December has for decades always been a month of circuses, but, in the economically failed regimens, the circus is always present: “If there’s no bread, give them circuses*,” says an old refrain.

The principal actors at this year-end have been the unstocked farmers markets which, upon closing their doors, have given way to improvised fairs where, in place of food, police have abounded.

Yesterday on Monday, when I went to take a turn using the Internet, I took the P3 Bus, at the 26th and 41st stop, the closest to my house. The bus had barely made it past the next two stops when all of us passengers who were travelling to Playa** had to get off at 26th and 25th. The route was detoured due to an agricultural fair that was taking place on 24th and 17th, next to the farmers market at that location — which, by the way, was empty and closed off.

Three trucks filled with sweet potatoes, plantains and tomatoes made up the fabulous offerings at the fair. A line of naive customers waited their turn among dirty puddles, squalid stray dogs, and more law enforcement officials.

A friend and I, due to the absurd diversion of the only route, were returning in the afternoon, walking from the recently-restored iron bridge, searching for the P3 stop so that we could ride the bus back to our neighborhood. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the morning’s detour was still in effect. We were forced to continue on foot until we reached our respective homes in Nuevo Vedado.***

Upon nearing the trucks that bore the agricultural products on offer, I overheard the following comment: “Such a fuss over a tomato that’s more expensive than at the farmer’s market!”

Translator’s Notes:
*Literally, in this post, “A lack of bread, circus.”
**Playa is a municipality in the city of Havana.
***Nuevo Vedado is a neighborhood in the Plaza de la Revolucion municipality of Havana.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and others.

31 December 2014

The big news for all Cubans, without a doubt, has been the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, which has been a dream for three generations on our captive island, although there are opponents among some fellow countrymen both here and abroad. The other story — the one about the release of the three spies from the Wasp Network who, for refusing to the collaborate with American authorities, became by the grace of the Cuban government “anti-terrorist heroes” even though they had acknowledged their role as spies in courts of law — raises a secondary issue, which is the high economic cost for our country in the form of lawyers, propaganda and family visits.

Of course, the vast majority of Cubans without access to the internet or any other means of information other than Cuban television or Venezuela’s TeleSur (more of the same) has dutifully accepted as true what government propaganda has them led to believe, since the priorities of this long-suffering people are food and day-to-day survival. Others who rely on official media accept it out of fear of being challenged politically.

If (like me) you wander the streets of Havana, you will hear various expressions of playful joy that reveal the average person’s true feelings. Comments, especially those of young people (who do not have an official microphone under their noses), reflect dreams of a better future: We will soon have the internet, ferry service will return, McDonald’s will be everywhere, we will now be able to go to the “yuma”* without endangering our lives and those of others.

However, some old, recalcitrant members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolutions (CDR) only talk about the release of the three spies, portraying it as a Cuban triumph over the United States, unaware that it was merely an exchange of three spies for fifty-three political prisoners of interest to the US. Of these details they are ignorant.

This reflects the focus by government-run television (the only kind) which, apparently on orders from above, focused on the return of Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio, who incidentally appeared healthy, well-fed and in superb physical condition, quite at odds with the terrible stories about mistreatment, sweatshops and other falsehoods officially promulgated during their internment.

It also stands in contrast to Alan Gross, who upon his release was anemic, having suffered loss of vision and some teeth. It was a picture worth a thousand words. By continually lying to the Cuban people and unscrupulously manipulating information, the mass media makes it clear that our country does not enjoy freedom of the press.

Now as never before, civil society and the various opposition groups must prioritize this important event, setting aside our personal differences to jointly maintain pressure on the regime so that everyone might find a place in this new, emerging era and that our voices may finally be heard. It is worth remembering that whenever negotiations of any kind take place, one should carry two suitcases: one to give and one to receive.

 *Translator’s note: Slang term for the United States.

22 December 2014

In these eight years that have passed since Raul Castro was designated by his brother as his successor, to take up the government of the country, this 17th of December, a date of only religious significance for the Cuban people until now, will go down in the history of our island as the most transcendent act of these last 50 years, by the announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US.

The previous steps taken by him as president, such as the liberalization of travel, selling and buying homes and automobiles, establishing small private businesses and others, are nothing more than the return of usurped rights to citizens, by the same regime that will soon reach fifty-six years in power.

Among other fundamental factors that may have influenced the Cuban side, I consider: an economy in crisis without real hopes of improvement; little foreign investment; the exodus of young professionals and the wear and tear and aging of the adult population; among many others that are part of an endless list.  We can add to those the low price of petroleum, that has been arriving generously from Venezuela, and that could fail to turn up at any moment.

Two countries that have joined together to come to an understanding, that necessarily should continue to develop further, to get Cuba out of the economic and social abyss that it finds itself.

 Translated by: BW

19 December 2014

Among the films presented at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which began here on the December 4, is one entitled With You, Bread and Onions. In a recent interview on the television program Afternoon at Home, the director Juan Carlos Cremata commented that he had decided not to submit his film for judging because he does not believe in competitions like this. Nor does he believe there are good films and bad films, nor good and bad actors and directors.

If he does not believe in prizes or in what they represent, then why is he making movies? Why did he accept the “crappy housing” he was given in Nuevo Vedado which, according to “wagging tongues,” was a reward for his film Chamaco? I swear I almost had to be tied to my seat just to get through that dark, sordid tale. At least it was not a theater seat; fortunately I made the sacrifice at home, watching it from my armchair on a rented DVD.

With You, Bread and Onions, which I have not yet seen, is based on a play by Hector Quintero, though I doubt much can be expected of this film. The title recalls an old Cuban expression which gained popularity at a time when onions and bread cost only a few cents. It referred to a romance taking place in extreme poverty.

