Carrots and Sticks

I would like to understand certain radical leaders of our America.  I share many of the social political views of the left and I have my doubts about a liberal economy.  Above all, when it is poorly applied by the leaders of the continent.

For almost two centuries there have been enough Latin American presidents who mostly ran their countries like they were their own country estates. Many see the government as a way to write their own ticket and loot the public treasury.

It’s the same from the left and the right.  Look at Carlos Menem or Hugo Chávez.  Without considering their inveterate habit of becoming plotters and dictators. We blame our ills on the United States. It is the easiest. True, the colossus of the north, which emerged as a nation around 1775-76, more than a few times has referred to the region as its natural backyard.

We don’t have U.S. type leaders for the simple reason that Latin American governments tend to nepotism and warlordism. The Yankees, with their gift for business, realized they could impose their views on the continent throughout the centuries with a couple of dollars and a few threats.

In the deal between two people or countries one invariably tries to set itself above the other. It is the animal tendency of the human being. This has happened because the brilliant military leaders such as Bolívar, Sucre, Paez, and San Martín who brought about independence were not succeeded by statesmen of their stature.

In the United States, no.  The leaders of their revolution were equal to or less than their counterparts on the continent. It is at the time of governance that the country of the stars and bars surpasses the countries of the region.  In Latin America there has not been a Washington, Lincoln or a Roosevelt.  The majority of our statesman are more worried about leaving rich from their time in office, and in creating an opaque framework, than in governing well.

Sad to say, but that’s the case.  Now in the 21st century, we look with favorable eyes on presidents like the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, or the Brazilian Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, two who are philosophically socialist but realistic about the world around them.

And in 2009 a guy like Barack Obama came to the United States, a black man who exceeds the leaders of the continent in clear ideas, empathy, and good sense.  I watch with concern as radical statesmen like Evo Morales or Hugo Chávez who, at the first sign of change, add to the hackneyed speeches accusing him of “Yankee Imperialism.”

If they were to govern democratically, respecting differences without polarizing the logical contradictions of opinion that usually exist in any nation and do not always look askance at what the U.S. president does and says, this would be the first big step forward for the region.

In the Summit of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), held in late August in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, leftist radicals engaged in a bitter debate over the establishment seven U.S. military bases in Colombia.

They may be right. I do not think it’s time for military bases. But I’ve never heard of Morales, Correa and company criticizing the joint military exercises conducted this year by Venezuela and Russia. Nor did they criticize Chavez’s huge purchases of Russian weapons, nor do they criticize their complicity with autocratic governments like Iran.

I believe in social ideas. I consider myself a kind of leftist. I’m tired of seeing populist rulers, made hoarse by protesting U.S. policies and yet being silent when it applies to measures affecting the people or the sovereignty of other nations under a leftist president or a dictator like Fidel Castro.

I’ve never heard Chavez or Morales demand that the Castro brothers allow other political parties, free press or elections. Nor do they recall that in the Fall of 1962, Cuba had nuclear missiles and Russian military bases.

It’s true. It is pragmatic and convenient to portray the USA as allied with the worst guys on our continent. But the blame for most Latino leaders has been scant, we can not always say everything is the fault of the gringos. Yes, it is also true: at times they use the carrot and stick approach.

But we must recognize that during its more than two centuries of existence, the U.S. government has enabled its people to live better. Latin American radicals make splendid speeches, talking about bright futures and social theories. But in practice it has not worked. If you doubt this, look to Cuba.

Iván García

Translated by Karen

A Drama in Two Acts

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The First Act: The Executioner’s Weeping (1999)

For a long time, Jorge Gonzalez, 47, suffered the same nightmares. A discharge from a rifleman on a misty and starless night. Then, he senses the sound of a shot dealt to a condemned man who is he himself.

He always wakes up the same: bathed in sweat and crying. Another night robbed of rest. When he has that nightmare, Jorge can’t get back to sleep and stays awake until dawn. It happens to him almost daily since he retired from his thankless profession as an executioner. Killing one’s fellowman–guilty or not–has its consequences.

Now, the profession is costing him. One rarely talk about this occupation. One thinks of big guys, unfriendly and with a brain the size of a garbanzo bean, divest of feelings.

In men that have been called by the government for the insensitive task of administering the death penalty, they arrive humming a commonplace tune, then roll up their sleeves, and put on a black hat to hide their faces. Afterwards, they go on the same path to their homes, far away from the mundane noise, without a family and accompanied by their dog, waiting for the next execution. Nothing farther from reality. In the absence of testimonies about the life of executioners, people have invented legends.

