Other Circular Symphonies / Ernesto Morales Licea

Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona FC) y Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Real Madrid)Left: Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona FC) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Real Madrid)

When God is bored he repeats himself. Generates cyclical crises in the economy, identical natural disasters, literary characters called William Wilson in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. And creates suspiciously similar and symmetrical duets from time to time. As worldly amusements.

I think about this every time Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo appear on the same playing field, either before or after the kickoff, the background of hundreds of decibels generated by a match between their teams, and between them, the tension almost tangible, you can almost touch it, in a game where they match in egos, status and talent.

I look at them and think: the story of a Mozart and Salieri, capriciously transmuted to two men who make music with their feet. Not in an art, but in a sport.

What could be the unspeakable martyrdom of an elite player like Cristiano Ronaldo? Not to possess, today, the Golden Ball or the FIFA World Player? No. Let’s look further. To be player number two, shadowed by another name, the one who is spoken of as a complement, not as essence? So close, but no.

The personal drama of Cristiano Ronaldo, an industrial Portugueseso media prominent, a factory to make millions and attract flashes, is to be the acolyte of a little, too-flamboyant star and at the same time, too vulgar. To say today thatthe ArgentineanLionel Messi, at23-years-old, with his good-natured image is the best football player in the world, may sound facile. In factit is.

But if we look at recent history, only in 2008, when the Portuguese Christiano seemed untouchable, and in an egocentric fit worthy of anthologysaid to theBrazilian newspaperO Estado de Sao Paulo, without his voice trembling,that he was “the first, second and third in the world,” everything takes a new twist.

The next year and the year following, he would no longer be.

I think of Cristiano like that Antonio Salieri portrayed in Milos Forman’s fabulous film, who secretly sniffed Mozart’s scores, enjoying withsearing passion that inaccessible matter, too high, inhumanly sublime for histalentof a worthy, but mortal, artist.

Right: Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in the film “Amadeus”

Salieri himself did not understand how God had made such a terrible mistake of giving such an extraordinary gift, the unfathomable genius of the eternal, to a ridiculous character like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: uneducated, boorish, lacking the solemnity of creation.

Christiano’s face, put on a scale with Messi’s, could not inspire a more exact, more visceral envy, than that of the courtier Salieri.

Why Lionel Messi? Why is the player who is spoken of in irritating terms (not just the best in the world, but, horrors! the one pointed to by many players, authoritative voices, as the best of all time), why is he, it’s precisely that, well, such a little thing?

How is this so? Because inverting the sense of certain of Ronaldo’s own words: so short, so little. I piece of a man. A boy at odds with all glamor: no facial beauty, no physical beauty, no class. With the voice of a happy little laborer, who cuts short every sentence, and who must be pushed by the interviewers if they want to hear him say more than platitudes and little kitsch phrases.

Left: CR7: The moniker given to the sophisticated Portuguese striker of Real Madrid

Lacking charisma, not seeming to understand that he’s the third highest-earning athlete on the planet, who seems not to know that two hundred and seventy children’s clubs in Latin America have his name, and who is still showing he wants to be the scrawny kid who just wants kick the ball around the neighborhood. And nothing more.

If we add the ability to convert great goals, his ability to make destabilizing moves, we have a crack that moves the sports world at his feet.

But this fierce Lusitanian didn’t take something into account, known to be talented, enjoying it, looking down and savoring it. The best man in 2008 didn’t take into account, when it was said he was the first, second and third best in his sport: the silent presence, almost insignificant, of an undeniable genius, the kind that only occurs once every hundred years. As one Argentinean writer would say: because they tear the womb of Nature.

Right: Messi “the Flea”: Golden Ball in 2009 and 2010 and the FIFA World Player in 2009 and 2010

And it is not always that he breaks his own his records. The magic of him name comes, above all, from his way of playing. It is unique, an unrepeatable secret. The sense he gives the ball on the ground, the juggling, the impossible tricks, the joy with which he starts every play, whether it is frustrated or ends up in the goal.

Leo Messi plays like no one, scores like no one. According to Eduardo Galeano, writer and soccer maniac, he is the best of all because he still plays like a little kid in the neighborhood. And revels in it. Just does it. And if he misses, he suffers in silence: he doesn’t cry for the cameras, he doesn’t look for cover. At the same time, nor does he externalize happiness far beyond normal. Even with some of those goals for which some football idols and have coined a particular term: Playstation goals.

Because there is an immaterial particle, an atom higher and elusive, that separates the great men of real genius. There is something in a certain class of men — Miguel Angel, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Capablanca — that distances them from those whom we admire, but who are rarely remembered through the centuries.

And that’s the tormented difference for a man of exceptional virtues like Cristiano, but distant — perhaps just by a step, a single damn step! — from the category of genius: he knows that this little drab-haired man will be remembered by world football fans, when he himself we be spoken of only in statistics.

Cristiano knows he is a man for the years, but not the ages. He knows that stripe is Roberto Baggio, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Redondo, David Beckham: unforgettable players. But that never, how hard he tries no matter how much he wants it, no matter how violent his fibrous body and scoring goals like a machine, as much as he is the “scorer” of the League, he could join other display names , residents of another shrine: Maradona, Pele, Di Stefano. He will not be a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Time Magazine will not consider him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

What will it feel like, the number one, two, three Cristiano, when listening to legends such as Karl-Heinz Rummenige, Enzo Francescoli, Romario, and Maradona himself, saying quietly that Messi-the-flea is not just better today, but in the history of the sport, there has not been another like him?

What will he feel when they say that other cracks today, like Arjen Robben, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho Gaucho, I say it again?

How to digest that the man who left the post of deputy, who has taken the last two gold balls, measuring seven inches less than him, unless it is the vigilance of advertisers who do not know how to sell his image deteriorated, and to top it off: he has cost 95 million euros less than him?

That is the acid data, that exclusivity adds ironies in the history of the elect: while the most celebrated club in the sport, Real Madrid, paid 95 million euros to Manchester United’s Portuguese striker, it is estimated that the FC Barcelona invested in Lionel Messi, since he became a child player at age 11, only 330,000 euros.

Lionel Messi, snapped up by FC Barcelona at age 11

God is also often beautifully wicked, and builds legends worth speaking of: The parents of little Lionel should move from Argentina to the Catalan city, if they wanted to save his talent and even his life. At eleven years old he was diagnosed with a serious illness affecting his growth, so that he should be in Europe. It was the only way that the boy could grow normally.

For the minimum sum of $900 a month, the Barcelona Club paid for Lionel’s hormonal treatment: daily injections in both legs for three years. In this way, he entered for life the only professional club he has belonged to, the ties of gratitude to which bind him beyond what football, and from which it has managed to destroy all the hallmarks of previous legends.

While today’s clubs would be willing to shell out terrifying sums on this player, the team paid for Messi only through his treatment. Not a penny more.

The motto of the Cristiano is a futuristic spectacle: CR7. Like everything about him. His initials, and number. The motto of Messi, is also worthy of him: the flea. Just that. The magazine player versus the ugly duckling. The virtuous selfishness against modesty exacerbated. A refined Antonio Salieri that will not forgive his God for placing the sacred genius in Mozart’s trashy soul.

Cristiano knows that he desired by the fans, by the technicians. He knows he is feared by goalkeepers. But within him, a bitter taste, an imperceptible twinge pulses, pulses, pulses: he knows he is number two. And against that, there is no remedy. Especially when journalists make hay from his unbridled grief: when he is asked, mercilessly, by the raptors of the news: To you, is Leo Messithe best in the world? And he should say yes. Although he swallows the phrase. And even chews his assent, almost biting, with an indifferent expression in his eyes.

The two: one a machine player, the other player a rustic genius, Cristiano Salieri, Amadeus Messi, unknowingly staged an exciting and sinister plot, a script of impeccable suspense, in the mosaic of characters, secret poetry and vital energy, which is to play the ball. In what better way to define football, as there is none other than the mercies of God.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

May 11 2011


Ticket to (Another) Paradise / Ernesto Morales Licea

The landing gear descended and, as vertiginous as it is, rushed his body into the daylight. Hanging upside down, cut by irons and cables, semi naked, the torso of a Cuban greeted Barajas’ airport with his halo of death and desperation. That torso was only 23 years old.

Nobody likes the word: desperation is an alarmist term. But let’s see, how many world citizens, honestly, how many unhappy and disappointed, would be willing to emulate Cubans in the methods employed to escape their earthly paradise?

Not many. Not to be absolute. The East Germans who offer their bodies to the barbed wires, landmines, and the aim of snipers don’t exist today. Desperate fugitives who flee in the middle of snow storms, who die frozen among the snow, escaping comrade Stalin’s paradise don’t exist today.

What exists are Cubans, yes. A new race of fugitives that are setting records in the ancient art of evasion.

Some say: Central Americans also emigrate. True. They jump on frenetic trains, they tie themselves to its roof tops, at the mercy of wild gangs and bandit cops, at the mercy of bad weather and losing their legs under the wheels of the iron.

Yes, they emigrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, to the United States. To the country that — whether liberal friends around the world like it or not — is still the oasis of opportunities that offers a blanket to the lawn mowing emigrant, just as to the parents of Facebook’s inventor.

Some say: Haitians also emigrate. And they also do so in flimsy rafts, food for sharks. Where do they emigrate to? To the same place as Central Americans. To the most vilified and envied country of the world.

But neither Mexicans, nor Salvadorans, nor Guatemalans, nor Haitians, emigrate to anywhere. We, the homus andantis from Fidel’s paradise, the children of the new Motherland, demand much less: barely a different country than the one where we had to live. The demand is just another country of the orb. Only that. It doesn’t matter if it is Finland, Ukraine, or South Africa. What matters is that it is not ours.

For that, Cubans put their brains in gear. The build floating monsters, amphibian Chevrolets, they put together tires and planks, they hang anti-shark diesel in the corners, and head out to sea.

They take over a Peruvian embassy by force, inside its walls ten thousand sweaty, thirsty, malnourished, hopeless souls seclude themselves. Waiting for a ticket to freedom.

White flesh and black flesh meet, proud mulata nationals with Italians with bad breath, adolescents of recently developed breasts with Spaniards who take Viagra; they swallow up their modesty and nausea, and they marry in the Island with a metallic love.

They serve as archivists: they dig, dig, dig, they ask, they photocopy, they print, they solicit Spanish citizenship and bless the grandfather who had the wit to be born in the Motherland a century and a half ago.

They populate half the world, a Cuban today, ten tomorrow, they flood Ecuador with their cracked dreams, and although pursued illegals, they prefer a very poor nation like that at meridian zero, before their big tropical island.

