The Cardinal’s Rebellion

No one counted on him. He was a person who accommodated the political mandarins. Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino, the Archbishop of Havana, had just left the local parish.

In all the years of the acute economic, social and political crisis that Cuba has and continues to live in, Ortega made very few announcements. He simply took a pass. Many practitioners of the Catholic faith left the church feeling disappointed when the Cardinal officiated over the Mass. Because he said nothing.

He never raised his voice in the name of the nonconformists. He didn’t say anything about the death of the dissident Orlando Zapata. He turned his back on the Cuban opposition. His lenses, it seemed, had another calibration. The reality of the island captured his interest with a different prism.

Maybe the time has arrived. Perhaps his last critical reflections on the state of things in the republic marked the beginning of a more active role on the part of the Cuban Catholic church. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s just punching the time clock and saying a few appropriate words, so as not to pass unnoticed and to grab some headlines in the mainstream media.

In my opinion, Jaime Ortega is the representative of the upper hierarchy of Catholicism in Latin America, less committed to the ills afflicting his people. While ecclesiastic figures on the island come out in favor of certain inalienable rights and a change in the politics of the Castro government, Ortega maintains silence.

His work as a mediator for the Ladies in White ought to go beyond fulfilling an express request of the government. Perhaps once and for all he is assuming the role that he has avoided performing: that of an important actor in the social life of his country.

We are in a crucial moment for the future of Cuba. Definitely, the Cardinal should look at Poland in the 1970s and 1980s.

To remember the leadership of an archbishop of Krakow called Karol Wojtyla. To review the role performed by the Catholic church in the Polish transition. Jaime Ortega can and should be a firm point of dialogue between two parties with the tendency toward emotional speech and apocalyptic monologues.

The best sign of acceptance of his recent action in this spring of 2010 was something I heard on the street: “Finally the Cardinal has taken off his toga and put on his pants,” commented a bookseller, not very far from the Archbishopric of Havana, in the old part of the city.

Such an authority should not speak just in the name of God. He should also speak out in the voice of those who don’t have one.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Highway Robbery

They’re like pirates on the highway. And they act with total impunity. On the stretch between Kilometer 10 and the first ring of the National Autoroute, a road with 8 lanes, dark as a wolf’s mouth and where the poor condition of the pavement makes drivers reduce their speed, it’s the propitious moment for a new breed of delinquents, known as “ninjas,” who use scooters and ski masks, to force open the trunk of a car, and, lickety split, plunder what’s inside.

Later, a car, an accomplice of the Cuban “ninjas,” collects the bags, and they divide the booty somewhere else. Their favorite target is autos rented by tourists. Fermín Escobar, 45 years old, who drives his own taxi, earning his living by charging 15 Cuban convertible pesos (13 dollars) per person, going between the bus terminals from Havana to the city of Santa Clara, some 300 kilometers away, firmly suspects that these highway robbers operate with the complicity of the police.

According to Escobar, on the Autoroute, there are numerous control points and police cars that detain you at each pass to inspect travelers’ luggage, in search of shrimp, beef or cheese, the favorite products of the people who are dedicated to the lucrative business of the black market.

“Then it’s not possible for these delinquents to carry out the robberies in peace. I have friends who are drivers, who have told me that some police alert the “ninjas” by cell phone about the license plates of the tourist cars, which are the ones they prefer. Although they also misappropriate whatever auto they suspect has valuable things in their suitcases. If the driver notes the presence of the “ninjas” and stops the car, there is a big uproar because those thieves can be armed,” reports Fermín, who counsels that the best thing to do is to accelerate as fast as possible and to not stop.

Of course the National Autoroute has a high presence of police who stop and search, at any time of the day or night, all types of vehicles, be they buses, trucks, or cars. But in spite of all these controls, there exists a hole through which “luxury” foodstuffs penetrate Havana, like shellfish and beef, which have a high demand among the habaneros.

Boarding and ransacking moving cars in the middle of the night is work that carries a high risk. It’s already known that the highway “ninjas” have an impressive dominion of scooters. For which reason the police barely detain them, and it’s a good question for the chief of the national Police. Or police ineffectiveness exists or they are “greased” with hard currency. The drivers who use the National Autoroute every day are waiting for a response.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Profile of a Candidate

Clara Fuentes, 39-years-old, was never very bright. She was a headstrong girl, raised in a small house of 15 meters without bathrooms or drinking water. Her father was a zombie-like sign painter; most days he was on strike, trying to scare up some money to raise his two daughters.

The mother was a fat, careless woman of mixed race. They lived like gypsies, off the charity of neighbors and state support. Thanks to God, or Fidel Castro, she was born in a period of the Cuban revolution in which milk was not scarce and the ration book assured them average but vital nourishment.

Later this was not the case. With the arrival of the perennial economic crisis that the nation has lived in for 21 years, known officially as the “Special Period,” Clara’s family saw dark times.

The father began to poke about among the rubbish containers, in search of valuable articles. But there was nothing. It was a time when not even empty bottles were thrown away.

Clara and her sister grew up dirty and unkempt. They were pretty and had good figures. But they dressed in old, recycled clothes that were handed down. In the barrio they were called the “miserable ones.”

