The video posted with this blog never should have been seen, I think. Moreover, it never should have existed, it never should have been shot. Because once it was, once it grows in the uncontainable technological universe, it becomes impossible to keep it in the shade, to not let it be.
Let’s be honest: sometimes, ignorance protects. Yes. I say it with all its letters: I would have slept in better peace, my expression would have been less gloomy, if I had not devoted 5 minutes and 28 seconds to watching it. Because, once it is watched, if we carry inside us what is known as decorum, or what we call the soul, we can never be the same afterwards.
His name is Juan Zamora González. We don’t know his age, but I assume he is older than 70. This we know: he presently lives in Villa Clara, and, years ago—when his arms could firmly carry a rifle—he risked his blood, his being. He placed his life in the hands of a beautiful chimera, the revolutionary triumph of an entire nation looking for a promising future. He did it, like many others, in the hope of his humility. Full of faith.
And I, the eternal “talker”, am speechless this time. I don’t know if I should apologize for that too. The testimony of a crushed man, a man bitten by disgrace, has stolen my impulse and my sleep.
Because, as of today, I only have one credo, one strict dogma that rules my existence: humanism. Like that. Pure and simple. I love humankind. I love my race. I, like renaissance people four hundred years ago, also believe in humankind and admire its divine existence.
And for this reason, for, as a basic principle, loving humankind, I despise those who sully others, who frustrate others, who rob others of their existence. Be it an assassin with demoniac hands, or a system with its all-exclusive gears.
And because of that I also ask myself, feeling my own rage winning over my body, growing inside me with subtle ferocity:
What deplorable race do we Cubans turn ourselves into when we cease to love our own kind, the neighbor who suffers and stays silent, when we devote our hours and lives to intolerance and repression? What dark essence is inside those who can devote their time to learning how to censor blogs, how to block free discourse, how to attack ladies dressed in white, when a man such as this is starving to death in front of their unperturbed noses?
No. It cannot be true, dear readers. It cannot be, Cubans everywhere, inside and abroad: look at the face of Juan Zamora González. Feel his pain. Cry when this man smiles in shame while he tells of how he has sold the tiles of his roof so he can eat, while he tells of how if he still lives is because the knife he used to try to end his agony was not even sharp enough.
And now I don’t apologize for posting the video, for interrupting the peace of those who watch it: now I say let us all watch it. Especially those who go on shouting their “Vivas!”, those who do not spare any praises in favor of an accomplished Revolution—for the humble and by the humble—and those who have lost their memory under an amnesia of corruption and power.
Let us look at the face of this poor soul, and let us know that each minute of silence, apathy and hatred, each minute we choose to forget that the least fortunate drown in their sorrows while local papers—like Colombus—speak of the most beautiful land on Earth, each minute we refuse to fight for the joy of a nation that is still midway between boredom and unhappiness, condemns us all a little.
Suddenly I saw myself as the murderer before a possible victim: doubting, considering the possibility, weighing pros and cons. Like an inexperienced criminal warning of his intention to commit the crime, but not quite daring. Perhaps the only thing different in my case was the body of the crime.
I had no intentions of taking the life of anyone, or stealing their money and clothes. I only had a book in my hands, a crisp and provocative book whose price I simply couldn’t afford.
To put it in perspective for the readers: I was sitting on the second floor of a bookstore whose name, out of basic common sense, I prefer to hide. (I wouldn’t like, that in the future, this story would give me the title of a suspect in a place which I want to become my second home).
From my place at the mahogany table, one arm leaning on the railing, I had the privilege of seeing the fascinating panorama of buyers, students with homework half done, soft colors of countless books. I was watching the beautiful painting on the well-lit ceiling with some of the most famous faces in the world of literature: Fitzgerald, Rimbaud, Wilde.
I had arrived a little before two in the afternoon. I’d ordered a cappuccino, set up my laptop — a loan from a kind and adorable soul — on an empty table, and searched the shelves for books in Spanish until I ended up at my seat with six books whose prices, for now, were prohibitive for me. Ten minutes after ten that night, I was still there.
Among hundreds of volumes that in Cuba would have been Utopia, and the free wireless surfing offered every day in that place, the hours flew by, and suddenly I found myself fascinated with one book in particular, a survivor I couldn’t resign myself to returning to its shelf, as I had done with the rest.
“Terrorist” it said on the cover. The author: John Updike. One of the masters of American narrative. Twenty-eight dollars to take it with me. A swallow of gringo coffee, to ease the sadness.
And suddenly with butterflies in my stomach, the subversive thought: “After eight hours here, who watches that I don’t pack it up with the laptop, that I don’t smuggle it out of this bookstore.” Libro — book — and libre — free — in my language they look the same. They should be synonyms. And in my hand, Updike’s novel, unresisting, no complaints.
To put it in perspective for my readers a second time: It’s common practice in the country I come from. It’s a way of life. Steal to survive. Steal to eat, clothe yourself, put shoes on your feet. Steal to brush your teeth, get a ride somewhere. Steal to read, also, and to dream just a little of freedom.
In Cuba, according to the humorous works of Osvaldo Doimeadiós, everyone steals. And without the least guilt, which is really cruel. I’m pointing out the truth: Not from one another, everyone steals from the State, the owner of the newspapers, the grocery stores, the parks and their sparrows. And the bookstores. Everyone steals from this omnipresent owner if the occasion presents itself. And then they have the amazing cheek to boast about it. In Cuba, to ransack the State is a social practice too widespread for something called civic conscience to stop one’s hand.
Why? Why don’t Cubans respect the norms of coexistence, why has helping oneself to the State coffers become a custom as common as salsa dancing and playing baseball? Elemental: When no one can live honestly with what they earn for a month’s work; and when the cause of this situation — the State — is very easy to identify because they own and control everything, to take the hard way what is impossible to achieve in a good way, is an ugly but necessary method of survival.
Immediate consequences: To steal from Big Brother is now an uncensured practice. Uncensured socially, that is. But not legally.
There is a second reason: When citizens don’t feel gratitude for what surrounds them, the result is disrespect. When a Cuban has to spend days in a bus terminal, waiting for some vehicle of mercy to travel to his province, it’s very hard not to destroy the benches, to steal the soap — if there is any — in the bathrooms, to perceive this institution as anything but hostile, an enemy, to feel no gratitude for anything, and to inflict whatever damage is possible on everything within reach.
This explains the ruinous state of so many public institutions, urban transport, filthy hospitals, or movie theaters in my country: The employees steal and loot and destroy, the customers steal and loot and destroy. This also explains the poor misguided people who come to the United States ready to do the same to Uncle Sam, and end up behind bars, suffering terribly, until the documentary filmmaker Estela Bravo rescues them with her compassionate productions.
And this explains, ultimately, that those in Cuban know that man doesn’t live by bread and remittances alone, but needs books like vital oxygen, and doesn’t hesitate to steal them when a distracted librarian or a rude seller leaves the slightest margin to do so.
The assorted local libraries in my country, are children of a permanent state of theft. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Let whomever is free of this sin, among Cuban booklovers, cast the first stone.
But what did I do now? Why not just do what instinct told me to do and not leave John Updike’s “Terrorist” on its crowded shelf? The same thing that made me return the novel proudly to where it belonged. The same thing that prevented me from bringing harmful practices to the new society that just admitted me. Read it well: It’s called gratitude.
Gratitude to whom? To a bookstore where I sat for eight hours without anyone asking for my identification, questioning my ideology, or inquiring about what I had come to do. A bookstore where the person who serves me coffee smiles at me, where they hold the door open for me to pass through. Gratitude to this gorgeous place, well lit, where no one questions my sitting in one place, spending barely three dollars, while they offer me free Internet — Good God! Free Internet for a blogger recently arrived from the Island! — without asking me what I am using it for.
And perhaps more fundamentally: Gratitude for a society, that imperfect and deserving of censure it is in other things, allows places like this, private businesses like this, to proliferate for the benefit of their owners and of all citizens.
Three days ago I returned “Terrorist” to the place from which it is sold. It’s not the best novel I will read, I believe, and soon, very soon, I will be able to pay a friendly employee the twenty-eight dollar price of the latest work of this universal master.
Then I found out — sweating bullets — a revealing fact: All the books that aren’t paid for, on passing through the door, activate a security mechanism that floods the room with noise. I don’t remember if after finding out I looked toward heaven, and again showed gratitude. I should have.
But in that second, while returning the novel to its place on the shelf, no one would have understood my secret happiness. No one other than me would have understood the importance of an act like that, where a young man educated in social disrespect just savored the taste of the word civility. The word honesty, in its institutional home.
His face is a catalog of discouragement. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, his horse’s reins in his hands, he seems to me like a pillar of salt from another time. With several days growth of beard, and a yellowish coat he must have exhumed from a closet in these days of winter.
“Would you give me a second, please? I’m a journalist and would like to ask you a few questions.”
From his seat, over my head, he looks at me with discouragement. He doesn’t agree, nor refuse. He’s just there.
“I would like to ask you about the strike you people held a week ago,” I said, with fear that once again I would receive the same evasive answers as on my previous two attempts: a tattooed young man told me, next to his horse, “No brother, I wasn’t here that day”, and drifted away in a hurry; and a chunky old man, wearing a palm frond hat, answered in a more sincere way, “Look, I don’t want to get into more trouble, go ask someone else”.
A little over a week earlier the coachmen from my traditional Bayamo had undertaken an unthinkable action: two days of absolute strike. A strike in a country without strikes, a country with the only constitution in the planet that does not recognize such a right for its laborers.
The unusual news spread across the whole island: the news exclusive had made it all the way to my hospital bed in Havana through a young nurse who took it with natural cheerfulness, “Bayamian, the coachmen of your town are on strike. Let’s see if you people light the city on fire again.”
“I would like to know the causes of this strike, in essence, what were you demanding?” I asked him, vaguely hopeful before his silence, a silence that, at least, didn’t push me away from there as his coworkers had done, their voices paralyzed by fear; I could have been a State Security agent, an informant, a plainclothes cop.
He takes his time, chews his cigar and speaks without looking at me, as if something in the distance really caught his attention.
“Man, the only thing we were asking for was for them to leave us barely enough money to eat. That’s all. For them not to abuse us anymore.”
His words, said in the same peevish tone, thrill me. I wasn’t expecting this access to the truth.
“Why the abuse, what has changed?” I ask.
“The amount of money we have to pay the State now, in order for them to let us work. The taxes and payments due to thousands of different made up things they have recently imposed on us, just because.”
What is officially handled with the carefully chosen terms such as “Tax Adjustment,” is summed up for this man and for millions of other Cubans, as something very simple: the rates imposed by the Ministry of Prices and Finance for the practice of self-employment, in the majority of the cases, are simply exorbitant. It’s unsustainable.
Long before this forty-eight hour strike coming from a very humble sector, I had received news about the tax outrage. I heard testimonies from a neighborhood barber who, after twenty-six years of practice, was being forced to give up his work permit because the two-hundred pesos that the State fixed as his monthly share had become astronomical. In the last month, he had had to sell a couple of his possessions in order to make up the sum.
“How much were you paying before, and how much are you paying now? ” I proceed with my interview, afraid that the six people who would fill up his carriage would appear and my brief investigation would be cut short.
“Before, the monthly permit fee was 130 pesos. Now, they brought it up to 150 pesos, plus 87.50 pesos for Social Security, plus 10 percent of our daily earnings, for using this place to park our carriages.”
I tried to rapidly calculate the figure we were talking about, and asked him for daily numbers; quickly adding it up, we agreed on an approximate total for his monthly taxes: around 500 pesos.
The carriages in Bayamo have, for some time, left off being traditional museum and classic colony pieces, to become a solution to the severe urban transportation problems.
Every morning, a legion of workers paid 1 Cuban peso and traveled on them to hospitals, schools, grocery stores. Waiting for the city buses had become, for many, an unbearable chimera, alleviated only by these mobile artifacts, an unequivocal symbol of the villa founded in 1513 by the vicious Spaniard Diego Velazquez.
And all of a sudden, on an ordinary morning, the daily peso for the carrier doubled and in some cases, it tripled; the coachmen had just raised the prices of their fares, and the laborers’ salaries remained the same: 300 pesos, average, a month. The math was stressful for those who had to travel on them daily.