Today, one appears in the news: I will jump into the void from my window if you try to deport me to Cuba. Another one appears tomorrow: frozen, shredded, his bones cracked by the undercarriage of an airplane that doesn’t care about misfortunes nor the anxiety of freedom.

How horrible, how disheartening, what a bitter paradise have they built on the Island that watched our births. God. When our country’s History gets written some day, the History behind this story of tyrants and victims, of deserters who die horrendous deaths; that day we will lack many siblings: drowned, crushed, shot by Mexican coyotes, chewed up by sharks’ jaws, beaten up in Panamanian jails, killed by the cold weather or by hunger halfway along their journey.

Those, I would like to think, are resting somewhere else: in the Paradise reserved for the victims of our insular paradise.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

July 18 2011

Pablo (not so) Loved in Miami / Ernesto Morales Licea

On August 27th, Pablo Milanes will sing in Miami. According to the billboard ads, it will be a historic concert. Of course it will: for his followers as well as for the Vigilia Mambisa. Some will lose their voices for singing along to his songs; others, outside American Airlines Arena, will lose theirs screaming out “communist” at him.

Without a doubt: a historic concert.

No wonder. Pablo is not just another Cuban troubadour. Pablo has been unhappily confused with Paulo FG (some protests that can already be seen in Miami exhibit banners that say: “Out Paulito Milanes”), but unlike the salsa singer, Pablo is unique, and is the other component of the most representative binomial of Cuban music during the post-revolutionary era. Silvio and Pablo: the sharp duet.

If I am tied to Silvio Rodriguez by the admiration for the sublime poetry of some of his best songs, and the absolute rejection he inspires me as a man of ideas, and further more, as a human being, with Pablito I invert those factors a bit: I fancy him more honest and worthy than the singer of the Unicorn, but his music is not as appealing to my ears. I respect it, but I don’t love it.

When I speak about inverting the factors just a bit, I am exact: Pablito Milanés, born in the same city as I, erected lately as a media critic of the Cuban Revolution, doesn’t offer me any confidence or attention as a committed artist. What’s more: I fancy him lightly opportunistic.

(One point to be clear about: to evaluate him politically is fair because he doesn’t skimp in talking about politics. José Ángel Buesa was asked in Santo Domingo about the nascent Cuban Revolution, after he traveled outside of Cuba in 1959, and he answered: “Did you ask Fulgensio Batista about poetry when he passed by here a week ago? Don’t ask me about politics.” One cannot evaluate José Ángel Buesa with a political standard. Pablo Milanés sometimes talks about his music with the foreign press.)

Why an opportunist, Dear Pablo? Simple: because screaming when they stomp on our toes is very easy. To scream without the stomp, is very different. And I don’t think I am revealing a secret when I say that the divorce between the great troubadour and Cuban officialdom has a date and almost a time: at exactly the instant when his plans for the Pablo Milanés Foundation were thwarted.

Since then, put a camera in front of him, he’ll say his thing. With success great or small, but he’ll say it. It is possible that all of a sudden he’ll throw out ideas like the Revolution will continue after the death of Fidel and Raul Castro, something he thinks is great; it is possible for him to affirm that Raul and Fidel truly want to repair the country they have mistreated; but he’ll also criticize the gerontocracy that governs the destinies of the country, he’ll support harsh declarations from Yoani Sanchez, and defend the talent and pose of the censured rappers, Los Aldeanos. Good for Pablo.

However, it is still a suspicious and questionable attitude for an artist to pose as politically committed to the democratization of the island, just so long as he is outside it.

Has somebody heard Pablo Milanés in Cuba confronting the regime in Cuba loud and clear, saying uncompromisingly that which he declares to the Spanish or South American media? Where was the Pablo who repeatedly gives controversial interviews in foreign countries, when 75 people were imprisoned for writing against what they saw all around them, or when three Cubans died before a firing squad for wanting to escape the country? Could it be that then he wasn’t outside Cuba and therefore, the lock on his throat did not disappear?

I adored the Pablo who invited Los Aldeanos to sing at the Havana Protestrodome itself, sticking out his tongue to the censorship that falls over this rap duo. But it seems too little to admire him like others.

So then Pablo comes to sing in Miami: I’m so glad that’s the way it is. I applaud the happiness of those who will enjoy him this coming August 27th. However, what is he doing, what has he done, and what will our Dear Pablo do to unlock a cultural exchange which he now favors, but which is a one-way exchange?

I am not talking about words in front of the amateur camera of a young filmmaker who interviews him in Havana. No. I am talking about real efforts. I am talking about demanding and fighting for the rights that his compatriots in exile possess, his co-artists, of singing in the country that watched their birth and of which they have been stripped by the grace of an exclusionary ideology. I am talking about declaring himself inside, of utilizing his concerts, of demanding in writing before all the Ministries, with a signature that it is not from just any other Cuban: it is the signature of Pablo Milanés.

Did Pablo ever defend the right of Celia Cruz to sing her songs at a plaza in Havana just as he is coming to do at the Miami Arena? Would he publicly invite Willy Chirino to collaborate with him on the Island, knowing that Willy would give a piece of his life to be able to sing in his homeland? Again and again: No.

That is why I, who defend tooth and nail the right to freedom, and therefore the right of an artist to show his work at any stage on the planet, I don’t promulgate but I do understand the claims of those who, from this side of the ocean, feel incited and indignant by the presence of Pablo Milanés, and even more: by the presence of the avalanche of Cuban artists who step on American soil today. (Of course: to then say, as does a certain character whose name I’ve always tried to forget, that Pablito is not a musician but an agent sent by Castro, goes a long way toward separating the wise from the intellectual orphans.)

Miami, let’s stop the false statements, is not just any city. Miami has been, for half a century , the oasis of victims, of the pursued, the imprisoned, the exiled from Cuba, and that cannot be disregarded when it comes time to put the circumstances in perspective. A portrait of Josef Mengele is not the same on a New York corner as it is in Jerusalem.

Personally, I will not carry any signs nor will I raise a hand to condemn the presence of my fellow countryman in this symbolic city, but the reasoning of those who will, does not seem illogical to me.

The subject is one of a tremendous moral-ethical complexity.

If it was only Pablo, the excessive emotion would all blow over a day or two after the 27th. But the reality is much more serious: turning on the TV in Miami, switching to on any Hispanic channel, has made me ask myself where I am: do I, or do I not live in Cuba?

If Ulises Toirac works at MegaTV before returning in a few months to the ICRT; if Nelson Gudín appears at the same time on the show in America Tevé before returning to Cuban Television; if Osdalgia closes, repeatedly, with her music on Alexis Valdés’ show, and Gente de Zona announces their concerts at The Place and in Las Vegas; if Alain Daniel — and this is the last straw! never before seen! — admits that this time he hasn’t come to offer any concerts, he is just going to spend a week in Miami recording and mastering his new CD; if such a notorious apologist for Fidel Castro as Cándido Fabré splutters with his phantasmagorical voice that he feels happy to be in this city; if all singers, humorists, painters or journalists who I saw in Cuba 7 months ago are the same people I see before the cameras of this country, it becomes difficult for me to situate myself in time and space.

But most of all, I find it hard to swallow that this reality is just and acceptable. I find it hard to applaud the dual speech of musicians such as La Charanga Habanera, when they sing inside of Cuba “You’re crying in Miami, and I’m partying in Havana”, and as soon as they step foot at Miami International Airport they despicably vary the chorus to please who will fill their pockets: “You party in Miami, and I party in Havana”. I find it hard to accept that those same salseros (salsa singers) and regueatoneros (reggeaton singers) who today do extremely well for themselves thanks to Miami and its audience, thanks to capitalism, to the market economy, to the country of bars and stars, are the ones who, when they return to the Island, sing at celebrations for the 26th of July and celebrate anniversaries of the same Revolution that denies the entry to so many residents of Miami. And let no one come to me with stories: my memory is only 27 years long, with 7 months of exile.

So then, what is the benefit to the exiled community from this euphemistic cultural exchange? None at all. How what does it benefit it economically? As little as possible. The beneficiaries, the only ones who profit out of the bridge that Manolín asked for in his song that in some ways now exist, are those same artists who play a dual role, an embarrassing role as cultural political supporters of the Cuban establishment, while they go to the abode of the enemy to fill their coffers.

It is not the same thing to have Frank Delgado in Miami, as Cándido Fabré. It is not the same to have Los Aldeanos, as Gente de Zona. It is not the same to have Pedro Luis Ferrer, as Pablo Milanés. The outcast among the unjust is not the same as the accomplice and the ones that were integrated into the unjust.

Morality must be very fucked up in a country that screams out slogans to the enemy, and later looks for, in silence, the enemy’s gold. My best wish for the great Pablito, the icon of the Nueva Trova, an illustrious Bayamés (someone born in Bayamo), is that he enjoy his stay in Miami, and hopefully the whispers of pain and nostalgia from the million and a half emigrants that wander about on this land, won’t overshadow his magnificent voice during his concert.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

August 1 2011

Achtung, Baby: A Whisper of Liberty in 360°

I wanted to not write about Bono, but I couldn’t. I wanted, for example, to write about something more global: music, my untameable ally, my refuge during times without peace. And to do so, let’s say, through U2, through the brutal concert U2 gifted me with.

But I knew I would betray myself: I don’t chose the topics, the topics – like Cortázar’s stories – choose me, and there is nothing left to do.

Because just when I start thinking about how to start typing, and I need to return to the images, tap the affective memory, right that second I hear Bono flooding the stadium with his mythological voice, rattling in seventy-five thousand ears with a noble whisper: to tell all Cubans that a beautiful man, a good doctor like Oscar Elías Biscet, was important for U2. To tell Cubans that they were aware of Cuba’s situation, that someday freedom will come, and that U2 was watching. They were watching all Cubans.

So then I have no choice but to abdicate and write about four Irish men who for one night, for two and a half hours, made me the happiest poor devil on the planet. To write about the rock band that made the 14-year-old Ernesto lose his sleep the first time he heard a hypnotic song like One, without knowing that 12 years later those musicians would sing for him.

Is there any bad news behind those fascinating words pronounced by Bono during the ecstasy of his art? Is there something to mourn about, after seeing him — listening to him — knowing he said that just like many others, he also desired to see a free Cuba someday? Yes, at least for me: my friends in Cuba will not be able to hear them anymore on the radio stations. My mother, a Bono fan — thanks to her son — will not be able to watch their version of the Ave María sung along with the great Pavarotti, favorite clip of “De La Gran Escena“, a night-time television show of my country.

