Queenside Castling / Regina Coyula

I have a friend, who is an International Chess Master with the title of Grandmaster, whom we consider almost as part of the family, but I hadn’t heard from her since she got a contract to work in Costa Rica last year. Last May I went to the Capablanca in memoriam tournament and, being in the right place, I asked about her. I was surprised by the fact that everyone I asked grinned, looked at each other if they were a group of people, but no one dared to tell me anything about the whereabouts of my friend Tania Hernández. One thing did seem clear among all the evasive responses: Tania was not coming back to Havana.

There was no self-censorship or questioning from the part of those I asked, since Tania is a very lovable person. Despite her career in the sport of Chess, after twelve years as part of the National Chess Team, Tania still lived with her parents and grandmother in the same block in Central Havana where she was born, a home to which improvements were made thanks to the travel stipends she saved from each trip. When her results left her out of the team, they “turned off her lights”, and Tania had to leave her sporting career, give lessons, sell her Chess books, all of which I know was very hard for her.

I suppose she used the contacts she had made while participating in international events to obtain the contract to work in Central America. In this new chapter in her life, Tania will work as a coach or teacher, activities for which she has as much talent as she had for playing; her work will allow her to pay the rent for a cozy little apartment, and also to help her family in Cuba. Now that everyone knows her decision, the Sports Institute (INDER) will not forgive her. Branded as a deserter, she will be forbidden to re-enter Cuba for at least the next five years. Of course we are talking about five years counting from 2010, so I expect to be able to hug my friend in Havana before the sentence, sanctioned by public officials who know nothing about what it’s like to live in a small overcrowded room, expires.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

September 15, 2010



Crossed Wires / Rebeca Monzo

It turns out that now, after the unexpected declaration that our model can’t be exported, that it doesn’t even work for us. An answer confirmed by the journalist who conducted the interview, because he couldn’t get over his astonishment. It happens that this wasn’t true, rather he was referring to the capitalist model, which has just been proven to work, at least much better than the old one. Nothing, as usual, changed one thing for another, trying to complicate everything.

This is something that has been happening for many years. The character has not changed at all, the ones who have changed are us. Before we swallowed everything without saying a word, and now we have learned to question everything. As always, we have gone from one extreme to the other. Not on a whim, simply because we’ve stopped believing in him. Some sooner, others later, but in general, no one believes. I think we don’t even believe in what he says.

The truth is that he treats us like we are kids or simple-minded. He tries to keep us asleep with old and worn out lies. And don’t even talk to me about the “coconut” (the war). We’ve been waiting fifty-one years for the enemy to attack us. And justifying, based on that, all the more and more harsh measures imposed on our people: a conflagration would justify everything. Not to mention it would bury in its fallout the failure of the famous model.

September 13, 2010

Giving the Wheel Another Turn / Rebeca Monzo

Oil by Hubert vonHerkomer

Recently the talk on my planet is the imminent dismissal of half a million workers who are on staff performing work which, in reality, could be done by half as many people.

In the seventies, there was a large decrease in the staffing at some of the central agencies. At that time it was given the euphemistic name of rationalization. It reduced the payrolls. Those workers who were available, or surplus, as they preferred to call them, found work in other workplaces, regardless of the knowledge or experience acquired. In reality, it was no more than that, moving them from one place and putting them on another. Years later the number of new workers in each agency, is twice what it was.

Later, in the nineties, with the investment of foreign capital, some could go work for the newly created companies, bettering their economic status. It was a small privileged sector, envied by the other workers. We all wanted to work in some company, even just to mop the floors. It didn’t matter what the job was, the thing was to be in contact with those unattainable dollars.

Now they say that the “redundant” workers can go to work in the private sector. And I wonder, in what private sector? Because up to now, outside a few private restaurants, the paladares, what’s left? What are their options?

Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to create and pass the first official labor law for the private sector, its regulations and options, before this mass layoff that will affect three times as many people, as for every individual who loses their job, there are at least two or three family members who depend on them.