“The thing started from problems with the people, look,” he tells me, and now, for the first time I think he’s engaging in our conversation. “We had more discussions than trips. Many didn’t want to pay us, they would call us thieves. And the only thing we could say was, ‘Go complain to the authorities! We don’t want to raise prices, but they’re forcing us to!’ We were like that for almost a month. Until we had to get together and present the problems. And a moment came where we couldn’t take it anymore, young man, and we had to stop.”
His words spill out as he vents. They carry the suppressed anger, vibrant, of someone who can’t resign himself to it all.
The day they reported they wouldn’t work anymore, the State forced private trucks and buses, with other routes, to cover their trips. Not one person from the union was able to intervene, not a voice from those other transportation modes was allowed to protest: the master spoke, you could only obey.
On the second day, they gathered them at the headquarters of the provincial Government, bearing a peculiar and fragmented manual of intelligence. Never all together. They relied on the ancient maxim, “Divide and conquer.”
They pressured them in small groups. Under the guise of more clearly explaining the mechanisms they removed the seeds of disagreement with sophisticated threats: if they persisted on keeping their reactionary position they would forever lose their license.s They would no longer be able to work with their animals, which by the way, had cost them several thousands.
“Imagine for yourself if the people had not been intimidated,” he makes a gesture of annoyance, drowsing in his seat again at the level of my forehead. “We all have children here, families. We all have to kill the hunger, and this is the about the only thing we know. There are many who can’t even recover their initial investment, you understand? Who would continue after that?”
I could imagine the rest of the story, though the man didn’t tell me. I assumed from the fear, the hesitant speech, the refusals I’d received previously: it was the panic of being branded counterrevolutionaries. The investigations by the intelligence services, the interrogations to determine the leaders of the discontent; they were, in those days, taking over the area with their inexhaustible presence, the repressors with kid gloves from State Security. In Cuba they cannot allow the sowing of public unrest.
This is, in effect, the chronicle of an announced conflict: the grandiose plan to revive the Cuban economy not only contemplates the layoffs of hundreds of thousands; not only does it contemplate permits to exercise ridiculous professions — button-coverer, scissors grinder — to make a personal livelihood; but it includes, in addition, a Cyclopean increase in taxes for all private businesses, although the fundamental ingredient, money, continues to be absent from the family horizon.
The immediate consequence? Thousands of self-employed workers thinking, with anger and helplessness, about giving up the work that in the last years had allowed them to feed themselves, badly. Offering a license placed at an impossible height. Infinite shame should be the only name of this congress.
“Thanks very much for your time,” I say, by way of goodbye, when I see that our fleeting interview is ending. “And have a good day.”
I turned and before taking off I heard his voice again, and I paused for another second, looking again at his face without dreams or hopes.
“Don’t mention my name in what you write, boy,” he says, and I can barely suppress my pain, furious frustration, at hearing this plea from an adult man, independent, whom the system has completely neutralized with fear. “The only thing they haven’t done to me is seize the coach for saying things I shouldn’t.”
I make a gesture with my hand: don’t worry about it, it won’t be me who will threaten his poor living for his family.
I return to my personal bubble, suffering in silence for a hostile reality, that every day is more incompatible with the happiness of Cubans; a reality that from my earliest awareness has only threatened to worsen, bringing worse news, worse years, more acute shortages. Returning to my laboratory of ideas I can’t stop thinking about a phrase of the poet Lezama Lima who asked, with biting bitterness, how can we find out way out of this dark alley.
After letting me in, they pointed to the hospital bed with clean linens and asked me to sit. They both attempted, with their subtle tricks, to hide the cylindrical cube full of cotton balls stained in red that laid right beneath it. They couldn’t.
“How are you, how are you feeling?” the male doctor asked me in an amicable tone, while he unwrapped his medical instruments and prepared his space.
“I am perfectly fine,” I joked. “You are the ones who tell me I’m not.”
They both smiled, maybe because of my skirmish way of fending off the irresistibly disturbing nerves that made me clumsy and most likely gave my face an expression similar to stupidity or abandonment.
The doctor seemed to be younger than he really was, probably due to his long hair, tied back in a pony tail, that fell over the back of his white gown. The lady, a robust brunette, with an easy smile. Later, I learned a curious fact: they’re husband and wife. Three children in common.
‘First, let me borrow your finger,’ he said, in his hand was a sting that appeared in my childhood nightmares to puncture the tip of all five of my fingers from both hands. “Bad start,” I thought with bitterness. I’ve always preferred every needle in the world in my arms or butt, than that sharpness sucking out drops of blood from my finger tips.
Said and done. An electric shock on my middle finger: “I always do it without shame,” he said. “If I do it with pity I might have to pinch twice.” And I agreed. Yes, he definitely does it very well. And with no shame at all.
Then, they both took a few seconds. He spoke again:
“You should basically already know how the process goes, but we’ll explain regardless. Now you should lay on your side, in fetal possession, facing the wall and with your back to us. You’re going to hold your legs as if you are really cold. We are going to lower your pants a little bit and pull up your shirt. You will feel some jabs on the iliac crest, specifically in one of those small dents right on top of your butt. Later, a subtle sting: the anesthesia.
“The anesthesia is just to fool my psyche” I thought. I knew perfectly well that it would only numb the muscle zone, but further than that, where we were really going, there would be nothing it could do.
“The first thing we’re going to do is take a sample of the marrow, from the inside of the bone,” he continued. “That is the biopsy. There, you won’t feel a thing. After, there will be some manipulation, and perhaps some pain. We need to take a sample from the hip’s flat bone in order to do a biopsy. The most important part is that you can’t move for anything in the world. There are some patients that scream, and others say the anticipation is worse than what it really is at the end… but no movement, ok?”
And I agreed, knowing – just by pure intuition – that those stories of painless, fast procedures, are just as beautiful as fairy tales, but even a little more fake. They are the doctors manual’s descriptions, their attempt to avoid giving us pain, and they place them in our heads as a way of distraction. But just that. They know it.
What did I feel during that mortal second, sort of like “the beginning of the end,” when I had to place myself in such a vulnerable position? Abandonment. That exactly. I felt just as helpless, as fickle, as those fetuses I was now pretending to mimic. The certainty of knowing that nothing that could come after this moment would be pleasant. And that I couldn’t do anything to avoid it.
A freezing, super thin serpent, advancing inside of me. A first jab: the sour sting of the anesthesia covering my tissue. Movements from the doctor’s fingers over the infiltrated area, stimulating the hip’s surface with his hands. Then, a second jab. And a third. A bearable pain so far: something that carefully penetrated, that placed a needle there, where the marrow grows, and that sucked out part of that spongy material.
Yes, palpable pain. My hands clung to the railing of the stretcher, feeling goosebumps and electrical shocks that started in my body and ended up mixing with the coldness of the needle. Something like that, more or less: when the only guide is your imagination and the carnal perception, one cannot not be too exact.
Some minutes of intense but controllable pain, while I thought, between muscle and cheek contractions: “It’s almost over, it’s almost over, it’s almost over.” And it was, at some point. I stopped feeling the snake inside of me, the frigid material of the needle. But then the feminine voice, as encouraging as a mother’s, said behind me:
“Now we’re going to the second part. Be strong, let’s go.”
And nothing was rational, coherent again. Nothing was controllable anymore.
A piece metal started moving forward centimeter by centimeter, brusque, violent, moving tissue in search of its objective: the bone. A huge trocar (As I later saw), a spiked cylinder, with another cylinder inside, that barely gained ground with the push of the trained hands, and for every advancing millimeter would extract grimaces from my face. Always inside, always thick: a short path measures in inches path I experienced as endless.
Trocar used for bone marrow biopsies.
A light stump against the hip: the bone resistance. And almost immediately the indescribable, unpronounceable, extraverbal pain as is almost everything sublime or terrible, from the metal clinging to the bone and intending to detach a bone particle.
Could I pick an adjective for that pain? Yes. But it is a poetic adjective that only I can comprehend, and only I can know how exact it is. This pain wasn’t “fulminating,” nor “infernal,” according to how we try to describe terrible things. It was rather a sweet pain. As simple as that. A sweet pain that made me scream without opening my mouth, and tensed my hands against the railings while inside me the tip of a sharp cylinder hurt my bone.
“You’ll feel a pull,” said a voice I couldn’t identify: whether his or hers.
And the pull came. But it didn’t detach anything: my hip stayed intact. A few seconds to rest. I would dare to assert that it was a rest for them too, vaguely disappointed for not getting it the first time.
Then, on that gray-like second where even thinking was bothersome, a door that opens, that closes, and a smell that at this point I could perfectly recognize, was snuggling with stealth. A swaying voice: “How is my boy behaving,” that in an instant disperses the terror that makes me tremble, that makes my hands and feet sweat in the middle of an antarctic climate.
Her name: Lismary Cruz. The hematologist who, starting a week ago, would come say hi at seven-thirty everyday with a smile similar to a balm, auscultating me, answering my never-ending questionnaires with an encouraging presence that was more than professional, it was angelic; and that along with other specialists was dedicated to something that, at least for me, had no small importance: to put their commitment and talent in efforts of preserving my life.
Her hair was jet black, wavy, accentuating her white skin. Small height, and with a facial beauty that didn’t allow her – according to her funny and egocentric words – to scare the septuagenarian patient next to my bed, that was complaining about his hiccups: “I have to find someone very ugly to scare you so your hiccups go away, dear. Even if I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to.” And then, the amusing smile.
“How is my boy behaving?” she said, her voice breaking the momentary silence.
Somebody answered excellent, that I am a man, that I was taking it without moving not even a millimeter, and I, wanting to ask what it meant to be a man, what it meant to take it, how to face what I was now feeling, and that was growing again, gaining more strength, ever since that masculine voice, which despite everything that was comforting said: “Here we go again.”
Lismary got close to me, she put her hands near mine. My instinct asking for help: I took her hand as if she was my mother, or my sister, or my girlfriend: taking care not to hurt her, gagged from the pain but calm because, unconsciously somehow, I trusted her more than the rest. I believed that if she was present nothing bad could happen to me. Even though, in reality, this wasn’t true.
The pushes they needed to introduce the trocar once again made my torso move. At times they were so strong they moved me some degrees. It hurt. It deeply hurt. My legs were shaking. Lismary’s support took me to a subliminal place as did her voice, talking close to me, attempting to calm me down, saying “We’re almost done,” when the truth was we weren’t; suddenly her voice, even though I can’t remember right now why or how, started talking to me about origami, about the artistic shapes some can give paper, and about how she felt a passion in making them.
“You have to give me one, I’ve never had one,” I said on a moment of lucidity and peace, as I immediately close my eyes and feel how my tears finally won the battle. They grew tightly against my eyelids. And the trocar attaching to my bone, biting it, attempting to latch on to it in order to cut a piece… as the pull came again, and once again, in vain.
Silence again. I hear them stay quiet. And I hear a hectic noise of hands and instruments, and steps I later understood: the doctor had to yield to the masculine strength. My bones were too hard. That’s exactly what they told me. Lucky me, young and strong bones; but now, that was unfortunate.
The inward pushes, the meat not giving in, the pain that’s already bittersweet, which causes me spasms and quick complaints I shut with my knees on my mouth. I want everything to be over already. I wish it had never started. It hurts too much. Way too much. Sometimes it feels as if it’s drilling, others as if it’s crushing. I don’t know. I don’t even know how I didn’t totally faint. It may be because of Lismary’s redeeming voice, that says things I do not understand but that do soothe me; maybe because with my suffering I thank, after all, these stupendous doctors that take the time to study me and focus all their thinking on me.
An inaudible crunch. No ears heard it. Rather it was heard by my insides. And the trocar now came counterclockwise, coming out, finally imprisoning a yellowish particle (bones are not white) that I didn’t see, and I don’t want to know if it was extremely small or gigantic, but it put an end to a frightful half hour.
Now I could relax. I was now able to slacken my muscles. Feel the cotton balls cleaning me up, that would also end up in the cylinder bucket under the stretcher. I could hear my hematologist’s voice saying: ” We finished, we finished”… with a secret compassion she couldn’t confess, with an empathy for my pain that professionally she couldn’t show, but that I know she experienced.
