The Art Of Turning Artists Into “Enemies”

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on a park bench in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 10 November 2017 — He scribbled on a wall and they detained him for several months; he founded an opposition party and they accused him of buying some sacks of cement; he opened an independent media outlet and they denounced him for treason. Every step taken to be free ended with a disproportionate repression that can only be explained through the fear that the ruling party feels towards its own citizens.

The case against the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has once again exposed the fear that beats in the highest spheres and spills over onto everyone who leaves the assigned fold. The police officers who entered his house last Monday went in search of any evidence to incriminate him, because they are the executors of a punishment policy that is systematically applied against the system’s critics.

The sacks of construction materials are just a pretext to “show him the instruments” and to embroil Otero Alcántara in an infinite legal process. What is coming now is a movie we already know well: the trial at full speed, the sentence that allows him to be removed from circulation until after the date scheduled for the independent event and, meanwhile, a “good cop” who will whisper in his ear the advantages of emigrating and avoiding such imbroglios.

The artist will feel every kind of pressure. On the one hand, State Security will say that his call to participate in an independent event is a provocation that will not be allowed, and on the other hand the official artists’ guild will distance itself and its members from his proposals. Some of those who said “yes” to participating in the #Bienal00 will no long respond to the emails or will communicate that they will be unavailable due to an unforeseen trip.

Some will accuse him of wanting to attract attention, others will tell him he could have gone through official channels before throwing himself into organizing a parallel event. There will be those who will reproach him for having crossed the red line between art and activism, or for having dabbled in politics. The most caustic will whisper that now he can include his own face in the next Game of Thrones video he creates about the candidates for the Cuban presidency.

However, solidarity will also rain down upon him from those who, in recent days, have been expecting the imprisonment of the author of ¿Dónde está Mella?, a performance held in the former Manzana de Gómez, in Havana. His case will help show the world that Raúl Castro’s government has a similar modus operandi to attack opponents, artists and journalists.

The ruling party does not care if the “daring” report human rights violations, work with metaphors or investigate information. From up there, anyone who does not follow orders deserves only one word: enemy. Now, for them, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has fallen into that category.

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Navigating Among the Travel and Immigration Nonsense

A Cuban rafter who emigrated seven years ago now wants to return on his yacht, but he has been told that his family in Cuba cannot go out for a ride on his boat from the Hemingway Marina. (umbrellatravel)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 November 2017 — Three days and thirty calls, this is how Carla summarizes the time immediately after the announcement of the new travel and immigration measures. “I dialed all the numbers I had on hand,” she says, with a cup of tea in her hands at her home in Centro Habana. The nursing graduate is anxiously awaiting a reunion with her brother who left Cuba on a raft and has been based in Tampa for seven years.

However, in the complex skein of prohibitions in Cuba’s travel and migration policy, the relaxations that will take effect as of the first of January in 2018 have introduced more uncertainties than certainties. “He wants to come on his yacht so our family can take the boat along the Cuban coast and even fish,” she explains.

Several calls to Marina Hemingway have crash-landed the nurse’s dreams. “Your brother can arrive on his boat, but Cubans living on the island can not yet go out for a ride on the boat,” a voice told her from the other end of the line. Thus Carla came up against that part of the legislation that still hasn’t budged an inch.

For decades, Cubans have been locked in successive boxes. Some compartments are designed to hobble their ability to decide who governs the country and what newspapers they can read. In the last decade, some of those restrictions have become obsolete, or been repealed or changed, but their “hard core” still stands.

At the center of so many limitations is the government’s conviction that if it allows citizens to have greater spaces for decision and action they will end up overturning the current regime. A trip on a yacht along the Cuban coast could make Carla’s family wonder why they have been denied that pleasure for so long and increase their discontent.

What this hypothetical long-awaited journey can trigger has long-term connotations for the family.

The mother, with a monthly pension that does not exceed 15 dollars, will cry for joy when she sees, before dying, the face that has been hidden from her by el Morro, something that few Havanans have been able to enjoy. She may even stuff down a lobster tail freshly pulled from the water by her son, “the enemy who escaped the Revolution,” as he was described by the president of her local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution on learning of his departure.

When the earth recedes and they find themselves in the safe discretion of the immense blue, it is probable that Carla will tell the former rafter how she steals medicines from the hospital to sell on the black market and that she dreams of an immigration process based on “family reunification” that will get her out of the country.  “No one can stand it, my little brother,” she will confess, protected by the waves and the sky.

If that maritime route were to open, a partition of the sealed compartment in which they have been enclosed will collapse and will not be able to rise again. An interior wall, of fear and lack of opportunities, will be seriously damaged. Aware of that, for the moment, the ruling party must be meditating on all the costs of allowing such a thing.

