Archive | January, 2011

The Grieving Country

31 Jan

I continue to be moved by the images of a Cuba that doesn’t appear in the newspapers.  A country which does not exist to the authorities.

This is a blog made up of different pieces, among them the collaborations of my compatriots-in-the-struggle and all that I can do with my camera and pencil.  The images you can see today are very similar to those which the propaganda scaffolding of the Cuban system reserves for special occasions, for example when they wish to make a statement such as, “Cuba will not return to the past.”  In such instances, they are referring to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and to the eras of other past presidents who came before him. The “Bohemia” magazine would do a great job of detailing life in Cuba during the ’50’s, reporting on places and people who had not been touched by the hand of civilization.

In the photos of this post, one can see people who have been born and grown old under the achievements Cuba’s 1959 Revolution. Olivio, Rafael, and Cilia were all rescued from “ferocious capitalism” so that they could live under the kindness of Cuban socialism.  Such a socialism was implemented based on the measures of a man who wishes to perpetuate himself in power.  The photos were given to me by my friend Marta Diaz Rondon, who every once in a while helps these unfortunate people. They have lost their pensions for the simple reason that they have a relative living with them at home who receives (or “earns”) more than 7 dollars a month in their job. This is a measure imposed by the Ministry of Social Work and Security.

During this past week, my mother informed me that her 127 peso check (as the subsidy could be called in another country) was canceled because she has a son (me) who is of working age (although I do not live with her) and who does not have a job (although I was fired four years ago from the Cultural sector).

We have entered the XXI century with a rhythm of disaster and desperation.  It is the result of a group of men who advance the country in the newspapers but push it far back in real life.

January 30 2011

Culture: A Shield or the Nation’s Rag?

31 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

A decade after fussing about how we would be the “most abundant and successful country in the world”, the first threats to overthrow the old cultural apparatus in Cuba have gotten underway.  The monstrosity which led thousands to dream about the aims of a socialist art has grown, so much so that cultural modules were created.  These groups do not contribute a thing to society since they have been built on subservience, propaganda, and the most rancid of ideologies, which only intends to achieve reverence from the subject before the monarch.  And now they are starting to fade.

The proposed budget cuts have reached the door-steps of local Cuban culture, and the interior provinces are the ones most threatened.  In Holguin, the popular “City Awards” (an event which takes place on Culture Day each year) have ceased financing the competitions in the areas of: Fine Art, Scenic Art, and Literature (in all its genres).  The recipient of the Poetry Award will now only receive a small wooden statue, along with a cardboard diploma.  In addition, the winner must wait for the local editor to publish his/her book in order to make any sort of earning or copyright. The national “House of Culture” system has also launched its own plan of dismissals under the name of “available personnel”.

The ideological apparatus has prohibited the use of the word “unemployed” when referring to those who will be left without jobs, it’s that simple.  In Cuba we have Cultural Units made up of local institutions such as the House of Culture (for any acts of Theatre, Music, Dance, Fine Arts, and Literature), a museum, a library, a film theatre, and a Municipal Management Office.  With such bureaucratic machinery, small towns like San German, Songo-La Maya, and Vertientes have created more than 100 titles for “specialists”, analysts, programmers, art instructors, economists, accountants, janitors, directors, sub-directors, artistic directors, cultural promoters, librarians, computer specialists, and a plethora of other positions which occur to them, as the government is bent on being the “most productive country in the world,” all the while ignoring any local talent.

In fact, there may be hundreds of cultural employees while there are not even 20 local musicians, actors, or craftsmen from a small municipality.  Now, the budget-cuts have arrived and nearly 30 of these talented artists will be missing in the municipal sectors of Holguin. While I jot down these notes from beyond the barbed wires, I have received some worrisome news.  Around twenty or so young writers from Holguin will be traveling to Venezuelan slums.  There, they will hand out their verses and share their work instruments with the sons of Bolivar.  We continue “Lighting the streets while it’s dark inside our own house.”

Now, the miserable thousand Cuban pesos ($40 U.S.) will no longer be offered to the author or poet recipient of the City Award. The Ministry of Culture will get ready to culturally invade the slums of Caracas.  They simply continue to play with the dreams of some youths who embark on adventures simply to be able to bring back a cell phone, to make a good friend who will help them buy some necessary things, or to earn a thousand dollars to buy a laptop on their way back. “Why go if you do not want to?” I asked one of the young men who is now taking a Popular Culture seminar.  His answer was really the tip of the iceberg, “To escape this time bomb for a while.”

