The English Take Havana / Iván García

The news spread like wildfire in the old part of Havana. A black rapper drained his beer while he spoke rapidly into his cell phone. “Buddy, a big ship of foreigners just arrived. They speak English, they seem to be gringos. Let them know about the girls, I think it will work,” noted the pimp.

From the other side of the avenue, in stalls and outdoor cafes located along the coast, ordinary people watched the huge tourist vessel docked in Havana Bay with open mouths.

While the visitors wandered around town or ate a sandwich, the prostitutes, private tourist guides, illegal sellers of cigars, crafts and disks, and the musicians who sing boleros for small change immediately went on the march to see how they could gain something by offering their varied merchandise during the three-day stay in the city.

What the Thomson Dream cruise ship brought was a load of 1,500 British tourists. They disembarked with summer clothes and beer in hand, and without wasting time began to tour the historic sites of Old Havana. They went on foot, took rickety pedicabs or rode in horse-drawn carriages.

A television journalist, soberly dressed, interviewed some of the English, who were surprised by the unexpected welcome and at the same time half-frightened, when they noticed the legions of Cubans who were accosting them with all kinds of offerings. Mulattos and blondes dressed in miniscule attire, flirted shamelessly with a group of young men wearing Liverpool shirts.

Since 2004, cruise ships stopped coming to ports on the island. The drought ended on 12 November, when the Spanish ship Gemini, with more than 200 passengers from 11 countries, was in Havana. But its presence didn’t cause as much stir among the people of the capitol as this floating English hotel.

Strict control by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets against the embargo had unleashed a witch hunt, sending notice in strong terms to the companies that own cruise ships from Spain, Germany and other countries. If they stopped in Cuba, then they could not dock in U.S. ports. Those were the days of George W. Bush.

The Tourism Ministry had already created an infrastructure in the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, specialized in serving the unique guests. Foreign companies hired staff to work on Caribbean cruises. Everything was left hanging when the U.S. threatened the shipping companies that visited the island of the Castros.

The blow made Fidel Castro angry, and in 2005 he complained about having to receive rude tourists, who threw cans and garbage into the sea and didn’t care about the environment.

But enough water has passed under the bridge. Now, a relaxed Barack Obama is in charge of the White House. And since February 2008, Raul Castro, brother of the historic leader of the revolution, is leading the country’s destiny. And he is engaged in the implementation of a series of reforms to rescue the fragile economy of Cuba.

In addition to hard measures of cuts and layoffs of 1,300,000 workers, Castro II urgently needs dollars, euros or pounds, equally. Therefore, since 2010, he returned to a number of projects abandoned or left half-finished by his brother’s administration.

Among them, the construction of buildings for foreigners and the opening of golf courses for high-class tourist segments. The reopening to European cruise companies also is part of the package of measures whose main objective is to collect hard currency.

In a few months, the arrival in Havana of thousands of tourists by sea could become routine. To the delight of the prostitutes and hustlers.

Photo: EFE

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 8 2011

A Memorable Evening / Miriam Celaya

Yoani junto a un grupo de amigos. Ceremonia de premiación del 7 de enero de 2011
Yoani with a group of friends. Prize ceremony of January 7, 2011

Last Friday, January 7, in a simple and warm ceremony attended by her friends and family, Yoani Sánchez received the Prince Claus Award from Mr. Ronald Muijzert, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. After the words of Ambassador and his reading of the opinion of the jury that awarded the valued prize to our noted blogger, Yoani read her brief speech. It was an electric, vibrant address that permeated deeply into everyone’s hearts. Far from corny and trite, far from complacency and self-pity, the words of this “little blogger” — as she is often called — were also a prize for those gathered there, dedicated to also recognizing the support received from her traveling companions, and calling us together in our differences, in the new challenges we face, this year and in the near future.

When I hugged her, shortly afterward, she was trembling. Nervous, emotional, and happy, with the joy of one who has received compensation for the many days of work, dedication and dreams. She has a head full of projects, a bright outlook, and a soul full of confidence. At least that is the spirit transmitted to me by this young friend, an untiring girl who almost doesn’t sleep, a girl who seems moved by an energy greater than her fragile figure.

