Young Cuban Captured in Ukraine: ‘I Haven’t Killed Anyone, I Never Touched a Weapon, I Am Not a Mercenary’

14ymedio interviews a Cuban captured by Ukraine on the war front

The Cuban prisoner interviewed by this newspaper believes that he was detained in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia / EFE

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 6 April 2024 — When Ukrainian troops captured Frank Darío Jarrosay Manfugás, a 35-year-old musician from Guantánamo, he had neither helmet nor weapons. It was night. He had left a bunker with a Russian soldier with the mission of moving a battery to another base. Trying to track down the Russian, who had abandoned him, the enemy surprised him.

Now he is imprisoned somewhere in Ukraine, but at least, he acknowledges, he is alive. Three months – from his trip to Russia last January to his capture in March – were enough to disrupt his life, which he tells 14ymedio in great detail. It is the first time that a prisoner of war from the Island speaks with a Cuban or Latin American media, an exclusive conversation that the Ukrainian authorities provided to this newspaper.

Jarrosay and his companions now await the outcome of the conflict, about which they avoid commenting. According to the Ukrainian Army, neither Havana nor Moscow “want to take them” or answer for them. “In my mind there is no guilt. I haven’t killed anyone. I never touched a gun. I am not a mercenary even if they consider me one,” Jarrosay states bluntly.

In Guantanamo, Jarrosay graduated as a Geography and Mathematics teacher, a profession he abandoned to dedicate himself to music. In Cuba he left his parents, his grandmother and a brother. It had cost him work and a lot of money to buy the cell phone on which, one day, he saw a publication that promised him a work trip to Russia. “For a Cuban, going to another country to work is more than an achievement. My goal was to help my family move forward,” he alleges. continue reading

According to the Ukrainian Army, neither Havana nor Moscow “want to take them” or answer for them

Jarrosay says he does not remember the name of the Facebook profile where he saw the ad, to which he responded by stating that he had “experience in carpentry and masonry.” He also cannot say whether a Cuban or foreign person wrote to him. “I gave them my phone number and they sent me a message on WhatsApp. There was a form and a request to send copies of my license and passport. The blanks: name, sex, age, illnesses and abilities. The document was in Spanish and promised a salary: more than 200,000 rubles per month – just over $2,000 – to be transferred to a bank account in Russia.

“Shortly afterwards they told me where I had to leave from: the Varadero airport.” He didn’t hesitate. He sold his phone to pay for the trip from Guantánamo to Matanzas by car. “There were five Cubans on the plane. “We didn’t confide in each other.” When he arrived in Moscow, he was met by a person who spoke Spanish and who had a copy of his passport.

He was immediately transferred to a military base in Rostov, one of the Russian cities on the war front against Ukraine – where the Wagner Group was briefly based during its uprising against the Kremlin in June 2023. Jarrosay describes the place as “a warehouse.” There were other Cubans there, although he refuses to say the estimated number. All of them, he insists, came from the Island and had arrived recently “deceived.”

Frank Darío Jarrosay Manfugás, during the interview given to this newspaper / 14ymedio

“They showed up with a contract in Russian,” he says, “nobody explained it to us. We signed a paper that we didn’t even know what it was about. “We were thinking about the work form that we had filled out in Cuba.” From Rostov he was transferred to a military base in a location he identifies as Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014: another of the strategic points of the war. “There I met four other Cubans,” he says. “They were very scared. They didn’t know what they were coming for. They filled me in on things and told me what we were really in Russia for.”

He did not recognize soldiers of other nationalities, only Russians and those from the Island. The ages of his compatriots – who were “separated in a cubicle” – he estimated to be between 29 and 50 years old. The Russians communicated with them in a cumbersome way: with a translator on a cell phone. There were no interpreters.

They did not receive training in Rostov or Donetsk, although the Russian Army offered them uniforms and weapons, Jarrosay says. Like any Cuban, he had had to undergo mandatory military service in a unit of the Island’s Armed Forces. “I did not have military training because I was in the Youth Labor Army (EJT). “What we did was plant and harvest.” He did not even, he alleges, pass the preparation known as ’prior’.

In their attempt to get the Cubans to accept their weapons, the Russian officers limited their food

“The Cubans who were at the military base when I arrived were on strike. They didn’t agree with what was happening. Our stories were similar,” he explains. “When they gave us weapons we refused to take them. We hadn’t gone there for that. That’s why when the Ukrainian troops took me prisoner I had no weapons, no vest or helmet.”

He did not participate in any combat, he insists, and gives an argument with a shrug: “I don’t have any gunshot wounds.” In their attempt to get the Cubans to accept weapons, the Russian officers – says Jarrosay – limited their food. “One day they left us without breakfast, another without lunch. It was his punishment.” Breakfast, lunch and dinner consisted of a single food: “Soup.”

They were assigned, yes, minor missions. On March 4 – the day of his capture – Jarrosay and two other companions, escorted by two Russian recruits, were tasked with carrying some power banks or portable batteries to a bunker not far from their unit. “In the middle of the night, the Russian was ahead of me and suddenly left me behind. I was running. I saw shadows and then the Ukrainian troops captured me.”

“In the middle of the night, the Russian was ahead of me and suddenly left me behind. I was running”

The Ukrainian Army feeds him and has made him aware of his rights. He does not know if Havana or the Kremlin have been interested in his case, but the officers guarding him explain that they have refused to admit his repatriation.

Asked for his opinion on the war before traveling to Moscow, Jarrosay is clear: he had none. “In Cuba they only talk about the United States. About Ukraine I only knew what they said on the news: that Russia was going to start an armed conflict. They hide everything, they cover everything. But it’s never known about. This is how the press works in Cuba,” he argues. Now, however, he does not dare to take sides for one or the other. “Russia should not have attacked Ukraine, that is my opinion,” he limits himself to saying.

In Cuba, Jarrosay insists that he had nothing to do with politics. He did not participate in the protests of 11 July 2021 (’11J’) – “I didn’t get involved, I was at home” – even though he wanted to leave the country. “I don’t want to go back” and he hopes that some NGO will “rescue” him, since his government does not want to. Although he does not feel mistreated by the Ukrainian Army, he does not want to stay in the country when the conflict ends. If Kyiv proposed to rehabilitate him by having him help to repair the country, he would not accept

I would like the war to end, but then… if I stay here, there, if I’m dead… I wouldn’t know what to say”

“Before Russia, now Ukraine. It’s like ping-pong,” he says, bitter, “I want the war to end… but then… if I stay here, there, if I’m dead… I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“I wouldn’t even want to call Cuba,” says Jarrosay. He doesn’t know if they know his situation. If it were up to him, they wouldn’t know. His mother is sick and when talking about her, he becomes emotional. “These are things that happen,” he laments. To those – in Cuba or already in Russia – thinking of joining Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Jarrosay sends a message: to desist, despite the misery that the country is going through. “Do not be fooled. When you arrive it is something else.”

Now he doesn’t know what will happen to him. The war continues. After a few dizzying months with multiple dangers, he has come to understand the phrase that has become his mantra: “The future is uncertain.”

Related news: Ukraine places the number of Cuban mercenaries in the service of Russia between 400 and 3,000

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuba: How to Convert a Distinguished Pioneer Into a Vile Elvispreslian Worm

Cover of “This is your house, Fidel. The History of a Grandson of the Revolution”  Xavier Carbonell

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 6 March 2024 — Carlos Lechuga Hevia was a machine for the Revolution. His grandfather, Colonel Manuel Lechuga was a machine for Independence. What type of machine is his grandson, Carlos D. Lechuga? His first last name is barely a letter, an elipsis, interfering with the nice ring of the clan name. Lechuga Hevia, red aristocrat, Castro’s ambassador in New York during the Cuban Missile Crisis, returns as a ghost to settle scores with his grandson for converting him into a fictional character and stealing — for the title of his book — the golden rule of communist hospitality: This is your house, Fidel. You better run, D. Lechuga.

Published by De Conatus, the grandson’s 137 pages are an insult to the memory of the ashen comandante, familiar idol and devil upon the shoulder of pioneer Lechuga. The mantra, from preschool through sixth grade, was one, “Fidel-Alejandro-Castro-Ruz!” The fantasy: that his grandfather would die so that he’d attend the funeral, with a sensational bodyguard, the supreme grandfather, Fifo. His biggest desire: to extend the hand of the Revolution itself, with its long, chilling nails.

Lechuga Hevia, red aristocrat, Castro’s ambassador in New York during the Cuban Missile Crisis, returns as a ghost to settle scores with his grandson for converting him into a fictional character 

But Lechuga has no reason to run. He is far from the tropics and his childhood, and ghosts don’t bite. The main character of those 137 pages is him and no one — not even the other children born in the 80s — can steal the show, which begins with the imaginary funeral of the old man and ends with the suitcase he brought to Spain. “Am I leaving anything behind? Anything that defined me? Was I leaving myself behind?” I get the impression that Lechuga still has not answered these questions and that one book is not enough for him to do so. But, let’s get back to the pioneer who dreamed about Fidel. continue reading

Lechuga seems — we see him — with the neckerchief and white shirt, distinctive of a good student and a last name that opens doors. García Márquez visited his grandfather’s house frequently; he and the old man had in common that both were surrounded by girls, women and matriarchs. Lechuga was the first boy of the family and he was named after the ambassador. “If the baby is a boy he will be named Carlos, like his grandfather; if it is a girl, she will be named Carla; and if it is born gay, it will be named Carlota.”

