Archive | September, 2010

Salve Regina

29 Sep

Picture/Luis Felipe Rojas

The chapel of Our Lady of Charity of Cobre in Antilla, Holguín looks like this, out in the open and vulnerable to the harsh weather. Facing the bay of the same name, and next to the waters where many years ago the mother of so many Cubans appeared, stands this wooden post fixed to the cement base that’s been rebuilt a few times. The lack of public concern has become general apathy: those who want to fix it have not been authorized to do so; those who have the power don’t want another place of pilgrimage on Cuban soil; others, tired of so many obstacles, do not feel like fighting against the bureaucracy and the grim looks of the official who should authorize the above mentioned reconstruction.

Now that Our Lady of Charity of Cobre travels around the country, the people of Antilla go to a run-down church, which still lacks the reconstruction permits it needs. The human hurricanes and natural disasters. There is no doubt that the salt of time and the hand that sweeps everything away have passed through these little towns of God.

I am 20 kilometers away from Barajagua, the place where the Lady of Charity first stayed, but it’s hard for me to get there, because on the way to Cueto, if you get down to that parking lot it’s difficult to get a truck back up, I have tried it a few times. I promise to take a picture of the place where the first chapel once was, when Juan Hoyos and his namesakes returned with her after going looking for salt for the miners of the copper mines in Santiago de Cuba. This month I’m planning to visit Barajagua… God and bad weather, you already know, permitting.

Picture/Luis Felipe Rojas
Translated by: Xavier Noguer

Flying Blind

26 Sep

Photo/Luis Felipe Rojas

With the arrest and possible prosecution of six senior executives of the “René Ramos Latourt” Nickel Company in Nicaro, Holguin, the Cuban government has just been given one more setback. The officials involved, were replacing some of the weight of the finished product with zinc, to make up the promised weights, since they weren’t able to meet the auditors’ quota of 23 TM a day. Everyone earned a bonus — in hard currency — for meeting production goals. According to sources consulted, after they’d met the quotas, they would go back later and substitute nickel back for the zinc, so it was all good. They never actually exported the zinc instead of nickel, according to some miners.

It’s funny, a sort of Robin Hood in reverse. Representatives of the State who didn’t agree with the high goals set by the Ministry of Basic Industries, and the all-powerful Nickel Union, trying to alleviate a little bit the plight of the dispossessed in modern socialism. The Sherwood Forest has become Nicaro, one-time emporium of Cuban nickel, with a Lady Marian in the recently fired persona of the engineer Yadira Garcia Vera, and an army of miners with their faces dirty from the red soil of the neighborhood, could all be part of a new telenovela, a Cuban soap opera that wouldn’t pass muster, not even with Rolando Alfonso Borges (ideologue of the Politburo) dead and six feet underground.

Those arrested and currently being held in prison in Holguin are Andrew Turro Medina, director general; Rafael Rodriguez Rodriguez, chief engineer; Hector Rodriguez Alvellana, technical director; Rolando Pérez Rodríguez, dispatch director; Idelfonso Laurencio Rivera, technologist; and Nelson Almira Elias, head of the Sinter plant in Mayarí, an annex of the factory in question. All of them have been locked in dark cells of the operations headquarters of the political police in the district of Pedernales, on the outskirts of the city, for 72 days. Of these, Medina Turro shows constant alterations in blood pressure and according to relatives despairs of his life and the confinement imposed on him. They will have to pay attention as, according to the miners, the determination to teach them a lesson comes from the hand of Ramiro Valdes himself, which is not surprising if we examine the record of this “hard ass” among the ossified group of the Cuban nomenklatura, an example of a drowned man still kicking… And how.

A Certain Bolaño

22 Sep

It often happens to me with good books the same thing that happens with the best dreams: when they come to me, they are here to stay.

Ernesto, a friend of a couple of friends, came from the warm city of Barcelona and brought this gift to my hands. It’s called The Unknown University, it’s the complete poetry of a complete novelist, the Chilean Roberto Bolaño, the one who surprised us all with the novel The Savage Detectives when we were just waiting for the death of a genre that deteriorated during the nineties to the point of stagnating as of late.

What happens with simple poetry is that it becomes a compass to find the right words. Bolaño’s poetry is exactly that: Ariadne’s thread in the middle of his life. The peculiarity of these almost 500 pages lies in the lack of a visible effort on the part of the author to find himself. Bolaño had a predestined route which was prose, as much in his plentiful novels (almost ten) as in his numerous short stories, and at the same time as a silent yet very visible scaffolding was erected for the seekers of novelty in new literature, he let his thoughts and the search for that other identity which is the human language, fall in poetry.

