Variations on an Old Theme / Regina Coyula

Metropolitan Bank of Infanta

(With the complicity of Efraín)

Ten in the morning, an office of Metropolitan Bank on 42nd Street. Cecilia de Villaverde in very short shorts, white shirt and ballet flats, with a perfect toss of her glossy black hair, asks who is the last in the queue. Ten and ten in the queue that has not moved and a foreigner of buoyant appearance, with a face looking like he’s seen an apparition approaches a revived Cecilia. Ten and twenty, the queue has not moved and ten minutes of conversation of the dazed foreigner with Cecilia Apparition of the Morning, and the foreigner abandons the line and takes our Cecilia to his leased Audi.

Ten the following morning, an agency of Metropolitan Bank on 42nd Street. Our Cecilia of Yesterday, this time wearing a miniskirt and sandals tied to the ankle passes by in front of the bank branch. She returns just to ask who is last with a perfect toss of her glossy black hair to a foreign newcomer in an SUV. The foreigner in shock, but a little shy, so Cecilia-She-Of-The-Perfect-Teeth, smiles and comments casually how hot it is. Fifteen minutes later, the foreigner in shock and Cecilia agrees that it’s better on the beach than in that unmoving line.

“There’s no one like that girl to make a line!” comments the peanut vendor to no one in particular.

Translated by Ariana

May 6 2011

Popularizing the Frustration

In Cuba it’s the bad word composed of the letters “pee, ar, i, cee, and kay” with which the masculine sexual organ is defined, and it’s become as common as the surnames Rodríguez, Valdés, Pérez or Hernández, and more well known than a salsa or reggaeton group of proven popularity. If we stamp our feet, it flows from the frustration of tens, dozens, hundreds and thousand; from the craziness we feel sentenced to a life in tune with the same radio soap opera, performed by the same actors, as is we have deliberately broken the radio dial to force ourselves to listen, for more than fifty years, to the same program.

Thus, the abused word spread and became so common that it’s become an interjection. Until the ’70s it was an expression used by certain social classes. The prejudiced popular stereotypes assigned it to the tenements of Old Havana, Central Havana and other so-called marginal neighborhoods.

I remember a few years ago that people looked askance at its use in the street–usually in a loud voice–and even more so if it was said by a woman. Today it has become so common that it seems strange when you don’t hear it. It’s embedded in our daily hearing and speaking and used to affirm something or someone positive as well as the complete opposite. It’s a heavyweight curse that expresses very well either discontent or pleasure, and that is stacked with others, similar, such as “you bet your f**kin’ a**,” in a popularization of the political-social machismo that still exists in Cuba.

Translated by Ariana

May 2 2011

The Government of Our Saints / Miguel Iturria Savón

I agree with Jesus, friend and owner of a Moscovitch car from the eighties, who tells me his ex-wife is very ill but has not gone to Rincón to pray to Saint Lazarus, but he had to accompany nearly thirty neighbors and relatives who hired him to drive them to the famous leper colony of Santiago de las Vegas, south of Havana.

“I don’t like to go because the landscape is bleak, especially between December 16 and the middle of January, but it’s difficult to refuse them because they are people who pay for the trip to keep their promises. They have souls full of faith and that’s admirable. The problem is what you see before you arrive and while waiting for your client: beggars of every kind, deranged people who drag stones and chains and aggressive vendors who take advantage of the circumstances.

Jesus is Catholic by inheritance though he rarely goes to church; he knows the Bible, the rituals, the saints and collects stories and stamps and likes to gossip about the legends of St. Lazarus, the Virgin of Charity, the Virgin of Regla and other venerated Cuban saints.

He says that in the Bible two Lazaruses appear: that of the dogs, and the Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Martha and Mary. He says the story about Lazarus of the dogs is a parable of Jesus Christ, that is an illustration to focus on reality, which is something imaginative and nonexistent recorded in the words of the Gospel Luke.

I ask him if it doesn’t seem like an evangelical interpretation, not very Catholic, but he asks me to let him continue, because “Christians and Protestants worship the same God and study the same Bible, although the latter rejected the images and disagree on various points.”