Childhood was idyllic. Thinking in Russian, dreaming in American, the hierarchy was clear and it always imitated the State. Lechuga Hevia was the household Fidel; Carlos the child, a little proletariat at the bottom of the cosmic order. When anyone brought his grandfather a sweet, his wife would toss it, in case they were trying to poison him like the comandante. One day the child discovered that Castro not only had a symbolic double–his grandfather and the rest–but also a real one. A slightly heavier farmer but with the same face. One of many, he later learned, who played the Fidel game to such an extent that every year, the Spanish film about Franco’s double, Espérame en el cielo, would air on television.

With adolescence, which coincided with the Special Period, the world begins to crack. Lechuga feels that, like his mother, there is a magnetic field that wants to expel him from the family photograph. “Life has put me in an inferior place,” reasoned the child when workers at the Romanian Embassy, near his house, threw “things” across the fence. But the mental breakthrough arrived when he saw the “enraged people” crushing an independent journalist. The possibility of turning into part of the mob, the dilemma between being complicit or protesting, resulted in an instinctive reaction, “I had to censor myself. Edit. Delete.”

The possibility of turning into part of the mob, the dilemma between being complicit or protesting, resulted in an instinctive reaction, “I had to censor myself. Edit. Delete.” 

We will always doubt whether Lechuga is telling the truth when he describes falling in love with a young man whose code name is the Afghan whippet. If he had any “Elvispreslian attitude” or whether anyone had to tell him to deepen his voice and stop being “soft”. But sexual rebellion was only the result of political rebellion, and the sharpest hierarchs came to warn him, “We hope to continue knowing you as the good kid, Lechuga’s grandson, and not as a vile worm.”

It was quite late. When grandfather died, Fidel did not go to the burial. The world of Lechuga Hevia, the loyalty machine, was in ruins. “Traveling down Quinta Avenida, you could see its books in the trash, its old passports, its bar in the shape of a globe, the painting of the singing fish.” The “comrades in arms” looted his mansion before the family could act.

But this is your house, Fidel is not only the dialogue with the dead, but rather a prologue to his exile, his new life. In 2013, Lechuga managed to screen his film and State Security got wind of — and recognized — the typical worm. He had to leave a couple of years ago. The rest is life, neither fiction nor memories. Lechuga in color, not in black and white. Owner of his cigar. Without having to offer his house to undesirable spooks.

Translated by: Silvia Suárez

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Why Does an Intellectual Become a Communist? Six Writers Provide Some Insight

For writers, it was easy to get excited about Lenin’s victory in Russia. (Russia Beyond)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, February 17, 2024 — Two communists are in Red Square, contemplating Lenin’s mummy, still fresh. At the dead man’s feet, a procession of grimy peasants shuffle past in veneration. One man says to the other, “I suppose you love Lenin.” The other nods. (Both had known Vladimir Ulyanov well.) “That being the case,” he continues, “how about we find two cans of gasoline and torch this dump along with the idol?” The other turns pale and begins to tremble. He suggests that his comrade forget such inflammatory ideas, drop the subject and, if possible, immediately leave the country.

One of the men – the jokester – is Ignazio Silone, founder of the Italian Communist Party and then a diehard believer. The other is Lazar Schatzky, leader of the Russia’s Communist Youth League, who was persecuted by Stalin and ended up being shot in 1937. Let’s suppose that the joke has a moral and that the moral comes a few pages later in Silone’s own words: “To judge a regime, it is very important to know what it is laughing at.”

Like the Italian, the five other great writers featured in The God That Failed were communists and lived to tell the tale. The book, which Moscow banned shortly after it came out in 1949, is now being rescued from obscurity by a Spanish publisher, Ladera Norte. Assembled by British parliamentarian Richard Crossman, the collection of essays contains accounts from Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Louis Fischer, Richard Wright, André Gide and Silone.

In only a handful of countries is The God That Failed not a historical document but rather an instruction manual. Cuba is one of those countries. The stories of the six authors, who describe communism as either a religion that they renounced or a drug that almost destroyed them, will strike a familiar chord on the island. It is a drug because it produces addicts. It is a religion because it offers eternal life, expects obedience and provides nothing. No matter how much time passes. continue reading

Cubierta de 'El dios que fracasó', editado por Ladera Norte en España.
The cover of ‘El dios que fracasó’, published by Ladera Norte in Spain.

The idea for the book came from a conversation between Crossman and Koestler. The theme is the all-too-familiar disconnect between those who escape communism and those in from Western democracies who admire it. “Either you cannot or you do not want to understand,” summarized Koestler after recalling what led him to join the party in his youth only to leave it seven years later. Why does an intellectual become a communist when the regime is always so distrustful of writers, artists and philosophers? For Koestler, it is a matter of faith, not reason. Faith that a political doctrine can alter reality and end the world’s injustices, something that was easy to get excited about after Lenin’s triumph in 1917.

“All true faith is uncompromising, radical, purist,” warns Koestler. “The revolutionary’s utopia, which seems to represent a total break with the past, is always modeled after some image of Paradise Lost, of a legendary Golden Age.” Rebellion is the only way to believe in mythology again when one lives in “a disintegrating society thirsty for faith.”

On the other hand, there is the intrigue and secrecy, the false identities, the espionage, pamphlets and passwords, everything that constitutes – and Koestler’s analogy is a gem – “the mental world of the drug addict,” something difficult to explain to people who are not initiated. In the lethargic phase — when one has left all optimism behind, when all that is left is compliance — one discovers the necessary lie, the lie you want to believe, the lie that makes failure taste, rather unsuccessfully, less bitter.

Those who died, those who are dying in prison, is this what they sacrificed themselves for?

Silone, a man of a thousand stories, remembers an epiphany he had when locked up with a group of communists being persecuted by fascists: a fake painter, a fake tourist, a fake dentist, a fake architect and a fake young German woman. The long and incomprehensible story that Silone tells that night has a bitter end and begins with the injustices that he witnessed as a child. Maturity and the search for freedom led him to communist ideas but he became disenchanted after Stalin’s schemes to enforce his will. One night In Moscow, someone asked the question, “Those who died, those who are dying in prison, is this what they sacrificed themselves for? The unsettled, solitary, dangerous lives that we ourselves lead, foreigners in our own countries, is it all for this?”

Richard Wright, an African-American writer, was invited to meet some white communists from Chicago. His first reaction was one of suspicion but he decided to go anyway. After the initial idyllic phase, he discovered the factions, the struggles for power and the frustration of party members. Despite working as a street sweeper, a female comrade issued the verdict. “We keep a record of the problems we’ve had with intellectuals in the past,” she said. “It is estimated that only 13% of them remain in the party.”

We keep a record of the problems we’ve had with intellectuals in the past. “It is estimated that only 13% of them remain in the party.”

Gide, perhaps the best known of the writers in the book along with Koestler, was one of the pioneers in dismantling the Soviet myth. His essay, taken from his celebrated book Return from the USSR, was written after a 1936 trip to Moscow which opened his eyes. Officials hosted receptions and banquets that were designed to tempt him into saying flattering things about Russia. Meanwhile, people were going hungry and dying from the cold. The state, he wrote in his diary, exploited workers “in a very formal and twisted way so that they no longer knew whom to blame for their situation.” The conclusion did not earn him many friends in Moscow. “I very much doubt,” he wrote, “that there is any other country in the world, including Hitler’s Germany, that has so enslaved the intelligence and spirit, and that has terrorized more of its people, than the Soviet Union.”

Closing out the book are two pieces: one by the American writer Louis Fischer, who wrote a biography of Lenin; and Stephen Spender, who became disenchanted with communism after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939. Fischer explores how the party instilled a sense of guilt in its members (“How can you complain about the potato shortage when you were building socialism?”). Spender quickly soured on the “poetic purity” that Moscow promised.

A few years ago, a group of university students — some of whom were friends — thought they could reclaim the legacy of Jurassic communism that had excited Gide, and later Sartre and company. They venerated Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and even allowed themselves the luxury of idolizing Fidel Castro, their go-to talisman whenever problems arose, which says a lot about their mental state. They hated Cuba’s official party newspaper Granma and communist officials, starting with the current president Miguel Díaz-Canel. They languished between disciplinary councils and calls to order. It was they – whom I remember as ragged, smoking and spectral – who first came to mind as I was reading this book, which serves as an epitaph to them. Their god, in addition to failing, thrives on failure.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

A Country of James Bond Villains

A still from Octopussy, a film in which 007 is on a mission to destroy a base in Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 11 February 2024 — Only once in my life have I been in the same city as James Bond. It was Havana. Or rather, a fake Havana that had a seaside promenade like the Malecón but no Morro Castle. It was actually the Spanish city of Cádiz, used as a stand-in for the movie Die Another Day.

While in Cádiz I returned to the capital of my imaginary country where 007 travels in search of a North Korean hit man who, improbably, wants to undergo a face change at a Cuban clinic. From La Caleta beach, where I smoked a cigar, Halle Berry emerges wearing a bikini — copied from one Ursula Andress wore in 1962 — while Pierce Brosnan spies on her with binoculars from a hotel bar.

