He lost his high heels in the race. And the unprecedented tropical downpour, furious and fleeting, spoiled his vermilion make-up, which dripped from his pleated dress, staining the imitation leopard skin.
The bright beam of a 400 watt light, focused intently from an idling police car, provoked a stampede of stunned homosexuals, caught red-handed in the middle of intercourse in a dark Havana park.
Cordoba Park, in the heart of the La Vibora neighborhood, has become a permanent plaza for discreet gays, scandalous transvestites and brave sodomites who do not believe in weather without the predictions of the Cuban Meteorological Institute.
That night, the guards in the patrol car are in a bad mood. STOP! they shout through a megaphone. The homosexuals disappear in seconds. But the transvestite on high heels can’t escape.
He tried running barefoot while holding his dress up. In his rush, he put his foot in a grating and got trapped. The cop, a black guy from Eastern Cuba, was fed up with the chase, completely soaked in the rain, and his military boots were full of mud. He looked at the anguished fag and screamed at him:
“Why are you running?! Maybe you committed a crime! You should have stayed put! Give me your identity card!”
The cop threatened to take him to the nearest police station. Trembling with fear and cold, his make-up smeared, in a barely audible voice, the transvestite answered:
“If you’re gay and a police car shines a powerful spotlight in the middle of having sex, the first impulse is to run. Things may have changed, but for a fag in Cuba, fear is always best.”
The two cops cut short the dialog. They frisked the transvestite and an imitation leopard skin wallet fell to the ground. Among the cosmetics something metallic and shiny rolled. A knife. It was the trump card for the nocturnal guards. “Now you’re fucked, faggot. Possession of a weapon,” they said, gloating, and handcuffed him without mincing words.
From their hideouts, the group of gays and sodomites watched the scene. Minutes later they returned to the gazebo in the unlit park, converted into the biggest homosexual inn under the open sky in Havana. This time, fear didn’t do their friend any good.
Photo: Cuban transvestite, by Marcello Bonfanti, AP. Word Press Photo 2005 Photo Prize.
January 23 2011
A storm is coming to the national sport in Cuba. In the last session of the monotone parliament in December, against all odds, the government maintained its strategy of not allowing ball players and other athletes to compete in foreign leagues.
Since 1991, more than 350 ball players have fled the island. By maintaining the absurd policy of not allowing baseball players to contract with foreign clubs, in a few years the figures could double.
Not only would ball players jump at the chance to sign contracts. Boxers would bet on winning money on professional tours in the U.S. or Europe. Volleyball players would look greedily at the prestigious Italian league.
Track and field athletes would try to become Spanish citizens, Czechs or even Sudanese (no wonder: the Cuban triple jumper, Yamilé Aldama, competes for Sudan), to be able to enjoy the money they earn in athletic clubs.
Even players of handball or basketball, not big sports in Cuba, would give a sideways glance at the market for these disciplines in the Greek and Iberian circuits, and, of course, the fabulous NBA.
The sports myopia of the Cuban leaders is colossal. Their position is childish and capricious. In a country where you need state permission to travel, there are institutions like the Ministry of Culture, which for over a decade has freely permitted intellectuals and artists to contract for work in other nations.
This has not stopped the exodus from this sector, but it turns out to be an option for talented artists, who can sign contracts and earn enough hard currency to permit them to live comfortably on an island of extreme poverty. An example is the actor Jorge Perogurría.
However, in sports, they don’t want the latch to be opened. So the athletes, especially baseball players, jump the pond and enter the Major Leagues by the back door.
Cuban baseball, moreover, is in its lowest hour. Quality has taken a dive. Everyone realizes this. Official journalists and retired stars agree that the baseball that is played now in Cuba is that of the “jungle” (low quality).
The journalist Gilberto Dihigo, living in Florida, son of the illustrious Martin Dihigo, the first Cuban player who entered the Hall of Fame in New York, is convinced that Cuban baseball is in crisis.
