Riding on Route P

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Public transport has always been a pending issue of the government of Fidel Castro. In spite of the fact that in the 80’s (when the country had more resources and support from Hungary and other former socialist countries), the Cuban government set up a factory that assembled the “Ikarus” brand buses in the village of Guanajay, 60 kms from Havana, it has always been almost impossible to attempt to seek transportation from one point of the city to the other.

In years which offered more abundant material wealth of the olive-green revolution, when there was access to yogurt and milk without the need to use ration cards, 2,500 buses and about 5,000 taxis ran about in the city; but not even then were they able to alleviate the deficit of urban transport.

With the advent of the silent war that is the “Special Period,” getting around town in the state transport was  a feat almost worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. There were times when some bus routes passed by twice a day. The “camels” surfaced, tractor-trailer trucks which hauled a large trailer carrying as many as 300 people packed like sardines; non-air conditioned saunas which also presented opportunities for pickpockets and perverts.

People walked up to 20 kilometers to take care of personal issues. At night the main streets were deserted and dark, for there were times when the electricity was shut-off 12 or more hours a day. Then came the heavy Chinese bicycles, which were largely to blame for the growth of fatal traffic accidents.

Not to mention the escalating violence; the streets of Havana, were in direct competition with the streets of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro.  Just to steal a bike, the same thieves would cut their victims with machetes, or snare their victims with ropes hung along the width of the dark street you passed while on a bike ride.

Buses and “camels” were called “Halley’s Comet,” because they were so infrequent between trips. Castro was more concerned with helping Venezuela and squandered the meager public funds on meaningless economic plans, but in 2004, reality struck hard. At the Popular Assembly, sporting a startled look, Castro asked what the Minister of Transportation was doing to resolve the issue at hand in the transport industry.

True to form, el Comandante blamed the failures on others.  However, he realized that if we wanted economic growth, we had to use bank funds to purchase buses, trucks and trains; five-thousand Chinese trucks and trains and an equal amount of Russian trains and buses were purchased.

Urban transport, in a state of indigence, saw the manna when 460 Yutong brand articulated buses started circulating around the city.  The Motorbus Company, its official name, operates 17 routes denominated with the letter P, which cover the principal arterial of Havana.

At peak hours, it has a frequency between 5 and 10 minutes. The P’s are always full to capacity and are hot as an oven. They just lack bread, or cassava. The so much talked about improvement of the vainglorious Havana leaders is pure mirage.

It is logical that a capital of more than two million inhabitants, like Havana, if it is to function minimally, must have bus service able to move one million people each day in the city. In the absence of a metro or a commuter train, and where state taxis in local currency have practically disappeared, people’s only viable option is to ride on the crowded route P.

Now moving from the main streets to some distant neighborhood is a complicated story. Another calamity is the bus service that circulates in the more populous districts and neighborhoods.

With the twist to the economy, due to the two crises, the world crisis as well as the one we have suffered for the last two decades, the product of an endless Special Period, the expansion plans of public transport have been slowed and service on many of routes was reduced.

To make matters worse, among the staff of the company Metrobus it is rumored that due to the default typical of the Cuban government, providers will not guarantee the spare parts for years to come. If true, going from one area to another city may turn you into a martyr. Although never, to tell the truth, was a Havana bus ride very pleasant.

Iván García

Jacques Rogge Does Not Like Baseball

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Not his fault. Jacques Rogge was born in Belgium. And everyone knows: in Europe, baseball is a sport that doesn’t draws crowds. Unlike football (or “soccer” as they call it in the U.S.).

The International Olympic Committee president prefers other sports for the summer Olympics. In London, 2012, baseball has already been eliminated. Many hope that by 2016, this injustice is remedied.

But no. Although it is passion in the Americas, Japan and South Korea, Rogge hates baseball. In a terse statement, the Belgian has said that baseball is a long and tedious game. He has a point. In part because it can last up to four hours, it is not cost effective for television.

But he could have taken steps to expedite the games. Not everything can be about money. Because more than 500 million people on the planet love baseball. And I’m pretty sure, it is more popular than dressage or sailing.

For the 2016 Olympics, whose location was expected to be announced on Friday October 2nd in Copenhagen, the phlegmatic Rogge seeks to introduce three new sports to the Olympic program: golf, rugby or football, and bowling. At a stroke, the Belgian eliminated baseball, thanks to the small support given by the administrators of the Major Leagues in the United States.

