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Archive for December, 2008

The offended princess

Infanta Mariela Castro is brave: the insignificant commoner Yoani crashed a day when she woke up “more lucid than usual” (less bad), and asked her about something “that had nothing to do with the issue of the meeting.”  Well, yes, despite the lucidity of the great social researcher and the “professional and scientific rigor of the meeting” of her personal social gathering that took place in Belles Artes, Yoani left without the answer she’d hoped for and the Infanta, at that moment, froze a smile somewhere between perplexed and incredulous on her face.  And for this, no less: a mere mortal invaded her Parnassus and dared to suggest extending the debate on tolerance to other spheres of social life, beyond the thalamus of intimate relations and the sexual orientation of each person.  Yes, Yoani, what a smart aleck!  And ignorant, imagine not even knowing that one only attends these meetings of the anointed one to listen and to honor.

I will never understand the contrary Infanta who, on this occasion, instead of babbling nonsense, had a golden opportunity to demonstrate that she herself is a brilliant shining light, which is not possible for a self-proclaimed social researcher locked in her own world—and enjoying, by the way, all the impunity of her many illustrious names—to avoid professional responsibilities.  For my part, I worked for over 20 years in the Social Sciences Institute of this country and I know that in the majority of cases the investigations that lay bare the profound social conflicts of this nation are never published.

For that reason I’m not going to appeal to such a notable lady from the point of view of politics (which appears to be foreign and uncomfortable for her) but from the perspective of social research which she refers to in her complaining message, “To Arturo.”   As she seems to consider it not her place to debate current aspects of Cuban society that have nothing to do with narrow framework of sexuality and gender, I would like to know her opinion of how official policy has manifested itself around the subject of sexuality—her specialty, as she says—throughout the last 50 years.  I am particularly interested in the long-silenced reality of the so-called Military Units to Assist Production (UMAP), to which the government sent thousands of homosexuals, as well as ‘inconvenient’ heterosexuals, to perform hard labor during the 1960s and part of the 1970s.  It would interest me to know why the government has never explained its motive for denying homosexuals entry into the ranks of the Communist Party of Cuba, (although I, were I one of them, would take this as a favor), or by virtue of what peculiar politics they have not been allowed to fill certain management positions or hold certain jobs.

Lady Mariela’s reaction has been not only disproportionate but also hypocritical and misleading.  Her reference to independent Cuban bloggers as dissidents and mercenaries linked to “the Empire” is the same old tiresome story.  Everyone who thinks differently is the enemy: nothing is more alien to the tolerance she preaches.  The question Yoani asked has no effect on the sovereignty of Cuba, it appeals to the rights of millions of Cubans.  We still haven’t heard an apology from this government—which so generously funds Mariela’s “research”—for the decades of abuse and atrocities against those “different,” homosexual or otherwise.

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A beautiful point on the journey

Our blogger journey has started and already has had meetings at several stops.  As it has grown and developed, we bloggers of the Island have preferred to avoid the boring designations associated with the hide-bound bureaucracy, and so we didn’t want to call it an “Event” and opted for the term “Journey.”   Because that’s what it’s about: a route we use to communicate and come together, a permanent way to exchange experiences, to defend the piece of cyberspace that belongs to us all in its own right and which, with voracity and impotence, the authorities try to take from us, as was demonstrated by the express prohibition of our meeting in Pinar del Río where we would have held the inauguration of this event.  If anyone thought that with such dictatorial bullying they could prevent our meeting, by now they must be convinced otherwise.

