Anti-U.S. References Erased From a Santa Clara Mural / 14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenchea

One section of the mural
One section of the mural

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenchea, Santa Clara, 9 June 2015 — After months of work, the new cartoon mural in the City of Santa Clara’s Intercity Bus Terminal has been completed. This painting replaces an earlier one, but with two significant elements missing. It does not include any component from the hand of Pedro Méndez, the renown cartoonist from the comics supplement Melaíto*, and all references to the United States – which were abundant in the previous painting – are gone.

Méndez was not able to contribute due to health issues, while the absence of negative references about our neighbor to the North seems to be related to the new era that began last December 17th with the announcement of reestablishment of relations between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution. Both circumstances have combined and noticeably influenced the final results. continue reading

No one would ever dream that Méndez, an avowed enemy of the yanquis and the artist behind the anti-U.S. images on the painting that was replaced, would now be willing to work on a mural whose artists were clearly prohibited from making even a veiled criticism of the neighbor to the North. “There better not be any flags on the military uniforms!” was the order of the cultural authorities to the artists and sign makers who undertook the project.

The reasons behind replacing the old mural are not clear either. It is true that the wall on which the mural hung was in a deplorable state. Rumor had it that intelligence agent Gerardo Hernández Nordelo would surely display his own drawings on that wall, but that has not happened. Still, it may. In the next few months they may decide to fill the space they left blank, before graffiti artists get to it first.

*Translator’s Note: Part of Vanguardia, the Communist Party newspaper of Villa Clara Province.

Translated by José Badué

— Supplement to 14ymedio article: Photos of sections of the old mural —

What's that? Collateral damage. (Source:
What’s that? Collateral damage. (Source:


Letter from a Cuban-Spaniard to Pablo Iglesias / 14ymedio

Pablo Iglesias, Secretary-General and founder of the Spanish Podemos party and Member of the European Parliament. (Facebook)
Pablo Iglesias, Secretary-General and founder of the Spanish Podemos party and Member of the European Parliament. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 22 May 2015 — I am a Cuban of Spanish descent. I was born in Havana exactly fourteen years after Franco’s death, ten years after the Spanish Constitution of 1978 was ratified, and one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

My grandparents, most of them from the Spain’s Galicia region, could be considered victims of the Franco régime. Although they were not killed or tortured, they did suffer the consequences of a civil war. Like so many others, they had to leave it all behind and emigrate to Cuba, fleeing the poverty and social instability inflicted on Spain by the Franco régime and its brand of Fascism. In other words, my grandparents had neither future nor freedom in Spain. Meanwhile, the countries of the Western Hemisphere were rich lands, far from the devastation of the war in Spain and Europe, with growing industries and opportunities for all.

Cuba was under the rule of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. His régime respected the rights of trade and commerce, turning the Island into a prosperous country welcoming of immigrants. Despite this, Batista’s régime, like all dictatorships, was corrupt. That, coupled with political instability, awoke an enormous discontent throughout Cuban society. The Cuban Constitution of 1940, one of the most progressive of its time – not only in the Western Hemisphere, but in the entire world – had been forgotten and still today has not been recovered. continue reading

It was this discontent that awoke sympathy and support among the Cuban people for a young lawyer, the son of Galician immigrants. Eloquent and with a utopic discourse, he initially displayed a friendly face to the people, but later, with his Marxist-Leninist ideas, he became the protagonist of one of the most long-lasting dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere. He is also the one most responsible for the impoverishment of Cuba and its people.

As a Cuban, I am alarmed to see this same discontent and instability in today’s Spanish society, in the context of an imperfect democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. 

As a Cuban, I am alarmed to see this same discontent and instability in today’s Spanish society, in the context of an imperfect democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. So are we doomed to repeat history?

Due to the twists and turns of life and history, as the grandson of Spanish immigrants who fled Franco’s régime, it was I who had to emigrate to Spain when I was 19 years old, as my father did before me. The same reasons that drove my grandparents from Spain drove me from Cuba, but with a few distinct nuances. The man ruling Cuba with an iron fist is a Comandante, not a general. His last name is Castro, not Franco. Fascism did not force me to immigrate, Communism did.

