Fifty years ago, on May 10, 1960, the Matamoros Trio, headed by Siro Rodriguez, Rafael Cueto, and Miguel Matamoros, performed in public for the last time. They bid their farewells on the program called Partagas Thursdays, one of the most popular Cuban TV shows at the time.
According to the Colombian investigator, Walter G. Magaña, “the silence which the Matamoros Trio was subdued in was not accidental. We must remember that on January 1, 1959, the movement headed by Fidel Castro had displaced the president Fulgencio Batista, and during that time period the leader of the Cuban revolution announced Cuba’s integration into communism (a year later, in 1961, he announced it to the world during the ONU)- a move which Miguel Matamoros was never supportive of. Therefore, in order to not musically represent a communist country before international eyes, he opted for silence”.
Magaña then continues detailing: “Everyone was aware of the sympathy that Batista felt for the Trio, thanks to all their compositions previously made against the politics of the dictator Gerardo Machado. In the 50’s, when Miguel Matamoros returned to the structure of the Trio with very irregular activity, Congress granted them economic help so their members could live decently, according to Jose Pardo Llada, the Cuban journalist who lived in Cali (and passed away in 2009).”
If such statements are accurate, the interpreters of “Son de la loma“, “El que siembra su maiz“, and “La mujer de Antonio“, along with many other famous songs, did not sympathize with the bearded revolution. In fact, most of them came from Oriente province, just like them.
But that anti-communism, or anti-fidelism, is not exposed to the public today in Cuba. The songs of the Matamoros Trio, just like those of Ignacio Piñeiro, Benny More, Bola de Nieve, and other great Cuban musicians, are among the most covered songs in the world. And the cultural authorities prefer to ignore it and just skip the page.
Political disagreements aside, in Cuba the Trio from Santiago is still very much venerated. Recently, in order to commemorate the 85 years since its beginning on May 8, 1925, in the Trio’s native city, Santiago de Cuba, Cafe Matamoros was reopened. Every two years that large city is host to the International “Matamoroson” Festival. The latest edition, in 2009, commemorated the 115th anniversary of the birth of Miguel Matamoros.
The version of “Lagrimas Negras” (‘Black Tears’) which Bebo Valdes and Diego El Cigala interpreted is well known in the five continents. But perhaps very few know that the woman who inspired this song was not Cuban.
In 1930, during a tour in the Dominican Republic, the Matamoros Trio witnessed an unexpected hurricane. The devastation was tremendous and the death toll was up in the thousands. The musicians returned to Santiago de Cuba in a Cuban military plane that had transported doctors and medicines to the Dominican Republic as humanitarian aid.
Impacted by the disaster, Miguel Matamoros first composed “El Trio y el Ciclon” (‘The Trio and the Hurricane’), and a few days after, “Lagrimas Negras”. The lyrics to this song were inspired by a lady that he saw crying uncontrollably in Santo Domingo. Her husband had abandoned her and between sobs she would utter that she did not care if she died because that man had been the love of her life.
Miguel Matamoros (1894-1971) was not only a talented composer and innovative musician, but also a chronicler of his era.
It’s noted that in June 1929, the Basque doctor Fernando Asuero (San Sebastian; 1887-1942) arrived in Cuba. He had become a media hit in Spain, Portugal, France, Argentina, and Mexico, among other countries, for having discovered a method to cure certain kinds of paralysis by pinching a nerve known as the “trigeminal.”
That “therapy” did not cure anyone on the island. But the volume of information about the doctor and his miraculous cures served as inspiration for Matamoros to write “El Paralitico” (‘The Paralytic’).
The Paralytic is an original and catchy son. But its lyrics aren’t as brutal as the “Cocainomana”, a song which Silvio Rodriguez made an excellent cover of.
Photo: jaramij, Flickr
Translated by Raul G.
Being a journalist in Cuba is like performing black magic. Investigating a story or getting reliable data is like trying to catch hold of a mirage. With a faltering voice, people whisper information to you that there is no way of confirming. I will give examples.
Having some drinks one hot night on the balcony of his house, an employee told me all about a dark, corrupt plot between the government and a foreigner at the firm where he works.
The following morning, now sober, I asked him if he would let me publish his story. He was frightened. “Please, remember that this business is my livelihood. If you write about this, I will be the first suspect, so, definitely no,” he told me.
It also happens with people who phone you to supposedly give valuable information. After agreeing to an appointment, in a park or central location in the city, what happens next seems like a mediocre espionage film.