“In the parable of the rich and the poor, Lazarus was the sick beggar who asked for the crumbs of the powerful; only the dogs pitied him, so they appear at his side in the images reproduced by his worshipers. Both the rich and poor died the same night, but God only received the beggar and send the miser to hell.”

I inquire about the other Lazarus, that of Bethany; he explains that he existed, he was a friend of the Lord and resuscitated Jesus Christ four days after he died, although little is known of his existence, so the sacred legend merges Lazarus of the parable with the true one, perhaps because neither knew how to solve their problems in life.

Seeing that I’m smiling, Jesus asks me, “Can you imagine Cubans without the promises of Saint Lazarus and the appeals to the Virgin of Charity? Don’t they seem more believable and worthy of reverence than our rulers?”

Translated by Ariana


February 3 2011

Fans of Barça Are Growing in Havana / Iván García

With top tier baseball laughable, when at times the teams seem to be playing waterpolo or handball, fans are abandoning it to watch a more attractive spectacle.

And of the available spectacles, the best is the games of the Football Club from Barcelona aired on national television. Under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, the eleven Catalans have captured the attention of football lovers in Cuba and around the world.

At the bar of the El Conejito restaurant, at the corner of 17 and M in Vedado, not 200 meters from the quiet blue waters off the Malecon, the fans of the Catalans are out in force. With an atmosphere more like a 19th century English pub, small and warm, it’s a fixed point for Barça’s fans in Havana.

Before a match of the Spanish or European Champions league, dozens of people fill the place and pop the tops on a Bucanero beer at 1.30 convertible pesos a can. They are gearing up for the after-game celebration of the almost sure-win of the star Catalonian team.

The Havana fans have displaced from El Conejito the foreign travelers who swarm the area during this high season for tourism. For the Spanish followers of Barcelona passing through the capital, the occasion is stupendous. They mix in with the fun and noise, vuvuzelas included, and in fits of generosity pay for rounds of beer for their friends.

That fateful Monday in November, when the Guardiola machinery pulled ahead by a “hand” (5-0) against the Real Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo, a Catalan exalted with a fat Mexican beer treated almost fifty people watching the match to a round of beer. From a sense of dignity, the Madrid followers didn’t accept the invitation.

At a later game, after the crushing of Deportivo de La Coruña, another club with thousands of supporters in Cuba (it’s said that nearly all Cubans are part Galician), a group of ecstatic Spanish Barça fans uncorked a couple of bottles of champagne.

Many Habaneros have become bigger fans than ever. It’s a fad. The bathroom of good football and the touch of luxury of the eleven Catalans, have caused a number of defections. Followers of the English, Italian or German leagues have been seen hopping on one foot with incredible work on the field of the army led by Lionel Messi, who won the Ballon d’Or for a second consecutive year, as the best player in the world.

But also on the Island are those who won’t switch allegiances. A real stiff upper lip. Real Madrid has a history already written. It is the team that has won the most European Cups. And the most titles in the Spanish League.

When Barça matches this record, then you might start to argue with those passionate followers, who have an exaggerated way of claiming that the current Barcelona F.C. is the best team in the history of football.

To watch Barça play is an indescribable feast. May the local Catalans continue to enjoy it. But it’s still February. Perhaps by spring the fanatics will be brought down a peg. There is a lot of fabric still to be cut.

Reporting in real time: Habanero followers of Real Madrid don’t accept defectors.

Translated by Ariana

January 31 2011

Cautious Optimism / Fernando Dámaso

1. Once again small businesses have begun to appear all over the city, even on my Tulipan Avenue, where only five months ago they were wiped out. It’s like a weed no one can kill, but in this case weeds that should never die, and that should be transformed into strong and leafy trees, with well-established roots to resist the battering of the cyclones that are sure to come. Depending on the possibilities of each one, some better conceived than others, but all with the desire to prosper, something innate in human being. It is to start again.

2. We must look on their resurgence with optimism, although we can’t be too confident in their permanence. We have already seen several negative experiences previously (remember the “Kingbird On The Wire*” operations against the artisans and artists in the Plaza of the Cathedral, Adoquin and Maceta, against the self-employed, and others, to cite some of the glaring examples). Reality obliges us to be cautious. Some people have already begun to blame them for some of the product shortages in the stores.

