What the Wind Left Behind* / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Dawn in Havana
Dawn in Havana

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 10 April 2015 – Havana sixty years ago was a pretty city—clean, young and with no thieves of any consequence in the neighborhood. Around 9:00 at night the garbage truck would make its rounds. It was a regular truck, not one of those modern-day versions that look like interplanetary spaceships. It carried four workmen—two standing and holding on to the rear of the truck, flanking it—the other two at the top. Upon hearing the bell signaling the truck’s approach, the neighbors would hastily place the garbage can at the door, the two men from the rear would toss it with great flair to the ones at the top of the truck, those men would fling it back with equal style, and the can would be placed once again by the door. It was painful to watch them do this work that would cause the street to be enveloped in the stench of rotten melons. However, these men, with the elegance and precision with which they went about their task, made it seem like they were playing an individual basketball game. How many of these vehicles the city possessed, I don’t know, but your neighborhood truck would show up every night, through rain, a cold snap, or the coming of a hurricane.

This was not all.

In the afternoons, a crop duster would fly overhead, fumigating against flies and mosquitoes, and at dawn, Havana smelled clean. Overnight, its streets had been washed down and whisked with the metal brush that was applied between the road and the sidewalk by a powerful machine. The sewer manholes had their covers, the sanitation system was inspected every week, power outages were unknown, and Havana gave the impression of a city inhabited by people who had never done harm to anyone and therefore could live without fear, despite this being a time when the din of sudden gunfire was commonly heard along with the eruption of firecrackers. In the residential neighborhoods open planting beds were common, and in the traditional El Vedado neighborhood, the little foot-and-a-half high wall was established by municipal ordinance. continue reading

Not even the multimillionaire Sarrá** was allowed to hide his mansion behind the sinister metal sheeting so reminiscent of the Nazi crematoria, so in-vogue today among the nascent New Man of the Havana bourgeoisie, with the addition of a pair of large dogs prowling the yard, fierce as lions—whose daily upkeep costs as much as a doctor’s retirement—plus the requisite car alarm. Even regular Joe Schmoes who once had to sell their toilets just to survive have assumed a “bunker mentality,” securing their doors and windows with iron grilles.

It is true that in that Havana prior to the advent of The New Man, the car would slumber near the front door and awaken with its four tires, battery, radio and windshields intact. The petty thief of those days didn’t venture beyond the occasional shirt or boxer shorts fished through a window with a wire coat hanger hooked to the end of a broomstick. You would open the door upon awakening in the morning, and there would be the milk bottle and bread sack that had been left on your stoop. It is also true that, day or night, a generally friendly foot cop (the mean ones were in the squad cars) would guard the block with monastic devotion, he would stop to chat with the neighbors and, where least expected, there he would be, with his whistle and club. The night patrols of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) have not been able to take their place.

Back then Havana had a slum neighborhood called, “Las Yaguas.” Today it has dozens. The lack of employment had stimulated the presence of door-to-door salesmen and street vendors, persons generally lacking much education. This army’s ranks have increased a hundredfold, and now includes the university professional who in his free time will come to sell you ham, powdered milk, and olive oil. Even the vendor of bleach and brooms, which he lugs on his shoulders, is a high school graduate or mid-grade technician. Amongst female and male prostitutes, a doctoral degree is not uncommon.

It is appalling to see so much bad taste on display in today’s Havana; to see the ruins that make some of its central areas reminiscent of the London depicted in the RKO Pathé newsreels at end of the Second World War; to feel the funereal shudder of buildings that haven’t been painted in years; to contemplate the orthopedics present in a storefront converted into jerry-built housing by a bricklayer without resources; to walk through the streets at dark with the fear of being flattened by a falling balcony. Yes, we have things now that we didn’t have before. The infant mortality rate has been reduced to insignificance, and the embargo continues. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, 56 years have passed, not two or three. Fifty-six: the age of the Republic that is gone with the wind.

About the Author

rafael461.thumbnailRafael Alcides was born in Barrancas, municipal district of Bayamo (Cuba) in 1933. A poet and storyteller, he was a master baker in his teen years. He has worked as a farmhand, cane cutter, logger, wrecking crew cook, and manager of a sundries store in a cane-cutters’ outpost. In Havana in the 1950s he worked variously as a mason, broad-brush painter, exterminator, insurance agent, and door-to-door salesman. In 1959 he was the chief information officer for the Department of Latin American Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and spokesman of this agency in a daily television program in which he hosted and interviewed foreign political personalities. He was chief press officer and director of Cultural Affairs in the Revolutionary Delegation of the National Capitol.

Among his most recently-published titles are the poetry collections, GMT(2009), For an Easter Bush (2011), Travel Log (2011), Anthologies, in Collaboration with Jaime Londoño (2013), Conversations with God(2014), the journalistic Memories of the Future (2011), the multi-part novel, Ciro’s Ring (2011), and the story collection, A Fairy Tale That Ends Badly (2014).

As of 1993, he had been employed by the Cuban Institute of Radio & Television for more than 30 years as a scriptwriter, announcer, director and literary commentator when, at that time, he ceased all publishing and literary work in collaboration with regime in Cuba. As a participant in numerous international literary events, Rafael Alcides has given conferences and lectures in countries in Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. His texts have been translated into many languages. He was honored with two Premios de la Crítica, and a third for a novel co-written with another author. In 2011 he received theCafé Bretón & Bodegas Olarra de Prosa Española prize.

Translator’s Notes:
*The author is likely making a play on the title of the novel, Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, which is translated into Spanish as, “Lo Que el Viento Se Llevó” – literally, “What the Wind Swept Away.”
**The Sarrá family was prominent in the pharmaceutical industry in pre-1959 Havana.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Harvest of the Sowing of Violence / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Repression Against the Ladies in White (Internet photo)
Repression Against the Ladies in White (Internet photo)

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 13 May 2015 – Extremely worried, doctoral candidate in physics Antonio Rodiles and his wife the actress and political activist Ailer Gonzalez, in their home, related to me two events that I have prayed over, that those events that started with the blood of Moncada wouldn’t end up being a circular story. Ailer and Antonio spoke of the increased police repression after December 17, most particularly of the brutality with which the oppressors are being dispatched.

