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Protected: The Joke of the New Man

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A headache for Cuban women

December 20, 2009 Leave a comment


Nothing is easy in Cuba. Even menstruating is a headache. If you doubt it, ask Marlene, a 23-year-old computer expert, who suffers when her period comes, every 28 days. On the island, sanitary napkins are known by the name, “intimates.”

They are rationed. They are sold in the pharmacies, to women previously registered, between the ages of 10 and 55. At the rate of one package of 10 sanitary napkins per head, once a month, at 1.20 pesos.

“They are awful quality, break easily, and don’t work. Then you have to buy them on the black market or in the dollar stores,” an angry Marlene explains.

“Under the table” the same packet sold in the pharmacies can cost 10-15 Cuban pesos (50 or 75 cents in CUCs). In the “shoppings”, or dollar stores, there is more choice and the quality is better. But for one package of imported sanitary napkins you have to pay from 0.90 to 1.30 in CUCs. Converted into Cuban pesos, the national money, that’s between 22 and 30 pesos. Twenty-two pesos is two days’ wages.

“It’s like a punishment for being a woman and bleeding every month,” Raisa, a 27-year-old housewife, says indignantly. “And if you don’t have “intimates,” you use pieces of old clothes, which you boil in hot water and put out to dry in the sun to disinfect them.”

According to commentary on the National Television News, In Cuba there are about 4 million women of fertile age. When interviewed, Gladys Vásquez, an official in Interior Commerce, the ministry that controls what is distributed by the ration book, takes the easy way out.

The same old thing. The Party line. The calamity of the Cuban economy is the fault of the “Yankee Blockade.” It’s to blame for everything. It’s the same if you don’t have potable water, a decent living place, your kids don’t have toys or women lack sanitary napkins. The fault lies with the “Blockade,” as they call the embargo in Cuba.

Young women like Yailén, 17 years old, a college student, ask themselves why products so necessary as sanitary napkins are sold in hard currency. The journalist does not ask the official this question, and if she had, I doubt she would have had a response.

“In Havana, everything is fine,” declares Suchitel, 32 years old, a shop employee. “In Santiago de Cuba, where I live, there are no sanitary napkins during certain months. If you don’t have money to buy them in hard currency or on the black market, then the options are to use rags, the leaves of some plant or a home-made tampon, put together with the cotton padding that they use for mattresses.” (There is also a shortage of cotton on the national market).

The same Gladys Vásquez, the official from Interior Commerce, recognizes that “deliveries have been incomplete, owing to the lack of prime materials, which are bought in China or France.” And of course she repeated the slogan: It’s the fault of the Blockade.

Many on the island are against the embargo. In addition to being inefficient, it has been a pretext for the Castro brothers to justify the country’s disasters for more than four decades.

Few believe that the day there is no embargo, there will be an abundance of ham and beef. Or that we will be able to buy Tylenol in the pharmacies. Or that high-quality sanitary napkins, like the Kotex used by Cuban women before 1959, will be sold on the ration book in the stores. With or without the embargo, the government lacks something: money. And the women, “intimates.”

The business of death

December 19, 2009 2 comments


In Cuba, everything is negotiable. Even death. This is what happened two weeks ago to the Qunitana family. Their mother, an elderly woman of 71, had died of renal failure. After the doctor certified the lady’s death, what the family lived through was a tragedy with overtones of black comedy.

The night of the wake, there was no water, and the ration of coffee allowed by the government could not be made. The guy in charge of making the coffee did not have enough gas in the stove and his coffeemaker was broken. The sad-looking fellow in charge of dressing and putting make up on the body did not have enough sawdust to stuff the recently deceased.

Five CUCs (convertible money=120 Cuban pesos) made the miracle happen, and the missing sawdust appeared. Later when it was time to buy the flower arrangements the tragic events continued. In the flower shop, a very sleepy and obese woman explained to them, grumpily, that she did not have the ink to write the names on the ribbons which would identify those who sent condolences.

