August 2013


The scandal of thefts in cemeteries continues, despite all the denunciations published inside and outside the island. Of course for many years here there was a silent complicity by the official press, the only one accredited in the country. But with the advent of technology and the access, although greatly restricted, to the social networks, this seems to have escaped the censors and now, from time to time, an occasional critical comment appears in local newspapers on this thorny subject.

No longer is it only the Colon Cemetery, perhaps the most looted simply because it has the most works of art of household value, but also Baptist, Chinese, and Jewish graveyards have recently been vandalized, by practitioners of African cults, who use bones of the dead (preferably unbaptized) as offerings for their “religious” practices, in the face of the unpunished and easy access to them.

Another phenomenon that occurred since the appearance of the two currencies — the current Cuban pesos (CUP), in which they pay you wages and pensions, and the strong pesos (CUC), in which you are forced to pay for almost everything — is the reappearance at burials of two types of wreaths: the poor ones, with sparse flowers, unattractive and mass-produced, with paper tape and letters in purple ink, offered for CUP, and occasionally in limited supply, depending on time and death; and the others, for “hard currency,” well-made with beautiful imported flowers, fabric ribbons for the dedication in gold letters, and in unlimited supply. As a result of this another type of theft began: that of wreaths.

It is sad to think about the people who have made a sacrifice offered to their deceased friend or family member of one of these beautiful wreaths acquired in hard currency which, just after the burial is concluded and the accompanying mourners dispersed, then disappears “as if by magic” and is offered, in CUC of course, by other unscrupulous mourners, or is simply dismantled to sell its flowers, to people who already have pre-established contacts to buy them.

This has led increasingly to seeing fewer floral offerings on the graves. This type of desecration also may occur at some of the monuments to heroes in the city, where foreign delegations deposit elegant wreaths, as recently occurred at the monument to Eloy Alfaro on the Avenue of the Presidents, between 15th and 17th in Vedado.

Until now, as far as I know, there is no effective measure for stopping this miserable and criminal practice. Nor do I know of anything having been returned to the owners, any of the sculptures or large bronze crucifixes stolen over the past twenty years. My family’s burial vault was plundered; I submitted the complaint, supported with before-and-after photos, over five years ago, yet the cemetery authorities have not given me any response.

It is shameful that these activities continue to occur in the 21st century, practices that seem better suited to the Middle Ages, and which are perpetrated in the face of the apparent apathy of the authorities, who have the obligation of ensuring the preservation of our historical and cultural heritage.

Translated by: Tomás A.

29 August 2013

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Much has been said lately about the subject, after the most recent address of Raul, where he addressed these social problems that were simply ignored. Now the media constantly make programs dedicated to this social phenomenon, in efforts to improve what they themselves decided to ignore all these years of Revolution, becoming unwitting accomplices and partners.

Television, one of the most important means of dissemination, is precisely the one that has influenced programs and novels, where vulgar language and gestures have been the constant, regardless of the old and well-known phrase of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” This method, therefore, is a massive “fixer” of good and evil.

I remember about twenty years ago, in a famous and popular TV show on Saturdays, led by an elegant and fine presenter. Interviewing the famed Spanish actor Echenove, she asked: “How has your visit to Cuba been?” Echenove, totally uninhibited, replied, “pues me ha ido de pin…“* She blushed, then said “excuse me, but that word is ugly and you shouldn’t say it.” “What?” he argued, “it can’t be, because everyone here says it.”

As for promiscuity and poor hygiene habits, our press emphasizes offenses committed by individuals, and closes its eyes to the problems caused by bad management and the continued lack of hygiene in food handling practiced in state facilities. The most representative example is the sale of unrefrigerated pork in the farmers market, not to mention that it is transported without any hygiene in open air  vehicles, even on occasion with workers sitting on the pieces of meat.

