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Chronicle about a chronicle

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment


To be a reporter in Cuba is something like trying to be a tightrope artist balancing on a loose rope in an old traveling circus. To begin with, when one is an independent reporter, in addition to the string of insults that—generously and without rationing—are hurled at us by those in the government and State media, add the precarious conditions under which we undertake our work.

The first and greatest difficulty is that since independent journalism is prohibited by the Castro brothers, we have no access to reliable statistics and numbers. Frequently, by not having truthful data, I have to abandon some article or report that I am writing because I lack information.

One major obstacle, when I want to make a note or get a story, is that the people I consult, because of that irrational fear that has paralyzed Cuban society for 50 years, beg me not to identify them or their occupation.

It is nerve wracking. In that world that borders on the surreal, independent Cuban journalists undertake their work in the 21st century. Living for half a century in a closed society, where criticism and discrepancies are synonymous with personal enmity, has without a doubt tainted human relationships.

The misunderstandings come from all sides. Some proud intellectuals, who hold their heads high, distance themselves from the State information apparatus; they comment quietly among their friends that the lack of professionalism of some independent journalists can be seen in the stories they write and in their lack of objectivity by not including in their writing the opinions of independent thinkers. They are in the habit of judging harshly the role of the opposition and the blogging movement on the island. OK.

Recently, I wrote, for the digital page “El Mundo/America,” a chronicle titled “The ‘Other’ Yoanis” about four women I know who blog, because one way or another, most Cuban bloggers who began to write after 2007, whether they are official or not, look sideways at Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez’s blog. Either to attack or praise it.

Without a doubt, if we don’t believe all that string of nonsense that government propaganda wants us to buy, we have to admit that Sanchez is the anchor and star of the Cuban blogosphere. One hundred million hits per year provoke admiration in some and jealousy and envy in others.

Writing on the island is a highly risky job, even if on any given night they don’t riddle you with bullets as you enter your house, as happens in Colombia or Mexico. And for that same reason, because there is no bloodshed, some intellectuals and leftist politicos think that the Castros are not so bad. There is no blood, that is true. But the regime promises us many years of prison for writing our own thoughts.

In Cuba not only the government is intolerant. So are the opposition, independent journalists and bloggers. Some are as intransigent as the State officials.

So, to the point. I was telling you that recently I wrote a story about four women who blog: Claudia Cadelo, Laritza Diversent, Lia Villares, and Miriam Celaya. After a few days I find out that two of them, Miriam Celaya and Lia Villares, alarmed by my bad handling of information, issued separate denials. A good signal.

I recognize that Celaya has reasons. I made mistakes on dates and conferred a political position—to be in favor of the market economy—that she personally hadn’t told me. I apologized to her.

Villares, the other blogger, is in disagreement over a nuance. I wrote that her father is an alcoholic, a conclusion I came to from the 4-page profile she composed on her blog, where a couple of times she lets us know that her father has lost control by drinking more than he should. She was upset with my appraisal.

The point is not that she may have upset me. A journalist is not an amanuensis, and I don’t write to please anybody. What really worries me is how sensitive we are at times when we offer our opinions. Even when these are favorable.

We honest journalists commit mistakes. A lot. But I am not married to any party, ideology, or movement. I have a free hand to write what I think about any person, be his name Fidel Castro or a known dissident.

If my pen does not shake when I pass judgment on a government that considers it a crime to disagree with the Party line, I am not about to give in to persons with whom I agree, even if at times they show an intolerant face.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. After all is said and done, I am a journalist, not a mouthpiece.

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Dawn* or Darkness?

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Even though Hugo Chavez, its creator, and the Castro brothers are beaming with pride about ALBA*, the free-trade agreement with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, the agreement has insignificant benefits for the people of Cuba.

The most notable benefit is that, thanks to the flow of oil that the folkloric President Chavez generously provides us with, in the last three years we have not had prolonged blackouts in Havana, which at their height would last up to 8 hours daily.

Five years after implementing the treaty with Caracas, the bright side is that we have some petroleum. Not too much, though, since in the second trimester of 2009, the Cuban government ordered a new notch on an already over-tightened belt, and asked for even more economy with the black gold.

The other advantages we would supposedly have do not exist.  In 2004, the Sole Comandante, delirious as only he can get, squinted his eyes—it’s almost as if I could see him now—telling us how Cuban stores would be filled with lots of merchandise and all kinds of food. And children would have no reason to whine because their parents would be able to buy them bonbons and other goodies. In a definitive manner, ALBA would make us economically independent. Of course, the common man on the streets was not fooled. He knows by heart all the Maximum Leader’s ravings.

Many foreigners now laugh and think one exaggerates when we enumerate the long list of promises and the bright future Castro I has been promising for half a century.

Let us review the list. Tubers and vegetables would be abundant. Let’s not even talk about how much milk there would be. We would no longer have to go to the dairy for it. Upon waking up in the morning, one would find on the patio or balcony of the house an exquisite midget cow waiting for us to milk her. Everyone would have pure and fresh milk to drink to his heart’s content.

There would be bananas for exporting. Coffee would be available in industrial-size quantities. Pork would be practically free. Cuba would be the closest thing to paradise. In San Julian, a community in Pinar del Rio, one could experience what it was to live in a communist society.  Not even Lenin attempted it.

All our dreams began to crumble, but not because the Comandante lacked good will. No. He had more than enough passion, but he lacked rationality. As always. No tubers, and no midget cows. Even that which we had produced for centuries, like sugar, we now have to import from the Dominican Republic.

The common Cubans on the street long ago stopped believing in the utopias and pleasant dreams of Fidel Castro. Now they are more cautious, if not skeptical. For now, no one in their right mind believes in the benefits of ALBA. It is understood that as a member of the trade agreement, one of the island’s contributions is providing health care.

Therefore, thousands of South Americans travel to Cuba for cataract surgery. Even the natives can now have their eye surgery in the morning and be home by the afternoon. Just like what happens in New York, Barcelona, or Zurich. Castro, of course, brags about this service.  But these types of surgical procedures are not news anymore anywhere in the civilized world because for a long time they have been successfully available.

What Cubans want is to see food in their pantries. They want to be able to have cafe con leche and buttered bread for breakfast. And for their children to have clothing and shoes. But that, they observe, has not been made possible by the much-praised trade agreement. Less rhetoric then, and more reality.

At this point, after 50 years of nonsense and waste, chimerical undertakings, and absurd plans, simple people do not bring up in serious conversation the supposed goodness of an alliance that has yet to show palpable results.

No one believed the lovely story of the Comandante in Olive Green, when one night in 2004, in a state of euphoria, he glimpsed a plethoric future for his subjects. Not even the children, to whom it never even occurred to ask their parents for bonbons.

*Translator’s note

The title—Alba o oscuridad, in Spanish—is a play on words. “Alba” is the Spanish word for dawn. The organization ALBA is the Bolivian Alternative for the Americas.

Photo: Claudio Vaccaro, Flickr

Trotski’s assassin, by Leonardo Padura

December 8, 2009 2 comments


In his last novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs, the Cuban writer and journalist Leonardo Padura Fuentes tells the story of Ramón Mercader, the man who, with a pickaxe on August 20, 1940, fatally struck the head of Leon Trotski, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s fiercest opponent, and a discreet and cultivated man with a passion for dogs.

Padura read fragments from his new book in a discussion held Tuesday, November 23, in the Blue Heron room of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). Considered one of the most talented writers on the Island in our time, the novelist was born in 1955 in the marginal neighborhood Mantilla, in the municipality of Arroya Naranjo, the poorest in Havana and the one with the highest crime rate in the country.

Without a doubt, Leonardo Padura is one of the good ones. And brave. Apart from his agile and sober prose, his novels show a sharp critique of the social situation. Since his first novel, Horse Fever, through his excellent biography of José María Heredia, and his documentary, The Faces of Salsa, made with Rigoberto Lopea, where they interviewed the mythic Celia Cruz, banned by Castro’s government even after her death, the writer of Mantilla has confirmed that he is a heavyweight in the literary world of the Caribbean.

Now he comes to us with a story that tries to get at the foundation of the life of the professional assassin and Soviet spy, Ramón Mercader, who was born to a Cuban mother and, as the author tells us in his book, died on the island at the end of the 1970s.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, the 23rd, there was a party. The small room was packed and afterwards the writer read three passages from his novel and invited the public to ask questions. A pleasant and substantive dialogue was struck up, where Padura, with his narrator’s gift, shared unpublished anecdotes.

Among these was how he came to be interested in the figure of Mercader. He confessed that when he was a student on the Isle of Youth, the son of Trotsky’s murderer was studying at the same school. Years later, in 1989, he had the opportunity to visit Culiacán, México, the house where the murder was committed. “There was a depressing, prison-like and Danteesque atmosphere.” He added that some months after his visit to the crime scene, the Berlin wall fell. And it was then that the doors opened to the beginning of an exhaustive investigation of Ramón Mercader.

But he found barely any facts. Then he had to let his imagination and logic take flight. According to the writer, Stalin, a textbook paranoid, ordered the burning of all the documentation regarding the preparations for the attack on his fiercest rival, Leon Trotski.

Despite the scarcity of information, the author of The Fog of Yesterday, obtained evidence that Mercader studied to be an assassin in the schools of the NKVD, the predecessor of the feared KGB, on the outskirts of Moscow and that after the crime, both Mercader and the official who directed him received the highest decoration of the Soviet State.

Without beating around the bush, during the whole colloquy, Padura made it clear that the perversions and horrors were not only Stalin’s but the Soviet system’s. A young writer who preferred to remain anonymous asked, at the end of the literary conversation, if Leonardo Padura, who in his work often makes none-too-subtle digs at the crisis of values in Cuban society, is paving the way to write his masterpiece on the figures and events of the Cuban Revolution.

Looking at his round, mixed-race face, adorned with a well-trimmed incipient beard, and with a voice tailor-made for storytelling, it seemed that his most important book is about to be written. We hope to hear good things from Leonardo Padura Fuentes.

The Marginalized from the Slums

December 6, 2009 Leave a comment

Night is his best ally. Pedro, an unemployed 21 year old knows how to take advantage of it like no one can. He lives in a hut made of aluminum and grimy boards, along with his four brothers and his mother, who likes to drink herself into unconsciousness with filtered alcohol made from molasses.

Pedro’s entire family escaped from a hamlet in a municipality of Guantanamo, a province 1,000 km east of Havana. His entire life, he recalls, they have eaten very little and inadequately, and have drunk rum excessively. And money? Forget it.

“Those little papers with people painted on them, we have always lacked them in our pockets,” he confesses.

They arrived in Havana a couple of years ago and built their dwelling in the outskirts of the city, bordering the national highway. Typical local slums with hovels called “Ready Mades,” populated by squalid persons, generally black and mestizo, without future. Like Pedro’s family, they raise a roof in a jiffy in order to have a place to sleep.

In the capital, Pedro’s family manages however they can. Pedro’s mother, Emelina, armed with her plastic bottle filled with homemade rum, sells plastic bags for one peso as well as butter or cream cheese made in the country side, discreetly peddled near a bakery.

“At the end of the day, I earn 30 to 40 pesos only,” says Emelina, who has a large double chin and, although she says she is 48 years old, looks more like she is almost 70.

The rest of her children, a girl and three boys, barely completed high school. Martiza, 17 years old, a prostitute, usually stands with her hand out attracting clients traveling in cars moving at more than 100 kph on the national highway. If anyone, attracted by her slender body and provocative tits, slows down, she negotiates. Forty pesos for a blow-job and 80 to be penetrated.

She dreams of another life. Eat a hot meal every day, a good, decent husband who will provide a good life. While she waits for her break, she goes out every night to “make do.”

“I am a whore so I don’t starve to death,” she says in a soft voice; meanwhile, distracted, she gazes at her long finger nails, decorated with the American flag.

The two other brothers are somewhat withdrawn, but they are hard workers. They climb as high as 20 meters to lop off the fronds of the royal palm—these are highly prized in the farmhouses of Havana’s suburbs.

“Sometimes he earns up to 500 pesos (20 dollars),” fusses his mother.

This is a lot of money for them. Pedro is the thief. He takes advantage of the dark of night to steal from a State refrigerator with some friends. They enter through the roof of the establishment to steal boxes of frozen chicken or boxes of potatoes.

With the proceeds of his thievery, Pedro buys designer clothes and Nikes. His mother is unaware of his misdeeds.

“I would like to get out of poverty and have a cement-block house that stays dry inside when it rains. Be able to go to clubs and drink good beer.”

That is why, on a moonless night near the national highway, Pedro knows the darkness will help in his attempts to change his destiny. He has yet to land in jail, but this is in the cards.