And so I think it was precisely her speech that was the memorable touch of the evening, because from my personal experience I know that every one of Yoani’s dreams is usually quickly converted into a kind of “Utopia realized” followed immediately by another and another; because her words find an echo in those of us who have hopes and who are convinced that the Cuban we want will our own achievement: this exercise of faith that allows us to get up every morning and take on the demons of disinformation, the lies, exclusions, isolation and the fear, in pursuit of a freedom long-awaited.

Listening to Yoani on this pleasant celebration of January 7, also evoked the recent past, when we were just a handful of six or seven friends, I was still “Eva González” and the blog Generation Y was beautiful creature, recently born. So many experiences since then, so many friends, so many emotions, so many hopes! Just over three years have passes, but I always remember like a gift to my spirit, that question with which Yoani — perhaps naively, perhaps with mischievous intention — infected me with the blogger virus: “So why doesn’t Eva open a blog?” That day, between doubts and enthusiasm, I answered that I would; but now, when my humble blog is reaching its third birthday, I would like to dedicate to Yoani another word that rises from my heart: Thank you!

January 11 2011

The Devaluation of Piracy / Yoani Sánchez

With their colorful covers and nylon sleeves, the new supply of CDs and DVDs fills every corner of my city. Selling music, TV series and movies is one of the self-employment professions that has expanded — more and more rapidly — in recent weeks. Everyone wants to have their own distribution point; the most creative offer compilations of the same actor, or the complete discography of a singer. There are no copyright barriers and the American and Spanish serials are the most commonly purchased. Piracy is no longer something whispered in the ears of those interested, rather the merchandise is displayed publicly on makeshift wooden and cardboard shelves. Anyone can wrap up record labels or producers, as long as they don’t cross the line of the ideologically acceptable.

Given the audacity shown in ignoring copyright, it’s striking that no one dares to offer the popular — but banned — programs readily available in the alternative information networks. Absent from the public catalogs are the documentaries — so often watched in Cuban homes — that approach our national history through a different lens from the official. Nor do the shelves in doorways and windows display films that show the situation in the Romania of Ceausescu, or in Stalin’s Russia, or the North Korea of Kim Jong Il. The real hits of the underground world would jeopardize the licenses of these newly minted self-employed. Warning “visits” to the new entrepreneurs make it clear, don’t even think about providing certain controversial materials. The censorship pact is in place.

Beyond the issue of control is that of profitability of these small businesses. When they first started to emerge, the price of a DVD with five movies was around 50 national pesos. Today, in view of the profusion of vendors, it’s dropped to around 30. Many don’t survive the first quarter as independent workers. Others diversify their production and expand their sales. But to stay afloat and become profitable, they will probably need to turn to themes currently banned. In a few months, a good part of them will have, in addition to the visible offerings, another hidden shelf only for trusted customers, to satisfy the restless seekers of the forbidden.

Cuba 2011: Suckling Pig, Babalaos and Concerns / Iván García

In these last days, the smell of roast pig wafted through the streets of good houses in Vedado and Miramar or in the shacks of marginal neighborhoods like Fanguito or Pogolotti.The penetrating aroma of pork also made mouths water in neighborhoods full of the unemployed, street kids, and prostitutes in Atarés and Cayo Hueso.

There were no big parties nor did the rum flow until dawn. The economic situation is not one for shooting off rockets. Ordinary people preferred sobriety. Most of them celebrated the date with their families. And with music, of course. Timba and reggaeton rang out in doorways and on balconies until the first light of day.

The government of General Raúl Castro is planning cuts, and therefore the public festivities took place in specific sites. Without any waste, so that ordinary people could await the arrival of the 52nd anniversary of the revolution as best they know how to do, moving their hips and drinking beer from a keg.

It’s a revolution that has lost steam. His Marxist discourse no longer dazzles. The logical erosion of five authoritarian decades in power has resulted in a economy that is adrift and a chaotic infrastructure, with poor, gray cities.

In the brand new year in Havana almost nothing works. Urban transport and services are grim. Even the black market falters before the rigorous controls applied by the government to certain businesses, making the thefts and diversions that used to fuel illegal commerce difficult.

The best thing has been the weather, without unbearable heat or chilling cold. Leisure and cultural life are limited and of poor quality. And very expensive, if you want to shake your body in the clubs and fashionable discos.

