April 2012

The venue for this year’s parade will once again be the Plaza of the Revolution, which for some is still Civic Plaza. One new aspect in particular will stand out.

For the first time in more than fifty years self-employed workers and owners of small businesses will take part. They are already unionized.

So, will these new people be pressing for labor concessions – something prohibited under socialism – or will they simply be supporting the Revolution and the Party, and demanding that the American imperialists release the five spies. . . I mean, heroes?

I really do not understand this. One of the greatest aspirations which all workers supposedly have – workers who in one way or another have managed to distance themselves from the State in order to make a living – is specifically not having to take part in parades, shout slogans, or support and sign statements in favor of socialism.

Will this be merely a display of cowardice? If they are attending this gathering out of a sense of conviction, they should be applauded. But I fear that even in the private sector a double standard is becoming evident. It is an indication that they by no means consider themselves to be free men and women. I respect the decision they have made. But what they are aspiring towards is to be treated with respect by the State itself, which not only manipulates them at whim, but also burdens them with excessive taxes, sells them wholesale supplies at already inflated retail prices without any special consideration, while unleashing on them a herd of ravenous inspectors. And, though no one will say so publicly, they are considered to be cowards by society itself. Is this the way we pretend that change is taking place in the country?

The changes will only be successful after a resurgence of civil society. But for that to happen, it is necessary to discard the heavy ballast of our induced fears and double standards. If you do not violate the country’s laws, no matter how unjust you feel they are, behave like a respectable citizen, and neither defame nor cause harm to others, then what is there to fear?

I believe that now is time to think before acting, to no longer continue drifting along on the already weak current of an almost dry river on the verge of disappearing.

April 27 2012

Some years ago, disenchanted with the  neglect of the place and the precarious state of health of the animals, I stopped visiting this formerly wonderful zoo. Opened in 1939 and later expanded, it ranked among the best in Latin America in the 1950s. It provided a pleasant source of recreation and culture for children, teenagers and adults, as well as easy access, located, as it is, in the heart of the city.

A wonderful group of sculptures, created by the artist Rita Longa and located at the park’s entrance, proclaim a priori the beauty that awaits visitors within. The numerous entrances (closed now for many years) from the streets surrounding the park are shuttered by iron gates, which have been eaten away by rust and neglect, but which are miraculously still standing. These once made entry and exit to the site easier on days when attendance was high, such as Saturdays and Sundays.

When speaking to its then director, my friend, more than two decades ago, she told me how upset she was to realize that she lacked the necessary funds or an adequate number of staff  to support the animals and maintain the facility. She observed with astonishment, unable do anything about it,  how breeding eggs would disappear daily, and how animals would suffer an unbelievable number of accidents, requiring them to be put down. She told me with obvious sorrow that these unfortunate animals were mistreated by the workers themselves in the hope that, once out of circulation, they could be relegated to the “soup kettle.”  After several meetings with employees she had to therefore come to an almost conspiratorial agreement with them. They would collect all the birds’ eggs and turn them over to her, whereupon she would decide which ones could be used for a park worker’s breakfast, and which would be set aside for reproductive purposes. As a veterinarian she had to very carefully evaluate the health of each “accidentally injured” specimen in order to determine if and when there was no option other than sacrifice. The most striking case was that of the flamingos, who frequently turned up with broken feet.

The park, then as now, is under the inadequate supervision  of Áreas Verdes (Green Spaces), an organization that does not even have the resources to maintain these parts of the city, much less a zoo. Today it has become a separate entity within the National Assembly of People’s Power, which regrettably has no power, and is not as people oriented as its name implies. Unfortunately, this organization also lacks adequate funds for the maintenance and preservation of  the facility.

While  reading an article on this subject published in the international press today explicitly criticizing the sad state in which the park finds itself, I remembered that sad day when my friend, Maria, took her granddaughter on a stroll through the park, and left it traumatized after seeing baby chicks being thrown to the monkeys for food. (This was at the time when incubated chicks were distributed through ration books. You were supposed to raise them, fattening them up, in order to later slaughter and eat them.) She grabbed one which had escaped the clutches of a startled simian, and took it home where she ended up raising it as a pet for her granddaughter. It at least had the good fortune to live to an old age and die of natural causes.

