A few years ago they began selling salt in little one-kilo bags — it previously had been sold in bulk — with a ration book allotment of one bag per couple every three months. As a result it was out of reach of most consumers. At first it was white and fine, as though it had been imported, but that did not last long. For a long time now it has been available in the same plastic bags with three key features highlighted on the label: fine, iodized, non-clumping. In reality it is thick, dirty, gray and damp. It looks like the kind used by industry for tanning leather.

Just yesterday I heard on the radio that Cuba had officially licensed a testing lab that will certify the quality of products that are imported and exported. This was presented as a great achievement, as big news! Then I remembered that back in the 1950s almost all products consumed in this country — especially those that were imported — prominently displayed two internationally recognized seals of approval: one from Good Housekeeping and one from the University of Villanueva.

For more than three decades now we have been buying naked products — in other words products without labels — especially toothpaste and toilet paper, which came unwrapped, resulting in largely unsanitary paper. I hope that from now on they will take this initiative seriously and revamp products they guarantee — or simply drop false claims on packaging like the ones on bags of salt and other products in the market — so that the consumer will no longer continue to be misled.

19 September 2014

First of all, forgive me for the near abandonment of my blog. It is because of purses — an internationally recognized term for the small handbags I make — as well as other articles of personal and decorative use.

One of the main reasons, among others, for this has been the large stack of work with which I am now dealing in an effort to have enough items for a one-person patchwork exhibition at a gallery in Miami, to which I have been invited. I have also been very limited in my access to the internet as one of our “benefactors” has been on vacation and my finances do not allow me to patronize the cyber-cafes due to their high prices.

Here are some photos of my currently completed work that I hope you might like. I promise to show you others later as well as to provide information regarding the location and date they will be shown.

 

 

12 September 2014

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

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