What was the previous government thinking when they increased these payrolls, putting three people in a position that really only needed one. What I believe that we are once again turning the wheel.

September 17, 2010

I Tell It Like It Is / Regina Coyula

caricatura de GarrinchaI remember how surprised I was in 1990 when I read in the newspaper Granma some of the letters exchanged between Fidel and Khrushchev during the October 1962 Missile Crisis. It was clear to me that Fidel encouraged the leader of the now extinct superpower to get ahead of their adversary and strike the first powerful blow, and he doesn’t mention the possibility of talking first. Even though he now derides the former leader of the USSR as a drunk, the truth is that the Russians handled the crisis as if it were a Chess match; trying to predict plays in advance, they obtained the withdrawal of missiles Turkey and a moratorium for Cuba. Fidel swallowed his pride and only after the fall of the sister republic has he expressed his displeasure at not being invited to the negotiating table back then. He wrote what he wrote, even if now he would like to spin it differently.

Fidel “amuses himself” seeing how the same American journalist who gave him the opportunity to reinterpret his intentions expressed in the letters from 1962, quotes him verbatim when he says the Cuban model doesn’t even work for Cuba anymore. But no, Fidel of course meant to say the opposite.

To sum up the little we know in Cuba about his interview with Goldberg, it’s possible that here in our country the capitalist model will not work as Fidel says; but I’m sure, since I live under it, that socialism, as we know it here and any other place it has been tried, doesn’t work either.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

September 16, 2010

The Ant / Fernando Dámaso

The tiny hardworking ant dug with her legs into the sticky black mud covering the stone, and with a gigantic effort loaded the heavy fern leaf onto her back, staggered under the weight, and started walking towards the old oak where she had been born, a tree eaten away by the years and burnt by a lightning that struck during the summer’s last storm. She walked with a limp and slowly, struggling with her own legs while trying not to get trapped in the mud. She looked around, straightening her antennas. The humidity had stuck to her body, which shone like it was slick with oil. She kept going painfully slowly, and the small distance she had covered seemed like a great victory. She had lagged behind the long column that had departed at dawn to search for food, while trying to free the juicy leaf, which would prove useful at the end of the fall when the trees become bare, from the mud.

The sun had barely begun to warm the land and it cost her a supreme effort to reach her destination before noon. While making up her mind to the task, she had calculated all the time she would need: to move the leaf, to get it out of the mud, to load it onto her back, to unstick every one of her legs from the mud, to walk the whole way back, to fight against the mid-morning wind making her movements even more difficult. She felt safe, and capable of accomplishing her goal. She gathered all her strength, and step by step, began to approach the oak. There weren’t any predators in the surroundings and this made her feel more certain of her coming success. She reached the tree, completely exhausted, before eleven o’clock. Right before entering the cave, the index finger of the man who was resting there, and who had watched her since the very beginning, crushed her against a bare root.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

September 10, 2010

Blogging Blind / Ángel Santiesteban

RECENTLY I HAVE BEEN HOPING I might read my blog for the first time. Some friends have seen it and described it to me, and I feel the same pleasure as when they speak to me about my children. They suggested that I buy a card that would let me enter cyberspace from the services in hotels. Two and a half months after starting the site, I still haven’t been able to see it. I’m anxious to read it, feel it, smell it. I imagine its design would give me a feeling of tenderness. Recently an old man asked me if I was sure if civilization existed outside this island.

Shrugging my shoulders, I think so, I told him. And he looked at me a long time, seeking the lost truth. It’s that, he commented, how is it possible that we’ve forgotten?… I got tired of throwing bottles into the sea, he said. I got tired, he repeated and took off, pondering. Recently a lady told me that the scenes of war on the news seem to have been filmed in secret television studios. I told her no: in other places there are also social contradictions, political conflicts, famines, diseases, etc. It’s that they never show happiness, she observed, except on the national news where everything is going well, all the plan targets are met, the people interviewed are happy, they don’t complain, they’re not worried, they don’t have different ideas… Beyond our borders the people are always killing? Sometimes, I answered. Then, she continued, they don’t eat apples, don’t go on cruises, don’t vote peacefully? In some places, I said. The woman kept staring at me.