To their material poverty was added mental stupidity. Clara gave birth to three sons by a boy who lived in the eastern provinces. Her sister did the same. Clara had her sons between the ages of 16 and 20. And they didn’t have enough food for four, so you can imagine how much they had for eight.

The honorable exit Clara Fuentes found was to enroll in the system. Abandoned by the biological father, and without a cent for her sons, she enlisted as a recruit in the army.

She passed a course to become a sergeant and began to work in a military unit. Although the salary was scarcely enough, her situation improved. But she continued being taken care of by the state.

The three children slept in one bed. She slept on the floor, on a grubby mat among nocturnal cockroaches and lizards. She started to take care of an old woman, who died three years later.

The state granted her the old woman’s house. It was small, with two suffocating rooms and minimal sleeping quarters. For Clara, it was a palace.

She left the army and started working as a custodian for a business. She worked 12 hours a day and rested for two days. She was on duty at sunrise three days in the week. They paid her 300 pesos (12 dollars) and 18 Cuban convertible pesos (20 dollars).

In addition, they gave her an equivalent basket of goods. One-half box of chicken a month, four packages of ground turkey, 24 cans of soft drinks, four liters of cooking oil. With this, Clara was assured of food, administered with a hard hand in the middle of the month. The other half she got from the ration book.

She always lacked money, and her sons grew up without being well-nourished and dressed poorly. Clara is honest. She never stole anything at work, and, although she is critical of the revolution, in an ingenuous way, she believes that the guilty party is “the difficult situation,” and she does not hold Fidel Castro nor his brother responsible.

“They don’t know what is happening,” she asserts. She is contaminated by official propaganda. “We are living badly, but compared to living in a country like Haiti or in an African nation, I prefer our system.” She doesn’t question the lack of political liberties, nor do they matter to her, because “you can’t eat those things.”

At the last meeting in the barrio to elect candidates or delegates to Popular Power, they proposed her as a candidate. In order to end the meeting quickly so they could go home and watch the latest soap opera on television, and because there wasn’t a better option, the neighbors elected her unanimously.

On Sunday, April 25, Clara Fuentes was one of the two candidates running in her district. In this year of 2010, a delegate’s work is barely noticeable in the shanty town. If she has sufficient influence, she can get some construction materials at an average price for the most needy.

In general, for every five complaints that are presented to the delegates, one is resolved. Sometimes none. Not because they don’t want to satisfy their community. No. It happens because the solution is out of their hands.

The powerful state bureaucracy and material scarcity dilute any good intention. And although Clara Fuentes does not have the intelligence to solve the innumerable problems of her barrio, beginning with her own, she thinks about trying. She has confidence in her management ability. She asks those who know her to vote for her.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

No Man’s Land

For Yamil Domínguez Ramos, 37 years old, October 13, 2007 was an unlucky day.

Yamil, a Cuban man who emigrated in 2000 to the United States and who has been a U.S. citizen since 2003, is serving a sentence of 10 years in a maximum security prison in Cuba, the Combinado del Este, accused of “human trafficking.”

But the case is contaminated. I will tell you his story. On October 12, 2007, with a tourist map, Yamil left from a marina in Florida to go to Cancún, México, in a 26-foot boat, a Róbalo fast boat, with two outboard motors and a GPS system.

According to Yamil’s story, “I was thinking of spending a couple of days in Cancún and then taking a boat to Havana.” Bad weather obliged him to change his course toward the Hemingway Marina, a center of free access for international tourist boats on the outskirts of Havana.

Then began the witch hunt of the Cuban authorities, pressuring him and his family to admit he came for the purpose of human trafficking.

From the time he arrived in the United States in 2000, Yamil had visited the island seven times. To see his mother and other relatives, and because he had begun a sentimental relationship with Marleny González, a neighbor in his family’s building, in the district of Miramar.

He had plans to marry her. Since 2004 he had asked for a visa so his fiancée could leave for Miami. But by the time the United States Consulate in Havana gave him a satisfactory response on October 27, 2009, he was already a prisoner.

So the question floats in the air: “Why would Yamil Domínguez need to leave Cuba illegally, and run the risk of being caught?

Yamil isn’t immaculate. “Several times I thought about getting my fiancée and family members out secretly, but I always gave it up, not wanting to risk my security and theirs.”

As far as I know, no civilized law can condemn someone for thinking about a supposed crime. Yamil is a classic story of a Cuban who triumphed in the United States. On this island he never was part of the opposition. He formed part of that anonymous tide of people who attended, purely by compromise, the government marches or the neighborhood meetings.

His family was what is known in Cuba as “integrated,” or rather, revolutionary. Politically correct. In his fatherland he worked in tourism and rented out his car illegally to gain a fistful of pesos that would make his life more bearable. The same as thousands of Cubans, he lived on the border of legality.

But Yamil wanted something else. A society where to prosper and have ambition wasn’t seen as a crime. And thus he left. In a legal and orderly way, after having won the lottery. In the month of Christmas, he arrived in Miami, with an extravagance of lights and consumption that surprised him.

He started as an apprentice bricklayer, and thanks to the level of education he received in Cuba, a path was opened to him. In 2007, Yamil became a licensed contractor. He generated a business worth several million dollars, and this same year he hoped to earn an annual salary of one million dollars.