Saying this today would connote something extremely expensive, what with a pound of bread costing 10 CUP (Cuban pesos) and a half an onion at least 70 CUP, much more than the daily wage of the average worker.

So the meaning of the phrase has changed a lot, as have the social values lost during these last 54 years of survival.

 Translated by: BW

9 December 2014

To the astonishment and concern of patients, one day there appeared in the ceiling of a surgical recovery room in the old Charitable Clinic (now renamed the Miguel Enríquez Hospital by the government in honor of a Chilean doctor killed during the Pinochet dictatorship) a coiled, yellow animal or vegetable entity that was visibly growing and getting fatter. A few days later another one appeared and then another, exhausting the patience of those confined to the room.

After repeated complaints by patients and family members, two hospital employees finally arrived armed with a ladder, brushes and paint. In one fell swoop they knocked the three unidentified coiling objects from the ceiling, quickly applied a few strokes of paint to the area where the objects had appeared and then left.

No one later came to investigate the cause of these apparitions nor did anyone fumigate. Everything was simply covered up with paint.

Just a few years ago I was caring for a friend who had just had surgery and was in recovery in the Institute of Nephrology Surgical Hospital when I suddenly heard a commotion behind the drop ceiling. To my astonishment the regular patients told me with a striking calm and acceptance, “Don’t worry, ma’am. It’s just the cats chasing the rats!”

According to the United Nations, our country is among the top ten healthiest on the planet. This, as well as daily incidents of sanitation problems and lack of maintenance that affect our hospital facilities — the exception being those exclusively for top government leaders, their family members and foreign patients — demonstrate that both the visitors and the workers of this world-renowned institution, whether there as a guest or working permanently in our country, resign themselves to what the government tells them to do and don’t bother to look for anything more than that.

The patients from the same old hospital, are still waiting to be informed about the cause and origin of those unidentified coiled objects.

 Translated by: BW

1 December 2014

In Nuevo Vedado — according to popular opinion one of Havana’s best neighborhoods — something has been happening for several years that would have been unthinkable in the past: assaults with firearms, knives and even bare hands. It does not matter who you are; you can be targeted by criminals even if you have only one CUC to your name. Recently, this happened to a friend  of mine, who carelessly answered a call on her cell phone one night. She was attacked, jabbed in the buttocks and stripped of all her belongings by some youths who could not have been more than sixteen-years-old.

Two weeks ago all the outdoor furniture at a house in a neighborhood just outside Herradura was stolen. The owners —  an elderly man in his eighties and his daughter, who was at work at the time — filed a report at their local police station.

A few days after filing the report, the man, who stays home all day — a fact known to his neighbors and friends as well as to the robbers — received a visit from a uniformed police officer. Once inside the house, the officer told the victim that the robbers had been apprehended but that the police were unable to recover the stolen items and gave him a form to sign stating that he was being giving 3,000 CUCs in compensation. The man in question then signed the form and was handed a roll of bills by the officer, who immediately left the premises. Once alone, the man began calmly counting the money and was astonished to find there were only 2,000 CUCs.

How is it possible for an officer of the law, acting on his own, to show up and settle the criminal’s debts without a trial being carried out, a sentence being handed down, and the amount and means of compensation being determined by a magistrate?

Could it be that, out of fear of being discovered or a desire to protect a close family member, the officer decided to handle things himself and in the process stiff the victim?

This remains an open question.

21 November 2014

Some of the most spectacular recipes in gastronomy have been the result of accidents that occurred during their preparation.

I remember that during the second half of the 1960s, while fulfilling diplomatic duties in Paris, I would frequently visit the Cuban embassy and there I met and established a lovely friendship with Chef Gilberto Smith, his wife, and children. Smith, knowing my fondness for culinary pursuits, would invite me to participate in the finishing and presentation of his famous dishes.

During one of these exchanges, he shared with me how his exquisite and famous recipe for “Lobster au Café” (coffee-infused lobster) came to be: “Some lobsters I was cooking were sticking to the pot, almost burning, and all I had on-hand was a big jugs of fresh-brewed coffee reserved for guests. I emptied the jug’s contents, firefighter-style, over the lobsters, and from this emerged the famous recipe that I later perfected.”

A few days ago, this story was on my mind as I worked in my kitchen from early morning on, preparing dessert for a luncheon to which I had invited a couple who are friends of mine. My mother always used to tell me that she liked to make dessert first, just in case something came up that interrupted the proceedings.

I had left on the double boiler a very soft pudding I make that many people confuse with flan. I got busy doing other things when suddenly I detected an aroma coming from the kitchen that was like a cake baking. I ran to see what was happening and noticed that all the water in the double-boiler had evaporated. I quickly removed the top pan so that the pudding could cool and, upon turning it over, part of the pudding remained stuck to the caramelized sugar on the pan, ruining the look of the pudding.

I couldn’t serve it that way to my guests, but neither could I discard it. I immediately set to preparing another dessert. This time, using a bit of cornstarch I had in my pantry, I made a type of soft “floating islands” custard. On this go-round there were no problems. It was then that I got the idea to present both dishes together as one.

I found some deep, wide-mouth crystal water glasses. On the bottom of each I placed a bit of the pudding, filled the rest with the soft custard, crowning each with a bit of burnt meringue, a mint leaf, and grinding some cinnamon over the top to give it a more pleasing appearance.

The dessert was a success, enjoyed and much-praised – but when they requested the recipe and asked what the dish is called, I could think of no other name than “Copa Rebeca” (Rebeca Goblet).

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 November 2014

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