Jorge Gonzalez is the antithesis of the classic executioner who appears in books and films. Of small stature, a bit bald, thin, and with a fixed fear before any significant event. Jorge, who confesses that his pulse doesn’t tremble at having taken the lives of more than 20 people, gets scared in the presence of a cockroach and panics at the sight of small lizards.

He’s cultured, likes Ricky Martin and his happy music. He reads Goethe and Stendhal. When one speaks with him they discover that he’s not stupid, but a rather intelligent man. But the 10 years that he spent on the firing squad have changed him.

in 1982, after fulfilling three and a half years of military service in Ethiopia, as part of the communist help to Mengistu Haile Marian’s pro-Maoist regime, Jorge graduated from college without being completely sure of what his future would be. The same thing happened to him as to other men of war: skillful in the handling of a rifle, but unable to function as civilians.

Jorge had been a sniper in a battalion under the control of General Arnaldo Ochoa, who years later was executed by Castro’s government, accused of treason and drug trafficking. Under Ochoa’s orders, Jorge participated in the famous Battle of Ogaden where the Cuban general was exalted for his new method of devising military strategy.

“I always admired General Ochoa, who in Ogaden displayed his skills. No wonder the battle is the subject of study in Western military academies.”

In 1989, Gonzalez could have been one of the men that, in Baracoa, a coastal town on the outskirts of Havana, formed part of the task force ordered to executed General Ochoa.

“I couldn’t be untrue to myself. I had killed murderers, rapists, and terrorists, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on my old boss. I made up a phony mental illness and they relieved me for six months.”

Upon returning to his speciality of killing, the executioner found out in detail about the final seconds of the hero of Ogaden.

“It’s not a fairy tale, that’s for sure. Ochoa drew close to the firing squad, saluted each one of firing squad’s members and said to them: ‘Don’t fret, men, carry out the order.’ He refused to cover his face. He died a valiant man.”

He says it, his voice faltering and his gaze lost out the window to where the sea becomes discernible.

“In that moment I thought it was a harsh course of action, but a just one. Now, I think it was excessive.”

In 1992 Jorge gave up this macabre task. His nerves weren’t letting him live and he decided to discharge himself from the army. He travelled to various psychiatric hospitals and resorted to electric shock therapy. But he couldn’t keep his mind clear.

Every night when a discharge from a rifleman wakes him in a sweat and crying, his wife tries to calm him. To no avail, though. Unable to sleep, he sits in the balcony of his house and stares at the sea. With the departure of the sun, weariness sets in and with it, the sensation that he is the most miserable man in the world. And perhaps he isn’t.

Second Act: The Last Execution (2009)

It was like any afternoon in the month of July. Jorge Gonzalez, 57, prepared rather slowly and fearfully the details of his death. It was the last day of his dangerous and uncommon life. He bought a few pounds of chicken from the black market and, with 3 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), a package of Cubitas Coffee at the store.

At noon he put on his Sunday best: a red and violet checked shirt, a gift from his only wife, and pair of cotton pants, old and used, that 23 years ago he had bought in a little market in Addis Ababa while he was completing his military service in Ethiopia as a sniper in a group of elite troops.

He had eaten like never before; rice with chicken and all the fixings, and even allowed himself two glasses of Fortin Wine. He looked at himself in the mirror and entrusted himself to the Lord. He tied a thick rope to the iron chandelier in the living room and put it around his neck.

Four days later, the police opened the door with an axe. The body was already showing signs of decomposition.

Jorge Gonzalez had been an executioner. One of those entrusted with administering the death penalties decreed by the State.

He graduated from the armed forces and was admitted to psychiatric hospitals. His wife left him, tired of this short bald guy who spent the mornings reading like one possessed and at night awoke drenched in sweat and screaming.

When this happened he would sit in an armchair for more than two hours, without saying a single word. With his gaze fixed on the deep blue sea visible from his balcony. Probably the last image he caught before he died was the quiet summer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

I knew Jorge Gonzalez. Ten years ago I devoted a story to him, The Cry of the Executioner. I found out about his suicide, in 2009, a month and a half later. The delirium had disturbed him. It was his last execution.

Iván García

Bad Luck

If bad luck had a name it would be Antonio Fonseca.  An enormous black man of almost 400 pounds, with a wide nose, sharp cheekbones and lips two fingers thick, who was born one cold, wet night in January 1981.

His mother, stark raving mad, set her husband and son on fire, when the latter was three years old. The father died. Fonseca still has visible marks on his entire body. And he still wonders what his mother’s motive was for her macabre pyromania.

Not having any family to take care of the little boy, from the age of three he lived in a state orphanage to the south of Havana, very close to the José Martí International Airport.

“In my childhood I had very few happy moments. One of them was when I was 10 and a group of us escaped from school to go watch the big planes take off and land.”

