Cuba: The Last Place for Home

Image of the interior of the José Lezama Lima House Museum, located at 160-162 Trocadero Street, in Central Havana. (José Lezama House Museum)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 25 September 2022 — Although we are wandering creatures, we are always looking for a home. For no one is a house enough; we must affirm our domain with small ornaments, paintings, touches, ashtrays, scratches on the wall, even breaks. That’s why hotels — no matter how luxurious they are — have something sterile and prostibulary  that expel us to welcome the next one.

The trip exists to get home, no matter if it’s real or imaginary. The young people make lists and draw maps, and symbolically anticipate that coming home through small talismans: a lamp, a portrait, a book to which they cling. If these objects represent anything, it is loyalty to ourselves, the confidence that there will be a future and it will be — even in poverty — warm and welcoming.

Nothing is frivolous inside a house; everything has its meaning. Cuban mothers — for whom all junk is a treasure — were enraged when, carelessly, we broke a plate. Or if the cat we raised with care and civility knocked down a vase with its tail.

The secret space between the wall and the door was the favorite hiding place of childhood, as was the interior of the closets, where the jackets and ties of the old people made us sneeze. On the hallway boards, my brother and I marked our height with pencil: our whole life is contained in those lines of graphite, year by year, inch by inch, until we stop growing. continue reading

Inside the home there are free spaces and forbidden regions. The first time I opened a drawer, I did it with fear. The wardrobe, formidable, threatening, had three doors. I took hold of the handle and looked, on tiptoe, at the contents of the drawer.

There is no way to list what I saw — what we all saw at some point — because already the memory, treacherous as it is, populated it with false artifacts, invented by me. However, the only thing I clearly distinguish is a pair of gold-mounted mirrors, which belonged to a deceased relative.

Even now I remember the effect they caused on me, when I put them in front of my face: vertigo, dizziness, the terror of looking with the eyes of the deceased. From then on I was more suspicious of drawers.

“The dead should die with their things,” García Márquez wrote with disgust. Nothing worse than looting the memory of those who left. One feels — and rightly so — that he is disrupting the portion of existence that it took others a lifetime to accumulate. However, it’s natural that books, statuettes and lead soldiers don’t hinder the flow of the lives to come. We have to make room for them.

Sentimentality leads me to make only one exception: libraries.

Every reader of Lezama has embarked on the pilgrimage to the house at Trocadero 162, in Havana. There, library and home are one thing. The forgetfulness of the bureaucrats has been good for the place. They haven’t removed the figures that he had on his shelves and that acquire so much meaning in his work. Their gravity remains in the pictures and seats, and it could not be destroyed even by the cyclone that flooded the house a few years ago.

His friends, who still live and remember him, return to that time and to that library. Dislocating the showcases and disrupting the order of the specimens would mean, in a way, burning a fragment of their legacy.

Libraries, therefore, have to survive us.

The last station in the home, the one we have left when we have left or are far away, is the void. It was the master of Trocadero himself, heir to the Chinese dragons and the Japanese sages, who taught us how to taste it. The word is tokonoma, the empty creator of the house, a refuge made of nothing and silence where we can enter and rest.

The emptiness is the “unsurpassed company, the conversation in a corner of Alexandria,” which “surrounds our whole body with a silence full of lights.” There is nothing abstract about this. In fact, it is the only real thing when — in the cold and waiting for the train at the station — we look for the lukewarm interior of our pockets. In the background, intact as a ghost, is the promise of home.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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 Documentary Rescues the Writer Lezama Lima from the Clutches of the Cuban Regime

The film collects the vision of 28 ‘witnesses’ about the writer. (Ivan Canas)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 21 August 2022 — In order to “stir up the anthill,” on the 45th anniversary of the death of Cuban writer José Lezama Lima (1910-1976), last Sunday the filmmaker Ernesto Fundora, at the Rosario Castellanos Bookstore of the Fund for Economic Culture, in Mexico City, screened his documentary “Lezama Lima: Soltar la Lengua” [Lezama Lima: Loosen the Tongue].

The film assembles fragments of interviews with friends and disciples of Lezama, collected by Fundora between 2009 and 2015, and finally edited in 2018. Despite the fact that the post-production of the documentary is modest and that there are excessive and almost primitive visual effects, his mind does a wonderful job in remembering the formidable author of Paradiso.

Except for images of his participation in a couple of congresses and around hundreds of photographs, very little visual material on Lezama is preserved. Hence the difficulty that we get the sense that Lezama is being offered to us as something more than a voice and a presence among books. However, Fundora succeeds in having those who knew the author evoke a Lezama who is vital, convincing, and nearby.

Just when he had published one of the essential novels of the Spanish language and was getting recognition outside Cuba, death came to him

Some of the testimonies, such as those of Cintio Vitier, Fina García Marruz, César López and Antón Arrufat, shared the friendship of the Cuban teacher since the beginning and middle of the century; in others, such as those of Manuel Pereira, José Prats Sariol, Enrico Mario Santí, Froilán Escobar and Félix Guerra, his influence and teaching during his youth was essential.

For the devotees of the “Lezama Cult,” the writer is still awaiting continue reading

recognition. The 1959 cultural bureaucracy kept him in the crosshairs as “republican junk” until, after the so-called 1971 Padilla Case, he was banished from editorial and public spaces.

Just when he had published one of the essential novels of the Spanish language and was getting recognition outside Cuba, death came to him without the expected “restoration” and in almost absolute solitude.

Several young writers who accompanied him in his last days, such as Prats Sariol and Reinaldo González, recall their sadness at the empty house and the abandonment of his friends, whom State Security “recommended” not to frequent 162 Trocadero Street. He died on August 9, 1976.

During the Special Period, the movies Fresa y Chocolate and Lista de Espera recovered the Lezamian cultural imprint and were, in a way, promoters of the “liberation” of the taboo. Young people avidly sought dramas that were not only disturbing and difficult, but also marked by exclusion, such as the books by Severo Sarduy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Lydia Cabrera.

The truth however, is that bureaucrats have done everything possible to bury the ‘Lezamian’ work, cancel its study and constantly define it as “hermetically sealed”

The regime and its cultural machinery then began a meticulous work of biographical rewriting, in which old colleagues such as Vitier took part, presenting Lezama as an author “of the Revolution,” an admirer of Castro and Guevara as “messiahs” of a new “imaginary era,” Latin American, according to the paradigm of Casa de las Américas, and a writer who “some officials” did not “correctly” understand.

The truth is, however, that the bureaucrats have done everything possible to bury Lezama’s work, cancel its study and constantly define it as “hermetic,” “intricate,” “incomprehensible” and “elitist.” The celebration of his centenary was mediocre and there is still no center of study named after him. His scattered and poorly organized library is inaccessible to scholars, and no Cuban publishing house has issued critical or annotated editions of Paradiso, La Cantidad Hechizada, or any of his major books.

Hence, Lezama Lima: Soltar la Lengua acquires an exceptional value as rescue and recollection. Exceptional are the last frames, which offer information and clarity about the ostracism, the false promises of rehabilitation with which the Communist Party deceived him, and the unusual conditions in which he agonized and died.

As Fundora himself states, almost half of the 28 individuals who rendered testimonies of him have died, so the film, enriched by photographs and fragments of poems, recollects the final vision of many of them about the writer.

In addition, the documentary works as an excellent initiation for those who have not read the work of José Lezama Lima and deny, through authorized voices, each of the myths with which the regime has tried to appropriate one of the greats of Cuban culture.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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 Furthest City

View of Vidal Park and the La Caridad theater, in Santa Clara. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 14 August 2022 — Rarely can an exile choose the city in which his days will end. Fortune intervenes, rolls the dice, and the cards are shuffled. Wherever we fall, we live, and we try to make sense of the trip. The city that welcomes the exile can be dizzying or peaceful, but one approaches it as one who caresses a cat. It can receive us but also bite us.

Reinaldo Arenas said that, upon leaving Cuba, he felt the same relief as those who escape from a fire. One is happy to have been saved, but then he understands that his house, his people, his island were definitively burned down. And not only because of the impossibility of returning, but also because the exile already abolished a territory from the map and turned it into a memory.

That distance that establishes the memory between you and your country characterizes the emigrant. And if, years later, we return, it is only to prove that the border is firmer than ever.

Like the fragment of [José María] Heredia that we read as children with boredom and reluctance: “What does it matter if the tyrant thunders? Poor, yes, but I find myself free: Only the soul of the soul is the center.” There are few more resentful verses in our literature. Heredia contemplates from afar, from the boat, the homeland denied to him, and his revenge is to affirm that not even the earth matters, but the soul, the personal memory. continue reading

“Without a homeland but without a master,” José Martí repeats this decades later. That is why the furthest city is not the one that receives the exile, but the one that he leaves behind.

For me, that city was Santa Clara, compact, provincial, quiet. I spent my early youth between the Central University — isolated like a monastery — and the library of the former Passionist convent that is now the bishopric. I lit my first cigars in its cafes and became fond of smoking on the terraces of Vidal Park, wasting the Creole afternoon.

I was not bohemian nor did I participate in the literary life of the city, populated by vultures and poets. Disguised as an editor, librarian and vagabond student, I wrote novels in silence and let myself be carried away by the pirates, conquerors, ships and creatures of the bestiary.

Although my town was the space of myth and dreaming, in Santa Clara the memory of the Island opened up for me. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to write. In the library — the strangest space in the city — I held the only preserved cylinder of the organ from the Parroquial Mayor church, demolished by Machado in 1923. In that same place I browsed books and autographs of patriots, writers, presidents and illustrious people.

