May 2013

I have lived in Nuevo Vedado since I moved here in 1971, the result of a fortuitous permuta or house swap.* My new apartment is on the top floor of what was a modern three-story structure in 1958, built by a family who intended to live in it. The building has only three very spacious apartments, one per floor.

Faced with the abrupt changes that had occurred in the country and the unequivocal signals of “what was to come,” the original owners decided way back in 1960 to leave it all behind and move to the United States. After being “abandoned,” the building was sealed. It was located in what came to be called a “frozen zone,” like so many others in the city. These apartments were given to people who, for one reason or another, had ties to the regime.

A tailor who sewed things for “high-ranking government officials” and his wife moved into the first floor. On the second floor there was a historian for the Communist Party Central Committee and his family. On the third floor, where I currently live, were two members of the Ministry of the Interior and their two ill-behaved children, thanks to whom this opportunity arose and from which, by sheer luck, I benefitted. I traded them a lovely little cottage with a patio and garden, exactly what they were looking for, where their children could run free. The couple took care of all the paperwork so that the swap would take effect as quickly as possible.

Over time those who occupied the premises prior to 1959 began dying off, leaving the property to their descendants. In general these are young people who, it would seem, have little interest in the appearance or cleanliness of the building, only in their apartments’ interiors. As a result we have had to put up with many inconveniences in order to maintain the garden and hallways, as well as to keep the stairways clean.

Becuse of a water leak in his apartment over a year ago, our first-floor neighbor broke through the wall that faces the entry to the building, leaving a gaping hole that went unpatched for many weeks. After talking to him on several occasions about this matter and seeing that he was not about to fix it, my husband decided to cover it up with a piece of cardboard mounted on a stretcher for support. With leftover paint he found in the garage, he quickly simulated an abstract painting in a size large enough to cover the unattractive hole. This avoided giving a bad impression upon entering the building.

Anyway, just as Fernando was leaving the building today, a man was driving by in his car and saw part of the painting through the half-open doorway. He pulled over to the curb and, addressing my husband, said he was a buyer of paintings and old books.

“I am interested in that ’irregular’ old painting from the 1950s in the entryway,” the man told him.

Stifling his laughter, Fernando said, “The painting is indeed irregular, but it is not old, much less from the 1950s.”

A bit embarrassed, the man in question drove off and my husband nearly “died of laughter” as he told me the story.

*Until recently a homeowner in Cuba who wanted to move could not sell their houses and buy another. They could only trade their homes for one of equal value in an exchange called a permuta.

26 May 2013

Today is 118 years since the greatest and most timeless of all Cubans fell in combat: José Martí, “the Apostle of Independence.”

The system prevailing in our country for 54 years has been rebaptized him as the National Hero but I, like many, never liked that description, considering it inadequate for such a universal figure, and so we continue to call him what our parents and teachers taught us, when Cuba was a Republic.

The use and abuse of Martí’s thoughts and expressions, taken out of context and applied “conveniently” to reinforce concepts that have nothing to do with his ideology, have only provoked an almost involuntary rejection on the part of many of the citizens in our country, especially among the younger segments of the population, towards the figure of the Apostle, who sometimes even joke about him disrespectfully.

A man of letters, of peace and love, he became involved with weapons, possibly pressured by his own companions, falling mortally wounded, on his first day out on the battlefield without barely having had the opportunity to fight; and this was a man who was capable of uniting all Cubans under the same idea, man who was so desperately needed alive.

So many years after that event that is so sad for most Cubans, his ideas are still the compass that governs the desires of our politicians. Keeping alive our chimera of achieving, sooner rather than later, the chance to see our nation free and sovereign “with all and for the good of all” as Martí dreamed.

19 May 2013

Holding on to my patience I managed to watch the National TV News (NTV) for a while. I had to make sure I kept calm in order to avoid getting a heart attack watching the images and listening to the scripted nonsense repeated by our announcers, as if it were a program intended for idiots.

