The Characters of ‘The Waiting’ Live in a Cuba that is Adrift

’La espera’ [The Wait] is a feature film made in Guantánamo and is directed by Daniel Ross. (Screen capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 5 June 2023 – A universe in miniature tries to survive in Cuba, despite neglect and dirt. It is the house of the Republican poet Regino E Boti (1878-1958) in Guantánamo. Poor and adrift, the only riches in the shack are the bottles of amber liquor and a battalion of chickens that let no one sleep. Its occupant, and protagonist of the film La Espera [The Wait] by Daniel Ross, is the poet’s grandson who shares both his first name and surname.

The film, a fiction about loss and sorrow which was premiered in France last month, is based around the house itself, and Boti, who moves between its rooms like some kind of Minotaur. Bearded and unsociable, yet very noble, the man receives his few friends and offers them everything he has: sweet potatoes, eggs, alcohol and company. It’s the sole comfort that remains for him after the death of his wife, whose clothes he keeps carefully on the marriage bed, “because objects also have souls”.

His routine is stifling: wake up with a hangover, make coffee, switch on the radio – always guantanamero music – feed the animals and spend time on little artisan crafts like drawing or making models out of matches – which he later sells.

When the meditation and the silence appear to have reached a climax and Boti seems to have reached something resembling peace, a huge explosion sounds in the vicinity of his shack. These are the mines which go off outside the nearby U.S naval base whenever a Cuban tries to cross into the zone. Someone – it’s not known who – leaves the shoes of the dead on the doorstep of the house, which Boti throws up onto the flat roof like some kind of ritual.

Fortunately, after each explosion his friends arrive, also loners: Moya – a Quixotic beggar and meditation enthusiast; and a soldier from the Cuban frontier brigade who never gives his name.

Via this soldier – in love with a female soldier whom he tries to “knock over” with poetry – Boti discovers something about life in the base. The savagery in the  brigade shocks him, and for this reason he agrees to look continue reading

after a little dog which ran across the border and came back chubby and fit thanks to the Americans’ feeding him. It was an absurd gesture but the party leaders in Cuba then declared the animal a “traitor” and ordered it to be hunted down.

Boti clings so much to the dog’s affection, that he sees in her, if distantly, a copy of the love he had for his mother. Accustomed to seeing ghosts, the trust which the dog shows him seems to him more pure and dignified than any human behaviour. In any case, Moya – who we see for the last time naked, euphoric and gripping a rifle as he heads into the mountains – and also the soldier, both have something bestial, wild about them, and for this reason it’s easier to show them the door.

One views both the house and the naval base – as if they were living creatures – with rancour, in a country that would, if it were able, abolish the existence of both: Boti’s shack because, with its junk and hundred-year-old furniture, it reminds us that the past was better; the military buildings because they are the thorn that Fidel Castro could never remove from his heel.

Daniel Ross’s camera captures the harshness of Guantánamo, the suffocation in Boti’s mind which, in many ways he reproduces in the house itself. The director has shown that it’s more and more difficult to produce a film on the island, and that the cinema of today is just a survivor that’s moving closer to the abyss. Nontheless, the young creator overcomes the technical obstacles impeccably.

If anything should be particularly pointed out about the film, it’s rather the quality of the story, whose rhythm is more tiring than it should be and it quickly abandons some very powerful symbols and motifs. To resort excessively to fixed planes, to focus over and over on objects and landscapes, and to work less on actual dialogue, threatens the economy of the narrative. Nor was it a good idea to insist on including the final sex scenes, which end up clouding the symbolism of the absent wife – otherwise plotted subtly by means of the clothes, the dog, the glass of water and the poems.

Despite these neglected areas – and those of the performances, which, perhaps because they are course end up being endearing – ‘The Wait’ will go on to have success at international festivals and it promises to be just the start of a career in film for Daniel Ross.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

‘When I Left Cuba’, the Untold Story of the 4,000 Minors Who Fled to Spain

Photograph by publisher Casa Vacía showing a group of Cubans in Spain in 1966 — just some of the children who travelled to the country. (EFE)

14ymedio biggerXavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 21 May 2023 – On 25 April 1969, Remberto Pérez was reunited with his family in the United States after two years separation. He’d escaped from Cuba just as he’d turned fifteen – the Armed Forces were ready to call him up – and he headed for Madrid, where a Franciscan priest, Antonio Camiñas, took charge of looking after him until his parents could leave the island.

Las Tunas had become an inhospitable city for the Pérez family. His father spent long days under the hot sun in the east of the island, under constant threat of a machete, and unpaid: this was Fidel Castro’s punishment for asking permission to leave the island. His mother, after saying goodbye to her son Remberto at the airport, discovered that she’d become pregnant for the fourth time.

His sister María also remained behind, and after more than fifty years she hasn’t forgotten what those last years in Cuba meant for the family. Two years after Remberto’s departure in 1967, they all managed to emigrate to the United States.

Remberto and María had much to talk about: he had become one of the so called “children of father Camiñas” — between 1966 and 1974 the Franciscan managed to give refuge to around 4,000 minors in Spain for as long as was necessary — she had witnessed the deterioration of the country just as she had witnessed the deterioration of the family itself.

“I said goodbye to a fat little boy and met up in New York with a tall handsome youth who dressed like The Beatles”, remembers María Pérez, 69, in conversation with 14ymedio. “Nevertheless, he was shocked when he saw us. My father was very suntanned, I was very skinny and my mother wasn’t well”.

The siblings decided to tell Remberto’s and the stories of the other children – those children of what some people have named Operation Madrid – in the book Cuando salí de Cuba [When I Left Cuba] (Casa Vacía), with the collaboration of the historian Ricardo Quiza. continue reading

The silent protagonist of the story – which brings together 50 testimonies – is Antonio Camiñas, a priest, born in Remedios in the old province of Las Villas and expelled by Castro to Spain. For María Pérez, it is “a moving story” that has been ignored for decades by Cubans.

Camiñas arranged for the welcoming of the island’s children from the church of San Francisco el Grande in Madrid – which became his general headquarters; the minors had been on the point of being recruited into Castro’s armed forces.

“The main reason for getting the children out  was the Military Service Act which required young men aged 15-27 to remain in Cuba”, Pérez explained. “However, the immediate danger were the UMAP [internment work camps for ‘undesirables’]– the military units that give support to manufacturing, because the boys were nearly all religious and from anti-establishment families, that had expressed their desire to leave the country”.

“Everyone remembers Camiñas as a kind of angel but one with his feet firmly on the ground”, he says. “He was very Cuban. They said he smoked a lot. He gave all the boys affectionate nicknames. He was also a very practical man”.

Photo by publisher Casa Vacía: Father Antonio Carmiñas with the aunt and uncle of siblings Remberto and María Pérez, authors of the book ‘When I Left Cuba’. (EFE)

Food, clothing, medication, transport: Camiñas was an administrative genius who shared his skills with other priests and Cuban families in Spain. The children will never forget the black Cadillac owned by Isabel de Falla – a millionaire from the old Cuban nobility – which picked them up from Barajas airport. “It was like an ocean liner cruising through the streets of Madrid”, they record in their testimonies.

Camiñas, Pérez says, never wanted to publicise his work, not only out of discretion but because he considered it his mission as a religious human being. The children are grown up now but that doesn’t prevent them from “going back in time” through the retelling of the tale – to the El Escorial hostel, the Casa de Campo and Navacerrada, where Camiñas gave them shelter.

It’s the voices which are important in ‘When I left Cuba’ – a book of testimony, not a history book. It will fall to more studious writers, says Pérez, to explain some of the deeper questions surrounding Operation Madrid, such as: how did Camiñas manage to avoid Castro interfering in his plans? Was there some secret agreement between the regime and Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who died not many years later in 1975? Why did Cuban propagandists decide to hide the childrens’ story instead of using it to discredit those who chose exile, as it did with Operation Peter Pan, in 1960?

“The objective of the book is to open up a window to such questions”, admits Pérez. Not even the families involved are sure where the plan came from. In Cuba in 1966 they began to talk about that “route” for getting the children to Spain. You had to go to the embassy, obtain the documents and pay for the passage.

“It cost me a lot to think that the Cuban government wasn’t in agreement with the Spanish one. Nearly 4,000 children couldn’t leave a country without the regime knowing”, he reflects. Spain and Cuba, he adds, never broke off relations and Castro had a certain kind of friendship with Franco, of whom he said that “he never treated his government badly”.

At first it was a bit disorganised, says the co-author of ‘When I left Cuba’ – for example, the case of the boy who arrived at Barajas but there was no one there to pick him up. “A police officer spoke to him and took him to an office where, by chance, they knew about Camiñas’s work. One of the officials took him home and he stayed there until he was taken to the priest a day or two after”, he says.

In another case a boy of 11 was taken in a bus directly to the church of San Francisco el Grande. “Because of these situations Camiñas began to organise daily visits to the airport to see whether there had been any children who arrived unaccompanied. There were many people who helped him”, he explains.

At the Escorial and the other hostels the children lived out their adolescence as fully as circumstances allowed. They collected pesetas to travel into Madrid for walks, went on tourist trails, were well liked by everyone and talked nonstop. “They cried during the night; in the morning they got up to play ball”, says Pérez. “Of the ones that I know, none blamed their parents for the decision that they made”. 

Eventually the time came to tell the whole story. Remberto came home and said to his sister: “Oskar Schindler saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust and the whole world knows about it. But father Camiñas saved nearly 4,000 Cuban children and today no one remembers who he was”. 