Surely you are one of them, she declared. Who? I wanted to know. Those who write the national news full of happiness and make us believe we are living in paradise… Do me a favor, she asked, I’m losing my sight, if I try to make conversations with you another time remind me that it’s you, so I won’t waste my time… When I got home I turned on the news, the Afghans were running back and forth. I wasn’t sure if in the background I thought I saw a sugar cane field, and even the smoke from a smokestack. I went to the TV and turned it off.

Recently they have also, “Interrupted the Email Service.” Now, I go to Havana in search of a kind soul who uploads a text to my site; it makes me remember the excitement I used to feel in those early years of writing when I was wandering around the city trying to find a typewriter with a good ribbon and someone who would type, behind their boss’s back, several pages of a story I planned to send off to a literary contest. I have no complaints. From the beginning I knew what would happen if I chose the “status” of a writer within the island; in consequence, some benefits, or managing a space to write the problems that surround and distress me, and by extension, receiving institutional attacks.

Recently in Havana the cost of the written word has gone up. Owners of authorized email charge in convertible pesos (cuc) for a service to communicate with families in other countries, or for the whores to keep in touch with their foreigners. Since the beginning of last year, when they tried to deny access to Cubans to connect from the hotels, the private rentals have gone up to three cuc, and they say that before the end of the month it will increase to five.

Recently I have my doubts: I don’t know if words are going up in price or have lost their value.

September 17, 2010

An Old Suitcase / Fernando Dámaso

Looking through an old suitcase one always finds interesting things, that once brought happiness and sadness and that today, forgotten by all, seem to have no value. However, if you feel them, put them to your ear, they vibrate with their own life as if reborn, full of noises and sounds for those who want to hear and smell them. This happened to me on a day when, yearning for the memories of my childhood, I opened an old suitcase of my grandmother’s, saved for who knows how many years in loft of the stairway.

Putting the key into the worm-eaten lock it gave way, moaning like a virgin on being possessed. On opening the lid, dozens of sprites of different shapes and sizes, leaped out onto the floor, and ran in all directions, hiding behind the furniture and curtains. I was caught between shock and surprise, but recovered quickly, staying still, just watching them. As they gained confidence they abandoned their hiding places and approached me, looking at me with bulging eyes and feeling me with their little hands. I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput, but I was reacting as if ignoring them, rummaging through the contents of the suitcase. Then it seemed that the leader, being the oldest, pulled on my pants leg and in a bell-like voice said to me:

“What are you looking for in the past?”

“The reason for the present,” I answered.

“The present is the present.”

I became pensive and closed the suitcase. In there were my grandmother’s things, but the goblins also got free and accompany everywhere all the time. Only I am the only one who sees and feels them. In old suitcases one always finds interesting things.

September 17, 2010

The Naked King / Reinaldo Escobar

1987: Year 29 of the Revolution: “Now, indeed, we are going to Build socialism!”

Fidel Castro’s recent confession that the Cuban System doesn’t work, not even for us, and the unfortunate clarification that sought to amend the slip, have surprised and excited those addicted to the regime, its opponents, and neutral Cubanologists.

The initial phrase, slipped into an interview with the journalist Jeffry Goldberg from The Atlantic magazine, came to be interpreted by some as a sign of changes to come, although others took it only as an inconsequential rant.

I remember the newspaper Granma’s front page from December 27, 1986: “1987: Year 29 of the Revolution,” and in letters even larger, the Maximum Leader’s brilliant line, “NOW INDEED WE ARE GOING TO BUILD SOCIALISM.”

A few years later, when Real Socialism collapsed in Eastern Europe, another journalist (obviously a foreigner) asked the Commander-in-Chief if Cuba would now dedicate itself to building capitalism. His answer then also stunned many: “What is built is socialism, capitalism gives birth to itself.”