Life for Yamil was beautiful. He came to Cuba every time love and homesickness touched his heart. That was his weakness. Nostalgia. That feeling that after time becomes a thief that robs us of our strength. He commuted between Havana and Miami. His unlucky day was October 13.

“Every day I ask myself if what happened is just a nightmare. I spent two months in a cell of two square meters that was 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Villa Marista (seat of the political police). I was sentenced to 10 years, in hard prison conditions, where they applied different types of humiliation and torture to me. I saw my family every 45 days. At times when I wake up, I open my eyes slowly, thinking that I’m going to find myself in my home in Florida,” Yamil recounts with a sad voice on one of his family visiting days in prison.

His life changed into a Calvary. For non-payment, the bank foreclosed on his house in Florida. He lost his business. And lawyers fees came to more than five thousand dollars. It happens that by Cuban law, when it comes time to pay, Yamil is a North American citizen.

According to the Constitution of the Republic, Cuban citizenship is lost when you gain citizenship in another country. And the government of the United States, which is capable of unleashing a war on behalf of any United States citizen, in the case of many Cuban Americans, has a very weak position. Yamil Domínguez is in no man’s land.

According to a law firm of independent lawyers that Wilfredo Vallín directs, who have studied in detail the transcript of the case brought against Yamil Domínguez by the prosecutor, there’s a procedural error in the instructions in the case.

As is usual in the islands’ legal system, the accused are guilty from the start and must demonstrate their innocence in the course of the investigation.

In addition, for these independent lawyers, the type of crime is badly applied. “The only thing that can apply is illegal entry into the country. The penalty is two years, and they can’t confiscate your boat,” explains Laritza Diversent, one of the attorneys.

According to Yamil, the trial was a circus. He refused to sign any document that incriminated him, and he does not accept the confiscation of his boat.

An ex-functionary of the Ministry of the Interior, analyzing his case, says, “It could appear subjective, but the key to all this is the boat. Many bigwigs and generals lean over backwards for good boats. If you find out where the boat actually is, you will have your answer. It’s easier to sentence you to 10 years for human trafficking, and you can confiscate the boat, than to give a sentence of two years for illegal entry, a punishment where, after you get out of prison, you can ask for your boat back.”

The United States Consul in Cuba visits him every three months, and Yamil is not satisfied with his treatment. “To save medication they open the pills for me and leave me only a daily dosage. They allege that they don’t want to have a diplomatic conflict because of the Cuban Americans who are prisoners on the island,” Domínguez said.

And they do little. Or nothing. Meanwhile, Yamil does not remain with his arms crossed. He has opened a personal blog, Notorious Injustice, which is updated by his wife and his sister. He writes not only about his drama but also about life in prison, politics, or Orlando Zapata.

After two-and-a-half-years in prison, Yamil Domínguez is convinced that his only crime is having been born in Cuba and having chosen the option of emigrating. He believes that he’s paying for that. No more.

Iván García

Note: Since April 14, Yamil decided to stop eating food and to take only liquids, so that his case will stop being a notorious injustice.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Unique and Incomparable

He was black and homosexual. He was not physically attractive and he had a nasal voice. But with a tone as perfect as his hands, which appeared designed to slide across the piano keys of the bar-restaurant, Monseigneur, on 21st and O, in Vedado, where Bola de Nieve (Snow Ball) had his sanctuary.

El Bola (The Ball), as Cubans liked to call him, is one of the three great icons of Cuban music born in the former Villa of Guanabacoa, a village east of Havana, popular for its resistance in the face of the attack of the English in 1762. The other two are the singer and actress Rita Montaner and the pianist and composer Ernesto Lecuona.

Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández, his given name, came into the world on September 11, 1911. On October 2, 1971, at the age of 60, he passed away in Mexico City, the city that discovered him before the rest of the world. He wanted to be a teacher, but he ended up as a musician. To the political convulsions in his youth was added his condition of being black and gay.

In the decade of the 1930s, Rita Montaner, who already was a star, helped him to earn some pesos as an accompanist on the piano at the Hotel Sevilla. He himself earned money by playing during the intermissions of silent movies in neighborhood theaters. At that time, he must have had the idea of singing while he played the piano. And that converted him into a unique piano man

The ’40s and the ’50s went by, and Havana was a city with an intense night life. El Chori played percussion in the casinos on the beach in Marianao. In the club La Red and La Lupe, with his histrionic qualities, he imposed a peculiar way of singing. Nearby, Elena Burke, the emotional señora, transformed into Scheherazade in the depths of Focsa, in the cathedral of bolero.

Without leaving Vedado, for very little money, every night in the Gato Tuerto, you could hear César Portillo de la Luz with his compositions, like Tú Mi Delirio (I’m Crazy About You) and Contigo en la Distancia (With You in the Distance). The night owls used to end up on the roof of the Hotel Saint John, in El Pico Blanco, where José Antonio Méndez, with his hoarse voice, interpreted La Gloria eres tú (You are Glorious) and Si me comprendieras (If you Understood Me).

This was before the bearded comandante arrived and ordered “so much partying” to stop. Still in the ’60s, in the Celeste bar, La Freddy, an old maid of elephantine proportions with the voice of a mezzo soprano, shook up Havana. Years later, she would serve as an inspiration for Guillermo Cabrera’s writing. She sang boleros.