María’s first idea was to approach the writer Enrique del Risco, who couldn’t take on the project but recommended Ricardo Quiza as a collaborator. The process took two years, during which dozens of “children” were interviewed. “It’s all recorded”, Pérez assures us, thinking about a possible audiovisual future for the project. 

After seeing the results and the reception of ‘When I left Cuba’, both Pérez siblings are convinced that it will get harder and harder for the regime to hide the story of Operation Madrid. “My parents were sure of one thing: they wanted to save their children. I believe that they did”, says María, whose memory “beats and goes on beating” for the island – as it goes in the song by Luis Aguilé which gave its title to the book.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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.

The Cuban Regime Hijacked the Academy of Languages for Critcising Daniel Ortega

From left to right: Jorge Fornet, current director of ACuL, the writer Arturo Arango, Professor Luisa Campuzano and the dramatist Reinaldo Montero. (Facebook/OHC)

14ymedio bigger Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 15 May 2023 – On 20 June 2022, the Cuban Language Academy (ACuL) sent out a laconic message: the poet Roberto Méndez, who should have led the institution until 2026, gave up his post “for health reasons”. His successor would be the essayist Jorge Fornet, the then vice-director and one of the confidantes of the regime in Casa de las Americas. The change was unexpected and, looking for an explanation, 14ymedio contacted Méndez. The writer never replied.

Nevertheless, another member of the Academy, interviewed under condition of anonymity, explained to this newspaper why Méndez was relieved of his duties, what tensions the institution had been living under in recent months, and how it had been hijacked by the government.

The crisis of power began in May 2022, when Daniel Ortega put before his parliament the closure of the Nicaraguan Academy of Languages, “sister” to the Cuban one. This measure put the Havana academics ‘in check’: either they condemned them – as many organisations and intellectuals were doing – or they stayed silent, showing a lack of autonomy and a complicity with Ortega, an ally of the Cuban regime.

“Contrary to all predictions, Méndez decided to sign a document of solidarity with the Nicaraguan academics”, says the member of the Academy interviewed by 14ymedio. In addition, the writer supported an announcement by the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE) which expressed its “deep concerns” with Ortega’s action and vindicated “the freedom of thought, expression and association” in the country.

The poor turnout of members, on 21 April, to the traditional homage to Miguel de Cervantes on the Day of Language, in San Juan de Dios Park, was telling. (Facebook/OHC)

“Méndez’s letter was not widely seen nor disseminated”, says this newspaper’s source inside the Academy. “The publishing of the document was not down to a personal decision: it was something agreed by the five members of the government Junta. The plenary session was not affiliated with this business”. 

He had only been director of the Academy for four months.  continue reading

When Roberto Méndez began as director of the Academy on 18 February 2022, the Communist Party’s newspaper welcomed his being chosen for the post and said that everything remained “in good hands”. However, the official press has kept silent since his resignation and didn’t announce that Jorge Fornet had taken over the role in January. 

After months in limbo, the Academy attempted to return to its normal functioning. Fornet, who worked for years as right hand man to the cultural coordinator Roberto Fernández Retamar, was finally presented as leader of the Academy at the ninth International Congress of the Spanish Language in Cádiz, Spain, in March.

“There are some leaders that are awarded their role like it were a prize, but there are other cases in which it looks more like they’ve been bought. That is the case with Fornet”, thinks the Academy member interviewed by this journal. 

Despite his loyalty at Casa de las Americas, Fornet’s trajectory has not been irreproachable in the eyes of the regime. Author of numerous essays about the cultural politics of the Revolution, and son of the similarly “problematic” writer Ambrosio Fornet, the essayist is remembered for a volume that was never sold in Cuban bookshops: The 71: Anatomy of a Crisisa formidable analysis written in the year in which the poet Heberto Padilla was arrested by the State Security. 

“The appointment of Fornet is an attempt to “cleanse” him once and for all, of all of his lacking in orthodoxy. The government wants to set him on the right road, that’s why he was offered the job. And it looks like it’s getting results”, says the Academy source. 

The “voluntary” defenestration of Roberto Méndez and the ascent of Fornet had, besides, a higher objective: to gain a definitive control over the ACuL, an institution which defended to the hilt its autonomy throughout the Republic and which Fidel Castro, from 1959 onwards, tried in vain to dismantle.

“As the Revolution failed to eliminate the Academy, it decided to infiltrate it” – just like it did with the masons and many other institutions – explains the interviewee. The ACuL’s resistance to Castro, with with Dulce María Loynaz as leader, is legendary.

Watched closely by Perla Rosales, the implacable deputy director of the Historians’ Office – and their supreme leader in practice -, the Academy members knew how to disguise…[their hijacking by the regime] (Facebook/OHC)

Méndez himself related, in a published article, how when he was a young man and recently arrived in Havana, the corporation [Academy] seemed to him like an anachronism compared with the institutions created by the Revolution. It was a “strange mixture of retired professors and ruined nobles”, all brought together in Loynaz’s large house, in Calles 19 and E in El Vedado, which functioned as one of the bases of the institution.

With the passage of time, and in the face of the extreme age of the writer [Loynaz], the Academy was regulated by intellectuals affiliated to the government and agents of counterintelligence, who infiltrated the corporation little by little: Lisandro Otero, Salvador Bueno, Roberto Fernández Retamar and Nancy Morejón. In 2012, after decades of suffocation by the regime, the ACuL was absorbed into the Historians’ Office, at that time led by Eusebio Leal. Under Leal’s patronage, the corporation began its definitive relocation to the San Gerónimo school building in Old Havana.

“The key to understanding how the Academy functions today is to observe the essayist Graziella Pogolotti, a figure who has received very little attention but who is the person that dictates the government instructions to the corporation”, says our interviewee. “The decisions that Graziella implements, with help from Professor Luisa Campuzano, are those which the Ministry of Culture have taken.

It was Pogolotti (she who also had links to the State Security) who, according to our source, arranged the dismissal of Rogelio Rodríguez Coronel, director of the ACuL up until 2022, and his substitution by a “malleable” candidate like Roberto Méndez.

“Bearing in mind the Academy’s team, Méndez was announced as the ideal director” said the source. “No one was going to choose a novelist like Leonardo Padura, who joined the corporation in 2019. Nor a writer like Mirta Yáñez, who has never meddled in problems. The same goes for less ‘noisy’ academics like the linguist Sergio Valdés Bernal or the historian Eduardo Torres Cuevas. The ‘old camajanes‘ [rough translation: lazy old parasites] of Cuban literature, like Antón Arrufat or Reynaldo González, would never have accepted the role”.

Méndez didn’t have any qualms in accepting Graziella Pogliotti’s idea, says the source. “Everyone else said no”, he insists.

It is very revealing that the condemnation of Daniel Ortega, aside from its limited repercussions, didn’t lead to the expulsion of Méndez from the ACuL, the academic observes. “The regime itself also has an image of cordiality to maintain in front of the Association of Spanish Language Academies (Asale) and the RAE”. Havana won’t dare to repeat Managua’s [Nicaragua] action.

Regarding Jorge Fornet, he remains under surveillance and is “still disposed to be bought”, he concludes. Meanwhile, the essayist continues to lead the Academy and continues to try and establish a working rhythm there, amongst all the crises and divisions.

The small turnout of the Academy’s members on 21 April at the traditional tribute to Miguel de Cervantes on the Day of Languages, in San Juan de Dios Park, was very telling. Watched closely by Perla Rosales, the implacable deputy director of the Historians’ Office – and their supreme leader in practice – the Academy knew how to disguise their definitive hijacking by the regime, with smiles and bouquets of flowers.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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 Soldier’s Daughter

Painted by the Cuban Jorge Arche about 1935, ‘The Letter’ is one of the most enigmatic pictures held by the National Museum of Fine Art in Havana. (MNBA)

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 7 May 2023 – I re-read Dulce María Loynaz, I listen to recordings of her voice, I submerge myself in her world. I see her descending to the lounge of her house in an iron elevator. She opens the grille and exits, fanning herself, passing between the armchairs and yellowing sculptures. She recites what may have been a monologue from ancient tragedy: “I live alone, I have no children. I lost my husband, I lost my brothers. I’m not afraid of anything — imagine! I am the daughter of a soldier. The daughters of soldiers are not afraid and neither should they be”.

Her life, which spanned a whole century, took her from Havana to Ankara, and later to Damascus, Tripoli, Cairo, New York, Mexico, Salamanca and her much-loved Tenerife. It must have been strange for a woman like her to later become anchored in one city and one house. She must have felt that only her presence, her authority — that authority which her departed ones and her books gave her — prevented her from being under siege. 

How did she survive for so many years? What did she eat? Who visited her, or who cut her hair? Which allies remained with her? Did they watch over her, or denounce her? Steal from her to frighten her? What nightmares could frighten a woman like that? How did she tolerate the harshness of being old in Cuba? She did, however, always manage to keep herself above any vulgarity and above people’s questioning. 

Dulce María’s dignity, however, reaches a point at which it was difficult to maintain: at the Cervantes Prize acceptance ceremony in 1992 she loses the ability to speak. Her speech is read for her by Lisandro Otero — as lifelessly as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Otero, a commissioner with pretentions of being a writer, “a pastiche of Carpentier and Durrell” — as Pedilla described him — and one who would never have arrived at the assembly hall of the University of Alcalá under his own merit, must have trembled with jealousy when, years later, Guillermo Cabrera Infante was awarded the same prize. continue reading

Miraculously, Dulce María’s words are not distorted by the other person’s voice. She speaks about Cervantes and his “immortal book”, and allows herself, before the Spanish royals, an anecdote about the War of Independence: In 1895, her father, Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, took part in an expedition to Ciénaga de Zapata. Breaking into the jungle, he comes across someone asleep: it’s a Spanish soldier who’s somehow been left behind, and who’s head is resting on a copy of Don Quixote.