Bond arrives in a cardboard Havana and walks into a cigar factory. It couldn’t be any other way. Cigars, old cars, women and drink – and that yellow hue that Europeans imagine when they think of the tropics – make Cuba the ideal hideout for Moscow’s men. There are Cuban flags, Young Pioneers, and posters with Camilo Cienfuegos on every wall along with decorative hookers. continue reading

The tobacco shop – actually Cádiz’ Mercado de Abastos – belongs to a certain Raoul (played by the Mexican actor Emilio Echevarría). To see him, Bond must use a password: Delectados. He wants to smoke this rare brand – also fake though the Dominicans did try to patent the name – which has not been produced since Castro took power.

Raoul, in suit and tie, waits for him on a terrace with views of the cathedral – of Cádiz, of Habana, or maybe Cabana, I don’t know where I am — and slips in an anti-tobacco message. To smoke Delectados you must have a license to die, not just to kill. Bond, who has been smoking cigars for decades, tells him that he is well aware of the risk. Delectados have a dangerous tobacco wrapper that “burns slow and never goes out.” Password accepted.

“We may have lost our freedom in the Revolution but we have a health care system second to none”

It is assumed that Raoul — a fervent communist, we later find out — is an informant for MI6, the British secret service, working as a sleeper agent in Castro’s court who ends up ratting out the North Korean. The terrorist, who is not a tourist – the joke is 007’s and sounds better in English – is at the Organs, a center for the study of a type of gene therapy to “extend the life of our beloved leaders.”

Raoul comments, “We may have lost our freedom in the revolution but we have a health care system second to none.” Bond raises his eyebrows. The viewer does too.

For more than fifty years and across twenty-five films, Cuba has always been part of the bizarre James Bond landscape. The impossibility of speaking ill of Castro in Castro’s fiefdom has been fertile ground for the imagination. If Cádiz is Havana, London is Santiago de Cuba and Puerto Rico is Guantánamo. Luckily, Miami has always been Miami.

Goldfinger confesses to 007 that, with his plans upended, he is left with only one option. “In two hours, more or less, we will be in Cuba”

In 1964, the evil millionaire Auric Goldfinger confesses to 007 that, with his plans foiled, he is left with only one choice. “In two hours or so I will be in Cuba.” If the tropical paradise had hosted Trotsky’s assassin, Ramón Mercader, a few years earlier, why not another Kremlin stalwart? But it was not to be.

After a mid-air struggle with Sean Connery, the original 007, Goldfinger ends up splattered on American soil. Bond is then able to fulfill his true, and highly criticized, mission: seducing Pussy Galore, a lesbian who has managed to fend him off the entire the film.

No one turns to James Bond in search of political correctness. However, the pressure to make 007 less macho, less of a smoker, less of an alcoholic, has borne fruit, as demonstrated in the 2021 film No Time to Die. His films even became self-critical. In 1995, when Judi Dench made her debut at the head of MI6, her first meeting with Bond is anything but warm. “I think you are a mysonginistic, sexist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” And this was something said between friends.

Roger Moore, the actor who appeared in the most Bond films, was also an unrepentant Churchill cigar smoker and carried out several missions in Cuba – the fake Cuba. In 1982’s Octopussy, agent 007 enters and leaves the country illegally.

I have no idea if the film was ever screened in Havana but, if so, it will have stimulated the migratory imagination of many. Bond is there to destroy a military base run by a Cuban army general, Luis Toro, whom he assassinates. A conspiracy theorist would have a field day with that surname. In 1982, the chief of the General Staff was the very faithful Ulises Rosales del Toro. Everything ends in explosions and missiles.

Fidel Castro has been the most silent villain of all the James Bond films and in some ways has served as inspiration for all the others

Disguised in the ugly uniform of the Armed Forces, 007 finds the device that will take him out of Cuba: a Bede BD-5, the smallest plane in the world. He says goodbye to Bianca, a mulatta who helped him, promising her in his Bondian way, “I’ll see you in Miami.”

Watching the getaway is an astonished Fidel Castro, a kind of swarthy hippie who pushes everyone aside as he walks. A soldier with a Guatemalan or Salvadoran accent breaks the bad news to him: “The Englishman has escaped.” A few years later, Castro – the real one – saw fiction become into reality when the pilot Orestes Lorenzo hopped into a shiny MIG-23 belonging to the Cuban army and followed James Bond’s route.

Fidel Castro has been the most silent villain of all the James Bond films and in some ways has been the inspiration for rest. Head of a criminal network like Ernst Stavro Bloefeld, tropical dictatator like Dr. Kananga, frustrated scientist like Julius No, bloodthirsty soldier like Ourumov. What role has the comandante not played? Cuba has also provided its own cheap thug and Bond girl but that is a topic for another day.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

‘Writers and Artists Under Communism’, a Chronicle About the Cuban Government’s Hatred of Culture

Caption – Alfredo Guevara, Nicolás Guillén and Alejo Carpentier talk to Fidel Castro at a reception during the second UNEAC  Congress in 1977. (Mario Ferrer/Cubadebate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, January 6, 2024 — “Down with the apolitical writers! Down with the supermen of literature!” “Their original sin: they are not authentically revolutionary.” “Outside the Revolution, no rights.”

The law of eternal return presides over the tension between the intellectuals and communism. Guevara repeats Castro, and Castro repeats Stalin or Mao. Hundreds of pages can be filled about espionage, shootings, accusations and complicity with “red-flag fascism”. This is demonstrated by the formidable Writers and Artists under Communism (Arzalia), by the Spanish journalist Manuel Florentín.

The vortex has its origin in Lenin, the historian Antonio Elorza explains in his prologue to the volume. In 1905, long before his troops assaulted the Winter Palace, the Bolshevik leader defined what he would do with writers and artists if the revolution materialized. In one of his libels, Lenin openly affirms that the problematic Russian intelligentsia should behave like another “wheel and screw” of the great social watchmaking. For the misfits, exile or bullets.

Since then, the communist regimes of any continent have followed the advice of Moscow. The intellectual must be an “engineer of the soul,” a servant of the State, which will pamper him with perks and recognitions, or he must not exist at all. continue reading

As a reader and imitator of Lenin, Fidel Castro dodged the “problem” of the intellectuals until 1961. By that time, the writers close to the “maximum leader” had already prepared the ground. The well-known “guilt” for not having fought in the Sierra Maestra – of which Guevara knew well how to take advantage – impregnated numerous poems and slogans: “We, the survivors, to whom do we owe survival?” the cultural commissioner Roberto Fernández Retamar wrote early in 1959.

European revolutions failed or were corrupted; the Cuban one was the hope of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Saramago, of Feltrinelli, Sontag and Graham Greene

The “great illusion” of the intellectuals was followed by the “great disenchantment,” says Florentín in the chapter of his book dedicated to Cuba. European revolutions failed or were corrupted; the Cuban one was the hope of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Saramago, of Feltrinelli, Sontag and Graham Greene. Others, such as Vargas Llosa or Gabriel García Márquez, soon traveled to Havana, invited by the Casa de las Américas.

The disappointment could be seen coming. Politically and militarily, dissident heads had fallen since 1959 itself, with Huber Matos and other senior officials. Castro’s chess was aggressive and incessant, and when it was the writers’ turn, he already had enough power to speak clearly.

The son of communists – and “vaccinated,” he clarified, against the viruses of Moscow – Guillermo Cabrera Infante was sitting at the same table as Castro during his famous Words to the Intellectuals. With a privileged view of the caudillo’s revolver, he soon understood what for several decades the lobotomized intellectuals tried to hide: culture was – and still is – a slave of ideology.

As a minor diplomat in Brussels, Cabrera Infante’s break with the Regime was the loudest and most militant until the arrival of Reinaldo Arenas. For Cabrera Infante, Cuba was “far from God and close to Mefistófeles”; for Arenas, who had a rougher time and life, his was a country of “scoundrels, criminals, demagogues and cowards.”

Cabrera Infante’s break with the Regime was the loudest and most militant until the arrival of Reinaldo Arenas

Florentín dedicates a section to the closure, in 1965, of Ediciones El Puente. Friends of the American poet Allen Ginsberg – who was expelled from Cuba for denouncing the persecution of homosexuals – the young, avant-garde poets were sent to the camps called Military Units to Support Production (UMAP), and, over time, they marched into exile. The cigar wrappers on which Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez wrote his poems from prison are the symbol of a generation.

But nothing better illustrates the tension between Castro and the Cuban intelligentsia than the Padilla case, in 1971, which has been the subject of debate again after the eponymous documentary by Pavel Giroud, with unpublished recordings of that day. Everything that the ideological purge had as a ritual is evident in those images.

Heberto Padilla’s punishment was the initial shot in an “uncomfortable” hunt. Paradiso, from Lezama, was removed from bookstores; Virgilio Piñera and Antón Arrufat saw their careers as playwrights cut off; hundreds of manuscripts were discarded as unpublishable; and Norberto Fuentes – fallen out of favor and rehabilitated several times – had to resort to powerful friends like Gabriel García Márquez to earn Castro’s favor once again, lost when he published Condenados de Condado.

