Tending Bridges / Iván García

A contagious song by a Cuban salsero asks in its chorus for a long bridge to be built between La Havana and Miami. Perhaps in the not so distant future the engineers and architects will consider such a possibility.

The so-called City of the Sun appears to be an appendix of Latin America. In jest, it is said that the next Congress of the Communist Party, expected for April 2011, will designate Miami ‘a new Cuban province’.

In Florida live more than 800 thousand Cubans. That number of inhabitants is more than that of ten of the fourteen provinces on the island. While the politicians in Cuba and the United States carry on with their cold war language, the common people, musicians and intellectuals, have broken dikes that only a few decades ago were a minefield set by the Castro government.

In Havana it makes news each time important musicians appear in comedy programs or debates from Miami. Thanks to the illegal satellite antenna, for which families pay the equivalent of 12 dollars a month, it is known that orchestras like Adalberto y su Son, La Charanga Habanera, Bamboleo or the songwriters Silvio Rodriguez and Amaury Perez, among other musicians, have participated in television programs from the other side of the puddle.

Segments conducted or directed by distinguished humorists and presenters like Alexis Valdes or Carlos Otero, who decided to emigrate a while back. A few years back, if you spoke in public or private with Cuban ‘deserters’ they would label you as a ‘traitor to the homeland’.

The politics of tending bridges is not applauded by all Cubans on either shore. In Miami, compatriots that have suffered the typhoons of Fidel Castro’s radical politics, have burned or taken axes to the CDs of musicians from the island who have performed in Florida.

I can understand their pain. I know exile is hard. I have my family and friends far away. I know from firsthand accounts, of the rigors of the jails for those that have dissented publicly. I think of the hundreds who were shot by the regime during the first years of the Revolution.

All that happened and can not be thrown in the garbage. But there should be a before and an after. A turning point in the way we reason. Try dialogs, not monologues. Hate affects lucidity. Also in Cuba we have ideological Talibans. And there is good reason behind those who shout for the flow of a cultural interchange in both directions.

The Cuban government kicks and screams when an intellectual, academic or musician is denied their visa by the American authorities. Of course this is wrong. Just like I think it’s a cruel joke to list Cuba among the other countries that practice terrorism. But Castro is also intolerant.

I don’t see the hour when Willy Chirino or Gloria Estefan will be allowed to sing in Havana. The Cuban authorities should apologize with their heads lowered and build a mausoleum for that giant of the guaracha that was Celia Cruz, censored by the national media.

Before we speak of democracy and of what kind of society we Cubans want in the future, the Castro brothers should abolish the perverse permission required for people born in Cuba to enter and leave the country.

The politicians dictate laws and decrees that later burn their hands. They become a boomerang. You can’t divide what’s united. And all Cubans, regardless of where they live, were born of the same homeland. And the dinosaurs of the cold war can like it or not.

Photo: Cubans dance with Adalberto Alvarez y su Son at ‘La Casa de Tula’, in Miami.

Translated by: Yulys Rodriguez

December 11, 2010

Days of Love and Pardon / Rebeca Monzo

We experience a lot of emotions these days. I don’t know if by tradition, or by contamination, because although the authorities on my planet don’t want this, it underlies the atmosphere and enters into our hearts.

Yesterday I was running errands in Old Havana, which I consider to be an oasis in our urban desert. What called my attention was to see that, unlike in other years, neither the streets nor the shops were decorated. Christmas trees could be seen while walking past the fancy restaurants and hotels, almost hidden from the eyes of passersby. As if the city was embarrassed by dressing up. It bothered me, because indeed this was the only part of the capital where we could breathe the Christmas air. Someone told me that was due to a decree that established a ban on these ornaments. I am not sure, but there is something to this, because it would be precisely the historic center that would show off the beautiful decorations and lights of this season.

I think it is a mistake repeated ad nauseam, to prohibit these expressions of joy, since the population increasingly manages to decorate houses and gardens, despite the lack of resources. This has become a challenge. I, from my blog, join all those souls who keep alive the spirit of Christmas and raise the toast that one day soon, all Cubans can join in an embrace of love and forgiveness.

Merry Christmas!

Translated by ricote

December 18, 2010

Quintín Banderas and the Little War of August / Dimas Castellanos

quintin-banderasA victim of power, violence, social injustices and racism during the Little War of August of 1906 — generated by the conflict among the political elite of the age with the goal of the presidential reelection of Tomás Estrada Palma — Army General & Liberator Quintín Banderas Betancourt, a black freeman who gave 30 years of his life to the fight for the abolition of slavery and the independence of Cuba, was killed as one of the heroes of Cuban independence.

Black, of medium stature, physical force, with an easy smile and natural intelligence, Quintin formed his personality in the Santiago neighborhood of Los Hoyos. His work as a bricklayer from an early age prevented him from learning his basic letters. He traveled to Spain as a stoker and cabin boy on a boat where he learned the trade of marine merchant. He became a soldier in the Ten Years War and ended as a Division General. He participated in the invasion of Las Villas, in the Protest of Baraguá, in the organization of the Little War, in the War of Independence of 1895, and in the Western invasion of 1897. He was judged and separated from the service by a Military Council, but once the war was finished, the Hill Assembly ratified his grades of Brigade and Division General with retroactive status.

His insubordinations, related to his rebellious character, were produced in an environment vexed by racism and intrigue. Quintín, with quite brown skin, had as his bosses and subordinates white-skinned Cubans. Figures of the caliber of Calixto Garcia, for example, conditioned their participation in the war on the leadership being in white hands. The unquestionable is that General Banderas was one of the Cubans that put his country’s interests before his own personal interests. At one point he wrote, “Never did I think of the benefits that would come to me from war, only freedom directed my steps and to its achievement I have dedicated my youth, my comfort, my entire life.” The sad outcome of his life is connected with the racism and violence in the rough process of forming our nation.

Nations, the result of complex historical processes, reach their peak at the time when awareness of identity and belonging to different communities leads to a unique and stable community. In Cuba, this process is still not complete, was looming in the early twentieth century. Spaniards and Africans, transformed into Creoles and Cubans, accelerated their identity in the midst of war. However, the great differences in social, economic and cultural rights and opportunities, consolidated over several centuries of slavery, prevented the formation of a common purpose — still not achieved — to rise above the differentiating elements.