In a lovely episode from Soldados de Salamina [Soldiers from Salamina], the man manages to escape, but he leaves behind the book and a leather case, “rich with jewels”. Loynaz eventually returns the booty but keeps the book, which he’s started to read underneath a tree, in order to avoid the bother of having to cross the swamp. After a while the other soldiers hear his guffaws. “Carry on laughing”, his companions tell him, and they beg him to read the book out loud to them — because he’d discovered “a way of escaping from hell”.

“It isn’t hard to cry on your own. However, it’s almost impossible to laugh on your own”, the elderly woman finishes by saying, through the man’s voice. The nervous faces in the hall wait, sure in the knowledge that there’ll be some words of criticism for Castro’s regime, a final, rousing fighting speech. However, instead Dulce María talks about writing as a salvation for the “pursued and the misplaced”, like Cervantes, like captain Loynaz, like herself. Did she need to add anything else?

Dulce María returns for a final time to Havana. She tells someone that she’s come to think about Havana in the same way that she thinks about animals — dogs and birds. Her father never agreed to keeping the latter in cages, because in her house, she says, there was always a great passion for freedom. And what a house it was to live in. Carpentier tells us that the the Loynaz siblings had turned the working day on its head. They woke up at five in the afternoon and, as if emerging from coffins, they lived by night. It’s well known that all of them were poets and all had a great sense of memory.

The house was Dulce María’s other ‘avatar’. In her lament for the mansion’s “final days” — written, as a prophecy, in 1958 — she misses “that effervescent life”. In one of her last interviews, her voice trembles: “It made me suffer a lot in my life seeing the sorry state that the house got into over the last few years. But I couldn’t do anything to save it. So the only thing I hope and wish for is that it ends up by just collapsing”.

A woman’s best quality is her mystery. Dulce María always respected that. One can re-read her with much pleasure, but nothing impresses one more than her ethics. Around her — today as much as yesterday — swarm the political writers, the satirists, militants, spies, sectarians, the effete, the dissidents, the exiled, the indifferent, the mediocre, the brilliant, the vulgar and the opportunists. Any old snitch or informer can provoke her with a question but she doesn’t bat an eyelid. “The Havana of today? Better not to talk about it. Excuse me”. And she gets up to go and look at her collection of fans. 

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

‘Eros and Politics’, by the Irreverent Juan Abreu, Stands Out Amongst Books by Cuban Authors Published in April

All the latest monthly literary releases, including works by recently deceased authors. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 1 May 2023 – To celebrate the centenary of the Cuban author Fina García Marruz, who died in June 2022, the Spanish publishing house Huso has reprinted her book Pequeñas memorias [Little Memories], which they first published in 1955. Wife of essayist Cintio Vitier and member of Grupo Orígenes, García Marruz was one of the most influential voices of twentieth century Cuban poetry. 

According to her niece — also a writer — Josefina de Diego, the author of Pequeñas memorias doesn’t only offer conventional anecdotes but also an inventory of memories “with a deep and intensive poetic charge”, as well as a portrait of her own character. The volume is also a “beautiful homage to a person who dedicated her whole life, with love, respect and passion, to literature”.

The narrator and dramatist Abilio Estévez, who recently published the short story collection Cómo conocí al sembrador de árboles [How I Met the Tree-Planter] (Tusquets), provides readers with the play Las palomas y el general [ The Doves and the General] (a ceremony by Tierra Caliente in thirteen insane episodes). According to Abel González Melo, it’s a book that “dissects, from the very ruins of Utopia  the voracious labyrinth of barbarity”, and which follows the legacy of novels about Latin American dictators.

The new edition of Eros y política [Eros and Politics] (Alegoría), by Juan Abreu, was presented at the Café Guijon in Madrid on 26 April, by the deputy of the Popular Party – Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo. The scathing and irreverent portraits of numerous Spanish public figures — accompanied by his own illustrations — consolidates the author as one of the most liberal voices in written prose among Cuban exiles. continue reading

The poet and critic Roberto Méndez revives, through his biography Felipe Castro and the Catholic University Association (Universal), the story of the Galician Jesuit who founded one of the island’s most active youth institutions during the Republican era, which Fidel Castro set about closing down after 1959. The association, still active in Miami, played an essential role in supporting the Cuban exiles who organised the expedition against the dictatorship in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. 

Un día como hoy [One Day Like Today] (Bahía), by Alcides Herrera, presented in New York this month as part of a tribute to its author, was described as a “neo-historicist exercise in parody” by Elvia Rosa Castro. In his pages, she added, Herrera subverts the “institutionalised history drowned in its own tedium and in its own lessons and regulations” and turns it into a story. 

A new edition of El negrero [The Slave Trader] has been added to the Verbum catalogue: the unorthodox biography which Lino Novás Calvo wrote about the colonial slaver Pedro Blanco Fernández de Trava. The Spanish writer José Manuel Caballero Bonald, who died in 2021, described Calvo thus: “He may be included in the list of great creators of marine adventure novels — writers like Conrad, Stevenson, London and Melville”. 

The literary magazine Bifronte, coordinated between 2005 and 2006 by writers Luis Felipe Rojas and Michael Hernández – with the support of the bishop of Holguín — was digitised and made available to readers by Rialta. In its editions there appeared texts by writers who were polemical and “difficult” (for the regime) and who eventually had to abandon the country — people such as Antonio José Ponte, Rafael Vilches, Carlos Esquivel and Ernesto Santana.

Bifronte was born for dialogue, for conveying ideas and for putting together a new vehicle that would steer ahead, towards tomorrow. One particular conviction? Never just one, but similar ones to this one were prized: that culture never survives a false unanimity” — a belief held by its editors since its first launch. The magazine published stories, poetry, articles, reviews and interviews, with its focus on contemporary Cuban literature. 

The death of storyteller and promoter Eduardo Heras Leon motivated a polemic about his role in the cultural politics of the Revolution. Since the announcement of his passing on 13 April, many of his students from the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Centre for Literary Training (founded with the foresight of Fidel Castro) as well as many Cuban writers on and outside of the island, remembered distinct episodes from Heras’s life and offered up judgements on his complicity with the regime. 

Also recently deceased — in the U.S. — is the writer and teacher Lourdes Gil. The Cuban Cultural Centre in New York, an institution with which she collaborated closely, remembered her as “a complete Martí specialist and dear friend”. Gil directed the literary magazines Romanica and Lyra, and had a recognised academic career in the United States, a country she arrived in as a young girl in 1961 as part of Operation Peter Pan

With the awarding of the Cervantes Prize to the Venezuelan poet Tafael Cadenas on 24 April, the relationship between literature and democracy gained a new prominence in Latin America. During the prize ceremony, the author of Derrota [Defeat] declared the urgency with which the world must defend freedoms in countries like Venezuela – which, along with Cuba and Nicaragua represents the most retrograde and therefore toxic form of leftist politics in the region — and asked that literature “recreate”, through education, democratic thought. 

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

All the Books and the Shade

View of the General Historical Library of the University of Salamanca, where hundreds of manuscripts and incunabula have been kept since the year 1254. (Antoine Tavenaux)

14ymedio biggerXavier Carbonell, Salamanca 23, April 2023 – As winter worsened, curled up in my train seat I received a message from an old acquaintance. He was one of the librarians from my village whose wooden house with coloured roof-tiles, not far from the park, I had visited more than 15 years ago. Are you the student, he asked, to whom I gave the Encyclopaedia Britannica?

That was a long time ago — all the cities and the friendships lost, the time I started to smoke, university, significant relationships, the death of my grandfather, reading, discotheques and ghosts. Of course it had been me. I immediately saw myself grabbing a good bicycle, soliciting the help of some friends — only one of them came along — and heading for the librarian’s huge house.

A few weeks earlier I had stolen a Borges anthology from my school. What that volume had to offer, even just by flicking through it at random, was not something that one ever forgets: “Ireneo Funes died in 1889, from a lung infection”.  And: “Our mind is porous for forgetfulness”.  Or, if one played chess: “God moves the player, and the player moves the chess piece. Which God behind another God starts the game off?”

Any age is good for reading Borges, but 17 is ideal. Infancy is already just a memory; youth has only just begun. The blind man — “slow prisoner from a sleepy time” — arrives to accompany you in that rite of passage. I learnt from Borges that there was a sacred book, or more exactly a multiple of books: the Encyclopedia Britannica. The hunt for one of these, with the objective of giving it an honourary place in the bookcase, was like searching for a magical object.

Victim of a naivety that today would feel delicious, I came to believe that the  Encyclopedia Britannica itself was as imaginary as Tlön, or any other one of those many made up titles that Borges alludes to and which later — as happened with The Approach to Almotásim — ended up being listed as real titles by gullible librarians. continue reading

I soon learnt that not only had the volumes existed since 1768 but that several of them had arrived on the island in the forties and fifties, bought by enthusiasts of the English language. The Britannica, declared the reviews and even Borges himself, understands the universe and puts it within our own arm’s reach. Thousands of engravings, maps, diagrams and fold-outs illustrated its articles and turned any one of its volumes into a cabinet of wonders, an optimum and immeasurable inventory. No reader’s lifetime would be long enough to enable them to digest the immensity of its volumes’ knowledge.