The subject wears dark glasses and makes you walk three blocks. “Now bend, sit on a bench, stand, buy a Granma newspaper and wait in the coffee shop on the corner,” he’ll tell you wearily and automatically to your back.
Then, after he has vomited up his story, it seems so fantastic, it makes you laugh out loud. A pure conspiracy theory. “If you want me to write a line of this, you have to give me something more than just storytelling,” I say incredulously.
He promises to get videos. I haven’t heard from him again. It has a bad smell. Perhaps because of an agent of the political police. Once, a woman who worked as a maid of a famous person told me about the extravagant and wasteful life style of her master.
When I say that I would quote her using another name, she panics. “If the police question me, I’ll say you invented all this,” she says indignantly. Others think that a journalist is a blank check. “If I tell you what I know, how much would you pay me?”, they inquire with a greedy look.
And there are people for whom all legal options have been closed and they resort to dissident or independent journalists, to provide them a greater impact for their cases.
Sometimes they are navel-gazing. The story might be trivial. Such as creole squatters, evicted to live in empty houses. Or someone who wants to accuse the head of the union of their factory, who has been granted, by favoritism, a microbrigade apartment (built by the workers). The man thinks he deserved it instead.
At the other end of the scale of obstacles to working as a reporter in Cuba are the government agencies. Any request for data raises suspicion. I phone an office, to find out what percentage of whites and blacks there are on the island. The questioning begins: Who are you? Why would you want this data? Who authorized it?
In March this year, I went to Cardenas, the home of Elian Gonzalez, the former child rafter, now a military school cadet. I tried to interview him, and then I was hounded with questions. One of his guards said I had to get a paper signed by a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, or by the first party secretary in Matanzas or Havana.
Everything is too difficult in Cuba. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. Arranging a house. Transferring by bus around the city. But being a journalist is almost impossible. Still, I try.
Translated by: CIMF
During the last few years, Cuban places located outside of the island have exposed the production and consumption of catfish- that voracious species- in an unpleasant light, in fact, it has been stated that the environment may be at risk if we do not control the production of such a plate.
The issue already made headlines in 2006 as product of the documentary titled “Blue Revolution” which was made by a Mexican student of the International Cinema and Television School of San Antonio de los Banos, in the outskirts of Havana.
According to Jesus Baisre, the fishing industry adviser, two types of catfish were brought into Cuba between 1998 and 2000. These were the macrocephalus and the gariepinus, coming from Asia and Africa. The catfish were introduced in the country in order to increase the consumption of protein of the population.
“But the cure was worse than the disease because the catfish has become a powerful threat to the Cuban ecosystem”, argued Nibaldo Calvo who has a degree in economics and is a resident of Mexico.
Before 1959 the main fish consumed by Cubans was the biajaca. “In the ’70s they introduced the tilapia, which at first nobody liked thanks to its dirt taste. But seeing that there was no choice, we had no other option but to invent recipes so our families could eat it,” remembers Lidia, 67-years-old and a retired teacher.
Other exotic fish species that are consumed in the island, besides catfish, are Tench, Sea bass, Red Sea Bass, and the Chinese Grass Carp. On April 2009, during a workshop in Artechef, a restaurant of the Cuban Culinary Association in Havana, numerous elaborate plates were presented with various different kinds of fresh water fish, among them the catfish.
Someone who does not want to hear talk about “the catfish or any of those strange fish” is Jose Miguel, an 81-year-old grandpa. “It’s incredible that on an island surrounded by sea they have to spend money raising fish and that they have not been capable of allowing us the fish that we Cubans have eaten all our lives, like snapper, ruffle, swordfish, and the yellowtail snapper.”
The local press publishes information about the production and consumption of the catfish and some journalists acknowledge its dangerousness, especially when there are intense rains or hurricanes and the dams overflow and these fish escape.
But that occurs among the ecologists- nationals or foreigners- directly affect by the controversy.
The economist Calvo points out that the uncontrollable expansion of catfish in Cuba during the last decade “is provoking serious havoc among aquatic fauna and vegetation. The ecological equilibrium and domestic life is also affected because the catfish preys on tilapia and frogs and could very well introduce itself into subterranean caves, sewers, and household tubes.”
The fact is that the catfish- also known as the devil fish- is capable of traveling across land, thanks to very strong whips of its tail, in search of food outside of the water. Since it is carnivorous, if it is loose, it can swallow anything in its path: lizards, snakes, rats, and even birds, turtles, and small crocodiles.