On Sunday the 26th of last month, with their trucks crammed with martial arts experts at the end of the usual parade of the Ladies in White, Carlitos, the son of Jesus Menendez, an elderly diabetic with heart problems, was grabbed, dragged and thrown in the back of the truck like a sack of potatoes. Yury, Blas Roca’s grandson, was put in plastic handcuffs so tightly that his hands turned black and they didn’t cut them off. Up Calabazar, the truck with the prisoners inside was left in the sun to bake them a little. They grabbed Antonio among the many present and pushed him with blows to the back before throwing him headfirst into the truck. An endless number of books could be written about the mistreatment and repression of the Ladies in White, apparently excluded from government’s media campaign to end violence against women. continue reading

There has been no lack of repression since 1959. Nor cruelty. In the Canary Islands, during a tribute to the poet Manuel Díaz Martínez, Raúl Rivero talked to me about a blind dissident attorney on the outskirts of Ciego Avila who for a time took lottery bets from the area’s cops. They detained him and when night came they left him in the boondocks. The cop won a bet on what time the blind guy would be seen groping his way into the village using a stalk of sugar cane or a bare branch.

Amazed at not having seen him for a long time, at the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) I met the Galician Regueral, now in his 60s, a Spanish journalist who has lived in Cuba since the 40s. “I was imprisoned for a year in Villa Marista,” he told me. “Why?” “I asked them that when they let me go. ‘Get out of here you Galician, go! Go!’ was the response. They never interrogated me.”

But it couldn’t be pinned on the political police. Kidnapped, homes invaded at midnight and turned upside down, and struggling, taking down the opponent by force, but it can’t be pinned on them. Or not exposed. For this they use the supposed “outraged people,” a mob disguised by its sheer numbers.

Repression intensifies against opponents in Cuba (Internet photo)
Repression intensifies against opponents in Cuba (Internet photo)

On the other hand, this is the least likely moment to make a show of brutality. They’re expecting investors in the Port of Mariel project (although those in the know say with so little bait they’re not going to catch big fish) There are also the American government authorities frequently visiting the Island, and behind them, or in front or them, are those who come to check out the part where they would like to stay, the government and entrepreneurs are expecting four million American tourists who speak of the myth. And in September Pope Francis will come. It is, I insist, the least likely moment to step up the heat.

After the first years of the Revolution, there were no more firecrackers going off, no place for sabotage, or attacks or an uprising to happen. Those methods of fighting, traditional on the Island in and those that in the 26th of July Movement were considered excellent, disappeared. The dissidence, in that regard, has been more peaceful than plaster saints. But violence often engenders violence.

I remember a boy from those times of Aguirre Park who didn’t want to get involved in anything. Seeing him appear, the group changed the subject. “Hush,” they said. It scared him. “I’m getting cold,” he complained. One night he came close to tears, but was determined. “Gentlemen, count me in on whatever,” he said. A cop whose girlfriend he’d offended had punched him. Then, from what I learned after 1959, he became the best at planting bombs.

A man without a job in dangerous, but a man with a policeman’s hand over him could be the beginning of civil war. I understand Army General Raul Castro. If he allows the demonstrations of the Ladies in White, he would have to allow others and all the rest, but if he doesn’t allow them, he will have to continue to use brutality and then he has crossed the line than can’t be crossed. He’s caught in a lose-lose situation. All that’s left is to open the game. Inaugurate democracy. His time has run out.

Their Weapon is the Word, Peaceful is their Struggle / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

The dissidents, labeled as “mercenaries,” seek only, through peaceful means, democracy for Cuba (file photo)
The dissidents, labeled as “mercenaries,” seek only, through peaceful means, democracy for Cuba (file photo)

Our “mercenaries” do not plant bombs, nor do they plan attempts on people’s lives, nor sabotages, as did those who today are in power.

cubanet square logo

Cubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 30 April 2015 – A young Communist, lamenting how the Cuban government delegation (supposedly there representing Cuban civil society) made fools of themselves in Panama, told me, “Well, at any rate, all you people are mercenaries.”

“First of all,” I responded, “exclude me from that group. I do not belong to any party, I am an independent voice. Secondly, regarding that ‘mercenary’ label, even the government doesn’t believe it. It has always been thus: for the autocrat, there is no ‘opponent,’ no ‘adversary’ – there is only ‘the enemy.’ ”

I took a mental trip back to the administration of José Miguel Gómez, when, to take advantage of the recently enacted Platt Amendment, the striking term “annexationist” came into use to exterminate the opponent, the enemy. Indeed, extermination is the issue. The “mercenary” term began having the demolishing effect of ten tons of cast concrete falling on its target. continue reading

It is the equivalent of the Germanophile appellation, nurtured by the Major General of the Liberating Army, Mario García Menocal, in the days of the First World War, and when Cuba, following the United States’ lead, declared war on Germany and even purchased 30 aircraft and trained 30 aviators to send them to the battlefields on the other side of the Atlantic.

It is poetic to observe, at all times in history, the behavior of the autocrat toward his enemies. In those days, there were no strikes, especially in the sugar industry where, other than the local “Germanophile,” no true Germans (Germans who came from Germany to help Cuban workers) took part. There are even reports of ambushes and crossfire between the rural police force and Germans who, with the help of certain elements in the area, managed to break through the enclosure and, on one occasion, sink a submarine that was to have collected them at the heights of Nuevitas.

But the Germans lost the war and the Russians expanded the territory that had been taken by the Czar and, on the ideological front, spread out over the world. Machado, to keep up with the times, started calling his political enemies “Bolsheviks” and preached hatred towards the “Russian experiment.”

To save the country from such an odious potential destiny, one must cast the enemy to the sea, for the expeditious man does not waste time executing the common malcontent, nor agitating him until he grabs four boards and two truck tires and heads for the sea.

