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Archive for February, 2009

Writers?

The Cuban press (the newspaper Granma, Monday, 23 February 2009), questioned the contract agreement between Crown Press Publishers and former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice to publish three books by Ms. Rice: one will be her memoir of her years working in the White House, another about her family, and the third a children’s book.  The title of the press note is more than comic: “Miss Rice, Writer?” and indeed, I might have skipped right over it if it hadn’t been for an article in the same paper on the first page of the Saturday, February 21 edition, titled, “Recent Days in La Cabaña,” about the XVII International Book Fair, reporting on three “literary innovations”:  Fighters for Life, by José Ramón Machado Ventura; Triangle of Victories, by division general Antonio E. Lussón; and Empire of Terror, by Alejandro Castro Espin, the Cuban president’s son.  This last “author” and his new book also received an extensive article on page 7 of the same Monday edition on the 23rd, which extols the “historical focus and rigor of the first two chapters in developing a deep analysis of the North American administration that hold power and usurp the people’s mandate in this country…”  This citation, which requires no commentary, I use only to convey the minimum impression of the contents of both texts: that of the referenced article and that of Alejandro-writer’s book.

Apparently, and without any intention of elucidating here whether Rice will be an author worthy of the title, the official Cuban press, monotonous echo of power, believes it has the capricious capacity to determine who can be granted the name of “writer.”  In any case, I must confess that I am absolutely indifferent to the dubious talents announced in this “new literature” of La Cabaña, especially knowing that so many intelligent authors have been systematically censored throughout decades in the Cuban publishing houses, and also in the greatly celebrated book fairs of Havana.

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Some Nice “Pearl”

Last Saturday, February 21, a notice in the newspaper Granma announced “improvements in cleaning products.” For those readers not familiar with everyday island matters, the term “cleaning products” refers to those products allocated by the ration card for such purposes, namely toothpaste (“Pearl” brand), bath soap (“Mother of Pearl”) –note the recurrent marine theme– and clothes washing soap (“Batey” brand, perhaps in memory of the traditional “batea” [washtub] where our grandmothers used to wash clothes). It should be taken into account as an additional detail that such products are not distributed monthly, as happens with some food items. Toothpaste, for example, “did not arrive” this past January, while bathing and washing soaps are allowed on alternate months.  If it was your turn to get bath soap this month, next month you will be allowed washing soap…or simply put, two months may go by without your turn coming up for either one.

For the managers of poverty, washing your clothes substitutes for washing the body and vice versa. Either way, such notice in the most official newspaper of all indicates at least two things: 1) that Cuba is probably the only country in the world where toothpaste is a news item and 2) that, up to now, Cubans have been rubbing their teeth and gums with an unknown concoction among whose components fluoride was not included.

Needless to say, in view of the proverbial lack of so-called government subsidies and the distribution of poverty, this ultimately means more misery for all, it always becomes necessary to go to the CUC shops (“shopin’“, as we say here in Cuba) even to cover the most basic family hygiene requirements.

The fact is that the announced improvements in “ration-carded” cleaning products does not cease to amaze me: after decades of socialist oral hygiene, we have found out about the impending inclusion of fluoride in tooth paste beginning this April and that, in the second half of this very year “its mint flavor will be enhanced.”  I joked about the announcement with a close relative, who laughed heartily, showing her dentures in all their glory, and at least a dozen fillings.

The poor quality of oral services, on the other hand, due to the lack of good products to repair the damaged teeth as well as the deterioration of the technical equipment at the “specialized clinics” is the perfect complement to the deplorable state of the teeth of many Cubans, an old evil that affected above all the generations that grew up during the 60’s and 70’s directly damaged by the lack of milk (the ration book only guarantees milk for children up to the age of seven) and the poor quality of the “Pearl” toothpaste, the only hygienic option at that time.

The almost funny newspaper announcement has reminded me of an individual I knew in the 80’s who, because of his huge numbers of cavities, had been nicknamed “Pomorín.”  The name was nothing less than a brand of toothpaste from our trade with the defunct Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME) of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.  While it’s true that Pomorín toothpaste had a horrible taste, in all justice, it must be acknowledged that at least it contained fluoride.

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Jumping prices

The pricing policy in Cuba has always been, at least for me, a true enigma. While some “upgrades” have earned at least some formal justification (though no “explanation,” if you’ll allow me the subtlety) disclosed by the media just a few hours before applying it or simply after the fact, the truth is that, often, prices soar without our knowing for sure to what we owe the huge percentage increase. Analysts and planners of the economy and trade within the island appear to have recently discovered a remarkable system to multiply the price of everything, consisting in avoiding charges on large groups of products and choosing this or that isolated item, always among those that are in great demand to prevent a reaction of unrest on the part of consumers. It is, let’s say in Cuban, a real “screwing with Vaseline.”