The repercussions from these bad moments in baseball are reflected in newspapers and blogs published in Miami, home to around 800,000 Cubans, who follow this sport in “the green crocodile” with interest. And the specialists don’t exaggerate. It’s true: the march of stars and young talent has diminished the quality of Cuban baseball.
The tactical and technical ideas of the current pitching and batting coaches are also outdated. The strategies of the managers show shocking gaps in the subject of baseball. Nor do referees escape from this decline. Their reduced zone of calling strikes is one of the factors in a brutal batter clobbering a defenseless pitcher without pity. Seventy percent of National League pitchers are on the verge of tears.
It’s terribly out of control, with an average number of bases walked that is childish, an average speed no greater than 84 miles per hour – in a baseball that deserves respect, pitchers should reach 90 miles per hour – and a reduced repertoire that includes only two pitches, fast and curve balls.
Bad things follow. The swing technique of many hitters is from the middle of the twentieth century. The players’ gloves are ripped. And the numbers don’t lie. The defense in the current season is 967. In a decent league, fielding is around 980.
Despite the shortages that hinder the main pastime of Cubans, baseball is still the biggest show in the country. And its players, with their natural talent, are candy for the scouts.
It’s true that to reach the highest level they have to overcome the deficiencies. But the promising young on the playground are losing the dream of the million-dollar salaries they pay in the U.S. Major Leagues. They know that the sooner they leave, the better the chances of someday playing the best baseball in the world.
In contrast to expectations – it was rumored that the government would make changes in its sports policy – General Raul Castro dropped the ball, and the illusion that Cuba would allow the free recruitment of athletes went up in smoke. A response to the unrest prevailing in Creole baseball could be the increased exodus of ball players. From time to time.
Translated by Regina Anavy
[Note: This post is from 2009 -- see note below]
Around midnight I arrived at the bus terminal in Havana, a three-story building, painted blue and white. It was built in the late 40′s and inaugurated in 1951.
It takes up a block, and more than 100 buses a day leave for the 14 Cuban provinces and major cities across the country. Before 1959, the average for these bus trips, coming and going, was 1,500 every 24 hours.
As I was taking only a backpack and a briefcase, the luggage department told me I could take them on board. They checked my ticket and I went to a circular room with air conditioning and plenty of seating in black plastic.
It’s the waiting room. Two hours later my bus leaves for Ciego de Avila, a province located some 400 kilometers east of the capital.
The independent journalist Pablo Pacheco was born there. He’s now in the Canaleta prison. I am bringing him some gifts that my mother sent from Switzerland to his wife, Oleyvis, and his son Jimmy.
Pacheco is one of the 75 arrested during the Black Spring, in March 2003. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and he has served 6. Of the 75, 57 still remain behind bars.
All are in prison for thinking, writing and saying aloud that their country urgently needs political and economic changes.
Note: In a 24-hour trip in April 2009 that I took to Ciego de Avila, I wrote 10 articles. The Waiting Room is the first. The others are: Obama at Dawn, For a Fried Chicken, A Natural Guajiro, Highway Police, A Cuban Sunrise, Blind on Sight, The Pimp of Venezuela, Dr. Oleyvis, and From a Pedicab. All the posts published in 2009 on the blog From Havana were accidentally deleted. Since we have the originals, we are going to post them again here, or on Tania Quintero’s blog.
Translated by Regina Anavy
It was a lucky day for Ernesto. After 10:00 last night, a neighbor told him that the number he had bet 250 pesos (10 dollars) on had come out first in the local (illegal) lottery.
He won 24,000 pesos (1,000 dollars). The money arrived just when he needed it most. His daughter, Yenima, was turning 15. And his mother, bedridden, suffering from terminal cancer, was waiting to die.
Ernesto is a self-employed craftsman, mediocre and unlucky. Every day, he spends 12 hours trying to sell a collection of leather shoes with gaudy decoration. It wasn’t going well. He barely earned enough money to feed his four children and buy milk and juice for his sick mother.