The obese lady was going to return to her improvised bed, among faded flowers and roaches that infested the place, when a green bill with the red “5 CUC” changed her mind. At 3 am, at almost 1 km from the funeral home, they decided to walk along 10 de Octubre Avenue with the six flower arrangements on their shoulders, since there were no signs of cars for hire in the deserted street.

By morning, the state cars that had been previously rented arrived around noon. After expressing their condolences to the family, one of the drivers, a black man in his fifties who was smoking a cheap cigar, justified the delay by saying that “the gasoline truck had not arrived at the base.”

Just when everyone thought the mishaps had ended, a frightening downpour broke in the same instant that the funeral procession reached Colon Cemetery. One of the two gravediggers charged with performing a Christian burial for la señora Quintana, alleged that with “such a downpour we have to wait, I am catching a cold.” His work mate complained to the disgusted family that they had gone 27 hours without sleeping, and “I believe he has the H1N1 flu.”

All the relatives held their tongues and flinched as if they had seen the Devil himself. “Well,” said the elder son of the deceased, “he who hopes for much can wait a little.” One hour and a half after the rain stopped, they slipped 40 pesos under the table to each gravedigger, and la señora Quintana could finally rest in peace.

As a finishing touch, one of the gravediggers told them calmly that after two years they would have to come up with more money in order to place the bones in an ossuary and to have flowers placed on the vault.

“Only here, even after death, do you have to keep paying money,” shouted one of the upset sons of the deceased. The gravedigger, embarrassed, shook his head nonchalantly and pronounced the sentence: “Sir, business is business.”

Photo: Jack 1962, Flickr

Pretending to Work

December 18, 2009 2 comments

Hacer media–literally “to do half”–in Cuba means to do nothing. Taking “ten,” an opportunity, a break….gossiping about something that happened. Talking about the latest telenovela. Making fun of the bosses. Criticizing the government. Checking out the new girl or boy at work. Finally, just making do.

In any workplace on the island, people work in slow motion, at a snail’s pace. As if on a permanent strike. People get to work at 8 am, but if it is a service company, they usually open an hour later. Then they do the bare minimum. If you ask for or require any assistance, they put on an Al Capone face and answer rudely.

Nothing interests them. Neither the clients nor good treatment. Only that the 8 hours go flying by, in order to go home. And to see what they can steal from the workplace. A little oil, if they work in a food center; samples of shampoo or soap, if they are maids in a hotel. Paper, paper clips, if you work in an office. Cables, screws, a hammer or a hand saw, if you are a worker or a builder.

To work efficiently does not make sense for a Cuban. The pay is miserable and the State, which controls everything, does not offer incentives to do a good job. Thus, in the Socialist Republic of Cuba, most of the production and the services are slow and clumsy.

Three times more material is wasted to build something, since cement and rebar are stolen to try to make minimal repairs in homes. People are indolent for the simple fact that they feel cheated and mistreated by Papa State. The compensation: to steal everything they can.

The logic of the workers is simple and pure. If the government does not worry about them, then they don’t give a damn about the State and its problems. And everything is about daydreaming. Covering up. Pretending. Faking. Deceiving. In order to be able to appropriate the largest quantity of state goods.

Thus, in the middle of procrastination, theft and manipulation, “pinching” (working) the least possible, the work days go by on the Castro brothers’ island. It doesn’t matter that General Raúl dissuades us and demands that we work more and better, so that in the hypothetical future that never arrives. we can live like God commands.

The people are now tired of the same old story. Tomorrow they will applaud wildly in the Plaza of the Revolution, and later, in the afternoon, they will go back to being lazy. Making do. Seeing the time go by. Looking for what they can steal. And furtively taking a sip of rum or alcohol. All the rest can go to hell.

Eating in Cuba

December 17, 2009 1 comment

Bringing four plates to the table for four mouths is a mission impossible for Ana Carballo, 37, a teacher at a secondary school. With a little luck she gets a chunk of pork and some beans. But then she is missing the meat and the vegetables. And dessert? Forget it.

