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Year 52 of Fidel Castro’s Revolution

December 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The Cuban revolution is a historic event.  One cannot deny this fact.  Its roots hail from this very country.  It did not arrive as an import from the Kremlin.  However, after perpetrating itself, in certain periods, it imitated the style found in Moscow.

The July 26th movement, headed by a young lawyer called Fidel Castro Ruz, the son of a Spanish soldier who fought in Cuba to stifle the independence movements of 1895, was not created in the disciplined ranks of the local communist party.

At first, he was a follower of Eduardo Chibas, a politician in the Orthodox Party, honorable, and honest.  Castro was not a military or political genius.  He was a Cuban who was, like many others, offended by the coup of Fulgencio Batista — a former shorthand sergeant who in the ’30′s was involved in the island’s politics and later in the ’40′s was president.

Fulgencio was from the same area as Fidel. Both were born in the province that is now known as Holguin, 800 kilometers from Havana.  One was from Banes, and the other from Biran.  After the hostility of 1952, Batista became the second dictator, after Gerardo Machado, to plague Cuba during the first 50 years of independence and republicanism.

What happened next we already know.  A nearly suicidal assault on a military barracks in Santiago de Cuba (strongly criticized by the hierarchy of the national communist party, as they dubbed it a mini-bourgeois “putsch”); the guerrilla in the mountains, and the triumphant entrance of Castro and his rebel army to the Eastern city on January 1st, 1959.

At the moment, nothing indicated that Fidel Castro was a communist.  You could tell Raul was, however.  As well as his friend, the Argentine doctor Che Guevara.  According to the guerrilla leader, his intention was to create a democratic government that would benefit all Cubans.

While in power, the revolution started radicalizing itself.  Sometimes, in response to aggressive politics from Washington, and other times to consolidate its leadership.  After two years of them declaring that it would be a “revolution greener than the palm trees”, we found out that it was more of an ideological red.

He started molding a Marxist country, designed similar to the vassal systems of Eastern Europe.  Scholars of this subject nearly go mad and have written tons of articles trying to find out if Castro was always an all out communist or if he just used Marxism to rise to unlimited power.

I’m one of those who think the latter.  Castro became an ally of Russia in order to keep himself at the head of the government.  Fidel is Fidel.  People with egos like his don’t follow a single ideology.  They consider themselves to be above all those insignificances of thought.

He is an outstanding student of Machiavelli.  His heroes are conquerors of the likes of Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, and Napoleon.  I’m one of those who believe that deep inside, Castro thinks that Cuba was too small for him.  He wanted more.  He would have wanted to be the leader of a world power.  For the best, or for the worst, Fidel Castro was an important statesman of the XX century.

He was at the verge of provoking a nuclear massacre, and in addition, he had the carelessness to ask Khrushchev to fire the first atomic missile.  Afterwards, he supported guerrilla movements throughout the entire planet.

One day, in the history books of the world, it will be written that a small, poor, and backwards country carried out military adventures in Angola and Ethiopia, nearly 10 thousand kilometers from its own coasts, moving over 300 thousand soldiers during 15 years of interventions in African civil wars.

Castro always loved conducting the theatre of military operations. In the decade of the ’80′s, from a mansion in the neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, he frequently moved soldiers and tanks on a gigantic scale.  He barked orders to his generals who sat in comfortable chairs in Havana.

He knew, inside out, the exact quantity of candies, chocolates, ice cream, and cans of sweets that the troops consumed.  The One and Only Commander was never happier!

The old guerrilla fighter feels nostalgia over his command in La Plata and his marches through the Pico Turquino, in the Sierra Maestra mountains.  Now, in the 21st century, while he waits for God to take him, his delirium has not ceased in the least bit.

 

All of his reflections have to do with international themes.  What he’d give to be Obama, Ahmadinejad, Mahmud Abbas, Ehud Olmert, or Kim Jong II.  He sees himself provoking and winning wars.

Only bureaucrats and functionaries can lead an economy or a state budget in an orderly way. The laws and the respect of norms of a party or institution are put in place so that common managers can fulfill them. Not for Fidel Castro.

