Counterfeit Money

Her son pulled on her skirt asking for candy, while the guard demanded the ticket from the cash register and someone asked, insistently, for the purse-check ticket. In the midst of all this madness, she made the mistake of not checking her change for the purchase, a little over 6 CUC that had to last until the end of the month. When she got home she discovered that hidden among the coins was one with the face of Che Guevara, who, with his majestic gaze, tried to make himself pass for a one convertible peso coin. The lady ran back to confront the vendor, but no one paid any attention. She’d been ripped off by one of the most common tricks of the hard currency stores: giving her a three Cuban peso coin in place of a shiny CUC, with eight times the value. She had the urge to throw that tiny coin through the window, but her husband recommended she sell it to some tourist to recover the lost money.

Life offers these unpredictable somersaults. The face of Guevara, the former Central Bank president (1960), looks at us now from a coin that is used primarily as a souvenir or as an object of deception. That man who had the irreverence — some will say the disrespect — to sign the national bank notes with his brief nickname, “Che,” is contained within a circle of metal of doubtful value. Trapped in this monetary duality that he never imagined hovering over the chimeric “New Man” of his discourses. All around the hotels, now, one sees the elderly with their poverty-level pensions, showing a foreigner the “merchandise” of these shiny three-peso coins, with a beret and jacket-clad guerilla. Meanwhile, the clever hand of a cashier managed to sneak them into a client’s change, taking advantage of the distraction of a confused customer caught between the demands of her son for candy, and of the doorman who checked her bag.

I Still Don’t Know If You Will Sing

I greatly fear the response of “never”
Pablo Milanés

The last time I went to a Pablo Milanés concert I couldn’t hum a single one of his songs. In the middle of the anti-imperialist bandstand* several friends and I unfurled a cloth with the name Gorki on it, to demand the release from jail — in August of 2008 — of that punk rock musician charged with “pre-criminal dangerousness.” The painted sheet survived a few brief seconds in the air before a well-trained mob fell all over us. The next day my whole body ached and I felt a particular annoyance toward the author of Yolanda, imagining him as a passive witness to what had happened. I was wrong, however. Afterward, I learned that thanks to his mediation we hadn’t slept that night in a dungeon, and that he had also interceded to get Gorki returned to the streets.

This coming August 27, Pablo Milanés is scheduled to give a concert in Miami. An event that has sparked the irritation of those who consider him a “minstrel of the Castro regime.” But not even the most passionate critics should forget that his own life has been — like that of so many Cubans — a sequence of blows dealt by intolerance: his imprisonment in a UMAP forced labor camp, the misunderstandings in the early days of Nueva Trova, and the closing of the foundation that bears his name. They should also recognize that Pablo Milanés had the courage to refuse to sign that letter where innumerable intellectuals and artists supported the repressive measures taken by the government of the Island in 2003, among which was the execution of three young men who had hijacked a boat to emigrate.

Pablo, the chubby Pablo, who in the eighties was heard at every point on the dial when we tuned our radio, evolved as many of us did. He has made his differences heard for several years and his face is no longer present in those profoundly politicized acts with which the authorities try to demonstrate that “the artists are on the side of the Revolution.” I sense, also, that he would like to share a stage in Havana with those exiled voices who are still not allowed to appear in their own country. The troubadour who proposes to sing in Florida in a few days is a man who has grown and matured artistically and civically, conscious, as well, of the need for both shores of our nation to be reunited. Thus, to receive Pablo Milanés with shouts and insults could delay the necessary embrace between Cubans from here and from there… but it will not prevent it.

Translator’s note:
The “anti-imperialist bandstand,” also called the “Protestodrome,” is a stage and concert area built in front of the United States Interest Section in Havana, along the waterfront boulevard and seawall known as the Malecon.

State of Fury

Close the Tap

“Three boys were stabbed in the Piragua* the other night,” “don’t go by Zapata and G where you might be assaulted,” “a former policeman killed a child for stealing mamoncillo fruit,” “don’t even think of going to Central Havana after ten.” These are some of the phrases that make up our own alternative red chronicle, part of the flow of information about violence not reflected in the official media. There is a latent tension that doesn’t explode in a protest at the Plaza of the Revolution, nor in an encampment in front of the Council of State, but is channeled into the punch that smashes into the skin during Carnival, or an iron bar sinking into a shoulder in a riotous brawl. This constant irritation — attributable not only to the heat — brings out the blades in the most unpredictable places, and even makes the little kids who should be playing peacefully raise their fists.

A few days ago two women were pulling each other’s hair as they fought to get a seat in a shared taxi, a bus inspector took a stick to a rider who complained of his management, a mother slapped her son because he smeared ice cream on his shirt, and a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution member from Santiago beat a regime opponent until he broke his jaw. What’s happening to us? Why this fury that turns one against another? Why this institutional silence about the facts now inherent in our everyday lives? I remember having spent a couple of hours in a police station and being amazed at the number of foreigners who came to report a robbery. One after another they came and the official in charge put his hands on his head. “This is too much,” I heard him say.

The authorities in our country think that not mentioning these risks will make them disappear. They think perhaps the absence of a report about the violence plaguing the city will cause it to decrease. I’m sick and tired of turning on the TV and seeing only incidents that happen on the streets of New York or Berlin. I have a son 16 years old and I know the dangers he faces crossing the threshold of our doorway. Enough already of falsifying statistics, manipulating certificates of injuries, hiding the results of the rage. We are a society where a blow and a scream have replaced words, let’s admit it and begin to look for solutions for it.

*Translator’s note:
Piragua: A large plaza-type open space along Havana’s Malecon overlooked by the Hotel Nacional.

Wendy and Ignacio

The Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, they all got ahead of us, as did even Spain itself, that country of espadrilles and tambourines that our grandparents described as timid and old-fashioned. Gay marriage is also a reality in several jurisdictions in the United States and in Mexico City, home of those movies with sombrero-wearing, pistol-toting cowboys. In just a few decades, modernity has left us behind, without a leg to stand on, facing too much prejudice, too much stuffiness. When did we Cubans become prudish and old-fashioned? What were our reasons or intentions for not joining the twenty-first century?

To the “anthropological damage” from being a society barely connected to the new communications networks, with a poor political culture and an almost childish inexperience in matters of civic expression, we must add the lack of evolution over the last fifty years in accepting differences. But there are always individuals who force a nation to quicken its pace, hike up its skirts and climb on the bandwagon of history. In this case their names are Wendy and Ignacio, who were not satisfied with the dawdling of the National Assembly in evaluating the legalization of same sex marriage. She, the push and pull of all the discrimination; he, harassed by homophobia and ideological intolerance. Wendy, managing a genital reassignment surgery through CENESEX*; Ignacio, with his political ideas provoking Mariela Castro to fire his fiancee from her job at an institution that claims to ensure the acceptance of plurality.

Although what will happen this coming Saturday, August 13, is not legally considered a “gay wedding,” nevertheless it is the closest we have come. Wendy has an identity card with a female name, but it will be difficult for the bureaucrats to understand why her birth certificate says “male.” They will both sign a document — before a notary — and leave the Wedding Palace as man and wife. They will return to their little house in the Playa neighborhood, conscious that they have set an important precedent, one that has given us a lesson, a jolt, a burst of energy. And it will fall to those of us who will witness this legal union, especially this servant who will act as matron of honor, to thank Wendy and Ignacio. Because for one afternoon, for one brief afternoon, they will have placed our country into the third millennium, into the desired time of “now.”

The wedding of Wendy and Ignacio will be this coming Saturday, August 3, 2011, at 3:00 PM in the Vibora neighborhood Wedding Palace at Maia Rodríguez and Patrocinio streets, telephone +537-640-7004.

Anyone who would like to go is invited: friends, acquaintances, curious neighbors, stigmatizers and discriminators of all kinds, official paparazzi, self-employed photographers, bloggers, independent journalists, CENESEX workers — Mariela Castro included — foreign and national press, homosexuals, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and heterosexuals. The doors will also open to people who think that now is the time for Cuba to open itself to modernity and modernity to open itself to Cuba, including — why not? — those who would vote, in an actual parliament, against these types of unions. In short, it will be a good opportunity for the tolerant, the intolerant, the political police and those they pursue every day, the silenced and those who applaud, those who hold to the letter of the Gospels and those who have no creed, to witness this moment with Wendy and Ignacio who overcame so many obstacles, among them having been born in a country wedded to the past.

Translator’s note:
CENESEX is the National Center for Sex Education, run by Mariela Castro, Raul’s daughter.

The Narrow Width

Image taken from Diana Nyad's Internet site:

I felt a shock on learning that Diana Nyad would make an attempt to swim across the Florida Straits. I recalled the days in 1994, when my neighborhood of San Leopoldo was swarming with people building improvised rafts on which to launch themselves into the sea. I especially remember one group that left, during that period in which the Cuban authorities stopped preventing illegal departures. A craft armed with pieces of wood, plastic tanks serving as floats, the image of the Virgin of Charity, and a patched flag that no longer knew to which nation it belonged. But the most striking thing turned out to be that on that flimsy raft were only the elderly. There was a very black lady with a colorful straw hat, a flowered dress and a smile, thanking in both Spanish and English the boys who helped her to set sail. I never knew if that rickety expedition made it to its destination, if all those seniors disposed to start again got the opportunity.

