Rufino Delagado, 38 years old, in his occasional lucid moments, admits that his life has already hit rock bottom. And he looks up to the sky, impotent, as if looking for an answer to his problem with alcohol. He has not always been a dirty and rude guy. Six years ago, he used to work in the warehouse of a tobacco business, and with what he used to steal from the State and the salary he received, he could afford to keep his wife and daughters with some ease.
“I used to offer a box of tobacco for 20 CUC. There were days in which seven or eight were sold. As my wife received remittances, the money left over was used to buy me drinks.”
He started as a social drinker. And ended as a common drunk, one who sells the little that is left in order to get a drink. At the beginning he used to drink quality rum and beer. Now, Rufino drinks the alcohol of the miserable, filtered with molasses, in improvised barrels, where a liter costs 10 Cuban pesos. He cannot live without drinking. His family put him under medical treatment. But it didn’t work. Rufino always would come back to the alcohol.
When he was drunk he was a monster. He used to hit his wife and daughters. His wife got rid of him, as you throw away an old sofa, when one night in 2006 she arrived at their poor apartment and found him naked among vomit, food and cockroaches that were enjoying themselves in the mess as if they were at a party.
He never again had news about either his daughters or his wife. He lost his job. Now he roams in the surroundings of La Vibora. He eats, when he eats, from the little that people throw away in the bins. He has no friends. Only sad guys like him, that every day get together on the corner of Calle Carmen and 10th of October, opposite Plaza Roja, to drink the drink of the forgotten.
They always finish in the same way. Fighting among themselves. In the squabble they hit each other and cause a huge disturbance. Even the police are not interested. If by chance they are detained for a couple of days, they bathe and kill the hunger of their days with prison food.
In his occasional periods of lucidity, Rufino remembers that he was a guy who used to love his daughter, and he used to dress tastefully. He took baths with hot water and ate home-made food. After, he used to sit with his wife to watch the soap-opera of the moment on the telly. He never thought that his life would become hell.
When he is not drunk, the memories take him back to alcohol. Among tears and curses, with the 10 Cuban pesos that he gets selling some old item or money given as payment for a favour, he goes to the same place, to buy distilled alcohol. His existence is a vicious circle. And what is left is for going to church and imploring the Virgin to let death take him away, soon. With just one wish to be granted, that, before dying, he will be allowed to see his wife and two daughters.
Translated by: Tanya May and Regina Anavy
If the Cuban generals had liked rock, things in Cuba might have been different. Perhaps the soldiers would not have gone out in their vulgar Russian jeeps, scissors in hand, cutting the hair of those devoted to this type of music. And they would not have had to arrest thousands of young people whose only crime was to be a fan of the songs of the Beatles, the mythical quartet from Liverpool, and send them to those concentration camps that were called the Military Units of Support for Production, more commonly known by their acronym, UMAP.
If Fidel Castro and his military court had frequently hummed “Yesterday,” or some other ballad by Led Zeppelin, and at their ranches, between beers and select rums, while they filled their mouths with shrimp and masses of fried pork, the weekends had been spent with the Rolling Stones or some other rock band of the epoch, perhaps Cuba would not have known the Gray Period in the ’70s.
Later, everything was pure cynicism. The Cuban leaders always hated rock, Western influence, books of foreign authors and the consumer market. They thought that the flock of sheep that is the Cuban people ought to be immunized against the “brutal and decadent capitalist society.”
Therefore, zero short-wave broadcasts, music, styles and foreign pleasures. They wanted those long-hair types and druggies who composed strange songs to remain very far away from the proletarian and internationalist archipelago.
When the air from the East began to blow, indicators that the “brothers in the socialist camp” were tired of collective societies, repression and unanimous thought, then the comandante and his generals decided to paint over some things.
They named a minister of culture with long hair, who perhaps in his youth had listened to prohibited music. But as soon as he entered into the martial discipline of the Communist Party, he had to trade his tastes and sing loud and clear the marches and hymns that Fidel Castro liked.
The summit of impudence was to erect a statue to John Lennon in a park in Vedado, in Havana.
And very serious and with remorseful faces, celebrate in Havana the 8th of December, the day Lennon was assassinated in New York. One of so many ways to insult peoples’ intelligence. Because when the ex-Beatle was alive, in order to listen to him, you had to be a prisoner in Cuba.
Also, they are now paying homage to the playwright Virgilio Piñera and the writer José Lezama Lima. If the comandantes and generals have demonstrated something on the island, it’s that they know how to take advantage of the figures of culture, above all after they’re dead. Although I do have one doubt.