Sitting down, getting up. Looking at those two young doctors, also future hematologists, that didn’t allow that slight moment to fill up with grayness despite the suffering, and dedicated jokes and encouraging words to me. Their names, which I also learned later on: Roy Roman, Hany Trujillo. I looked at them and I thought, for a second: I am nothing. Artists are nothing. I write for me, I don’t deliver my vocation to no one in particular, even though my product is finally consumed by some one that is not me. But these people dedicate every second of their lives to work for everyone else’s health. Blessed be.
I took my first steps almost without being able to breathe. I said to both: “Thank you very much. You both are phenomenal,” and leaning on my tiny doctor I started heading to my bed in room 12A. Every step was an agony.
Minutes later, still raging from fear and pain, laying facing down, I had to take my pillow off my head and pay attention to the woman who, graceful once again, timely once again, opened her hand and extended two miniature origami, recently created.
Lismary said they were for behaving well. I smiled, surprised, grateful: sensing that in that pair of shapes she was giving me other energies that she maybe didn’t even understand yet. In my insides I felt I had a clear suspicion that those weak figures, in yellow and pink, origami born from a tremendous circumstance, at the same time beautiful, would prevail in me going forward as a spell made out of paper against the hard times still to come.
Is there any lesson Latin Americans can take from the recent appalling events in Ecuador, where a group of mutinous police, demanding the repeal of a law affecting them, kidnapped and physically assaulted the president of the Republic?
I believe so. I think that incidents of this nature have a radius of action a hundred times greater than the simple context in which they occur, and they shed a very clear light on certain practices that concern not just a handful of citizens, but an entire region.
What took place in Quito last Thursday has, in my opinion, an exact definition: embarrassing. Allow me to set aside the definitions of legality, democracy, constitutionality, because in truth, the feeling generated in me — as a television viewer and ultimately a Latin American — by this Hollywood spectacle of kidnappings, mobs, nocturnal shootings and risky rescues, was just that: a deep shame.
In the first place, what is the origin of this political riot that could evolve into a coup d’etat (although I differ with those who say that was the original objective)? It was the discontent of an important sector of the Ecuadorian national police with the passage of a Public Service Law which did away with certain benefits — salary increases and bonus rewards for years of service.
The impending loss of these benefits had already caused those affected to hold negative opinions (reaction rather than logic), and in order to discuss the new uses of the dollars saved, and the fairness of the measure, the Ecuadorean president had gone in person to the Police Headquarters in Quito.
The final outcome of the presumed dialog was physical aggression not only against a leader — who, whatever people say, enjoys wide popular support in his country — but who is also a human being who was recovering from an operation on his right knee.
They used tear gas against the president. They insulted and attacked the president. They confined him at the Police Hospital and for twelve feverish hours held him hostage along with some of his closest aids and political appointees.
The demand from the insurgents remained the same: “You abrogate this law and we’ll stop everything,” was more or less the offer of his captors.
Now, the first question that could be asked about this act of social barbarism is: What kind of confidence can Ecuador have in its institutions, after one of the most visible, and by definition the one charged with ensuring public order, engaged in such an uncivilized and violent act?
At that moment, trying to mentally weigh the impact of what I saw on television, I remembered a brief social essay by Mario Vargas Llosa. It was titled, “Why has Latin America failed?” One of the fundamental ideas that great writer (in the past also a politician) defended was that there cannot be sustainable democratic development in our region while our institutions continue to be so greatly discredited, and while the people do not really believe in them.
I subscribe to this statement one hundred percent. How can Latin Americans achieve a prosperity that is not only economic, but also social and cultural, while the institutions created to safeguard the functioning of society behave themselves, at times, like legalized gangsters?
Latin Americans cannot have confidence in a renewal process while the judges who make the laws are officials who can be bought and sold (Mexico: case in point), or puppets who distort the law whenever their government master demands it of them: See Venezuela.
How can we pretend to elevate our region to a more respectable and dignified status in the eyes of the world, if the police are more corrupt than the narcotraffickers, and common citizens often don’t know who to fear more, the criminals or the supposed agents of public order?
How can Latin Americans have even the slightest level of self-esteem, when it has been more than a practice, and in fact a tradition, that the armies overthrow the presidents (just or unjust, democratic or totalitarian) and bathe in the blood that flows in the streets of their own countries?
This was the first conclusion I came to in the new case of Ecuador: the state of health of democracy in Latin American continues critical when a vital institution like the police believes it has the right to attack the highest authority of the nation, and present its demands as it would to any headquarters colleague.
Those responsible for these institutions can perhaps be replaced, but social awareness is not so easily replaced.
Another important point to consider is the speed with which so many leaders in our region rushed to ridicule an incident of this magnitude.
Me, although I am not even remotely a politician, understand that moderation and tact — when the pieces are not yet clear on the board — are primary in this profession.
Meanwhile, two presidents whom I don’t hesitate to define as the most lamentable in Latin America today — Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales — lost no time in making themselves the laughingstock once again, this time with the crisis in Ecuador as their stage.
The first was comandante Chavez, whom I remember cynically saying to Jaime Bayly in a television interview in 1997, before his investiture as president, that should he win at the ballot box it would not “go badly” for foreign investors, that he would respect private property and freedom of expression, both so necessary in his country.
Well, this current paradigm of governmental arrogance didn’t hesitate for a second to shout that the United States was the real orchestrator of this coup, and he repeated it a few more times, in case the grinning Amaryan who administers Bolivia wasn’t listening closely to what he should say. Evo heard, of course, and repeated it like a faithful clone.
With almost the same alacrity as the rest of the denounced governments, the United States officially and in no uncertain terms denounced this act against the president of Ecuador.
Not even the Cuban government dared, this time, to accuse the Americans, at least publicly, of being behind this incident. Nor has the one principally affected, Rafael Correa, who at other times hasn’t hesitated to confront U.S. policy hand-in-hand with his allies Chavez and Evo. But those two, one as the voice and the other as his echo, were consistent in their perennial effort to be the least respected presidents in our hemisphere.
I think this act of police insubordination in Quito, still offers us material for analysis. It will come to light whether — as Rafael Correa claimed from the outset (also unwisely and without proof) — the ex-president and coup leader Lucio Gutierrez had a hand in it, or if it was simply an event coordinated by the dissatisfied police.
Partisans of both hypotheses can say what they will, but there is no clear evidence that event was limited only to discontent among its participants, nor that it was an attempted coup where Gutierrez took an active part.
But what we can already take away as a definitive lesson from the attack suffered by a president in the exercise of his mandate, on the part of the police facing the loss of some of their economic benefits, is that a great deal is still left to be accomplished in Latin America to build First World countries, not only with regards to economics, but also mentally.
A typically Cuban anecdote related that a well-known politician, during the presidency of Tomás Estrada Palma at the beginning of the Republic, could find no better way to describe Cuba’s battered civil spirit than to say, “This is a country of cafés con leche and pork rinds.”
Offensive but true: Latin American nations, with such a tradition of blood and brawls, where three coups can happen in the same country in less than a decade, where the tradition of putting dictators in power is not dead, and where in the 21st Century a president can be slapped for taking away benefits, has not ceased to be, with a few exceptions, a region of cafés con leche and pork rinds.
My mother contracted the debt in my name, and hours later made me aware of it. She said:
“I promised the Virgin that you would go today to her leave taking. At seven in the evening they are taking her to another community, so do not wait too long to go.”
For a deluded second I tried to evade the obligation. I tried, for example, to say “I already have a commitment, you didn’t tell me far enough in advance,” but I gave up immediately. There are certain requests from mothers that, although they are camouflaged as mere suggestions, have a military strength. You comply, and talk about it later.
So there I was, at the parish of San Juan Bosco as night fell in Bayamo, docile before a debt I did not contract and did not have much interest in settling: I have never confessed it, I haven’t even wanted to think about it in a conscious way, but since April 2009 I’ve experienced something like a vague resentment toward the Virgin of Charity.
A family member whom in life I loved with a passion, was murdered by two savages who, in doing so, also forever made off with piece of my joy. At the moment of death, as the worst criminals had done at the time of Christ, my uncle, paradigm of the greatest virtues of my blood, carried the Virgin on a card in his wallet, and on a gold pendant around his neck.
From that time on I, spiritual by definition but rational and atheist by upbringing, could not think of the national deity with the same emotional respect.
So what was this leave taking to which my mother sent me? It was the farewell to Bayamo of the statue of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, who has been making the rounds of all the provinces of the country since August. The primary way in which the Catholic Church has wanted to pay tribute to the Patroness of Cuba on the 400th anniversary — coming up in 2012 — of her appearance in the Bay of Nipe.
According to the legend, this tiny Virgin appeared in the midst of a raging storm, floating atop the waves, to protect three helpless fisherman who had no other option than to offer themselves up to heaven. Some say the image came from the shipwreck of a boat that carried it, and that explains its appearance in the water. Others speak of the divine.
What is known is that she appeared in 1612, and since then the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre has been the patron saint of the nation, boasting another even more glorious title: The Virgin Mambisa. Our patriots of the 19th century carried her to their encampments and venerated her in the midst of enemy fire.
They embroidered her image on their shirtsleeves, and gave thanks to her when they returned alive from the battle with the Spaniards. Now, commemorating her four centuries, the ecclesiastical authorities have taken a replica of the original (which is jealously guarded in Santiago’s El Cobre) and is presenting her to all Cubans.
She arrived in my city a few days earlier from Holguín. According to testimonies from my friends, her reception in Bayamo was really an apotheosis. They spoke of twenty thousand people following here through impassable streets, and masses overflowing with humble parishioners. Now she continues her journey.
Two blocks from San Juan Bosco Church I could barely move. Neither the anomalous cold of this warm region, nor the evening rush prevented many thousands of devotees from coming to see her go.
This more personal, more intimate contact, with the keeper of a faith rooted in the religious and cultural consciousness of a nation, offered a perfect opportunity for the consecration of the faithful, and for those who also had something to ask, but didn’t even know how to do so. This was confirmed for me by an amusing question from the priest who officiated at the mass:
“How many of you are coming to our parish for the first time? Please raise your hands.”
A multitude of hands, amid a whispered camaraderie, rose above our heads. My arm among them, of course. Many did not know how to pray, had never attended a mass, and as was evident in their faces, they found themselves confused, faintly blushing, to be in a temple that had, until then, been something foreign and distant.
But now that the Patroness was within those resonant walls, there was a particular feeling, one of hope, that extended from that religious altar; it was a time to abdicate disbelief and to ask the divine for what cannot be reached on a human plane.
I saw emotional faces. Hands joined together, eager eyes. I heard murmured prayers carry the dreams of those who wait and suffer. I saw the sick, the crippled, the malformed, faces martyred by physical or spiritual pain where only in a congregation like this one could they find a glimmer of peace. I saw friends with unmentionable plans, with obstructed paths, with material needs transformed into spiritual anxiety. I heard prayers for the imprisoned, persecuted, humiliated. An infinite set of ideas and people.
And all, everyone who presented themselves before this beautiful and humble figure, delicately naive, experienced the most harmonious and conciliatory moment of their recent days.
I remembered the aura of solemnity and the faith in the impossible that emanates from the temple located in El Cobre, where Cubans of every ideology, race, nationality and religious creed, at some point finally arrive. Some, to repay sad promises on their knees; others to give the Virgin their Olympic medals, their university degrees, or their crutches; and others, like me, out of elementary social or cultural interest.
I think back to my home, full of photographs and mental images, I did not understand how mysterious is the terrain of faith and human sentiment. I knew, though, that this show of brotherhood, its energy spread by a voluntary multitude, none of whom were summoned or forced to do anything, who in other times had held firm to their faith despite persecutions and exclusions, was indisputable proof that people can be deprived of all their liberties, except spiritual freedom.
And if I could not come to discover my faith before an image created by human hands, dressed by humans, devoutly carried by humans, I could enjoy the event as a sociocultural phenomenon that identifies and defines us, but that I cannot sensorially partake in; and so perhaps I should look with humility on all those Bayamese who asked for their lives, their miseries, and their desires. And who did it with real passion.
