June 2013


In close circles of friends there has been a lot of conversation recently about the slow, almost imperceptible changes announced by the government. What is certainly clear is that soto voce, almost secretly, there is some perceived movement — a hint that “something is up” — out of view, as usual, of the public.

The government is experiencing a never-before-seen crisis. The Cuban economy is virtually non-existent. The country produces no wealth and the hope placed in the government of neighboring Venezuela is fading away along with Chavism, like a mirage in the middle of the desert just as one is about to die of thirst. Our only options lie in the north, not the south.

Are we ready for change? Not as I see it. As an uninformed and isolated people we have waited for solutions to come “from outside.” Many people, perhaps a majority, fear the unknown. On the other hand the daily struggle to survive leaves almost no opportunity for analytical thought.

During the last fifty-four years they have been scaring us with the threat of “the enemy in front.” It is an invention used by the government to paralyze private initiative. It is an attempt to make us complacent—into a people without expectations, always searching for food, blaming all our problems on the so-called blockade, which is itself is clearly on a path to extinction also.

Now that there is a subtle hint that “something is up” with the neighbor in front, instead of being happy, many are terrified and even believe that this is going to turn into a “move out of the way; I’m moving in”* situation. We should never have allowed ourselves be manipulated to such a great extent when in reality the United States has always been our natural market.

A neighbor, whom I consider to be a wonderful person, told me that what he really fears is “what will become of us, the opposition, when it happens.”

We will keep writing, I told him, pointing out what is wrong, come what may. Then our inventiveness and creativity will be given free reign. At the very least we will have equal opportunity. We will regain our freedom as individuals and with it our free will.

An architect, for whom I have great appreciation, shared with me her concerns about the changes. “Those of us who stayed behind and put up with everything are not even going to have a penny in our pockets, while those from over there are going to come in with money to invest,” she said.

“Look,” I told her, “we are the ones who are to blame for accepting everything without complaint. And when it comes to those who are going to come here with money, I do not mind at all; quite the opposite, I am glad. Besides, many of those who are coming to invest their capital are Cubans, or their descendants, from whom the government stripped everything away, and who recovered economically with their sacrifice, intelligence or good luck. That will be good for everyone.”

I believe that now is the time to smooth over political differences and be pragmatic. In many cases this will mean having to “pick ourselves up” and start over without bitterness. To forgive but not to forget, letting the appropriate authorities pass judgement on criminal cases perpetrated against human dignity, which must not go unpunished. Apart from that, we must try to contribute our own grain of sand in the rebuilding of our country and putting it on the path of development in the XXI century.

*Translator’s note: In the original Spanish this is, Quítate tú para ponerme yo, a Cuban expression and title of a popular song.

27 June 2013

Mitsukusú

I’m not addicted to television, I’m not even an assiduous spectator of the small screen. Rather, I have a kind of monitor, to see the shows, almost all American of course, that I rent at a video stand. The only channel where I sometimes see interesting programs, “all canned” and “by chance made in USA,” is channel 33 which still, thank God, has not been ideologically contaminated.

Just a couple of days ago, in the morning, I was looking for a program that interests me but that I never see because of the schedule, at that time I’m just finishing breakfast, I lock myself in my workshop to listen to music and do some work until 11:00 in the morning, the time I go to the kitchen to “invent” our daily dish. By change I put on an old channel and fell in love with some beautiful cats who just then were being shown on the screen. The program grabbed me and I watched to the end, leaving me an immense desire to go tot Key West, or Cayo Hueso as we call it in Cuba.

Wampy

I’m a cat person, I confess, I love all animals, except cockroaches and black moths (tataguas), but I have a special weakness for domestic cats. In fact I have two and feed a third. Usually I succumb before their sweet gaze.

The program in question was about the life of these animals in this little paradise, where there is a ratio of four cats per person and not all of them necessarily live in houses: some are shared with humans in hotels and restaurants. All are well fed and receive veterinary care. Some are operated to control reproduction. But what caught my attention, as I am a reader and admirer of Hemingway, is the care and devotion they give to the descendants of his beloved cats,in what was one of his most important residences.

I was captivated by those with six toes, with the effort and dedication to maintain their race and especially with how healthy they look. I think that if I ever visit this beautiful key, where in addition is nicely marked the area closest to our country, “the famous 90 miles,” it will cost me a great deal of effort to resist the temptation to get myself one of these beautiful animals.

Hopefully some day the culture in our country will also contemplate the care of animals and plants, and be known not just for its concerts and ballets. Of course, to get there they would first have to restore all the individual rights and free will of its citizens, lost during these more than fifty years.