They also criticize how and where coffee cups are rinsed, that are sold freshly brewed at the various private and public establishments, as well as the water used to make fruit juices sold, improper handling of certain foods, etc. and, what is never mentioned, is where did they learn all these bad habits reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

Weren’t voluntary work and the schools in the countryside the genesis of all this  promiscuity that also brought so much of this social indiscipline? What were the conditions of those camps and schools so that these situations didn’t occur, mainly due to the lack of clean water and adequate facilities, forcing many students to have to relieve themselves “open air” like animals? Why, then, weren’t adequate provision taken so that this didn’t happen? On the contrary, they were established as standard practice.

On the other hand, they are now also attacking the phenomenon of noise and music at soaring that makes people scream to be heard, and annoys the neighbors, forcing them to listen to what they don’t want to. This also happens in many buses, where in addition to crowding, heat and odors, we must also must stoically endure the deafening sound of music, imposed by the driver or some lazy and rude passenger who doesn’t care about disturbing the other occupants of the vehicle.

“It’s never too late if the reaction is good”, I would say, to paraphrase an old maxim, given the new concern of the media. But what concerns me, extraordinarily, is that we have had to wait nearly half a century, for Raul to talk about it in a speech, to “become aware” of it, and that, as he usually does, he continues to attack the effects without having the courage to denounce the causes and, above all, those who caused these and other social ills.

*Translator’s note: He uses a vulgar phrase [which Rebeca does not spell out in full] meaning, roughly, “it’s all gone to hell,” thinking it means “it’s been fantastic.”

26 August 2013

CLEAN ME! Car Washing, Vacuuming and Shining.

In spite of negative propaganda from the official media, a large segment of the population, especially young people, have imagined some sort of eventual return to capitalism, the only system that allows one to dream.

Twenty years ago, when they first started issuing the first licenses for small private businesses on a restricted basis, these dreams took some effort. Small home-based restaurants, known as paladares, led the way along with homes and bedrooms rented out to tourists as well as old cars made before 1959 which served as taxis. Only the strongest of these survived due to, among other things, the large number of restrictions they had to sort through as well as all the various pressures they had to endure.

Since then the country has seen a proliferation in the number of small private businesses with an ever-increasing thematic focus. They include paladares, sweetshops, daycare centers, carwash and auto detailing shops, gymnasia, hair salons, barber shops, copy shops, small boutiques, party and wedding planning services, formal wear rental, 3D movie theaters and even the occasional spa, to name but a few. All of these are in the service sector; none are in manufacturing.

Now, what has been the common denominator hindering the development of all these initiatives? It is first and foremost the absence of wholesale markets and the dearth of laws authorizing the importation of consumable goods to help create the proper infrastructure for the establishment and expansion of these businesses. Another significant issue is demand, which in the case of paladares is far below the level of supply. This is not the case, however, when it comes to the well-known timbiriches, or street vendors, who swarm through the streets offering sparse light snacks, some of questionable hygiene, at a relatively low cost commensurate with the salaries and pensions we receive.

On the other hand, the best placed businesses exist where strong investment is seen. They are, mostly, supported by start up capital, which can be provided by FE (family in the “exterior”), the foreign investment union or the children of some high directors who possess the best residences in this country, due in part to the relations of their progenitors, and a lot of money “saved” during this half century of their families in power.

Now appears a not so new method: cooperatives of a new kind (services, artisans and others), where they group together to offer their services or sell their products. But first of all, they almost always suffer from the lack of products, so it is the client who must bring them to be able to receive the benefits. This is the case of the old garage at Mayia Rodriguez and Santa Catalina Streets, which is now called “New Cooperative,” a better name for a hardware store and not for an establishment of this type, without respect to that other more appropriate, by which it was always known.

In this case the client must bring the wax, the lubricants, etc., even the detergent.

Anyway, to my view, more than a solution this is entertainment and a way that the government has to gain time, because they are not deep measures that can change or restructure the now exhausted economy of our country.  So let’s keep “Playing” at this savage capitalism, since from an optimistic perspective, we can assimilate it as a necessary entertainment for a not so distant future.

