October 2013


Photo Orlando Luis Pardo

Last night, once again enjoying the Spanish silent film Snow White, directed by Pablo Berger and masterfully played by Maribel Verdú, winner of several Goya Awards, an article published on Friday 25 of this in the newspaper Granma came to mind, where the journalist Castaño Salazar, suggested with great seriousness that is time to stop using “dwarf” to refer to people who have osteochondrodysplasia, the disease that shortens the extremities and spine, and to call them “people of short stature.”

I find this a very good idea and I totally agree, it is not healthy to use terms that mark differences, when this is done with a sense of separatism, derogatorily or in jest, whether it is about race, stature, disability or simply ideology. The human being is one, whatever their physique or way of thinking, what counts is what is inside of him, his moral, civic, ethical and intellectual values .

Those who now ask us and engage a crusade to get us to remove the term “dwarf” from our vocabulary the term, as valid as “giant,” both present in the Spanish language without any pejorative connotation, but simply to name a person of short or tall stature, are the same ones who for years have considered the word “tolerance” to be dangerous, and who even today continue to use, in a disparaging what, the word “dissident.”

They are the ones who created the UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production) network, within which they concentrated all the people then considered “different,” and also forbade us to listen to the songs of the Beatles or the glories or our own singers such as Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot, who are still prohibited in our media today, considering them ideologically harmful.

Now if we apply the absurd proposal, then any mother or grandmother reading the story of Snow White to their children or grandchildren would be forced to change the title and text to refer to the “dwarfs” as “little people of short stature,” or Gulliver would not be in the country of the dwarfs, but of the “achondroplasia,” and even to read our Apostle Jose Marti, we would have to change the text , when he says in his beautiful poem dedicated his son: “For a dwarf prince this party is held…”

Gentlemen, let us be more sensible and not fall back on extremism and devote our efforts, energies and work to improving the lives of our citizens, leaving these idiomatic subtleties to our academic language specialists and the United Nations who have the money and personnel to devote time to these issues.

27 October 2013

The grand colossus, a distinctive symbol of the city, remained sleeping, down on its luck. For decades dust and grime covered all of its enormous, solid structure. One day it suddenly woke up; its long-awaited moment had arrived.

Construction began during the Machado administration on one of the highest points in the city — on land where the city’s first botanical gardens originally sat — based on plans drawn up by the architect Eugenio Raynieri Piedra. Three years later, at its opening on May 20, 1929, the great neo-classical building became home to the Senate and House of Representatives and later one of the capital’s most distinctive landmarks. The period from the early decades of the 20th century until the 1950s is considered its most glorious era.

After 1959 this beautiful structure was subjected to extreme and unfortunate alterations, pillages and disastrous adaptations which gradually transformed it into the forlorn spectre we see today. Bats now shelter in its beautiful colonial chambers and fecal refuse is there to be admired on the walls of the emblematic building.

Of the many well-known stories that captured the popular imagination was the theft in 1946 of the 25-carat diamond that marked Kilometer Zero of the Central Highway. It is said to have reappeared a year later in the office of then-president Ramón Grau San Martín. It was re-installed in its original location and surrounded by an eight-pointed star crafted from Italian marble of different hues.

In 1973 the diamond was replaced with a replica. It now sits in the vaults of the National Bank of Cuba. Another restoration involves a recently discovered site that was created to honor the Unknown Mambisa Warrior. It is located directly below the cupola and the feet of its great gold-plated bronze statue, which measures seventeen feet tall and symbolizes the Republic. It is believed to be the third tallest indoor statue in the world.

The city’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, has indicated that fortunately there is no evidence of structural damage to the building. But when it comes to building’s internal systems, there are in fact many problems. At this point in time restoration of the great cupola is well underway. Work has also begun on the  patios and garden areas, which were designed by the famous French landscape architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, who also designed much of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. Similarly, the two statues flanking the grand stairway — those of a man and a woman — are being cleaned and polished. These sculptures, as well as the one symbolizing the Republic, are the work of the famous Italian sculptor Ángelo Zanelli.

Soon the Hall of Lost Steps will be returned to its former glory. The final touches are being given to all its fittings, furnishings, curtains as well as to other valuable objects such as its lamps, some of which were made by Saunier Duval Frisquet in Paris, while others were gold-plated and fitted with glass at the Societé Anonime Bague. Their value is incalculable.

All the minute details of the restoration are being carried out by specialists who work for the city’s Office of the Historian as well as by freelance artists working in collaboration with the office. The latter are currently at work restoring the bronze bas-reliefs panels adorning the Capitolio’s large main doorways.

Once restoration work has been completed, the Parliament will return to its former home. In addition to its governmental role, the doors of the Capitolio will remain open to the public, who will have access to spaces such as the Hall of Lost Steps and the library, whose walls are paneled with rare hardwoods similar to those found in the Vatican library. As Dr. Eusebio Leal might well say, “this is the restoration of a memory.”