He had a bag of debts with the worst sort of troublemakers. He had pawned the few valuable jewels of his family, a Chinese Panda television, a refrigerator from when Russia was communist, and some silverware that came from his grandmother.
The way to win a few thousand dollars and stay afloat was by venturing to bet every day on the illegal lottery known as the bolita. In Cuba, gambling is prohibited.
But for years, the police have looked the other way when it comes to gambling. The bolita or lottery is the hope of the poor. In Cuba there are illegal banks, which move large amounts of Cuban pesos. Arnoldo, 59, is one of them. He has always lived off the lottery.
After 20 years in business, he is considered a guy who is solvent. He has a couple of comfortable houses and two 1950s American cars, which are gems. He has more than enough money and influence. He almost always get what he wants.
He is used to slipping a fat packet of money under the to one or another difficult policeman. On any day, Arnoldo earns 3 thousand pesos (125 dollars). Every day, more than 600 people are betting money in his bank.
Ernesto is among them. The night when he learned he had been favored by luck, he borrowed 100 convertible pesos and went to the corner bar. He bought three cases of Bucanero beer and six bottles of aged Caney rum.
He invited all his friends to drink with him. In the morning he paid his debts. He bought beef and powdered milk for his mother. He gave 300 convertible pesos to his wife for the quinceañera party for his daughter. He went with the kids to have dinner at a paladar, and with the rest of the money he bought glasses, towels and sheets that were so badly needed at home.
Two days after winning the award he was penniless. But without debt. He still had problems to solve. The stroke of luck in the lottery was only temporary relief.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 16 2011
Roger thought he was a respected delinquent. A sharp guy who at the first slight would exchange blows with anyone. He always hung with a group of buddies who looked like gangsters.
They dressed like the blacks in the Bronx. And they didn’t think twice before assailing a tourist, snatching gold chains from the necks of naive women, or picking a door lock and running off with the valuables.
He was sure he was a tough, successful guy in the marginal world. But everything changed when Roger fell into the tank (prison). At 19 years old, he had his first and only prison experience.
And it went badly. One rainy morning, while he was being transferred to a maximum security prison in eastern Cuba, he swore he would cut open like a cow any prisoner who tried to mess with him.
A tall, good-looking mulatto, he aroused lust among the sodomites who had been behind bars for two decades without women. He knew no one. In his cell block, three robust blacks were the cell leaders.
There everything was a matter of business. From the brown sugar, the food, cigarettes, pornographic magazines, even bathing water. In the first week he had a couple of brawls which didn’t end well for him.
At meal time, the rations were minimal. One of the cell block chiefs undressed him with his eyes. One night after the recount, without knowing why, some convicts gave him a fierce beating. An animal fear took hold of Roger.
He wanted to form a truce with the chief. “I can protect you, my beauty, I can get you good grub and take care of you as if you were my son, but I ask that you give me something in return,” said the chief, lasciviously.
“I’m not a queer. And I’ll split open anyone who tries anything with me,” he bluffed, without much conviction. The old prisoner kept looking at him and said, “We’ll see about that, kid.”
Without a weapon or a friend to help him confront the crooks who ran the cell block, Roger spoke with a prison guard to ask that his cell be changed.
But it went nowhere. “You’re not brave, so settle things as well as you can. The prison is packed. So either work it out or give up your ass,” was the guard’s answer.
The sexual harassment increased for Roger. On certain days he woke up with his body full of semen. When it was time to bathe or when he was in his bunk, the sodomites masturbated openly.
Desperate, Roger opted to mutilate himself. He injected oil into one leg and was sent to the hospital prison. When they tried to send him back to his cell block, he again tried to injure himself or tried to take his own life.
Between the sexual harassment of some prisoners, the panic, the physical and verbal mistreatment of the guards and the small quantity of bad food, Roger decided to put an end to his personal tragedy. One summer dawn he hung himself from the bars with a cord made out of bedsheets. He had escaped from the siege.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 16 2011
Before Raúl Castro approved of laying off 1,300,000 workers in two years, things were already going badly for Luciano, age 39.