In this Havana of bread with beefsteak at 15 cents and Polar beer at 20 cents a bottle, Bola de Nieve sparkled with authenticity.

Now, at the entrance of Monseigneur – inaugurated in 1953, with specialties like filet mignon and butterflied lobster – it’s common to see foreigners taking photos of the mythical spot. Or going out with sculptural mulatas, who don’t even know who Bola de Nieve was. They enjoy the same thing as most young Cubans today: rap and reguetón, with their repetitive, vulgar, or violent lyrics.

I was born in 1965, and I didn’t have the pleasure of enjoying those musical talents live. Much less a Havana often visited by famous people of the stature of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Lola Flores, Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque.

Bola de Nieve is one of the essentials of Cuban music. Every time I pass the corner of 21st and O, facing the Hotel Nacional, where Monseigneur used to be, I can’t help imagining him, with his black suit and his big teeth, and his way of singing Drume Negrita, No puedo ser feliz, La flor de la canela, La vie en rose, or El manicero (Black Drum, I Can’t be Happy, Cinammon Flower, Life in Rose, or the Peanut Vendor).

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Chronicle with First Quarter Moon

Perhaps I’m not the right person to write this chronicle. Or maybe I am. I know colleagues who personally knew Silvio Rodríguez in that first stage of the revolution, ingenuous and difficult, crude and contradictory, where children magically became men.

Further, I’m going to talk about the spell that Silvio provoked in my generation, by many considered “lost.” Anyone under 50 years had a similar experience in the way we listened to his songs.

Perhaps in school, in the subject interpreted by an infantile adventure or in the voice of a friend, I don’t remember now exactly, but when I discovered Silvio it was while he composed songs and had been one of the founders of the Sound Experimentation Group of ICAIC, together with the indispensable Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola and Vicente Feliú, among other, all directed by Leo Brouwer, who already was a maestro.

One year later, in 1973, the Movement of the New Trova had been created, of which Silvio was the main part. The Beatles, with their myth spreading around the world, had disintegrated in 1970, and it was no secret that the geniuses of Liverpool, with their ballad-rock music, had left an incurable vacuum after their dissolution, in spite of the psychosis they gave the Cuban cultural and political authorities.

Then, I think, the strategists of culture saw a vein of gold and thus supported that scruffy group that sang about strange things, because when it came down to it, they were “revolutionaries.”

A truce was declared. The media, little by little, put themselves at the service of Silvio and the New Trova movement. With reserve, of course. At the start, because of disinterest in the trovadors, they were heard only at political events, patriotic commemorations or on days of national mourning.

The official propaganda put emphasis on the known themes of Silvio Rodríguez, like The era is giving birth to a heart, Gun against gun, Song to the chosen and the Chief, songs that with their metaphoric and poetic language demonstrated support for the revolution. Silvio also sang about the everyday and alienation, but from moment to moment, until he didn’t show his complete loyalty, those texts navigated in semi-secrecy.

The singer-songwriter from San Antonio de los Baños was a kind of moon in the last quarter: we could appreciate only one part of his face. Thus, in this way, he came to our generation.

We hummed the lyrics on patriotic anniversaries or in memory of the martyrs. Silvio was growing with us. Upon reaching the decade of the 80s, the tested Cuban composer still was not being censured. It had been a painful and traumatic birth, but here was this Rodríguez, in his rightful place. One of the best Cuban composers of the 20th century.

The lyrics of Summary of the news and Hopefully didn’t raise suspicions. On the contrary, he was a prophet in his own land and also in Latin America and Spain. Many, like I, followed and harassed him from recital to recital. We knew almost his whole repertoire by heart.

Human beings need myths, leaders, chosen people…and for us, Silvio was it. Or, at least, he made a valuable mark on a portion of Cuban youth, although some later became critical of his work and his ideological position. Others say that he stagnated, adapted, and lost his nerve.

My current political position differs a good bit from that of Silvio Rodríguez now that I am 63 years old. Not for that reason am I going to stop admiring his songs: that would be denying and betraying an important part of my life.

Now, Silvio, we see you clearly, without the halo whose light deceived us. And we are grateful to you for having enriched us spiritually and distracted us from superfluous and useless music. Thousands of my generation are far away, in other lands, beneath the sea, or departed forever.

I don’t know about others, but I want to express my thanks to you for having proposed something to us, not imposed it. For having transmitted good values to us, freely. This is more important than any militancy.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

Without Freedom… Even to Travel!

One of the various unresolved and failed issues of the Castro brothers’ government is the Cuban citizens’ lack of freedom to travel. If a foreign friend invites you to spend some time in his country, in addition to extensive and tricky bureaucratic red tape, ultimately, with nerves of steel, you have to wait for the exit permit granted by the Department of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Interior.

This department determines whether or not you have the right to travel. Also, if a person has been exiled, said military body is the one which determines whether or not such a Cuban can visit his native land. It’s humiliating. It’s like begging to be allowed to leave Cuba, and, what’s worse, to be allowed to enter your own land.

For me this is the most flagrant violation of personal rights committed by the government of the island. It doesn’t matter if an individual who wants to visit a friend or a relative has an immaculate record and doesn’t have any prior convictions. If Immigration considers you unsuitable, you cannot leave the island.

