Fidel Castro’s Cooks: In Squalor or Opulence, Both Adore Him

Erasmo Hernandez, former cook to Fidel Castro and owner of a private restaurant, Mama Ines. (Tripadvisor)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Pascual, Madrid, September 18, 2021 — “I love the comandante as though he were my father, as though he were my brother. If he showed up here today and told me, ’Flores, I need your hand,’ I would cut off my hand and give it to him. If he told me, ’Flores, I need your heart,’ I would give him my heart …”

Fidel Castro’s cook has lost his mind. He no longer knows how to count to ten and lives in a dilapidated house in Havana that has almost no furniture. He has little to put in his mouth but tobacco. He is sure of only two things: he adores his comandante and he is afraid. Of what, we do not know.

Flores is one of the late president’s two former cooks who were tracked down by journalist Witold Szablowski for his book How to Feed a Dictator, published by Oberon. The other is Erasmo Hernandez, owner of a Havana restaurant, Vieja Mama Ines, and resident of a world a thousand light years away. This is the world of Cuba’s nouveau riche, where lobster is on the menu (and served) every night. The thread that connects Flores with Erasmo is not exactly Fidel Castro himself but the devotion they both feel for him.

It is not unlike the thread (spaghetti, if you like) that connects the world’s evildoers. Szablowski has tracked down the people who fed five of the last century’s most cruel dictators. He approaches the task like an explorer, relying mainly continue reading

on the pick-and-shovel work of persuading his subjects to talk to him. To a greater or lesser degree, almost all the cooks profess a certain enthusiasm for those whose stomachs they filled. Not surprisingly, in certain ways they took on the roles of the dictators’ mothers.

This was literally the case with Enver Hoxha, a five-foot-eleven diabetic and leader of Albania for forty-one years whom Mr. K — the only cook who did not want to give his name — had the difficult task of feeding. K lived in terror during the years he was forced to cook for a man who ordered the executions of 6,000 people. He got the job after two of his predecessors died. To keep Hoxha and his stomach happy, the modest chef had the brilliant idea of asking the dictator’s sister to teach him how to cook dishes just like their mother had. The effort had the desired effect on Hoxha’s mood. “Who knows how many people’s lives I saved that way?” K wonders.

The lives of these men all depended on keeping the supreme leader and his family in good health. Perhaps the clearest example in the book is provided by Otonde Odera, who cooked for the fearsome Idi Amin. One night Odera had prepared a rich, sweet dish that Moses Amin, the dictator’s 13-year-old, ate until he vomited. Alarmed by the boy’s intense stomach pain and terrified by the crazed father screaming that Odera had poisoned the boy, the chef ran to the hospital. Medical staff explained that it was nothing more than indigestion, which he promptly reported to his boss. “Later I would find out that he was holding the phone with one hand and pointing [a gun] at the head of one of the cooks with the other,” Odera recalls.

Sadam Hussein, who used to make his cooks pay for dishes he did not like, became obsessed with security after the Gulf War. At a time when economic sanctions limited food shipments into the country, he had multiple luxurious palaces built in which food was being constantly prepared.

The idea was that no one should know for sure where the dictator was at any given moment, so his presence was feigned at different residences. Tons of food ended up being thrown away. Why wasn’t it given away? “It was the president’s food, prepared only for him. No one else was allowed to touch it.”

His cook, Abu Ali, knew how much food the Iraqi dictator wasted but still admires him. He is grateful to Sadam for everything he was given. (He escaped the stresses of the palace when he was allowed to take a job as a cook in a luxury hotel.) Moreover, he considers Sadam to be, by far, the best member of his family: “Of the entire Al-Tikriti clan, Sadam was the only good person. I really don’t know how he could have grown up with them,” Ali says.

But let’s move on to dinner. The book is divided into five parts, each corresponding to one the five meals of the day. This chapter, one of the most important, is dedicated to Fidel Castro. The comandante was, as is well known, crazy about dairy products, particularly yogurt, cheese and ice cream. Of the latter, he could eat anywhere from a relatively sensible six scoops to as many as twenty, according to hyperbolic accounts by the senile Flores.