22 August 2013

I was working as a diplomat in Paris, where I lived with my husband and baby son, who was eighteen months old, when I was faced with a problem that had to be resolved as soon as possible. It meant having to travel to Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, to see people who could help me in this endeavor. I was carrying a letter of introduction which would allow me to stay in the residence occupied by Cuban embassy staff working in that country, whom I personally did not know but with whom my husband had a long friendship.

I was very excited about the trip since this would be the first socialist country I would come to know after my own. I got a lot of advice from Cuba’s “security comrades” in Paris about things I might encounter in the Czech capital, such as changing dollars on the black market and “other temptations.”

I arrived on August 20, 1968 at noon. I had barely gotten off the Air France plane when I was intercepted by some Czechs offering to exchange dollars but — doing as I had already been advised — I answered in Czech, “I don’t have.” This is the only sentence I knew how to say in that language.

A chancellery official and the Cuban embassy chauffeur, who were waiting for me, drove me immediately to the official residence, located in a hilly neighborhood between the airport and the Soviet residences. I submitted my letter and was introduced to the ambassador, his wife and sister-in-law, who was in Prague at the time. They put me in a bedroom — a spacious room with a bath — on an upper floor of that beautiful, old residence.

That afternoon we enjoyed an exquisite meal prepared by the Czech cook, which included, among other delicious dishes, an unforgettable salad made of raw vegetables dressed with olive oil and copious amounts of goat cheese sprinkled on top. I was told this was one of the country’s typical dishes.

As we were chatting afterwards, they warned me not to be bothered if I heard train noises as I was sleeping as there was a rail line behind the building and trains went by at various times during the night.

Although the conversation was very pleasant, I was tired from my flight and finally excused myself, retiring to my room so I could rest. Another consideration was that the ambassador and his wife also had a baby, who was only a few months old, and I did not want to unduly take advantage of their hospitality.

That night the noise from the train turned out to be truly unbearable. All through the early morning hours the constant noise from carriages travelling over train tracks meant I hardly got any sleep at all.

Very early I went into the all-white bathroom to wash up and get ready for the meeting I had previously scheduled from Paris. I was to be accompanied by the wife of the ambassador, who had graciously offered to serve as my guide. As soon as I was ready, I went downstairs and found my hostess. I smiled, said hello and told her, “I am ready now. When would you like to leave?”

At that moment this sweet-natured woman said with a certain degree of exasperation, “We can’t. We’re occupied.”

The tone with which she said this seemed a bit odd to me but, since I knew she had only recently given birth, I said, “No problem. I will just wait until you are free. It’s no bother.”

Becoming even more irate, she said, almost screaming, “No, we are being occupied by Warsaw Pact troops!”

It was then that I noticed the house was full of women and children running through the reception rooms. The nervous women were barely able to control the children. Since it was made of wood, the little ones storming up and down the wide staircase leading to the upper floors produced a noise so deafening that it seemed like Soviet tanks were in the building itself.

The cook and cleaning lady, who were Czech, understandably left for their respective homes. The question then came up of who would take charge of cooking for all these people. There were almost a hundred, including children and their mothers, whom the ambassador was housing in the residence as a security precaution. The men could be found in groups occupying various diplomatic offices in the embassy, the commerce bureau and the Latin Press.

Since no one was offering to take charge of cooking for those of us in the residence, I raised my hand and accepted the responsibility. Several of the children were still eating baby food and the family’s food supply was quickly exhausted, as were the pears and apples from the trees in the rear patio from which I made stewed fruit and jams.

The government had declared a state of siege, so we could only leave the building to look for supplies. With a guarantee of safe conduct, several people — among them two security officers and me — left to buy things at stores reserved for those in diplomatic service. This allowed me to observe the city firsthand. On top of the gray patina that socialism had been gradually leaving over time, there now stretched the the dark shadow of an invasion, saddening the beautiful, old city. The facade of the museum on Wenceslas Square was already displaying the scars of its first encounters with the invaders.