No, a man like General Machado throws the fellow to the sharks right there at the mouth of El Morro, so that if this enemy is heard from again, it is only through fishermen’s bad habit of describing a wristwatch still on an arm, or a pair of underpants still bearing a Chinese laundry stamp, which they at times discover upon opening a shark’s belly – for which reason President Machado, being unable to tape fishermen’s mouths shut, ended up outlawing shark fishing.

Batista during his second term, perhaps exaggerating a bit but not lying, called the 26th Enemy (i.e. the 26th of July Movement) by a name that turned out, to a great extent, to predict the future: “Fidelocommunist.” I say, to a great extent, because many worthy members of the movement did not accept its surprising turn towards the Leninism which was evident by the time they emerged from The Sierra. It was the “traitor,” the “pro-imperialist,” created under duress by Fidel Castro, that served as the model (for those who did not come down from The Sierra and stopped applauding) for the later, “worm,” “scum,” “unpatriotic one” – and, from the Bay of Pigs, the “mercenary.” *

In other words, the dissident, who, having no place in the totalitarian state where it is the ruler who imparts the law and distributes employment, needs the help of the countries and institutions interested in democracy; just as, for reasons opposed to democracy, the Cuban government has aided numerous foreign political movements and has, in turn, been helped by Russia, China, Czechoslovakia and other socialist countries, and later – and up until today – by Hugo Chavez’s (and now Nicolas Maduro’s) “Chavista” Venezuela.

But, you know what? Even those little epithets created to diminish the opponent get worn down and lose their edge from overuse, i.e. “mercenary,” which used to inspire such fear, and is already being disputed by children when organizing their games, and which is borne with pride because of what it implies, with that same pride with which half the Cuban exile community today bears yesterday’s dishonorable title of “worm.”

I don’t know if I have convinced you, but the young Communist (a law student, by the way) did not reply to me. Along the way I had made him note that our “mercenaries” have put their trust in words and images to serve as their weapons, which can be seen in the only space where with much effort they manage to rear their heads: the Internet. No bombs, no assassination attempts nor sabotages, such as were committed by those who today are in power. So peaceful and patient they are that, so as not to hurt anybody, they don’t even want to proclaim themselves as “dissidents.”

About the Author


Rafael Alcides was born in Barrancas, municipal district of Bayamo (Cuba) in 1933. A poet and storyteller, he was a master baker in his teen years. He has worked as a farmhand, cane cutter, logger, wrecking crew cook, and manager of a sundries store in a cane-cutters’ outpost. In Havana in the 1950s he worked variously as a mason, broad-brush painter, exterminator, insurance agent, and door-to-door salesman. In 1959 he was the chief information officer for the Department of Latin American Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and spokesman of this agency in a daily television program in which he hosted and interviewed foreign political personalities. He was chief press officer and director of Cultural Affairs in the Revolutionary Delegation of the National Capitol.

Among his most recently-published titles are the poetry collections, GMT (2009), For an Easter Bush (2011), Travel Log (2011), Anthologies, in Collaboration with Jaime Londoño (2013), Conversations with God (2014), the journalistic Memories of the Future (2011), the multi-part novel, Ciro’s Ring (2011), and the story collection, A Fairy Tale That Ends Badly (2014).

As of 1993, he had been employed by the Cuban Institute of Radio & Television for more than 30 years as a scriptwriter, announcer, director and literary commentator when, at that time, he ceased all publishing and literary work in collaboration with regime in Cuba.

As a participant in numerous international literary events, Rafael Alcides has given conferences and lectures in countries in Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. His texts have been translated into many languages. He was honored with two Premios de la Crítica, and a third for a novel co-written with another author. In 2011 he received the Café Bretón & Bodegas Olarra de Prosa Española prize.

*Translator’s Notes: The epithets “worm,” “scum,” and “unpatriotic one” have been used for decades by Fidel Castro and his supporters against those who oppose the regime.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Made in Cuba / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Photo from the Internet
Photo from the Internet

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 10 April 2015 – Thinking of my son Reuben (whom I have not seen in twenty-one years, five more than his age when he emigrated in 1993) I wrote in 2003 a text collected in a booklet in 2011 which was published by Mangolele, in Logrono, Spain. Here it is:


Miami is far away.

As far as a remote planet.

And in that remote planet

today lies a part of my heart.

In Miami, Lord,

in that remote planet

that was so close

in the days of Pan American.

I never traveled by Pan American. When I was in Miami in 1959 (as part of an official delegation attending the July 4 celebrations) I went on the ferry, and returned from Tampa by Aerovías Q. Nor was I a shareholder in Pan American. But the name Pan American, like all the names of my past, formed a part of my identity. continue reading

I remember them, however far away they are, they give me back my sky, my streets, my people, the odors of my neighborhood, they take me back to certain days, certain events, and then, suddenly, unable to abstain, the word “Camagüey” brings me the vision of Ignacio Agramonte, machete held high, with this thirty-five immortals on that afternoon of victory when he snatched General Julio Sanguily from the well-armed Spanish column of one hundred and twenty soldiers who had taken him prisoner.

For an instant, the past and my cultural self were then something so much of the present, so timeless, that not even Agramonte and his legendary cavalry were beings of the past, nor was his corpse burnt after death because it frightened the king’s soldiers*, nor did any one of his immortals grew old. All of them were, to me, like in their portraits, or perhaps they had just departed on the 1:00 pm train to almost surely return in the evening.

Triggering fantasies and truths that, equally, can, and in the Cuban case, make such patriotic attributes as the flag and the shield, the tocororo**, and the flower called mariposa, to Ingelmo shoes, for instance.

Today, when everything we see and touch in Cuba is Chinese or comes from Brazil, or Chile, or Spain, or the United States if it is something to eat, because from food to ideology we are ruled by foreigners, today young Cubans have to show their identity card to verify they are Cubans.

