In Cuba, most news reaches us via Miami. Look, given such limited access to the internet where one official hour puts us back a whopping 4.50 convertible pesos (i.e., the equivalent of one week’s pay for a laborer), people resort to foreign short wave radio or whatever illegal cable connection the neighbor down the street managed to set up but charges 10 cuc to let you listen to the news.
Don’t ever think you’ll get any real news about Cuba from local newspapers. Out of the six pages of dull newspaper made from sugar cane pulp, the national press only publishes Pollyanna stuff and overly compliant economic indicators.
Out on the street, we think of our newspapers as pure science fiction. Good for nothing except to help keep track of the baseball season, to get a peek at the TV guide, or as a good substitute for toilet paper.
The cut and paste ordeal to get information is a lengthy process. While Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro were shaking hands in the Johannesburg soccer stadium, Rebel Radio a.m. (Radio Rebelde) went on and on about the sugar cane harvest and the great and successful efforts made by our cooperative social service units.
Moraima, a 29 year-old housewife found out about the event because she’d been watching TV through some illegal cable connection. She comments, “every day, I watch channel 23 News and a few Oscar de Haza programs. That’s how I get a whiff of unreported local Cuban news ranging from the latest crime, to another dissenter arrest, to the North Korean ship in Panama or to the handshake between Obama and Raúl.”
While the Obama-Raúl thing sent a large part of the exiled Cuban-American community living in Miami into an uproar, in Havana the whole thing was little more than just another bit of news. Gerardo, a 74 year-old retiree thought the encounter was positive, but his main morning concern was being able to buy a leg of pork.
“Pork meat is sold in agro-markets for 24-25 pesos per pound. But I was hunting for the 21 peso bargain I’d get if I could find a state slaughterhouse carrying it. I was in line for an hour and a half, but I finally got my pork leg for Christmas Eve dinner. Maybe the handshake will bode well for the future — I’m not really certain — but the good news is that I’ll have food to last me for a few days. Politics is a dirty game. Government reforms do not benefit retirees. I don’t have relatives in Yankeeland, so no one sends me dollars. Whether those two shake hands or tell each other off doesn’t really matter to me.”
Common folks in Cuba are just tired, that’s all. Tired of a bunch of stuff. Of bad government. Of the now ancient embargo used as a pretext by the regime to justify depriving us of scarce goods and services. And worst of all, tired of not having any political voice or say.
A 38 year-old teacher, Zoila feels like a pawn for the State. “Whatever we think about the future we’d like to have is nothing the government cares to take into account. Any one act like Obama’s handshake can easily morph into cheap and superficial politics. Our government leaders don’t want to change. All they are doing is stalling for time.”
In Parque Central located in the heart of Havana, people could be seen rushing around stuffing plastic bags with whatever they could find. A loaf of bread. Two and a half pound of tomatoes. Maybe some dry fruit.
On baseball hill just next to the statue of José Martí, countless fans argued over baseball or predicted results for the European Champions League soccer matches.
At the Payret, about fifty people queued up waiting for the movie theater to let them in to see an Argentine flick brought in by the International Festival of New Latin American Film.
Meanwhile, beggars were sorting through garbage cans. And a pair of very old people begged for money right next to the Inglaterra hotel. And workers hired to repair the Capitol building were selling their own lunch for 25 pesos.
Obispo street was a beehive of pedestrians swarming in and out of stores. Some discreet street vendors offered cigars. Others, girls. Blondes, mulatto, black. Young men were also an option.
Our bus service is still in crisis. Bus stops are stuffed to the gills, and people feel antsy and are upset about not being able to get where they need to go. And even at the cusp of winter, temperatures in Havana still hover at unbearable 86 degrees of Fahrenheit humidity.
When people are forced to live like this, it is logical that a greeting between two heads of State might be overlooked. That’s a fact even if the two men happen to be Barack Obama and Raúl Castro.
Photo Credit: Martí Noticias.
By request, we are resubmitting the article, “Nothing To Do With Mandela” taken from Spain’s newspaper, El País on December 11, 2013.
At Nelson Mandela’s funeral service, more world leaders came together in one fell swoop than world history can recall. Despite rainy weather, one hundred world leaders collectively sat on bleachers at Soweto’s soccer stadium to pay tribute to a man of principles.
The man had the strength to fight in the name of freedom, the level-headedness to redress his thinking, the courage to disagree among his own rank and file, the empathy to step into his opponents’ shoes, the magnanimity to embrace forgiveness, the brains to build bridges, and finally, the decency to accept a timely retirement.
In light of Mandela’s track record, why would leaders stomping on the core ideals of the South African leader wish to render tribute? Case in point, the three ogres: Raúl Castro, Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang. Front-row-center, the fearsome threesome certainly hardened the mood and turned all the magic in the air sour.
