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The Havana Book Festival

February 17, 2011 1 comment

Foto: ajnunez, Flickr

 

Until Sunday, February 20th, the San Carlos de La Cabaña fortress is the initial site of the International Book Fair, held annually in Havana. In the month following, it will travel to other Cuban provinces.

Since its inception in 1992, the public attendance has been spectacular. Every day, an average of 80,000 people visit the enclosure, an old military fortress, and one of the most severe prisons during the first years of the revolution.

Now everything is different. The old cellblocks have been transformed into meeting pavilions, where Latin American and European printers sell books like hot dogs.

When La Cabaña opened its gates on Friday the 10th, an impressive avalanche of people filled the Spanish and Mexican pavilions, among others.

José Ferrero, a representative of a Spanish printing house and attending the Fair for the third time, called attention to the great demand for books about anything, in particular, novels and children’s stories.

“In times of crisis, when book sales have fallen in Europe, it’s healthy to see a poor country, people with an incredible eagerness for reading”, said Ferrero, while observing an extensive queue which was waiting its turn to visit the Spanish stand.

Other publishers couldn’t say the same. The booksellers of Cuban political themes were chatting in a relaxed manner in the cool Havana afternoon breezes. The visitors didn’t seem interested in the volumes recompiled with the thoughts of Fidel Castro or his work about the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra.

The pavilions of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Iran were also desolate and their representatives, with appropriate faces, were looking at the public hustle and bustle that popped in — and, on seeing the titles, fled to sites with more attractive offerings.

The books exhibited by the countries of the Boliviarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), to whom this fair was dedicated, are political bricks with the fragrance of a pamphlet and an unpresentable design. Despite being sold in Cuban pesos, their sales were extremely low.

People in Cuba are weary of books with political content. 52 years of a discourse with a marked ideological tint have forced Cubans to take refuge in more refreshing subjects.

And that’s what happened at the last Fair. Children were the big winners. Together with their parents, they left the compound loaded with issues in vivid colors and appealing illustrations.

The sales of these books are in cash. Expensive for a country where the average salary is 10 dollars a month. Even so, they sold in bulk. Robert, 34, an engineer, was accompanied by his wife and child. “We spent 28 dollars, but it was worth it. The rest of the year, you can’t get such beautiful and high quality children’s books in Havana”.

In Cuba, high book sales are customary. They aren’t expensive. But their quality, variety, and content don’t fulfill the expectations of demanding readers. The government censors authors whom they consider “counterrevolutionary”, such as the laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Occasionally, some prohibited authors and liberal texts that don’t line up with the ideology of the regime manage to make fun of censorship. People hunt for these ‘mistakes’.

On the back patio of the fortress, where in days gone by Castro’s enemies were shot, children, adolescents and youths read recently bought books, seated on the soft lawn or on the walls alongside ancient cannons.

The biggest prize of the Fair is the extraordinary panorama of the city on the other side of the bay.

Translated by: JT

February 17 2011

The ‘Jabas’ and the Latest Joke About Pepito

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

A fashionable joke in Havana, tells of the teacher asking Pepito, the classic mischievous child of jokes, what makes a Cuban different from a Spaniard and an American. Without thinking about it twice, Pepito responds:

“The Spaniard eats dinner late, eats ham, and likes mulatto women. The American tips well, chews gum, and if you don’t agree with him, will launch a missile at you. And the Cuban spends his time speaking ill of Fidel, thinking about how to steal from his workplace, and in his pocket he always carries a nylon ‘jaba‘ to keep what he stole.”

Without exaggeration, Cuba is one of those countries on the planet that uses those ‘jabas‘ or bags the most; be they made of nylon, paper, or cloth, it’s all the same. It’s difficult to see a Cuban go into the street without said ‘jaba‘.

Any moment can be the right one, you have to anticipate. If you’re going downtown or to the outskirts, your wife will tell you: “Take a ‘jaba‘, in case you find rice or discounted tomatoes”.

Not carrying ‘jabas‘ is synonymous with failing to take advantage of the chance to buy pineapples, oranges, or guavas recently unloaded off of a truck coming from Jagüey Grande. You run the risk of running desperately from one place to another and not finding the usual old people who sell ‘nailitos‘ (little nylons) at a peso ($0.04) each.

Selling ‘jabas‘ is a business to which many dedicate themselves in the city. Remberto, 75, retired, buys 100 jabas for 40 pesos ($1.60) and then sells them by the piece (one peso). In each lot he earns 60 pesos.

Fat business. Although you have to use all five senses, looking if the state inspectors and police aren’t coming. Besides rendering your ‘jabas‘ useless, they’ll fine you 120 pesos (5 dollars), a terrible fate for a retired person.

“The police are a problem. But the most serious is the scarcity of ‘jabas‘, including in the black market. Two months ago, the kind that I sell the most — stolen from a factory they tell me has shut down for lack of raw materiel. I’m selling them on the black market”, says Remberto, seated in a doorway near the destroyed Único Market.

The scarcity of nylon ‘jabas‘ affects illegal vendors, almost all old people who are trying to survive under the difficult conditions of island socialism. But it’s also a headache for buyers. The nylon bags are also scarce in cash stores. The news isn’t very promising.

One of the factories charged with producing ‘jabas‘ in Cuba is called Plinex. In 2010, they only achieved 5% of a plan forecast for 175 million units. And since July 23 the business has been shut down. Their 145 workers are at home, with 60% of their salaries.

Carlos, a Plinex employee, doesn’t see the time when the needed ‘jabas‘ production will start. “I have two small children and I have spent my savings”. In one work shift, Carlos is used to taking out and selling to the highest bidder thousands of ‘jabitas’ which bring him 1,200 pesos (50 dollars) daily.

One of the reasons the business is closed is its insolvency. Its debts exceed 8 million dollars. And the machines are stopped for lack of replacement parts. On the island there are two other nylon bag factories, but their production lags at times.

When one goes shopping in the hard cash markets, you have to bring ‘jabas‘. Except in the Diplomercado at 3rd and 70, Miramar and in the businesses located in hotels and embassy zones. “This situation is affecting sales. Seeing that there aren’t any ‘jabas‘, people decide not to come in”, notes Margot, saleswoman in a store on Obispo Street.

According to Cimex, one of the corporations that administers a good part of the cash markets in the country, in the year 2000 production reached 204 million ‘jabas‘. In 2010 it was at 9.8 million.

In the coming months, there aren’t any signs that nylon ‘jabas‘ production will recover. The average Cuban will have to keep walking with backpacks and cloth bags. Or juggle with articles in his hands.

Cuba is a country full of incredible anecdotes. For Pepito, the mischievous boy, there will always be raw material for his tales.

Foto: Luchi Tomario, Flickr.

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Translated by: JT

February 17 2011