There is a bit of a soap opera in the life of Omara Portuondo. The diva of the Buena Vista Social Club was born on October 29, 1930 in the Havana neighborhood of Cayo Hueso. Her mother, Esperanza Peláez, belonged to a rich family of Spanish ancestry, and hoped she would marry a white man, solvent and with a high social position.
It didn’t happen. She ran away with a tall, handsome, baseball-playing black guy. In the society of the time it was a sacrilege. Then they lived a romance right out of the movies. To her parents and friends she hid her marriage to a black man. If the couple met on the street they didn’t look at or greet each other.
His name was Bartolo Portuondo and was a world-class baseball player who played as an infielder in the Negro Leagues in the United States between 1916 and 1927.
Bartolo also dabbled in the winter baseball classics in Cuba. The father of the future “girlfriend of feeling” was born in the province of Camagüey in the 19th century. He was a friend of the national poet Nicolas Guillen and a lover of good music.
From her childhood, music was a daily occurrence in the Portuondo home. Lacking a gramophone, her parents sang songs and their three daughters who, bewitched, listened from their small wooden chairs while they ate.
At age 15, a teenager, Omara broke into the world of sequins. She tried her luck with dancing, following in the footsteps of his sister Haydee, a member of the prestigious dance company of the Tropicana cabaret.
Much later Omara would recall, “It was a very elegant, but it made no sense for me. I was a shy girl and was ashamed to show my legs. “
Her mother persuaded her not to let the opportunity pass. And so she continued, beginning a career as a dancer who came to form a partnership with the famous dancer Rolando Espinosa.
But what really belonged to her was singing. Weekends, alongside her sister Haydee, she sang American jazz with Cesar Portillo de la Luz, Jose Antonio Mendez and the pianist Frank Emilio.
Suddenly she was overcome by the feeling. When she debuted, at the end of the ‘40s, on the radio, she was presented as “Omara Brown, the girlfriend of feeling.” The name stuck, but not the nickname in English.
In 1950 she was part of the Anacaona orchestra, composed of women. And in 1952, again with Haydee, she joined with a couple of mulatas with the voices of goddesses, who would later become sacred cows in the Cuban singing world: Elena Burke, the lady of feeling and later the mother of Malena Burke, and Moraima Secada, the aunt of the Cuban-American singer Jon Secada.
Accompanying them on the piano was Aida Diestro. The Las D’Aida Quartet made history. They recorded an album with RCA Victor and shared the stage with giants like Edith Piaf, Pedro Vargas, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve and Benny Moré.
They also accompanied the fabulous Nat King Cole, when he performed at the Tropicana cabaret. As a soloist, Omara accompanied Ernesto Lecuona, Isolina Carrillo and Arsenio Rodríguez, among others.
Her debut solo recording produced with Black Magic was recorded in 1959, the same year that Fidel Castro took power. Three years later, they were on tour in Miami with Las D’Aida Quartet when the missile crisis broke out.
They returned to Havana. Portuondo continued with the group until 1967. Since then she has sung solo, and sometimes, she shares her voice with other performers, as in 1970, when she sang with Aragon Orchestra. She has successfully participated in international festivals.
Omara Portuondo is a versatile performer. She can sing both the rumba and the guaguancó. From a bolero to a ballad. Or a cappella. She is complete. Her version of “She was giving birth to a heart” by Silvio Rodriguez is proverbial.
She has swing, technique and heart. Anyone who has heard her sing boleros knows what I mean. When she sings “Twenty Years” by Maria Teresa Vera she calls forth tears from old men. And not so old men.
When the German Wim Wenders and the American Ry Cooder were traveling through the dirty slums of Havana, in the sidecar of a Russian motorcycle, looking for forgotten musicians for the album and documentary Buena Vista Social Club, they always had in mind a diva. It couldn’t be anyone else but Omara Portuondo.
With Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, and the pianist Ruben Gonzalez, she went around the world and won several Grammys. The last, in the Latin version of 2009, for the best tropical album.
At 80, Omara has not given up. Go, pearl. She is one of the essentials of Cuban song. Her voice is still lush, as it was in those days when she sang with her parents in the living room.
In Cuba, many things are lacking. But we have Omara Portuondo.
In the Havana of the ’80s, many of us young people were living without a future. Between guitar chords and conversations, at the foot of the bust of Jose Marti, at the entrance to the La Vibora Institute, we gathered at night to drink alcohol diluted with water, which cost 5 pesos a bottle from the house of a black woman, Giralda.