It was a disgrace that I didn’t know in my past when I so hungered, like I was talking about the other day in a dinner table conversation with my son Rafael, who is twenty-one and like the young of all times needs to complete himself knowing the world where he was born in a time before him, this region of the past where the young were not, and that later they books tell them about with the gaps that books usually have, especially when interested hands wrote them. I lived in a Cuba where the mark “Made in Cuba,” present even on my toothbrush, reminded me of my nationality and reinforced it. Other than the vehicle fleet and electronics, almost everything else in those times was “Made in Cuba.”

And as one lives proud of the pride of their country, I was proud to know that many Cuban products were equal in quality with the best brands in the world, and even superior to them. All this in a republic fifty-six years old in 1958, and in a Havana that, outside the center, was less than seventy years old, and then with painted houses and reputed to be among the most beautiful cities of the world. They were killing in those times, the dead appeared every day, but not even Havana stopped growing (its three tunnels and most important buildings and hotels and hospitals were built between 1952 and 1958), nor can we forget the new production every day of tires, footwear, textiles, preserved foods. (We had seventeen brands of soft drinks.) Because, curious dichotomy, the killing went on on one side and the industry on another saying without lying, “To eat what the country produces is to make a homeland.”

Many of these productions, it is true, were made with imported supplies coming partly or entirely from the United States, cut off after 1959 by the economic embargo law imposed on the socialist government, but it is a calamity that cannot explain the total absence of 99% of the manufactured goods circulating on the island of the patriotic mark “Made in Cuba” that, in those remote days of Pan American, was a source of such pride to us, who also felt ourselves to be a proud product “Made in Cuba.”

Translator’s notes:
*A fragment lifted from this poem.
** Cuba’s national bird

What if Fidel Were to Survive Raul? / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 10 March 2015 — Let’s call him Hermes. Everything he says is said in private. I will not reveal his identity but, given the positions he has held, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

We all know these are confusing times, but imagine how much more confusing they would be if Fidel were to survive Raul. While hard to believe, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. While respectful of nature, for him it is the statistics that are significant.

We have in Havana fifteen thousand people living in provisional housing. In other words people whose homes have partially collapsed and who are more or less living continue reading

in these places as best they can, some for twenty years or more.

We also have some one-hundred fifty thousand people “approved for housing.” In other words people who should be in housing but are not due to a housing shortage. That’s one-hundred fifty thousand people whose roofs could fall in on them even without a downpour.

That’s one-hundred fifty thousand people who hug their loved ones before they go to bed at night as though they were going off to war. One hundred seventy-five thousand people, both in temporary housing and waiting for housing, who — as architect Miguel Coyula pointed out at a conference sponsored by the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC) — is equal to the population of Matanzas.

Add to this political threat, says Hermes, the fact that Havana — with the exception of Nuevo Vedado — has still not been fixed and is like a wheel about to lose its spokes. Add to this the serious problems of internal plumbing and electrical wiring and carpentry… Replacing a window, just one (and most of them are rotted from termites), costs 100 CUC or more.

These problems are not unique to Havana; they are found throughout all of Cuba. Exactly how this has happened is not clear, but it is worth asking — adds Hermes — if, once Fidel and Raul are gone, will Cubans be willing to continue living and dying under such conditions.

His salary does not allow him to carry out repairs on his house. Nor would a bank be able extend him credit based on that salary, something that might have been possible one-hundred fifty or two hundred years ago. And even if it could, where would the country get the cement and the wood for such a monumental reconstruction effort. We are, therefore, faced with a problem created by socialism but for which socialism has no solution.

That’s the issue, says Hermes. That’s it. In other parts of the world there are the “landless.” Here there are the “roofless,” the ones who need things repaired, the ones who cannot wait to have things repaired. In these dramatic population figures, which encompass more than seventy percent of the country’s housing stock, he sees the inevitability of change, of the transition to democracy. Of course, all of this depends on Raul and Fidel not being around, as he points out.

Raul and Fidel were heroes. They were forged in war. The founded a religion based on it. They started handing out houses, handing out cars, handing out scholarships. For years they were like the Magi. For years they could count on bad American foreign policy decisions and people imagined themselves fighting alongside them. But aside from the legacy of destruction left by the Magi, what will their hand-picked successors and all those like them be able to offer?

Think about it, he suggests. Do the numbers. The path to the future will be based on pragmatism, not ideology. It is a matter of survival. Whoever comes after will not be able to imitate the Chinese. The country has been disappointed with the future that was offered to them a little over half a century ago.

Now the future as we imagnied it is gone. Anything with even whiff of socialism will cause a Cuban to quickly and decidedly go for his proverbial axe. We live in the age of the internet, says Hermes, and if the level of development we have seen in those countries which have left utopian socialist visions behind were not enough, we can now witness in Cuba the financial well-being of those who struck out on their own and began working for themselves.

For all these reasons Hermes is sleeping soundly. His digestion is good and he is laughing at the pessimistic prognostications of today’s soothsayers. He knows, as his numbers indicate, that anyone who did not seem to be political — the average guy who watched his house age without being able to make repairs or who watched it fall down — will be at the forefront of deciding the question of democracy’s future, even in the event that Fidel survives Raul.

A Bucket of Cold Water / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Photo from the internet

cubanet square logoImagine you are at a party where a suckling pig is being roasted and all of a sudden, at the height of the festivities, Raúl Castro comes along with a bucket of water and douses out the fire. I cannot conjure a more apt image to illustrate the effect the army general’s speech at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit had on the spirits of Cuba’s dissidents.

What Raul said was a recycling of what the secretary of state was saying. It was the spitting image, cut to size, to summarize the state of affairs. While the inhospitable bucket of water was being filled, he left it to the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) to release the statement by the American government indicating that the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between that country and ours did not include a lifting of the embargo, the closure of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo or permission for American tourists continue reading

to travel to Cuba.

“So the Americas have not had to hang their heads as low as TV and newspapers have been telling us,” noted one party stalwart while waiting in line at a pharmacy.