I don’t know how I came across the woman who, without having read Borges, was the owner of the 1929 edition. She had collected in a box some twenty or more copies, all with their gilt lettering and Prussian blue covers. I examined the books: among them there was evidence of moth larvae having drilled tunnels through the paper, through all the words – written passages chewed up with the dispassion of a reader. She asked me whether, despite this, I wanted to take the box. I answered yes, knowing that she was presenting me with a time-bomb, a veritable colony of implacable enemies that, after devouring the Britannica, would continue their expeditions through the rest of my bookcase.

The moths lived off the encyclopaedia until, years later, a kind of imperial decree forced me to get it out of the house. Deciding to save at least a fragment of that kingdom, I went through hundreds of thousands of pages, one at a time, cutting out articles I couldn’t lose, along with all their relevant maps and prints. Having to mutilate a book is the worst kind of torture that a reader can be subjected to. I tore a whole encyclopaedia to bits.

As I write this — too long after that day — I am looking again at those pages that I rescued. I carried them with me from the island and they form part of my collection of lucky charms. I have, with one beautiful Egyptian engraving, the word Rosetta. I have a little album in which pictures of archways and columns adorn the definitions of words like abbey, or romanesque. Unusual words like microtomy — the art of carefully cutting up plants and animals in order to study them — and the Quixotic bascinet and the biography of a German called Knipperdollink. There are also gentlemen, all kinds of trees, monsters, explorers, little devils and uncommon alphabets.

(My encyclopaedia wasn’t a dream, and the loose pages that I still keep do reassure me in that respect. I found out later that H.G. Wells, like Borges, had given the books an additional use: as an aficionado of toy soldiers, he used the volumes in his collection as the mountains and trenches of his battlefields).

Anyone who isn’t acquainted with these books, who hasn’t held one of these blue tomes in their hands — made up of “an infinite number of infinitely slender sheets” — cannot imagine the significance of the Encyclopedia Britannica for those who, at one time or another, like young people eternally aged, were their owners. As the blind man said, in that anthology which I stole 15 years ago: “Somebody else, on some other hazy afternoon, got to own all the books, and the shade.”

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

‘I Do Not Rule Out an Uprising Against the Cuban Regime, But There Are Many Factors Against It’

Reyes, just like other priests and clerics on the island, like Castor José Álvarez or Nadieska Almeida, have denounced the regime’s abuses in recent years. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Madrid, 22 April 2023 – On a visit to Madrid, a Catholic priest from Camagüey, Alberto Reyes, talks about Cuba as an island out of time. “There’s no present and no future there”, he says, “only the lethargy of continuity”. The most obvious symptom: the ‘re-election’ of Miguel Díaz-Canel, a decisive bet on continuing stalemate and antiquated discussion whilst the country’s place in its allies’ games — those of Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Mexico — becomes increasingly unclear.

Real life, however, goes on regardless: repression, fear, shortages and many reasons to emigrate, says Reyes, one of the voices inside the Catholic Church most critical of the regime, in conversation with 14ymedio. Not only have repressive actions been gaining ground but also the whole of the repressive environment itself. There are more and more people summoned by the security services and many warning notices issued. Any demonstration against the government is quickly checked. People are very afraid”, he says.

The general situation, the priest explains, is one of “learned defencelessness”, which means that since the 11 July 2021 [11J] protests, Cubans have been “inoculated” with the idea that there’s nothing further that they can do. One year after the protests, interviewed by this journal, Reyes had offered his diagnosis: “As a people we are tired and worn down, and life is ebbing away in the fight for survival; we are a people that has learnt to defend itself in any way it can, and which goes out to march and applaud with energy while at the same time planning a final exit from the country.”

The situation has only got worse, because now the predominant emotion, he says, is desperation and a longing for escape. “As there have now been so many escape routes opened – I’m thinking of Nicaragua, the financial support of the U.S., or the possibility of achieving  Spanish citizenship, as well as the illegal method of escape by small boat, which still continues — the focus is firmly on abroad”. There’s an almost universal mindset: “Why would I make myself a target when I’ve got the chance to leave and get away from this nightmare?” continue reading

A general sense of fear is preventing the uprising that many hope for.  Reyes says that across the island there are private protests and discussion, as well as small demonstrations against the regime but a protest like that of 11J is very difficult to bring about. “Also, there’s a lack of opposition leadership”, he notes, “Who will coordinate a demonstration? Who will channel the people’s energy? Who will speak out? I don’t rule out the possibility of an uprising, in fact I think it’s quite a strong probability but there are many factors working against it”. 

Regarding those already in exile, the priest is pleased that there are many of them who are working seriously towards Cuba’s future. Nevertheless, he says, “change needs to come from within”. “An exile can support, can assist, but it’s not that easy. You do what you can, with integrity”, he adds.

The island’s Catholic Church, on the other hand, has its own limits. The recent visit by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who asked for “an amnesty or some other form of clemency” for the island’s political prisoners doesn’t seem to have had any impact on the regime, which has continued to demand severe sentences for those who participated in 11J. The island’s Episcopal Conference continues, it would seem, with the same strategy of non-confrontation.

However, Reyes is unequivocal: despite its social impact and works of charity, “the church isn’t a philanthropic organisation nor a political party”. It’s mission is essentially religious although it has not neglected for one minute to accompany the families of political prisoners or the creation of social initiatives to alleviate the people’s misery. The other side, he laments – the prayers and the being close to the people – “isn’t often in the news”.

“Regarding the political and social arena, we try, from where we are, to accompany people in their desperate times. We also try to shine light on people’s consciences and help people to think. If a priest writes an article or an invitation to reflect, I’m happy about that and I share it”, he says. Reyes, just like other priests and clerics on the island, like Castor José Álvarez and Nadieska Almeida, have denounced the regime’s abuses in recent years.

As there’s little sign of the country opening up to a new era, the most urgent problem is the exodus of young people. “I understand that”, he says. “They want to leave, live, make the most of the only life they have. When they can, they go. What’s the result? We have the most aged population in the region”.

Meanwhile, Díaz-Canel’s government, which ratified almost all of its cabinet members’ posts, moves closer every day towards countries like Russia — whose invasion of Ukraine it has witnessed with its own eyes — and local allies like Mexico or Nicaragua. In Reyes’ view, people don’t care much about the regime’s diplomacy. “There are more important things that they have to attend to, like getting daily bread to eat”. 

Nonetheless, the arrival of ambassadors and foreign politicians in Havana to greet Diaz-Canel as architect of the continuity of the Castro regimes never ceases to be disheartening: “If they keep on shoring up the system with economic assistance it will last a thousand years and this brings us to the same conclusion that everyone has: the most sensible thing is to escape”.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

Sorolla, Hijacked in Havana

The regime does not want to risk another international fight and has blocked the loan of several of the painter’s works to Spain

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 14 April 2023 – After arduous negotiations with the government in Valencia over a period of seven years, Havana has given its reply: the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla, currently in the custody of the city’s Museum of Fine Art, and whose journey to Spain for the centenary of the death of the artist had been anticipated, will remain in Cuba. The rebuff was to be expected. This is all about a country which is troubled by numerous debts and murky deals, and which robbed from its legitimate owners almost all of the art kept in its galleries, and whose regime doesn’t want to risk another fight on the battlefield of international law.

Valencia, for its part, has had to give up its fight. Carmen Amoraga, director general of Culture and Heritage in the Generalitat, announced publicly that the Cuban government had decided to suspend the loan, saying that the “international situation” wasn’t favourable. 

Upon contacting Amoraga’s office directly, the response – “on the instructions of the director general” – was even more terse: “We do not have any information on this issue”. There was silence also from the other side of the Atlantic, where requests for an explanation from curators and experts in Havana fell on deaf ears.

Finally, a collector of Cuban origin, well informed on matters of Sorolla’s works, diagnosed the problem: “No one at the museum will dare to talk, because their specialists don’t have any control over international art loans. That decision was taken in higher circles, between the Ministry of Culture and the Chancellery. The reason for the silence on both sides is simple: they want to to avoid a scandal, bad press and other complications”. continue reading

In 2016, a delegation of Valencian business owners, headed by the president of the autonomous community, Ximo Puig, travelled to Havana. The political atmosphere was tense but very promising. Fidel Castro, in terminal decline, would die one month after this visit. His brother Raúl appeared to be open to an economic opportunity and had begun a process of thawing diplomatic tensions between Cuba and the United States. And Eusebio Leal, the frenzied Havana Historiographer – and quick-witted manager – had brought relations with Spain to their most positive level.

Puig returned  to the Iberian Peninsular in a state of ease. As well as achieving his commercial agenda, his Havana business counterparts had – amongst all the cigar gift-boxes and meetings dressed in light guayabera shirt-jackets – esteemed it perfectly fine to hand over some thirty Sorolla paintings, along with other works by Valencian artists such as Mariano Benlliure and Julio Vila Prades. Once the loan of the works was secured, Spain would agree to clean and restore them, as well as bear the cost of their transport from the Island. 

‘Regatas’ (‘Regatta’, 1908, 121 x 201cm) forms part of the Spanish Art collection at the Universal Art building. (National Museum of Fine Art)

The plan was to surpass even the 1985 exhibition, to which Fidel Castro, as secure then in power as ever, had given consent: The Havana Sorollas, which had been held over one month in Madrid and another month in Valencia. 

