cemetery; I talked and talked to you with a delirium right out of the end of times that wanted to be from the beginning of another time, another world, other souls, other bodies, another Cuba that, upon being possible, would no longer be possible, please; I talked and talked to you about things that you all, Cubans, will never create.

All those words, like the rain in the United States, that announces itself in two languages before falling on transmitters from coast to coast.

All those words, like digital maps that regenerate a strange reality, cognizable and unrecognizable.

All those words, said for the last time, and after them the silence facing the rest of you, Cubans, that you all would never believe.

You can’t.  You won’t.

The last time I saw Havana was when you let my hand go.

The city smelled of childhood, of abandoned mothers, of genocide.  I didn’t care.

I still don’t care.

As you get out of the trap, you also learn while getting out of the trap.

Remain, then, in the posthumous peace of the perplexed.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

23 June 2013

Abel Prieto’s Travels / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Miguel Luna drawn by Abel Prieto, in Viajes de Miguel Luna.

“The day that rabble gets into the UNEAC*, we’re lost.”
– Abel Prieto, from his Viajes de Miguel Luna

What does a Minister of Culture think about when he turns into an author? What does he aesthetically cling to and what does he judge as too politically incorrect to include in his work? Does he play? Does he confess? How does he balance the influences and disguise the secrets of the State? Does he compare his stories with the classics of the Cuban canon or only with his contemporary competition? Does he censor himself? Is he sucking up to or betraying his superiors (His Superior)?

Viajes de Miguel Luna is an invaluable document for dissecting the mind of citizen Abel Prieto, public official in the upper echelons of power during the last two decades of the Revolution. Literally, the last. And the most profitable from the point of view of fiction: those of the decline and fall of just about everyone, here on the Island as well as in Exile.

The official presentation, in February 2012, at the Book Fair of the Cuba Pavilion, required (perhaps due to the bulk of the novel, 540 pages) three veterans in turn: Graziella Pogolotti, Eduardo Heras León and Rinaldo Acosta. To this was added the presence of Ambrosio Fornet, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Eusebio Leal, Miguel Barnet, Frank Fernández, Fernando Martínez Heredia, Reynaldo González and, of course, his predecessor in the post, transformed that evening into an involuntary vision of a generational wake.

A devotee of Lezama among the earliest after the death and burial of Lezama (between the ambulance sent by Alfredo Guevara and the bugs planted by the secret police), at last Abel Prieto achieves the miracle of a book as arduous to read as Paradiso, although for diametrically opposed reasons: Lezama’s magnum opus is an untranslatable labyrinth that forges its very reader (the rest get burnt out); while Viajes de Miguel Luna is the spasm of the legibility of Cuban dialect loud and clear (quasi-military jargon), an anecdotal hyper-transparency that ends up overstuffed (the accursed circumstance of the drivel-ography of Miguel Luna, or “Mick or Mike or Miki or Mickey Moon or simply Mikimún” from all sides).

In a Stakhanovite effort of “popular dissemination”, written like volunteer work from behind his political desk at the Ministry of Culture or the Central Committee of the Communist Party, this is the sympathetic saga that the New Man had been expecting to read since 1989 (the perestroika on paper); it is the coming-of-age story that our middle class cried out for, demanding a relief from the vacuum of this Imaginary Era of transition toward State capitalism; it is the best seller that we intellectuals can give as a gift on a Sunday in May to our mothers (without awaiting the death of a Rosa Lima, such an affectionate repressor); and it is, also, more than a travel epic, the last of the “scholarship novels” of 20th century Cuba, that genre that was born senile, yet has yielded so many functionaries during peace time.

There is a lot of kitsch in this type of tropical gaiety in the gulag: from Marcos Behmaras to Enrique Núñez Rodríguez, from José Ángel Cardi to F. Mond, among other ourselves-and-others, the text wants to laugh but what comes out isn’t a smirk, but something worse: a grimace (rigor mortis of the State).  Falsehood as poetic license used by a bully in search of authenticity.  Because here we won’t find even traces of the stigmatizer of young Cuban artists, nor of the audiovisual censor, nor of the manipulator of pro-Cuba solidarity movements, nor of the hijacker of Cuban exit permits, nor of the bandit-hunter setting his sights on the Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana magazine, including the coercion of this island’s hostages who collaborated with it (a publication that, after observing a minute of silence at UNEAC when its editor/founder died, they finally managed to sabotage).  But it is precisely these omissions that open up a bridge, a great bridge to our residual freedom in so many perverse readers.  Thus, the archeological eloquence of these Travels of Miguel Luna will face the researchers that will descend from, let’s say, North American academia to celebrate the Great Centennial of 2059 — mulg-kästrismo beaming as one of the fine arts.