I took a blow. I don’t remember what the dissident picketing boys were protesting with a way of life that tried to turn us into Revolutionary leaders, but I borrowed a book by Mario Vargas Llosa, covered with a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar and laughing like a hypocrite.
It was the City and the Dogs. At that time, so as not to attract attention, people used to cover the “banned” books with Revolutionary covers. I read it in one sitting. And now I confess I never gave it back. I was seduced by the Peruvian writer to the point that I have reread it at least ten times.
Later, when they threw me out of History class because I disagreed with the professor when he assured us that, for capitalism and the Americans, their days were numbered. I went to the school library. Hiding there, I read The Green House, published in 1965, the year I was born.
Nearly two decades later, one dark and warm night, I was going home when a police patrol, after searching me and checking my ID, with a big heavy Russian flashlight, reviewed in great detail the book I was carrying.
“Whose book is this,” asked the angry nervous officer. I thought of answering that he could see with his own eyes who the author was, but he was in a bad mood and I didn’t feel like sleeping in a cell at the police station that night.
“The author is a friend of the Revolution,” I lied. “He tells the story of an attack on Trujillo, the Dominican tyrant.” It was the Feast of the Goat. The cop looked me up and down disdainfully, and then threw open the door of his Russian Lada and told me, “Disappear mulato, the oven’s not for cupcakes.” It was March, 2003.
Eight years earlier, in 1995, I had started as an independent journalist at the Cuba Press agency. In this time I’ve had a number of inspirations. My mother, Tania Quintero, who gave me her love of journalism. Raul Rivero, poet and teacher of the craft, with his agile prose. Reinaldo Escobar, deep and analytical. Luis Cino, for his culture and mastery in Spanish. Claudia Cadelo and Laritza Diversent, two blogging lionesses.
But there are some special people who engage me to the point of delirium with the way they write.
At first, I tried to imitate them but over the years I learned that the bar had been set too high. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Alberto Montaner are two of those. Mario Vargas Llosa is the other.
A couple of days ago I was walking with a friend to my daughter’s house and a cop car stopped us and asked for our IDs. Dog-faced like the usual Cuban police. They frisked us on the public street like common thieves. They wanted me to open an envelope with some magazines a Brazilian friend had sent me.
Accustomed to this, one sees it as something normal. If you are young, have a backpack, or are black, you have all the characteristics the cops look for to ask for your ID.
They check us out and call us into the central computer to see if we have records. We come back clean. But in my case I hear one of them say, “The subject has a high and worrying standard of living.”
The officer looked be over carefully, on good and dressed in cheap and sensible clothes. Maybe he thought he’d made a mistake. When he handed me back my documents I asked him what that term meant.
“It signifies people who live well but don’t work.” And is that a crime, I asked. “It’s against the rules of this society,” said the official sitting in the latest model Lada.
Before leaving I wanted to know: And what if the person receives money from abroad? What it they follow the same absurd laws despite the government’s call for self-employment and a million people who are going to become unemployed?
Now his face showed contempt. “And why do you want to know so much? Maybe because you are a lawyer and a journalist?” He put the car in gear without waiting for my answer.
In their control of the citizens, the agents of authority blatantly violate the rights established in existing laws. It so happens that neither the police or the ordinary people know what they are.
Ignorance with respect to Cuban laws is proverbial. It disturbs me that the police open a file on someone because they are able to maintain an acceptable standard of living without stealing or violating the laws.
According to the island’s owners, anyone who doesn’t work for the State and who eats lunch every day and who, on the weekend, spends time with their family, calls attention to themselves and needs to be watched and investigated.
The rigid police bureaucracy keeps their accounts. Those who work receive some 20 euros a month and with this salary they cannot afford these “luxuries.” According to the authorities, someone who works 8 hours cannot drink name brand beer, eat at good restaurants, fix their house or buy a plasma TV.
If you receive money from abroad, even if it is justified, but you’re not working for the State, you’re always on a knife’s edge. The suspicions of the police and some of the informants of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) fall on these people, whom they think of as possible suspects, for supposedly having a higher than average purchasing power.
Nobody on the island may have a high standard of living if it is not authorized by the regime. This causes many people to live surrounded by paranoia and phobias.
I know a friend, a ministry consultant, who advised me throw trash in bags of nylon that are not so transparent, so that neighborhood informants do not know if I use products purchased in foreign currency. He gave me a camouflage manual. Participate in activities of the CDR. Give soap to the snitches on your block. And never drink beer or eat at places near your home.