The survival of the Cuban regime is an anomaly. So is its cultural apparatus, composed of bureaucrats and informants whose careers depend on their almost abject loyalty to power. Florentín closes his Cuban chapter with a biographical sketch of the poet Raúl Rivero, forced into exile, a long tradition that began in the 19th century with José María Heredia and continues today with so many writers and artists from the Island.

However, the worst thing – says Florentín – is the naivety, always complicit, of those who defend communist regimes as dreams of freedom. They are not, and Rivero, who suffered several boycotts from young pro-Castro attendees during his conferences in Spain, made it clear: “Their dream is the Cubans’ nightmare.”

Translated by Regina Anavy 

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

A Peculiar Almanac

Reading has become like a secret sect: its members recognise one another in trains and cafés. (Facebook/La Nave Antiquarian Bookshop)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 31 December 2023 – In a freezing bookshop in Burgos; with an antiques dealer in Salamanca; talking to a bookseller in Seville; awaiting the post from a miserly bookseller from La Rioja; rooting through a hundred stalls at the Madrid fair; unpacking packages that arrive from Cuba: to narrate my year is to narrate my books. In each case I know how much they cost, where I bought them, and what they brought to me that was new to my life and to my library.

A sporting spirit brings a reader to make lists – not only of the books they’ve read but also the ones they’ve acquired, the ones they’ve lost and the ones most wanted. My list – which contains all of the above – is divided into months, and it resembles a list of diary entries of where I found each book, as well as any notes or reflections that seemed worth jotting down at the time. It’s not a bad habit to have if you’re going to want some content for future use in novels or in columns.

In my diary – a lovely little Moleskine – I also describe meals, or the weather, people I’ve met and places visited. Observations from a bewildered point of view, because, for someone who has left their native country, although they might have a bed and a roof over their head, beyond that, everything appears exotic. The reader’s diary is not short of heroes and villains, unexpected luxuries and moments of extreme hardship. (In interviews, Borges said that he had known extreme poverty. “When, Borges?”, Soler Serrano asked him in 1980. “The poverty of not getting to the end of the month”, the blind man replied.) continue reading

People who read, they get up every day with an impulse that asks them “to save Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, Havana cigars, penicillin, the iPhone and the Kalashnikov”

People who read, they get up every day with the sense of responsibility described by María Stepánova: it’s an impulse that asks them “to save Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa, Havana cigars, penicillin, the iPhone and the Kalashnikov”. Stepánova wanted the same thing as Walter Benjamin, W.G. Sebald and George Steiner – all stateless people whom I have read with some attention this year.

I discovered Sebald via his book Austerlitz, (published by Anagrama) in Burgos, just after hitting my head on a ceiling beam: I was on the second floor [third floor, to Americans] of a bookshop, and I’d just had to climb a narrow staircase in order to reach it. When I recovered, I saw the spine of the book. Pain and illnesses also form part of memory’s arsenal. A simple example is a strip of esomeprazol, a pill with literary prestige – Arturo Belano and Roberto Bolaño took them – which marks the rhythm of my own week.

But if anything has defined my ups and downs this year it has been the hunt for the catalogue of a publisher which doesn’t exist: The Kingdom of Redonda. There are 40 coloured volumes, published by Javier Marías, with a sharpened arrow on the cover, by little known but always exceptional authors. These are cult books, other-worldly objects, which are disappearing from the bookshops. The quest for them and for reading them has shaped even my travel.

I travelled through Castilla y León by train whilst reading Los Recuerdos de este fusilero (Memories of this Fusilier), the tale of a British soldier who made this same journey on foot during the Napoleonic Wars. I travelled to Seville in search of The Religion of a Physician – the classic essay by Sir Thomas Browne – but I couldn’t find it. I eventually ended up haggling in a raised voice over the price of a copy, with a bookshop owner in Logroño. I discovered, in The Fall of Constantinople (which inspired more than a few passages from The Lord of the Rings), that the Ottomans were planning to do what Cortés actually did, shortly after, on the other side of the ocean – he dragged his ships overland, because the sea was closed by a “thick chain”, similar to the one that blocked the way of English ships during the Siege of Havana in 1762. As I’ve already said, other-worldly books, for readers from another world.

Like an inquisitive dog, a reader will always try to see what book a potential ’partner in crime’ has under his arm

Reading has become like a secret sect: its members recognise one another in trains and cafés, they show kinship for one another through the simple fact of each having the same book in their hands. Like an inquisitive dog, a reader will always try to see what book a potential ’partner in crime’ has under his arm. And if he recognises it, at the risk of appearing indiscreet, he can’t avoid breaking the ice (or at least enjoy the coincidence in silence if he’s too timid).

Winter, of endearing and indifferent books like Lolita; Spring, of Simic, Paz and Abilio Estévez; tropical August, with Divine Bodies by Cabrera Infante and The Colour of Summer by Arenas; Autumn, of classics – Jenofonte, Seneca, Homer and of obsession with Steiner, the “lay rabbi” whose books offer so much calm and optimism. Tonight, that which awaits me is The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence, the unforgettable Lawrence of Arabia; and for desserts an English edition of King Solomon’s Mines.

I’ll spend the close of the year reading, or talking about books. Or, at least surrounded by them, which – in these times of people being wrapped up in radicalism or poverty, political correctness or intellectual destitution – continue to be the best of company. And, obviously, with a cigar and a glass of something to hand. No need to overdo it.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Razors and Balsams

Picture of a barbershop in the 1920’s in Camajuaní, Villa Clara. (Author’s archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 17 December 2023 – It is much easier for a boy to be friends with his grandfather than with his father. The older one understands you, he has time on his hands once again, he plays – dominoes, chess, cards – and he rereads the books he bought when he was a young man. An old man is just a boy, with ailments. A father shapes his son’s character through opposition, making war with him; a grandfather does it through being close to him, and by giving advice. The father is master of his time, he calculates it, knows how to use it well and how to dominate it. For the boy and his grandfather time does not exist. One is entering into life, the other is exiting. That’s why they play together.

My maternal grandfather was a barber and a musician; my paternal one was a pharmacist. These humble professions are often present in the books that I have written, they are ’of the people’. I would have liked also to have had for a grandfather a scissor-sharpener, an aviator or a ship’s captain, or a mortuary photographer – there were plenty of those on the island – or an antiquarian. Nevertheless, life was generous enough in offering me three worlds: those of barbers, chemists and municipal bands.

In 1944, when my great grandfather got married, he had already been working as a barber for years. I know the reason why, in the newspaper which announced the wedding – I still have the cutting – the newspaper’s delivery man wrote the word “barbershop” next to his name in impeccable calligraphy and took the trouble of highlighting the announcement in blue ink. (The best news of the day, I have to say, because the rest of the paper is dedicated to describing developments in the Second World War, and to asking the youth of the town to report to the recruitment committee and march on Europe).

 In 1944, when my great grandfather got married, he had already been working as a barber for years

As soon as his son could manage a comb and a pair of scissors, he too took up the trade. I look at him now, formal, concentrated, white shirt and beige trousers. The photo, I estimate, is from the mid-sixties and it wasn’t long before he himself was called up for military service. Seated, and covered in a sheet, there is a man having a razor haircut. The locks are falling into his lap. A Guajiran man behind him leaves his own chair to check on the younger man’s handiwork. No one speaks, perhaps because of the presence of the camera. There’s a certain tenderness in the way in which the photo is taken. Translucent and ochre, the image feels more like a memory than a print. I’ve always thought that the person behind the camera lens must be my grandfather, proud of his new recruit.

In my village there was a detailed inventory of barbers, pharmacists and everything else. “At first the barbers practised like dentists”, remembers a writer in 1943. In the “1800’s”, he adds, one black man called Juan Rojo had arrived with his razor blades and shaving cream, and later on a Spaniard called Bruno Claraco, and it wasn’t long before the appearance of “Delfín Miranda, who had no qualification, and Delfín Barrena, who did have one”.

I don’t know when my great grandfather arrived but I do remember his last barber shop, the one he left to his son. There was a Koken swivel-chair – which later, after the death of the old man, made me sad, seeing it in the hands of another barber. It was in a bright and white room with a big mirror fixed to a structure that was fitted with little drawers. I’ll never forget the buzz of his electric clippers as it ploughed its way through grey hair and curls, and fleeces and manes and emerging bald patches and mops. Head shaving has always had something of a cleansing ritual about it: one attends the barbershop like one goes to confession or visits the doctor. One pays dearly for being unfaithful: the barber will always be able to detect someone else’s handiwork and knows how to punish an infidelity by leaving a “cockroach”, or one sideburn longer than the other.

Where the barbershop was all party-like, all cigarette smoke and conversation, then the pharmacy was all severity, and mystery 

A barbershop is full of stories. Whilst my grandfather was describing how to shave the head of a priest – you put a circular cap over the crown, mark the tonsure with the razor and shave round the bald patch – it wasn’t considered wrong to interrupt him in order to look out of the window if a woman who looked a bit like Sofia Loren or Kim Novak (and knew how to move like them) happened to be walking by. They were different times, less toilsome ones.