Antonio, wearing dirty, discolored, denim shorts, was seated on a wooden bench, in the shack where he lives, in the heart of Havana. On his nude torso you can see large bruises, produced by the burns of his disturbed mother.

“I don’t know the name of the woman who gave birth to me. I have never wanted to know about her; I only know that she spent many years in prison,” recounted Fonseca, while he took a drag on his cigarette.

He finished the 5th grade with great difficulty. And since he was 12 years old, the only thing he knows how to do is to commit small crimes and smoke marijuana. In spite of looking like a basketball player, he is not a violent guy. No. The three times he went to prison were for possession of drugs for his own consumption, It’s been a year since he was referred to a drug addiction clinic. But nothing helped him get better.

“I feel better when I’m high, only then can I sleep and hope for another day.”

And his eyes shine brightly. He works as a construction worker and does any work in the neighborhood, from finishing a patio and clearing debris, to filling buckets with water. Then, with the money, he buys a couple of joints at 25 pesos each. And on dark nights he feels like he’s in the clouds when he walks through Brotherhood Park, in the direction of Monte and Cienfuegos, in search of a cheap whore to calm his sexual appetites.

His minor crimes, to get some money, usually consist of stealing lightbulbs or chairs from some house. The money, of course, is destined to buy marijuana. This was Antonio Fonseca’s vicious circle. A big baby who could barely read and write. A prisoner of drugs. A sick guy whom luck avoided.

But the culmination, just a few days ago, was that in the tenement where he lives there was an over-the-top police operation. As usual, Antonio was high. And with his red, bleary eyes, he found himself accused of a violent robbery. A witness recognized him as the man who savagely beat a young person in order to steal his gold chain.

He swore to the authorities, on the mother he never new, that he was innocent. But confronted with a guy from a dissipated life with prior crimes, the police had already closed the file on the case. He remained in jail, hoping they would take him to preventive detention, where he would wait for his trial.

The prosecutor is requesting a penalty of 25 years. Without family, children or friends, Antonio Fonseca knows what fate awaits him. “No one can do anything without luck,” he used to say. He was right. Luck was never his ally.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy

H1N1 Attacks

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The new influenza is gaining ground in Cuba. With the change in the weather, according to epidemiologists, it’s expected that the H1N1 virus will reap its harvest among the population of the island. As of October 1, the Ministry of Public Health reported the detection of 457 cases.

Now the Hubert de Blanck High School, in the municipal district Plaza of the Revolution, in the capital, has been forced to close. On Wednesday, September 30, the principal of the school reported that a sanitary commission, headed by the provincial director of epidemiology, had carried out a detailed inspection at the school.

A couple of days before, the principal had sent out an SOS because of the high number of students with respiratory problems. Due to bad hygienic and building conditions at the school, an old mansion poorly adapted to serve as a school, at first it was thought that this could be the cause of the high fevers and respiratory problems that many were suffering.

After numerous check-ups the doctors found 121 cases with respiratory problems of various degrees. As a preventive measure, the sanitary authorities decided to close the school. The tests done in the labs of the Institute of Tropical Medicine confirmed that five students were infected with the H1N1 virus.

In another two high schools in the same area, José Larruñada and José Luis Pérez, the alarm has gone out. Ana Rosa, a civil engineer who is 34, admits that because of the parents’ fear that their children might get infected, school absences have been noted. As an example, she says that on Friday, October 2, 70 students at José Luis Pérez High School did not attend classes.

Despite the fact that the virus threatens to become a pandemic, the government has taken it calmly. Maybe to avoid spreading the panic, the press has not mentioned what occurred at Hubert de Blanck and prefers to mention “stimulating” cases, like that of a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, who, thanks to medical attention, survived the type-A flu at the National Hospital.

On television, a timid propaganda reminds us that hands should be washed frequently and cleanliness should be maintained at home. In taxis paid in foreign currency and in city buses, posters have been placed in favor of better hygiene. But the new flu is not explicitly mentioned.

Low-income families in Nuevo Vedado, where the word on the street is that H1N1 is almost a plague, want to know if it had crossed the minds of the Castro brothers’ government to make an urgent and substantial discount on products like soap and detergent, which can be bought only in Cuban convertible pesos, at prices that are impossible for most ordinary Cubans. It would be the logical thing to do. But so far, the rulers of the destiny of Cuba have shown no concern about this sector of the population.

Alarmed, I phoned the provincial office of the Ministry of Public Health. I asked if sanitary authorities were ready to confront a possible pandemic. The person who answered did not want to identify himself, but he assured me that they had sufficient anti-virals and medicines to treat H1N1.

Many parents interviewed believe that the mega-concert given by Colombian singer Juanes, on Sunday, September 20, was the explosive device for the uncontainable advance of the virus. More than one million people gathered in tight quarters, and this could have been the “soup” that made it easy for the virus to grow.