What did Castro eat? His favored vegetable dishes. (He was crazy about Erasmus’ vegetable soup, telephoning the chef even in his retirement years to order it.) Though he did not much like meat, he would eat it under certain conditions. Lamb with honey or coconut milk and roast suckling pig marinated in mojo criollo were his favorites. He did not mind fish either: a ceviche, some eels and fish in mango sauce. There was lobster, of course. “Fidel eats a W-H-O-L-E lobster by himself. Everything else is for sharing. He’s like that. He always shares everything,” says Flores.

Both cooks report that Castro was not very demanding when it came to food. He was satisfied with simple dishes and cooked his own spaghetti, which he learned to make in prison and which he would not allow anyone else to prepare for him. This is because — and it will come as a surprise to no one — Fidel was a know-it-all. So much so that the ever-faithful Erasmus acknowledges it was “the only defect” he had.

“Once he went to visit a former teacher. He went straight into the kitchen and instructed the cook on how to fry plantains,” recounts Erasmo. “As president he often ate at the Havana Libre, the best hotel in Havana. He told the cooks how to prepare red snapper, lobster, duck confit…”

Castro does not fare badly compared to others in the book. Szablowski looks beyond the personal stories of these individual cooks. All are extremely complex characters, whom he portrays in full chiaroscuro. They saw and experienced the horrors up close and kept their mouths shut. For the sake of their own lives. And their own pockets. In the course of his research, the author, (he himself briefly worked as a cook as a young man) found his subjects’ fates reflected in those of the common people and the reprisals they suffered.

The stories are truly horrifying, although in the Cuban version the subjects were not confronted with the execution of a family member but rather with the pain of exile. Julia Jimenez, a Florida-based physician, left the island as a teenager. Her aunt now runs a private guest house in Matanzas which Szablowski visited to experience the local cuisine. There, the Polish author feeds on authentic dishes prepared by Juanita. “My aunt is from the Nitza [Villapol]* school,” Jimenez explains.

Here the thread leads to the Special Period and the hunger that drove her family from the island. “I lost twelve kilos, seven of those in the first year after the fall of the Soviet Union,” says Jimenez. “It was then that my father decided he couldn’t wait for Fidel to come up with a solution.”

But Erasmo sees the past differently. “Fidel can be criticized for a lot of things but he was very upfront about the things he did,” he says. “People often ask, ’Didn’t he expropriate land?’ He expropriated his family’s land too. ’Didn’t he force people to leave the country?’ He didn’t force them. He said if anyone wanted to leave, they could because he was building a country where you couldn’t dine on lobster every day. What are you saying, Witold? That I serve lobster in my restaurant every night. Look, you’d better not say that. Come, let’s go to the kitchen and make something else.”

The book ends with dessert, which is none other than Pol Pot, the only brutal dictator in the book who employed a cook so loyal to the party that she held diplomatic posts. Yung Moeun’s anecdotes about the genocidal Cambodian ruler are sprinkled throughout the book like appetizers until her experiences become the focus of the last chapter. Her final statement is chilling: “You ask if I loved him. After listening to everything I’ve told you, I will answer you this way: How could you not love him?”

*Translator’s note: a Cuban cookbook author and TV personality often referred to as the Cuban Julia Child. Villapol hosted a cooking show on Cuban television from 1948 to 1997 in which she showed viewers how to prepare traditional Cuban dishes using the limited supplies available on the island.

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Havana’s Obsession With the Nobel Peace Prize in Response to Allegations of Slavery

The sale of medical services provides more than $6,000,000,000 annually to Cuba, triple that of tourism. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Pascual, Madrid, 2 February 2021 — The perseverance with which the Cuban government seeks the Nobel Peace Prize for the Henry Reeve Brigade in the context of the pandemic is now beginning a new phase. After the nomination period closed on Monday, the official press reported the addition of singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez to the international committee that is promoting the campaign for awarding the prize to the medical contingent.

