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Archive for February, 2008

As if there were not enough museums in Havana, they continue to dedicate important public buildings to these dead places. And I speak literally when I say “dead places.” The more I walk through the city the more new museums I find; but their common denominator is that almost all of them are empty. Each new building meant to be a museum is a cold, depersonalized place, stripped of any kind of affective meaning.  The city’s human essence stops growing and cedes space to this epidemic of theatrical sets meant to display a distorted and prostituted image, completely foreign to how we really are.

Many years ago, when this tendency to establish museums all over the place began, the authorities based such an endeavor on the idea that each municipality should have a “cultural module” that included – among other things – a house of culture, a library and museums, with the aim of elevating the general culture of the citizens and connecting them to the community’s values. This was a political goal mandated by high level policy, so they began to proliferate, from commemorative plaques to “birthplace homes”–not the Apostle’s (a place venerated by almost all Cubans everywhere)–but of any figure of middling or no importance who facilitated the fulfillment of the cultural technocrats’ directives.

At this point almost any event, subject or object is museum-worthy in Cuba. Some of our museums are dedicated to high goals: education, literacy, natural history, etc. Other are more tied to ideological showcases: the revolution, the war march, and others along that line. There are also the ones that are more about promotion and commercialization: cigars, rum, fans… the list is almost interminable: we have museums of cars, firemen, miniatures, dance, decorative arts, weapons, stamps and even a Napoleonic one, despite that the diminutive European emperor never set foot on this Island or even mentioned it.

We have the important Fine Arts Museum, with its buildings of Cuban art and universal art, the very beautiful Museum of the Capitanes Generales [Commanders in Chief], the Memorial to Jose Martí in the Plaza Cívica; and also innumerable art galleries, not a few commemorative parks with statues, benches and ornamental plants (always closed with locked gates), and colonial forts. Nor can we forget the modestly so-called “houses” which usually are old colonial mansions divided up into rooming houses, now carefully restored after their numerous dwellers were “resettled,” and which are now obliged to perform important cultural duties. So we have houses for Africa, Guaysamin, Wifredo Lam, Alejo Carpentier, Benito Juarez, Simón Bolivar, Alexander Humboldt, etc.

Okay, just so that it’s clear that there’s always room for another little museum, the CDR museum was recently opened, right there on Obispo Street between Habana and Aguiar. As you might expect, it’s a place that Cubans hardly visit. This all makes me think: how did the CDR become an institution worthy of a museum? What treasures are held by this place, beyond photographs—the ones of the innumerable marches for whatever reason, or of the vociferous and shameful “repudiation meetings” held every September 28 by the CDR guards, or of the vulgar collective bashings? In any case, I never saw such a deserted museum right in the middle of such a lively street.

The door guard, until then comfortably leaning against the wall, became agitated when I took pictures of the façade. And he told me that—unless I had authorization—I could not take pictures of a plaque that “adorns” the entry, showing an allegorical caricature of imperialism, always kicked in the rear and knocked down by the glorious CDR. Around us, some tourists were taking lots of pictures, but my bearing and looks are accusedly Cuban and that, of course, is what excludes me.

Very nicely, pretending an interest I didn’t even remotely feel, I asked him to tell me how many exhibition halls the museum has. “Three,” he told me, “the ground floor, the mezzanine, and the upper floor.” “Thank you.”

Three halls, my friends, only three halls to gather together in photographs almost 50 years of national shame!

February 15, 2008

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Pizzeria Europa

The “Europa” restaurant is located on Obispo, Old Havana’s most cosmopolitan and famous street, just at the corner of Aguiar Street and diagonally across from the droguería Jhonnson [Johnson Drugstore]. My mother, who arrived in the city from a village in the interior in 1937, just before turning two, and who has lived in this part of the city ever since, tells me that Europa was always a far from luxurious restaurant, one of many in the city since colonial times.

However, this locale reached its greatest popularity during the ’70s and ’80s, when it was one of the most frequented pizzerias in the city. It was so popular that if today you mentioned “Europa Restaurant” to any middle-aged native or non-native Habanero, he would shrug his shoulders; but if you said “the pizzeria on Obispo” he would certainly know what place you are referring to.