We are still a country where good books are scarce, still missing out on the best cultural supplements (found in papers like El Pais or El Mundo), where theatres are dilapidated, and where going to watch a good dance or ballet show could cost you an entire month’s salary. Hundreds of so-called “cultural promoters” will depart to Venezuela soon.  Upon returning after three months they will join the ranks of the unemployed.

Dozens of musical groups have just been dismantled as a product of such a fierce staff reduction.  Only on certain occasions may we watch films on 35mm, and in medium quality.  Cultural events, such as the Party of Fire in Santiago de Cuba, and the Romerias de Mayo in Holguin, have reduced their interest to scarce foreign participation, and very little national talent.  These are the wagers of those who preferred to make culture the nation’s sword, not its shield. January 27 2011

Simply Marta

24 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

For those who cannot see the photo attached to this post, Marta Diaz Rondon is sitting on a stool with her fingers in a V shape.  The “V” represents “victory”.  Her eyes are black and can either make you fall in love or feel fear.  Up to that point, the description could very well fit any woman.  But when one looks down you can see her thighs, legs, and arms are covered with bruises.  These marks are the results of a beating given to her by the experts of the Cuban political police on October 31, 2010 in the town of Banes.

Marta was imprisoned in Holguin, and upon being released she went over to the house of her friend and sister, Caridad Caballero Batista, and that is where I took these photos.  A few days later, she told me about the beatings.  The culprits were men, although some women also took part in her mistreatment.  However, the actual physical blows were given to her by men — those same men who claim to be patriots and protectors of Cuba’s security. Majors Freddy Aguero Allen and Wilson Ramirez Perez had already mistreated her once, along with Caridad, inside a car with music blasting on the stereo.  This all occurred in Banes, the land of the poet Gaston Baquero y Antilla, and the very same place where it is said that the Virgin of Charity first appeared.

If I were to bump into any of these “men” in any of the torture cells or interrogation offices, I’d ask them about the perverse beatings of these women which occurred behind tinted windows and with reggaeton background music.

Despite the beatings, each week Marta continues to walk 2 kilometers from her house to the home of Reina Tamayo Danger to accompany her to the church and to the cemetery.

Between the old La Guira cemetery and the historic Banes monuments of the Republican era there now lies a trail of blood, of abuses, and laments of defenseless pro-democracy activists who, one day, will really frighten their oppressors.  But it will be the fear of truth, as is shown in this photo, and which is always present in the words of Marta and many others, who both accuse and forgive at the same time.

There will be many voices working in favor of that country which was lost one day… in what century?  The Nineteenth? Twentieth or Twenty-first?  Who knows.

January 24 2011

A Freed Black Man

22 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

I met Pedro Cruz Mackenzie when we were both taking university prep classes.  It was during those difficult years which came to be known as the Special Period.  In between classes we would entertain ourselves by collecting oranges, bananas, and any other source of food we could get to ease that hunger which was so common at that time.  His academic talent and his skills for “sneaking” into math and chemical experiments earned him much fame in that place.  Upon finishing the course, he was one of the recipients of a Medical scholarship.

Many years later, our paths once again crossed.  He did not become a doctor, and he was not able to become a faculty member of any university.  He soon grew tired of so much misery, of getting to class with ripped shoes, and of not counting on any real support to inspire him to study.  He abandoned his strictness midway through his Cuban university career.  Now, he clandestinely sells merchandise on the beach, he gets his hands on any souvenir that he can, trying to sell them in order to purchase clothes for his kids.  Whenever the opportunity arises, he runs errands and delivers merchandise from one place to another.

However, he has also joined the struggle to denounce Human Rights violations in Cuba.  While the police have him under constant watch, he denounces Cardet, the chief of the Police Sector in the neighborhood of Melilla in Santa Lucia, Holguin.  Cardet is a soldier in charge of prosecuting disaffected youths, and Pedro tells me that, in conjuction with the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) of Yamagual, he has taken note of all those young people who “don’t want” to work agriculture or construction for 8 hour days for just 6 Cuban pesos.  The officers claimed that such youths will shortly go to trial.