I refuse to live with that guilt complex. I’m a journalist and I make money with my work. My family lives in Switzerland and sacrifices sends me money.
Only in a closed and sick society like Cuba’s could it be dangerous to eat twice a day, take private taxis for ten pesos, and try to make sure your daughter lacks nothing.
So I’m living all wrong. The Russian TV I have in the living room broke years ago. If I have not thrown it out it’s because I use it as a place to put the books I’m reading. In the photo you can see that. Next to it, the old fan.
I aspire to live better. But above all I consider myself a free man. And that is where a person can be dangerous in Cuba. Precisely that question.
Since October 2009 Ivan has received money for his contributions to the on-line edition of El Mundo/América, most of which goes to the apartment where he has lived since 1979, which is in very bad repair. He need to fix it so that his wife and daughter can come to live with him (currently they both live in her mother’s house). He needs to fix the wiring and kitchen, and purchase materials to fix the bathroom. A lengthy and costly process, delayed now for several years, because in addition to the kitchen and the bathroom, the apartment has a living/dining room, three bedrooms, a hall and a terrace. After it’s all fixed and painted he will need to buy furniture, little-by-little, as poor people in Cuba do these things. The rest of what he earns goes to support his 7-year-old daughter; so that his mother-in-law, a cook, can buy food; for internet cards (every two hours costs 15 CUC and he needs an average of three to four a month because, as you can see, he is an independent journalist who writes from Havana), and to change 20 CUC for pesos to pay the rent, light, telephone, gas and water, and to be able to take a private taxi costs ten pesos. When I can I send money from Switzerland (I receive the minimum pension of a retiree and political refugee), which goes to help my granddaughters and my 90-year-old uncle. (Tania Quintero)
Anyone who claims to be from Havana has visited, at least once in their life, the old baseball stadium in the majority-black marginal neighborhood of Carraguao, in Cerro.
On October 26 it will be 64 years since the Cerro Stadium opened. One Sunday in 1946 it opened with a game between the Almendares and Cienfuegos clubs. At that time the stadium had a capacity of 30,000 fans.
Built at a cost of 2 million pesos, and headed up by the shareholder Bobby Maduro, the brand new headquarters for winter ball in Cuba started with four teams: Almendares, Havana, Marianao and Cienfuegos. Through the gates of the old place have passed the great stars of the national past-time.
From the immortal Martin Dihigo, the first Cuban to enter the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, to Orestes Minoso, Roberto Ortiz — who hit the first home run in the new stadium — Camilo Pascual, Luis Tiant, Pedro Fomental Agapito Mayor, Hector Rodriguez and the spectacular shortstop Willy Miranda, among many others.
Many players from the United States and the Caribbean, which were then stars in the Major Leagues, also played in the sacred precinct of Cuban baseball. The formidable American black pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige, and the man who was later a famous manager in the majors, Tommy Lasorda, drew applause in the stadium of the capital before 1959. Gringo sluggers Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas also stepped on this lawn when they were amateur players.
But not only baseball has been played in the big stadium. In the 1940s club matches were held for Spanish soccer league, such as Atletico Madrid and Celta Vigo, in the early 1960’s, the Brazilian Botafogo. Joe Louis, the “Detroit Bomber” and professional heavyweight champion of the world, fought there against the Cuban Omelio Agramonte.
The Mexicans Armillita Perez and Silverio staged a bullfight there. And an unprecedented event was when Sonja Heine, a famous Norwegian figure skater, performed her show on the ground turned into ice.
In 1957 the stadium hosted the Festival of 50 Years of Cuban Music, with the participation of Cuban artists living in other countries — Antonio Machin was one of them — and foreign guests such as the Puerto Rican Tito Puente and the Chilean Lucho Gatica.
In 1960, Fidel Castro changed its name to the Latin American Stadium. Then, in 1971, following the celebration in Havana of a world championship of amateur baseball, it expanded its capacity to 55 thousand spectators.
The terrain is natural grass, and it is 325 feet (99 meters) down the sides, 380 (106 meters) at the corners and 400 feet (121 meters) across at the center. It is the home of the Industriales, current national champions.