Right on cue, Obama drove the point home: “There are leaders here today who praise Mandela but silence protest.” The words were intended for iron-fisted leaders who gravely overstep to crush human ideals, religious beliefs or the acceptance of gender preference. Only official protocol could possibly explain how despots were invited to attend and got the opportunity to grandstand for absolution under Mandela’s glow. Tyrant and apprentices filled the gallery. Simply review the list of shameful human right violators from anywhere: All were in Soweto.
Well, almost all human rights violators went to the funeral. A few hardliners stayed at home. For instance, the President of Sudan, Omar al Bashir was absent, but probably due to the fact that the International Criminal Court is hot on his trail.
Fortunately, Caucasus strongmen ignored the news and the event. Also absent (for reasons of their own) were big human rights abusers like Russia, China and Iran.
But it was Czech Prime Minister, Jiri Rusnok, whose silent microphone was on long enough to record him saying that a full agenda made going to a funeral out in the “boondocks” inconvenient and something for which he was not in the mood. No way to save face with mourners after that kind of faux pas. Rusnok apologized, of course. But he, at least, certainly expressed an honest opinion.
Translated by: JCD
14 December 2013
For Josefina, a 71 year-old housewife and south-of-Havana local, first comes Jesus Christ then Mandela. She’d been cooking supper when the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s death broke through on the radio.
“Among books set by my bedside, I have a biography of Mandela which I’ve read three times. Jesus Christ, Mandela and Martí are the three men whose principles and convictions I most respect,” is what Josefina tells us while sifting for the best grains of rice to make her supper dish.
On the island, authorities have officially declared three days of national mourning following Mandela’s death, and President Raúl Castro has sent his message of condolence to South African President Jacob Zumba. In the missive, Castro II noted that, “one must not refer to Mandela in the past tense.” During our three days of national mourning, all government buildings and military compounds will fly the Cuban flag at half-mast.
Produced by Telesur Network, Cuban television station channel 6 aired a documentary about Mandela’s life. And just after 10 p.m., the station also broadcast the film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman in the role of Mandela.
On a scale from one-to-ten, if you ask any Cuban to pick and rate any idol, few would mention a modern political figure. Most would bet on celebrities, musicians, or sports figures like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
In Cuba like in most nations around the world, politicians are rated very low. But when you speak about Mandela that is another thing.
Look, some people are loyal to Castro while others idolize Che. Ask anyone and many just simply hate both of them. But with Mandela something unique happens: Irrespective of ideology and religion, all revere him.
Niurka a Cuban doctor, spent two years volunteering her medical expertise in South Africa. “I was deep in South Africa, a great nation very rich and where people from different ethnicities coexist with different beliefs and different cultures. In spite of the differences everyone respects Mandela. After my return in 1997, I was involved in an event where Mandela shared a few words of gratitude with us. He was a cordial man who would look at a person’s eyes while he spoke to them. His diction was perfect and he was soft spoken which is something that caught my attention. I belong to that Cuban generation who grew up with Fidel Castro shouting slogans from a soapbox using sometimes profane language. Mandela’s image is forever engraved in my sight.
Even at the heart of his opposition, Mandela was able to gain considerable ground. And in Cuba, Antonio Rodiles — Director of Estado de Sats, a cultural and social project where diverse aspects converge, and perhaps the most promising Cuban dissident — considers that Nelson Mandela’s political legacy is nothing less than remarkable.
Rodile comments, “Following 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela’s message was about constructive dialogue and remained free of hatred. We could all stand to learn from him. Cuba is Mandela’s friend, but what’s more, he might also become the example our government needs so opposing factions can learn to mend ways and work on behalf of the Cuban nation like Mandela did when confronted with critical moments in South Africa’s development.”
At night on Avenida G in Vedado, youth of any sort — emo rockers, freaks, hard rockers, haggard hippies, reggaetoneros and Joaquín Sabina, Pablo Milanés or Fito Páez groupies — are loaded on Parkisonil pills and cheap rum but what they celebrate with irreverence and spontaneity is Mandela.
A life-long self-ascribed friki, Osmany, 36, hums a popular 80s tune which demanded the South African leader be set free, and also takes the opportunity to show me a tattoo on his back quoting the first black President of South Africa: ’What kind of freedom can you offer me when as people we are not granted the right to public assembly? Only a free assembly of men can negotiate.’ “Like Mandela, I too want to be a free man,” says Osmany.
Cuba is a country where no one agrees on anything and everyone insists on being right. But men like José Martí and Nelson Mandela are examples that live beyond the good and evil in us.
Photo credit: Greg Bartley Camera Press, taken from the New York Times.
Translated by: Adriana Correa and JCD
7 December 2013