The IOC president had already passed sentence: if the best baseball players didn’t attend the summer games, it would disappear.  To the powerful men who lead the Big Leagues, this went in one ear and out the other.  To the barons of the Big Show, the only thing they care about is their local seasons.

To hell with the Olympics!  Whose calendar also coincides with the prime months of the baseball season.  And they, of course, would not change or stop the tournament so that starts like Derek Jeter or Alex Rodríguez could take part in the Olympic Games.  This disinterest handed the solution to the Belgian on a silver platter, the Belgian who neither understands nor likes baseball.  And he took it out of the Olympic lineup.

Perhaps for the stuck-up suit-wearing Jacques Rogge, it is healthier to see a female boxing match than to watch some guys hammering away at a hard little ball with seams.  He has his motives.  But what is not in doubt is that this orthopedic surgeon hates sports with balls and strikes.

Iván García

Daily miseries – Part 1

You have a difficult day.  While fighting so many problems without solutions, a friend comes to ask to borrow some object, maybe a tool.  You return to domestic chaos and in a little while forget to whom you loaned the object.  Time passes and it is not returned.  Your hopes of recovering it go up in smoke like your recently paid wages.  You can see for yourself that in your immediate environment there is someone capable of  robbing you to your face.  One more blow to your already battered innocence.  You torture yourself imagining that person enjoying what you worked so hard to get, thinking about you, laughing, calling you a shithead.  You make a long mental list of the things you’ve lost in similar circumstances.  Feeling a bit sick at heart, you raise a little higher the wall of distrust that separates you from others.

Adiós, Roberto!

He knocked on my door when the Brazilian soap opera was starting. He was sweating, after climbing several flights of stairs with his bike in tow.  “I’m going to Spain,” he cried, by way of greeting.  To give me time to get over my surprise he greeted my wife, returned the USB drive we were using to share information, and threw out the question to force my sense of hospitality, “Can’t a guest a get a cup of coffee in this house?”

While I was making the coffee he told me about his Spanish grandfather, the law of grandchildren, the paperwork, the trips to Havana, and to top it off he showed me his Spanish passport, still smelling like new, as one who exhibits a sacred talisman.  After the coffee we went out to smoke on the balcony and he explained to me that a cousin who lives in New Jersey had just sent him the money for his trip and that two other partners would receive him and help him out in the first moments.  He ended by assuring me he already had a trustworthy person to send letters, so hopefully I can continue to publish on the blog.

After he left, I realized that this is the last of my great friends who has left me here.  The old times are gone, irretrievably.  Robe was the soul of the gang, and when it began to scatter throughout the world, he managed to keep track of all the travelers.  We went to him to know the news, addresses and telephone numbers.  That night, his announcement left me with mixed feelings.  Usually I am glad to know that someone is leaving, whether a famous person or simply the son of a neighbor.  I’m happy because I think everyone has the right to choose what to do with his life and where to do it.  I’m happy because after living more than twenty years of the same, some kind of change is welcome.  But it also made me sad, and not just for me, losing a great friend.  It is painful to see that the lack of hope continues to determine our course.  Sad to predict the future of a country that bleeds in its perpetual stubbornness.

Today it’s two months since Roberto left.  He has written me an email and we talked briefly on the phone.  The first thing he said was that he missed my coffee.  Afterwards he told me about his work, it’s not in a comfortable office like he had here, but it lets him live in “lodgings” in the house of the partners and soon he will send money to the family he left behind.  Before saying goodbye, joking, he blurted out, “Guajiro, now no one is missing but you…”

Adios to Schools in the Countryside / Yoani Sanchez

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Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 July 2009 — The idea of combining study with work in high schools looked very good on paper. It had the air of an immortal future in the office where they turned it into a ministerial order. But reality, stubborn as always, had its own interpretation of the schools in the countryside. The “clay” meant to be formed in the love of the furrow, was made up of adolescents far away—for the first time—from parental control, who found housing conditions and food very different from their expectations.

I, who should have been the “new man” and who barely could have become a “good man”, was trained in one of these schools in the Havanan municipality of Alquizar. I was fourteen and left with a corneal infection, a liver deficiency and the toughness that is acquired when one has seen too much. When matriculating, I still believed the stories of work-study; at leaving, I knew that many of my fellow students had had to exchange sex for good grades or show superior performance in agricultural production. The small lettuce plants I weeded every afternoon had their counterpart in a hostel where the priorities were bullying, lack of respect for privacy and the harsh law of survival of the fittest.

It was precisely one of those afternoons, after three days without water and with the repetitive menu of rice and cabbage, that I swore to myself that my children would never go to a high school in the country. I did this with the unsentimental adolescent realism that, in those years, calms us and leaves us knowing the impossibility of fulfilling certain promises. So I accustomed myself to the idea of having to load bags of food for Teo when he was away at school, of hearing that they stole his shoes, they threatened him in the shower or that one of the bigger ones took his food. All these images, that I had lived, returned when I thought about the boarding schools.

Fortunately, the experiment seems to be ending. The lack of productivity, the spread of diseases, the damage to ethical values and the low academic standards have discredited this method of education. After years of financial losses, with the students consuming more than they manage to extract from the land, our authorities have become convinced that the best place for a young person is at the side of his parents. They have announced the coming end of the schools but without the public apologies to those of us who were guinea pigs for an experiment that failed; to those of us who left our dreams and our health in the high schools in the countryside.

Life of Sisyphus – part seven

She comes to the road that connects the neighborhood with the city and stops in the usual place. Despite all her precautions she’s started to sweat again. The cloudless sky and the absence of a breeze adds to the heat. At times, waves of hot air with the odor of asphalt hit her in the face. In front of her, the deserted road. At her back, some hundred meters, the bus stop is an oasis of shade in the midst of the glare and a refuge for the numerous would-be short distance travelers. Many years ago the local bus stopped running and the odyssey began for the residents of the neighborhood who now had to rely on alternative means of travel. Although in theory there were many possible options: the still-circulating intercity bus service, the bus service for workers, State cars, rental cars ranging across the spectrum of legality to illegality, even up to cars pulled by horses, reality demonstrated that these options weren’t solving the problem. And what’s more they bring another aggravation: the stress. The daily insecurity of meeting their schedules joined the long list of strains that people had to endure.

Many years ago when the location of the neighborhood was planned, no one anticipated what would come. The route by bus, including delays for stops, didn’t take more than half an hour, and if you went by car or taxi it was much shorter. The crisis, like a national Big Bang, extended the distances. The travel time to the city tripled, to the municipalities it quintupled, and to the neighboring provinces it was multiplied by ten. Trips that require crossing two or more provinces are nearly impossible. Taxis are a hazy memory. It’s been years since she’s seen the fence on the border of the province. From her first travels in childhood, this fence has had a special significance for her. She remembers when her father showed it to her for the first time. She was traveling in an old bus with small windows, hot and slow, to visit her paternal grandparents. The heat and thirst irritated her and she asked her father, for the third time, when the journey would end. He sat on his legs and said, with an air of mystery, that if she paid attention in a little bit she would see the place where one province ended and another began. This aroused her curiosity. A little later she saw a fence in vivid colors, enormous trees surrounded by flowering shrubs and several stones of different sizes. She asked her father if the people who took care of this place made this trip every day, but she can’t remember his answer.

Her grandparents died in those dark years and with them died the reason to travel. Then came marriage and the children and her life became more static. Now that she thought about it she hadn’t had an opportunity to repeat with her own children the scene she just remembered.

A car approaches and she puts out her hand in a gesture repeated many times.

Life of Sisyphus – Part Six

She walks slowly towards the exit of the neighborhood.  The sun burns.  Her skin suffers from the accumulation of lesions.  In the mornings she looks in the mirror and discovers a new spot, small wrinkles on her temple, or a sprout of gray hairs, noting that the years, the house, the kids, the tension, the solitude, are leaving a bill impossible to pay.  But it’s not the loss of her beauty that worries her most, but rather the physical exhaustion.  In the afternoons, when she gets back from work, the stairs seem to reach to the sky; at night she falls asleep in front of the TV, sometimes before the soap opera starts.  She remembers how, years ago, she laughed at her mother when she did the same.  Her mother nodding off, snoring, waking up surprised, denying she’d been sleeping and excusing herself saying, “I was resting my eyes, sweetheart.”  History repeats itself, she whispers sadly.

She walks slowly and the sun burns.  She consoles herself thinking that this is the month.  With the little bit she’s saved and if her ex isn’t late again with the child support, this month she can stretch the money she sets aside for changing into convertible pesos to buy soap and cooking oil, and buy herself a parasol.  She’s been determined to buy it since the end of the brief winter, despite the fact that her friends tell her a parasol makes you look much older.  But she believes that what makes her look older is trying to stretch the money to eat and bathe decently every month.  And the sun that burns so much.

She walks to the exit of the neighborhood.  It’s a long stretch without shade and the sun burns.  The buildings don’t have entryways, they’re separated from each other and from the sidewalks.  Aligned at different angles with respect to the streets, they seem like the walls of a huge labyrinth.  A labyrinth in full sun.  The scarce trees have no foliage to protect passers-by.  Many show deformations from bad pruning in advance of some cyclone.  With humps and stumps, like the veterans of uncountable wars, these poor trees remind one of the elderly, wrinkled and gnarled, who take the sun in the parks.  Eroded by time and trapped in time, neither the trees nor the elderly know with certainly if they’ll survive to see the next cyclone.  For now, they hope.  The sun burns, and she walks slowly.

The Life of Sisyphus – Part 5

She walks towards the exit of the neighborhood. Although it makes her late she doesn’t hurry, the years have given her patience. She enjoys the feeling of relief it gives her to leave the apartment. And she enjoys it more because she knows it won’t last long. Her apartment is a box divided into four little boxes. One box for the living room, two boxes for the bedrooms and one box for the kitchen and bath. The building is a big box, composed of sixteen little-box apartments: two little boxes on each side of a stair, two stairs per floor, four floors in all. A tight set of boxes with few windows, boxes that resonate and amplify noises, that accumulate heat during the day until late at night and that leak together, exchanging every kind of liquid from top to bottom. Leaving the claustrophobic box and walking a few blocks helps her relax to face the day.

She reaches an intersection of three streets and the relief disappears. In front of her extends a motley multitude of buildings-crates, with the same dark and dirty stairs, the same roofs bristling with tanks and antennas, the same walls unpainted for years, the same goddamn stinking garbage everywhere. To her left, a stop that hasn’t seen a bus in decades. To the right, a line of cars waiting for passengers going to the city center. The drivers, with professional patience, trading jokes, advice and even the number that came out yesterday. The smell of horse urine warmed by the sun begins to invade the entire area. She crosses a small park, the first they had in the neighborhood. It’s a very curious place that makes her imagine a time gone by that she knows through the stories of her parents. Here the benches are situated like the seats in a movie theater, facing in the same direction. In this place, occupying the total width of the park, a platform rises about half a meter above the rest of the floor. The neighbors have gathered here to meet, almost always at night, to deal with a range of topics: volunteer work, guards, mobilizations in agriculture. On the weekend there could be some musical or theater group and her Mom even recalled a lottery to make the list to order the purchase of toys that came for the children once a year. At the bottom of the platform stands a concrete column with a box, also concrete, with one side open to the benches. For years, this box held the only TV in the neighborhood. During that time the little park was the social center of the area. People decked themselves out for a visit as of they were going to a luxury restaurant, and they demanded silence from the talkers like a professional librarian. Her father says that the first arguments between the baseball fanatics and the soap opera lovers happened here.

Even though the years and the children—above all the children—have helped her understand why the nostalgia for days gone by hits so hard as we age, she can’t help but react with suspicion to these stories told by her parents. More than stories, it’s the tone of naiveté that provokes the greatest reaction. She feels dread towards this simple and transparent world, where it’s so easy to control what people can know, think and do. It enrages her to see the elders, who know no other ways of life, having this as the best, and only, possible option, and sacrificing their lives waiting for a dream that never comes.

It’s necessary

There was a time in my life when I employed the ideas of others to express my own.  A time when I had no voice, and spoke in the voice provided, repeating, in the words provided, the ideas conceived by others.

I read poems for love, repeating phrases popularized by popular people, looking for the meaning of life or the moment in books and songs that came into my hands by chance.

And when it came to elevated and solemn things, I would always have at hand a slogan, an oath, an insult to the Enemy, to shout with fervor in the square crowded with others like myself.

The years have made me suspicious of this searching for life in books and songs.  This search for the meaning of life in the by-products that fall off the production line of life.  This always looking somewhere else for life, somewhere outside of life itself.

And although suspicious of them, my books no longer confused me.  Life confused me, when I was faced with the unexpected, that I hadn’t lived, that I hadn’t read.  Life confused me, to spare me the confusion if sometimes the scene repeated itself.  To make me believe in my own strength.  To force me to grow.

There was a time in my life when I would laugh at those who argued very seriously that they had to write a book because they couldn’t find one that satisfied them.  Today I know that to grow we must speak in our own voice and write our own book.  It’s necessary to risk.  And to create.