He worked in an office of bureaucratic procedures in the southeastern part of Havana. He earned 290 pesos (around 12 dollars) a month, and in compensation for such low pay, he worked Monday through Friday for only four hours, despite a sign making clear that the schedule was from 9:00 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon.
In a makeshift local workshop, Luciano took advantage of the mornings to prepare flour empanadas stuffed with guayaba. After being on his feet until exhaustion, he produced 800 empanadillas. Then he would shake off the flour, sleek down his hair with water, change his clothes, and around noon attend to his legal work.
He always arranged things so he could leave before 4:00 in the afternoon, at which time he’d wait for a friend to begin preparing, in a decrepit still, a hundred liters of distilled alcohol with refined honey, which they sold for 7 pesos (40 cents) a bottle. A “Cossack” rum, intolerable, which made you sick, but which was already traditional in the marginal Havana neighborhoods, where quality drink is a big-time luxury.
With his two extra jobs, Luciano was pocketing around 90 dollars a month, almost nine times more than his state salary. So when his boss told him he was “disposable” — official jargon for those who were being laid off — Luciano took the news calmly.
Starting now, he thought, he’d have more time for his illegal jobs. But in December the police decommissioned the clandestine empanada factory and dealt him a heavy blow. As if it weren’t enough, they broke up the still where the bitter drink of the forgotten was prepared.
An old Cuban saying goes “when you have trouble shitting, green guayabas aren’t worth anything.” Faced with the perspective of a year-end without black beans or roast pork, his wife packed her things and left with their three kids for her mother’s house. At a party, between liquor and erotic dances, she hooked up with an old man with a fat wallet.
Luciano doesn’t want to blame anyone for his bad luck. It’s what happened to him. For his salvation a friend came along, who had an illegal store in her home, dedicated to the sale of shoddy goods brought in from Ecuador, Caracas, and Miami. She gave him a quantity of clothes to sell, so he could make some money and try to get his wife back.
When it already seemed that his bad luck had hit bottom, he was caught by the police with a briefcase full of articles without the receipts that would justify their origin. They took the goods from him and stuck him with a fine of 1,500 pesos (70 dollars). He now owes his friend about 200 dollars for the confiscated merchandise.
Without a job or a family and with debts, Luciano welcomed in 2011. Despite everything, he considers himself a man of spirit. He trusts that over the course of the year his luck will change for the better. For the moment, it can’t get any worse.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 15 2011
In Cuba there are two types of citizens. Those who can enter the elegant boutiques and buy brand-name clothing and those who have to content themselves with pressing their noses against the window panes.
In many cities of the world, December is the month for reductions. In Havana it’s not. In 2010, in a circular to the managers of the hard-currency stores, the articles to be discounted are enumerated for the year-end.
It’s not a cause for fireworks, but it’s something. Waiting for this day, Yuliet, 25 years old, a hotel employee, goes to the Comodoro complex of shops, located in the west of Havana, to look at the price of a pair of dresses with the Mango label.
“If I don’t find what I’m looking for, I’ll go to Zara, to see what they are selling,” she says while she checks the merchandise, all very expensive.
The prices are abusive. A pair of good tennis shoes for a little girl can easily cost 50 dollars. And if they are Adidas, Nike, Puma, Levi’s or Guess, they can be close to or more than 100 dollars.
Obispo Street, in old Havana, is full of hard-currency shops. Román, 43 years old, a teacher, shakes his head when he sees the prices in a leather store.
“This is the last straw. I need a pair of shoes to be a witness at a friend’s wedding, and I have only 40 dollars. I’ve spent 7 hours going to all the shops. I liked the ones made of Italian leather, but they cost 120 dollars,” he said, disillusioned.
To buy something good in Cuba is a mission impossible. Nothing is cheap when you have to pay in a type of money that you don’t receive when you get paid (the average salary on the island is 12 dollars per month).
In addition to clothing and shoes, in order to buy certain articles of food and cleaning products, you have to pay in Cuban convertible pesos or CUCs, the Cuban hard currency.