If that is the case, Juanes’ good intention of singing for peace in Havana could have become the ideal place for H1N1 to form a massive attack on the citizens of Havana. As a coincidence, the most-affected schools are within a few kilometers of the Plaza of the Revolution.

Now the problem is whether the Cuban authorities have resources and effective measures to stop the spreading of the disease. I hope they do.

Iván García

P.S. On Friday, October 9, a television program was announced to report on the situation in Cuba with the H1N1 flu, respiratory illnesses and dengue.

Translated by Anonimatus Generacion Y

The Poet Was Listening to Boleros

I saw him. It was he. He did not recognize me, engrossed as he was, in a bar on Belascoaín Street, listening to one of Orlando Contreras’ boleros, or perhaps it was La Lupe, with “Yours is Pure Theater,” on a decrepit, recycled RCA Victor record player.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 8. An almost desert-like heat seemed to melt the asphalt in Havana. Without a drop of breeze. People were crowing into a dirty little store on Sitios Street, trying to cool off from the heat wave by drinking a tasteless juice, with a slight taste of orange.

It was the day of the Virgin of Charity. Dressed in yellow, many people were walking quickly toward the Church of the Virgin, located on Salud Street, at the corner of Manrique. At 6:00 in the evening, a procession would leave from there with the patron saint of Cuba, to walk through the streets of Central Havana.

To kill time, I sat down in a bar with a blackened mahogany counter. And as if it were a miracle of “Cachita,” when I turned my head, I saw the poet Raúl Rivero playing dice with the bard Rafael Alcides and the journalist Reinaldo Escobar.

A record player salvaged from some warehouse of useless objects offered a recital of boleros. From the two Orlandos, Contreras and Vallejo, continuing with La Lupe and Blanca Rosa Gil, up to Freddy, that voice that puts meat on the chicken.

Reinaldo and Alcides were drinking out of glasses, in no hurry, from a bottle of Caney rum, aged seven years. The plump Rivero, with closed eyes, was enjoying the music, while in his fingers a mentholated cigarette threatened to burn his hand.

I did not want to call him. I did not want to break the spell. But I swear that the man with glasses, seated with his friends among drinks, dice and boleros, was he. The poet who in his last years in Havana lived on Peñalver Street, in the La Victoria neighborhood. He had come back in disguise. To this Havana in 2009, without charms or spells. But with something to put under my pillow at night to fall asleep.

Yes, I saw Raúl Rivero. One of my journalistic icons, who for seven years directed me at the Cuba Press Agency. It was in the middle of the ’90s, until the fateful spring of 2003, when an arrogant and closed government, that did not want – and does not want – to permit ideas and poems to be published on their merits, sentenced the poet of La Victoria to 20 years in jail.

At that time I was a novice wanting to consume the world. His journalistic advice was engraved on me forever. For me, a one-hour chat with Rivero represented years of classes in any school of journalism.

One cold afternoon in the spring of 2004, he left Canaleta prison, in Ciego de Ávila, the land where in 1945 he saw the birth of a world war, recently ended. He marched into a hard exile with his native land and his friends on his back. Also his manias.

In the splendid city of Madrid, a stranger to the city and its people, to boleros and record players. For that day of the Patron Saint, he jumped over to Havana. And I discovered him seated, listening to boleros, in a bar on Belascoaín Street. It must have been a miracle of the Virgin.

Iván García

Translated by Regina

Riding on Route P

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Public transport has always been a pending issue of the government of Fidel Castro. In spite of the fact that in the 80’s (when the country had more resources and support from Hungary and other former socialist countries), the Cuban government set up a factory that assembled the “Ikarus” brand buses in the village of Guanajay, 60 kms from Havana, it has always been almost impossible to attempt to seek transportation from one point of the city to the other.

In years which offered more abundant material wealth of the olive-green revolution, when there was access to yogurt and milk without the need to use ration cards, 2,500 buses and about 5,000 taxis ran about in the city; but not even then were they able to alleviate the deficit of urban transport.

With the advent of the silent war that is the “Special Period,” getting around town in the state transport was  a feat almost worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. There were times when some bus routes passed by twice a day. The “camels” surfaced, tractor-trailer trucks which hauled a large trailer carrying as many as 300 people packed like sardines; non-air conditioned saunas which also presented opportunities for pickpockets and perverts.

People walked up to 20 kilometers to take care of personal issues. At night the main streets were deserted and dark, for there were times when the electricity was shut-off 12 or more hours a day. Then came the heavy Chinese bicycles, which were largely to blame for the growth of fatal traffic accidents.