Now, the first question that comes to mind is whether there has really existed a “Cuban system” susceptible to being defined under some theoretical formulation. The absence of a definition is what has allowed the pervasive voluntarism and improvisation with respect not only to the economy, but also to political culture, international relations, and all spheres of ideological work. If this is the model of the Cuban system we are now being told doesn’t work: thank you very much, we already know that. For denouncing or issuing warnings about its disfunctionality, many honest members of the Communist Party were expelled, many journalists, artists, professors and employees of the superstructure lost their jobs, and many citizens, considered dissidents, ended up in prison.

But we don’t seek vengeance. Let’s be positive. Start with a clean slate. Look to the future. If this “system” does not work, let’s design another, keeping in mind that socialism, as defined in books, never came to the point of failure of Cuba because it was never possible to implement it.

One of the problems we have faced, at least recently, has been the insistence on the irrevocable character of our system, with public discourse being allowed to advance only as far as promoting the idea of perfecting or realizing it. The “Not Working” sign which, in a Freudian slip, the Maximum Leader hung on the doors of the system, calls for replacement rather than repair; for change, rather than improvement. But it can also leave us at a dead end, marching in place.

The clumsy explanation that he was amused to see how he had been interpreted, because what he meant to say was exactly the opposite, makes me think of the late comedian Chaflán, who explained to the public that when he was wearing his hat everything was a joke, he only spoke seriously bare-headed. Was el comandante wearing his cap when he was speaking with Goldberg?

The oft repeated story of the King wearing invisible clothes has found a different ending in Cuba. It is no longer an innocent boy who shouts that the emperor is nude. To the astonishment of the credulous, it is the monarch himself who, in an obscene display of exhibitionism, admits loudly, “I am stark naked.”

Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish in Diario de Cuba

September 16, 2010

Another School / Claudia Cadelo

Photo: Leandro Feal

She has moved her son to three different schools. Between the “emerging teachers,” those who swear there are no Spanish words accented on the antepenultimate syllable (the word for which, in Spanish — sobreesdrújulas –is itself accented on the antepenultimate syllable), and the political propaganda, she couldn’t take it any more. The last time she put the boy in a theater workshop, she discovered with horror that he was assigned the role of Antonio Guerrero, one of the “Cuban Five” in prison in the U.S. for spying. The little guy left the first school with three warnings in his file: for asking to borrow an eraser; for crying because he wanted to go home; and, the most absurd, for not wanting to sign the previous warnings.

In the second elementary school the director welcomed the new students and their parents with the nice information that, “This school is on double section.” The poor thing was trying to say they had classes in the morning and classes in the afternoon. Then, at the group meeting, the guide warned, “Don’t worry if it’s five o’clock and your children haven’t arrived home, those who misbehave are punished with detention.”

I don’t know what human form the “historic leaders” are planning to get their hands on to reverse all the damage done to the educational system. An increase in the education budget would be insufficient as what is wrong goes far beyond the economy; paying a decent salary to teachers might serve some purpose if they had the necessary pedagogical and academic knowledge, but they don’t. To develop a new faculty nationwide would take, at least, ten years. And meanwhile, what are our children learning?

September 16, 2010

Gandhi Smiling in the Wee Hours / Henry Constantín

Early morning hours. Eight students from “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas, passengers without tickets on a train. They are between cars, standing or crouching, shivering from the most intense cold in the world. In the door to the right, two cops: they don’t let them pass. At the door to the left, three railway officials: they have them surrounded. A man of enormous size and arrogance shouts from the station: the train will start only when those damn students who got on in Santa Clara without tickets get off. This happens at two in the morning in a place isolated even from itself: the town of Guayos, more than halfway to Camagüey, the destination of the boys.

There are many other travelers who don’t have tickets, and they don’t bother them, then why harass the young people?

Two months earlier, some of those same students boarded a train without tickets. That is normal in Cuba: the national railway doesn’t meet even twenty percent of passenger demand and there is a regulation that allows people who board without tickets to ride once they are on the train by paying double the established fare, to the delight of some industrious pockets. This system was applied to these boys, with the peculiarity that after having been squeezed (each one had to give a third of their monthly university stipend to stay aboard), they saw the money disappear into a pocket without getting any ticket or other proof of the transaction. So, it was the officials who got fatter.