After the war, equality among Cubans, recognized formally in the 1901 Constitution, was not accompanied by practical measures to reduce the large gap between blacks and whites. For example in Article 13 read: “… every person may freely either learn or teach science, art or a profession, and establish and support education and training facilities …” However, in 1905, they were still trying to create a center for upper primary education and secondary education for young blacks who lacked financial resources to receive such instruction. As a result, blacks were still what they were before the conflict, just black.

The double discrimination suffered — by Cubans, as compared to Spaniards and by blacks as compared to whites — coupled with economic and cultural disadvantages, was reflected in the employments. Jobs in commercial establishments in U.S. companies (telegraph, telephone, electricity and sugar mills) and also in public offices of the state were virtually reserved for whites, while blacks had to work in construction, agriculture and some other trades . The best evidence of this was the creation of republican armed forces, where blacks, who had constituted 60% of the fighters of the Liberation Army in 1907 were less than 15% of soldiers and police. Blacks moved from war heroes to unemployed in the Republic.

In such an unfavorable environment, the General of the three wars sent letters, requested interviews and tried to fill vacancies without results. The New Creole of August 25, 1905, published, as an example of racial discrimination, the refusal of President Estrada Palma to receive him. Sometimes forced to work as a carter and others in a section of waste collection, he managed to survive thanks to loans, collections and public functions organized his friends. In addition, with the justification that he had been sanctioned, he was denied veteran’s pension, a false argument, because as we said before, the Cerro Assembly recognized his ranking as a General retroactively. Faced with such a critical situation he chose to participate in politics. In 1899 he accompanied Juan Gualberto Gomez in an attempt to organize the veterans of the Eastern Province. All roads closed and in 1906 he joined the so-called Liberal Revolution of August with a small group of men, against the reelection of Don Tomás Estrada Palma.

In that contest he was the first to initiate combat actions: He raided the Havana-Guanajay train, attacked and seized weapons and supplies in several villages of La Habana. Once the armed attempt failed, from his camp he sent a letter to the authorities for safe passage out of the country. The answer was the order to assassinate him. Four bullets and seven machetes ended his life. According to the forensics, he died of accidental injuries.

The only thing we must understand, said Juan Gualberto Gómez, is that without freedom there can not be equal brotherhood. And the truth is that at the time of the assassination of Quintin, there was no economic life, culture, nor consciousness of a common destiny, defining elements without which we can not consider that a human group has become a nation. And Fernando Ortiz said: “Without the black Cuban there would not be Cuba.” He could not therefore be ignored. But sadly for all Cubans, this ignored problem has not yet been resolved definitively.

His promotion to General was an example of black participation in the Liberation Army, and his murder, a symbol of the injustices in the Republic. After he died he was placed in the pantheon of martyrs and his figure was manipulated by political parties of the time to rally the black vote, which as we know, were more than a few.

Translated by: D. Brazzell

August 8, 2010

We Were Few and Grandma Gave Birth / Iván García

When Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in 2008, it was rumored among the population that the general carried a fistful of changes up his sleeve. The most desirable, the elimination of entrance and exit permits for traveling to and from the country. Cubans on the island already saw themselves getting passports and boarding planes to visit their families in other countries.

It was also said that he would allow free access to the Internet. There were days of speculations and euphoria. And what they were able to buy were cellular phones, DVD players and computers, old and expensive. Nationals were allowed to stay in hotels exclusive to foreigners. Paying in foreign currency, of course.

Two years later, many Cubans have cell phones and DVDs in their homes and some have stayed in nice hotels. It’s certain that employment has grown on its own accord, and certain measures have benefited certain sectors, like hairdressers, taxi drivers and the rural population.

But today the topics of conversation in Cuba are very different. “When your job is what’s in play, the internet and the ability to travel outside the country become secondary,” says Lorenzo, 42-years-old and employed.

In Havana, nothing else is discussed: Massive layoffs, taxes, private businesses and the rationing book. The latter is what bothers Caridad — 78 and retired — the most. “My boy, you know what it is at these heights with a pension of not quite 200 pesos, old and sick, they’re taking more products out of my ration book. They took cigarettes from me, which I traded with a neighbor for sugar”.

The disappearance of the ration book keeps awake the older people who have low pensions, those who have it rough to stay alive. The stronger of the old folks go out on the street to earn a living, selling cigarettes, peanuts, plastic bags or newspapers.

For the laboring population what keeps them awake are other issues. “For me, the worse is not knowing exactly what the government is planning. I worry, a lot, what’s been said, that we will be paying very high taxes”, says Ignacio, 46-years-old and a mechanic.

“Rough stream, better for the fishing”. Like in all crises, there will be those who will be able to play along. Especially all the vermin, unscrupulous people, experts in the art of cheating.

It happened during the 90’s, during the hard years of the Special Period. Roberto, 48 years old, had a brilliant idea of rounding up empty containers from shampoos, creams and deodorants….he would wash them out and would refill them with his own concoction, he would put in a few drops of cheap cologne and would sell then for a few pesos. “I am thinking of doing that again”.

Could be that during these desperate times, some would take advantage of the people’s frustration. “But I think that the majority is going to try to improve themselves honestly. At least that’s what I will ask the Lord for when I go to church this Sunday”, confesses Lourdes, 61 and a housekeeper.

In the midst of many questions and suspicions, discouragement and uncertainty, a few rub their hands, plotting how to cheat others. Or dreaming of establishing small businesses, even if they have to pay abusive taxes.

But the majority pulls their hair out and visits the babalaos. This new Special Period could turn out to be darker than the one twenty years ago. Now with almost one million unemployed and with the same speeches and slogans as always.

Translated by Yulys Rodriguez

September 21, 2010

Celebration and Condemnation/ Luis Felipe Rojas

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

While throughout many parts of the world many tributes were being held for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Cuba once again opted to go against it.  They began on Thursday the 9th with beatings, mob acts, and harassment towards the Ladies in White, who were carrying out their usual march throughout the capital.

All throughout the country there were arrests, blocking of telephone service, and police harassment towards activists.  The first piece of bad news came to me in text message from Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina at 7 am on Friday.  He and his brother, Nestor, were detained at that time.  They left Rolando in the Parque 24 barracks in Guantanamo, and Nestor was taken to the center of police operations.  Later, the government cracked down on Enyor Diaz Allen, Isael Poveda Silva, Jorge Corrales Ceballos, Jose Cano Fuentes, and other activists.

