The Eyes that Saw You Go

Eusebio Leal believed Antonio Maceo’s chair to have a kind of miraculously irradiating power.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 24 September, 2023 — From a distance, it looks like a cork split in two. On closer inspection, it could be a piece of furniture found in some minimalist or ethnic furniture catalogue, a tribal artifact. In any case, nothing of value, nothing worth going to war over or making a fuss about. The Spanish – legalistic to the point of naivety – have done everything possible to ensure that the issue does not get out of hand. But how to convince Havana to return Antonio Maceo’s chair, which Cuba has had since 2018?

A couple of weeks ago the mayor of Palma de Mallorca, to whose municipal government the piece belongs, met with the Cuban consul-general in Barcelona to let him know that he had sent a letter to the Office of the Historian of Havana, reminding him that the deadline for returning the chair is November 16, Saint Christopher’s Day.

The mayor is not unaware that the last officeholder, Eusebio Leal, is dead and that his position has been vacant for several years. What he does not know, I am sure, is that Leal’s ghost still communicates with a group of spirit mediums, almost all of them women, who tend his grave and smoke out any undesirable candidates for his job. The regime finds it easier to deal with this coalition of midwives – Perla Rosales, Magda Resik* and company – than it did with the hyperactive Leal, whose presence remains problematic even in death.

Eusebio Leal’s ghost still communicates his wishes to a group of spirit mediums, almost all of them women

So when Palma’s mayor told the consul-general that he had sent a letter to a dead man, the Cuban diplomat must have smiled sardonically. He nevertheless posed for a blurry official photo and no doubt said, yes, he would see that the letter had gone to the correct address. Such is diplomacy Havana-style, so similar to that of the Vatican when the situation calls for it: political spiritualism mixed with affection, tobacco and indifference. continue reading

When Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez took Maceo’s chair to Cuba in 2018, he must have known from the look on Leal’s face that the item would not be going back to the Iberian Peninsula any time soon. Leal’s eyes gleamed – already the eyes of a dead man – when he touched the chair’s back, where the letters A and M, had been carved next to a star. Maceo was shot dead in 1898, during a battle at Punta Brava, shortly after jauntily declaring, “This is going well.” The victorious Spanish general, Valeriano Weyler, later made off with the chair. Back in Spain, the item remained in the possession of his family along with other objects from Cuba until 1931, when Weyler’s descendants gave it to the city of Palma.

It seems the chair that once belonged to Maceo — a leader known for his stammer, about whom Jose Martí once joked, “He doesn’t hesitate when you think he would, just when he’s talking about an issue he cares about or his man” — was kept discreetly, or secretly, out of sight until a journalist happened upon it and wrote an article. It must be one of the few pieces of furniture to have a biography written for it.

Judging from Spanish press accounts, officials believe the chair is safe, as Leal promised it would be, and on display in a special room. But because so few mementos remain of the mestizo leader, whom one Catalan newspaper renamed “Antoni” Maceo, the palm tree trunk is a “treasure of incalculable value in reinforcing the revolutionary message that lives on in the post-Castro era.”

Leal wrote the then-mayor of Palma, beseeching him to extend the loan, claiming the Cuban people needed the chair

It is not surprising that the Mallorcans are so concerned about the fate of the chair considering they believe it to have a kind of miraculously irradiating power. Shortly before his death, Leal wrote to the then-mayor of Palma beseeching him to extend the loan, claiming the Cuban people needed the chair because it housed “an important part of our country’s soul.” The mayor relented. After the extension, a friend of the Cuban regime in Mallorca, Gerardo Moyà, observed ironically that he had “little doubt” the chair would remain in Havana.

Then it was learned that Madrid was hoping to do a trade: the chair in exchange for something else (like Cortés’ stool perhaps, or a terracotta water jug from Avellaneda). If Havana is feeling generous, perhaps it could send over another famous chair: the “untouched throne” from the Palace of the Captains General, which has been waiting for centuries for a king of Spain to sit on it. It looked like that might happen in 1999 when Juan Carlos was visiting the island and Fidel Castro offered him the seat. More alert than the authoritarian Castro, the Spanish king declined: “All of Spain would have to sit on it,” he said, “and they wouldn’t fit.”