The food, as Cubans call the evening meal, and the snack for her children are her biggest anxiety. She gets up at 5 in the morning to buy bread on the ration book. A bread roll cost 3 pesos if it’s soft. If it’s hard, 10 pesos for the whole loaf, and 5 pesos for a half. “I have to buy extra bread on Mondays and Fridays, to be able to prepare the snack for my two children, 8 and 10,” Ana says.

The school snack is a puzzle for almost all parents. The children are in school for 8 hours and the lunch is a real hodgepodge. As a result, the little ones take bulging backpacks, as if they were going camping every day.

Tomás Díaz, 56 years old, driver for a business, takes advantage of his bosses’ minor negligence and with the State car takes himself to the closest farmers’ market, to buy meat, beans and vegetables. And if the money is flowing, one or two pounds of pork or a leg of lamb. Like Tomás, the number of workers who use the work day to leave and resolve the food problem is high.

Because the hours for businesses, shops and farmers’ markets don’t help in the least those who work for the State. They are usually open from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, but always, with the habitual sloth of our workers, they open a half-hour late and close 30 minutes early.

Even the official press, which usually sees everything through rose-colored glasses, has published reports on this subject. But nothing has changed. Any day of the week you can walk through the center of the city, and you will see the streets and shops full of people. Trying to get sustenance with the national money (the Cuban peso).

When some CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos = “hard” currency) fall their way, they’re used to buy bouillon cubes, seasoning, oil or some cheap sausage, like hot dogs (“little dogs”), made out of chicken – a pack of 10 costs 1.10 CUC, the equivalent of about 30 pesos, almost three times the daily salary of a worker. A typical meal for the poorer classes in Cuba is rice with black or red beans, and an egg in all its variations: fried, boiled, omelette, or scrambled. The middle class, composed of those Cubans who receive remittances or in some way manage to get hard currency (CUCs), is also used to eating rice and beans, but accompanied by pork meat or chicken, and a tomato, lettuce or cucumber salad. If they recently received dollars from their relatives, they can give themselves the luxury of buying the desired beef on the black market, or fish like sea bream or garfish, or shrimp.

The table of the upper class – government officials, successful artists and hotel managers, among others – has nothing to envy from their equals in Miami or Madrid at dinner time. They even have white or red wine with dinner. But these are the minority.

A large percentage of the Cuban population has to scratch their heads every day, and their pockets. And one more time draw out the count, to see if that night they can eat something hot. Beginning in 1993, when Fidel Castro took away the penalty on the American dollar, many Cubans could get food, clothing and shoes of better quality, almost all imported. Of course they couldn’t do it with the frequency they wanted, but when they had dollars, they got the consumer bug. If nothing more than to buy flat-screen televisions or computers.

Although, according to an employee in one of the shops at the Comodoro commercial center in Miramar, the elite Havana neighborhood, every time there are more prostitutes and Cubans, she can’t figure out where they are getting the money. They buy very expensive furniture, electronic articles and construction material to repair their homes.

At the other extreme is Lourdes Garrido, 59 years old, who only goes to the shopping centers to press her nose against the glass windows and look at what she cannot buy. She and her five-year-old grand-daughter go every Saturday to visit the shops in Havana, like Zara, Adidas or Mango. There they fantasize about the pretty clothing and the good perfume they would like to have.

While that moment lasts, Garrido and her grand-daughter feel happy and are satisfied that they can enter, free, into these exclusive shops and see things that for the moment they can only dream about. But they hope that some day they can buy them.

Josefina’s beans

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment


Josefina Miranda, a 67-year-old housewife, has worked her whole life like an animal. Her moments of happiness can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

She is a fat, soft, black woman with a weary gait, who lives in the marginalized, mostly black neighborhood called Diezmero, in the municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, northeast of the heart of Havana. She could not be more poor; she lives day-to-day.

She is always improvising. She has four children, three girls and a boy, but the Old Woman Miranda is the one with the last word in the concrete, aluminum-roofed hut where she has lived for 40 years.

Under the same roof live three distinct generations. The house has three narrow rooms with little ventilation. At the entrance, behind the door, there is a clay bowl full of necklaces and other smaller bowls with left-over food and cigarette butts.