It turned out that they announce that they are “gradually” bringing the streetlights back into action in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy which devastated the province of Santiago de Cuba, leaving things in a terrible state — as if it was a great event. More than that, what insulted me even more was that they were saying that they were commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the attack on the Moncada barracks, as opposed to the hundreds of unfortunate victims, who still haven’t recovered the losses occasioned by the hurricane, fundamentally due to the accumulated misery of decades, which made it impossible for them to carry out proper maintenance to their houses.

It’s an embarrassment that after so many months they are saying that they are “gradually” restoring street lighting to the streets and avenues, knowing that crime and danger are directly supported by darkness. What’s more, they appear to be avoiding the dietary deficiencies confronting the people of Santiago de Cuba, whose poor income doesn’t permit them to feed themselves properly, and to recover from the damage caused by the atmospheric phenomenon. All of that, without even mentioning that much of the donations sent from different countries were not distributed without charge, as might be expected by the people sending them, but were sold at high prices.

I was even more insulted when recently the representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in our country had the nerve and lack of seriousness to publicly announce that we were one of the best fed people not only in America but in the world. It seems that this man forgot that here, when kids get to three years of age they lose their compotes, and at seven their milk, quite apart from the major sacrifices their parents have to make from when they are born, simply because of the lack of material resources.

Now, furthermore, a psychologist, whom I thought up to today was a reasonable person, has volunteered to sign in the Granma daily an article in which he completely justifies our country’s misery, calling it “The Cuban Model of Wellbeing”. What’s more he puts forward as a great example to be followed the fact that in Cuba everybody knows exactly who their neighbors are and what they are doing, when in reality it is no more than meddling in someone else’s life, and not “socializing,” which is what ll of us, one way or another, have had to suffer.

Translated by GH

16 May 2013

Patchwork portrait by Rebeca

Mother’s Day is a custom that has been practiced in our country for generations. It continues to be celebrated, though differently and under certain limitations, in spite of the current state of familial disintegration. The main objective of the celebration was to return to the matriarchal home to be with one’s family. It never mattered how far one person lived from another.

I remember a great commotion all through the house beginning early in the morning. Even the youngest family members had their assigned chores. Unmarried girls like me, who still lived together under the same roof, were in tasked with cleaning. The males were in charge of gathering dried leaves from the garden. They would put them in a metal tank in the patio to become compost, which would later be used as fertilizer. Or they would burn them, which was an easier way of getting rid of them. The women manned their posts in the kitchen. The maid had been given the day off since she would also be having a celebration at her own house.

On Sundays, as well as this on this special day, my mother, an expert cook, was in charge of creating the menu with the help of my grandmother. Uncle Pedro had to be kept out of the kitchen because he was fond of “dipping his spoon in the pot.” He was, therefore, given the task of setting up the big table with the help of his son. For this and other occasions a “little room in back” was used for storing a pair of wooden burros, or saw horses, and an immense slab.

Around noon members of the extended family began arriving. The first to get there were some uncles whose house was across the street, followed later by those who lived further away. Everyone, both children and adults, wore either a red or a white flower on their chests. The former signified the mother was still alive, the latter that she had passed away. This custom evolved as a way of preventing someone from “putting his foot in his mouth” by inquiring about a mother who was deceased. Fortunately, at that time almost everyone in our house wore a red flower. In the afternoon we were joined by other family members who, because they lived a little further away, did not join us for lunch. They nonetheless stopped by to pay their respects to the mothers, who on that day were the queens of the party. By evening, with all the family members and close friends, we were a multitude!

The superb lunch almost always featured a chicken, which back then was reserved for the Sunday feast. During the rest of the week we ate beef, prepared in one of its many different ways. It was the most common dish simply because it was both economical and good. The exception was Fridays when fish was generally served. Pork, guinea hen and turkey were the preferred choices on Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s.

