The Strings of the Piñata


I remember very well the children’s parties that ended with the pushing and shoving and laughter of those who wanted to grab a candy or a gift.  The piñatas, shaped like a clown or a boat or resembling some cartoon character, were the funnest part of every birthday. But that time has passed and what is being distributed now in our country is not sweets or balloons, but properties. Like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas once did, or the leaders of the Communist Party in Russia, Cuban leaders are distributing — at their convenience — rental properties, cars, businesses, houses.

Yesterday’s publication of Decree 292 — for the ownership transfer of motor vehicles — has been the culmination of a several decade’s wait. For far too long obtaining a car has been a perk earned through unconditional ideology. Now, they have added a few pinches of this ingredient called “market” to a mechanism that has been ruled for half a century.  Even with this new legal reform, however, the great majority of citizens are only allowed to buy a used car, which in Cuba means vehicles more than 15 years old, and in particular Russian Ladas or Moskvitches, or Polish Fiats, which were previously marketed through a meritocracy. Some modern cars in State service will be sold to those who meet the strict requirements of belonging to an institution and demonstrating their fidelity to the Government. And those impeccably new ones, recent imports, are destined for a Revolutionary elite that has in their pockets money sanctified through official channels. To drive a shiny Citroen or a late model Peugeot will continue to be a sign of being a member of the powers-that-be.

Another revealing detail in this resolution is the emphasis given, in its pages, to the concept of “final departure” for those who relocate abroad. If, as Raul Castro himself has said, we are committed to migratory reform, what is the significance of not repealing this shameful category? Those who leave may not sell their cars before departing, they may only transfer them to their closest relatives. The penalization of emigration, then, remains in place. But what is most worrying is the already visible composition of the piñata, the structure of a sharing out among equals, embodied in cars taken out of tourist or business use which will be marketed to a very select group of people. The existence of such a mechanism will undoubtedly feed corruption, “socialism,” and put into the hands of government sympathizers the fattest strings for when it becomes necessary to pull on them in unison. I have no doubt that to this party, which they have already begun to prepare, we Cubans will not be invited.

Models for Caravaggio

"Narcissus" by Caravaggio - Image from

Narcissus stares fixedly into the water which reflects his own image, but at moments he also perceives in it the flashes of a city with crumbling columns and shattered stained glass. Since September 23rd the oil painting of a young man leaning over a lake, attributed to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, has been on display in the Universal Hall of the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The king of chiaroscuro, whose brush delighted in shadows, has come to this city that abounds in sun and shade. Transported and protected by the aviation company Blue Panorama, this painting and twelve other works make up an exhibition curated by Rosselle Vodret and Giorgio Leone. A fragment of the Italian Baroque here with us, a piece of that epoch when a quarrelsome and eminent artist forever changed the concept of light in painting.

After the listlessness of August, this art exhibit brings back to us the sensation of being a part of the world. The university students look at Narcissus with greedy eyes, the museum curators feel they have a unique opportunity in their lives, and the nocturnal prowlers of Old Havana wonder why all the fuss over a “painted cloth.” If the unquiet Milanese — dead at just 39 years of age — could shake off the dust of the centuries and walk our streets he would find here his old models, the same prototypes that served him to paint virgins and saints: prostitutes, beggars, the excluded… and also the young, seized by their own beauty. Caravaggio would find in this city many self-absorbed and distracted Cubans, trying not to let their eyes stray beyond the narrow circle around them. Hundreds of thousands of Narcissuses, refugees in what only feels safe now: their youth, their bodies, their beauty.

Green Collar Crimes

He was working for a new kind of corporation, one of those occupying a luxurious mansion in the Miramar neighborhood and importing goods from abroad. To find such a job it was enough to appeal to the influence of his father, a lieutenant colonel, the pull of the family tree. He belongs to a new generation of ideology-free entrepreneurs, but to keep his job he shouts a slogan every now and then, faking loyalty to some leader. This crafty “New Man” seeks out the cheapest, lowest quality goods on the international market and passes them off as the choices of his bosses who assigned him to be a buyer. From the difference, thousands and thousands of dollars go into his pocket every year. Like him, a whole litter of money-grubbing cubs defraud Cuban enterprises, arming themselves financially for the changes to come.

The latest episode of moral corruption in the business sector is related to the highly publicized fiber optic cable connecting us to Venezuela. Announced since 2008, it only reached our shores in February of this year, under the anxious eyes of 11 million citizens who dream of connecting, en masse, to the Internet. After several postponements, July was set as the date for it to start working. Between rumors on the street, dispatches from foreign agencies, and the testimony of workers for the only telephone company allowed in the country, we have learned that the cable is a disaster. A bad choice in the material from which it is made, the lack of the correct covering to prevent it from being chewed by the sharks that abound in Caribbean waters, and even the theft of funds meant for its activation, seem to have disabled its implementation until further notice.