I don’t doubt in the very least that since last night, U2 thickens the list of prohibited musicians by the owners of thoughts, of sexual and musical preferences of Cubans. A small anecdote: twenty-four hours after the anti-Chavez declarations by Alejandro Sanz in 2003, while releasing his album “No es lo Mismo”/”It’s not the Same”, all his music disappeared from the national radio stations. Till this day. And the words of this Spaniard are suckling babies next to our Irish’s.

A futuristic stage at the Sun Life Stadium, four hours before the concert.

The real impact of that statement from U2, the wish of freedom for the Island and the tribute to a Cuban whose emotional stability and many years of his life were snatched away, doesn’t surprise me that it came from a rock star whose media influences can be compared to Elvis’s or John Lennon’s decades before. It is not a lie, even, that the fascination U2 generates with its 190 million sold discs, and its 22 Grammy Awards; or that this same Bono is the only person nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the Grammys.

The point is this: the clamor of liberty came out of a humanist admired by both Tyrians and Trojans, a man with a splendid reputation, whom millions of people, instead of isolating him from the planet, took him, for example, to launch a campaign and fight like a tiger in order to liberate the Third World from its external debt, and who has used his name to work for causes unanimously acclaimed, call it Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Feed the World.

How to ignore, then, his voice? How to counter with “revolutionary propaganda”, by repeating Cuba’s national anthem “Cuba, socialist paradise”, the cry of liberty uttered from the stage by someone who goes for good over evil, who earned immortality a long time ago with his art?

I venture off to look for an “official explanation”: Bono was ingratiating himself with the ultra-rightists of Miami. That’s it.

What is hard to understand is the reason why one of the richest and venerated musicians on the planet would want to be in good standing with politicians who would like to have at least one-third of his universal influence. When a person makes 195 million dollars in 2010 alone, together with his band, he can afford to not even be in good standing with God. (Even though you thank him before bedtime.)

I am sure that for the rest of the non-Cubans who attended, U2’s concert in Miami had another connotation. It was the mega-show of splendor, at times overwhelming, with a science fiction stage in 360 degrees, a screen which served to show us the beautiful face of the Burmese activist Aun San Suu Kyi after being freed, as it served to show us Mark Nelly, the husband of Senator Gaby Giffords who was shot, speaking to the Miami audience from the International Space Station.

For the Ecuadorians who shared hugs and tears with me, who came from their country just to watch the mystical U2, the concert was the excess that you hope to find in the band that has reached the impossible: to be liked equally by the pure bred rockers and the non-rockers of this world.

For me, who in my youth of discoveries dreamt with delirium to hear them sing albums like “Achtung Baby” and “All that you can’t leave behind”; for me, who understands music as that essence and compliment without which I wouldn’t know how to breathe comfortably, the two and a half hours in front of U2 had a meaning incomparably superior.

The tears they ripped out of me, expressions of mixed feelings halfway between pain and discomfort, between melancholy and impotence; my tears between not being resigned to the country that gave me life, and not being resigned that my friends of a thousand battles could not enjoy this sublime music with me; and without doubt, tears of happiness hilarious disobeyed my restraint reminding me that I’m alive, they were my most basic gratitude, most primary humanity, before four men whose songs will still be heard by my children, and the children of my children. Just as another writer said about the Beatles.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

July 1 2011

CNN’s Havana / Ernesto Morales Licea

When the documentary was close to its end, I discovered an unbelievable sensation deep inside of me: the “destination” Claudia Palacios was proposing was absolutely unknown to me and made me feel the urge to visit it. CNN, through one of its reporters of spectacular beauty and proven professionalism, had just managed to make a Cuban who has only been out of his country for 6 months, hardly recognize Havana, and see himself tangled in a unrepresentative trap and the superficiality of the ample report to the point where he could accept the reality its author was proposing: yes, Havana is a place of enchantment in a paradise which had to be visited.

So different was the city that the ineffable journalist presented to me some days earlier, on the segment “Destinations CNN,” with a Havana I had visited dozens of times throughout my life, as a Cuban, and whose intricacies I knew like the palm of my hand.

The gray antecedent of this unfortunate material came from a Spanish television show. It was called “Spanish in the World”, and also filmed a sweetened, graceful, smiling Havana, which no doubt exists, but as an epidermal make-up which those inside know is empty and incomplete.

But the miscalculations of Claudia Palacios, the incisive interviewer of public figures, the journalist who knows her profession well enough to be able to assume that “speaking without knowing” is understandable in tourists interested in vacationing, not in communication professionals, seemed mildly scandalous to me.

Let’s say: to present Havana as a festive, tropical city, a city of clandestine cigars and people who serve you, is not exact. To only present Havana as a city of never-ending festivities, of happy and dancing Cubans, of mojitos and rental cars, without later delving into the refinements, inside the veins under the social skin, is a journalistic misfortune. And by this, I know I am not saying anything new to the talented reporter, which makes it worse.

Was it necessary or essential to present the most cruel Havana of all, of nocturnal thugs, the galloping corruption or the semi-juvenile prostitution? I wasn’t even asking for that, as a spectator of a coverage that evidently didn’t try for depth or questioning. I know the profiles and perspectives in which journalists sometimes focus our work.

But to affirm that behind the plans of “economic reactivation” undertaken by Raul Castro’s government, Havana had bloomed in a spectacular way, seems to me to be a conscious falsification of the truth, and that, in all its essence, is a crime of “lese journalism.”

Didn’t the smooth Claudia Palacios visit the barracks where hundreds of Habaneros or Orientales stack themselves, people who come from any part of Cuba or those born in the capital, without potable water, between cracked walls and grime stamped on the ceilings? Why was the reporter content with following the tour of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) offered to her by a designated guide from Havana Tour, and not stepping out of the script of that tropical Virgil, not going down the pestilential streets that haven’t been repaired by the Historian’s Office, which are very close to those places she filmed? Perhaps the informed journalist is unaware of the usage of nations like Cuba, where those guides are faithful people chosen by and for the State Security, people who know precisely what they can and cannot show?

Perhaps Claudia Palacios didn’t see the private businesses with repeated products, fried flour patties, breads filled with spreads made from indecipherable ingredients, because of the lack of viable source materials that would allow them to grow as true business men? In that city she described as a Paradise made up of sea water and smiling people, didn’t she see the sweat running down the skin, the anguish of hunger, the buses crowded with irritable people, didn’t she see uncertainty, a little bit of indifference and a lot of hopelessness? Perhaps the beautiful Palacios doesn’t know that in that city whose growth in tourism she praised no end, attributing it among other reasons to the festive nature of Cubans, that a cohort of adolescents sell their bodies to repugnant tourists for barely a decent dinner or a letter of invitation to another country?

I find it impossible to grant credibility to the reporter of a leading world news chain, who doesn’t know that an immense percentage of Habaneros cannot visit those luxurious restaurants she showed in her documentary, and that for Habaneros and Cubans in general the fascinating Valle de Viñales remains of those places like Varadero, Cayo Coco, and the Hemingway Marina, that have been prohibited to Cubans due to the economic inaccessibility.

Evidently the objective of “Destinations: Havana” was simply marketing. It was to sell a destination, and nothing more. But I ask myself how far can journalistic ethics and decency permit, how far is it lawful to accept a manipulation of realities, showing only half the face of a city so complex as is Havana only because your work load is this and not that.

I ask myself: if all of a sudden the series “Destinations” thought it necessary to recommend Teheran, would Claudia Palacios step on Iranian soil concentrating only on showing the Tomb of Cyrus, the friezes of Persepolis Palace, or address with silk gloves the obedience of its feminine population, without delving into the whys, without diving under the surface, as her journalistic responsibility requires?

I think that aside from pink-skinned Europeans with desires to spend their savings well (I will always remember the words of an Italian in his sixties who said, in front of me, while he caressed the rear of a very young mulata accompanying him:”What would we be without Cuba!”). Aside from the brainless tourists from half the world, and aside from the representatives-implementers of a system like the one my native country suffers from today, nobody else could have enjoyed the “Destinations” filmed by Claudia Palacios.

Not even the people of the city where she took her images. Unfortunately those cannot give their opinion, because they live in one of the few countries where watching CNN is prohibited outside of some hotels, where cable TV doesn’t exist in each home, and so they will not be able to watch the fair mantle of the surreal circus attraction with which the journalist has shown them to the world.

Right this second I still ask myself if I ever truly got to know my Havana. I think that along with that Havana told by Dulce Maria Loynaz in her memoirs, along with the delinquent Havana of Pedro Juan Gutierrez, or the eternal nocturnal and sinful Havana of Cabrera Infante, we can now start to include the Havana of the beautiful Claudia Palacios. I wouldn’t know how to distinguish which of these belongs more to fiction.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

June 23 2011

In a Coach, Down a Dark Alley / Ernesto Morales Licea

His face is a catalog of discouragement. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, his horse’s reins in his hands, he seems to me like a pillar of salt from another time. With several days growth of beard, and a yellowish coat he must have exhumed from a closet in these days of winter.

“Would you give me a second, please? I’m a journalist and would like to ask you a few questions.”

From his seat, over my head, he looks at me with discouragement. He doesn’t agree, nor refuse. He’s just there.

“I would like to ask you about the strike you people held a week ago,” I said, with fear that once again I would receive the same evasive answers as on my previous two attempts: a tattooed young man told me, next to his horse, “No brother, I wasn’t here that day”, and drifted away in a hurry; and a chunky old man, wearing a palm frond hat, answered in a more sincere way, “Look, I don’t want to get into more trouble, go ask someone else”.

A little over a week earlier the coachmen from my traditional Bayamo had undertaken an unthinkable action: two days of absolute strike. A strike in a country without strikes, a country with the only constitution in the planet that does not recognize such a right for its laborers.

The unusual news spread across the whole island: the news exclusive had made it all the way to my hospital bed in Havana through a young nurse who took it with natural cheerfulness, “Bayamian, the coachmen of your town are on strike. Let’s see if you people light the city on fire again.”

“I would like to know the causes of this strike, in essence, what were you demanding?” I asked him, vaguely hopeful before his silence, a silence that, at least, didn’t push me away from there as his coworkers had done, their voices paralyzed by fear; I could have been a State Security agent, an informant, a plainclothes cop.

He takes his time, chews his cigar and speaks without looking at me, as if something in the distance really caught his attention.

“Man, the only thing we were asking for was for them to leave us barely enough money to eat. That’s all. For them not to abuse us anymore.”

His words, said in the same peevish tone, thrill me. I wasn’t expecting this access to the truth.

“Why the abuse, what has changed?” I ask.

“The amount of money we have to pay the State now, in order for them to let us work. The taxes and payments due to thousands of different made up things they have recently imposed on us, just because.”

What is officially handled with the carefully chosen terms such as “Tax Adjustment,” is summed up for this man and for millions of other Cubans, as something very simple: the rates imposed by the Ministry of Prices and Finance for the practice of self-employment, in the majority of the cases, are simply exorbitant. It’s unsustainable.