In 2019, it was Carmen Amoraga who went to the Cuban capital. It was the city’s 500th anniversary. Eusebio Leal, very ill, was in his last days, and Miguel Díaz-Canel was now the visible pompous-jerk president, appointed from the invisible powers above him – a dependent of the Castro dynasty clan. Inside of only three years, the rules of the game had changed. After a review of the condition of the paintings, Amoraga didn’t manage to seal an agreement with the Cuban government, but everything did appear to indicate that the works would be making their way to Spain in 2023, in time for the anniversary.

However, now there wouldn’t be thirty paintings, but only ten. Some of the others, she explained, were subject to dispute and couldn’t leave Cuba. On top of that, all those works by other Valencian masters had been kept out of the discussion.

The whole business was made worse by the 2020 pandemic. And following that, the Havana regime was overtaken by profound crisis – underlined by the huge protests of 11 July 2021 and then the emerging international disgrace of its alliance with the Kremlin and its support for Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. But the most suffocating dimension of the country’s problems was that of the multi-million dollar outstanding payments accumulated by Castro after several decades of subterfuge in trying to evade the creditors.

At the High Courts of Justice in London in February, the investment firm CRF I claimed a debt of 72 million Euros from the National Bank of Cuba. Faced with a possible ruling against it – which did then come to pass on 4 April when the British court partially ruled in favour of the creditor – Havana decided not to go ahead with the loan of the Sorollas: most of them illegally confiscated after 1959 by Castro. This, then, is the “international situation” that, according to Amoraga, ruined the Valencian government’s celebrations.

It’s thought that Cuba holds the third most important collection of Sorollas in the world, after those of Spain and New York. Collectors, millionaires and cultural institutions were acquiring his works from 1923 onwards, sometimes directly from the artist himself. At the Universal Art building of the Cuban museum – an impressive manor house located on Paseo del Prado in Havana – one can admire Pescadores Valencianos (Valencian Fishermen, 1908), Haciendose a la mar (Going to the Seaside, 1908), or Verano (Summer, 1904) – this latter one perhaps the most valuable of Sorolla’s works on the Island, and, doubtlessly, the one most ingrained in the visual memory of Cubans.

Around 1950, almost all of the Sorollas in Cuba were owned by sugar magnates – the Lobo, the Cintas and the Fanjul Gómez-Mena families, whose names don’t appear in the Havana catalogues. Nor is there any talk of their theft – dressed up as a transfer to the socialist state – which the Ministry for the Recuperation of Embezzled Goods brought to a head after the triumph of the Revolution. 

‘Elena entre rosas’ (‘Elena Amongst the Roses’, 1907, 76 x 118cm) in the Spanish Art collection at the Universal Art building. (National Museum of Fine Art)

The Fanjuls, connected via marriage to the Gómez-Menas – who went into exile in the United States and rebuilt their fortune there – had hidden a number of paintings behind a wall, constructed expressly for the purpose in their mansion in El Vedado. The revolutionary government converted the building into the Museum of Decorative Arts and seized all its master works, including those that were hidden. Many were auctioned at prestigious auction houses, such as the British Sotheby’s, or ended up in the hands of officials and associates of Castro. 

When, at the end of the nineties, the impresario José Fanjul discovered that Puerto de Málaga (The Port of Málaga, 1910) – one of his family’s Sorollas – had been sold in London, he put together a team to find out who the buyer was. Sotheby’s washed their hands of it and tried to exit gracefully from the investigation but the alarm was raised in Havana. The Fanjuls, worried that Castro would sell all the works confiscated from the family in order to help him get out of the economic tight spot which the fall of the Soviet Union had put him in, set about making international demands for stopping the trafficking of art organised from the Island. The Cintas’ foundation had done the same thing in 1995 when they found out that two of the Cuban magnate Óscar Cintas’s Sorollas were on sale at Sotheby’s.

The former legitimate owners of the pictures brought to light an intricate network of dealers, peddlers, curators, spies and agents of the regime. In 2009 when Havana discretely loaned two Sorollas to the Prado Museum – one of them being Verano – the Fanjuls once again launched a judicial challenge. Protected by the Helms-Burton law, which penalises the traffic of goods expropriated by Castro, they sued the the museum. However, they couldn’t get the pictures back. 

The intransigence of Fidel’s political heirs, the rupture of power in anticipation of the death of Raúl Castro (who will be 92 this June), and the debacle of the national economy, have all put off even further the happy ending which the Valencian authorities had been hoping for since 2016. With these precedents, and the high profile media attention on the ‘Year of Sorolla’, it’s unlikely that the painter will be able to avoid his being hijacked by Havana.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

Jorge Edwards in Cuba: A Spy in the Land of Slogans

From left to right, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Edwards, Mario Vargas Llosa, the literary agent Carmen Balcells and José Donoso. (Those ‘Boom’ Years)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 9 April 2023 – The apathy of Cuban intellectuals after the death of Jorge Edwards contributed to the fact that the regime’s censorship managed to render him invisible.

The machinery of the Cuban press lives by a certain law of fiction, and that fiction selects, redacts, patches over and twists the reality of any news story. When the Chilean novelist Jorge Edwards arrived in Havana as a diplomat in December 1970, he discovered that the predictable workings of journalists, photographers and spies were already up and running. The regime’s newspapers received him with a scattergun of allusions towards an ‘Edwards clan’ – protagonists of the ‘reactionist conspiracy’ against Salvador Allende.

These were the veiled instructions for Cubans (smart people, when they want to be) in how to deal with this visitor — a literate man, disguised as a negotiator, representative of a socialist government, but one which Castro viewed with suspicion: Allende had committed the tactical error of achieving power through the ballot box, not, as Castro had done, through war. 

A few weeks ago, upon Edwards’ death (in Madrid), the business of rewriting history began all over again: despite being one of the foremost writers in the language (winner of the Cervantes Prize), not one official Cuban newspaper published an obituary, the columnists and critics all fell silent, and the bureaucrats of Casa de las Americas — he was even one of the judges for their award in 1968 — were finally able to delete him from their list of undesirables. 

Nevertheless, the most troubling aspect of his death was that even Cuban exiles — apart from the odd exception — neglected to pay their respects towards Edwards’ memory. There was a certain indifference, a certain mental laziness which obliged them to leave on the bookshelf his Persona non grataan assessment of Castro’s perversions just as thorough as Before Night Falls or Map Drawn by a Spy.

It was also odd that neither was he properly mentioned in the work of Chilean writer Pavel Giroud — that is, in any depth, and aloud, rather than in private reflection — during the tensions which produced El caso Padilla (The Padilla Affair). His presence in the film came to shed light on the era — it provided an external viewpoint on Castro’s reign and his authoritarian anachronism in a world which demanded more democracy. Edwards, who had travelled to Havana as Allende’s envoy, left the country proclaiming it to have converted itself into a ship of fools.  continue reading

Persona non grata makes certain progress, via digressions, as a volume built entirely from personal memories. The narration dithers, and forms a hypothesis, falls down through paranoia; it thrills, and it mulls things over. Edwards believes that, in 1970, Castro had drilled down into all the excess opened up by the Revolution and had managed to submerge the country into a destiny of collective obfuscation. His crazy delusions were already evident in his physical appearance — bags under the eyes, unkempt beard, a compulsion for clouds of tobacco smoke — and he aspired to the achievement of perfect surveillance/security, which the Chilean interprets as being one of his “Jesuit disorders” — a hangover from his Belén* schooldays.

As Castro diverted the course of history in Cuba in 1959 — says Edwards — he thought he could twist the country’s destiny time and time again, and also its laws of nature. The image of the Leader as mad scientist à la Victor Frankenstein, who dreams of practising genetic recombination in cows whilst he harpoons sharks in his private paradise at Cayo Piedra — is one of the most grotesque in the book.

A re-reading conjures up new questions about another spectre, Manuel Piñeiro, the ubiquitous Barbarroja [redbeard] whose microphones and spies — chauffeurs and beautiful secretaries from Havana — didn’t miss a single move made by Edwards. Piñeiro’s authority over the secret police, his influence over where even Castro could or couldn’t go, turned him into the leader’s confessor, and, without him realising it — the author notes — his puppet-master. Perhaps this suppressive control, which lasted right into Fidel’s decline, might be the key to explaining Barbarroja’s unusual death — he crashed his car into a tree in 1998.

In the midst of all of the tale’s tremors we find Padilla and his wife, Pablo Armando Fernández, Norberto Fuentes and César López, the first Miguel Barnet and the ghost of Cabrera Infante. The spring in the trap which power held in reserve for them was triggered when the Chilean abandoned the Island for Paris, where his teacher, Neruda, awaited him.

“Fidel Castro’s repression didn’t have the Steppe-like coldness (with simultaneous convent-like coldness) of Josef Stalin’s”, Edwards summed up in a commemorative prologue in Persona non grataNevertheless, he knew how to quickly identify the enemy — “the ladybirds, along with the poets, the long-haired, the mystics and the mystic-types, and all variety of social scourges” — who deserved, in his olive-green hell, “a slow death, though, in some cases, a less slow one”. Edwards, traveller to an irreconcilable Havana, understood first and foremost what others derived from Cuba and he anticipated what someone called — with an anesthetic malice – a Grey Five Years.

*Translator’s note:

Belén Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana. Fidel Castro attended this school, an institution renowned for its strict Jesuit discipline.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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.