With the PCC not being terribly secretive on this issue, one dissident was heard to express the following words of despair:

“Rather than making our work for democracy easier, this could make it more difficult. The United States and the Soviet Union had diplomatic relations and even then it was a cat and mouse game. Given that experience, if up till now they have imprisoned us, in the future they could execute dissidents for being American spies, which is what happened to Russian democracy advocates in Soviet times.”

Other dissidents are less pessimistic. After the initial impact of the unwelcome bucket of water that Raul used to dampen the festivities, some began to look at the glass and realized it was not half empty but rather half full.

Times have changed. No matter how much Raul might like to resurrect the tactics of the USSR, he cannot. According to Marx every organism contains the seeds of its own destruction, as I heard said to a proverbially enthusiastic dissident and learned man. Such is the case with socialism, to which Raul Castro must ever increasingly apply capitalist remedies in order to survive. The now almost five-hundred thousand self-employed workers — an army that just keeps growing — will be the gravediggers of the system.

Clearly, they are not politicians; they are merchants. They are in the business of making money and, not surprisingly, would prefer not to court problems with the government that might stand in the way of their making even more money. The great paradox, however, is that, by choosing to be economically independent, they have become a potent political force.

Behold a people, a sector of workers, with initiative but with no knowledge of their rights, as the dissident scholar of my story keeps saying. For example, the “botero” still does not know that, by paying taxes, he has the right to demand streets without potholes. The same applies case by case, sector by sector, to the restaurant owner, to the mechanic. Before you know it, you have created a public with intentions similar to the multitudes who stormed the Bastille.

Based on what they have told me, other dissidents more optimistic than the one mentioned above are betting on the perhaps exaggerated notion that Raul and his few remaining cohorts from the old days do not have many civilians from which to choose. And with perhaps even more exaggerated optimism, they do not see anyone in the Council of State with the status to command respect in their homes much less, they claim, under circumstances in which a fixty-six-year-old government has shown that socialism is no more than a fantasy dreamt up by Karl Marx.

Havana, the Cuban city from where I am gauging the pulse of the political situation, is experiencing a period of forecasting comparable to that of the Institute of Meteorology during hurricane season. Except that, unlike cyclones, no one knows when or where things will happen.

Meanwhile, the public — the frowning general public — is dying from trying to catch a bus while waiting for remittances from overseas, as if the guy with the bucket is not on their side. Neither the divinations of dissenters nor the enthusiastic forecasts of the governement’s new economic model matters to them. Trying to interpret this feeling, a seasoned retired teacher who sells empanadas in hospitals told me the following:

“Don’t waste your time listening to them. It’s not going to happen here. And they can stop talking about Raul and his opponents. What happens will be what God wants.”

20 February 2015

The Smell of Money / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Photo from the Internet
Photo from the Internet

cubanet square logo

CubaNet, RAFAEL ALCIDES, Havana, 3 February 2015 – In the Havana of recent days, hope and despair continue to grow. Hope, in the people: who have already begun to paint and fix up their houses, with visions of the peaceful invasion by the Americans of the future. Because, it is said with much authority, without anybody knowing the provenance of this fact, by about the end of April, we will have them arriving in waves of a million per week and, of course, neither the State-owned hotels nor the paladares (private restaurants) currently existing have the capacity to accommodate them.

An acquaintance from the neighborhood, retired and living with his wife and son, a doctor, in a small, two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor, facing the street, has already begun remodeling to take advantage of the coming boom. He has built a separate entrance to the unit from the side that faces a hallway, and on the patio has fashioned a little guestroom equipped with a shower, sink and toilet. Now he is on the hunt for a bidet, an air conditioner and a mini-fridge continue reading

– all of which need to be of the “gently-used” variety, because that is all he can afford with the bit of cash sent to him from Miami. Besides, he still needs a pair of twin beds to replace the box spring inherited from a sister who emigrated 20 years ago, and which will continue to be his son’s bed until the first American arrives to rent the room.

The government, of course, could try not to cede any ground, to take advantage of the negative effect of the struggle for democracy on the future psychological wellbeing of the people, and it will not ratify the United Nations covenants on human rights nor, much less, hear talk of elections.

Pitying me, an acquaintance of my daughters – a successful owner of a paladar who was in the midst of preparing his papers to leave the country when an opening to a bonsai-type of capitalism designed by Murillo* appeared – told me that, to him, “all that” about democracy and Human Rights is of no interest. He is no politician, he said, nor has he dreamed of writing for the newspapers. Rather, he is a businessman who has done well for himself, and he expects that with the million Americans expected to be flocking here every week, he will do even better. Making money is his thing. To that end, he has already begun setting up a second “paladar.”

Hence the sorrow, in that word’s best sense, or perhaps, the despair, of the opposition. It is a sad fact, but also inevitable: the smell of money tends to make conservatives out of even the ultra-radicals of yesterday (as we saw happen in the USSR lately). A reaction, this, all the more terrible in a country such as ours where 70 percent of the population, never having known democracy, has learned to live without it — and also being a country where survival has required pilfering here and there, dreaming of having things, of being able to live like one’s cousins in Miami. A dangerous indirect alliance with the government that will not be easy to break.

The opposition’s despair increases with the government’s silence, its apparent immobility. I say “apparent” because the government has not ceased to make changes, to transfer to “non-agricultural cooperatives” (and by extension, it is fitting that the newspaper Granma should one day speak to us of “non-veterinary doctors,” “non-merchant marines,” “non-porno artists,” “non-retired military personnel”) even small-town aqueducts. Another shift not even dreamed of before now: a new investment law with room for the native citizen (i.e. the Cuban residing on the Island) in joint venture with foreigners or as sole proprietor – a development which, it goes without saying, cancels, makes obsolete, Murillo’s brilliant and sophisticated botanical design.

However – and I repeat, however (and this is indeed the great enigma): Is the government making these changes with an eye towards opening a path for democracy? Or conversely, is it to facilitate the Chinese method, in which the pessimistic opposition presupposes the State will be immersed waist-deep in its eagerness for continuity? Only time can tell.