Until now, and as things are going, everything seems to indicate that next year, the nurse’s rafter brother will be able to enjoy, in his status as an emigrant, something his relatives on the island are denied. Half-changes provoke these contradictions, but complete changes unleash fear at the highest levels.

With her cup of tea, Carla continues to dial phone numbers so that someone will answer a simple question: “Can we get on that yacht and walk the deck?” No one risks answering with certainty, but many wait for a slip that tears down that and other walls.

José Martí from New York, Without a Visa and With Mistakes

The equestrian statue of the Cuban hero José Martí, that has been living in Central Park in New York since 1950, has a replica in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 October 2017 – We see him leaning over, a lost look in his eyes. He is mortally wounded and the bronze captures the second that separates him from immortality. The replica of the José Martí statue that has been in New York’s Central Park since 1950, now has a place in Havana. On Thursday afternoon, under an intensely blue sky, we can see his contours sparkling and the pedestal shine. Also noteworthy are the unpardonable mistakes on the commemorative plaque.

On the commemorative plaque of the monument of José Martí there are two spelling mistakes. (14ymedio)

City is spelled ”cuidad”– similar to the word for “care” – instead of “ciudad.” Nacío – an ugly attempt at “he was born” – misplaces the accent and almost flirts with “I was born,” but in fact is not a word at all. These are two of the “pearls” carved into the shining black granite that, as of this week, thousands of Cubans and foreign visitors will read on the monument. The devils of misspelling and lack of grammatical rigor have played a trick on the man who loved words and cultivated them with a venerable passion.

More than fifteen feet high and weighing three tons, the piece has been placed a few steps from the old presidential palace. Its lovely lines are a copy of the work conceived by the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington that stands in a small area at the southern end of the New York City park, along with monuments to Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín.

The mistake-plagued inscription on the Havana piece – no one has clarified whether it came with the statue or is a local production – is an insult to the poet of Versos Sencillos, Simple Verses. To write on a piece of paper a phrase that has not been carefully reviewed is one thing, but to sculpt it in stone is to make a monument to improvisation and to display a huge disdain for the language.

Some will say that they are only small details, but a graduate in Philosophy and Literature deserves – at the very least – that a good editor check his lines.

Nor does the equestrian statue come at an easy time. Forged in Philadelphia, it was carried to the Island in the midst of a growing escalation of tensions with the United States. The figure that should represent the confluence between two nations, as Martí did during his life, is now a reminder of a diplomatic meltdown that fell short and of a time that was irretrievably lost.

A man in a United States flag T-shirt gave the finishing touches to the monument in Havana. (14ymedio)

Thus, during its placement there was no lack of jokes from the nearest neighbors about whether the man we Cubans call the “Apostle” had asked for a visa to enter the country. The humor never fails, nor the sad jest that evokes the difficulties that Cubans currently face to travel to their northern neighbor, after the scandal of acoustic attacks about which there are more questions than certainties.

As an irony of life, one of the workers who finished some details around the monument proudly displayed a T-shirt with the banner of stars and stripes. As with the spelling mistakes, no one saw it, no official came to check on what was going on.

Absence Means Forgetting

Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more fruit of the pressures than of his own desires. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2017 — Most active politicians like to have their photos taken while greeting children, talking to factory workers, or visiting a disaster area. These images, seen on countless occasions, do not translate into better government performance, or even real concern, but at least they are consistent with a formal and public ritual.

More than two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma devastated countless towns in central Cuba, affected communities near the north coast and left the coastal areas of the city of Havana under water. Since then, Raúl Castro has not been to any of the affected sites and has not been seen near the houses that lost their roofs, the sidewalks filled with the furniture drying in the sun or the places sheltering some who  have no homes to return to.

In the first days of his absence, speculations focused on the octogenarian’s health and a possible indisposition making him unable to travel to the most affected areas. However, Castro had enough physical energy to go and receive Nicolás Maduro at the airport. He has chosen to take a photo with the Venezuelan president rather than with the population battered by the meteoric winds.

The feelings left by this distancing are contradictory. His most ardent supporters speculate that he does not want to add expenses to the national budget with a visit more symbolic than effective. Others say he is letting younger officials take his place before the cameras so that they can gain visibility before 24 February of next year, when he will step down from the presidency of the country.

His critics, however, speak of the weariness that has gripped the General after a sequence of defeats, among them not being able to end the island’s dual currency system, or to reduce corruption, or to offer Cuban workers dignified wages that can become their primary source of economic support, or to attract foreign investment. Exhaustion has taken over the leader of the Communist Party a few months before he leaves power.

Now it is too late for the photo next to the victims. Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more the fruit of pressures than of his own desires. A snapshot next to an old woman whose house is nothing more than the foundation would seem to be a resounding act of gimmicky populism, but the lack of that image makes him look as distant and indifferent.

If he goes where Irma left a trail of pain he loses; if he stays in his palace he also loses.

