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If an imaginary group of Cubans, isolated from all information since 1984, had been shown the movie Conduct today to bring them up to date on reality, they’d have escaped the theater sure that the film falsified the situation: that it was trying to show a pessimistic and counterrevolutionary version of their country.
But that’s not how the people reacted coming out of the theaters, wiping away their tears, their hands red from so much clapping. Especially those Havanans who saw projected on the screen the reality that hits them: their own neighborhood in ruins, the alcoholic neighbor with a child practically abandoned, the lack of ethical values, the police corruption, the discrimination against Cubans from other provinces, the physical misery on every corner, the moral misery in every opportunist.
Fortunately Carmela remained, the retirement-age teacher who, despite having seen her children and grandchildren emigrate, preferred to remain alone on the island, and in her classroom “as long as I can climb the stairs,” because she’s convinced she has the strength to help those kids in need of love and understanding.
Splendid cinematography and excellent editing support a script whose author, Ernesto Daranas, also served as director. Nowhere do the hackneyed topics of Cuban cinema appear: the mockery, the jokes with double meanings, the rain, folkloric touches, sexual exhibitionism and official messages.
But the biggest absence in Conduct is “the New Man,” whom those hypothetical Cubans, asleep or in a coma, conceived even up to the mid-’80s and who they would have expected to see incarnated in this work bringing them up-to-date. The children that those imaginary viewers would insist on finding in the film would be educated children and not those foul-mouthed coarse bullies; the schools would be equipped with laboratories and the houses would appear comfortable and safe.
There would be no dog fights, nor strung out women prostitutes, much less the drama of Carmela facing an attempt to fire her for protecting a student threatened with being sent to a reform school for defending a girl who dared — let’s hear it for audacity! — to place an image of Cuba’s patron saint on the wall of a classroom.
The producers didn’t create an artificial space in the studio in the style of The Truman Show, nor was there some antique store where they found the school desks and blackboards, nor did they make a citadel out of cardboard. The director didn’t have to carefully teach the actors — kids, teenagers or elderly — linguistic models and formulas far from their own personal experiences. Perhaps it was because of this that the audience, after long lines to get into the theaters where Conduct is showing, so identified with it, felt so excited. Because of this and because those present in the movie theaters haven’t spent the last 30 years sleeping, but rather starring in this tragedy.
21 February 2014
Overwhelmed by the flood of information about Venezuela, we Cubans are hanging on everything that’s happening. We tune in to shortwave radio stations, try to find something moderately objective on the Internet, listen to what someone who has a relative on a “mission” there says, and try to catch on the fly some detail that has escaped the news on Telesur. Venezuela concerns us as if it were all happening in Holguín, Cienfuegos or Pinar del Río.
Cuba’s fate is intimately tied to what is happening in Caracas not only because of the threat that its subsidy to Cuba will disappear, or that some Cuban, a doctor, or sports instructor, or soldier, could die in the midst of the confusion. We are mixed up in these events because, saving a few differences, we are filled with the feeling that we are looking in a mirror.
In this reflection of delusions we are finding everyone: the opposition, the ruling party, those who have nothing to lose and those afraid that the blackouts will start again, the persecution and the repression, civic and military… everyone.
The storm could pass in a few days or unexpectedly worsen. The echo of either situation will reach us and not by the fluttering of the butterfly’s wings, but because, like a poet said, “We are sewn to the same star,” one to the other.
17 February 2014
As of ten days ago, according to the Chinese horoscope, we’re living in the year of the horse, more precisely, the wooden horse. Many are the prognostications perceived by specialists in different spheres of life and for distinct signs.
Like the good pig that I am I see everything more relaxedly and, although I am not attempting any kind of international contamination between the East and West, the first thing I think is of the most famous of the wooden horses: the Trojan!
In this 2014 that began with the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, when the European Union is preparing to lift the restrictions of the Common Position, now that millionaires of the exile feel inclined to invest in Cuba, one wonders if the wisdom of Odysseus will bear fruit in this Caribbean Troy, if the walls will have to be partly demolished to let the artifact through.
As a curiosity, I have to add that throughout this whole process initiated in 1959 it is the first time that we have had a Year of the Wooden Horse.
10 February 2014
Following the best tradition of Cuban humor, based on mockery and desecration of the human and divine, we have baptized the Cuban Telecommunications Company SA (ETECSA) with a different interpretation of its initials: We are Trying to Establish Communications Without Trouble*.
