Oiled Mechanism

A drop slid down my leg, I maneuvered it into the hollow between my ankle and my shoe and did a thousand pirouettes so my high school classmates wouldn’t notice. For months, my family had had only mineral oil for cooking, thanks to pharmacist relative who was able to sneak it from his work. I remember it heating to a white foam in the pot and the food tinged with the golden color of a photograph, ideal for food magazines. But our bodies could not absorb that kind of fat, made for creating lotions, perfumes or creams. It passed right through our intestines and dripped, dripped, dripped… My panties were stained, but at least we got a break from food that was just boiled, and could try another, slightly roasted.

We were quite fortunate to have that semblance of “butter” that someone stole for us, because in the nineties many others had to distill engine oil for use in their kitchens. Perhaps that’s why we Cubans are traumatized by this product extracted from sunflowers, soybeans or olives. The price of a quart of oil in the market has become our own popular indicator of well-being versus crisis, in the thermometer that takes the temperature of scarcities. With an ever shrinking culinary culture, from Pinar del Rio to Guantanamo, most stoves know only recipes for fried foods. Hence, pork fat, or buttery liquids with high-sounding names such as “The Cook” or “Golden Ace,” prove essential in our daily lives.

When, a few days ago — with no prior warning — the price of vegetable oil in hard currency stores rose by 11.6%, the annoyance was very strong, even more so than when fuel prices rose. Many of us don’t have cars to show us that convertible pesos are continually turned into less and less gasoline, but we all face a plate every day where the prices of staple foods have soared. That this happens with no accompanying public protest, no discontented housewives raising a ruckus beating on their pots and pans, no long articles in the press complaining of the abuse, is harder to swallow than a meal with no fat. I’m more embarrassed by this tacit acceptance of rising prices than I was of the thread of mineral oil snaking down my calf before the mocking eyes of my classmates.

The Little Pioneer and the President

He was the first American president I shouted a slogan at. I don’t remember the precise words of the insult as almost thirty years have passed. However, I can remember the feeling of my clenched fists, my red and white uniform trembling with each scream that I launched at Jimmy Carter who — according to my kindergarten teacher — would destroy the island, the palms, the classroom desks, happiness.

And three decades later, here I am in Havana, talking with him and other familiar faces from our nascent civil society. I barely resemble that Little Pioneer buried in the hysteria of political slogans and this man I am speaking with doesn’t fit the role of the leader who was the target of my insults. Now he is a mediator, a man who doesn’t seem interested in wiping Cuba off the map, as they once assured me in primary school. So the girl who was supposed to be the “New Man” and the former commander of the armed of the forces of the United States, have met at a moment in their lives in which neither has the same position as before, in which the path of both has taken the direction of dialog; although once we could have killed each other, across some battle field.

I see him speak and wonder if he knows that I was trained to hate him. Will he be the villain of my childhood stories, the face of grotesque caricatures in the official newspapers, the man whom government propaganda blamed for all our ills? Of course he knows, and still he extends his hand to me, speaks to me, asks me a question. And so he, who was “the enemy,” offers me his kind words.

Outside the Hotel Santa Isabel where we have met, in some school in the area, another little girl repeats her slogans, squeezes her hands, shouts, focuses her mind on the face of a man whom she says she detests. Fortunately, she too will forget the words she screams at this moment, erase from her mind the slogans full of resentment they make her chant today.


P.S. I am attaching a message, accompanied by a gift, that we gave Mr. Jimmy Carter in the name of several bloggers and other Cubans.

Havana March 30, 2011

Mr. Jimmy Carter:

On behalf of several alternative bloggers and other members of Cuban civil society, we would like to give you this present. This is a small sample of the food that the self-employed are able to make from maní,  the word Cubans use for peanuts, that dried fruit that you know so well.

For over half a century the maní has been one of the few products that has escaped the control of State planning. Even in the hardest days of the so-called Special Period one of the the few things we could buy on the free market produced by independent people were these cones and peanut butters that we offer to you today. There were times when the traditional cry of “peanuts, the peanut seller is here…” had to go practically underground, becoming a phrase whispered into the ears of clients.

