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Remember that inn known as “The Little Ayestarán Houses”? For reasons that we all know it became a day shelter for homeless people and for the same reasons that we will not repeat here, the building collapsed. From mid-to-late 2006 they planned to build a group of houses there. The deadline was November 30, 2007. That same day, a year ago, I took some pictures, one with the sign in the foreground. Now, a year later, I went back to photograph the site and that commitment is no longer in sight. For reasons that we all know, the work is still unfinished.
When someone tries to tell the story of Cuba in the briefest way possible, they come to a chronological series that can be reduced to the following general characterization:
Six thousand years (approximately) during which the island was inhabited by aborigines; 388 years under Spanish colonial rule; 4 years of an interventionist North American government; 56 years as a Republic and 50 years of revolution.
Clearly, it’s almost disrespectful to recount the history of a country in 35 words that can be said in 15 seconds. But, let it displease whomever it may, that is an extreme generalization of the chronology. In the bus terminal in Havana, for example, there is a mural that tries to tell the entire story in 14 meters. Its principal defect is that it omits the aborigines, substituting a tobacco plant for a yucca plant. Fidel Castro’s face is shown twice and he is the only living person represented.
I want to toss out the following challenge to historians specializing in Cuba: Prepare a chronology of the last 50 years. I tried, but quit the task when I came up against the terrible difficulty of defining the time limits of each stage along with the names of the periods. Suppose we baptize the first years (January 1959 to April 1961) as the time of the first revolutionary transformations (Agrarian Reform, Urban Reform, nationalization of property, literacy campaign, etc.). Then came the stage that began with the declaration of socialist character* and each swing towards Maoism, Eurocommunism, Sovietization or the search for a separate identity, which would each have to be treated separately. Another would be the time they talked of the simultaneous construction of socialism and communism. One clear stage is the “definitive” placement of the country into the context of the socialist camp, whose climax was our joining CAME* [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon], another was the beginning of the Special Period, and finally the current situation, which is like nothing that came before. I repeat that I abandoned the completion of this difficult work, but warn that I have not abandoned the right to criticize those who do it. So here I extend an open invitation that can be summarized by this question:
What are the time periods and proper way to describe the historical subperiods of the past 50 years of Cuban history?
The most interesting answers will be published in the digital magazine Contodos, on this site, desdecuba.com, provided the authors agree to it.
Declaration of socialist character of the Cuban Revolution, April 1961
Comecon: Cuba joined in 1972.
Details can be found through an online search.
One of the recurring fantasies of very busy people is the existence of a market where one could buy a little time. You arrive at a kiosk and say to someone, “Hey Bud, don’t you have anything to do? How about selling me a couple hours?” There would be the oldest with lots of money buying a few years from the youngest. There would be a separate line for those condemned to death by the law, another very long one for those given up on by the doctors, and a department, protected by many bodyguards, with special offers on time for the politicians who didn’t keep their promises.
Me, I have a good memory for these things, I remember that I was promised a bright future. They assured me, in the middle of a plaza that I shared with almost a million people, that the wealth would be gained by means of the conscience and that no force on earth was capable of preventing this purpose. It’s true that they didn’t give me a precise date, I have to admit it, but it’s also true that no one denied the chroniclers of triumphalism, the poets of utopia who sang of the dazzling future. “We are a people who know the name of the future,” said the minstrels; we denied salt and bread to the unbelievers and bet our youth, the golden time of our youth, to a senseless chimera.
Now, we have lost hope and patience, time has become extremely expensive, and they have squandered all the capital with which they might buy it.
The anecdote is well known, almost a legend, of a family that after several days paddling in the straits of Florida, arrives at a coast to excited shouts for freedom and against the dictatorship; but they haven’t arrived in Miami, only Varadero.
In the case of Columbus who sailed agonizing months with the obsession to land in India only to end up discovering the New World, and many more examples, people who leave home for their wedding and end up meeting their death, who buy clothes for a girl and give birth to a boy, who invest everything so their son can be a boxer, but the boy leaves them to become a ballet dancer, an excellent ballet dancer!
In his penultimate Reflections of November 14*, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, referring to some governments who declare their support for Cuba to facilitate the transition, laments that, “after lives offered up and so many sacrifices defending sovereignty and justice, one cannot offer Cuba the other shore of capitalism.”
The metaphor of the “the other shore” implies in this case an allusion to that site one finds at the end of the road. This prompts me to recall the lives offered up and the enormous sacrifice of all those who fought to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. After yearning for so long for political freedoms and the full enjoyment of civil rights, one could not offer Cuba “the other shore” of a new dictatorship.
From the point of view of the author of the aforementioned Reflection, sovereignty and justice are the exclusive patrimony of socialism; perhaps he speaks of our own sovereignty, that of the years in which Cuba was in the CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] and some Cuban ministers had an alter ego in the Soviet GOSPLAN [Soviet State Planning Committee] with whom they had to vet the most important decision; he will speak I suppose of our own justice, crammed with summary judgments, with processes against pre-criminal dangerousness, with sentences based more on the presumption than on the evidence.
It should be the Cuban people who will have the opportunity to decide in which system they desire to live in the future: socialism, capitalism, or another that we could invent, but lamentably there is a clause in the Constitution of the Republic which denies the possibility of choosing, because it only recognizes the right to accept socialism. That was not what they offered us, but what they imposed upon us, on this shore at the end of the road.
* Reflections of Comrade Fidel: The Washington meeting.
/ Granma / November 15, 2008 pp. 2 [Link to the original Spanish]
I do not like historical anniversaries but I’m fascinated by coincidence, and so it was at midnight on Friday, when it was almost November 15th, a book fell off the shelf opened on page 14, where I read the same date of the day that was about to begin, but in the year 1968, “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla.”
