February 2011

This February 24th will be commemorated — behind closed doors — one more anniversary of that cry of independence that was given in Baire, a day like today then in the year 1895. This date marked the start of the War of Independence, its most notable authors Martí, Maceo, and Máximo Gómez.

Since 1959, this changed. Now flags only fly on the new homeland dates: Anniversaries on the 26 of July, of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and even the Comandante’s birthday. No more do they fly for the Cry of Baire, nor that of Yara, the 20th of May, dates on which cities regaled themselves with a profusion of flags that proudly flew in government places and the fronts of Cuban families’ homes.

For the young people of today, those cries of liberty are now long past. Now, unfortunately the closest they hear in their homes are of their mothers and grandmothers, when in the day-to-day they have to face the culinary battles.

Translated by: JT

February 24 2011

The wealth of a country is measured by different parameters: food, education, quality of life, culture, and in the end many others. But for poverty, the true measure is the lack of freedoms.

A country whose youngest, the future of the country, have to go to extremes like hunger strikes in order to unplug the deaf ears of their leaders, that country is poor.

Right now in Venezuela more than eighty-three students have declared a hunger strike. They are living only on water and serum, some of them for more than fifteen days, others started a week ago and five more are planning to join them. What has motivated them to go to this extreme, where they put their own lives in play?

Worse of all is that the government has turned a deaf ear to their demands: freedom for political prisoners is one of them. Opposition to the refusal to allow the Secretary General of the Organization of American States to enter the country is another. Gentlemen, if you don’t need it, what are you afraid of. And I thought with so much oil it was a rich country.

February 22 2011

Photo: Rebeca

The issue of layoffs has gained force, as the rumors that so worried us late last year are coming to pass.

Talking with a friend who works in the tourism company, she told me of sad scenes she had been a witness to. But what affected me most strongly when she told me that last week, crossing through the cemetery as a shortcut to Vedado, she was stunned by the immense number of people waiting for a funeral. She thought it was for someone in the government or  perhaps show business.  On inquiring, she learned the sad news:

Two administrators of the former nightclub complex Johnny’s Dream Club, now called Club Rio, had been killed by an employee who, on being told he wold be laid off, got a knife and returned to assault them both, causing their deaths. All the employees of the place were shocked at what happened, because they all agreed the aggressor was a quiet-looking young man whom no one could imagine doing such a thing.

We had already been commenting on the possibility of painful events relating to the layoffs, because although there are situations like this the world over, in our case there is nothing to fall back on nor any chance of claiming compensation, because the labor union, along with the administration and the Party, is on the expert commission that is making these decisions.

Archive photo

Last Tuesday afternoon we were at a birthday party for Ronaldo, who lives on a very high floor in one of the microbrigade buildings in Nuevo Vedado.

As always happens when we get together with some friends, the mono-theme emerged. We were all very animated sharing our opinions about how bad things are. Someone said, “Come to the table to blow out the candles and sing Happy Birthday.” Suddenly we started to hear very strong and continuous explosions. We paused the celebration with Happy Birthday stuck in our throats, and we all ran to the balcony to see what was making that deafening noise.

There we noticed a profusion of fireworks, but for what? Some present thought–we know because they confessed it later–that it was an attack. One of them even whispered, “The Yankees are coming.”

Dying of laughter, but intrigued by these displays, because even on New Year’s Eve there weren’t any like that, we relaxed and continued the celebration.

The following day I set myself the task of finding out the what and why of the event. Talking with some young people, they told me a musical group was giving a concert in the university stadium and had brought, from a trip abroad for that purpose, the famous fireworks.

February 19 2011

Health care is one of the two flags of socialism most flown on my planet over all these years. The other is education. Both are faded and frayed. The first thing lost was the color, then the credibility.

There are many stories told by ordinary citizens on the subject of health. Each one more horrifying than the last. Take care! It’s not about the doctors. They also suffer. I’m referring to the services, the facilities, the medicine.

A few days ago my niece was admitted to the old Sacred Heart clinic, today called Gonzalez Coro hospital. They had to give her a cesarean section after working a full day to induce labor. That same night I went to visit her. The only bus route that lets me off nearby never comes, and when it does pass it doesn’t stop, so I decided to walk. Unfortunately at this hour the cemetery, which is the shortcut to Vedado, had closed its doors. I had to go through La Timba neighborhood, but with the evening still light it wasn’t too dangerous. The return would be by 23rd St.