Allow me to be perfectly clear with respect to this: if a person, with a family history like mine wants to do something constructive with his life, what he is searching and wishing for is to leave the obsolete ideologies of the past century on the wayside. What that person wants is to file away vengeance, hatred, and anger, although it may be hard to do so (and believe me, it has been very hard for me), and use reason and emotion as instruments of rebuilding and unity, not destruction and divisiveness.

You are right about many things, and I must admit that you are an excellent photographer of the reality in Spain. You know like no one else how to channel the disconnect in the society, to put a name on this discontent and to transform it into votes for your political movement. Although I consider your arrival on the Spanish political landscape as positive and healthy for a democracy, I also see in you obsolete and erroneous ideas of struggles, of resentment and of promulgating a supposed social justice that, believe me, by this path will never come to pass. History – my history – has proven it to be so.

I recognize in your discourse the entire battery of slogans that I listened to for hours and hours under the Caribbean sun.

I recognize in your discourse the entire battery of slogans that I listened to for hours and hours under the Caribbean sun. Those slogans about equality and struggle sound very good to those who do not understand their effects (among them yourself) but once the stage was dismantled they left us — 11 million Cubans on the island — with fears, dreams, exhaustion, a longing for that son or father who left, a ration book and daily blackouts lasting hours. This is similar to what is happening now in Venezuela (imported from Cuba), a model I have heard you say you envy.

Do not think this letter is an attack, it is not. If it just makes you and many others reflect, it will have achieved its goal. Allow me to share my political viewpoint with you, to avoid my being labeled or being accused of being a product of a powerful caste, the bourgeoisie, or some other powerful entity. I, and only I, will clarify what my politics are. I am neither of the right nor the left, I say it without meaning it to sound like the political slogan so often used these days. I consider myself liberal, progressive, and a social democrat.

I am a liberal because liberalism defends the supremacy of individual rights, irrespective of race, gender, or nationality. Respect for the rights of the individual is respect for his or her freedom, and guaranteeing the rights of all, which inevitably leads to the rule of law. I want a State that functions and allows me to function, that enforces the law, that rewards hard work, and that permits me the necessary freedom to build my own future without paternalistic subsidies, nor bureaucracy, nor a pointless civil service.

I am a social democrat because I sincerely believe that all future civilized societies should be cognizant of and apply the art of peaceful coexistence and should have a humanist and social character, without forsaking sustainable commercial projects that generate wealth. On the other hand, I consider myself a progressive because I believe that an imposed yoke, of whatever kind and wherever it comes from, is always expendable, and religions are not an exception. Because education should be secular and free of political indoctrination, because no State or divine being should tell a woman what she can do with her body, because I share the joy allotted to a community such as gays and lesbians when their right to marriage and adoption are recognized.

I thank you for your time, and I hope you will know how make a positive contribution and help unify all of us in the quest for a better future. In your hands, and in everyone’s hands, within our diversity, there is the possibility to either pass into history as those who gave a country the tools to renew such a hard-won and much-needed democracy, or as those doomed once more to repeat it.

I apologize for my anonymity. Personal and family reasons in relation to Cuba require it.

Bidding you a cordial farewell, I wish you the best.


Just another citizen.

So Many Lists Having Nothing to Do With Obama / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Raúl Castro with Barack Obama at a press conference during the Summit of the Americas.
Raúl Castro with Barack Obama at a press conference during the Summit of the Americas.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 27 April 2015 — A few days back, a commentator on Cuban state television found it “interesting” that Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinan, speaking on behalf of her party, said there would be no opposition in the U.S. Congress to removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror.

This time, the Cuban-American Congresswoman was not disparaged as a “wild wolf,” as the official media christened her back in the days of the campaign for the return of the little boy rafter Elián González to Cuba. If everything goes according to plan, on May 30th, after the 45 days required for the U.S. Congress to ratify the President’s recommendation, Cuba’s name will be erased from the list. continue reading

According to an explanation given by Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s vice-president, in an interview on April 19th, the significance of Cuba no longer appearing on the list is that from then on the country will be able to qualify for bank loans, as well as undertake other financial activities hitherto denied to it.

