Eliseo Alberto Diego, to his friends simply “Lichi,” talks as if he were writing, narrating the most ordinary stories as if they were literature. I remember some afternoons in his house in Vedado when he would tell us these anecdotes and we couldn’t say, precisely, if they were total inventions or might have some smidgen of reality. Because this big kid full of laughter delights in narrating and narrating. His acquaintances have thus become his receptive “ears” where he has tried out the fiction that later appears in the pages of his books. We set ourselves up, to our infinite pleasure, as the beings on whom he tests and practices–over and over–his work.

Thus, when Lichi the great storyteller told us he needed a kidney transplant, our first thought was that he was trying out another of his poetic tricks. He was, by then, already half Cuban and half Mexican, half poet and half novelist, and now, we suspected, he wanted to boast of being composed of organic material from several people. It seemed, viewed with suspicion, simply his latest invention. But no, he wasn’t talking about a character in the style of those described in “Esther en alguna parte” (Esther Somewhere), or “La eternidad en fin comienza un lunes” (Eternity Finally Begins on Monday), but about himself. His body was writing, for him, the most dramatic of his stories.

I remember that my husband, Reinaldo, offered him one of his kidneys, but Lichi didn’t want to believe him, or wouldn’t allow his friend to face so many battles without one of those organs. Last night we got the news that his body now houses a fragment of a Mexican teenager who died in an accident. The solidarity of a family, the wait–at times not so patient–of the son of the great Eliseo, and the desires of his friends, have combined to begin to give a happy ending to this adventure. Now, when he returns to embellish his stories, we will, inevitably, have to believe him a little more. Because Lichi, the skilled storyteller of our Havana afternoons, has been very close to an experience that only he can tell us.

My Reasons for the Bridge

With regards to the new amendment presented in the U.S. Congress to restrict travel and remittances to Cuba.

We lived in a dark time in 1992 and this daughter of a train engineer with no train had decided to drop out of high school. I got up early and told my mother. Hands on my head, screaming through the house, the dog barking in shock. “I’m not going any more Mom, I’m not going,” I concluded categorically and went back to bed. My only shoes, inherited from a friend when they already had huge holes in the soles, had fallen apart. I had learned to walk with them touching the floor in a way so that the rips didn’t show, but I could do little to hide them when we had Military Training class. There I had to lie face down, crawling along the terrain, imagining that I was under enemy fire. Then the shells were falling all around me, not those of imperialism but rather of jokes, the cruel chants of those who had better shoes.

For several days my parents gave me all sorts of arguments. How can you throw away your high grades, the sacrifice of studying, all for this “little detail”! they repeated… but at 16 I was ready to forgo a diploma rather than suffer the ridicule. The decision was made. My mother ran to the house of a neighbor. She spent the night dialing the number of some of my father’s aunts who lived on the other shore, demonized in the official press. Some weeks later the package arrived. Along with soup cubes and some ointment to treat the pains of rheumatism, was a pair of brand new white sneakers. I returned to my 11th grade classroom the next day.

It’s true that financial help coming from outside has led many Cubans to construct an apathetic and apolitical bubble, but it has also enabled them to survive and grow. Without that help, once sent to me from Florida, my life would have been totally different. I would not have finished high school, probably I would have sailed — on a wooden door — during the rafter crisis, or I would have sunk into conformity with no horizons. But I managed, with this support, to go on. To end up at the university still wearing those shoes of salvation.

Right now, thousands of teenagers, the self-employed, seniors, students and babies depend on the uninterrupted growth in the flow between the families in exile and those on the island. In many Cuban homes the personal ability of thousands of individuals to overcome depends on maintaining this bridge, and their future as citizens rests in the arms of solidarity extended from outside.

Citizens’ Reasons 7

Razones Ciudadanas Capítulo 7 from Yoani Sanchez on Vimeo.

Sell and Leave

Imagen tomada de: Ben, a Cuban in Europe.