It’s a form of punishment. Something like, you better behave if you want to see the world. To behave badly is, above all, to publicly dissent from the way the State administers the country. Another major arbitrary act is when a person definitively leaves the country. It doesn’t matter that he owns his house. If he lived alone, he doesn’t have the right to leave or give his house to whomever he wants.

No. The government’s laws put an end to your right to dispose of your own home. This is coupled with a number of tricks and lies to circumvent the unjust measures that the State applies. Whenever people think about leaving the country for good, they put the name of a friend or family member on the deed beforehand so they don’t lose the house.

Days before you abandon your country, an inspection from the Institute of Housing inspects your home and verifies the furniture and electrical appliances that you possess. If, at the moment of leaving, it’s proven that you have given someone these things, your permission to leave can be denied.

What people do is to give away or sell the furniture, refrigerator or television, before the housing inspectors visit. It’s arbitrary. I will tell you a personal story.

My mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist, together with my sister and my niece, left Cuba to go to Switzerland, on November 25, 2003, at the beginning of the Black Spring. [Translator’s note: The “Black Spring” refers to the 2003 government crackdown, when independent journalists and democracy advocates were arrested and imprisoned.]

When she left, she did not know my daughter, Melany, who was 9 months old. Because she was a political refugee and a persona non grata for those who direct my country, Melany’s maternal grandmother had to content herself with seeing her in photos and chatting by telephone when her rare retirement resources allowed her to telephone.

She will probably die in the staid city of Lucerne without ever knowing her other granddaughter. The government hasn’t given the slightest inkling of doing away with its absurd rules on emigration. It’s true that in the USA, on account of another stupid law, North American citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Ninety miles apart, the two countries are still living in the Cold War era.

Both of our communities, so close geographically and, at the same time, on account of the policies of their respective administrations, so distant, must insist on having our rights count.

There’s no reason why my mother should have to die 9000 kilometres away without ever knowing her granddaughter. It’s unreasonable for anyone to stop her. But the Castros keep in their pockets the files for all exits and entries. And Melany’s grandmother is not to their liking.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy & RSP

The Letter of the Year


Photo: Reuters. On the right, the Cuban writer and journalist Natalia Bolivar

With the arrival of the first serious cold front, which in these days of January has lowered the thermometer to unusual temperatures in Cuba, the babalaos of the island gave the expected Letter of the Year.

This time it was announced with a drum roll and cymbals. Friday the first of January, Radio Progreso, a broadcaster of national importance, gave the whole reading of the document issued by the Cuban Council of High Priests of Ifá.

According to the Cuban babalaos, this year the sign is Obesa, ruling Yemayá and accompanying Changó. On the island, the devotees of Afro-Cuban religions count in the millions. No one knows the number to a scientific certainty. But religious sincretism is so strong that it is common to see a Catholic who “makes himself a saint” and a Santero being married in the church.

One song from Adalberto Álvarez, who sings Afro-Cuban songs, says in its refrain, “There are people who believe in nothing and they go for consultations at the first light of day.” It’s true. Frowning Marxists from the Communist Party have their bean-tokens and at times “feed them” to the higher power.

It’s speculated that even Fidel Castro, since he was a boy, has a Haitian voodoo doctor. The government never has denied the rumors. But let’s get to the point. In the letter for 2010, the local babalaos offer their recommendations and advice.

In a cryptic reading they offer a series of adages from the signo, which Juan Carlos Ariosa, 25 years old, a young sculptor, believes interprets signs of the political diatribe towards the government. Luis Álvarez, a retired soldier, who, since his participation in the African wars has been a devotee, in capital letters, of Afro-Cuban religions, interprets everything just the opposite.

“It’s a good sign that the government gives the Letter of the Year official publicity. The Council of Priests is a group of patriots who support the Revolution. If you read the document carefully, you will come to that conclusion,” affirms Álvarez, elated, with her necklaces of green and yellow beads and a white hat.

Each to his own. And those who are desperate, because of the extended outcome of the economic and political situation in Cuba, think that the babalaos expressed a weak sign in a veiled way.

If Cubans know anything it’s how to read between the lines. Neither the Catholic church nor the Council of Priests has publicly and openly condemned the politics of the government. At least in the last 10 years.

It’s like a cat and mouse game. If you shut up, we give you space. And at least, in my assessment, a part of the religions on the island have made themselves complicit in this silence.

It’s not possible that the majority of common people think otherwise and the churches and temples don’t speak their minds. As far as the Afro-Cuban religions are concerned, in the last two decades, they have converted themselves into a prosperous business.

It’s become the mode to become a babalao to mount a throne and get hard currency. Hundreds of devotees from Spain, Switzerland, Japan and even Australia come to the country of sun and palms to be blessed. It’s not cheap. For a Cuban it costs a minimum of 10,000 pesos (400 CUCs), a year and a half’s salary for an engineer. For a foreigner it costs double.

Faithful practitioners are many. But some beliefs, like the Afro-Cuban ones, have degenerated and become commercialized. In any event, the announcement of the Letter of the Year always awakens great expectations.

In an ancient mansion dating from the beginning of the 20th century, in the Calzada of 10th of October between Josefina and Gertrudis, where on occasion the babalaos consult the saints, on the afternoon of January 3, a group of 20 to 30 people were trying to read, with anxiety, the Letter of the Year 2010.