Prague fought back by covering all the street signs and addresses — as well as the bronze plaques of buildings where professionals lived — with black paint. Signs read, “Ivan go home” and “Prague, a second Vietnam.” There were exit arrows with the words “1,849 km to Moscow,” indications of citizen outrage and opposition to the occupation of the country.

Soldiers and tanks were stationed in parks and squares. Large cauldrons were hung in the middle of lawns to prepare communal meals for the troops. The city displayed its saddest face.

I was only supposed to stay three or four days, so I brought very few changes of clothes as well as little make-up or toiletries. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to use the last of these supplies, particularly hairspray, in a makeshift hair salon, which I set up myself in the main reception room to entertain women in the afternoon so that their nerves would not be on edge the entire day.

I began to fantasize that, to leave, I would have to “hitch a ride” from tank to tank until I got to the border, from where I would take a plane to France, where I had left my little son with his father, who would be waiting in terror from not knowing anything due to the lack of communication resulting from what was going on in the country.

The atmosphere was uncertain and stressful. Our situation was made worse after Fidel Castro issued declarations of support for the occupation. Up to that point, whenever we drove out of the embassy, the Czechs made things easy for us. After that, things became ugly. Our vehicles parked on the street had their tires slashed, and fruit and rotten eggs were thrown at buildings were Cubans were known to be living or staying.

There were many challenges I had to face in cooking for that many people in what was a spacious but very antiquated kitchen. There were only a few gas burners; the rest used charcoal.

A pair of male colleagues were “assigned” to me. I do not know if they were supposed to be looking after me or if I was supposed to be looking after them, but they served as my kitchen help. They were always following me, trying to figure out how I managed in the middle of all that chaos to always be made-up and ready to go first thing in the morning.

At the time it was fashionable in Paris to draw eyelashes on the area below the eye with a very fine eyeliner. I was an expert at it. They were always trying to surprise me. They would come upstairs earlier and earlier every day looking for me, but I never gave them the pleasure of catching me unprepared. This became a kind of game that helped relieve the tension. The days passed like this until the airports were finally reopened. At that point my clothes were quite shabby and my make-up supplies had been exhausted.

I remember on the way to the airport asking the chauffeur if he spoke enough Czech to stop at a pharmacy and buy me some hairspray so that I would not arrive in Paris in such a state. He very eagerly told me yes and stopped at one of the pharmacies on the way.

He returned to the car with a large gray metal can on which appeared the face of a woman whose large head of hair was blowing in the wind. He confidently assured me that this was the best hairspray in all of Prague.

After putting it on in the car, I immediately began to feel my hair being impregnated by an oily liquid with a medicinal smell. It was a hair treatment. My exasperation knew no bounds, nor did his uncontrolled laughter.

“It doesn’t matter,” I told him. “When we get to the airport, I’ll buy myself a scarf to hide this disaster.”

Once I got to the terminal, I noticed that all the stores were closed, so I had to board the plane in this condition. Once onboard I was able to buy a silk scarf that cost me dearly, like everything they sell in-flight. In the tiny bathroom inside the plane I managed to cover my entire head with paper napkins so as not to ruin that precious piece of silk, signed by Christian Dior.

As I got off the plane at Orly Airport, there was my husband, holding my son in his arms, waiting for me. How I looked no longer matter. In one second the sight of them swept away all anxiety caused by the separation and uncertainty of those twenty-three days. I returned having gone through a great ordeal and having learned several new phrases in that Slavic language, which I dare not repeat here.

19 August 2013

Before starting have all the ingrediants on hand.

Panetela

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups flour

2 1/2 cups white sugar

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

A pinch of nutmeg

1/4 cup lemon or orange juice

Procedure:

Pre-heat the oven.

Oil the pan and line it with paper

Pass all the dry ingredients through a sieve or colander.  Separate the whites and yolks.  Beat the whites until stiff, like meringue, and little by little add the sugar while beating constantly.  Add the yolks one by one.  Pour this mixture in the bowl with the dry ingredients, without beating, fold them together little by little until the mix is homogenous.  Pour this into the pan and bake it at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.