The Cuban state media reports promptly on the trickle of support from associations, political parties, legislators and international leaders, on which they count to achieve two main goals. One is the pocketing of the prize awarded annually by the Norwegian Committee, which currently comes to 9,000,000 crowns, almost $1,000,000. Second is the legitimizing and recognition of health work that isn’t exactly without profit, since it produces more than $6,000,000,000 a year for the Cuban state, three times as much as is earned from tourism.

Profits from the sale of professional services abroad wouldn’t be in the eye of the hurricane if it weren’t for the fact that they’re based on the exploitation of the workers who maintain the system, the doctors and nurses from all kinds of specialties who enlist in these missions, encouraged by a salary higher than the one they receive in Cuba, although the Government keeps 70% or, in some cases, 90% of the pay they each receive. continue reading

In addition, during their time abroad, the health workers are tightly controlled to prevent them from interacting with the local population and, above all, from fleeing the country. This is practically impossible to avoid for the vast majority of the brigades, despite the fact that such audacity is punished with the prohibition on returning to Cuba for eight years.

Despite the number of organizations that have been alerted about the situation of slavery that Cuban health workers experience in these international missions, the Cuban candidacy hasn’t lacked for promoters.

On February 1, Didier Lalande, the French president of the Cuba Linda Friendship Association, received the commemorative stamp of the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP) from the hands of its leader the former Cuban spy Fernando González Llort.

Lalande founded Cuba Linda in 1998 and since then has worked to promote exchanges with Cuba, facilitating the travel of many of his compatriots to the Island. He was also the first to promote, last April, the nomination of the Henry Reeve Brigade through a letter that has been signed by more than 2,400 people.

The start of the competition for the award was determined by his alliance with Michel Lambert, a French-Cuban deputy who has been active in parties with different ideologies (from environmentalists to liberals), and who presented the necessary documentation to formalize the candidacy last September, when registration was opened.

The presentation of proposals to the Nobel Committee is restricted to very few. You must be a member of the legislative or executive branch of a state, a member of an international court, a university rector and professor of various subjects, a director of an institute linked to peace and foreign policy, a previous winner or someone close to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

The candidacy presented by Lambert was joined by the World Peace Council, a body founded in Helsinki in 1949 in the context of the Cold War and aligned with the Former Soviet Union. Today its headquarters are in Athens, and it advocates “for universal disarmament, sovereignty, independence, peaceful coexistence; and campaigns against imperialism, weapons of mass destruction and all forms of discrimination.”

“There are 14 such brigades working with more than 500 specialized doctors and other health professionals, brave men and women who have been bringing much needed help to peoples in various countries and on all continents, saving countless lives and showing empathy and human kindness for which they continue to be remembered wherever they have been,” reads the letter that this organization addressed to Berit Reiss-Andersen, President of the Norwegian Committee.

The World Peace Council’s letter has been disclosed by Granma despite the strict confidentiality rules imposed by the Norwegian Committee, which prevent the nominees from knowing who nominated them for a period of fifty years. Leaks are constant, and this year it’s already known that Alexei Navalny, Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump and his son-in-law have been selected for nomination. There are also movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Boy Scouts, the Belarusian opposition, the Polish Association of Independent Judges and fact-checkers, journalists and activists from conflict zones among the nominations.

Similar to Cuba, in a year marked by Covid-19, the Coalition for Innovations in Preparedness for Epidemics (CEPI) and the World Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) are also eligible for the award.

The Norwegian Committee, however, has also encountered those who press in the opposite direction. Among the most energetic detractors of the Cuban candidacy is the organization Archivo Cuba, the Cuban Archives Project, which last October sent a letter to those responsible for the choice (whose names are unknown except that they’re five people designated by the Norwegian Parliament) in order to explain the working conditions of the Henry Reeves Brigade, and what it would mean to grant Cuba the moral recognition intended by such a prestigious award.

