The Stubborn Names of Things

Nothing is called what they told me. Salvador Allende Avenue, the only street from my childhood with trees, has gone back to being called by its noble name of Carlos III. I cross a re-baptized city, although the corners still show signs with the names of heroes that no one uses. The old descriptions re-emerge, even among people my age who didn’t come to know them when those were the public names. However much the news insists, for example, on speaking of the summer celebrations as “popular festivals,” we stubbornly refer to them by the nickname “carnivals.” Something similar happens with the celebrations of each December, which the announcers and bureaucrats designate “year-end celebrations,” but among ourselves — for more than a decade — they’ve come to be known again as “Christmas.”

The adjectives betray us; the nouns get ahead of us, contrasting with the subdued and cautious attitude we assume daily. To name something has been converted into the most widespread way of changing reality. We no longer hear the vocative compañero — comrade — rather it’s the once stigmatized señor — mister — and it’s been a long time since the first person plural has included those who govern us. Now they are simply “them,” while in the maternity hospitals no one chooses names from that olive-green lineage for their newborns. Even the strange phenomenon officially designated as “Revolution” has come to be known among us by a neutral demonstrative pronoun. We have renamed it “this,” because there are times to show dissatisfaction by removing names or returning to things the stubborn names by which they were once known.

Goose Stepping

My neighborhood is experiencing a small shock, a change that comes in the form of new asphalt, the workers are removing the pavement and adding a black sticky layer which, in a few days, will once again be solid under the tires. We’re all amazed. The happiness would be greater were it not for the reasons behind this road restoration, the impulse that underlies these works. The whole Plaza of the Revolution and the “frozen zone” where I live is getting ready for the big parade on April 15. A sea of military power seeking to dissuade all those who want change in Cuba.

For weeks, the parking lot at the Latin American Stadium has been the practice site for soldiers testing their goose step. Forty-five degrees of extended leg calling to mind a puppet pulled by its strings, by a cord that is lost somewhere up there in the immensity of power. I don’t know how a military parade can be beautiful, what emotion can be found in these synchronized automatic beings who pass by with their faces turned to the leader on the podium. But the resulting effect I know well: Afterwards they will say the government is armed to the teeth and those who take to the streets in protest will be crushed against the same pavement that is being repaired today. The marching of the squadrons will be a warming to us that the Party not only has militants to defend itself, but also anti-riot troops and elite corps.

The choreography of authoritarianism is what I would call it, but others prefer to believe that this will be a demonstration of independence, of a national autonomy which, in reality, resembles Robin Crusoe abandoned on his Island. But beyond my doubts about uniforms, my allergy to a procession of squadrons marching in unison, today I’m concerned about the tar, that recently-laid asphalt that the tracks of the tanks will damage.

Protected Soap Opera

I run into a neighbor in the elevator, we exchange greetings, comments about the weather, questions about whether eggs have arrived at the corner shop. We are still on the sixth floor when, in the protected and momentary privacy of the cabin, she tells me that thanks to me she’s been able to watch a Colombian soap opera. I don’t understand. What relationship could there be between this skeptical blogger and the dramatic soap operas skilled in wrenching tears from people on the other side of the screen. But the woman insists. With four floors still to go before we reach the ground, I begin to think of the scripts of the old Félix B. Cañet.

The answer comes to me in the most unexpected way. As the elevator signals Floor 3, she tells me that her fear of the dark park — on one side of our building — was an obstacle to her going to a friend’s house every night to watch an episode of her soap opera, captured by an illegal satellite dish. But now, she said with gratitude, that strip of concrete and vegetation is guarded 24 hours a day. I look like I don’t understand, but she stresses that the Interior Ministry agents that surround my house have made the neighborhood safer. I would prefer to believe that those shadows I see from my balcony are the fantasies of someone who consumes too much fiction, but the woman returns to the charge. She won’t let me hide behind a smile, rather she wants to emphasize that she owes it to me that she can get to the other building safely.

I’m unexpectedly overcome by horror, someone just thanked me for being raw meat for the surveillance machinery, the target of guards. I’ve never seen a more lighthearted way of understanding repression, but I laugh with the neighbor, what else can I do?! Not wanting to seem distant, I ask her about the plot of the soap opera I have “helped” her to enjoy. She details it with delight. It’s a re-creation of the eighteenth century, with slaves on the run, matrons hiding their illegitimate children from their husbands, the sound of whips landing on backs, dark narrow paths guarded at night by overseers with dogs.

Agent 000

The saga of undercover agents, of moles within the ranks of opposition groups, far from alarming me, made me yawn. When they show one of those “heroes” on official television, I feel like I’m watching a fictional serial, where the characters are actors, the script has been written by someone with literary talent, and the scenes were filmed over and over until they seemed convincing. The strategy of the secret police has been overly exploited on our small Cuban screens, too common a part of our Cuban reality. The idea is to make us believe that any friend, family member or even our own children could be some kind of Mata Hari, ready to make a case against us; to convert distrust into a paralyzing element.

I met Carlos Serpa Maceira once when he came to my house because he wanted to open a blog, and wanted me to help him in the endeavor. He happened to tell Reinaldo and me that he had studied in the Journalism school at the beginning of the 1990s. We asked him about some of our friends who had studied the same specialty in those years and were met by painful confusion. He didn’t know a single one of the names we mentioned. When he left, my husband and I remarked on the poor devil who had invented a university diploma. I confess that I didn’t associate him with State Security, but I labeled him with one of the strongest adjectives I utilize for individuals: pathological liar.

