Glancing at the TV I was caught by a phrase from Zenaida Romeu, director of the chamber group that bears her name. It’s Tuesday and the energy of this woman, a guest on the program With True Affection, Two… had me sitting in front of the screen while the potatoes burned on the stove. She answered the questions skillfully, with a language far from the boring chatter that fills so many other spaces. In a few minutes she told of the difficulties in creating an all-woman orchestra, how bothered she is by the lack of seriousness in some artists, and of the day when she cropped her hair to appear with the maestro Michael Legrand. All this and more she told with an energy that calls forth an image of her, baton always in hand, score in front of her.
It is not her own story, however, that has me thinking when I return to the pot on the stove, but that of her children. She is the third or fourth guest on Amaury Perez’s program who has admitted that her children live in another country. If I’m not mistaken, Eusebio Leal* also spoke of his emigrant kids, and a few days earlier Miguel Barnet* described a similar experience. All of them speak about it naturally. They discuss it without thinking that it is precisely this massive exodus of young people that is the principal evidence of our nation’s failure. That the children of a generation of writers, musicians and politicians — including those of the Minister of Communications and of the director of the newspaper Granma — have chosen to leave, should make them doubt themselves, make them wonder if they have contributed to building a system in which their own descendants don’t want to live.
This migration is a phenomenon that has left an empty chair in almost every Cuban home, but the high incidence of among families who are integral to the process, is very symptomatic. The number of children of ministers, party leaders and cultural representatives who have relocated abroad seems to exceed that of the offspring of the more critical or discontented. Could it be that in the end the dissidents and nonconformists have transmitted a greater sense of belonging to their children? Have these famous faces noticed that the babies born to them are refusing to stay here?
I look at Teo for a while and ask myself if someday I will have to talk to him from a distance, if at some moment I will have to confess — in front of a camera — that I failed to help create a country where he wanted to stay.
Eusebio Leal is the Havana City Historian, director of the program to restore Old Havana and its historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Miguel Barnet is a Cuban writer.
A sequence of roofs, avenues and narrow streets, reproduced with plastic and paint. A small scale city, locked in the Model of Havana room in the Miramar neighborhood. Yellow glasses let you travel, at a glance, along the streets, around the corners, up the little elevations and along the serpentine coast. The same magnifying lenses help us to enjoy the Capitol dome seem from above, or the dark face of El Morro. A model in miniature of a city that from any tall building seems to go on forever, but here it is, captured in a diminutive duplicate, trapped in a few square yards of cardboard.
The guide to this peculiar museum explains — once you enter — that the representation has been painted in four different colors: brown is for the constructions of the colonial period; mustard for the buildings from 1902 to 1959; bone-colored for the buildings erected in the last five decades; and white — striking and distant — for monuments and future projects. All the visitors and tourists end up saying the same thing, “Havana is mustard!” And I can see that yes, it’s true, while explaining a detail here, some twist or turn there.
Yes, my city is mustard, spicy and sour, seasoned by the old, increasingly distant from modernity. A sample at natural size, where there are days in which one would it like to be — like in the Model of Havana — made of plastic, or cardboard, but not suffering from so much ruin.
When you grow up decoding each line that appears in the newspapers, you manage to find, among the rhetoric, the nugget of information that motivates, the hidden shreds of the news. We Cubans have become detectives of the unexpressed, experts in discarding the chatter and discovering — deep down — what is really driving things. The Draft Guidelines for the Communist Party’s VI Congress is a good exercise to sharpen our senses, a model example to evaluate the practice of speaking without speaking, which is what state discourse is here.
Its more than thirty pages of text contain only economic proposals, more appropriate for the Ministry of Finance than for the compass of a political party. It’s true that it lacks the language of the barricade, resolving everything based on slogans, but it suffers from being a sugar-coated list of what could be done if the system really worked. For those who think my skepticism is exaggerated, take a look at the points from past congresses and check to see how many of them really came to pass.
Scrutinizing the verbiage, one positive is that the “state-budgeted sector” — this colossal blood-sucker that feeds on me, on you, on all of us — is going to shrink. Expanding the stage for self-employment is also comforting, but whenever I ask someone if they’re going to take out a license, they tell me they don’t think they’ll “take the bait” to start paying taxes. It’s hard to overcome the distrust, and a government that sinks the national economy with its voluntarism and its idiotic programs has little credibility when it announces a rescue plan.
It is disappointing that not a single line refers to the expansion of civil rights, including the restrictions suffered by Cubans in entering and leaving our own country. Nor is there a word about freedom of association or expression, without which the authorities will continue to behave more like factory foremen than as the representatives of their people.
The Party will meet in April, will approve some guidelines very similar to those in the pamphlet and, within a year or two, we will all be wondering what happened with so much ink on so much paper. What happened to that program where it said “perfect and improve” instead of “change or end”?