Thus, increases show up with such frequency that the average citizen assumes growth rates of up to 100% or higher as a matter of course. The transportation in the capital, for example, seems to have taken two jumps: one in quality, replacing the horrifying “camels” for aesthetic and comfortable articulated buses, with an improvement in service as well; another on prices, which have doubled. And that happens with some products that are sold in CUCs that seem to outwit the expectations of buyers as much as the units of weight. Another very illustrative example: If I decide to buy a frozen whole chicken at CUC 1.75 per kilogram, and the plastic wrapping says that it weighs 1 Kg, why is it necessary to weigh it at the cash register and then pay around 4 CUC? Did it weigh 1 kg or not? Do imported chickens put on weight during the process of being transported from their country of origin? Something similar happens with chopped beef.

Other products have suffered similar hikes recently, without prior or subsequent notice. Candado soap suddenly rose from 0.40 to 0.80 CUC per unit, the same as Four Seasons bath soap, which is domestically produced and in ample demand.  Its price rose from 0.40 to 0.55 CUC.

My most recent experience is the peanut butter case, one of the products that began to be imported from the United States under trade agreements that have allowed the entry of various foods from that country.  Peanut butter had been, until then, a distant reference seen only in movies, however, thanks to trade with the northern neighbor, it began to be part of the reality of Cubans, at least those who have access to that currency. It was even a more attractive reality than the traditional dairy butter, since it was much more economical, nutritious and healthy than regular butter: an 18 oz. jar of Red & White brand peanut butter (weighing 1 lb., 2 oz.: 510 grams) cost 1.60 CUC, while 250 grams of Galaxy brand domestic butter, of poor quality and low performance, costs 1.85 CUC, although the latter also, until recently, cost 40 cents less. Without doubt, the peanut butter soon won a number of followers, and quickly disappeared from grocery store shelves.  However (and without explanation) last week, after many days of searching without finding any, I discovered, on a shelf at CUPET Tropicana (41 Ave between 72 and 72-a, Playa municipality) the already familiar jar of peanut butter but when I went to buy it, it turned out that it did not cost 1.60 anymore, but 2.95 CUC. Same package, same product and same brand. Most disturbing of all in this mystery is that the Minister of Finance and Prices does not say anything, nor do the people who suffer the consequences.

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Sleeping with the enemy

Last Tuesday, February 10, my husband, Oscar González Ulloa, was interrogated by the political police.  The representatives of the regime always call such interrogations “interviews,” but my style has always inclined to calling things by their right names, particularly if the meeting did not happen with the consent of the supposed “interviewee” and was qualified by the usual friendly threats of the counterintelligence compañeritos from what’s called “Direction 21 of the Ministry of the Interior.”

On Monday the 9th, after 10:30 pm, my husband, an electromechanical engineer directly involved in merchant shipping for over twenty years, got a phone call at home: he was being summoned by “Selecmar,” the Cuban agency that employs him, to present himself at 9:00 am the following morning in the offices of the “sub-director of operations” for a work meeting.  Although the call came late at night—a detail that made us both suspicious—there was a real possibility it was about a call to work since he’d been on land for four months already and should be starting the procedures for new call-up (the medical checkup etc.).

We never knew that the stage had already been set on behalf of these artisans of lies and deceit.  The scene was the office  of the deputy director of “Selecmar”; the actors, two officials from State Security (the “good guy,” conciliatory, chatty, almost loving; and the “bad guy,” silent, austere, severe); the script was, as always: “We know who your wife is, the people she meets, your car has been used to transport counterrevolutionary documents, we will not allow anything that threatens the security of the State…etc.”  An “interview” peppered with barely hidden threats, such as referring to losing one’s job (“Do you like your job, Oscarito?  You’ve always been very professional…”); questions apparently designed to play on his macho ego (“You are the head of the family, not your wife… but this Yoani and her group with whom she’s carrying on…”); suggestions about having been deceived by me (“You think you know everything…?”).  And, as a culmination, like the master thrust at the end of the sweet encounter, the most infamous question, “And your son…?”  A direct threat to our youngest son, a 20-year-old student with no connection to any kind of political activism, dedicated entirely to his studies and his hobby, music.   Just a sample of this despicable and sordid system, with a total disregard for family values, the true face of Cuban socialism.

I have the enormous satisfaction of stating that my husband didn’t waver, he rejected “collaboration,” which showed his respect for me and for what I do, that he defended, point by point, his values (which are also mine) at the risk of losing his job—which for years has been the only relatively secure source of support of our family—and any other retaliation.  Until now I’ve maintained the truth that the regime and its fascists methods haven’t bothered my family; February 10, 2009 marked the end of what was only an indirect monitoring, with questions and inquiries at the neighborhood level and through the CDR, and began the phase of harassment on the part of the government which, in fact, honors the principles and methods that de jure it criticizes: Who is not with me is against me and any means is valid to destroy you.  My husband was interrogated for a unique and terrible crime: for almost 27 years he has been sleeping with the enemy.

I make this public to denounce the cowardice of a dictatorship that does not hesitate to exercise its absolute power against freethinking citizens and against their families, a government that hypocritically hides itself to threaten, that lies in order to condemn, that retaliates, and that has proved, for over half a century, the excesses of which it is capable.  I also declare publicly that I am not going to shut up about my truths and I will defend to the final consequences my right to speak them, that I will not engage in any illegality and will act in accordance with the Constitution, that I am a free person and I will continue to be one despite any action they decide to take from here on out.  From today I make the Cuban dictatorship and its repressive bodies responsible for any injury or harm that I or any member of my family may suffer from this point forward.