“It is our duty to inform you of the abundant and overwhelming evidence that makes this medical body an intrinsic part of a scheme of human trafficking by the Cuban Government, which is a violation of international law,” reads the letter, signed by María Werlau.

The award has sought to avoid controversy and arouse a spirit of harmony for many years, but it recently has had several stumbles in this task. Some experts attribute the controversies to the intention of the Norwegian Committee to “sponsor” peace processes that have often been controversial or haven’t turned out well, as has been the case with Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres and Itzak Rabin for the Oslo Peace Accords, Juan Manuel Santos for the peace process in Colombia and Abiy Ahmed for facilitating a peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea that didn’t last.

Another of the most criticized prize winners was Barack Obama, whose award was considered more aspirational than deserved, as the bottom line of his presidency demonstrated.

Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to the U.N. World Food Program for “its efforts in the fight against hunger, preventing its use as a weapon of war and helping to improve conditions for harmony in areas of conflict.”

We will have to wait until October 10 to meet the next Nobel Peace Prize winner, but the Cuban ruling party’s campaign promises to be long and intense over the next seven months.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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Medical Missions Are "The Great Capitalist Slave Business" of the Cuban Government

Doctors and nurses of the “Henry Reeve” Doctors Contingent in a ceremony in Havana before traveling to Italy to help in the COVID-19 epidemic. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Pascual / Yaiza Santos, Madrid, September 22, 2020 — Cuban Prisoners Defenders (CPD) made public this Tuesday its complaint in front of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which it presented on August 24 in the names of 622 doctors from the Island who have been on missions abroad.

In May of 2019, CPD, headquartered in Madrid, announced the presentation of the first complaint, against six Cuban politicians including President Miguel Díaz-Canel and his predecessor, Raúl Castro. The document contained the testimonies of 110 doctors who denounced the conditions in which they were forced to work on international missions.

“We are denouncing situations of authentic slavery for hundreds of thousands of people. We believe that the prosecutor of the ICC could perfectly investigate those acts as crimes against humanity,” affirmed CPD member Spanish lawyer Blas Jesús Imbroda, at that time. continue reading

This Tuesday, in an online press conference, the president of CPD Javier Larrondo gave a hard recounting of the figures and data from the testimony of several hundred professionals included in the complaint, which he says has been very well received in international bodies.

According to the organization’s data, the missions usually last three years and between 50,000 and 100,000 professionals participate in them annually, 70% of them doctors, but also engineers, teachers, and athletes. Larrondo noted that the work of these professionals entails a profit for Cuba of $8.5 billion net ($6.4 billion in 2018, according to the most recent available official data). This is three times the profit that tourism reports, he detailed, while calling the missions “the great capitalist slave business of that country.”

The reports agree that the professionals are forced to participate in “conditions of slavery” with long workdays and restrictions on their freedom, such as, for example, being forbidden to drive a car or having to ask a supervisor’s permission to marry. The law, moreover, penalizes with from three to eight years in prison those who leave the missions, as written in article 135 of the Penal Code.

In most cases, the Cuban Governments takes away the professionals’ passports to retain them and pays them between 10% and 25% of the salary that it charges the receiving countries, under the argument that Havana needs money to finance the Health System.

Larrondo emphasized that these professionals are subject to Cuban law, and specifically Decree 306 of 2012, “On the treatment of the professionals and athletes who require authorization to travel abroad,” and Resolution 168 which, among other restrictions, includes returning to Cuba when the mission ends, informing the immediate superior “of romantic relationships with nationals or foreigners,” asking permission to travel to distant provinces or places, observing curfew from six in the evening, and asking permission to “arrange invitations to family members.”

“They have a special passport and it doesn’t work for customs. They can’t travel without authorization and never without the entire family.”

