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Archive for May, 2012

In a recent conversation during an evening visit to a friend of my generation (let’s call him Michael) I had a revelation that surprised me: “I’ve never been able to overcome the oppression that stirs in me on Sundays.” I inquired about the reason for the strange rejection for a holiday that’s usually shared with the family at home, and he explained. Every Sunday, from the time I was 11 until I was 17, he was forced to return to his intern camp, a kind of boarding school in the countryside.  Sunday was thus engraved in his memory as the day that, inexorably, reluctantly, one moved away from home and his parents, grandparents and younger siblings, with a hanger in one hand, where an impeccably laundered uniform hung, having been washed by your mother, with a plastic garment bag over it to protect it from dust. In the other hand, the schoolbag –when you opened it, already at the camp’s ugly dorm- the familiar smell of a steak sandwich would escape, which motherly care had placed there to ease your hunger and comfort you in your separation, at least on that Sunday night.

“I can’t help those sad memories when I see the students now, going, hangers and uniforms in hand, toward the pick-up stops. Every time I think about all the time they stole from me, in the compulsory removal from the family, the sacrifice that was made because they told us that if we studied hard we would have better lives, and that where you could really study was at the camp schools, with a perfect educational system, I feel an unbearable impotence. “

I was never an inmate in these boarding schools because I was born several years before my friend and was able to attend urban schools through middle and high school, tried to imagine a child’s feelings at the onset of his adolescence, separated from his elders just when he needed them the most. In my case, I had to attend the Escuelas de Campo**, but at least my stays were relatively brief, though the conditions were those of a forced labor camp, promiscuity in the dirty sleeping quarters and even dirtier latrines. Michael stayed long stretches at the academic internships of the revolution for six whole terms. My friend tells me that he spent those weeks dreaming about Saturday’s arrival –classes were held from Monday through Saturday back then- when the “pass” at noon would commence and he would soon be in his bed, in his room, finally enjoying the privacy of a clean bathroom, his mom’s seasonings and of his family’s love and protection.

I allow my friend’s mind to reminisce: “I was one of those innocent kids, still playing with toys. My uncle had brought me an electric train from the German Democratic Republic which I was never able to enjoy sufficiently because I was away at the boarding school. I spent the week among those delinquents of all backgrounds, pretending to be fearless and repeating profanities and bragging with vulgarities never uttered at home. It was a way to survive the internship because we were all a mixture of those from decent and functional families next to the ones on the edge, offspring of violent homes, of alcoholic or criminal parents.  If you put it in perspective, the camp schools were jungles where the weakest perished, victims of bullying and hassling by the abusers. If you became a softie, you would be slapped around, in the best of cases.  In the dorms, a prison attitude reigned, with gangs and social castes clearly established.  Dorms and bathrooms were the more dangerous places, because there was less policing and control from the teaching staff.

What always saved me was this tough armor God gave me, because you had to think twice before messing with me, but, in truth I was always a quiet kid who avoided problems. I had been brought up in a harmonious family environment and was very polite. Those six years were traumatic for me. However, I never commented on it at home, because I did not want my parents to worry. While at the internship camps, I pretended to be another fearless kid. At home, I pretended to be happy at the camps. When you spend your adolescence that way, there comes a time when you don’t know deceit from truth in your life. You create a kind of armor and distance yourself from your family because you learn to survive without them and, since they are not around you at the worst moments, you make do without their help and advice. When I finally finished the internship stage and returned to bosom of the family, I had changed. It’s as if something dear from your past had broken beyond repair. That’s what I sense in me when I remember those days: a sense of uprooting, of loss, of doom.”

Miguel speaks fluently. He is a qualified and intelligent man. I have transcribed here an approximate reconstruction of his conversation, which I did not record (conversation between friends is never recorded, of course), but he can attest to the accuracy of my portrayal of his personal experiences and memories. I know many adults who received these “scholarships” in their teens, but few recognize as sincerely as he does the deep tracks that experience left in their lives. It usually happens to those who suffer from rape or assault, women abused by their husbands, or other humiliating events, whose damage victims rarely openly acknowledge, as if, somehow, they were guilty, as if talking about it constituted a sign of weakness or made them involuntary accomplices of their tormentors for bringing out memories that they would prefer to keep buried. There are even some interns who tell the story of their experience as a cheery and happy time, as the best thing that could have happened to them. Those individuals are not even aware of what they lost. Personally, I think you have to live in a very hostile or repressive home to prefer an internship; I can’t but sympathize with those who found the separation from their family their better option.

