From Feb 11-22, Havana is the center of the 19th International Book Fair. Then, the Book Fair will tour the major Cuban cities for a month.
The Book Fair will take place at the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña. This is a building in the form of a polygon, composed of numerous bulwarks, moats, barracks, and warehouses. Its construction was started in 1763, and finished 11 years later in 1774. Of the military buildings Spain constructed in America, it is the largest. As well as lodging for the best units of the Spanish Army in Cuba, it served to protect Havana from pirate attacks.
By order of Fidel Castro on January 3, 1959, Ernesto Che Guevara occupied La Cabaña and established his command headquarters there. From that date, it was transformed into a military unit for the guerilla fighters. And also into a giant prison. In its humid cells, the same ones where they happily sell literary titles, hundreds of political and common criminals used to be crowded together.
Serial executions took place in the yards where now the fascinated children run and play hide-and-seek behind the solidly built canons of the 18th century. Stories are told that in the first days of the revolution, Che personally supervised the executions of the Batista party members accused of crimes. In those same pits, the opponents of Castro were executed. In 1991, after various years of remodeling, the old fortress was converted to the Military Morro-Cabaña Historical Park.
The 19th edition of the Book Fair is devoted to Russia. In various pavilions, a heap of books by authors like Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, and Pushkin are sold. I didn’t see books from Solzhenitsyn, Pasternack, or Nabokov. If there is one whose books should have been sold, it is Yevgeny Yevtushenko, symbol of the post-Stalinist thawing, because the controversial poet is one of the more than 200 Russian intellectuals, writers, and artists, among them the Bolshoi Ballet, that traveled to the Island like special guests, purposely for the Fair.
Eighteen Years ago, Russia said goodbye to the communist ideology, but in Cuba, such a trustyworthy ally of Moscow that in 1976 a paragraph was included in the Constitution highlighting the “indestructible relations between both nations,” certain Russian literature, music, and movies are still considered dissident.
Having been dedicated to Russia, this Fair has brought loads of nostalgia to supporters of the Castro brothers. Opened by the president, who has never hidden his veneration for the Soviet feat during World War II. According to professor Jaime Suchlicki, from the University of Miami, “the Soviet army seemed to have always fascinated Raul, who exhibits photos and statues of soviet generals in his office in Havana.”
Together with the Russian Chancelor Sergei Lavrov, the general Raul Castro presided over the inauguration on Thursday, the 11th. In subsequent days, people turned out en masse to the different areas of The Cabaña.
Havana – Book Fair 2010
With an impressive and unique view of Havana, and a multitude of books and kiosks with an ample gastronomic offering in the two currencies that circulate on the Island (the Cuban Peso and the Convertible Cuban Peso), thousands of people crowded the pavilions in search of literary novelties.
In pesos, the national currency, they sold a few tattered books. More of the same. At the entrance, they gave out the title Niños del Milagro (Children of the Miracle) published April 2004, about the eye operations of Venezuelan children, written by the Cuban journalists Katiuska Blanco, Alina Perera, and Alberto Ñúñez. By means of a human wall and with a little luck, you could acquire novels from universal pens or police procedurals from the Spaniard Juan Madrid.
There were ample offerings in strong currency. Above all, for children. Ricardo Rojas, 43 years old, seated with his back to the sea and with his daughter, under a bright sun and an irritating wind commented: “I spent 54 Cuban Convertible Pesos (some 50 dollars) in books for my daughter. When I got back home, I will have to put up with the argument from my wife, for the money wasted only on books. But they are didactic works that will serve in her education.”
At least Rojas can give himself this luxury. The majority think about it twice when it comes time to open the wallet. The books are expensive, even the ones sold in pesos, as well as those sold in convertible currency. Nora Diaz, spent five hours with her 3 kids spinning like tops by all of the pavillions. In her purse she had 120 pesos (4 dollars) and 6 convertible pesos (5 dollars) to spend between books and something to eat.
At the end she bought a pair of infant stories from a Russian author, a cookbook, and 4 apples that she and her kids ate seated on the heights of the Fortress of the Cabaña, looking at the still intense blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean and scant anchored boats, waiting to enter the Havana port. Nora does not believe that it was a lost day. “It is an oasis of tranquility to see from the city from here. We will go back with few books, but hopeful,” she said captivated by the splendid scenery.
In spite of its shady past, the vision offered from the grounds of La Cabaña offers is fabulous. If only to look at Havana from the other side of the bay it is worthwhile to challenge the lines, the empty wallets, the daily disgust, and the deficient public transport. Book Fair or no Book Fair.