Apart from these “non-Lenten winds”** optimism reigns supreme. Havana goes on renovating itself, When carpenters cannot find lumber, they buy old armoires, tables, doors to recycle the wood, to keep up with their orders and deliver furniture to the owners of houses or paladares who are preparing to accommodate a million Americans per week. Those who grow flowers increase their sowings. The bricklayers charge ever higher prices. A spirit of rejuvenation reigns, as the romantics might say, throughout the land.

Of course, regarding elections, I hear less and less.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Translator’s Notes:

*Marino Murillo is Cuba’s Minister of Planning and Economy. The late Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a regime opponent, coined the term “bonsai businesses” to refer to the types of small private businesses now allowed by the regime: bonsai, of course, are very small, and are subject to constant “trimming” to make sure they are not allowed to grow to any significant size. 

**Likely a reference to the novel by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, “Los Vientos de Cuaresma (Lenten Winds)”. The protagonist is a policeman who is growing increasingly disaffected with contemporary Cuban society. The story takes place in the spring, during the Lenten season, when hot southern winds arrive in Cuba.  

The Last Days of That Amorphous Thing Called “The Masses” / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Young Cubans marching in a government sponsored "protest"
Young Cubans marching in a government sponsored protest against the United States

Whatever the Cuban government does, that amorphous thing with no head or eyes, that they call “the masses,” is in its final days. And with it are also ending the repudiation rallies, detentions, physical attacks on the Ladies in White, and other forms of repression.

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 29 January 2015 — In the first elections of Cuban socialism, an old Communist leader would call the voters from his neighborhood and would instruct them which candidate they should vote for. I, being a provocateur and also a friend of his, told him, “Didn’t we agree to let the masses decide?” He replied to me, with a complicit irony while stopping the next voter in order to instruct him, “Yes, but we need to orient them.” continue reading

I say complicit irony, because that leader understood that I, by that time, should have known all too well that the trappings of democracy are a farce in socialism, mere props. Being, after all, totalitarian, one thing the Socialist State fears is that the citizenry – “the masses” as those who “orient” them call it – could think for itself.

From there proceeds the State’s lifelong fear of the artist, the intellectual – even of those whom it pretends to honor with its paper roses – and its fear of the individual, of the loner. In Cuba, the State – the better to keep an eye on him, and beyond that to convert him into one of “the masses” – made the peasant a member of a cooperative, he who had been granted two plots of land, and whenever possible made him live in housing developments where the units were joined window to window, allowing the residents to watch and overhear each other at good advantage.

Clearly, this fear had to be hidden. Taking advantage of the political circumstances of the moment (we’re talking of the months following the Bay of Pigs), the “Within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing”* pills were quickly manufactured, which had a certain flavor of patriotism on the outside, and much Soviet medicine on the inside.

Even though they appear to have been produced for use by the intellectuals, these pills have been a daily dose administered to the masses. We observe them when, arguing that “the enemy** is listening,” Cubans are prohibited to speak unless it is to praise the Revolution. Or when, without consulting the people, the government declares wars in which the country will participate with tens of thousands of men. Or when, as right now, the government makes peace with the “enemy” of just a minute ago, according to the surprising announcement by Raúl this past December 17.

All right, now. Following this announcement, which the people have greeted with emotion, these pills have lost their potency. Or, we must re-think this. Besides, logic and the reasoning of the Socialist State tend to not coincide. The foreign press continues mentioning (while the national press doesn’t discuss it) new detentions, operatives stationed outside residences, all with the object of preventing the opposition from attending anti-establishment events, and reporting names of dissidents whose passports have been confiscated or not renewed – who rightfully fear being returned to their former condition of “prisoners at large.”

But, why? When, after all, ‘round about two years ago, they were allowed to travel outside the country, and the government did not collapse. So, then, why this regression? And besides, why now, at this moment, when the hackneyed and same old song about the “plaza besieged” can no longer be invoked?

We are not so Hellenic, although anything can happen in a government full of secrets.

In any case, let the government do what it will now, that amorphous thing with no head or eyes, which the government leaders privately call “the masses,” is in its final days. And with it are also ending the repudiation rallies, detentions, physical attacks on the Ladies in White, and all manner of repression that has up to today been the government’s common practice.

Because, with the ratification of the United Nations Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – without which as a precondition for the agreements announced on December 17, 2014, Obama would have become a super-generous Santa Claus to Raúl Castro – the dissidents will, finally, enter into possession of the rights that will allow them to dedicate themselves, without government interference, to the formation of political parties, societies, professional schools and institutions, all essential to a democratic civil society. Why? Because in those little pills that are the Covenants — and the reason the government has not wanted to ratify them — is contained all that is necessary to articulate a democracy wherein the citizen can enter an electoral college and vote with decency, without anybody “orienting” him.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

* Translator’s note: A line from Fidel Castro’s so-called “Speech to the Intellectuals,” delivered in June 1961.

** Translator’s note: The “enemy” is a common epithet used by the Castro government and its supporters to refer to the United States.

The Communist Party in the New Cuba / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

“There is only one option: Fatherland, Revolution, and Socialism”
“There is only one option: Fatherland, Revolution, and Socialism”

cubanet square logoCubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 13 January 2015 — Following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, Havana has become a cauldron of ideas about how we could have elections by secret and direct ballot – an exciting thing to contemplate. Many here see it happening right around the corner, maybe within a few years, three at the most. Others completely deny it. They speak – not in favor, but they do speak – of the Chinese method as the successor to Raul Castro socialism.

Would the Communist Party participate in such elections? This is one of the topics for debate. Some would prefer not to even hear of this. Others – myself included – believe that it would be impossible to exclude the Party: because we are democrats, because otherwise the elections would be invalid, and because, still, the Communist Party holds the reins of power.

However, upon the new government’s establishment, there would be a movement to seize and recover all of the Party’s properties. All. That means, guest houses continue reading

, workplaces, office furniture and equipment, yachts, recreational facilities, means of transportation, bank accounts, etc. The idea would be to start over, on a level playing field, with the other political parties in existence then. And if by means of the Constituent Assembly this recovery could take place prior to the elections, even better – more democratic.