From Santiago de Cuba I received word that Idalmis Nunez and Tania Montoya had not been detained in the capital city, which they traveled to in order to support the Ladies in White.  However, they did suffer from much harassment, collective repression, and overall harsh treatment carried out by trained mobs.

Later on I received a message from Moa: Omar Wilson Estevez, Angis Sarrion Romero, and three other activists (whose names I could not decipher due to the strange sounds emanating from the phone line) had all been detained.  In Velazco, a small town near Gibara, there was also a repressive wave.  They detained Jonas Avila and Rafael Leiva.

Bayamo reported the detention of Yoandris Montoya Aviles and another young man by the name of Ariel.  I still do not have the names of the detainees in Banes and Antilla, and they also have not been able to explain to me why Nestor was kept in the G2 offices until Sunday, the 12th, when he was taken to the Provincial Prison of Guantanamo without a single trial or formal accusation.

I did not even try to travel out of San German.  I am well aware of the vigilance and control methods exercised over my family and me.  I also know which individuals are responsible for this.  But once Jorge and Rolando were released they were able to inform me that in Villalon Park there were students and social workers placed there by the government.  These groups attempted to halt the activities of the Eastern Democratic Alliance which were to take to the streets to hand out fliers with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on them, while also explaining how the Cuban police and government violates this document which was signed 62 years ago.

I don’t know why they are so fearful of a celebration where the present members were holding pieces of paper that, among other things, stated:

Article 19. Every individual has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes not being harassed because of your opinions, having the freedom to investigate and receive information and opinions, and to spread them without the limitation of borders, through any means of media expression.

Article 20: Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful reunion and association.  No one shall be forced to belong to a specific association.

Translated by Raul G.

December 16, 2010

Waiting for Changes in State Policy / Laritza Diversent

After two months, uncertainty fills the Cuban scene. The government still has not specified the principles that will govern self-employment. Meanwhile, the number of the unemployed and the expectations of the population are increasing.

One of the concerns raised is whether the government will grant rights to the self-employed in order to extract administrative concessions, bearing in mind that it considers the activity of individuals as an adjunct of the state.

Up to now it has said nothing about this. But several of the activities authorized for self-employment are related to the exploitation of mineral resources, such as quarrying, and producing pottery items for sale.

Others, like producing and selling granite and marble items, remain stalled, according to the official newspaper Granma, because there is no legal market for acquiring the goods.

The Ministry of Basic Industry is authorized to grant or deny mining concessions for small deposits of certain minerals, recognized by the Constitution of the Republic as properties of “socialist state ownership of all the people.”

Two years ago, the citizen Amada Pupo Cisneros presented an application to the National Office of Mineral Resources for exploitation of mineral clay in the town of La Estrella in Las Tunas. His claim was rejected by the recently deposed Minister of Basic Industry, Yadira García Vera.

The former government official denied the right on the recommendation of the National Bureau of Mineral Resources, which determined that the request by Pupo Cisneros was contrary to the general principles of the practice of self-employment.

Since 1992, state assets can be transmitted, wholly or partially, to the proprietorship of private persons or corporations, with the prior approval of the Council of Ministers or its Executive Committee. But the government only recognizes this right for foreign investors.

Cuban nationals like Amada Pupo are excluded. Their participation in the national economy is seriously limited by the Constitution, by Decree-Law 141 of September 8, 1993, “On Exercise of Self-Employment”, and by other complementary legislation regulating this right.

Article 21 of the Constitution recognizes private ownership of the means and tools for personal or family work. But it restricts that right by prohibiting their use in obtaining income from the exploitation of the labor of another.

Despite being a constitutional right, in the last parliamentary session the President of the Councils of State and Ministers, and a member of the Politburo and Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), announced that his government would lift some restrictions on the exercise of self-employment, including hiring labor.

Nevertheless, the government made clear that it will maintain its policy of identifying, monitoring, and controlling these activities, and who can perform them. It will also oversee the conditions of marketing the products and services of the self-employed. According to the newspaper Granma, an official organ of the PCC, the measures will become effective, without specifying the day, starting in October.

So far, the socialist government denies its nationals the right to draw on public services, natural resources or public works, although the law gives them that possibility. We will have to wait and see if they change the discriminatory principles of state policies and its system of exclusion. It is time that the Cubans become involved, on equal terms, in their own economy.

Translated by: Tomás A.

December 17 2010

My Heart and My Soul are in Santiago de Cuba / Juan Juan Almeida

My name is Rick Schwag. I live in Vermont. And for people who doubt that, my telephone number is 802-626-5578

Three years ago, I was put in a Cuban detention center for 8 days, in the tourist prison behind the place where tourists renew their visas, at the corner of Factor y Final, in Havana. I have renewed many visas there, and I never knew that this complex also includes a prison until I was imprisoned myself.

My crime was wanting to know what happened to the very valuable anesthesiology machines that we donated to the William Soler Clinic in Havana.  At first, they told me that the machines had not been accepted, and in a normal way, I went from one office to another trying to find out what happened to them. I went to MINVEC, (The Ministry of Foreign Investment) MINSAP, (Ministry of Public Health), ICAP( Institute of Friendship with the Peoples), and other organizations and Ministries, until perhaps for asking too many questions, I was detained.  I say detained because that is what they told me, but where there are bars and cells, I prefer to say “imprisoned.”

After that, after being freed, the person in charge of receiving donations from North America, Raciel Proenza said that I was a trouble maker and that he would ensure that I would never again be permitted to enter Cuba. It seemed like a threat, but when I tried to return to the island, it turned out to be true. I had to sleep on the floor of the Jose Marti airport in Havana, and I was forced to return to the United States the next day.  At least that was much better than returning to jail!

Think about it. Lots of people work in Cuba for political reasons; but in my case my reason was entirely humanitarian, and for the real love that connects me to many Cubans. I thought that I could be useful, and in retrospect, not having any political motivation was a little unusual. I started off with a few boxes of Tylenol, because many Cubans told me how difficult it was to obtain medicines. I remember that in 1997, I purchased ten huge sacks that could carry 120 pounds of medicine, which I thought was a huge amount.  But a year after that I was sending the first container of dental chairs and hospital beds.  All with the collaboration of the  people at the General Hospital of Santiago de Cuba. One thing leads to the next and I created a non-profit, Caribbean Medical Transport, and over the next 10 years I sent about 20 containers of medical equipment to Cuba, each container 40 feet long, with about 20,000 pounds of donations inside, usually partnering with other non-profits. I know many of the people who send humanitarian aid to Cuba and I am happy to work with them.