“I don’t have the list of all the names, with myself included,” Mackenzie tells me on some notes written on a yellowish paper, “some are too scared to give me their names.  But as soon as I find them out, I’ll send them to you or tell you over the phone — you can be sure of that,” he concludes.

The thing is that my friend from back during the difficult years, Pedro Cruz Mackenzie, lives at the entrance of the Tourist Pole of Guardalavaca, in Holguin.  This Pole is a special reserve for foreigners who decide to vacation in this area of Cuba.  The strict police control, the lack of employment for those who are not trustworthy enough in the eyes of the regime to be able to work in their hotels, along with the sharp contrast in lifestyles between hospitality and tourism employees and those who do not have access to such currency or tips given by tourists is a very difficult and incomprehensible fact.  “If something happens to me (he is referring to being jailed) please denounce the situation quickly so that my wife and kids can be visited by some of the Human Rights people,” that is one of the final phrases written in the letter by my friend Pedro, another one who has decided not to wear the shackles of this modern slavery.

January 21 2011

A Song without Hindrance

17 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

This happened to me a few days ago, on January 12th.  I wandered about the city in the middle of the heat, searching for a good photo to take to upload on the blog.  That was when they informed me that my friend, Ivet Maria Rodriguez, was going to present her CD at the Piano-Bar.  So I head out over there.

It was really a splendid afternoon, surrounded by friends who I have lost contact with years ago, or who have simply avoided me so they would not be contaminated by that ideological leprosy that comes attached to being a “public and open” dissident in Cuba.

I have known Ivet for many years — ever since she would grab her guitar and sit under the shade of a tree and start coming up with songs or poems for the sugar-cane factory workers of her town, Baguanos.  I met her in the midst of a moving and fantastic moment.  Ivet was singing while the workers were walking towards the sugar-mill under the blistering sun.  Ivet was singing, “don’t look at me that way/ because my skin is not made out of wood”.  Suddenly, a mulatto who smelled of the fields was also staring at her with a saddened face.  Meanwhile, he was piling a bunch of sugar-canes which had been left behind by the Sugar-Mill workers, all the while staring at Ivet.

That same afternoon of the 12th, she was singing in the aseptic room of the Holguin Piano-Bar.  Her songs seemed as if they had just been composed.  Various years after writing and producing her songs, and after an eternity of having recorded this disc, she finally was able to offer the music to us.  The CD is called “People of Faith”, and it has taken so long to put out there because Cuban musical production works one way, promotions work another way, and neither of them have any clue what the “market” is.  What I have been able to do is translate, to the best of my ability, the words of Jorge Luis Sanchez Grass, who was in charge of the CD’s presentation.  And it’s true, in Cuba it is very difficult to conciliate the reality of making a disc with the desires of promoting an intelligent and worthy song.

Which record label takes its chances on controversial singer-songwriters like Frank Delgado or Pedro Luis Ferrer?  Purchasing a CD which has just gone out to the market may cost you up to 400 pesos, or else you have to wait years until it’s out of circulation and then they can sell it to you for 30 pesos in national currency.

Ivet opted for singing poems written by poets from her own village, like Luis Martinez and Orestes Gonzalez, repeating those lyrics with her sweet voice, “Listen to the tunes of your daughter/ If desperation falls all over you”, which is a song written by her friend Fernando Cabrejas.  This is not a Havana-style CD.  It has not even been passed through theaters or small spaces reserved for “trova” in Cuba.  The interesting fact is that it was recorded in the house of a good-willed friend, a singer-songwriters named Jose Aquiles.  Aquiles has his own “studio” built up on a hill in Santiago de Cuba, and with the very little that he has he helps out other singers, rappers, or other musicians, to realize their dreams of having their very own records.

This disc is a truth which saves that other country of ours — the Cuba which does not come out on our newspapers.  This afternoon, I went out to drink some rum with my friends, some who follow this blog, and others who actually believe in Marxism.  I extended my hand out to a public functionary who once attacked me for publishing an independent magazine (“Bifronte”).  I applauded Ivet next to the poets Rafael Vilches and Rolando Bellido, who are both good friends of mine for different reasons, yet who are nonetheless loyal friends.  Among the things that I appreciate from that afternoon, after the songs of Ivet of course, was that future Cuban picture I saw — where one is not going to get stoned for thinking differently.  There were writers there who I would not exclude tomorrow, if I were an editor, just because they believe the words of Karl Marx or Paulo Freire.  Those friends, in the Cuba I dream of everyday, can make a magazine, a recording studio, or a documentary, without having their houses sacked by the police.  Their names will not be hung up in the public light with a “warning” sign on them, as if they were portraits of national shame.