There is not much worry right now for the population. Neither ecologically or with regards to food. “It must be known that no one has become sick or has died yet because of eating catfish. It is a dark and ugly fish, but its meat is white and tasty. When I have oil, I bread and fry the filets. Sometimes I also make croquettes which my kids love,” explains Roxana, 35, who works as an office assistant.
Just one kilogram of catfish filet costs around 39 Cuban pesos (1.50 dollars). “It’s very popular, it sells quickly. I get about 200 kilos and in two days it’s gone,” declares Dionis Cruz, a fish vendor in the capital.
Ana Rosa, 70 years of age and a housewife, defends the controversial fish: “They say that catfish eat rats, but if we have eaten cat stew, and cats also eat rats, eating catfish filet is now a luxury.”
During the difficult years of the Special Period (1990-2000), many Cubans substituted cats for rabbits, for once they are skinned there is no difference. If in home bathrooms they raised pigs, while animals were disappearing from the zoo and vultures had gone to look for food in household cooking pots, then eating catfish today is the most normal thing in the world. At least for Cubans it is.
Photo: Breaded catfish filet
Translated by Raul G.
It is organized for the weekends in the city of Havana. It takes place in public spaces, avenues or wide plots of undeveloped land. Trucks arrive and improvise points of sales- some sell directly from their vehicles, on boxes, on the floor. The offers vary: viands (potato, sweet potato, yucca, bananas), fruits, vegetables, meat derivatives, and hardware tools, among other things.
Local restaurants offer fast food under thick colored carps: fried chicken, smoked pork, and beer. Lunch-sellers with tall white hats and squared pants prepare pork sandwiches, ham, hot dogs, or breaded fish.
There are sky-rocketing prices. Just one kilo of papaya costs 20 pesos (one dollar). Black beans are 10 pesos per pound (half a kilo). Well, at least what is supposedly a pound. Manuel Montoya, 65 years of age, is retired. He always finishes stressed and with high blood pressure due to the displeasure he goes through when he has to purchase some viands and meat.
“Despite the prices, the sellers try to swindle you when they weigh the product. I always take a small personal weight and whatever I buy usually weighs up to two pounds less than those measures given to me by the sellers,” points out Montoya while he tosses around yuccas and sweet potatoes that are full of reddish dirt.
Hygiene is not the specialty of the viand, vegetable, and fruit sellers. In Cuba, agricultural products are not taken aside and cleaned. They are brought in bulk in bags and boxes and they get all mixed in platforms or on the floor, together with dirt, rocks, and bugs.
The Red Plaza of La Vibora, in the municipality of 10th of October, which is actually neither a plaza or painted red, and is nothing but a 260 foot wide street, is converted into a mixed flea market on Saturdays and Sundays.
Besides vegetables and other foods, they sell recycled clothes, plumbing products, and efficient light bulbs. The good stuff starts early in the morning. Refrigerated trucks that offer fresh fish for 15 to 20 pesos per pound arrive to the rhythm of Willy Chirino and Isaac Delgado, exiled Cuban salseros who live in Miami and are censored by state media.
They also sell turkey, chicken, and cured meats. It usually sells out very quickly. The lines are long and many people wake up very early to be one of the first ones.
Those people from Havana attend these fairs in mass. But they are very shocked by the abusive prices, like Josefa Cerdena, 60 years of age, and who is a housewife. “One mango is sold for 5 or 10 pesos, while a mamey is sold for 15 pesos,” says the lady with her eyes wide open. Other fruits, like guavas, oranges, and grapefruits are just as expensive. However, there is an abundance of potato, cabbage, and tomato.
Despite the fact that the aggressive June heat quickly decomposes vegetables and fruits, the prices stay just the same. They have a news series on TV that has criticized the inefficient form of commercializing these products and the scandalous corruption displayed by many of the vendors.
According to official sources, the decrease and devaluation of fruit and vegetable quality, over 750 thousand pesos (30 thousand dollars) is lost daily, in the capital alone.
We know where that money ends up. The majority ends up in the pockets of the administrators, while the minimum goes to the sellers.
Whatever the case may be, these weekend street sales are a relief for thousands of families. With pesos, they can purchase merchandise that they lack. It’s true that such fairs have a common denominator: the long lines.
Photo: Kirsty Stephenson, Flickr
Translated by Raul G.
When I first went to his home, what struck me most was an old glass cabinet. Inside, sorted by date, were national newspapers from at least ten years before.
Lacking a computer and Internet, this had been the main source of information for Arnaldo Ramos Lauzurique (b. Havana, 1942), an economist who believed in the revolution while he worked in state institutions. When he became disillusioned, unlike other Cubans, he had the courage to dissent even though he is old enough to be a grandfather.
Sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in April 2003, he is now the oldest political prisoner of conscience. But he is also one who has made the most use of his time behind bars continuing to carry out his profession.
In the lined or blank pages of notebooks, using pencils or pens, Arnaldo Ramos has continued to further analyse the economic and political situation of the island. One afternoon in August 2003, he sent a piece of work he had written to my mother, Tania Quintero. She typed it up and sent it out through a Spanish diplomat. It was entitled “Two lawsuits, the same author,” in which he compares the conditions of opponents jailed in Cuba with the five Cuban spies convicted in the United States.
“Cuba is very good” and “Cuba, between the Orinoco and Titicaca” are two of his texts that can be found on the Internet. The latter, about the libretas (the Cuban ration book), has just been published in El Mundo/América.
But perhaps one of the most substantial is “The so-called achievements,” written jointly with Manuel Sánchez Herrero, who died in 1999 and who was one of the founders of the Institute of Independent Economists of Cuba, created by Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello in the ’90s.
Like other Cuban political prisoners, Arnaldo has suffered abuse and humiliation by his jailers. In September 2004, his wife, Lidia Lima, denounced him and he then found himself in the prison at Holguín. After a search of his cell, Ramos was beaten with sticks, kicked and slapped by the appointed “re-educators” named Florencio and Batista. After the beating, they took him to the head of the prison, Israel Pérez, who also abused him and sent him to a punishment cell for five days.
The son of a Cuban father and a Spanish mother, Ramos Lauzurique was part of the group that in 1997 wrote “The Fatherland Belongs to All“, one of the most important documents for Cuban dissidents.
In his childhood and adolescence, Arnaldo lived in the room on Eagle Street, in Jesus Maria, one of the poorest and most troubled neighborhoods in the capital. This marginal environment did not stop him from studying and graduating university. This was at a time in our history when families like his raised their children with a premise now lost: that they were poor, but honourable.
Translated by: CIMF
The corner of 23 and L is the center of Havana. It is always lively. At any hour. Together, as if they were shaking hands, we have the Habana Libre hotel, the Coppelia ice cream parlour and the Yara cinema. There are too many blown bulbs amongst the neon lights of the cinema billboard which barely manages to announce a British film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
The cafeteria of the former five-star hotel chain Hilton, today the Habana Libre, full of lights and marble, is a rendezvous for girls on the hunt for a foreign boyfriend and bisexual guys who walk about with the same aim. There are also people with some purchasing power for foreign or domestic beer who watch football on large plasma screens in the bar. The cliques that support Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Holland and France are having a great time in the heart of Vedado.
There, in La Rampa, a four-lane street with sidewalks of granite, designed by famous artists, which begins and ends at the Malecon, are concentrated the best nightlife spots in town. In the arcade, right at the entrance of the building, is a television, fans gathered around it to watch the game in which Australia was humbled four nil by Germany.
The noise is tremendous. Although more bearable than the ‘vuvuzela’ on South African stages. The management of the Yara cinema announced that giant screens would be placed outside, so passersby can watch the semifinals and final of the Cup. And that Cuba is not in the World Cup.
Children and adults line up for two hours to get into Coppelia. The ice cream is no longer of the same quality as in years gone by. There is no strawberry nor chocolate ice cream in Cuban pesos. Only for hard currency. Opposite the parlour, a kiosk sells hot dogs 24 hours a day, for 10 pesos (0.50 cents to the dollar), with sufficient demand.
While many see the Adidas Jabulani ball moving around, few have noticed that the Castro brothers’ government is discreetly shuffling the deck. With his best currency exchange and negotiation playing card being the political prisoners. As has always been the case.
Already the opponent Ariel Sigler Amaya has been released from prison. In an ambulance, very ill. To date, twelve have been transferred to prisons closer to their homes. In vans with bars, escorted, they have been put in their new cells.
Foreign Minister Moratinos said in Luxembourg that in the coming days there will be more releases in Cuba. Probably. Maybe not. The list of the Castros is like a lottery. It depends on domestic issues, on the international situation or on the mood of the big bosses.
For Cubans who walk along La Rampa, the political prisoners are a distant issue and the releases are not news.
The government plays its cards close to its chest, skilfully keeping its movements hidden from the people. It does not want to alarm them. It prefers to keep people busy with football and two hours of queuing for an ice cream cone. Although there is neither strawberry nor chocolate.