One of my mother’s culinary specialties was her always superb arroz con pollo, which on this day she served on big platters garnished with pimentos, asparagus tips, baby peas and hard-boiled eggs, prepared according to a famous recipe. There were also salads made with seasonal vegetables. And, of course, one could not forget to have a nice cream cake as well as the famous ice cream cake covered in chocolate, which came in a box packed with dry ice to keep it frozen until serving time. The climax of the lunch was the invariably delicious coffee, which my grandmother often said was the “crowning touch” to any meal.

Later in the evening, after almost everyone had left, Uncle Pedro (to avoid cooking) prepared wonderful sandwiches. He would spread one side of a baguette with butter and the other with mustard, adding slices of ham, chorizo, cheese and rounds of pickled cucumbers. There were two blenders in the kitchen similar to the ones found in cafes (there were a lot of us) in which he prepared delicious mamee or mango shakes, depending on the season. The fruit came from trees growing in the patio behind the house.

Today, so many years after that wonderful time in our lives, I am struck with nostalgia remembering those Mother’s Days with their Sunday lunches. After 1959 they were snuffed out, little by little, as our family became fragmented — as was the case with almost all Cubans — when most of us went into exile. Many of the products needed to prepare those feasts also began disappearing as a result of state intervention in private business and salaries which were no longer sufficient to cover their costs. Add to that the ever growing transport problems which prevented those who lived in other provinces from attending the festivities. Like a grey blanket, sadness began shadowing these family events from my childhood and adolescence. The houses became practically empty. No longer did anyone wear a flower on the chest out of either happiness or sadness.

This is just one more of our lovely Cuban traditions, which have gradually disappeared along with our youth and illusions. Fortunately, they went into exile along with our compatriots, who continue to practice them there. Because of this I have hope and am certain that one day they will return — perhaps a bit modified, but enriched — to fatten our cultural imagination and currently meagre culinary repertoire.

11 May 2013

Photo A.Betancourt

Venuto al Mondo (Twice Born), a film by Sergio Castellitto, with magnificent performances of Penelope Cruz and Emile Hirsch, based on the novel by Margaret Mazzantini where fratricidal war broke out in Sarajevo, serves as a backdrop for a personal drama, whose central theme is frustrated motherhood.

A young Italian woman visiting some friends in the former Yugoslavia met an American photographer, and a strong passion arose between the two. They meet again in Italy, when he goes in search of her prompted by her father, uniting both formally as a couple. The desire to have a child becomes an obsession, until after several attempts, doctors detect infertility in the woman. Then they decide to adopt a child.

Again frustration overtakes the couple, faced with the refusal of the Italian authorities to allow them to adopt, due to the criminal records of young photographer, so they decide to return to Sarajevo, to use artificial insemination, which is also interrupted by an armed attack on the hospital as they were about to do it, and they decide to stay in the country despite the war, in search of a surrogate.

The interesting thing about the film, along with its dialogue and actions, is that it demonstrates how the ideological manipulation of a “charismatic leader” sick with power, is able to bring the worst of human beings to the surface and to bring about a war between families and neighbors, for just ideological, ethnic or religious differences.

All this made me think of those early years of the Revolution, when they were creating the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in the neighborhoods, their main objectives being surveillance, harassment and confrontation between neighbors and families, and then later, when these neighborhoods were changing their appearance, because their original neighbors went into exile and were replaced by other newcomers, who had nothing to do with the new environment, there were repercussions in some very unfortunate cases, where envy and lust surfaced.

Then, in the eighties, when the Mariel crisis rekindled those feelings and strengthened them, driven by the recklessness of those who incited them. This had dire consequences where abuse, beatings, and humiliations of all kinds were perpetrated by a manipulated masses, whom they had the audacity to call “an enraged people.” This did not develop into a major misfortune because fortunately our western idiosyncrasy has nothing to do with countries that served as the location for the film in question. But it was and is a stain to be set forever in our recent history.