While the people said goodbye to 2010, wondering how the regime will save its skin, on January 1, the official babalaos divulged their predictions for 2011. According to their prophecies, known as the Letter of the Year, in 2011 Ogun, the god of metals in the Yoruba religion, will govern. And he will be accompanied by Yemaya, the orisha mistress of the sea.

Among more than twenty recommendations are calls for respect for women, maintaining the family unit, caring for children, and avoiding situations that provoke fights that could have fatal consequences.

Although in recent times the number of admitted believers in different religions has increased, so has the number of non-believers. Citizens who don’t believe in the predictions of santeros nor in the proposals made by governments.

It’s logical. After 52 years of failure in the economic realm, people have difficulty assimilating the rhetoric of “Now, yes, we are going in the right direction.” That dog has already bitten several times.

Raul Castro has entered a dark tunnel where there is no going back. If there is no exit, somehow he will have to turn on a light to try to find it. Two things can happen. Either reforms will be their own trap, or they will work fairly well and improve the quality of life.

Not a few Cubans, while they prepared the roast pig, went round and round over the economic puzzle. Everyone is concerned there is no alternative. It’s like playing Russian roulette. For Olegario, 72 years old and retired, what worries him most is that it fulfills one of the maxims of the babalaos: “What goes around comes around.”

Illustration: Orishas of the Yoruba religion

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 7 2011

A Note to Readers about Signing the Civic Manifesto to Cuban Communists / Miriam Celaya

As I had reported on this blog, in response to requests for a chance to add your name to this document, as of January 10, 2011 it can be signed here:  Civic Manifesto to the Cuban Communists. Interested parties also can now sign it via e-mail: manifiestoaloscomunistas@yahoo.com or by personally addressing any of the original signatories.

Text of Manifesto in English

January 10 2011

Gladys, or the Fantasy of “Renovating the Model“ / Miriam Celaya

Cafetería estatal modelo
State Cafeteria

Since all the talk started about the new process for awarding self-employment licenses, Gladys sharpened her pencil, did her accounts, and finally concluded that the time had come for her savings of many years, jealously guarded for “the bad times,” to be turned into an investment to support her precarious condition as a divorced mother with no work at all. She would open a coffee shop selling light meals and, with luck, in time recover her investment and begin to earn some profits. In her neighborhood, on the periphery of the capital, there were not a lot of establishments of this type, and so she was assured of customers. That and her cooking skills practically guaranteed the success of her little business.

So Gladys went to the offices empowered to that effect in her municipality, where she was directed to the first and indispensable step: she had to contact her polyclinic and ask for an inspection by the Department of Hygiene and Epidemiology. An official wold visit her house and determine if she met the health requirements to get her license approved. After three fruitless visits to the polyclinic, (the “compañero” was “working outside”), on her fourth try the persevering Gladys managed to find the most important official and ask him for the inspection. The man. imperturbable, hieratic, and silent, simply looked at her coldly from the majesty of his desk and pointed with a dirty fingernail to a paper hanging behind the glass of a cabinet, which she had not previously notices. It set out the conditions license candidates have to meet (or “new graduates” as popular humor calls them), the first of which is that the applicant must have two kitchens, one for the family and the other for cooking food for the public. OK, when we say “kitchen” in this case, we’re not taking about a simple stove, an investment that already would be very expensive. No sir. It must be a completely separate kitchen with stove, a tiled counter (preferably white tiles), sink, electricity and running water.

Gladys does not understand why, if she has a large and sparkling kitchen — which, incidentally, would also be subject to inspection — she would have to invest all her capital in building another one, without even having the space for it. “Those are the rules,” said the little man invested with Olympian powers; “What’s more, pay attention, you have to have two refrigerators: one for the house and one for the cafe.” There was silence, dense and brief, until, convinced that she had done everything possible and satisfied for having done her part, Gladys retired, a mysterious smile on her face.

I don’t really know anything more about it, but I have heard it said that from Gladys’s house are sold bread with croquettes and soft drinks that are the best in the neighborhood.

January 7 2011

Trafficking or Theraputic Use? / Miguel Iturria Savón

While the international press spreads the case of the American contractor Alan Gross, held prisoner on the island for supposed espionage, and lodged a year ago in a special room of a Havana military hospital, another US citizen survives in a wheelchair in the Combinado del Este prison in Havana. He is Chris Walter Johnson, he was taken prisoner at the Rancho Boyeros airport in August 2009 and tried on this past 26th of December 2010.