But beyond the almost comical details of the non-working cable, our attention is called to the high level in the political hierarchy of those involved in this new corruption scandal. They are not second-tier officials, but strait-laced Party servants previously entrusted with lofty responsibilities. How did these faithful employees of ministries, joint-venture firms, and foreign companies become “green-collar” criminals? Red-card-carrying thieves? Perhaps it was their opportunistic-fueled noses that made them believe the future was ever closer and if they met the changes with an economic foundation they could become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. For each one that has been discovered, there are dozens who continue “fishing” in the shadows, shouting slogans, swearing allegiance to a leader, and who, when they are alone, calculate the number of digits already in their personal fortunes, the size of the pile they have been able to extract from a State that trusted them.

An expanded version of this text was published in the Peruvian newspaper, El Comercio.

The Lesser Basilica

A friend tells me that when she feels overwhelmed by daily life she goes to Old Havana. She grabs her purse and heads off to some of the restored streets that recall Barcelona, where she has two sons who emigrated a decade ago. “I gaze at the bell towers and mansions to make myself believe I am no longer here,” she says, a little melancholic. But immediately she points out with a laugh, “Haven’t you noticed that even the street vendors in that area say ‘popcorn’ instead of ‘rositas de maíz’ and hawk ‘news’ instead of ‘periódicos’?” Many Havanans like her have found, in these newly reconstructed sites, a place for strolling, taking their children, sitting in the shade of a bougainvillea. What was, a few decades ago, a neighborhood in ruins, today is a true island of comfort and beauty, although thousands of its residents still carry water in buckets or live among the timbers propping up their roofs.

The day before yesterday, I went to this other city, cute and touristy with churches everywhere and cobblestone streets. I stayed for a couple of hours in one of its most distinguished sites: the San Francisco convent’s lesser basilica. A vaulted room where musical instruments sound as if they were playing inside our own heads. The place was full and at six on the dot Bach’s concert in E Major for violin and orchestra began to play. Then, the talented musicians of the Havana Chamber Orchestra played Mozart, and, to end, the Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten. The best part of the evening was the presence of Cuban violinist Evelio Tieles, who had just arrived, full of energy, from Tarragona, Spain where he lives and creates.

When I returned from this journey to another dimension, my Yugoslav-model building seemed uglier and grayer. The shouts of people from the balconies sounded out of tune and instead of eighteenth century towers the view was dominated by the huge cast concrete water tank. I entered the elevator trying to preserve the last notes of the bass and cello, the brilliant baton of the orchestra conductor. I thought of my escapist friend and just then the door opened onto the 13th floor and an illegal vendor shouting “Eggs! Eeeeeeeeeggs!” and I knew I was back, back in my other Havana, so hard, so real, so suffocating.

My Monday Night Vigil

I won’t go to sleep, better I stay awake, listen for the phone to ring, waiting for the other end to tell me it’s Spanish National Radio and I’ll be in the air in a few minutes. I lean over the balcony to wake myself up and at this hour I see a city of lights, shadows and silence. A dumpster diver searches through the bin on the corner and the cats fight with him over some can, the remnants of a meal. The flame of the Nico Lopez refinery shines over us and a police car makes its rounds. Not even Rancho Boyeros is awake yet and the few lights of the Plaza of the Revolution make the tower look like a strange and lacy silhouette. It’s almost 4:30 in the morning, soon the distance between Madrid, Ciudad Juarez and Havana will seem very short.

Every Monday I share stories, apprehensions and dreams with Judith Torrea and Juan Ramón Lucas on the radio program “On Days Like Today.” We talk as if we are in a living room, without sipping coffee but with great familiarity. We try to address a topic from the different points of view sparked by living in Mexico, the Caribbean or in Spain. Judith has a sweet voice, but her anecdotes tell of murdered journalists, people killed by gunfire in the streets, missing women. This Spanish journalist, based for several years in Juaritos, has a blog where she denounces the uncontrolled violence in this area bordering on the United States, risking every day being silenced in the worst way.