I used to sit in the park, looking at the old Gran Hotel Santa Clara Hilton, to guess in which of its rooms Cabrera Infante had spent his first honeymoon and in which other room the insomniac Lezama had stayed; if he had endured being far from Havana, would have been a professor at the Central University. All those characters met in memory with José Surí, the poet apothecary, the benefactor Marta Abreu and the old mambises troops [insurrectionists], who claimed a drink at the mysterious Café del Muerto.

During my last months in Santa Clara, however, everything shut down, like the country. Restaurants closed, the library stopped receiving visitors, smoking was banned, buildings collapsed. Diseases and violence came after the protests. Like many young people, the island crushed us until we had to leave.

Like Heredia on the ship that dragged him into exile, I last saw the contour of the city last winter. We picked up a few books, my great-grandfather’s pipe, two boxes of cigars, some family relics, and we landed in Madrid, a city that I never managed to fully appreciate.

Then I boarded a train that traveled along the Castilian plain to Salamanca. I arrived sad, and the cold prevented me from smoking. However, a walk through the city was enough for me to understand that, from all over Spain, this was a favorite place for exiles, pilgrims and wanderers, like Miguel de Unamuno. I now live next to the Roman Bridge that crossed the Lazarillo, over the Tormes, in front of the cathedral, the university and the orchard of Callisto, Melibea and the bizarre Celestina.*

Salamanca secretly and endearingly rhymes with Santa Clara, as Cuba does with Spain. It is also small and quiet, ideal for writing and retreat, and when I travel outside it, through the Peninsula, I long to return home. Here, between books and thinking about the Island, at last “the soul of the soul is the center.”

Exile, despite the distance, is also adventure and learning. I don’t know when we will be able to return to the furthest city, but — like the ancient Trojans after the invasion — I carry with me the relics of the Island, memory, cigars and old words: any place is my country.

*Translator’s note: Comedia de Calisto y Melibia, written by Fernando de Rojas and published in 1499, was a medieval novel in the form of a series of dialogues, usually performed as a play and considered the first work of the Spanish Renaissance.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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.

Havana Historian Eusebio Leal, Two Years After His Death His ‘Oblivion’ is Decreed

The regime, fond of funerary statues and monuments, summoned José Villa Soberón to “capture the essence” of Leal in a sculpture. (Granma)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 2 August 2022 — The legacy of Eusebio Leal, after two years of his death, fits in a couple of showcases and some tearful speech. An exhibition at the Elvira Cape Provincial Library, in Santiago de Cuba, was the greatest tribute to which the historian of Havana could aspire, far from the city to which he dedicated his life.

The Office of the Historian, dismantled in practice by the Armed Forces, exists as a symbolic skeleton to take advantage of the influence gained in life by Leal, although deprived of its business background.

Eusebio Leal died on July 31, 2020, and while the Government was preparing the funeral to embalm one of its most skilled managers, the military bureaucracy was grinding its teeth to reorganize the Office. A wave of dismissals, relocations, betrayals, departures from the country and petty battles for the favor of the new masters took hold of the most independent institution in Havana.

“They don’t have money for anything and the projects they used to have to help people in poverty were limited,” says a former worker at the Office. “It was the case of the department that was in charge of Humanitarian Affairs, from which the old people of Old Havana received help and donations. Now, they cannot even drink a glass of milk.”

The man points to Perla Rosales, deputy director of the Office and daughter of Division General Ulises Rosales del Toro, former Minister of Agriculture and one of Raúl Castro’s “incombustible” faithful, as responsible for the “surrender” to the military.

“I worked with them for many years, before the decline began,” he says. “The old directors retired or left the country, because they knew the misery that was coming: with Perla Rosales nothing can be ’resolved’, only she has ‘authorization’ to fill her pockets.” continue reading

“The residences for the elderly, very different from the asylums,” says the former worker. “They tell me that the employees, with a key to the apartments, usually enter and rob the old people with impunity. That did not happen with Leal.”

Havanans had become accustomed to a certain “activity” in the main arteries of the city. Stores, agencies, projects or museums promoted by the Office or by its economic arm, Habaguanex.

However, in 2016 the progressive dismantling of this corporation began, involving, according to rumors, an unprecedented embezzlement that the Government took advantage of to limit the functions of the Historian.

Leal himself admitted to this newspaper that many of the Office’s establishments were being transferred to Gaesa, directed by the late General Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Calleja, a conglomerate that the historian defined as “a development company with investment capacity and prestige,” although he would retain “the power to advise on the conservation of the work and also on new projects.”

“It hurts us, yes, that at a time when perhaps the greatest respect for life circumstances is required, the mediocre ones who lack any work, and the poor in spirit, take advantage of it to hurt and harm the many who have worked over the years to save the heritage of a nation, whether in Cuba or any latitude on earth,” he added then.

Leal had forged a multinational network of influence, achieved almost exclusively personally, which was extremely useful for the Cuban government. Two years after his death, perhaps the most scandalous thing in the state management of the Office is not having already chosen a new Historian of Havana.

In addition to economic and hotel management, Eusebio Leal recovered the former academic splendor of the Office. Founded in 1938 by Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, the first historian of Havana, the original vocation of the Office was to rescue the capital’s heritage, both the intangible and the buildings in the historic center of the city.

The opening of the Colegio San Gerónimo in the same place where the old University of Havana was located; the financing of the Cuban Academy of Language and History; the foundation of a publishing house, Ediciones Boloña, and an extraordinary magazine, Opus Habana, formed a cultural ecosystem that Havana had lost with the cultural supremacy of the Revolution.

The “glorious ruins” that the Elvira Cape Provincial Library in Santiago de Cuba exhibits in display cases of terrible taste testify to this active editorial work.

The regime, fond of funerary statues and monuments, summoned José Villa Soberón to “capture the essence” of Leal in a sculpture. A few hours before the anniversary of his death, in the portals of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, some tourists were taking photos next to the bronze figure, to which a prankster had placed, in his outstretched hand, a paper cup of granizada.

In an interview granted to the official journalist Randy Alonso, during the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, Eusebio Leal said: “I don’t aspire to anything, I don’t even aspire to what they call posterity.”

The Cuban Government, the Armed Forces and the cultural bureaucracy have enthusiastically complied with the wish of their historian.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

Che Guevara Was Not James Bond and That’s Why it Ended Badly

Disguised and with false documents, Ernesto Guevara traveled to Bolivia in 1966. (Diario del Che en Bolivia)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 16 July 2022 — Ernesto Guevara’s incursion into Bolivia to organize a guerrilla is the only espionage story that Castroism tells children. The story has all the ingredients of a James Bond movie: a charismatic and cynical protagonist, false passports, codes and code words, disguises to mislead the enemy and, of course, a license to kill.

Unfortunately for Guevara – who ended up dead, a trait that differentiates him from 007 and other agents – his adventure in Latin America also depended on the tension between the United States, the Soviet Union and the local communist parties which, aligned with the Kremlin, did not welcome with great enthusiasm the presence of a scolding and authoritarian Argentine, no matter how enlightened he thought he was.

Fidel Castro, the Richelieu of this fable, should be added to the equation; Fidel’s pro-Soviet moves showed Guevara that he had nothing left in Cuba.

A careful reading of these last days of Guevara is offered by the writer Alberto Muller in his book Why Did Fidel Abandon Che?, published this year by the publishers Betania (Madrid) and Universal (Miami).

According to Muller, the rupture between Guevara and Castro began with Guevara’s withering anti-Soviet speech in Algeria, during the Economic Seminar of Afro-Asian Solidarity in 1965. At that time, the Cuban Revolution had gone from the utopian hallucination of Fidel to an increasingly obvious guardianship of the Soviet Union. Guevara had already promoted the drastic executions of La Cabaña and failed in his management as a minister and president of the National Bank.

Between 1964 and 1965, at numerous international forums, he continually preached about the need for a revolutionary utopia. He traveled to the Congo, Guinea, Egypt, China, as well as Algeria, where he accused the Soviet Union of exploitation similar to that of the United States and of political pettiness with underdeveloped countries.

Upon his return to Havana, a harsh discussion took place between Guevara and Raúl Castro, in which the latter offended the guerrilla and accused him of being a Trotskyite, without Fidel defending him. After this dispute, Guevara discreetly breaks with the dome of power in Cuba. continue reading

Muller describes that the escape responded to a pattern of behavior in Guevara. Asthmatic since childhood, he had incorporated in his psychology the desire to move away from the suffocation of the center towards the periphery. Among the derivations of this escape is his constant abandonment of home and the family in search of adventure.

In 1965, Guevara had already disappeared from public life. He was in hiding in Prague after the failure of the guerrilla in the Congo, which Egyptian President Gamal Abder Nasser had mocked in a previous interview. The president had asked him if he believed himself to be Tarzan, because “a white man like him had no business” among the Congolese guerrillas, who smeared dawa magic ointment and got drunk with pombe to be invulnerable to bullets.

After the African failure, Guevara begins to plan his incursion into Latin America, with the aim of taking Argentina as a base for a continental revolution. However, Castro and Manuel Piñeiro Barbarroja –- the famous architect of Cuban State Security -– redirected him to Bolivia, a country that did not offer favorable conditions for the guerrilla focus that Guevara intended to organize.

Disguised as a bald and myopic economist, Ernesto Guevara landed in La Paz on November 3, 1966.

Mario Monje, president of the Bolivian Communist Party, had held several meetings in Havana with Castro, Guevara and other officials in the first five years of the 1960s. In them he had argued that Bolivia would not respond to any revolution because the peasants owned their lands and the Party was against the armed struggle.