Now that an untimely Hodgkin’s Lymphoma forces me to write from a hospital nearly five hundred miles from home, and threatens a radical change in my life as a healthy and future-oriented young man, I can’t help but envy those who attain such spiritual communion and find in her solace and peace.
As always, a macabre joke summarizes a Cuban reality with unsurpassed accuracy:
Three guests of different nationalities celebrate the courage of certain practices that take place in their countries.
The Dutchman says:
“Brave men that we are, we went in a group to find prostitutes, knowing that among them, it is almost certain that one has AIDS. And the one who sleeps with that one… well, you know.”
The Russian says:
“Brave men that we are, we are the ones who invented the game of Russian roulette. We gather to drink vodka and put one bullet in the revolver. Everyone has to put it to his head and pull the trigger, and the one who gets the bullet… well, you know.”
The Cuban, amused, dismisses them all with:
“Brave men that we are,” he says, “we meet on any street corner to speak ill of the government, knowing that at least one person in the group is State Security. And whoever’s turn it is to get fucked that day… well, you know.”
Neither art nor television have escaped the pervasiveness of this institution in Cuba; and it’s the same for fictionalized series that have been the work of heroic infiltrators; they have managed to produce clandestine films like the short Monte Rouge, directed by Eduardo del Llano (a truly national “underground hit”), where, as the height of cynicism, two security officials knock on the door of the citizen known as Nicanor and smilingly inform him that they have come to install the two microphones allocated to his home.
The truth is that few factors have done as much to shape interpersonal relationships in Cuba as this organization, whose ultimate purpose and essence is, in many case, betrayed by its own members.
That is, the term “State Security” should imply, in any society in the world, an element of tranquility, a civil guard, and a collective justice. The intelligence services are, by definition, indispensable for national protection against aggression or criminal activities of different kinds.
In Cuba, it is an undeniable fact: unlike the rest of the institutions that incompetence has gnawed to the bone, State Security works flawlessly. All you have to do is look around you to see it demonstrated.
They do exemplary work in detecting outbreaks of drug sales, prostitution or child molestation, reprehensible crimes in any modern society. In the recent painful events of the overdose of a child victim in Bayamo, this agency played a vital role in the investigation and clearing up of this monstrous case.
Nor can one deny the merit of having avoided many possible deaths from attacks that presumed “anti-Castro fighters” (a subject on which I will write soon) have launched against the Cuban people: explosions in hotels, nightclubs and public facilities, introductions of pests and diseases that are unacceptable from any perspective or ideology.
So, speaking of State Security on the island is neither idle nor vain, and an honest person should recognize that their work — admirable, heroic, protective of civilians — is worthy of laurels.
But, if everything ended there, this article would not exist: for unpalatable and unipolar themes we Cubans already have the newspaper Granma.
Because what is lamentable and needs to be decried to the four winds is that this institution, so useful in other places, has long since become a ghost of national security, a shadow of subtle repression that corrodes and conditions the reality in which we live.
When in Cuba one thinks of State Security, one immediately and inextricably associates it with the persecution of political dissent, its first and most important function.
No other mechanism has generated more “anthropological damage” in post-revolutionary Cuba, than this organ which at times has become a paradox in itself: nothing has been more of a threat to the personal safety of Cubans, than this.
Why? Well, because popular knowledge of its practices, its undetected and unpunished methods, its unlimited reach, have generated a pathological fear in us, leading to the development of a defense mechanism as effective as it is lamentable, hypocrisy.
Cubans never dare to act out, publicly, their true thoughts on a political issue, when they dissent or have views contrary to the official ones. These topics are talked about in whispers in the privacy of one’s home or among one’s closest circle.
But even then, we are always suspicious, glancing from side to side, muttering under our breath. The joke with which I began this post is not hyperbole: we all know that among us, the informant is never missing.
The ubiquity of this body is frankly beyond paranoia. It is immeasurable. If one day we Cubans have access — as happened with the archives of the Stasi after the fall of the Berlin Wall — to the documents that reveal the number of agents, officers, infiltrators, and dedicated or casual informants, I think the figure should be forgotten in the interest of salvaging our national pride.
There is no school, bakery, philatelic association, farmers market or baseball team that does not have, among its membership, someone belonging to this “glorious” institution. At times, who they are is even more or less public knowledge. For example, every public institution has a comrade from Security who pays attention to you and that comrade is at times well known.
We Cubans have learned to live with an intelligence apparatus, oiled to the point of maniacal precision, which maintains its operations in the shadows as it sees fit, and that also, when it sees fit, makes use of any arguments provided by its informants to dismiss thousands of employees, imprison opponents or, even more common, to discredit the morals of non-conformist citizens.
The worst side of this reality is that we have no way to defend ourselves against this action. That is, all citizens know that their phones can be tapped, their homes may be searched, that their electronic communications are reviewed and stored, that their lives are examined with a magnifying glass, but there is not a single legal way to fight this. State Security in Cuba has an Olympic impunity: its members are our Untouchables.
So it’s no wonder that the advice most often repeated to those who express more or less publicly their disagreement with Cuban politics is: “Don’t talk so much, you don’t know who is listening.” A phrase so reviled, but one which captures a vital reality: the same person who is listening to you, or provoking supposed disagreements, the same person who accompanies you every day, who works by your side, who shares drinks and music with you, the same person you confide in with a blind passion, could quite naturally be the informant who has stayed by your side to know, in his game of chess, when the time comes to checkmate you.
Many times I’ve been personally entertained by the black humor of general mistrust: friends who insinuate to me, or express openly, their fear that it could be me, the loudmouth irredentist, the new pearl of local intelligence. In fact, I smile, but with the false amusement of the clown in Beneditti’s story.
For those of us who do not resign ourselves to living surrounded by fear and tropical James Bonds, I believe that a concrete desire, right now, would be if the nationwide mass layoff of workers would also knock at the door of State Security. But to be optimistic in this regard would be angelically naive.
I want to start, this time, making a critical clarification: what I intend to address in this post will be an exception in the blog. The purpose of this blog is to inspire thinking, offer journalistic texts (and on occasion literary ones), where analysis and critical thinking predominate, in a manner of speaking. Whether I achieve it or not depends on many factors, but certainly that is my purpose.
This time, however, I want to make a stop along the way, and to formulate a sui generis denunciation. I want to give you, the readers, a concrete opportunity to see how far the repressive-slanderous apparatus is willing to go, in its efforts to shut down the discordant voices and sing along with the official choir.
In the post, “With a Homeland, But Without a Master,” I stated briefly that certain actions were directed against me by the keepers of the absolute truth, once I decided to act and write like free young person.
Then, in “The Untouchables,” I analyzed the methods and practices used by State Security to restrict our personal freedoms, violate all our constitutional rights, and punish the non-conformists with methods that have no limits.
Today I want to bring my foundations down to earth, shedding light on of the most incredible strategies with which this the apparatchik has tried to counter my blog, and annul my standing as an intellectual.
I hope that all of those who are suspicious of our complaints, who put question marks over our stories, and who defend the legitimacy of this system, will take the time to read this extensive material which I want to present in detail.
Big Brother is watching your email
As I said in the previous post, to have a Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail account on the island is a sovereign privilege. In many institutions where there is internet access, it is a violation of the rules.
Why? It is an open secret: because State Security has not managed to “filter” the communications on these servers; ergo they force Cubans to use e-mail providers that they can effectively hack.
I, without internet access, for a long time used a national mail account with which I communicated for personal and professional reasons. Almost three months ago, the officials assigned to subvert this blog, showed me how absurd the monitoring, reading and storing the digital correspondence of Cubans can be. And how unscrupulous are the “strategies” of those so-called patriots and defenders of the truth.
I, without internet access, for a long time used a national mail account with which I communicated for personal and professional reasons. Almost three months ago, the officials assigned to subvert this blog, showed me how absurd the monitoring, reading and storing the digital correspondence of Cubans can be. And how unscrupulous are the “strategies” of these so-called patriots and defenders of the truth.
Step one: “Mambi Stinger” in Crearblog
A “reader” appeared in The Little Brother, signing himself “Pepe,” later transformed into “Poseidon,” “Alex Rodriguez,” and other aliases. If you would like to check his existence, you can trace the posts of the past two months, where you will find a couple of virulent comments under his signature.
He appeared to be the manager of a smear campaign against me. Shortly after that, this busy surfer inaugurated a blog entitled Aguijón Mambí, with the following address which no longer exists: www.aguijonmambi.crearblog.com
This first “Stinger Mambi” remained on the network for a week. Then the administrators of the Crearblog platform closed the site for violating their policy against offering offensive or pornographic content.
What did they post on this blog? A text that I regret not having preserved to be able to expose it today. But, in essence, it “denounced” Ernesto Morales Licea, as a gusano, a worm, and apprentice mercenary in the service of the Empire, for making a living trading on the images of several women, and in particular those of his fiancée who lives in the United States. In addition, he said that in Cuba this constituted the crime of pimping, and that this miserable person should be punished for it.
The official “proof” offered to certify my role as a sex merchant, was the following photo, in which I have blocked out the private areas out of elementary respect for this blog.
The photo is, incredible but true, a digital montage. Nothing more nothing less. The face corresponds to the person they claim it to be. But the body is not hers. It is the image of a naive girl who posed in front of a camera, and whose body parts served this time to “discredit” an inconvenient blogger.
Where did the comrades of State Security get the face that they used in this assembled montage? From this photo which I had sent some time ago from that national email account.
A brief overview will allow the reader to see that her face, in both images, is exactly the same, although in the supposedly nude photo her face is tilted a couple of degrees to match the “chosen” body.
The Hunters Hunted
The IP addresses of three computers used to carry out this espionage and defamation are listed below (for readers unfamiliar with these terms, the IP address identifies each computer on the internet):
It is very likely that soon they will appear, right here, the institutions or private addresses belonging to these numbers: and will be seen to be from the political apparatus from which my country has implemented this dirty and depressing game.
Step 2: Mambí Stinger on WordPress
After the failure of their venture on Crearblog, removed by the network administrators who then blocked their IP address, the employees of State Security chose a second option: to work through another platform. This time, WordPress. They created www.aguijonmambi.wordpress.com where they announced that for every blog closed on the Internet they would open ten more.
It took WordPress less than a week to also take down their poor blog.
What did they publish there? Along with the same text as the previous try (these ideological soldiers are not very creative), they published the “nude” photo of my fiancée, and added another with the very nice title: “Ernesto, a cool dude.”
The photo was this one:
I have to confess, this picture made me roar with laughter. Every time I look at it, it amuses me more. But I think that here the brave comrades started to falter in their attempt to discredit me: The original photo had appeared in this blog just days earlier, in the post, “With a Homeland, But Without a Master,” and this time all the readers of The Little Brother could confirm the clumsy montage for themselves:
Step # 3: Another E-mail Skirmish
This pitiful creativity, however, really knows no bounds. Once they realized that these posts would host nothing but cobwebs, the intelligence comrades chose a more surprising method: they sent an email with the images, and another message, to ALL the electronic addresses to whom I had ever sent, and from whom I had ever received, an email.
In other words: their filtering of my email had provided them with hundreds of addresses of my correspondents. Valuable information for their purposes.
Among the address were those of my mother, my brother, colleagues from half the world, colleagues of my fiancée, people who had contacted me for professional reasons and hundreds more.
I ask readers who received this email, with the subject line “My Truth,” to confirm what I am saying in the comments at the end of this post, to prove that I am not lying when I say this.
What did they send this time? The same photos as previously, but with a slight addition. A third image, curiously selected:
Apparently it was not an interest of this institution to declare the supposed homosexual practices of my partner. But once again, the diligent defamers came up short on ingenuity: this image corresponds to a group of photos immensely popular in Cuba, to which I referred (but of course did not publish) in the post, “Sex, Truths and Video Cameras.”
The person with white skin now being passed off as my fiancée, was simply this:
In this new attempt they took the trouble to “write” a text for the occasion. A text that would “destroy” me to all my friends, acquaintances or colleagues whose email addresses had been trapped in their web.
