Toe Shoes in the Night / Yoani Sánchez

Photo: Cuban National Ballet performs Don Quixote

On the stage is a figure in toe shoes and a tutu, one of the principle dancers of the American Ballet Theater which is visiting Havana. The audience applauds to delirium for a dance troupe that hasn’t been in Cuba for 50 years. We’ve had a week of glamor, of sustained applause and shouts of “VIVA!” from the orchestra. Of nights of haggling on the black market for a ticket to enter the theater and be dazzled by the lights and music.

The Ballet Festival has managed to pull us our of our everyday concerns, especially those caused by the mass layoffs affecting tens of thousand of people around the county. The Nutcracker, Coppelia, Swan Lake, have also served as a distraction from other issues of national importance, such as failure to meet the deadline for releasing the political prisoners, 13 of whom remain in prison. A short break of sequins and fantasy, but when it ends we must face a city every more shut down and a nation mired in growing anxiety.

Between the choreography and a tight schedule of performances, the first week of November seemed unreal to us, outside the context of concern in which we live. So I decided to see Don Quixote in the Garcia Lorca Hall and there I witnessed a magnificent festival of lights, costumes and music. When it finished I was the last to leave that room full of velvety red seats. Even though the curtain had fallen and the dancers had taken their makeup off backstage, I stayed a little longer. When I left, everything was different: the darkness extended around the Capitol and it was time to go home.

Originally published in The Huffington Post: November 13, 2010

José M. Heredia, Poet of a Nation in Waiting / Miguel Iturria Savón

Jose Maria Heredia (Santiago de Cuba 12/31/1803 – and Mexico 07/05/1839) is the first paradigm of Cuban poetry, despite being the son of a colonial official and living most of his short life outside the island, the center of his certainties, frustrations and hopes.

His careful academic formation and his human and political, determined romantic affiliations and longings for freedom, and also plunged him into the civil struggles of Mexico, scene of his long exile, where he served as judge, prosecutor, legislator, minister and journalist; meanwhile polishing his verses, published in New York in 1825 and in Toluca in 1832.

From Mexico he was aware of the events of Cuba, certain that “once awakened from its colonial slumber, it would weigh much more in the political balance …” because “the cause of freedom in America is proved, while Cuba is not free…” This perception led to his exaltation of the indigenous and to considering the island as “the equilibrium of America” and “the essential element in the harmony of the world,”while challenging the claims of those who saw slavery as a brake on independence.

As a journalist for The Iris, The Conservative and other Mexican periodicals, he castigated the American colonists who demanded the annexation of territory to the United States, calling them “insolent usurpers” and “foreign vagabonds.” In his article Rumors of Invasion, which appeared on April 22, 1826, he called on his colleagues to “exchange the pen for the sword” against Fernando VII in order to liberate Mexico and other American nations from Spanish colonialism.

Biographers, critics and apologists of Heredia have analyzed his poetic contribution, the circumstances of the era, family influences and his participation in the separatist conspiracy of 1822, the cause of his exile. In reclaiming the author of A Star of Cuba, In the Teocalli of Cholula and the Ode to Niagara, the assessment of Jose Marti was instrumental, another poet and independence leader, who lived in Mexico and traced the footsteps of his predecessor.

In an evening of tribute in the United States in 1889, Marti said that Heredia “had had the courage for everything, except to die without returning to his mother and his palms… he, a being in every symbol of the country, left us a path from the cradle to the grave, with the people who created us as colleagues and brothers.”

Marti alluded to Heredia’s controversial letter of April 1836, asking permission from the Captain General of the Island to visit his mother in Matanzas. The interview that he had with the despot in November of that year before visiting his family sparked criticism from Domingo del Monte and other detractors, who considered him the “fallen angel.”

None of them sang the praises of independence and freedom for Cuba like Heredia. Let’s look at some lines that grow with time:

Cuba! You will be free
Pure as the air of light that you breathe
As the rolling waves you see
Embracing your sandy shores.

This “air of light” shines in several of his compositions, almost always external and focused on the island drama, when freedom was envisioned only by pioneers such as himself and Father Feliz Varela.

The country yearned for by José Maria Heredia in The Star of Cuba, has now published his poetry books and uses his verses in history books and literature, but the freedom he dreamed of is still a nightmare. Nearly two centuries after his death, the cantor of a nation in waiting, skeptical, euphoric and visionary, would reveal “the horrors of the moral world and the physical beauties of the world,” before the banishment of new patriots and the complacency of so many intellectuals with the island tyranny.