Nor are they allowed to take a copy of their university degree. “Without passport or degree, you aren’t a person,” said the president of CPD. “What does this sound like if not human trafficking and prostitution?” he stated.

Among the conditions that the healthcare workers suffer in these missions, the NGO included political work and obligatory proselytizing by the bosses, under the threat of being repudiated by their own colleagues.

Two of the doctors who are part of the complaint joined Larrondo. One of them, Manoreys Rojas, who now lives in the US and hasn’t seen his children in six years, told how when he left for the mission to Ecuador in July of 2014, he did it “to fulfill a program that he was not prepared for.”

He did it “because it was a way out economically, the only way to escape the country.” Rojas claims that the Cuban Government places its doctors in the worst parts of the cities, where they frequently suffer robberies, and that it forces them to do proselytizing work and to produce falsely inflated statistics. As for the objective of the missions, he is forceful: “pocketing money [by the government] at any cost and by any means possible.”

For example, medicines were sold by Cuba to Ecuador for $13.8 million, “medicines that they weren’t even able to use.”

Another doctor, Leonel Rodríguez Álvarez, had a similar experience. An internal medicine specialist, he was first in Guatemala and then in Ecuador, where he is now a university professor. Rodríguez related that Cuba sent Island nurses to Guatamala with a course of barely a few months in anesthesia and that they passed them off as specialized anesthetists, which caused conflicts with local doctors, who refused to work with them.

Also, he confirmed that State Security agents were sent to the missions passed off as healthcare workers. “Those of us who already had some experience, we realize when we are having an exchange with people who aren’t of our profession.” These people, specified Rodríguez, are also easily identified because they have a vigilant attitude, denouncing, for example, conflicting opinions. That the Cuba’s G2 security services intervenes in the missions, he asserts, “is an open secret.”

On that subject Larrondo gives as proof the case of Bolivia, where it was demonstrated that of the 702 members of the mission, only 205 were doctors.

The plaintiff organization argues that the ICC can hold accountable the 58 nations that have signed conventions against slavery.

This June, CPD directly accused Norway and Luxembourg of contributing to the financing of the system of slavery of Cuban doctors in Haiti and Cape Verde, and asked them to revise their triangular collaboration agreements to continue being an example in human rights for the entire world and to avoid facing a complaint before the Human Rights Court of the European Union.

The brigade in Haiti was established in 1999 and remains today, with almost 350 healthcare workers of whom the total number of qualified doctors is unknown. Norway, a country that doesn’t belong to the European Union (EU), although it does to the European Economic Area, has contributed a total of $2.5 million via three agreements of this triangular type since 2012 in the support of that mission.

The money provided by Oslo was mostly destined for the construction of permanent medical infrastructure, but a consignment of around $800,000 was planned for the Cubans who, in that country earn $250 per month, an amount lower than the already very poor salary of local doctors, who pocket some $400.

In the case of Luxembourg, which is a member of the EU, the cooperation dates back to this March, when it signed an agreement equipped for almost half a million Euros for the establishment of a contingent of Cuban doctors in Cape Verde.

According to CPD, the group established in that African archipelago is made up of 79 workers who provide support in different areas of health, as well as 33 members of the Henry Reeve brigade to combat COVID-19 financed by a tripartite accord with the European country.

In the specific case of the workers in Cape Verde, CPD cited an example of the vigilance to which they are subjected. According to a report, on August 7, 2017 a communication was sent between the office of then-Minister of Public Health, Roberto Morales, to the embassy in Madrid with a copy to the ambassador in Cape Verde in which was requested, by order of Colonel Jesús López-Gavilán, head of the Health department of the Ministry of the Interior, that an official from the diplomatic headquarters in Spain come to Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas airport to supervise the layover that five doctors would have to make from Cape Verde.

The instruction was for them “to be investigated and check their communication with family members abroad” since, according to the sender, one of them had demonstrated “strong indications and intentions to ’desert.’”