Those banalities are handed over to his brother, Raul. The general is a practical guy.  His dream is simple. That people be guaranteed their beans. And that the Cuban revolution last 100 years. It only lacks the second half.

Photo: Grey Villet

Translated by Raul G.

December 31 2010

In 2010, Bad News Abounded in Cuba

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

When the high creole hierarchy enjoyed the arrival of the 51st anniversary of the insurrection which elevated them to power on 1 January 1959, a violent cold front was ravaging the west of the country.

In Mazorra, a psychiatric hospital located on the highway that leads to the principal airport, a major scandal was uncorking itself.

The pathetic photos that circulated by the Internet and the reports of bloggers and independent journalists obligated the regime to publish a little note. Weeks later, noiselessly, those words got the Minister of Health, José Ramón Balaguer, fired.

It was the start in a chain of bad news that marked 2010 in Cuba. In February, the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo heated up the path. After 86 days on a hunger strike claiming a handful of rights, he died in a hospital in the capital. His death provoked an avalanche of criticism towards the Castro brothers across the entire planet.

The death of Zapata launched a series of widely publicised marches by the Ladies in White, a group of women, wives, mothers, and daughters of opposition members condemned to long sentences in March 2003.

The government didn’t take the blow well. Little accustomed to those who annoy, concealed violence was used against the Ladies, by means of supposedly spontaneous mobs who were admirers of the Revolution. Aggressions against these women, who carried gladioli in their hands through Havana streets demanding freedom for their family members, threw more wood on the fire in the agitated Spring of 2010.

Civilized nations hit the roof and a series of economic restrictions were brought down to pressure the government of Raúl Castro. The General took note. This oven wasn’t for baking cakes.

Cuba lives on the edge of bankruptcy. The economy is shipwrecked. The country is taking on water on all sides. For the first time in 51 years, the government threw in the towel before the street marches of the Ladies in White and a new hunger strike, started in Villa Clara by the opposition member Guillermo Fariñas, who was demanding the release of 26 dissidents.

In a rare diplomatic pirouette, the regime obtained the help of the forgotten Catholic Church. In a hurry, Raúl Castro asked Cardinal Jaime Ortega to intercede with the bothersome women. He designed a three-phase plan. From Madrid, the ex-chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos dressed it up well. The agreement was made public on June 8, and it was made known that 52 political prisoners would be liberated.

The governors’ strategy was to build a gold-plated bridge for the freed opposition members so they’d fly to Madrid. They thought that a friendly telephone call from the Cardinal to each prisoner, inviting him to leave headed for exile, would be accepted by all the prisoners. It didn’t work out that way. As a weapon of coercion, the regime still has not freed 11 dissidents who refuse exile.

While the news of liberation of political prisoners made a trip around the world, Fidel Castro, historic leader of the Revolution, rose from his sickbed. A recuperated Castro. With a distinct look, with Adidas or Nike sporting overalls. Or a collection of shirts. He did what he knew best: Spoke and predicted. He unleashed on the world a red alert; a nuclear war was just around the corner.

Besides prophesying chaos, the ancient guerrilla is one of those convinced that capitalism’s days are numbered. He chatted about everything happening on the Earth. But he did not delve into local issues; that was a matter for his brother.

They started to play in different leagues. Raúl, hand to the grindstone, seeing exactly how 12 million Cubans bring their meals to the table. And the visionary Fidel, in charge of international affairs. One suspects disagreements, but in 2010 each stuck to his own area. For the time being.

In July, summer arrived. School vacations, beach, and fans celebrating the victory of Spain in the World Cup in South Africa. Earlier, Habeneros had celebrated that their team, the Industriales, was crowned champions in the national baseball series.

In the offices, in full heat, the technocrats worked at full throttle on a unique, new, dedicated plan to reform the disastrous economic situation. Recipes with a raft of shock therapies, similar to those applied by countries in bankruptcy.

When their vacations ended, Cubans were awaiting the news that 1.3 million people would be laid off in three phases. The first one already started in October. It was not the only one. State subsidies have to be cut back. Open the tap for self-employment. And apply a tax rate that sometimes reaches 40% of income to alleviate the terrible State budget deficit.