If in the hypothetical case that the Castro dynasty lasts 100 years. would they raise statues to the poet Raúl Rivero, the blogger Yoani Sánchez or the opposition figure Oscar Elías Biscet? From a regime as surrealistic as this one, anything can be expected.
Perhaps, if the commandante and his generals had danced to rock, none of this would have happened. And our country would be enjoying democracy. It’s symptomatic, in societies that are not closed, that the leaders enjoy rock music. In Cuba it could not be different.
Translated by Regina
I would like to understand certain radical leaders of our America. I share many of the social political views of the left and I have my doubts about a liberal economy. Above all, when it is poorly applied by the leaders of the continent.
For almost two centuries there have been enough Latin American presidents who mostly ran their countries like they were their own country estates. Many see the government as a way to write their own ticket and loot the public treasury.
It’s the same from the left and the right. Look at Carlos Menem or Hugo Chávez. Without considering their inveterate habit of becoming plotters and dictators. We blame our ills on the United States. It is the easiest. True, the colossus of the north, which emerged as a nation around 1775-76, more than a few times has referred to the region as its natural backyard.
We don’t have U.S. type leaders for the simple reason that Latin American governments tend to nepotism and warlordism. The Yankees, with their gift for business, realized they could impose their views on the continent throughout the centuries with a couple of dollars and a few threats.
In the deal between two people or countries one invariably tries to set itself above the other. It is the animal tendency of the human being. This has happened because the brilliant military leaders such as Bolívar, Sucre, Paez, and San Martín who brought about independence were not succeeded by statesmen of their stature.
In the United States, no. The leaders of their revolution were equal to or less than their counterparts on the continent. It is at the time of governance that the country of the stars and bars surpasses the countries of the region. In Latin America there has not been a Washington, Lincoln or a Roosevelt. The majority of our statesman are more worried about leaving rich from their time in office, and in creating an opaque framework, than in governing well.
Sad to say, but that’s the case. Now in the 21st century, we look with favorable eyes on presidents like the Chilean Michelle Bachelet, or the Brazilian Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, two who are philosophically socialist but realistic about the world around them.
And in 2009 a guy like Barack Obama came to the United States, a black man who exceeds the leaders of the continent in clear ideas, empathy, and good sense. I watch with concern as radical statesmen like Evo Morales or Hugo Chávez who, at the first sign of change, add to the hackneyed speeches accusing him of “Yankee Imperialism.”
If they were to govern democratically, respecting differences without polarizing the logical contradictions of opinion that usually exist in any nation and do not always look askance at what the U.S. president does and says, this would be the first big step forward for the region.
In the Summit of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), held in late August in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, leftist radicals engaged in a bitter debate over the establishment seven U.S. military bases in Colombia.
They may be right. I do not think it’s time for military bases. But I’ve never heard of Morales, Correa and company criticizing the joint military exercises conducted this year by Venezuela and Russia. Nor did they criticize Chavez’s huge purchases of Russian weapons, nor do they criticize their complicity with autocratic governments like Iran.
I believe in social ideas. I consider myself a kind of leftist. I’m tired of seeing populist rulers, made hoarse by protesting U.S. policies and yet being silent when it applies to measures affecting the people or the sovereignty of other nations under a leftist president or a dictator like Fidel Castro.
I’ve never heard Chavez or Morales demand that the Castro brothers allow other political parties, free press or elections. Nor do they recall that in the Fall of 1962, Cuba had nuclear missiles and Russian military bases.
It’s true. It is pragmatic and convenient to portray the USA as allied with the worst guys on our continent. But the blame for most Latino leaders has been scant, we can not always say everything is the fault of the gringos. Yes, it is also true: at times they use the carrot and stick approach.
But we must recognize that during its more than two centuries of existence, the U.S. government has enabled its people to live better. Latin American radicals make splendid speeches, talking about bright futures and social theories. But in practice it has not worked. If you doubt this, look to Cuba.
Translated by Karen
The First Act: The Executioner’s Weeping (1999)
For a long time, Jorge Gonzalez, 47, suffered the same nightmares. A discharge from a rifleman on a misty and starless night. Then, he senses the sound of a shot dealt to a condemned man who is he himself.
He always wakes up the same: bathed in sweat and crying. Another night robbed of rest. When he has that nightmare, Jorge can’t get back to sleep and stays awake until dawn. It happens to him almost daily since he retired from his thankless profession as an executioner. Killing one’s fellowman–guilty or not–has its consequences.