This date closed with the declaration of The Writers and Artists Union of Cuba (UNEAC) that condemned as contrary to the ideology of the Revolution two books which had won the prize that year in UNEAC’s literary competition: the play, The Seven Against Thebes, by Antón Arrufat and a book of poetry, Out of the Game, by Heberto Padilla.
At that time I was studying journalism at the University of Havana and the memories of those discussions are still fresh in my mind. The story is well known and this is not the place to recreate it, I just wanted to share with readers the impression I got when I saw the ramshackle volume of Out of the Game falling, almost on my feet, to remind me that I must tell the truth, at least my truth even if they tear up the beloved page or stone me at the door.
In a full-page ad in The New York Times on Monday,
the American Civil Liberties Union urged Obama to close
Guantanamo Bay on his first day in office, “with the stroke of a pen.”
In good Spanish we say “de un plumazo” to mean the rapidity with which a decision taken must be guaranteed by a signature. Translated into English, the phrase would be “with the stroke of a pen,” which is the way the American Civil Liberties Union demands that the next president of the United States forever close the infamous prison that country has on a military base located on Guantanamo Bay.
My antitotalitarian scruples, fueled by the understandable prejudice that a person suffers after enduring a half century dictatorship, set off alarms in the face of this request. It frightens me that someone has so much power, even to do good. Don’t you know the strokes of the pen we have had in these latitudes and even more, “strokes of the phone call” and even “strokes of the court.” With the gesture of a hand, waved from the window of a four-door Soviet jeep, crops have been destroyed, ministers and ambassadors dismissed, the construction of dams ordered, events cancelled, wars started, doctors sent to other countries, a book censored, more prisons opened… and more that we do not know.
But sometimes, time is pressing and one has to leave behind certain prejudices. Prison installations should be under the permanent observation of the competent justice system, and not outside the borders, free from control. The closing of this prison is demanded by those who see the prestige of the United States affected as well as by those who are sincerely worried about any outrage that is committed and, of course, by us as well, who are the true owners of the island, the whole island.
When Obama takes the pen in his hand (it doesn’t even have to be the first day in the Oval Office), whether to free his country from the heavy burden of this ignominy or to bring justice to those whose rights have been violated, would that someone would show him on the map where Guantánamo is, and in passing comment that American citizens cannot visit the rest of the island, which is not only the most beautiful part, but also the most interesting; would that someone would explain that over this large alligator in the middle of the Caribbean sea there are millions of people (tens of thousands if you want to be conservative) who breathed sighs of relief to know that it was he who was elected; people who believe very strongly that he has a unique and possibly unrepeatable opportunity, not to solve all our problems with a single stroke of the pen but, with the caress that a pen is capable of, to send a message; to make, it might even be, a gesture of the hand.
One of the most urgent demands of those who have something to express is to have a space from which they can speak to others. That space can be limited to a podium, a stage, a gallery, a page, or time in front of the television cameras or the radio microphones.
Ah, if I had a space!
But what usually happens when such a space is acquired is that it is achieved under the condition that we not say precisely what we want to express. Then a mechanism begins to operate that drives us to protect the acquired space so as not to risk losing it. Even taking care that it doesn’t fall into worse hands.
It’s clear that the first thing is to win the space. I know a group of rock musicians who never found a theater where they could play because, from the very beginning, they warned of the possibility that there might come a moment when they would lower their pants in front of the audience or curse into the microphone. So it’s clear that no one who cares about their job would take the responsibility of offering them a space. I know a minstrel whose songs are very critical of the situation in Cuba, but when he has been live before the cameras and microphones at the Anti-imperialist Stage he sings against the war in Iraq or in favor of the just struggle of the Palestinian people.
I have many friends who work as journalists for national newspapers. I know how they think and everything that makes them uncomfortable. At times I’ll run into one who asks me quietly if I’m not aware of the daring adjective I used in my last commentary on a certain situation. I say don’t read it and then he tells me, like one who recounts a daring deed, that he managed to slip in the word “insufficient” to describe the results of the latest potato crop. He believes he has made bold use of the space they have given him. It’s not that he’s a coward, it’s that only a few months ago they fired a colleague who went too far.
Once we find an adequate space we begin to be conscious of the opportunity. It’s not the same being the National News commentator on television as it is being the person interviewed on a radio program that is broadcast for a few hours to an audience in a town in the interior of the country. Nor is taking Radio Reloj by force, pistol in hand, the same as having an opportunity to use the microphone because a good friend or a relative who doesn’t want any harm to come to us has given us a chance.
Recently the plastic artist Sandra Ceballos had the brilliant idea of launching an exposition with the provocative title “Curators, Go Home” whose main purpose was precisely to open the doors of her group space to those who would have difficultly being accepted by the academic curators of art.
Ah, if I had a space! And there it was, open and democratic as the sea, the living room of the private home of Sandra Ceballos.
But the official institutions of the Ministry of Culture, especially the National Council of Plastic Arts, reacted as reactionaries react. In a wave of institutional indignation, arguing that politically incorrect people had been invited to the opening, they warned potential participants that to go to the show would be taken as an apparent act of civil disobedience.
Docile and obliging, committers of original sin, some artists wasted no time (the accusing finger, the rent garments) in denouncing the heresy.
The owner of the space—completely within her rights—decided to postpone the exhibit and finally resolved to go ahead with the opening, implying that the rock group, those who never found a space, would not be present. The most provocative pieces were withdrawn “so as not to immolate Sandra’s space” and nothing more happened.
A springboard is a space that we use to launch ourselves into the pool. A space that is achieved for a certain purpose can’t be preserved in exchange for renouncing the objective: Once on the springboard, we can only jump into the water.