We will have to wait until St. Christopher’s Day to find find out what Leal dictates from his office in the underworld to the soothsayers at the Office of the Historian. As far as the mayor’s letter goes, it’s better not to push too hard. Madrid and Havana will find a way to forgive each other.

*Translator’s note: The deputy executive director and director of communication respectively for the Office of the Historian.

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 Cuba That Touches Me Is Free Because I See It From Humor’

Cubans share and know the cartoons of graphic humorist Alen Lauzán well, and they have earned a privileged place in the independent press. (Blog of Alen Lauzán)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 24 September 2023 — When a group of hallucinating historians proposed to name Fidel Castro the “fifth discoverer of Cuba,” graphic humorist Alen Lauzán (Havana, 1974) sharpened his pencil. If, in his country, which he left in 2000 to go live in Chile, reality insists on being as absurd as possible, what can’t satire achieve? His cheeky and hilarious version of the Island’s history was not long in coming.

In his drawings, three new ships arrive on the tropical coast in 1492 – La Chiva, La Moringa and La Santa Federada – and when they see them, the indigenous-rafters flee in disarray. The conquerors leave the Granma yacht with arquebuses and mischievous faces; Colón repeats Fidel Castro’s gesture in Playa Girón and gets out of a war tank, and a peasant ensemble – with helmets and armor – sings an ode to the “discoverers”: “The first, navigator, / naturalist the second, / the third was wise, / the fourth jumped a rock, / the fifth made us firewood.”

No one is saved with Lauzán, whom the Island of mercenaries in Ukraine and the utopian ministers keep very busy. Cubans share and know his cartoons well, which have earned a privileged place in the independent press. Taking advantage of the fact that a work of his has just won a special prize at the World Gallery Of Cartoons (Macedonia), 14ymedio talks with the creator of the imaginary republic of Moscuba.

14ymedio. What is your working method? What media do you read to get inspired?

Lauzán. I have several methods, I don’t limit myself. They happen according to the pace, the amount of work and children at the time, the season of the year… Right now I read everything, listen a lot and watch a lot: news, music, movies, series or memes, whether to draw about Chile or Cuba. At the moment I am working on the Cuban issue more than ever, and I read all the Cuban independent media. I follow good political analysts, interesting Twitter users – or Xers? Everything inspires me: the truth, the deepest analysis, the most absurd lie, the stupidest comment on Facebook or the most sublime meme.

14ymedio. What topics do you prefer to address? What kind of humor would you do if you weren’t Cuban?

I like political humor, and today everything about Cuba is unbearably political. Tomorrow I don’t know, but today I don’t see myself doing just more humor without doing political satire

Lauzán. From time to time I do light, absurd or philosophical humor. If I didn’t work for Cuban-themed media, I would do it (as I did before) with Chilean-themes, which although I treat them eventually, the priority is Cuba. I like political humor, and today everything about Cuba is unbearably continue reading

political. Tomorrow I don’t know, but today I don’t see myself doing just more humor without doing political satire. If I did not deal with the political issue, whether Cuban, Chilean or universal, I would be painting natural subjects in forests, zoos, on beaches or cattle farms.

14ymedio. Who are your teachers? What is, so to speak, your “tradition”?

Lauzán. Several references, guides of my training, have paraded. The cartoonists Roland Topor, Tomi Ungerer, Rius, Saul Steinberg, Siné, Ronald Searle, Jean-Jacques Sempé and Antonio Prohías, in addition to the British magazine Punch, the Cubans Zig Zag and Dedeté – with the cartoonists Tomy, Ajubel and Manuel, of course; the French Charlie Hebdo and the Spanish Hermano Lobo. Everyone and everything has created a tradition, that of satirical cartoons, whether political or social.

14ymedio. How do you rate the current state of graphic humor among the artists of the Cuban exile?