September 28, 2010

Operation Blogger: Algorithm for a Disaster / Ernesto Morales Licea

The audience maintains a restless silence: it’s after six in the evening, night will fall in a few minutes. They’ve been waiting since five o’clock, waiting for the meeting’s hosts with discipline.

The audience is hungry, they have headaches, they have family worries they can’t get out of their minds, even though the place is air-conditioned — as is proper for those of their rank with the State — and the spacious lounge evokes comfort and relaxation.

When the door opens and the delegation makes its grand entrance, everyone stands up, as is proper before uniformed military. Also proper, is the fact that the highest political authorities in the province have come to speak to them.

When the door opens and the delegation made its grand entrance, all stand, as it should be against uniformed military. As should be, too, face the highest political authorities in the province.

Their hosts are smiling, coming in. Taking their time. The one assigned to show the PowerPoint takes some CDs from his bag and some documents to distribute. The audience — journalists from every media of the press and every generation — don’t dare to show their impatience, so they pretend to be interested.

This time, the meeting at the Provincial Party headquarters has a unique goal. It is not the usual screening of sterile programs, nor information about campaigns about to start. The only agenda item is called “Operation Cyber-Mambi*,” and its focus is notably innovative: How to become a blogger. An institutional blogger.

One of the participants would tell me later:

“You should have seen their faces, Ernesto. You could have filmed it like a circus. They summon us after work, and we were all desperate for the little computer class to end so we could get out of there.”

The meeting was scheduled with military precision: “Operation Cyber-Mambí” should begin simultaneously in selected provinces nationwide.

What did this Operation consist of?

“It’s a strategy designed by the Central Committee to combat the blogs of the counterrevolutionaries who are being paid by the enemy to destroy the foundation of our process,” as the Major charged with tactical planning answered the first person who asked him what it was all about.

Read: With this grandiloquent and kitsch definition the Cuban government has opened its desperate struggle against the Alternative Platform blogs. With an elaborate program implemented with military precision — is there any other way? — the establishment of the Island begins its farcical crawl to attack the phenomenon that, without a doubt, was driving them crazy.

The training officials started by asking if everyone knew what a blog was. Heads nodded, quickly. Then, the officials asked, does everyone know what a counterrevolutionary blog is. And now we have the first obstacle in the program: to convince the audience that they can, and what’s more must, be honest and admit they’ve read one. “This would facilitate this work,” they say. But no one seems to want to sacrifice themselves.

Disgusted, the official proceeds to provide the definition from his manual: a whole lot of hot air delivered in well-known slang that culminates with an example that could have saved him the trouble: “Generation Y is a counterrevolutionary blog. Another one is Octavo Cerco. To cite only two.” He asked them to remember those titles, which he would return to later.

“Starting from scratch, he explained everything explainable,” my confidential journalist friend who was there told me. “They brought multimedia and slides of recognized blogs. They distributed documents with a kind of revolutionary blogger ABCs, all printed in color. But the faces were the same. Which no one seemed to care about.”

The Interior Ministry officials, the officials from the Central Committee, the smiling party leaders, all visibly struggled to inject the germ of the electronic battle… not realizing that their army had no blood in its veins. Without seeing the anxious looks (“who’s going to pick my daughter up from school?”… “how long will it take to get home”… “where am I going to get the money to pay off my debt?”), without suspecting, perhaps, the illusionist spectacle dragging at that ideological meeting.

Everyone summoned had received the information unofficially days earlier, but now they were hearing it from the horse’s mouth:

“Every journalist should create a blog. Starting now, keeping up your blog will be a part of your job.”

Now, no one so much as murmurs, but before, when the news leaked out among the offices and laboratories, reaching the ears of the journalists in their institutions, an expression of annoyance was the whole answer.

Because that was the general sense of it: annoyance and a secret discontent before this new “task” which implied more hours of writing with no benefits in return. No benefits of any kind: no more pay, much less any spiritual benefits.

What should they post on these personal websites? The same fluff as the rest of what they produced: panegyrics to the Revolution, furious demands to free the Cuban Five, occasional tear-jerkers about the benefits of free Health and Education. Back to real life, once a text was published, they would return to the same disgust, the same despair, suffered by every other Cuban, not employed in the media.

“One of the central objectives of “Operation Mambi” is to counteract the impact on cyberspace of some of the blogs written within and outside the island,” my friend told me after the training session.

He said the Central Committee official showed three slides with figures referring to three specific blogs: two inside Cuba and one outside.

The nationals had already been referred to earlier.