Still, will this signal an end to the commercial problems that cripple our imports and trade with the rest of the world?

The removal of Cuba from this list does not automatically mean that it definitely will be included among the countries taken seriously into account when it comes to negotiations, investments, partnerships, and qualifying for loans. Additionally, it does not mean that Cuba would immediately join the ranks of nations attractive to investors and international financial entities. Cuba’s name appears on other negative assessments from which it would be very difficult to erase its name in the short or medium-term.

In the repertoire of nations representing a high risk for investors, Cuba sadly occupies a distinguished spot. It is listed together with countries where it is least recommended to do business. Whether or not Cuba remains on these lists does not depend on Obama’s goodwill. It depends on Cuba complying with specific requirements established by financial entities whose assessments are universally accepted.

Additionally, among countries that tend not to pay their bills, Cuba has earned a notorious standing after decades of not meeting its financial obligations and owing large sums of money to member states of The Paris Club as well as to several others. At the end of the 1980’s, Cuba led the Latin American movement in support of not repaying foreign debts, thus endearing it to the worldwide left, but also earning the country a very negative reputation among those who invest or lend their money.

Cuba’s bad reputation regarding private property has also landed it on several other lists that frighten businesspeople and discourage foreign firms. This is due especially to the official Cuban discourse, which for over half a century has shown contempt towards private ownership of the means of production.

The memories of the massive confiscation of companies, newspapers, sugar mills, and small businesses are still very fresh in the sharp minds of businessmen who do not want to risk their investments, as happened during the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968.*

Additionally, how can Cuba be removed from the list of countries that do not allow independent trade unions, nor freedom of association and expression? Would it be possible, as if by magic, for Cuba to be removed from the list of countries that do not duly protect property owners nor shield them ideological whims without a real reform of its penal code?

Seeing we are no longer on the list of sponsors of terrorism, the Cuban government now seems to be hoping that investments and loans offers will be forthcoming overnight. No matter how paradoxical it may sound, these illusions rest on the government’s presumption that those who may be interested in doing business with the Island are cynics lacking any corporate ethics.

The Cuban authorities will then welcome unscrupulous sweatshops owners, the most heartless of loan sharks, and others who exploit workers who do not have the right to protest and cannot find a decent place to call home.

On what list will Cuba end up then?

*Translators note: In a speech delivered on March 13, 1968, Fidel Castro launched a “revolutionary offensive that would do away with the urban petite bourgeoisie.” By the end of the year the government had confiscated 55,636 small businesses (mostly family-owned and with no more than two employees, ranging from grocery stores to shoe shining stalls) that had survived the first waves of confiscations of the early years of the régime. This move marked the end of private enterprise in Cuba.

Translated by José Badué

Russia and Raúl Castro’s Mediating Role / 14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenechea

Raúl Castro and Vladimir Putin in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution in July 2014. (EFE/Alejandro Ernesto)
Raúl Castro and Vladimir Putin in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution in July 2014. (EFE/Alejandro Ernesto)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenechea, Santa Clara, 5 May 2014 — Russia is not the West’s Enemy, with a capital “E.” And even if it were, it would not be taken seriously. Russia is no longer the industrial superpower of the ’70’s and ’80’s, nor is it a leader in innovation. Its population is dwindling to catastrophic levels, as its share of GDP in comparison to those of other countries. It is indeed true its army is still the only one that can face the American army in all-out symmetrical war, but for how much longer?

In fact, Russia is not the enemy because it shares real enemies with the West, the enemies we really should fear. And we share them because Russia is part of the West. continue reading

The proof of this not only lies in Russia’s Christian tradition, but more importantly, it is one of the countries that has influenced Western culture the most. If you make a list of the ten most important figures in any scientific field, technology, the arts, music, philosophical inquiry, or of the literature of our Western civilization that have paved innovative and unforeseen paths, said list would invariably include at least one Russian surname.