Where the barbershop was all party-like, all cigarette smoke and conversation, then the pharmacy was all severity, and mystery. In another photograph – there’s no limit to my archives – my paternal grandfather manipulates his test tubes and his pestle and mortar. At that time, pharmacies were a paradise of coded names, powders and resins that one always took to be poisons. The shelves were full of porcelain jars, with names marked in indigo blue ink: agrimonia, phecula patata, folium eucaliptus, angelica, dens leonis. Chemists, and my grandfather was no exception, kept recipes for numerous unguents in a book with black covers. A book which was inaccessible to me, like any grandfather’s things, right up until he died.

Both worlds – no need to mention the band: music needs no explanation – have so much connection to writing, which only now, far away from the ghosts of that village, do I actually realise. Barber or pharmacist, both have to cut, clear, mix, find the right measure, make poisons or conjure up balsams. In any event, the occupations of each of those old men are not forgotten.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Almost Always Villains

Caricature that ridicules the Spanish soldier Valeriano Weyler, architect of the Reconcentration. (Cubamemoria.com)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 4 December 2023 — Martí is good, Weyler is bad, Chibás is doubtful and a little hysterical. Cubans were always reckless; the Spanish, lazy; Americans, greedy. The independence movement was inevitable; annexationism, inadvisable; reformism, a symptom of laziness and lack of character. Céspedes is the father of the country; Mariana, the mother; Gómez, the grandfather; Martí the intellectual author; Batista, the mulatto stepfather; Che Guevara, the hippie, pot-smoking nephew; but Fidel… Fidel is everything, alpha and omega, Fidel is the San Antonio cape and the Punta de Maisí, the bearded caiman. Fidel is nothing more and nothing less than the sóngoro cosongo [poem by Nicolás Guillén], the tíbiri-tábara [album by the Cuban band, Sierra Maestro], the cornerstone.

From the ashes of Hatüey to the litanies of the Communist Party, the history of Cuba that remains in our heads is – to carry it well – Manichean and scholarly. It’s logical. A country almost always clumsy in its present will be forgetful of the past and blind to its future. I suppose that any citizen, if he is not a victim of a guilt complex, will take it for granted that his country is decent, that he has fought only just and inevitable wars and that he defends democratic values, culture, freedom and such. But in that the Cuban is bound to lose. continue reading

Those who commanded the Island were almost always villains, enjoyed an unusual talent for manipulating memory and messed with the intellectuals

Those who commanded the Island were almost always villains, enjoyed an unusual talent for manipulating memory and messed with the intellectuals until they said what suited them. If the writers paid a high price for their complicity – the current ruin and mediocrity of Cuban literature – historians must answer for something more serious: having destroyed Cuba’s past, the only thing that could give us a certain pride, a certain joy of being Cuban, despite the distance and disgust.

We lost the books, the tobacco fell to pieces, we were bitten by scorpions, everything went crazy. Instead of looking for history in A pie y descalzo [On Foot and Barefoot: Trinidad to Cuba 1870-71 (Memories of the Countryside) by Ramón M. Roa] or in Humboldt’s essays [Wilhelm von Humboldt, German philosopher and linguist who devised a system of education], in El libro de los peces [The Book of Fish, by William Gould] or El ingenio [The Sugarmill, by Manuel Moreno Fraginals], we return again to the primary school teacher, who forced us to remember, by means of chalk and blackboard, in which year of the Revolution we lived [Each year had a name; e.g., The Year of Education].

Even exile doesn’t save us, because the bad memory knows how to get a passport and cross the sea. Few Cuban publishers did what the Dutch Jew Johan Polak did; after escaping the Nazi extermination he founded a publishing house to save – in luxurious volumes, furthermore – classical literature. We share the exodus and misfortune of the Jews, but not their love of books. It is difficult to find a careful text by Julián del Casal, a facsimile of the engravings of the English invasion of Havana, the almost magical catalog of José Severino Boloña, the Novena to Saint Agustine or the brochure of 1722 that dethroned the Tariff of Prices and Medicines as the first printed matter of the Island.

But this is erudition, material for bibliophiles. What we urgently need is a book that lets Cubans – especially young people – know that Pepe Antonio was not a hero, but a local and undisciplined caudillo. A text that admits how much Cuba and Spain are owed – in both directions – that vaccinates us in advance against the idiocy of tearing down statues and demanding apologies. Let Varela be called a minister or parish priest, and not the aseptic “priest.” Let’s face the great millionaires of the colony, major conspirators; let’s talk about pirates and corsairs and intentional shipwrecks (the big business of the time).

Let the story of the Freemasons, the Jews, the santeros, the Oddfellows, the Rosicrucians and theosophists be told (Sarduy began in literature writing a poem inspired by Krishnamurti). Let them carefully analyze the Reconcentration, the year 1898, the Revolution of the 30th and Castroism (as metastases of a cancer that we have been carrying for decades). You have to edit Cuban libraries – inside or outside the country, it doesn’t matter – and write them down.

To tell a story is to lose it, says Piglia, but we only have the story we know

Only the Cuban exile today has the conditions to rebuild memory. Inside there is no desire, no money, no people. Without that past, you can’t assemble the pieces of a future country, free of communist dullness, with historians by profession who resume the business where Moreno Fraginals and Leví Marrero left it and ask what Oscar Zanetti or Rafael Acosta have been doing, and about the long list of National History Awards, which prides itself on having Raúl Castro among its ranks.

To tell a story is to lose it, says Piglia, but we only have the story we know. In Respiración artificial [Artificial Breathing, by Ricardo Piglia], the novelist dreams of the possibility of a man-museum. Someone, young or old, with a perfect memory of the country, of what it was and what it could be. A man who must be consulted, in the future, as the only and last witness of an era. Less optimistic, I don’t believe in Piglia’s dream. But yes, I do believe in libraries.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

To Sleep in Havana and Wake Up in Moscow

Ibargüengoitia was awarded, like so many promising young Latin Americans, by Casa de las Américas. (X/Casa Estudio One Hundred Years of Solitude)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 19 November 2023 — As with almost everything deep or interesting in Mexico, very few young readers in my country know Jorge Ibargüengoitia. Don’t panic: the cult of the writer with an arduous surname – which no one forgets to mention, and neither do I –  died along with 180 other people 40 years ago, when the plane in which he was traveling crashed near an implausible Madrid town, Mejorada del Campo, while the captain thundered “shut up, gringa!” against a robotic stewardess.

In 1963, Ibargüengoitia was awarded, like so many promising young Latin Americans, by that pretentious insane asylum that is Casa de las Américas. Thanks to the devastating chronicle he published after his visit, Cuba is perhaps the only country that forgot him on purpose and by ministerial decree, and not like the rest of the world, by carelessness.

As with so many things, I didn’t find a title of his again until I left the country of prohibitions

My first reading of Jorge Ibargüengoitia was Instrucciones para vivir en México [Instructions for Living in Mexico]. It was offered to me by a Mexican friend, at a time in life when I needed to be instructed, or at least initiated, in that complex profession. The planned trip never happened, but Ibargüengoitia remained in my memory. As with so many things, I didn’t find a title of his again until I left the country of prohibitions. It was Revolución en el jardín [Revolution in the Garden], in the edition of Reino de Redonda, whose prologue – by Juan Villoro – alludes to Ibargüengoitia as a man “with an astronaut’s haircut.” continue reading

That anthology contains the story of the problematic trip to Havana, where the writer arrived in 1964, to collect the prize for his novel Los relámpagos de agosto [The Lightning of August]. The previous year he had won the theater prize. He was named  and invited, caught a cold and returned to Mexico anesthetized by a bottle of Bacardí. He had spent fifteen days on the Island, with his passport confiscated by the cheerful jailers of Haydée Santamaría. The stench of Marxist optimism dissipated as soon as he saw his Latin American colleagues in the lobby of the Havana Libre, “discussing the future of humanity, trying to decide which cabaret they were going to.”

He soon understood that the former Hilton, converted into Fidel Castro’s burrow, was an allegory of the entire country. On the lower floors, the humble winners of the socialist emulation or the delegates to some plebeian congress; then, the Russians and the artists bewitched by the olive green utopia; and in the dome – “the Olympus” – select guests from capitalist countries, such as the English and German executives of Mercedes-Benz, in addition to the caudillo himself.

If the official State newspaper Granma interviewed him, it was not to ask him about his literary method, but to clarify that in Havana there was “a very important writer, who was called Jorge Ibargüengoitia and admired by the Cuban Revolution.” Then came an irritating expedition to Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara. On that trip he met Samuel Feijóo, who told him that none of his students had ever touched a Historia del Arte [Art History]. (I, who knew several of those students fond of doodling, can confirm it.) He didn’t have to tell Ibargüengoitia twice, and the Mexican writer left Las Villas convinced that Feijóo was at the zenith of his career: “He had managed to gather a collection of quite complex shit.”

Revolution in the Garden’ diagnoses, with the perplexity that the Mexican never abandoned, everything that in 1971 Jorge Edwards detected in ’Persona non grata’

Revolution in the Garden diagnoses, with the perplexity that the Mexican never abandoned, everything that in 1971 Jorge Edwards detected in Persona non grata. And he did it first. No drama or bad feelings, no fear when Havana barked and bit and those who went to bed there suddenly woke up – after several magical passes of Castro – in Moscow. His fundamental lesson for literature is to write from lack of inhibition and wit, without the coarse humor that characterizes the Latin American, a level that was only achieved in Spanish – and not always – by Cabrera Infante, Eduardo Mendoza and two or three characters from Bolaño.