People aren’t expecting miracles with the opening-up of private initiative. It smells bad. The elevated taxes are disheartening. The insufficient guarantees offered by a government that openly rejects people who succeed in making money are strong elements that generate mistrust.

In different provinces there were attempted protests and the streets have become dangerous. as if the police didn’t have enough to do going after crimes and drugs. Urban transport — like housing — gets worse as time goes on. The ration book stays the same and the scarcity of products — in pesos or in cash — continues to be a source of alarm. When rice isn’t lacking, there are no beans. If there is salt, there is no sugar.

In the year that just ended, we see more beggars, drunks, prostitutes and thieves in the streets. Domestic and school violence just skyrocketed. And courtesy has continued to be something from another planet.

Despite the black panorama with its grey backstitches, Cubans continue to dance, sing, make fun of the governors and make love wherever. Television viewers were still hooked on Brazilian soap operas and little girls were dazzled by Hannah Montana.

In 2010, among others, there were three “round” anniversaries: the centennial of the birth of the actress and singer Rita Montaner, and of the writer José Lezama Lima, the 90th of the ballerina Alicia Alonzo, and the 80th of the singer Omara Portuondo. Four compatriots were honored with Grammy Latino prizes: Chucho Valdéz and Leo Brower — residents of the island — and Arturo Sandoval and Alex Cuba, settled in the United States and Canada.

The good news was that we weren’t lashed by any tropical storm or hurricane of great power. And one bit of bad news, that the hoped-for increase in tourists from the United States didn’t materialize. A consolation prize was that friends and family from the United States, once again and despite the crisis, haven’t stopped helping their families on the other side of the puddle. With money or with packages of food, clothing, medicines, and toys.

Cubans are wishing that 2011 might bring good omens. They think things probably can’t get any worse. Things have been scraping bottom for too long. Living at the edge of the abyss.

Welcome, Mules

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Eliseo, 39, is considered a public benefactor. A guy who is always welcome. For a decade, this Cuban American has been a ‘mule’. He resides in Miami and makes some fifteen trips to the island every year. Sometimes more.

Right now, from his mobile phone, he calls his usual driver to pick him up at the entrance to the Jose Marti International Airport, south of Havana. He loads a bunch of bags and briefcases.

He will be in Havana for one day. His mission is to unload the 150 pounds of food, medicine, electronics, clothing, shoes and toys, among other things, in a house that he trusts, where later they will take charge of delivering them to their destinations.

Eliseo has set up a small business operating at full throttle, especially in the month of December. He charges $5 per pound of food or medicines, and $10 per pound of other items. To move certain goods controlled in Cuba, he discretely slips a hundred-dollar bill in the pockets of the customs authorities.

In Miami he also greases the palms of air terminal officials. When George W. Bush turned the screws on the embargo against Castro, Eliseo always wrangled it to bring products and sums of money that violated U.S. laws. “Now with Obama everything is easier.” The current occupant of the White House has taken steps to facilitate family relationships.

Since December 20, you can send up to 10 thousand dollars via Western Union. On top of that, residents of the island can collect it in convertible pesos. Facing the urgent need of the “imperialist enemy’s” greenback, the Cuban government eliminated the 10% duty on the dollar.

On October 25, 2004, an angered Fidel Castro, supposedly caught laundering 3.9 billion old dollars in the Swiss UBS bank — something prohibited by the embargo — he announced a 10% tax on the dollar during a television appearance. Starting on November 8 of that year, the only currency that circulated in Cuba was the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

Remittances from family members and the sending of goods by “mules,” in large part brace up the fragile and inefficient island economy. According to international organizations, through remittances alone the government allows some billions of dollars to enter the country every year.

Darío, a 52-year-old economist, thinks it could be double that. “There is a lot of money that isn’t accounted for. It’s a source that permits the investment of money free of the State’s nets. The government knows it and won’t lose sight of it. It’s probable that in months to come they’ll stimulate it even more.”

In Miami, dozens of agencies are dedicated to the shipment of packages and money to Cuba. Meanwhile, Cubans on the island ceaselessly ask their relatives for things from disposable toilet wipes and tennis shoes to laptops and plasma televisions.