Not to mention the escalating violence; the streets of Havana, were in direct competition with the streets of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro.  Just to steal a bike, the same thieves would cut their victims with machetes, or snare their victims with ropes hung along the width of the dark street you passed while on a bike ride.

Buses and “camels” were called “Halley’s Comet,” because they were so infrequent between trips. Castro was more concerned with helping Venezuela and squandered the meager public funds on meaningless economic plans, but in 2004, reality struck hard. At the Popular Assembly, sporting a startled look, Castro asked what the Minister of Transportation was doing to resolve the issue at hand in the transport industry.

True to form, el Comandante blamed the failures on others.  However, he realized that if we wanted economic growth, we had to use bank funds to purchase buses, trucks and trains; five-thousand Chinese trucks and trains and an equal amount of Russian trains and buses were purchased.

Urban transport, in a state of indigence, saw the manna when 460 Yutong brand articulated buses started circulating around the city.  The Motorbus Company, its official name, operates 17 routes denominated with the letter P, which cover the principal arterial of Havana.

At peak hours, it has a frequency between 5 and 10 minutes. The P’s are always full to capacity and are hot as an oven. They just lack bread, or cassava. The so much talked about improvement of the vainglorious Havana leaders is pure mirage.

It is logical that a capital of more than two million inhabitants, like Havana, if it is to function minimally, must have bus service able to move one million people each day in the city. In the absence of a metro or a commuter train, and where state taxis in local currency have practically disappeared, people’s only viable option is to ride on the crowded route P.

Now moving from the main streets to some distant neighborhood is a complicated story. Another calamity is the bus service that circulates in the more populous districts and neighborhoods.

With the twist to the economy, due to the two crises, the world crisis as well as the one we have suffered for the last two decades, the product of an endless Special Period, the expansion plans of public transport have been slowed and service on many of routes was reduced.

To make matters worse, among the staff of the company Metrobus it is rumored that due to the default typical of the Cuban government, providers will not guarantee the spare parts for years to come. If true, going from one area to another city may turn you into a martyr. Although never, to tell the truth, was a Havana bus ride very pleasant.

Iván García

Jacques Rogge Does Not Like Baseball

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Not his fault. Jacques Rogge was born in Belgium. And everyone knows: in Europe, baseball is a sport that doesn’t draws crowds. Unlike football (or “soccer” as they call it in the U.S.).

The International Olympic Committee president prefers other sports for the summer Olympics. In London, 2012, baseball has already been eliminated. Many hope that by 2016, this injustice is remedied.

But no. Although it is passion in the Americas, Japan and South Korea, Rogge hates baseball. In a terse statement, the Belgian has said that baseball is a long and tedious game. He has a point. In part because it can last up to four hours, it is not cost effective for television.

But he could have taken steps to expedite the games. Not everything can be about money. Because more than 500 million people on the planet love baseball. And I’m pretty sure, it is more popular than dressage or sailing.

For the 2016 Olympics, whose location was expected to be announced on Friday October 2nd in Copenhagen, the phlegmatic Rogge seeks to introduce three new sports to the Olympic program: golf, rugby or football, and bowling. At a stroke, the Belgian eliminated baseball, thanks to the small support given by the administrators of the Major Leagues in the United States.

The IOC president had already passed sentence: if the best baseball players didn’t attend the summer games, it would disappear.  To the powerful men who lead the Big Leagues, this went in one ear and out the other.  To the barons of the Big Show, the only thing they care about is their local seasons.

To hell with the Olympics!  Whose calendar also coincides with the prime months of the baseball season.  And they, of course, would not change or stop the tournament so that starts like Derek Jeter or Alex Rodríguez could take part in the Olympic Games.  This disinterest handed the solution to the Belgian on a silver platter, the Belgian who neither understands nor likes baseball.  And he took it out of the Olympic lineup.

Perhaps for the stuck-up suit-wearing Jacques Rogge, it is healthier to see a female boxing match than to watch some guys hammering away at a hard little ball with seams.  He has his motives.  But what is not in doubt is that this orthopedic surgeon hates sports with balls and strikes.

Iván García

Daily miseries – Part 1

You have a difficult day.  While fighting so many problems without solutions, a friend comes to ask to borrow some object, maybe a tool.  You return to domestic chaos and in a little while forget to whom you loaned the object.  Time passes and it is not returned.  Your hopes of recovering it go up in smoke like your recently paid wages.  You can see for yourself that in your immediate environment there is someone capable of  robbing you to your face.  One more blow to your already battered innocence.  You torture yourself imagining that person enjoying what you worked so hard to get, thinking about you, laughing, calling you a shithead.  You make a long mental list of the things you’ve lost in similar circumstances.  Feeling a bit sick at heart, you raise a little higher the wall of distrust that separates you from others.

Adiós, Roberto!