Poetry served Bolaño to cross the bridge between what is public and what is intimate. Even though some of his poems slipped into magazines and anthologies, at the end of his life, afraid it would get lost in the way, he put together, edited and corrected every page of his whole work, sometimes in prose, sometimes in the most pristine verses one could find. Here it is now, at least for us, readers from these parts of the hemisphere where books arrive several years after publication, the complete works of poetry of Roberto Bolaño, compiled in just one volume by Anagrama in 2007 and which today starts its voyage through the hands, the offices, and the benches where the readers of this island sit, to taste that unknown university that may be life or poetry

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

Doctrine, Cradle and Bread

19 Sep

Photos/Luis Felipe Rojas

A few days before the start of the new school year I was browsing my son Malcom’s school books and it seems to me he is going to have a heavy weight to struggle through. My wife and I bought colored jackets and cut our pieces of nylon to cover them, and pasted some little figures on them so they would look better. But what worries me is not the outsides, but rather the venomous burden he will receive in the next ten months.

His second grade reading book is infected with cartoons with militias, photos of Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara, an Abel Santamaría, the Moncada barracks, a high contrast black splotch that must be Fidel Castro jumping off a tank at the Bay of Pigs… and a thousand more slogans.

In the ruckus of the mornings to come his teacher will inject him, as if fulfilling a sacred duty, what she herself was injected with over nearly half a century of existence: hatred of the enemy, love of the leader, attachment to an ideology that at his age he can’t evaluate as optional.

In the middle of the new school year, the textbook — “which, as a sign of revolutionary benevolence, they have not made us pay for” — we see the lessons for April (a month that reminds me of the flowers the poets talk about), in which my son will have to forcibly repeat that yes, he wants to be like Che Guevara, while he salutes with his open hand to his forehead. Also, in  October he will have to complete the Camilo-Che Lesson, where they always talk more about the latter.

It is a trap against the innocence of his nearly seven years. Banners with images of “The Five,” spies imprisoned in the United States, the television jingles that are not commercial but ideological, in short, a fence that it will be very difficult to escape from without a scratch. It will be up to us at home to speak of spring and winter, the pollen of the flowers and the stars of the night. Similarly we will have to bring him down to earth to teach him to plant the trees that will give shade, flowers and fruits tomorrow, and to try by any means to teach him to be a good man. It will be a long and thorny road.

Rolando Against the Impunity in Guantanamo

16 Sep

Photo/Luis Felipe Rojas

I’ve been avoiding writing this post for a few months. I was afraid I might not be objective enough, being close to Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, to sound the alert to the world. Even so, my duty towards justice and truth is more important.

This young man, a computer engineer who graduated from Havana’s university system in the nineties, is being publicly hunted down by the political police, from the headquarters of the G2. His propensity to civil disobedience, his capacity to lead some thirty activists from every corner of eastern Cuba (Banes, San Germán, Contramaestre, Songo-La Maya, Baracoa, Manatí, Moa, Velazco, Antilla) and to take them to Camagüey where Orlando Zapata Tamayo agonized, proved his worth, but has made him a target. None of the more than a hundred transitory detentions of the last couple of years has been an accident.

The repressive system of my country doesn’t need any pretexts to jail anyone. They just apply the judicial puzzle. In the last few months Rolando suffered one attack after another, from the extreme-left web site Rebelión as much as from Military Counterintelligence high officials sent from Havana to eastern Cuba, on the pretext of “stopping subversion in eastern Cuba”. From his humble cabin in Baracoa to the many places where he has had to live, everywhere he’s been trying to avoid being arrested so that his peaceful activities won’t be disturbed. He’s been leading the highest profile public protests of the last 10 months in six eastern provinces, but his philosophy has always been “More united, being united is key”.

The decision by my country’s authorities to put a police poster in every town so that if he shows up he’s to be deported to Guantanamo, proves the absolute arbitrariness of the state towards its citizens. Even so Rolando doesn’t stop. Bravery and fearlessness are the flags he raises in order to gain liberty for Cuba. He directs the underground bulletin Porvenir and is a co-author of the collective blog Cuban Palenque. From Cuban Palenque he tries to draw attention to the use of torture and arbitrary acts of the state in the eastern part of the island. Punishments and convictions for trying to leave the country, social dangerousness and contempt for authority are the legal charges which are lodged against thousands of youths from eastern Cuba, and which Rolando has denounced on countless occasions. This enrages those who hold power. His last term in jail, 24 days, was a play to punish and frighten the latest generation of Cuban freedom fighters.