23 June 2013

Again, the education sector is marred by scandal: the theft and sale of the questions for the eleventh grade exams. Apparently all or most of the municipalities of Havana are involved in this crime.

It is not the first time this has happened, and the media haven’t reported it. As usual, the news comes through the students and their parents, close to us, almost always neighbors, who have been affected by these events.

There have been meetings between the teachers and the parents of the students involved in the various schools, and the approach of the teaching profession, in my view, is not the most correct, and far from effective: “Don’t give your children so they can’t buy the exams. ” This reminds me of the famous story of the cuckolded husband who comes home and sees his wife snuggling on the sofa with her lover, and, enraged, decided to throw out the sofa.

Once more, they want to suppress the effects without deeply analyzing  the causes. This has been happening in our schools for many years. It’s not news to anyone, but the State continues to pretend that does not happen, and continues to offer very favorable statistical figures to United Nations whose officials disseminate the information without taking the effort to verify it.

It is more or less the same policy used by public employees in our country: “The State pretends to pay me and I pretend to work.”

As long as the Ministry of Education does not decide to end this fraud once and for all and demand accountability at all levels, this situation will repeat itself and the quality and prestige of education in Cuba will continue to decrease.

According to popular comments, too widespread not to be true, even the University hasn’t escapes this scandal. It is said that they have been forced to send the entrance exams under guard by the TrasVal (“transfer of values”) Company, which until recently was used, as its name implies, to guard considerable sums of money and other things of value.

If we “tossing out the couch” and don’t denounce these irregularities and crimes, we would be contributing with our silence even more to the “downward spiral” into the abyss, to something as important and precious as education and its prestige. We remember that mistakes in this sector are paid for over the long-term, when there is virtually no solution.

21 June 2013

Photo: Peter Deel

Much has been written about the deterioration of Havana and other cities throughout the width and breadth of the country, and I can assure you that nothing has been exaggerated. One need only to take a quick stroll through any Havana neighborhood such as such as Víbora, Santo Suárez, Casino Deportivo, Fontanar, Altahabana, Nuevo Vedado, to name but a few — neighborhoods which had previously been occupied largely by working, middle and upper class families, by professionals and by radio and TV personalities — to witness the rampant decay.

Early in the morning, in the entryways of every residence, one used to be able to see bottles of milk, bread hanging from grillwork or placed on a windowsill, and newspapers. It was just part of the everyday scene. It never occurred to anyone to violate the privacy of those homes by taking one of those items, even though they were so close-at-hand.

Property owners, pressured by the impact and scourge of the drastic changes which occurred in 1959, decided to leave the country and, thus, had to abandon their homes. These houses, often completely furnished, were “handed over” to the “new occupants,” who had no prior relationship to the properties and had sacrificed nothing in their construction.

As a result the social make-up of the neighborhoods began to change and with it their physical characteristics. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in any given area one has to put up with music from audio systems turned to full volume, vulgar shouting and language from people screaming “at the top of their lungs,” trespassing through gardens as well as men and boys brazenly leaning against walls or entering buildings to urinate in full view, even in the bright light of day. Then there are the candy wrappers, empty packaging, soft drink cans and other refuse which, because of the absence of trash cans at curbs, are thrown carelessly into the middle public thoroughfares.

And that is not the worst of it. There are things more terrible that wound the sensibilities and provide extremely unpleasant spectacles that can be observed or overheard by anyone, even children. These include animal sacrifices performed in public or within view or earshot of neighbors and intended as an “offering to the deities” in the hopes of “helping to solve a problem.” One of these was recently carried out in the patio of a house here in the middle of Nuevo Vedado for a neighbor who is under investigation for the crime of embezzling public resources. There are also the tiresome “drumming sessions” that sometimes last till dawn.

I certainly agree that everyone should be allowed to profess his or her religion as he or she sees fit; that is a basic human right. But I do not agree that the practice of rituals and ceremonies should be allowed to disrupt the tranquility and order of a neighborhood. And I categorically disagree with the indiscriminate slaughter and torture of animals for these or any other reasons. When it comes to the sacrifice of animals for human consumption, day by day the civilized world looks for ever better methods that might reduce their suffering to a minimum.

I watch with sadness as day by day this beautiful city continues to lose the beauty for it was previously famous, as it is made ugly by uncontrolled architectural alterations and social behaviors that are unrelated to the traditions, unique architecture and good customs of the past — those things that allowed for harmonious co-existence.

18 June 2013

In recent days many of us have been having friendly conversations and discussions about the famous embargo. Some are in favor of lifting it, others for keeping it in place.

What seems to have been forgotten by everyone, or almost everyone, is the actual reason for its existence. Faulty memories and the many decades of its enforcement have sometimes caused us to forget why it was originally imposed by the U.S. government.