I reproduce here some excerpts of this text. If I don’t produce it in its entirety it if because of its great length, and to protect my readers from the poor quality of the writing. The message was titled, no more and no less than, “Ernestico the Holy One.”
“By the heat of your anger and from the moisture in your eyes, I can see that my sting has hurt you.” But I am sorry to tell you, Ernestico, that the foregoing is nothing; approaching some of your male and female friends and colleagues they have thanked me for showing your true colors and have alerted me to some other small things where I continue to see the contradictions in what you write and what you do.
“I remind you that from when we studied at Silbeto, you started with many friends and finished with few. In Santiago, to the extent that we knew you, we realized you were not a part of our group — you were truly superior, the best, even better than our old profs — this self-sufficiency in everything you said and in how little, as always, you did.
“I remember that you always looked as us from the highest step and we, for you, were nothing more than just group comrades. Who were your ‘real friends,’ those who like me didn’t have name brand shoes, good jeans, a nice shirt? Your real friends were those you got some benefit from, a big slice.
“Because of this I doubt your sincerity, I doubt what happened to you in RB, that it was like you described it. I’m sure it was calculated, well thought out, to find a pretext (as always happens with you), a story that you have been weaving little by little until you converted yourself into a true dissident, one of the good ones, one of those who are expected by our ‘dear neighbors,’ who are waiting for you with open arms. (Welcome my hero.)
and umbilical, you like things ‘good inside and out,’ at times I envy you, in truth, there are few people who have this showcase of values.
“You taught me that one can’t be squeamish with someone who plays with shit, there go some more of my snapshots. Ah, more, more, more, more and moooooooooooore.”
The Momentary End of History
I have not the slightest doubt in this second the diligent boys from intelligence are squeezing their acid neurons in search of a new plan. A new trick that in time will make itself known on this blog, and that has started, of course, with a sui generis reader whose name recently appeared here. His name is Guaitabó Cubano, and his IP address is 22.214.171.124.
Why bring these schemes to light, a blog that was not conceived as a forum for denunciations, but as a space for ideas and thoughts? For a very important reason: it is time that we prove that it’s not infantile whines, or unfounded allegations, that sustain what so many of us non-conformists on this side of the ocean confirm: in Cuba today, the exercise of freedom, the right to disagree, remains an official risk that not everyone is willing to face.
These are the consequences: defamation, manipulation, the attempt to socially ostracize everyone who refuses to remain silent before what they don’t agree with, or who simply exercise their individuality.
My decision to choose journalism itself, consistent, questionable but sincere, could be analyzed at a professional level, or even an ethical one. You could debate the partiality or impartiality of my texts, their objectivity or subjectivity. But woe to those unhappy robots who assume, in an unlucky second, that such burlesque campaigns are going to tie my hands.
Cervantes said it much better than I can through his immortal Quixote: “They are barking, Sancho. It is a sign that we are riding.” Compared to the personal satisfaction of knowing oneself useful for some, and hated by others, no phony trick has any effect.
In July of this year, a humble Cuban priest received a prize of international scope which, although it never appeared in the national press, became known to us with suspicious speed. Father José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría, pastor of the church “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus,” in Santiago de Cuba, was awarded the Prize of the Community of Democracies, in Poland, for his enormous efforts in the service of freedom and human rights in Cuba.
Up until then I knew little of Father Conrad. I am not Catholic nor do I practice any particular religion, but I try to surround myself with the most varied and different things possible. Getting to know the life and work of this man with a brilliant attitude is a priceless gift to me.
A priest whom the Cuban church had to exile almost by force in the mid-’90s, because they feared for his life. A priest who suffered, on December 4, 2007, a horrible act of repudiation at his parish, which led to pure violence, and had wide international repercussions.
What I am publishing here now is just a snippet of the interview of at least 4 hours that Father Conrado and I enjoyed in Santiago de Cuba, just a month ago. The full text will appear in my book of interviews with prominent personalities in the alternative cultural and public life in Cuba, which will soon be completed.
I must confess to my readers that it was a real exercise of journalistic contortion to summarize an interview of nearly 30 pages, with a rather lengthy introduction, which I offer you here. When an interview subject is so brilliant, it is painful and complex to select some answers and leave the others for later.
In any event, I believe that few interviews published in this blog have so much depth and relevance as this one that the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría was kind enough to grant me from his church.
THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER
For those who know of his priestly office, one of the hallmarks of Father José Conrado is his concern for creating awareness among his people about the reality of our country. This is not someone who surreptitiously, when the opportunity arises, refers in his oratory to related aspects of Cuban politics and life. Rather, José Conrado has shown a particular interest in raising awareness among his followers; giving them arguments to assess in full measure the reality in which they are immersed.
– Father, do you remember when you first became conscious of this? Or do you remember when was the first time you began to define yourself as a religious official with very defined positions on politics?
– From the Seminary I was very clear about the role of the word, in my case the Word of God, implying a serious commitment in this sense. In fact that is the definition of a homily, it is preaching the Word of God and the reality that is before you.
I fully agree with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, when he said that a homily was delivered with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.
Therefore, the very essence of the work of the Church is to refer to this reality that must change itself in light of the Word of God …
– But while some priests in their masses avoid direct references to the plight of Cuba, you do the opposite …
I question the claim that other priests do not. What I think is that everyone has their own style and their own way of approaching issues.
Look, I always make reference, for example, to the fact that if there had not been a person with a video camera the day I read the letter to Fidel Castro in 1994, it wouldn’t have been known that I read it before 700 people one day in Caridad. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read it just the same. But the fact that it had the repercussions it did was coincidental.
That is to say, what isn’t known at the social level, or not known by those who don’t attend Church, doesn’t meant that Cuban priests don’t have the same principle.
Especially during the hardest time of the Special Period, I think all the priests and bishops had the same feeling. Maybe not always as directly, but there was always a serious reflection on the reality that the people were living through..
We must also take into account one thing: we all feel fear. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke this response of paralyzing fear. It would not be honest to say that we are not afraid. We all are. The problem is when you have to overcome fear in the name of a responsibility. That responsibility is what leads you to express yourself and, what you believe, in reality. And that is the result of an ethical awareness of what concerns us all.
My insistence on the political issue in homilies stands out because the totalitarian system always tries to silence the critic, to make disagreement impossible, and this makes it rare for a person to express something which, in the background, is likely shared by the vast majority of his listeners. But not all dare to say it.
However, I think that is precisely the responsibility of a priest in a country like ours. The fact that people are not able to raise their voices for fear of reprisals, or because of the habit of silence (as Eliseo Alberto Diego says: “In silence we became so dumb.”) is one of the challenges a priest faces under a system like this.
I was thinking about the number of letters that still circulate online, signed by him. The letter to Raul Castro, in 2009, his farewell speech when he had to go into involuntary exile in 1996, the text he wrote on the occasion of the retirement of Archbishop Pedro Meurice. I remember the impression his highly narrative prose gave me every time: an absolute fascination.
– I have felt with your words something unique: the vibration of truth. You feel deeply what you say, and whoever hears it or reads it, it is a very vivid warning. When you condemn totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but universally, you do so with a passion that makes an impact. Where does that this strong aversion to totalitarianism come from?
– I would say it was the experience that led me to a very critical position. The experience of the reality I was living every day. This was exacerbated specifically with the Special Period.
No doubt this was a situation that all the people suffered, and it was the humble people who paid a high price for it. I’m talking about people suffering from polyneuritis, the agony of a country that was expressed by those who threw themselves into the sea at the risk of losing their lives. The terrible tragedy of families separated by distance or death.
I saw in the parishes where I was at that time, in Palma Soriano and Contramaestre, how people grew thinner from week to week, how they steadily lost weight. It was an awful thing. There was this horrible despair, and suffering. And that there was no response from those who had the authority, and all the power in totalitarian systems is with those in power, was perhaps what bothered me most.
The essence of this system is to take away people’s responsibility for their lives and give it to the powers-that-be, those who rule. That makes them more powerful and more responsible before History: obviously, there is no possibility for people decide for themselves, to assume that share of power that is the responsibility of each person, and the centralization of all the decisions in every facet of life — economic, political, social, cultural — makes them responsible for everything that can happen in a country.
But I cannot give up my own responsibility, the share that falls to me, and that is why I have taken a clear position and am critical with respect to the form of this country and how it is governed.
GEREMEK AWARD AND ASSESSMENT OF THE CHURCH IN CUBA
– The Community of Democracies gave you the “Bronislaw Geremek” Prize this year in Krakow, Poland, for your well-known and undoubted efforts with regards to freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Cuba. Your speech, entitled “Every generation has the right to dream its own dreams,” should be studied in all universities, should be read before all the good people of this world as a beautiful testament to the commitment of a priest to the full freedom of man.
You also said in your speech that you received the award “on behalf of the Church that suffers, fights, prays and waits in Cuba.” Do these words really describe the feelings of the Cuban Church?
– Of course. I think the Catholic Church in Cuba has made an effort to serve and is dedicated to the cause of man.
When you look at the communities that make up our parishes you see this: people fighting, suffering, waiting, praying from the fact that he lives. These communities are composed for the most part of very simple people who have withstood the difficulties, have resisted even persecution. For over 50 years the Church has not been seen as a good thing Cuba, and Christians have never been “first class” citizens. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but the suspicion has always been political: they are not people who can be trusted. But they are the faithful and it is the Church.
Many believers and even priests have left the country. They saw no way out. Others abandoned the Church. I remember times when the parishes were virtually empty because of the persecution of Christians. But always there were those who stood their ground.
In fact I believe that if today the Church is present and alive in the hearts of this people it is the result of the faithfulness of the institution towards those in need.
– It is impossible not to ask you your views on the current process of releasing the political prisoners, in which the Catholic Church had a role. The controversy was centered primarily on two aspects: 1. Was if right for the church to ignore the opposition in its dialog with the Government, and 2. Was it ethical and humane that those who were released were immediately exiled. What is your position on this?
– We must start from a known fact: the rules of this game were not defined by the Church. It had a mediation role only between the persons directly affected, the Ladies in White, the families of the prisoners, and the Government, which finally ceded to solve the problem.
I think that the Church is not civil society, nor can it supplant the opposition. Nor did it try to do so. Simply, there was a specific problem, a really serious situation with these prisoners of conscience, and the opportunity to reach an agreement was there.
In itself, by definition, it was a very serious thing that these people were arrested for their opinions or for exercising their right to free opinion. There was never any guilt in this sense. On the contrary, the exercise of freedom for every person is the guarantee of justice and the proper exercise of social life.
Then, that they were given long sentences for this reason can only be called an aberration.
That point is the problem that motivated the Government’s response, and among other factors influenced the church in this; it was, first, the serious criticism of the repressive acts against the Ladies in White, and, second, the expression of their disagreement with the existence of these prisoners of conscience, among whom were many Catholics as well. But whether or not they were Catholics, it was an unacceptable situation.
An interesting question would be why the Government chose the Church. In my opinion, it was because they knew that it is listened to by all parties, and this is undoubtedly a recognition of the seriousness of the institution and the church community.
What space did the Church have for this negotiation? That is assuming it was nothing more than a mediation. To get the parties to agree, to counsel them, and to lead them to a positive outcome for everyone.
I agree that unfortunately the prisoners did not get a real release, because what has happened is only a change of conviction: instead of prison, deportation. It’s obvious: in Cuba, where many people see the highest ideal of happiness as getting out of the country, and where it is so hard to do so, some see it as a prize. Like they won the jackpot. But that is a reading as it is seen from here; for the rest of the world it is not the same. Nor is it for those who understand how this process should have played out, since obviously there has not been compliance.
LETTERS TO FIDEL AND RAUL
– First tell me about the letter sent to Fidel Castro in 1994. What was the essence and motivation of this letter?
– It was not really a letter but rather a letter that I read. As I said before, someone took a video and then spread it around the world.
It was, in fact, an act of desperation. I saw the agony of the people, heard the testimonies of those who came to tell me their tragedies, and it filled me with a feeling of impotence at not being able to solve their problems and I saw that, on the other hand, those who were responsible for it did not give them a hearing. That was truly the breeding ground that made this letter possible.