News has several lives on this Island. First they hint at something but don’t publish it, then they announce it tersely in some national media, and later its echo repeatedly feeds popular fantasy. This has happened with the recent information about the new flexibility in buying and selling homes. For months–perhaps years–we spun the rumor that a new housing law was about to be approved, that the absurdities of real estate would no longer stand. But only when the Cuban Communist Party Congress addressed it in Guideline No. 297, could we put some hesitant certainty to it. Although late, the measure has sparked an exclamation of relief, but has also revealed our suspicions.

Curiously, most people who bring up the issue, repeatedly put the same question to me. “Can you sell your house before leaving the country?” everyone asks, as if the real estate business was just a step to fulfilling the widespread dream of emigration. Until now, someone who permanently left the country was dispossessed of their property. Only a family member living under the same roof–and for ten years–was able to stay put, but they had to pay the National Institute for Urban Reform the value of the house. Forced evictions of those who didn’t follow this rule became a common sight on the streets of this capital. Now, the great conundrum is whether a property owner will have the power to dispose of their home on the market and use that money to relocate to another latitude. How much time should elapse between this commercial transaction and the departure from the national territory?

We have been conned so much that people prefer to wrap themselves in skepticism and believe that the new selling measures will also be full of restrictions. I am surprisingly optimistic amid so much suspicion. I argue to the doubters, “The government is forced to open up, or the reality will leave them behind,” but they prefer to carry on without illusion. Notwithstanding their distrust, many cherish the idea of offering the walls within which they live in exchange for a ticket and visa to get out of Cuba. Sell and leave, trading a roof here for one there, using their small patrimony to escape. And do this before the real estate flag drops again, before the step back is taken.

Under the Sign of Cancer

For several days, millions of people tried to decipher what happened in the hospital room where Hugo Chavez is resting. Because beyond the resilience of an individual, in that room is defined a part of the road map of this Island and an entire regional project involving several nations. This issue transcends the gravity of a tumor, the lamentable and sad illness of any individual, and becomes a true political upheaval. The surgery performed not only delved into the flesh of the tenant of the Miraflores Palace, but also created a wound through which can be seen the weakness of his work. Right now, in Venezuela, the political chess game is underway, even to the point of analyzing options for succession. In Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution the deliberations are also intense.

For the Cuban government, the healthy existence of Hugo Chavez has emerged as a guarantee for economic reforms at a rhythm and velocity that won’t lead to a loss of control. The 100 thousand barrels of oil that arrive daily from that South American nation sustain the process of “perfecting” the system driven by Raul Castro, and allow him to buy time in the face of citizen discontent and international pressure. Thus, to care for Chavez is to preserve the presidential seat, to lose him could hasten Raul’s own downfall. In recent weeks the island hierarchy has felt, once again, the vertigo of the abyss into which we sunk following the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and it intuits that it could not survive the loss of another powerful ally. The vitality of the caudillo is also a guarantee of its own future, his weakness threatens a rapid loss of support.

We are also present at an authentic lesson of the inconstancy of the politics of the individual, hopefully one that will spark a rethinking among those committed to the vertical structure of Chavez’s rule. Without the incendiary speaker of international forums, without the leader who launches almost weekly verbal attacks, the region suddenly seems more contemplative, more centered. It is as if, in a plural chorus, the voice of the overpowering baritone, drowning out all other tones, had suddenly left the stage. We must not discount, however, that the speeches under the hot sun will return, the long perorations to demonstrate he is fully recovered, the hours in front of the camera on his Hello Mr. President show to prove that he is healthy. Hugo Chavez wants to get back into the role of an invincible figure, but inevitably something has happened to him. Something not foreseen by the opposition, or by the Cuban advisors surrounding him, or by the apologists who spread his ideas. Something related to the easily broken composition of a human being, a small detail of his anatomy that refuses to continue going along with his so pompous campaigns.