Long before this forty-eight hour strike coming from a very humble sector, I had received news about the tax outrage. I heard testimonies from a neighborhood barber who, after twenty-six years of practice, was being forced to give up his work permit because the two-hundred pesos that the State fixed as his monthly share had become astronomical. In the last month, he had had to sell a couple of his possessions in order to make up the sum.

“How much were you paying before, and how much are you paying now? ” I proceed with my interview, afraid that the six people who would fill up his carriage would appear and my brief investigation would be cut short.

“Before, the monthly permit fee was 130 pesos. Now, they brought it up to 150 pesos, plus 87.50 pesos for Social Security, plus 10 percent of our daily earnings, for using this place to park our carriages.”

I tried to rapidly calculate the figure we were talking about, and asked him for daily numbers; quickly adding it up, we agreed on an approximate total for his monthly taxes: around 500 pesos.

The carriages in Bayamo have, for some time, left off being traditional museum and classic colony pieces, to become a solution to the severe urban transportation problems.

Every morning, a legion of workers paid 1 Cuban peso and traveled on them to hospitals, schools, grocery stores. Waiting for the city buses had become, for many, an unbearable chimera, alleviated only by these mobile artifacts, an unequivocal symbol of the villa founded in 1513 by the vicious Spaniard Diego Velazquez.

And all of a sudden, on an ordinary morning, the daily peso for the carrier doubled and in some cases, it tripled; the coachmen had just raised the prices of their fares, and the laborers’ salaries remained the same: 300 pesos, average, a month. The math was stressful for those who had to travel on them daily.

“The thing started from problems with the people, look,” he tells me, and now, for the first time I think he’s engaging in our conversation. “We had more discussions than trips. Many didn’t want to pay us, they would call us thieves. And the only thing we could say was, ‘Go complain to the authorities! We don’t want to raise prices, but they’re forcing us to!’ We were like that for almost a month. Until we had to get together and present the problems. And a moment came where we couldn’t take it anymore, young man, and we had to stop.”

His words spill out as he vents. They carry the suppressed anger, vibrant, of someone who can’t resign himself to it all.

The day they reported they wouldn’t work anymore, the State forced private trucks and buses, with other routes, to cover their trips. Not one person from the union was able to intervene, not a voice from those other transportation modes was allowed to protest: the master spoke, you could only obey.

On the second day, they gathered them at the headquarters of the provincial Government, bearing a peculiar and fragmented manual of intelligence. Never all together. They relied on the ancient maxim, “Divide and conquer.”

They pressured them in small groups. Under the guise of more clearly explaining the mechanisms they removed the seeds of disagreement with sophisticated threats: if they persisted on keeping their reactionary position they would forever lose their license.s They would no longer be able to work with their animals, which by the way, had cost them several thousands.

“Imagine for yourself if the people had not been intimidated,” he makes a gesture of annoyance, drowsing in his seat again at the level of my forehead. “We all have children here, families. We all have to kill the hunger, and this is the about the only thing we know. There are many who can’t even recover their initial investment, you understand? Who would continue after that?”

I could imagine the rest of the story, though the man didn’t tell me. I assumed from the fear, the hesitant speech, the refusals I’d received previously: it was the panic of being branded counterrevolutionaries. The investigations by the intelligence services, the interrogations to determine the leaders of the discontent; they were, in those days, taking over the area with their inexhaustible presence, the repressors with kid gloves from State Security. In Cuba they cannot allow the sowing of public unrest.

This is, in effect, the chronicle of an announced conflict: the grandiose plan to revive the Cuban economy not only contemplates the layoffs of hundreds of thousands; not only does it contemplate permits to exercise ridiculous professions — button-coverer, scissors grinder — to make a personal livelihood; but it includes, in addition, a Cyclopean increase in taxes for all private businesses, although the fundamental ingredient, money, continues to be absent from the family horizon.

The immediate consequence? Thousands of self-employed workers thinking, with anger and helplessness, about giving up the work that in the last years had allowed them to feed themselves, badly. Offering a license placed at an impossible height. Infinite shame should be the only name of this congress.

“Thanks very much for your time,” I say, by way of goodbye, when I see that our fleeting interview is ending. “And have a good day.”

I turned and before taking off I heard his voice again, and I paused for another second, looking again at his face without dreams or hopes.

“Don’t mention my name in what you write, boy,” he says, and I can barely suppress my pain, furious frustration, at hearing this plea from an adult man, independent, whom the system has completely neutralized with fear. “The only thing they haven’t done to me is seize the coach for saying things I shouldn’t.”

I make a gesture with my hand: don’t worry about it, it won’t be me who will threaten his poor living for his family.

I return to my personal bubble, suffering in silence for a hostile reality, that every day is more incompatible with the happiness of Cubans; a reality that from my earliest awareness has only threatened to worsen, bringing worse news, worse years, more acute shortages. Returning to my laboratory of ideas I can’t stop thinking about a phrase of the poet Lezama Lima who asked, with biting bitterness, how can we find out way out of this dark alley.

Translated by Angelica Betancourt

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

Our Nobel of So Many Days / Ernesto Morales Licea

Well-deservedly, my friends and I have been calling each other since last Thursday to congratulate ourselves. Some cheer from a distance, while others of us reach out our hands. Friends from different eras and generations: classmates from my university days; acquaintances I may have met on the streets with whom I’ve shared literary ideas at times.

And I underline well-deserved, because congratulating each other for the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa is an act of justice to ourselves: so much positive energy on his part, so many hours dedicated to his novels, so much saliva invested in rabid debates around his political ideas, we simply have to assume that this award is a prize for us as well, his readers.

Personally, I don’t hesitate to launch a categorical affirmation: nothing has influenced or determined my thinking more, my world-view on literature and artistic phenomenons; nobody dynamited my adolescent brain more with every type of libertarian, anti-totalitarian and cosmopolitan idea than this Peruvian Spaniard who today, for his work and by the grace of an elusive prize, is the most famous writer in the world.

Some of us had already lost hope. The Nobel seemed like a conflagration against him when, in the 1980s, right after publishing the incredible and insane novel, The War of the End of the World, Mario seemed predestined to hang it on his wall.

I was discouraged thinking about the lofty embarrassments for the Stockholm Committee which seemed as if they had never read Cortázar, Carpentier nor Borges, nor Kafka nor Joyce. And it irritated me still more to see that each year the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a figure even more exotic and unthinkable within the rich panorama of world literature. The Swedish professors seemed to have laid out the world map across a wide desk, point out the regions that had already received their awards, and randomly pick a writer from a non-awarded country.

The Nobel Prize seemed to be a novel prize: awarded to inconsequential writers who, logically, from then on would be enshrined. (The most baffling case in recent times was, without a doubt, that of 2004: the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, author of love novellas written for dozing travelers, who seemed to have revived, with the astonishment of his expression, the American playwright John Steinbeck, winner of the prize in 1962, who said at the time that he himself could not believe it.)

And then, when it seemed least probable, someone picked up the phone at 5:30 in the morning in New York, and in broken Spanish it was communicated to the writer who was preparing for a conference for his Princeton students, that within 14 minutes the world would know his name as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.

What was Vargas Llosa doing at that precise moment? In the interplay of ironies that sometimes God, or destiny, or karma constructs it is a surprising refinement: in the instant when his wife Patricia handed him the phone, Vargas Llosa was preparing a conference about Jorge Luis Borges, and was re-reading for the umpteenth time the novel El Reino de este Mundo, by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier.

For my part, what was I doing the instant that I learned my literary paradigm had just had his name inscribed among the unforgettable by the Nobel committee? I was sleeping soundly on a semi-London-like morning in my tropical Bayama, protected from the rain and cloudy sky, when the first ring at 7:30 in the morning forced me to emerge from my drowsiness, and assimilate the simple sentence with which my exalted friend said good morning:

“They gave the Nobel Prize to Vargas Llosa.”

After that, five more phone calls, at intervals of a few minutes, confirmed that it was not a tactless joke or a painful mistake.

Let’s just say: only those who are capable of loving literature with a sickening passion; only those who understand what it means to stay awake all night, and feel the anguish of not being able to comment to anybody at that time how fascinating the piece they have just read is, only they are capable of understanding the powerful link that is established between and author and his most faithful reader.

There are cases worth sharing. One of them is the story about a reader of Garcia Marquez’s found in Moscow, copying by hand on yellowish paper, a Russian translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude, because she didn’t have money to buy that masterpiece and wanted to have it at home. Another one, which Julio Cortázar told: is about a young girl who, the night she decided to commit suicide, started reading his novel Rayuela. For some reason that desperate young girl wanted to end her life at a specific time at dawn, and while she was waiting she started to skim through the Argentine’s book. In a letter written later, that potential suicidal was thanking Cortázar for saving her life: his novel was able to let her ignore her depression, and the assigned time for her end arrived without her being able to let go of her reading.

As for me, I believe that reading Vargas Llosa is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in life, even though I haven’t had to copy him out by hand (but I have had to steal him with thousands of contraband devices), nor has he freed me from attempting suicide.

The first book I read with his name on it, I mention today with love because it is a lesser novel: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Afterwards, I embarked on a marathon until I’d read every one of his novels, searching through the bookstore catacombs to find some book by him, and practicing a kind of literary prostitution which led me to seduce, during my years at the University, a young librarian only because she let me take home Vargas Llosa’s books, which were not allowed to leave the library.

The last one I read — a gift from someone who loves me enough to know that man lives not by bread and remittances alone — so that from the United States to Cuba came The Lover’s Dictionary of Latin America, a collection of a huge number of articles on the issues surrounding our continent.

I think those who argue, ridiculously, of a presumed anti-Latin-Americanism, should review this compilation of more than 400 pages where an intellectual totally committed to his continent, is devoted to writing about its athletes, cities, eating habits, dictatorships, the common man and, of course, its literary history. Few writers know the roots of their origins better than this Peruvian who is a naturalized Spanish citizen.

Also for those who scream that Mario Vargas Llosa is the personification of anti-nationalist evil, they should ask themselves if there exists more proof about the destiny of one’s country, than to run for president as he did in 2000. Again, a historical irony about the novelist: he lost that election against someone who would later become the worst dictator in the recent history of Peru: Alberto Fujimori.

Today, Fujimori is behind bars for crimes against humanity, and Mario Vargas Llosa is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As I once wrote in an essay about his political views, to read Vargas Llosa in my Cuba of the parameters and the impossibilities, seems so much like an exercise in subversion, that searching through his entire work has a decidedly seductive appeal. At some point, Milan Kundera said that the one book banned under a totalitarian regime is more powerful and enticing than all the libraries in a free country put together. I think there is no contemporary literature more fascinating for Cuban readers than Mario Vargas Llosa’s.