Though I live in close proximity to the park, it has been years since I have heard the roar of the lions in the afternoon. Nor can chipmunks be seen roaming through the neighborhood gardens. I have a friend and neighbor,  Humberto, who adopted an emaciated and sad looking chipmunk who appeared one day in the tree of his patio. He began feeding it, trying little by little to gain its confidence, until it began to approach him, motivated by a loss of fear and a need to eat. Now it is almost always pinned to his chest, like a decoration. Together they stroll the neighborhood to the astonishment and curiosity of all who cross their path.

Mustering all my courage, I decided to go back to the park. The entry fee was only one measly peso (a ridiculous situation today). The entire main entrance, through which the public normally flows, was cordoned off by makeshift bars. The only access was along an adjoining sidewalk.

I was shocked to see how widespread deterioration and neglect are throughout the facility.  The cages of the few remaining animals are rusted and very deteriorated. (Quite possibly they are the same ones from fifty years ago.) The famous island of monkeys is deserted, and the waters surrounding it are fetid. In one cage I could see only a pair of resting lions, indifferent to the few people trying to rouse them with screams and gestures. It is worth noting that people visit the facility not out of love for the animals but for the cookies, candies and sweets sold in the cafe, and priced in the inaptly named Cuban peso.

During my tour I spoke with two young veterinarians, who provide services on site, and they commented to me how much they suffered, seeing the public itself mistreating the animals they come to visit. They saw with sadness how a pelican had apparently been killed by thrown stones. They say that this happens often under the indifferent eyes of the adults accompanying children. Added, in response to another question, they said that the peacocks, which used to walk around loose among the visitors, have had to be locked up because they are stolen or killed.

When I asked them why most of the cages didn’t have signs with the names of the animals, they told me something similar: “They tear them off and take them or they throw them.”

This is the sad situation at the Zoo in Havana. I would like this story to serve to call the attention of both the authorities and the citizens, to save this important recreation, educational and cultural facility, that in earlier times filled us with pride.

The defense of the environment, of its flora and fauna, must begin at home!

April 20 2012

Last Friday, on the fourteenth floor in the simple but very cozy apartment of the famous blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband, the journalist Reinaldo Escobar, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the blog Generation Y.

With open doors, agreeable music and the aroma of incense, they received their many friends and admirers, who gathered to congratulate her and share with her such an important anniversary.

A nice afternoon and seeing each other again and “catching up” on recent events and incidents, in which the alternative blogosphere has been featured. Parents, families, the dog, cat and bloggers, we filled every cubic inch of the hospitable home.

To climb up these fourteen stories has already become an agreeable custom. Although the electricity had failed, we attack the stairs, knowing also that everyone who crosses the threshold is crossing, as our friend W. expressed it, “the razor’s edge.” We are all aware that at any moment an undesired visitor may arrive. Still, here we are and here we will always be when we have something to say or to celebrate.

April 15 2012

Rebecca’s patchwork

It was during the nineties and a Chilean woman known to my niece, who had come to Havana as a guest of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), to participate in their conference, contacted me.

At the end of the conference, this young woman also named Camila, but different from the one named Vallejo, showed her interest in knowing the real Cuba. She added that one of the things she most noted in her recent experience here, was the unanimity on all matters submitted to a vote during the event.

“That’s impossible,” she confessed to me. “Neither in my country, nor in any other self-respecting country, is there a unanimity of opinion.” I suggested to her that if you want to know the whole country, it’s impossible, but at least I could show her the real Havana.

“Tomorrow leave the protocol house, forget the car with official plates, put on some comfortable shoes and I’ll pick you up early.”