3. Analyzing what’s in writing and talking about it with the self-employed, their efforts arise from the necessity to save the drowning, from conviction of the advantages, and we discover that to launch such a business they must pay the state between 30% and 35% in taxes on profits, spend (it’s calculated) up to 40% on expenses (legal proof must be provided for half), and earn not more than 25% (not enough to get rich). In other words, the State appropriates 75%, in one form or another (through expenses, that include energy, materials, etc purchased from the state, the only source and one that sets exorbitant prices), and the self-employed person gets 25%. Not even the demonized savage capitalism acts like this.

4. It’s as if someone on the point of drowning asks for help and his savior demands that he buy the rope and the life jacket with which he will be rescued, and at a fixed price. It would be absurd. As we can see, the self-employed, despite what they say, is still seen as an undesirable traveling companion, an ideological enemy, someone being used because there is no alternative, with the intention of disposing of him as soon as possible. It continues to focus on the failed socialist enterprise, that has never functioned anywhere where it has been tried. It is the contradiction between the efficient and productive and the inefficient and unproductive.

5. Despite these concerns, it’s healthy that something has started to move, even if the movements are minimal and with many strings attached. In short, the creature, if is manages to gain strength and develop itself, little by little it will be capable of freeing itself and picking up speed.

*Translator’s Note: A kingbird (pitirre in Spanish) is an aggressive little bird that will attack larger birds and even people. “A kingbird on the wire” is a common Cuban expression warning that someone is eavesdropping, or there is a snitch, with bad intentions.

Translated by Ariana

January 29 2011

Alienating Myself from Pigeons / Rosa María Rodríguez Torrado

I am going to start raising carrier pigeons. Perhaps the color doesn’t matter to me as much as the animal. They must be pigeons! It has occurred to me that this bird, the one of peace, could also help me combat censorship and publish my ideas on the web. I have thought about my best strategy: Hang the post on the foot of one of these and a link to another through which I can “load it” on WordPress. My friends laugh and I’m exasperated.

Why not? Look? Why not?

Translated by Ariana

December 20 2010

Migration and Xenophobia / Laritza Diversent

Ana Luisa Millares, 43, from Holguin, has lived for less than eight years in a neighborhood of Havana. Nobody can explain how, in such a short time, they gave her a phone line and assigned her a ‘mission ‘ (collaborative work) in Venezuela. She returned full of electrical appliances and enough money, in less than twelve months, to build a house.

Her neighbors are annoyed with the rise in living standards of Mrs. Millares. Many haven’t managed to get half of what she has in their whole lives. Disparagingly and to her back, they call her “the Palestinian” as Havana natives call those born in the eastern provinces.

Migration, mainly from the countryside to the capital, is determined, in the first place, by the difference in economic and social development among the country’s provinces. On the other hand, the government fills the workforce in positions Habaneros reject with people from the east.

Little or nothing is said about it. Until today, no sociological analysis explains the wariness of Habaneros with respect to easterners. Even the legal rules imposed by the government curb migration to the capital, like Decree 217 of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers reinforces this sense of rejection.

Some justify the rejection with historic events. Accordingly, they allege that when the guerrillas, mostly easterners, arrived in Havana in January of 1959, they destroyed the capital. They became the dominant group and took over the best properties in the city for themselves and their families. Since then, like the musical group Van Van sings, “Havana can’t take any more.”

Habaneros have other hypotheses. There are those who think it’s a problem of idiosyncrasy and are sure that the easterners are usually unconditionally supporters of the government and, in turn, the most hypocritical. They also argue that the top leaders of the government are nominated and elected by the eastern territories from which they come.

Others mention a reality: easterners make up the majority of the police, the principal force repressing citizens in the capital. A job rejected by capital residents, even before the triumph o the Revolution in January of 1959.

It’s a fact recognized by Raul Castro in the closing of the first parliamentary session in 2008, when he said that, “if the easterners didn’t come to look after the Habaneros, there would be an increase in robberies.” A phrase with more than one interpretation.

