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National Heritage: Who Gives More?

December 26, 2011 1 comment

Between the 2nd and 3rd of November in the Taganana salon of the ancient Hotel Nacional, within walking distance of Havana’s waterfront, works from the giants of Cuban art were auctioned off.

The sale, which took in some $600,000, was a part of the tenth edition of the Havana Auction, an annual art auction on the island, this time consisting of 110 lots with a total starting value of $1.2 million.

They included pictures from notable artists such as Wilfredo Lam, Wilfredo Lam, Mario Carreno, Rene Portocarrero, Amelia Pelaez, Servando Cabrera Moreno and Tomás Sánchez.

The Havana Auction leaves many unanswered questions. Its director, Luis Miret, curator and gallery owner, in an interview with the digital edition of the journal Arteamérica, made known that the initial idea started a decade ago with the National Arts Council.

In expert language with a feeling of business, capitalism style, this gentleman, or comrade(?), in various segments of the conversation justified the decision of State institutions to undertake these sales, with the assertion that the works of Cuban artists are severely under-valued in the prestigious international auction houses, New York’s Christie’s and London’s Sotheby’s, commercial centers for art worldwide.

Cuban art is not the only one sold at low prices. If we look at Latin American painting, we see that it is also undervalued. The sale of 61 works by the most sought-after Latin American painters — a list that is led by the Mexicans Rufina Tamayo and Frida Kahlo, and on which figure the Cubans Mario Carrreño and Wifredo Lam — brought in just over $122 million. A minimal figure, if we take into account that on May 4, 2010, a single painting, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, painted in 1932 by the Malagan Pablo Picasso, brought $110.2 million at auction.

Mr. Miret’s other excuse is how they embrace him for his kindness. In the interview, the curator notes that these auctions are a good way to get a fair price for the works of the “poor little” painters of the patio, who usually sell to independent patrons at bargain prices.

And, he alleges — imagine it after drying your tears — that he has created a fund of two million pesos (I don’t know how many valuable pieces you can buy for such little money), for the acquisition of key works of today’s artists, paying 50% of their value.

The “goodagent” Miret also looks as if he is acting for different auction houses in the world. It’s a question of business. Nothing more. What the official media hides, as does, of course, its fervent promotor, is that part of the money coming in is credited to the “artists of the people.”

Nor are we informed what the Ministry of Culture does with the dough obtained in the ten editions of the Havana Auction.

Do they repair the theaters closed dozens of years ago? Do they put some paint on and seal the leaks of the Houses of Culture? Maybe they think about rehabilitating municipal museums. But I’m afraid not. There are no good intentions hidden behind this artistic looting.

Almost all the works auctioned are from key painters on the cultural map of the green caiman. They are not run-of-the-mill paintings. The majority are from already deceased artists and their legacy forms a part of the national patrimony.

Just over $600,000, according to the announced sales figures, is chump change for any government, no matter how poor it is, as is the case with Cuba. Even hundreds of millions of dollars would not justify raffling off the creative treasure of a nation.

It’s nothing new that the Castro brothers’ regime uses artwork and jewelry to obtain hard currency. Since the late 1980s, in the so-called “gold houses,” valuable paintings, porcelain and top quality gold and silver jewelry were exchanged for color televisions, audio equipment and Russian cars.

Cuban intellectuals should oppose these depredations of local and national heritage.

And the charitable Luis Miret, who wants us to see that beneath his brand-name shirt is hidden a noble heart, incapable of harming anyone, banged the gavel after the conclusion of the sale of a work of Cuban art. Indeed, his name sounds familiar.

Photo: Guitarist, by Mario Carreño, was picture most quoted the Havana Auction 2011. Its starting price was set at $200,000, but we don’t know how much they finally paid for it.