I remember that day, which was of Caridad, when I finished the homily in front of 700 people, I said: “I know that in all my masses there are crazy sheep who come hear what I say when I go to other places. I urge these crazy sheep to forward to its destination this letter which I am going to read now.” And I began to read.
Perhaps the most important phrase, which sums up the feelings of the full text, is where I say “Everyone is responsible, but nobody more so than you.” The reason for the letter was this: to address myself to the one most responsible, who had the largest share of power.
– Did you receive any response from the president, or any official spokesperson?
– No. The answer was silence.
– Then, 15 years later, in 2009, you sent another one to his brother, newly installed as President. This one was a letter, and it had a wide digital circulation throughout the country. Did you have any real hope this time for a response, or that your claims would influence Raul?
– Look, there are times when one acts as a way of asserting your own voice, because you have a commitment and a responsibility. But not because you know that this act will have the desired response.
What I cannot do is remain silent before the reality I see, that I suffer and that so many people suffer. What’s more, my voice represents nothing more than another Cuba, but it has value.
So I felt that it was my duty to let him know what I think, and also to hold him accountable for what happens in this country. And it is not that, as I clearly said in the letter to Fidel Castro, “It is not that you don’t know the reality of Cubans,” because it would be an insult to tell someone so well informed that he didn’t know what was going on in his own country. No. They know perfectly well what is happening. What is missing is the real political will to change it, especially because those who suffer most in this situation are not them.
Raul Castro could not be uninformed about what is happening in this country. But for me to publicly say it to him was a form of compromise, to say something like, “Hey, you know what’s going on, at least you can’t say that you didn’t, because I told you publicly.”
What’s more, when there are few possibilities to make decisions that won’t be final, it gives those who have all the power twice the obligation. Because under a system that puts everyone in a straitjacket, depending on the decisions of the bosses, they must be held accountable for everything they do or don’t do.
So I believe that we have to respect and acknowledge the work of all the bloggers, of the independent journalists, of the peaceful opponents, of people like Yoani Sánchez or the Ladies in White, who have raised their voices and are fighting against all odds. We would be in an even worse position without these people who run the risk that needs to be run to be faithful to a fundamental commitment to the truth.
Clearly, one of the foundations on which the system operates is what Soledad Cruz described as: “There is no one who can bring it down, but no one who change it.” That is: They put in your head the idea that no matter what you do, nothing will change. This concept is the basis of totalitarianism.
And basically, I do believe many things are changing. I think they, the rulers, are assuming their responsibilities. What is happening is that they are admitting it publicly. But if they change something, however minimal, it is because they are realizing the responsibility that they have.
Therefore it is very important that we not remain silent. When you raise your voice, you warn of danger, and that has power. A system with such an absolute power, if there are no restrictions, no compensations, it is a real monster. So, although we pay a heavy price, we must raise our voices.
As Father Varela said to those who accused him of imprudence, “It is imprudent to speak out and warn of the danger? That is the prudence of the weak. My heart does not know it.”
– Finally, father: in your own words you officiated at your first mass citing Marti’s credo: “I have faith in human betterment, the utility of virtue, and in you.” Still today, many years later, do you really believe in a future of reconciliation for our country, despite the great anthropological damage suffered by the Cuban people?
– Gandhi said, the tyranny and wickedness of men does not have the last word. The last word goes to the other side. It’s always a word of salvation, not condemnation.
And I think that when, a hundred years from now, someone writes the history of Cuba, and of this period, many will remember all those things with sadness. But many will also react. In the end the human being is made to be happy. Eventually people wake up to a better, more just, life.
It is real that in any country, under any system, criminal situations can occur, human aberrations, we can also have this evil within us. No one is immune from error or falsehood. But I also think that man is able to evolve and change, and I deeply believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion for the better is the challenge of every age and every person.
The temptation to be discouraged, hopeless, it is somewhat logical. But for the Christian it has no place. Not that you can not go through stages of despair, what happens is that eventually you have to overcome it. Because life goes on and we all have a responsibility to keep fighting and to build a different future.
In addition, I repeat that we must distinguish between systems and people. Systems pass, but human beings, to the extent they open themselves to grace, the deep love and mercy of God that is capable of transformation, of breaking down barriers, it is capable of reversing any circumstances.
But above all, I believe in the possibility of overcoming, because basically man, by his nature, always wants the best. And the best is certainly not what we have. The best is not this.
Well-deservedly, my friends and I have been calling each other since last Thursday to congratulate ourselves. Some cheer from a distance, while others of us reach out our hands. Friends from different eras and generations: classmates from my university days; acquaintances I may have met on the streets with whom I’ve shared literary ideas at times.
And I underline well-deserved, because congratulating each other for the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa is an act of justice to ourselves: so much positive energy on his part, so many hours dedicated to his novels, so much saliva invested in rabid debates around his political ideas, we simply have to assume that this award is a prize for us as well, his readers.
Personally, I don’t hesitate to launch a categorical affirmation: nothing has influenced or determined my thinking more, my world-view on literature and artistic phenomenons; nobody dynamited my adolescent brain more with every type of libertarian, anti-totalitarian and cosmopolitan idea than this Peruvian Spaniard who today, for his work and by the grace of an elusive prize, is the most famous writer in the world.
Some of us had already lost hope. The Nobel seemed like a conflagration against him when, in the 1980s, right after publishing the incredible and insane novel, The War of the End of the World, Mario seemed predestined to hang it on his wall.
I was discouraged thinking about the lofty embarrassments for the Stockholm Committee which seemed as if they had never read Cortázar, Carpentier nor Borges, nor Kafka nor Joyce. And it irritated me still more to see that each year the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a figure even more exotic and unthinkable within the rich panorama of world literature. The Swedish professors seemed to have laid out the world map across a wide desk, point out the regions that had already received their awards, and randomly pick a writer from a non-awarded country.
The Nobel Prize seemed to be a novel prize: awarded to inconsequential writers who, logically, from then on would be enshrined. (The most baffling case in recent times was, without a doubt, that of 2004: the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, author of love novellas written for dozing travelers, who seemed to have revived, with the astonishment of his expression, the American playwright John Steinbeck, winner of the prize in 1962, who said at the time that he himself could not believe it.)
And then, when it seemed least probable, someone picked up the phone at 5:30 in the morning in New York, and in broken Spanish it was communicated to the writer who was preparing for a conference for his Princeton students, that within 14 minutes the world would know his name as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.
What was Vargas Llosa doing at that precise moment? In the interplay of ironies that sometimes God, or destiny, or karma constructs it is a surprising refinement: in the instant when his wife Patricia handed him the phone, Vargas Llosa was preparing a conference about Jorge Luis Borges, and was re-reading for the umpteenth time the novel El Reino de este Mundo, by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier.
For my part, what was I doing the instant that I learned my literary paradigm had just had his name inscribed among the unforgettable by the Nobel committee? I was sleeping soundly on a semi-London-like morning in my tropical Bayama, protected from the rain and cloudy sky, when the first ring at 7:30 in the morning forced me to emerge from my drowsiness, and assimilate the simple sentence with which my exalted friend said good morning:
“They gave the Nobel Prize to Vargas Llosa.”
After that, five more phone calls, at intervals of a few minutes, confirmed that it was not a tactless joke or a painful mistake.
Let’s just say: only those who are capable of loving literature with a sickening passion; only those who understand what it means to stay awake all night, and feel the anguish of not being able to comment to anybody at that time how fascinating the piece they have just read is, only they are capable of understanding the powerful link that is established between and author and his most faithful reader.
There are cases worth sharing. One of them is the story about a reader of Garcia Marquez’s found in Moscow, copying by hand on yellowish paper, a Russian translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude, because she didn’t have money to buy that masterpiece and wanted to have it at home. Another one, which Julio Cortázar told: is about a young girl who, the night she decided to commit suicide, started reading his novel Rayuela. For some reason that desperate young girl wanted to end her life at a specific time at dawn, and while she was waiting she started to skim through the Argentine’s book. In a letter written later, that potential suicidal was thanking Cortázar for saving her life: his novel was able to let her ignore her depression, and the assigned time for her end arrived without her being able to let go of her reading.
As for me, I believe that reading Vargas Llosa is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in life, even though I haven’t had to copy him out by hand (but I have had to steal him with thousands of contraband devices), nor has he freed me from attempting suicide.
The first book I read with his name on it, I mention today with love because it is a lesser novel: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Afterwards, I embarked on a marathon until I’d read every one of his novels, searching through the bookstore catacombs to find some book by him, and practicing a kind of literary prostitution which led me to seduce, during my years at the University, a young librarian only because she let me take home Vargas Llosa’s books, which were not allowed to leave the library.
The last one I read — a gift from someone who loves me enough to know that man lives not by bread and remittances alone — so that from the United States to Cuba came The Lover’s Dictionary of Latin America, a collection of a huge number of articles on the issues surrounding our continent.
I think those who argue, ridiculously, of a presumed anti-Latin-Americanism, should review this compilation of more than 400 pages where an intellectual totally committed to his continent, is devoted to writing about its athletes, cities, eating habits, dictatorships, the common man and, of course, its literary history. Few writers know the roots of their origins better than this Peruvian who is a naturalized Spanish citizen.
Also for those who scream that Mario Vargas Llosa is the personification of anti-nationalist evil, they should ask themselves if there exists more proof about the destiny of one’s country, than to run for president as he did in 2000. Again, a historical irony about the novelist: he lost that election against someone who would later become the worst dictator in the recent history of Peru: Alberto Fujimori.
Today, Fujimori is behind bars for crimes against humanity, and Mario Vargas Llosa is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As I once wrote in an essay about his political views, to read Vargas Llosa in my Cuba of the parameters and the impossibilities, seems so much like an exercise in subversion, that searching through his entire work has a decidedly seductive appeal. At some point, Milan Kundera said that the one book banned under a totalitarian regime is more powerful and enticing than all the libraries in a free country put together. I think there is no contemporary literature more fascinating for Cuban readers than Mario Vargas Llosa’s.
But I am speaking not only of his novels. His monumental work also includes his work as a journalist and essayist, incredibly universal, extravagantly different, incredibly universal, that confirms in no uncertain terms what this man is really: an enslaved writer. A patient of the word who writes at seventy-four as if his life depends on it.
Into what subject of social, literary, political, biographical or advertising interest has the ex-presidential candidate writer not poked his nose into? Very few. His work is an Aleph of themes. I would dare to argue that wherever Vargas Llosa has not sniffed around with his particular visions and his incendiary words, where he has not opined with distinction or with insolence, where he has not generated a brilliant article, a personal chronicle, a linguistic analysis, or a well-reasoned debate; where he has not put people’s backs up, venomous sores of an emblematic hatred; on wherever that is, I don’t think there’s anything worth looking at.
On one occasion, I had the privilege to interview someone who knows him all too well: the Peruvian Franscisco Lombardo, who, with notable success has brought two of his well-known novels to the big screen: Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, and The City and The Dogs.
I asked him if Vargas Llosa was an almost moral obligation. His words to define the writer were categorical: “You can worship him or you can hate him, what you can’t deny is the admiration, or at least the respect due to those who defend what they believe, regardless of their doctrine, and knowing that they could pay a very high price for it.”
Mario has paid a heavy price for being consistent, above all, with himself. They never forgave him for supporting the Cuban Revolution, in its infancy, and then abandoning the triumphal boat and returning to be its eternal castigator. He has been demonized by the orthodox left, that cannot now forgive him for being a champion of liberal thought.
A journalist from Granma, not even worth mentioning, published the news of his Nobel yesterday, pointing out that he deserves an anti-Nobel in ethics. We know what it’s about: a poor journalist, an enslaved pen, who could not confess that he also reads his novels with devotion, on pain of becoming “available” — i.e. unemployed — now that a work place in Cuba is a privilege to be conserved.
I confirm with my own case what I once heard a notable writer say: the best thing we can point to about the Nobel Prize is that every year it makes a writer fashionable. With the satisfaction of a collection I chose, this time, Conversation in the Cathedral, and began to reread it with the same devotion with which I closed the final page five years ago.
I can’t think of no better way to honor this man, from my pride as a reader, and as a Latin American, than to dedicate a few more hours of my life to the novel it took him the most years to finish. And to feel that among all the millions of us readers who appreciate his dedication to the word, we feel the incomparable happiness — since last Thursday — of a huge dept repaid.