For this reason, Muller argues, the interference in Bolivia was a strategic suicide, since not even the communist cadres themselves supported the guerrillas. In a meeting with Monje in Ñancahuazú, the Bolivian leader leaves enraged by the guerrilla’s authoritarianism. Guevara, of course, interprets it as a betrayal of his movement.

Monje informs Fidel of the rupture –- which the American Central Intelligence Agency would also find out about -– but he never reveals the letter to the guerrillas, who are already going through their worst moments. Muller notes that, in the famous Diario del Che in Bolivia, Guevara writes feverishly, over and over again: “Total lack of contact with Manila.” Manila was the code name for Havana and Fidel Castro.

After an accusation, the guerrillas engage in combat with the Bolivian army in the Quebrada del Churo, on October 7, 1967. Guevara is captured by the military, who order his execution, despite the US request to keep him alive.

Guevara’s death was the result of what Muller calls “links of abandonment” between Fidel Castro and the Argentine. Because of his inflexibility and his criticism of the Soviet Union – Guevara preferred the alliance with China – he had become undesirable on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The writer affirms that the abandonment was a tactical procedure that Castro carried out frequently. That is why his book includes a long and documented list of historical figures whom Fidel eliminated or dislodged – from Huber Matos to General Arnaldo Ochoa – considering them an obstacle.

“El Diario del Che en Bolivia,” according to Muller, “is the great prosecutor against Fidel Castro. There is no need for subterfuge or speculation or inventiveness. The document is available to everyone. Read it.”

Lastly, the book contains a collection of key files to understand the estrangement between Guevara and Castro, and how the latter turned the former, after his death, into one of the most invoked amulets by the international left.

The master move came from Castro himself, who built a mausoleum in Santa Clara in 1992 to house the supposed remains of the guerrilla and those of his fallen comrades. It was the definitive step to consolidate the romantic myth of Che Guevara and attract those nostalgic for communism to visit the Island.


The author of ¿Por qué Fidel abandonó al Che?, the journalist and professor Alberto Muller, was born in 1939 in Havana and spent 15 years imprisoned in Castro’s dungeons. Even today, an official encyclopedia defines him as a “terrorist.” When he met Jorge Luis Borges in 1983, in Caracas, and they talked about the Island, the Argentine writer pronounced the phrase with which Muller titled his memoirs: “Poor Cuba!”

¿Por qué Fidel abandonó al Che?  Editorial Betania-Ediciones Universal, Madrid-Miami, 2022, 227 pages.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

‘If They Order You to Kill Us, Will You Do It?’ The Cuban Policeman Answered: ‘Probably’

Ermes Orta, one of the young people arrested in Sancti Spíritus because of 11J, offers his testimony to ’14ymedio’

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, On 16 July 2021, five days after the massive protests throughout Cuba, State Security forcefully entered a house on Calle Independencia #77, in Sancti Spíritus. There, they detained several young people, none of whom had gone out on the streets on 11J.

Based on private videos and audios, they were accused of criminal association and contempt. Three of them were prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms: Leodán Pérez Colón received 5 years; Yoanderley Quesada, 2 years, and Yoel Castillo, 1 year and 8 months. The others were released a few at a time during the following weeks and they testified later at the trial, held on January 18th.

Ermes Orta Bernal was one of the ones who testified. Almost a year after those events, Ermes spoke with 14ymedio by telephone from the United States, where he now resides, to offer his version. The story reveals the regime’s strategies in jailing boys who did not even protest publicly.

 “No crime was committed, it was just a punishment they wanted to inflict on the residents of Sancti Spiritus,” confirms the 20-year-old

“No crime was committed, it was just a punishment they wanted to inflict on the residents of Sancti Spiritus,” confirms the 20-year-old

Ermes tells that, after July 11th, a group of friends from Sancti Spíritus decided that they had to demonstrate peacefully once again, to demand the freedom of political prisoners Luis Mario Niedas Hernández and Alexander Fábregas. To that end, they joined a WhatsApp group called “Todos por la Libertad” and agreed to march as soon as possible.

That July 16th, at Leodán’s house, he says, “there was never a weapon, a machete, nothing, just a thermos of coffee on the table.” The police knocked on the door and entered without the residents’ consent. The boys turned their phones on and began broadcasting directly through their social networks. “We have nothing to talk about,” they told agent Orelvis Pérez Díaz, who had “taken an interest” in them for some time.

More strangers began to enter the house. Apparently, according to Ermes, State Security knew the purpose of the meeting, and had brought more people to support the arrest. “When we asked them to see an arrest warrant, they told us that it was not necessary, that they just wanted to talk.”

The atmosphere began to heat up when one of the officers discovered a recording phone and violently slammed it against a table. The boys remained calm in the face of the agent’s attitude and agreed to leave the place.

His phrase of choice was “They are ready to be transferred to Nieves Morejón,” referring to the maximum-security prison in Sancti Spiritus

“When we left the house there were a lot of people outside,” recounts Ermes, “there was police presence, many cars, people with sticks and stakes yelling “delinquents!” at us. Those people had been taken from their workplaces for an “act of revolutionary reaffirmation” against the young men, under the pretext that they had stoned the windows of a foreign exchange store. continue reading

They were transferred two by two to the Sancti Spíritus Bivouac. The cars: a police car, a Jeep and a black Geely. “We know the type of people they are, and they have been followed up,” snapped the officer who received them.

The first thing they did was to isolate them for an hour in personal dungeons less than 22 square feet in size. They were then led through a gated courtyard to the infirmary, where they were weighed and measured. They repeated the process later, with new officers, but this time they recorded them with cameras and “worked on their psychology,” according to Ermes.

Their phrase of choice was, “They are ready to be transferred to Nieves Morejón,” in reference to the maximum-security prison in Sancti Spiritus. After the medical check-up, they were kept in their cells. Little by little, they were called to interrogation rooms.

“We began to shout from dungeon to dungeon. Then an officer would come and silence us by hitting the bars hard. At night, they did the same thing with tin cans, they wouldn’t let us sleep. The interrogations were even done at dawn.”

“We did our business in a hole, a latrine, from which water came out twice a day, to be flushed. The stink was nauseating”

When Ermes read the order of disturbance in his precautionary disposition, he noticed that the document accused him of protesting on July 11th. It was difficult for him to rectify that manuscript, which also stated that they had thrown stones at the stores and had offended Díaz-Canel.

“On the third day of being locked up, they fumigated us with chlorine,” recalls Ermes. “A man came, an old man, with a chlorine gun, and he sprayed the liquid on us. I got intoxicated and told the officer: ‘I’m going to die, I’m allergic to chlorine, look what’s happening to me’. The old man replied that he didn’t care, he just did what he was told. ‘And if they send you to kill us, will you kill us?’ The policeman’s response was withering: “Probably.”

According to Ermes, the prison food was not as bad as might be expected, but the hygienic conditions were appalling. We did our business in a hole, a latrine, from which water came out twice a day, to be flushed. The stink was nauseating”

“There was a time,” he says, “when the showers were not working and we had to take some bottles that our relatives brought us. We filled them up with collected water from the trench to be able to wash ourselves.”

As the days went by, they were transferred to other cells, forming pairs with alleged 11J protesters. According to their new condition, they were assigned a number and the interrogations continued.

“They asked us who was paying us. They made us fight among ourselves. The questions were violent. They confronted each other.” The police frequently carried out nasal tests to verify if they were infected with covid-19, fumigated them with chlorine again and demanded the passwords of their phones.

“They asked us who was paying us. They made us fight among ourselves. The questions were violent”

“With all that pressure we had no choice but to deliver them.” From that moment on, the Police had access to the detainees’ messages and private photos.” They showed us naked photos of some of us, our text messages, they continued with the abuse.”

Ermes states that every day they asked the agents: “When are we leaving?” “Tomorrow,” they said, without the promise being fulfilled. Despite frequent chlorine intoxications, they were denied medical assistance.

The initial period in prison was the hardest, particularly for Yoel Castillo, who was 21 years old and is still in prison. Yoel attempted suicide twice. “After the first attempt, they took him to the infirmary where he tried again, hanging himself with a sheet. It was too much pressure for him.”

“They assigned a single lawyer to us, since “they were being so kind to us,” because the office was not working. When you went to find out who the woman was [Dunia Mariana Rodríguez del Toro], it turned out that she had been a State Security prosecutor. She ended up being the lawyer for Yoan and the others. Everything was ‘fixed’. She told us, cynically: ‘Don’t you want me to defend you?'”

Ermes Orta had a lawyer close to him: his own father, but at first, they did not allow him to serve as his attorney. Then they relented, and when he demanded to see the file, they tried to delay at all costs. Examining the documents, he realized that there was nothing of substance written, no real cause formed.

“Someone sent some photos of some machetes and some arrows through the WhatsApp group, but they immediately removed them. We did not send them. That boy was never detained, he was never in court.”

They were released a few at a time, each with a different mandate. Ermes was accused of contempt and conspiracy to commit a crime, without any evidence of violent acts. “It was a mousetrap, to teach everybody a lesson,” he concludes.

“On the record, they even accuse us of wanting to attack a police station in Sancti Spíritus. Six boys! No one believes that”

As a requirement for his phone to be returned, he had to pay a fine. The trial, held in January of this year, was a farce. The accused were called one by one, and the alleged witnesses did not even know them. The courtroom was filled with State Security officers, informers and policemen.

“On the record they even accuse us of wanting to attack a police station in Sancti Spíritus. Six boys! No one believes that. It’s a joke.”

Since he was in high school, in 2019, Ermes Orta was in the sights of State Security. When the long lines began during the pandemic and he denounced the situation on his social networks, an officer began to “observe” him. He was kicked out of boxing training for having “the Statue of Liberty tattooed on his ribcage.” They sanctioned him and, after the events of July 16th, warned him that he was “regulated.” [Ed. note: A euphemism meaning forbidden to travel.]