“Generation Y, written by the reactionary Yoani Sanchez,” said the official, “and Octavo Cerco, the blog of another young woman in Havana named Claudia Cadelo, the star of what we have come to call ‘cybergossip.’ In the off-shore environment we have Penultimos Dias, a site administered by a shady character known as Ernesto Hernandez Busto.”

They discussed those blogs in great detail, they talked about working with social media and the possibilities of countering the enemy propaganda websites at the international level with “true information.”

The meeting lasted some three hours. The audience, about to collapse from starvation, watched the “data show” as if staring undisturbed into the infinite.

So when, finally, the person assigned to lead “Operation Cyber-Mambi” in this provincial collective said the glorious words, “Does anyone have any questions?”, blood started to once again circulate through veins. Some fifty professionals from the official press had just returned to life after three hours of cruel lethargy.

The truth can be summed up very simply:

Nobody cares about this project. Everyone will comply with the same bovine will with which they write fantasy headlines and sugar-coat the Cuban reality they themselves suffer. And, in passing, with this markedly apathetic attitude, they will doom to failure a dirty-tricks operation assigned the glorious name of “mambi,” a hollow, neglected word.

Why doomed to fail? Well, because once again the all-thinking government, the architects of our ideological frontiers, have forgotten what is required for any successful experiment. The complicated thing is that reality must provide the proof.

They have tried, this time, to set into motion an ideological struggle on the internet, ignorant of what have been the basics pillars of the unquestionable success of the alternative Cuban blogs: spontaneity, the heartrending need to express oneself, a labor that does not need superior orders or supervisors to be set in motion.

No one guides or directs the alternative bloggers. Because however much the enemies of individual freedom protest, they know full well that no one is financing these writers on the web, no one is imposing targets nor conducting periodic assessments.

No one dictates, save the conscience of each blogger: the unstoppable flow of free thought, oxygenated, with no plazas, no parks, expanding across the virtual terrain chosen because there, throats have not atrophied from so much silence.

This arose Cuban Voices. Thus was born — timidly, crawling at first, stumbling later — a platform that I am sure future analysts will put in its proper place when speaking of democratization and the national will to change.

Cuban bloggers, like the great percentage of traditional independent journalists, have been for the most part empiricists of the written word. Some bring training in economics, law, agriculture, or no any professional training at all. But the common factor that describes and defines them is discontent. They are dissatisfied with reality, and they have failed to remain silent before the lies and deception.

So then, how worthy and honorable can a movement be that is born — in keeping with the national traditions of the last half century — from imposition and compulsion? How necessary can it be for the readers of half the world to look at websites that lack all feeling, websites which, like digital zombies, wander around cyberspace without personalities, with no word from the author?

I have already visited them, in my escapades as a fugitive surfer of the prohibited web, and I felt a mixture of amusement and sadness. Amusing because they are mostly caricatures of blogs, with the same triumphalist packaging we find in the paper-based news media or hear on the radio, and that no one, save a few messianic leaders, cares about; sad because they show the extent to which journalists in my country, Cubans like me and like everyone, are still enslaved writers with no opportunities for honesty or truth.

Despite all that, I can’t but feel a satisfaction bordering on vanity when I think of this official attempt to “counteract” the blogger impulse. And I can’t help but feel, also, pride in the name of everyone who ever put a finger on a key with the suicidal intention of showing the truth.

“Operation Cyber-Mambi,” the opening of official blogs, the vigilance of our leaders over cyberspace, confirms in the most undeniable way the triumph of the few — but every day more — Cubans who have chosen the Internet as a means of personal expression.

As an epilogue to this Wonderland reality, and as evidence of the permanent sarcasm towards which a society lacking freedom of expression gravitates, I will return to the unusual request of that friend, another journalist, who from time to time must update a blog about which he feels nothing:

“Throw me a rope, Ernesto, and give me some ideas for what I can write about in my blog. And maybe you can review some of the articles I’m going to publish. Although of course implicit in them will be an attack on your blog… but you can’t refuse me, brother, I have to do it for work.”

And of course, seduced by the charm of the absurd, in solidarity with his fears, I will never say no.

Translator’s note: Mambi is a term used to refer to the soldiers who fought on the side of Cuba in 1895-1898 War of Independence against Spain.