But today I only want to talk about one post in particular of all that have been presented so far on our journey.  This one touched me to the depths of my heart, maybe because all of us bloggers of this battered country are united by the same yearning for freedom, by the same eagerness to say our piece.  “The old man, the Internet and me” is the title given by El Guajiro Azul [The Blue Peasant] (www.desdecuba.com/retazos) to an entry singularly poignant in its simplicity and clarity, as well as its inclusive character.  On each point, the Guajiro touches on the reality for all of us, our worries and longings, hopes and disappointments, our little crises of faith, our willingness to continue blogging in spite of everything.  His work sums up, perhaps unintentionally, that spirit of individual freedom which each of the blogs on the Island—with its own characteristics and style—represents.  That is why the Guajiro, like all of us, did not renounce this solitary exercise that frees us and impels us to sit down, again and again, in front of the keyboard—without being sure how or when we will publish, without the pursuit of glory or fame, with no other yearning than an addiction to freedom—to circumvent the wall of government censorship and to have our own voice.

I want to thank the Guajiro for his work, a beautiful point on this journey, and offer my promise that from now forward, on every small occasion that I have the good luck to be able to access the internet, I will endeavor to make sure that your blog is one of the ports where I will stop.  Go, Guajiro!  Mend the mosquito netting, have a coffee and a cigarette, and turn again to fire up your machine!  We will be waiting!

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Requiem for Pepito

It seems that the expansion of social apathy has reached its peak in Cuba and has ended the only thing that remained intact after 50 years of setbacks: the celebrated Cuban sense of humor.  So, now we don’t even have the joke that somehow worked as a palliative in the face of misfortunes.  At least, from my personal impressions, everything indicates that after decades of anxiety, heartaches, losses and shortages, laziness has conquered humor and we are witnessing the disappearance of that wittiness, often criticized and not without reason, but always encouraging for its perspicacity and vivacity, that has been with us even in the most difficult moments.
Almost imperceptibly we have been losing the opportune joke, placed in the middle of the most varied and irritating situations: a long and tiring line, a jam packed and hot bus, a widespread black out… In these situations there always seemed to appear some funny guy who would improvise a bold and malicious jab which, as a general rule, would get everyone laughing.  Certainly it’s not always opportune to joke.  Critics of the renowned Cuban flippancy maintain that this is a national trait of immaturity, a kind of safety valve that led to the shirking of civic responsibility: laughter instead of action.

Well then, there is evidence now that this has changed.  For my part, I don’t remember when was the last time that I heard a joke on the street or when the last Pepito story appeared.  Because, as people say, Pepito is a kind of folk hero, the most famous Cuban of all, the one we all know.  Pepito seemed immortal, fresh and fearless, even when reality was as dark as it could be.  Who doesn’t remember his presence in the ‘90s?  There, in the absurdity of the greatest misery that several generations of Cubans could remember, the epoch of “root pasta,” and “fricassee,” of the “pertaining to meat mass” and of “gutless dog”—gastronomic monstrosities responsible for a great deal of gastritis and whose effects are still claiming victims.  There Pepito arose, happy and fun, also suffering hunger and all kinds of hardships, also emigrating, also immersed in the barter needed to survive, but never defeated or sad.

Somehow, in the midst of that crisis, many of us felt that we were forced to change.  The old world had been transformed, now there was no socialist camp, no Comecon, we didn’t have the Soviets, the Cuban government was compelled to allow small family businesses and farmers markets resurfaced, tossed out in the ‘80s, now new necessities to alleviate the acute food shortages, at least for those families whose purses had the capacity to face the stunning prices of the new reality.  At the same time, the proliferation of foreign currency stores and the decriminalization of the dollar (the first, until then, restricted to foreigners and a small group of Cubans with access to hard currency; the second whose possession had been severely penalized before the crisis), extended access to their products to Cubans, primarily those receiving family remittances from relatives abroad, which would become a major source of income for the State.

Nearly two decades later, the current crisis does not seem like a joke to anyone in Cuba.  While in the ‘90s there was a kind of quiet tolerance form the government in the face of certain illegalities and shady dealings, if then the government allowed itself  a little leeway to avoid major consequences; now the reality is quite different.  In the economic crisis in which the hurricanes Gustav and Ike were only catalysts and not the real cause, is added the worsening repression against “every kind of illegality.”  Correspondingly, there is not a single light in the bleak national picture.  When there is not even hope, it’s clear that there’s nothing to laugh about.

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Wake up, Maceo!