Meanwhile Rolando, an incurable rebel, starts the little engines of civil disobedience, a laxative the gorillas in military garb don’t swallow easily.

Translated by: Xavier Noguer

Riot Squads? … If There Are No Riots in Cuba…

13 Sep

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

Why is everyone so surprised to see photos of riot troops putting down a student protest in Jaguey Grande**?

I saw riot troops, led my Military Counterintelligence in Camagüey. Their objective was to avoid the public joining the demonstrations of the Eastern Democratic Alliance, which took to the streets in solidarity with Reina Tamayo while her son, Orlando Zapata, was dying in the provincial hospital in that city.

It was February 3, 2010. First came the paramilitaries, beating and arresting people, followed by the leaders of the province’s Communist Party with the plain-clothes police. They took the 29 activists away by force in civilian cars, patrol cars, and some car they found along the way. The clear intention was to remove them from the crowd that had formed and that hadn’t joined in the repression nor the repudiation. Then came the riot police to prevent any outbreak of rebellion in the crowd that was standing around watching women and men being beaten and arrested right and left. I saw it but I couldn’t take photographs because the friend I was with who had a camera had already left so his equipment wouldn’t fall into the hands of the repressors.

I’ve been told from sources outside this isolated-from-information island, that images are circulating on the Internet of a video where a strong operation controls a protest of dissatisfied Pakistanis at a school in Jagüey Grande, Matanzas.

In February, when they controlled the funeral of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, some acquaintances in the area of Banes told me that some military men wearing uniforms they’d never seen before appeared. The told me categorically — they are not the “black wasps” nor the “red berets” among others. I can’t affirm this because I remained under house arrest, but I have no reason to doubt the comments of the residents of the area, who are fully aware of the various military uniforms.

A month ago when the Baracoa dissidents led a resounding protest some I spoke to after their release, told me of the new clothing and equipment of those who controlled the place. But there, as in Camagüey and around Banes, there were no video cameras to record it and put it out on the sites where there is freedom of expression.

The ones I saw in Camagüey while giving the details by phone to the foreign press, wore a dark blue or possibly black suit (it was nearly dark and I was a distance away). They got out of two trucks covered with canvas, there were around thirty of them, with four or five technical canines and their German Shepherds (without muzzles). I was impressed by the helmets with transparent protectors from the forehead to down below the chin, hanging on their belts something like a knife or bayonet, and concave shields like the shell of a giant nut. I’d only ever seen these in demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, in South Africa which they’d shown us on Cuban television, and in the Los Angeles riots in 1991 and other areas from the tropical benevolence of Cuban socialism.

I have two testimonies of people huddled under these disguises to attack their countrymen. The first was in 1994, I was studying philology at the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba, and the most radical students were grouped into Mambises and Manicatos*. Their mission was supposedly to guard against thefts at night, but we soon learned that in addition they prepared reports about the outstanding students, the life styles of the rest, watched the young people who fell into the arms of foreign students (better living conditions, clothes, stereos, and secretly hoping to get away to Togo, Mali or Burkina Faso).

They were a kind of teenage Rapid Response Brigade. Many of them like others hid behind a supposed sports rivalry, learning and conduct that demonstrate the worth of the “New Man.” They were given sweaters with appropriate letters, we said hello to them, had them in our cubicles, and smiled at their stupidity, but we all knew who they were: real whistle blowers.

Another who told me about it was a computer engineer friend, what in Cuban is known within the canon or racial discrimination as “a Yankee”: six feet tall, blond, intelligent and well versed in martial arts.

According to him (already working in another branch of the economy), his knowledge of combat sports earned him an extra profit, because in the case of civil unrest, his mission was to beat up the crowd, whomever it might me. So he told me.

I’ve had described to me the images of the fuss against the Pakistanis and I can’t believe it. Assault troops against Cubans? Aren’t we the most cultured country in the world where human rights are not violated and everyone is happy under the reign of the Olive-Green?

*This refers to the soldiers of the Liberation Army in the Cuban wars of independence of the 19th century and to the first natives they had news of on the island, respectively.

**Translator’s note:
A video has recently begun circulating on the web of Cuban riot police — wearing Chinese-made helmets — containing a student protest at a Cuban medical school specifically for students from Pakistan in Jaguey Grande, Matanzas, which apparently occurred sometime before March of this year.