And everyone knows that hard currency comes from the USA, the “enemy” territory of Fidel Castro. Also from Europe and Latin America. There are Cubans sprinkled in half the world.
Although dollars and euros are a rare commodity for 40 percent of Cubans who don’t have access to hard currency, the prices for clothing and shoes have gone up by 30 percent in the last five years.
Add to this that the Castro government taxes hard currency between 12 and 18 percent, a casino for the State. Without counting investments, this “revolutionary tax” (instituted by Castro in October 2004), brings in about 600 million dollars annually.
This isn’t the only one. There’s a tax on products in the “shoppings,” the hard-currency stores, that sometimes exceeds 240 percent. This doesn’t prevent artists, intellectuals, musicians and high-class prostitutes from buying brand-name clothing and shoes without looking at the prices. They don’t even blink when it comes time to pay.
They are in the minority. The majority have to write down the telephone number of their families in Miami, Madrid or Rome. Or risk their hides in some black-market negotiation that will give them a good profit.
Since 1959, Cubans have had the custom of wearing something brand new to welcome in the new year. During this time, the shops make money, in spite of the questionable quality of what they offer. And the fact that Havana is as expensive as New York.
Photo: Fashion show on the Malecón of Havana.
Translated by Regina Anavy
December 30 2010
Diana, 25, has seen the same video hundreds of times on her Chinese television. And she still gets excited about the time when, dressed in white at the side of her future husband, she drove through the streets of Havana in a 1957 Cadillac convertible.
“It was the happiest moment of my life. Entering the matrimonial palace, the notary declaring us married, and those present asking us to kiss,” remembers Diana.
The modest hotel where they spent their honeymoon did not prevent them from having sex at all hours. Some months later, the marriage became a nightmare. Money was tight, and her husband suggested that she prostitute herself, discretely. “Darling,” he told me, “we cannot live in a virtual reality.”
Diana was very much in love. And she went to war. Her battle was to sleep with her husband’s friends, who lusted after her and were ready to pay 50 convertible pesos for one night. Later came foreigners who paid better.
As for material things, they went forward like the wind, but her love went out the window. “I had enough when a Russian offered me 120 dollars to screw me in front of my husband. The worst is that he accepted,” she said, indignant. Diana continued to prostitute herself, now on her own account.
Carlos, a sociologist, considers that one of the greatest harms caused by five decades of revolution has been the loss of traditional concepts about family and marriage, and the absence of ethical and moral codes.
“In the first years, the revolutionary discourse was very anti-Catholic. And the effort to give women more space in society brought promiscuity, with dorms in the country and the boarding schools, far from their families from a very young age. That created a frivolous feeling toward the institution of marriage,” pointed out the sociologist.
Ricardo, a notary, agrees with the sociologist. “In the Special Period, the number of marriages in Havana was spectacular. The reasons were simple. People got married because they had the right to buy three cases of beer and spend three days in a hotel where the lights didn’t go off and they could have breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of the unions lasted two years on average. Others separated and didn’t even go to court,” affirmed the notary.
Then there are the cases of girls who get married for the extravagance. “I got married in church. To dress in white, with a tiara and veil, to take photos and make a video has become the fashion,” says Delia, a sculptor.
Others do it to imitate their parents. “I don’t understand how the old people have been able to last 45 years together. I tried it. But it was a fiasco,” confesses Rolando, a university student.
A female writer who asked to remain anonymous admits that “among my friends it’s normal that we sleep with the other’s spouse, with his consent. We even make love among ourselves. At times I tell my husband to go away, that tonight I need someone different in my bedroom.”
Carlos the sociologist wonders, So why get married? The answer can be what Ana, a primary school teacher, says. “To escape from your family and be independent.”
Couples have their reasons when they decide to go to the altar. The reality is that there’s an alarming tendency in Havana to get married. And later come the horrors, like the young writer who asks her husband to take a walk while she enjoys an orgy with friends.