Juanra, for his part, throws out questions and weaves together a dialog from the contrasts. He is a patient host, knows what he’s talking about and says it well. And I, from here, from my real and figurative early morning hours, try to relate what happened in the last week on this Island. Some events sound surrealistic, as if I am narrating something from a remote past, from a time none of them can now understand. At times we laugh, venturing some optimistic prognostication before saying goodbye. When our chat ends it is already 10:40 in the morning in Spain, but Judith and I are still in darkness. I hang up the phone, turn to distinguish, again, the little red flame of the refinery, and look at the trash bin on the corner to see if, finally, the dumpster diver shared his snack with the cats.

The Apocalyptics and The Informed

An onlooker passed by the corner of Infanta and Manglar on Friday, September 9, and stayed awhile looking at the police deployment in front of the Pentecostal Gospel Temple, the closed street, the muttering neighbors. After a few minutes he took out his cellphone and sent a message with the news to his entire address book. Within several pockets, on the tables of certain houses, in women’s purses, the tone announcing the arrival of a text message began to sound. The “gossip” network had exploded. Filled with rumors, the cellphone network is, in Cuba today, a speedy way of spreading news of events that the official press silences. Twenty-four hours after cordoning off the block around the church where Pastor Braulio Herrera and some of his faithful have retreated, Havana whispered the particulars, gave in to gossip, reveled in the details.

Beyond the ethical and theological issues raised by this voluntary “sit-in” of some of the faithful along with their pastor, it is impressive to find how efficiently alternative mechanisms have helped to shine a light on the event. It is possible to trace the track of the information, the steps it follows to open a path: an ordinary citizen, an “upstart” without journalistic credentials, comes across a place where something is happening. He takes this gadget with keys and screen in hand and tells his acquaintances. Perhaps, among his friends, there is a nervous Twitterer with nimble fingers who uploads the story to the Internet in 140-character blocks. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, readers speculate and wonder about the particulars, while the scene begins to fill with more and more people. Someone else appears with a camera; the photo of the police blocking traffic travels via MMS* — text message — to the web, and minute by minute the hashtag #infantaymaglar sparks more interest.

By the time the foreign press agencies are aware that something is happening, the independent journalists and bloggers have already told the story in various ways. Between one thing and another, certain “locals,” with all the hallmarks of plainclothes police, throw out apocalyptic rumors to sway public opinion against the pastor. They say they think the church will fly to pieces, that they are demanding a plane to leave the country, or that they’re waiting — there inside — for the end of the world which will come with a tsunami. Up to this point the national media remains silent, but it can’t handle the pressure of a city where everyone is talking about the same thing. The itinerary is completed when a scowling announcer reads an official notice on the night’s prime time news to an audience that spends days wondering if this time, as well, they are hiding the reality. It has been over 72 hours since that individual lacking a journalism degree but not lacking daring, typed the news into a little cellphone he took from his pocket.

MMS: An acronym for Multimedia Messaging System. It refers to messages with photos, audio, video or other multimedia material that can be sent via cellphone. In Cuba, despite the fact that the service works very poorly, it has become a way to publish small-format files (max 260kb) on the Internet. We bloggers and Twitterers use it to make up for the absence of a connection to cyberspace as it lets us send files to another phone or email. Details of activating and using Text Messaging on Cubacel cellphone can be read here.

Humor in Times of Fear

From time to time they invite you to be on some comedy show on TV, but you don’t earn a living from this. You prefer to be hired by one of the exclusive restaurants that have begun to spring up all over Havana. Being paid in convertible pesos, a plate a food, and the freedom to make fun of anything you want are guaranteed in these entrepreneurial private spaces. With the microphone in hand and before a select audience of wealthy people, you make those jokes prohibited in front of the national cameras, wisecracks you would never be allowed in a national TV studio. You blast away sarcastically at the internal emigration regulations, and comment, snidely, that you’ve made “three illegal attempts to enter the Capital.”

As the night advances, the drinks come and go and your tongue becomes sharper, more biting. You start in on the political jokes, veiled but at times direct, when your hand makes the sign of a beard under your chin. Later, you launch into a long monologue about the poverty of your village in the east, clarifying that your mom wants to move to the city “to be able to get more eggs on the ration.” You seem different from the guy on national television, who just laughs about his own physique. Between the tables, and with the consent of the owners of the place, you also joke about the chief of police in some little sugar workers’ town who plays the local tyrant. Then comes the extensive — and coarse — collection of jokes about sex, race, and homophobia, without mincing any words and with the same crudeness one hears on the street.

The customers leave the place asking themselves if it was really the same comedian they’d seen on prime time TV. That one is funny, but the one they’ve just discovered here, under the protection of the private restaurant, is irresistibly comic, visibly free. When they see you again on some CubaVision or RebelTV program, they will notice that of your wide repertoire you only include the least uncomfortable part, a carefully chosen and censored parcel of your humor.