The Cuban Judicial Puzzle

10 Sep

photo/Luis Felipe Rojas

Using the defence of national sovereignty as a refuge, the secret police in Cuba are utilizing methods of repression against internal dissension that aren’t dictated by the courts, nor is their implementation in that fashion even considered in the Constitution or the Penal Code.

House arrest, detentions, and the ban on leaving or entering certain provinces are part of the low intensity repression that is practiced silently and to the beat of a policy of tyranny.  With the offices of Attention to Citizen Grievances and military district attorneys at their feet, the so-called Seguridad del Estado (State Security) applies the tourniquet of improvised jurisprudence that squashes the weakest.

Ex-political prisoners like Abel López Pérez and Anderlay Guerra Blanco of Guantanamo, immediately upon their release, have been banned by Counterintelligence from leaving the first and second peripheries, respectively, of the city.  Did a judge order this?  Is it on their release forms?  Is it a special regulation decreed only against social nonconformists?  No one knows.

Two friends of mine, jurists of officialdom, who went to school with me back at the University of Oriente in Santiago de Cuba say yes, that it’s a violation, but “the powers acquiesce to manu militari“.  I’ve asked many dissidents across the island up until now if they’ve ever been presented with an order of detention signed by a judge and they’ve said no.  Never.  The same goes for the issued extent of the official summons, which is applied verbally or on some little scrap of paper that won’t appear in any file.  If the summoned refuses, then he or she is automatically detained, but his or her name will never appear in the police station’s registry as a detained person.  To the eyes of the statistics that could serve as a report, that person was never there.  That’s just how complicated the Cuban judicial system is.

The provincial-level military district attorneys receive the complaints against their colleagues with reluctance, and even more when they’re on behalf of peaceful dissidents.  The offices of “Attention to The Populace” have a wretched mechanism for the receipt of the grievance, notice of investigation, and results thereof, that makes even the greatest optimist give up on the complaint process.

Before such judicial neglect, few dare to play that diabolical game of chess where the secret police fancies itself a supreme God in order to move white and black pieces alike on the same turn.

And that’s how checkmate is declared upon the Constitution.

Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo

Ivan the terrible

7 Sep

Photo:  Luis Felipe Rojas

I met Ivan de la Nuez one day in February of 1998. It was in Holguin, and he wasn’t present but someone gave us a catalogue of an exposition which he had displayed over at Barcelona. I had quickly read it on the Cuba Gazette multiple times.  But now, I’ve received three of his colorful books wrapped in nylon: “Three Messages, Three Suggestions, Three Literary Cartographies to live without Fear, or to at least hold hands with someone who will guide you through the anxieties we live with today”, “Where do we live?”, and “Who brought us to this catastrophe known as post-communist Cuba”. They are answers that are found attached to the pages of these books.  Out of all them, the one which most interests me is the boldest of publications, the book called “The Map of Salt”, now nearly ten years after its publication in Periferica.  After a decade of circulating through the hands of readers all over the world, it has arrived in a dark provincial corner of this island.  And that’s how the paradoxes are, the pretexts, the destinies.  Since Ivan has proposed to dismantle the myth of insularity and the supposed national identity, to dismount them in the sense of discovering them, removing the veil, the sequin, and the false hieratic pose, he has then attempted to build over the very salt and ruins of what we are today.

They are a set of magnificent essays. Matias Perez, the legendary character from Havana, the National Anthem mixed with individualistic insinuations (not as a warlike march), and an imported reference to Che Guevara, all parade before the cynical and sarcastic prose of Ivan. The expressions of those identities, in the words of Hanna Arendt, go beyond any physical marks — I’ll remember that always.

The Map of Salt which De la Nuez would return to the world a decade ago was intended to continue showing us the path of new discoveries of disillusion, apathy, and the rejection of a unitarian national mark of being Cuban, and has returned today, with much more strength.  This is the map of an observer who has been left awestruck before all the events of the last 20 years, and has changed the iconic Korda photo with a hairy Che amidst the breezes of Havana in the 1960’s with a dead guerrillero in a laundry room of La Higuera. The socialist world, eaten up by its own rodents, the New Man that Guevara himself wanted, forced to fill out immigration papers which deny a world open to everyone, and a socialist youth, supposedly limpid, forced to eat at McDonald’s (symbol of “wild capitalism”) because of the rationing.