People Who Fall in Love With Their Typewriters

Guillermo Cabrero Infante, with his cat, Offenbach, and his typewriter. In the background, the headless swordsman that the writer brought with him from Havana (Pinterest)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, March 26, 2023 – A trade or a profession leaves its marks on the body. A scar, a cut, bags under the eyes behind the spectacles or broken ribs. A language of pain, written into the skin and bones, and also into the memory. Many carpenters have damaged thumbs, a builder never gets the cement dust off his hands; so a writer finds himself bent over, sitting silently at his desk when he can’t find the right words.

Everything eventually becomes eclipsed, and decays, apart from the eyes, which remain undefeated — as Hemingway said of his fisherman — but not sight itself, to which blindness does come sooner or later. This slow transformation which comes from facing up to life, from overcoming it and owning it, does not come to one without some sense of pride. Along with the wounds and markings of any profession come experience, skill, and, finally, mastery of the job. If one is awake enough and not too clumsy, perhaps one can quit, having left behind — whether faintly or profoundly, it doesn’t matter — a footprint, a sign of having been there.

One notices one’s own wearing out, the tiredness and age of one’s own body, but rarely does one feel sorry for the machine that enabled the work. What one achieves is usually the result of a tension between man and instrument. The saw in the hand, the back under the bales, eye against the language. 

I’m interested in the ‘sentimental relationship’, shall we say, between machine and operator. The affection one can feel for the tools in a workshop or even a shaving razor. The esteem in which the soldier holds his rifle — which he oils, cleans and looks after — and the photographer his camera. This relationship surpasses the merely instrumental and reaches the point in which a ballpoint pen, a fishing net or a cobbler’s knife becomes the very requirement for success. continue reading

I remember how Carlos Fuentes’ fingers were completely crooked — later I discovered this trait in other novelists — through the pressure required to type on a typewriter. His joints, overworked over long sentences, looked like half moons, commas. The typing had deformed them — a fate which modern keyboards have saved us from.

Nevertheless, along with this sophistication we lose a universe of metaphors and mutual understandings. I think I read that Cabrera Infante hung on until the last moment to his diligent Smith-Corona. This fondness for the shiny tooth-levered machine had its equivalent in the plunging-necklined, seductive, Vivian Smith-Corona in Three Sad Tigers — the woman who was “the very embodiment of a typewriter — but one of those kept behind glass with a sign saying ‘do not touch’. It’s not for sale, no one’ll buy them, no one uses them. They’re just for show”.

The relationship that Reinaldo Arenas had with his typewriter was a turbulent one, almost erotic. “She was just an old iron Underwood but for me she was a magical instrument”. He describes how he would sit in front of her like a performer, a pianist who brought together “gigantic waves that covered pages and pages without a single full-stop, and which were very special”. He had to weld the machine to a desk to stop resentful spies and lovers from stealing it. Thanks to this he managed to maintain the rhythm of his writing over several years, although later he had to use notebooks and loose sheets of paper — written with difficulty, before night set in — which were later either confiscated or destroyed.

Far away from the roughness of Havana, where Arenas hid himself, and based in a Paris office, Severo Sarduy took his Olivetti Lettera 32 to get it modified: he desperately needed the letter “ñ”. Also, he bought the blackest ribbon he could find in the stationery shops – ones that left the most stains. “I have this obsession”, he said, “my hands end up looking like a motor mechanic’s – and I love it”. 

(Perhaps from off the roller of this very same  Olivetti came the letter which Sarduy sent to Arenas, on behalf of Editions du Seuil, to tell him that the publisher had no room for new works and that they were rejecting his manuscript for Celestine Monk Before the Dawn.)

For my part, although I have always liked the typewriter as an artifact, I only used a child’s one, a badly-oiled Royal, with a green case, on which my grandfather used to type his pharmacist’s prescriptions. I wrote my first short stories on it, almost by chance, like the proverbial chimpanzee. It delivered for me a fascination for the artifact and I learned its language — tab key, lever, bell, space bar, rods and frame — before it was condemned in the house as obsolete, and it disappeared. 

That sentiment, the pain of misplacing those distant objects that had fascinated me for the first time, the impossibility of forgetting images and conversations, are perhaps the hallmarks of my profession — hallmarks which time is leaving me, in order for me to work. Now I work with a smooth and bright keyboard, on what people call [in Spanish] an ordenador [computer] but which I, stubbornly, will always call a computadora – in feminine gender.

But nostalgia is unforgiving. A few weeks ago, in an antique shop, I stumbled upon a shiny Smith-Corona (chrome-plated and with a white cover). Whilst I counted my money I remembered the wonderful Vivian, and the jibe made by Caín: “Who falls in love with a typewriter?” Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

The Havana Law: The Authentic Face of the Cuban Tourist Paradise

It is important that a book like this is published in Europe, where some newspapers are still promoting the Island as a paradise of communist nostalgia. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 15 March 2023 – In the film The Lives of Others, the writer Georg Dreyman encapsulates his break with the regime in a report about suicides in communist countries. He writes it in red ink on a secret typewriter and under the vigilance of secret agent Wiesler, alias HGW XX/7. When I had just finished reading The Secret Island, by Abraham Jiménez Enoa (born in Havana in 1988), it seemed to me to be the reverse kind of book — almost tropical, although no less dramatic or oppressive.

The book doesn’t hide its scars. It talks of a nervous people, hungry, people who want to escape or kill themselves. Every page was written as the polar opposite of the official tourist guide to Cuba. It is important that a book like this is published in Europe, where some newspapers are still promoting the Island as a paradise of communist nostalgia, with cheap hotels, cigars and mulatas.

Jiménez Enoa goes further even, than just describing the “real and the incredible” poverty of Havana, ‘invention of foreign correspondents’. His interviewees, who come from a wide variety of provinces and dangerous neighbourhoods, live for la bolita — a lottery-type betting game prohibited by Castro — and they cure their illnesses using only water; they have two religions (“yoruba culture and football [soccer]”); they build portable houses out of cardboard and go out chasing French or Italian women, “the uglier and fatter the better, because those are the ones who need affection the most”. continue reading

Up until half way through the book the stories are pretty harmless. He goes out in search of the unusual but stops short of crossing the line into risky political areas. This is the natural condition of the independent journalists in Cuba — they are the marginalised, stuck in their tribe. But from this point on, things begin to change in the book, the voices move forward, and the language — earlier, varied and ambiguous — becomes a machete blow. Whereas before he used the word ’government’, now it becomes ’dictatorship’; where before he spoke of anonymous swindlers, later he alludes to the imprisoned artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara or to the dissident Ariel Ruiz Urquiola. He directly questions the president and the generals, describes his “walks” around Villa Marista, the general headquarters of the State Security secret police. Now he has nothing more to lose.

Jiménez Enoa’s works have a strange predilection for the law. With some well calculated pauses between paragraphs he points out which article of the Penal Code his interviewee is violating, and how to use this fact to challenge the police. He has read between the lines of the constitution, of Castro’s speeches, and even of the threats made by the torturers. Everything has a legislative or authoritative value, everything practiced in Cuba is criminal and if there’s a cover-up it is there once again in the language: to resolve, means to steal.

Money is another obsession in the book. How does one manage to eat or to live in a country where wages are not enough to cover the basics. A gigolo gives him the key: in real life “there are no tariffs, only cushy jobs”. He fights against everyone and against history like those people who built their ramshackle huts on the edge of Che Guevara’s mortuary square in Santa Clara, visited by tourists and government leaders. It’s the tension between the desire to live and the ghost of Castro and his guerillas. But if you can’t escape from the country, there’s always a metaphysical escape: suicide.

Whilst reading The Secret Island, another force becomes apparent, one which doesn’t often show its face and which couldn’t be more decisive: the battalion of spies, confidantes, patrol cars, informers and sympathisers of the regime. One can fight against them up to a certain point but their skill lies in their persistence and in their talent for destroying lives. In a final self-portrait, Jiménez Enoa offers up the creed of an escapologist from time and space: “Escaping from Cuba is not the same thing as escaping from any other country for the first time. To escape from Cuba is to fall into the world, to realize that Cuba is an island that has been hijacked by a political system which ensures that the country remains locked inside the twentieth century”.

I suppose that Jiménez Enoa will ask himself the same question as all of the other artists and intellectuals who have become exiled from Cuba in recent months: After his book-exorcism, his testament-report, his page-frontier, what next? Hopefully not too many years will pass before he’ll be able to dedicate a ’Sonata for a good man’ to those who watched over him, like the one that Dreyman wrote for HGW XX/7.

Exile, as the only way out

As a result of his publication, Jiménez Enoa was arrested, interrogated, tortured, and finally regulado [regulated], a method used by the Castristas by which a citizen is prevented from leaving the country freely. After he did finally escape however, and was living in a place as peaceful as Amsterdam, one of the regime’s agents actually turned up at one of his conferences and aggressively shouted out at him like a maniac that everything he was saying was a lie.


Publisher’s note: This article was first published by the Spanish daily El Mundo, in their cultural magazine La Lectura.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.

‘Cubadebate’ Exhumes Fidel Castro’s Speech That Gave Way to the UMAP Camps, and Removes it Hours Later

On Tuesday morning, the publication had been removed without explanation.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 14 March 2023–Universidad de la Habana, March 13, 1963. Fidel Castro leaned on the podium, at the top of the stairs facing thousands of students. Dressed in a suit, grimacing, are: President Dorticós; the adventurous geographer Antonio Núñez Jiménez; youth director José Rebellón; and the parents of Camilo Cienfuegos, who had died just a few years earlier. He gives a long speech. The next day, the press repeats the same headline, Castro promises a “firm hand” for the “weak,” the “lazy,” the “religious,” the “blue jeans,” the “lumpen,”and all kinds of “worms.”