Goodbye August, Nobody is Going to Miss You

The August of our irritability. (E. Marrero)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — August is the cruelest month, the poet T.S. Eliot would have written had he been born in Cuba. Because by the end of July, and before the beginning of September, everything becomes much more complicated. To the high temperatures are added the massive vacations of thousands of students and state employees, which make life move slowly, gluey, like a dense and hot liquid.

The telephones in the ministries ring and no one answers them, the functionaries are not at their posts and the secretaries take advantage of heatwave to spend more time painting their nails. Everyone justifies it with summer, everyone puts the blame on this month, as if it were a virus whose only treatment is to wait for it to pass.

Irritability is everywhere. People whine in the long lines, utter an insult at the first opportunity and curse the weather, this lethargy that barely lets them think. September becomes the goal, the longed for month.

However, when August is overcome daily life continues to drag along. Be it the heat, the rain, a hurricane or a political demonstration, in Cuba there is always an excuse for apathy and idleness.

Republican Era Cuba, Patrimony Of The Ruling Party

Cuba’s ruling party appropriates the cultural images of Republican era Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — The gallery near the garden displays the faces of dozens of celebrities who stayed at the Havana’s Hotel Nacional. In one corner we see mobster Meyer Lansky, in another the sensual legs of ballerina Josephine Baker and the broad torso of actor Johnny Weissmüller. All belong to that “cocktail of the past” that gives the foreigners who come to visit an ecstatic rush.

The ruling party has converted the Republican era into its exclusive patrimony. It brings economic benefits to buildings constructed under capitalism, makes the places that served the nightlife of that era profitable, and appropriates the cultural scene of “mediatized Cuba,” as the history books call it.

The first half of the twentieth century has become a commodity, a product sold in tourist packages, souvenirs and through repetitive “canned” music, which appeals to those who want a shot of nostalgia; but it can also spark disgust when the private sector takes advantage of this scenography with its odor of mothballs.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the Island during the first half of the 20th century

Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed his annoyance in a video filmed last February, for what he considers the “eulogy to the Batista era” promoted by many restaurants and cafes through a décor of photos from the era of the Republic. However, in his speech the official conveniently avoided mentioning the use the state itself makes of marketing that country that no longer exists.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the island during the first half of the twentieth century, showing the Floridita restaurant/bar, the Bodeguita del Medio or the Tropicana cabaret. The senior officials of Gaviota and other hotel groups collect dollars in exchange for visually exploiting years that they themselves contributed to destroying.

Like all totalitarianism, the Cuban system seeks to control information and silence; the press and rumors; the past and present. Now, it has ended up closing the circle around the memories of Republican Cuba. Only power has the right to evoke that moment and, of course, it does it in its own way.

The Simple Story Of Roof Sealant

Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and stains are some of the consequences of poor placement of a sealing cover on the roof. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana 20 July 2017 — One day they came carrying rolls of roof paper to waterproof the roof of this concrete block where we live with more than a hundred families. Those state employees were deaf to the warnings. “We do not need coverage here,” some neighbors told them. “No apartment leaks when it rains,” said others. However, the installation continued its course without listening to the citizens, like all directions “from above.”

There was no way to convince the authorities that this multifamily building, built in the years of the Soviet subsidy, had other emergencies. Water pipes have collapsed over the years and the lightning rod has been inactive for decades. “What we have is a roof sealer and that is what we are going to install,” said the head of the team of workers who for several days toiled over our heads.

Shortly after, the cover began to breakdown in several places. The rainwater accumulated underneath and, as it could not evaporate in the sun, leaked into the houses. The residents on the top floors have suffered all kinds of problems as a result from that awkward decision. Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and yellow stains that increasingly cover a larger area in the ceilings. What should have been a solution, has become a real headache.

Now the community is battling to remove the sealing sheets, but the authority to do so does not arrive at the same speed with which some bureaucrats ordered it to be installed. The most daring residents have ripped off the pieces above their own apartments, while the most cautious wait for official directions from above.

During the years the cover has remained in place, several areas of the roof have been filled with mold and have developed cracks due to moisture, a damage that, now, each affected resident must repair with the resources of their own pockets.

A few yards away, in the neighborhood of La Timba, several families have been demanding that they be given roof paper — at affordable prices — to repair their homes. With summer rains, their homes “get wetter inside than outside,” they say. Some have approached our concrete building to get what we obtained in the lottery of state inefficiency.

The history of this sealing or roof paper is just one of the thousands of absurdities that Cubans are forced to deal with every day. A sample of how the country’s resources are wasted on superfluous tasks designed to fill in the numbers or meet irrational goals while the real difficulties are avoided or hidden.

The useless roof covering has not only left significant damage in several apartments, but has further hurt the decision-making ability of a community, a group of neighbors that does not even have sufficient autonomy to remove the shreds of the mistake that remain on our roof.