August 2012

The last conga just went by. The street is half-lit, dirty, with remnants of viewing platforms and dismantled stalls, all now barely but a memory. The 2012 carnival has come to an end.

Nothing about the city’s atmosphere gives any indication of what has just transpired. Only those living close to Havana’s Malecón have been witness to these impoverished evening festivities, with their large amounts of beer and rum, empty plates of rice with beans and slices of pork or chicken, and most notably widespread promiscuity. All this in an ever more restricted space of not much more than a few blocks.

How different from the carnivals of Havana’s distant past, which rivaled the most important in the world —  Carnaval in Río de Janeiro, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the very glamorous Carnival of Venice, to name a few — all of which took place in February and March before Lent.

In the case of ours there was a carnival atmosphere for months before the festivity itself. There were the competitions to choose the best poster, which would later provide that year’s theme, the sewing, the almost secret preparations of the floats that would represent the different groups sponsoring them, each with its own queen, and the rehearsals of various neighborhood carnival organizations. The entire city prepared and decorated for the much anticipated event. The selection of the Queen and her Maids of Honor — renamed Estrella and Luceros, or Star and Shining Stars, after 1959 — was the climax of these preparations. Large photo portraits of them adorned the display windows of the main retail stores.

As a child I very much enjoyed these celebrations, always spent with my family and usually in a box near the Capitolio. Once the parade had ended and the last float and its crew had turned the corner at the Fountain of the Indian to return to the starting point near the Hotel Riviera, we children ran into the street to gather up the streamers and make big balls out of them, all under the watchful eyes of our parents. In general, though, it was all very safe. No one got drunk.

After the 1960s these celebrations gradually lost their splendor. There were no more sponsorships. The state had taken over everything. I remember one day at my workplace the union representative came by to announce that Estrella would be chosen at a general meeting that afternoon to represent us and the sugar cane harvesters at carnival. They told all of the girls who worked there to fix ourselves up a bit before going to the meeting. To my astonishment I was chosen to represent the company. Afterwards I had to compete with ladies from the ministry’s other businesses, later with those from the trade unions, and finally at the sports stadium, where in the end I won. It all happened very quickly, as though it were a dream.

I can assure you, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the quite possibly the last year in which there were luxurious floats. The theme of ours was the bottom of the sea. Now, looking back on it after all these years, it strikes me that it was like a portent of what awaited us — to touch bottom, as we are doing now.

August 29 2012

I felt wiped out when I got there after having waited for more than three quarters of an hour for the Route 27 bus. I finally gave up and opted instead for an almendrón — one of those cars from the 1940s or 1950s that are virtually the only available form of transportation these days and that cost ten pesos per passenger. I needed to get some decent photocopies for travel documents for a friend’s son. She is living outside the country so, in her absence, she gave me legal authority to act on his behalf.

The Foto-Service shop in La Rampa, which offers these services, is partially air-conditioned and was almost full. There were six people waiting for documents. Seeing that the shop still had enough room, I opened the door and went in. The employee who was in charge of the photocopier immediately told me to leave. “If you come in here, it could shut down the system. There are a lot of people breathing in here,” he said.

Before obeying his order, I replied, “Do you really think I can shut down the system just by breathing? Look, the system will fall apart by itself and not because of me.”

Then the employee, in a very arrogant tone, said to me, “Nothing is going to fall apart here.”

“No?” I said. “Well, Havana is falling apart! Tell me where you got your glasses so I can get some for myself, because when I leave my house, everything I see is deteriorated or destroyed.”

He remained silent. I went into the adjoining non-air-conditioned room. Later, when it was my turn, I went back in and the man in question said to me, in front of all those present, “There is a lot of deterioration in the world, Señora.”

“No doubt,” I replied, “but what most concerns me is the deterioration of my city and my country.”

He said nothing more. He made the copies and we said goodbye, as though nothing had happened. None of those present said anything. No one took sides. Sometimes silence is more eloquent than words.

Later, after I left, I started thinking: If it really did depend on my breathing, it would be so nice to stop breathing for a minute. I would get a few of my friends to do the same.

August 27 2012

Dengue fever is now a fact of life in our country. Clearly this is not published in the official media, but over the entire year they are fumigating the houses and the establishments, although this measure, for what they’ve been able to show, hasn’t done a thing: it just distresses and annoys people in their homes. The only thing that would put an end to it would be good hygiene in the city, something that doesn’t exist.