If the embargo were to end, the interchange of merchandise and capital could exceed 5 billion dollars annually. And if the Havana regime would repeal absurd laws that prevent Cuban-Americans from investing in the country of their birth, the numbers could triple.

What’s certain is that the embargo hasn’t prevented families on the island from receiving money, by one means or another. Neither foodstuffs, medicines, nor other articles.

Eliseo assures us that he earns almost 2,000 dollars in profit each month. “If it’s the end of the year, a little more. In whatever way, despite the fact that I live off of this ‘business’, it satisfies me to see the people’s joy when they receive their packages, or while you count out a bundle of bills for them. But above all what sticks with me are the hopeful faces of children when you see them unpack toys and sweets.”

Moments like those make Eliseo feel like a tropical version of Santa Claus. The families on both shores appreciate him.

Translated by Rick Schwag with a little help from JT

Cubans Celebrate Christmas, In Their Way

December 23, 2010 4 comments

In Havana you will not see men dressed as Santa Claus, dressed in red, fat and friendly, handing out sweets to children at the entrance of shopping malls. In the rest of the island, you will not find a special Christmas atmosphere either.

The tourist hotels and the foreign exchange shops and cafes do displays trees with ornaments and wreaths.  Not so in the national currency establishments, which prefer to dismiss all this paraphernalia. In these service centers, gloomy and in need of paint, portraits of Fidel Castro usually hang, along with slogans of the Revolution.

If it is a neighborhood store, you might see a handwritten list, sometimes with spelling errors, reminding people who have not paid for the appliances, four years after the State distributed them, to replace the American refrigerators from the 50′s and the black and white televisions manufactured in the Soviet Union.

Although the city does not have a Christmas atmosphere, ordinary citizens prepare to celebrate Christmas Eve at home on December 24. Those who have family abroad or profitable black market businesses can afford to buy a pig and roast it in the backyard, sipping beer or some good aged rum.

For those for whom things were not so bad in 2010, at 12 pm on December 31, they can eat candies, apples and grapes, and make a toast with cider.  But most people wear out their shoes visiting the farmers’ markets in search of pork, black beans, yucca, tomatoes, lettuce …They will listen to salsa or reggaeton music at the highest volume, while drinking unbottled beer and lesser quality rum.

Those who live near a church usually attend a midnight Mass.  In their way, Cubans celebrate Christmas. It was not always so. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he slowly and intentionally threw aside one of the most deeply rooted traditions of Cuban families.

The final blow was given in 1970, when during the Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest, with the pretext that the festivities interrupted the work in the cane fields, he removed December 25th from the holiday calendar.  Those days off disappeared from the island by decree.

Because the triumph of the revolution coincided with January 1st, the first and second of January were declared to be days off.  Thank goodness. If the bearded ones had taken power in March or August, for sure, we would not celebrate the arrival of the new year.

The absence of Christmas from the Revolutionary calendar lasted 27 years. In 1997, in honor of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Cuba, Castro re-introduced December 25 as a national holiday. It is an official holiday, but the authorities do not feel motivated to create a Christmas atmosphere for the population. Although it is celebrated in private.

As a child, I went with my grandmother and my sister to the house of Blas Roca, an old communist now deceased and a relative on my mother’s side.  At that time, Roca was one of the heavyweights in the political hierarchy. I remember how my eyes opened, when I saw a whole pig roasting and a significant amount of other delicacies.

These were difficult years for almost all households, including ours. Because of a deadly swine fever, pig meat was a luxury. I do not know now, but then Castro trusted men like Blas Roca, and would give them giant baskets of fruit, candies, sweets and bottles of Spanish wine.

It was a time when people wore work shirts and plastic shoes. Beef was distributed according to the ration book. And very few dared to celebrate Christmas Eve, as forbidden as jazz and the Beatles.

Decades later, something has changed. True, Castro remains in power. The economy is adrift. Certain freedoms are denied. But today there is no fear that someone will make a report to “the appropriate authorities” for celebrating Christmas.

Obviously, one wants more.  And while celebrating with his family, hopes that in the coming year, good things will happen. Cubans still have not lost their optimism. Fortunately.