He knocked on my door when the Brazilian soap opera was starting. He was sweating, after climbing several flights of stairs with his bike in tow.  “I’m going to Spain,” he cried, by way of greeting.  To give me time to get over my surprise he greeted my wife, returned the USB drive we were using to share information, and threw out the question to force my sense of hospitality, “Can’t a guest a get a cup of coffee in this house?”

While I was making the coffee he told me about his Spanish grandfather, the law of grandchildren, the paperwork, the trips to Havana, and to top it off he showed me his Spanish passport, still smelling like new, as one who exhibits a sacred talisman.  After the coffee we went out to smoke on the balcony and he explained to me that a cousin who lives in New Jersey had just sent him the money for his trip and that two other partners would receive him and help him out in the first moments.  He ended by assuring me he already had a trustworthy person to send letters, so hopefully I can continue to publish on the blog.

After he left, I realized that this is the last of my great friends who has left me here.  The old times are gone, irretrievably.  Robe was the soul of the gang, and when it began to scatter throughout the world, he managed to keep track of all the travelers.  We went to him to know the news, addresses and telephone numbers.  That night, his announcement left me with mixed feelings.  Usually I am glad to know that someone is leaving, whether a famous person or simply the son of a neighbor.  I’m happy because I think everyone has the right to choose what to do with his life and where to do it.  I’m happy because after living more than twenty years of the same, some kind of change is welcome.  But it also made me sad, and not just for me, losing a great friend.  It is painful to see that the lack of hope continues to determine our course.  Sad to predict the future of a country that bleeds in its perpetual stubbornness.

Today it’s two months since Roberto left.  He has written me an email and we talked briefly on the phone.  The first thing he said was that he missed my coffee.  Afterwards he told me about his work, it’s not in a comfortable office like he had here, but it lets him live in “lodgings” in the house of the partners and soon he will send money to the family he left behind.  Before saying goodbye, joking, he blurted out, “Guajiro, now no one is missing but you…”

Adios to Schools in the Countryside / Yoani Sanchez

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Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 July 2009 — The idea of combining study with work in high schools looked very good on paper. It had the air of an immortal future in the office where they turned it into a ministerial order. But reality, stubborn as always, had its own interpretation of the schools in the countryside. The “clay” meant to be formed in the love of the furrow, was made up of adolescents far away—for the first time—from parental control, who found housing conditions and food very different from their expectations.

I, who should have been the “new man” and who barely could have become a “good man,” was trained in one of these schools in the Havanan municipality of Alquizar. I was fourteen and left with a corneal infection, a liver deficiency and the toughness that is acquired when one has seen too much. When matriculating, I still believed the stories of work-study; at leaving, I knew that many of my fellow students had had to exchange sex for good grades or show superior performance in agricultural production. The small lettuce plants I weeded every afternoon had their counterpart in a hostel where the priorities were bullying, lack of respect for privacy and the harsh law of survival of the fittest.

It was precisely one of those afternoons, after three days without water and with the repetitive menu of rice and cabbage, that I swore to myself that my children would never go to a high school in the countryside. I did this with the unsentimental adolescent realism that, in those years, calms us and leaves us knowing the impossibility of fulfilling certain promises. So I accustomed myself to the idea of having to pack bags of food for Teo when he was away at school, of hearing that they stole his shoes, they threatened him in the shower or that one of the bigger ones took his food. All these images, that I had lived, returned when I thought about the boarding schools.

Fortunately, the experiment seems to be ending. The lack of productivity, the spread of diseases, the damage to ethical values and the low academic standards have discredited this method of education. After years of financial losses, with the students consuming more than they manage to extract from the land, our authorities have become convinced that the best place for a young person is at the side of his parents. They have announced the coming end of the schools but without the public apologies to those of us who were guinea pigs for an experiment that failed; to those of us who left our dreams and our health in the high schools in the countryside.

Life of Sisyphus – part seven

She comes to the road that connects the neighborhood with the city and stops in the usual place. Despite all her precautions she’s started to sweat again. The cloudless sky and the absence of a breeze adds to the heat. At times, waves of hot air with the odor of asphalt hit her in the face. In front of her, the deserted road. At her back, some hundred meters, the bus stop is an oasis of shade in the midst of the glare and a refuge for the numerous would-be short distance travelers. Many years ago the local bus stopped running and the odyssey began for the residents of the neighborhood who now had to rely on alternative means of travel. Although in theory there were many possible options: the still-circulating intercity bus service, the bus service for workers, State cars, rental cars ranging across the spectrum of legality to illegality, even up to cars pulled by horses, reality demonstrated that these options weren’t solving the problem. And what’s more they bring another aggravation: the stress. The daily insecurity of meeting their schedules joined the long list of strains that people had to endure.