Lauzán. Several spaces are being opened; cartoonists are getting together; publications and social networks are being created. The best thing is that many independent media are valuing political humor cartoonists. You have to understand the importance of political humor in the press and give it the space it deserves, importance that comes from the first printed newspapers and remains until today. You can inform, educate and transform society from humor. Whether that humor is good or not is everyone’s decision. Hopefully spaces will continue to be born such as Matraca of El Toque, in which I participate, or Mazzantini, of the Foundation For Human Rights In Cuba, which I edit and is already in its fourth edition.

“Can you write and draw humor in the current conditions of Cuba? It must be very difficult to draw about something knowing that you don’t agree”

14ymedio. How do you think the cartoonists related to the regime are able to function? Is it possible to write and draw humor in the current conditions of Cuba?

Lauzán. They have to do the same as their editors, and in turn the directors of these and the leaders of the Cuban Union of Journalists: what the Ideological Department of the Communist Party directs them to do or lets them do. This is how it has always worked, and this will continue to be the case as long as there are laws against the independent press and zero creative freedom. In the end, the only thing we cartoonists want is just that, to draw and publish. Then you will see if each one wants more freedom or if he wants to continue believing in what he draws. It must be very difficult to draw something knowing that you don’t agree.

14ymedio. Which of your published books is your favorite? In which of them do you think your vision of the world is best synthesized?

Lauzán. It depends. I had a great time drawing Montaña Bazofia, one of the two comics – the other is called Mburu – that I created for 31 Minutes, the Chilean puppet program. Both are hilarious. But Montaña Bazofia is hilariously delirious! As for the vision of the world, I think Insanos, which also is the first collected cartoons of my last five years in Cuba and my first five in Chile. But my vision of the world today is different, so that synthesizing book still hasn’t come out.

Now, if the question is from which one I learned the most, the one I fell in love with and represented a challenge – not only for the time of realization, but also for the level of research – is Emilia, from Darkness to Light (Anaya, 2021). It is a comic about the Spanish writer, first romantic, then naturalist, Emilia Pardo Bazán. A captivating life and an impressive work. Drawing it made me learn a lot about that time. I became addicted to drawing by researching and learning, and that is my synthesis for a better view of the world.

14ymedio. What is the value of critical humor in a society as unascustomed to democracy as that of Cuba? When Cuba is free, what role do you expect your drawings to play?

Lauzán. I don’t think about those things, or about a future free Cuba, much less about the role of my drawings. I think that the Cuba that touches me is already free because I see it from humor, and satirical cartoonists have already been playing that role for some time. The value of critical humor is just that: to draw the Cuba of the day after tomorrow, where you can create and publish without going to jail or going into exile. Antonio Prohías, for example, drew, in the 60s of the last century, today’s Cuba. Perhaps my drawings will really be understood and will have real value in 2080. We’ll see, if I reach the age of 106.

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.

Eternal Summer, Eternal Hell

Detail from the central panel of the triptych ’The Garden of Delights’ (1500-1505), by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, ’The Woods’, Prado museum Madrid.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 27 August 2023 – It’s been a good year for Reinaldo Arenas. A few moths after re-publishing Antes que anochezca [Before Night Falls], Tusquets rescued El mundo alucinante [Hallucinations] and its to be hoped that more of his titles return to the bookshops during the celebrations for 80 years since his birth.

The indifference with which Cubans have come to the party says much about the country that we currently have. But nothing surprises. Arenas was published for the first and only time in Cuba in 1967. His books continue to enter the country secretively, and although false friends, resentful lovers and posthumous saviours continue to embalm him insolently, no censor is ready to give him absolution for the Tétrica Mofeta [When Skunk in a Funk].

He doesn’t need it, of course. Arenas is a religion unto himself, with cosmogony, martyrs and apocalypse. There isn’t anyone authorised to give him peace except himself or his doubles — Reinaldo, Gabriel and the skunk: three distinct mad beings but with one single essence. The workings of his world, as mystical as they are carnal, as private as they are rich in rumour, hitch themselves to two books which give the impression, only too accurate, of having been written by a dead man.

His ferocious autobiography and last novel, El color del verano The Colour of Summer], execute such a meticulous bombardment of Cuba and its foreign province of Miami, that the more than 300 people mentioned in it — being given the courtesy of their names ’deranged’, and at times not even that — must have cut his books into pieces on at least one occasion. Although his memories end up being deformed as fiction, in The Colour of Summer – subtitled New Garden of Delights, like the painting, The Woods – the language is as loose as the very devil’s. continue reading

In the final and most ardent sewer, we have the dictator Fifo, Raúl and his pets – including the Bloody Shark; in heaven, although exposed to shrapnel, there are Lezama, Casal, la Avellaneda, Heredia and Martí. In the queue for the guillotine and with names changed, are: Miguel Barniz, Tomasito la Goyesca, H. Puntilla, Karilda Olivar Lúbrico, Alejo Sholehov, Delfín Proust or the Queen of the Spiders, and – fanning himself there in Paris – Zebro Sardoya. Running around, wandering the streets hunting for recruits or hiding himself down in the drains, are the raving lunatics – although at any point remote, or on the edge: we are all crazy according to Arenas – the Duchess, the Super-satanic, the Queen, the clandestine Fortune teller, the Triple-ugly, Tedevoro, and finally the Funky Skunk.

The story – which begins with the escape of Avellaneda to Miami and ends when the Cubans, as a result of wearing away the island’s platform, remove it and sink into the sea – contains the most bitter declaration that any writer has ever made about his own country: “This is the story of an island where only the most servile and mediocre people have triumphed. An island subjected to an infinite summer, an infinite tyranny and the unanimous exit stampede of its inhabitants, who, whilst praising the island’s marvels, think only of how to escape from it. This is the story of an island that, whilst apparently covering itself in the glitter of official rhetoric, inside it is ripped apart and hopes only for the final explosion”.

The book would be perfect if Cabrera Infante didn’t exist. For the superstitious reader, The Colour of Summer has too many irritating similarities to Cabrera Infante’s Three Sad Tigers. Both are fragmented, godless, both replace and disrupt men, both are keen on lists and tongue twisters, both rewrite history and are obsessed with sex and with humour as a last refuge. Also, like all Cuban novels – from José Martí’s diary, to Paradiso [Paradise, by José Lezama Lima] and Los pasos perdidos [The Lost Steps, by Alejo Carpentier] – it aspires to serve as a general interpretation of the world. And of the Island.

Nevertheless, I read The Colour of Summer in one sitting – in Spain, in August, arid without let up – without allowing myself to be tormented by paranoia. In any case, if Arenas and Cabrera Infante achieved anything it was to give to certain moments in Cuban history a density resulting in something very vivid and traumatic. And – what is even more disconcerting, knowing both writers – neither of them takes a swipe at the other. In fact, Cabrera Infante wrote a moving obituary of Arenas, about “his life as a persecuted, beaten and caged dog, obliged once again to live forever as a fugitive”. I prefer to read his novels as reincarnations of the same mocking spirit that is only possible in that country. Short-sighted tiger or vengeful slut, Cain or Celestino, the summer or hell. Who knows whether in the end they aren’t the same thing.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

A Little Dictionary for K

It was also a harmonic gesture that, at 91, Kundera has donated his books and papers to Brno, his native town. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 16 June 2023 – Books. I have just read that, over the last few years, Milan Kundera has lost his memory. It’s dramatic that the only real tool that the novelist can count on is so volatile, it overflows and wears out, the years take it from us. I read Kundera for the first time aged 18 or 19. I remember the book itself perfectly – and it makes me sad to think that one day I will forget it – ripped apart, withered, a book whose pages I let fall out at one time by accident.

It was, of course, the story of the confused love between Tomás and Teresa, Franz and Sabina, and the mysterious crossings over of those lives – it was not their remoteness that made me feel less familiar with them.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – very easy to read but very difficult to understand, according to its author – it was the first novel I bought after leaving my country. I wrapped it in newspaper, disguised the cover, so that when I returned no one would take from me this book that was finally mine. When I finally left my house, my city and my things for the last time, it remained behind. I’m not thinking of going back to get it. Ten years have passed since I last opened that book – as a youth, of whom only a ghost remains – when I came across a sentence: “The eternal return is the heaviest burden”.

Escape. After all the love affairs, the books swapped and lost, the conversations in which nothing much is said, the university evenings, the coffee and the pedantic clouds of smoke, what is left to the reader, of Kundera? It’s the feeling that the books have made an older person of them, they have offered them the memory of a man who aspired to have no biography and whose life itself was, in the end, the story of a century.

To read him in a communist country, where his books enjoyed the ’privilege’ of censorship, was to count upon having a manual for survival in this ochre, gelatinous world that produced communism. And nevertheless, the great lesson that I learnt from Kundera was to escape. To run away from all the leaflets and compromised literature, the parties and ideologies, to reject those who expect a simplistic narrative in black and white or in black and red, a pro or anti-government novel, a story through which the publishers can exploit you as exotic, combative, militant, a martyr of freedom. And even further: not to enter into anyone’s club where they have conveniently already received an audience and applause, on one side or another, or found people to whom they could sell the petty drama of the exile or of the conformist. continue reading

Dissident. I imagine that Kundera hated the word dissident more than any other. The perverse implications of this term – separate, unorthodox, Cain-like – sound like the uttered revenge of someone who remained, an insult from the ’right-minded’. No one wants to be defined as kind of tumour or a leper that was obliged to leave the country. No one wants their books to be marked out for their bitterness or neglect. Dissident no: I’m a novelist, said Kundera too many times. Opposition to communism isn’t dissidence, but individualism and autonomy. The price is solitude. Nothing more tempting.

Complexity. When a writer abandons the shell imposed on him by his environment – the regime, history, the goodbyes, other writers – only the fabric of memory remains. In this dark room, in the coldness of Paris or some other city, out walking with a woman or smoking alone in a cafe, the words come back to you again. “I want my literature to be united with life and for this reason I defend it from every possible attack”. That is the only true liberty, the only true homeland that a novelist can aspire to. All the rest are fictions that are much less useful than any you could invent, and that no one would read.

Music. To open oneself up to the infinite possibilities of a novel and live for months or years inside the world you’re creating – it can’t be compared with any other job. I find an example in the interview that Joaquín Soler Serrano conducted with Kundera in 1980. He remembers his musician father – the writer himself made a living by playing the piano in restaurants – and offers this lesson: have respect for ’form’ that can only be learnt from music: the changes of rhythm, counterpoint and motifs, the subtlety of composing a book to arrive at the echo, the only echo that remains when memory is gone.

Laughter and forgetting. “Optimism is the opium of the people” writes the protagonist of The Joke, in a postcard to his communist girlfriend. At one time I met a young Czech girl and asked her to pronounce the original title, Žert. It sounded – I wouldn’t know how to pronounce it today – like a gob of spit, a rebellious guffaw, which encapsulated not only that novel itself but also the whole of Kundera’s work and his attitude to austere authority. I demanded she repeat the sound over and over many times. She didn’t get, what for me was the revelation of that word, so elastic and remote, perhaps because to understand one’s own language one also needs to abandon it. I don’t know what happened to the girl, who went back to Prague shorty after.

Finale. You learn how to live and how to write from Kundera. You learn an ethic and a certain kind of healthy cynicism, a mistrust of power and its messengers – success, money, party membership card – and the vertigo of entering into one’s own solitude. The fact that, at 91 he has donated his books and papers to the city of Brno, his native town, was also a harmonic gesture. Or at least a way of saving his memory – the heaviest burden – before death came looking for him.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

Goya and Fabelo, Worlds in Collision

La exposición ’Goya y Fabelo: Mundos’, que reúne piezas de ambos pintores, estará abierta hasta el 30 de julio en la galería Condeduque, en Madrid. (14ymedio)
The exhibition ‘Goya and Fabelo: Mundos’, which brings together pieces by both painters, will be open until July 30 at the Condeduque gallery in Madrid. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger Xavier Carbonell, Madrid, 25 June 2023 – In the land of Roberto Fabelo all the statues have been decapitated and the cities are in ruins. Junk, coffee pots, washbasins, cookpots, drowsy and rugged faces, letters that have forgotten what words they belong to, men who are half asleep or who sleep the sleep of reason – all these define the artist’s work.