“You put up with jail, but when you get out, your friends’ parents ask you not to see them anymore. Then, since no business in Cuba is clean, the people you work with tell you: ‘Don’t come here anymore, because you’re going to have me marked.’ And one needs to understand.”

State Security began to harass him with the idea of leaving the country. They put pressure on his mother, who ended up crying every day. “The only way we are going to leave you alone is if you leave,” they told him.

His brother spent a lot of money from the United States on two flights through Copa Airlines, but the company canceled his ticket days before Ermes could board. Finally, he left the Island on January 27th, through Aruba, on a charter flight. He had to leave his 8-month-old son behind.

“What happened in Sancti Spíritus to us and with those who are still imprisoned was an injustice. After 11J Cuba has gotten much worse and they knew it. That’s why they turned on the valve. But people are no longer afraid because they have children and they don’t want the same for them.”

In exile, where he is preparing to debut as a professional boxer, Ermes says that he has understood what freedom, democracy and the possibility of having a future means. “That same freedom,” he asserts, “is what I want for Cuba.”

Translated by Norma Whiting


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

July 11th (11J) Was a ‘Bright Day’ Three Cuban Priests Agree

Three Cuban Catholic priests offer ’14ymedio’ their experience of the 11J (July 11th) protests a year later. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 14 July 2022 — The oldest man in the cells wears a clerical shirt and a bandage on his head. Four stitches have been sewn over the wound. In the midst of the tumult of 11J in Camagüey, between the sweat and the cries for freedom, a hitman unloaded a bat on his forehead. With the same impetus, the aggressor returned to his group: it is not for nothing that they call this stampede of enraged proletarians rapid response brigades.

Dizzy, hungry – he had not been able to eat lunch – with a bloody head, the man called for help. Police, who take his reputation as a saint and a Samaritan seriously, escorted him to the hospital. There they patched up the wound as best they could and took him, of course, to prison.

That night, Cuba understood that the government was willing to go where it had not dared to go before in order to punish the 11J protesters: attack and imprison a priest. It was not until the following day – and with much pleading from the archbishop – that Castor Álvarez was released.

“That day everything was a party, all that was missing was the drum,” the priest tells 14ymedio, without rancor, a year after the protests. “There were many young people and the elderly came out of their houses astonished, to see that, as if to say: ’Is it true?’.”

When it all started, Father Castor was at the home of actress Iris Mariño. Seeing the vehemence with which that woman accepted the news, he fell to his knees and begged for a little enlightenment. He had to leave.

He walked three hours with the young people until the encounter with the military. “I told them no, that they weren’t there to hit the people. They had to let the people speak.” The police, he assures, were not as aggressive as the furious “cordon” of civilians, who were already wielding sticks to carry out Díaz-Canel’s “combat order.” continue reading

In the dungeon, the boys – of all colors, religions and ages – asked him if God had crossed Cuba off the map. “I told them that the opposite was true, and we began to pray together and talk,” adds the priest. “I was able to understand those young men, what they were risking. And I knew from their expressions that they would not stop risking.”

From the Special Period, the Cuban began an unstoppable “path of liberation”, reflects the priest. However, the most urgent challenge is “to believe in politics, to believe that a human association can be made with certain rules. We cannot think only of the family, which is perhaps the group to which Cubans advance in association, but also in the country.

For this priest, 11J was a “bright day,” which awakened the old happiness of Cubans. However, some hope gained in the protests “was frustrated by what happened around 15N [15 November].”

“We cannot despair,” he adds, “because the path through violence may be quick, but less durable. The peaceful path is slower, but having the conviction of the hearts and the agreement of men and the wills of all is more successful, more harmonious.”

In Havana, another priest, Jorge Luis Pérez Soto, was also moved to walk with the people during 11J. “I remember that afternoon I left the streets for an hour to go celebrate mass. It was a mystical moment, because spiritually accompanying this people is also urgent.”

The social networks, the growing burden and the generational change are transforming the Cuban reality, he thinks. In addition to light, 11J brought a lot of pain, both for those who “did not know how to peacefully claim their rights,” and for those who were supposed to be “guarantors of citizen order” and ended up calling for “brother against brother” violence.

Several photographs show the priest standing at the entrance to the police stations in Havana, demanding proof of life from the disappeared. Many of the prisoners were Catholic lay people, people of faith and culture, and minors, people about which the establishment in which they were detained was not even known.

It was decisive then, recalls Father Jorge Luis, that the Conference of Religious Men and Women of Cuba organized an accompaniment service for prisoners and their families. In a year of work, the Conference has provided numerous legal, psychological and counseling resources to families who have felt helpless in the face of the harsh sentences of 11J. This service has put the Catholic Church, regularly monitored at all levels, in the sights of State Security.

However, “the repression has been very harsh. Certainly international and media pressure have managed to reduce some sentences, but even so, they continue to be unjust and morally unacceptable for the most part.”

Father Jorge Luis agrees with his colleague from Camagüey that “the Cuban people must learn to listen and welcome each other. Individual agendas must be postponed by common agendas. Violence cannot be viewed in any way as a way to solve anything. The civic education of the people is urgent.”

11J surprised Alberto Reyes outside of Cuba, but this priest would have liked to “experience the protests in the first person.” It is no secret that the G2 has a particular viciousness towards him and that his surveillance file must be extensive and thorough. Despite this – and many other misunderstandings, even within the ecclesial environment – ​​Father Alberto is a voice of resistance and radicalism.

“From a distance, I experienced 11J with a mixture of emotions, with joy and hope that the demonstrations would open a path of definitive change,” he tells 14ymedio. Then came the “profound sadness,” “concern and anger at the repression that was unleashed, and at the opportunity that the government was once again missing to start a dialogue with civil society that would lead to change.”

Although it does not publicly acknowledge it, the power leadership is also experiencing “a situation of continuous wear and tear.” According to the priest, this political system “has more than demonstrated its inability to build a society that is not only prosperous, but also capable of responding to the most basic aspirations of human beings.”

“We are a tired and worn-out people,” he continues, “we are a people whose life is running out in the struggle for survival; we are a people who have learned to defend ourselves as best we can and who go out to parade and applaud energetically while preparing our definitive emigration from the country. We are a people submerged in misery and precariousness where it becomes increasingly difficult to cultivate the values ​​of the spirit. And we are a people who no longer believe in the empty promises that their rulers insist on repeating.”

A burning issue around 11J has been the attitude of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba, accused of weakness in the face of government pressure. Father Jorge Luis, however, assures that “the bishops have interceded a lot, from silence, to help the detainees; they have also spoken in various messages. Their action has been discreet, from anonymity, but they have been present.”.

“In my case,” Father Castor agrees, “my bishop was there both days to get me out of prison,” adding that “many of our laity were also arrested. Many people have expressed approval of our attitude in confronting the authorities in favor of justice, respect, freedom of expression.”

In these three priests a critical spirit and civic roots coexist that they share with many priests and nuns, such as Rolando Montes de Oca or the superior of the Daughters of Charity in Cuba, Nadieska Almeida.

“It is true that not all the pastors have been involved,” recognizes Father Castor, “but you also have to understand the charisms. I believe that there has been a light within the pastors of the Church towards the people. And the people know that they can always find support there.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

No Cuban University Student Foresees a Fulfilling Future

Built on the idea that the universities should be protected spaces, the buildings of Villa Clara’s Marta Abreu Central University are located outside the city. (Trabajadores)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 18 June 2022 — The majority of university students in Cuba were born between 1998 and 2003. According the Ministry of Higher Education, as reported in the newspaper Granma, preliminary enrollment for the 2021-2022 academic year was 292,507 students, distributed across Cuba’s fifty universities and 113 majors. The most prestigious schools, all founded before the 1959 Revolution, are the University of Havana (UH), the University of Oriente (UO) and the Marta Abreu de Las Villas Central University (UCLV).

Founded on the idea that the universities should be protected spaces, UCLV’s buildings are located on the outskirts of the city. To get to campus, students and teachers must take a motoneta, a six to eight-seat vehicle which requires waiting in a long line. Those who cannot afford this option have to wait for the Line 3 bus, which is always full and whose drivers often do not stop to pick up passengers. The UCLV campus is bright and spacious. Seen from above, its three main buildings spell out LUZ, the Spanish word for light.

14ymedio talked to one UCLV student about daily life at Cuban universities, economic insecurity, transportation issues, the scholarship situation and the desire to emigrate.

Question. What’s it like to be a Cuban college student today? Do you feel you are achieving something, getting ahead, building a future?

Answer. One  of the hardest things to be in Cuba today is a student, especially a college student. You need money to survive in this country and the meager stipend the university gives you only lasts two weeks, if you economize. And though many of us have chosen majors because we like them, because we are passionate about them, we don’t see a future in them.

Economically speaking, college students in Cuba are no different from anybody else. Once they get their degrees, the only thing most will have to show for it is “a little piece of paper to hang on the wall.” They will have find work in something outside their field of study.

Economically speaking, college students in Cuba are no different from anybody else. Once they get their degrees, the only thing most will have to show for it is “a little piece of paper to hang on the wall”

Q. Talk to me about the scholarship. What is a normal day like at the university?

A. It’s really trying. Beginning every morning, you have to hide any small appliance we might have brought from home so university staff doesn’t see it. We are not allowed to cook on campus because [they claim] the electrical wiring isn’t compatible.

We also cannot have water heaters. You have to bathe using cold water, both summer and winter. If you do have a water heater, you have to hide it or you risk losing your scholarship indefinitely. And then there is the big taboo: You cannot have people of the opposite sex in your building (though everyone is an adult) and you cannot play loud music.