What did they do then? They wrote about it in a letter to the State newspaper Juventud Rebelde, the national escape valve of anyone disgusted who can’t deal with the primary causes, and that let to a purification process in certain instances on the Cuban Railways. There were sanctions against a couple of people. We return to Scene 1.

The little train boss, fired up by that event, in a Mafia-like revenge decided to take it out on the Santa Clara university students, until one night we, forced by inevitable lack of transport, got on the train. Far from the station, the character noted our unmistakable presence and ordered us to get off. Faithful police and functionaries pushed us from car to car until they had us all cornered. And there, with shouts, threats of fines and jail cells, they demanded that we get off the train at the first stop.

We decided this was discrimination and vengeance and abuse and they had no right and in the end we decided to remain still and silent. We didn’t want to get off in Placetas. A girl explained to the police the reasons for the disobedience. The train boss swore definitely to stop it in Guayos: “I’m going to call the Party and whomever.” Instinctively, we move closer. The police smoke nervously, without looking us in the eye. A civilian with the suspicious air of a negotiator wants to know what we want. To go to Camagüey and pay what we owe. The shrieks of the train boss, obstinate about telephoning the station, feeling it all on the dark platform. Some hesitated: What if they arrest us? What if they kick us out of the University? No one answered the one who had spoken: his girlfriend looked at him and spit her gum out the window.

Welcome to the land of El Mayor*, says the most visible sign on the Camagüey train station. With our bags over our shoulders, still smiling still scared, we separate that morning at the station. We look back, the stopped train, its masters incapacitated and its servants hideous, in the early morning when some young men lost their fear.

*Translator’s Note: El Mayor is the nickname of Ignacio Agramonte (1841-1873), a hero of Camagüey in the fight for independence from Spain.

September 15, 2010

The Mea Culpa of the Powerful / Ernesto Morales Licea

What normally happens when a common citizen is at fault for an act of social significance? He is made to pay for his mistake, and in many ways, with a wide range of penalties; depending on the magnitude of his act, it can range from a simple reproach, to deprivation of liberty.

But in certain countries and under certain systems, the events taken as the “errors” or “mistakes” of one individual have a much broader range than under those of others.

In the Kampuchea of Pol Pot, to be an intellectual was an “error” punishable by death, or at least by agricultural work. In Nazi Germany, having too large a nose was an error paid for by having one’s bones made into buttons.

In Cuba, until very recently, to be a homosexual was an unacceptable error that was expiated by expulsion from your job, work as a prisoner in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) camps, or being held in a cold nocturnal jail cell under the pretext of vulgar or outrageous practices.

But under these semi-divine systems, with justice at all cost and any cost, who punishes the error of the infallible ones when they miraculously recant? Who makes them answer, ever, for their human mistakes?

Homophobia Revisited

A few days ago, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, gave an interesting interview to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Faced with the journalist’s questions about Cuban practices with respect to homosexuals and the discrimination they suffered, particularly starting in 1965, el Comandante admitted:

“Yes, there were times of great injustice, whomever might have done it. If we did it, we, we… I am trying to outline my responsibility in all this because, after all, personally, I don’t have these kind of prejudices. If someone is responsible, it is me. It’s true that at that time I wasn’t involved in this… I found myself immersed, principally in the October Crisis, in the war, in political questions… We didn’t know its value. But in the end, someone has to take responsibility, it is mine. I am not going to put the blame on others.”

The topic is too difficult to summarize in a few comforting phrases. There is too much evidence to doubt this recognition of guilt (for example, The October Crisis dates to 1962, when the harshest period of the anti-gay repression had not yet begun).

Among other things, Fidel seems to admit only that he didn’t act against homophobia which arose spontaneously in the society, not that this homophobia was encouraged and guided by all the leaders of the Revolution, including himself.