Russia’s problem has been, as compared, for example, to France or Spain, that the segment of its society that has supported rationalism (and I mean rationalism as defined by Karl Popper) has not been able to replace the traditional and instinctively Russian characteristics of its society. As a matter of fact, Russian rationalism, which peaked at the end of the 19th century until approximately 1925, has been repeatedly purged by a pseudo-rationalistic survival method derived from tradition and national instincts. This pseudo-rationalism, a form of modernized half-baked Asiatic culture, started winning the race once the Bolshevik counterrevolution dissolved the constitutional convention of 1917, culminating with Stalin’s rise to power.

Needles to say, the continuing success of “Asiatic culture” in Russia has had a lot to do with mistaken impression the rest of the West has of it. This was understandable when the West indisputably ruled the world, and every nation fought for its piece of the pie. But now that is not the case at all. It is very clear that in this moment in time our civilization and its values are beginning to lose the unrestricted worldwide supremacy they once enjoyed.

Western civilization should try to do away with the anachronistic last vestiges of bloody civil wars, and what we call world wars, all waged for the sake of global domination. The West should attempt to lure Russia into joining the consensus building and security structures that have been gradually established since 1945. For this to work we should bear in mind that Russia is not a second or third-rate country. Russia has a genuine imperial tradition. In other words, Russia is not Poland, Czechoslovakia, nor even Turkey. Russia cannot be asked to just fall in line. It should be given its rightful place among the great nations.

Around 1920, José Ortega y Gasset said that Europe would unite only when it saw the enemy coming over the horizon. That danger exists today, and not only for Europe, but also for the whole West, and it comes from authoritarian China, and particularly, the Islamic world. China is a traditional empire with incredible rates of economic expansion. The Islamic world is experiencing an explosive demographic growth. While in the West, the United States is the only country whose population is increasing.

Jihadism threatens Russia’s entire southern flank, and after the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many Islamists perceive Moscow as the perfect personification of the enemy, more than they even do Washington. Or at least Moscow is the enemy they can hurt with greater ease. As far as China is concerned, not only does it threaten Russia’s Far East, it has now started expanding into it. It should be noted that the population density on the border between the two countries is 62 percent higher on the Chinese side than on the Russian. The Russian Far East is full of natural resources that the country cannot exploit in the face of an expanding China that needs them more and more.

In the next few years, when the Arctic Ocean is opened for navigation, Moscow will not benefit if it does not by that time exercise total control over its Far East, and especially its Pacific coast. Russia will need to maintain a naval force in that ocean, which in itself clashes with the Chinese strategic interest of controlling all its adjacent seas, and what they call “the first island chain” that surround them: Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Australia.

Therefore both nations are already clashing on the continental mainland and on the ocean, and in the future they will do so with even more force.

In the face of all the jingoism of recent years, the first step should be changing the way the average Westerner sees Russia. The cultural achievements of the rational segment of Russian society should be disseminated throughout the whole West. The rediscovery of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Mendeleev, Lobachevsky, Chekhov, Eisenstein, Shostakovich, Tarkovsky… could help change the perception that the average Westerner has of Russia. Meanwhile, Western admiration for Russian rationalism might motivate the Russians to rediscover it for themselves.

Saving Russia is of vital importance. In the first place, it is part of our civilization, and secondly, because the West finds itself under threat. Only an alliance between the Russian bear and the American bald eagle could perhaps save them from being subordinated by other civilizations that are on the rise.

Cuba can play a significant role in the rapprochement between these two giants that Alejo Carpentier described as being situated at the two extremes of the West. It would be a very, very positive step if Raúl Castro were to realize this before embarking on his next visit to Russia to attend the festivities of the victory over Nazi Germany. If this were the case, and Castro were to indeed try to do something to secure a rapprochement, he could secure a legacy for himself and significantly bolster Cuba’s prestige as well.

Translated by José Badué

Terrorism and the Revolution of 1959 / 14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenchea

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenchea, Santa Clara, 21 April 2015 – Recently we have been hearing the official spokesmen of Castro’s submissive society accusing everybody of being terrorists. However, did you know that the Castro Revolution came to power on a wave of urban terrorism, which left in its wake a quite significant sum of “collateral damage?”