The pizzeria on Obispo was one of those places that lay in the path of many people on that very busy street, and for that reason it was one of the best known in Havana. For those who had the time and patience to stand in line and sit down comfortably and be leisurely served, it had an enclosed, air-conditioned area. There was also an outdoor patio area, open to both Obispo and Aguiar streets, perfect for those less demanding of their gastronomic service; you stood in line directly behind each seat, right behind whoever was seated there at the moment. This way was a little uncomfortable and forward, but very convenient for those who weren’t too picky when both hungry and in a hurry.

The Europa wasn’t classy, just a simple place for spaghetti, pizza or lasagna. Certain neighborhood sots weren’t missing from the patio either, whenever beer was available. They would stand behind the latest diner and, in a low voice, wheedle: “Hey girl, if you’re not going to order the beer give it to me.” Because then, and up to the late ’80s, you had to pay for food to get beer at this and many other restaurants. Almost anyone could afford a place like this, as the pizza—and a plate of spaghetti too—cost only 1.20 pesos.

During that time it was also unusual to come across a tourist, and the foreigners you saw once in a while were mostly sailors passing through the island, almost always from old socialist countries.

Well, after the economic disaster of the ’90s, when gastronomical offerings became so scarce as to almost disappear, the Obispo pizzeria (like almost everything) was no more, and after some time it was closed to the public.

For a good long time mysterious work sounds were heard emanating from within the place, and some optimistic locals assured that the pizzeria would open again soon. There was speculation that the prices would be a little higher than before (of course!), but finally that lively corner of Obispo would be reclaimed for the people and pedestrians of Old Havana. The most starry-eyed declared “Leal is going to compete with the places in Chinatown that have monopolized the pizza market.”* Well, I said it: The most starry-eyed.

And “Europa” did in fact reopen. Or better to say, it’s a restaurant again, because its doors are still closed to average Cubans.  Europa is now a luxury restaurant that accepts only the convertible peso; that is, it is aimed towards foreign tourism and those (Cubans) anointed by the gerontocracy and other exclusive ranks.  Its new glass doors, etched with its initials, discreetly guard the elegant premises with an inviting atmosphere adorned with lamps.  Its tables are set with cloths and crystal glasses and watched over by waiters tending solicitously to the privileged clients.

When I was going by there on February 12 I tried to get in to take a few pictures, just before it opened. Of course I wasn’t allowed; it’s an exclusive place, a kind of tabernacle that plebeians like me have to be kept out of, no matter how many pizzas might have been consumed there in the past.

Translator’s notes:

Eusebio Leal Spengler is the Havana City Historian, and director of the restoration program of Old Havana and its historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Havana’s Chinatown is a small area located just to the west of Old Havana.

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Life or Death at the Mella Theater

The Mella Theatre presented the dance concert “Vida” (Life), directed by Litz Alfonso, February 6th to 9th. However, judging by the crowd that lined up for tickets beginning early Tuesday morning on February 4, and by the feeling of ill will generated there, you could say that it was about to become “death.”

Hundreds of citizens who waited their turn to buy the coveted tickets felt deceived when theatre employees informed them all of a sudden that the tickets were sold out. On a day when many had waited there 12 exhausting hours, people were told at six sharp that the tickets for Saturday and Sunday were sold out and that all that were left were some balcony seats for Thursday and Friday.

A group of women in that would-be audience for “Vida” were complaining about this abuse just as Litz Alfonso appeared, who said that he didn’t understand either how the tickets had sold out so quickly.  At this, the ticket seller quickly went back on the decision and said that there were seats available for every day. However, an hour later, when only about twenty or thirty tickets had been sold, the sale was stopped again, because, according to the ticket seller, the tickets really were all sold out this time. That’s when the tension rose. All day, the citizens had witnessed a phenomenon so widespread as to now be common: anyone with enough money in “foreign currency” could acquire as many tickets as they desired for three CUC each “outside” the theatre without standing in any line. Naturally, this annoyed the citizens who, not able to afford that price to see the show, were forced to stand in the interminable, slow line and, adding insult to injury, they now saw their hopes and efforts come to nothing.