On arriving at the hospital tired from the walk I saw that only one elevator was working and it had a lot of people waiting so I took a deep breath and climbed the stairs to the 5th floor. It was partially illuminated. There was only one light bulb every two floors.

Looking for my niece’s quarters, I stuck my head in every room until I found hers, number 15, handwritten on paper stuck with glue and almost coming off, marked the door.  Hugging my niece, still in pain, I saw Laurita at her side in a cradle, pretty, healthy, pink. I reached out my hand to turn on the light and I realized that the electric switch was balanced in a hole almost without plaster. Then the image of that beautiful clinic of the 50’s came to my mind. Only the green granite floor was left intact.  It had born the brunt of abuse although now it no longer shone.

My niece, very content, when saying goodbye told me in a conspiratorial tone: Aunt, see how far we’ve come, now when babies are born they no longer need to be spanked to stimulate a holler, they only say to them, “You were born in Cuba, and just like that they start to cry.”

Translated by Dodi 2.0

February 17 2011

Last night at a gathering at the home of friends, there was a lot of talking and speculating about the cries of freedom that came from the Middle East.

This made all of us who were there question the different implications of why on my planet apparently nothing happened, and no one decided to take to the streets.

There was speculation about whether or not we had this tradition of struggle. Analyzing the various events that occurred during our history, we realized that the overthrows of dictators were not preceded by these street demonstrations. The strikes came after, in celebration.

For over half a century, we have witnessed several mass exodus: Camarioca, Mariel, the Maleconazo, with a single goal: to leave the country. There has never been a mass protest demanding freedom. The closest we came to that was during the great concentration of people in the Plaza, on the occasion of the Mass offered by the Pope during his brief visit. More than a million throats shouted “Freedom! Freedom!”, but it didn’t happen. Induced   fear has been the constant in our lives. That, not to mention that the main task of us all during these decades has been to get food to bring to our homes. Here is where the people have indeed been combative.  Many of these demonstrations, to get potatoes, rice, sugar, etc., have ended in fights, assaults and even broken arms.

Everyone gets excited when the distant cries of freedom come to our ears, and we would like to infect ourselves, but we must be honest and recognize that, as a people, we are paralyzed by fear, fatigue and hopelessness.

Translated by Rick Schwag

February 16 2011

A sale at a doorstep

The year has begun, and we see timbiriches* sprouting all over, selling mostly the same products that are sold neighborhood after neighborhood. Necessity has made everyone set up tables outside to sell—in the hope of deriving some financial benefit from it—all sorts of products. The ones that have proliferated the most are the ones that sell food items. It’s logical: when money is scarce, food tends to be the only thing that sells. Bread and roasted pork, bread and ham, bread and omelet, cheese pizza, etc. The omnipresent ingredient is bread.

Many people are already speculating on the scarcity of bread and flour at grocery establishments. The long lines are back—all the time—in front of the stores that sell both items. If you are successful in buying bread, even when it is not expensive (10 pesos per pound) it is seldom of good quality. It usually lacks fat, or it has not been properly baked.

Just the other day, when my friend Armando returned from the bakery with a pound and a half of bread, a very tidy gentleman—even if humbly dressed—approached him with very good manners and explained to him, ashamed, that he had not eaten for the day and did not have the ten pesos to buy liberated bread (that is bread that is not sold through the rationing system). He asked if he could have a piece. My friend, moved by such strange request, immediately gave him the half pound he had just bought. Still amazed by what he had experienced, he told me what had just happened: “The worst of all this—he said—is that, for fifty years now, we have been flailing around in the dark, and we still insist in implementing already tried models that, in the long run, did not produce any results because we didn’t first prepare the proper infrastructure.”

*Translator’s note: Timbiriches is a Cuban word meaning a very small business, such as a stand, kiosk, umbrella, or selling out of one’s home.

Translated by T

January 23 2011

Wires have been omnipresent elements of our culture, especially during the past few decades.

There are those fine, multicolored wires, those you find scattered on the streets after telephone lines have been repaired. These, up until a few years ago, were sought for and collected by empirical artisans who, given the scarcity of paste jewelry in stores, improvised necklaces and earrings, much sought after by our women to dress up their poor outfits.

There was also another type of wire, a bit thicker, whose bits were kept as treasures—in improvised storage bins—for those moments when bracing the leg of a piece of furniture or tying up springs in an old sofa was needed.