The Revolution that triumphed in Cuba on January 1, 1959 is often very misunderstood, and what is understood, is often biased. For example, did you know that on July 26, 1953 Fidel and Raúl Castro (who was not a teenager back then, he was 22) used a hospital full of patients as a firing position to attack the Moncada Barracks, in flagrant violation of every international convention then in effect regarding warfare? A hospital serving servicemen and their families, veterans of the Cuban War of Independence, as well as ordinary citizens, suddenly became the spot from where one of the Castros’ lieutenants held the Moncada garrison under gunfire. continue reading

It is hard to believe that a lawyer as brilliant as Fidel Castro would have been unfamiliar with these international conventions. Unless, of course, we wish to believe those dubious sources claiming Fidel Castro’s schooling left much to be desired, and that he earned his grades only thanks to the help of his trusted friend, a Colt .45 pistol.

The following are eleven cases I have chosen from the extensive list of victims published in the back pages of the Cuban weekly magazine Bohemia in its first three issues of January 1959: the misnamed (only time would teach us how misnamed) “Special Liberty Editions.” Among the murders, battles, and executions listed, I have selected only a few of the Revolutionary attacks that left innocent victims.

I should make it clear that my source is incomplete: it references the list of the Bohemia journalists, who compiled it hastily during the first few days of January 1959, based almost exclusively on press releases of the time. It should also be noted that the Cuban press was subject to censorship by the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista for virtually the entire time between 1956 until December 31, 1958. Consequently, many events went unrecorded.

February 22, 1955

Antonio Goulet, sixty years old, father of Corporal Dionisio Goulet, an army barber, was killed, mangled by a bomb at his home on 112 Cuartel de Pardos Street, Santiago de Cuba. The elder Goulet’s fifteen-year-old granddaughter Emilia Iris Tabares was also injured in the attack.

January 1, 1957

Magaly Martínez Arredondo, 17, residing at 12021 69th Avenue in Marianao, was injured when a bomb exploded at Havana’s Tropicana Nightclub, resulting in one of her arms having to be amputated. Marta Pino Donosos, 18 years old, living at 12209 69th Avenue, Marianao, was also injured in the attack.

January 15, 1957

An emergency judiciary investigation was launched into a bombing on 21st Street, between 14th and 16th Street in Vedado, which injured Amada Apezteguía Armenteros and Nilda Llorente Carrascal.

Juan Pío Manresa, residing at 323 Virtudes Street in the city of Santa Clara, was injured when an explosive device went off at the corner of Virtudes and Lucena Streets in that same city.

Victoria Rodríguez, 33, residing at 256 Arrellano Street, and a seventy-year-old senior citizen, Tito Mayea Villalobos, residing at 318 Enma Street, were critically injured when a bomb exploded next to them at the corner of Fábrica and Concha Streets in Havana.

January 23, 1957

Oliverio González Mesa, 35, was killed, mangled by a bomb placed in front of the mansion owned by his employer Luciano Sampedro, located between 6th and 7th Avenue in Miramar. González Mesa had worked at the mansion as a cook for two years.

March 9, 1957

Luís González García, a twelve-year-old boy residing at 108 Jenaro Sánchez Street, suffered critical wounds when sticks of dynamite he found at the beach exploded in his hands.

April 27, 1957

Havana was rocked by eight separate bombings in eight separate businesses in a single day. The following were injured as a result: Carolina Torrente Fernández, 27, residing at 64 Tenerife Street; Ramón Fernández, 28, a resident of Rosalía District; and Faustino Cancedo, 61, residing at 66 Bejucal Avenue.

August 3, 1957

Mrs. Lidya Dorado was killed by a powerful bomb explosion on Trocha Street in Santiago de Cuba. Police Officer Arvelio Martín Céspedes was also critically injured.

August 5, 1957

Mercedes Díaz Sánchez del Águila, a resident of Milagros Street, was killed when a bomb exploded at the Ten Cents Department Store on the corner of Galiano and San Rafael Streets in Downtown Havana. Seriously injured were Lidia González Rebull, from Fontanar District; Etelvina Arencibia Gil, residing at 358 Franklin Street; Lidia Bular Barquet, 19 years old, resident of Vedado; Gladys Valdivieso, residing at 532 Parque Street; and Nelson Huerta Truichet, 72 years, and resident of the city of Marianao.