23 October 2013

Many people wonder why there is such a low birthrate in our country, where there is an excellent climate for raising a baby, no extreme temperatures, good sun and magnificent beaches.

Here are some images that will answer this question for themselves.

The first is the facade of the González Coro Hospital, formerly the Sacred Heart Clinic, one of the most modern installations of this type in the fifties. The dream of most future mothers was to be seen here throughout their entire pregnancy and after the birth, particularly in the late sixties when the other similar facilities, constructed earlier, started to demonstrate the deterioration of the already incipient abandonment.

More than twenty-eight years ago, a little drip started in the OB/GYN waiting room. Then the solution was to place a bucket under it and a blanket under that.

Today, the same situation persists, only made worse by three decades. It has become larger and greatly affected the false ceiling, which shows a creeping deterioration, even more so because it’s a health center and safety and hygiene should come first.

What solutions have the health authorities found to deal directly with this and other facilities?

Simply to place an enormous bucket to collect as much water as possible, and instead of placing blankets around it on the floor (which are rare and expensive) as they used to do to absorb the spray, they have placed enormous cartons, to prevent the pregnant women from slipping.

18 October 2013

Photo: professors and students of Public School #10 in the 1950s.

By the end of the 1940s everyone working as a teacher in Cuba was an accredited professional in education. In the 1950s there were many illustrious professors in our country, teachers who were recognized internationally for the work they had published, which was used as textbooks both at home and abroad. They included Valmaña, Baldor and Añorga, to name but a few authors of textbooks used even today by teachers and students throughout Latin America.

After 1959, when private schools were seized by the government, an absurd law was promulgated which “invited” teachers actively working in primary and higher education to retire after only twenty-five years of service, which was the case for many, regardless of a teacher’s age. This and other issues forced many teachers, who also saw themselves disparaged for having been trained under capitalism, to go into exile. Most would retire and very few were able to continue teaching given the adversities they faced. Subsequently, the quality of education began to decline as young people from the countryside had to be trained as teachers hastily, in order to fill the void the government itself had created. These so-called “Makarenkos” were trained according to the methods of a Soviet pedagogue of the same name.

In the 1970s there were still good teachers in many schools who helped mentor the newcomers, but low salaries, the lack of incentives, and the growing evident deterioration of teaching facilities, lead to the gradual increase of high turnover across the teaching sector, especially in elementary and high schools.  And yet, considering the time, the universities relied on a luminary lineup of professors on faculty.

Another factor that incited the decline in the quality of education was that teachers found themselves pressured — so as to not affect their performance evaluations, which were based on rank and not quality — to commit fraud.  This lead to many teachers revealing exam questions in advance to their students and, on many occasions, even whispering the answers in their ears, so as to secure positive evaluations.

Facing the rapid decline of education and the lack of teachers in specific subjects, many parents decided to turn to retired teachers to review and, in some cases, even teach the subjects to their children.  Other parents, in a better economic situation, achieved the same effect with their kids by giving costly gifts to the current teachers on staff.  The quality of education kept falling more and more; and students and families lost respect for teachers.  Then, as the coup de grace, came the so-called “emerging teachers”, trained by quick, low-quality courses, and the replacement of teachers by televisions in the classrooms.  These marked the final blow to the quality of education.

Alongside this decline, the number of people seeking to earn a little more income by privately tutoring and charging for it, to be sure, swelled progressively.  The “reviewers”, they were called.  This was, until the recent appearance of the new licenses, a clandestine service.  Now reviewers exist legally, but the government is already looking for ways to disparage this service, seeking to vilify active teachers who also work as reviewers and, as such, are not authorized to apply for a license.  The media mount the charges against them, accusing them of a lack of ethics and civility, without having the courage to face and divulge the fundamentally economic causes that have provoked this situation — the miserable salaries teachers are paid, which are not enough to satisfy their minimal needs as citizens — and overlooking that, if once again they feel cornered, teachers begin to flee the country, creating a new vacuum in education, each time harder to fill.

A legal solution is necessary to resolve this man-made chaos, without harming teachers or students and, above all, the nation’s future.  Reviewers exist precisely due to the increasingly low quality of education.  This is the responsibility of the entire citizenry in general but, first and foremost, of the Ministry of Education and its highest echelons.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

15 October 2013

Raimundo arrived early to an offsite clinic affiliated with General Calixto García Hospital that was located in the basements of two old satellite buildings. The waiting room was full and the rumble of voices prevented him from concentrating on the book he had brought along to make the obligatory wait more tolerable. Suddenly an older woman entered the waiting room. She was a newspaper vendor hawking Workers and inviting everyone there to buy a copy to pass the time while waiting their turns. She went on and on, telling everyone she had to do this in order to eat, that she had been a worker at the hospital for many years and that, if she did not do this, she would die of hunger because her pension was so meager, though even when she was working, she still barely made a living.

It was then that an eighty-year-old man, who was waiting to be seen, spoke up and said, “Señora, this is fascism and all our rights are being taken away. This hospital is disgusting. It looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for months. We’re in a dark, humid basement and no one has even put a fan down here to get a little air circulation. If the doctors can’t take it, then what about the patients?”