Translated by Rick Schwag

Economic Reforms: More Questions than Answers

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment

People on the street in Cuba look sideways at the recent reforms designed for the impoverished national economy. Few are counting on these changes put forward by president Raúl Castro. They don’t believe they will make the country function more efficiently.

They know what a group of Cubans think. In a survey of 48 persons of both sexes, with an average educational level of 12th grade, between 18 and 71 years of age, white and black, there was more pessimism than optimism. Many don’t trust the system. So expectations are low.

There were four questions:

1) Do you believe that real reforms will bring satisfactory, short-term changes that will improve your standard of living? 2) What do you think is missing in the government’s new economic proposals? 3) Do you believe that Raúl Castro’s administration can give a boost to our economy? and 4) Do you think the Cuban social system can generate wealth and motivate independent business people so that they will benefit from the government plan?

Thirty-nine (39) of those polled think that the much-vaunted reforms are more of the same. “It’s not the first time that the country has brought up a supposed change to put socialism back on track and make it more efficient. As I remember, it was tried in the ’70s, the middle of the ’80s, and now again. Nothing makes me think that the third time will be the charm,” said a cab driver.

The answers of the other 38 are similar in tone to that of the cab driver. They feel pessimistic about the government’s economic suggestions. They laugh ironically at the thought that changing only the polish would change their lives for the better. They doubt that General Raúl Castro can make the weak local economy function.

Even fewer believe that the present model of a collective society will generate creative and dynamic people who will produce wealth. “That’s the principle of these systems that combine Marxist ideology with authoritarian forms of government: to control man. They come with a dislike of people who make money. They don’t want there to be a class of rich people. It’s a kind of society that’s allergic to capability and individual liberty for its citizens. They are seen as enemies. They are a contradiction,” says one university student.

The 39 people polled do not expect great things from the regime’s economic update. They believe there are interesting matters that  are not considered in the plan, which these days is being discussed at work places and CDR meetings in the neighborhoods.

“No one is saying that Cuban Americans can invest in the country. Also, they ought to abolish all the immigration regulations for those born in Cuba, introduce a realistic investment law that will give incentive to foreign businessmen to invest in the island. Eliminate entrance and exit permits. Abolish the high taxes for people who work for themselves. Drop once and for all the role of the State as a prison warden that must control its citizens,” adds an intellectual.

Nine (9) of those polled gave the benefit of the doubt to the government. They are not fully optimistic, but they think that the changes will bring, in the long term, a haphazard version of capitalism to the country.

“No one wants this. Socialism is a system that is purely superior in theory. If it has not shown results it’s because the human factor has failed in the practice. The Cuban revolution has been more political than economic. In order to involve a large section of the population in the changes, we should abolish absurd laws and not look at those who make money as an enemy. The reforms may fail. But there is still the question, asked by an engineer, “What if they work?”

The economic reforms launched by the government have not created a state of favorable opinion in the majority of the population. They think they are subsistence measures. That they can bring a new plate to the table. And perhaps a glass of milk.

But basically the government can’t commit to a profound turnaround, which is necessary for the economy to be efficient, robust and long-lasting. The dream of millions of Cubans. Whoever accomplishes it will be a giant.

Translated by Regina Anavy

Promise Keepers

December 19, 2010 Leave a comment

They are already arriving and being noticed. Afternoon comes to Santiago de las Vegas, a town south of Havana, with low houses and dusty streets. The followers of Saint Lazarus move along the road, dressed in clothes made of jute bags and dragging huge stones.

A person with a bunch of leaves goes before them, making a gesture as if cleaning the road.  In a rough wooden cart, a good sized image of the saint of lepers. And a piggy bank for the curious to put small coins in.

They are the promise keepers.  People who feel they owe their life and happiness to the miraculous saint. Anecdotes abound. A fat lady does an act on the road. She has dragged herself from a neighborhood of Marianao to El Rincón, where the church dedicated to the worship of Saint Lazarus is found.

The woman walked over 15 kilometers. According to her, she was condemned to die from cancer.  She entrusted herself to “to the old Lazarus,” as he is known in Cuba, and the cancer disappeared.

From that moment, she promised that every December 16 she would crawl on her knees to offer her tribute to the saint. And today is the day. It is freezing.

During the week in that area, the thermometer fell to 44 degrees Fahrenheit. An unusual temperature in Cuba. If you add the high humidity, the wind chill is 33 degrees or less. But those who are fulfilling their promises are not stopped by cold or by distance. Ubaldo comes from Bayamo, a city over 500 miles from Havana.

On arriving, together with a few with relatives at the train station in the old part of town, he put together a great four-wheeled wagon. He placed a dazzling portrait of the saint inside. He put on a pair of short pants made out of a sack, and without a shirt, at the risk of catching pneumonia, began to drag himself towards el Rincón.

At times he stops and takes a big swig of cheap rum. People encourage him. One of his sons says the old man had suffered paralysis in his legs. The doctors assured him that he would never walk again. Ubaldo went to the parish of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba. There, as he made his pleas, a pious man commended him to Saint Lazarus. “In a few months my father could run.”

Since then, every year he makes the pilgrimage from Bayamo to el Rincón.  On the way to Saint Lazarus you always hear miracle stories. The atheists, who go out of curiosity or snobbishness, don’t believe all the legends heard in the journey. It is admirable to see so many people, many of them elderly, making a considerable physical effort to keep their promises.

Thousands of Cubans show up spontaneously for an appointment with St. Lazarus. They arrive in Santiago de Las Vegas, and along a narrow dark road about a mile long, they walk towards the temple.  Along the way they sell soup, a broth made with vegetables and pig’s head. Also corn tamales, bread with pork and hot chocolate.

The government does not interfere. Nor does it encourage. The official media do not publicize this. Nor invite the followers that attend the parish. Although it attempts to pretend otherwise, the State does not agree with the Church. Of course, it does reinforce public transport and schedules a train at three o’clock in the morning  to facilitate the return home.

It was not always like that. Romelio has been going to Rincón for thirty years. “At that time, we had to manage as best we could. The police were always on alert and watched us like dogs,” he says sitting on the tarmac after walking a long stretch on his knees.

As tradition dictates, the promise keepers rush to arrive before 12 pm in the sanctuary, to deposit their contributions and listen to the Mass. Outside, a concentration of pilgrims sing and warm themselves with mouthfuls of rum from a plastic bottle that is passed amongst them. Every time someone arrives crawling, they open a path, yell and cheer him on like a marathon runner reaching the finish line.

Sweating despite the cold, the promise keepers throw themselves on their backs almost breathless. No wonder. They have fulfilled their vow to Saint Lazarus.

Translated by Rick Schwag

December 19 2010

The Sinister Ones

December 17, 2010 1 comment

There is too much perversion in the world.  It is a feature of serial murderers, pedophiles and sexual deviants. Or of the ETA (Basque) terrorists and those irrational people who crashed two planes into the Twin Towers in New York on September 11.

But there are — and there have been — sinister governments.  In the name of whatever cause.  The most handy, from October 1917 until the present, has been imperialism, the bourgeoisie and the exploitation of man by man.

I’ve always wondered if Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu and Idi Amin, among others, already had macabre governing designs in mind when they began their careers as politicians.

I would like to think not.  That these were once dreamer types who wanted the best for their people. And maybe a mental condition, not yet studied in depth by the scientists, converted all of them into miserable satraps.

All these dictators have a common stamp. They speak in the name of the dispossessed and in the name of nationalism. They believe they have a redemptive mission to fulfill. They consider themselves to be enlightened. The Little Fathers of their countries.

Without exception, they are manipulators with an ego that is beyond reason. They do not tolerate disagreements. And it is just at that moment when sinister politicians pull the trigger, the tortures, concentration camps, summary trials and unsanitary prisons.

In the end, history chooses them as the best example of what not to do in the exercise of power. In the 21st century there are few who remain alive.

One of them is now a sick old man who writes his memoirs in a hurry. And in his raptures of lucidity, he still believes he has something to say to his people.  And he scribbles pathetic reflections about any event in the world, except that which he should write about: The complicated and uncertain future of his country.

I hope that all these caudillos, before they died, recognized that they were arrogant despots; that they made monumental errors, destroyed nations and were detested by millions.