Seventeen years later, I hear the news that an American wants to try the same route, but this time protected by divers, a pair of kayaks and even a medical team. Her laudable intention was to highlight the closeness between the Island and its neighbor to the north, to help reconcile both shores. But the Straits of Florida is also part of our national cemetery, the graveyard where lie thousands of our compatriots. The omission by the athlete of such an important characteristic did not appeal to me. Nor the fact that with her nautical feat she would highlight the twentieth anniversary of a most exclusive club, the Hemingway Marina, where a Cuban, even today, cannot board a vessel and may not enter — on his own — such a beautiful landing. I would have preferred that the Gulf currents would be swum by someone who knew the pain sheltered in these waters and who would dedicate their gesture to the “unknown rafter” who died in the mouth of so many possible sharks.

When I learned, on Tuesday, that after a 29-hour effort the swimmer was unable to achieve her objective, my superstitions were confirmed. There are certain spaces, I thought, that need more than strokes or sports records to seem less sad. State television said succinctly that “insurmountable obstacles had emerged, among them winds of more than 12 miles per hour.” I can imagine Diana fighting against the waves, the sun gaining strength overheard, the intensely salty sea flowing into her mouth. I am going to go further and fantasize about the inexplicable detail of a straw hat, the colorful sombrero of woman who passed close to her, making her think herself delirious in the middle of the Florida Straits.


My cell phone rang just as a stern-looking soldier handed me the forms to apply for an exit permit. The mansion on 17th between J and K streets had been restored: new aluminum and glass windows, retouched paint, and an expanded number of chairs for the long wait. Nothing in this recently retouched institution, yesterday, indicated that they would be easing the restrictions to enter and leave the country. Rather it seemed that the enormous smokestack-free industry of travel restrictions–paying substantial annual dividends in hard currency–would remain in place for many years. I reluctantly took the call, overwhelmed by the bureaucracy that had ground away at me all morning. An almost metallic voice, passed through the circuits of Skype, asked, “Did you hear what Raul Castro said?”

I returned home and listened to the Cuban president’s speech before the National Assembly. Almost at the end, he announced that they were “working to implement an upgrade of the existing immigration policy.” In my hands, however, I now have all the forms to get a travel permit and a passport filled with visas I haven’t been able to use. This coming Thursday I am supposed to leave for the BlogHer event in San Diego, but it is unthinkable that the new flexibility will go through fast enough for me to board the plane in time. Listening to the new Maximum Leader, I was reminded of a friend who said, half jokingly, half serious, “In Cuba not even the widest openings are that open, nor are the closures that closed.” In this case I can’t let go of the skepticism that comes from my own personal experience, with 16 denials of a travel permit in just four years.

For too long, the ability to leave and enter the country has been a method of ideological coercion. Obtaining the “white card” that allows us to leave our insularity, or the “empowerment” to enter our own country, has been conditioned on our being “politically correct.” I do not think, in reality, that the flag will fly at the same height for all. A list of people who may not leave will be kept in some drawer, a scarlet letter marking those who will not benefit from this reform. However, something is moving in the right direction. At least I have hope that when most Cubans are able to travel freely, the forced immobility of others will be more of an embarrassment.

Five Years

“The chocolate is over!” screamed my two friends, as I opened the door that night of July 31, 2006. They were alluding, with their improvised slogan, to the latest plan pushed by Fidel Castro to distribute a chocolate quota to every Cuban through the ration market. When the doorbell rang there were only two hours left before the first of August and Carlos Valenciaga, Fidel’s personal secretary, had already read a proclamation on TV announcing the unexpected illness of the Maximum Leader. The lights at the Council of State remained lit — oddly — and an anomalous silence settled over the city. During that long night, no one could sleep a wink in our house.

As they reached for their second glass of rum, my friends began to count how many times they had planned for that day, predicted that news. He, a singer-songwriter; she, a television producer. Both had been born and grown up under the power of the same president, who had determined even the smallest details of their lives. I listened to them talk and was surprised by their relief, the flood of desires for the future now unleashed. Perhaps they felt more free after that announcement. Time would bring them to understand that while we were chatting about the future, others were ensuring that the package of succession was neatly tied up.

Five years later, the country has been transferred, entirely via blood. Raul Castro has received the inheritance of a nation, its resources, its problems and even its inhabitants. Everything he has done in the last five years stems from the imperative not to lose this family possession, passed on to him by his brother. The slow pace of his reforms, their timidity and superficiality, is marked in part by feeling himself the beneficiary of the patrimony entrusted to him. And what, you wonder, of my friends? When they realized that under the younger brother the repression would continue, that the penalization of opinion would remain intact, they distanced themselves, frightened. Never again did they knock on my door, never again did they enter this place where, in 2006, they had come screaming, believing that the future had begun.