Any day, any time, without notice, they burst in to fill the house with smoke from burning oil, which is what they call fumigation. It’s been years with more of the same, without resolving anything. Most people do not protest, although they reluctantly accept it as they already accept everything that is imposed: without question!

Four days ago I woke up with very sore throat, a nagging cough, and spent a terrible night, coughing nonstop. The next morning I rummaged in the medicine cabinet, trying to find some relief. For several weeks I was wandering, from pharmacy to pharmacy to buy aspirin. Now the prescriptions, thankfully, are good for a month and can be filled by any pharmacy, which was not the case until recently.

In all this my husband went out to buy aspirin from a woman who, according to confidential information, had some, because she used to sell medications. He had to pay one peso for each pill, or fifty pesos for fifty pills. It was take it or leave it. If he left it, I would have no relief, so he brought me the little treasure, that fit in the palm of his hand. Normally the envelope with fifty pills, when you can find it in a pharmacy, costs one peso.

If I had been tied to my work, as I was years ago, I would have had to work a full week to pay for a packet of aspirin. Lucky me to be an artisan!

Through all of this I have discreetly stayed “underground,” because if the brand new family doctor or a seasoned neighbor discovers me, they will report me as having dengue fever and send me directly to the old Quinta Covandoga hospital which has rehabbed a pavilion for those sick with dengue fever, which more than a health unit, according to some of the diagnosed patients who have managed to escape, looks like some kind of sick store, with precarious hygienic conditions and without any kind of comfort. One of the escapees tells me he had to send for a boy to bring him a building block, to be able to prop up the fan he had brought. And that’s another thing, you have to bring everything from sheets, pillow, fan, jars with water, towel, in short everything, the only thing the hospital provides is the mosquito.

I feel better, and there is no dengue fever in my house, what with boiled water, honey, lemon and gold plated aspirin.

August 20 2012

In the popular slang of my planet “to give tooth” is a term used for those people who like to talk, talk, talk more than they like to be heard, or to listen.

I was watching television for few hours late yesterday, something I am not accustomed to doing, and became hooked on a program called De Tarde en Casa (Afternoons at Home).

At the point I tuned in, the journalist José A. Rodríguez from the segment The Paper Speaks was reading a letter of complaint from a viewer and holding up a small pink plastic package that had contained some ground beef purchased in a government-run hard currency store (TRD). The packaging, now empty and clean, had a label at one corner that indicated that the product was to be consumed within one hundred twenty days. I did not hear the brand name since it seems it was stated at the beginning of the segment but not mentioned again.

As her angry letter indicated, the lady bought the product, intending to consume it immediately, but was unpleasantly surprised when she opened it and noticed a rotten stench emanating from within. But that is not all; it gets worse. Inside the packaging she found a human tooth in the form of a molar. This was mentioned only in passing, without much emphasis.

Why are we constantly being told about instances of meat gone bad? As the store clerks  tell us themselves, this is caused quite simply because they are required to save electricity, and turn off refrigerators at night and in the early morning so as not to use more than their designated allotment and avoid having their electricity cut off.

But the tooth? Where did it come from? How did it find its way into a package of ground beef? If it were part of a hoof or a cow’s tooth, that would be more logical, though still not acceptable.

And so we carry on as usual, pointing out mistakes, attacking effects with addressing causes. Unfortunately, we have become all too accustomed to them “giving us tooth,” though in this case it was quite literally done through a package of ground beef. If this isn’t “giving tooth,” then I don’t know what is.

August 17 2012

Once again the dark cloud of intolerance hangs over our culture.

This time the victim is Opera of the Street, a magnificent and innovative musical company led by Ulises Aquino, who, along with his troupe of over sixty members, has spared no effort to raise the cultural level of the nation.

I first heard of them through a television documentary. From that very moment I was captivated by their originality and the very high quality of their productions.

They were given a space in the city of Playa for rehearsals and performances – the old Arenal cinema – that was virtually in ruins. Through the efforts and resources of the members themselves, and motivated by the enthusiasm and charisma of their director, they set about the task of offering performances free to passers-by while they carried out restoration work on the building. Pedestrians, buses and automobiles that passed through the avenue stopped to watch their innovative production. They were all in work clothes, but sang, danced and executed inventive choreographic moves that were meant to represent work. It was something that had never been seen before.

Little by little they garnered an ever greater public following, as well as attention from the national and international press. They were later given another space in the same city, this one also virtually in ruins, near the corner of Fourth and Seventh streets. This time, however, they opened a modest restaurant cafe they named El Cabildo, whose proceeds help fund their operations. Soon they began receiving invitations from European countries, which had become aware of the company and were captivated by its quality and originality. With each production they gained more success and public approval.