To end the topic, Miguel smiled, part accomplice, part mischief. The nature of Cubans drives them to joke even about things that cause pain: another way of coping we have learned. “You know what? I assure that there were two Pedro Pan Operations: the interim plan that separated 14,000 children from their parents to send them to the US and the one that has been separating hundreds of thousands of families for decades to send them to government camp schools. I can’t tell which one is worse, but I’m inclined to think that the one here is.”

I think I agree with him.

Translator’s notes:

*”Operation Pedro Pan” was a program by which thousands of Cuban children were sent to the United States in the early years of the Revolution, without their families, as a way to get them out of Cuba. Many of the children had extended family in the United States, and/or were reunited with their families when their parents later made it to the United States.

**Escuelas en el Campo — Schools in the Countryside — was a shorter program where students went for a small part of each year, to similar boarding schools where they studied and worked in agriculture.

May 28 2012

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Apropos a Dream Called Republic

Statue of the Republic.  Photo from the Internet

One hundred and ten years since that May 20th, 1902, it appears that the Republic is only a beautiful woman of proud bearing, covered by a Greek tunic, with long curly hair and wearing a Phrygian cap and a bright red single star. Or maybe some Cubans here think that the Republic is a huge bronze statue cloistered in a space too small for that monument to national vanity which we know as Havana’s National Capitol. At any rate, the sculptural symbol seems opportune, because Republic, until today, is a kind of abstraction that always been too big for our breeches.

I say this because, for over a century, the Republic remains a pretext for nostalgia (the Republic we lost!), for criticizing (the “hindered” Republic), for boasting (we had the most advanced Constitution of its time during the Republic) or for hoping (Oh, the day we once again have a Republic!).

The Republic has been and continues to be an essential reference for its proponents as well as its detractors. In that short 47-year dream, Cuba’s greatest civic and economic strides and worst social evils are cited by both sides. Again and again, each May 20th memories are rewritten, and every time it seems that the best representation of our Republic is just as fragile, ethereal, ephemeral and elusive as a soap bubble.  And, like any dream, the lost Republic was born wrapped in a series of myths that are even repeated today and in which many believe: myths that enshrine the historic fate, like heavy burdens on our destinies, the myth of heroism, sacrifice and revolutions as avenues for redemption.

Risking general animosity, it is for all our past and present whims and national myth mania that I have decided to honor this new anniversary of the Republic with this radical statement: I don’t want a return to a Republic that was, with its sorrows and its glory, the one that was not able to protect us from barbarity. I want a new one, where the podium is occupied by its citizens.

I am not going to deny the history of my country through its epic poems, its traditions and its portraits, but I prefer to think of heroes as men and not as titans. Titans produce legends, not republics, that’s why prosperous nations call their founders MEN, not titans, apostles or messiahs, and they do not call their children “soldiers of the Mother Country”, but citizens.

I want a republic, yes, but not one that is born of failed revolutions and the perpetuation of historical lies repeated a thousand times by one or another harmful messiah. I want a republic in which Cubans do not feel compelled to invent heroes to defeat an ancient and ill-concealed inferiority complex, imagining themselves as heirs of a patrimony of pure warriors, naked and holding a machete on spirited horses, sacrificing their lives or delivering their blood to the altar of the Country. I do not want a republic that appeals to mothers who send their children to supposedly holy wars, but wars, nonetheless –full of hatred, death, violence and cruelty– or emerging from “redemptive” revolutions that end up snatching rights and perpetuating injustices; but one that stems from conciliation and peace, from consensus, from inclusions and from respect: a place for citizens. It must be so, or we will, once again, be orphans, without a Republic. Right now I can’t think of a better tribute.

May 21 2012

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The organizers of the Critical Observeratory at Karl Marx Park. Photo courtesy of Reinaldo Escobar

At 2 P.M. last Saturday, May 12th, I started out to participate in a rally organized by members of “The Critical Observers Protagonist Web”, whose declared objective was to support the outraged group movements of the capitalist world – referring to foreign capitalism, of course — that was due to take place at a park on Belascoaín and Carlos III Streets, just three blocks from my house. Since we have so many reasons for being angry in our own country, and there are a growing number of the unemployed here who can’t decide whether they should be angry or open a chips stand, I thought that something must be up the sleeves of  self-proclaimed protagonists and anyone who believes they are the defenders of the rights of the proletariat. I would not miss this for the world, I thought.

So I decided to stroll down to see what “true” socialists might be up to this time. They have, on occasion, criticized the government from their website, and have suggested some proposals even more reforming than those of the General, at least in theory.  To be truthful, I confess that on my way to the park my curiosity was beginning to stir at the prospect of seeing a group of young people brandishing slogans and positions right out of the first two decades of the XX Century. For me, it was like visiting the Jurassic Park of ideology. I love feeling close to antiquities. After all, that is why I chose Archeology as a profession.