Camila was really motivated to see the city, especially the known haunts of Hemingway. We went through it walking all over Vedado, along the Malecon, and to the Prado. There we went in search of La Floridita restaurant. “You have to pay for the drinks,” I told her, “because they’re priced in dollars and as a Cuban I am not allowed to possess this currency, at the risk of arrest. You know it’s penalized.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered, “your niece clued me in.”

Then we went to La Bodeguita del Medio, very decadent, and repeated the scene. “We still have to see La Terraza de Cojimar,” I said, “but it’s a bit far, we’ll have to take a tourist taxi. You pay for the transport and I’ll buy the snack, it’s a deal. That is, when we’re in the place and eating, don’t reach for your bag, leave it to me.”

We arrived and there were two lines: one to pay in Cuban pesos, with squalid food, and another a little better, but in dollars. We got into that one. We were served right away because there were only three or four tourists. We sat down at a wobbly table. I pointed it out immediately to the staff who did nothing to fix it.

When I finally asked for the check, it came in the usual little tray covered with a red napkin. I picked it up, checked the prices, and the total was $10 U.S. so I left a nice brand new 50 Cuban peso bill. When the waitress saw what I had put down she told me, “I can’t take this money.”

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“This money isn’t valid here.”

“Tell the manager I would like to see him,” I asked.

The manager came out accompanied by a security guard (a comrade from State Security).

The first, turning to me, said, “Madam, that money is not valid in this establishment.”

“Are you telling me that the money I am paid by my workplace is invalid?” I answered.

“No, no, Madam, it’s not that, it’s that it has no value here.”

After debating this for several minutes, drawing the attention of those present, I showed the bill in question to the administrator and suggested:

“Read what it says here, on the bottom of what is printed. “

He began to read, “This bill is valid to pay any debt contracted in the entire territory,” and began to swallow hard, and turning to the waitress said, in a loud voice, “Look, charge the lady.”

“In what money?” she asked.

“In Cuban pesos!” he replied angrily.

A few seconds after this scene, the waitress reappears, carrying the aforementioned small tray with 40.00 Cuban pesos on it. At that moment, I got up, extended the palm of my hand to her, and in a characteristic gesture said, “Leave it, keep the change, all this money is worthless!”

Before the astonished looks of everyone, Camila and I left heads held high. When we got to the bus stop she took a deep breath and told me, “I didn’t know how much moxie you had!” I took it as a compliment. It cost me a little dearly to show it, and we continued our stroll, a couple of citizens on foot, talking and sharing with different people, whom we came across on our tour.

When we parted Camila said, “Thanks, friend, for showing me the real city!”

April 11 2012

The man came alone in a small rowboat. When he reached the shore, he was immediately confronted by a border patrol agent.

Agent: “Hey, man! Who are you and where are you from.”

Man: “I am Venezuelan, and I left my country because I am fleeing socialism.”

Agent: “But, buddy, there’s socialism here too.”

Man: “Yeah, but here it’s ending. There it’s just beginning!”

It’s a joke, but today I experienced the reality firsthand.

We left at dawn. I was picked up by a female friend, who does not like driving long distances, and a gentleman, who served as chauffeur and provided us company. The purpose of the trip was to procure some fresh fish. We arrived very early at a pleasant little fishing village, almost at the outer edges of Havana province.

It had been many years since I had visited such a picturesque place, as being able to do so meant having a vehicle in good working order, and money to buy gasoline. I therefore gladly accepted the invitation since it coincided with my having just completed some work with which I had been tasked, and since I now found myself with a bit of hard currency.

The trip was quite pleasant, not only because the route we took was one of the few which had been properly paved, but also because it was lined with lovely plantings on both sides of the roadway. I presume this is because it is well-travelled by important visitors and high-ranking officials.

Upon entering the village, we were led by pure intuition to the first house we saw along the coastline, where we figured they would be able to sell us some fish. They did not have any there, but directed us to another — simply gesturing towards a pharmacy and providing us with a nickname: the Venezuelan.