August 12, 1957

Alfonso Vivero, 43, from the beach town of Santa Fe, was rushed to an emergency room in critical condition after a bomb exploded at the dry cleaners on Luz Street, between Habana and Compostela Streets in Old Havana.

August 14, 1957

A bomb exploded at Havana’s Manzana de Gómez retail and office complex, killing José Martínez, 65, who resided at 4 Cuarteles Street.

September 3, 1957

Eusebia Díaz Páez, a young lady of 19, who resided at 3 Ángeles Street in the city of Guanabacoa was killed, mutilated when a bomb exploded in the ladies’ room of the América movie theater in Havana.

And now for some final thoughts.

In his book, Descamisados (“The Shirtless Ones”), Brigadier General Enrique Acevedo tells us that shortly after he began to publicly stand out as the most active revolutionaries in his town, a military official loyal to the Batista régime waited for him in a secluded place and threatened to kill him if something were to happen to the official’s family. As I cited earlier, the terrorist killings of people such as Antonio Goulet did not come without a price. We should not be surprised if we found Corporal Goulet’s name among those who were executed in the early months of 1959 for having “gotten even” with one or several revolutionaries.

Still today the death of Agustín “Chiqui” Gómez Lubián is officially commemorated in Santa Clara. There are even schools named after him. In other words, these schools carry the name of a terrorist who together with a partner was killed when a bomb they planned to throw through a window of the Provincial Government headquarters fell a few yards short of its objective, in Buen Viaje Street. The victims of this heroic act would have surely been the secretaries and archivists working in the building, or some of the readers in the public library located on the ground floor. Neither the Provincial Governor nor any other figure associated with the Batista régime would have been injured or killed since their offices were on the second floor, or in windowless offices in the back of the first floor.

The commemoration of this event enjoys ample coverage in Vanguardia, the puny Official Communist Party newspaper of Villa Clara Province, as does the death of Sergio González, alias “Curita,” material and intellectual author of many of the attacks mentioned above. This demonstrates that the Castro régime still exalts its terrorist roots, regardless of what it wants to make us believe when it wraps itself in the lily white tunics of its historic discourse.

Terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles* do not graduate from some sinister, clandestine CIA academy. Perhaps the CIA did indeed ultimately shape him into the coldblooded murderer he became, but people such as he grew up admiring individuals like “Curita” and “Chiqui” Gómez. Posada Carriles, no matter hos much the regime’s intellectual spokesmen, such Abel Prieto, Miguel Barnet, Fernando Martínez Heredia, or Esteban Morales want to deny it, is a more legitmate heir of the Revolution of 1959 than they themselves are.

* Translator’s note: Accused by the régime of being the mastermind behind the 1976 terrorist bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455 near Barbados, killing 73 passengers, and several other terrorist attacks. Posada Carriles currently lives in Miami.

Translated by José Badué

The Bridgettines, in the Shadows of Power / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)
The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana 6 February 2015 — Discreet and elusive, donning gray habits and cross-adorned veils, they attend mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Pinar del Río. The three nuns, originally from India, belong to the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget headed by the Italian religious Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Known as the Generalessa, Mother Tekla is one of the most influential women in the Vatican, and her ties to the Cuban government have been reinforced in the last few years.

The Bridgettines ­– a religious order of nuns founded in 1911 in Sweden by Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad – recently inaugurated a new convent in the city of Pinar del Río. A little more than a decade after opening their impressive headquarters in Havana, this religious order has now turned its attention to Cuba’s far western province. No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. continue reading

“While we’ve been waiting for years for [the authorities] to approve a complete restoration of our convent, the Bridgettines have managed to open a new convent, and even built a hostel for tourists,” protested a nun of the Daughters of Charity who chose to remain anonymous.

Last November 26th, Jorge Enrique Serpa, Bishop of Pinar del Río, blessed the new Bridgettine building. Their headquarters are located on what was once a homestead known as “Celestino the Mute’s Farm,” which was sold off by the original owner’s grandchildren due to family quarrels and financial difficulties.