Photograph: veo_veo, Flickr
Transalted by: CIMF
Carrying out any sort of political analysis or political prediction in Cuba is almost like an Indiana Jones adventure. The media does anything it can to misinform. They barely extract any bit of information from those in power. There is no way of getting any official statistics or facts.
When one is an independent journalist and the government does not approve of you, everything becomes much more difficult. Instinct and reading between the lines of official reports are common investigation methods.
Another way of trying to understand the reality of this island is if you have friends or sources who work for important organizations and they chose to whisper information into your ear. It is already known that Cubans are extroverted.
Well, back to the point. It is true that in Cuba something is moving. For the first time in 51 years the Castro government has given in to a group like the Ladies in White.
The strategy used by those in power was a very interesting one. They pulled the letter of the Catholic Church out of their sleeve. Using the church as a mediator and as a valid interlocutor has various interpretations.
They either pretend to win some time and sell the idea that the regime is willing negotiate certain political things, or in reality the economic crisis that has been plaguing us for 21 years, the decrease of foreign investments, and the empty treasury, are forcing the government of Havana to search for a negotiated exit with two heavy-weight actors: The United States and the European Union.
Castro, a charismatic statesman of unpredictable strategies, always confused Western politicians with his tricks. Just ask Felipe Gonzalez, Carlos Solchaga, or Jimmy Carter.
When you think you have him cornered and without defenses, he pulls a card out of his sleeve as if he were a magician. It turns out that this situation is different. Since July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro has lost a large portion of power.
And it has not been the dissidence that has opened the breach. It is the generals, those businessmen in the island who are ruled by his brother, who have taken over power.
Ever since the 1980’s, a portion of the military and intelligence sectors were allowed to establish certain businesses, and so started the beginning of the end for the monolithic rule of Castro I.
For years the generals have made money. They have hidden bank accounts and have become corporate men. They traded in their AK-47s for executive briefcases. The word comrade was traded for the word sir. And the rustic Soviet technology was exchanged for sophisticated first world equipment.
Those elite military men who control the few profitable businesses that function in Cuba prefer to drink Jack Daniels over our own rum. After a while, they traded in their traditional guayaberas for very formal suits with silk ties.
They have converted themselves into cut-throat capitalists. Their advisers studied marketing and speak about efficiency and profitability, costs and gains. They also like to keep some dollars or euros under the mattress.
It is precisely those generals who are really in charge during this summer of 2010. Fidel Castro is only a symbol. Very heavy. Perhaps the old guerrilla leader just pulls the strings of exterior politics.
But the economy is in the hands of the military. And they want certain changes. Nothing big, really. Economic freedom for the people. Firing a million workers in the inflated labor scene. They want to give autonomy to small and medium companies. They want to do away with the benefactor State. They want to lighten the load.
The military favors some liberalizations in Cuba for the simple reason that it would be a much more effective way of staying in power. They know that with hard-line and radical discourse, and with the huge crisis that faces the planet, business doesn’t work.
Internal peace is needed. Developed countries do not need to condemn the island. Then, they had to give in. And they used the church.
It is also possible that a number of political prisoners may be released. Not all of them. The regime needs prisoners like spare change. But it is the only way of keeping the determined Ladies in White calm.
The internal dissidence is not very worried about the generals who control the power. For various reasons. One of these reasons is that the opposition is deeply penetrated by the political police.
The other reason: they do not have a solid base within the population. They also do not have brilliant or charismatic leaders. That is why I think that the recent move by the Castros was conditioned by the pressure of a sector of the military.
What will be the next move? If the money does not continue coming in and the international pressure does not stop, there will be new sacrificial moves. The Castros still hold some winning cards in their hands.
But the deteriorated economic situation, which has not had any possible solutions mapped out, the disgust of a wide portion of the population, the poor rule of the leaders, and the huge monstrous bureaucracy all have the Creole mandarins cornered.
This summer promises some interesting things. Raul Castro has been on the throne for two years and has only implemented cosmetic measures. The situation which the country faces needs an entire package of wide reforms, from top to bottom.
The generals look at Vietnam. This Asian nation has achieved economic changes while maintaining its hard fist towards internal politics. Of course, Cuba is not an interesting market like China or Vietnam.
If the European Union or the United States continue with their politics of closed borders and deaf ears and if they don’t ease up in response to the liberation of only a hand full of political prisoners, then the government will have to change its strategy. This would most likely lead them to negotiate with a sector of the opposition.
The regime wants power and it needs financial oxygen. It will everything in its power. In politics, it’s all worth it.
Translated by Raul G.