Probably they had not heard Radio Progreso. Also, at the same time, some thousands of kilometers away, in Peru, the South American shamans predicted that the Venezuelan president was very sick and that Fidel Castro had a vague death that protected him. According to the Peruvian oracles, Castro could live for the years that he offered.

To confirm the validity of their prognostications, they gave the example that last year they said that Barack Obama would win the US elections. On the island, when people saw on Channel 23 in Miami the news of the religious leaders of Peru, many were astonished.

At least the Peruvians were daring and gave prophecies. The Cuban babalaos were neither one nor the other. You would have to continue reading them between the lines. Something anyone could do by reading the latest edition of Newsweek, where they predict that 2010 might be the last year on earth for Fidel Castro.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina

The Joke of the New Man / Ivan Garcia

The formation of the New Man has always been a fruitless task. Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara, its precursor, with his straw full of mate (a kind of tea that Argentinians drink from a bulb-shaped container, through a straw), was delirious in his moments of rest in the guerrilla war, on the road to Santa Clara in the last days of 1958. At that point in the war against the dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Argentinian Guevara was convinced that in the future society that would be built in Cuba, they would have to start by designing a “laboratory” man.

Che, a Maoist and radical communist, was dreaming, and he believed it would be possible, but the fun-loving Cuban people–with a tendency to idleness and informality–would need a firm hand to discipline them. According to Guevara, these Creoles, given to unending parties and festivals, playing around and disrespectful with their neighbors’ women, needed a revolution, with a dose of repression and terror that would permit the construction of a Communist society.

The Argentine tried it. In the short time he was Minister and an important man in Cuban politics, besides festively pulling the trigger in the large, damp patios that served as firing fields in the San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress, he imposed “voluntary” work, moral stimulation and other formulas that the doctor from Rosario (i.e. Che) had read about in his Marxist studies.

Until he realized that fabricating men in an assembly line from a test tube who were monogamous and would not move their hips to the rhythm of drums was an impossible mission on an island of sun, drink and craziness. Che was a convinced fanatic, argumentative and with faith in proof by bullets. But his friend Fidel Castro was another specimen.

The lawyer from Birán (Fidel), in the best of cases, was a pragmatic opportunist, with an inflated ego, a narcissist who saw in guys like Che and Communist ideology the best way to draw up a plan for permanent and effective power. Guevara then marched to his own drummer, creating centers of guerrilla warfare and the formation of killing machines that would annihilate the gringos without mercy, anywhere in the world.

He died convinced, risking his hide to try to demonstrate his truths. This was around 42 years ago in Quebrada del Yuro, Bolivia. After his fall, he was converted into one of the largest marketing operations in history.

Castro, Cuban after all, knew that to modify the souls of his countrymen, who were given to Santería and not taking things seriously, illusion was necessary. In order to dominate for 50 years, he has used, at his discretion, fear, prisons, and a pinch of cheap idealism. And above all, a false morality, excitedly imparted to him by Ernesto Guevara in the days they were in a jail cell in Mexico City, in between chess games and theoretical discussions of what the future would be for Cuba and Latin America.

Not an atom remains of the New Man that Che Guevara dreamed of. Almost all Cubans steal whatever they can at work, from a straw to a piece of paper. When someone begins a new job, he is not interested in how much his salary will be, only in how much he can steal.

A few followers remain. At appropriate moments – historic dates and anniversaries of his death – they put on their masks and at the daily work meetings or publicly, they raise their voices, put themselves on automatic pilot and even act emotional talking about Che. Excellent actors, unseen and missed by Hollywood.

And the Revolution sails on. Now, functionaries and rulers try to gain time and search for hard currency. No one remembers the New Man, nor the stupidities advocated by social engineers like Che Guevara. The supposed New Men are in the lines outside the Spanish Consulate or the U.S. Special Interests Section, crazy about leaving.

They have forgotten about the world crisis. Since they were born, they have lived in a crisis and in ghost-wars against the Yankees. Many of these “new men” go out at night as transvestites, to engage in sex and drugs until dawn, and with luck, to hook up with a foreigner. Or they are dissidents, independent journalists or bloggers.

For the tired and unbelieving Cubans, the true New Men are guys like Kendry Morales or Isaac Delgado, who seized their chances, who are free to name their own price and who make a lot of money, whether it’s by making home runs or dancing in public with their contagious music. To talk about the New Man is today a joke in very bad taste in Cuba.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Ciro’s Swans

The Cuban musician Ciro Diaz, from the group Porno para Ricardo (Porn for Ricardo) made a rock version of Swan Lake, written by the Russian composer, Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). For the title he put “I Hate Swans.” It was recorded on La Paja Records,* an underground music studio in Havana. The drawings are by Charlie Bravo, who was inspired for the story by the supposed clash between swans and crocodiles for the control of a lagoon on the island.

Translator’s Note:

*”Paja” means masturbation, and “Paja Records” is a play-on-words of pajarraco, an expletive for a bird, as in “damned bird.”

Translated by Regina Anavy

Chronicle with a First Quarter Moon

Perhaps I’m not the right person to write this chronicle. Or perhaps I am. I know of colleagues who personally knew Silvio Rodriguez in that first stage of the revolution, ingenuous and difficult, crude and contradictory, where children, as if by magic, were converted into men.