Unfortunately, I didn’t even reach where the group had gathered.  It turned out that about half way into the park, the little comrades of the political police stopped me and thwarted my very good intentions. I was so extraordinarily lucky that my friend and colleague, Eugenio Leal, who had already arrived, came to my support on seeing me in such dubious company, so the Tropical Gestapo decided to have him take part of the tour, and so I was not at all bored: after placing us in the patrol car, they dispatched us around 42nd and 35th Streets, in the Playa municipality, where they informed us that we had reached the end of our excursion.  I’m sure they had already spent too much of their allocation of Chávez’s gasoline.

Here I want to make a fair comment: we were taken by blue-uniformed police, that is, they were law-enforcement, not Gestapo.  They were respectful. They did not hand-cuff us, did not search us, they didn’t even take my purse. Eugenio and I, during the drive, were commenting about some details of the Biennial shows and performances that are taking place now in Havana.  The silent officers did not interrupt us. At the end, they gave us back our cellular phones without looking at them, and they had us leave the patrol car. Both Eugenio and I had the impression that the cops never understood why they had been ordered to take us away from the gathering, and neither did we.

Meanwhile, other friends were able to attend the event, so I have first-hand information, no less than from a true journalist, Reinaldo Escobar, who filled me in on the details. This is what went on:  The four lonely guys from the Critical Observatory that were there unfurled a banner reading “Down with capitalism” (not specifying whether the introduced state capitalism in Cuba was included in that command, since they seem to be a bit more cryptic than critical) and another one that read “If you think like bourgeois, you will live like a slave” (with this, I understood that the olive-green theocracy is just a bunch of slaves, and I felt a great relief). They read a kind of communiqué and sang the Internationale. It was all over in about 15 minutes. No kidding.

First thing today, Monday, I went onto their web portal and found out a few other details, such as the so-called support they got from the secretary of the municipal PCC.  I did not hear from any witnesses about the “joy and courage” that the  speakers were going to show. Anyway, no great amount of courage is needed if you have the support of the PCC.  I was also surprised that some of them were a bit ill at ease with the moderate expectation that was created around this event; one must suppose that when they summon you from the web, the expected response should be your attendance.  Conspiracies are not advertised political practices.  That’s what the Internet is about. When you buy a head, you should not fear its eyes, or maybe it’s just a case of stage fright.

In the end, I think the saboteurs of the event – I’m talking about the combination Gestapo-Policía Nacional Revolucionaria — did both Eugenio and me a great favor.  If we had attended such an event, I think I would have felt the same sense of anachronism and shame on their behalf as when they play the Pimpernel Duo over the PA system at the Carlos III Market. Instead of suffering through such a spectacle, I enjoyed a couple of cold beers in the company of a good old friend.

I must also admit that I expected more from the Observatory boys. On occasion, I have read truly interesting and courageous articles in their bulletin, though I do not share in their political sympathies and their Marxist longings. I firmly believe that everyone should have a place in our country and that a bit of political folklore never hurt anyone.  However, I think that they should revise their handle, because “Critical Observers Protagonist Web” comes out a bit pompous (just saying).  At least, judging by last Saturday’s turnout, they are not exactly a web, not so observant, and not as critical.  And if they were the protagonists of anything there, it was of breaking the record for the least to show up among their own brothers in arms. Come on, you guys, a bit more modesty … and more enthusiasm!

May 14 2012

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Ghost Ship. Image taken from a website on the internet.  

Evidently, the dispute between left and right in political affairs is becoming too narrow to make any progress in resolving global conflicts today. More than narrow, it is absolutely simplistic. If the statement is applicable to worldwide levels, we are millions of years behind, judging by a contradiction that borders on the absurd: the inability of the so-called left to propose or participate in the politics of a totalitarian government that has declared itself a “leftist”, i.e., that defines itself from the overall direction of the nation by a single “communist” party.

And here we are. Any manifestation of thought which does not conform to the leftist persuasion is immediately disowned, ignored, silenced or even imprisoned, though it may not be exactly a “rightist” ideology. But, if the left doesn’t unconditionally subject itself to the will of the elite, then it doesn’t have a voice either.

It must be noted that one single thought does not exist inside the opposition, and that there are many variables within the Island’s left as well, from groups that are wholly subjected to the official thinking, mere parrots of government directives, to the more advanced sectors, suggesting bold proposals, not only in terms of economic reforms, but also with regard to the inclusive social and political transformations that should accompany changes in Cuba.

Between the two ends of the same rope — and we are talking about just the left and only about the left — there isn’t a very wide range of intermediate voices. The latter belong to those who want change, but not too many; they advocate journalism with an opinion, but still “socialist” and “revolutionary” journalism — let’s remember again that fascist dictate “Within the revolution, everything …”  parting the seas of cultural and intellectual Cuban life since 1961, gagging all freedom of thought — that  constantly appeal to “what Fidel said” or “what President Raúl stated” as legitimizing and sufficient sources that replace, all by themselves, the need for arguments. These are the ones who do not believe the need for any opening; a few cracks are enough, preferably protected by mesh to prevent any evils that always accompany freedom from slipping through.

But there are no nuances for the lords of power. People are either from the left or from the right, and this principle transcends all social life in the country. After this macro-classification, the rest is a breeze. Thus, those on the left supposedly have as their common denominator their adherence to the verses of Das Kapital, the Bible written by Karl Marx, the practice of hate towards imperialism, and the recognition of the undisputed guide of the Communist Party to rule the country, while dissidents, the opposition in general, and independent journalism in all its variables are part of an alleged block “of the right”, the betraying mercenaries working for the U.S. government so they get juicy funding from the US Treasury Department, not to mention advice from the CIA, though no one can figure out how it’s possible that, with such credentials, these individuals are not all in prison.

Seen from such a common view, it would seem that Cuban political thought is marked by ideological lobotomy: either you are on the left — and fully assume the roles dictated — or you are of the right, with all the consequences that entails. If you won’t define yourself in this primitive way, you simply “AREN’T”.

That’s why my friend, a foreign political scientist with whom I correspond fairly often, has told me that when he visits Cuba and meets with representatives of the official academics, he gets the impression of facing “lame thought.” So, while the world seeks new political solutions to meet the challenges of modern times; while globalization moves on, leaving behind old concepts of finding regional remedies against universal ills, and the technology of information and communication lend human thought and development an urgent pace, the Cuban political scene weakens at the same pace as the system and the whole country.

If we continue at this pace, we are eternally doomed to be a miniscule hamlet lost in the whirlwind of changes revolving around us, but not touching us. More than a wreck, Cuba threatens to become the ghost ship of postmodernism: without port, destination, leadership or crew.

May 7 2012

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President on his own during May 1, 2011. Photo taken from the website of the National Information Agency

The official press has been announcing the parade this May 1st with a newly added component to the “army” of workers that will march in support of the revolution and socialism: the self-employed.

I’ve been reflecting on the theme (I’m showing an alarming tendency to reflections) and I cannot quite understand the issue. Aren’t the self-employed a sector that represents private enterprise? Haven’t we been taught in school that private property is one of the “evils of capitalism,” a source of exploitation for the proletariat? Has the Cuban system created a new species, the owner-laborer? Something else is really bothering me: What union does a restaurant or cafeteria owner, or a street vendor with a vegetable and fruit cart belong to? Will they parade in favor of high tax rates and in support of the lack of wholesale markets for the procurement of the materials they need? Are they the new cuckolded and abused?

I can’t begin to imagine, for example, the wealthy owners of certain important “eateries” in Havana — and I beg readers to allow me to omit names, I am not trying to point at the more successful Cuban entrepreneurs — walking in the sun towards the Plaza Cívica, chanting slogans for the proletariat, or singing that song that says “let’s change the world’s stage by sinking the bourgeois empire.” It’s too unreal, too perverse.

Nevertheless, this is Castro’s Cuba, so, mocking the poet, don’t thee be surprised of anything. I know that many self-employed individuals, those engaged in the crafts trade from the stands that occupy space leased from the State, such as the once elegant department store Fin de Siglo, have been ordered to “become members of a syndicate” — as has been stated in the official press — including the payment of union dues and have recently been asked to attend a meeting to sign their commitment to attend the march. I haven’t been able to confirm this fact, but we know that it is also common practice for any state employee.

Paradoxically, employees of a restaurant or any other privately owned business do not have the possibility to organize their own union capable of facing an employer in order to defend their interests, though many work longer hours than stipulated by the country’s labor laws, can be dismissed by their employers without the right to compensation, and lack almost all labor rights, demonstrating that “self-employed unionism” is another false formula of the system to maintain the  oppression of individuals beyond their relative economic independence from the state.

It is obvious that, when convening “independents” to this parade, the government has the intention to continue to monitor the supply of slaves, even the sector of freedmen, i.e., those who are in the first phase of buying their freedom through their economic activity, independent of the Master. Official control mechanisms deem important that those individuals who turn autonomous do not become independent or associate freely, and, at the same time, the government needs to offer the world the impression that private businessmen and manufacturers are aligned with the revolution, thus legitimizing the “renewal.”

Worst of all is that there is a representative sample of the self-employed who will lend themselves to the new farce. So then, the self-employed will march this May 1st under the banners of socialism, and maybe soon a “union of revolutionary self-employed” will be established. This won’t, even remotely, be a march on anyone’s own account.

April 30 2012

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