The assignment of the nickname is based on the slow, deteriorating, negligence and other known evils of the State sector that weren’t left behind with the old “13th of March Telephone Company” which, despite the clarification, it was never explained to the people why the entity was stripped of its patriotic name referring to the date a group of revolutionaries attacked the Presidential Palace in 1957.
However, I have to confess that we fall short in the joke because ETECSA goes far beyond technical failures and human forgetfulness. Whenever some event is held in the country that attracts international attention, whether it’s the arrival of the Pope of the holding of a high level meeting, the fixed-line and cellphones of certain people begin to suffer from unexplained interruptions. For example, they can’t get calls from abroad, they lose the ability to send text messages, and in extreme cases the line goes down.
This method of repression leaves no physical mark on the victim and so is practically unprovable for the purposes of a complaint and demand. It’s so slight that it’s barely worth complaining if we compare it with beatings, raids, repudiation rallies, arbitrary detentions, and other variables to which opposition leaders, civil society activists, independent journalists, bloggers and the whole family of protestors have become accustomed.
At the moment there is nothing nice that occurs to me to rename ETECSA once again, perhaps We are Trying to Establish Communication Without Authorization, but it doesn’t sound original and, what’s worse, it’s not funny.
*Translator’s note: Following the Spanish initials it is Estamos Tratando de Establecer Comunicación Sin Apuro.
7 February 2014
The host country of the Second CELAC* Summit proclaims on its public billboards the principle of accepting diversity within unity. The invited guests should know that the main purpose of the Cuban government is that the other members of the Community should accept a peculiar feature of Cuba which makes it different from the rest: that within the Island political diversity is not accepted, and much less are those with political positions distinct from the ruling party able to meet in an Alternative Forum to debate in a parallel way the issues of concern to the Summit.
*Community of Latin American and Caribbean States
27 January 2014
The official media recently reported on the situation in Thailand where the authorities have declared a state of siege, prohibited meetings, established censorship and eliminated several citizen rights. Without the slightest shame, the announcers on Cuban Television News declared themselves shocked by these horrors.
Right now in Cuba, on the eve of the celebration of the Second CELAC Summit, no official institution has decreed any type of special situation, however they have unleashed a wave of arrests and threats against all those who try to gather between the 28th and 29th of January, which are the days the great event will take place.
With complete certainty, the Cuban delegation will happily show its guests a peaceful country where no one protests about anything, even though there is no decree of a state of siege or anything like it.
The truth is, it’s not necessary to take any kind of extraordinary measures. Here there is a permanent Thailand (as that country is now), and if the leaders attending the Summit support fighting against poverty they will admire the Cuban example where not a single beggar will be seen (they’ve all been relocated), nor will they encounter any prostitutes or pickpockets.
I dare say they can be sure that they won’t even see a teenager wearing the school uniform incorrectly, because here we have all been warned… be careful of what you say in the bread line, don’t even dare sneer at a police officer, nor sell anything on the black market. If you suffer from gas, hold it in, knowing that any alteration to the public order could be extremely suspicious.
24 January 2014
It’s rare that one finds a paragraph with so much substance with which to disagree. I would start by clarifying that what is countered should not be the efforts to disseminate specific ideas — something relatively easy to achieve with the traditional methods of confiscating books at the airports, blocking Internet pages, suspending telephone service or, as a final resort, unleashing the brutality of the rapid response brigades. No, the real challenge would be countering the ideas in question.
But the paradox is that, to reaffirm the vitality of the ideology that has “scientifically” proven the inevitability of socialism, one has to find a creative conception capable of theoretically sustaining the viability of socialism under current conditions in Cuba. Perhaps these paradigms of the century before last have lost their vitality and are now insufficient.
So as not to be too long-winded, I’ll pass quickly over the affront of equating the poet José Martí with Vladimi Ilych, which is like confusing love with hate or tolerance with resentment. What should not be passed over is that this pig in a poke is trying to set itself up as the only alternative offering equality and justice for all; and knowing the kind of equality and justice we can expect from such a system, we should be even less inclined to ignore it.
This is the second occasion on which the general who rules the country has launched an appeal to the intelligentsia in order to generate a foundation for what is already approved in practice, in this case the Guidelines of the 6th Congress. This should have been the work of the Party Conference (!) which, by the way, should have been held before the Congress.
This is forcing the master chef to swallow a rancid and badly chosen sauce and then asking him to write the recipe, as if it were an innovation, and all this to prevent the diners from enjoying the pleasures of new flavors.