Taking part in the press conference this Tuesday was Gilles Campedel, from the organization Prodie Santé, which has launched what it has called the International Brigade of Free Doctors. It is a project which, he said, is already present in 17 countries, and under whose protection Cuban doctors can work with just compensation – not less than 2,500 Euros per month, according to Campedel – and without intermediaries. “We have fantastic doctors and countries with the desire to receive them,” emphasized Campedel, who stressed that the pandemic is a good opportunity to get it off the ground.

The judge Edel González, ex-president of the Provincial Judicial Power of Villa Clara, seemed to agree that the brigades must “provide a service, but of quality, with transparency.” The objective of any analysis of the missions, he asserts, “is not to eliminate them but to humanize them.” After legally analyzing the complaint, he concludes that the punishments of the doctors who violate the law, like prohibiting them from reuniting with their families, is unconstitutional.

José Daniel Ferrer, president of the human rights organization Unpacu, expressed gratitude for the work of Prisoners Defenders in his case – the organization asked for his release on numerous occasions – and praised the creation of the brigade set up by Prodie Santé.

Ferrer, who noted that he has suffered a police cordon around his home for 74 days, addressed the politicians of other countries who participated in the press conference, including the Spaniard Javier Nart and the Argentinian representative Lucila Lehman, to ask them: “To what extent are the politicians and public opinion of your respective countries aware of the situation? What more can be done to show that the regime is neither in solidarity nor progressive?”

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

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University Autonomy is Not Compatible with a Police Officer’s Pistol

Police facing student demonstrators during the Franco dictatorship in Spain in 1968. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Pascual, Madrid, 13 April 2019 — Unlike in Cuba, the images of police officers beating unarmed students in Spain are gray. And called by the color of the uniform, the “Grays” were the members of the body responsible for order in Franco’s Spain. And the photographs from that era, the last years of the 1960s, are also gray, with their caption, “Running from the Grays,” imprinted in the vocabulary of generations of Spaniards in the present and the future.

The anti-Franco student movement swelled in those years in the Spanish universities and the Grays came, usually on horseback, to break up with blows of their truncheons those crowds of wayward young who rose against the regime. For this reason, one of the main achievements of democracy in Spain was the recovery of university autonomy, enshrined as a fundamental right in Article 27 of the 1978 Constitution.

University autonomy is at the very origin of the institution. In the eleventh century, the Emperor Federico Barbarroja granted shelter and protection to the University of Bologna (the first in history) against the Government. Since then, it has been considered one of the most powerful mechanisms with which to protect Higher Education from political fluctuations and external interference, endowing the institution with its own governing and administrative bodies that protect its independence and freedom. continue reading

The context in which this concept must be placed is that of an institution that is constituted from its beginnings as a center of ideas, where intellectual restlessness, critical thinking and the exchange of opinions are part of its nature and favor an environment more prone to the questioning of authority as a given.

It is, therefore, natural that university autonomy is intrinsic to democracy. Or, in other words, incompatible with the dictatorship.

One of the most controversial aspects of university autonomy, even in consolidated democracies, is the inviolability of the campus. This implies the assumption that the Police Forces and State Security Forces can not enter the campus unless expressly authorized by the highest authority, the rector.

During the Transition to Democracy in Spain, the pitched battles between Franco’s police and the student movements were very recent. It counted for something that some of the politicians who sat in the first Courts of democracy had been colleagues or teachers of Enrique Ruano, an iconic student leftist who died in strange circumstances (they claimed he fell out of a window) during an arrest for distributing labor union leaflets.

The newly born Spanish democracy struggled for decades to keep the police as remote as possible from the universities. The protests inside the campuses, which in the worst case involved some graffiti or vandalism, were allowed to wind down or resolved or by negotiation between the student bodies and the rector. The security guards seldom dealt with demonstrations or disorder and, in no case, did they carry firearms.

On a few occasions the police have intervened  on a Spanish campus in democracy. A judgment of the Supreme Court of 2003 guarantees that the entry of agents into the premises does not in itself violate the right to university autonomy and affirms that the institution lacks independence with regards to citizen security or the right to assembly or demonstration.