Actually, none of the protestors faced any kind of action by the authorities. However, when the citizens finally gathered at the entrance to the theatre with the intention of not leaving the place until they were given a convincing explanation, the sector chief and one other policeman, both dressed as civilians, intervened. This provoked a fight, with pushing and punching, that very nearly destroyed the glass door.  The conflict escalated until two police patrols arrived, who didn’t take any measures against any of the demonstrators because there were no injuries or acts of vandalism. Nonetheless, one of the men who had been in the ticket line had taken pictures of the proceedings and of the implicated sector chief, who then ordered him detained, presumably to be taken to a police station. Some people in the crowd also protested against this abuse, and finally the astute photographer managed to steal away and emerge unscathed from the situation. He would have had a really hard time if he had not been able to convince the sector chief that his camera had broken when it fell to the floor during the tumult; the sector chief, by the way, who is undoubtedly involved with those theatre employees who sell tickets for convertible pesos on the black market.

It was this spectator, a friend of mine, who gave me the pictures and told me the story.  I maintain that what happened is just one more incident of many that occur in the midst of a society marked by the corruption that has metastasized in every facet of daily life. Far from trying to stifle the people’s indignation, all the authorities should have done was to keep peace and prevent the irritating illicit sale of tickets. Why didn’t they do this? The sector chief, who appears in the photograph peering in through the theatre’s glass door, watching people with a furrowed brow and menacing air, ought to answer that question.

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Those Habaneros among us who have traveled the past few months along Fifth Avenue and One Hundredth in Miramar, have observed, with a mixture of incredulity and skepticism, an unusual amount of activity on the grounds of what was formerly Coney Island (or just “el Cony“). For years it had remained desolate and empty, the sad sight of some rusty and moldy ruins the only vestiges of the old glory of the most famous amusement park in Cuba.

Slowly, as time and all things happen on the Island, we now saw shiny new structures go up which would give new life to the rides meant to delight people of all ages, who—eager for amusement—seemed to monitor every step of the park’s rebirth, a brightly colored miracle in a city famous for its grayness and poverty.

And finally, on December 30, 2007 the front page of the newspaper Juventud Rebelde*  announced that the capitol’s new children’s park was officially “inaugurated” on December 29, as part of activities organized by the UJC [Young Communist League], the Jose Marti Pioneers Group, and the Ministry of Culture. The old “Cony,” dressed up and merry, would reopen its doors under the new name “Coconut Island,” and be decorated with character figures from the most popular children’s stories of the last few decades: Elpidio Valdés, his horse Palmiche, el Capitán Plin and many others.*  This was with the clear objective of supplanting (imitating) the pictures of Mickey, Donald, Pluto and the whole galaxy of classic Disney stars who are part of the universal childhood imagination and who are the native hosts of the world’s most famous amusement park.  And all in all it doesn’t seem bad for the characters of our children’s stories to share their best moments, games and emotions.  Our fantasy heroes sometimes are a little foolish and somewhat insipid because they look so much like those imposed upon us by life… but they are our heroes.

None of the articles in that issue of Juventud Rebelde gave any further information so, besides the TV report that covered the trumpeted inauguration, we only had that front page photograph in the newspaper, showing the ex-runner (today Deputy) Ana Fidelia Quirot and her daughter, the two of them smiling and happy, seated in a carousel car. So, the most enthusiastic among us decided to go there personally with the hope of shaking off a bit of the chronic boredom—due to the few entertainment options available—suffered by most of the population, and above all by the young. There the first obstacle awaited us: the line to get in was miles long. It turns out that the park is only open Thursday to Sunday and is limited to 2,000 people a day. You had to  line up at dawn to have the privilege of entering and rattling your bones on the little airplanes, the roller coaster and and the rest of the rumbling rides.

I did find out firsthand that the valid currency for the park is the Cuban peso* (what a miracle!) and that ticket prices are really reasonable (only 1 peso). Of course to enjoy each ride you have to buy 6 pesos worth of tickets (that is, 6 tickets for 1 peso each), which, given the negligible median salary in Cuba, doesn’t end up being too cheap, and not all Cubans can allow themselves such excesses.  But let’s not be so extreme; one definitely makes any sacrifice for one’s children and it’s also cheaper and more fun to enjoy these rides than some others, such as those priced in CUCs* which compare very badly, for example the equipment at the Carlos III market which can be used only by very small children.