The nuns bought the mansion nestled on a 2.5-acre property thanks to the efforts of Bishop Serpa himself. The diocese helped look for a building, negotiated the selling price with the owners, and helped the nuns sail through the red tape. Everything was undertaken with the utmost discretion, as is characteristic of the Bridgettines.

Work on the property started only a few days after the nuns settled in. The freshly painted façades, the hauling of building materials, and the constant presence of construction workers caught the attention of the residents of Galiano and Cuba Libre, two adjacent communities suffering from a high degree of poverty and social inequality. Nobody knew what was being built. Yet as the chapel was nearing completion, the public was informed that apart from their pastoral work focused on the care of the elderly and the poor or the region, the nuns were planning to build on a ten-room hostel on their property. At present, only a few of the rooms are ready for occupancy, and reservations have to be requested by email. The rate for a double occupancy room is 50 CUC, breakfast included. The hostel also offers a suite for 65 CUC.

No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution

Time is of the essence. An avalanche of visitors from the United States could begin arriving in the next few months if the U.S. Congress lifts travel restrictions to the Island. The regions of Viñales and María la Gorda, the marinas at Cape San Antonio, and Jutías Key and Levisa Key are among the most important attractions in the western Cuba. Consequently, the city of Pinar del Río would be a mandatory stop on the way to most of these sites. Construction at the Bridgettines’ hostel has picked up in recent weeks.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy, and that for the moment does not have much to offer in the way of accommodations. Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s privileged position allowed her to have beforehand knowledge that the United States and Cuba were negotiating a rapprochement with the Vatican’s support, and especially with the help of Pope Francis.

The Generalessa and the Comandante

The Bridgettines’ first convent in Cuba was inaugurated a few days before 75 opposition members were arrested in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003. At the time, Church–State relations had worsened due to the publication of a pastoral letter from Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, in which he called for more economic freedom and social justice. The political tensions at the time heralded the repressive wave unleashed shortly thereafter. Yet Mother Tekla would not be deterred.

In an event* broadcast on March 8, 2003 on Cuban State television, the Generalessa and the Comandante expressed their mutual affection and exchanged accolades. Fidel Castro was made Commander of the Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in exchange, the Cuban Council of State awarded Abbess General Tekla Famiglietti the Order of Félix Varela.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy

Both parties plotted the creation of the Havana convent in 2000 during Mexican president Vicente Fox’s inauguration. From that moment on, the Generalessa –born in southern Italy in 1939, and Abbess General of the Bridgettines since 1981 – would strengthen her friendship with Castro, showering him with gratitude and affection. When the Comandante suffered a fall during a 2004 speech in the city of Santa Clara, Mother Tekla rushed to send him a letter, published in the official Cuban press, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy reacted angrily at the publicized presence of the political élite at the Havana convent’s opening ceremony. Three days after the event, the Cuban Conference of Bishops released a stern reprimand against Famiglietti in a communiqué calling on her “to clearly differentiate the person of Holy Father John Paul II…and his scriptural foundations ­– as is to be expected of him – characterized by dignity, respect, serenity, and moderation, and not associate the Holy Father with excessive praise in words and deeds, as we have seen some Church figures do at these events.”

As a gesture many understood as evidence of a break with the Bridgettines, Jaime Cardinal Ortega boycotted the convent’s inauguration. Moreover, the Cuban Conference of Bishops let it be known very clearly in its statement that “no Cuban bishop or clergy designated to officially represent the Archdiocese of Havana or the Cuban Church was present at the event.”

The advantages accorded the Bridgettines were very frustrating for the over fifteen Catholic religious orders and several priests who had been waiting for many years for a response to their request to serve in Cuba. For their part, the Cuban bishops did not delay in making it perfectly clear that when it came to the matter of the Bridgettines’ presence on the Island, “the Catholic Church in Cuba did not in any way actively participate in bringing them to the country, nor did it plan their arrival, nor did it coordinate their plans in any way.”

Less than one week later the first dissidents of the Black Spring were arrested, as was reported in headlines worldwide. The Bridgettines kept quiet, and just concentrated on moving forward with building their convent and hostel in Old Havana. Their stance caused other Catholic orders to distrust them so that now, fifteen years on, the distrust still lingers. In fact, the levels of distrust have only worsened with the Bridgettines’ purchase of the property in Pinar del Río. 

