The great problem created by the government of my planet itself with the dual currency, now, with the new authorization of being able to buy things in some TRD (hard currency collection) stores with either currency, is that it has become more complicated for both the customers and the employees, who work at each cash register in these establishments.

The other day I was at La Mariposa in Nuevo Vedada to buy some soft drinks–those that cost 0.50 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) whose equivalent in Cuban pesos (CUP) is 12.50. I offered 13.00 CUP in payment for which they owed me 0.50 CUP in change, but as the cash boxes don’t have this currency but only CUCs, they couldn’t give me 0.05 CUC because this would be the equivalent of 1.00 CUP, and so I would get 0.50 CUP over. Their not having change in smaller values means that the client loses the difference. I decided to return the soft drink.

Today my friend Mirta came over and brought me the receipt for a purchase she’d made of a liter of oil in the same store. She, indignant, told me exactly what I’ve told you. Well, I told her, if the famous character Cantinflas lived in Cuba today he would be totally nondescript.

These new headaches and “wallet-aches” that we customers and even the employees of these stores have to suffer are, in my modest opinion, nothing more than a new way of organized robbery.

6 September 2014

Two years ago, after a lot of red tape, long lines and pointless waits at Immigration, the Spanish embassy and the Plaza Military Committee, I finally managed to get the son of a friend — a woman who lives overseas and who had granted me power-of-attorney — exempted from military service so that the family could be briefly reunited.

Then, a few days ago, she, her husband and her son decided to come here on vacation to visit family. Everything seemed to be going very well. The joy of being reunited with family and friends helped mitigate the enduring economic hardship and deterioration of the country, which are very noticeable to anyone who comes back after spending time abroad.

The night that marked the return to the “mother country” finally arrived but a new odyssey had just begun.

After checking their luggage and paying the 25 CUC per person airport exit tax, an immigration official informed the couple that they could leave but that their son would have to stay behind because he had not yet completed his military service. Of course, the parents decided to stay with their son, but this meant losing their airline tickets, the exit tax they had already paid and the time spent waiting for their bags to be returned. There was also the anxiety and aggravation caused by the incompetence of the system.

Very early the next morning the three of them headed to the Military Committee to clear up what was clearly a big mistake. The excuse they were given was that the error had been committed by a “neo-fascist” who, fortunately, no longer worked there. From there they went to Immigration to resolve their son’s status.

Finally, after waiting for four hours due to a system-wide computer failure, they left with their problem resolved. The officials offered their apologies but did not offer the couple any sort of reimbursement.

As a result of all this they have had to forfeit their tickets. The earliest date the boy and his mother could get a return flight was October 8, which meant the mother would not be able to get back to work on time and the boy would not be able to take his upcoming exams scheduled for September 1. Given this new predicament, the parents went back to the Military Committee to request a document explaining the situation which they could give to their son’s school in Spain. Their request was denied, the excuse being that officials there were not authorized to issue such a document.

My friend’s husband, who did finally manage to get a ticket, will have to leave tomorrow to get back to work. He will try to explain the situation to the administrators at his son’s school in the hope that they will allow the boy to take the exams upon his return.

When they came over for a visit today, they told us that, unfortunately, due to this recent experience they had no intention of returning to Cuba anytime soon, at least not until they could forget everything that had happened to them.

All told, this may appear to be no big deal. But, to appreciate it, you had to have to experienced it. This is why, when they finally overcome all the obstacles and absurdities and manage to finally leave the country, many Cubans swear to themselves they will never return for fear of having to relive their bad experiences.

When she told us goodbye today, my friend recalled a line from an old song: “To Rigola I shall not return.”

14 August 2014

1408719803_image009After spending several days trying to remedy errors committed by various officials in the course of officially registering my apartment, as required by the new housing law, I then had to wander between countless locations and offices, not only because of the fragmentation of the main office (a huge, underutilized old house) but to others as well due to misinformation provided to public who access them.

Finalizing the process requires a visit to the notary office in order to legalize all the documents. I went to the best, most famous, most central location: the office at 23rd Street and J Avenue in Vedado, an office through which nearly all Cubans have passed. It is here that marriages, divorces, wills and testaments, powers-of-attorney — in short, all manner of legal proceedings — are handled.

It has been located here for more than five decades in a beautiful building from the 1950s, which even today serves as a study reference for students pursuing a career in architecture.

The photos below are the most recent images of what was once a beautiful office and residential complex.

There are comfortable seats where you are forced to wait for hours. Fortunately, I was helped by two wonderful professionals and a very pleasant and efficient receptionist.