The proof of success, guarantor of an imminent Critics Prize and perhaps a National Literary Prize, is that this book by Abel Prieto is nowhere to be found inside the country: it sold out before its introduction into the market!  This will not impede Abel Prieto’s trips now to collect praise and euros from a parliamentary Europe suffering from nostalgia in its terminal stages, plus the corresponding thousand and one translations of this work, including into Mulgavo: a dead post-socialist language (part Basque, part North Korean, part Iranian?) in which an unbearable percentage of monologues of our “Kübb-hím-póet-Míkel-Lún” are written (the ex-minister uses Mac or gets by with the accent marks in Microsoft).

It is curious that Cuban literature (the same as with the more recent Dictionaries of Cuban Literature) does not dare over-mention that dystrophic year of 1989.  In style and theme, we are nailed to a remote, ludicrous past: Cuba’s trauma is that no holocaust will be tragic.  Our day-to-day amnesia can’t withstand it, and we lack the capacity to narrate the horrifying void of a nation forced into fidelity, at the whim of a personalistic power that made us live un-chronologically outside of global history, anachronistically in that stop-motion time of absolute totalitarianism.

Abel Prieto, upon writing (or dictating to his deputy ministers) the screenplay of this Goodbye Lenin awash in semen, need not be the exception: the action transpires in hops between the September 29 of 1948 and the September 29 of 1989, while the author’s alter-ego masturbates from the start (over the fields and cities goes the onanist…), while Congolese hutias as demonic as they are endemic (pardon the redundancy) masturbate, while the masses and sub-Soviet leaders of the putative proletarian utopia masturbate, while the mobs rush out to shoot themselves to death, no sooner does mulg-demökratia arrive in the Pastoral Agricultural Democratic Popular Socialist Workers Republic of Mulgavia.  It’s obvious that Abel Prieto can see the processes of change like a blitzkrieg of mafias (Mulgavo-American?) and fluorescent McDonald’s icons, where today’s communist hierarchs will without doubt be masters of war and capital (let us trust that it will have been for health reasons, not this kind of imagination, which will have cost him his ministerial purse).  Of that hypothetical country that yesterday was associated with Cuba, we know nothing after page 540 (Wikipedia isn’t God either).  For the author, it probably wasn’t worth wearing oneself out on an anti-climax of economic growth, the opening of borders, respect for human rights and, if it’s not too much to ask, the training of Mulgavan Boy Scouts by People in Need to fratricidally undermine a still surviving little revolution in the Caribbean Sea.  I don’t recall even one single mention of the word “revolution” in the novel, as if this situation were out of context, of zero influence on the thesis (even though “counter-revolution” is mentioned and even provokes a fainting spell in a supporting character: someone taken out of the novel who writes the character who in turn is written by Abel Prieto).  Ecstatic with retrospectives that cover up any association with local historical horror, the jovial jargon of the sexagenarian Abel Prieto achieves a novel for all and for the good of all.  It doesn’t matter that he himself could have gone to jail for daring to write it in real time.  It doesn’t matter that he would have been shot by firing squad without trial for having published it then in the “Red Island in the Black Sea”.  What is transcendent here is that all future time must be better (an idyll of the Left), and that this text in Cuba now proves it against our Eternal Enemies.  Thus, due to its ecumenism or maybe its communist Catholicism, from the theorist of global anti-imperialism, to our provincial dissidents with “Made in Miami” digital copyrights, all should find something to praise in this mammoth opus by Raúl Castro Ruz’s current salaried subordinate.  Congratulations!  I suppose the consensus-building had to start somewhere.

What does an advisor think about when he turns into an author?  What does he politically cling to and what does he judge as aesthetically correct to include in his work?  Is he free or does he run every concept by State Security?  Does extensive writing distract his parliamentary concentration, is it a diversion of resources from the Council of State, or is it simply an extracurricular hobby edited in record time by Letras Cubanas publishing house?  Is this an exemplifying work meant to monitor the literary market (for good reason, the novel imparts a Delphic mini-course on adolescent-adventurer readings)?  Will Abel Prieto retire with this dramatic effect or is he already plotting a new hilarious project for his next two decades in power?

In an interview, the author implores us to not abandon reading his work until the KONIEC** (“not because it’s so good, but because I’d like it if someone reached it”).  As with Paradiso, in effect, I recommend resisting until the bitter end the half-a-millennium of pages in Viajes de Miguel Luna.  Maybe this is the novel that, since the “Revoluzoic Era”, Armando Hart should have written for us?  This is a book that can be put to use as a Rosetta Stone of 21st century socialism, Cuban style, and it includes, as a bonus track, a histrionic colophon that parodies, or maybe pays homage to, the telenovela writer Mayté Vera, not to mention half of a century’s worth of excellent vignettes signed by the author (the untapped potential of a Marjane Satrapi emanates from Abel Prieto, self-portrait included).