Again I am going to talk about the spell that Silvio cast on my generation, considered by many to be “lost.” All of us under 50 years of age found a rare similarity in the way we agreed with his lyrics.

Perhaps in school, in the theme song for a child’s television show or in the voice of a friend, I don’t remember exactly now, but when I discovered Silvio he was composing songs for a little while, and he had been one of the founders of the Sound Experimentation Group of ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography), together with the indispensable Pablo Milanés, Noel Nicola and Vicente Feliú, among others, all directed by Leo Brouwer, who already was a maestro.

One year later, in 1973, the New Trova Movement, of which Silvio was a major part, had been created. The Beatles, already a myth around the world, had disintegrated in 1970, and it was no secret to anyone that the geniuses of Liverpool, with their rock-ballads, had left an irremediable vacuum after their break-up, in spite of the psychosis that they gave to the Cuban cultural and political authorities.

Then, I think the experts on culture strategy saw a gold mine, and thus they supported that unkempt group that sang about strange things but in the end were “revolutionary.”

A truce was declared. The media spread Trova, little by little. They were at the service of Silvio and the New Trova. With his reserve, of course. At the beginning, to the disgust of the Trova singers, they were heard only during political events, patriotic commemorations or days of national mourning.

The official propaganda up to then emphasized the known themes of Silvio Rodriguez, like The Era is Giving Birth to a Heart, Gun Against Gun, Song for the Elected and the Mambi Chief, songs that with their metaphoric and poetic language demonstrated support for the revolution. Silvio also sang about the every-day and lost love but, for the moment, until his complete loyalty was not shown, those lyrics sailed away into semi-secrecy.

The singer-songwriter from San Antonio de los Baños was a kind of diminishing quarter-moon. We could aprpeciate only one part of his face. Thus, in that way, he came to our generation.

We hummed the lyrics on patriotic anniversaries or when remembering the martyrs. Silvo was growing up with us. When the 80s arrived, the proven Cuban composer was not censored. It had been a sad and traumatic birth, but here was this Rodriguez, in his proper place. One of the best Cuban composers of the 20th century.

The lyrics of The News Summary and I Hope So stopped raising suspicions. On the contrary, he was a prophet in his own land and also in Latin America and Spain. Many, the same as I, pursued and annoyed him, from concert to concert. We knew almost his whole repertoire by heart.

Human beings need myths, leaders, chosen people….and for us, Silvio was it. Or, at least he marked a precious percent of Cuban youth, although some of them later were converted into critics of his work and his ideological position. Others say that he was blocked, he adapted and was intimidated.

My current political position differs a good bit from that of Silvio Rodriguez during these days of November when I turned 63. But I’m not going to stop admiring his songs for that reason. It would mean negating and betraying an important part of my life.

Now, Silvo, we see you clearly, bereft of the halos whose lights deceived us. And we are grateful to you, we have been enriched spiritually and separated from superfluous and useless music. Millions of those from my generation are far away in other lands, under the sea or have split forever. I don’t know about others, but I want to thank you for having proposed something to us, not imposed. For having freely transmitted to us good values. That is more important than any militancy.

Iván García

Photo: Interiano Vinicio, Flickr

Translated by Regina Anavy

Silvito the Free and I

Before Sept. 20, when Juanes * at the end of his concert made public thanks to Los Aldeanos (The Villagers) and Silvito El Libre (Silvito the Free), the rapper son of Silvio Rodriguez was already known on the internet. “Who said that the Cuban revolution is in the final stage, that there is no renewal or new blood? Here we have Silvito el Libre … We still do not know if he uses the words sunset, hummingbird and soothsayer in his rhymes, but surely he will be a big summer blockbuster. “Don’t lose sight of him,” they wrote August 25 on the Chilean Web site The Clinic. Among his topics that you can hear on You Tube are the Hero, Now We Will See The Faces, Kill Yourself, Mamá and Rap, I’m Still Here, Nothing and The Etik, among others. More about his life, published in the cyber-magazine on the blog Rapdiacion Local.

* Colombian pop singer.

Translated by Regina Anavy

The Cristal River

Río Cristal, a tourist center inaugurated in 1960, is located on Avenida Rancho Boyeros, close to one of the airports in the capital, after passing the Aqueduct of Wind. It’s on the site where, in the 18th century, a slave barracks existed, and, later, a convent for nuns. Remodeled on different occasions, it still enjoys being the choice for the people of Havana, above all those who can pay with CUCs to stay there.

The entrance is still the same, wide and shady.

The swimming pool is in great demand all year.

…surrounded by a tranquility and a vegetation that is absent in the best hotels of the city.

And, for the kids, the park.

…in particular the little castle, in good-enough shape.

Inside the same installation, not only are there unattended areas, there is also the river. According to data published on Cubanet on September 22, between 2008 and 2009, five young people drowned in the Cristal River, which borders the recreation center of the same name.

Because of the deaths and accidents. the police have put up a sign prohibiting swimming in the river, but the young continue to do it. They say it’s because they don’t have other places where they can go to have fun.

Alexander, a lifeguard at the Rio Cristal swimming pool, said that on many occasions he has had to help kids who were on the point of drowning, but he did not always arrive on time.

Ana Lidia, the mother of a child who lives in the area, asserted that the river water is very contaminated. “The time my son escaped from me and went into that filth, he contracted a staph infection.”