But I am speaking not only of his novels. His monumental work also includes his work as a journalist and essayist, incredibly universal, extravagantly different, incredibly universal, that confirms in no uncertain terms what this man is really: an enslaved writer. A patient of the word who writes at seventy-four as if his life depends on it.

Into what subject of social, literary, political, biographical or advertising interest has the ex-presidential candidate writer not poked his nose into? Very few. His work is an Aleph of themes. I would dare to argue that wherever Vargas Llosa has not sniffed around with his particular visions and his incendiary words, where he has not opined with distinction or with insolence, where he has not generated a brilliant article, a personal chronicle, a linguistic analysis, or a well-reasoned debate; where he has not put people’s backs up, venomous sores of an emblematic hatred; on wherever that is, I don’t think there’s anything worth looking at.

On one occasion, I had the privilege to interview someone who knows him all too well: the Peruvian Franscisco Lombardo, who, with notable success has brought two of his well-known novels to the big screen: Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, and The City and The Dogs.

I asked him if Vargas Llosa was an almost moral obligation. His words to define the writer were categorical: “You can worship him or you can hate him, what you can’t deny is the admiration, or at least the respect due to those who defend what they believe, regardless of their doctrine, and knowing that they could pay a very high price for it.”

Mario has paid a heavy price for being consistent, above all, with himself. They never forgave him for supporting the Cuban Revolution, in its infancy, and then abandoning the triumphal boat and returning to be its eternal castigator. He has been demonized by the orthodox left, that cannot now forgive him for being a champion of liberal thought.

A journalist from Granma, not even worth mentioning, published the news of his Nobel yesterday, pointing out that he deserves an anti-Nobel in ethics. We know what it’s about: a poor journalist, an enslaved pen, who could not confess that he also reads his novels with devotion, on pain of becoming “available” — i.e. unemployed — now that a work place in Cuba is a privilege to be conserved.

I confirm with my own case what I once heard a notable writer say: the best thing we can point to about the Nobel Prize is that every year it makes a writer fashionable. With the satisfaction of a collection I chose, this time, Conversation in the Cathedral, and began to reread it with the same devotion with which I closed the final page five years ago.

I can’t think of no better way to honor this man, from my pride as a reader, and as a Latin American, than to dedicate a few more hours of my life to the novel it took him the most years to finish. And to feel that among all the millions of us readers who appreciate his dedication to the word, we feel the incomparable happiness — since last Thursday — of a huge dept repaid.

November 21, 2010

Orphaned From Journalism (Part 1) / Ernesto Morales Licea

Just recently I discovered with regret that I had only one task pending in my passage through the institution of Cuban journalism. A yearning that had been building since my feverish college days maybe five or six years ago.

That is, to attend as a delegate a National Congress of the Union of Cuban Journalists. A difficult undertaking for someone who was not linked to this organization of the Cuban press, and who was not a member of the Union of Young Communists.

It so happens that these congresses stir in me an irrepressible curiosity which, clearly, I can no longer satisfy first hand. Like secret organizations, like the rituals of mystical sects, this meeting where specialists would gather to discuss or analyze a profession that does not exist in their country, seems to me an exotic thing worthy of having lived through and immortalizing in marble.

It would be the same to me if Cuba decided to hold a National Symposium on Eskimo Culture.

To speak without shame about journalism, in a country that has killed its essence, can only be understood as a cruel irony. In any case, it has not lost its attraction for me, nosy person that I am.

I think had I been able to get myself a seat I would have played an amusing game of suppositions. The game would have been this: guess, behind the poses of the meeting, which of these royal colleagues were the ones who thought of themselves as the paladins of information in Cuba, the ones who slept soundly thinking themselves the defenders of the public truth; and which only played the role to survive, knowing in their heart of hearts that real journalism was much more than obeying directives without any opportunity to ask questions.

Because yes, contextualizing a phrase by Pedro Luis Ferrer, there is a question I haven’t stopped asking myself from the moment I became a communications professional in Cuba: are many of the journalists of this country aware of the past that awaits them?

Are they aware of what it will mean, in the future of conciliation that I want to imagine without bitterness or violence, to read what they wrote, full of lies or hiding the truth, repeating the slogans of the tabloids; hearing themselves on the radio energetically supporting decisions which, in the privacy of their own homes, they criticized just as much as everyone else? Seeing themselves applauding in front of the television cameras while listening to speeches they didn’t even want to attend?

I’m speaking not from the point of view or distance of someone who has long since lost contact with our reality. I speak with the knowledge of someone who knew the circumstances, who until just a few months ago talked ad nauseum with my journalist colleagues, believing in our bonds of friendship and listening to revealing testimonies about the blatant and cruel hypocrisy that surrounds journalism in my country.

Any time you evaluate a phenomenon as complex and diverse as communication, in a country of exceptional conditions, multiple possibilities always present themselves, inviting us to dissect the various parts of Cuban journalism. Looking inside one of the leading causes — I say this without hesitation — of the strictures of thought that the society in which I live suffers today.

Just a starting point

I don’t have to make any special effort to remember the initial event that made me question, honestly, the world I was about to join. It happened in an editing booth at the local television station in my province. The year was 2004. I had just turned twenty.

A well-known colleague was editing some material about the single comparison most recreated and manipulated in our national history: Cuba, gray and weighed down, before 1959, vs. Cuba resplendent after 1959. The voice over emotionally narrated the transition, from darkness to light.

But an unforeseen delay threatened the program: the presumably ancient images of the impoverished nation were nowhere to be found. They had looked through all the files, in vain. The documentary had to air the following day.

That journalist’s solution is something I will never forget. She probably will.

She extracted a cassette from among her things. She mounted it and told the editor to capture what came next. Before us was a succession of images of malnourished children with distended bellies, ruined houses threatening to collapse on the camera itself, mud and misery, hunger in hundreds of faces, people in rags, skeletal dogs eaten by scabies.

I was struck dumb. Not by the gruesome impression of the scenes before me, but by my sense of what the journalist was about to do.

The images had been taken (I believe for internal consumption within certain political circles) a week ago in a rural village called Rio Cauto in the province of Granma. The color of the DVC Pro camera they had been taken with revealed their currency. This was no problem, however, for the cubicle with the latest editing software.

Removing the color was the work of seconds. The editor said nothing. Soon the same hungry faces emerged, the same third world landscape, but now in the black and white of a distant past, to which, according to the material, we should never return.

The voice overs of that journalist, now an icon in the local press, spoke of the misery of living on the island before 1959, while images taken just a few miles from home the week before, flashed on the screen. Minutes later, the montage displayed the rebirth of the country in colorful scenes of smiling healthy children and the openings of new buildings.

I didn’t have the courage to watch the film, the following day, when it aired in primetime.

August 22, 2010

With a Homeland, but Without a Master / Ernesto Morales Licea

On the morning of Wednesday, July 7th of this year 2010, I received a peculiar visitor in my house: actually, I received him on the porch.  I invited him to sit down, next to me, on the small bench that delimits my home’s garden.  The living room in the house, the interior of my living space, is only destined for friends or people I don’t know but whose presence I have solicited.

Since this visitor didn’t meet either of those two conditions, he was kindly received on the porch.

His name is not important right now.  Only, that it was the official from the State Security whose visit I earned on “my own merits” since my first texts appeared on the web (at that time this blog was not thinking about being created).  No rebel, no one who stands up, no honest man, no inquirer stays in my Cuba of today without his own respective official.  It is a right we all have.

Well, my Security official’s visit had a concrete purpose that morning:

–          I’ve come to negotiate with you – he said, with sarcasm.

I want to make something clear: unlike the bird-brains they have assigned to counteract this blog, poor devils with no brain nor meritorious reasoning, the official who “attended” to me was the most decorous they could have assigned me.  Someone with good manners, knowledgeable about his occupation, cordial when the time demanded and energetic when my words offended his institution. He was not stupid, a good debater.  Someone who, if we took  away his occupation of persecutor of political miscreants, and overcame that innate arrogance of those who take advantage of the impunity that the authority grants them, would be one of the people whom I would receive in the living room of my home.  He could have been my friend.

So, we moved on to what he was coming to negotiate.

–          What advantage do I get from your business offer? I asked, in a funny way.

–          A Visa to the United States – he said, proud of his judgment.

I smiled, once again.  It was ten in the morning, and the dark circles under my eyes certified the 500 miles from Havana to Bayamo that I had traveled the night before.  I was coming from my interview at the United States’ Interest Section in Cuba.  They had just granted me, good until this coming December, a Visa in order to be able to reunite with my family members in Miami.  A Visa which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with my political posture, something that my official admitted as if known by all: I would leave Cuba just like another member of a family to reunite.  Just that.

The juicy “business” they proposed was elemental:

–          Behave- he said fluidly – and we won’t put any barriers towards your leaving the country.

You should understand: behave meant, in a more direct language: stop writing.

I can’t hide how enjoyable, grotesquely, that proposition was to me.  Benevolence in exchange for my silence.  The approval of the owners of this beautiful island, in exchange for my “good behavior”.

I don’t remember my exact answer. I think I faked that I would evaluate his proposal, very interesting and beneficial, really.

I had already evaluated it, actually.  Two days later, on July 9th, I posted the “Prologue to the Little Brother”.  I had just founded this space that counts today, after three and a half months, 31 published articles.

Looking back on what my life has been in the past three months, I must admit that it has had more charm and sleepless nights, more stress and delight, than ever before in my 26 years.  And above all, truth be told: more danger than I ever thought possible, like an entirely free man, in this country which I love from one end to the other.

I have experienced the brilliant pleasure of sitting down to write, each day, with the enviable sensation that everything I say is my deepest truth.  A truth crowded with subjectivities, points to analyze, polemic and personal opinions.  But in the end, a truth that, as I said in that Prologue, does not admit blindfolds nor does it tolerate disadvantages.

I have discovered, thanks to my decision to be a journalist as independent from the official press as from the sensational opponents, the real meaning of freedom of speech.  What I have published on this blog has only been approved by my conscience, my aesthetic standards and my ethical perceptions.  I have not asked anyone for accountability, I have not asked anyone for acceptance.

I have learned to value, and to respect, the fear of those who stay quiet out of necessity, from feeling defeated before the immensity of the retaliations: “I have a family, Ernesto; I have a son who I need to support.  I feel an immense envy for what you are doing, I would love to be able to do it also, but if they fire me from work like they did, how would I feed my family?”  I nod, and I give them a hug, even though I can’t defeat my depression all day, and I thank them for sneaking in, in the refuge of their homes, a memory stick that will go from one hand to another, copying and reproducing the texts that I publish here every three days.