November 14 2011

Havana and Its Moveable Shops

December 26, 2011 Leave a comment

A stone’s throw from the corner of Galiano and Reina streets, huddle some twenty movable stalls. After nine on the morning, Rodobaldo, a tall and lanky man from Guantanamo without a permit to live in Havana, opens his junk shop where he sells T-shirts for 7 convertible pesos, girls’ sandals for five, and Nike tennis shoes for 45, “they’re authentic” he says.

By noon there are so many people they knock into each other like the bumper cars at a fair. From one stall someone shouts, “Buy your panties here, they’re the latest fashion.”

In another timbiriche — a local term for these micro-enterprises — a fat mulatto unhurriedly eats bread with a little fish, fanning himself with the Granma newspaper. When he sees some customer approaching, he tries his best Colgate smile, and shows off a wide variety of trinkets.

In a doorway a guy who looked like a gambler, openly played the list of the “the little ball” — the clandestine lottery. We call him René. His wife sells jeans, socks, and low-cut tennis shoes that she buys in bulk from people who make a living moving goods from Ecuador, Venezuela or Miami.

“Sales in this area of Central Havana are usually very good,” says René. “Yeah, there are a lot of shops. But we offer the best and the cheapest of this stuff. I dedicated myself to the game, but I was a born loser. With the money I put together I buy large quantities of clothing from some friends who frequently travel to Ecuador and bring back tons of textiles and costume jewelry. It’s not going badly. And of course I play the lottery,” René reports while taking a good swallow of white rum.

When you walk through Havana you notice how the ambulatory stores are dispersed. Selling anything. Religious objects. Pirated discs. Or clothes and shoes.

Whether in Central Havana, Mantilla, Marianao or Vibora, at any central point, you see a rolling wardrobe full of cheap goods. According to Marlen, a bleary-eyed mulatto, the business pays enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“It’s not a fire sale or anything like that, but I get by. On a bad day I look to earn between 15 and 20 convertible pesos. This from 9 am for ten hours, sitting on this wooden bench,” says Marlen.

The legal self-employed can’t escape the fiscal blade.

In October of 2010, General Raul Castro, overwhelmed by an economy going down the tubes, productivity in the basement, and inflated payrolls, without much bureaucratic rigor or controls, authorized 178 private professions, which later increased to 181. It’s what it is.

October 31 2011

Fidel Castro’s Experiments

December 10, 2011 4 comments

Photo: Getty Images. Fidel Castro with the cow, White Udder.

It causes chills to know that the historic leader of the Cuban revolution did research on different crops to improve nutrition for the Cuban people.

I don’t want to be a harbinger of ill omen. But reviewing Castro’s “experiments” in 52 years of olive-green government, he didn’t come up with any that were successful.

Let’s review the record. Let’s leave aside his social, military or political essays, which are being published in a collection. Let’s forget that insanity of designing in vitro a communist society having the village of San Julián, Pinar del Río, as the test case.

Let’s avoid his militant manias of directing, from a distance of 10,000 kilometers, the theater of operations of the civil war in Angola. From a mansion in Nuevo Vedado, sitting in a black leather easy chair, pointer in hand, facing a massive full-scale model full of toy soldiers and tin cannons. And like a common grocer, ordering the distribution of candy, ice cream and chocolates to the troops.

Let’s overlook his promises that in 2000 we would have an industry on the level of the U.S. Still, listen to the excited masses, gullible and faithful, cheering wildly at one of the many public plazas built for him to give his speeches. Yes, that is a personal achievement of Castro: As of today, Cuba is one of the countries on the planet with the most plazas per square kilometer for political acts.

The little father of the country also embarked us on fierce media campaigns against the foreign debt in Latin America, back in the 80’s. He said that for such a financial hardship he would send the bill to the continent.

And that from the third world we would land in the fourth. He was wrong. Right now, Latin America is growing, and Brazil and Argentina – who would have thought, comandante? – are studying the option of loaning money to rescue the faltering European economies.

It’s Cuba that isn’t taking off. His list of broken promises is long. One night of revolutionary partying at the Karl Marx theater, after putting a finger in his mouth, looking at the smooth ceiling and doing the math, Castro promised that every year 100,000 homes would be built.