Chris Walter Johnson wasn’t contracted by any US agency nor was he in contact with the Jewish island residents who today deny knowing Alan Gross. A decade ago, he came as a tourist and enjoyed the sunshine, the girls, and the other kindnesses of the tropics, including marijuana, which he consumed from adolescence in Los Angeles, California, one of the states of the American Union where you can acquire it by medical prescription and the authorities are betting on its legalization.

The citizen Chris Walter Johnson, 58-years-old, is a ship captain and owner of a small fishing business. In ten years he traveled twice to Cuba, where he cultivated friendships, had girlfriends, and a daughter.

Chris’s disgrace began in July 2009, on meeting a Cuban married to a Mexican woman, who proposed that they go to Cancún to buy clothes. Besides clothing, they acquired a kilogram of marijuana, brought in by Chris in a jelly jar and in a bag placed in his underwear. On returning, the Yankee sailor made things more complicated by offering the Customs officials who detected the drugs at the Havana airport two thousand dollars. Instead of returning to the hotel, he was lodged in La Condesa, a prison for foreigners, accused of drug trafficking and attempted bribery.

The accelerated deterioration of his health motivated Chris’s transfer to the hospital for inmates located in the jail at Combinado del Este. There he waits in a wheelchair, among sick murderers, the pains of an old diving accident, depression, and hope.

An MRI detected that Chris suffers a tumor lesion in his medullar canal, which requires surgical intervention. He suffers, besides, from degenerative disk disease, positional vertigo which prevents him from standing up, and osteoporosis. The medical commission which examined him believes that, because of these problems, Chris Walter Johnson is not compatible with the regimen of imprisonment. His clinical chart was analyzed in the trial which took place this past December 27th.

After a year and four months of being locked up, the case of Chris Walter Johnson was adjudicated and awaited sentencing. The prosecutor asked for 20 years imprisonment, but for his deplorable state of health it is possible that in short order his furlough or expulsion from national territory could be ordered, but between Cuba and the United States there is no agreement that regulates extradition.

Perhaps Chris may not be one of those thousands of patients who invent reasons to obtain prescriptions for marijuana in California, one of the 13 states in the American Union which is betting on the legalization of this recreational drug, which produces a state of relaxation and serves to treat glaucoma, diabetes, depression, multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy side-effects among other things; but at the same time it is contraindicated for diverse conditions such as headache, chronic bronchitis, etc., which also produce lesions in memory. God willing you recuperate outside Combinado del Este. Happy 2011, Mister Chris.

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Translated by: JT

January 11 2011

Voces 4: Unstoppable / Miguel Iturria Savón

As an end of year gift, the fourth edition of the magazine Voces is now circulating on the ‘Net, located at www.vocescubanas.com/voces and presented this past 26th of December in the apartment of Yoani Sánchez and Reinaldo Escobar, founders of the Cuban Blogger Academy, which has published these pages without censorship since August, far from official mandates and political factions.

In the same way as the previous issues, Voces bets on the freedom of expression from a position of freshness and originality. Its format includes texts from 20 authors on 60 pages, with cartoons by Belén Cerros, blogger “La Vida Agridulce”, the index and back pages designs of Rolando Pulido, and composition in the care of writer and photographer Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo, responsible for drawings and figures that match up games with letters, arrows, and numbers that create suggestive blank spaces which compensate for the simplicity and absence of sections, footnotes, authors’ notes, and editorial fluff.

Voces 4 deals with themes and figures that cover the vastness of interests of those who approach the Cuban from cyberspace. Exiled and unexiled voices that measure the island’s space in its connection with the world: social, political, and cultural problems, poems, book reviews, narrative pieces, chronicles and current analyses, such as “Truth as Life’s Logic”, which constitutes the communique-denunciation of Hip Hop Patriot Squadron, with which the magazine ends.

It starts with the essay of Vicente Echerri “About a Fractured Identity”, which analyzes the destruction — and the transformation — of the Cuban nation, the identity to which we cling; the abolition of the social contract and other problems that change triumphalist visions of the island’s future.