Q. Do you feel you are being watched? Are there informants in your classroom or among your teachers? What role does the  University Student Federation (FEU) and the Young Communist League (UJC) play in university life?

A. What Cuban today does not feel he is being watched every day? Politics and controversial views are things best discussed in the privacy of the continue reading

bedroom or, even better, not discussed at all if you don’t know the other person well. I don’t think there are informants in my classes. I am not sure about the professors but certainly among the department heads there are. The FEU and the UJC are almost like ghosts. They do not address the real needs of the student body. You only hear from them when they need to hold a meeting or organize some political activity.

We also cannot have water heaters. You have to bathe using cold water, both summer and winter. If you do have a water heater, you have to hide it or you risk losing your scholarship indefinitely

Q. How is the quality of instruction there? Is there a lot of ideology in class content?

A. The quality of instruction varies. There are professors with PhDs who make a real effort to impart everything you will need to know in your chosen field and more. But there are those with masters degrees who go out of their way to give the most boring, useless classes you could imagine. For most professors, ideology is our daily bread. Students can be called upon at
any given moment to engage in “ideological work” because apparently three courses on Marxist theory — full of seminars and conferences designed to train students to paraphrase what the professor says like a robot — are not enough.

Q. How much money do you need and what does it go towards?

A. As the saying goes, “education is free but it will cost you.” Theoretically, it’s possible to attend university without having to pay for anything except transportation. But depending on where you live, that can really add up. In my case, the cost can be anywhere from 30 to 150 pesos per trip.

These days it’s impossible to survive the rigors of college life solely on the deplorable food they serve in the dining hall. A cup of coffee costs 5 pesos but a decent meal can go for almost 100 pesos. That would come to more than 300 pesos a week if a student ate only at the school cafeteria and dispensed with many things such as going to parties with friends. Stipends range from 200 to 400 pesos depending on what year a student is attending school.

Very few still believe they can be a force for change. Most use social media to express their opinions.

Q. Cuban universities were once restless, modern places. Students were often the first to join protests and demonstrations but the revolution seems to have put an end to that. What are Cuban college students thinking about today? What do they have to say about today’s domestic situation and political prisoners?

A. For the most part, Cuban college students just try to quietly get through what are supposed to be the best years of their lives. Studying and getting good grades, working towards a degree they can later use to find work, hanging out with classmates and avoiding as much as possible anything that might disrupt this routine.

Others simply tolerate any injustices they might see in the country or at the university. Very few still believe they can be a force for change. Most use social media to express their opinions in spite of the problems this might cause them at school.

As I said before, one of the main activities of the university is ideological work. The university is one of the few places where, if you don’t get information on the domestic situation from your own sources, whether that’s the official press or independent media, then you’re not going to find out what’s going on in the rest of the world.

I remember that, when the San Isidro Movement began, none of my classmates knew what was going on until they got home. Only when events had gained momentum did the university director make every effort to “explain” what was happening. In other words, to let us know what we should think or say in case we wanted to comment on the matter.

It’s incredible that there are still young people who blindly believe everything the government or the university tells them

Q. What do you think when you see someone your age becoming a propagandist for the regime?

A. You have no idea how much this question is discussed at the university. It’s incredible that there are still young people who blindly believe everything the government or the university tells them. Many find it intolerable that there are those among us, going through the same program that we are, who are cynical enough to say with total certainty that the country is advancing, that it is broadening its ideology or, as they told me, that [the regime] is beginning to accept the voice of dissent.

Q. Do you read the independent press? How do you know what is really going on in Cuba? Do you watch the nightly news or follow programs such as Con Filo or La Pupila Asombrada?

A. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on in the country until recently. A couple of years ago I started following some independent outlets. The demonstrations that took place in Cuba have forced me to search out unofficial news sources to understand what was really going on, things the nightly news was definitely not covering.

Since I spend weekdays on my studies, I can only watch the news on weekends. But even then, most of the time I lower the volume so I don’t have to listen to all the nonsense they’re “reporting.” Con Filo or Hace Cuba are some of the worst programs produced in this country. There are programs that feed on a lot of bogus news, most of it self-generated, or defame journalists and independent media by simply claiming “they are paid by the CIA to say that.”

Q. Would you leave Cuba to study or work somewhere else? Would you stay? What future do you see for yourself?

A. If you ask that question of most of this country’s students, university or not, the answer would be, yes, they would leave. No conscientious young person in Cuba sees a future in which he can feel fulfilled, in which he can practice his profession and use the knowledge he has spent years studying to acquire, years when most people were already working, making small fortunes through self-employment. I don’t think anyone who had the chance to leave, even if it were for a short time, would turn it down.

The future I see for myself is very uncertain. Maybe I’ll be lucky and end up like one of the few who can practice his profession. But I really doubt I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished very much in my life. I might just be one of those Cubans who spends his youth studying only for knowledge-sake, not to make money. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how this university adventure turns out and what’s waiting for me at the end of the tunnel.


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

Fifteen Years of a ‘Little Grey War’

Desiderio Navarro left a solid and useful work, but he died alone, embittered. (Granma)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 19 June 2022 — When I met Desiderio Navarro he was already an old man worn out by cancer. He used crutches and had little muscle left, little desire to speak. I did not know—he did—that the entire “universe” of Criterios*, the magazines, books, and translations, was about to disappear, to the relief of bureaucrats, private enemies, and public antagonists.

Desiderio withered quickly. He left a solid and useful work, but he died alone, bitter, like the proverbial dog. Now he exists as a signature at the end of a prologue or in the credit of a translation, and we will gradually push him into oblivion, because the memory of the Cuban works at irregular intervals and does not distinguish between learning and trauma.

We also forget the hornet’s nest that, fifteen years ago, caused the television appearance of three former cultural commissioners in a context that could not have been more slippery: Fidel Castro’s illness after his collapse in Santa Clara, like a broken statue, and country’s the turn of the gears.

Demanding favors that reward some old loyalty is a characteristic of mafias. It was natural, therefore, to establish a link between the butchers of the Five-Year Grey Period, exhumed on television, and the rise to power of their longtime comrade, the man who put them on the board: Raúl Castro. continue reading

The appearance of those decorated mummies in 2007 could not be a good sign, and this was understood by the legion of intellectuals and artists who, precariously connected to their computers, began to send messages into cyberspace, asking for explanations and reading events between the lines.

That was called the “little email war,” although there was no such struggle — the “opponents” never responded — but rather a slow appeasement campaign. “It started in surprise and ended in a hangover,” Norge Espinosa said accurately. Desiderio Navarro, then a vigorous and stylish guy, officiated as marshal in what seemed to be the decisive moment for the Cuban intellectual so far this century. Time for criticism and frankness, defying in some cases the borders of the dying caudillo: the inside and the outside of the revolution.

There was no writer, musician, journalist or painter who remained silent. The debate, held for months in cyberspace, then took the form of “protected” meetings with culture officials, ministers and such. Bad thing. The first survival lesson for the intellectual is not to be locked in the same room with an official. It does not matter if it is a room or a theater, it will always lead to a torture chamber, a court or a cell.

Desiderio himself played a central role in the castration of that debate. He contributed to giving it a more peaceful, academic, politically correct character, when reality boiled beyond the lectures and halls. They were, if not the first, the already irreversible symptoms of national malaise and the state’s impatience to cut the matter short. The “little war” turned into an ambush; the ambush, into a firing squad; and then came silence.

A few weeks ago, on the primetime news broadcast, a mournful group of writers and artists placed flowers before the Great Stone, the Stone of Stones, the Stone-in-Chief. They made a profession of faith before the journalist who interrogated them, some cried, another remembered the el comandante and hugged the grave. I recognized several of the “pilgrims” and I confess that I never would have expected such a tearful display of affection. I wondered if they had always been so faithful, so unconditional, and then I remembered the old literary joke: no one seemed, but everyone was.

Where are the others? Those who have not been pacified by official anesthesia, those who did not sign the armistice after the “little war” and its aftermath. Most in exile; the others, crushed, imprisoned or jaded, battling the blackout to send the last email.

In his book on the events that concern us, Villa Marista en Plata, Antonio José Ponte made it clear that if the timorous and complicit intelligentsia that rules in Cuba is fighting for something, it is not because of privileges, trips and publications. They fight, even if it seems unreal, to gain time. “A time unconcerned with all accountability, free from checks… The borderless time within which the work is done. The time they will never find in capitalism.”

But doing business with Cuban power is always volatile and double-edged. There is no longer room for the innocence or passivity of Desiderio, to whom the government showed that it would not forgive even “soft” and organized dissent. Those to whom he offers a space are the usual mediocre, lame in talent, hallucinated, fanatical and snitches with guitar or microphone. Of course, they must be loyal like a Doberman.

Just take a look at the Higher Institute of Art or the Ministry of Culture, the University of Havana or Las Villas; to glorified puppets like Michel Torres, Israel Rojas or Humberto López, to gauge the agony of the new commissioners. They have air conditioning, they recite poems, they line up for gas at the Geely, they enjoy the Armed Forces’ beggar’s hotel, but they are hollow and would give their kingdom for a little trip where they can finally disappear into the crowd.

That is why, as long as they can live, they go to the Santa Ifigenia cemetery to pray so that that unnecessary “little war” will never be repeated, not even in fifteen years. They put flowers, they kneel and tremble, because that Gray Boulder will become – sooner rather than later – their wailing wall.

Translator’s note: *Navarro founded the journal Criterios in 1972. 


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 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.