Photos: CalQBN, Flickr and Iván García
Translated by BW
They don’t have the charm of the “jineteras”(prostitutes seeking foreign tourists) who work for hard currency.* They don’t wear brand-name clothes, or high-heeled shoes. They don’t use Chanel perfumes, or wear gold jewelry. They are the poorer type, who at most smother themselves with large quantities of Cuban-made Suchel talcum powder, and smell of cheap eau-de-cologne. They wear short tight skirts. And they tend to plaster on the make-up.
These are the local currency whores. Many of them get off the train at daybreak and before the sun has fully risen they are already busy at work. Like Yanelis, 28 years old, an Indian mulatta, born in an eastern province 800 km from the capital.
Her life is a small hell. She never knew her parents and doesn’t have fond memories of her childhood. Her maternal grandparents did what they could. But Yanelis only managed to get as far as finishing seventh grade. And yet her round and shapely backside, her firm breasts and her skin, the colour of coffee with cream, would get men aroused. Especially some of her male relatives.
One night, a cousin invited her to the fair and he plied her with an excessive quantity of a bog standard and insipid brew which is sold loose as draught beer. When she had passed out from drinking so much alcohol, he repeatedly raped her.
She was only twelve years old. Her first customers were her own family members. For 5 pesos (a quarter dollar) she let them fondle her breasts or masturbate and then ejaculate on her face.
“The most perverted of my relatives was also the one with the most money, because he worked in a hotel exclusively for tourists. He forced me to sleep with animals and on more than one occasion I got sick. I’ve tried everything. I’m bisexual and for as long as I can remember, I’ve never known what it’s like to feel in love with someone. That only happens in movies.”
Prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet, Yanelis gulps down a can of Bucanero beer and goes on with her story.
“I came to Havana because business is good here. It’s my third trip. I’ve been caught by the police a couple of times and they sent me back to the province where I’m from. I even spent a year and a half in jail. But I always come back. Things are very tense in my home town. I don’t have, nor do I want, any other way of making money. Perhaps this is the most difficult way, but it’s the easiest for me. I don’t have many options unless it’s coffee picking in the mountains or wiping tables in a café,” says this girl, prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet.
In the capital, Yanelis and some other prostitutes rent an extremely shabby room. They have to fetch their water in containers and live by candlelight because they don’t have electricity. Each one pays 5 convertible pesos for the room. On a good day, she makes the equivalent of 50 or 60 convertible pesos (about 1200 or 1500 regular pesos). If you do the math, to make this amount Yanelis is having to sleep with ten or twelve men. For a quick half hour ‘screw’ they make 100 regular pesos or 5 convertible.
She started working as a prostitute in the area around Fraternity Park, in the heart of Havana. Her stroll was Monte and Cienfuegos streets, the first marketplace to emerge on the island for cheap sex bought with regular pesos, back around 1996. Things didn’t go too badly for her. But every now and again there was a police raid.
When she got out of jail, she thought she needed to be more discreet. She’s a fixture now in a spot on the fringes of the National Freeway. Guys in cars and on motorbikes pass by, drunk and looking for a woman to satisfy their sexual appetite.
That is where you’ll find girls like Yanelis, ready to offer you their a la carte menu: 50 pesos for a blow job, 40 for a hand job, and 100 for the full works, in other words, for penetrative sex. Paying a bit more gets you anal sex. And if you’ve got 20 convertible pesos or 500 of the regular kind, you can head off with two sad and pale girls who’ll offer you a moonlight lesbian show in the middle of a banana field with some dirty bits of cardboard for a bed.
There are at least a dozen such places in the city. In Havana slang they are known as chupa-chupa [suck-suck].
The young women who prostitute themselves for local currency don’t come close to the beauty and silhouettes of the splendid hookers that have dazzled the Iberian and Italian men who have taken them under their wing and married them. No. These are poor lost souls who stoically endure being penetrated by more than ten men in a single day in order to make a few pesos.
Yanelis doesn’t want to think about the future, which is a bad word for her. She lives fast and for the present. Night has fallen. She looks up at the cloudy sky and comments despondently:
“Uh oh. It’s going to rain. Bad for business.”
She prefers picking up men when she’s drunk or after smoking a couple of joints. Sometimes she takes a few parkisonil tablets to get high. When she gets back to her wretched room she sometimes feels guilty.
This is when she remembers that she’d like to have children, a good husband, and to start a family. She soon abandons the idea. That stuff is only in movies. Or romantic novels by Corín Tellado. Then she comes back down to earth. To the reality which is her lot in life. And she has neither the energy nor the desire to change it.
Translated by BW and RSP and ANB
* Translator’s note: There are two kinds of pesos in circulation in Cuba, one which can be exchanged for dollars and Euros, the Convertible Peso, and one which can’t, the regular kind. One convertible peso (officially worth $1.08) is equivalent to 24 regular pesos (referred to as moneda nacional (national money) by Cubans, and translated in this text as local currency).