The second and third containers were loaded with 7,200 gallons of paint that we received from a recycling plant in Oregon. That was something wonderful! The paint was for hospitals.

From the beginning I saw the enormous difference between working with people in Santiago de Cuba — the hospital directors, the municipal and provincial officials of the Ministry of Health — and the bureaucrats in Havana.

I remember meeting with the director of donations of the Ministry of Health in Havana, concerning the paint.  He wanted all the paint to go to Havana. My point was that Havana is about 20% of the population and receives more than 90% of the donations that come to the country.  But in the end, we agreed to send 3,600 gallons to Havana and 3,600 to Santiago.

This is what happened. In Santiago, everyone was honest.  They told me that unfortunately, 3 five gallon drums had broken in transit, so 15 gallons of paint were lost. We had a great partnership, honest, and respectful. But in Havana, everything was different. For a year, no one would tell me what happened to the paint.

The donors wanted to travel to Cuba to see the hospitals that they had painted, which is normal and logical. I spoke to MINSAP, ICAP, all the people I worked with in Havana, and I explained, “These are donors! If they have a good experience they will want to donate more paint, so please, tell me which building got painted and let‘s arrange a nice tour for the donors.”  I was told that the donors would not be permitted to visit the hospitals unless they got a special visa of collaboration and there wasn’t any time for that. I could give more examples of bureacratic incompetence and laziness.

In 2006 we sent two anesthesiology machines to the William Soler Clinic. These machines are worth about $40,000 each, but they are worth much more than that in human lives. It was a favor to Wayne Smith, who obtained these machines from Johns Hopkins University.  Everything was done with the necessary license from the Commerce Department of the United States. A year later the problems began: I got an email from MINVEC, with the headline in capitals, DENIED. The donation of anesthesilogy  machines has been denied entry into the country for lack of completing the proper procedures. I wrote back immediately, stating that all the procedures were completed by Wayne Smith and the directors of the William Soler Clinic, and that all I had done was write the necessary permit so the machines could leave the US.

Not very happy, I went to Havana, to see if I could find them; if these machines are not permitted to enter Cuba, they should be brought to the Dominican Republic or any other country that needed them.  I was told that this was impossible and that the machines had been burned.

Of course that is a big lie. Nobody in this world burns anesthesiology machines. These machines were not mine.  There are standards of transparency and accountability in the world of humanitarian donations that Cuba, apparently, does not respect. I needed to know and give an account of what had happened, in order not to create fantasies. This was not the first time that things had disappeared in Cuba. It was my obligation to investigate, with the sole purpose of helping the people of Cuba, I could not ignore those international standards of conduct. And for that, I was threatened, then imprisoned, and finally, prohibited from returning to Cuba.

A few months ago I received a new license from the United States Department of Commerce. I am allowed to send any type of medical equipment, medicine, hospital supplies, food, clothing, sporting equipment, pots and pans and household items, millions of dollars of supplies and donations.  But MINVEC has told me that they will not permit me to send anything, and has told some partners of mine in Europe that no NGO is permitted to work with me, even though I can find the supplies and even find the money to pay the shipping.

And so, I ask myself, where is the blockade?

I can tell other stories about the apathy and incompetence and corruption of the system. For questioning the system and insisting on the necessary accountability, I became Rick, ” the bad guy.” Unfortunately in Cuba, for some people, there are things that are more important than receiving medical equipment donated to meet the needs of the Cuban people.

I know many people who have had similar experiences: architects, health providers, city planners, sister city groups, journalists.  The sad thing is that most of my colleagues are afraid to talk about the bureaucracy and the corruption, because they know that if they talk, their projects will be terminated.

We Americans live in an open society where we can criticize everyone who deserves criticism. But the sad truth is that instead of exporting our openness and honesty over to Cuba, we import the fear of those in Cuba back to the United States, fear of telling the truth, and we join in the complicity of silence. I am talking because I prefer to leave without fear, even if it brings more punishment. I prefer to cry for what I have lost, but not for cowardice.

Like I said, my name is Rick Schwag, of Caribbean Medical Transport, and I live in Vermont.  I have many friends in Cuba, including many people in the municipal governments, where some officials do care about the people that they are supposed to serve. They are my friends, but they have to keep quiet.  I am still the director of Caribbean Medical Transport, and I continue to send donated medical equipment to Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil and other places where our work is appreciated.

I would love to continue to help Cubans also. My heart and soul are in Santiago de Cuba.

Translated by ricote

December 13, 2010

Economic Guidelines Ignore Policies of Segregation on the Island / Laritza Diversent

The draft guidelines for economic and social policy proposed by the Cuban communists declare that equal rights and opportunities exist for all citizens, not egalitarianism. But at no point do they give respect to the rights of Cubans.

On the contrary, inherent in the “Update of the Socialist Economic Model” is the continuing discrimination against Cubans in favor of foreigners, principally when it comes to participating in the national economy.

The island’s communists continue promoting the participation of foreign capital, while precluding the formation of capital by nationals, by excessive regulation and state control. Notwithstanding that the Cuban Constitution treats foreigners and nationals equally in the enjoyment of rights.

While only foreigners are allowed to join with the state in large businesses, Cubans must comply with limits on their activities that impede the progress of individuals and families. Is this what they call equality of rights and opportunities?

It is no secret that foreigners enjoy a privileged position in Cuba, from an economic and social standpoint. Of course these freedoms are not a response to external pressures, but are purely government policy.

While a self-employed Cuban must pay tax, up to 50% on income over 50,000 pesos, foreigners pay a maximum of 30% on their profits. The policy is to apply higher taxes on higher incomes, hindering the activity of Cubans in their own economy

The new regulations on self-employment are pure formalities. They still do not encourage new participants, who have the responsibility of contributing to the burdens of state, creating jobs, and increasing productivity in the country. Nor do they take into account that many families depend on the progress of the activity of the self-employed.

It is fair to say that foreign investment in Cuba brings benefits to the economy. But it is not the sole solution for addressing the overwhelming problems, nor a justification for a policy of discrimination.

In the Cuban Constitution, discrimination on the basis of national origin is prohibited, and punishable by law. But there is still no legislation giving effect to this principle. Moreover, the government itself implements policies of segregation, which prevent its citizens from investing in their own economy, from being responsible for their own fate.

Translated by: Tomás A.

December 15, 2010

Paper Talismans / Ernesto Morales Licea

After letting me in, they pointed to the hospital bed with clean linens and asked me to sit. They both attempted, with their subtle tricks, to hide the cylindrical cube full of cotton balls stained in red that laid right beneath it. They couldn’t.

“How are you, how are you feeling?” the male doctor asked me in an amicable tone, while he unwrapped his medical instruments and prepared his space.

“I am perfectly fine,” I joked. “You are the ones who tell me I’m not.”

They both smiled, maybe because of my skirmish way of fending off the irresistibly disturbing nerves that made me clumsy and most likely gave my face an expression similar to stupidity or abandonment.

The doctor seemed to be younger than he really was, probably due to his long hair, tied back in a pony tail, that fell over the back of his white gown. The lady, a robust brunette, with an easy smile. Later, I learned a curious fact: they’re husband and wife. Three children in common.

‘First, let me borrow your finger,’ he said, in his hand was a sting that appeared in my childhood nightmares to puncture the tip of all five of my fingers from both hands. “Bad start,” I thought with bitterness. I’ve always preferred every needle in the world in my arms or butt, than that sharpness sucking out drops of blood from my finger tips.

Said and done. An electric shock on my middle finger: “I always do it without shame,” he said. “If I do it with pity I might have to pinch twice.” And I agreed. Yes, he definitely does it very well. And with no shame at all.

Then, they both took a few seconds. He spoke again:

“You should basically already know how the process goes, but we’ll explain regardless. Now you should lay on your side, in fetal possession, facing the wall and with your back to us. You’re going to hold your legs as if you are really cold. We are going to lower your pants a little bit and pull up your shirt. You will feel some jabs on the iliac crest, specifically in one of those small dents right on top of your butt. Later, a subtle sting: the anesthesia.

“The anesthesia is just to fool my psyche” I thought. I knew perfectly well that it would only numb the muscle zone, but further than that, where we were really going, there would be nothing it could do.

“The first thing we’re going to do is take a sample of the marrow, from the inside of the bone,” he continued. “That is the biopsy. There, you won’t feel a thing. After, there will be some manipulation, and perhaps some pain. We need to take a sample from the hip’s flat bone in order to do a biopsy. The most important part is that you can’t move for anything in the world. There are some patients that scream, and others say the anticipation is worse than what it really is at the end… but no movement, ok?”

And I agreed, knowing – just by pure intuition – that those stories of painless, fast procedures, are just as beautiful as fairy tales, but even a little more fake. They are the doctors manual’s descriptions, their attempt to avoid giving us pain, and they place them in our heads as a way of distraction. But just that. They know it.

What did I feel during that mortal second, sort of like “the beginning of the end,” when I had to place myself in such a vulnerable position? Abandonment. That exactly. I felt just as helpless, as fickle, as those fetuses I was now pretending to mimic. The certainty of knowing that nothing that could come after this moment would be pleasant. And that I couldn’t do anything to avoid it.

A freezing, super thin serpent, advancing inside of me. A first jab: the sour sting of the anesthesia covering my tissue. Movements from the doctor’s fingers over the infiltrated area, stimulating the hip’s surface with his hands. Then, a second jab. And a third. A bearable pain so far: something that carefully penetrated, that placed a needle there, where the marrow grows, and that sucked out part of that spongy material.

Yes, palpable pain. My hands clung to the railing of the stretcher, feeling goosebumps and electrical shocks that started in my body and ended up mixing with the coldness of the needle. Something like that, more or less: when the only guide is your imagination and the carnal perception, one cannot not be too exact.

Some minutes of intense but controllable pain, while I thought, between muscle and cheek contractions: “It’s almost over, it’s almost over, it’s almost over.” And it was, at some point. I stopped feeling the snake inside of me, the frigid material of the needle. But then the feminine voice, as encouraging as a mother’s, said behind me:

“Now we’re going to the second part. Be strong, let’s go.”

And nothing was rational, coherent again. Nothing was controllable anymore.

A piece metal started moving forward centimeter by centimeter, brusque, violent, moving tissue in search of its objective: the bone. A huge trocar (As I later saw), a spiked cylinder, with another cylinder inside, that barely gained ground with the push of the trained hands, and for every advancing millimeter would extract grimaces from my face. Always inside, always thick: a short path measures in inches path I experienced as endless.

Trocar used for bone marrow biopsies.

A light stump against the hip: the bone resistance. And almost immediately the indescribable, unpronounceable, extraverbal pain as is almost everything sublime or terrible, from the metal clinging to the bone and intending to detach a bone particle.

Could I pick an adjective for that pain? Yes. But it is a poetic adjective that only I can comprehend, and only I can know how exact it is. This pain wasn’t “fulminating,” nor “infernal,” according to how we try to describe terrible things. It was rather a sweet pain. As simple as that. A sweet pain that made me scream without opening my mouth, and tensed my hands against the railings while inside me the tip of a sharp cylinder hurt my bone.

“You’ll feel a pull,” said a voice I couldn’t identify: whether his or hers.

And the pull came. But it didn’t detach anything: my hip stayed intact. A few seconds to rest. I would dare to assert that it was a rest for them too, vaguely disappointed for not getting it the first time.

Then, on that gray-like second where even thinking was bothersome, a door that opens, that closes, and a smell that at this point I could perfectly recognize, was snuggling with stealth. A swaying voice: “How is my boy behaving,” that in an instant disperses the terror that makes me tremble, that makes my hands and feet sweat in the middle of an antarctic climate.

Her name: Lismary Cruz. The hematologist who, starting a week ago, would come say hi at seven-thirty everyday with a smile similar to a balm, auscultating me, answering my never-ending questionnaires with an encouraging presence that was more than professional, it was angelic; and that along with other specialists was dedicated to something that, at least for me, had no small importance: to put their commitment and talent in efforts of preserving my life.