22 August 2014

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This week I invited to lunch a couple who are friends of mine.  I have among the more “respectable” pensions in this country: 340 CUP (Cuban pesos) — the type of currency which is also used to pay salaries.

I set out early in search of the necessary elements and ingredients to prepare for my friends a “criollo” [traditional Cuban] menu. They live outside the country, and I wanted to treat them to a home-cooked meal. Since there would be four of us to feed, I purchased the following:

Four plantains to make tostones, 10 CUP for the four; 1lb onions, 30 pesos; 1lb peppers, 20 pesos; two small garlic heads, 6 pesos; one avocado, 10 pesos; 2lb rice, 10 pesos; 1lb black beans, 14 pesos; 3lb pork steak, 120 pesos; one large (3lb) mango, 7.50 pesos. After that, I stood in line to buy one loaf of Cuban bread for 10 pesos.

As you might have noticed, a simple luncheon for four cost me “only” 257.50 Cuban pesos. My guests brought a bottle of wine.

The meal was a success and we had a great time, but as you can imagine, my pockets are wobbling until my next pension check. Now you see what a simple meal costs on my planet!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

10 August 2014

Yesterday, July 28, I read in the Trabajadores ["Workers"] newspaper about the speech given by 6th grade pioneer Wendy Ferrer during the main event of a celebration in Artemisa marking the 61st anniversary of the attacks on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks. I could not help feeling shame and indignation over the vile manipulation that was so evident in the discourse read by this child.

To my understanding, the words and phrases used were not typical of a school-age child. If they were so, it would only be an even more lamentable proof of the terrible distortion fed to our students, a political manipulation that takes precedence over the true history of our country, and over true education. This is truly unfortunate. I believe that it is a civic duty to clarify for this girl, or actually for her teachers, some of the very sensitive aspects of her speech:

I completed my primary school studies — starting with a marvelous and unforgettable Kindergarten, as we then called what are today known as children’s camps — up to 6th grade in a public school, No. 31 of the Los Pinos suburb. Never, in our humble school, did we go without a school breakfast, as was provided in all public schools of that time. Nor did we ever lack notebooks — which I can’t forget included an imprint on the back of the tables for multiplication, addition, subtraction and division — or pencils, which were provided to all students at the start of — and midway through — each term. At that time, public education accounted for 22.3% of the national budget. There was also a private education sector, with wonderful schools founded and directed by great educators.

The Cuban educational system during the 1950s was made up of 20,000 credentialed teachers and 500,000 students. These figures are documented in the census and statistics of the era and confirmed internationally. Never in the public education sector was there discrimination against a student on the basis of race or religion. If a seeming dearth of black or mixed-race students is evident, this was only due to the fact that in those years, according to the 1953 census (which would be the last until almost 30 years later), 72.8% of the Cuban population was white, 12.4 was black, and 14.5 was mixed-race. At that time our population was six million inhabitants. The private schools were the only ones who had the prerogative to implement selective admissions.

According to my aunt, a great and respected educator and a public school director, the best teachers were to be found in the public schools because the government paid better salaries than the private schools. Also, many of these professors, above all those with specialties in music, art and languages, would also teach classes in private schools. For my lifelong love of music I credit — in addition to my family — those marvelous professors who I had in this subject throughout the course of my primary school studies.

To ignore these facts would be to cast aspersions not only on the Cuban educational system of that time, which was considered one of the best in Ibero-America along with those of Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico, but also on all those great Cuban educators who conferred lustre and prestige on our country. Among  them, to mention only a few, for the list would be interminable, we can name the following:

José de la Luz y Caballero, Rafael María Mendive, Enrique José Varona (youth educator), Max Figueroa, Camila Enrique Ureña, Mirta Aguirre, Gaspar Jorge García Galló, Raúl Ferrer, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, Vicentina Antuña Tavío, Aurelio Baldor (whose texts are still utilized in Latin America), Ana María Rodríguez, Añorga, Valmaña, and many more who were the mentors of our most celebrated professionals.

For all this, I cannot leave unmentioned that, after 1959, government decrees so pressured the teaching profession that private schools closed down and a massive exodus of educators ensued, damaging the educational system to such a degree that new teachers had to be credentialed on the fly to educate “the new sons and daughters of the homeland”.  The result was a deterioration and decline of education in our country, what with it taking second place to politics. Many of our professionals, in exile today, cannot forget the discrimination they endured in the universities, due to their religious beliefs or sexual orientation, following the triumph of the revolution.