The Life of Sisyphus – Part 4

She enters her apartment and sits in front of the fan trying desperately to stop her sweating, her body just not breathing through her clothes. She looks for her hose and begins filling the water tank in the kitchen and, after, the one on the balcony. Although the pump howls as if it were going to break down along with the buildings that surround it, the water pressure is so low there isn’t even enough to fill two tanks at the same time. Also, she must watch the tanks as they are filling to ensure the water doesn’t overflow and flood the apartment below, for this would cause terrible grief with her neighbors. A few months ago, overwhelmed by never-ending problems, she left for work leaving the valve open and two apartments were flooded. Already feeling so much shame, never had she so wished for the ground to open and swallow her as when she came home that evening and found the neighbors below waiting for her with looks that could kill and mattresses drying off in the sun. She of course accepts the responsibility for being careless but she cannot suppress the thought that if only water was available 24 hours a day, it would be impossible to accidentally leave the pump going and she wouldn’t have to fill all the buckets and tanks crammed into her already narrow apartment.

Water has always been a problem. Or rather, the problem. Fifteen years ago, when she arrived, a bride to this newly constructed building in a clearing without trees or sidewalks on the outskirts of town, they had water on alternate days.  Now there are twice the number of buildings and they only have access to water every three days, and the problem with the water is always a topic of discussion amongst the neighbors and the delegates and council members. The planning continues, almost out of sight and out of mind, but occasionally they issue encouraging words: the finances have already been approved, the new system will be ready by the middle of next year, we’re waiting for the materials to arrive… and so on and so on. Today, ‘the water problem’ remains the same, as does so much in her life and so she no longer goes to the meetings.  She no longer understands those who are consoled thinking there are worse places, places with water only once a week, instead of trying to find ways to solve the problem. But ‘progress continues’, as the corporate catch phrase goes.  Tired of waiting for a solution to arise, people simply find band-aid solutions. Those more fortunate have hung their tanks on the outside of the building giving it a multi-colored make-over. Others, the less lucky, fill the space inside their apartments with water tanks. So many tanks filled to make up for the delayed arrival of the water have upped the danger of leaks and the risk of flood, a flood like hers.

After that horrible incident with the neighbors, she has now made it a part of her early-morning routine to verify that the water valves are closed and everything electrical in her kitchen is turned off. And that is what she does now, and one more time, in the warm morning, she leaves her apartment.

The Life of Sisyphus – Part Three

She finishes getting the children ready and they head out on their daily rounds.  First the older one to school, after that, backtracking, the little one to the daycare center.  Going past the building, the sound of the pump announces that the water has arrived.  After a brief chat, she leaves the girl at the center and walks back.  Each time it’s harder to convince her…I wonder what happened that she’s rejecting it again, she asks herself.  Nevertheless, the answer is right there in front of her, and she knows it.

Who’d want to, she thinks, spend a third of the day in a place with peeling walls, painted with a white powder that sticks to your skin and clothes; where the doors and windows are disintegrating because of the termites, sitting on noisy furniture made of iron bars and wire that are being attacked by rust, competing for faded and boring coarse wooden toys, with not even enough to go around.  A whole third of the day wriggling around in a churning crowd, exchanging bites, lice and colds, tended to by shouting women with bitter faces who, with equal lack of care, teach how to recognize colors, basic shapes, the photos of those who died in some long-ago war and of those who now govern us.

Much is said about the parents’ sacrifice for their children, but this is a sacrifice by children for their parents, that is what she believes.  Nobody can imagine how the children suffer when subjected to such treatment.  And though it may hurt them to see how their children’s childhood slips through their hands, hurrying them in the mornings so they can be on time, hurrying them in the afternoons to take their baths and to do their homework before dinner is ready, and hurrying them to eat and go to bed early, so as not to wake up tired and not to have to hurry in the mornings; though the impotence overwhelms her for not being able to counteract the influence of the violence, the vulgarity and the four letter words that they are absorbing each day; though she suffers because she can’t dedicate the time to them that she would like to on weekends because she has to do the shopping too, wash and clean; though she doesn’t know how to be creative so that the money will stretch every once in a while to fix them up with a toy or some candy that’s only sold in convertible pesos; she knows she has no other option, she can’t afford the luxury of not working.  She didn’t want to do it when she was married, and now that she’s alone, she simply cannot.

