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My former colleague Jose Alejandro Rodriguez who aptly handles the Letters to the Editor section in the newspaper Juventud Rebelede (Rebel Youth), last Wednesday published the comments of a reader annoyed by the absence of beer in the snack bars and markets.
Since I noticed the absence of this refreshing liquid a couple of weeks ago, I supposed it would be difficult for anyone to venture to complain about its lack because, if he did so, the intrepid one would betray himself as a consumer of a product considered luxurious in our complex trade relationships.
I remember when our the first hard currency snack bar opened in our neighborhood and the commentators agreed that it would be counting on people who were spending their “bucks” on something that wasn’t a basic necessity. Life demonstrates that we were wrong. Despite the fact that a worker who earns 480 Cuban pesos a month has to work 8 hours to give into the whim for a cold brew, it’s clear that neither Cristal nor Bucanero can be considered privileges of the new rich.
If pitted olives were missing, or Norwegian salmon, maybe no one would notice, except for foreigners living in the country and a few others among the economically well-off, but it happens that there is an authentic popular complaint against the loss of domestic beer and Jose Alejandro has been the first to break the news in the press, although with the limitation that the complaint was directed against “the producing entities, distributors or sellers of beer in Cuba” and that “it’s past time when they should have explained the why so sudden disappearance.”
Why, in the midst of a campaign against secrecy, haven’t our media gone and knocked at the door of those who are obliged to give an explanation? Is it because from the top management of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation no one has sent down the order to address the issue? Or perhaps it’s because no official journalist dares to confess that he himself drinks a brew from time to time or has anything to do with those who do. I myself have been a victim of this unspeakable guilt complex that leads us to give the impression that we are not even aware that beer is missing.
The unborn body of this New Man, who failed among us, usually appears as a ghost to give us a fright when we are about to make a consumer misstep. Touch wood!
14 April 2014
Not a week goes by that we don’t receive a phone call from some Cuban prison to denounce physical abuses, denial of visits, lack of medical care and other outrages. The vast majority are common prisoners, men and women, many of whom say they have been politicized in prison. The majority consider themselves totally innocent of the charges that sent them to prison, others accept their responsibility for the imputed events but feel they’ve received a disproportionate sentence.
It’s almost impossible to verify these complaints and this desire for objectivity from which we suffer keeps us from talking about every case. Our greatest treasure is the credibility we’ve achieved among our readers, but every call provokes a dilemma that makes us see ourselves as egotists or cowards, after listening to a Cuban behind bars spell his name–so we will get it right–and state the name and rank of the boss of his prison, the person who denies him medications, suspends his visits, or sends him to the punishment cell.
However serious the crime committed, no citizen should be helpless against the abuses of power. Whose duty is it to protect their rights?
7 April 2014
In September of 2006 Dr. Jeovany Jiménez, exercising his revolutionary optimism, wrote a letter to the minister of Public Health to protest a ridiculous salary increase that didn’t correspond to the needs nor the expectations of the sector. The response was to disbar him from practicing medicine. Jeovany created a blog, and went to the extreme of a hunger strike. Incredibly, his right to practice medicine was returned to him.
I’m not sure if I should congratulate Jeovany, who is lovingly called “the Chinaman” by his friends. It’s true that in the entire labor history of Cuba, never before has there been such a high salary increase as will be received by public health workers as of this May. It’s clear that on this occasion it’s not about a ridiculous salary increase, because the increases in many cases double the original salary, but it’s also true that in the best of cases the increase received will be enough to buy six pounds of pork and a case of beer. Whether this is a luxury remains to be determined, starting from the esteem those professionals are held in, and what we think they truly deserve.
Over five years, Jeovany Jiménez sent a total of 20 letters, never responded to, to the Minister of Public Health and managed to collect 300 signatures in support of his request. Now they will tell him “that wasn’t the time” and that now all that remains is to show appreciation.
24 March 2014
The much discussed Cuban dual monetary system, which has distorted the economy for more than twenty years, seems to be facing its final days. Among the few reports that have been released, it appears it will be the CUP–the Cuban or national peso–that will survive, and the CUC–or Cuban Convertible Peso– that will cease to circulate.
In addition to the actual value of each of these currencies, they differ in that the differ in that if the CUP has a photo of a historical figure, the CUC has a sculpture of the same personage. Also on security issues, CUC far exceeds its alter ego.