November 12, 201o

Recalling a Saying / Fernando Dámaso

  1. A Cuban television program called Art Site presented two shows dedicated to the beginnings of television in Cuba. In them, they interviewed some people who worked in that era, who expressed different opinions and told some anecdotes.
  2. A former beer model, who later became a dramatic actress, said that in the commercials she had to drink warm beer. The baseball games — supported by Hatuey beer and Partagas cigarettes — broadcast from the Cerro stadium where there was a gondola hanging from the ceiling with cabins for the sportscasters and a little space for making live commercials. There, they installed a cooler with bottled beer and malt, always cold, and a chest with boxes of cigarettes and tobacco to use during the commercials, and also for the consumption of everyone who worked there, free of charge. The commercials that were made at the CMQ studios were performed under better conditions.
  3. Another founder noted that before the studios were small and now they are larger. To my knowledge, for the last fifty years the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) has used the same studios previously used by CMQ, Channel 4, CMBF, Channel 7, Telemundo Channel 2, and Channel 12, which yes, is quite deteriorated and often lacks air conditioning, as evidence by the sweat on the presenters and guests on the live shows. It’s enough to see the ICRT building, formerly CMQ, to compare the accumulated deterioration; windows broken or non-existent, blinds missing, empty air conditioning holes boarded up with cardboard, wood and pieces of metal, chipped and missing paint, et cetera. If that’s the outside, I can imagine the inside.
  4. In the decade of the fifties, Cuban television was, after that of the U.S., the best and most innovative. Equipped with magnificent technology, it aired several flagship programs of different types: musicals, soap operas, theatrical dramas, comedy, sports, news, etc., and with a cast of of talented and highly professional artists and technicians.
  5. Today, Cuban television is not even a shadow of what it was in the fifties and early sixties. Absurdly politicized, poorly equipped, lacking the necessary resources (other than to make ideological programs), languishing like the rest of the country, waiting for better times. I want to believe that some of the opinions expressed on the Art Site program were affected by the poor memories of those interviewed. In any event, “people who tell lies should be very careful when eating fish,” as they saying goes… They might just find that the bones stick in their throats.

October 22, 2010

Government Neglect of the Mentally Ill / Miguel Iturria Savón

Last Friday I ran into my friend Nora on a bus, she’s diabetic with a 9-year-old daughter and schizophrenic brother who is a patient in a Havana psychiatric hospital. They take good care of him, after he bounced back and forth between his father’s house and the Mazorra madhouse, during almost two decades of delusions, pills and ghosts that turned him into a human wreck.

On asking Nora about her obvious concern, she told me that the sanatorium summoned her and after several questions they warned her that since her brother had his own house and could count on her help, she should be thinking about moving him back into the paternal home or the house she shares with her husband and daughter, as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Health to reduce the permanent population of the hospitals for the insane and mentally retarded.

For her, the “return” will increase the problems because the death of their father worsened the brother’s insanity and only with the help of the neighbors where they able to get him in Mazorra, where they discharged him as soon as the hallucinations decreased. He was back after two or three months and she could barely go to work. If left in his apartment she had to visit him daily and bear the complaints of the neighbors. The whole thing was also a burden for her daughter and husband; when her brother went into a crisis they had to hide in the house of a neighbor while the husband managed the ambulance or tried to calm down his brother-in-law.

Nora and her brother own their own houses, but he can’t live alone, or with someone else, there is no one who can put up with the ever-increasing problems. For both of them the alternative lies in the health institution. There are, however, worse cases, sick people with no families or with relatives who are very poor, aging or don’t have adequate housing.

I remember, for example, the case of Peter, a 53-year-old schizophrenic without parents or siblings to put up with his rantings. He was homeless and was about to die on the streets of an eastern town until a relative got him into an asylum in Havana, where he improved a lot but then they moved him to a Transit Hospital located in Fontanar. There, among the crazies and the beggars, Peter looks like a zombie waiting for the decision of the Classification Commission, which decides who gets put in the street, who is returned to their province, and who goes into Mazorra.

The former painters Edel Torres and his uncle Manolo are another example of the critical importance of the health institutions for psychiatric patients. For 17 years Edel bounced back and forth between his father’s house and large mental hospital in the capital. When his father died, Manolo moved in with him, but in three years he couldn’t deal with the frequent crises, the cost of food and medicine and the deteriorating house. After a decade of living together, Manolo is a beggar and Edel fights the same voices and demons that haunt him.

Nora and her brother Ernesto, Peter, Edel and Manolo, Alain, and dozens of the insane and retarded who increase like the marabou weed, resulting in a heavy burden on institutions and families. It is not a question of forgetting them in the hospital, or returning them to their “place of origin,” which they would not have left if they were in their right minds. The solution is not to relocate them like obsolete factory workers, if we can’t provide them social protection.