If one of the heroes of the nineteenth century wars for Cuban Independence decided to rise from his grave, he would almost certainly fall back as if struck by lightening to see the large number of Cubans who have initiated civil proceedings with the hope of obtaining Spanish citizenship through the possible immediate approval by the authorities of that country, on the basis of a law that grants that status to the grandchildren of those Spanish mainlanders who lost it after emigrating from Spain.

I’m not very clear how the “ball” has come to public notice, but it happened after the publication of the seventh additional provision of Law 52/2007, about the right of an option of Spanish citizenship, which recognizes and extends rights and establishes measures in favor of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship.  It’s assumed that it won’t be sufficient to be the grandchild of Spaniards but—what if, and “just in case”—thousands of Cubans have started to turn over every stone looking for their Iberian pedigree with the hope of getting, in addition to the nationality, some benefit… including (and perhaps above all) the possibility of emigrating from Cuba.    Surely some shrewd type will note here that there are also, in other third world countries, thousands of destitute emigrants trying to escape their lives.  True, but I can only report on the case in Cuba, not only because it’s the reality I live, but because it is supposed to be a society where everything good is guaranteed to the poor and there is so much justice that thousands of its beneficiaries are filled with the hope they can hurl themselves into the fierce arms of capitalism.

So, as has happened for several years with the children of Spaniards who came to this shore, this time the Islanders’ grandchildren have responded to the request for copies of their birth certificates, and those of their parents and grandparents, motivated by the hope that—at least in that way—they can change their lives a little.  For those who dream of emigrating, no matter what they hope for on the other side should they finally realize their aspirations, the point is to look for something different than what they have; others may only persist to ensure all possible choices.  In either case, things are going very badly in a country where so many people desire, not only to emigrate, but even to acquire a foreign nationality.  The numerous requests for documents in each civil registry speak for themselves and are the best illustration of what it is to be Cuban on this Island; for many, the greatest disadvantage.

Translator’s notes
Antonio Maceo (1845-1896), commemorated as “The Bronze Titan,” is a Cuban hero; he died in battle in the successful War for Independence from Spain.
The photo is the Spanish consulate in Havana.

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Of billboards and of insects

Few things reflect so well the drabness of the Cuban regime’s propaganda as the public billboards, vectors of an ideology that publicly gasps its oxygen-starved state.  One of the most recent posters can be seen on the billboard erected on Carlos III Avenue, at the corner of Marqués González.  There, next to one of the many foreign exchange kiosks (CADECA) in the city, is the one presented in the photo above.  Another identical one can be seen at the intersection of Boyeros and Tulipán as well as on other heavily traveled routes in the city.

The first time I paused in front of this monstrous graphic I was somewhat disoriented: a group of industrious ants carrying leaves while just one lags behind her companions (is she a lazy-bones?).  What does that poster really reflect?  That we should be obedient insects?  That we are perceived to be ants?  The point to which we have we fallen in the zoological scale?  In some mysterious way I’m more likely to sympathize with the ant at the end of the line; at least she’s different, not one of the ant-army.  In any case, the design, which aims to encourage people to work, is not the happiest if you look closely at the literal message: these ants are tiny poor people who devote their entire lives to working for the queen, without other benefits to the precarious protection of the teetering anthill.  I would not say that the resemblance to reality is pure coincidence.

Other billboards in the city reflect the same message, using bees in the place of ants, in what seems to be an entomological mania on the part of authorities preoccupied by the lack of interest of their insects in using the workforce without the power to provide, ultimately, either leaves or honey.  And that in Cuba a salary has—like these billboards—only symbolic value: it shows that you are an ant—oh, sorry!—an employee of the government, but does not cover the even the basic family needs.  Perhaps that’s why my own personal reading of the billboard is otherwise, so that I think maybe the ant on the sign who is apparently lagging behind is not really a lazy-bones; perhaps she is only taking her time and is the representative of the individual who mutates, one of those who—rare but unique—has always marked an advance in the evolution of the species.

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