Her hair was jet black, wavy, accentuating her white skin. Small height, and with a facial beauty that didn’t allow her – according to her funny and egocentric words – to scare the septuagenarian patient next to my bed, that was complaining about his hiccups: “I have to find someone very ugly to scare you so your hiccups go away, dear. Even if I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to.” And then, the amusing smile.

“How is my boy behaving?” she said, her voice breaking the momentary silence.

Somebody answered excellent, that I am a man, that I was taking it without moving not even a millimeter, and I, wanting to ask what it meant to be a man, what it meant to take it, how to face what I was now feeling, and that was growing again, gaining more strength, ever since that masculine voice, which despite everything that was comforting said: “Here we go again.”

Lismary got close to me, she put her hands near mine. My instinct asking for help: I took her hand as if she was my mother, or my sister, or my girlfriend: taking care not to hurt her, gagged from the pain but calm because, unconsciously somehow, I trusted her more than the rest. I believed that if she was present nothing bad could happen to me. Even though, in reality, this wasn’t true.

The pushes they needed to introduce the trocar once again made my torso move. At times they were so strong they moved me some degrees. It hurt. It deeply hurt. My legs were shaking. Lismary’s support took me to a subliminal place as did her voice, talking close to me, attempting to calm me down, saying “We’re almost done,” when the truth was we weren’t; suddenly her voice, even though I can’t remember right now why or how, started talking to me about origami, about the artistic shapes some can give paper, and about how she felt a passion in making them.

“You have to give me one, I’ve never had one,” I said on a moment of lucidity and peace, as I immediately close my eyes and feel how my tears finally won the battle. They grew tightly against my eyelids. And the trocar attaching to my bone, biting it, attempting to latch on to it in order to cut a piece… as the pull came again, and once again, in vain.

Silence again. I hear them stay quiet. And I hear a hectic noise of hands and instruments, and steps I later understood: the doctor had to yield to the masculine strength. My bones were too hard. That’s exactly what they told me. Lucky me, young and strong bones; but now, that was unfortunate.

The inward pushes, the meat not giving in, the pain that’s already bittersweet, which causes me spasms and quick complaints I shut with my knees on my mouth. I want everything to be over already. I wish it had never started. It hurts too much. Way too much. Sometimes it feels as if it’s drilling, others as if it’s crushing. I don’t know. I don’t even know how I didn’t totally faint. It may be because of Lismary’s redeeming voice, that says things I do not understand but that do soothe me; maybe because with my suffering I thank, after all, these stupendous doctors that take the time to study me and focus all their thinking on me.

An inaudible crunch. No ears heard it. Rather it was heard by my insides. And the trocar now came counterclockwise, coming out, finally imprisoning a yellowish particle (bones are not white) that I didn’t see, and I don’t want to know if it was extremely small or gigantic, but it put an end to a frightful half hour.

Now I could relax. I was now able to slacken my muscles. Feel the cotton balls cleaning me up, that would also end up in the cylinder bucket under the stretcher. I could hear my hematologist’s voice saying: ” We finished, we finished”… with a secret compassion she couldn’t confess, with an empathy for my pain that professionally she couldn’t show, but that I know she experienced.

Sitting down, getting up. Looking at those two young doctors, also future hematologists, that didn’t allow that slight moment to fill up with grayness despite the suffering, and dedicated jokes and encouraging words to me. Their names, which I also learned later on: Roy Roman, Hany Trujillo. I looked at them and I thought, for a second: I am nothing. Artists are nothing. I write for me, I don’t deliver my vocation to no one in particular, even though my product is finally consumed by some one that is not me. But these people dedicate every second of their lives to work for everyone else’s health. Blessed be.

I took my first steps almost without being able to breathe. I said to both: “Thank you very much. You both are phenomenal,” and leaning on my tiny doctor I started heading to my bed in room 12A. Every step was an agony.

Minutes later, still raging from fear and pain, laying facing down, I had to take my pillow off my head and pay attention to the woman who, graceful once again, timely once again, opened her hand and extended two miniature origami, recently created.

Lismary said they were for behaving well. I smiled, surprised, grateful: sensing that in that pair of shapes she was giving me other energies that she maybe didn’t even understand yet. In my insides I felt I had a clear suspicion that those weak figures, in yellow and pink, origami born from a tremendous circumstance, at the same time beautiful, would prevail in me going forward as a spell made out of paper against the hard times still to come.

Translated by: Angelica Betancourt

December 9, 2010

Initiative for the Abolition of the Death Penalty on the Island / IntraMuros

Press release

(Miami-Madrid-Warsaw, 10 December)- A group of Cubans celebrates the International Human Rights Day by launching a campaign to abolish the death penalty on the Island.

It is an initiative of the Christian Democrat Party of Cuba, based in Miami, which already has the support of the group Convivencia Cuba (Pinar del Río), of the Federation of Cuban Associations, the Cuban Human Rights Observeratory (Madrid), and the Cuban Workers Council. It has also received the backing of the former prisoners of conscience José Luís García Paneque, Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, Pedro Pablo Álvarez Ramos and Alejandro González Raga, all part of the “Cause of the 75”.

The campaign seeks to start a national debate on the need for the death penalty to be removed from the Cuban criminal code.

The organizers maintain that respect for life should be encouraged in Cuba and they call on all Cubans, both on the Island and in exile, to choose life, opposing the damage caused by so many decades of “Socialism or Death”. They believe the initiative is also in line with the challenge of making changes in Cuban society through justice and reconciliation, not by vengeance.

Cuban society has, for decades, been taught not to value life, but to pay homage to death: ‘The Fatherland or Death’, ‘Socialism or Death’ have been the most important slogans. We have gained nothing by following that path; let life, and not death, be the cornerstone of our future.” (Campaign message).

The opening text of the campaign reminds us that the death penalty still exists in Cuban criminal law. It acknowledges that the regime has, in practice, suspended the use of the death penalty in recent years, ‘but this is due to tactical convenience and not to doubts about the morality of it‘. And it recalls that the death penalty was applied in 2003 after several years in which it had not been used. ‘All Cubans, especially those condemned to death, know that the regime retains this terrifying power and that it may use it at any time‘.

Against this fact, they declare that the free and democratic world is more than ever aware that the death penalty must be abolished in all countries.