In reality, it’s the government itself that foments the migration from other regions to the capital. Raul Castro himself asked, “Who is going to build in Havana if construction workers don’t come from almost the whole country, and especially from the East. How many teachers from the provinces of the interior and especially from the East. And the capital, I believe, is what most inhabitants have.”

As a result of this situation, in Havana the citizens native to the east of the country are the most vulnerable from a social point of view. And some attitudes may even be described as xenophobic. An issue where the government has the major responsibility. On the one hand
it blocks migration, violating the fundamental rights of these people. And on the other, it stimulates it, according to its convenience.

January 25 2011

The Journalist Reinaldo Escobar Enters the Debate / Polemica, The 2007 Intellectual Debate

“The Little Email War,” “Little Glasnost,” “Rebellion of the Intellectuals” or “The Created Situation,” have been some of the names used to baptize this phenomenon which I prefer to call, “words of the intellectuals” (with the “of” in bold and underlined). Evidently a hole has been opened in this Pandora’s box (which was a gift from Zeus himself), where it is not the evils that populate the world that are escaping, but rather the outrages committed against freedom of expression.

I promise not to use this space for personal complaints, in the first place because I feel a profound gratitude to those who, in December 1988, banned me from practicing the profession of journalist. To them I owe my freedom, which I exercise from Cuba, although sadly not in the media permitted in Cuba.

As it is not possible to answer, argue or support each deserving idea, because that would imply writing a book, I will limit myself to giving my opinion about what I believe is fundamental in this issue, which after all is not, not even remotely, the appearance on the small screen of those who once were the obedient adherents of a policy. What seems to be clear to everyone is that there are open wounds, self-criticisms to make and discussions to foment.

I can understand the horror of the newly vindicated, faced with the renewed vindication of their executioners; what I cannot seem to understand at all is the simplicity of confusing the systemic with the causal.

Just like a bus that is already full, those who are already on the first step of the discussion ask to close the door because there isn’t room for anyone else, but those of us who are left behind, those who here are below, we think differently.

I believe that the basis of all the wrongs that have occurred is the intolerance of difference, which is not limited to the nearly defeated intolerance of different religious beliefs, or to the repudiation of different sexual preferences. I am speaking about the unconquered intolerance of diverse political opinions. I would like to know on what general principle we can build tolerance for one particular kind of diversity without applying this to other kinds of diversity.

Since that fateful day in which the cultural politics of the Cuban Revolution was subjugated to a sectarian phrase — Within the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, nothing — the abyss opened. Because from that moment a group of people were conferred, or conferred upon themselves, the right to define the boundaries of what could be catalogued as revolutionary, meaning what could be published, shown and disseminated. And since the creators of literature, painting, music or cinema usually fulfill themselves when their work becomes something tangible for the public, they begin the create in that direction and there begins the self-censorship; because there is only one way to be sure that what we do cannot be classified as “outside of the Revolution,” and that is to do only that which is clearly for and within the Revolution.

That gray five-year period was only the act of drawing the dividing line a few meters closer to the border. The original sin was to conceive the border.

Some of those who are participating in this discussion are not disputing the right of the government to decide whether to publish a work based on its political affiliation. The only thing they are contending is that they and their work should be considered unwavering supporters of the Revolutionary line. Others want to go further, which is why, in this debate, many things are being discussed at the same time.

Víctor Fowler, with his habitual lucidity, introduces the idea of a “catalog of practices of cultural violence.” All of the anecdotes fit into this catalog: prison for the translator of the prophecies of Nostradamus, the famous Padilla case, the firing of Eduardo Heras, the sanctions against Norberto Fuentes, the ostracism of so many illustrious names: Cintio, Eliseo, Lezama, plus the endless list of the unknowns, as always, who in obscure cities of the country defiantly read a combative poem in a literary workshop session or who, in a provincial radio broadcast, dare to introduce an uncomfortable song by Frank Delgado. The question is how far do we take this list, and if we should pay attention to those already on board, who are shouting to close the door once and for all so the journey can continue, or if we should continue letting more people get on until the bus bursts.