After several decades as a writer “for a select minority,” as he defined himself, the man with the cosmonaut’s haircut is finally getting his moment. From a cult author he has become a classic, but in the sense that he – too awake to fall into the trap – wished to interpret: “One who finishes off a tradition and renders it useless.”

Translated by Regina Anavy 

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Leaves and Grass

Sean Connery as William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose.

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 5 November 2023 — Only two types of objects travel, almost covertly, from my old country to my current home: books and tobacco. I spent years collecting first editions, haggling over prices with booksellers, wandering around every day — what else was there to do? – perusing open-air markets, abandoned houses, collections of exiled relatives, estate sales and dead people’s trunks. When I managed to score something, I celebrated with a smoke. Thus the page and the puro would, together, always bring forth life and memory.

The business of recovery has always been arduous and for several reasons. The first is technical. It has become increasingly difficult to find a contact on the island willing to handle these two problematic commodities. A more or less old edition – something published in the latter part of the 19th century or before 1959 – can have problems getting through customs if the inspector understands books (I know I am assuming a lot here), while cigars, especially those that are loose and not in shiny sealed boxes, have always been at risk of confiscation or rationing.

That’s why when I tear open the packaging my books come in and light a fresh cigar, I thank the gods and the impish spirits who populate the airport scanners for the benefit of travelers. They passed, they flew, they landed. Now, I read or smoke them as if nothing in Cuba had been lost. continue reading

Rescuing a library is a lot like managing a refugee camp. The Schindler of the tropics cannot save them all

Nevertheless, rescuing a library is a lot like running a refugee camp. The Schindler of the tropics cannot save them all. And only from time to time is the courier also a friend or family member. This makes the audacity of it – shall we say — tolerable. The audacity of asking  someone to carry in his or her luggage a few kilograms of — to paraphrase Walt Withman — leaves and grass.

That is why the second obstacle that rescuers face is sentimental in nature. We leave something behind, it crosses the ocean and, by the time we lay our hands on it again, it is a relic. As the bolero tune goes, “Today, I represent the past.” The object is also an émigré, a survivor. In some sad, sweet way it represents us. We are also that dusty cover, that binding, that dedication that was salvaged.

A long time ago, I was presented with a solution but I rejected it: Don’t accumulate books and smoke the tobacco quickly. Don’t save, don’t preserve, don’t make friends or fall in love, or buy a house, or adopt a cat, because everything here is uncertain and tomorrow you will almost certainly leave. Except for not buying a house – where would I have gotten the money? – I ignored all this advice. Not doing so would have meant admitting that life in Cuba was not life. Or that the decades I lived there were a sub-life, a non-life, or in any case merely survival. That no one who exists on the island should believe they belong to the realm of the living but rather that they are ghosts. And that is unjust.

As I unpacked a small shipment of readable and smokeable material, I felt a fondness for what now seems like a former life, in the Buddhist sense of the word

Despite the fact that every piece of news from my country – my old country – portrays it as tired and haggard, I think I enjoyed each of my expeditions in search of books, my meals with friends, the spent cigars and the words spoken. So this morning, as I unpacked a small shipment of readable and smokeable material, I felt a real fondness for what now seems like a former life, in the Buddhist sense of the word. And it was not just any old thing but the legendary first edition of Paradiso. There was also first edition of The American Expression, Lezama’s 1957 lectures that begin with his famous line, “Only that which is difficult is stimulating.” Lastly, there was In Peace as in War by a young, myopic Cabrera Infante. Among the many books, there were also cigarillos as thin as pencils.

When I left Cuba, I found a quote by Sergio Ramírez that captivated me: “A library is a forest. I have lived within that forest and I can only find my orientation when I am inside it. Only I know where every book is, and I can go straight to it and find it. Right now, from Madrid, I can walk through it blindly. Everything in that forest is silent now. The shelves in the shadows, in the closed area, waiting for the hand that brings them back to life. My life, which I have lived among them, happy in their company. They are exiled too, in their own solitude.”

The quote, which once gave me comfort, now depresses and challenges me. The truth is that I no longer want to go to my abandoned library. Instead, I want to extend my hand –  like Ramírez’ resurrecting hand – to dismantle my old shelves and enrich the new ones. Without remorse, with the spirit of a rescuer or a privateer but for my own benefit. In any case, when it comes to resupplying ourselves with leaves and grass, or souvenirs for that matter, you stop caring about plunder. As the Romanian philospher Emil Cioran said, “The country that was ours no longer belongs to anyone.”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

‘With Chess We Teach Children How To Manage Frustration and Defeat’

Riojaque is a training center in Spain that provides resources to stimulate the creativity of children from an early age, says Magariño. (Riojaque)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 11 November 2023 — In the language of chess, Cuba is still a key word. Despite the historic ups and downs, the precariousness – and politicization – of the teaching and the exile of its best players, the Island continues to produce outstanding chess players. This is the case of the teacher Daylin Magariño Carralero (b. Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, 1999), who emigrated to the Spanish community of La Rioja in 2020 to found her own academy and play under the flag of her adopted country.

A “noble and simple” childhood, the chessboard – which she handled with ease at the age of six – and an environment like the Cuban one, where the passion for the game has survived everything, were enough for Magariño to start a promising career in Las Tunas.

In Cuban classrooms, the teaching of chess is an option, sometimes mandatory, and although it is a copy of the Soviet system – intended to prove the “intellectual superiority” of the new man of communism – there is a more powerful reason why Cubans are proud of the sport: José Raúl Capablanca, the only world champion (1921-1927) from the Americas, other than the American Bobby Fischer. continue reading

However, Magariño tells 14ymedio, at present the Cuban chess players – despite the fact that several of the “big ones” have left – have not lost their standards. “In my opinion, the strongest Cuban teachers are Leinier Domínguez, Lázaro Bruzón, Carlos Daniel Albornoz and Lisandra Ordaz.”

A recent measure by the Cuban Chess Federation prevents Domínguez – who occupies the 13th place among the best in the world and is considered the symbolic “heir” of Capablanca – and Bruzón from playing in Cuban tournaments. The reason: being critical of the ruling party and belonging to other federations.

Magariño prefers not to allude to the tensions of the Island and alleges that, beyond the basics, she doesn’t know the situation of the education in the game in her country

Magariño prefers not to allude to the tensions of the Island and alleges that, beyond the basics, she doesn’t know the situation of the education in the game in her country of origin. Her life, she says, is now in Spain, a country in which she always wanted to live because of its “language, culture and chess tradition,” and to which she traveled with her husband. “The welcome they have had for me has been wonderful. I have had the opportunity to play in several tournaments, meet important sports figures and start my studies in psychology,” she says.

The young woman says that in La Rioja she has achieved her two great dreams: “Playing and teaching chess.” Her project, the Riojaque academy, offers courses to children and adults in different learning modalities.

“Riojaque is a training center that also provides resources to stimulate creativity and imagination in children from an early age; it’s not just to pass the time,” says Magariño.

Together with a partner “musician, teacher and writer,” they develop one of the areas in which Spain leads worldwide: educational chess. “We teach children to manage frustration, defeat and reinforce discipline and order,” she defines.

Being in Spain has also allowed Magariño to find other Cuban teachers who have arrived on the Peninsula, such as Arián González – also affected by the prohibition of the Cuban Federation – and Renier Vázquez. With them she played in the absolute individual championship of Spain and says that both are “well known and recognized by their Spanish colleagues,” with whom they now share a flag.

Magariño – champion of La Rioja in classic and fast chess in 2022 – has several immediate goals: to continue with Riojaque, to be in charge of the official Women’s and Chess Commission in La Rioja and to complete her psychology studies. About the Island, to which she has returned only once since she emigrated, she has a rather dispassionate opinion: “Like all countries, Cuba has good things and could improve others. What I like about my country is that people love chess.”

Translated by Regina Anavy

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

October Books: Del Risco and Totalitarian Culture, Jorge Luis Arcos, Zoe Valdes, Juan Manuel Cao

Covers of La ficción de lo real y lo policial, by Yam-Nick Menéndez, Historia y masoquismo, by Enrique del Risco, and Atlántida, by Camilo Venegas. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 29 October 2023 — “When you see cartoons being burned, soak your constitution.” Enrique del Risco’s warning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because of its lucidity, in the country of the hoax and the practical joke. It is sad that it arrives late, more than 65 years after – as Jorge Brioso observes in his prologue to Historia y masoquismo [History and Masochism] (Furtivas) – Fidel Castro’s recently released revolution censored a cartoonist for ridiculing the rebels of the Sierra Maestra.

Del Risco’s most recent book puts his finger on the Cuban’s most painful wound: its tendency to suffer – with pleasure – chasing utopias. The fervor for the voice of the tyrant, the speed with which intolerance is assumed, submission, the ability to humiliate, the cult of vigilance… the dark side of the Island has been as present in its history as the tropical humor.