Here are his words to Lee Lockwood in 1965, published in the book, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel:

We have never believed that a homosexual could personify the conditions and conduct requirements that would allow us to consider him a true revolutionary. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what it means to be a militant communist. I think we should carefully consider this problem. But I’ll be honest and say that homosexuals should not be allowed in positions where they can influence young people.”

This was his famous speech in Havana, 1963:

“Many of these vague girlie-boys, sons of the bourgeoisie, who walk around in too-tight trousers (…) have taken their licentiousness to the extreme of wanting to go to places of public assembly to freely organize their drag shows. Do not confuse the peacefulness of the Revolution with the weakness of the Revolution. Because our society cannot accommodate such degeneracies. Youngsters aspiring to that? No! What would our strong, enthusiastic, energetic youth think of all these evils?”

I think it redundant, however, to focus my analysis on the contradictions in Fidel’s speeches from forty years ago with those of today. On this topic — or topics — there are plenty of examples of sheer gibberish: Whatever you said I said what I said isn’t what I said.

More interesting is the attitude of the powerful who, with the passage of time, revisit history and reinterpret their actions based on the needs of the moment.

They Can’t Whitewash the Past

In 2007 an incident took place in Cuba that shook the roots of our society, particularly in the artistic and intellectual worlds.

Two of the most well-known hangmen of the so called Five Grey Years (when the witch hunt against those who didn’t fit with the concept of the “New Man” reached its height), reappeared on National Television.

Luis Pavón Tamayo and José Serguera, former powers of the Cuban Cultural Nomenklatura, censors with sharp teeth and no turning back, were interviewed in two separate programs and treated as dignified officials who had left their happy mark on the national culture.
The event provoked indignation in a number of important intellectuals who, although now bearers of national prizes in literature, fine arts or architecture, seemed not to have forgotten the silent, joyless years of sad parameterization.

The protest was known as “The Little Email War,” but the digital platform was not the only place in which these intellectuals could express their indignation. (Let’s see, for the readers of this blog: Can you guess what the Cuban press has been focusing on these past few days?)

Ultimately the incident sparked a series of talks on that bitter period, and the publication of a book of these talks. Nothing, absolutely nothing changes in the culture nor in the lives of Cubans in the wake of this incident. But, could we say that the intellectuals, with their protest, sent a concrete message to the leaders of the nation?

Definitely.

The message would be this: “Do not touch the wound that has not healed despite the prizes of apology. The wound of memory never heals. We are calm today, but don’t try to whitewash the past.”

Reconciliation With The “Soft Side”

I can not ignore, of course, that the mere fact that Fidel has assumed his share of responsibility in the sexual segregation suffered by gays in Cuba is a positive and unique.

But after talking with some young homosexuals, and asking heterosexual men in their fifties who also wore long hair and tight pants at that time what they think, I want to point out that the reconciliation of this large sector of the population with the historic leaders of the Revolution is more complex than a simple Mea Culpa with shades of justification.

Why? Well because in the field of human experience, as Ludwig von Mises said, you can’t do laboratory experiments. That is fine in the individual sphere, for personal decisions.

But when millions of people, a whole country, depend on the viewpoints and decisions of someone, when the real control of one’s life is not left up to the individual, but to the State, to the Government, and sometimes to a single leader, who decides how each person should behave, and what their share of happiness will be within the society, there is no margin for error.

How does a homosexual who lost their job, who was unable to live a full life in a hostile society, take in, now, that the one who took over the reins of their country admits, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say so, that at that time he was focused on other things.

How can the one-time prisoners of UMAP, the mistreated, those despised as sick or evil, understand that the person whom an entire people cheered as their savior, now redeems his history with a pair of last-minute arguments.

I know: there are rarely sanctions for the mistakes and lies of the powerful. Sometimes not even in democracies. No one tried George W. Bush for the nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Nobody imprisoned those responsible for British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon with its insufficient precautionary measures for disaster, which caused ecological chaos of horrific proportions.