Now it is the fiber optics cable that has become fashionable. That wire that will supposedly give us better and wider Internet service, here in a country where internet connectivity has become a fantasy for the majority of the population. Official figures insist that a little over a million Cubans have access to a limited Internet service. In good creole Spanish, this really means Intranet service. In other words, those who have the equipment required, plus the privilege of E-Mail access, can navigate through the internal network of the country, but none at all to have access to the World Wide Web, and few to any kind of chat services.

The authorities in our planet have made it quite clear to all that this is not about extending web access, but about allowing present users (mostly from the State) a higher connection speed. Despite this, those of us who insist in believing in progress welcome it, because, in the long-run, one way or another, many more of us will also benefit. So then we arrive at the last wire we wish to talk about, the one that is precisely the best-known among us, due to its sustained and continuous use: The line* that most of us who survive here have been eating for over half-century.

*In this context, “comerse un cable” does not translate literally into “to eat a wire”; it is an idiomatic expression (in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and other Spanish-speaking countries) that refers to boredom / idleness / lack of money—depending on the country—and always related to lack of work or activity. A literal translation, then, is not possible without an explanatory foot-note.

Translated by T

February 9 2011

This last Sunday, as I was coming back home from visiting a friend, I crossed the bridge over the Almendares River. And looking at this river, I remembered that beautiful poem the famous poet, Dulce María Loynáz (1902-1997) wrote, inspired by it.

I met this great lady late in her life, when she was already retired and in her voluntary incile* at home, where she had let time and memories peacefully flow. It was her birthday that day, and a good friend of mine had asked me to accompany her in her visit to greet her. I was excited by the idea, because I would have the opportunity to be face to face with one of the most important figures of Hispanic literature. As I did not have anything to give her as a present—it was a last-minute invitation—I decided to give her a beautiful conch shell with a maidenhair fern planted in it. She was a great lover of nature and simple things.

I was very impressed by her beautiful house at El Vedado, even when it was run-down by her evident lack of resources. You could still see some fine furniture and porcelains around, mute witnesses of her former social status. The ceilings had patches of missing plaster, the rugs were worn-out by time, and the lack of paintings on the wall surrounded the house’s owner in an aura of mystery. She received us with a wide smile and a steaming cup of coffee, served by a niece who took care of her. This wonderful lady, already forgotten, became news once again in our planet when she received, a few years later, the important and well-deserved Cervantes Award.

This is how her poem to the river starts:

This river with a musical name
Reaches my heart through a road
Of warm arteries and a tremor of diastoles

This is its last stanza:

I will not say what hand tears it away from me,
Nor inside of what stone of my breast does it find its source:
I will not say it is the most beautiful
But it is my river, my country, my blood!

*The opposite of exile

Translated by T

February 7 2011

That’s what people in my planet usually say when someone, timidly, dares to voice any sort of criticism in the public media regarding anything that affects us all.

But the truth is that the world is, indeed, a mess. Only a few weeks ago, Tunisian protests began due to the high costs of food and gas. Very soon these protests made clear the long and excessive rule of the Tunisian political leader. And very soon, neighboring countries followed; presently, mass protests have been ongoing in Egypt, where the demonstrations are increasingly heating up.

It was Mubarak’s opponents who first took to the streets: men, women and even children peacefully demanding the resignation of their president. There, the origins of the protests were similar to the Tunisian ones. Yet the stubbornness of a ruler who has been in power for over three decades has come to the forefront, and what initially was taking place peacefully and in an orderly fashion has become unstable: now the supporters of the regime have begun to counterattack and, for the first time, we are witnessing abuses, violence, Molotov cocktails, showers of stones from rooftops, aggression to foreign journalists, deaths and hundreds of injuries. The civilized world asks for a peaceful transition and the creating of a new government. It wasn’t long before Mubarak’s counterpart in Yemen got the message and, sensibly, he has already declared he will not run for reelection and that he will not nominate his son as his successor.

In the meantime, here in our continent, the leader of our neighboring Bolivarian brother, proclaimed that not only he will celebrate his twelve years in power, but that he also plans to celebrate another twelve, and then another twelve, and more and more after that, boasting about his illustrious intelligence.

And meanwhile, I, unwillingly, have caught myself remembering that old saying from my grandma: “When you see your neighbor’s turban burn, soak your beret.”

My friends, the world is, indeed, a mess.

Translated by T

February 4 2011

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