Perhaps, in fact, both are symptoms of a deeper character defect that the word “masochism” is just beginning to express. Well, “totalitarianism,” as Del Risco says, is “more than a political regime; it’s a culture, a civilization, a custom.”

El castigo [The Punishment] (InCubadora), the “monster book” by Jorge Luis Arcos that won the Franz Kafka Essay/Testimony Award, has also arrived in bookstores. Of the volume, which has the purpose of reflecting or (re)constructing” the Cuban canon, Carlos Aguilera has said that it is “full of anecdotes and sketches about Cuban intellectual life,” and that it “speaks loudly, but also in a whisper.” continue reading

Perhaps, in fact, both are symptoms of a deeper character defect that the word “masochism” is just beginning to express

InCubadora recently published a fragment of the book, which contains an exchange of letters between Arcos and Lorenzo García Vega about the events that motivated the end of the magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana [Meeting of Cuban Culture], and the resignation for “ethical reasons” by several members of its editorial staff in 2009.

Las Cuatro Estaciones [The Four Seasons] by Leonardo Padura – the narrative tetralogy that inaugurates the adventures of detective Mario Conde – are studied in detail by Yam-Nick Menéndez in La ficción de lo real y lo policial  [Reality and Police Fiction] (Verbum). The book applies several academic categories to the work of the Havana novelist and offers a conclusion: Conde’s stories are an underground, but not ineffective, manifestation of the tension between literature and totalitarianism.

En La Habana nunca hace frío [In Havana it is Never Cold] (Almuzara), by Zoé Valdés, takes place in the 70s on the Island. With a well-defined soundtrack – that of rock and the hippie movement – it narrates from nostalgia the lives of several young habaneros for whom freedom is a creed, and who face the intolerance of a puritanical and oppressive tyranny.

Atlántida [Atlantis] (Libros del fogonero), by the cienfueguero writer Camilo Venegas, refers to the same decade. The formula that guides the narrative also defines the country: “The struggle of the present against the past leaves many without a future.” For the author, a native of the Paradero de Camarones, the coastal town has its perfect metaphor in the ancient kingdom sunk in the sea.

‘Maine’ aims to fill an important gap: almost no historian has dealt with Masó, forgotten by all sides after the victory of 1898

Published by the exiled journalist Juan Manuel Cao, La gran locura [The Great Madness] (Universal) is a novel of “excesses, nonsense and lack of power.” Defined by its publisher as a grotesque story, with not a little of Cao’s life experience, its characters are “a tormented official, an eminent beauty, a delirious scientist and a boss with absolute power.”

Una historia develada [An Unveiled Story] (Universal), by José Ramón Fernández, who died in Coral Gables, Florida, in 2021, investigates the figure of Juan Masó Parra. The controversial mambí,* who left Havana five days before the blasting of the battleship Maine – which determined the entry of the United States into the war – after having proposed to the Spaniards to organize a Cuban brigade against the “invaders of the north.” The book aims to fill an important gap: almost no historian has dealt with Masó, forgotten by all sides after the victory of 1898.

On October 15, when publishers around the world paid tribute to Italo Calvino for his centenary, the cultural curators of the Island – where Calvino was born in 1923 – offered a forced “rehabilitation” to the writer. Funded by the Italian Embassy in Havana, which prepared an agenda for the anniversary, the trilogy Nuestros antepasados [Our Ancestors] will be the only book by Calvino to which Cubans have access. If true, unlike other occasions, copies will arrive at the bookstores.

*Translator’s note: The mambises were guerrillas who fought against Spain for Cuba’s independence in the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898).

Translated by Regina Anavy

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Political Curators in the Cuban Regime Rehabilitate Italo Calvino on his Centenary

Calvino can only be a Cuban ’by force’, which is bad news for Havana and for its friends in the Italian Embassy. (Goodreads)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 15 October 2023 – No one would have guessed that publishing Italo Calvino in Cuba – where an ’absolute freeze’ on his books was declared in 1971 – was going to become a coin of diplomatic currency between Rome and Havana. Scholars and ambassadors, aficionados and bureaucrats, teachers, critics and drowsy leaders are getting together at the moment to celebrate the centenary of the writer – who perhaps would be amused to see just how elastic is memory for the censor, over there in the tropics.

This ’witches coven’ is anything but harmless. Culture – or that which the regime thinks is culture, through much filtering and editing – is one of the ways it tries to convince Europe that some civility remains on the island, and that the Italian embassy’s money can be used to print books, although in microscopic print runs – books which were prohibited in earlier times. To rehabilitate the author, those who once buried him alive – for having defended Herberto Padilla after his arrest by State Security – are now insisting on his origins. Born in Santiago de las Vegas (Havana) in 1923 and married in Havana in 1964 to the Argentinian Esther Singer, Calvino couldn’t be anything else – they argue – than a lost Cuban destiny, or just an Italian by mistake.

Italo’s parents, Mario Calvino and Eva Mameli, moved to the island in 1917, during the period of the Mario García Menocal government. Their house – where their son was born – is today the headquarters of the Institute of Fundamental Investigation into Tropical Agriculture and it keeps a small, almost unspoilt, archive of the family, for the studious.

Calvino’s birthplace in Havana, currently the headquarters of the Institute of Fundamental Investigation into Tropical Agriculture. (Facebook)

Occasionally Menocal and Mario Calvino exchanged letters: “This tree, which is in such poor condition and is little appreciated by those who wait for it to bear fruit – I’d like to see whether you can manage to help it get its vitality back and produce what the country rightly expects it to. Here, they give you a hatchet to do the job. Please know that you can do it properly. You continue reading

have the chance to do something good for Cuba”. The tree – which appears to be a disagreeable metaphor for the country – was saved by the agricultural expert, not without complaining that “there were people who didn’t want it to prosper”.

An article published a few years ago in Opus Habana, the Historian’s Office magazine, praised Eva Mameli for a suspiciously patriotic gesture: swapping the old Cuban flag on the then Special Agronomic Station, where the couple lived, for a new one. Mameli gave birth to Italo in 1923 and two years later they returned to Sanremo in Liguria, Italy.

The very young age of Italo when the Calvinos returned to Italy contributed to how he was brought up as a European without any memory of being creole  

The very young age of Italo when the Calvinos returned to Italy contributed to how he was brought up as a European without any memory of being creole. Calvino could only be Cuban by force – to use Cabrera Infante’s expression – which is bad news for Havana and its friends at the Italian Embassy.

Calvino visited Cuba in 1964; he went to see his parents’ old house, and he married Singer. The Mexican writer Jorge Ibargüengoita well remembers the dull soporific climate of Havana in his chronicle Revolution in the Garden. Calvino – who had awarded one of Ibargüengoita’s novels, as a juror at Casa de la Americas – and his wife and the other invitees had to support a dissertation by Lisandro Otero on Merendero of the Sharks, a corner of the Havana coast where the swimmers who dared to swim ended up devoured.

Commemorative plaque of Calvino’s birthplace in Santiago de las Vegas, unveiled by his daughter Giovanna in 1996. (Cubaperiodistas)

Four years later, thousands of copies of The Cloven Viscount – written by Calvino in 1952 – arrived in the Cuban bookshops, under the banner of Cocuyo, the same publisher as Salinger’s, Faulkner’s and other essential writers. The honeymoon didn’t last long: after Padilla’s detention the memory of the Ligurian born in the tropics fell into disgrace.

This Saturday an official journalist wrote that Cuba was a country from which Calvino “never severed his ties”. He wasn’t wrong: it wasn’t him, it was Cuba, its agents and its cultural investigators – the same ones who today award and publish him with the Italian Embassy’s money – who erased the author of Cosmicomics from their catalogue.

Now, the directors of the Writer’s Union are being photographed with the recently published trilogy, Our Ancestors. The fact that these three elegies to freedom, disention and criticism are being published on the island makes one sigh with relief: the censors will not be reading anything for a thousand years. Neither have the people who paid for these published copies – in a country with a context of absolute editorial debacle – told us whether they will be sold freely rather than to a select group of people – as has occurred with Calvino’s other titles.

Perhaps it’s only in this aching country where one can make sense of Marco Polo’s well-known saying to Kubla Khan in Invisible Cities: “in the middle of hell, it’s not hell” – and where this reading of Calvino is indeed for the Cubans.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

‘Carlos Alberto Montaner Was the Ideal Person to be the First President of a Free Cuba’

Zayas-Bazán worked for 31 years at East Tennessee State University, teaching languages, while remaining in contact with great figures of the Cuban diaspora. (Screen Capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 10 October 2023 — When he was 26 years old, Eduardo Zayas-Bazán was rescued from Cuba by the US Government along with 59 other soldiers, imprisoned after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. A Camagüey native, lawyer, member of a famous criolla family – among his ancestors are José Martí’s wife, Carmen, and several notable politicians of the Republic – the young man left his country after long days in prison in Havana’s Castillo del Príncipe.

Like other Cubans of his generation who had recently arrived in exile, Zayas-Bazán put down roots and achieved a successful career as a university professor. He worked for 31 years at East Tennessee State University, teaching languages, while remaining in contact with great figures of the Cuban diaspora, such as Carlos Alberto Montaner.