Eventually, the company was dealing with the expenses associated with a costly wardrobe, lights, scenery and the salaries of its members. All this came to the attention of the bureaucratic mediocrities, who became aroused and acted as though they were dealing with an an enemy, causing even greater harm to Cuban culture than to the company members themselves or to their director. The theater was raided while a performance was in progress, with total disregard for the performers and the public, who happened to be enjoying a wonderful performance.

It is completely unacceptable that such things continue to occur, as they did during the darkest days for our nation’s cultural history. It is everyone’s duty to demand that the Council for Performing Arts address this shameful situation.

In the face of a public outcry an explanation must be given for such actions, whose details, as usual, are known only through rumor. Mr. Aquino, as well as all members of Opera of the Street, are entitled to have all the facts made public and fully brought to light with all the transparency that this unfortunate situation requires.

To reward authority and cede power to mediocrity, allowing it to act with impunity, and to suffer blows such as this, would be a repetition of sad events we have experienced before. To do so would serve only to mortally wound the nation’s culture and identity.

August 10 2012

clip image002To my knowledge, all athletes who compete do so with the heart, kidneys, liver, brain, etc., etc., that is, the whole body, mind and the training received. Even more so when it comes time to represent their country at the Olympics.

I don’t know it what happens to me happens to many: I have to let my mind wander, or mute the TV, so as to not pay too much attention and lose patience, given the load of nonsense that contributes nothing to the sport, which appears to be a school specialty of the newscasters on my planet, who seem more like political commissars, when they start to describe what’s happening.

What’s more, according to them, Cubans always compete “like steel,” “with their hearts in their hand,” able to “climb Mt. Everest without equipment,” or “Walking barefoot on hot coals,” or with a “Venezuelan brother,” or a “Bolivian brother.”

Luckily, after the fall of the socialist block, they’ve reduced, considerably, the original kinship of our national political-genealogical tree.

clip image004It also happens continuously that when the screen shows the winner of a gold medal, and our beloved storytellers are talking about something that happened twenty years ago, when a Cuban X medal won in this or that event, and they bring nothing to the scene on the screen.

Especially in the opening ceremony, they never could, of didn’t want to, describe what was happening on the stage or about the personalities seen among the audience that the camera kept focusing on. Nor did they contribute anything interesting about the personal data of the most outstanding athletes, referring to many years ago when in these games the defunct socialist countries won the medal.

It is very unethical and unprofessional to be implying, and sometimes even saying, when a Cuban is losing or color of the medal about to be won is not the dream, that is because judges are conspiring against us. Also, if it comes to competing with British, it’s widely said that they are favoring the local athletes. This makes many of us refuse to follow the competition, for the marked political focus that they give them. Sometimes, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I even prefer that we lose, to save myself all the triumphalist and chauvinistic verbiage that goes along with a win, and the tiresome repetition of it, sometimes lasting several days.

But still there is something sadder than this: our athletes, as they finished their competitions , are immediately put on a plane, heart in hand, taking them back to the homeland. They can never allow them the pleasure of attending the closing ceremonies or the exchanges with other delegations.

August 3 2012

On the block where I live was, in another era, a haven of peace to walk along, protected by the shade offered by its trees, all, one by one, victims of some neighbors who were greatly annoyed by the dry leaves they shed, without caring anything about the cans and empty cartons, cigarette buts, that they themselves strewed across the sidewalks and flowerbeds.

A couple of days ago the last tree fell, a tree that gave us shade, although not on the sidewalk but next to it within the grounds of a kindergarten. It was attacked on several occasions by a neighbor who threw oil on it, with the clear intention of drying it up. The tree survived, because the sap continued to circulate through the trunk that was beyond the reach of this predator. But weakened in the extreme, finally it fell on the perimeter fence, damaging it and blocking the way, in its great leaning toward the pavement. The mastermind of this destruction looked for a way to get an Electric Company brigade to come and cut it down, since its fall affected the wires.

This tree could have been saved by tying it back and returning it to its position, but this would have been in a civilized and well organized country, where institutions exist who work to protect them, not in ours. This was simply a chopping down and leaving it in a dangerous position. Today, finally, a brigade with an electric saw came and cut it into pieces. The brigade came, sawed and retired, as always, taking the large pieces of the trunk but leaving lots of branches and leaves scattered on the sidewalk.

One tree less, in a country where the sun punishes all of us equally. Now nothing more can come to shelter us in its shadow.

July 31 2012