The question we ask ourselves is whether there will be a change in the real value of money we earn as wages. How many hours will one have to work–once the money is unified–to buy a pound of spaghetti, a quart of oil or a beer?
We also wonder if we will continue to earn the same and if the prices of merchandise will remain the same. For example, if a refrigerator sells now for 500 CUC, will we have to pay 12,500 CUP for it. To ride the same distance that we pay 3 CUC for in a hard-currency taxi, now costs 10 CUP in an almendrone (the shared taxis for Cubans). How will the price be adjusted when we have a single currency?
The amount of cash that will have to be carried to the store will force the artisans to make larger purses, unless they print new denominations with values of 500 and 1,000 CUP. Rumors are already circulating about the faces we’ll see on the new bills. Juan Almeida and Vilma Espín are the favored candidates.
Although almost no one in Cuba has enough money, some will save the abolished chavitos as souvenirs, at least the coins, a good opportunity for the numismatists.
17 March 2014
I recently attended an academic event at the Felix Varela Chair. Lay Space magazine opened the doors of the old San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary for the public to freely participate in an exchange of ideas about the reforms undertaken by the Cuban government. I would have had a lot to say about the high scientific level with which they were addressing the problems discussed there, but for now I prefer to focus on a detail brought to light by a question posed by my colleague Iván García.
How is the “Loyal Opposition” defined? Loyal to whom, inquired the independent journalist. According to the panelist Arturo López-Levy, this concept finds its antonym in apostasy.
Although I collect them, I hate to fall into the facile habit of quoting dictionaries, but I have no choice but to refer to the first meaning of the term “apostasy” which is “the repudiation of Christ by those who have been baptized.” In a wider sense it’s appropriate to use it for a very wide range of meanings from resignation to treason. The trouble with synonyms is that the equivalence of meaning between the two depends on the context.
When the academic López-Levy attributes the adjective “loyal” to a certain kind of opposition and uses “apostasy” to refer to those who place themselves at the polar opposite of the opposition milieu, he is crossing a frontier in which those belonging to one or the other group end up identifying the loyal as traitors and the apostates as loyal… and vice versa.
The blame for this confusion lies not with semantics, but with history.
When opponents from exile or from the island support the blockade-embargo, including the Helms-Burton Act; when they receive financing from the “black beast” which is the Cuban American Foundation, or talk with that arch demon Carlos Alberto Montaner, they automatically fall into the list of on apostates from the loyal opposition.
The same can happen to anyone using the microphones of Radio Martí, visits the United States Interests Section in Cuba (SINA), or meets with some representative of the U.S. government, the only one in the world that has a legally structured program to overthrow the government of Cuba. They are betraying the Fatherland! And are denounced by the loyal opposition.
What Fatherland? The other side responds. The one that finds Socialist Revolution synonymous with the Communist Party and with the person of Fidel Castro himself? Will it perhaps be this fatherland that those on the other list claim to be loyal to? Does being a member of the loyal opposition mean belonging to a group of people who are not insulted or beaten by “the outraged people,” people who have never experienced a repudiation rally, who have always been able to enter and leave the country, and even give speeches at foreign universities?
People who have probably never been fired from their jobs, nor expelled from their classrooms, nor even been visited by the “friendly compañeros from State Security’s Section 21″? The ones who can count on an untouchable space and aspire to one day be designated as legitimate interlocutors from the powers-that-be?
Admission to this fiesta bears a high price, especially having the prudence that, once accepted, to never bother the landlord by warning him that out there are others dissatisfied, others with many issues to bring, claims, demands. Political correctness is to ignore this populace that fails to shed the nauseating odor of the dungeons and, better yet, from the prestige conferred by the condition of academic blamelessness, to accuse them of apostasy.
A socialist revolution is not a religious faith, “Revolution and Religion don’t rhyme,” the poet Herberto Padilla warned us. The first is the work of men, the second — I’ve been given to understand — has a divine origin. Those who deny their faith don’t fear going to hell, because they no longer believe in its existence. Those who disagree with ideological convictions that once embraces are simply exercising a civil and intellectual right that in my well-thumbed dictionaries is defined as to rectify. What can we say about those who never believed and from the start chose a different path.
I’m very familiar with another opposition that exercises a loyalty that has nothing to do with the submission of pets. Loyalty to the most pressing desires of their people, loyalty to justice and freedom.
14 March 2014
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