Who gave the order to close the expositions of the group Arte Calle? What should we call the decade in which they banned Pedro Luís Ferrer? What color was the five-year period in which Antonio José Ponte was expelled from UNEAC? Who was the Minister of Culture when the movie “Monte Rouge” was blocked from being shown in the Cinema Festival? What, if not “The Black Spring of 2003,” should we call that moment when the poet Raúl Rivero was imprisoned?

Esteban Morales himself, former dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, classifies as “Saturn devouring the children of the Revolution” not just subordinates of Luís Pavón, but militants of the Communist Party who, in the seventies, carried out relentless purges in the school of journalism, and who today publish in the daily newspaper, Granma, and no one bothers them.

And all this is being discussed today perhaps because some advisers in the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT) who work on the program Impronta [Imprint] are just historians versed in the 19th century and wouldn’t know who directed the National Culture Council 30 years ago. I wonder what would happen if, as a part of “50 Years of Victories,” someone were to recount the exploits of Hubert Matos in taking the city of Santiago de Cuba, or if someone who does not know the secret versions of the story, speaking about the events of Granada, would mention Colonel Tortoló as an emulator of the Bronze Titan. I bet that nobody would ever make the mistake of making a Impronta episode about Doctor Hilda Molina, however much she deserves it.

What really happened is not that one day it was mentioned to someone that it deserved to be buried in silence, but just the opposite; it’s that it has been too quiet for too long, and not only in the area of culture. As the critic Orlando Hernández has bravely pointed out, “It would be very sad if all this fell into the ridiculous Complaints and Suggestions Box at the Ministry of Culture, or if it were converted into a minority’s collective catharsis.” I believe that the criticism or self-criticism remains unresolved not only in the case of the First Culture Congress, which changed its name in its second session to become the Congress of Education and Culture. The Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, the repudiation rallies of the 1980s, the unmet Food Plan of 1990s, the sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo, and the infinite lists that so many victims could rightfully assemble, are also in need of a self-criticism; to do otherwise would make it very difficult to honor someone on television without running the risk that the person interviewed would have another “imprint” in his illustrious biography.

Not only revolutions, but also history in its entirety, is staged by men who,in carrying out the projects they put forward, experience successes and failures, greatness and baseness, nobility and villainy. Cuba’s is far from a celestial history, though many have insisted on sweetening it. It seems as if once again someone has tried to marry us to a lie and to force us to live with it, but fortunately, someone also has taught us that it is better to let the world collapse than to live a lie.

I don’t want to finish this intervention without referring to the cryptic Declaration of the Secretariat of UNEAC, published on Thursday, January 18.

To say that the cultural politics of the Revolution, established with those Words to the Intellectuals — Within the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, nothing — is irreversible, is to affirm that Luís Pavón did not manage to reverse it and therefore only was consistent with it to an extreme degree. In that we are in agreement. What I cannot agree with is the element of terror the text introduces with the mention of a supposed annexationist agenda on the part of those who have wanted to take advantage of the situation created. I call on them to show a single paragraph of the debate with the stink of annexationism. Although it is suggested that this is the consensual response of the debate’s initiators, evidently it is a text that Leopoldo Ávila would proudly sign.

I propose a full debate on all these matters. Since UNEAC — the Cuban Writers and Artists Union — has decided not to hold its proposed congress, now that the Communist Party of Cuba has not held its either, we will do it ourselves in a theater, at the ballpark or in the middle of a field, without the rapid response brigades to impede its meeting, and where the entire world can speak, the communist, the social democrat, the Christian democrat and the liberal, and if the annexationists have something to say, we will listen to them also.

Finally it seems healthy to me that those of us who participate in this discussion do not share a common position. We are not going to repeat the model affirming that “this is not the moment to have divergences among ourselves because we should unite against the common enemy.” Much less will we proclaim something like, “Against the reign of Pavón everything, for the reign of Pavón nothing.” Please, let us not start in the same way. Fortunately, like Pandora’s mythical box, the only thing that hasn’t escaped is hope.

Reinaldo Escobar

Translated by Ariana

January 31, 2007