Mikimún has died, long live the Ministrún.  Quod scripsi, is crisis.

Translator’s notes:
* National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba
** This is the Polish term for “finish” or “end”.

From Diario de Cuba

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

A Mucker or A Matancero* / Regina Coyula

As much as I try to reconstruct that image of a famous former baseball player who, in the middle of The Special Period, gave my little boy and I a lift, and with such courtesy drove out of his way to drop me off, I can’t reconcile myself with the manager of Matanzas’ baseball team.  An explosive player, a restless personality, he has the undeniable merit of having shaken up the drowsy Matanzas team, but none of this precludes that as a manager he’s a boorish, ill-mannered buffoon.  The work of a manager extends beyond directing a team; and on the subject of the shaping of values and acting as good example to his devotees, Víctor Mesa isn’t only baffling, he also gives the impression that he’s out to prove his contempt for the rules… and for the press.

I can imagine the hopes of matanceros, but I’ll be very happy if Villa Clara wins.

*Translator’s note: matancero is the demonym for residents of Matanzas.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

17 June 2013

Thank you! / Iván García

When I invited a group of friends in December to send messages for the second anniversary of the Desde La Habana blog, I didn’t expect that so many would reply, much less with such praiseful greetings to the blog and to me.

In my style, I’ll continue reflecting the reality of my country and its people, without asking anyone for permission, be it from the opposition or from the regime. That’s the freedom I’ve earned in these 15 years I’ve been writing as an independent journalist.

Nor will I stop going to troubled neighborhoods or tenement courtyards. Nor will I stop talking to hustlers, pimps, gays, transvestites, drug addicts, pickpockets and common ex-cons, among others marginalized by society.

I received 19 messages in total. Here go the senders:

Delphine Bougeard and her Spanish-language students at the Julliot de la Morandière high school in Normandy, France; Zoé Valdés; Raúl Rivero; Jorge Luis Piloto; Charlie Bravo; Joan Antoni Guerrero Vall; Alberto Sotillo; Isis Wirth; Jorge A. Pomar; Camilo López-Darias; Carlos Alberto Montaner; Pablo Pacheco; Luisa Mesa; Carlos Hernando; Manuel Aguilera; Rolando Cartaya as well as Regina, Helen and María, translators of my posts into English.

To them and also to Carlos Moreira, Tania Quintero and all the readers of the Desde La Habana blog, I give thanks and send my most sincere embrace.

Painting: Catedral, oil on canvas painted in 1972 by René Portocarrero (Havana, 1912-1986).

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

January 27 2011

A LEZAMA FOR MOPPING (DUPING) / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

FROM “THE FLIGHT OF THE CAT”* TO YOUR MOTHER’S TWAT**

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

There’s the lyrical Lezama Lima, of unintelligible flight, before whose spirals we bow because to read them would be in vain, and a pain. And good for us. That Lezamian lyricism never had much success, except for quoting and thus accumulating a certain intellectual prestige. That obscure yet not at all secretive writing, crippled by its symbols meant to multiply its meaning, was pure inner space, the intestines of an author that regurgitated everything. Solipsistic saliva, sometimes another mood of our sentimental being, interjections included. The least Cuban thing in the world, let there be no doubt.

But there’s also that big impressive bastard Lezama Lima. The prose-writer that flirts with the prosaic, although, unfortunately, his overdiscursive always impeded it. The man who filled his novels with a homo Bible to defend ourselves not just against the old Catholic God, but also, when it arrived, against the new communoid State. The guy who made guys hurl themselves at other guys, using strange verbs and invented adjectives, just the same at the end of our tiny Republican era as at the beginnings of the overstaying Revolution. The magister penis within whose paragraphs of impossible punctuation the only word missing to label the human cock is precisely that one: cock (at this point, the professional prudes may now proceed to spit on me, they won’t be the first: the Ministry of Culture and the secret police have beaten you to it).