The consensus appears to be unanimous to prevent the current leaders from occupying public positions in the new government. Well, now, would these personages, civilian or military, have the right to run for office? There is no agreement about this, but based on what I have been able to detect from conversations on the street, the public for the most part does not see a reason to oppose this.

There is even talk of a Senator Mariela Castro and a Mayor Eusebio Leal. I do not doubt that they would win. With the appropriate official support, of course, Ms. Mariela Castro Espín has done commendable work—work that in no way diminishes the historical responsibility of her relatives in creating the tragic UMAPs—and this work has gained her a place in the social struggles of her country.

For his part, Eusebio Leal – “St. Eusebio,” as some call him — has shown how much can be done, even without plenipotentiary powers, for a city. Understandably, one hears talk of forgetting the air-kisses which the Maximum Leader, during his speeches, would covertly or overtly blow to Leal. That was, they say, the price the saint had to pay – but thanks to him, they also say – Old Havana exists today. Therefore, generally speaking, the future “dream” electorate of Havana exists because of Eusebio. And because of Mariela.

Well, now, what of the non-recycled candidates, i.e. the new blood, the candidates of the democracy? There lies the great unknown of the moment, the question without an answer among those who already see themselves before the ballot boxes, flags flapping away in the city covered in leaflets and palm leaves. Because they have had no place in the public life of the country, the dissident leaders are not known by the public. The government has never mentioned them – not during their almost-daily detentions, nor upon their releases. Prematurely aged as they enter and leave the jails, and well-known abroad; but in their own country the dissidents are no more, at most, than names heard in passing.

But, fine – it is said – the candidates will appear, the important thing is that elections are around the corner. In the organizing process of the parties, the fighters of old and the new ones, the ones yet to appear, will be known. Upon uttering these words the future elector is seen to sigh and assume an expression of, “Finally! At last! We will have a President and Congress that emanate from the will of the people.”

It is a joy not without its worries. Will free education and hospital care disappear with a democratic government? Here starts the guessing once again. Will the house one lives in have to be returned to its former owner? What about the plot of land granted by the government? As the Russians did, will the current rulers retain the enterprises created by the socialist State?

All of this is fodder for discussions on the street corners, but the joy is so great at even talking about democracy that the conversation veers again towards elections and the media that will facilitate them: radio, TV, the printing of leaflets, etc.

Nevertheless, those who had already been planning to leave the country are still packing their suitcases. And, those who claim to know very well that what is really coming is the Chinese method, sorrowfully spit through their fangs. Raúl and his generals are uninterested in hearing talk about these things, they say. Elections?? And they point to the recent events concerning the artist, Tania Bruguera.

Ultimately, whether these killjoys are right or not, Hope has come knocking, and it is impossible not to let her in.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Capitalism Straight Away, or the Chinese Method First? / Rafael Alcides

By Rafael Alcides — It’s December 17th. The majority (and right now there are about 30 of us in line at the pharmacy) is celebrating the agreements between Raul and Obama; if there had been firecrackers, they would have lit them. Anyway, implicating everyone with her finger, a woman with a child in tow and a voice choked by emotion was saying: “Saint Lazarus has made this happen!”

As I was saying, the majority, because among the old guys (there were eleven, counting me, and I’m not from that neighborhood; I’m just in line there because my pharmacy didn’t have my medicine), there are three in opposition: one who says that, without the mediation of dissidents, the agreement constitutes a betrayal by Obama, a betrayal that will be recorded in history with words of mourning.

The others shoot back with what about the Human Rights people* in this long-awaited moment, they’re thinking about their piece of the pie; and the man, a chubby guy who looks like a lawyer, noting the lack of a quorum and all the unfriendly faces, leaves without offering anyone his place in line. continue reading

Another one is a dentist, who later they will tell me is not one of those Human Rights people, but while his cohorts debate the future of Cuban socialism, he’ll continue saying that without an elimination of the Embargo on the horizon, the agreements between Raul and Obama have been nonsense and it’s obvious that Raul is not Fidel.

And the other old guy who opposes is wearing dark glasses, is very respected by the group, and totally rejects the agreements. That’s why, in order to debate things fully, and because these guys are old, we follow Jose Marti’s old men in “Los zapaticos de Rosa**” and distance ourselves; meanwhile, there in the entrance to the pharmacy the majority continues, with the Saint Lazarus devotee as their leader, believing capitalism is already here.

“No sir, as a former military man,” some cross-eyed guy assures the man with the dark glasses, “I can tell you that the Army general has not handed the keys of the city over to the enemy. You are right when you say Fidel himself has said one thing one day and the complete opposite the next, but that’s politics. It’s the political chess game. With each new power play the scene changes. It can’t be any other way.”

“For that very reason,” insists the man with the dark glasses, “I don’t believe Raul when he says that this has been done without sacrificing our principles, and tomorrow I’m turning in my Party I.D.; I don’t want to have it on me when they let the businessman off the plane who will take charge of cleaning up the garbage, and the one who will take on the issue of transportation, and the one who’s already budgeting for the construction of two hundred thousand houses in six months, for starters, and I won’t go on because the rest you can figure out on your own.”

“Stop posing as a national oracle,” admonishes the military guy, losing his temper. And in an even worse mood, the man with dark glasses replies:

“The oracle here is still Fidel, and with his flaws, Raul.  I abide by the law of physics. If you remove a brick from a dam, just one brick, you’re bringing about the end of the dam. Look at the Chinese, look at the Vietnamese. Tons of Chinese millionaires today. Tons, thousands. And leading the Party. The only thing missing now is what the bourgeoisie and the lackeys of imperialism call ‘democracy.’”

“In any case,” says the man dressed in bermudas and an Industriales baseball cap, “is that good or bad?  Because what I want are busses that transport me, trucks that pick up my garbage, and for my family to not have to live in barbacoas [jerry-built tenements], cramped quarters.”