Many years ago when the location of the neighborhood was planned, no one anticipated what would come. The route by bus, including delays for stops, didn’t take more than half an hour, and if you went by car or taxi it was much shorter. The crisis, like a national Big Bang, extended the distances. The travel time to the city tripled, to the municipalities it quintupled, and to the neighboring provinces it was multiplied by ten. Trips that require crossing two or more provinces are nearly impossible. Taxis are a hazy memory. It’s been years since she’s seen the fence on the border of the province. From her first travels in childhood, this fence has had a special significance for her. She remembers when her father showed it to her for the first time. She was traveling in an old bus with small windows, hot and slow, to visit her paternal grandparents. The heat and thirst irritated her and she asked her father, for the third time, when the journey would end. He sat on his legs and said, with an air of mystery, that if she paid attention in a little bit she would see the place where one province ended and another began. This aroused her curiosity. A little later she saw a fence in vivid colors, enormous trees surrounded by flowering shrubs and several stones of different sizes. She asked her father if the people who took care of this place made this trip every day, but she can’t remember his answer.

Her grandparents died in those dark years and with them died the reason to travel. Then came marriage and the children and her life became more static. Now that she thought about it she hadn’t had an opportunity to repeat with her own children the scene she just remembered.

A car approaches and she puts out her hand in a gesture repeated many times.

Life of Sisyphus – Part Six

She walks slowly towards the exit of the neighborhood.  The sun burns.  Her skin suffers from the accumulation of lesions.  In the mornings she looks in the mirror and discovers a new spot, small wrinkles on her temple, or a sprout of gray hairs, noting that the years, the house, the kids, the tension, the solitude, are leaving a bill impossible to pay.  But it’s not the loss of her beauty that worries her most, but rather the physical exhaustion.  In the afternoons, when she gets back from work, the stairs seem to reach to the sky; at night she falls asleep in front of the TV, sometimes before the soap opera starts.  She remembers how, years ago, she laughed at her mother when she did the same.  Her mother nodding off, snoring, waking up surprised, denying she’d been sleeping and excusing herself saying, “I was resting my eyes, sweetheart.”  History repeats itself, she whispers sadly.

She walks slowly and the sun burns.  She consoles herself thinking that this is the month.  With the little bit she’s saved and if her ex isn’t late again with the child support, this month she can stretch the money she sets aside for changing into convertible pesos to buy soap and cooking oil, and buy herself a parasol.  She’s been determined to buy it since the end of the brief winter, despite the fact that her friends tell her a parasol makes you look much older.  But she believes that what makes her look older is trying to stretch the money to eat and bathe decently every month.  And the sun that burns so much.

She walks to the exit of the neighborhood.  It’s a long stretch without shade and the sun burns.  The buildings don’t have entryways, they’re separated from each other and from the sidewalks.  Aligned at different angles with respect to the streets, they seem like the walls of a huge labyrinth.  A labyrinth in full sun.  The scarce trees have no foliage to protect passers-by.  Many show deformations from bad pruning in advance of some cyclone.  With humps and stumps, like the veterans of uncountable wars, these poor trees remind one of the elderly, wrinkled and gnarled, who take the sun in the parks.  Eroded by time and trapped in time, neither the trees nor the elderly know with certainly if they’ll survive to see the next cyclone.  For now, they hope.  The sun burns, and she walks slowly.

The Life of Sisyphus – Part 5

She walks towards the exit of the neighborhood. Although it makes her late she doesn’t hurry, the years have given her patience. She enjoys the feeling of relief it gives her to leave the apartment. And she enjoys it more because she knows it won’t last long. Her apartment is a box divided into four little boxes. One box for the living room, two boxes for the bedrooms and one box for the kitchen and bath. The building is a big box, composed of sixteen little-box apartments: two little boxes on each side of a stair, two stairs per floor, four floors in all. A tight set of boxes with few windows, boxes that resonate and amplify noises, that accumulate heat during the day until late at night and that leak together, exchanging every kind of liquid from top to bottom. Leaving the claustrophobic box and walking a few blocks helps her relax to face the day.