However, rarely has there been a political, academic or police authority that wants to be the one who allows the riot police to dissolve a protest with blows, which would involve to their name in the slightest shadow of the memory of the Franco regime’s police. This presence not only implies the inability to resolve conflicts in a dialogued manner, but it also violates some of the fundamental pillars of democracy and the fundamental rights of citizens.

The image of an agent of the National Revolutionary Police pointing a gun at an unarmed Congolese student, no matter how enraged the protest, should be intolerable in a country that, although we know it is not a democracy, does claim to defend the rights human beings in every international forum.

With a new democratic Constitution, which will not be the same as yesterdays, the photos of police hitting students in Cuba will continue to be in color, but very likely they will go down in history.

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‘Matryoshkas’ of Exile / 14ymedio, Rosa Pascual

Arbat Street in Moscow. (Flickr)
Arbat Street in Moscow. (Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Pascual, Madrid, 10 March 2016 — Moscow 1989. Mario, a Cuban journalist working in the press department of the secretariat of the Organization for International Economic Cooperation (OCEI) representing the island in the Soviet capital, attends, with his family, the premiere of the play The Master and Margarita, whose main female part is being played by Dolores, his lover. He has spent months rehearsing the part with her, playing at confusing reality and fiction in its portrayal of the main roles of the novel. Bulgakov’s Russian literature satire, censored in the USSR since 1973, borrows shamelessly from Goethe’s Faust to talk about good and evil and the decadence of Russian Society. In the same way, Arbat Alleys, a novel by the Cuban-Swede Antonio Alvarez Gil featuring the character of Mario, exploits The Master and Margarita to recall the strategies of the dictators over artists and their works.

Arbat Alleys (Verbum, 2016) works like Russian matryoshka dolls. Hidden stories of totalitarianism, of lack of freedom and censorship, of love, of literature and exile, one within the other. Mario’s story contains that of Santiago, Dolores’s father, a child of the Spanish civil war who left his country fleeing fascism to live in another; and Santiago’s in turn, contains that of the Stalinist purges of the artists of Russia’s Silver Age. continue reading

Mario is a moderately correct son of the Cuban Revolution in 1989, the year in which Arbat Alleys is set. He studied at Moscow University, he married a Russian, he already has two sons in Cuba and works as a journalist again in Moscow on the day he had to cover a press conference where Nazarov announces a renovation of the organism by the “transformation processes that are being tested in member countries” of the Eastern bloc.

One night in the OCEI building he meets Dolores, with whom he initiates a friendship that leads to passion. It is the young woman who introduces Santiago to Mario, weaving the small and large story of Arbat Alleys, although at times we don’t know which is the greater and which is the lesser.

Santiago Gomez had fled Spain as a child, leaving the side of the vanquished and heading to Moscow, where he grows up and comes into contact with Ariadna – daughter of the retaliated-against Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva – who appears in the novel as a ghost. Through his literary collaboration – the Spaniard translates Russian literature – is born a deep friendship that lets the young exile know first hand the pain of the vanquished, the repression, and the censorship suffered by artists such as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Nabokov. Someday Santiago’s annotations should serve to construct a novel about the drama of silenced Russian authors, so that Stalin’s crimes are not forgotten and the injury to the Soviet Union’s national literature is remembered.

Santiago entrusts his notes to Mario who, from them, writes the novel of the purges of Russian literature. Fascinated by the harshness of history, with his own works censored by Stalin and by Dolores, the journalist embarks on the narration of a story that ends up consuming him.

Mario is not an enthusiastic revolutionary. He is suspicious of the behavior of senior officials, is aware of the shortages that consume the island, and knows that his criticisms of the Cuban government cannot be made in front of anyone. But the regime’s hypervigilance weighs on him, as it does on all Cubans. However, his criticism is lukewarm because he still believes in the many benefits of the Revolution.

