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Archive for January, 2008

Is there anything left to forbid?

I had a disagreeable surprise today. Although, to be fair, something like this shouldn’t surprise me. Leaving Old Havana after a short walk, I stopped to rest on one of the benches lining the open parking area to the left of the Capitolio* stairs. I picked that particular area because at that time in the afternoon (about 4:30) it’s nicely shaded and also because—and this is the detail I didn’t take into account—that row of benches was, curiously, completely empty.

Well, as soon as I sat down on the cool bench a custodian appeared, the kind that wears that ugly brown and beige uniform, a puny guy who looked like he arrived in the capital by train just last week. He emphatically and urgently ordered me to get up: “Compañera, sitting is forbidden in this area!” Still incredulous, trying to assimilate such information from a seated position (if he had told me that while I was still standing, I surely would have fallen over), I asked him the cause (and not the reason) for such a prohibition. Evidently desperate for me to go because some curious passersby started to stop and listen, that little man spit at me rapidly and nervously: “It’s a question of security. Orders of the capitolio administration.” (He doesn’t know that Capitolio is even pronounced with a capital letter.)

Slowly I got up from the bench and looked behind me at the imposing mass of the building.  Across a grass lawn, the windows lining the south wing’s ground floor are at a respectable height. I didn’t understand then, and don’t now, how a citizen sitting to rest in the shadow of the Capitolio, pride of almost all Habaneros, can in any way threaten the  celebrated building. What are they afraid of? Isn’t a bench’s highest destiny to be sat upon? I am a native of Old Havana. All my life I have seen people sitting there, chatting, taking the air or just watching the incessantly moving city go past. I breathed deeply, and answered the pathetic apprentice gendarme: “Not even during the Republic* were people forbidden to sit on any bench at the Capitolio.” But I realized right away that trying to make that little man think about the absurdity of his superiors’ orders was a waste of time: too many Cubans understand prohibitions but very few manage to understand what a Republic is.

Translator’s notes:

Capitolio: The Capitol building, completed in 1929, was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban revolution.  It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and is open for public tours.

Cuban Republic, 1901-1959

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Privileges of the Third Age

The elderly, along with children, are the most fragile sector of the population any place in the world. Perhaps more fragile than children, because one usually arrives at the third age ailing and with chronic complaints that require medical care, proper nutrition, a more restful and comfortable life and, above all, a great deal of tenderness and respect. Only then does old age become a stage in life that is worthy of living until we arrive with dignity at the final minute.

Nevertheless, the situation of the elderly in Cuba is ever more worrisome. Almost daily the number of those who are forced to search out alternative forms of economic activities (always or almost always illegal), that help to round out the incomes from their meager pensions, seems to grow. Whether reselling newspapers door to door, or candies at the school gate, being itinerant sweet vendors, store messengers or just beggars, the undeniable reality is that today they form a devastating army that should serve as an example to us of what we ourselves could be tomorrow.

The worst of all, however, is the indifference of those who travel the streets everyday, who do not care at all about the human drama that is played out in the lives of these elderly people. It doesn’t seem to be their problem, it’s not their business. The arrogance of youth and healthy working age adults is the barrier against which the sadness displayed by every elderly person who struggles in the streets for subsistence crashes. It doesn’t occur to anyone to think that they are an example of willpower, that they insist on supporting themselves, that they are deserving of respect because of that and because they worked their whole lives, and that when they should be enjoying a deserved rest, lacking health and strength, they are forced to continue facing the challenge of earning money at the risk of being arrested and seeing their “merchandise” seized by the forces of “order.”

Seeing them I always think of one elderly man who enjoys every privilege. He’s been sitting (since his youth) in the first armchair. Now he sits in an especially comfortable one designed especially for him. He enjoys power, ample benefits, he has every comfort, the best medical services, the newest medicines, comfortable designer clothes, and his life, and even the best forms of death, are assured. He will never suffer deprivations or pain. But because everything has its compensations, this octogenarian gentleman carries with him a curse: many fear him, but no one loves him.

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Nostalgia at Year's End

No one should think that this title refers to the twelve grapes* gulped down with the countdown signaling the end of a year (yet another one!) that is slipping away without any hint of daybreak in this dark early morning that has lasted almost 50 years. Nor is it about those apples–”from California” as my grandparents used to say—that sweetened the first Christmases of my childhood, the like of which I have never tasted again, not even in my few exits from the Island. The flavors of childhood are always the best. I don’t pine for the gatherings of the very large family I was born into, many of whose members started missing from the group photographs from the very beginning of the seventies; I wasn’t old enough then to understand why they couldn’t be spoken of except in hushed tones, or why my father said that “they had left because they wanted to eat ham,” most of all, because since this was one of my favorite foods, I believed that we too should go there, where there was some.

Looking at them retrospectively, I can say today that in reality the arguments my father gave me for his devotion to the revolution were never very convincing. But I believed in him (and he really deserved it) and by transference believed in the revolution (which proved never to deserve it), and I count myself among those who practiced that credo until the arrival of the year 1980, and with it the events at the Peruvian embassy,* the repudiation meetings* and the Mariel* exodus.  As it was for so many young people of my generation, that was the coup de grace that completed my disenchantment.  This had begun the year before, when unexpectedly and by decree those gusanos [worms] that we were supposed to repudiate as unpatriotic traitors started being our brothers in “the community.”  I felt defrauded and I broke with the revolution, with the Comandante [Fidel Castro], with the UJC [Young Communist League]–which expelled me from its ranks that same year–and with everything that represented the lie I had grown up with. 

I think that from that time my father understood that he had lost me for his cause and that–although to me he was still the best man in the world–his credulity and naïveté about Castro and his macabre experiment subtracted considerably from the admiration I always felt for him. And finally, it’s about this: The huge event in my life represented by the Peruvian Embassy and Mariel. Because around that time many of my friends left—the friends with whom I had shared the happiest times (although we didn’t know then that they were), when it was all about getting together to go out dancing, going to Santa Maria beach*, going to the Pre* in Havana, smoking behind our parents’ backs, drinking our first mojitos in the clubs that enlivened the intense night life of the city. I think that the most convincing proof of the falseness of the communist regime that I saw in the year 1980 was how they labeled the emigrants “scum.” Obviously, my friends–as well I knew–did not deserve to be called such a weird word.

While I was collecting some things from a closet at my parents’ house at the end of this year, purely by chance I found a photograph of Hector, the favorite among my friends then-in whose house we had a casual party celebrating our high school graduation and Bachilleratos*–and who left from Mariel with his mother and sister.  Looking at the image of the young man he was, suddenly the memories came to me of all of the rest who left–then and afterwards—in this permanent split that divides Cubans into “those inside” and “those outside.”  At the same time I remembered Toño and Pancho, the fat, dancing, foul-mouthed twins, Luis, Martica, Roberto, Amado, Margarita, Jorge, Francisquito, who died in Spain only a little past 30… and so many others!  I also remembered those of us who stayed here and never got together again to dance with each other, to laugh out loud at everything and everyone and at life.  Already, nothing was the same.  And as strange as it might seem, at the end of this year I discovered that the nostalgia of those of us who never left is the same as that of the exiles.  An important piece of our lives left with them, a past full of hopes for the future, the ingenuity of the ’70s, the charm of our shared spaces, the impertinent insolence of our first youth. In a way, we are also a kind of exile within our own selves.

So this December 31 at midnight, while I toasted with my beautiful family, to our health and better times, I secretly raised my glass for my friends and me to meet again in any of those corners of Havana that were ours, and for good fortune to smile on absolutely all of them, wherever they may be.

Translator’s notes:

Twelve grapes: In Spain and Latin America it is traditional to eat a grape for each of the twelve seconds counting down to the New Year.

Peruvian Embassy: In 1980, thousands of Cubans wanting to leave the island occupied the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, seeking asylum.

Mariel:  Mariel is a port on the north coast of Cuba.  In the Mariel boatlift, about 125,000 Cubans crossed the Florida Straits to Miami.

Repudiation Meetings:  Organized by the local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, targeted to those who wanted to leave Cuba via Mariel.

Santa Maria beach:  A popular beach about an hour east of Havana.

Pre: Pre-universitario, similar to high school.

Bachillerato: The degree awarded for the two final years of secondary study before university or professional programs.

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