That Lezama Lima of “your mom’s twat” and “no, a thousand times your mom’s twat” (they’re quotes from his Oppiano Licario), the one who disguised genitalia with undershirts because if the vagina appears… I don’t know, Fronesis cannot enter (now this quote is mine, luckily), the one of voyeurism in the dumpiest movie theaters and pissing on the shoes of the man that, during the last macho night, stuck it in you (in his Paradiso, that is), the one of the 20,000 Eudoxus cured of Foción’s father’s madness (army of characters that Cuban literature has not had the cojones to process), the one of incestuous three-ways and illicit trysts and throat-slittings with bound-up balls, plus the nocturnal groping of Parisian testicles by an arid Arab… anyway, that masterful Lezama Lima of anti-lyrical substance (even with his exhibitionistic and extravagantly thundering glands of cornaline agate), the one of certain etymology, for example: templar (“a delicate word in the extreme”), the one who waited for the death of his mother to then escape into desire, or at least publicize it at the UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba). That underground author shall be forever our best unknown.

Lezama Lima deserves a little phallus upon his tomb the size of Revolution Square (in his work there is no lack of such penile visions, even right in the middle of a ragtag mob of students against the dictatorship of the time). But our baroque man is little by little getting stuck in the cultural swamp of mythic bullshit (even the minister of culture was a Lezama admirer!), as if the classics for their part (not very saint-like in their beginnings) weren’t fundamentalist fornicating fauns.

Lezama Lima was not. A shame. Those will be, I suppose, the limits of his colossal writing, never delirious. There he lacked, I think, the touch of Truth and Life in the experience of reading him. Sex for him continued to be a downfall. He wasn’t able to denounce head-on those who expropriated from him, because social blackmail works marvelously against someone who doesn’t dare to declare out loud his own pleasures.

Lezama Lima died sorely needed. He owed us a bit more. In his novels he was just starting to liberate himself of that more respectable and private pose. Perhaps his last verses tried to erase, by invoking the absolute void, all the back and forth of his countless paths and supposed poetic system, maybe to later insert in that black hole, if death had given him a chance, the macrogenitosomatic magnificence of that massive, pertinent prick.

Ah, spit away.

It’s not without significance that no biographer (he doesn’t have any, of course) has been concerned with identifying a Cuban who physically loved José Lezama Lima. Our man never found the love of another human being (that of the readers doesn’t count for shit, don’t play the anointed ones now). He only managed mediocre maternal friendships, wholesale spies (they sent anonymous threats as easily as they sent ambulances, so that he wouldn’t die without saying that Cuban healthcare was free), and the semen of strays in exchange for his salary. And that imago truly does disconcert me. The whole time he lived in internal exile in respectable suit and tie (except when fantasizing in his writing, and that gift saved him). The whole time he keeps getting parodied for his spicy, asthmatic wit and his affectionate touchy-feeliness (disciples still survive him who speak wheezing with emphysema, as a guarantee of authenticity). We don’t even know if upon ejaculating his prose he once cried out (in this sense, his transcendence is mute, almost null).

José Lezama Lima died a virgin, he could’ve been our first fag martyr. The little joy found in Cuba stuck a tampon on his pride of being the best (in gay pride he didn’t even reach gay shy). Maybe his cross was exactly that. Being forced into a closet, and on top of that saddled in a corset.

Translator’s notes:

*”The Flight of the Cat” refers to El vuelo del gato, the first novel by Abel Prieto, published in 1999. Prieto is Cuba’s current Minister of Culture and widely regarded by Cuba’s independent artists and intellectuals as the cultural gatekeeper of the regime.

**This refers to a very popular Cuban epithet, el coño de tu madre, yelled at someone in anger, which literally means “your mother’s twat”. This epithet, and countless versions of it, is also very common in at least Argentina, Spain and Venezuela.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

November 30 2010

Martí, the Timeless One / Rebeca Monzo

Oil painting by Cuban painter, E. Abela

So loved by many, misunderstood by some and utilized by others.

Martí is the instinct of love, of generosity, of altruism, of sacrifice.

So predominant was the creative impulse in Martí that the sweep of his life arched further and further away from the center of his “me”.

“Man loves liberty, even if he does not know that he loves it. He is driven by it and flees from where it does not exist.”

“I do not believe that in matters that interest all and are the property of all, nor even in private matters, should the opinion of one man attempt to prevail.”

“All power broadly and extendedly exerted, degenerates when made a caste. With castes come interests, haughty positions, the fears of losing them, the intrigues to sustain them. Castes seek each other out among themselves, and support each other by the shoulder.”

“In the world, there should be a certain amount of decorum, as there should be a certain amount of light. When there are many men without decorum, there are always those who carry within themselves the decorum of many men. Those are the ones that rebel with terrible strength against those who rob peoples of their liberty, which is to rob men of their decorum. Within those men are thousands of men, an entire people, human dignity.”

Remembering the Apostle*, on the 158th anniversary of his birth (28 January, 1853).

*Translator’s note: This refers to El Apóstol de la Independencia Cubana, the Apostle of Cuban Independence, as José Martí is known reverentially by all Cubans.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

January 27 2011