“It’s an offering to Elegguá, to see if our lives will change. That is my struggle, day after day, cook to earn a buck and help my children and grandchildren who are working or studying in school. Later I watch TV, but by 10 o’clock at night, I am asleep on the sofa.”

She tells this story while rice is cooking in a big pot. She earns a small pension of 193 pesos (8 convertible pesos), which quickly disappear buying garlic, onions, green pepper, tomatoes and meat. Two of her children are in jail.

“The girl, because she was an accomplice to an armed robbery, is in Manto Negro, the women’s prison, outside of Havana. The boy, who is 34 years old and is the youngest of my four sons, is in the prison in Boniato, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, for killing cows.”

Josefa keeps talking without stopping her cooking. Now, in a pressure cooker, she prepares some beans that smell so delicious they make your mouth water.

“And that, even though I never have a ham bone, bacon, chorizo or blood sausage to make them the way they should be made.”

Miranda’s family life is boring and devoid of fun. The two daughters who live with her earn low salaries. When they get home from work, along with their mother, they prepare 12 or 13 servings of food that they sell in the neighborhood for 25 pesos. The only thing their husbands know how to do is to drink foul rum, play dominoes and fight.

“Here in my house, we love each other, a few are lazy, the women in this country bear the hardest burden in this miserable country. Look, on top of having to find food and cook to earn a few little pesos, we have to wash, iron and take care of children, grandchildren and also our husbands. They should dedicate a monument to us.”

The government of the Castros hasn’t thought about that. Cuban laws rarely favor women, no matter their age or status. When they divorce, the law calls for monthly payments to parents who are typically between 50 and 60 pesos (2 or 3 Cuban convertible pesos).

“That amount is a joke. That money is just enough to pay the cafeteria in elementary school,” says Esther, Josefa’s daughter, wryly.

Also family violence is increasing. Cuban society has touched bottom not only by its endless economic crisis, but by the social and moral devaluation as well. Cuba is a country where the majority of families are divided by the migratory exodus, the lack of stable marriages, the high number of divorces and domestic violence against women.

As a result, the misery and material shortages make many households small living hells. At the slightest setback, a storm will break. Whether a relative takes the bread that belongs to us from the quota or eats one of the 10 eggs assigned each month per person by the rationing booklet.

But so it goes. If anyone has suffered more intensely from poverty and disillusion for the lack of a clear future, it’s the Cuban women. In particular, if they are retirees and single mothers. Like Josefa Miranda, the housewife who lives in the humble neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón.
Life for her is an infinite vicious circle: Take the grandchildren to school, cook and try to get a handful of pesos to survive in the hard conditions of Cuban socialism.

Despite few moments of happiness, Josefa Miranda is attentive and hospitable to visitors. If you spend time in “Diezmero”, be sure to try her red beans. Without bacon, chorizo, or blood sausage. But they are finger-licking good.

Potatoes for free

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment


It spread like wildfire all over Cuba. Beginning November 1st, potatoes and split peas would be available without rationing. They would now be sold at higher prices than what they cost through the rationing system since the State would no longer subsidize their cost.

A pound of potatoes that costs 0.40 cents in Cuban pesos (less than .05 dollars) will be sold for one peso, and the cost of a pound of split peas would rise from .16 cents in Cuban pesos to 3.50 pesos (or about .20 dollars).

The measure has been carefully viewed by part of the population. As far as Noel, 56 years old and an employee of the power industry, is concerned, “I will have to see if the potato and split pea supply will work without causing a deficit. Personally, I doubt it.”

Like him, many people doubt the capacity of the “generous State” to guarantee quality and quantity. Estella, a 67-year-old housewife, is ready to blow her top. She receives a paltry pension of 194 pesos (around 8 convertible pesos or CUCs) “and if they free up a variety of food products and sell them according to supply and demand, the big losers will be us, the people at the bottom of the ladder who don’t receive one dollar in family remittances.”

For Marlín, a 35-year-old state employee, it doesn’t bother him that the ration book is going to disappear, “but I think they should raise the wages to cope with an immediate higher cost of living.”