Photo: Stalin, from the photographic archives of Life Magazine

Translated by ricote

100 Years of the Fat One of Trocadero

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976) is not gone.  This is the feeling you get when you visit the museum of the master of Cuban prose in Trocadero street, in central Havana.

You don’t need to be supernatural to sense the weary, asthmatic breathing of the fat Lezama while you pass through the halls of this house, residence of one of the greatest authors of this green island.

The Cuban intellectual was born on December 19, 1910.  And like nearly all the geniuses, he was misunderstood in his time.  His father, Jose Lezama Rodda, of Basque heritage, founded, and eventually lost, a sugar business in Cuba.

Rosa Lima Rosado, his mother, formed part of a family of independent thought.  At the end of the 19th century, she felt obligated to leave the island.  she knew and collaborated with the national hero of Cuba, Jose Marti, in his exile in Florida.

Lezama Lima had two sisters, Rosa and Eloisa, who both died early in their lives.  From when he was a boy, like every good Habanero, he played baseball and caused trouble with his friends from the neighborhood.  He was an infielder, and had pretty good hands.

But one day when he was an adolescent, his friends went to find him for game, and Lezama told them “I’m not coming out today, I’m going to stay in and read.”  He had started reading Plato’s Symposium.  He was fifteen years old, and since he was eight he was a voracious reader of Salgari and Dumas, Cervantes and his Quixote.

He became a lawyer, and began to work in a simple post of the secretary of the Superior Counsel of Social Defense, in the jail of the Castillo del Príncipe, the main jail in Havana.  And from this date forward, he was a great man of letters.

In 1937, his collection of poetry The Death of Narciso, was published, which was written in 1931.  In his day, another giant, Cintio Vitier, affirmed:  “All the poetry of Mariano Brull, Emililo Ballagas, Eugenio Florti, like witches riding brooms, flew out the window when I read ‘Danae wrote about the golden time by the Nile,’ the first verse of the Death of Narciso.  Cuban poetry changed overnight.”

Later, he began to circulate in cultural reviews of high esteem, edited in Cuba in the decade of 1940-1950.  It was in Origins, perhaps, where Lezama Lima made his impression as a writer.

In 1959, el comandante Fidel Castro arrived, along with his hurricane of radical reforms.  So much machismo and testosterone; the caudillo style and an Olympian disdain for the free thinkers, caused more than a problem for the massive Jose Lezama.

Despite being married since 1964 to Maria Luisa Bautista, a noted literature professor, the fat Lezama was a closet gay.  We already know how the Castro government treated homosexuals in this time.

They were turbulent times.  Whoever had different sexual orientations was sent to prison or to a type of concentration camp called UMAPs (Military Units in Support of Production).  And even though Lezama never received a punishment that severe, he suffered. The greatest scandal arrived in 1966.

The name of the scandal was the supreme novel of Cuban literature: Paradiso.  It had a limited edition.  It put in check the iron censorship of the state, that always held literature suspect, bourgeoisie, and counterrevolutionary.  The sexual adventures of Jose Cemi disquieted the Criollo hierarchy, who saw in the gays, and sodomy, a latent danger to the concept of the New Man, dreamed up by Che.

In spite of everything, the Maestro never wanted to abandon his country.  In Cuba he found his muse.  His house on Trocadero was his heart, he came to say.  And there he shut himself in amongst his writings.  Tightly.

Difficult years.  The economic shortages affected the population.  And Lezama, an incurable luxurophile, suffered from royal hunger. He made up for it, and then some, whenever a friend invited him to dinner.  It was said that at receptions in Western embassies, on certain nights of ferocious appetite, Lezama devoured an army of croquettes and canapes.

He died in 1976, his fame faded due to censorship and official acknowledgment of a low profile. They then turned him into an exquisite cadaver. A common thing for Fidel Castro’s government with critical intellectual figures or those with little loyalty to the regime. Once they’re buried, of course.

The big guy who would have been one hundred this year died in house No. 162 on Trocadero Street. His thick anatomy permeates the house turned into a museum. If you feel, as you tour the grounds, the coughing and asthmatic wheezing of the Master, don’t be frightened. It is Lezama who would like to greet you.