While climbing the stairs to her apartment, she starts to sweat.

Life of Sisyphus – Part Two

She buys the bread and faces the dilemma of returning to the house to see if the children are already dressed and to get some things done, or to go back for the milk. As she still hasn’t heard the water pump, she decides to get back in the line for milk. On the path she runs into two girls, dressed in their uniforms and singing. Surely they are rehearsing for the morning meeting at school, she thinks, because they are singing a political song, with that artificial voice that all children in school uniforms use when they’re singing political songs in public. Noting that in the almost thirty years that have passed between her school years and now, the topics have changed but not the tone, and she wonders why so many patterns are repeated. To think that soon her own children will join this interminable chain gives her the chills.

The line for milk hasn’t changed, except that the young woman with the pierced navel in orange lycra is no longer there. In her place, there’s a lady with big glasses who’s talking with the old woman carrying the flowered bag. The bald guy, who is definitely an errand runner, is buying milk for six ration cards and is slowing down the line. She observes, fascinated, the robotic movements of the clerk who writes in the ration book, making notes on some large sheets laid out on the counter, opening the package, letting the powder fall little by little onto a used X-ray film set on the balance plate, until the arm raises, folding the film to create a channel for the powder to slide down into the sack the bald guy holds open. The sack into the bag, the film on the balance plate, and starting again. The voices that rise to a murmur return to the line.

The old woman with the flowered bag complains that before the cyclone there was a scarcity of food, how are they going to manage now, she asks. The one with the big glasses answers emphatically that there must be solidarity among the provinces most affected, that we don’t have to give away everything but must share what we have. It feels like she’s hearing a message repeated on television, said with almost the exact same words and in a triumphalist tone. My God, how monotonous, she says to herself, this habit of repeating the same words. All around her people show worried faces, some shake their heads and others murmur quietly. The big glasses woman looks insistently from side to side but no one responds. She turns to her looking for support, repeating her words, but it’s her turn to buy and she goes up, hiding behind the ration book and the sack, without saying anything.

While she buys the powdered milk she can feel at her back the words of the big glasses woman, who has continued speaking in her direction. She walks away and the words continue to fall around her like pirate hooks, trying to attract her attention, we can’t be selfish, we must show solidarity with others. But for her this flood of words is a blast that drives her away more quickly. What this old woman embodies, my God, she says to herself while remembering the litanies her grandmother would pray whenever there was sickness in the house, or trails of clouds in the sky. There are so many people who need to protect themselves with ideas, she thought while playing with the bag in her hands until it formed a ball, almost the size of a baseball. Let’s see what we can come up with for breakfast tomorrow.

Life of Sisyphus – Part One

His hands caress her, the morning sun filters through the curtains, instrumental music makes the atmosphere perfect for love. She closes her eyes and is happy. Suddenly, the music is swept away by a car horn and shouts calling for Vicenteee, up on the third floor. The hands no longer caress, they are just one, small, shaking her shoulder. The hand has a voice: Mommy, wake up, the sun is already up.

She wakes up walking to the bathroom, once again the alarm didn’t go off, she’ll have to check it. There’s no water, she uses the two buckets she filled last night. She makes coffee, and breakfast for the kids. Makes the beds and goes out to buy milk. She’s in a rush thinking about the line. From the corner she sees the truck; instead of plastic boxes with bags there are sacks falling over. When she gets there she learns the milk came in powdered form and they have to wait to open the shop until they can weigh it before selling it.

To wait or not to wait, that is the question. She has an image of the four people ahead of her in line, a mulatto in flip-flops and a mesh shirt, an old woman with a flowered bag, a girl in an orange lycra outfit with a ring in her navel, and a bald guy with three big bags, with the look of an errand runner. She speaks to the one behind, I’ll be back in a minute, and goes to the bakery.

Passing near the building she learns they haven’t started the pump, so it follows that there’s still no water. In the bakery there’s an enormous line, just seeing it raises her blood pressure, but it’s not for the rationed bread, it’s the line for “the bread of glory.”

This is an interesting story, as she remembers, while asking who’s last in line, and unavoidably smiles, they’ll think she’s nuts, laughing in a line. The “glory bread” is bread exactly like the rationed bread, but it’s freely sold at six times the cost of the other, and comes with added syrup, dry sugar, or nothing, depending on the level of intransigence of certain anonymous defenders of the status quo. When they began to sell it, the glory bread came out syrupy as if God sent it, but the people didn’t care for it and suggestions were heard to make it a little bit or totally dry, and yes, without changing the price.