And I have also learned, how couldn’t I, the size of hate and of repression in almost all its forms.  And I underline “almost”, because except physical violence and the gray bars of prison, I have already experienced on my own flesh, in my individual essence, the high price implied by being consistent with the Marti perception which prays: “Liberty is the right that each man has to be honest, and to think and speak without hypocrisy” in my totalitarian Cuba.

Many friends have been warned, they have been terrified on account of me: “If you mix with a social scourge like him, you will be treated as such.”  Of course: many have abdicated my friendship.  They have put our links on standby until these times of bad smell and pests pass, even though it is likely that by that time, their friendship will be hollow, unnecessary.

My telephone, tapped with aberrant notoriety, has only remained in the address books of a few suicidal friends.  A virtuous painter, a Buddhist engineer, an Argentinean soccer fan on his wheel chair, and another handful of Bayameses (people from Bayamo) who might even fear for their own existence, but are more fearful of surviving without the irreducible friendship that we have known how to nourish for so many years.

Too many slanders have been raised against me.  Dirty, vile hits, for which I was always ready, but even then they don’t stop surprising me, and lead me to question myself about the limits of human degradation.

The founders of so much barbarity and so much social exclusion should have to answer to their children, to their grandchildren, all their questions.

That is why I, who maintain my friends on the verge of collapse, who have had to make my family lose their sleep, who have gained the disapproval of many for putting my stability, my personal security at risk, I ask them for forgiveness for my acts, but with humbleness I confess: I would not change a single second of these last three months of my life, for all the peace and all the protection of the planet.

I also confess, for whoever takes me as their enemy – they are not my enemies: I don’t have, inside of me, space for enemies; nor would I make any deals with them, nor with them would I ever conduct any business that included a single one of my articles,  one of my words.  I don’t gamble with my truth.  I am neither a blackmailed brain nor pen.

The longing to reunite with my family again, who now live in real freedom, is immense, and for that I have been willing to do almost anything.  Except biting my lips.  If the final punishment for being consistent with myself is imprisonment inside this green Island, I will accept it with the dignity of someone who still has much to do, much to write, much to live in this country that made me, with pride, a Cuban.  I will accept staying on this side of the ocean, with a homeland, but without a master.

Someone who is sheltered by books, by music, by scriptures and the unconditional love of his partner; someone who saves in his chest of relics the friendship of the incorruptible, the sincere; someone to whom God gifted with an immense spirituality to feed him during  harsh times, during sufferings, during the death of loved ones and the betrayal of friends for silver coins; to conclude, someone who deep inside has the antidote against all hate; someone like this cannot be repressed nor frightened.

Liberty is a spiritual state said Mahatma Gandhi, and I do not have words to thank him for the favor of giving me that maxim as a life premise.

At three and some months from writing this kamikaze blog, in which each time I offer the best and worst of me, I do not stutter in thanking all who dedicate 5 minutes of their time on reading it, and whose good energies inevitably come to me; nor do I stutter when thanking myself for taking this, the most assertive and committed decision of my young years of existence.

Translator: Angelica Betancourt

October 16, 2010

Sex, Truths and Video Cameras / Ernesto Morales Licea

Nobody knows her name or the sound of her voice. Except for her family or close friends, her individuality doesn’t matter.

And yet she is a kind of atypical national celebrity. Her image has traveled the island from one end to the other, smuggled, multiplied by infinity in hundreds, thousands of personal computers and storage devices.

Currently she’s not a student: she was expelled from school where she intended to graduate in Computer Science a few years ago. Her body shows the perfection of youth in just over thirty digital photos available to any Cuban who owns a computer.

“I didn’t do it for money,” she explains. The occasion just presented itself, and I thought it was fun.  The person who took them was my boyfriend at the moment. There was no money in it.”

“And what did he tell you he was going to do with the photos?” I ask.

“Nothing. We were playing around and he took the camera out and I started to pose.  But it wasn’t something we planned or prepared, it’s something you can notice in the photos, it was just spur of the moment. When we finished having sex we looked at them and he told me he was going to save them on the computer. Then he gave me a copy of all of them. But he made the copies on a computer at school and that’s where they spread from.

She doesn’t doubt my knowledge of these images. She knows that I, just like a thousand other people – mostly men — have seen them on a personal computer, some have been stored with zeal and have been a secret inspiration for desperate single men.

This girl from Camagüey is twenty-three years old. Her beauty is impressive for a young girl from a working class family, without extremes of skin care or silicon devices. She asks me, though her body is better known than that of the Giraldilla, not to mention her name. I nod. It’s the only privacy she has left.

In 2005 she was another one of those purged from the University of Computer Sciences (UCI) in Havana.

After an explosion of digital pornography spread out from the center to the rest of Cuba, the managers had to invest more time in meetings and disciplinary measures than in teaching classes.

The scandal had gotten out of hand like never before in Cuban society.  Dozens of young men and women from every state of the country had been photographed and filmed in erotic poses, semi-naked, completely naked, or during full sexual acts with endless imagination.

The existence of a national or foreign market for this type of merchandise was proven in some cases.  In others, it was only about pure enjoyment of new ways of sexuality, which extended throughout the population by the negligence of whoever saved the material; simply out of desire.

“When we had taken about twenty photos was when he went and looked for the other girl,” she tells me.

Because in fact, the peculiarity of her images is the bisexual practice displayed.  While in the initial pictures it was only about her in diverse positions, including oral sex with her boyfriend (who never appears), later she surrenders to carnal pleasures with another young girl, a roommate, according to what she tells me.

“Are you resentful?” I ask.

“Listen, I think that the only thing that honestly hurt me was getting expelled from school – she says. “I patched it up fast with my parents, they know that I’m young, but that I am also an adult, and I make my own decisions.”

“Tell me something, how have you been able to handle the publicity that those intimate pictures have attracted?”

Her answer, in this case, seemed to me so sincere it scared me:

“Look, that doesn’t worry me one bit. And you know why? , because what I did on there, and what everyone sees, is what the majority of people, especially young people, are doing when they are intimate. Or what many haven’t done but would love to do. I don’t have to be ashamed for something that doesn’t harm anybody. If I had killed someone, if I had stolen, that would be something else.  But for having sexual relations with a man and a woman before a digital camera, not at all.”

I am from the same generation as she is, and despite it all, I cannot get over being surprised by her shameless declaration. The phenomenon seems a bit striking to me. I think about the sexuality I began to discover during adolescence, and I’m aware of the notable differences that exist with today’s practices.

Not only because ten years ago I had never seen a digital camera, not even up close.  But also because not too long ago, the behavior of the most sexually active people still had an intimacy, hidden from the public, like something sacred and inviolable.


His name represented a watershed for the understanding of the human sexual behavior, early 20th Century.  Alfred Kinsey, a North American biologist and sexologist, was one of the precursors of the so-called Sexual Revolution that came a bit later.

Nobody, before him had spoken with such freedom and naturalness about the phenomena which were perceived by the public as pathological deprivations, or human psyche deviations.  Let’s say masturbation, (feminine especially, a subject which has not yet overcome its taboo) let’s say homosexuals and bisexuals.

“Kinsey’s Scale,” one of his most fundamental contributions, understands all the steps that, according to the scientist, explain human interests in the sexual area, with its nuances and variations.

In his books “Male’s Sexual Behavior” (1948) and “Female’s Sexual Behavior” (1953), affirmations like the following could be read: “Nothing that takes place between two adults, during their intimacy, and with the consent of both parties, can be considered sick or unacceptable. The supposed immorality is another social farce.

Also, provocations as such: “If all human beings would come together at a stadium, for example, and each one confessed aloud their sexual fantasies, they would all discover that what they assumed to be individual barbarities, in reality area the thought of by almost everyone.”

I think about this, now that the sexual map of my country seems to have changed colors. It is notoriously changing. To see it, it is enough to sharpen the senses. It is enough to put together evidence, declarations. To study with a magnifier the reality that surrounds us, to discover that, to the surprise of many, while in the sociopolitical plan the Island is still the same as a few years ago, Cuban sexuality has experienced an evident transformation, especially in its younger population.  Mrs. Karelia Cobas Ordaz, Master in Sexology and author of a soon-to-be published book about new challenges towards sexual education in adolescents, also recognizes the same thing:

“Despite it not being a private phenomenon in Cuba at all,” she tells me, “this type of freedom is very interesting in our country because of the fact that in other aspects, Cuban society has barely changed. For example: In a country as sexual as this one, places to go on a date for occasional relationships are almost nonexistent, nor does pornography sell as a legal product. So it seems very unexpected that, under these conditions, the sexual practices in the young community have experienced such a notable change.”

She also affirms something very important: according to the data included in her Master’s thesis, the occasional lesbian relationships of young girls between the 18 and 27 years of age, in Cuba, surpasses by a few percentages the data retrieved in studies about sexuality in countries like Chile, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.

According to Cobas Ordaz this doesn’t reveal an increase in the young lesbian population, but an openness to practices, especially feminine, where curiosity about of new ways of pleasure, lead to its acting out, for example, sexual threesomes where relations between women are frequent.

About the subject of “advertising” sexual intimacy, the specialist affirms:

“It’s a subject that Sexology in Cuba has pending in a special way.  Is evident that modesty, the fear of exhibiting one’s own body in a public way, has yielded the field to other types of behavior.  It’s true: many young people photograph themselves nowadays without worrying about the spread of those pictures. In many cases, they spread them deliberately.”

For these types of behaviors, which teeter towards the edge of very dangerous terms like pornography or prostitution, the Cuban Penal Code does not recognize sanctions.  According to what Alejandro Mojena Ramirez, a Law School Graduate explains, in this type of material, whether it is pictures or videos, there is no felony as long as the people involved are over age, and no monetary profit is gained by the ones who are involved in such acts.

The truth is that the number of young people, mostly females, whose bodies can be appreciated today in the digital Cuban universe, is not only very large but is also growing.  For some it is about a way of earning easy money.  For others, it’s a way to access new experiences.

While from the beginning connotation of a national scandal that surrounded the case of the University of Computer Sciences (UCI) student was extended to the new “models” who appeared everywhere; there is no doubt this vision has started to change.  It no longer sparks extreme surprise.  All that is left is the inevitable disease and the lewdness that attaches to each new girl whose nakedness becomes common property.

How much do the positive and negative of these tendencies weigh on social patterns?  It is something that sociologists and specialists will have to determine. Or how helpful are the practices that don’t allow us to assume that sex is an act only of two, and bring it back to previous centuries, when the term orgy was patented almost exclusively for sexuality?