Two years later, last Saturday, I received a brief text message from Serpa Macier. In just 90 characters with four misspellings, he said he needed to see me urgently, or to call him. I did neither. It was a final ploy, desperate bait to be able to record a conversation with me which probably would have been on the program that aired last night. His face on the television was not a surprise, his delight in how he spied on the Ladies in White and independent journalist seemed pathetic. As the credits rolled on the serial, I sent a brief message to his mobile: “Rome pays the traitors, but it despises them.”

I wanted to say more, but he has enough already, what with the contempt he receives from his own Caesar, that institution for which he worked considers him nothing more than another “snitch.”

Translator’s note: The Cubavision TV show aired on 26 Feb 2011 — “Pawns of the Empire” — can be seen in two parts, with English subtitles, at the end of this post here.

Go Bankrupt or Prosper…

For those who grew up in a country where the state, for decades, has been the monopoly employer, to be forced to make a living independently is like jumping into the void. Thus, workers are overcome with fear, lately, as they await the publication of the dreaded list of names of those who will lose their jobs. Not only do fears flourish, but also opportunism and favoritism. The decision of who will keep their places and who will not is made by the directors of each workplace and we already know about cases where it is not the most capable to remain, but those closest to the director. Ironically, the positions they are trying to keep are underpaid, and the loss of a quarter of the workforce does not mean — for now — a salary increase for those who stay.

Downsizing meetings occur in every workplace, even in such sensitive sectors as Public Health. These meetings decide something more important than monthly salaries or belonging to a certain company or institution. It is also a time when people’s eyes are opened to a different Cuba, where the premise of full employment is not proclaimed to the four winds and where working for oneself appears as a bleak and uncertain option. Some exchange the white coat for barber’s scissors, or the syringe for an oven where they bake pizza and bread. They will learn about the inevitable march from economic independence to political independence, they will go bankrupt or prosper, they will lie on their tax returns or honestly report how much they have earned. In the end, they will embark on a new and difficult path, where Papa state cannot support them, but nor will he have the power to punish them.

The Graveyard Police

The village graveyards are picturesque and sad: whitewashed tombs with the sun beating down all day on their stones, and the dirt roads packed hard by the feet of the mourners. But there is a graveyard in the town of Banes that has hosted unusual cries in the last twelve months. Crosses around which intolerance has no shame, where it has not lowered its voice as one does before a headstone. For several days, moreover, the entrance has been guarded as if the living could control a space dedicated to the dead. Dozens of police officers wanting to keep Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s friends and acquaintances from coming to commemorate the first anniversary of his death.

Those who now patrol the tomb of this bricklayer know very well that they can never accuse him–as they have others–of being a member of the oligarchy seeking to recover his property. This mestizo born after the triumph of the Revolution was not the author of a political platform nor did he take up arms against the government. Yet he has become a disturbing symbol for those who, themselves, cling to the material possessions that come to them through power: swimming pools, yachts, whiskey, bulging bank accounts and mansions all over the country. A man raised under political indoctrination escaped through the door of death, leaving them on the other side of the threshold, weaker, failing more than ever.

Sometimes the end of person cements his name in history forever. This is the case with Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who set himself on fire outside a government building because the police confiscated the fruit he sold in a square. The consequences of his immolation were completely unpredictable, the “domino effect” he set off in the Arab world immense. The death of a Cuban on 23 February 2010 has created an uncomfortable anniversary for the government. Right now, when Raul Castro is about to celebrate his three years at the helm of the nation, many are asking what will happen in Banes, in the small cemetery where the dead are more strictly guarded than prison inmates.

Though they surround as much as they can, this week the political police can’t stop people–from within their homes–invoking the name of the deceased Zapata Tamayo much more often than the long string of titles of the General-cum-President.

“Comrade” Granma

He would often raise his fist while screaming in his high-pitched voice, his face flushed, at whomever he disagreed with. And so would the newspaper Granma, as if a breath of life had turned it into a person; as if a rare spell could make the paper body of the tabloid turn itself into flesh and bones. He would dress in a plaid shirts, proudly displaying the sharp creases of his clothes achieved with successive sprays of starch. The daily paper of the only party permitted in Cuba was of an undefined age and a nineteenth century mentality, displaying his medals, constantly talking about feats he never actually accomplished. He never listened to others, because his interminable tirade drowned out criticism, contrary ideas, the least hint of differences. He behaved like a grouchy man who couldn’t even converse with his own children, who had seen all those whom he once loved escape from his side.

Granma, like some I know, would turn his face if someone close to him bought a little food on the black market. But he would scarf down every last bite without asking where the piece of potato or the slice of bread on the table came from. His large-type editorials would maniacally scream vacuous slogans whenever he knew the neighbors were listening. He would appeal–with great frequency–to betrayal and intrigue. His boring triumphalist reports would wrap themselves in conformist phrases delivered to the desperate faces of those around him. The same newspaper which still, today, has never published a color photo, would shroud in gray boring platitudes and unbridled rage. He would sniff out the tiniest illegalities of survival and denounce them with the same urgency as his pages now publish attacks and lies.

The “comrade” embodied in Granma would be one of those human beings whom–I don’t know about you–I would never invite to my house.