Cuban Teenagers No Longer Have Fears or Complexes

A group of Cuban high-school students share audiovisual content through a cell phone. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 1 June 2022 — If anything surprised the Cuban government during the July 11th (11J) protests, it was the large number of teenagers who took to the streets. Engaged in the surveillance of activists and independent media, or focusing their attention on workplaces and universities, it seems that State Security neglected boys under 18 years of age.

They were the ones, cell phone in hand, who managed to keep the VPNs active and inform their families about the situation in the country. The price they paid was high: according to the Attorney General’s Office, of the 760 prosecuted after the protests, 55 are between 14 and 17 years old. Since then, caution has been redoubled in secondary and pre-university (high) schools.

However, and despite the fear injected in schools and families by the regime, the boys “have not learned their lesson.” Through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, thousands of adolescents speak — loudly, using their own jargon, through codes and double meanings — about their main problems: the lack of a future, the need for money, family anguish due to blackouts or food, migration, indoctrination in the educational system, military service, and precocious habit of snitching at school.

Despite the fear instilled in schools and families by the regime, the boys “simply never learn their lesson.” Thousands of teenagers speak out from Twitter, Facebook or Instagram

I tell K. — let’s call him K., like the Kafka character — that I’m interested in knowing what Cuba looks like from the daily life of an adolescent. That notion is relatively new. My grandparents — born and raised in the most provincial of small-towns Cuba — believed that, at 16 years old, boys were men and girls were women. Today, adulthood is delayed, at least until 18; life runs at a different pace.

This does not prevent K. from having opinions — most of them clear and affirmative — about politics, society and the economy of his country. He sometimes watches the news, likes coffee and makes a habit of singing the choruses of reggae songs. “Music gives everything a bit of color,” he says, “otherwise I’d be burned out by now.”

He’s in his second year of ‘pre-university’ — as high school is called — but that’s just a saying. In Cuba no one is preparing for university, and even less for the future. But that’s where he has his friends and he has to pass the time somehow. continue reading

“I get up in the morning, eat the breakfast that my mother works so hard to obtain. On the days that I have classes, under a Caribbean sun at its highest point, I walk more than two kilometers to school, since there is no consistent or efficient public transportation system.”

I am acquainted with the route: a long street that crosses the city and where only horse carts roam. The dust, the manure, the potholes and the coachmen – surly and unfriendly – give the road the atmosphere of a western movie.

“Well,” continues K., “at lunch time, I come home from school. The same story of the sun and the walk is repeated. I arrive, take a shower, eat something for lunch and return, walking through the sad streets and seeing the facades destroyed by the path of ‘hurricane dictatorship’. I enter my classroom with the cement floor full of holes. Heat, mosquitoes. The bathroom smell is overwhelming.”

“And in addition, with no desire to study: a Cuban degree is useless anywhere in the world. I return home. Calculate this: I have already walked eight kilometers on foot. I arrive exhausted, take off my uniform and lie down to rest for a while. When I get up, the “boring process” begins: there aren’t even any parks to go to. So, I sit on the armchairs for a while to talk with my family about the near future outside this prison-island. Afterwards, I go to sleep.”

“If communism failed, I would not stay. Cuba is going to take many, many years to become a country. And those who do not know their history are condemned to repeat it”

I made the mistake of asking K. how he saw Cuba in five years. “I don’t even want to imagine it,” he replies. “If communism failed, I wouldn’t stay. It will take many, but many years for Cuba to become a country. And those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it.”

Sometimes K. speaks with the bad habits of an adult, as if he had had to put up with too many blows. It’s natural. The Cuban child is almost always educated among older relatives and in very small households. As he grows up, domestic problems and anxieties are passed down, discussed, and grieved together.

It is the accumulation of these concerns at the wrong time that makes the Cuban teenager more aware and more mature, but it also throws him into a kind of congenital bitterness which he carries throughout his whole life.

An additional factor of that anxiety is the Military Service — “the green” — mandatory in Cuba, which functions as a rite of passage in the totalitarian society. “There is a part of the parents who think that ‘the green’ makes us more manly but, for me, that does not influence anything. It is unfair because it is forced. You cannot even ‘pledge to the flag’ personally. Another person does it for you. And if you protest about that…”

K is not far from the Military Service, but he is more concerned about high school and what it has become: “There is massive indoctrination. The classes are the worst. They teach us a number of absurd things. We hardly have any teachers. Everything is a mess.”

I ask if there are snitches in his classroom. “All my friends are frustrated by the situation in Cuba,” admits K., “and our only topic of conversation is about leaving the country. The idea of one day leaving here completely dissociates us from everything. With things being so unattainable for our parents’ pockets, we cannot dress as we would like. It is obvious that I want to leave. Some are afraid to say it because of the great repression that exists, and because some girls report to the teachers. They snitch on you for just about anything.”

“And what can I tell you about the neighborhood? You already know how a neighborhood functions here, so you can complete that part.” he tells me, already a little bored by the “questioning.”

K has a cousin his age in the United States. His father recently “sponsored” him, and after nearly a month in Guyana he managed to get him on the plane to Hialeah. I ask him the same questions as K., but now I am interested in understanding how one feels about Cuba when one leaves so young.

“Living in this country doesn’t change me as a person. But it’s hard for me to get used to it. One has always been there. I miss my family. It’s a bit difficult, because one longs for the family”

“From the outside, Cuba looks like a backward country. And there are times when you don’t realize how backward it really is. My life, of course, is different. What I did there has nothing to do with what I do here. Living in this country doesn’t change me as a person. But it’s hard for me to get used to it. One has always been there. I miss my family. It’s a bit difficult, because one longs for the family.”

K.’s cousin doesn’t talk much and has always been discreet when talking about the government. But now there is no problem. He can tell me —without fear of an agent listening in — that they are “a shameless gang, eating up the people with lies. That’s what I think, but I don’t really care much about politics. I don’t care, really.”

I want to know if he will ever return to Cuba. “I don’t know. I suppose so. I suppose that if communism fails, things will improve.”

K and his cousin agree on something. One inside and the other outside, they belong to a generation that no longer has fears or complexes. They know they are being watched, they understand the limits of the manipulation and fear that comes “from above,” but they care very little when they see the family’s asphyxia. They feel responsible, they are tired. But they are stronger than ever.

I ask K. what pseudonym he prefers me to use when I write about him. “What are you going to use? My name with his two surnames, of course.” I tell him no, that I have to protect his identity, the source and all that. “Well, then write…”

I am not going to say the names that he told me next, because they could offend the sensibilities of the ministers and presidents of the republic. But be warned: there is a hurricane coming.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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The Extraordinary and Efficient Machine to Manufacture Calumnies

Drawing of the cover of the book ’Mapa dibujado por un espía’ [Map drawn by a spy]. (@penguinrandomhouse)
14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 5 June 2022 — The extraordinary and effective Slander Manufacturing Machine is not a single device, but a complex system for organizing informers, informants, police officers, files, compromised neighbors and improvised agents. There is an instruction manual to understand the Machine, but I could never find it in Cuba, when I needed it most: it is the Mapa dibujado por un espía [Map Drawn by a Spy], by Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

When Guillermo died, his widow searched her library for lost manuscripts. Hidden in an envelope that the Cuban had sealed and forgotten were the 314 typewritten pages of the Map. From his exile in London — the capital of another island — Cabrera Infante recounted his last trip to Havana, in 1965, and settled scores with the living and the dead.

That year — the story has been told so many times that I no longer know how to distinguish fiction from reality, document from gossip — Cabrera Infante was a cultural attaché in Belgium. There were problems at the embassy and the government sent a mediator. The first job of any mediator is to open their ears and turn the stories and “gossip” into well-written reports. A kind of security policeman called Aldama lived in the embassy, ​​and it was he who started the extraordinary and efficient machine.

Aldama was mixed-race, rather dark, very tall, with a deep voice and tight glasses; he drove a Buick. He had belonged to the clandestine “action groups” against Batista and claimed to know Fidel Castro. He was pleased to refer — as bait to record the interlocutor’s reaction — to an episode of machine guns and thugs in which Castro had been involved. continue reading

Far away, in the gloomy and hot State Security offices, Aldama’s information was well received. Thanks to the mediator and to Aldama, the embassy was emptied of the problematic and remaining were only Cabrera Infante and “comrade” Aldama, who began to prowl like a lion of espionage.

Anyone who has read Cabrera Infante knows that there have been few Cubans so sarcastic and moody at the same time. Operating certain threads in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he managed to get rid of the surveillance of Aldama, who was removed from peaceful Brussels back to the sweat of the tropics.

Nobody like a Cuban to be alive and silly at the same time. Little did Cabrera Infante suspect that Aldama was going to drag him down with him — thanks to the slander manufacturing machine — and that the salary would come soon: his mother was about to die and he had to return to Havana.

We are talking about the years in which Castro behaved—he always did—like an agrarian and proletarian czar; in which Manuel Piñeiro, Barbarossa , trained the first State Security agents with the KGB booklet; in which Ramiro Valdés — today a sleeping mummy in an olive-green shroud — was the bloodthirsty Minister of the Interior. Camilo [Cienfuegos] dead; Guevara on a guerrilla tour of Africa; the snitching cederista [CDR member] on his “caramel point.” That was Havana populated by political zombies that Cabrera Infante found.

“I knew,” he said in an interview, “that you couldn’t write in Cuba, but I believed that you could live, vegetate, postpone death, postpone every day. Within a week of returning I knew that not only could I not write in Cuba, I couldn’t live either.

Then begins the story — which is, in effect, a kind of espionage novel in a disfigured country — of the rupture, disenchantment and finally suffocation of the person who is taken off the plane, until further notice, to live for four months in tension and surveillance.