Since I couldn’t get in on my first visit, I recently tried again. I wanted to see for myself that it was really true, that our amusement park par excellence was back; modest, but dignified, in its simplicity and in the luster of its newly installed equipment.  So, on January 31, 2008, hardly a month after its heralded opening, “Cony” or ” Coconut Island” (it’s one and the same) was again closed to the public “until further notice.”  The box office was closed, as was the park’s front gate.  All silent and empty.  No one could explain to me why it wasn’t operating or when it would reopen.  I peeked into the area where the sleeping rides lay and, breathing deeply, thought that maybe it would be open next week.  But just before I left I almost thought I saw Elpidio Valdés wink sardonically from his corner, seeming to tell me, “That’ll be the day, sister!”

Translator’s Notes:

Juventud Rebelde [Rebel Youth]: The major daily paper for Cuba’s Youth.  Targeted to teens and adults, it’s not a paper for small children.

Elpidio Valdés: A (human) colonel in the Cuban army fighting for Cuba’s independence from Spain. El Capitán Plin is a swashbuckling green cat who wears a red neckerchief and protects Coconut Island.

Cuban pesos: Cuba has a dual monetary system.  Salaries are paid in the Cuban peso (CUP) or moneda nacional (national money), and many products and markets are priced in Cuban pesos.  The other currency is the Convertible peso (CUC), which is the money used by tourists, but it is also the currency of many markets and products sold to Cubans.  The exchange rate is roughly 20-25 Cuban pesos to one CUC.

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Fickle Numbers

As was foreseen, the “elections” in Cuba passed without any major incidents. The official numbers allude to more than 8 million Cubans going to the polls, a number not at all difficult to achieve in a dictatorship. However, just in case, to keep from having to count abstentions or having to void a pile of inappropriately marked ballots, many of the “incorrect” politically disobedient, like myself and the majority of my friends, were not summoned nor included in the electoral rolls.

We will never know the real number of votes, nor the abstentions and invalidated ballots; but taking as a comparative measure the number of voters against the number of emigrants who flee the country each year, we can assume the poor credibility of this number—like that of any kind of voting on the island.  It is known that the number of emigrants (legal, illegal and “those who overstay”) reflects the permanent flux of Cubans who abandon the socialist “project” of Castro and his surrogates.  Curiously, the majority of these emigrants are of voting age, that is older than 16.  How many of them voted for the first time “for the Homeland, for the revolution, for socialism, for the comandante, for sovereignty, for freedom,” only afterwards to run to “enslave themselves” in the “capitalist hell”?  How many of those who voted on Sunday, January 20, will leave soon? Does anyone know how many of the also 8 million Cubans who voted several years ago for eternal—or worse yet “irreversible”—socialism, have left for good in whatever kind of vessel?

But it’s clear that numbers here mean nothing, or at least not the same as for the rest of the people on the planet, and there are more than enough examples to prove this. A classic example is that of the journalist de la Osa, who wrote for Bohemia.* He asserted that 20,000 Cubans had died under the Batista dictatorship.  While there is no doubt that the murder of even one person is a horrible crime, such a number in a country with six million souls at the time is a veritable massacre.  Afterwards, it seems that this gentleman admitted that he had committed a small error; there was an extra zero, and really there were only 2,000 dead.  It’s true Batista was no angel by any measure, but they were attributing to him over 18,000 murders more than they should; curiously, this tended to increase popular gratitude for the hero who had saved the Cuban people from such a satrapy.

Continuing the saga of the fickleness of numbers in Cuba, in 1970 there was a gigantic sugarcane harvest that would produce 10 million tons of sugar, but in the end—again according to the official numbers—there were only 8 million tons, in what is still known as the most famous economic setback in Cuban history.* (Note that the authorities seem to recur often to the number 8, but that preference doesn’t seem to have much to do with its meaning in la charada.)*

Another of the more recent numeric mutations was that of the 100,000 new housing units that Mr. Carlos Lage announced would be built in 2006 and which finally resulted in a sparse quantity which some calculated as 50,000, but no one knows for sure how many there were, above all because the number included units that had been “repaired” after damage by hurricanes, rain, cold fronts, heavy seas, or gentle breezes. If you add to these figures other numbers that almost daily report increases in the production of groceries and vegetables, cattle stocks, milk production, spending on social programs and transportation and increases in gross national product—whose benefits are intangible to the people—then it’s clear that there is a new kind of number, in addition to Roman and Arabic, that expresses exactly what does not exist: the Cuban number.

And it’s not because the natives of this island are ignorant about mathematics. Not at all. Everything here is simply a matter of faith. On Cuban TV one of those perennially faithful announcers, the kind that proliferate in the media here, called the pathetic electoral comedy just that: It is, he said, an act of faith on the part of the people for the revolution, for the commander in chief, for socialism. You really have to believe in a government in order to renounce civic spirit! You have to have faith: blind, deaf and—above all—mute.

Translator’s Notes:

Bohemia Magazine: Founded in 1908, it was the most popular illustrated news-weekly in Cuba and Latin America and is still published by the Cuban government.

Sugar Harvest: In 1969/70, during the “long harvest” (217 days), Fidel Castro focused the nation’s physical and human resources on producing a 10-million-ton sugar crop. According to official Cuban data, 81.5 million tons of cane were harvested, and a record 8.54 million tons of sugar were produced, nearly double the previous year’s figures but still some 1.5 million tons of sugar below the target.

Charada: A simple numerological system of dream interpretation used for the divination of numbers to play the lottery in Cuba. Numbers from one to one hundred have a name assigned to them; if you dream about a snake you play 21. Number 8 is ‘dead man.’

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What party do you belong to?

Many of my readers will agree with me on an almost absolute truth: it’s enough for a person to be known as a dissident for it to happen that, any time you run into a friend or acquaintance—above all if there is group—they begin talking politics, freely expressing their ideas and above all, soliciting information from the disobedient one.  It’s tacitly assumed (and not wrongly) that we dissidents are better informed about national and international reality, that we always have journalist friends with Internet access, or that sometimes we ourselves have access.

A mixed climate of complicity and fear is created in those meetings, where friends want to know what is going on while at the same time they ask you to lower your voice; a kind of childish game, like hiding from your parents for fear of scolding and punishment. Well, on these occasions I’ve been able to ascertain that every one of my friends, and they are not few, not only do not know what is happening outside and inside the Island, but they also have a distorted and confused idea about dissident groups and their representatives in Cuba, as well as about their proposals.  Some have a somewhat romantic idea about the opposition groups; others are pretty skeptical, and there is no lack of gratuitous detractors, no doubt influenced by the demonizing official propaganda.

Nevertheless, what really surprises me is the idea that people in general have that all dissidents must belong to some opposition party.  They take for granted that if a person dissents from the government’s politics, he is “of the opposition” or that he is “with Payá,” “with Elizardo,” “with Vladimiro,”* etc.  So that is what they say.  But let me clarify, because while I pride myself on not “belonging” to anyone or being active in any political party, I respect the positions, ideas and decisions of those I mention, and others as well.
The impression of many foreigners, who believe that the Cubans who live on the island are “with Castro,” is similar.

Well, the reality is that the great majority of the dissidents I know don’t belong to a political party either. In order to dissent, to exercise the right to think in a different way and to express oneself freely, to be at peace with one’s conscience and have self-esteem, it is not necessary to belong to any party or to follow any leader.  As I see it, citizenship is the most developed expression of individual liberty, and my choice, then, is not to tie myself to guidelines and statutes in whose arrangements I had no part, regardless of who the leaders are who promote the ideologies; and so the choice of others is militancy, whether sincere or not.

To those who try to distort what I say here, I warn that I have nothing against those who decide to affiliate themselves to one or another organization. I even recognize that some are needed and well-intentioned.  What I am against is this: Every time someone comes up to me they invariably ask me the same dumb question, “And what party do you belong to?”  Enough already, my friends: To none.

Translator’s Notes:

Elizardo Sanchez Santa-Cruz is founder of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission.

Vladimiro Roca is leader of the Cuban Social-Democratic Party.

Oswaldo Payá is leader of the pro-democracy Varela Project.

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