The best players from the island over the past 50 years have played on the grass at Cerro. Players who have hit home runs there include Luis Giraldo Casanova from Pinar del Rio and his compatriot Omar Linares, the most prominent baseball player since the revolution. Also making it theirs were the Santiagan Orestes Kindelan, who hit the longest national home run; Antonio Pacheco and on the mound Braudilio Vinent. Two superb players like as Pedro Antonio Muñoz and José Rodríguez, from the province formerly Las Villas, staged colossal duels with first class pitchers from the Industriales, the ninth Creole baseball logo.
More than 300 Cuban players who have defected played in the “Latino.” Some shone brightly: Kendry Morales, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contreras. Others shook their legs to leave the ring. The All-Star lefty Aroldis Pichert Chapman, who now earns millions with the Cincinnati Reds, batted freely on the capital grounds.
In its 64 birthday, the old stadium in Cerro is worse than ever. The terrain is pretty bad. Its ability to drain after a heavy rain has deteriorated. And the roof is in a deplorable state.
The artificial lighting is terrible. Several towers are rusted and useless, presenting a danger of collapse. In the last year, the Industriales team has not been able to play at night. This prevents many fans, who have to work in the day, from coming to see the best club of the last half-century Cuba.
Photo: judithsweet, Flickr
From Canaleta prison in Ciego de Ávila, Pedro Argüelles Morán political prisoner, 62, called me on Friday the 22nd and said a State Security had told him he could be released this Sunday, October 24.
Other relatives of the dozen of prisoners from the group of 75 who, like Argüelles Morán, do not wish to migrate, also expect that in a few hours they will be home with their loved ones, after 7 years and 7 months behind bars.
The news would confirm the Cuban government’s willingness to release the prisoners of the group of 75 who refuse to leave the country, not only before the scheduled date of November 7, but before the meeting that the EU has scheduled for Monday the 25th in Luxembourg where, among other topics, they will discuss if the 27 member countries should maintain a common position on Cuba.
Another hot topic, on the national scale, is that prisoners of conscience who are to be released soon and who want to stay on the island, disagree with the conditions and guarantees offered by the government for their release.
They refuse the parole they expect to be granted because the regime would still consider them prisoners. And in any adverse circumstance, they could be sent back to jail. It is the legal monstrosity offered by the authorities to the dissidents who prefer not to leave their homeland.
Lidia Lima, wife of economist Arnaldo Ramos, 68, on the last visit to the 1580 prison on the outskirts of Havana, learned that Arnold intends to remain in prison until the government changes the terms of his release. And he will only accept unconditional release.
The authorities have remained silent on whether or not they will hold to the parole. The jailed dissidents intend to stay at home and continue their political work, journalism or human rights activities. But they want the government to commit to wipe out the legal aberrations that would free them but with conditions.
Also a broad sector of the opposition believes that the EU should put pressure on Castro to repeal the evil Law 88, the gag law, that allows them to imprison a person for more than 20 years just for disagreeing with the regime.
With a sinking economy and a group of opponents who claim full rights, the Cuban government looks with a certain expectation toward what will be the position of the European Union.
The “blockade,” as the Cuban government calls it, is real. It’s a trade embargo by the United States declared in 1960 and implemented rigorously since 1962. It caused the machinery from American to become scrap metal.
Later, the damages were minor. The former Soviet Union connected a pipeline and oil and rubles flowed from Moscow to Havana. The cold Eurasian country supplied the tropics everything from trucks and tractors up anti-aircraft missiles and MIG-29 aircraft.
All this was paid for by sugar cane, candy and marble. Or, without paying a penny, in the case of weapons. Knowing that the northern neighbor had imposed on us a “criminal blockade,” in the words of Fidel Castro, the logical thing would have been to try to streamline the flow of money and resources that came from the Kremlin by decree and to try to design a profitable industry and an efficient infrastructure. But that went.
In the period from 1975 to 1989, when the island survived on resources from Eastern Europe, the effects of the embargo were hardly noticeable. Then the Berlin Wall fell. And Cuba had not invested in development. We knew only how to spend and spend.
Then in 1990 came the inevitable economic crisis. The euphemistically named “Special Period.” A war without deaths by bullets, but with the same consequences. Hunger, blackouts of 12 hours a day and an economy returning to the primitive.
That was when Castro started speaking again about condemning the embargo. The entire world bears witness to the injustice, in its annual votes in the United Nations. But if Cuba had efficient agriculture and industry and coffers filled with money, the U.S. embargo would have been a useless tool.