She reaches an intersection of three streets and the relief disappears. In front of her extends a motley multitude of buildings-crates, with the same dark and dirty stairs, the same roofs bristling with tanks and antennas, the same walls unpainted for years, the same goddamn stinking garbage everywhere. To her left, a stop that hasn’t seen a bus in decades. To the right, a line of cars waiting for passengers going to the city center. The drivers, with professional patience, trading jokes, advice and even the number that came out yesterday. The smell of horse urine warmed by the sun begins to invade the entire area. She crosses a small park, the first they had in the neighborhood. It’s a very curious place that makes her imagine a time gone by that she knows through the stories of her parents. Here the benches are situated like the seats in a movie theater, facing in the same direction. In this place, occupying the total width of the park, a platform rises about half a meter above the rest of the floor. The neighbors have gathered here to meet, almost always at night, to deal with a range of topics: volunteer work, guards, mobilizations in agriculture. On the weekend there could be some musical or theater group and her Mom even recalled a lottery to make the list to order the purchase of toys that came for the children once a year. At the bottom of the platform stands a concrete column with a box, also concrete, with one side open to the benches. For years, this box held the only TV in the neighborhood. During that time the little park was the social center of the area. People decked themselves out for a visit as of they were going to a luxury restaurant, and they demanded silence from the talkers like a professional librarian. Her father says that the first arguments between the baseball fanatics and the soap opera lovers happened here.

Even though the years and the children—above all the children—have helped her understand why the nostalgia for days gone by hits so hard as we age, she can’t help but react with suspicion to these stories told by her parents. More than stories, it’s the tone of naiveté that provokes the greatest reaction. She feels dread towards this simple and transparent world, where it’s so easy to control what people can know, think and do. It enrages her to see the elders, who know no other ways of life, having this as the best, and only, possible option, and sacrificing their lives waiting for a dream that never comes.

It’s necessary

There was a time in my life when I employed the ideas of others to express my own.  A time when I had no voice, and spoke in the voice provided, repeating, in the words provided, the ideas conceived by others.

I read poems for love, repeating phrases popularized by popular people, looking for the meaning of life or the moment in books and songs that came into my hands by chance.

And when it came to elevated and solemn things, I would always have at hand a slogan, an oath, an insult to the Enemy, to shout with fervor in the square crowded with others like myself.

The years have made me suspicious of this searching for life in books and songs.  This search for the meaning of life in the by-products that fall off the production line of life.  This always looking somewhere else for life, somewhere outside of life itself.

And although suspicious of them, my books no longer confused me.  Life confused me, when I was faced with the unexpected, that I hadn’t lived, that I hadn’t read.  Life confused me, to spare me the confusion if sometimes the scene repeated itself.  To make me believe in my own strength.  To force me to grow.

There was a time in my life when I would laugh at those who argued very seriously that they had to write a book because they couldn’t find one that satisfied them.  Today I know that to grow we must speak in our own voice and write our own book.  It’s necessary to risk.  And to create.

The Life of Sisyphus – Part 4

She enters her apartment and sits in front of the fan trying desperately to stop her sweating, her body just not breathing through her clothes. She looks for her hose and begins filling the water tank in the kitchen and, after, the one on the balcony. Although the pump howls as if it were going to break down along with the buildings that surround it, the water pressure is so low there isn’t even enough to fill two tanks at the same time. Also, she must watch the tanks as they are filling to ensure the water doesn’t overflow and flood the apartment below, for this would cause terrible grief with her neighbors. A few months ago, overwhelmed by never-ending problems, she left for work leaving the valve open and two apartments were flooded. Already feeling so much shame, never had she so wished for the ground to open and swallow her as when she came home that evening and found the neighbors below waiting for her with looks that could kill and mattresses drying off in the sun. She of course accepts the responsibility for being careless but she cannot suppress the thought that if only water was available 24 hours a day, it would be impossible to accidentally leave the pump going and she wouldn’t have to fill all the buckets and tanks crammed into her already narrow apartment.

Water has always been a problem. Or rather, the problem. Fifteen years ago, when she arrived, a bride to this newly constructed building in a clearing without trees or sidewalks on the outskirts of town, they had water on alternate days.  Now there are twice the number of buildings and they only have access to water every three days, and the problem with the water is always a topic of discussion amongst the neighbors and the delegates and council members. The planning continues, almost out of sight and out of mind, but occasionally they issue encouraging words: the finances have already been approved, the new system will be ready by the middle of next year, we’re waiting for the materials to arrive… and so on and so on. Today, ‘the water problem’ remains the same, as does so much in her life and so she no longer goes to the meetings.  She no longer understands those who are consoled thinking there are worse places, places with water only once a week, instead of trying to find ways to solve the problem. But ‘progress continues’, as the corporate catch phrase goes.  Tired of waiting for a solution to arise, people simply find band-aid solutions. Those more fortunate have hung their tanks on the outside of the building giving it a multi-colored make-over. Others, the less lucky, fill the space inside their apartments with water tanks. So many tanks filled to make up for the delayed arrival of the water have upped the danger of leaks and the risk of flood, a flood like hers.

After that horrible incident with the neighbors, she has now made it a part of her early-morning routine to verify that the water valves are closed and everything electrical in her kitchen is turned off. And that is what she does now, and one more time, in the warm morning, she leaves her apartment.