But in the case of this island of the former New Men, where the macho revolutionary had to fight fiercely against the weak and degenerate, instead of a justifying Mea Culpa, I think it would be better to keep a respectful silence regarding the past, and to begin to build, but for real this time, a country where gays, blacks, intellectuals, workers, freethinkers and socialists can coexist without the need, for another fifty years, to hear confessions of repentance.

September 5, 2010

The Dying Bay / Miriam Celaya

The desolate bay

Ever since Sebastián de Ocampo circumnavigated Cuba, between 1508 and 1509, the seduction of the then blue and clear waters of Havana Bay began. He named it Puerto Carenas* because he stopped here to repair some damage to his ship and to renew his fresh water reserves. Two small rivers flow into this bay. Ocampo did not know it then, but he had discovered, this early in the conquest, what would be the key port of Spanish trade with its American colonies. Anyway, the indigenous name prevailed, and the twins, the city and the bay, went on to share the same name: Havana. With its magnificent natural conditions, its narrow entrance channel, its three wide inlets, the width of its space and depth of its waters, Havana Bay is, even to date, ideal as a port and, consequently, an excellent geographical point, both as a destination for passenger ships and for maritime commerce. Almost from the beginning, and for numerous other reasons, the bay was the heart of the city, the center that inspired life and encouraged the economy. The city owes much of its history to its bay and she –for her part- jealously treasures the remains of ancient facts and legends in the mysteries of her dark cradle.

Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, maritime traffic in Havana was already the most intense of the New World, and some of the largest galleons of the time were constructed in its shipyards. In the nineteenth century, it attained hectic commercial activity due to the Cuban sugar boom after the Haitian Revolution. Through the bay entered, over the centuries, tens of thousands of immigrants and an even greater number of African slaves; it was a widely open door through which poured many of the components that later scattered throughout the Island to lend flesh and spirit to the national culture.

Until the 1980’s, a period of false prosperity derived from the honeymoon with the defunct Soviet Union and of shady deals with the CMEA, Havana harbor was a veritable floating city for the large number of merchant ships that frequented its waters. Moored, anchored or flowing in and out, maritime traffic in the old bay imprinted on the city an atmosphere of movement that contrasts vividly with the spectral appearance it shows today. The bay is like a desert.

Towing crane next to the Santa Clara Pier

With its old docks, Machina and Santa Clara, in ruins, the floating dock empty and covered in rust, an old towing crane abandoned near the Santa Clara pier, sewage and waste-laden greasy water and the smell of pollution invading the space, the bay is a testament to the desecration of the historical memory of the city. She is a distinctive victim of the official apathy, but nobody seems to care. What difference does a little more or less crap in such a dirty city? Many young Havanans shrug their shoulders or look at me in disbelief when I tell them that the Havana Bay of my early childhood had blue water where you could find sea bass that were plentiful, flying fish and many seagulls. Not even my children believe it (“Are you sure, Mom, could it be that you are confusing your memories with your wishes?”) But grey-haired Havanans do know that what I am saying is true.

Dismantling of the jetties

These days, there is a rumor going around that at least part of the scarce maritime commercial activity has been relocating to the port of Mariel, and that a certain Brazilian company is financing the work that will result in a cruise ship terminal in the area of the old piers of the old city, in the so-called Casco Histórico. I don’t know how much truth there is in any of this, but I have seen some work being done in the demolition of the four piers adjacent to the Alameda de Paula and the old fire station, adjacent to the Regla launch pier.

I’m such an optimist that I want to believe that someday there will be changes that will benefit the bay, that -like before- will once again be a fountain of life and of well-being for the city and its inhabitants, that its waters will be clean and that, on a very special day I will invite my suspicious children to walk along the wall of the Malecón, as we so often did when I was still a young girl and they were two little kids. I dream about being able to show them then the quick flutter of the fins of the sea bass frolicking once again in the blue waters of my bay.

* From carenar: (to careen) to clean, caulk, or repair (a ship in this position).

Translator: Norma Whiting

September 14, 2010

Riot Squads? … If There Are No Riots in Cuba… / Luis Felipe Rojas

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

Why is everyone so surprised to see photos of riot troops putting down a student protest in Jaguey Grande**?