Now, the profession is costing him. One rarely talk about this occupation. One thinks of big guys, unfriendly and with a brain the size of a garbanzo bean, divest of feelings.
In men that have been called by the government for the insensitive task of administering the death penalty, they arrive humming a commonplace tune, then roll up their sleeves, and put on a black hat to hide their faces. Afterwards, they go on the same path to their homes, far away from the mundane noise, without a family and accompanied by their dog, waiting for the next execution. Nothing farther from reality. In the absence of testimonies about the life of executioners, people have invented legends.
Jorge Gonzalez is the antithesis of the classic executioner who appears in books and films. Of small stature, a bit bald, thin, and with a fixed fear before any significant event. Jorge, who confesses that his pulse doesn’t tremble at having taken the lives of more than 20 people, gets scared in the presence of a cockroach and panics at the sight of small lizards.
He’s cultured, likes Ricky Martin and his happy music. He reads Goethe and Stendhal. When one speaks with him they discover that he’s not stupid, but a rather intelligent man. But the 10 years that he spent on the firing squad have changed him.
in 1982, after fulfilling three and a half years of military service in Ethiopia, as part of the communist help to Mengistu Haile Marian’s pro-Maoist regime, Jorge graduated from college without being completely sure of what his future would be. The same thing happened to him as to other men of war: skillful in the handling of a rifle, but unable to function as civilians.
Jorge had been a sniper in a battalion under the control of General Arnaldo Ochoa, who years later was executed by Castro’s government, accused of treason and drug trafficking. Under Ochoa’s orders, Jorge participated in the famous Battle of Ogaden where the Cuban general was exalted for his new method of devising military strategy.
“I always admired General Ochoa, who in Ogaden displayed his skills. No wonder the battle is the subject of study in Western military academies.”
In 1989, Gonzalez could have been one of the men that, in Baracoa, a coastal town on the outskirts of Havana, formed part of the task force ordered to executed General Ochoa.
“I couldn’t be untrue to myself. I had killed murderers, rapists, and terrorists, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on my old boss. I made up a phony mental illness and they relieved me for six months.”
Upon returning to his speciality of killing, the executioner found out in detail about the final seconds of the hero of Ogaden.
“It’s not a fairy tale, that’s for sure. Ochoa drew close to the firing squad, saluted each one of firing squad’s members and said to them: ‘Don’t fret, men, carry out the order.’ He refused to cover his face. He died a valiant man.”
He says it, his voice faltering and his gaze lost out the window to where the sea becomes discernible.
“In that moment I thought it was a harsh course of action, but a just one. Now, I think it was excessive.”
In 1992 Jorge gave up this macabre task. His nerves weren’t letting him live and he decided to discharge himself from the army. He travelled to various psychiatric hospitals and resorted to electric shock therapy. But he couldn’t keep his mind clear.
Every night when a discharge from a rifleman wakes him in a sweat and crying, his wife tries to calm him. To no avail, though. Unable to sleep, he sits in the balcony of his house and stares at the sea. With the departure of the sun, weariness sets in and with it, the sensation that he is the most miserable man in the world. And perhaps he isn’t.
Second Act: The Last Execution (2009)
It was like any afternoon in the month of July. Jorge Gonzalez, 57, prepared rather slowly and fearfully the details of his death. It was the last day of his dangerous and uncommon life. He bought a few pounds of chicken from the black market and, with 3 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos), a package of Cubitas Coffee at the store.
At noon he put on his Sunday best: a red and violet checked shirt, a gift from his only wife, and pair of cotton pants, old and used, that 23 years ago he had bought in a little market in Addis Ababa while he was completing his military service in Ethiopia as a sniper in a group of elite troops.
He had eaten like never before; rice with chicken and all the fixings, and even allowed himself two glasses of Fortin Wine. He looked at himself in the mirror and entrusted himself to the Lord. He tied a thick rope to the iron chandelier in the living room and put it around his neck.
Four days later, the police opened the door with an axe. The body was already showing signs of decomposition.
Jorge Gonzalez had been an executioner. One of those entrusted with administering the death penalties decreed by the State.
He graduated from the armed forces and was admitted to psychiatric hospitals. His wife left him, tired of this short bald guy who spent the mornings reading like one possessed and at night awoke drenched in sweat and screaming.
When this happened he would sit in an armchair for more than two hours, without saying a single word. With his gaze fixed on the deep blue sea visible from his balcony. Probably the last image he caught before he died was the quiet summer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
I knew Jorge Gonzalez. Ten years ago I devoted a story to him, The Cry of the Executioner. I found out about his suicide, in 2009, a month and a half later. The delirium had disturbed him. It was his last execution.