Proud Promenade

327186370Today, the Paseo del Prado runs between the historic town full of tourists and that other part of the overpopulated and dysfunctional city that is Central Havana. The lion sculptures on each corner show the nobility of old, the former dream of grandeur that caressed the nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although the park lived through times of outright neglect–perhaps for having been conceived and built during the Republic–some years ago the Prado underwent a process of restoration that improved the tree cover and repaired some lampposts. But not even in the most neglected times did its bronze felines cease to be an obligatory reference for those who came from the provinces and wanted to bring back a photo of their stay in the capital. Perhaps it is precisely this history of splendor and neglect that has made the Paseo del Prado the chosen site to celebrate Gay Pride Day in Cuba. A community degraded, for decades trapped between a machismo culture and the repressive politics of the State, wants to take to the streets on June 28 at three in the afternoon. The call has been launched by an alternative group that protects the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

It’s worth noting that in recent years Cuba has advanced with respect to differences in sexual orientation, but from there to permitting the Cuban LGBT community to spontaneously join together and take to the streets to celebrate its diversity is a long stretch. Until now, the campaigns to accept plurality in the choice of whom to love have been kept within the hands of official institutions, without letting those whose interests are represented represent themselves. This, of course, characterizes the broad inability of free association suffered by our society at all levels.

In a gesture of celebration and joy, the promoters of the Gay Pride Day celebration have spread the invitation for weeks. Having chosen the Paseo del Prado as a site for the event benefits and protects them, because the tourists with their restless cameras, curious children frolicking on all sides, the unsuspecting lovebirds embracing on the benches, will be witnesses to this parade of diversity. And the lions, ah, the lions! They will have their moment of glory once again, among brightly colored flags, streamers, and handshakes. The claws and manes cast in the bronze of a past war will seem less aggressive, with a lower dose of testosterone, and with a bit more of the sparkle of life.

Combinado del Este Prison

Nine in the morning outside Combinado del Este, the largest prison in Cuba. Dozens of families are gathered to listen to an stern guard shouting out the names of the prisoners. Immediately, they order us down a narrow stretch to the sentry box where they search our bags and run a metal detector over our bodies. They also inspect the sacks of food the families have been filling for weeks with crackers, sugar, powdered soft drinks, cigarettes and powdered milk. They are the result of the unselfish efforts of the families who deprive themselves of these foods to bring them to the prisoners.

One woman cries because the guard won’t let her bring in the ripe mangoes she brought for her son. People hang along the fence around the entrance without any protection, all those not allowed to enter. There is a bag with a mobile phone, a young woman’s wallet, some deodorant that the official says could be made into moonshine within those walls. Me, they search the magazines I carry, give a pull on the zipper of my jacket, and run their fingers through my hair. Ahead of me there is someone trying to bring in a cake for a birthday that surely happened months ago. A young man grips his pants because they won’t allow his belt inside. It would appear we are plunging into hell and–in some ways–it’s true.

The place where we spend the visit smells of sweat, sweat and enclosure. The two Italian prisoners in front of me desperately put words one after the other. They have been arrested for the murder of a minor in Bayamo, but assure me that they hadn’t been on the Island on the days of the crime. They’ve spent more than a year in prison without trial and I try to reconstruct, journalistically, the course of the case. One of them Simone Pini, talks to me about police irregularities and and I agree to investigate. “I can’t do much,” I tell him, “nor do I have access to the investigation record, but I will find out.” I haven’t finished my sentence when a guard shouts my name through the bars of the room. And leads me to the other side of Combinado del Este. To the immaculate, air-conditioned and wood-paneled office where the Chief sits, located in a different part of the same horror. Meanwhile, a lieutenant colonel warns me that they will never ever let me enter this prison again. When I try to leave, I note that the door has a lock with four combinations. “So much fear…” I think to myself. They escort me to the exit and I see a line of family members for the next visit that starts at noon. They carry sacks scrawled with names, and someone groans because they won’t let him bring in a present. I discover in this moment that something sad has established itself in me, like the weight of the bars which, since then, I carry everywhere.