In general, in Havana, those consulted want the famous ration book eliminated at the stroke of pen, but they have serious doubts about the inefficient State apparatus guaranteeing a steady supply of basic food.

The ration book, as it is known on the island, is a 10-page medium size booklet where entries are made by the clerks at the grocery store, bakery, butcher shop, or the milk store on the assigned day, week or month for one’s corresponding ration of rice, bread, eggs, or milk (it is worth noting that milk rations are only for children aged 0 to 7 years of age).

Every person born and officially registered in the Republic of Cuba has the right to purchase every month 7 lbs of rice, 3 lbs. of white sugar, 2 lbs brown sugar, 20 oz. of red beans and 20 oz. of black beans, also, a packet of spaghetti, and a half pound of vegetable oil and two 4-oz. packets of coffee. The sale of bread is rationed daily; one 80 gram roll per person.

The benefactor State gives every Cuban living in the “worker’s and peasant’s paradise” the right to buy, each month, 1 lb. of chicken, 10 eggs, half a pound of fish, 5 chicken hot dogs, and half a pound of horrible-tasting soy “ground beef.” To this socialist distribution, add one bar of bath soap and another for washing clothes that take from 2 to 3 months to reach the grocery or state stores.

Cubans have to make do with this war-time basket of goods. Under the best of circumstances, goods available through the rationing system last between 10 and 15 days if one eats in small quantities. The rationing system was implemented in March 1962: This is a Guinness record!

It should be noted that no food rationing system has lasted 47 years anywhere in the modern world. It appears that the government of General Raúl Castro wants to break that record. It is yet to be seen if the state can guarantee, without bumps, the distribution of food at prices that are not excessive. We’ll have to wait and see.

At the time, in the farmer’s markets visited in early November, neither of the two products that were in the news were available, for a population waiting for a laughable government gesture.

In the 1970s, Cuban children would chant a curious slogan: “Viva Cuba Libre, la papa por la libre.” [Long live free cuba, potatoes for free]. Decades later, that slogan has become a partial reality. There are potatoes for free. But freedom is another matter.

Photo: Adalberto Roque, AFP

Chronicle about a chronicle

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment


To be a reporter in Cuba is something like trying to be a tightrope artist balancing on a loose rope in an old traveling circus. To begin with, when one is an independent reporter, in addition to the string of insults that—generously and without rationing—are hurled at us by those in the government and State media, add the precarious conditions under which we undertake our work.

The first and greatest difficulty is that since independent journalism is prohibited by the Castro brothers, we have no access to reliable statistics and numbers. Frequently, by not having truthful data, I have to abandon some article or report that I am writing because I lack information.

One major obstacle, when I want to make a note or get a story, is that the people I consult, because of that irrational fear that has paralyzed Cuban society for 50 years, beg me not to identify them or their occupation.

It is nerve wracking. In that world that borders on the surreal, independent Cuban journalists undertake their work in the 21st century. Living for half a century in a closed society, where criticism and discrepancies are synonymous with personal enmity, has without a doubt tainted human relationships.

The misunderstandings come from all sides. Some proud intellectuals, who hold their heads high, distance themselves from the State information apparatus; they comment quietly among their friends that the lack of professionalism of some independent journalists can be seen in the stories they write and in their lack of objectivity by not including in their writing the opinions of independent thinkers. They are in the habit of judging harshly the role of the opposition and the blogging movement on the island. OK.

Recently, I wrote, for the digital page “El Mundo/America,” a chronicle titled “The ‘Other’ Yoanis” about four women I know who blog, because one way or another, most Cuban bloggers who began to write after 2007, whether they are official or not, look sideways at Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez’s blog. Either to attack or praise it.

Without a doubt, if we don’t believe all that string of nonsense that government propaganda wants us to buy, we have to admit that Sanchez is the anchor and star of the Cuban blogosphere. One hundred million hits per year provoke admiration in some and jealousy and envy in others.

Writing on the island is a highly risky job, even if on any given night they don’t riddle you with bullets as you enter your house, as happens in Colombia or Mexico. And for that same reason, because there is no bloodshed, some intellectuals and leftist politicos think that the Castros are not so bad. There is no blood, that is true. But the regime promises us many years of prison for writing our own thoughts.