The news, in keeping with tradition, was common knowledge long before the establishment gave the order to publish it. On November 6, when it was already an open secret, the Gramna province newspaper La Demajagua published an “Official Note” that seemed like it didn’t want to be read, hidden away as it was on a page otherwise devoted to praising the production of rice, and honoring state agencies.
What did this handicapped little note say, with nothing to call attention to it on the second page of the paper? Merely something as inconsequential as that the governor of Granma province, President of the Provincial Assembly of People’s Power, had been “liberated from his duties for grave errors in the performance of his duties and in his personal life.” His name: Jesús Infante López, logically super-well-known in these precincts for having held the post for a considerable number of years.
As the note more than said by remaining silent, the vox populi again did the work for which the journalists are paid, filtering out the half-truths, truths sprinkled with fictions, and confirmed facts according to the upper echelons.
Apparently the mayor of my city had earmarked some money to build vacation homes in the Cuban capital, and in his personal life a son linked to the consumption (or perhaps trafficking in, it’s not clear) of drugs in Havana clouded his judgment.
I cannot confirm the accuracy or completeness of this information: when the secrecy of power relegates the citizens to a plane of almost complete disinformation, and where there is no transparency in the relationships between the directors and the directed, the exercise of journalism is converted, at times, into mere speculation.
What is known is that no official media has denied this popular version, and we all know what silence implies.
I do not think, however, that what just happened with Jesús Infante in Granma comes as any surprise to anyone at this point. On second thought, I wouldn’t have given it more than a half-hidden corner in the daily La Demajagua either.
Because while the demotion (a more correct term, legally speaking, than the ridiculous “liberated”) of political and government officials is not something all that usual in this country, common knowledge of administrative abuses, and the galloping corruption within the circles of power, strengthens our collective consciousness every day, so this was no cause for surprise.
And if the public demotion of high officials has not been a frequent event — although this has changed drastically in recent times — this is due to a power structure where the citizens have no access to those who act in their names, and where neither the press nor independent organizations can assess what these politicians do when they step away from their pose of revolutionary honesty and enter the privacy of their own homes.
This recent local case swells the list of the previously unmasked corrupt, whose excesses were never made clear to the people: the head of Civil Aeronautics, Rogelio Acevedo, sponsor of commercial flights that filled his pockets with hard currency; Carlitos Valenciaga, ex-patron of a female harem located at the former Lourdes base, where, among porn videos and revolutionary campaigns, computer science was also studied; and a long list of cases usually swept under the rug, which includes a large number of small-time Party leaders and provincial authorities.
Without going too far, in the city where I live we were recently taken by surprise by the proliferation of brand new cement and glass, when the senior military leaders decided to construct their modest dwellings in privileged areas.
Without mincing any words: they are true mansions, masked with external austerity and possessing, inside, the human and the divine, lacking not even solar panels for hot water, garden areas and spacious garages. Understand: this is the life style of those who demand frugality and sacrifice from their poorly-fed workers, in a country where before we talk about hot water we need to understand that, for many, running water is a luxury.
All these cases, from those sparking the most media interest like that of “Lage-Perez Roque,” to the most timid, like that of my neighbor Infante, confirm an absolute truth: the corruption that exists in the leadership of this country is of incalculable proportions. This time the adjective “incalculable” is not just a figure of speech: it is accurate. The guarantees to access the accounts of financial dealings of those who govern us are invalid, impossible, Utopian, and only occur when another, more powerful, higher level becomes annoyed by the bonanza of a subaltern and decides to put an end to his golden ride.
Against this background, my question is not who will be the next to be cast into the furnace, but rather: how many of the ones who demand dignity and cleanliness as a standard of this process, who punish and demand strict compliance, how many of the leaders we see launching tirades against the private businessman or the neighborhood thief who lives off ill-gotten gains, how many of them will take their secrets of embezzlement and waste to the grave?
How many of those whom we now see on banners, and whose words are quotes on billboards to illuminate us with their privileged lights, will be laughing at us from the next world for having been able to live at our expense without our ever making them pay for it?
My concern arises from a simple analysis, very simple: casting a glance at the ages of those thrown in the fire we can see for ourselves that it never approaches the gray hairs and the ancestral medals. In every case, it’s the new pines (more or less new) in the art of making Revolution. The historic generation, the true owners of this beautiful land, have never been touched even with the petal of a flower.
The main problem continues to be the sickly meekness that paralyzes the veins of today’s Cubans. I think a single visit to the homes of the leaders in this town would be enough, a single tap on the door of those austere ones who harangue us, for the whole make-believe house to come crashing down.
But are the Cuban politicians the only ones who steal? Who fill their coffers at the expense of the people they fleece? Of course not. Are the Cuban officials the only ones who play favorites, steal, and divert resources that in theory belong to the masses they govern? No again. It is enough to look at the news that a truly free press, and consequently half the world, publishes on their covers.
What is unique to the Cuban class, the native, is on the one hand the hard-nose discourse of a socialist paradise full of selfless leaders, of brave countrymen, and on the other hand the impossibility of the ordinary citizen being able to broker his own slice of the economic pie.
I, who came of age watching the Foreign Minister Robertico Robaina tying himself in knots to confirm that he wasn’t a Yankee; who was taught that as a student I should revere my Minister of Education Luis Ignacio Gomez despite his Hitler mustache that always left a bad taste; I, who one day heard Carlos Lage’s express order prohibiting my countrymen from accessing Yahoo or Hotmail, and who, in my brief passage through institutional journalism was in a couple of meetings with the recently purged Jesús Infante, listening to him talk about revolutionary strength and commitment, I think that with my few years I can dare to say, like the poet León Felipe: I don’t know many things, it’s true, I just say what I have seen. But I have slept with all the stories. And I already know all the stories.
It is not black humor this time: the Cuban Workers Union (CTC), after finishing a wide-reaching session this November 1, signed — unconditionally — their marriage with the government, just before the imminent dismissal of half a million “unsuitable” workers by this coming April.
And as expected, they didn’t even blush.
Salvador Valdes Mesa, general secretary of the country’s only trade union, asserted that the workers will support these labor reorganization measures, and that they will be consistent and massive. Half the world is incredulous, permanently distrustful: it may seem surreal to them, but it is reported in our paper and digital press. They can rush to read it.
Translating the facts, we could say that an organization — the very essence and definition of which is the uncompromising defense of the rights of the workers — has raised its right hand, put the other hand on the Bible, and sworn loyalty to the body that lays off workers, as opposed to those laid-off.
Is there any other country where such absurdities could so quickly come to pass?
But we aren’t surprised. The same Cuban Workers Union, in a communication reproduced in our media, was the official spokesperson for the dismissals which, under the euphemism “qualification process” have already started across the country.
Indeed, the current chessboard has given us another contribution to the revolutionary jargon: it so happens that in Cuba, from now on, there will be no “laid off” or “unemployed” workers. There will be “unsuitable” and “available” workers. So it was decided by our enlightened leadership, so it appears in our obedient press.
The most interesting thing happening lately in Cuban workplaces, however, is worthy of comic theater; that is the meetings being held by the local unions with their own members, ordinary working people.
These are preparatory meetings, in effect to lobby for what is coming, and to explain in the most dramatic way possible the comatose state of the economy. (Read: the comatose state into which the economy has been led by none other than the government itself.) The second step is to convince the potential unemployed of the need for them to leave the game. And, accordingly, they are asked not just to accept the reality, but to approve and support it.
Here we see a useful reference: the most famous novel in all of literature about totalitarianism. Does anyone remember how George Orwell’s 1984 ends? With the vaporization of freethinking Winston Smith by the representatives of power.
But before they dismantle him as a social, individual and biological being, the repressors take on a special task: to convince him of his error, to show him the fallacy of his dispute with Big Brother, and to make sure he ends up loving the leader. After the purification of his soul, he is disappeared.
I think there is no more exact metaphor for what is happening today in our country than this fictionalized invention: the government has decided to throw 500,000 Cubans into the street, in a way that those Cubans themselves support the resolution that converts them into“availables.”
The main obstacle to these meetings between the union and the workers, however, is a timely issue: how to convince the future“disassociated” that they will really be able to earn a living from one of the new occupations established by the State.
You do not need an exceptional brain to understand that almost none of the 178 economic activities recently legalized would allow a fairly decent living, let alone prosperity and quality of life.
The reason is a basic one: there is no way to survive giving dogs haircuts, or caring for parks and public toilets, in a country where you pay a 240% tax on staples, and where every day the real value of the currency depreciates against the price of electricity, public transport, and food. (On October 29 the Electric Company announced a further increase in its already high rate for those using more than 300 kWh per month.)
Even worse, and what few seem to have noticed, is that the new opportunities supposedly offered by the State, are, in reality, new ways to empty the already bare pockets of our fellow countrymen.
For example: Until now the unhappy topper-of-palms, or the math tutor, could work without having to account to anyone. Now, they will not only earn the same pittance as before, but will be forced to take out a license and pay fixed taxes on their little enterprises. The picture, even if they don’t yet understand it, is bleak.
So, faced with a process where the workers have been nothing more than the victims of the inefficiency of the system being imposed upon them, where they have fallen into the web of unproductivity inherent in centralized economies, and where no one but the ruling class is to blame for this situation, what does the only body that could supposedly help the unemployed do? What does the union that takes a portion of your salary as a tribute every month do? Not just abandon you to your fate. Worse, it sweetly takes you by the hand and walks you towards the precipice.
I think a few examples could be more effective in showing the visceral damage caused to institutions and organizations by totalitarian regimes. What the Cuban government has put into practice discredits still more, and perverts still more, and dilutes still more, the essence of an organization that in other parts of the world constitutes the principal headache for companies and politicians, by closing ranks with the victims against the victimizers.
Could there have been — even within the same system! — another more decent role for the Cuban Workers Union? For me, yes. It might, at the very least, have been a public negotiator for the conditions of those laid off, it could have reduced the number of positions to be eliminated, or it could have pressured the leaders to offer the future unemployed real options to earn a living in private businesses, something more than enterprises such as “covering buttons” or “creating a dance partner” a la “Benny Moré.”
But the role reserved for this organization, which it has accepted without question, is the most embarrassing possible: “You take this dagger and plunge it in your chest and smile please.”
Stockholm Syndrome, one of the unique diseases among human mental disorders, describes the behavior of a hostage who ends up in solidarity with his kidnapper, and comes to collaborate in his own captivity.
Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently awarded a shirt — the guayabera — the title of “official diplomatic clothing.” Let no one be surprised if, before too long, the Cuban Psychiatric Society (at the request of the Cuban Workers Union, of course), proclaims the Stockholm Syndrome to be the “National Pathology.”
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.
I do not think there is a single Cuban who has not seen his face at some point, on the big screen or small, or in a theater. He is one of the most recognizable actors on the national scene.
No doubt this is influenced by the not inconsiderable number of his films: 80 works, including feature and short films, foreign films and Cuban-foreign co-productions. An astronomical figure for an artist of this always limited island.
From movies such as Clandestine, or Lovely Lies; through Guantanamera directed by the most brilliant Cuban filmmaker in history, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea; and ending recently with The Skinny Prize by Juan Carlos Cremata, Luis Alberto Garcia is key to an effort to assess the cultural output of the Cuban nation.
Among other reasons, because he is an actor with a strong intellectual stature — shared by few — who has earned the respect of the public and his colleagues, and because he has involved himself in projects which, for another person, would be an unthinkable recklessness.
Nicanor O’Donnell’s character in the series of short films directed by Eduardo del Llano, has affected Cuban society enormously, as an avidly-consumed underground product. The shorts, despite their illegal circulation, have had repercussions in all areas, including of course the Internet.
Thus, for the inveterate eavesdropper that I am, a contact with “the true Nicanor,” a funny man who plays the character, was almost mandatory.
Below is a brief excerpt of the dialogue we had in his apartment in Havana, just four days ago, while Luis Alberto fed, tried to put to sleep, and washed, his little baby of two months old (who is named, by the way, Vida (Life).
The need to be a most loving father did not stop him from giving me a great interview, full of ironies, smart thinking and a lot of honesty, which I assume will be a special text in my journalist’s book.
Luis Alberto, in an interview with Edmundo Garcia for Night Moves, you said you would not be recognized in the Cuban series, nor on national television. Who wouldn’t recognize you in the country where you live. And what do you think you of this fact?
Look, the error has always been in the philosophy of a kind of “besieged fortress” that they have wanted to instill in us over the 50 years they’ve been in charge.
There is very strong thinking, extended in all areas, that says that airing the dirty laundry, and hanging it out in the sun, undermines the process. They’ve always seen it this way. From his “Words to the Intellectuals,” Fidel’s discourse hangs on this question.
Starting in 1961 when Fidel said “Inside the Revolution everything, against the Revolution, nothing,” it has sparked thousands of questions: Who decides what art work is against the Revolution or which is in support of it? Who decides which product is beneficial to a social process, and which is not?
It has always seemed a little absurd to me, then life showed how damaging this thinking has been. It’s all very well to say it in a speech, it’s even a great phrase, if you will, but to put it into practice is a problem, because then, when a boy in Ciego de Avila writes a play, should we take it to Fidel and say, “Comandante, read this work so that you can decide if it is within or outside the Revolution”? That is nonsense.
And as this is impossible, it then creates another major problem: after Fidel’s words, come the “interpretations of the words of Fidel,” and each person who has occupied a key position in the culture of this country, has thought differently in that respect, depending on their prejudices and cultural level.
So then, what is easiest? Instead of dealing with it work by work, author by author, they said, “We’re not going to put any of the defects of the country, or the mistakes of the Revolution, or the problems of our society, in any work of art, because that is giving weapons our enemies. And since we are a blockaded country, giving weapons to our enemies means that a work that shows the bad, the ugly, in this country, is a book that automatically sides with the enemy.”
That is complete rubbish, to ask the art that not reflect its surroundings. The artist has no choice but to talk about what he sees around him, of how bad or how good is their reality. Do not ask the impossible.
So then, I said to Edmund, what happens to me as an actor is that the reflection of the reality I live is so far from what I see in the series or on TV programs that I don’t recognize myself, I find nothing in common with myself.
What is the sense, then, that every day in this country they tell us, when we’re children, that we shouldn’t lie, we have to tell the truth, and then when we become adults they say to us, “Yes, the truth but not the whole truth.” Or that terrible phrase, “Not all truths are for all ears.”
It is a culture of obscurantism, of having to hide the ball from people, which is intolerable.
I, for one, am still wondering what happened those who died at the “Mazorra” Psychiatric Hospital last year. The newspaper in my country said it would open an investigation to determine the causes and punish the guilty… where is that investigation?
I’m still wondering what happened to the police who beat the Industriales team in the Sancti Spiritus stadium, which was recorded by several cell phones and traveled across all the computers in this country.
Someone told me the other day: “They were prosecuted.” Fine, but I have every right in the world, as a citizen of this country, to be told that they were sanctioned, and how, so that will not happen again.
Because the images of that beating in the Sancti Spiritus stadium are not different in any way from those I saw when I was making Clandestine: Batista’s police clubbing the boys of the “26th of July Movement” in the Cerro stadium. There were the same billy clubs, the same slaps in the face, dragging people along the ground. And I need, or better yet as a citizen I demand, that someone give me an explanation.
Another, more all-encompassing example: the decision to show the video that proved the alleged errors of this country’s high officials, Felipe Pérez Roque and Carlos Lage, was made in high places, I guess. But that decision was to show the video only to Communist Party members.
My question is very simple, were they really traitors, or were they traitors only to the members of the Party? Or was it to a whole people who trusted in their efforts to improve the lives of ordinary people?
So, is it that not all truths are for all ears, and that not all the realities can be shown in this country? That’s a terrible thing. It’s like living in a house where you’ve been taught to think with your own head, but when you grow up you discover that there are rooms in this house you aren’t allowed to enter, that they’re shut, lock stock and barrel. Inevitably, if you’re an intelligent person, and if you really thirst for knowledge, sooner or later you’re going to open those doors. With or without permission.
What is needed is the political will and honesty to change our ills, to address them without hypocrisy. It requires political will to say, “Gentlemen, hiding this shit has nothing to do with us. You have to throw the shit against the fan. The dirty laundry needs to be washed, and put out in the sun. Because you decide to hide it in this basket today, and in another one tomorrow, but the clock is ticking and one day we’re going to be overwhelmed with the baskets of dirty clothes.
This is very much related, Luis Alberto, with the answer you gave another journalist in Gibara, when he asked you to summarize in one sentence what you mean in the short film Brainstorm. You told him, “Cubans deserve a better press.”
And what that means is simply: I don’t want to learn from foreign stations, from foreign news agencies, from a television program in another country, about what happens where I live. Because even though we Cubans don’t have internet or cable television, these materials always come to us, and we learn days later about things that went on around us.
I don’t want the news media of this country to keep publishing things six days after they happen, because whatever it is has become a big deal internationally so then they have to explain to people somehow what happened.
I want the press to tell me about the country where I live. To keep me informed. But not to hide mistakes from me, nor give me adulterated figures.
Look mister, if Zapata was on a hunger strike and died, it’s not pleasant to have to break the news to people. Certainly not. Life is full of disagreeable things. But people here, inside, have the right to know what happened, and no one should steal that right from them.
Many time, for example, we see on the news, “A response to something a woman blogger said on some site,” and you go out in the street and a lot of times people don’t know who this person is. Then they don’t understand the official response, nor can they measure or evaluate for themselves what the blogger said.
And it’s sad that Yoani Sanchez is known by the entire world, and someone who lives across the street from here doesn’t know who she is. It’s humiliating for Cubans, nothing more nothing less.
Please… We have to take the bull by the horns. This will oxygenate the lungs of this society. This transparency, this truth, will be vital to start building a better country.
For me, at least, I need transparency and truth. And when I feel like they are hiding the ball from me, it irritates me and then I go looking for the truth the press of my country doesn’t want to offer me.
I’m sure that this happens to everyone who flatly refuses to behave like sheep. No offense to anyone.
Apparently the uneven playing field in the euphemistic “cultural exchange” that is happening today between the United States and Cuba alarms no one.
Week after week, artists from this side of the ocean continue to arrive on American soil, filled with remarkable talent, an understandable excitement, and a willingness to return to the island that, until the last second, remains up in the air.
Week after week the new faces of musicians, comedians, and public and TV people from the island appear in the American media, without, in my opinion, generating a serious and significant analysis about the policy between the two nations.
How do I see it? Both are turning a blind eye, while artists from here parade across to the “enemy” nation, without, in fact, any national repercussions in Cuba, nor approaches or conditions on the part of the United States.
The Cuban press – what else can you expect? – is not aware of the considerable flow. With one exception: to praise the attitude of Silvio Rodriguez who, right in New York itself, demanded immediate freedom for the Cuban Five, elevating them into a category of heroes for some, while for others they’re considered textbook-case spies.
Anyone who has not passed across the Yankee’s stages lately, it is because they’re still in line, or because the authorities won’t grant them an exit permit because they are not considered “reliable.”
The number of the privileged is ever growing. From La Charanga Habanera to Los Van Van. The duo Buena Fe as well as the troubadour Carlos Varela and the multifaceted Edesio Alexander. All have appeared on TV shows, or have found space to promote their audiovisual products.
Before, long before, Paulo FG had gone to Miami with the safe conduct of his Italian citizenship, and had generated a Byzantine controversy with the televised statement of his faith in the Comandante.
We later learned, also, that Amaury Perez, not satisfied with showing off the rare privilege of a satellite dish in a country where this is against the law, spent a couple of days in Florida with family and friends. In passing, he granted an interview to the journalist Jorge Ramos, in which some of the later paragraphs came back to us with great interest.
The comedians Osvaldo Doimeadiós and Carlos Gonzalvo, also went to enjoy the nightclubs, television programs, and media headlines.
And so that the name “cultural exchange” will seem real, rather than a farce, the government of the island allows the American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to perform in Havana, with national acknowledgment. The American Ballet Theater will also arrive shortly.
This imbalance of quid pro quo is simple mathematics. An aspect even more striking, however, is that seen in the circumstances in which, under President George W. Bush, this kind of exchange was permanently dropped from the agenda, to the point that everyone has forgotten who most craves to be part of the “exchange.” Everyone has forgotten the artists based in Miami.
Despite constant requests to sing in his homeland, there has been no “exchange” with the talented Amaury Gutiérrez, nor with the salsa dancer who, hands down, has been emblematic of Cuban dancers: Willy Chirino. Nor have Bebo Valdes and Arturo Sandoval been allowed to take part.
There have been no exchanges with Pancho Céspedes, or Alexis Valdés, Daisy Ballmajó, nor even with film celebrities such as Reynaldo Miravalles and Carlos Cruz.
The list is endless. Everyone could add a new name, a new figure, who would shudder with excitement at the prospect of returning not only to sing or act in their homeland, but to simply reconnect with their origins.
And this implies irresponsibility and insensitivity involving the governments of both nations which, for the first time, agreed on a bittersweet point: to deny Cuban artists living in Miami a chance to reunite with their original audience.
Each government has played its part in the conspiracy:
The establishment on the Island praises and magnifies that Silvio sang at Carnegie Hall, to denounce the “unjust imprisonment of the Five,” and to confirm his unbending attachment to the Cuban Revolution. However, in one of the contradictions inherent in that system, official spokesmen say they could not admit Willy or Estefan to the Cuban stage, because these characters would come with a political agenda and provoke people. An amazing and awesome way to bite your own tail.
For its part, the Obama government has enabled a ghostly exchange without conditions or demands for equal opportunities. And this, in politics, is an unforgivable defeat.
How do we understand that the author of “Unicorn,” a paradigm of the Cuban revolutionary process and the brilliant musician of all official events, gets — applause please — his necessary visa, but that this does not, in exchange, imply a trip, for example, for Pancho Céspedes to visit his own country? Why instead of negotiating the characteristics of this exchange, is what has happened so far a virtually unconditional acceptance of “shipments” from Havana?
Gray, too gray, clarifying the reality.
Moreover, the most execrable of the Cuban “cultural invasions” to the United States is the adaptation of their discourse and the morality transplant than many undergo, once they land in Miami.
It turns out, if we pay attention to the statements that the singer-songwriter (turned television presenter) Amaury Pérez offered Jorge Ramos in that controversial interview, the son of Consuelito Vidal is an intellectual who, despite his revolutionary commitment, is noted for his criticisms and discrepancies with the official model of his country.
On this program, we Cubans learned that Amaury disapproved the White Letter, but signed the Black Letter by phone, supporting the execution of some of his fellow citizens, and argued for serious changes in the way of this country is led.
On his return to Cuba, the Amaury whom I admire for his boundless charisma and a willingness to always dialogue, also returned to his political silence and intellectual docility.
Another case of fear was that of David Calzado, director of Charanga Habanera, when he outdid himself in opportunism and, like a chameleon, changing his skin with ease, “varied slightly” the lyrics of one of their popular songs during their U.S. tour.
Instead of satirizing the suffering of the nostalgia, the longing of those who today do not live with their families, with the chorus that goes, “You are crying in Miami, I am enjoying Havana,” the turncoat decided to conquer the Tyrians and Trojans with, “You are enjoying Miami, I am enjoying Havana.”
Back home, in his comfortable capital, the song would never be sung that way, under pain of censorship.
So then, in what measure has there been a real exchange, and how far has a relaxation between the two governments reached, but only in a one-directional way: bound for the United States?
Without a sensible and sober policy in this sense, such a segregated and limited cultural exchange between the two opposing governments cannot be just.
I welcome the visits of my brothers to the nation Martí also visited and Varela protected. I support everyone, honest and opportunistic, mediocre and talented, Los Aldeanos and Sara González, Isaac Delgado, Manolín and Paulito FG, to express their art in any country in the world without ideological constraints putting a brake on their expansion.
But I support it, as a fundamental premise, because the opportunity to perform on stages beyond the seas should open the door for all, not only to the virtuous on this side of the water, much less should it be a privilege for those who change their morals whenever they change the ground under their feet.