I would have liked to read Map Drawn By a Spy in Cuba, but entering that story while wandering in a similar environment, creating the inevitable links that every reader practices, between fiction and life, between the memory of others and one’s own anguish, would have been little recommended for mental health. I can do it now — read, compare, remember — sheltered by a certain innocence and remoteness.

Everyone who leaves, who thinks of leaving, who dissents, sooner or later acquires a fellow Aldama, a shadow that cuts out the portion of life and country that he has. Until one vanishes, he becomes a non-person, a scourge, a deceased infant. Then he only remains “to flee as far as possible, as fast as he flees from the plague, from the tyrant.”

I close the Map Drawn By a Spy in Cuba, in the nice edition of Galaxia Gutenberg, and make myself a coffee. At a certain point, Cabrera Infante understood that he could no longer return to Cuba alive. All exiles confront that panic. I, who said goodbye to all things — my cat, my books, my places — know that even if I return tomorrow and the Machine no longer exists, there is an irremediable and concrete rupture: everything changes when we are not there, and there is no map that serves to recover time.

The extraordinarily efficient Machine for Making Slander continues its work, perhaps with a little more rust and missing parts, but indifferent after six decades. Cabrera Infante affirms that “when unlivable situations are experienced, there is no other way out than schizophrenia or escape.” I want to think, above pessimism and history, that studying the operation of the Machine is the most lucid way to break it.

When that day comes, we exiles can return home. Although I, who knows my people and know what leg they limp on, I don’t think I’ll come back — as Guillermo would say — on the first plane.


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Remnants of the Cuban Censor Who Attends Me

Xavier Carbonell in a debate last month in the Tenerife Noir Film Festival, the Atlantic Festival of the Noir Genre, organized each year in the Canary Islands. (Facebook Tenerife Noir)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, May 22, 2022–Those who think that all ciberclarias* are slick and anonymous are mistaken. Some come with pedigree and martial ranks. There is a group of ever-loyal comrades, trained in military or Party schools, who do not understand the Five Grey Years, nor the special periods, nor have they foreseen crises other than capitalism.

Antonio Rodríguez Salvador belongs to this caste of commissars, censor by vocation and certainly by trade. Last week, I came upon an article by this subject where he demonstrated stupefaction at one of my statements, published in this and other dailies: that the Italo Calvino Prize for Novels — one of Cuba’s most prestigious — had been awarded to me last year and I rejected it in favor of another literary award offered in Salamanca, where I now live.

With more reluctance than skill, what Rodríguez Salvador suggests is that the author of this column must be unhinged, a pathological liar, and that the news outlets that interviewed me, among them El País and 14ymedio, displayed lack of professionalism by speaking with a deranged man.

My first reaction was compassionate laughter, because I understand that the business of defending Castroism is ever more difficult and everyone has to make a living. I understand that Humberto López’s yapping and that of the so-and-so from Con filo — I never remember his name — eclipse the humble trade of censoring in writing, in La Jiribilla or in Granma. continue reading

The nonsense of this CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution] member — inconceivably, a reader of independent news outlets — not only implicated me, but also a colleague at this daily. Thus, to dispel any of my censor’s doubts, I will clarify a couple of points about that day when I received two awards for a single novel.

Toward the end of October 2021 a dark personality called me from Uneac (National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba) — I don’t plan to identify him, but Rodríguez Salvador must know who I am speaking of: “Don’t act like you don’t know,” he said, “you won the Italo Calvino.” My interlocutor assumed that the Uneac officials in Santa Clara, where I lived and worked, had already spread the rumor. But they were miraculously discreet and I only found out during that phone call. “We do not have a way to get you here, so figure it out.”

Then he read to me the remarks of the judges, which included Roberto Méndez, Carlos Zamora, and Gaetano Longo, which included beautiful and very generous words about the novel. If they are gentlemen and honorable, they will say whether I lie.

On that day I received two missed calls from a Spanish number. I responded and it ended up being the office of the mayor of Salamanca, who on the following day gave me the news of the other prize. When I presented the situation to the person at Uneac, his words were these, “The Spaniards will take the money back when they find out and furthermore you will cause political issues for us with the Italian Embassy, which funds the one here.”

Due to copyright, I could not accept both awards. I opted for the Peninsula’s award, and not for metaphysical reasons: it offered more money and would allow me to leave an oppressive, castrating country where those who travel, live, and triumph — paid by the Government — are the commissars like Rodríguez Salvador, who takes photos of himself “strolling in Buenos Aires” during that country’s book fair.

“Well,” clarified the person from Uneac when I communicated my decision, “we’ve reached a new agreement and there is no problem with your resignation. Send it to me in writing.” His tone, always vulgar and now evasive, had changed since our last conversation. “You know,” he said before hanging up, “that if you say anything, we will categorically deny it.” The prize was awarded in November to writer and finalist, Dazra Novak, who undoubtedly deserved it.

They knew the results since the beginning of 2021. Uneac kept it a secret because the pandemic restrictions prevented Italians from traveling to the country with the 4,000 euros. The fact that one novel on surveillance, paranoia, and censorship had won the prize is a symptom of how weary they, the commissars themselves, are of the game, the act, and the secrecy.

Paradoxically, Uneac opted to hide everything, begin from scratch, and “categorically deny.” The Association’s panic of the “irregular” explains why Antonio Rodríguez Salvador does not have the slightest idea of what happened and accused me of post-modern piracy.

Among other finesse of intellect, the Sancti Spiritus-based writer rambles on about my opinions of the Pope, spiritual fulfillment, and life on the island. “It may be that for this author it is less profitable to publish his works in Cuba than portray himself as censored by the regime,” he concludes.

Rodríguez Salvador forgets — conveniently — what I said in that same magazine and now repeat. I am not interested in playing the role of a censored intellectual (although I was and many times); I am not a writer of political literature (though I am a citizen with the right to criticize the Government of his country) nor do I dramatize exile. I care about writing and living, freely and  decently, and that is impossible in Cuba.

“On the conscience of glorified ciberclarias like Rodríguez Salvador are the young prisoners and exiles of the Island. Those who die crossing borders to escape their country. Their families. The censors, for cowardice, money or the inherent malice of mediocrity, are the dictatorship’s most sordid accomplices. If they weren’t so dangerous and infamous, they’d only evoke pity.”

*Translator’s notes: The so-called “cyberclarias” are accounts that hide behind false identities and photos to defend the actions of the Cuban government on Twitter and attack criticism made by dissidents or activists. (Source)  

Translated by: Silvia Suárez


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‘That Secret Symphony’, Holguín’s Poetic Dissidence

Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Delfín Prats, Rafael Vilches, Luis Yusef y Jamila Medina. (Collage)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 21 May 2022 — Holguín exists thanks to a plague of ants and bibijaguas [leaf cutter ants]. It is the strangest and most enigmatic region of the Island. Columbus entered Cuba through it and in Nipe – the largest bay in the archipelago – the Virgin of Charity was found. In that province, according to Cabrera Infante, a dangerous “Bermuda triangle” was formed: Banes, Birán and Gibara. Batista was from Banes, Birán was the Galician fief from which the Castro brothers would emerge, and the writer himself was born in Gibara.

To that list of people from Holguin – both brilliant and disastrous – should be added General Calixto García, the pianist Frank Fernández, the great poet Gastón Baquero, Arnaldo Ochoa – the most famous person executed by the revolution – and even the current Prime Minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz.

Holguín, with its warmth and mystery, is also the city of “rebel” poets, the uncomfortable, imprisoned and exiled ones par excellence, such as Reinaldo Arenas and Delfín Prats. Both have gone down in history for their dissident vocation and because they did not remain silent in the face of power. The two were marginalized and deprived – in their time – of the place that corresponded to them in national literature.

Arenas – the best Cuban novelist after Carpentier – opened up the possibilities of a nonconformist and harsh voice, which embodied all marginalizations: homosexuality, “illiteracy” according to the parameters of its censors, drama, the drive towards death, and its eastern and guajira origin. Like a protective ghost of his own, the example of Arenas returned to his land and was fruitful. continue reading

Offering a testimony of that dissident tradition of Holguin writing is Esa secreta sinfonía [That secret symphony]. More than 30 “heir” poets are grouped around a common and imaginary space: the intimate homeland, the city of the Cruz and the parks, and the lands and towns that surround it.

The anthology, with a selection by Beatriz Torrente and edited by Orlando Coré, reviews the most significant authors of the province, whose generations are clearly outlined: the first, inaugurated by Arenas himself, involves already classic and renowned poets, such as Delfín Prats, who lived their youth at the beginning of Castroism.

The second is that of the “sons of the revolution” – such as Ghabriel Pérez, Rafael Vilches or Luis Yussef – who see the Berlin Wall fall and write during the Special Period, with blackouts and shortages.

And the third is that of those who are now 30 or 40 years old, born of disappointment, and many of them exiled or about to be: Moisés Mayán, Javier L. Mora, Camilo Noa, Yunior García Aguilera and Jamila Medina, perhaps the voice most important of this time.

Beyond the usual themes – time, sexuality, death, passions – they all share a meditation on History that often turns into anxiety: “Hemlocks, gallows, crucifixions, bonfires, exiles, castrations, executions and torture, and you impassive,” claims Arenas in the poem that opens the book.

But even when the denunciation, the prophecy, is demanded of him, the poet remembers that they are watching him and they will come looking for him, without anyone defending him: “How to speak of smells and times – of another terror – / when there on the corner / perennially a patrol car pulls up.”

Other poets, such as Orlando Coré, transform personal memory into writing, and offer evidence of their youth in the capital: “From the University of Havana they expelled / birds and diversionists. / Furtively, the / some recognized each other; / surreptitiously , the others, / passed the proscribed titles: / we conspired.”