The songs of Ivet served for stirring up good conversations that night: and the language? Almafuerte, Neruda, Roland Barthes, life.

Photo: Exilda Arjona

January 16 2011

Restriction of Movement

14 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

I am sure that any Cuban would give a fortune to find out the name of the general from the Ministry of the Interior who gives orders to sign the Exit Permits, or the “White Cards,” as these documents which determine whether Cuban citizens can leave their country are popularly known.  I would give more than what I have to know the exact names and inclinations of those who restrict movement for hundreds of Cubans within the national territory.

Since I have fruitlessly looked over those paragraphs within the Penal Code and the Constitution which prohibit me from entering Caimanera, Banes, or Placetas, I turn to my readers.  If any of you have information about this, you are more than welcome to let me know through this blog.  The absence of Guillermo Farinas in Strasbourg and of Yoani Sanchez in Sweden were reported with all the force of the media and communication sector of the digital era.  I dream of the day when permits for entering any town will just be an obsolete ruse.

Why can’t Roberto Bartelemi Cobas and Yoandris Montoya Aviles visit Banes, home of the poet Gaston Baquero and the musician Juan Blanco?  Who impedes Marta Diaz Rondon from going from Banes to Santa Clara (the city of Marta Abreu)?  Under which decree should the son of Raudel Avila Losada, of Palma Soriano, present a safe-conduct in order to spend the night in the house of Caridad Caballero Batista in Holguin?  These are only some routes of internal prohibition.

The process of deporting Eastern natives living in Havana back to their hometowns has been more than denounced.  However, each week the security check points send back those who go from Contramaestre to Jobabo in Las Tunas, or from Moa to Banes in Holguin.  But does this happen to all Cubans?  No, it only happens to some dissidents who are singled out by their high levels of civil disobedience.  Sometimes we are shocked as we read accounts of deportations described on major media outlets, yet we don’t have the time to look at all the gags which take place nearby us, in the most obvious of places.

January 13 2011

Baptism in Guantanamo

9 Jan

Several days after my previous detention in that Eastern Cuban city, we were finally able to make it there without the usual “security” obstacles.  Although they did require identification of all the men at the Point of Control at the entrance of the city, my family and I were able to pass through without difficulties.  In what seemed to be a wholesome ambiance, without the presence (at least it was not visible) of the police, Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina’s kids received the holy water which consecrates them as baptized children of the Christian faith.  The event took place at 3 pm on Sunday, November 19.

Was there some reason for obstructing us a few weeks ago?  What order came from Villa Marista or from the general barracks of Guantanamo which demanded that my family be sent back to San German while I was taken to a dark and wretched cell?  Should we believe that it was “just an error”, as they told Rolando Lobaina?

What is certain is that an attitude such as the one in the city of Guaso continues making that area one of the most repressive zones in the entire island.

Every single human action serves as an experience.  This one served to reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and in the day that freedom arrives in Cuba.  I would once again go through all the fiery doorways, all the cells, and the corporal punishments if that meant I will be a free man.  It is my belief and it is my faith, just as it is the belief and faith of many others.  That day in the principal Catholic church of Guantanamo, it seemed as it was the day after the fall of the dictatorship.  It was a sign of the days soon to come.

January 9 2011

January with the Virgin of Charity

6 Jan

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

On January 2nd, under a delicate rain, we San German natives received the image of the Virgin of Charity.  For 50 years, the government and the Communist Party outlawed public processions, but now, hundreds of people were present and willing to walk down the main streets of this dusty provincial town. The children went first, followed by the image of the Virgin, and later a multitude of locals which must have numbered in the thousands.  The Virgin Mary was received amid songs and praise for peace and love as she traveled on her altar.

Without any citations, arrests, threats of lay-offs at work, and without the fear of losing 10 dollars in hard currency as part of a monthly stimulus, thousands of men, women, and children congregated to hear Father Antonio Rodriguez, who encouraged the crowd to not be fearful.  He also encouraged us to ask for whatever we wished for, because the “Virgin always concedes”, and because, as the religious song says, “a mother never gets tired of waiting,” the same way it seems that Cuba does not get tired of waiting.