But blaming all the ills of the Cuban economy on the embargo is not fair. We are lethally ineffective because a structural problem in the system. The “blockade” is also a sieve. Stores in Havana are selling products Made in USA, such as Coca Cola, Del Monte juice and Dell computers in foreign currency.
Since 1959, America has been and still is, the number one enemy of Fidel Castro. That has not stopped the country from selling more food to the island in recent years.
The real embargo, but three times more violent, is the one the regime has implemented against its own citizens.
No free-flowing information; the Internet is a luxury to be paid for in foreign exchange; to leave and return to your own country you must wait patiently for the government’s permission; and you can end up behind bars if write your opinions or start a political party.
Not to mention the obstacles placed on the flow of parcels from the outside. Following the three hurricanes that hit the island in 2008, it was permitted to send up to 11 pounds of medicines and other items. The first thing the Cuban Post Office did was to raise the import fee from 20 to 70 pesos, half of the pension for many retirees.
They take advantage of an unfair measure, such as the embargo, to put their citizens’ necks in the wringer. People are tired of the embargo, but also of their ancient government.
Half a century ago, on October 19, 1960, Eisenhower ordered the seizure of goods to the island to begin. Just two months later, on January 3, 1961, Cuba and the United States broke off diplomatic relations. A year later, on February 3, 1962, Kennedy signed the document that formalized and extended the trade and economic embargo against Cuba.
It is the chronological summary of two countries which, in the first 59 years of the twentieth century, had maintained good relations, always with a strong American presence in all spheres of national life.
Fifty years later, from a Cuba ruled by two authoritarian elders who have never adapted to the end of the Cold War, you can not expect miracles.
By their own initiative, the Castros will never make profound political and economic reform. They have become a pair of dinosaurs, and in the words democracy, internet and globalization they see an imperialist monster.
As for any who oppose them, they accuse them of being paid in gold by Washington. Breaking the inertia and creating a climate of dialogue and trust with their government is not easy. They are textbook paranoids.
But we must try. The fragmented internal opposition, as well as having their hands tied by the regime, is more about making noise, gossiping and undertaking extravagant projects, than presenting worthy ideas.
If the U.S. think tanks are salivating over the idea that in Cuba people will be thrown into the streets by the harsh economic measures, they may be disappointed.
It will hardly happen. What could happen, with the intensifying the domestic situation, is that in a massive and disorganized way, thousands of Cubans may throw themselves in the sea on top of anything that floats, heading towards the coasts of Florida.
A stampede the Americans don’t want. So, other alternatives to release pressure and keep the pot from blowing its lid have been tried. Madrid has tried, through its Foreign Minister Moratinos, to look for a gap in the Castros’ wall of mistrust and fear. To date, he succeeded in getting the release of 52 political prisoners. That is no small thing.
But it’s the United States that the brothers want as a partner of dialogue. For reasons of historical, geographical and political reality. Obama continues playing deaf.
Beaten down by a severe crisis that has gripped the pockets of consumers, an economy that does not recover, a number of unemployed that remains in the red, November elections in which Democrats are fighting hard, and a wayward and dangerous Middle East, it’s natural that the American president pays no attention to the conversational desires of former guerrillas.
The tenant of the White House barely cares about the problem of Cuba. But he should pay attention. It is a much simpler case than the other conflicts on his agenda. All he has to do is pick up the phone to chat with them. He can do nothing. But only through consideration of lifting the embargo and repealing the Cuban Adjustment Act can he initiate the beginning of the end of the olive-green dictatorship.
The embargo, for the simple reason that it is the hackneyed excuse of the Castro regime to justify its poor economic performance and pass on the responsibility for everything that doesn’t work in the entire country to the old “blockade.”
To abolish the Cuban Adjustment Act, which grants automatic residence to Cubans who touch U.S. soil, would be a strategic move to prevent a mass exodus.
When America ceases to be the “enemy,” then the regime will have two choices: open and urgently needed changes, or drop the mask and continue its personal rule, without freedom, without concessions to the opposition, without presidential elections.
At times, politics is easier than it looks. Between the two countries there is no secular hatred, nor have there been any major wars. Only imperial cravings from the 19th century to the 20th, and a clumsy and almost always outlandish diplomacy.
The White House has in its hands the potential to stimulate a package of political and economic reforms in Cuba. For now, the key is still in a drawer in the Oval Office. For now, Obama prefers to leave it there.
Photo: Pete Souza, official photographer of the White House. Obama straightens a picture in the Oval Office on May 10, 2010. Taken from The White House’s Photostream on Flickr.