December 16 2010

Times of Crisis Even for the Prostitutes

December 15, 2010 1 comment

They are hard to convince. These girls in short shorts and tights; lots of cleavage and excessive lipstick does not stop the police harassment or the years in jail if they’re caught. Or sexually transmitted diseases.

Nor do they fear the cold winds and the dampness visited on Havana these days. There they are, on the hunt for clients. They stand in groups of three outside a nightclub.

In the 21st century, the hooker of Generation C (all of them were born with the Castro Revolution) are used to partying, drinks and sex with cocaine or a good marijuana joint with the tourists.

It’s desirable. Hook up with a ‘Paco’ (Spaniard) or an old Canadian. But these are times of crisis. “The Spanish who come here are cheap now,” says Yordana, 16, sitting in a park with some friends.

They take advantage of it to offer their services. Sex on demand. And not too expensive from the perspective of a foreigner or a Cuban loaded with silver who goes out at night fishing for whores. And they also promote themselves. “We are meaty mulatas silicone tits,” says one of them. For a blow job, 5 dollars, 10 for penetration, and 20 for a lesbian display.

Still and all, if you’re not up for that and are a little short on “bullets” (cash), and you treat them nicely and buy them some beers, as a bonus they’ll allow you to masturbate, but you can’t touch them.

The morning is coming in Havana. The cold wind has chased the Bohemians, sodomites and whore hunters off to their beds. But Yordana and her friends are hesitant to go home without money.

They walk the length of Linea Street, and stop at the entrance to each nocturnal attraction, at this hour full of boys and tourists who passed out drinks, to see if anyone is seduced by their hard flesh.

But it’s not their lucky night. The competition is fierce. A group of hookers, none of who are older than 15, have already “marked the territory” and taken the clients. Tired of walking, the girls take off their high heels and head for the bus stop, heads hanging. The cold gets into their bones. They hug themselves, trying to warm up.

On 23rd Street, four guys with a quart of cheap rum eye them lasciviously and make a proposal. Walking along with their working clothes and dried cement on their arms. The hookers were doubtful.

“Show me the money,” said one of them. An older gentleman showed them a wad of bills. “We’re bricklayers and we’re partying. We’re about to spend 300 convertible pesos (360 dollars,),” he said in a hoarse voice with his libido in the clouds.

they talked it over and Yordana, the leader, accepted. “They were a mess. But it’s the end of the year and we need money. And after spending a whole night with the cold and not even some cocoa or a nice drink of rum, we deserve to go home with some money,” emphasized Yordana.

The sun was coming up when they went off in a group, arm in arm, singing ballads along the Malecon. These are times of crisis, even for the hookers.

After Vampires in Havana, It’s the Turn of the Zombies

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment


In 1985, long before the vampire theme became a literary and movie phenomenon, Cuban filmmaker Juan Padrón, premiered Vampires in Havana, an animated film that ranked 50 in the top 100 Latin American films.

Now, Alejandro Brugués, another Cuban director, puts the finishing touches to Juan of the Dead, a zombie story co-produced with Spain. “It will be more successful than the Vampires, because it is a story that unfolds in these times and the artists are so well characterized they frighten you,” said Jesus, a gourmet who watched moments of the shooting by the Havana seawall.

The subject of zombies is closely associated with Haiti and Voodoo. “In Cuba there have also been stories of the ‘living dead’, particularly in eastern parts of the island, where a major Haitian community settled,”says Roberto, 40, grandson of a Haitian.

In the book Castro’s Final Hour, Andres Oppenheimer wrote that we Cubans are like zombies. So we seemed to the Argentine journalist in 2001 and so we still seem to some foreigners. Like Gerhard, a German tourist who asked, “Why you want more zombies than are already here?”

Opinions aside, the fact is that Juan of the Dead, starring the actor Alexis Diaz de Villegas, besides breaking audience records in Cuba, could break them in other countries. “And not only because of the fictional zombies, but also for the additional morbidity that comes from knowing that the Revolution has aged and several of its leaders have been zombified,” said Magaly, an art student, laughing maliciously.

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