A troop of intellectuals, engineers and judo coaches, who never in their lives had picked up a trowel, were converted by decree into construction workers in order to build their own homes. And those of others.

Let’s jump over the shoddy workmanship and frightening design of those buildings. There was no question of style. It was sheer necessity. In the workplace, the Union and the Party gave the apartments to the most loyal, in meetings comparable to a brawl among lions in the African jungle.

You might think that we are very demanding with this old man of 85 years. In the end, anyone can make mistakes.

But the ex-president has put his foot in it many times. In all fields. The most painful has been in regard to food. A sleepless night, back in 1964, brought from France the agronomist André Voisin, to implement on the island his new concepts about agriculture and the crossbreeding of cattle.

Later Castro said that the”Frog” knew less than he. And he sent him back home. As always, he laid the ground rules. He ordered the construction of air-conditioned dairies in the Valley of Picadura, on the outskirts of Havana, and said we would be eating so much beef that we would suffer from gout.

And that we would have malanga, fruits, vegetables … And microjet bananas. He published cookbooks with Ecuadorian recipes, so that Cuban housewives could take out part of a banana and prepare fufú (mashed), ladybugs (banana chips) and tostones.

With the river of surplus milk, after exporting a few thousand tons, we would produce Camembert and Gruyere cheeses of such high-quality that France and Switzerland would pale with envy.

As for sugar, once our national pride, he was its gravedigger. The beginning of the end of a secular tradition was initiated by the comandante in 1969-70, with his harvest of 10 million tons and the introduction of new and “more resistant varieties of cane.”

So now, in the 21st century, we occasionally import sugar from abroad. And finally to put the lid on the jar, we don’t even take advantage of the many qualities of sugar cane and its derivatives. The bagasse furniture sold in hard currency is imported from Brazil.

Coffee was another one of his whims. Thousands of habaneros planted Chilean coffee along and across the capital. Together with fresh air, we would be washed with the smell of strong, sweet coffee, said the optimistic local leaders.

Yes, today the average Cuban has coffee for breakfast. But mixed with peas. The depressed state coffers can’t afford the luxury of spending 40 million dollars to import a better bean.

Therefore, it applied the fiscal scissors. For the common people, of course. Officials in their offices have thermoses with coffee of superior quality. Those who can buy it in the “shoppings” (hard-currency stores) also drink good coffee.

When in 1990 that dark period began, which still floats in the air of the republic, known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” – in fact a war without the thunder of cannons – the drawer of the bearded one’s “food solutions” was opened.

Those were hard years. The Cubans were going hungry and fell into bed with optic neuritis. The old drank tea with leaves of orange or grapefruit. Which made those with low blood pressure, like my grandmother, dizzy, so they had to lie down.

Through the ration book, they began to sell food that they knew bordered on rubbish, baptized with original names. Soy hash. Meat paste. Fricandel. Root pasta. Hollow hotdogs. Cerelac. The invasion of the palate continued with soy and chocolate yogurt.

When on the night of July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro’s personal secretary, Carlos Valenciaga (where are you, Charlie?), looking mournful, announced that his jefe was retiring, many thought that the experiments had come to their end.

But no. The incombustible leader reappeared with his gibberish and forecasts. He prophesied that the world would end in a world war. He couldn’t wait to enter the fray. Which he liked. The issue of food.

And now he’s telling us that he’s seriously investigating a solution? To nourish the “sacrificed population that is suffering the rigors of the blockade as never before.” Which are double. The gringo and the regime.

People have received his” research” with concern. If in 52 years his attempts weren’t successful, would they be now? Let’s pray that he will be a passive grandfather. That he will play with his grandchildren and take a nap. That he will write his memoirs and surf the Internet.

But please, stop the experiments. Give it up, comandante.

Translated by Regina Anavy

November 26 2011

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