I saw riot troops, led my Military Counterintelligence in Camagüey. Their objective was to avoid the public joining the demonstrations of the Eastern Democratic Alliance, which took to the streets in solidarity with Reina Tamayo while her son, Orlando Zapata, was dying in the provincial hospital in that city.

It was February 3, 2010. First came the paramilitaries, beating and arresting people, followed by the leaders of the province’s Communist Party with the plain-clothes police. They took the 29 activists away by force in civilian cars, patrol cars, and some car they found along the way. The clear intention was to remove them from the crowd that had formed and that hadn’t joined in the repression nor the repudiation. Then came the riot police to prevent any outbreak of rebellion in the crowd that was standing around watching women and men being beaten and arrested right and left. I saw it but I couldn’t take photographs because the friend I was with who had a camera had already left so his equipment wouldn’t fall into the hands of the repressors.

I’ve been told from sources outside this isolated-from-information island, that images are circulating on the Internet of a video where a strong operation controls a protest of dissatisfied Pakistanis at a school in Jagüey Grande, Matanzas.

In February, when they controlled the funeral of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, some acquaintances in the area of Banes told me that some military men wearing uniforms they’d never seen before appeared. The told me categorically — they are not the “black wasps” nor the “red berets” among others. I can’t affirm this because I remained under house arrest, but I have no reason to doubt the comments of the residents of the area, who are fully aware of the various military uniforms.

A month ago when the Baracoa dissidents led a resounding protest some I spoke to after their release, told me of the new clothing and equipment of those who controlled the place. But there, as in Camagüey and around Banes, there were no video cameras to record it and put it out on the sites where there is freedom of expression.

The ones I saw in Camagüey while giving the details by phone to the foreign press, wore a dark blue or possibly black suit (it was nearly dark and I was a distance away). They got out of two trucks covered with canvas, there were around thirty of them, with four or five technical canines and their German Shepherds (without muzzles). I was impressed by the helmets with transparent protectors from the forehead to down below the chin, hanging on their belts something like a knife or bayonet, and concave shields like the shell of a giant nut. I’d only ever seen these in demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, in South Africa which they’d shown us on Cuban television, and in the Los Angeles riots in 1991 and other areas from the tropical benevolence of Cuban socialism.

I have two testimonies of people huddled under these disguises to attack their countrymen. The first was in 1994, I was studying philology at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, and the most radical students were grouped into Mambises and Manicatos*. Their mission was supposedly to guard against thefts at night, but we soon learned that in addition they prepared reports about the outstanding students, the life styles of the rest, watched the young people who fell into the arms of foreign students (better living conditions, clothes, stereos, and secretly hoping to get away to Togo, Mali or Burkina Faso).

They were a kind of teenage Rapid Response Brigade. Many of them like others hid behind a supposed sports rivalry, learning and conduct that demonstrate the worth of the “New Man.” They were given sweaters with appropriate letters, we said hello to them, had them in our cubicles, and smiled at their stupidity, but we all knew who they were: real whistle blowers.

Another who told me about it was a computer engineer friend, what in Cuban is known within the canon or racial discrimination as “a Yankee”: six feet tall, blond, intelligent and well versed in martial arts.

According to him (already working in another branch of the economy), his knowledge of combat sports earned him an extra profit, because in the case of civil unrest, his mission was to beat up the crowd, whomever it might me. So he told me.

I’ve had described to me the images of the fuss against the Pakistanis and I can’t believe it. Assault troops against Cubans? Aren’t we the most cultured country in the world where human rights are not violated and everyone is happy under the reign of the Olive-Green?

*This refers to the soldiers of the Liberation Army in the Cuban wars of independence of the 19th century and to the first natives they had news of on the island, respectively.

**Translator’s note:
A video has recently begun circulating on the web of Cuban riot police — wearing Chinese-made helmets — containing a student protest at a Cuban medical school specifically for students from Pakistan in Jaguey Grande, Matanzas, which apparently occurred sometime before March of this year.

September 13, 2010