The sociopolitical theme is approached with critical and polemic sense in texts such as “Cuban Socialism: Juggling At The Edge of The Abyss”, from Reinaldo Escobar, who reports on General Castro’s discussion before the regime’s Parliament; “In Defense of Wikileaks”, from Ernesto Fernández Busto; while Iván de la Nuez offers “Politics: Humanity’s Heritage?”, while Rosa Maria Rodríguez Torrado chips away with “The Honey of Power, Reforms, and Plantation?”, and José Gabriel Barrenechea asks “Is Reform Beginning?”.

Poetry, better dealt with than in the previous edition, brings us four unpublished works, two from the dramatist and narrator Abilio Estévez, who bequeaths “Of the Gods/Of the Tightrope Walker”; while Feliz Luis Viera gives us two unpublished poems from “The Fatherland is an Orange”, one about whores and the other around the notion of a fatherland.

The diverse narrative gallops through the testimony of Yoani Sánchez (“Country Girl of Havana Center”); the travel chronicle “In Puerto Plaza, Without a Visa”, by Armando Añel; the story “In the Office”, by Mabel Cuesta, and the fiction of Omar Alfonso Requena — “A Probable Vasumitra”. Jorge Enrique Lage’s “Flash Forward”, the 12 posts of the anonymous Zorphdark and 19 untitled vignettes from Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo, who fantasizes about his encounter with Aki, a Japanese girl who serves him under the pretext of offering her enlightening writings about love and existential aloneness.

Voces 4 includes, in its turn, four pieces of literary and cultural criticism. Tania Favela broaches “The Temptations of Lucio Gaitán”, reviews the book “An Old Trip” by Manuel Periera; also described by Eliseo Alberto, who dedicates the title “Favorable Wind” to it. To Miguel Iturria Savón is owed “The Carnival and the Dead”, about the novel of the same name by Ernesto Santana, Kafka Prize of 2010. While Néstor Díaz de Villegas surprises us with “The Philosophy of T-Che”, where he compares the legend of Jim Morrison — “false idol of a liberation theology” — with the market imperatives that the images of Che, Scarface, and other contemporary icons impose.

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Translated by: JT

January 12 2011

False Unanimity / Iván García

Either President Raul Castro is deluding himself or he is trying to deceive Cubans. One of the two. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

If Castro the Second is pretending to be sincere when he speaks with severe disgust about the artificial unanimity and complacency practiced at all official levels in the country, then he should implement, once and for all, the long-heralded “revolutionary democracy.”

It’s a contradiction. The General shakes with rage before the final vote, which is feigned and compliant, both in the Parliament and the Council of State. But then, when the time comes to raise a hand, everyone, absolutely everyone, votes in favor of the proposals put forth by the government.

I don’t know of any deputy to the National Assembly who has suggested a single project agreed to by the citizens he represents. In no session of the boring and monotonous national parliament does anyone dare to propose economic methods that are different from those offered by the chiefs in olive green.

In Cuba, the opposition departs from the government line. It is the only one qualified to offer and provide solutions. The Communist Party and other social organizations are merely bystanders, a well-tuned chorus.

It’s amazing that the 611 deputies agree on the shape and design with which they intend to revive the depressed national economy. Not one single deputy disagrees or has doubts. At least publicly.

It can’t be said that Cuba is the most democratic country in the world when everyone in the government accepts any law or project with his head down, applauding. The executive branch is the one that curtails discussion of differences, by permitting only “constructive criticism.”

Of course, the deputies and party members are afraid to come out against any proposal that has the approval of the Castro brothers. Non-acceptance of the laws and wishes of the hierarchy can mark them as undesirables. Or worse, as counter-revolutionaries, a sure passage to hell in the revolutionary island paradise.

The only ones who openly criticize and put forth different proposals are the opposition and independent journalists. Some might be unrealistic. But if the government at least would hear or analyze them, you might have more elements on hand when making laws that affect all of society.

It’s easier to disparage the dissident movement. The big problem with Cuba is to break in a real way, not in words, the false unanimity of the state representatives. Discrepancies enrich dialogue, according to Raul Castro.

But in practice, they prefer to listen to the instrumental music, without fanfare and pleasing to their ears, played by their followers in the forums.

If they really want to stir up the system and hear truly critical voices, they will have to acknowledge the dissidence, which exists in spite of everything. And it’s not unanimous within itself; on the contrary. Therein lies a healthy difference.