6 January 2014
I was eleven on a day in August 1958 when my neighbor Ermeregildo, with tears in his eyes, received his son Jorgito who had arrived covered with bruises after a torture session at the police station in Camagüey. The father of that young man, who was a member of the 26th of July Movement, was a Batista supporter and never stopped saying, between sobs, “The General has to know what barbarities are going on here.”
The general who rules us today has many Ermeregildos who think that he, also, is not aware of certain atrocities, especially with regards to acts of corruption and disrespect for human rights. They assert he is pragmatic and attribute to him a deep paternal feeling for his children and grandchildren; they say his abrupt outbursts are due to so many years surrounded by soldiers; they assert that he prefers to work in a team and even plays the piano very well.
The fault, the grievous fault for the problems of Cuba, cannot be carried by a single person, nor even by the small group of octogenarians who survive at the helm of power under the epithet “the historic generation of the Revolution.” But blame is one thing and responsibility is another.
Those who seek to monopolize the glory of what they exhibit as achievements, should take the responsibility for what only deserves to be called failures.
If there is another Raul I haven’t had the opportunity to meet him. The one I have news of is a man who was looking the other way when his brother committed the errors he now seeks to rectify. The one I know is the one who orders arbitrary arrests and beating, the one who obstinately resists bringing reform to the political camp, the one who proclaims a war without quarter against secrecy and then issues circulars prohibiting the publication of this or that issue.
Ermeregildo declared to me that the general is not to blame. Right now he is writing him a letter to let him know what’s going on.
9 December 2013
Wandering along San Lázaro Street, I encountered a man with a wheelbarrow. It was just when I needed a friend to move two bags of sand to the home of a relative. His human-powered vehicle was a hybrid of scooter and a wheelbarrow, constructed with huge roller bearings, but instead of four he only had two on the front; the bottom was a structure made from rebar covered with a kind of mesh used in chicken coops.
After agreeing on a price, we walked the seven blocks separating us from the site where they sold building materials. On the way, I noticed that his wagon wasn’t empty, but contained two objects difficult to define.
“And what have you got there?”
“Aluminum, to sell as raw material.”
“But what are those aluminum things?”
“Now they’re junk but they were gas meters.”
“Oh! I get it! Surely this is part of the plan to replace the old meters with newer more efficient ones… and how did you come by these old meters?”
“These aren’t old, they’re new. Can’t you see they’re aluminum. What happens is I smash them with a sledgehammer to make them unusable, and then they accept them from me as raw material.”
For a moment I ran out of questions, in fact even out of words. Finally we put the two bags of sand on the vehicle and retraced the seven blocks to the home of my friend’s relative. Before leaving I asked him,
“And what happens if the police catch you with the smashed meters?”
“I don’t know. They’ve never caught me. Surely they would tell me something about I’m transporting objects of dubious origin. But what’s that got to do with it? Your sand is of dubious origin and I myself have no official address here in Havana so I am also of dubious origin. Come on, man, are you going to tell me there is something in this country that isn’t of dubious origin?”
25 November 2013
Early in the morning the program “Good Morning” featured a segment called “Good Sense” dedicated to the topic of how Cubans behave in public places. Sports facilities, lines, buses and others.
There were man-on-the-street interviews and phone calls. They talked about public insults to referees and athletes, what happens at concerts at La Tropical where things may end with machetes, they mentioned family violence as well as in schools where children are often the victims. The “celebrity” guest was a psychologist who explained the different kinds of violence, including physical, where she enumerated insults, threats and intimidation.
After listening to the usual opinions about how education should be shared between the school and the family, and some on-street interviews, I found stunning the absence of any discussion of a transcendentally important issue when talking about violent and aggressive behavior by Cubans in public: that is, the repudiation rallies.
How can the official media criticize a behavior that is promoted by government institutions without making any reference to this obvious contradiction?
Fool that I am, I turned to the telephone numbers displayed on the screen to solicit audience opinions. I had the good fortune to be dealt with by the program director (or by a woman’s voice who identified herself as such). Trying not to fall into what I was criticizing and as moderately as I was capable of, I snapped at the poor woman my concerns. She thanked me for my participation in the segment and I, fool that I am, continued to stare at the screen until the final goodbyes, without hearing any mention of my opinion.
I already said I was a fool, don’t remind me again, but even if I’d tried I couldn’t have written this post without some commentator criticizing me for having kept my opinions to myself.
In the end, I’m left with this question: Isn’t it a demonstration of violence to use the power of the editors to annul my humble participation?
11 November 2013