In Cuba not only the government is intolerant. So are the opposition, independent journalists and bloggers. Some are as intransigent as the State officials.

So, to the point. I was telling you that recently I wrote a story about four women who blog: Claudia Cadelo, Laritza Diversent, Lia Villares, and Miriam Celaya. After a few days I find out that two of them, Miriam Celaya and Lia Villares, alarmed by my bad handling of information, issued separate denials. A good signal.

I recognize that Celaya has reasons. I made mistakes on dates and conferred a political position—to be in favor of the market economy—that she personally hadn’t told me. I apologized to her.

Villares, the other blogger, is in disagreement over a nuance. I wrote that her father is an alcoholic, a conclusion I came to from the 4-page profile she composed on her blog, where a couple of times she lets us know that her father has lost control by drinking more than he should. She was upset with my appraisal.

The point is not that she may have upset me. A journalist is not an amanuensis, and I don’t write to please anybody. What really worries me is how sensitive we are at times when we offer our opinions. Even when these are favorable.

We honest journalists commit mistakes. A lot. But I am not married to any party, ideology, or movement. I have a free hand to write what I think about any person, be his name Fidel Castro or a known dissident.

If my pen does not shake when I pass judgment on a government that considers it a crime to disagree with the Party line, I am not about to give in to persons with whom I agree, even if at times they show an intolerant face.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. After all is said and done, I am a journalist, not a mouthpiece.

Dawn* or Darkness?

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Even though Hugo Chavez, its creator, and the Castro brothers are beaming with pride about ALBA*, the free-trade agreement with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, the agreement has insignificant benefits for the people of Cuba.

The most notable benefit is that, thanks to the flow of oil that the folkloric President Chavez generously provides us with, in the last three years we have not had prolonged blackouts in Havana, which at their height would last up to 8 hours daily.

Five years after implementing the treaty with Caracas, the bright side is that we have some petroleum. Not too much, though, since in the second trimester of 2009, the Cuban government ordered a new notch on an already over-tightened belt, and asked for even more economy with the black gold.

The other advantages we would supposedly have do not exist.  In 2004, the Sole Comandante, delirious as only he can get, squinted his eyes—it’s almost as if I could see him now—telling us how Cuban stores would be filled with lots of merchandise and all kinds of food. And children would have no reason to whine because their parents would be able to buy them bonbons and other goodies. In a definitive manner, ALBA would make us economically independent. Of course, the common man on the streets was not fooled. He knows by heart all the Maximum Leader’s ravings.

Many foreigners now laugh and think one exaggerates when we enumerate the long list of promises and the bright future Castro I has been promising for half a century.

Let us review the list. Tubers and vegetables would be abundant. Let’s not even talk about how much milk there would be. We would no longer have to go to the dairy for it. Upon waking up in the morning, one would find on the patio or balcony of the house an exquisite midget cow waiting for us to milk her. Everyone would have pure and fresh milk to drink to his heart’s content.

There would be bananas for exporting. Coffee would be available in industrial-size quantities. Pork would be practically free. Cuba would be the closest thing to paradise. In San Julian, a community in Pinar del Rio, one could experience what it was to live in a communist society.  Not even Lenin attempted it.

All our dreams began to crumble, but not because the Comandante lacked good will. No. He had more than enough passion, but he lacked rationality. As always. No tubers, and no midget cows. Even that which we had produced for centuries, like sugar, we now have to import from the Dominican Republic.

The common Cubans on the street long ago stopped believing in the utopias and pleasant dreams of Fidel Castro. Now they are more cautious, if not skeptical. For now, no one in their right mind believes in the benefits of ALBA. It is understood that as a member of the trade agreement, one of the island’s contributions is providing health care.

Therefore, thousands of South Americans travel to Cuba for cataract surgery. Even the natives can now have their eye surgery in the morning and be home by the afternoon. Just like what happens in New York, Barcelona, or Zurich. Castro, of course, brags about this service.  But these types of surgical procedures are not news anymore anywhere in the civilized world because for a long time they have been successfully available.