The tide has carried Fabelo’s works to Madrid and those who turn up to see them in the little red brick salon in the Condeduque arts centre, surrounded by geometry and order, don’t imagine they’re looking at something collapsed. The return of the master to Europe – he looks cold and black and older – does not come without some reflection and sadness. He comes in search of a father, a lineage that has always been his but one that he now wants to announce: Goya.

The affinity between the painter from Aragón and the Cuban one was marked from the day in which Fabelo painted his first animal with a human face. There’s a certain look that’s essential to both: the depth of the dark layers of the human, in the parts where the light upsets everything and the creatures are saturated with meaning, words and forms. Like Goya, Fabelo fills his pictures with phrases and codes. One of them promises: “if the sun comes up, we’re out of here…”; the other one paints “…on the wings of a fly”. 

In 'Leadership', drawn in 2022 on an immense cardboard, Fabelo figures without admitting it the drama of the island in the last two years. (14 and a half)
In ‘Liderazgo’ [‘Leadership’], painted in 2022 on an immense sheet of cardboard, Fabelo encodes, without admitting it, the drama of the island in the last two years. (14ymedio)

Anyone who has followed Fabelo’s works on his native island, where they form part of domestic life and imagination, will note the transgression imparted by Mundos [Worlds]. From having a certain affinity with the regime – at some points he has attributed his success, with timidity, to Castro’s revolution – he has moved more towards criticism, through the use of symbolism. The fraudulence of power, the manipulation, the possibility of dissent and of withdrawing from the scene, the predominance of the worst always happening – these all impose themselves on top of any other themes. continue reading

Upon entering the Condeduque centre, various Kafkaesque-style cockroaches tell the visitor that they’ve arrived in the dominion of monsters. Lined up like a battalion, they are Los Caprichos [The Caprices] and Los desastres de la guerra [Disasters of War], which make up some of Goya’s twilight works. They’ve already engaged in battle with Fabelo’s rhinoceroses and satyrs. What we witness – in the darkness of the salon held back by time – is the dialogue between two gentlemen who have shared a duel.

From this planetary confrontation, in which Fabelo spars also against other models of his – Durero, Dalí, El Bosco – emerge, unharmed, certain domestic objects, which the Cuban has always treated with kindness, like talismans. In a cauldron there is the Virgin of Kindness, patron of Cuba; the coffee pots have faces, and weep for all the shortages; bullets fired by soviet rifles on the island have become magnetised into a sphere. 

Fabela, like Goya, is an elemental narrator. He’s interested in the weight of a story, the accumulation of gestures and signs with a synthetic capacity which connects him with Monterroso or Borges. In Liderazgo, created in 2022, on an immense sheet of cardboard, Fabelo encodes, without admitting it, the drama of the island of the last two years. The stampede of animals away from a fire or a deluge; the decapitated general, sabre in hand, leaning on an octopus, still insisting on giving orders; the incredible large ugly bird; the ogre; the satyr boxer; a creepy crawly that pleasurably rubs its back against the mud; the whisper of flies – all encapsulate the drama of fleeing or of remaining in an oppressive place. A self portrait of Fabelo as a monster abandoning with fear the margins of his own picture gives us a hint as to the conflict in the life and work of the painter. 

Of course, Fabelo’s calibre is encyclopaedic. His drama belongs to everyone and isn’t confined to the cartography of Cuba or of Cubans. Neither are Goya’s uniforms, swords, canon fire and vermin limited only to the Napoleonic era, all of which ask whether there isn’t anyone that can let them loose. Between both painters gravitate two centuries, annulled by the same sensibility. It’s probable that exile, memory and death, which have always pursued Fabelo, will catch up with him finally in Europe. It’s the price of immortality.

One of the triptych: ‘Discurso de las tres moscas’ [Speech of the Three Flies], oil on canvas, from 2013. (14ymedio)
Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

A Soldier’s Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

All the Books and the Shade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

Sorolla, Hijacked in Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Translator’s note:

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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

People Who Fall in Love With Their Typewriters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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