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 10 2011

Unfinished Business / Miriam Celaya

Santa Patrona de Cuba
Patron Saint of Cuba

One year goes out and another comes in while the exact classification for much “unfinished business” in the excessively long Cuban dictatorship fail to get a mention. And as if that weren’t enough the well-known major doubts — those that relate directly to the old yearning for freedom, democracy and human rights, as necessities that ever more Cubans demand — the regime still owes us answers to specific issues that arose, in the complex national life, in the year just ended.

For my part, I can’t help but remember that soon it will be one year since the tragic death of dozens of mentally ill patients at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital, known as Mazorra, in subhuman conditions and circumstances that have never been clarified, despite official announcement of “a commission to investigate the facts.” Of course, like all commissions here, this one is anonymous.

Curiously, the unfortunate crash of an Cuban Aerocaribbean plane in the center of the island in which 68 people — mostly foreign tourists — lost their lives in the last quarter of 2010, has already been investigated and explained, with the results published in the national press. True, the sad lunatics of Mazorra were all Cubans, which could be a determining factor in this case: the crazies are of little interest to anyone; and if, in addition, they are national crazies, they seem to be unimportant even to Cubans who indifferently pass by, believing they enjoy mental health. The average Cuban suffers from a ferocious amnesia… about anything that doesn’t affect him directly; so the government maintains the right to continue, without the slightest embarrassment, its display of solidarity on health care with other countries in the world, and what’s worse, it continues to be praised and recognized by international organizations which, it seems, are as insensitive and amnesiac as the people here.

The other matter pending which I want to refer to today is the release of the political prisoners of the Black Spring who remain imprisoned after the unmet commitment by the dictatorship to the Catholic authority and, thus, to Cubans. These are the prisoners who have refused to leave the country, those who reject exile, those who will not surrender. Everything indicates that the Cuban government, like the senior Catholic hierarchy on the Island and the brand new mediator of the occasion — the Spanish government — have agreed to to cover the unjustified prolongation of the euphemistically called “process of liberation” with a pious mantle, take a break, and quietly celebrate their Christmas: undoubtedly 2010 turned out to be, for them, a tremendously hectic year from the political point of view. The cardinal, for his part, had the kind charity to officiate at a mass in La Habana prison, Merry Christmas! It must be an almost burlesque phrase in that place. Perhaps the anointed also trust in the enduring Cuban amnesia will exonerate them of all charges. Or perhaps they have been infected with the same disease?

January 4 2011

From the Hand of Kafka / Rebeca Monzo

I’m sure if this gentleman were alive today, on my planet, he would write of local customs.

I went with my friend Regina to the Veterinary School, because her puppy needed emergency surgery. I did not want her to have to undertake this sad errand alone.

It had been many years, thank God, since I had been inside this campus. On arrival, the impression was horrible: the state of abandonment, deterioration and filth hit me. Who is last in line for surgery? I asked. I immediately marked our place behind a lady carrying a little sata puppy with a strong demo. There was a German Shepherd with an ingestion of pork, and a cocker spaniel puppy with the same. It was still very early. Later the line swelled with the new patients arriving. One was brought in a wheelbarrow used for construction materials.

When we got ourselves organized and were waiting our turn, an employee shouted that the power company had informed them that today would be a “free hand” in the whole area. In other words, there’s not going to be any power until who knows when. My friend and I bristled. The thought of having to repeat the ordeal, we were not amused, when another voice, this time from one of the doctors, announced that surgery would continue because they were going to operate with the light from the sun. Yes, you heard it right, “A Pleno Sol” just like the movie, but without Alain Delon in the leading role!

Recovery room entrance. The spots are bat feces.

A dog owner approached us and told us all the services offered in this place, but the only inconvenience was they could cut the dogs’ toenails but they didn’t have the clippers for it, and also they could vaccinate but right now they didn’t have any vaccines, and they could wash and style the dogs except right now they didn’t have any water and the electric clippers were broken.

Finally, after a long wait, even though we were third in line, but some emergencies arrived which logically had to go first, we could see the lamentable conditions of the place didn’t stop the magnificent and brave surgeons, saving the life of each little animal, spending the day in the “sunlit” operating room.

Hats off to the vets!

January 7 2011

A Different Sunday / Rebeca Monzo

Sala Covarrubias, National Theater

This Sunday would have been tedious and boring like all the rest, if we hadn’t gotten an unexpected and agreeable invitation: Evelio Tieles and Francis, his wife, called to invite us to  a great concert being given in the Covarrubias Room of the National Theater.