If you live on “my planet” and you were able to gather the six eggs, get the flour, either in the hard currency store or on the black market, happen to have a little nutmeg (if not ask your friend who travels for a little,) have a lemon, because the ideal would be orange, but if there’s none in this moment, “not even in the spiritual centers,” then you will see how easy it is to make this delicious recipe, to accompany a good breakfast or a frugal afternoon snack.

Please, don’t complain, these are very easy recipes for a very complicated country.

17 August 2013

These days on the television screens, fortunately, they have dedicated one of the few existing channels to broadcast (usually delayed but sometimes live) the competitions from the 2013 World Athletics Championships, which are being held in Moscow.

To enjoy this magnificent spectacle, we must disregard the Cuban narration. What for everyone else is a competition, is for our officials “a battle.” While all the athletes from other countries came to participate with brains, legs, arms, etc., the Cubans came to “fight with heart in hand” (something very difficult and uncomfortable in my view).

The “Cuban warriors” seem disconcerted by the noise in the stadium, which is strange for people who live in a country like ours where there is so much noise at all hours, while athletes from other countries do not seem distracted. This was the case with the pole vaulter Yurisley Silva; that’s why the favorite failed, according to our commentators. The same thing happens with public pressure, which seems to affect only Cubans, and not competitors such as Elena Isimbaeva, who was not only going for the gold, but after already announcing her retirement–reasons to be under more pressure, yet she nevertheless got it.

Finally, what I find most ridiculous is that when a Cuban participant earns a medal, it is rare that it is not dedicated to Fidel, rather than to the athlete’s family. I’ve never seen any athlete from another country dedicate a medal to the leaders in power instead of to their loved ones. Another thing that caught my attention, to conclude my disquisitions, is that when a Cuban wins a bronze medal, it usually shines brighter than gold.

To tell you the truth, as much as I like sports, I have to consciously prepare myself not to get infuriated at the bias, the yelling, and the crassness that usually accompany the commentary of Cuban broadcasters, experts in sports and euphemisms.

Translated by Tomás A.

14 August 2013

This seems to be the year for varied and curious anniversaries. The one most “clucked about” is the sixtieth anniversary of you-know-what. There is also the fiftieth anniversary of Radio Encyclopedia, the fortieth anniversary of the Youth Labor Army and most notably the very curious thirty-fifth anniversary of the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), which with the stroke of a pen swept away the Isla de los Pinos (Isle of Pines), which for so many years had been the younger sister to the Island of Cuba.*

I have come to visit my friend Lisa, whose daughter is twenty-seven and pregnant. She tells me she is going with her to “González Coro” Hospital, formerly the “Holy Cross” clinic. After listening to me talk about the avalanche of this year’s anniversaries and commemorations, she says it would be a good idea to add to the list the water leak that has been present at this facility ever since she was expecting her daughter. At first they put a metal bucket under it to catch the dripping water, she says. But the leak is still there — though in the interim it has become more like a waterfall — so now they have a big plastic container to catch the “precious liquid.” However, from time to time it overflows and spills onto the granite floor over which the expectant mothers walk, putting them in danger of slipping and falling.

The fake roof in the area of leak has rotted from moisture and is coming off, but this does not seem to trouble anyone. When they can no longer use the space for medical exams, they will close it and later the entire hospital, as was the case with its counterpart, “Clodomira Almeida,” which has been in total ruins for years, as well as “Maternidad de Línea,” which is also closed, to name just two examples of this type. This leak is now as old as my friend’s daughter, twenty-seven years and counting. Like the Puerta de Alcalá,** it “watches time go by,” faced with the indifference of the hospital director, the medical personnel, the Ministry of Public Health and even the patients themselves. Will this be yet another curious anniversary to celebrate?

Translator’s notes:
*Isla de los Pinos is the second largest of Cuba’s islands. Its name was changed in 1978 to Isla de la Juventud.

** A well-known traffic circle in Madrid, marked by a triumphal arch.

4 August 2013

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