The motif of the Great Journey, the Journey of Initiation – from east to west, from “the hill” to “the plain” – is frequent in provincial writers, but the generations after Arenas and Coré seek their horizon in exile.

Holguín, like Cuba, is scattered around the globe. As Yunior García notes: “We are not an island, damn it / We are an archipelago / One that holds on with brittle threads / Its unconnected parts / One that has already lost islets at night / And keys in the fog.”

The anthologists place between the pages of That secret symphony an old map of Holguín. In this symbolic space, poets, living and dead, exiled or insular, gather to share their painful memory. This book not only fulfills the role of a poetic collection, but also represents the spirit of that yellowish map of the city: a compass with which to find the deep, lucid and anguished voice of Holguin, which is also Cuban.


Editor’s Note: That secret symphony. Cuban poets from Holguín, selection by Beatriz Torrente and edition by Orlando Coré, Loma de la Cruz Ediciones. Holguín-Miami, 2022, 312 pages.


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Cuba: The Old Guard

Masonic Lodge, corner General Navas and San José. (

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 10 April 2022 — Memory is made of places, paths and faces. We go through them again and again, while the rum is spent and the tobacco is burned; taking advantage of the conversation with a stranger, during dreams and obsessions. The one who remembers knows that the world — his world — is constantly eroding into oblivion, and that every gesture or word we said, over time, gives way and withers. Smells that disappear, faces of people — often near and dear — that are no more than yellowish shadows, voices.

However, there is always something that resists loss. Each has his own: a phrase that serves as a code of honor; the last words of an uncle or a grandfather; a kiss; the taste of guarapo that we drank, when we were young, and that we never tasted again. Things so alive and so ours that we preserve them as a talisman.

If you ask me, the place is always the same: the veteran temple of the Freemasons, in my town, a collapsing mansion that I can see if I close my eyes. Rampant, solid, gritty, giving no respite to the cyclones that have wanted to knock it down.

When I was a child, my grandfather gave me his father’s Masonic jewels — a builder’s apron and a necklace with the silver square — I already had the pipe the old man had smoked all his life, some photos and a touchstone: being the great-grandson of a high-caliber Mason allowed me to play in the lodge gardens, browse among the columns and play dominoes with the elders. continue reading

To get to the temple I just had to open the door of my house and cross the street. There, a brotherhood of gentlemen in guayaberas was waiting for me, of musty and correct speech, who had organized the game of dominoes as a series of pitched battles. They allowed me to use their canes as magic wands, read leaning against the walls, and run around the corridors.

On Friday nights, some young people would come and lock themselves in a room that I thought was sacred, because they had never allowed me to enter. I saw everything from afar: the silence, the tranquility and the impeccable dress — inconceivable today, between poverty and carelessness — then, a complicit tobacco in the armchairs, a coffee perhaps.

The next day I peppered one of my gray-haired, smoking friends with questions. The old man explained to me as best he could — I was eleven or twelve years old — that free men of good will met in that place, that they were forbidden to talk about religion and politics, and that everything that was done and said within those walls was secret, so the order had been preserved for centuries by discretion and honor.

Then he led me to a wall full of portraits. They were old photos, moldy, pressed together. He pointed to the center of the wall and told me: that’s your great-grandfather. There he was, in a suit and with glasses very similar to the ones I’m wearing, smiling. They are the old guard — he continued — the teachers of forever, those who were here from the time of the mambises until we fell into disgrace.

They were the ones who had painted the constellations on the ceiling of the loggia, the ones who had commissioned the dark varnished seats and chairs. They had bought the encyclopedias that had survived the dust in a mighty wooden bookcase, next to the broken clock. The hands of those noble ghosts grasped the swords — lion-knobbed, flaming and solemn — that I played with.

To me they were gentlemen. People from another time. And although I never became a Mason, that mythology of honor and tradition, the value of a man’s word, the sense of homeland and duty, I learned from them, from the peculiar history of Freemasonry in Cuba. The bond I have with the Freemasons, familiar and remote, still makes me proud.

I don’t have to remind anyone that almost all of our founding fathers were members of the order; nor that much of the progress of small towns during the republic is due to them — music bands, asylums, charities — everyone knows that Machado was expelled from the lodge for being unworthy and murderous, and that they were persecuted again and again after 1959, like the priests in their parishes and the nuns in their convents.

With pain, those old men tell me that they have to open the minute books — documents prohibited for the uninitiated — so that the police can review them. Not to mention the countless infiltrators they are forced to tolerate, most of them unscrupulous and disrespectful young people, who will never understand the meaning of decency.

But I don’t want to embitter this page or the reader: there have always been informers and poor devils, and even those who pay them are disgusted. Let them fix them as they can with their conscience and with history.

I like to remember that the imprint of these ancient Cubans is there, available and alive. That behind this island of survival and impudence they want to turn us into, there is a lineage of calm gentlemen who play with their grandchildren and give them books as gifts. A family that is not yet crushed by exiles, prisons and boarding schools in the countryside. A fondness for our essentials — food, tobacco, Sunday afternoons — and the hope of its return.

It is a legacy of the old guard, the country that we yearn for with memory. We may have lost it, but we never forget it.


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Cuba: The Loss and Recovery of the Caudillo

Educated for war, violence and insomnia – are we not descended, perhaps, from conquerors and navigators? – we are fascinated by the silhouette of power, we are pursued by the voice of the strong man, of the great captain. (Cubadebate)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 13 March 2022 — I examine my conscience about our dictators and warlords. Educated for war, violence and insomnia – are we not descended, perhaps, from conquerors and navigators? – we are fascinated by the silhouette of power, we are pursued by the voice of the strong man, of the great captain. It is not about obedience, about the primitive fear of the cacique, but about an almost metaphysical morbidity for authority. That morbidity encouraged and continues to drive the destiny of the nation, our political life, our literature and even our family world.

Cuban history often seems to boil down to the tension between the president and the struggle to free ourselves of him. In each case we were exhausted after a long war; disappointed – in the mambises, in the liberals, in democracy – pained by a previous tyrant – Batista, Machado, Weyler – and willing to give up anything, land, freedom, family, as long as there is a little peace, a little silence between the bullets.

I look at the photo of a great-uncle of mine in the thirties: a picket line of friends, in a T-shirt and suspenders; they pose shamelessly in a Machado prison. They laugh, the damned. They were journalists and troublemakers. City cockerals who made fun of the illiterate and obese president (’a nice fat man’, Langston Hughes said of him).

Hunched and nostalgic over a desk, I see my great-uncle again in a photograph from the sixties. After battling Machado and Batista, he was now fleeing Castro in his New York exile. I add – as an additional credential – that he was a close friend of Martínez Villena, the poet, and he kept some photographs of him that are now in my Cuban home. continue reading

His political conversion was methodical and slow, screened through the death of his friends and police repression. He was hardening, becoming more disbelieving. When Castro came, he recognized the whiff of despotism and understood – that dog had bitten him before – the cliff we had gotten ourselves into.

In other words, I come from a long tradition of being uncomfortable and distrustful of power. I carry that suspicion in my blood and I don’t believe in any of those who sit in the Palace armchair, I say this to avoid future inconveniences.

When I see myself so far from home, in the coldest and most memorable corner of Castile, wondering what remedy there is for what happens to my generation – writers, painters, philosophers, filmmakers, young people and good people, prisoners and exiles – how can we manage our national salvation, I return to my great-uncle, laughing at the Machado policeman who threw his photo in prison.

That memory gives me strength.

Physically we inhabit a space, but sentimentally – said Saramago – we are inhabited by a memory. We have the experience of our dead and a catalog of totalitarian bastards whose movements we analyze. We have culture and knowledge to avoid falling into the traps of nationalism, shouting and oblivion, which are the marks of the tyrant.

For my part – and after reading a lot about stabbings and flash fires in Asturias, Carpentier and Vargas Llosa – I am giving a public reading of my brief manual to sniff out dictators, in case it helps.

The despots understand our history and take advantage of it, they know how we functioned fifty, one hundred, two hundred years ago. They juggle time and words – they are excellent storytellers – they convince us of their logic, of the correctness of their statements. They aspire to be masters of history, which rarely absolves them.

They bring the rhetoric of the messiah, of the chosen one. Since Céspedes couldn’t, nor could Martí, since the others are corrupt or dead, I am the capable man. The one who came to save them. In their support they invoke the evil enemy: the imperialists, those from the other shore, those who are not with us, always better armed and with more viciousness.

They grudgingly tolerate intellectuals, journalists, artists, priests, military officers, diplomats, and international managers, because they need them. But if they can manipulate and educate them, the better. They don’t always show their faces. Batista or Castro is not the same as Díaz-Canel – a guy who looks more like Laredo Bru, a forgotten Republican figurehead – gray eminences scare me more, the tropical Richelieu, like the famous Orestes Ferrara or the sinister López-Calleja.

There is always something grotesque about them: a couple of severed fingers – Machado was a butcher among my people – a dirty beard and too long fingernails; an intolerable, Quevedian nose that cannot be covered with guayaberas. Or a demon appeal. There is everything.

They gave us free rein for infamy, denunciation, fratricidal crime. And even so, all of them – perhaps less so now, which is not the time for enthusiasm or open forums – were applauded or admired. Machado asked the time and they told him “whatever you want it to be, president.” Castro was the horse; Batista, the man; and so all our monarchs have had their dose of adoration, molasses, idolatry.

God, who saves the metal, said Borges, saves the slag. Tradition retains all our leaders, to give us a feast in conversation and reading; so as not to skid on the old enemy of Cubans: bad memory. And meanwhile, sitting on this balcony where I seem to see the island from afar, smoking, I wait.


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