Overseas Ballot Boxes

After dinner they stayed at the dining room table to fill out the ballots. He nervous, she more decisive. They worked like crazy, marking them with crosses, while the kids played on the sofa. Those papers received from the Spanish Consulate in Havana smelled new, of fresh ink on a shield of columns and crowns. But the newest thing for the couple was the act itself, choosing from a list of several parties, the action of deciding among different political stripes. Both, who not so long ago had guarded the ballot boxes in their pioneer neckerchiefs, voted for the first time since acquiring the condition of naturalized Spanish citizens. They took the pen with a determination they’d never applied to a national ballot, choosing from a distance because they can not yet do the same where they live.

Millions of Cubans have never heard a political program with the voice a parliamentary candidate. Nor even a preliminary pronouncement from one of them on such timely themes as the dual currency, gay marriage, or the urgent immigration reform. Perhaps it is from this local disappointment that springs the seriousness with which 12,458 of our compatriots asked to participate in the Spanish elections of this November 20. Beneficiaries of the “Law of Grandchildren,” they rehearse with the Atlantic interposed and try to make their mark on another reality, knowing that their own destiny is decided only by a tight circle of higher-ups. Who’s to say that their growing presence in these elections won’t influence the seats and alliances, the smiles and tears that are set to fall tonight in Madrid.

The attention with which the Spanish community on the Island follows the Spanish electoral process is surprising. Among voters here there is a clear intention to push the policies of Madrid’s Moncloa Palace so that, in turn, something will move in the Plaza of the Revolution. The ballot cast in this “overseas ballot box” carries a scream demanding attention, and a handkerchief waving from the shipwreck. The same couple who – from their Havana table – made their marks next to the name of a foreign party, now face the dilemma of whether to take their children to “the motherland” or to leave them in the country where they were born. Whether we like this dependence or not, today in Spain a part of the Cuba’s course was also decided, of this nation that boasts of its sovereignty but which, in reality, hangs on many threads that are woven abroad.

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The Dark Side of the Festival

Image taken from : habanafilmfestival.com

The year’s most anticipated month is December, with its cold fronts that allow us to “bundle up” and with the films of International Festival of the New Latin American Cinema. I remember, in particular, one evening in 1992 when the glass in the doors of the Acapulco cinema shattered before the onslaught of hundreds of people wanting to see a film from Argentina, The Dark Side of the Heart. I’m not exaggerating the enthusiasm, since it was only in this last month of the year that we could enjoy something other than Soviet movies, something with more artistic value than the American thrillers on national television. Very few, at that time, had a VCR to play videos, and the magic of the dark hall with the projector purring behind us was almost intact.

But the Festival, now in its 33rd incarnation, has been losing ground in the cultural life of Havana. In part because the pirated serials, soap operas and Hollywood productions lead many to prefer to stay home to enjoy their DVD-player or clandestine satellite dish. Movie-goers are also discouraged by the fact that dozens of neighborhood movie theaters have closed, such as the comfortable Bayamo of my childhood, the majestic Rex and Duplex, or the centrally-located Cuba cinema. But the principal festival of Latin American film has had other setbacks that spring from within, limitations arising from its own structure.

Censorship, works shown only once while others hog the schedule, authors not accepted for having “exceeded” social and political criticism, are some of the incidents that have impoverished the festival. The centralization of decision making, personified in the figure of Alfredo Guevara, imparts an effect on the festival similar to that generated by the excessively vertical government in our country. With such antecedents, the exclusion on this occasion of the film Vinci, from the director Eduardo del Llano, shouldn’t even surprise us. In response to the letter of protest from the creator of shorts such as Monte Rouge and Exit, the Festival’s senior management could only appeal to thematic considerations. But many of us know what it’s really about: Del Llano is an uncomfortable author and his productions are accepted with clenched teeth because they touch the wounds of a reality that the official discourse tries to cover over with make-up. Fortunately, the same alternative networks that broadcast the Brazilian soap operas and reality shows, might also propagate — briefly — the rejected film. So, we’ll just turn off the lights in our own living rooms, click the remote control and start the projection, a private function where no one can decide what we can see and what we can’t.

Street Vendors or Walkers

Private B&B operators trying to attract tourists.

“I want a donut with meringue,” says the kid in his red and white school uniform to a vendor who never stops walking back and forth. A wide band of cloth around his shoulders supports the wooden and acrylic box filled with cakes, cookies and pastries. Tony is the most famous baker in the neighborhood. He opened his first dessert kiosk over a decade ago and has passed through all the stages of the emerging private sector in Cuba: enthusiasm, annoyance, the numbers not adding up, and even turning in his license. Now he lives in a time of revival along with 346,000 self-employed workers who — especially in the last year — are prominent on the streets of the whole country.