In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban president Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

In 2004 Mother Tekla found herself in a tight spot. Six novices from India who were living in a convent near Rieti, Italy, went before a prosecutor to lodge a formal complaint against Abbess General Famiglietti, accusing her of resorting to violence, blackmail, and threats. The nuns swore that Famiglietti went so far as to confiscate their passports and health insurance cards. They also went on to claim that they were being so exploited when it came to their work at their convent’s hostel that they had no time to pray. Pope John Paul II himself was forced to intervene, speaking publicly in support of the Generalessa’s work “that has been so valuable to the whole Bridgettine family.” The nuns’ lawsuit was filed away without Mother Tekla ever facing any charges.

The name Tekla Famiglietti would again surface in a Wikileaks cable exposing a meeting she held with American officials in Rome. During their encounter, the Generalessa boasted of having visited Fidel Castro’s home “on numerous occasions,” and that she advocated for the lifting of the US trade embargo on Cuba. By contrast, she did not say one word about the imprisoned dissidents.

Another Wikileaks cable cast doubts on the renovation of the Havana convent without the mediation of the Cuban Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban President Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

To Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The waters now seem to have calmed down, and the relationship between the Bridgettines and the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy has reached a certain level of normality. According to sources close to the Archdiocese of Havana “our relationship has indeed improved, but we still keep a proper distance.” Still, the Bishop of Pinar del Río has served as a key ally in the expansion of the order into his province, and he has finally managed it so that the Bridgettines have won the favor of Cardinal Ortega y Alamino and the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

The Bridgettines have successfully run their hostel in Havana – on Oficios Street in the heart of the historic district – for more than a decade. The sign on the façade reads “Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget,” yet the convent’s doors are usually locked.

Lorenzo Montalvo Ruiz de Alarcón y Montalvo, Quartermaster General of the Navy and Minister of Shipbuilding of the Royal Treasury and Bank of Havana, lived in this same building at the end of the 18th century. Many years later, the renowned Café de Copas would also find a home there. Consequently, none other than Eusebio Leal – Havana’s official historian, who also happens to maintain a close relationship with Mother Tekla – supervised the allocation of this historic building to the Bridgettines.

Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order

Impeccably restored at a cost of US$4,000,000, raised for the most part by the Generalessa herself, the former mansion now boasts an intercom ensuring access only to guests with reservations. Since religious orders are tax-exempt, even when they run lucrative businesses, the Cuban National Tax Office’s logo is clearly missing from convent’s door.

Upon entering this Havana hostel, one encounters a central courtyard embellished with well-kept plants, and the soothing sound of water flowing from a fountain. A nun of few words greets guests. The hustle and bustle of the streets is left behind. It feels like crossing a temple’s threshold.

The hostel consists of only eleven rooms, and offers no brochures explaining its history. It does not offer direct Internet service either. Reservations must be requested by writing to an email address whose domain is a Cuban domestic server, and then waiting for a response. Several travel sites list and recommend the hostel, but with the same halo of secrecy that surrounds everything associated with the Bridgettines.

The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

A room in the convent is priced at around 50 CUC a night, and in high season it goes up to 75 CUC. “It’s a very peaceful place, and guests aren’t allowed to bring in another person to spend the night,” says a Polish family that stays there every time they travel to Havana. “And this is a good thing, since we travel a with a small child.”

The real world is outside, on the corner, where a café with live music functions as a meeting point for prostitutes and foreign customers. The nuns are wary of allowing Cuban guests, who they politely refuse, telling them there are no vacancies.

Before long, the Bridgettines will be offering another tourist oasis, but this time, in Pinar del Río. Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order. The deal that the Generalessa and the Comandante once reached still stands. With an almost eerie quiet, the Bridgettines have managed to position themselves in the shadows of power.

*Translator’s note: The televised event was in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Cuba. First conceived by German Communist Clara Zetkin in 1910, it became a national holiday in the USSR after the October Revolution of 1917, by order of Vladimir Lenin himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, most former Communist countries no longer observe it. It survives in a handful of countries, including Cuba, Russia and North Korea.

Translated by José Badué