After the mass, which was held out in the open, the Virgin’s urn was taken in to the temple.  The procession did not end until 12 am.  There were many mothers praying for their imprisoned or detained sons and for their sick children or husbands. There was also a special mass which blessed children and pregnant women. It was a cultural evening full of hymns, praises, and an entire astonished town which had never before witnessed such clamor.  That is what I was able to see.

There was a specific event which I cannot let pass unmentioned to you all.  When the mass concluded, the G2 official who had detained me numerous times in the dark dungeons and who prevents me from leaving my own town, Lieutenant Saul Vega, approached me to “offer his best wishes to me for the new year.”  Since I had just finished praying before the image of the sacred Virgin of Charity, I extended my hand to him and wished that the same wishes he had just made to me would multiply for him as well, as well as for all my family and the entire town.  I really do not know if he did this in order to capture me in a photo — I will keep you all informed.  But one thing I can say is that I do have photos, from that same day, of the oppressive cops who spy on dissidents.  I will share them with you all in future posts.

The visit of the Virgin has been an extraordinary event.  It was a sign of popular mobilization which has no comparison with past events in Cuban society.  It was something which the tyranny must keep in mind when their D-Day comes around.

On the 3rd of January, the functionaries from the local and provincial Communist Party Department of Religious Affairs refused to allow another procession. The drivers who took the image of the Virgin to the town of Cueto were then forced to pick up their pace, under strict orders of not waiting for anyone. This says a lot about those who wield power and who think they have the right to deny even the oldest traditions.

January 5 2011

When the Virgin Arrived at San German

5 Jan

Fotos/Luis Felipe Rojas

Photos: Luis Felipe Rojas

January 5 2011

Working for Yourself? Or Working for Everyone?

1 Jan

Photo: Luise Felipe Rojas

The regressive count has now commenced for the Cuban government.  A swarm of hungry men and women being chased down by entourages of state inspectors, and a rampant wave of people who snitch on others has launched a new massive wave against individual initiative, the primogenial production belt of any country in the modern age, the small business.  Producers of light goods, millers of animal fodder, bicycle-taxi drivers, messengers, dressmakers, and science and art tutors all enlist their marketing mechanisms: the promotion and sale of their products.

A few weeks ago when I went to Bayamo I met Mirurgia. She had arrived the night before from Cienfuegos where she bought some fabrics “at a very good price”.  With these fabrics she planned to sew clown costumes for kids, whether to sell or rent.  I took a look at these costumes and they were impeccable.  Her sister, who lives in the United States, sends her magazines with models to get inspired by, she sends her buttons and pendants, and the end products are some costumes that look as if they came out the best “first-world” stores.  I am not exaggerating.  She already has orders from Manzanillo and Santiago de Cuba.

“Now, I am alone.  But as soon as I recover an investment I made two months ago, I’ll employ two more seamstresses, each one working from their own homes.  Together, we will try to increase production.  But for now we are alone in the market,” she told me with an uplifting vibe.

Ever since he came from a Bulgaria dominated by the Soviets in the ’80s, Adrian has never been so enthusiastic about his personal business.

“I used to sell pork and lamb meat, one or two animals per week.  But every time they sell ground beef, other meats, or eggs by the rationing card, my sales go down and it just pushes everything back,” he said, while showing me his “workshop”.

“I studied wood-turning.  That’s my field.  If I put three teams to turning, that’d be much better than the animal trading business,” he points out.

Now, he has set up three bicycle-taxis.  He will paint them in about two weeks and he will rent them out to whoever wishes to use them.

Today, they rent out porches so that people can sell movies, they tear off fences and steal display counters which obstruct sidewalks, and they go to whatever extent to sell flowers, or they try to sell any other kind of merchandise by shouting out information about the product.  This is the new scene of Cuban society.  In response there is animosity, false optimism, and never before seen hope.  Many stare at all that is happening from afar, while others take the chance and join in, but for the majority, it is not an option, it is the “only” way out.

I do not think that such liberalization of productive means is the remedy of our problems.  Only freedom will get us out of half a century of failure.  But this determination of so many people makes me think, to examine everything, and to go forward without personal prejudices so I can hear these stories which circulate around me.  I hope my readers will not be bothered by a few other reports which will surely come during the first months of 2011.

Before the face of imminent or real unemployment, I ask myself: What can a country, that was known for its diverse confines of labor and desire, do?

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas