Archive for January, 2009

And us, are we alive?

Since July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro has died several times and in different ways.  Following his proclamation, in which he passed power to a “collegial” government comprised of some of his followers and headed by his younger brother, the people began to understand that the leader was, indeed, a mortal man like any other.  The “new” government, for its part, in apparent conspiracy with the Ancient One, hatched a theatrical plot to keep the population believing that he would always be there to guide us, whenever his wisdom in governing us was invoked, leaving the sense that his successors are incapable of making decisions by themselves.

So, in these two and a half years the caudillo has existed only in the media and in the personal testimonies of foreigners who, on visiting the Island, have claimed to have met with him.  Since his forced retirement, a few scarce photos and a video presentation shown on TV have been considered incontrovertible proof that Castro “lives” which, aside from the “Reflections,” is an almost childish approach to prolonging his presence as invisible effigy, far beyond the limits of any logical reasoning.

The consequence of these intermittent deaths and “appearances,” however, has been complete popular indifference with respect to the formerly unconquered and omnipresent comandante.  The “news” of false death runs, but no one talks about it, for good or ill.  The clearest conclusion people draw is that, ultimately, with or without him, everything is the same as before: the same poverty, the same lack of freedoms, the despair.  The initial expectations raised by the Proclamation, the subsequent “election” of Raúl Castro as president, the false promises of changes, have given way to the most extreme apathy.  A lack of faith and trust in the government is now a widespread pattern in Cuban society and there doesn’t seem to be anything that can change it… not even the alleged definitive death of the one who’s been resuscitated so many times.

This last time—we call it “the penultimate death”—has confirmed that F. Castro not only lives exclusively in the media, but that he also dies there.  The foreign press, the Cubanologists, the analysts and the druids have been holding cabalas almost the entire month of January about the latest outbreak of death, until the princess of the story appeared, in the form of the wife of Néstor Kirchner, and resuscitated the zombie.  Things of the press, already seen.

As far as I’m concerned, the eventual death of the caudillo will be no more than the end of one “thing” and the beginning of another.  It’s unfortunate that for this beginning, Cubans must wait for the real death: another result of the half century of dictatorship and the more than two centuries of historical irresponsibility all around.  Because, indeed, for there to be “another” fate for Cubans, we would have to commit, starting now, that we don’t want to wait fifty more years at the mercy of anyone’s whims.  No one seems to understand that in the current Cuban context, in reality, the most important thing is not whether Fidel Castro is dead or not, but whether we ourselves are truly alive.

Illustration: “And night gathers,” by the Cuban painter A. Montoto

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A note to my readers

During the meetings of the Blogger Journey which we continue to hold in different parts of the Island, we have been debating different themes, among those the technical factors we need to improve for better interactivity with our readers.

Internet interactivity is, for Cubans “inside,” not only a higher challenge but almost a utopia.  The conditions under which we work make it very difficult to post daily to our blog, unless we have friends outside who have been helping us.  In any case, although such help is invaluable, we can’t count on the immediacy between uploading a post and our access to the readers’ comments.  In my case in particular, I try to upload my own work, in the precarious way that is possible, which is why I always upload multiple posts on the same day even though it’s not ideal for me or my readers, who often will visit the blog and see a new post and not realize there are others, posted the same day.

Other bloggers have suggested I use a program that automatically uploads one post every day, after putting the files in a sequence: but this method has failed those who have experimented with it.  Clearly we need to continue to insist on improving the weak spots.  Meanwhile, allow me to suggest to the readers who visit this blog of mine, always work from the back: I never post only one entry.  Thanks for your interest, I will stay in touch.  A hug,


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Pablo Milanés: better late than never

The statements made by the famous troubadour Pablo Milanés in an interview on December 29, 2008, and published on the website Kaos en la Red [Chaos on the Web] (www.kaosenlared.net), have had a disproportionate impact on public opinion.  The “opinionators” are divided into various camps: those who enthusiastically applaud what they consider the bravery of the famous icon of the already old, Nueva Trova*; the spiteful detractors who cannot forget his commitment to the Revolution and its leaders; and those, like myself, who welcome from a more moderate position the words of Pablo.

In any case, the importance of the expositions reflected in the interview rests on the standing—read popularity, celebrity or reputation—of the one interviewed, not in the content of what he declares.  That the dinosaurs of the regime are obsolete, that that they don’t have the capacity to move the country forward, that “Cuban socialism has stagnated,” are obvious truths.  Pablo not only affirms what we all know, what so many opponents such as dissidents and Cuban free thinkers from all sides have been saying for a long time, and for which some have been and are incarcerated in Cuban prisons; but, what’s more, he affirms it without abandoning the link between the Revolution and socialism.  What’s new is that Pablo does not trust the leaders who are more than 75 years old.  Perhaps I should point out here, as far as I’m concerned, I don’t trust anyone, even if they are under 30 and just a junior “up-and-coming functionary” in training.

But to discredit Pablo for his positions in favor of the revolutionary process would be to recognize the right of others to discredit those of us who are not in favor of that process: an endless story.  In the same way, the attitude of those who have wanted to fabricate, as a result of these declarations, a Pablo Milanés who is an opponent is unrealistic; what naiveté!

I don’t question the right of Pablo (or anyone else) to choose and express his political sympathies.  In fact I’m delighted that from within the ranks of the “revolutionaries” themselves there are some who clearly see the need to replace the archaic historical figures who have been clinging to power for a half century.  To correct oneself is the sign of a wise person, though some are slower than others to recognize the obvious.  The troubadour’s affair with the creators of the Cuban “miracle,” that is to say, if before he loved them, but now, does not, if what they did before was “good” and deserved the absolution of History and other affirmations of that type, these qualify more as trivialities than as political debate but, on the other hand, this isn’t what Pablo suggests either. In any event, let’s not judge him if at times he seemed to us too complacent with the excesses of the regime or if, on occasion (perhaps many occasions) he seemed to be looking elsewhere.  We are lenient: remember, the higher the pedestal the harder the fall.

In the end, people are almost always, either very demanding or very naïve.   Let’s look at the positive side: if the most conspicuously faithful blaspheme, it’s because the gods falter.  Me, I confess, prefer to enjoy Pablo Milanés for what he is (at least for me): a great composer who has created truly memorable songs, such as Yolanda, El breve espacio en que no estás [The Brief Space in Which You are Not], and many others of an intimate and evocative tone.   And so I reject his combative creations and pamphleteering, the hymns and the marches.  I choose the Pablo of a voice sweet, warm and melodic.  For me, Pablo will always be this and not a political figure; if, however, today he bets on the end of the Jurassic era for Cubans, we agree on that point, and I would welcome a group of those who struggle for changes, without necessarily having to be one of its founders.

Ilustration: Work from the Cuban painter C. Proenza. “Los dioses escuchan” [The Gods Listen]

Translator’s note
Nueva Trova is a form of Cuban music that started in the late 1960s, combining traditional Cuban folk music with politically-themed lyrics.  It is associated with Castroism and the Revolution.

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Bad omens

The signs that can be detected in the newly begun year of 2009 don’t appear very promising.  After 2008, in which the expectations surrounding the assignment of land in usufruct to farmers capable of making it produce turned to mud, and after an “experimental” closing of all the farmers markets in the municipality of Cerro which took place over several days last December, the rumors around the final elimination of the “non-State” markets has become a grim certainty.

This year began with the closure of many of the markets for food and vegetables which, gradually, had begun to recover from the ravages of this season’s hurricanes and had already begun to display a greater variety in their offerings and a modest improvement in the quality of their products.  Bit by bit the prices, although very high with respect to the purchasing power of the average Cuban wage, had declined slightly in relation to those of us whom they frightened (and fleeced) as a result of the passage of the infamous hurricanes.  But, lest we forget we are in Cuba, a new official regulation has closed every agricultural market whose products don’t come from State cooperatives or whose products have not been sold directly to the State.

The direct and immediate result couldn’t be other than the already demonstrated incapacity of the State to satisfy the demands of the population.  In a circuit I just finished making of the agricultural markets near my house, I have been able to evaluate—although only at a micro-local level—the new complications this presents to consumers: 1) travel to more distant places looking for the food their family consumes; 2) more time lost in lines because there are more people at the scarce state outlets; 3) reduction in supply as a consequence of disadvantageous prices the State-buyer offers to the farmer-producer and the insufficient State transport for the shipment of these products to the markets.  And all this without prices registering a significant decline.

On the other hand, the intricate network conceived here for trade in agricultural products, the option that keeps a large variety and quality, is that of the free public markets, for example those located in the Mercado Único or at Egido and Corrales, but those charge prices that are almost always exorbitant and completely beyond the pockets of the workers.

One of the surviving kiosks of the drastic closures is that located in Estrella Street, between Infanta and Xifré, in Central Havana.  I arrived there today, Monday, January 12, after walking through the whole surrounding area and finding that both the site at Sitios and Morales, as well as the one at Placencia and Sitios, among others, had been closed since the beginning of the year. The lone seller who, in the one at Estrella remained silent in front of his scarce products (garlic, red beans, tomatoes and green pineapples), shrugged his shoulders to my questions, replying laconically to a few:

– Why have they closed the produce markets?
– (Shrug)
– Are they closed for good?
– (Shrug, followed by), “I think so.”
– Who directed that?
– It seems it comes from above, it’s an order.
– Why haven’t you closed?
– We were given until Wednesday to sell what we have.

That is to say, on Wednesday, January 14, this site also will close.  I’ve known friends and family in the identical situation occuring in other municipalities of the city, namely Plaza, Playa, Marianao and Cerro, which indicates that the “measure” is here to stay.

Maybe someone with common sense, but with an absolute ignorance of the Cuban reality, could suppose this is positive, that such a measure will remove the middlemen and some undesirable smuggling of goods of dubious provenance that escape the legal controls and elude paying taxes, which in the end would work in favor of lower prices for agricultural products and an improvement in services… But our experience reminds us that no State initiative has ever borne fruit.  What actually happens is that now the State will be the only Middleman between the producer and the consumer (read “consumed”) for more and better “control”; this will create a new and expanded body of inspectors—a pool of the corrupt—and a whole battalion of other inspectors to monitor (extort from) the first.  So, far from foreseeing solutions, we are looking at another turn of the screw, as always, to the right.

Photo courtesy of Dimas Castellanos. The appearance of land in a State “production” cooperative, overrun with thriving marabu weed.

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I don’t know the source of the phrase that heads these lines.  It was Reinaldo Escobar’s toast at a meeting of friends that included myself.

His intention, in keeping with his cheeky and comic nature, was to dispel any suspicions of bad intentions on our part which might encourage some listener among those who, with no higher purpose, set themselves up as the prison guards of the regime.  With such a toast, no doubt, one could even raise a glass to any of the legendary leaders of the historic generation, keepers of power; but from Reinaldo’s lips and among such a company, there inevitably was a certain spicy flavor of mischief.  We all toasted, well entertained, but at the same time hoping that, in reality, 2009 will be the year we have been waiting for.

And therefore, I make my friend’s phrase my own, although with some delay, and bring it here today to lift the cup, this time with you, to wish you also a promising new year and may you realize everything that you wish for.  I know that a great number of my readers share the same desire that united us when we toasted in the new year on a recent night just this last December.

Much happiness and a big hug to everyone.

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After a year’s time since the last promise of reforms, cryptically woven among the Cuban president’s verbal twists and turns, even the most optimistic have begun to feel less enthusiasm.  Between January 2008 and this January of 2009, nothing has moved for the placid natives of this island, save the roofs of those who saw their poor “property” and their hopes flying away under the battering of the cyclones that joined the year’s usual scourges of survival.

Nothing has moved, it’s true; however, something has changed: the smiling former president.  The one who offered, with equal generosity, a simple glass of milk to each Cuban, along with other items of much greater significance such as the elimination of the dual currency, the elimination of exit permits required to leave the country, the reintroduction of small private property, or the “democratic debates.”  This time he was more austere, almost frowning, announcing the coming elimination of certain gratuities–that is free goods and services–with which the Revolution has favored its spoiled and ungrateful people.

That is to say, not only do we have the failed predictions of the dreamers–those who just a year ago believed they were going to implement changes favorable to the Cubans on the island–but we’ve taken a step backwards in every way.  People’s lack of expectations has resulted in the coldest and most apathetic end of year in memory.  No one speaks of plans and the majority of Cubans are still waiting, though they don’t know what they are waiting for.

To the indifference of the man on the street has been added, however, a new element.  Nobody knows what happened, but everyone says the same thing: the uncertainty is not just ours.  Looking at the long faces of those in power and their followers, scrutinizing the vacant expressions on many of the faces (in former years exultant) of the comandantes and generals present at the commemoration (not “celebrations”) of the 50th anniversary of the Revolution (called “the triumph), we can’t say that “something went wrong.”  Rather it seems that nothing went right for them.  And I am not referring to the possible problems of osteoarthritis or incontinence due to their advanced ages.  Something is brewing… and it stinks.  And their anxiety is logical when it appears that what is at stake for them is much more than gratuities.  We need to be careful, they don’t have the look of peace and tranquility that characterize the people and not for obsolescence has the repressive machinery stopped working.  Something tells me that the road is becoming, in the near term, increasingly dangerous.

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Comments on the comments

I don’t usually interfere in the discussions among my readers, other than allowing myself the freedom to comment as well, or to suggest moderation.  I have no intention of censoring the government’s undercover agents who get involved in this blog to meet their quotas of praise assigned by the regime: I’m convinced that their “comments” are in and of themselves the condemnation of what they defend and of themselves.  So let them bray at will.  I prefer to appeal to the intelligence of the readers to avoid responding to provocations of this kind, it’s better to ignore those lacking any ideas of their own—who only aspire to repeat the same slogans published in the daily Granma.  They are exceptions, fortunately, and it’s no coincidence that these monumental sycophants of men don’t sign their names.  Perhaps it’s not from fear, but rather from shame; at least I want to believe they must feel some iota of shame for worshipfully following other men, powerful as they are not, but in any case it’s an undignified exercise.

Moreover, it doesn’t seem intelligent to me to let ourselves be dragged down by those “et ceteras” into a sterile debate.  To engage in a discussion requires arguments and at least a modicum of intelligence.  As for me, I don’t think one can be intelligent and loyal at the same time.  Anyone who doubts this assertion only has to undertake the patient work of reading three or four of the celebrated “Reflections” that have been published during the year, to review the history of Cuba, and to verify what frightful levels of misery and lack of freedoms we’ve arrived at here by obeying the Fidelista ideology, and then to ask themselves if it’s rational to support such a huge labyrinth of delusions.   Of course I applaud the right of anyone to express their support for the Castro brothers—even though that makes them voluntary or involuntary accomplices—but I maintain the same right for me to argue that the Fidelistas exhibit a level of intelligence similar to that of insects (begging the pardon of the entomologists).

As for the defense they make “of the party,” frankly I’m not opposed to there existing, in tomorrow’s Cuba, a communist party, which is much more than “the communists” allow today to those of us who are not.  For me this would be a demonstration of the democracy we yearn for.  Say what you will, the majority of the current militants in the PCC* don’t even know the theoretical basis of Marxism.  The party has been only a means to some miserable end.  It’s necessary to recognize, however, that at least in the last 50 years, what has existed in Cuba is Fidelism, not Marxism, and the “party-ism” militancy has been nothing more than a mechanism of control, similar to the ration card (which they call “ for supplying”), the CDRs,* the address registry or the so-called “unions.”  In reality, I don’t know that Marxism, anywhere on the planet, has risen above the narrow limits of a theory outlined by a poor sleep-deprived Jew (now surely some whiner will get up and say I’m a racist because I called Marx a “Jew”).   Nor am I in favor of some similar theory that exceeds those limits (God save us!); but I know that nothing protects us more from a communist future in this country than the stagnant garbage dump we’ve been led to these last 50 years.

Finally, I prefer this blog to be a plural space, in spite of some readers who have written to my email in-box asking that I censor some comments, or rather some commentators.  I have tremendous faith in debate as a basis for a future democracy in Cuba, even though that implies we have to put up with certain opinions posted “by special order.”  I’m confident that everyone can tell the difference.  At least these subjects are useful as an example of what we don’t want or need to be.  For the poor devils who, lacking arguments, dedicate themselves to repeating slogans and the words of others, I can only feel pity and I choose, with my time, to give them my silence as a response.

Translator’s notes
PCC: Communist Party of Cuba
CDRs: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution

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Brief vicissitudes of memory

Maybe because each end of year brings out the budding philosopher we all carry inside, or maybe even more because I had the “luck” to be born in the much ballyhooed year 1959, the major dates that face me in 2009 (50 years of the Revolution and, in October, my 50 years of life!), push me into the realms of memory.

For those not born in this narrow insular geography, and also for those who left it decades ago, it would certainly turn out to be a rare experience to remember an entire life marked by a single government, a single ideology, a false unitary thinking, a school system with homogenous programs of instruction and indoctrination, a “basic basket” that seeks to make us equal in poverty, a single employer-administrator-distributor of this poverty (called “wealth”) and a single owner of all of it (including, pretentiously, our lives).
I have been reviewing, as I said, my memory, which fortunately enjoys very good health—although there are events which, taking after Cervantes, I wouldn’t wish to remember—and I have been organizing it in the entire appalling trail of a half century of experiments and failures that have involved us all.  The experiments, only the government has contributed; the failures, clearly, the same government has laid at our feet.  So I note that, despite such a long period of time with absolute power and control over everything that moves on this Island, the government never acknowledged responsibility for any stumbles.  Neither in the field of politics, nor in the social nor economic, the true creators take one position: they are “beyond reproach.”

At the risk of a stroke or a complete nervous breakdown, I have recalled almost all the slogans heard throughout my life, I have hummed (masochist that I am) fragments of the many hymns of the revolutionary cult, including Osvaldo Rodríguez’s two hit parades: “The March of the Combatant People” and “Viva la Revolution.”  I have reconstructed a few bits of experience that I’ve touched directly or indirectly, like those big economic plans of the first years that would have turned Cuba into a prodigious producer of cow’s milk and meat (genetic plans “Rosafé” [the name of a particular bull] and “Pretty Girl”), or of coffee and food from the land (The Havana Cordon), among other frequent and numerous hallucinations, fruit of the inhalations of cohoba by the great witch doctor.  After, would come an uncontrollable avalanche of the implementation of many and varied government initiatives, like the plans for Country Schools and Schools in the Country (which were not the same thing though the results were equally disastrous), the “Details”—teachers, doctors, militiamen—Voluntary Work, the Red Sundays, the Marxism manuals, the mobilization of the “Peoples’ Harvest” (above all the mythical “Ten Million,” which my father participated in when I was 10 years old), the delusions of grandeur—or poorly disguised inferiority complexes—repeated in aberrations such as the gigantic Cuban Fishing Fleet and the Mambisa Navigation Fleet (merchant), the “Five-Year Plans” of Soviet goods, the construction microbrigades and other interminable etceteras, of particular prominence among these, the wars of liberation abroad fought by Cuban troops.  All of them events that have marked our expectations, miseries and disappointments.

Now, when every “battle” from the past seems like an abandoned car on a line that goes nowhere, what I have not managed to remember, as much as I struggled, is any phrase, not even a small word, in which the government recognizes its failure, its responsibility or the slightest error in the events of a project whose balance sheet is written in red ink and in other much deeper losses that simple numbers don’t have the capacity to convey; which makes me think that in reality in the last 50 years it is the Cuban people who have been hugely mistaken.  Certainly the biggest mistake happened once, half a century ago, but still, today, and we don’t know for how much longer, we continue paying for this lamentable error.

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The "ostrich effect"

I’m sure that we all know some Cubans who, when they speak of the many problems of our daily lives on this Island—the simple and common fact that the month’s rationed peas come riddled with weevils would be a critique of the government—they simply assume a serious expression and say: “Pal, I’m not interested in politics.” They use this mouthful for any event or any information,  (“Did you see who defected? They say he was fired.”) and also in response to the slightest expression of nonconformity (“Public transportation is shit).”  Between the discount for the Chinese television and the payments on the refrigerator, I don’t have anything left for coffee.”)  And it’s because deep down, the supposed apolitical know that in Cuba, controlled by a totalitarian regime for 50 years, every social space is contaminated by official policy and is a consequence of it.

When you encounter one of these chosen ones who seem to take a shower in okra water in the mornings so that their problems will slip away you can be sure you’ll be faced with the classic “ostrich effect”: the individual who buries his head in the sand to avoid seeing what’s all around him; a childish effort to take everything that’s bothering him and “make it disappear.”  For my part, I’ve always noticed that in such a sad, sexist society, there would be little boys who, in that position, would leave exposed the parts they themselves usually consider the most vulnerable; although its fair to acknowledge that the epidemic affects both men and women.  Almost all—and certainly they are many—of those who suffer from this condition (because without a doubt it’s an illness), enjoy some stipend, have some or all of their problems resolved, have some commitment or debt to the system or, simply, suffer from that other endemic evil: fear.  Nor can we rule out a combination of all these factors or various others.

Most of those affected by the ostrich effect aren’t even conscious of their illness.  Not surprisingly, taking into account that if usually attacks those most lacking in will, or also the most ignorant.  It’s equally curious that some of the carriers publicly declare themselves “apolitical,” but in private come to the disobedient, such as myself, and complain deeply about “things,” including criticizing the authorities.  They know that the politically incorrect, those of us who have nothing in common with the powers that be, are trustworthy partners, basically those of us who don’t proselytize.

Either way, the ostrich affect is almost always a temporary condition (or we might say, a circumstantial one).  It’s enough that the patient suffers in their own life some consequence of official policy: they immediately discover that yes, politics interests them, affects them, that “I can’t take any more of this,” etc.   Also, some of those who suffer this sudden treatment have come around to unload their misfortunes, and at the end of all their troubles, without exception, tend to ask the same thing: “How long?”  I, invariably, always give the same answer: “As long as you want.”

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