Sixty years later — this Monday — the regime’s press dusted off what was one of the most sinister speeches given by the caudillo after 1959. On Tuesday morning, the publication, shared as a special in Cubadebate, had been taken down without explanation. The speech, however, remains accessible at this link there is the cached version created by Google which Cubadebate cannot erase.

Attempts have been made to tone down or even justify the so-called “speech at the staircase,” which gave way to the creation of what were called Military Units of Support to Production (UMAP) and the persecution of homosexuals, members of several religions and “off-track” intellectuals.

Personalities like Mariela Castro Espín, the leader’s niece and founder of the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex) have not viewed Castro’s assault on homosexuals favorably and try to attribute his intolerance to “the times” and not to a political strategy.

Why are they interested in rescuing the regime from an oratory piece which ends by requesting the assassination of Jehovah’s Witnesses and capital punishment for common delinquents? The answer, given the context of ideological radicalization pushed by the Communist Party nowadays, is unsettling. continue reading

Leafing through the newspapers of the time or the popular “Bohemia” magazine allows us to take the pulse of the era. (“Bohemia” March 22, 1963)

Leafing through newspapers of that time or the popular Bohemia magazine allows us to take the pulse of that era. Military slogans, threats against any “Elvispreslian” attitude — one of Castro’s barbarisms that went down in history — interviews with leaders and news from the Soviet Union. Even the comics are eminently misogynous and sexual, to confirm the leader’s mandate: 1963 must be, even “by force,” the Year of Organization in all areas of life.

When Castro rose to the university podium, he was supposed to commemorate the sixth anniversary of José Antonio Echeverría’s death and the young men who took control of the Presidential Palace and the Radio Reloj station in 1957. After the failed assault against dictator Batista, the group was brutally assassinated.

However, the comandante dedicated a mention to Echeverría — a Catholic leader with a strong personality, whom Castro always viewed as a rival — to “apologize” for having allowed a group of radicals to erase from his statement “an invocation to God.” That act, he said was “erroneous and not revolutionary.”

Then, the “commemorative” speech took a spectacular turn and centered on the problems of the present. The recurring theme was Echeverría’s own religiosity: “Today, I will speak about others who, invoking God, want to make a counterrevolution.”

In a couple of phrases he neutralized the hierarchy of Catholic bishops who had published furious letters against the infiltration of Soviet communism on the Island. His government, he stated, “did not close churches, did not create obstacles for any priest willing to carry out his proper religious functions, and it could even be said that conflicts between the Revolution and the Catholic Church have begun to disappear.”

The waters have “leveled” with the bishops, Castro lied. His true objective was another, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Gideon Evangelicals, and the Pentecostal Church, three “Yankee sects” that had penetrated the Cuban countryside and that, to the chagrin of the military, proposed peaceful civil disobedience.

They drove him crazy, he admitted. “When it is time to harvest cotton, coffee, or sugar cane or when special work is required and the masses are mobilized on a Sunday, or Saturday, or any day, then they come and say, ’Do not work on the seventh day.’ And then they start with the religious pretext to preach against voluntary labor,” or they say, “Do not use weapons, do not defend yourself, do not be a militant.”

Castro accused them of being superstitious, of offending the homeland and the flag, and later asked what should be done with them for “preaching idiocies.” None of the young people hesitated, “Paredón!” — To the wall! That is the firing squad

It was just the beginning of the speech. The then Prime Minister continued talking about the ills they had inherited from the “capitalist past” and how they must draw a line between that and the present revolution.

“Many of those young slackers, children of the bourgeois, go around with their pants that are too tight; some of them with a guitar and their ’Elvispreslian’ attitudes.” (’Bohemia’ March 22, 1963)

Several “infectious focal points” remained, composed of “antisocials, thieves, pickpockets and parasites.” He stated that the police had been corrupted and the judges were soft in their sentencing. “The result: the need to take harsh measures,” he said, and asked the crowd what measures should be taken. Once again, drunk with enthusiasm, the university students responded, “Capital punishment!” and also, “Fidel, paredón for the thief!”

Satisfied, Castro increased the response. What can be done, then, with the young men who gather in the “pool halls” and other recreational establishments, “full of slackers and lumpen”? With the prostitutes, dedicated to the “repugnant profession”? And with the rest of the religious? He invited those who wished to leave to the United States to walk away. “What do they expect?” he asked and his audience broke out in laughter.

The “soft” who dare to complain, he dug in, “we understand they should undertake physical labor, which is the type most needed at the moment, and that they should go work in agriculture,” as a “little reinforcement, but not much!”

He then stated the most famous phrase from that speech, the one that would decide the fates of thousands of young people in the sixties and that today the official press repeats intentionally, about what he called a social “subproduct” of 15 or 16 years: “Many of those young slackers, children of the bourgeois, go around with their pants that are too tight; some of them with a guitar and their “Elvispreslian” attitudes, and they have taken their debauchery to extremes, wanting to organize their feminoid shows freely in public.”

With the spiel against those with “weak legs” and the “crooked trees” he abandoned the podium. He’d leave them, he said, with a big lesson, “All the worst comes together.  Don’t ever forget that, don’t ever forget it.”

In 1965, the UMAP system was already operating in Camagüey. “We have made our calculations,” warned Castro about that measure and its impact on “the New Man” that the Revolution desired. Thanks to that speech of 60 years ago, notable cultural figures paraded through the UMAP, such as future cardinal Jaime Ortega, troubador Pablo Milanés, and author Reinaldo Arenas.

On December 31, 1963, Arenas — an aficionado of “the world of Havana show business” — hugged his lover, a young man named Miguel and wished him a Happy New Year despite the “sexual persecution.” Miguel returned the hug through tears and said, “It’s unbelievable that Fidel has already been in power for four years.”

“Wretched,” wrote Arenas as he recalled that hug. “I thought that was too much time. He ended up arrested and taken to one of the concentration camps. I never saw him again.”

Translated by: Silvia Suárez


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: All Books Have an Owner

Raúl Martínez’s “Nine Repetitions of Fidel and Microphones” (1968) serves as a metaphor for Castro’s obsessive rewriting of the historical narrative and his own image.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Havana, 26 February 2023 — History is the most deceptive and refined form of fiction. The talent of historians to disguise their prose, hide their voice and their focus, how discreet the selection process and editing of life, the skill with which they choose a leader, a time, a territory, converts their discipline into verbal acrobatics.

Luckily, citizens or readers have something in their favor: an absolute brotherhood of historians does not exist, there is no complete book compatible with all regions and policies. We cannot count on, to state it that way, one true universal history. That helps so that a simple comparison between a book in its own country and another abroad may reveal anachronisms, conspiracies and splinters.

There are some familiar examples. What is known in Cuba as the War of ’95 or — as the martiana* propaganda called it — Necessary, in Spain is referred to as the War of ’98. While 1895 marked the end of containment for us, three years later the Spaniards would see their fleet bombed, the nation in a depression and the old empire defeated. For Cuba, ’95 brings independence; for Spain,’ 98 was Baroja and Unamuno**, crisis, meditation and a rebirth.

Since 1762, islanders spoke of the takeover of Havana by the British, as if they were not conquerers, but tourists, who had entered the city. The British, who referred to the Spanish War of Independence using the gentle name of Peninsular War, correctly define it as a seige or invasion.

But, there is no need to go so far back. No era has been more battered by official historians than the last 120 years. The Republic born in 1902, after decades of tension and bloodshed, Castro dismissed as a Pseudo-republic, a Mediated Republic or Neo-colony. That is how we learned it, wasting words, and that is still repeated — with little innocence — by our grandparents, often loyal to the caudillo, forgetting Eliseo Diego’s bittersweet poem: “It has to do with how my father used to say it: the Republic. . .with his chest puffed, as if referring to the soft, ample, sacred woman who gave him children.” continue reading

Contrasting one book with another it is not only fruitful to consider the space where it was written, but also the time. It is sufficient to compare the first histories of Cuba–those of Bishop Morel and José Martín Félix de Arrate — with the manual of Soviet echos used by university students. Clearly, I’m not referring to the evident differences in style, the methods or the rigor of the research. I am referring to the master which the books serve — all books have an owner — who is interested in viewing life a certain way, who wants to reassure or to destroy.

The misrepresentation of national history that Castro made was so grotesque, and the historians so submissive, that very early on, it provoked the mockery of Manuel Moreno Fraginals in History As a Weapon. “Students,” he worte in 1966, “are perplexed by the works that pretend to be the immediate antecedents to the present we are living and that nonetheless have nothing to do with it.” The new past Castro offered was an epic series of nonsense that, I imagine, the old republican authors such as Roid and Ortiz would not be able to read without blushing.

Moreno Fraginals, lucid and misunderstood, author of the best book ever written on the history of Cuba, died in Miami in 2001. Fidel Castro, for his part, was rewarded for his delirium with the 2008 National History Award. His brother, Raúl received it in 2021.

We’ve always been at the mercy of words. Playa Girón, booming and triumphant or Bay of Pigs, geographic? October Crisis or Missile Crisis? Separatism, reformism, or anexationism? Blockade or embargo? Socialism, communism or capitalism? Protests or disruptions? Emigration or exile? The confusion, which spans from the private to the judicial, is contagious.