Aerocaribbean plane ATR 72 (CU-T1545) at the airport Holguin, Cuba, similar to the plane that crashed today
How many human dramas around each victim in the crash of Aerocaribbean Flight 833. The similarity of names in the passenger list suggest that parents and children, brothers and sisters, couples with their offspring, have been lost. I remember that among the names mentioned on the news this morning was that of a Japanese tourist, who also lost his life thousands of miles from that other island so different from ours. I can’t stop thinking about him or the others who died in the plane that should have been a road, a bridge, a highway, but never the last one.
Behind each of the 40 Cuban passengers the tragedy is also enormous. They bought that fatal ticket three months before their departure day and waited in a long line to board a mode of transportation that in this country is rare and extremely expensive. Probably relieved to know that they would make the trip from Santiago de Cuba to Havana in something a little less chaotic than the national train. Their presence on that ATR 72/212 was the conclusion of a sequence of sacrifices that started just when they had the need — or the desire — to travel within Cuba, and that would end only when they arrived at their fate.
Misfortune lurks on all sides, this we know, but it is difficult to process the idea that people climb the stairs of an airplane and a shortly afterward their names are read, in a solemn voice, on national television. I return again and again to the images of the possible family embrace that was waiting in the arrival airport, of the mother who learned in Buenos Aires or Amsterdam that her son would not return, or of the pilot’s wife saying goodbye while thinking, like every other time, that he would soon return home. These are the personal catastrophes, the human dramas, that began to descend in the same minute that the plane fell to earth.
Five decades of “we,” of indoctrinating us in the behavior of the shelter or the squad, and yet in the park this morning a young man said, “What I want is to have my little piece.” He said it as if he were confessing a sin or coveting something at a great distance to satisfy an evil desire for which he would be publicly scorned. As he spoke of his “ambitions,” he gestured with his hands as if bringing invisible dreams toward his body, dreams that he named: “a roof,” “a decent salary,” “permission to travel.”
Collectivization has not erased in us that human longing to have our own piece, and forced egalitarianism has only fueled the desire to differentiate ourselves.
Ministry of Agriculture building in Havana
Ten in the morning. In those hallways where last week people gathered and chatted during working hours, today not a soul passes. What happened in the seventeen floors of the Ministry of Agriculture that no one steps foot outside their office? The answer is simple: Many fear being on the list for the next cuts, so they avoid appearing away from their posts and thus seeming to be dispensable. Where before they roamed around the office, arms crossed, the strategy now is to look busy, even if it means having to sit behind one’s desk for eight hours.
This scene is not an exaggeration. A friend who works in one of these state agencies, where over-staffing is a chronic disease, described it to me. She explained that there’s not even a long line in front of the water cooler like there was in the past, but that not even that will save them from layoffs. The institution has told them that only those who are indispensable will remain and some have already been notified of their dismissal. My friend squints her eyes and laughs. “They are certainly not going to kick out the director, nor the secretary for the nucleus of the Communist Party, and much less the woman who runs the union,” she concludes, sarcastically.
I’m surprised by the mixture of fear and disdain with which Cubans have taken the drastic reductions in personnel already implemented. On the one hand no one wants to lose their job, but on the other there’s a feeling that unemployment can’t be worse than working for the State. When I recommended to my friend that she take out a license to become a self-employed button-coverer, or a coat-hanger maker, she jumped up from her chair waving her hands, No! No! “If my name is on the next list,” she said, “I’m going to create a scene that will be heard in the office of the minister and every hallway.” But I don’t believe her; like many others she prefers to hide her protest.
He was wearing a cap pulled down over his ears, but I still recognized in his face the features of the former vice president. Carlos Lage passed in front of me at the intersections of Infanta and Manglar streets with that gait typical of the deposed, a cadence fallen into when all hope of vindication has been lost. I felt bad for him, not because he was walking in the sun when so recently he had had a chauffeur, but because everyone looked at him with a punishing silence, a look of revenge. A woman passed me and I heard her say, “Poor thing, look who had to do all the dirty work and in the end they did this to him.”
A year and a half after the dismissal of Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque, we still don’t know what led to their political ruin. In an unusual display of discretion, the video shown to Communist Party members — explaining the motives for their sudden fall from grace — has never filtered out to the alternative information networks. Nor did they convince us with photos where the two of them are at a party drinking beer and smiling; if that were cause enough to lose your position there wouldn’t be a single minister at his post and the presidential chair would be vacant. The phrase written by Fidel Castro in one of his Reflections — that both the foreign minister and the vice president had become addicted to “the honey of power” — seems more like the confession of someone who knows all too well the royal jelly of a government with no limits on the explanations of errors committed by others. So we are left without knowing why, this time, Saturn devoured his children, with that aftertaste of someone who is eating the final litter, the generation that might replace him.
I felt compassion for Carlos Lage, seeing him with his cap pulled down over his face as he hurried past to avoid being noticed. I had the impulse to call out to him to say that his expulsion had saved him from a future of ridicule and made him a free man. But he went by too quickly, the asphalt gave off so much heat, and that woman looked at him with such mockery, I only managed to cross the sidewalk. I left the ousted one with his loneliness, but believe me, I wanted to sidle up to him and whisper: don’t be sad, getting the boot, in fact, is what saved you.