Meanwhile, I hold in my mind the last words from that exotic girl from Camaguey, whose flesh and attitude are a sample of this new era of Cuban sexuality.  Before saying my goodbyes from that unusual interview, she asks:

“It seems to me that at least in the subject of sex Cubans have stopped being obedient to the norms and have started to do what they really want. I think young people are very free in the sexual field.  Don’t you think that’s a good thing?”

And I, with an amused smirk on my face, say, “Yes.”

Translated by Angelica Betancourt

September 13, 2010

20 Reasons to Doubt / Ernesto Morales Licea

My generation grew up listening to the litany. It wasn’t the only one. It was barely a new one. But I can attest to that: along with a motto I never understood “Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Ché!”, my legs and my conscious grew up hearing that the country my grandparents had, without a Revolution, was far worse.

The country from the past they assembled in my childish brain never had color. Or better yet, it did: the color of blood. It was a barbarian country, with murderers as rulers and children bruised by pain.

It also had a lot of gray. The images from the past are always gray. Especially, if they were previously passed by an editing cubicle.

On the Island prior to 1959 Cubans did not know happiness. They did not heal illnesses; they did not know orgasms, or sunsets, or chocolate ice cream. They never danced deliriously, nor did they raise world trophies or academic titles.

If Cuban culture is a heritage of the revolution; if sports were never a people’s right; if doctors didn’t heal; if nightlife was nothing but crimes and punishments; if the only Cuban History that exists is the one that tells its wars and its hardships, my country owes its essence and reason for being to a process initiated on January, 1959.

That’s how I was taught. I, the diligent pioneer of Communism aspiring to be like Ché, learned it that way.

But somehow I also learned, by intuition or negligence, to suspect that imperfect past. A handful of books started to do its subversive work inside of me. The flyby information I retained as an antidote against a history that, just like the old saying goes, seemed very badly told.

Just like that, by chance or by destiny, I discovered that the past of my Island had a lot of blood and corruption. But it also had an undeniable splendor.

For example, I learned, that:

  1. The first Latin American nation and third in the world, after England and U.S.A, that had the miracle of the railroads was Cuba, in 1837.
  2. Furthermore, the first trolley that toured the streets of Latin America was in Havana, in 1900.
  3. In 1958, Cuba was the Latin American country with the highest automobile ownership rate. 160 thousand cars circled our streets, one for every 38 people.
  4. The first Latin American doctor to use ether as an anesthetic was the surgeon Vicente Antonio de Castro, on March 11, 1847. With that method he started the era of modern anesthesia for all of Latin America, right from this Caribbean Island.
  5. In the XIX century, the genius Carlos J. Finlay discovered the transmitting agent of yellow fever which decimated populations and instructed prevention and treatment. Had the Nobel Prize existed, this Cuban would’ve won it by far.
  6. In 1955, Cuba was the second country in Latin America where the fewest children died at birth. The rate was 33.4 for every one thousand newborns. For the resources at that period in time, it was a real feat.
  7. The U.N. recognized Cuba as the best country of Latin America in regards to the number of doctors per capita in 1957. We had one for every 957 people, a figure applauded by many developed nations at the time.
  8. In 1942, a Cuban became the first Latin American musical director to receive a nomination for an Oscar. His name: Ernesto Lecuona. Along with Kim Gannon, he was nominated for the statuette for his song “Always in my heart”, before any other Spanish-speaking musician.
  9. The first Latin American woman who sang at the exquisite Scala in Milan, was the Cuban singer Zoila Gálvez in 1946. Her Creole voice still resonates on the walls of that magnificent hall.
  10. And in 1950 another Cuban musician marked a world record not even matched by Elvis Presley or The Beatles. Dámaso Pérez Prado, with the piece called “Patricia” was on the American Hit Parade for 15 consecutive weeks.
  11. The first Cuban peso was stamped in 1915, and its value was identical to the dollar. On many occasions, up until 1959, it rose to surpass the value of an American dollar by a penny.
  12. Despite its small size, and that it only had a population of 6 million people, my country occupied the 29th position among the strongest economies in the world in 1958. I haven’t been able to find comparable data for today. I think only a sick keeper of statistics would dare to specify what position we are in now.
  13. In 1940, Cuba approved the most advanced of all Constitutions in the world at the time. It was the first in Latin America to recognize women’s vote, equal rights between sexes and races, and the right of women to work.
  14. In 1956 the U.N. recognized Cuba again, this time as the second country in Latin America with the lowest illiteracy rate (only 23.6%). At the time, countries like Spain, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Guatemala, and Dominican Republic had a 50% rate.
  15. In 1954, Cuba had one cow per person. It occupied the third place in Latin America (only outnumbered by Argentina and Uruguay) in the consumption of red meat per capita.
  16. In 1922 Cuba inaugurated the radio station PWX. It became the second nation in the world to do so, and the first nation in the world to broadcast a music concert and present radio news.
  17. Also, the first woman broadcaster in the world was a Cuban: Esther Perea de la Torre.
  18. And if we talk about television, we were the second country in the world to formally broadcast television. The biggest stars in all of America, who didn’t enjoy such progress in their countries, came to Havana to act before the Cuban cameras.
  19. The first Olympic Champion that Latin America had was a Cuban: the fencer Ramón Fonst, in 1900.
  20. The first Latin America who won a world chess championship was the Cuban Jose Raúl Capablanca, who, at the same time, was the first world chess champion born in an under-developed nation. This genius won every world tournament between 1921 and 1927.

So, to recontextualize a poem by León Felipe, I say I don’t know a lot of things, it’s true. I only tell what I have seen.

But when I learned how to read, how to listen to the elderly; when I learned to look behind the blank pages, to doubt the smiles of the powerful, and to think about my Homeland without that gray color many have hung on its past, I also think I started to doubt the colors of the present.

Translator: Angelica Betancourt

September 9, 2010

Tropical Cancer / Ernesto Morales Licea

From the moment you push the door open, you notice something is not right. By now you should be feeling a change in the atmosphere, the change of temperature to give your skin, so mistreated by the sun, a breather. You should feel the air conditioner running at a place where you pay with the coin of higher value in your country.

Nevertheless, inside awaits a heat as intense as the one outside.  Maybe hotter.

The salesclerk, a skinny mulatto, is wearing his button-down shirt as required by the rules.  At his armpits, the blue color from the shirt gets darker: the sweat runs all the way down his ribs, it forces him to pull the shirt away from his body over and over again during his shift.

You ask him for a soda, and you lay the convertible peso that equals two days of work on the counter.  You know you can’t allow yourself to spend that type of money frequently, but the climate is maddening and at moments you feel forced.

When you reach for the can, you think there has been a mistake:

–  It’s not cold, my friend, can you change it for me?

His answer, a little indifferent, is the answer of someone who has had to repeat it on countless occasions:

– They’re all like that.  The rules about saving force us to set the fridge at the highest temperature, that is why they can’t get as cold as they should.

You’re still holding the can in your hand.  You know that it is not what your lips are waiting for to mitigate your thirst.  You know you’ll regret having spent two days worth of your salary for a drink you won’t enjoy.  But you sense the same thing will happen in every store you go to.

Just out of curiosity you ask him:

– Is it the same everywhere? I mean, is it an orientation given to all the units?

– Not only to the units that sell in convertible pesos –he assures me – but to all the places with a refrigeration system, whatever they are.  Here, for example, out of the twelve hours that we work, we can only use the air conditioning for four, and the fridges should be on the highest temperatures.

You look around: you don’t see even a window.  There isn’t a single hole from where a light breeze can come in to alleviate the drowsiness.  You think of your office, which never had air conditioning, but at least had a window as consolation from where you could look out and, from time to time, cool your forehead.

You thank him, keep the can and rush out of that café so similar to a crematory.  You finish the soda with no desire, almost out of obligation to the money spent.

You walk the streets with not much to do, but now you start noticing all of your surroundings.  A Banco Popular, for example.  Designed like a concrete fort for obvious reasons, with hardly any windows for natural ventilation.  Inside, the consoles are covered with spider webs.  You don’t know this because you don’t get to ask, but they also prohibit the use of air conditioning here, for good.

Hundreds of people wait for their turn to be called.  Hundreds of workers spend their eight or ten hours in there, receiving and giving out money.  The heat multiplies itself due to the agglomeration of so many bodies.

You push another door open: another store for convertible pesos only.  This time you are not surprised by the suffocating atmosphere, but a nauseating smell of concentrated air fresheners, along with the humidity from all the sweat in general, makes you leave immediately in search of oxygen.

You remember when, a few years back, the national authorities announced that the energy crisis in Cuba had come to an end.  They mobilized the entire country; they got the streets in party mode.

They took away the improvised fans from everybody, their fridges, their TV’s.  Under the “change” euphemism, they sold them brand new equipment, imported from China.  They sold them electric burners and rice makers.   It is true that beforehand they had raised electricity rates noticeably, however, it seemed like we were moving forward.  You remember feeling a vague illusion of prosperity.

A name was dedicated to the year the initiative started.  2006 was called “The Year of the Energy Revolution.”

And every Cuban, you included, thought the era of endless power outages, implacable savings, as part of the past.   A past to which seemed, we were never going back.

Today, every spot is gripped by savings.  Offices crowded by computers and equipment in need of air conditioning.  Cafeterias with perishable products.  Workplaces where it is an inhumane practice if working hours are not reduced.

So, what happened this time? What failed once again?

You know you won’t have the answers to these questions.  If you asked somebody, you would hear all sorts of justifications – the criminal imperialist blockade, the world crisis, the adjustments in our economy – that you could recite to yourself beforehand.

That is why you’ll get home very soon, to your own heat bubble and exhaustion.  You, just like many others, have lost all hope for progress.

You know that tomorrow, maybe the energy subject will be stirred up any unthinkable way, but then, the tires will stop and this country’s busses will be paralyzed, or salt will vanish from all the markets and you will be forced to cook while adapting the taste buds to the emergency.

Too many years in training to be that naïve.

As you come back to listening to your own steps you notice that the soda you paid for didn’t take your thirst away.  You also notice you weren’t able to find any other insignificant things you were looking for in the stores.  And that you’ll get home with your skin a little more scorched from the sun.

The only thing you ask for is, for nobody, absolutely nobody to cross your path with an offensive phrase, any type of rudeness, a subject of discussion.  Not even your family or friends.

You don’t know this, you think that the discouragement you have inside is not important.  But at this very moment you believe you are sick from a tropical cancer, a loaded gun in search of a reason to pull the trigger.

Translator: Angelica Betancourt

August 19, 2010

My Friend The Enemy / Ernesto Morales Licea

A suspicious incident has provided me with writing material this time. As a sample of a rare will for controversy and democratic confrontation, the site Kaos en la Red, which promotes itself as the champion of intellectual reflection, has just censured a post originally published on this blog, which some reader decided to post on that portal.