One fine day the bakers were encouraged to try and they didn’t add anything and all the bread sold very quickly. The people of the neighborhood were very happy, because they might have a little more bread for a snack for the kids, to make a pudding, or to eat before going to bed in the cold season. And word spread through the neighborhood and the lines for the glory bread started to grow, until it attracted the attention of the status quo defenders, who must be people who don’t need any more bread than what is rationed, so they started to complain and make anonymous calls to certain places, places from where they sent certain inspectors to the bakery.

And because bakers are people who above all love their profession and are sad to be away from it, they returned to the bread soaked in syrup for a while, until the inspectors were gone and the status quo defenders focused their eyes and tongues on more important matters that claimed the attention of their modest efforts. The cautious bakers waited for a while before returning to ordinary bread, today they added a little syrup, tomorrow a little dry sugar, which you could brush off with your hand, until a cycle of plain bread started, along with the enormous lines. People are happy and take it easy, we have to seize the opportunity, because you never know when the anonymous ones will return, along with the inspectors and the unnecessary syrup.

It would be funny if it weren’t so fucked up, she thought. Everyone knows what goes on, the absurdity of the situation, but nobody can do anything. Nobody tries to change the status quo. It’s incredible how there are people who need to cling to the rules in order to live. And she advances toward the counter, her smile fading away.

D-Day

diad

At times I have recurring dreams. One of them is a nightmare. There’s a loud knock at the door, and when I open it a couple of huge burly guys lift me up and without even touching down on the stairway, they throw me into the backseat of a Russian-made Lada 2107.

They put a hood over my face and order me by menacing gestures to put my head between my knees. The last thing I remember before I wake with a start, are the hands of my captors, deformed by an excess of martial arts.

Other dreams are more pleasant. Two hands, warm and soft, waken me. It’s my daughter Melany, age 6, who comes to give me good news. “Grandma Tania, Aunt Tamila, and Cousin Yania, are coming this afternoon from Havana,” the girl tells me happily and rapidly.

Margarita, my wife, explains to my amazement, “The radio is breaking the news. Raúl Castro resigned and established a transitional government.  The first measure taken is that Cuba belongs to all Cubans, and the exiles who want to can return,” says my wife.

I have never seen her so happy.

More than a few times, in the solitude of my room, I have wondered which of these dreams will come true first.

Translated by: Tomás A.

Colina’s List

On January 25, 2007, critic and achiever Enrique Colina took part in the interchange between Cuban intellectuals which ended up being known as the “e-mail wars.”  I use the word interchange in a calculated way because I don’t think what happened was a true debate.   If we discount the declaration issued by the Secretariat of the Union of Writers and Artist of Cuba, who have the greatest responsibility for what happened, we find that they did not express their opinion, but continued to exercise their control over the national culture.  Or better yet, over some of the creators and the media supporting the socialization of such culture.  Much has been written about such an interesting episode, and it is possible that, in a few years, new assessments may present its true significance within the dynamic national culture of the still young XXI century.

In his extensive and courageous message, Enrique Colina intertwines personal experiences lived -or suffered- during the thirty-plus years that his program, “24 per Second”, aired; ideas about the relationships between creators and political leaders, and brief stories about Cuban movies that generated controversy at the time. And as incontestable evidence, he leaves a list of thirty films -not including documentaries- that had never been shown on national TV.

Although I have no basis to support what I state, I want to believe that the subsequent “thawing” of some of those movies was the result of the intellectual exchange and, in particular, of Colina’s list. In the following months, gradually, they showed several of those films on TV, airing “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate), a Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío movie, in May 2007. The showing of this film brought an end to an almost 14-year wait for most Cubans, who can only see movies on TV, and who wished to enjoy a highly promoted, lauded and internationally acclaimed movie, considered a symbol of the new Cuban cinematography of the 90’s.

By wonders of happenstance, exactly two years after Enrique Colina sent his message to Desiderio Navarro, on the night of January 25, on educational channel 2, I saw “Madagascar,” made by Fernando Pérez in 1993, the same year as “Fresa y Chocolate.” I wonder if it would be possible -with the collaboration of some enthusiasts- to update the Colina list and see how many films still remain to be “thawed”. Or to compile the documentaries list, which has also moved along. At least, with the movies, old debts are being settled. When will there come a time for settling the rest?