This popular “criminal” food, within the reach of every pocket, has become the symbol of public resistance before totalitarian pretensions, a stronghold of creativity and ingenuity in the face of centralism and control. Here is the maní, the conqueror of difficulties, stubborn disobedient, transformed now into a symbol of union, a meeting point between your people and ours.

So Long… Forever… Juraguá

In our little room, he told us that morning about the time he had spent in the USSR. He’d only been in Havana a few hours, after an Aeroflot plane had brought him back from his long sojourn in the land of Gorbachev. The gothic letters on his diploma showed he’d graduated from the university in some kind of engineering my childish mind couldn’t understand. It was the first time I’d heard about the Juraguá nuclear reactor, which was built in Cienfuegos in 1983. The recent arrival’s voice described an enormous VVER 440 reactor located in central Cuba as if it were a live dragon breathing its whiffs on us. Hundreds of young people, trained in research centers nearly 6,000 miles from home, would work there as atomic scientists. Millions and millions of rubles arriving from the Kremlin helped to construct what would be the pinnacle of our “tropical socialism,” the fundamental pillar of our energy independence.

Later I learned that this young enthusiast never worked as a nuclear engineer. The Soviet Union was dismembered just as the first of two planned reactors was 97% complete. Grass covered a good part of the site, and exposure to the elements broke down everything from pieces of the core, to the steam generators, the cooling pumps and the isolation valves. Juraguá became a new ruin, a monument to the delusions of grandeur left us by Soviet imperialism.

With his graying temples, while cutting metals in his new career as a lathe operator, the one-time expert told me now, “It was lucky we didn’t start it up.” According to what he and his colleagues had calculated, the chances of an nuclear accident at Juraguá were 15% more than at any other nuclear plant in the world. “We would have ended up with the island cut in half,” he said dramatically. I imagined a piece of the nation here and another over there, while a stubbornly smoking hole changed our national geography.

Now that the plant in Fukushima is spreading its residues, and with them fear, I can’t but rejoice that the Cienfuegos reactor has not awakened, that under the concrete sarcophagus a nuclear reaction hasn’t started. Thinking about all that has happened, all of our current problems seem small to us, insignificant trifles compared to the horrifying spread of radioactivity.

Since the Appreciation

Had I hired an ad agency and a nimble publisher to disseminate the work of the alternative bloggers, I probably would not have accomplished such wide awareness of our existence, within Cuba, as that achieved thanks to the “Cyberwar” program shown Monday on official television. The tangible result is that my phone hasn’t stopped ringing and I’m hoarse from talking to so many people who have come to show me their solidarity. My sunglasses — as big as owl’s eyes — are no longer enough camouflage for me to pass unnoticed in my city. Every few yards someone approaches me on the street to offer words of encouragement and even big hugs, the kind that take my breath away.

What’s happening on this island such that those of us “stoned” by official insults have become so attractive? What happened to the time when aggravating State media represented years and years of ostracism and vilification? When did the spontaneous anger against those slandered, the sincere punch in the face for the stigmatized, fade away? I swear I was not prepared for this. I imagined that 24 hours after this pack of lies, told in emulation of Big Brother, everyone would pull away, stare fixedly at the cobwebs on the wall whenever I passed by. The result, however, has been so different: a complicit wink, a pat on the shoulder, the pride of neighbors who are surprised because a certain quiet and frail little woman who lives on the fourteenth floor is apparently enemy number one — at least this week — until the next to be stoned appears.

And I’m not the only one. Almost all the bloggers whose names and images appeared on the “Interior Ministry Soap Opera” are experiencing similar situations. Vendors at the farmers market who hand them a piece of fruit in passing, drivers of collective taxis who say, “You don’t pay today, sir, it’s on the house.” If the scriptwriters of that courtroom TV show had calculated such a response at the grass roots level, I think they would have refrained from putting our faces on television. But it’s already too late. The word “blog” is now irrevocably linked with our faces, glued to our skin, associated with our actions, tied to popular concerns, and synonymous with that prohibited zone of reality that is becoming more and more magnetic, more and more admired.

Citizen Reasons

Razones ciudadanas from Yoani Sanchez on Vimeo.

Translator’s Note: Readers who want to prepare a transcript… you can either post it in the comments… or email DesdeCubaEnglish Gmail com. If you want to take on a particular speaker… or a certain part (specify the time from and to)… I will post in the comments section what part of the transcript is underway so people’s work doesn’t overlap. And of course I will happily translate it to English once it’s done. Gracias and thank you.

Friends of Salamanders

It was shortly after I learned that candy is sweet and fire burns, when I came to realize that Cubans are allowed to join organizations created by the government but we are punished, to teach us a lesson, if we decide to create our own groups. And so, as children we were automatically enrolled in the Young Pioneers; at age fourteen women were enrolled in the Women’s Federation; neighbors joined the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution; while workers formed a part of the country’s only authorized union. For their part, students became members of their federation, and peasants were registered in a single group at the national level. We all appeared on the membership rolls of something.

Every time someone would apply for a job, admission to the university, or seek to obtain the right to buy a home appliance, they had to fill out a form quizzing them on their membership in the organizations consecrated by Power. The list began, of course, with the most important: The Communist Party or the Union of Young Communists. It seems ridiculous to me now, as I can remember my hand holding a pencil and marking little X’s next to organizations with acronyms such as OPJM, CDR or FMC. I was on automatic, without conviction, wanting to make them think I was a citizen who fit in, revolutionary, “normal.”

For many years I have not repeated a slogan nor belonged to any of the country’s authorized organizations. When people ask, I say am an independent citizen, a free electron, and that my political platform is limited to demanding the decriminalization of differences of opinion; but I am aware that we are far from achieving these goals. Despite the changes and the promised apertures it is still frowned upon to criticize – be it a minister’s management or a school’s class schedule – and certainly one couldn’t think of founding an independent party, nor even so much as a club for “Friends of Salamanders.”

And My 10% of Affection?

On Monday, all the currency exchanges in the country had a very busy day. The one closest to my house opened up with a line of fifty people who rebuked the clerk. The news that parity was being restored between the Cuban convertible peso and the United States dollar had been announced on the early edition of the morning news. With a lot of journalistic awkwardness, rather than simply stating in plain language what the change consisted of, the presenters read the resolution — technical language and all — as it had been published in the Official Gazette. By the end, few knew for sure the current value of those greenbacks that come from the North. Even so, thousands of people descended on banks and currency kiosks to exchange money with the faces of Lincoln, Franklin or Washington.

The day was marked by frustration because there were those who had the illusion that they would also narrow the distance between “national money” — in which salaries are paid — and the other currency, the Cuban convertible peso, known as the chavito and indispensable for acquiring the greater part of what we need. But no, the measure consisted solely of devaluing the convertible peso by 8% with relation to the US dollar. The word “parity” generated great confusion because the annoyed customers found it difficult to understand that there is still a 10% exchange fee to turn dollars into cash. In this way the government hopes to stimulate the movement of dollars into banking channels, while continuing to penalize dollars that come into the country in a personal way, in many cases brought in by so-called “mules.” The banking adjustments are needed and urgent, as the adopted resolution is like a drop in the ocean of the absurd monetary system’s needed repairs. The pace of these measures is drowning us; the timidity eating away at our pockets.

Thus, in the line at my neighborhood currency exchange, two days ago, the discomfort was evident and even led to altercations among those waiting. The climax came when an old woman received about 87 centavos for each dollar exchanged. “My son works hard to send this money and look what they turn it into,” she said. A Party activist also waiting to exchange “enemy” money admonished her not to complain so much, because in the end she was privileged, having the good luck to receive remittances from abroad. He told her, “The least you can do is give 10% to the country which needs it.” The lady retorted quickly and so accurately that everyone fell silent, “Yes, indeed, I receive help from abroad, but every day I suffer the absence of my children. Is the country going to give me 10% more affection?” The line dissolved in couple of minutes.