If bad luck had a name it would be Antonio Fonseca. An enormous black man of almost 400 pounds, with a wide nose, sharp cheekbones and lips two fingers thick, who was born one cold, wet night in January 1981.
His mother, stark raving mad, set her husband and son on fire, when the latter was three years old. The father died. Fonseca still has visible marks on his entire body. And he still wonders what his mother’s motive was for her macabre pyromania.
Not having any family to take care of the little boy, from the age of three he lived in a state orphanage to the south of Havana, very close to the José Martí International Airport.
“In my childhood I had very few happy moments. One of them was when I was 10 and a group of us escaped from school to go watch the big planes take off and land.”
Antonio, wearing dirty, discolored, denim shorts, was seated on a wooden bench, in the shack where he lives, in the heart of Havana. On his nude torso you can see large bruises, produced by the burns of his disturbed mother.
“I don’t know the name of the woman who gave birth to me. I have never wanted to know about her; I only know that she spent many years in prison,” recounted Fonseca, while he took a drag on his cigarette.
He finished the 5th grade with great difficulty. And since he was 12 years old, the only thing he knows how to do is to commit small crimes and smoke marijuana. In spite of looking like a basketball player, he is not a violent guy. No. The three times he went to prison were for possession of drugs for his own consumption, It’s been a year since he was referred to a drug addiction clinic. But nothing helped him get better.
“I feel better when I’m high, only then can I sleep and hope for another day.”
And his eyes shine brightly. He works as a construction worker and does any work in the neighborhood, from finishing a patio and clearing debris, to filling buckets with water. Then, with the money, he buys a couple of joints at 25 pesos each. And on dark nights he feels like he’s in the clouds when he walks through Brotherhood Park, in the direction of Monte and Cienfuegos, in search of a cheap whore to calm his sexual appetites.
His minor crimes, to get some money, usually consist of stealing lightbulbs or chairs from some house. The money, of course, is destined to buy marijuana. This was Antonio Fonseca’s vicious circle. A big baby who could barely read and write. A prisoner of drugs. A sick guy whom luck avoided.
But the culmination, just a few days ago, was that in the tenement where he lives there was an over-the-top police operation. As usual, Antonio was high. And with his red, bleary eyes, he found himself accused of a violent robbery. A witness recognized him as the man who savagely beat a young person in order to steal his gold chain.
He swore to the authorities, on the mother he never new, that he was innocent. But confronted with a guy from a dissipated life with prior crimes, the police had already closed the file on the case. He remained in jail, hoping they would take him to preventive detention, where he would wait for his trial.
The prosecutor is requesting a penalty of 25 years. Without family, children or friends, Antonio Fonseca knows what fate awaits him. “No one can do anything without luck,” he used to say. He was right. Luck was never his ally.
Translated by Regina Anavy
The new influenza is gaining ground in Cuba. With the change in the weather, according to epidemiologists, it’s expected that the H1N1 virus will reap its harvest among the population of the island. As of October 1, the Ministry of Public Health reported the detection of 457 cases.
Now the Hubert de Blanck High School, in the municipal district Plaza of the Revolution, in the capital, has been forced to close. On Wednesday, September 30, the principal of the school reported that a sanitary commission, headed by the provincial director of epidemiology, had carried out a detailed inspection at the school.
A couple of days before, the principal had sent out an SOS because of the high number of students with respiratory problems. Due to bad hygienic and building conditions at the school, an old mansion poorly adapted to serve as a school, at first it was thought that this could be the cause of the high fevers and respiratory problems that many were suffering.
After numerous check-ups the doctors found 121 cases with respiratory problems of various degrees. As a preventive measure, the sanitary authorities decided to close the school. The tests done in the labs of the Institute of Tropical Medicine confirmed that five students were infected with the H1N1 virus.
In another two high schools in the same area, José Larruñada and José Luis Pérez, the alarm has gone out. Ana Rosa, a civil engineer who is 34, admits that because of the parents’ fear that their children might get infected, school absences have been noted. As an example, she says that on Friday, October 2, 70 students at José Luis Pérez High School did not attend classes.
Despite the fact that the virus threatens to become a pandemic, the government has taken it calmly. Maybe to avoid spreading the panic, the press has not mentioned what occurred at Hubert de Blanck and prefers to mention “stimulating” cases, like that of a woman in an advanced state of pregnancy, who, thanks to medical attention, survived the type-A flu at the National Hospital.
On television, a timid propaganda reminds us that hands should be washed frequently and cleanliness should be maintained at home. In taxis paid in foreign currency and in city buses, posters have been placed in favor of better hygiene. But the new flu is not explicitly mentioned.
Low-income families in Nuevo Vedado, where the word on the street is that H1N1 is almost a plague, want to know if it had crossed the minds of the Castro brothers’ government to make an urgent and substantial discount on products like soap and detergent, which can be bought only in Cuban convertible pesos, at prices that are impossible for most ordinary Cubans. It would be the logical thing to do. But so far, the rulers of the destiny of Cuba have shown no concern about this sector of the population.
Alarmed, I phoned the provincial office of the Ministry of Public Health. I asked if sanitary authorities were ready to confront a possible pandemic. The person who answered did not want to identify himself, but he assured me that they had sufficient anti-virals and medicines to treat H1N1.
Many parents interviewed believe that the mega-concert given by Colombian singer Juanes, on Sunday, September 20, was the explosive device for the uncontainable advance of the virus. More than one million people gathered in tight quarters, and this could have been the “soup” that made it easy for the virus to grow.
If that is the case, Juanes’ good intention of singing for peace in Havana could have become the ideal place for H1N1 to form a massive attack on the citizens of Havana. As a coincidence, the most-affected schools are within a few kilometers of the Plaza of the Revolution.
Now the problem is whether the Cuban authorities have resources and effective measures to stop the spreading of the disease. I hope they do.
P.S. On Friday, October 9, a television program was announced to report on the situation in Cuba with the H1N1 flu, respiratory illnesses and dengue.
Translated by Anonimatus Generacion Y
I saw him. It was he. He did not recognize me, engrossed as he was, in a bar on Belascoaín Street, listening to one of Orlando Contreras’ boleros, or perhaps it was La Lupe, with “Yours is Pure Theater,” on a decrepit, recycled RCA Victor record player.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 8. An almost desert-like heat seemed to melt the asphalt in Havana. Without a drop of breeze. People were crowing into a dirty little store on Sitios Street, trying to cool off from the heat wave by drinking a tasteless juice, with a slight taste of orange.
It was the day of the Virgin of Charity. Dressed in yellow, many people were walking quickly toward the Church of the Virgin, located on Salud Street, at the corner of Manrique. At 6:00 in the evening, a procession would leave from there with the patron saint of Cuba, to walk through the streets of Central Havana.
To kill time, I sat down in a bar with a blackened mahogany counter. And as if it were a miracle of “Cachita,” when I turned my head, I saw the poet Raúl Rivero playing dice with the bard Rafael Alcides and the journalist Reinaldo Escobar.
A record player salvaged from some warehouse of useless objects offered a recital of boleros. From the two Orlandos, Contreras and Vallejo, continuing with La Lupe and Blanca Rosa Gil, up to Freddy, that voice that puts meat on the chicken.
Reinaldo and Alcides were drinking out of glasses, in no hurry, from a bottle of Caney rum, aged seven years. The plump Rivero, with closed eyes, was enjoying the music, while in his fingers a mentholated cigarette threatened to burn his hand.
I did not want to call him. I did not want to break the spell. But I swear that the man with glasses, seated with his friends among drinks, dice and boleros, was he. The poet who in his last years in Havana lived on Peñalver Street, in the La Victoria neighborhood. He had come back in disguise. To this Havana in 2009, without charms or spells. But with something to put under my pillow at night to fall asleep.
Yes, I saw Raúl Rivero. One of my journalistic icons, who for seven years directed me at the Cuba Press Agency. It was in the middle of the ’90s, until the fateful spring of 2003, when an arrogant and closed government, that did not want – and does not want – to permit ideas and poems to be published on their merits, sentenced the poet of La Victoria to 20 years in jail.
At that time I was a novice wanting to consume the world. His journalistic advice was engraved on me forever. For me, a one-hour chat with Rivero represented years of classes in any school of journalism.
One cold afternoon in the spring of 2004, he left Canaleta prison, in Ciego de Ávila, the land where in 1945 he saw the birth of a world war, recently ended. He marched into a hard exile with his native land and his friends on his back. Also his manias.
In the splendid city of Madrid, a stranger to the city and its people, to boleros and record players. For that day of the Patron Saint, he jumped over to Havana. And I discovered him seated, listening to boleros, in a bar on Belascoaín Street. It must have been a miracle of the Virgin.
Translated by Regina