We did indeed find a great variety of well-prepared seafood at this location: porgy flllets, dogfish fillets, swordfish steaks, octopus, etc., all cleaned and packaged for 10.00 CUC (convertible Cuban currency) each. I bought some swordfish, deciding to forgo the octopus.

Addressing the young man who had been identified as the Venezuelan, I asked him about his nickname. He told me that in fact he was a native of that country, that as an adolescent he had come here to study, and that one day, while visiting the village, a Cuban girl had stolen his heart straight away.

“Currently, we have two children – a girl and a boy – and I now feel like any other Cuban, but I am not the only one here. I quit school, settled here, and took up fishing, which is my true passion. I only go to my country for a month of vacation. You cannot live there because of all the violence. I used to live in the capital, and, believe me, in Caracas there are a score of violent deaths every day. Drugs have turned that city into one of the most dangerous in the world, and I don’t want that for my children. I like how peaceful it is here.”

I asked about the Cubans who were there on a mission. He said he knew many who been killed because of drugs. Since their salaries were not enough for them to buy the things needed to return to Cuba, many had resorted to the dangerous work of drug running. It was like carrying a sign on your forehead that said, “Kill me; I am carrying cocaine.”

Then, to lighten the mood a bit, I told him the joke with which I began this post.

We all laughed uproariously, and said goodbye, wishing him good luck, and promising to come back as soon as we had the chance.

April 8 2012

In my world the media spends its time talking about the unity of the people, of a single party (like that of Marti), a united vote, and so forth.

First of all, I want to clarify, that the widely used term one-party (referring to what the Apostle — Marti — founded) is a huge fallacy. It was Marti, of course, who created a party to unite Cubans who wanted independence for the island, that was the goal. Why would anyone create more than one? Once the war was over, the party was dissolved and others created, according to the different trends and opinions, as expected, in a system that proclaimed freedom and democracy.

As long as they cluck unity of the people, gentlemen, let me express my humble opinion, never before was this town so divided, or better said, did it behave so individualistically. The first thing the revolution did was divide us: pitting parents and children against each other and vice versa; breaking marriages of many years because of political contradictions never previously considered; confronting the neighbors who quickly learned, induced by fear, to keep an eye on and monitor each other. In two words: increased envy and pettiness and hence the division. This is just the Cuba that they do not show the guests of government, including of course the Pope.

For many years we can see in our cities multifamily buildings with the paint peeling and faded by time and neglect, where suddenly, we find a balcony, as well as a small perimeter encompassing the same, of a different color, shiny and gleaming, which further underlines the ugliness and the peeling of the rest of the building, showing publicly the lack of sensitivity and solidarity, as well as the bad taste of the occupants of the apartment in question.

This indicates not only differences in purchasing power, but poor communication between neighbors, not surprisingly, most do not have sufficient resources to take on the cost of painting the entire building, and evidently are unable to reach agreement. The government, during this half century, has only shown indifference to the deterioration and structural damage. Most citizens do not have the resources to improve their own homes. In these cases, the sensible thing would be to leave the outside of the building without paint, or to give it a clear whitewash type coating, in neutral tones so it does not stand out so much from the rest of the facade.

Also, walking the streets, we find round columns that separate townhouses, and these are divided in half, as indicated by a rule, and each half is a different color according to who owns the piece. But more often seen in the old buildings and mansions, which have been divided now into “solares” — a rabbit warren of small, often single room, dwellings — is the profusion of water pumps installed by the different occupants, each one his own, instead of collecting money from everyone to buy a more powerful one.

The same is true with makeshift water tanks on roofs and inside the apartments themselves, adding to the property, with all the dangers that this entails, a weight was not calculated either by architects or engineers involved in its construction. This is another of the possible causes of partial or total collapses, which occur almost daily in this city.

After carefully observing this citizen practice of saving what you can, verifying the accusations among neighbors and the thefts and the audacity to resolve their everyday problems, can anyone with half a brain believe in the vaunted unity that the media so exalts?

Translated by: Jeannina Perez

April 3 2012