The text My Own Vindication of Cuba appeared on that site under the free publication section and soon after went to the main pages of the section named Cuba. After reaching a considerable amount of readings, and after being commented on by many readers, it disappeared without leaving a trace.

The interesting thing is that, according to some comments I had access to via e-mail, a few feverish readers uttered howls of indignation before such opprobrium towards the progressive Kaos en la Red. The opprobrium was the appearance of my text there, not its later censorship, even requested by many of them.

How is it possible – they asked themselves – that our site, the trench of the united leftists allows the enemy to infiltrate in such way? How is it possible that we offer tribune here to an author (me) who admits on his Facebook page that he reads with dedication Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Alberto Montaner?

Soon after, Kaos en la Red retired my inglorious article.

I must confess: I have enjoyed the anecdote. At some point they announced to Sigmund Freud that the Nazis burned his books. The response of the wise psychoanalyst was a sarcasm without equal: “Humanity has progressed so much!” he said, “in the Middle Ages they would’ve burnt me.”

In no way does my ego want to think itself dangerous to the orthodox leftists, just as it seemed the work of Freud was to the retrograde fascists. But this thought seduces me: it had to have something, right? Otherwise my simple article would still be there.

Neither do I think I can discover any truth by affirming that Kaos en la Red represents a faction increasingly impoverished and discredited precisely for their lack of plurality, for the panic that divergent voices inspire in them; I wouldn’t expect anything else.

Even more analyzable is the scream “Enemy in sight!” coming, perhaps, from any of the trained boys from the University of Information Sciences (UCI), or from any other group with similar occupations, whose brains possess a delicate programming in binary coding: zeros-ones / friends-enemies.

As for me, I propose each day to fill myself with more doubts with respect to these frontiers. To undergo a general skepticism that can make me doubt how good of a friend the ones who call themselves my friends really are, and how much of an enemy are the ones that introduce themselves as such…

I’ll explain.

One of my best friends is a militant of the Communist Party. He’s 38-years-old and was previously a part of the Communist Youth. I have argued with very few people in my life as much as I do with him. In between beers and beers we have come, in certain moments, to whip ourselves up in an intellectual duel which (good Cubans that we are) resembles a violent dispute rather than a confrontation of ideas.

Later, having finished our drinks, we each go our own way onto our chores, and continue to miss each other for the rest of the day.

This friend possesses a vast universal culture, and a humanistic formation that with unusual frequency, allows him to disagree with the party he is a member of. Why does he confront its directives and arbitrariness, and yet keep sympathizing with the process? If I had those answers, maybe I wouldn’t argue with him so much.

But a man who loves women and Martí as much as I do, who would never betray nor condemn anybody for thinking differently from him, and who seeks out his own path for the well-being and progress of his country, can’t be my enemy, even when some of his ideological positions seem incompatible with his intelligence.

A little while ago, during my ephemeral link the official Cuban journalism, I met a radio broadcaster who had a certain prestige in my city. He would announce himself every day before the microphones, at six in the morning, and conduct an informative program lasting two hours which, in my Socialist Cuba, was strictly compliant with the establishment.

That man wouldn’t poke even a toe out of the box which his militant conscience established as just and necessary for his country. He felt proud of his politically committed broadcasting but, luckily, in his conscience of what is just and necessary, he would publicly whip incapable managers, demand attention to the handicapped elderly, and face, from his microphone, the prevailing local violence.

I rarely agreed with him in his visions about the Government, or on infinite topics surrounding Cuban politics, but in my particular Republic I would include a broadcaster who believes in what he says, whether he agrees with me or not, and who knows when to be on the side of the weak people if that is what his conscience dictates.

Now, the conflict occurs when this way of understanding divergence is not reciprocated. I have to admit it is necessary to be cold-blooded, to have a Tibetan superiority, in order to not harbor hostility against those whose beliefs we respect, but who are not capable of returning the favor.

Those who call us “the enemy,” and in their infinite array of vicious euphemisms, use terms such as “worms,” “scum,” and “deserters” to define all those who do not agree with their ways of understanding a social process.

I believe that a good exercise for all, liberals, leftists, humanists, republicans, ecologists, would be to copy the phrase from Voltaire on a piece of paper and stick it on the most visible spot of their home: “ I detest what you say, but I would die to defend your right to say it.”

After incorporating such message, it is very hard to censor articles, denigrate opponents, and consider as enemies all those who express, out loud and without hypocrisy or opportunism, what they really think, either about an ideological or religious doctrine, or about any sexual conduct.

My definitions of friend-enemy rarely pass through a political sieve. Above all, I am interested in human rights, and I celebrate that many great people I know don’t share my postures. When you are a democrat, when you have pluralistic thoughts, you are radically unable to accept intolerance and exclusion.

August 16, 2010

All The Lights Are Red / Ernesto Morales Licea


They knocked on the door twice before identifying themselves. When they said “It’s the Police,” he already knew it couldn’t be anybody else. No one else would’ve knocked with such rudeness.

His face pale from nerves, he let them enter, knowing there was no going back. After searching the house all over, they decided to open a washing machine placed (strategically) behind the bathroom door.

They looked at each other with a satisfied expression: they had found the merchandise. The thief was lost. Soon after, in a drawer in the bedroom they would also find some money that, although it wasn’t much, it was proof of illegal commerce; therefore, it would also be seized.

They took him out in handcuffs, in the middle of the day. They put him inside a police car. One of them stayed at his house, interrogating his wife who was barely able to stammer with her throat tight from fear and astonishment.

The operation had concluded with great success on a busy city street, and the curious, the neighbors, and the occasional lingerers stepped away so as not to be taken as sympathizers of the disgraced.


I would’ve wished all this to be only my imagination, my literary voice, but it’s not. What I just described took place in Bayamo only three days ago. The detained man was a personal friend of mine. I have to confess I haven’t been able to get a good night’s sleep since this past Thursday.

This delinquent is not really a delinquent. The merchandise is neither marijuana nor laundered money. It was simply pants. Just that. A load of twenty jeans bought at a good price in the country’s capital, and brought (along with many sleepless nights, shock and hardship) to this eastern city.

Let me clarify the “good price”: fifteen convertible pesos. They were bought at a store in Havana that had lowered their price for having small manufacturing defects.

They could be sold for twenty convertible pesos, or with luck for twenty-two, in this part of the country. Small profit for this smart merchant, big profit for the buyer who wouldn’t have had access to them any other way.

Nevertheless, the eyes trained in the art of informing don’t rest. Some diligent “collaborator” reported the crime, and the forces of order showed up. What crime? Well… something that in this, my island of euphemisms has been named, “hoarding.” That’s how it’s defined, and that’s how it is punished.

What does this idea of hoarding consists of? Possessing a large enough quantity of something to make it worth trading in it. It doesn’t matter if it is soda crackers, fan blades, or in this case, jeans with small manufacturing defects. The number they consider as too high has not yet been stipulated. That is left to the police officer’s interpretation.

That is why I remember, for example, my trips to the University of Santiago De Cuba, when the cops would board a truck full of students, go through our entire luggage, and detain or give tickets to anyone who had more than the usual packs of candy or wafers than was considered normal. Obviously, the merchandise was confiscated as well.

Many times it was only bread, guava paste, or any other edible product students would have to sell in order to earn some money to subsist, while at the same time alleviating the hunger of their companions in poverty.

“Hoarding” is only one of the many denigrating terms with which every attempt to trade, for personal benefit, can be nipped in the bud in name of a supposed common equality which becomes more pathetically fictitious each day.

Behind this term lies a government mentality dedicated, at its fullest, to mercilessly sweeping away anyone who refuses to live as an indigent on their state salary, anyone who decides to try to get by through some kind of trade, as minimal as it is stressful. For those, the path is strewn with red lights.


Two currencies circulate in Cuba. Workers’ wages are paid in one – “national money” or Cuban pesos; but what workers buy must be paid for with the other – “convertible pesos,” which are worth twenty-five times more. It is evident that “buying” the convertible peso – required to purchase basic needs – is, in itself, an almost constant labor for Cuban workers.

OK, at least in my city, with nearly 300 thousand people, there are only two “Exchanges” where you can undertake the operation legally. The serpentine lines that snake out through its glass doors are depressing — hundreds of people standing under the sun in order to be able to obtain the convertible pesos.

What does this bring as a consequence? That many choose to buy those convertible pesos at the Exchanges in order to then sell them to their fellow countrymen, who can then avoid the long lines under the hot sun for the such slight rewards. They would lose more time standing in line to get the convertible pesos at the Exchanges, than the time it takes the cops to arrest them if they are caught selling them in front of the stores.

The iron fist of a centralized economy, however improbably, never slips, never sleeps, never leaves an area uncontrolled. The private commerce in Cuba is a painful demonstration of the way in which a system has forced millions of humble beings to live.

Recently, I heard an elderly barber say that he had turned in his permit that allowed him to operate legally, and that he would, from time to time — at the price of being a nervous wreck — see some clients at night in his back yard. The reason? Right after the supposed economic reforms in favor of our society, the State had raised his taxes to up to two hundred pesos a month. With such lump sum, he would barely have any profit.

Seeing that old man with his wrinkled skin, his clothes transparent from being worn every day, knowing that he won’t even be able to cut hair peacefully, managed to ruin my day.

As a consequence, I can’t stop wondering what we have done to the ones who lead us, the ones who sign the laws, who manage the fate of this nation, that they would make us lead such a difficult and battered existence. How is it possible to think that a man who earns one Cuban peso – 4 cents – for each convertible peso he sells, or a few cents with a bag of limes that he displays in some doorway, is a deplorable scourge whom this society needs to wipe out?


I have not yet heard anything about my friend. I have passed by his meager apartment (which is so small it almost makes it hard to breathe) a couple of more times and every time I go I find the same windows and doors are shut. I’m scared for him. I know that he would at least be charged with a huge fine and lose all his investment. I know that if worse comes to worse, his wife and five-and-a-half-year-old son would not know how to live with him behind bars, without his risky inventiveness to sustain his family’s stomachs.

But I am mainly scared for the conscience of those who arrested him, and of those who blew the whistle. I suffer from the decorum of so many Cubans devoted to reporting their neighbors, with withering smiles, of taking away what little they acquire , of vaporizing the shred of peacefulness that it represents to a pater familias to be able to earn some money with which to alleviate the scarcities of the home kitchen.

It makes me suffer because in my commitment to some day building a happier and freer country, a country that better meets the needs of its sons and daughters, they will all be the burden that will tie us to the past.

Translator: Angelica Betancourt

August 14, 2010