This time Tony didn’t want to keep the little shack outside the Tulipan train station where he sold so many peanut candies. The high price of leasing a space from the State made him give up his old post amid the bustle of the avenue and the whistles of the locomotives. Cleverly, he noticed that the license for street vendor has much lower taxes and decided to devote himself to walking the street corners outside schools. He figured that this way he wouldn’t have to pay for electricity or securing his kiosk with half a dozen locks so it wouldn’t be robbed in the night, much less have to feed the cops for free from his tiny counter. Giving up a fixed location for the mobility of his two legs seemed to offer only advantages.

In the fine print of the “street vendor” license, however, it is unclear how long Tony can stand in one place. Each inspector interprets in his own way how long these “nomadic dessert sellers” can occupy the same site. With the result that, so far this month, our neighborhood entrepreneur has spent so much in fines and free muffins to these implacable supervisors that the high costs of his previous license look like peanuts. Now, Tony has a line of children following behind him asking for a donut here and an empanada there, and he can’t stop. He walks from Boyeros Street to tony 26th Avenue and asks himself why this emerging sector has to be plagued with so many absurdities, so many limitations. A decision is taking shape in his mind: to become part of the 25% of the self-employed who have permanently cancelled their licenses.

The Study of Tolerance

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Some years ago I had a verbal tic that I interspersed between sentences. A repeated, “You know what I mean?” capable of annoying even my most understanding friends. I said it at the least appropriate times and one day someone gave me a lesson, “Why do you think I don’t understand you? Isn’t it you who doesn’t know how to explain?” Language has this ability to undress us and leave us open; words reveal what we hide under a veneer of good cheer. Social networks in particular have become a gateway through which we travel in our undergarments before the scrutiny of readers, friends and a vast legion of critics. Each monosyllable we write for these conglomerates of opinion give us away and strip us bare.

I remember when I started with Twitter my voice was more awkward, less familiar with the plurality that a space like this harbors. Since August 2008, when I opened my account on this microblogging service, every slice of 140 characters published has made me a more tolerant and respectful person. Hence my surprise when Mariela Castro responded to the question I posed in a tweet: When will we Cubans come out of the other closets?

The personal attack with which she responded stunned me. I did not expect a hand extended in dialog, certainly, but neither did I expect arrogance. It’s true that I need to study, as she suggested, and I will do so and continue to do so until my eyes can no longer distinguish the lines in my books and my rheumatic fingers can no find the keys on the keyboard. However, I have learned that to evade a question by attacking the other’s lack of education borders on arrogance. Faced with such a reaction, what kind of onslaught would a peasant who barely finished sixth grade receive, were he to address the director of the National Center of Sex Education?

I believe, however, that in the manner of that silly catchphrase I once had, verbal attack is a habit that can be cured. The voice can be trained, tolerance acquired, the ear opened to listening to others. Twitter is a magnificent therapy to achieve this. I suppose that as the days pass and as Mariela Castro continues to publish, she will come to better understand the norms of democratic dialog, without hierarchies, where no one tries to give lessons to anyone. When this time comes, I hope we can converse, have a coffee, “study” together — why not? — the long and difficult road that lies ahead for us.

Apartheid Persists


Reinaldo took the side of yes and he insisted and insisted. I, however, am of the generation that thinks ahead of time that nearly everything is prohibited, that they are going to scold me at every step and prevent me from doing anything that occurs to me. So this time the matrimonial discussion was intense. He claimed that we could board that boat to see Cienfuegos Bay from the swells of its waves; while the little voice inside me shouted that so much enjoyment could not be available to nationals. For a couple of hours I believed in my husband’s optimism and like a tropical Candide he got away with it. We went to the marina office near the Jagua Hotel and an official there sold us two tickets for the coveted boat trip. We never hid our breakneck Havana accents, nor tried to pass ourselves off as foreigners, but no one asked for identification. We felt there were already a pair of seats on board the yacht “Flipper” with our names on them and the murmur of skepticism faded in my head.

We arrived at the dock half an hour early. The sun-burnt tourists began to board the boat. Rei and I reached the spectacular corner from where we took photos of that bay as big as an ocean. The dream lasted barely five minutes. When the captain heard us talking he asked if we were Cubans. He shortly informed us that we had to go ashore, “boat rides are prohibited for nationals at every marina in the country.” Rage, anger, the shame of carrying a blue passport makes us guilty — in advance — in the eyes of the law of our own nation. A feeling of deception on comparing the official discourse of a supposed opening with the reality of exclusion and stigma. We wanted to cause a scene and cling to the railing, to compel them to remove us by force, but what would it have served? My husband dusted off his French and told the group of Europeans what was happening. They looked surprised, whispered among themselves. None of them disembarked — in solidarity with the excluded — from that coastal tour of our island; none of them found it intolerable to enjoy something that is forbidden to us, its natives.