Any person or group who wishes to express support for the position of this organization can do so at the web page: www.nopenademuertecuba.com, where they will also find a box for suggesting other initiatives which could help in the campaign.

Contact details:

Marcelino Miyares
Phone: 001 3057783977

Translated by: Jack Gibbard

December 9 2010

He Left Without Meeting Almodóvar / Iván García

They called him Almodóvar. He idolized the director from La Mancha, of whom he claimed he was a distant relative. People didn’t take him seriously.

He was as black as coal and as hefty as a circus elephant. He was 69 when his heart literally broke one afternoon, while drinking cheap liquor on the corner of Carmen and 10 de Octubre, in Havana.

He wasn’t a bad guy. He used to clean patios and gardens, and repair batteries and plumbing. He drank a lot, and from a little bowl he’d eat enormous quantities of rice and beans. If money caught up to him, he’d add a helping of chicken, fish, or pork.

Other than alcohol distilled with molasses, he loved baseball and the movies. When Pedro Almodóvar was in Havana, he seriously thought about introducing himself at the hotel so that the director of “High Heels” might know that in Cuba he had a poor, black relative who idolized him.

He knew all of his films. The last one, “Broken Embraces“, he saw several times. But his favorite movie was “Everything About My Mother“. On seeing it, he left the theater crying. He knew all the dialogs by heart. The day that Almodóvar got an Oscar for “The Sea Inside“, he celebrated it with good rum. “My namesake is a crack”, he’d say.

On a typical afternoon, he died in Havana. Without a penny in his pocket. The State had to finance his funeral. He couldn’t enjoy the victory of the Industriales, his baseball team.

Black and drunk. A sad fat guy. He left us without meeting his Spanish ‘relative’.

Translated by: JT

September 14, 2010

Havana is Waiting for Chico and Rita / Iván García

It would have been perfect. That Chico and Rita, by the Spaniards Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, could have inaugurated the 32nd edition of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, scheduled from the 2nd to the 12th of December in Havana and other Cuban cities.

If they’d exhibited at the event, it wouldn’t have gotten a lot of play. As already happened in 2000 with Calle 54, the film where Trueba — then not having been seen for several years — set the stage for the reunion of Bebo and Chucho Valdés and sat them down to play the piano.

Starting from a love story between two Habanero mulattos, Chico and Rita exposes facets of Cuban music and Latin jazz in a very original style, with animation. The plot develops in Havana and New York. Until then, everything goes well.

The problem is that the soundtrack is from Bebo Valdés, 92-years-old. And the tape is dedicated to him. Bebo, Chucho’s father, is considered a ‘deserter’ by the Castro regime.

That’s not the only obstacle. There are also some statements of Javier Mariscal, who has said “the Castro Brothers are a disaster as agents”, which set one off that the island “gets worse every time”.

It is a shame that in Cuba everything passes through the political sieve.The people pay the consequences of not being able to see a pleasant movie that narrates part of their rich musical heritage in the theaters.

One has to content oneself with knowing that Chico and Rita was very well received in London and already received a prize at an animated film festival in Holland. On February 25, 2011, it will be premiered in Spain and might even be nominated for an Oscar.

Or do like always: hope that a DVD copy shows up, ‘burn’ it, and pass it along clandestinely. If we Cubans are accustomed to anything, it’s movie and television piracy.

Translated by: JT

December 11 2010

Brief History of a Perverse Lunacy / Miriam Celaya

To discuss the topic that want to devote this post to, I am forced to tell a bit of history. In 1984, I started to work in the Department of Archaeology of the then Institute of Social Sciences, (ICSO) of the Academy of Sciences, in the National Capitol. In those days, we were a large group whose fundamental mission was scientific research, and we had at our service a very well-stocked library on the second floor, in the room occupied by the Library of Congress in the Republican era, that is, the Social Sciences Library of the Academy of Sciences was the successful heir to a valuable library collection, a treasure of enormous scientific, historical, and cultural value.

In the quiet of the Social Sciences Library I had the opportunity to check out works of classic universal philosophy, encyclopedias, dictionaries, art books, many works of chroniclers and rare literary specimens that were part of an accumulated scientific heritage from the early years of the Republic, exceptionally well-preserved over the years, protected in the safety of their shelves and in the care of specialists.

But it so happened that one sad day the Destructor by Antonomasia laid eyes on the historic Library of Congress. Oh, sacrilege! How could that collection have the arrogance to keep itself intact and to survive his infinite power?! How, when a library like this one had never existed in Birán, could the National Capitol luxuriate in exhibiting, with such great impudence and vanity, the nefarious works of the decadent bourgeois past?! And remembering, with admiration and envy, the burning of the Library at Alexandria and also the ones that the fascist hordes carried out in Nazi Germany, among other pyromaniacs in History, he decided to destroy, once and for all, the Library of Congress. In order to carry it out, he had a brilliant idea, so brilliant that it blinded Dr. Rosa Elena Simeón, the then Minister-President of the Academy of Sciences, who, without hesitation in the least, assumed it with the greatest of enthusiasms: in the area occupied by the Library of Congress and in other areas of the Capitol building she would create the greatest library of science and technology in Latin America; it would be called National Scientific and Technological Library (BNCT). It would have the latest information, and it would extend its services — beyond scientists and specialists — to the entire population.

It was in the last months of 1987 that we saw the old book shelves of the Library of Congress piled up in the Great Hall of Lost Steps, and the books exposed to the voracity of all who would loot the libraries. I cannot ever forget the floor, books tousled everywhere in disarray, thrown unscrupulously by the hordes, who were selecting the rarest to be sold in second hand book stores. We were all encouraged to take whatever books we wanted or could carry. Merchants took away books, so long cared for, in wheelbarrows, full to their very limit. A friend of mine, a reference librarian, had let me know, with tears in her eyes, so that I could also look for a few items that might interest me. Only when I arrived at the enormous room did I understand her grief. I assure you that it was one of the most impressive sights I ever witnessed, a disaster of books scattered, kicked, open, some already destroyed by the rush of the crowds over them: years of knowledge and culture destroyed in a matter of hours in the “most cultured country on Earth”

The dazzling Commander inaugurated the BNCT in July of 1988. It left behind the destruction of the old library, as well as the replica of the Punta del Este Cave, with its aboriginal pictographs perfectly copied with mathematical calculations and artistic patterns, which numerous Cuban and foreign specialists had achieved. Everything was worthy of being sacrificed in the name of the new lunacy. The press did not publish these events, although they orchestrated the fanfare of the inauguration.