It was Montaner who, along with other Cuban emigrants, founded the Cuban Liberal Union, a political party of which Zayas-Bazán has just been elected president. About the meaning of the word liberal, the present and future of the association, and the vision of the Island from the other shore, the author of the novel The Flying Fish talks with 14ymedio from his house in Miami.

14ymedio: What does it mean for you to preside over the Cuban Liberal Union at such a significant moment for that organization?

Zayas-Bazán: For me it is a great honor to be able to preside over a political party in which I have been a member for more than two decades.

14ymedio: What is the political role and current situation of the Party?

Zayas-Bazán: The Cuban Liberal Union in exile is really an embryo of a political party. Although in exile and in Cuba there are many people who sympathize with our political thinking, we are aware that, in reality, the party where we should proselytize is in a free Cuba. There we will organize ourselves, with Cubans who think like us, on a defined platform to participate in the first elections. For this, in exile we have a select group of liberals who are willing to return to Cuba and, with the experience acquired in all these years of exile, help rebuild the country.

14ymedio: What does it mean to be a liberal Cuban today?

Zayas-Bazán: The liberal Cuban cultivates and defends freedoms and human and civil rights. He believes in the right to own private property in real and personal property, in all types of businesses and other means of production. He believes it is up to civil society to create wealth. The State should only play a role when private enterprise is not capable of meeting the essential demands of society. He believes that democratically elected continue reading

leaders must be public servants, who are subject to the law, who have limited powers, who act with transparency and who are periodically accountable for their actions.

He believes that the political organization of society must be plural, open, with periodic electoral consultations and rotation of governing groups through democratic methods that – although subordinated to majority rule – take into account and respect the rights of minorities. He believes in a rule of law without individual, group or class privileges, and that all people have the same rights and obligations.

And finally, he believes in peace, in consensual negotiation, in the search for solutions to conflicts, in respect for the dignity of the adversary, in civic cordiality as an attitude towards those who have ideas different from his.

14ymedio: How do you value the personality of Carlos Alberto Montaner, recently deceased and founder of ULC?

Zayas-Bazán: Montaner was an exceptional person. He had a charming personality and impressive analytical power. He could explain complex issues in a way that everyone understood. With his ease of expression he would have been the ideal person to be the first president in a free Cuba. Unfortunately, he died before that dream became a reality.

Not only was he the founder of ULC in 1989, but in 1990 he was also the one who devised the Cuban Democratic Platform, made up of the three internationals: the liberals, the Christian Democrats and the social democrats. Carlos Alberto, a convinced democrat, did not mind allying himself with organizations with different ideals. Montaner believed in the exchange of ideas, in the liberal democracy with multiple political parties that our Cuba needs so much.

Thanks to Montaner, since 1992, ULC has been a full member of the Liberal International and is also part of the Liberal Network of Latin America.

14ymedio: What is the legacy – and what have you learned – of your predecessors Antonio Guedes, Miguel Sales and Elías Amor?

Zayas-Bazán: We have been very lucky to have, in addition to Carlos Alberto Montaner, three excellent presidents: the doctor Antonio Guedes (who led ULC from 2010 to 2015), the writer Miguel Sales (2015-2020) and the economist Elías Amor Bravo (2020-2023). All of them have done a great job representing ULC at international conferences and congresses. Thanks to them, to the dissidents inside and outside of Cuba, and to other exile leaders, we know what is happening on our long-suffering island and because of them foreign leaders make statements urging respect for human rights in Cuba and asking that the country open itself to the world.

14ymedio: After several decades in exile, how do you see Cuba?

Zayas-Bazán: Very badly. The Government continues to be determined to remain in power at all costs, despite knowing perfectly well that these 64 years of communism have been disastrous for Cuba. I would tell the authorities not to be afraid of change, that only those who have committed crimes against the population will have to answer for their actions in a rule of law.

The exile wants to help build a new Cuba that will be an example not only for Latin America but for the rest of the world. The exile community, with the experience it has acquired in these 64 years, will be crucial for the future of Cuba. We have experts in all types of fields and Cuba will need this experience so that the changes are achieved correctly. A rule of law will make it possible for exile capital to be invested in Cuba. Exiles like me, although they have not returned, continue to love our country deeply.

14ymedio: What advice do you give to recently exiled young Cubans? Do you think that the future of the Island can be prepared by being outside of it?

Zayas-Bazán:  It is sad how Cuba is running out of its youth. And worse is that the Government facilitates their departure because it counts on them so that, once in exile, they can send remittances to their relatives in Cuba. I advise young people not to abandon the Island. We need you to rebuild it when the change comes. If a change occurred in Spain after an atrocious civil war in which half a million people died, in Cuba it will be easier. May they have faith in the change that will come soon because the situation is unsustainable.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Praising What I Do Not Have

“The Kitchen,” Fernando Botero, 1994, Antioquía Museum, Medellín, Colombia.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, October 8, 2023 — The engineer Silvia Gomez Fariñas has done more to hasten the collapse of Cuban communism than any dissident. Her work does not appear in the pages of some independent newspaper but in the most reddish and conscientious newspaper on the island. Therefore, it stands to reason that its director, Randy Alonso — seemingly the regime’s censor and trumpeteer — must be a secret benefactor of freedom. I think it’s time to help these co-conspirators come out of their ideological closet but not before sending in helicopters or boats to insure a successful rescue.

Why else, in a country whose daily bread is hunger, would someone take the risk of writing a food column? Between Díaz-Canel’s rants and the historic spiritualism sessions of Fidel’s, Raul’s, Leal’s and Sara Gonzalez’ speeches, Gomez Fariñas stirs the reader’s spirits with a weekly column on theoretical cuisine.

I say “theoretical” because nowhere else but in a mythological market, an imaginary corner store, a fictional inn or an invisible town square could one get the ingredients that Fariñas lists in her column “Taste and Tradition”. The ploy is as subversive as it is brilliant. By inoculating against the desire for what one does not have (oysters, prawns, snappers) and identifying the culprits (pot-bellied leaders), hunger is activated and protests are triggered. It’s a well-known fact that nothing is more frenzied and fearless than a hungry mob. continue reading

The ploy is as subversive as it is brilliant. By inoculating against the desire for what one does not have and identifying the culprits, hunger is activated and protests are triggered

Kudos to Gomez Fariñas, and to her patron Alonso, for coming up with this strategy, which could prove useful to Venezuelan, Russian and North Korean dissidents as well. To give the reader a better idea of the effectiveness of this approach, allow me to describe several lines of attack that, thanks to her column, cemented my opinion and radicalized my views of the regime. I should clarify that I, in my clumsiness and gluttony, did not at first understand her flawless technique.

I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when I read her October 2018 article about lobsters, specifically those prepared by Gilberto Smith — Meyer Lansky’s Cuban chef — with garlic, guaguao chile, thyme and mustard. “A little more, please,” the gangster is said to have said, licking his fingers. (Though I no longer have any reason to believe Gomez Fariñas is on our side, I can easily imagine her cooking that same lobster for Díaz-Canel and the president applauding like an eager seal, asking for more. Like Lansky.)

Gomez Fariñas did not endear me to her on that November morning when she explained how to prepare rabo encendido, literally “flaming tail.” I will spare you the jokes about the name of the dish – hunger and humor don’t mix – which required not only an oxtail but also olives, raisins, capers and chorizo. That’s when I started having doubts. Could she be sending a coded message? Was she suggesting that we, like the tail, were the least worthy part of the cow? Not to mention it being the appendage closest to the animal, the thing that shoos away the flies. Was it time for us to set out in search of freedom? What makes perfect sense to me now seemed delusional back then. Hunger blinds us.

Gomez Fariñas carried out operations that left her badly exposed. We could interpret this as a cry for help, that she wanted us to rescue her

2021 was a bad year for Gomez Fariñas. The successive poultry recipes she was required to write —  so many that the chicken began showing up in our dreams, like the avian oracles of ancient Roman —  did not diminish her dignity or her patriotic vocation. She found a way to energize her readers. If I she had to talk about chicken, then she would use it as an opportunity to remind people of other ingredients that were hard to find. So we got articles about chicken curry, chicken in pineapple cream, honey chicken thighs, chicken Caesar, chicken with ginger, chicken fritters.

I see that, in her recent articles, Gomez Fariñas has carried out operations that have left her badly exposed. We could interpret this as a cry for help, that she wants us to rescue her. Her latest recipe – corn meal, ear of corn, sweet tamales and green tamales – amounts to a not very subtle protest. “No matter what a Cuban likes to eat, he likes to eat the best version possible,” she writes. “But whether it be good or bad, what he really cares about is quantity, of feeling sated. He likes to feel that pleasant sense of satisfaction, of fullness.” The secret police must be at her doorstep now.

I call upon readers, patriots, those concerned about the fate of a true Cuban woman and anyone with a good appetite to pool their resources and extract Gomez Fariñas… and Alonso, too, if he’ll fit in the car. Otherwise, Cuban gastronomy – which everyone knows is the nation’s most noble and beleagured species – will remain under the spell of 17th-century Spanish-Cuban poet Silvestre de Balboa who, fondly recalling a meal that featured tortoise meat, wrote, “I praise it though I do not have it.”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.