We arrived early, a little before eleven in the morning, the hour scheduled for the even to start. The theater is usually full, moreso when the National Symphony announces a virtuoso like Tieles as the soloist. A real treat on a planet where good choices are few.

National Symphony Theater and the Maestro Evelio Tieles

The room was completely full. For the opening the orchestra directed by the Maestro Enrique Perez Mesa honored us with the Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten. Spectacularly well executed.

In the second half: the only Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, Op.61 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Evelio Tieles soloist.

The audience enthusiastic, a standing ovation for the orchestra, its director and Maestro Tieles, making them return to bow several times. The applause did not stop in appreciation of such a wonderful morning gift.

January 11 2011

A Hope that Doesn’t Fade in Cuba / Iván García

On the eve of Three Kings Day, Melanie Garcia, 7 years old, feels that the hours take years. At 5 pm she wants to go to bed, to shorten the time. Intensely she lives the hope of getting up before dawn and discovering what new toys the Three Wise Men from the East brought her.

In spite of everything, the tradition has been maintained for centuries. It’s been a dangerous crossing. Families wanting to keep the custom have fought against an atheistic state that decided to bury it five decades ago.

Fidel Castro struck the first blow to the magic world of children in the ’60s, when he distributed three toys per child by state decree. He decided to become the only Wise Man.

He even changed the months. He exchanged January for July, a month where they sold toys by the ration card. Just five days after coming down from the Sierra Maestra, he sent a message round to all segments of society.

From a war plane he dropped thousands of toys to children living on the hillsides of the eastern provinces. The idea wasn’t bad. They were kids who were dirty and full of parasites, whose only toys were chickens and pigs.

But after the altruistic gesture he sent a coded message in red: from now on, the State would appropriate tasks hitherto performed by Catholic and social institutions. Then you know what happened.

January 6 disappeared as a holiday. In his 52-year-long journey through the honey of power, Castro sought to undermine the religiosity of the population. Temples were closed. Some priests were expelled and others disparaged.

In pursuit of building the first communist society in America, many things had to be changed. And Three Kings Day was one of them: they considered it a petty bourgeois backwardness. More important than the toys, U.S. imperialism was to be buried in the dustbin of history.

Boarding schools prepared children and young people to be future soldiers of the country. The theme was “study, work and rifle.” Five decades later, the same government decided to sweep under the carpet part of its original sins.

Long ago, toys were removed from the ration card. Now they sell for hard currency, available only to families that receive remittances. These days, shopping at the Commodore Center, west of Havana, is a madhouse of parents buying toys.

The offers vary, but the prices go through the roof. A game is over $100. A bike, the same. A doll with a battery that says three sentences costs more than $60. Barbies, which you can have for $50, are piled on one part of the counter. The cheapest toy is equivalent to two months’ salary for a worker.

January 6 is just one more date to the Cuban authorities. There are no parades through the streets of the city. But if you wake up early that day, in the neighborhood you will hear the din of the little ones, finding a toy in some corner of the house

There are other happy moments for children on the island. But the Day of the Kings is the icing on the cake. If you have any doubts, just ask Melany Garcia.

Photo: Havana.

From Tania Quintero: “My granddaughter Melany with the toys that the Kings brought her on January 6, 2009. See, on the left, the cradle of wood, there are still carpenters in Cuba who make them, just like 60 years ago, when I was a child. I am glad that this tradition has not been lost in a world of increasingly sophisticated electronic toys.”

Translated by Regina Anavy

Originally posted: January 7 2011

The Knots in the Gag / Reinaldo Escobar

Havana, January 8, 1959.  The dove had already defecated on his shoulder; the other bearded one had already answered the question, “How am I doing, Camilo?”; Habaneros had already started to worry about such a long speech warning them that things would be more difficult from now on.  So comandante Dermidio Escalona ordered the unruly capital crowd to shut up.

No one could calculate, then, the significance of that gesture, no one could suspect that half a century later the performance artist Tania Bruguera would recreate the scene in her production “Tatlin’s Whisper,” in which we had one free minute before the microphone, dove included.

I leave you the image here, and this link conjured by technology and nostalgia, so that we can assess what could have been and was not, and calculate what could be if we were less obedient to the order to shut up.

January 10, 2010