Laughter and the Congress

Celia Cruz. Caricatura de Aristides

Laughter is still an effective cure for the daily trials. Thus, on this Island, we bend our lips into a smile more for self-therapy than for happiness. Then the tourists take our pictures and go home saying we are a happy people, that we haven’t lost our sense of humor before all the difficulties. Ahh! The tourists and their explanations! We tour the world with the instant of that laugh on our faces — a laugh that preceded a gesture of disgust — or with the image of satisfaction that overwhelms us on resolving, after a year’s effort, a pair of graduated lenses for a child.

Splitting our sides laughing can also be preventative medicine to avoid disappointments to come. Perhaps for this reason, every time I ask someone about the possible reforms likely to grow out of the Sixth Communist Party Congress, they answer me with a giggle, an ironic “teeheehee.” Next they shrug their shoulders and come out with a phrase such as, “Well, no one should have any illusions… and maybe they’ll authorize the purchase of houses and cars.” They end their words with another enigmatic grimace of pleasure, confusing me still more. It’s difficult to know if the majority of my compatriots today would prefer that transformations be approved at the Party Congress, or for it to be a fiasco to demonstrate the system’s inability to reform itself.

Although expectations have faded considerably in recent months, some part remains, especially among the most materially destitute and the most ideologically fervent. The image of a pragmatic Raul Castro has been replaced by that of a hesitant ruler, trapped by a situation beyond his control. The Congress some assumed would lead to reforms, has come too late and forfeited, with this waiting, many of the hopes it once unleashed. Behind the enigmatic smiles of the taxi drivers, pizza sellers, students, and even Party militants, is now concealed the insolence of those who know how little things change, and who use silent mockery to vaccinate themselves — in advance — against the frustration.

And Where Does That Leave Me?

The first slap of her life came as punishment for mouthing an obscenity in front of her grandmother; the same phrase she shouted a thousand times in the street and at school but that, until that time, had not dared to articulate at home. The slap came suddenly, across her face, leaving a painful mark and a huge embarrassment. She was really annoyed with the old woman, because in the tenement where they lived bad words were an element of survival, the linguistic mark shared by everyone who lived there.

That blow was a painful but effective cure, because as she grew up she banished from her mouth almost all the thorny “flowers” of vulgarity. Even today, she blushes — with great frequency — when, in the middle of a conversation and for no reason at all, someone lets loose with a lexicon of vulgarity. She’s afraid that at any moment her Galician grandmother will interrupt the recital to slap the offender across the cheeks, berating him in front of his friends because “Your mouth is dirtier than a toilet!”

Last Saturday a military squad rehearsed for the upcoming parade shouting — on a central avenue — a slogan using the language of the barracks, sexist and dull. It was barely nine o’clock in the morning and the neighborhood kids weren’t in school, but at home and in the parks. The soldiers, marching by with their martial rhythm and red flag, energetically shouted:

The Yankees wear the skirts!
We wear the pants!
And we have a commander,
With the biggest b…s of all!

Her son looked at her scornfully, throwing back at her that she’d scolded him for swearing, when the same words were acceptable to the Revolutionary Armed Forces themselves. She couldn’t stop thinking about the bony hands of her grandmother, and how the tenement of her childhood had finally spread itself across the entire nation.

Four Years, Nine Months and One Life

Just when you’ve forgotten how to teach a baby to walk, you give birth to a blog. A website to help articulate its first words, to warn of dangers ahead, and to show a world that you don’t quite understand yourself. You thought you wouldn’t have another child, because of the housing shortage, scarcities and the civic — and silent — protest of your empty uterus, but it occurred to you to play with the alchemy of kilobytes. The delivery was painful and prolonged, lasting not several hours but four years. With the baby came unstoppable hemorrhaging that absorbs your time and energy; supposed doctors also emerged who question you: Why did you want to get into all this? After an eventful pregnancy, the creature was born by Caesarean, they sewed painful surgical stitches around your life and although you can still wear bikinis, they no longer allow you to enter movie theaters, participate in any conferences, travel outside the country, or leave the city without the constant persecution of those shadows who also arrived with the birth.

You’re the mother of a peculiar and novel entity, in a society where differences are frowned upon. You want to explain to your family and friends that you would have burst if you hadn’t let this autonomous being — that today is your virtual blog — out of you. But many don’t believe you. To attribute to your womb the real authorship of this fruit would be to confess that they themselves have aborted a thousand and one times for fear of being publicly challenged. You just have to tuck in the baby, watch it grow, get used to its face crisscrossed with smiles and scars, listen to your instincts and know that this sprout you have given birth to is what you always wanted.

One day you watch it go out into the world with anxiety about whether it will survive the cynicism out there, the insults and mockery. But, instead of returning distressed, it arrives accompanied by its peers, dozens of stigmatized and demonized blogs, tucked in by those like you who couldn’t stop pushing. So now the child-blog slices its birthday cake and winks at you: you have given it breath, and let it soar through cyberspace, flying to the Internet. But not even being its parent gives you control over its life. It already belongs to the Cuban alternative blogosphere and has no reason to carry on its back those painful contractions you felt on April 9, 2007.

The Missed Parade

The echos of the shouts reach my balcony, in a rhythm marked initially by feet accompanied by throats. It’s less than two weeks to the huge parade planned for for the Plaza of the Revolution and residents for miles around are worn out by all the preparations. Closed streets, police blocking traffic and squads making the avenues and sidewalks shudder, where there should be cars, people and baby strollers.

I climb to the roof to see the choreography of war in its entirety. Things will go badly if the Cuban Communist Party Congress starts with a procession of bayonets. If they really wanted to project an image of reforms, it would not be these olive-green uniforms on exhibit on Saturday, April 16. How much do we wish this day would be a peregrination of results, not of fear! That they would show a long line of what we could accomplish, not the overwhelming demonstration of a military might we don’t even have! Can you imagine? A parade along the Paseo and its environs where the dreams we dreamed of are sheltered, not the cold metal and threatening triggers of AK rifles?

This could be a procession of the things we miss, a festival of joy in which no one would be forced to participate. No principals recruiting schoolchildren to pass under the sun waving at the platform and the workers knowing that their absence would not result in a black mark in their personnel file. A true popular parade, not the wasting on one day of an entire month’s worth of the Nation’s resources. Better to let it sprout spontaneously, smiling people taking to the streets, rather than this sense of anguish that today’s syncopated cries provoke in us.

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.