The BNCT never had the riches of the Library of Congress. In addition, it never attained the dream of providing the latest scientific information services, not to mention equipment, shelving and furniture, which had nowhere near the quality, comfort and elegance of the old library that was destroyed. It was a short-lived bubble, because ideas based on destruction are doomed to failure. That has been the sign of each of the Orate’s initiative.

It turns out that the Capitol has recently become part of the Heritage under The City Historian’s works of restoration. I found out that, at the end of the day, the BNCT has also fallen into disgrace and it must abandon its current premises. To that end, the most exalted science library in Latin America has been assigned a few small locations where its collection does not fit. Workers have been forced to discard many resources that they have had to pack away, and, evidently, there won’t be space for the BNCT in the Capitol this time around, once it is restored. Thus, the BNCT must also prepare its epitaph. Hereinafter, it will become part of the long list of destruction that the Commander of Perverse Lunacy has left in his passage through life.

Translated by Norma Whiting

December 6, 2010

A Glance at 1960 Havana / Iván García

To go back to the Havana of 50 years ago, I haven’t used a time machine, rather a telephone directory from 1960 that a collector of magazines and old books sold me for 50 pesos (2 dollars).

The first novelty was to find that the Spanish Embassy was on Oficios, a street less central than its present location on Cárcel and Zulueta. And that the ambassador was Juan Pablo de Lojendio Irure, Marqués de Vellisca (San Sebastián 1906 – Rome 1973), posted in Cuba since 1952.

This Spanish diplomat became famous because on January 22, 1960, just past midnight, he showed up in the television studio where Fidel Castro, in a live appearance, accused him of helping Catholic priests set up clandestine printing presses and of protecting counterrevolutionaries.

Lojendio, an adventuresome Basque, was watching this speech in his residence, and at hearing it, shot out like greased lightning, headed for the Tele Mundo channel. He interrupted the program and got in Castro’s face like nobody had ever publicly done until then. The transmission was cut off. The guards took him out of there and in 24 hours he had to abandon the country.

Of great interest, at least to those of my generation, is to discover the great number of companies — national and foreign — that existed in that era. Many with English language names, like McCann Erickson de Cuba S.A., General Electric Cubana, or Pan American World Airways.

Something that is hardly surprising if one recalls that a year after the bearded ones came to power, Cuba was still the seat of American firms like Coca Cola, Esso, Shell, Goodyear, Dupont, Firestone, Sinclair, Swift, and US Rubber, among others. Or banking entities like The Chase Manhattan Bank, The Bank of Nova Scotia, and The Royal Bank of Canada.

To the younger drivers of “almendrones” (old American cars), you’ll find it difficult to believe that in 1960 — only in the capital — you could find various automobile dealers: Chevrolet, Ford, Chrysler, Buick, Fiat, Volkswagen … and if one wanted to rent a car, you could do it at Hertz Rent A Car, at Infanta and 23.

Cubans who today have to buy — in foreign currency — soaps, deodorants, shampoos, colognes and detergents, in the first years of the revolution, for pesos, you could even buy toiletry products made by the two great national businesses, Crusellas and Sabatés, and by the foreign Revlon, Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and Avon, among others located in the capital.

Also in Havana were located the five principal breweries of the island: Hatuey, Cristal, Polar, Tropical, and Cabeza de Perro. In Guanabacoa, Miller High Life had an office.

In that directory appear the names, addresses, and phone numbers of 131 cinemas and 3 drive-ins in Havana. On the main cinematographic circuit debuted “Our Man in Havana”, a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Graham Greene, filmed in April of 1959 in locations around Old Havana and starring Alec Guinnes and Maureen O’Hara.

In 1960 not only was Ambassador Lojendio expelled from Cuba. Also having to go were the Bacardí Family, owners of the distillery and rum factory that, in 1862, in Santiago de Cuba, had been founded by the Catalán Don Facundo Bacardí Massó.

The revolutionary government nationalized all of its facilities, but it couldn’t prevent Bacardí from being the best rum in the world. Although today it is produced in Puerto Rico.

Iván García

Photo: Peter Stockpole, Life Magazine, 1959. The actor Alec Guinness during the filming of “Our Man In Havana”, in Sloppy Joe’s, a bar situated on Zulueta and Ánimas. Since its founding in the 1920s, its owner, the Galician José Abeal Otero converted it into one of the preferred tourist and military spots for Americans who, before 1959, traveled to the island. Among its more famous clients was the writer Ernest Hemingway.

Translated by: JT

September 8, 2010

Holding Our Breath / Rebeca Monzo

For a long time, here on my planet, we have been waiting to see what might happen. We can never plan anything in our lives because we are not certain of being able to achieve anything no matter how much effort we make.

Another December 24th is approaching, although the stores are still empty. The long daily pilgrimage in search of food wears us out. We have to visit at least two or three markets find enough to make a salad. Not to mention meat (mostly pork), every day less and lower quality.

We, the people on this planet, despite all the daily difficulties, cherish throughout the year the idea of having a decent Christmas Eve. That means, having at least one piece of barbecue pork, some black beans, white rice, some dessert and at least one bottle of wine, even homemade. I don’t think that is so much to ask for. However, this can not be achieved in all households, for this simple meal would cost the following:

About four pounds of pork, thirty-five pesos a pound, would be a hundred and forty pesos.

Two pounds of black beans, at fifteen pesos a pound, would make a total of thirty pesos.

Two pounds of rice at three-fifty a pound, would add another seven, green pepper costs twelve pesos a pound and onion ten. A dessert will not be less than ten pesos: guava paste and soy cream cheese, plus the above mentioned bottle of wine would cost about sixty Cuban pesos. The cost of fuel and so on would make the final tally two-hundred-sixty-nine pesos for a simple and paltry dinner.

If the average salary is about three hundred pesos (which it is not, not precisely), on what can a citizen of this planet count on to have a poor Christmas dinner? Furthermore, what money would remain for the end of the month?

But since this country seems to be miraculous, the people use their ingenuity to get the money, either with the help of friends or family overseas, or by some last minute business. We are just holding our breath, God will have the last word.

Translated by Ricote

December 8, 2010