“Tell it like it is, old man,” someone there said.

The murmur of voices rose in crescendo. Everyone began commenting on the filth, the shortages, the lack of sanitary conditions, the hassles they had to endure to get there by bus because not everybody had ten pesos for a tarecón (a taxi from the 1950s).

Suddenly, a male nurse looked down the wide stairway leading to the basement and called out to the patients in the waiting room, “This man has had surgery. Can someone give me a hand getting him and his wheelchair down the stairs?” The clinic’s door opened and a doctor, fanning himself with a piece of cardboard, said in a loud voice, “Next”

The same old man takes the floor again and raising his voice, so that everyone can hear, says, “Gentlemen, this is our hospital!”

9 October 2013

Clinic 20

Unfortunately, the entire country has been impoverished as a result, among other factors coming to light, of living for many years on a survival diet. The medical field has not been exempt from this phenomenon. Medical professionals are paid low salaries and have to exercise their profession under the precarious conditions of today’s health care centers. They must also deal with a shortage of prescription drugs, which forces them to constantly keep abreast of which medicines “are in” and for sale so that they know which they can prescribe for their patients.

As a result the interaction between doctors and patients has, for three decades now, been marked by too much familiarity and, on occasion, excessive displays of confidence. In most cases there has been a loss of the mutual respect and ethical behavior that should should exist between doctor and patient. Because they are obliged to seek treatment at a clinic near where they live rather than one they might prefer, patients do not complain about mistakes and mistreatment by some physicians and healthcare workers for fear of reprisal.

A few days ago my friend from Nuevo Vedado, Patricia, went with her pregnant daughter to Clinic 20 for a follow-up visit. They arrived early and were the first ones there. Gradually the small waiting room began filling up. A doctor arrived after 9:00 AM but offered no apologies for being late, saying in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear only that she had had to “put up” with a long line to buy cigarettes.

She then went into her office and moments later looked through the door while motioning to a woman who was accompanied by her husband. They had come in after my friend’s daughter, who was actually first in line. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s get this visit with your whore over with.” After finishing with the patient, she came out again and said, “I’m going to smoke a cigarette and take a break.” And with that, she sat on the low wall outside and began smoking away.

My friend and her daughter left the place fuming. A few days later they received a visit from their family doctor and the nurse from the clinic, who wanted them to explain why the patient had left the clinic without being seen by the doctor there. Since they are required to provide ongoing maternity care, it was an action that had gotten them into trouble with the clinic’s directors. My friend took the opportunity to tell them that it was she and her daughter who had been harmed as a result of the disrespect shown by this doctor and that, of course, they should inform her superiors because she would be doing so through other channels.

This, unfortunately, is only one small demonstration of the point to which doctor-patient relationships have arrived, because both are stubborn in overcoming daily so many difficulties and scarcities that regrettably have been affecting behavior, ethics and social coexistence.  None of this justifies the actions described here, but what can be deduced from it all is that in the training of new doctors, professional ethics continue to be unfinished business.

6 October 2013

Twenty-eight years ago, when Patricia was pregnant, she was treated at González Coro Hospital, the former Holy Cross Clinic, on 21st Street between 4th and 5th in Vedado. In those days it was the desire of every mother-to-be to be treated there since it was the place with the most prominent specialists. Among the last such facilities to have been built in the 1950s, it also had not yet deteriorated as much as its counterparts.

At the time my friend noticed that in the Obstetrics and Gynecology waiting room there was a leak coming from the dropped ceiling under which a towel and bucket had been placed to catch the splashing water. Back then, this could be “overlooked” since it was logical to assume it was only a temporary situation. At least that is what she thought.

Twenty-eight years have passed and my friend recently returned to the same waiting room, this time with her daughter, who is now expecting. Imagine her horror when she saw that the same old leak, which had been her constant companion during the nine months of her pregnancy, was not only still there but had grown to be much bigger. It is now almost a waterfall, like the one at Soroa*, and a large part of the dropped ceiling has been destroyed. The bucket currently used to catch the water is much bigger and the towel is no longer large enough to contain the splashes forming a giant puddle around which the medical personnel and patients must navigate, subject to the obvious risk of slipping and falling.

It seems to me that, with all the money invested over the last twenty-eight years in buckets and towels, they could have — if they so desired — fixed the  problem in the dropped ceiling, as they should have, and thus avoided the risk of an accident, which in the case of a pregnant woman could be fatal. Who are the officials responsible for correcting this situation? It is perhaps the hospital director? Might it be members of the National Assembly. What is quite clear to me is that it is certainly not the doctors or patients who are responsible for fixing this problem. I am also convinced that, if no one complains, this unfortunate situation will continue until one day the waiting room is closed, then the clinic, then the whole floor and finally the hospital, as we have seen happen with other such facilities.

 *Translator’s note: A site in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province.

1 October 2013