November 11, 2010

It is Hard to Eat Black Beans With Chopsticks / Iván García

The Cuban generals converted into businessmen felt a morbid fascination with the Chinese model. It was always the “narrative” they shared with their followers on the island. But in 1968, Fidel Castro decided to play the Russian card. After diplomatic disagreements and an aggressive discourse, Havana broke with Peking and bet big on the line from Moscow.

Last night’s Maoist followers hung their heads. One of the fans had been Che Guevara. His death in Bolivia in October 1967, ended the political flirtation with the Chinese. In the civil war in Angola, quiet today, the Cuban soldiers who took part on this conflict for 15 years, supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) of Agostinho Neto, the Kremlin favorite, spraying with lead and killing the group of Holden Roberto, financed by China.

When, at the end of the seventies, the soldiers started to enter the corporate playground, with the creation of public corporations like Cubalse, CIMEX pr Gaviota, it was decided to experiment with new economic methods with these companies. The Japanese business model was taken as a guide.

Then Castro’s government wasn’t sympathetic to the direction taken by Deng Xiaoping in the 80’s. In the Cuban media and academic studies of the time, the economic opening of the Asian giant is referred to as “the Chinese treachery.”

When the Berlin wall fell and the USSR was dismantled, heads turned back toward China. The military entrepreneurs who supported the Chinese model laid low. Including speculation that Raul Castro himself is a fan of the strategy followed by the Chinese communists.

For his brother Fidel, the great problem of the Asian model is that it breaks with his public — and devastating — discourse against capitalist production and business formulas. And if they want to copy China, unfortunately, they have to introduce market economy reforms and the worst version of savage and exploitative capitalism that operated in the 19th century.

In addition, the political conditions stand. China could take that giant step, because the United States granted it most favored nation status in the late 70’s. Cuba does not have the consent of Washington. Quite the contrary. The northern neighbor has imposed a trade embargo and has sparked a political and diplomacy battle and a dirty war over the five decades of the Revolution.

With more than 1.3 billion potential consumers, the country is an attractive market for foreign investors. And what really has attracted the world’s capitalists to invest in China are the low costs because of the government’s intentional depreciation of the currency.

Violating every kind of principle and ethics, the Chinese government exploits its enormous working masses, paying poverty wages. In its factories the usual work day is more than twelve hours, with no right to the defense of a labor union and with few labor protections.

China has become a huge factory that denigrates human beings. In pursuit of economic development it has implemented the worst methods of capitalism which, added to the disastrous totalitarian process, has resulted in a two-headed monster, lacking any ideology. With so much internal control and enough money to start a sweeping advance through the world, with the idea of creating a universal Asian empire.

To the generals who run the Cuban economy, it is attractive to take some elements from the Chinese model, so they can maintain power even if there is an economic slump For this, it’s vital to get the embargo repealed and the European Union common position unlocked.

Apparently, this is a political bet on the future economy of the island. Pockets of market economy, with no political or democratic openings. Clearly, the world in this 21st century is different. There is a brutal crisis that discourages investments and open suspicion toward the regime in Havana, which has been branded a cheat by capitalist entrepreneurs.

Obviously, the Chinese model is far from ideal for Cuba. It’s more of the same. Raul Castro’s government can try it. But it’s hard to eat black beans with chopsticks.

November 11, 2010

INDEX OF VOICES 3 (October 2010) [And Download] / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo


Dagoberto Valdés


Art and craft of making independent magazines

Mirta Suquet


Power and the grotesque

Ena Lucia Portela


The chills and laughter

Miriam Celaya


Possible exit scenarios

Reinaldo Escobar


The more uncertain assumptions

Francis Sanchez


Dream journal (I)

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo


Is there Cuban Literature after the Revolution?

Néstor Díaz de Villegas


Degas Kcho

Gelsys M. Lorenzo Garcia


Underground: a trash article

Salman Rushdie


Notes on writing and nation

Amir Valle


The roots of hatred (unpublished fragment)

Alcibiades Zaldívar


Life is a dream and everything goes

Peter F. Baez



Maria Elena Blanco


Hill of Dreams

Dimas Castellanos


Property: a fundamental problem

Om Ulloa


The C

Rosa María Rodríguez Torrado


Dialogue in contention

Miguel Iturria


The creative work of Reinaldo Bragado

Ernesto Morales


Operation Blogger: An Algorithm for a failure

L. Santiago Mendez Alpízar


Oswaldo Paya Sardinas Interview

November 11, 2010