But throughout the year – and the novel – the fall of the Soviet bloc passes before his eyes and with it, the principals in which he has been educated crumble. In the historical background of Arbat Alleys is perestroika, the Prague Spring, Solidarity’s victory in Poland, the execution of Ceausescu and the Tiananmen massacre. But the news of drug trafficking in Cuba and, especially, the execution of General Ochoa, cause the final blindfold to fall from his eyes and he begins asking questions.

“Examples like the one I just cited in the cases of Pasternak and Mandelstam are an example of how the arrogant dictator is allowed to humiliate the rebel writer. The laudatory poems, letters of contrition and public acknowledgments of guilt are only the most visible edges of lives and talents that are consumed and disappear in the trough of totalitarian power. Disgracefully, the cultural life of our country has not been exempt from issues of this kind. Although I do not believe it is necessary, I could cite here several cases of humiliating and despotic treatment toward Cuban writers.”

Mario writes this paragraph thinking of Lezama Lima, Reinaldo Arenas and Virgilio Pinera, without being fully aware that as soon as the manuscript falls into the hands of the machinery of power he is immediately classified as a counterrevolutionary.

His friendship with Santiago – whose past as a child of war isn’t enough to relieve him from being suspected by State Security for having visited Spain during the dictatorship – his affair with Dolores, the friendships of his children and even the discussion at customs at Jose Marti Airport in Havana appear in Mario’s seemingly spotless file, making him into a subversive element.

“I am a Cuban who is dying defending that same Revolution that you’re questioning in this book,” charges the State Security official from the Cuban delegation in Moscow. And Mario understands finally that not even his first idea of suppressing the “most problematic” paragraphs will save him. That the only lifeline has been the loyalty of an official who decides to put friendship ahead of the Revolution and the Party. That the only redemption possible is in his family and in the preservation of the original manuscript, which should be published somewhere in the world to denounce the terror to which dictators subject their artists, surely out of fear of the force and power of intellectual creation and its capacity to make others think.

Alvarez Gil has squeezed the maximum from The Master and Margarita as an explicit reference throughout the novel to make his own denunciation almost 75 years since Bulgakov began his master work and his fight for freedom of expression. In 1930 the Russian writer sent a letter to the government of the USSR where he said, “The fight against censorship, of any kind and under any government, is my duty as a writer, much as it is an appeal for freedom of the press. I believe firmly in freedom and even would say that if a writer only suggested that freedom is not necessary, it would be the same as if a fish declared that it did not need water.”

The Cuban-Swedish writer Antonio Alvarez Gil. (Wikicommons)
The Cuban-Swedish writer Antonio Alvarez Gil. (Wikicommons)

But Arbat Alleys also contains a lot of the life experience of its author. Antonio Alvarez Gil (born Melena del Sur, Havana, 1947) worked in the secretariat of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in Moscow for several years, where he experienced the era of perestroika, he married a Russian, translated the country’s writers – Pushkin among others – and ended up in exile, in 1994 in Sweden, although he has recently lived in Spain. His life and career path have served, without a doubt, for the construction of the character of Mario and to make this novel indispensible for recalling the collapse of the Socialist Bloc and the horror stories of those who cemented its construction. An adroit story that leaves a strangely bitter taste, because Mario flees knowing himself persecuted by a regime 30 years later still controls its citizens and intellectuals, but he does it thinking of a future filled with hope.

  • Arbat Alleys was first published in Puerto Rico by Terranova Publishing (2012). It has just been reissued in Spain by the publisher Verbum.
  • Antonio Alvarez Gil published in Cuba before going into exile. In 1986 he won the Cuban Writers and Artists Union David Award for A Girl on the Platform. With The Long Hours of the Night he was a finalist for the Casa de las Américas Prize in 1993. Outside Cuba he won the International Award for Short Narrative Generation of ’27 in 2005 or XIV Vargas Llosa Prize for Literature in 2005, among others.