Photo: Google images
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 13 2011
It all started at age 14 when his father gave him an old Russian camera with a fixed 35 mm lens. Before he got passionate about photography, Roldán, 42, was the guy in the neighborhood who played baseball in the mornings and went up to the roof in the evenings, to quietly watch some naked neighbor.
He took photography seriously. He dreamed that he would be like Robert Capa, Richard Avedon, the Catalan Joan Fontcuberta, or at least surpass the Cuban Alberto Korda. Roldán always carried his camera and loads of lenses.
He worked part-time for a travel agency. He took photos for unofficial foreign journalists passing through the island. He refused to work on a boring and uncreative local newspaper.
His pictures didn’t please the censors and bosses of the official press. They were good and even artistic, but they starkly showed the dirty, ugly face of Havana.
Beggars and prostitutes. Drunk and gays. Sad, fat old types who spend time sitting on wooden stools at the entrance to dilapidated housing.
He could never exhibit in galleries and museums. He was never praised or rewarded. He was not a complacent photographer. But upon the death of his parents, who always supported him, he was forced to make a living. He stopped doing underground art and devoted himself to commercial photography. A friend with enough money and a gift for business set him up in a studio with a showy, brightly-colored decor.
Roldán began to take photos of girls who turned 15. He was successful. Now he earns a lot of money. A photo album can cost more than 100 Cuban convertible pesos (120 dollars). Today he is one of the photographers who is most requested by the parents of quinceañeras.
Roldán did not achieve his dream of being like Capa, Avedon, Fontcuberta or Korda. But he lives well. He was able to furnish his apartment, and he has an old Dodge that looks like a jewel. Although he continues making quality photos, he feels that he has prostituted his profession with these staged images.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 13 2011
Either President Raul Castro is deluding himself or he is trying to deceive Cubans. One of the two. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.
If Castro the Second is pretending to be sincere when he speaks with severe disgust about the artificial unanimity and complacency practiced at all official levels in the country, then he should implement, once and for all, the long-heralded “revolutionary democracy.”
It’s a contradiction. The General shakes with rage before the final vote, which is feigned and compliant, both in the Parliament and the Council of State. But then, when the time comes to raise a hand, everyone, absolutely everyone, votes in favor of the proposals put forth by the government.
I don’t know of any deputy to the National Assembly who has suggested a single project agreed to by the citizens he represents. In no session of the boring and monotonous national parliament does anyone dare to propose economic methods that are different from those offered by the chiefs in olive green.
In Cuba, the opposition departs from the government line. It is the only one qualified to offer and provide solutions. The Communist Party and other social organizations are merely bystanders, a well-tuned chorus.
It’s amazing that the 611 deputies agree on the shape and design with which they intend to revive the depressed national economy. Not one single deputy disagrees or has doubts. At least publicly.
It can’t be said that Cuba is the most democratic country in the world when everyone in the government accepts any law or project with his head down, applauding. The executive branch is the one that curtails discussion of differences, by permitting only “constructive criticism.”
Of course, the deputies and party members are afraid to come out against any proposal that has the approval of the Castro brothers. Non-acceptance of the laws and wishes of the hierarchy can mark them as undesirables. Or worse, as counter-revolutionaries, a sure passage to hell in the revolutionary island paradise.
The only ones who openly criticize and put forth different proposals are the opposition and independent journalists. Some might be unrealistic. But if the government at least would hear or analyze them, you might have more elements on hand when making laws that affect all of society.
It’s easier to disparage the dissident movement. The big problem with Cuba is to break in a real way, not in words, the false unanimity of the state representatives. Discrepancies enrich dialogue, according to Raul Castro.
But in practice, they prefer to listen to the instrumental music, without fanfare and pleasing to their ears, played by their followers in the forums.
If they really want to stir up the system and hear truly critical voices, they will have to acknowledge the dissidence, which exists in spite of everything. And it’s not unanimous within itself; on the contrary. Therein lies a healthy difference.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 10 2011