What Cubans want is to see food in their pantries. They want to be able to have cafe con leche and buttered bread for breakfast. And for their children to have clothing and shoes. But that, they observe, has not been made possible by the much-praised trade agreement. Less rhetoric then, and more reality.

At this point, after 50 years of nonsense and waste, chimerical undertakings, and absurd plans, simple people do not bring up in serious conversation the supposed goodness of an alliance that has yet to show palpable results.

No one believed the lovely story of the Comandante in Olive Green, when one night in 2004, in a state of euphoria, he glimpsed a plethoric future for his subjects. Not even the children, to whom it never even occurred to ask their parents for bonbons.

*Translator’s note

The title—Alba o oscuridad, in Spanish—is a play on words. “Alba” is the Spanish word for dawn. The organization ALBA is the Bolivian Alternative for the Americas.

Photo: Claudio Vaccaro, Flickr

Trotski’s assassin, by Leonardo Padura

December 8, 2009 2 comments


In his last novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, the Cuban writer and journalist Leonardo Padura Fuentes tells the story of Ramón Mercader, the man who, with a pickaxe on August 20, 1940, fatally struck the head of Leon Trotski, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s fiercest opponent, and a discreet and cultivated man with a passion for dogs.

Padura read fragments from his new book in a discussion held Tuesday, November 23, in the Blue Heron room of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Considered one of the most talented writers on the Island in our time, the novelist was born in 1955 in the marginal neighborhood Mantilla, in the municipality of Arroya Naranjo, the poorest in Havana and the one with the highest crime rate in the country.

Without a doubt, Leonardo Padura is one of the good ones. And brave. Apart from his agile and sober prose, his novels show a sharp critique of the social situation. Since his first novel, Horse Fever, through his excellent biography of José María Heredia, and his documentary, The Faces of Salsa, made with Rigoberto Lopea, where they interviewed the mythic Celia Cruz, banned by Castro’s government even after her death, the writer of Mantilla has confirmed that he is a heavyweight in the literary world of the Caribbean.

Now he comes to us with a story that tries to get at the foundation of the life of the professional assassin and Soviet spy, Ramón Mercader, who was born to a Cuban mother and, as the author tells us in his book, died on the island at the end of the 1970s.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 23rd, there was a party. The small room was packed and afterwards the writer read three passages from his novel and invited the public to ask questions. A pleasant and substantive dialogue was struck up, where Padura, with his narrator’s gift, shared unpublished anecdotes.

Among these was how he came to be interested in the figure of Mercader. He confessed that when he was a student on the Isle of Youth, the son of Trotsky’s murderer was studying at the same school. Years later, in 1989, he had the opportunity to visit Culiacán, México, the house where the murder was committed. “There was a depressing, prison-like and Danteesque atmosphere.” He added that some months after his visit to the crime scene, the Berlin wall fell. And it was then that the doors opened to the beginning of an exhaustive investigation of Ramón Mercader.

But he found barely any facts. Then he had to let his imagination and logic take flight. According to the writer, Stalin, a textbook paranoid, ordered the burning of all the documentation regarding the preparations for the attack on his fiercest rival, Leon Trotski.

Despite the scarcity of information, the author of The Fog of Yesterday, obtained evidence that Mercader studied to be an assassin in the schools of the NKVD, the predecessor of the feared KGB, on the outskirts of Moscow and that after the crime, both Mercader and the official who directed him received the highest decoration of the Soviet State.

Without beating around the bush, during the whole colloquy, Padura made it clear that the perversions and horrors were not only Stalin’s but the Soviet system’s. A young writer who preferred to remain anonymous asked, at the end of the literary conversation, if Leonardo Padura, who in his work often makes none-too-subtle digs at the crisis of values in Cuban society, is paving the way to write his masterpiece on the figures and events of the Cuban Revolution.

Looking at his round, mixed-race face, adorned with a well-trimmed incipient beard, and with a voice tailor-made for storytelling, it seemed that his most important book is about to be written. We hope to hear good things from Leonardo Padura Fuentes.

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