Very often we cite the embargo as the reason for all our troubles. I do not see it this way. The real cause of our problems lies with ourselves. It is always easier to blame one thing or another, even though we have had five decades to create mechanisms to counteract its effects, yet have not done so.

What most people do not realize, because the media never mentions it, is that at the time this measure was imposed as a response by the U.S. government to the interference in and appropriation of American businesses and properties on the island by the “revolutionary government” without any sort of compensation, just as it had done with the assets of thousands of Cubans.

Over the years the embargo has clearly been loosened, or “softened” as they like to say. Because of a strong hurricane that caused much damage in all of Cuba’s provinces, several years ago the United States lifted the restrictions on the export of food and medicine with the goal of helping the island’s population. But everyone knows that most of this food ended up for sale in hard currency stores. The same thing happened with medicine, which can only be obtained in certain pharmacies for hard currency, and not the currency in which the Cubans’ salaries and pensions are paid. Similarly, cultural exchanges have been reinstated which previously had been suspended due to the summary execution of three adolescents who tried to commandeer a ferry boat in Havana’s harbor a decade ago. This exchange remains ongoing.

During all these years the island’s government has given no indication that it might demonstrate a sincere willingness to have the embargo lifted. As we all know quite well that, on those occasions when a possible lifting is discernible, the Cuban government has responded with extreme actions such as the shooting down of aircraft operated by Brothers to the Rescue. Such actions make it clear that the “blockade,” as it referred to in official circles, is no more than a fig leaf to cover up its inefficient economic policies.

I am of the opinion that, in order to arrive at fair agreement, both parties have to come to the table with two “suitcases” — one to give and one to receive. Until that happens, this matter will go on interminably, like the old “story that never ends.”

15 June 2013

Talking with some Colombian teachers were sightseeing in “my world,” they mentioned to me the magnificent statistical indices that we had in education and health. I, of course, I clarified that these figures were released by the government, unchallenged by any counterpart within the country, which allowed it to present them as unquestionable.

I explained to them, from my own experience when working in central agencies, how these figures were manipulated and made to respond to politics and not to reality. That despite having honest data issued by the various ministries, they were adjusted according to the guidelines from “above”, a euphemism by which they call the “high command” that is the maximum leader.

With regards to education, I informed them about some fairly common crimes  perpetrated by students and teachers from different schools, such as fraud, extortion, selling tests and even drug possession and distribution, as well someone related by blood. I explained that, as nothing is reported in the media, the sole owner of this being the State, it seems as if they never happened. Everything is handled with great secrecy, despite which, they reach the population via the students themselves, children of neighbors and friends.

I also offered them some related experiences, very stressful situations with respect to hospitals and health clinics, such as that of poisoning by a careless Fajardo hospital employee a few years ago, which led to the death of seven patients. Or our neighbor Carlos, who died on a table in the April 19 Polyclinic , waiting to be treated by a doctor or other health professional, to name a few examples.

I also explained about the long “wait lists” to have surgery, unless a doctor was a relative or close friend, who could deal with “moving your paperwork along.” All this, not to mention that most prescription drugs are unavailable or can be acquired only in hard currency at certain pharmacies or on the black market.

The sad thing about all these situations, which occur of course in some other countries, not just ours, is that here there is no life insurance, victims of medical errors are not compensated, and worst of all is that by failing to reflect these events in press or in reports issued by the health center, it appears that none of this happens. Therefore, our statistical indices for higher education and health are the best in the region.

12 June 2013

A few years ago, passing by with my friend in her car, I suddenly saw out the window, in the middle of some trash, something red that caught my attention.

“Stop! Stop!” I told her.

She, ignoring my “almost order,” pulled to the curb and stopped.

I quickly got out of the car and went to the place where the neighbors had inappropriately accumulated right on the parking strip a mountain of trash. Standing out from among the rubble I saw an old metal sign printed with the fire of Coca-Cola. I took it out of the trash and put it in the trunk of the car.

When we got home, I washed it off and saw that in one corner it said, “Made in Canada 1950.” With the notice displayed on both sides, I imagined it had belonged to one of the thousands of bodegas throughout the city, hung on the corner so it could be seen from both sides. Without hesitating, I put it on my terrace overlooking the street, in the same way, to be seen from inside and outside. So it has remained since.

A few days ago, the street door open to enter the building, some kids came up and knocked on my door: “Lady, we want to buy a soda. You have a sign that says Coca Cola here at 5 cents.”

Look, I said to them, first I don’t sell sodas, but in addition, if I did sell Coca-Cola and at 5 cents, you would have to ask me if I had been medically certified, because for sure I would be crazy.

9 June 2013

Next Page »