Iván García, with text and photos by Robin Thom, of Flickr.

Translated by Regina Anavy

An alcoholic with a name

Rufino Delagado, 38 years old, in his occasional lucid moments, admits that his life has already hit rock bottom. And he looks up to the sky, impotent, as if looking for an answer to his problem with alcohol. He has not always been a dirty and rude guy. Six years ago, he used to work in the warehouse of a tobacco business, and with what he used to steal from the State and the salary he received, he could afford to keep his wife and daughters with some ease.

“I used to offer a box of tobacco for 20 CUC. There were days in which seven or eight were sold. As my wife received remittances, the money left over was used to buy me drinks.”

He started as a social drinker. And ended as a common drunk, one who sells the little that is left in order to get a drink. At the beginning he used to drink quality rum and beer. Now, Rufino drinks the alcohol of the miserable, filtered with molasses, in improvised barrels, where a liter costs 10 Cuban pesos. He cannot live without drinking. His family put him under medical treatment. But it didn’t work. Rufino always would come back to the alcohol.

When he was drunk he was a monster. He used to hit his wife and daughters. His wife got rid of him, as you throw away an old sofa, when one night in 2006 she arrived at their poor apartment and found him naked among vomit, food and cockroaches that were enjoying themselves in the mess as if they were at a party.

He never again had news about either his daughters or his wife. He lost his job. Now he roams in the surroundings of La Vibora. He eats, when he eats, from the little that people throw away in the bins. He has no friends. Only sad guys like him, that every day get together on the corner of Calle Carmen and 10th of October, opposite Plaza Roja, to drink the drink of the forgotten.

They always finish in the same way. Fighting among themselves. In the squabble they hit each other and cause a huge disturbance. Even the police are not interested. If by chance they are detained for a couple of days, they bathe and kill the hunger of their days with prison food.

In his occasional periods of lucidity, Rufino remembers that he was a guy who used to love his daughter, and he used to dress tastefully. He took baths with hot water and ate home-made food. After, he used to sit with his wife to watch the soap-opera of the moment on the telly. He never thought that his life would become hell.

When he is not drunk, the memories take him back to alcohol. Among tears and curses, with the 10 Cuban pesos that he gets selling some old item or money given as payment for a favour, he goes to the same place, to buy distilled alcohol. His existence is a vicious circle. And what is left is for going to church and imploring the Virgin to let death take him away, soon. With just one wish to be granted, that, before dying, he will be allowed to see his wife and two daughters.

Iván Garcia

Translated by: Tanya May and Regina Anavy

If the comandante danced to rock…

If the Cuban generals had liked rock, things in Cuba might have been different. Perhaps the soldiers would not have gone out in their vulgar Russian jeeps, scissors in hand, cutting the hair of those devoted to this type of music. And they would not have had to arrest thousands of young people whose only crime was to be a fan of the songs of the Beatles, the mythical quartet from Liverpool, and send them to those concentration camps that were called the Military Units of Support for Production, more commonly known by their acronym, UMAP.

If Fidel Castro and his military court had frequently hummed “Yesterday,” or some other ballad by Led Zeppelin, and at their ranches, between beers and select rums, while they filled their mouths with shrimp and masses of fried pork, the weekends had been spent with the Rolling Stones or some other rock band of the epoch, perhaps Cuba would not have known the Gray Period in the ’70s.

Later, everything was pure cynicism. The Cuban leaders always hated rock, Western influence, books of foreign authors and the consumer market. They thought that the flock of sheep that is the Cuban people ought to be immunized against the “brutal and decadent capitalist society.”

Therefore, zero short-wave broadcasts, music, styles and foreign pleasures. They wanted those long-hair types and druggies who composed strange songs to remain very far away from the proletarian and internationalist archipelago.

When the air from the East began to blow, indicators that the “brothers in the socialist camp” were tired of collective societies, repression and unanimous thought, then the comandante and his generals decided to paint over some things.

They named a minister of culture with long hair, who perhaps in his youth had listened to prohibited music. But as soon as he entered into the martial discipline of the Communist Party, he had to trade his tastes and sing loud and clear the marches and hymns that Fidel Castro liked.

The summit of impudence was to erect a statue to John Lennon in a park in Vedado, in Havana.

lenon.jpg

And very serious and with remorseful faces, celebrate in Havana the 8th of December, the day Lennon was assassinated in New York. One of so many ways to insult peoples’ intelligence. Because when the ex-Beatle was alive, in order to listen to him, you had to be a prisoner in Cuba.

Also, they are now paying homage to the playwright Virgilio Piñera and the writer José Lezama Lima. If the comandantes and generals have demonstrated something on the island, it’s that they know how to take advantage of the figures of culture, above all after they’re dead. Although I do have one doubt.

If in the hypothetical case that the Castro dynasty lasts 100 years. would they raise statues to the poet Raúl Rivero, the blogger Yoani Sánchez or the opposition figure Oscar Elías Biscet? From a regime as surrealistic as this one, anything can be expected.

Perhaps, if the commandante and his generals had danced to rock, none of this would have happened. And our country would be enjoying democracy. It’s symptomatic, in societies that are not closed, that the leaders enjoy rock music. In Cuba it could not be different.

Iván Garcia

Translated by Regina