The drafters of the Constitution of 2019 ignored that it is an error to refer to La bayamesa*** as the Hymn of Bayamo. When it was printed, disregarding the warning, several writers proposed that — to be true to the sudden fervor of referring to all symbols by their place of origin — they should refer to the Seal and Flag of New York, the city where Miguel Teurbe Tolón designed them in 1849.

But if dictators know how to calibrate history and reorganize words, nothing compares to the way in which the domestic narrative is concocted and, even more shameless, the personal narrative. At the end of the day, we are the stories we tell about ourselves, the versions that become nuanced or disolve, a fiction continually touching up what we said, did, or thought. We were the first to use history as a weapon — more like a pocket knife or dagger.

Translated by: Silvia Suárez

Translator’s notes:
*”Martiana” refers to José Martí
**Baroja and Unamuno were two Spanish authors of the late 1800s.
***La bayamesa is the Cuban national anthem.


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.

The City of White Stones

Every time I returned to the cemetery of my town I tried, in vain, to guide myself in the labyrinth and find the tombstone of my ancestors. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 12 February 2022 — Somewhere in the town where we were born, turning down a certain aisle and advancing to the third or fourth corridor of the cemetery, the family vault is located. The word pantheon, in most cases, is excessive. It is more like a rectangle of two meters by one, which overlooks a kind of endless beehive. There, in small aluminum boxes or in heavy coffins, our dead rest.

No one suspects how horrifying the sight of an open tomb can be for a child. I, who accompanied the funeral march of my grandparents, cannot get out of my head – not as a trauma, but rather as vertigo of memory – the act of uncovering the vertical passageway, its niches numbered, where the gravediggers dropped the sarcophagi with the help of ropes and pulleys.

It didn’t impress me so much to learn that my grandparents would no longer belong to the world of the living, they would no longer come to lunch, they would not smoke compulsively, they would not take me to a municipal band room or sit me in the barbershop chair, to cut my hair against my will, as did the fact of seeing them hidden, covered and under stone. Of the old, I thought then, only the name, the dates and a mortuary address remain, which I refused to learn and, for this reason, today I would not know how to recognize my family vault.

I suppose that, more than one tomb, I get two or four or sixteen, due to the multiplication of relatives. I don’t know if my brother or my parents know that information, which comes with adulthood, like the keys to the house and the bank account number. My resistance to memorizing these types of figures comes, perhaps, from having forgotten where my ancestors were after they died. In fact, I never even went back to my maternal grandfather’s or great-grandfather’s house. When one leaves his country, the last thing he thinks about is the deceased. continue reading

As a child, my father took me to place flowers for his grandmother. I only remember that the tomb was in the northern sector of the cemetery and that to get there, an unpleasant thing, you had to step on several sepulchers. There he showed me a rectangle covered not by a stone but by earth, whose tombstone he had made himself, as a young man. On a molten cement plate and with the help of a stiletto that served as a chisel, he carved the names of the deceased he knew. I don’t remember if there was any Carbonell or Echevarría, but there were the Beltráns and the Seijos, a strange Galician surname.

Before we left, he offered me some clues — a sepulcher that was a miniature chalet, a mutilated angel, a flag — to locate the grave in the future. Every time I returned to the cemetery of my town I tried, in vain, to guide myself in the labyrinth and find the tombstone of my ancestors. I have chosen to think that it never existed and that my memory is invented, another fiction, material for a novel.

A few weeks ago I leafed through a Cuban newspaper that talked about grave robbers in Matanzas. I thought for a moment of Howard Carter, the Valley of the Kings and the pharaohs, but the photos in the report grounded me. The bandits destroyed the coffins with a very peculiar viciousness, scattered the bones on the ground – like Kubrick’s monkeys – and evicted the works of art and any bronze rings from the pantheon.

The cemetery I went to as a child did not have the value or the history of San Carlos Borromeo, it mattered much less than that of Colón and Santa Ifigenia. But on the gate was a phrase by Tito Livio that my friends and I repeated without understanding, and that reminded whoever passed by that every death was, at the same time, liberation and compensation for wrongs. Or, to correctly translate the word, revenge.

Other cemeteries that were familiar to me had more serene inscriptions – I am the door of peace – or more resigned ones – death is the last reason – but always in the Latin language, perhaps because it is a reassuring and remote language, like death itself. Behind the gate the avenues, chapels and white stones appeared, figures always broken, sculptures of dogs and cats, a miniature ship, busts polished by the rain. Or, in the Hebrew cemeteries – my town had one – pure and incomprehensible text, characters arranged from right to left, the same with the dates.

No sane person is concerned with death or immortality. Any preparation is useless and nothingness must be as thick as in the dream, similar to medical sedation, and hopefully just as painless.

My grandparents. My parents. My favorite writers. The guy who composed the piece we hummed insistently. The desecrators of San Carlos Borromeo. The cats I raised and the ones that ran away. The objects, even. The meditators and the carefree, the loud and the silent, the dictators and the exiles, the bad and the noble. The undertaker. Who reads this text. I. What will we think with the last bar?


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.

Horoscopes, Divorces and Bikinis

Vogue’s iconic new year cover in 1974, photographed by David Bailey, featuring actress Anjelica Huston and the designer Manolo Blahnik. (Pinterest)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 29 January 2023 — It must be 15 or 16 years since I last flicked through the pages of a celebrity magazine. I remember the sparky covers with their 1990’s celebrities — Liv Tyler, Uma Thurman or Andy García — a bikini on the front page and the headlines were always about the mysterious reappearance of some actor, or a duchess’s secret, or a millionaires lover, or the second to last royal scandal.

These days, all serious and grown up now, I go down to the news kiosk in search of some bread or a literary supplement, and when I see the celeb mags I feel a wave of nostalgia. The covers no longer feature Angelina Jolie but Ana de Armas. Princess Diana has been replaced by Princess Leonor, Cher by Dua Lipa and Tom Cruise by Thimothée Chalamet, which, if we are even half awake, is almost an improvement.

I don’t know how all the mothers, grandmothers, aunties and their friends used to get all these mags through the customs and the censorship of the Island. To run their fingers over the dazzling pages, to admire Brad Pitt’s biceps or catch up with the latest diet to beat hypertension was their way of being transgressive, of staying young and of defying their parents, husbands or grandparents with this rather chaste print-based version of sexuality.

We too, still young boys, hoped that no one saw us cutting out a lingerie advert or a centrefold poster of Kate Moss, Claudia Schiffer or some chick in Karl Lagerfeld’s service. All those exotic names, the perfect face make-up, the long suntanned legs, the supernatural cleavages and the feline eyes, they fixed themselves upon our retinas and, I can guarantee, they will never leave them.

But it didn’t stop there. The models, singers and actresses, the scandals and heartbreaks were only the mere surface of the wider universe that those fifty pages covered. Every celeb mag, as we discovered later — whilst in search of tricks (always useless) for seducing our first girlfriends — was a tiny encyclopaedia. continue reading

Following the contents page and adverts for Coca Cola, Victoria’s Secret and Rolex — yet more names of remote and unachievable things — came the news of celebrities’ love lives. The gossip columns were the perfect polar opposite to the political press, they explained the economic climate better and without numbers and put on record all the drunken women, divorces and rumours that would later be turned into novels, songs and plays.

Once the appetite for gossip had been satisfied then came the diet advice and only after that, the recipes. Cooking tips, new types of blender, the  top ten brands of oven, how to decorate your patio to be a hostess for a ’brunch’ (but what was a ’brunch’?). As diligent as ants, the family set about an impossible project: trying to translate advice from a capitalist world to a ’sackcloth and ashes’ socialist one. A stuffed duck had to be adapted to a chicken as skinny as Cindy Crawford; the house wine passed for a Moët & Chandon; and the rusty wheel of the Singer sewing machine would spin tirelessly to try and achieve the style of a Valentino or a Versace.

When ill-fortune took hold there was no more pressing a remedy than the horoscope or the prophesies of that rather camp Walter Mercado, who appeared to be the product of a union between Elton John and Barbara Streisand. You only had to hear our mothers talking: “I read that this month some expected money would come our way”, “When it’s full moon, don’t get mixed up with other people’s business”, “You will feel vital and full of energy”, “Love will come knocking at your door on Friday, don’t hold back”.

Finally, on a hot Sunday afternoon it was time to open the magazine just before the classified ads, where there were the five, or ten, serialised chapters from the novel by Corín Tellado, the ubiquitous and harmless pornographer, as he was described by Cabrera Infante.

Taurus or Capricorn, alchemy or astrology, pig or rabbit, sunflower or olive oil, bikini or underwear, tracksuit or sarong; life was a constant dilemma of choice between things we had never even seen, and the magazines — the authorised opinion of Queen Elizabeth or of Keanu Reeves — helped us out in our theoretical predicament.

What we didn’t know [as kids] was that this whole microcosm was dependent upon a crude and secretive market. The magazines didn’t arrive home free of charge. They were rented by the day, they were traded for a bunch of bananas or a bottle of tomato pureé, certain titles became collector’s items and they were carefully looked after. Many female friends were ostracised for not returning a copy in time or for having ripped the cover. In an austere and monotonous country, that particular bastard genre of journalism was our only connection with the other world. Any infraction or theft would unleash a war.

Thanks to poor literature, our childhood got to become technicolour — as Nabokov used to say — and not black and white. Because of this, everytime I see the seductive and aggressive magazine covers, calling out like sirens, I wonder whether the termites have yet ground up the copies that I left back at my house.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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.