For this and many other reasons, I would suggest to this young pioneer – and to all the children of our country – to fearlessly seek answers from capable persons to clarify their doubts, gathering as much information as they can independently, and taking a bit more responsibility for their own education. Sadly, in our schools today, politics and government orders take precedence over knowledge.

Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

31 July 2014

After having had to find out on my own — and wearing out the soles of my shoes in the process — what and where the registrar’s office for my area was in order to request a certificate that, in addition to other documents, was required to have the deed to my house certified, I finally found it. The premises, located on one of the most intricate and disrupted streets of Old Havana, were dark and unventilated. The very precarious furniture caught my eye. There was only one telephone, secured with a lock like those used on suitcases to prevent employees from making calls.

Luckily for me I had kept an old copy of the document in question. Otherwise, according to the employee — who treated me very politely, by the way — I would have had to look through those massive books, their bindings unglued and held together with string, under the same employee’s watchful eye, something which would have taken me all day. The books themselves were not particularly old but bore the hallmarks of long-term abuse.

Having completed the application, I then had to wait two weeks to pick up the document at the Courthouse. Imagine my surprise when on the appointed date I was allowed to go up to the office in question only after going through the annoyance of being forced to leave my purse and my belongings in a cubicle on the ground floor.

I did this under strong protest since I have never understood and still do not understand why one must leave one’s most personal articles in the hands of strangers. I let my displeasure be known, telling them that the same mistrust they displayed towards their customers — or users, as they like to call us — by making us turn over our purses, I felt towards them, adding that the only fair thing to do would be for them to provide a checklist of the belongings inside our bags so that we could confirm that nothing was missing when we later picked them up. Apparently, they did not like this idea.

I finally went up to the office where they had told me to go, but it turned out that the person who was supposed to give me the document had not yet arrived due to personal problems, so they suggested I take “a little stroll” and come back later. I spent the time taking photos of dilapidated buildings adjacent to the court.

By the time I returned, the employee in question had finally arrived, but the document that she was supposed to give me on the designated date was still not ready, so I had to wait in the office for almost two hours for her to prepare it.

During that time I witnessed situations that, as an outsider, should not have transpired in my presence. A pleasant one was when a worker from another department came to make an appointment to do some volunteer work the following day, but none of the five employees there took note of him.

Similarly, I witnessed the distasteful and loud protests of a woman claiming her son was still being held in detention in spite of her having paid his bail two days earlier. In a loud voice she threatened officials both present and absent and said that, if her problem was not resolved immediately, she would throw herself from the fifth floor window and those present would be responsible for her death.

Once they had handed me the document with its duly approved seals and relevant stamps, I headed downstairs as soon as I could and, in what was not a complete surprise, saw the woman who was having the problem with her son.

She was downstairs in the reception area, lying on the floor, very pale and barely breathing as the custodian and other employees were trying to revive her by providing first aid. Apparently, the pressure had been too much for her.

28 July 2014

The daughter of a Mexican mother and German father, Frida Kahlo was born in Coyoacán, Mexico on July 7, 1910.

She attended the Escuela Normal de Maestros and graduated from the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. She dreamed of becoming a doctor until a terrible accident destroyed her body, forcing her to lay in bed for many months and receive painful treatments, causing her to stop studying medicine.

In the midst of her dramatic convalescence, her iron will and attachment to life led her to become extensively self-taught in the arts and the mysteries of painting. She became an artist and took advantage of her knowledge to teach classes at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas in spite of her physical limitations.

Her first exhibitions demonstrated her talent, which she continued to develop and which culminated in a magnificent work, turning her into one of the most famous painters of her type worldwide.

She impressed upon her work all the pain, feeling, and sensitivity that characterized her life. The memory of Frida is inextricably linked to the great muralist Diego Rivera, who was her husband, lover, confidant, and greatest critic and admirer. In spite of a tempestuous marital relationship, art united them until the end of her life, on July 13, 1954.

This month, Mexico pays homage to those who hold a seat of honor in the plastic arts of the 20th century. I am also joining in this commemoration since Frida was a source of inspiration and presence in my patchwork art.

Frida Kahlo narrated her life through painted images. The painting of this great artist is like no one else’s. As Diego Rivera, her husband, pointed out one day, she “is the only example of the history of art, of someone who tore open her breast and heart to tell the biological truth of what she feels in them.”

Most of her work is unknown; it is held in private collections and by friends. The value of it grows each day.

Translated by: M. Ouellette

21 July 2014

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