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The bad interlude

Many of the media have speculated about the visit of the Chilean president to Cuba.  Clearly it was not just any visit; after the late Salvador Allende and even after the military dictatorship in that southern country, the relationship between the Chilean governments and the Cuban governments have been more than cool.  The Reflections that, on his part, F. Castro dedicated to his meeting with Michelle Bachelet have raised protests and speculations about what he said or what the elderly demented one meant to say: there are still some wearing themselves out looking for meaning in the senile incoherencies of the Cuban ex-president.  The fact is, for better or worse, many eyes were watching the chief executive during her visit to this estate.

The best part of Bachelet’s visit in my humble opinion, however, was the farewell.  We had to see the plight of the poor lady trying to board her plane with no way to free herself from the arm of the host president, Raúl Castro, which was familiarly draped across the shoulders of the beleaguered Chilean as if she were his comrade.  I don’t know if it is only my impression, or if the minutes he delayed her in reaching the desired staircase were the most distressing of all of her public appearances.  I say that because in 2000, when I was on a business trip to Chile, I had the impression that the Chilean people are discrete and quite reserved, not expansive and extroverted like us Caribbean islanders, with our frequent invasions of the personal space of others.  Obviously, his counterpart was not comfortable with the expansive affection of the General.  On the other hand, the “cuddleliness” of the younger of the Castros was, at the very least, in poor taste and, I suppose, completely alien to any norm of protocol that should be observed between high level leaders. I don’t know if it was an innocent gesture, the habitual klutziness of our president, or if it was intended to compromise Bachelet in the face of public opinion.  In any event, esteemed lady, such is the price of traveling in bad company.

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A monument to insolence

For a few days I have been busy with activities which have prevented me from caring for my poor blog.  I have missed these furtive encounters with the readers, although I have always tried to keep myself informed about what’s happening, and, of course, I have continued to participate in our dear Blogger Journey.  The excess work has not prevented me from leafing through (or eyeing) Granma either, trying, as always, to pluck some news item from its cryptic and lean articles.  It was thus, that on February 7, a large headline on page 4 slapped me in the face.  The headline, in red letters, read: “With regards to the declaration of Birán as a National Monument”.

Foreign and some young Cuban readers may not know what that native noun, “Birán” means, but—independent of its Arowak etymology—it is clear to Island natives that it is about the name of the place where the almighty F. Castro was born.  And, although nobody should miss that, in a country where the personality cult of the Leader emulates what is practiced in North Korea with the sad “Kim” celebrities, the truth is that the text has a many details that border in cynicism.  It is clearly written that Mr. Angel Castro—an illiterate and poor Galician, genetically responsible for the Insular Brahman cast—created in Birán a “real feudal state” consisting of a sugar mill town with 27 dwellings (complete with billiards and cockpit) and 10 thousand hectares of land producing sugar cane, wood, oranges and other minor fruits.  The astute Galician, “generous and in solidarity with his subordinates”, was able to become a great rancher and landlord in less than 30 years, and he was able to “not only survive, but to prosper” in spite of the implacable earth-eating North-American companies, United Fruit and the Cuban American Sugar Companies” (a real successful fighter against the first North-American embargo), in addition to “founding one of the most extraordinary and singular rural communities in all the territory of the neocolonial Republic”.

But what is a truly notorious fact is that the original home of the Castros, with its 513 square meters, which accidentally burned down in 1954, was again erected in the 70’s as it stands today, following the original blueprints, a Celia Sanchez initiative, on 76 stakes from caguairán* wood, with its exquisite tongue and groove walls, its intact roof tiles, basement and attic.  In the mill town, the “inviting home” of the maternal grandmother has also been kept up, as has the eldest Castro Ruz sister’s two-storey house, among other structures.

In a country where one of the most dire needs is housing, where the number of families not owning their own homes is in the hundreds of thousands, the arrogance of the ruling class to adopt the luxury (which is not the right) to sustain a museum-village with state funds, “tended to and managed by an efficient work team subordinated to the Offices of History of State Council,” with specialists and other employees who draw their salaries only for keeping clean and safe the family relics and the conceit of the power mongers and, with them, the myth of the genesis of the revolution.  Beyond arrogance, it is real nerve.  I can only recall, in contrast, the modest little house on Paula Street in Old Havana where, in 1853, the best of all Cubans was born, which was restored and maintained through subscriptions and public collections during the period which today’s demagogues pejoratively call the “pseudorepublic.”  Looking at the birth place of the Apostle*, its simple carriage, and its tight space, we understand also by contrast that the greatness of the soul doesn’t flow from personal vanity, and even less from the astuteness or ambition of our progenitors.

Illustration: “El camino del pasado,” by the Cuban painter Arturo Montoto.

*Translator’s notes:

Caguairán: A Cuban tree, producing one of most precious, durable and resistant woods.

Apostle: A reference to Jose Martí.

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