It’s a good attempt by Ivan, trying to recover his life right at the point where his dream was crushed. It’s the best possible reason to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of a book we could barely find in Cuba, that Map of Salt that we couldn’t taste back then, but which is given context by the deficiencies of our nation. For now it’s enough  to be able to read his Red Fantasy (published by Debolsillo, 2010) and Floods (Debate, 2010), with the certainty that one is attending a first act. Half a year is nothing compared to five centuries of delay.

I invite my readers to reach out to Ivan (who isn’t so terrible). To read his books, which are a reconstruction of that traveler we all are, carrying the island on our backs… or maybe to just ignore him. Who knows.

Translated by: Raul G. and Xavier Noguer

At the Doors of a New School Year

4 Sep

Photo:  Luis Felipe Rojas

The multi-grade classrooms receive about ten or so students of different ages and from different remote regions where the low population rate does not make the area eligible for the establishment of regular schools.  But, at the doors of the new school year, parents of these students from multi-grade classrooms from different regions of San German, in the province of Holguin, are worried because education and governmental officials have announced that they will not be opening these educational centers this year.

Their children are supposed to attend schools which are several kilometers from where they live, in the midst of a terrible transport crisis and with the presence of teachers who lack the appropriate preparation to teach the tens of kids.

For this school year there is talk about other changes in other levels of education.  They have mentioned once again opening Schools that Shape Teachers, which had previously disappeared and were later replaced by the schools with “emerging teachers” (that is teenagers with very brief training in education).  In addition, they have also already announced the reduction of staff in the municipal offices of education, and many of those professionals must return to the classroom after various years of inactivity in the field.

Just over 20 years ago Fidel Castro predicted that Cuba would become a medical power and also eventually reach an outstanding ranking in educational standards; now a friend of mine who works in the education sector is hesitant about the fact that she must return to the classroom, which she left it behind 20 years ago.  She thinks that she has a few days yet to come up with a way to take part in the initiative which the government has proposed to “tackle” the social crisis which plagues us, to which the only response in San German up until now, has been to allow self-employment for barbers and hairdressers.

Translated by Raul G.

The Digital Playpen

1 Sep

ETECSA telepoint with Internet access only for foreigners

As I look at a map of Cuba, I can’t help but wonder about how, in the 21st century, an island that is so close to the country which exhibits the greatest digital advancement, can be traveling in the opposite direction. From Villa Clara to the tip of Maisi there are only two hotels which offer internet service for Cubans who do not have foreign passports, in other words for Cubans with ID cards.  These locations are found in Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo, and their rates are 6 CUC per hour.  They have very low connectivity and some sites, which the government considers harmful, are blocked.

The attentive receptionists in the famous tourist spot of Guardalavaca in Holguin explain to me that in all the dozens of hotels and Bungalow Villas of my province I do not have the opportunity to connect to the internet if I’m not staying in these lodges.  But, if I were to be checked in to one of these resorts, with the magical passport and foreign residence card, I’d have to pay no less than 50 CUC for just one day.

There is also no luck in the hotel chains known as Club Amigos, Las Brisas, or Costa Verde, which are symbols of international hostels which particularly exclude Cuban citizens from any rights to enjoy warm sands, computer rooms, or basic cafeteria services.

Every city on the island has Points of Tele-Selection with the ETECSA companies.  They are commercial offices which also reserve the right to only admit people who possess some documents that prove foreign citizenship or residence.  However, about a little over a year ago they opened a locale which has proven to be surprisingly busy.  In them, you can see a long line of guys and girls who await their turn to exchange e-mails with foreign friends whom they have met in the hotels previously mentioned.

Let me explain:  For 1 CUC they are allowed to open an e-mail account from a national server that will not have well known extensions like g-mail or yahoo, but which will have the .cu extension, from which they will only be able to read and respond to their almost always flirtatious remarks.  There, they cannot use any sorts of devices like flash drives or CDs.  For 0.50 cents CUC they can spend an hour trying to exchange messages with the outside world under very strict vigilance on the part of the information functionaries which ETECSA and the G2 position there to watch over the users.  Those girls could pass with their foreign boyfriends and friends to hotels, make them spend a fortune on internal services, but when they leave, they have to return to the tourist apartheid.

The game is tight, as the saying goes.  Now, Cubacel holds the right to allow, or not to allow, people to use Twitter through cell phones in Cuba.  Those of us who are nonconformists and chose to protest, are also bound to lose this time around.

Translated by Raul G.