“But not by those means, because that would be the end of socialism,” objects the military guy, agreeing with the man in dark glasses.

“But what’s more important: the means or the end result?”

That came from one of the old guys who hadn’t spoken yet, apparently someone of authority in the group and who addressed the crossed-eye guy and the soldier as “my brother.”  His summons surprised the one with the dark glasses:

“So then, for you principles don’t matter. Very strange considering your history. A guy like you.”

“I trust Raul,” says the historical one. “You were talking about the Chinese, but we aren’t Chinese here. And if it’s necessary to be Chinese, we’ll become Chinese. And if we have to do what the Chinese haven’t done yet, we’ll do that, too. Socialism hasn’t worked at all anywhere in the world, and Raul, who’s in touch with the world, has seen this. That’s why he’s done this, so get ready for what’s coming.”

Since the historical one seemed to know a lot about what was coming, the group got quiet, willing to listen. The quietest one was the man with dark glasses; but, suddenly, as if coming to his senses and more interested in his present than in the future, he unexpectedly asked:

“And what about me? You know me; the sixty-four awards, seals and medals I have at home say something, the son of mine who died in an internationalist war, and everything else you know. Outside of Cuba, I could live like a king. So tell me, can he who has suddenly made it all clear, at the end of his life, stand to see us back where we were when we started this thing?”

Except for the man with the dark glasses, everyone sided with the man in bermudas and baseball cap. Rectifying things is the work of wise men, he was saying. There was no agreement, however, on whether or not Raul would take the necessary steps to dismantle the system, whatever those were, without causing damage, doing it without seeming to, one step here, another there, taking his time.

“But, what about me?”

“Raul doesn’t have time to do things slowly,” said a fragile but energetic-for-his age doctor who had intervened twice before.

“And what about me?”

Nobody paid attention to the one in dark glasses, he kept repeating his “what about me’s” but the people ignored him. Their attention was on the argument between the doctor and the military guy.

“The Army general has all the time in the world,” the military guy insisted angrily. The one in bermudas and baseball cap backed him up:

“These people last a thousand years. Gallego Fernandez is 100 and look at him still standing stronger than a light post.”

“No sir, Gallego isn’t 100 yet,” specified the historical one.

The doctor explained himself, appealing to their common sense:

“I’m saying that Raul doesn’t have time to waste making changes one baby step at a time; not in the crushing conditions the country finds itself now; whatever he is going to do, he has to do it quickly, he’s opened the gates and that’s very delicate, he no longer has the outside enemy as the excuse that allowed him to keep the non-conformists here on the inside in their place, and they will become more courageous.  Without stopping to think about whether he hurts one or one million, he has to do it like Fidel did when, suddenly, at a burial he said that when I said digo [I say] it was really Diego, and in the process turned us into socialists. In fact, that was also on a 16th day of the month.  Just like that, the way you rip off a Band-Aid. That’s the kind of time he doesn’t have.”

The historical one didn’t understand the objection. He spoke for everyone:

“Everyone has their methods, and in the one I’m talking about, Raul would avoid responsibility and end up as the one who corrected Fidel’s mistakes. For starters, this is about Cuba, not the conceited fame of anyone. Do you remember the last interactions between the Godfather and his son, Mike Corleone? Imagine Diaz Canel acting like he’s talking and, behind him is Raul—who has resigned, alleging that he was really really sick but in reality he’s healthier than all of us—speaking for comrade Diaz Canel. We are, as my pal and neighbor used to say” — then he signals for the man with dark glasses — “in the very moment when the Chinese, after wasting thirty years making cement in the back yard with a cauldron and wood fire as if they were frying pork rinds, enter history. Talk to the Chinese about those lost years. In the same way, anyone here today who has felt deceived, will applaud later.”

It wasn’t a finished debate. There was still hardly any blood.  Someone was saying that maybe a Chinese method was coming that didn’t use Cuban capital, recalling the economic philosophy of the bonsai*** set forth by Murillo; for his part, the dentist continued to repeat like someone obsessed, that without an elimination of the embargo, Obama and Raul’s agreements were nonsense, even more so considering that not so long ago Raul had claimed that we could withstand the embargo 55 more years.

Then the doctor, perhaps fed up with that guy’s lamenting, raising his voice and confronting him, said that the plural in Raul’s “we could” was an exaggeration, that Raul hadn’t experienced one second of the embargo, that during 55 years Raul had woken up in air conditioning, that he had sat in an air-conditioned car, walked into an air-conditioned office, gone to bed with air conditioning and had only gotten sweat on his shirt when he went out to review a military unit, catching some sun on the way in order to synthesize his vitamins, or when he went hunting.

And that’s when it started. The military guy demanded the take back his words; audacious, the doctor refused; and while those two old men were being subdued by the group, I heard a woman who had been cleaning her upper dentures with a nail file say to an old man who had just arrived, as she put her teeth back in, energetic and ready to interject:

“With these changes that are coming, I would like them to do what the Chinese still haven’t done; if for no other reason than for the people here to be able to say what they think without things like this happening.”

This post by Rafael Alcides was hosted on Regina Coyula’s blog.

Translator’s notes:

*This phrase does not refer to any specific organization; the expression “human rights person/people” is widely used by Cubans to refer to anyone engaged in any way in working for democracy and human rights in Cuba.

**”The Little Pink Shoes” is a very famous poem in Cuba by José Martí. It tells the story of Pilar, a privileged little girl, who while playing on the beach sees a poor little sick girl with cold feet and no shoes. Pilar gives the girl her shoes, telling her, ‘Oh, take mine, I have more at home.

***Marino Murillo is Cuba’s Minister of Planning and Economy. The late Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a regime opponent, coined the term “bonsai businesses” to refer to the types of small private businesses now allowed by the regime: bonsai, of course, are very small, and are subject to constant “trimming” to make sure they are not allowed to grow to any significant size.

Translated by: Kathy Fox

10 January 2015