The Flipper sailed, the wake of apartheid was visible for a few seconds and then was lost among the dark waters of the bay. The face of the musician Benny Moré on a nearby poster seemed to have exchanged its smile for a sneer. On one side of his chin was the famous refrain from one of his songs: “Cienfuegos is the city I like best…” We left that place. Reinaldo defeated in his illusion and I sad that my suspicions had triumphed. We waked along the road to Punta Gorda while an idea took shape in our minds: “If Benny had lived in these times, he too would have been thrown off — like a mangy dog — from that yacht.”

The Starting Line

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The Paseo del Prado has been unsettled for the last couple of days, and not just because of the hustlers hustling and the hookers trolling for tourists. The uproar comes from the new Decree-Law No. 288 which establishes rules for the buying and selling of housing. A long-awaited measure that finally sees the light of day in the Official Gazette, to the relief of many and concern of others. In the spontaneous housing exchange that exists on this pedestrian promenade bordered by bronze lions, the curious ask about the details of a measure undoubtedly more flexible, but still insufficient. They want to know if the property title that they have in their hands grants them, starting now, full rights to assign, inherit or sell their houses. In a nation that has lived for decades with a frozen real estate market, they find it hard to believe that everything will be as easy as some speculate, or as legal as the Ministry of Justice assures us.

One of the principal fears on the street now is concern about how the Central Bank will rule on the legitimacy of money used to buy real estate. Because for every transaction of this type the cash must first be deposited in an account and the distrustful clients of our banking system fear that it could end up being confiscated if the State decides it didn’t come from “clean” sources. But to every risk people will respond with some kind of trick, so I imagine that from now on the funds declared and placed in the bank will be a half or a third of the real cost of the house. The rest will pass from one hand to another, from one pocket to another. For too long we have behaved like outlaws in this area, so one shouldn’t expect that starting now everything will be done according to the 16 pages of the new decree.

There is also the possibility of a migratory stampede, because “the act of owners transferring their housing, before permanently leaving the country, is legal under the act.” Thousands of Cubans have been waiting for this signal, like runners crouched at the starting line waiting for the gun to go off. The high costs of immigration procedures will be covered by the sale of homes that will offered for sale in the real estate market. A house, for forty years an anchor, will become a set of wings. It’s notable, of course, that the new measure includes the tenuous twine that pulls the piñata out of reach, already evidenced in the decree about the sale of cars. The wedge of the pie reserved only for those ideologically most-trusted owners, was expressed this time in Point 110. It states, “the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers and its President will be able to decide, with respect to housing located in determined areas of the country.” We will see the map of the Island riddled with patches where the requirements to buy and sell will not be written anywhere. The so-called “frozen zones” will grow and the social differences — so often denied — will flourish, particularly that deep abyss that separates those trusted who are with money from those citizens with resources not sanctified by power.

Joy and Hypertrophy

Image taken from comusidaldm.wordpress.com/

The Pan American Games in Guadalajara brought fresh winds to our television programming, which had been insufferably dominated by ideology since early October. Although our sportscasters continue to believe that every competition is a kind of battle where to lose is to surrender, we could ignore them and enjoy the show. It was even surprising that, notwithstanding the attempts of the official journalists to get the winners to dedicate their medals “to the commander in chief,” most preferred to offer them to their families, girlfriends, mothers, happily waiting for them somewhere in the national territory. The closing ceremony and the second place finish achieved by our delegation cheered those still disgusted by the defeat of the Cuban team in the Baseball World Championship. For a couple of weeks the sound of the hit balls echoed more loudly than the slogans, and certain everyday concerns faded into the background.

After the euphoria of victory, however, it’s worth analyzing if this second place finish really corresponds to our development as a country. Watching this little Island facing down an emerging power like Brazil, or a country as vast as Mexico, brings the same image to my mind over and over. In it, a frail and toothless gentleman is showing me his muscular arms a la Arnold Schwarzenegger. We live, undoubtedly, in a hypertrophy similar to that of this skinny-legged man with the bulging biceps, suffering an artificial enhancement of a sector that has nothing to do with the economy or productivity of the nation. Should we rejoice over the direct result of this disproportion? Or should we calmly meditate on why this government tends to climb to the highest seats in the international sports arena, at the cost of neglecting less visible, or measurable, areas of our reality.

It is enough to travel Havana in search of a pool where children can learn to swim, to ask oneself if the resources that should be reaching many are invested in a just a few. We live on an Island and yet, a good share of its inhabitants would drown if they fell in the water. To buy a bicycle in a hard currency store costs as much as a year’s salary, but the women’s cycling team won first, second and third place medals in Guadalajara. The deterioration of the capital’s major athletic center, Ciudad Deportiva, is an embarrassment, while gold hangs from the necks of dozens of Cuban athletes. My own son spent two semesters without a P.E. teacher, because few want to work for a salary that is barely symbolic. Sports require a physical infrastructure and not just in the specialized schools and academies, they demand investment in facilities for use by the public as well. Undertaking this could mean we earn fewer medals, but it would also eliminate the hypertrophied image that today marks our every victory in sports.