8 May 2013

Nothing could be pleasanter that being able to congratulate a friend, male or female, by sharing a simple, healthy meal.

I was finally able to get some chicken breasts, which for a long time had not been available at the hard-currency stores in my neighborhood. It then occurred to me they could be the basis for the following menu.

Chicken breasts with rosemary:

Slowly thaw frozen chicken breasts. Cut them into pieces, then salt and pepper them. Set aside for approximately one hour.

Sauté them over high heat on both sides until golden brown. Add abundant slices of raw onion, cut into rings, then lower the heat so that they will cook slowly. Add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary (I have some planted in my garden), and two tablespoons of dry wine. Cover the pan and let everything simmer for approximately 45 minutes.

Potatoes au jus:

Peel the potatoes and cut them into slices, but not as thin as you would for fries. Add salt and a little mustard. Place them in a heated teflon skillet, cover and lower the heat so that they cook in their own juices and brown slightly.

Once the breasts are ready, serve them on a platter, adding the potatoes on top as a garnish. You could also serve rice that has been placed in mold. Garnish the platter with a sprig of rosemary.

Round out this pleasant lunch with a fruit drink, a well-dressed seasonal salad and, of course, some sort of dessert. If you want to gild the lily, finish with a nice cup of coffee. If it is the kind that people bring from Miami, even better. The coffee from here is not very good, even if you paid for it in hard-currency.

Bon apetit!

5 May 2013

Work by Rebeca

Once upon a time in my planet, where there were many fine department stores, small boutiques, department stores, cafes, restaurants and all kinds of successful businesses, large and small, where it was a real pleasure to go shopping, the slogan was: “The customer is always right. ”

So it manifested itself and it worked very well. The customer was satisfied and the owner as well, because the profits for his business increased and he rejoiced on feeling the appreciation and respect of his customers. Of course, every business had an owner and there is nothing better than “the master’s eye to fatten the horse.”

With the arrival of the year 1959, the new “government” in just one of the first things it did, nationalized all large businesses and enterprises. Then the “revolutionary offensive” gave the final blow to the already “skewered” and bled economy. Now the customer had become a “user” who had no right to choose or demand, only to accept what the ration book determined without protest. I couldn’t buy what I wanted or needed, and only and badly acquire what is “determined.”

These vices were embedded and are a drag on the economy to this day, and although it is assumed that the “legalization of the dollar” and the arrival of the dual currency, at least what is for sale in hard currency (and very difficult to acquire) gives the right to choose, though it’s not the case because people who work for the State, which is almost everyone, and who in return receive miserable wages also have a motto: “I pretend to work and the state pretends to pay me.”

Therefore they have no interest in selling and unfortunately the only motivation is to see who can “knock down” the client, using that euphemism instead of using the ugly word “steal.” Not all employees are like this, but unfortunately a considerable number of them have been carried away by this vice and don’t even consider it a crime. Thus demonstrating in this way, they lack a healthy motivation to exercise their work as sellers.

A couple of days ago, an acquaintance of mine, entered the “The Butterfly” store in Nuevo Vedado, to buy a fan for his wife as a birthday present, since this was the only establishment where there was the model that suited him and fit his budget. At that store, after having checked all the stores of this kind, looking for this gadget, he found that the employee who staffed that department wasn’t there. When he asked about it, they told him that she hadn’t come in for three days because she has a sick child. Then he insisted that someone, instead of her, take care of him. He was told that no one could do it, only she was designated for that department. Why is that?

Losing patience, he asked to see the manager, who showed up a little annoyed and repeated what the employee had said. Then this man, losing patience, identifies himself and said that he was also was an employee in hard currency stores, and  although it’s another chain, they all belong to the State and would not go in there without the fan, it would raise the incident to its ultimate consequences. And so he managed that they “reluctantly” sold him the damn gadget. As you see, long ago in my planet the customer is no longer in the right, but I am of the firm belief that rights must be demanded, as this customer did.

3 May 2013