You, Princess, No. Not You.

You come out of this filth of the starving …
Joan Manuel Serrat, from his song “Princess”

She was raised to succeed. As a little girl, her mother took the fried egg of her own plate, if need be, to give it to her, because she was a promise which the whole family was hanging from. They didn’t even let her scrub, so that her hands would not crack and harden from the scouring pad and the soot. When she combed her hair into ringlets her elder sister predicted she would one day marry a Frenchman or a Spaniard or a Belgian, someone from the “nobility” of monarchy or business. “Everyone will love you!” cried her grandmother, whose fingers were twisted with arthritis from half a century of washing and ironing for the whole street. They wouldn’t even let her have a boyfriend in the neighborhood, because she had to be preserved for the future that awaited her, for the potentate who would come and take her from that crowded tenement in Zanja Street, from that crowded country in the Caribbean.

One day, when she was barely out of adolescence, she found him. He was much older and didn’t belong to any wealthy family, but he had an Italian passport. Nor did she like him physically, but simply imagining him in Milan made his bulging beer belly look not so big. The aroma of the new clothes he brought every time he came to Havana also covered the smell of nicotine and alcohol that always came from his mouth. At home, her family was delighted. “The child is leaving us to live in Europe,” they told the neighbors, and her own mother cut her off when she tried to explain that her fiancé that occasionally became violent and beat her. And so they pushed her to complete the legal paperwork and make the marriage official. In the wedding photos she looked like a sad princess, but a princess.

When the plane landed in the Italian winter, he no longer seemed like the kind man who, 24 hours earlier, had promised her mother that he would take care of her. He took her to a club that same night where she had to work serving clients liquor, and even her own body. For months she wrote her grandmother about the perfumes and food she had tried in her new life. She recreated, in her letters and phone calls, a reality very different from what she was living. Not a word of extortion, nor of the husband who had evaporated leaving her in the hands of a “boss” whom she had to obey. In the Havana tenement they had all spoiled her and made her happy and she didn’t want to disappoint them. When the Italian police dismantled the prostitution ring in which she was trapped, she sent a brief text message to her relatives on the other side of the Atlantic, so they wouldn’t worry, “I won’t be able to call you for several weeks. I’m going on vacation to Venice to celebrate my wedding anniversary. I love you all, your Princess.”

From Hosts to Jailers

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I was eight months pregnant when I met two Basque radicals living in Cuba, Rosa and Carlos, or at least that’s what they called themselves then. They invited us to their Miramar mansion for a party with troubadours and chorizos. They had some sources for Serrano ham and dried fruit, foods we only knew of from the movies. But not even the aromas and flavors could dispel our rising doubts as we observed them. How did these people manage to live in a such a place, with a car with private plates and such a well-stocked pantry? What had they done to access privileges unthinkable for nationals?

My son was born a month later, the Serrano ham didn’t reappear in my life for many years and a decade later I ran into Carlos in the street. I called him by name but he didn’t answer. He jumped as fast as he could into a car and lost himself in the bustle of Avenue Reina. Of Rosa, I knew that she had moved and was now introducing herself as Daniela. Her new facade was distributing tour packages. But, as happens in Havana, stories were rife, gossip circulated, secrets made the rounds, and I learned that they were wanted by Spanish justice and the mansion to which they’d been assigned functioned as an official guest house. The two of them could not return–under their real identities–to Spain.

Nonetheless, their pampered refuge came to an end. Today their hosts have become their jailers. The same government that one day sheltered and provided them resources has refused, for months now, to falsify new passports so they can go to France or some other place. I don’t know under what new names Rosa and Carlos are known, where they are living, or how many of their previous privileges they have now lost. I imagine they have ended up confined to this Island, distrustful of those around them, cursing their fellow travelers who gave them shelter, those “generous” protectors of earlier days, who ended up imprisoning them here.


Image taken from the website of the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva

We are experiencing another turn of the screw of intolerance. Just when individual daring is gaining ground here and there, the times of admonishment come along. The first signs appeared with the TV serial called “Cuba’s Reasons,” whose script seems to have been written in Stalin’s Russia rather than on this 21st Century Caribbean island. Then came the “rapid repudiation rallies,” increased police operations, monitoring cellphones in real time, detentions and searches. All this while the official press continues to say that “the improvement of the economic model” is well underway and that the Cuban Communist Party’s Sixth Congress “has been a resounding success.” We, meanwhile, face the shock of the correctives; no boldness is left without its everlasting punishment.

Among the lashes applied by Daddy State this time, is the closure of the cultural center run by the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva, located in the city of Pinar del Rio. Urgently called before the local authorities, this artist, winner of the National Arts Award, fell under a barrage of criticisms and reprimands. He was questioned about having declared in an interview that he was in favor of a multiparty system, and about having sent a most cordial letter to this writer to publish in her blog. He was also accused of opening the doors of his house to counterrevolutionaries, and even hobnobbing with diplomats from other countries. He was stripped of his position in the Provincial Assembly of People’s Power and a few hours later a farewell poster appeared in the door of his workshop.

The artists from the Writers and Artists Union of Cuba (UNEAC) have chosen, so far, to remain silent and look the other way. Like the little figures with empty eye sockets and forebodings that take Oliva months to paint on his canvases. I maintain that now is the time to support him, to say, “Relax, your brush will be more free without these ideological ties, without these partisan formalities.” It is also a good occasion for those of us sanctioned by insult, censorship and surveillance to do something. If we haven’t converged in our opinions and proposals for the future, at least we can articulate the pain, drawing closer because the blow received by one is felt by all.

Citizens’ Reasons 5

Razones Ciudadanas 5 from Yoani Sanchez on Vimeo.

Chapter 5 of the program Citizens’ Reasons, this time dedicated to the alternative Cuban blogosphere. The debate centers around the evolution, characteristics and future projections for this citizens’ phenomenon. Among the guests in the studio are Claudia Cadelo, Yoani Sánchez, Orlando Luís Pardo, Luis Felipe Rojas and as moderator. There are also brief appearances from more than 15 alternative bloggers.

Out One, In the Other

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

This year we have not been able to bathe, even in the first downpour of May. In Havana, the drought has robbed us of this rain that popular tradition associates with good luck. The mangoes hanging from the branches seem to await the coming of a shower to ready themselves for our mouths. The striations in the dirt, the barely flowering buds of the flame trees, and this sticky dust that fills the air will only leave when it begins to pour. Where is the drizzle on the windowpane, the smell of the humidity, the droplets left on the leaves after a storm!

But the worst thing is the loneliness of the pipes, the strained trickle that comes from the taps, area residents carrying water in buckets because the aqueduct has almost no reserves left to pump. Faces covered in sweat, stinking shirts, nearly empty clotheslines because the precious liquid is not enough. Don’t spend too long in the bathroom! Reinaldo shouts, so that the tank on our balcony won’t run dry. Meanwhile, the building’s cistern becomes a sad puddle, and the hosepipes hover above its minimal limits.

And on top of such dryness, is the belief that this year’s agricultural output may be worst than last year’s, if the rain holds off once and for all. We’ll see the headlines in the press saying banana production is down, rice hasn’t withstood the drought, and fruit trees have been hit the hardest. And this feeling that there is always something missing for a full plate and that our salaries don’t stretch far enough. Whether from poor management, the lack of material incentives for the farmers, or the stubborn rain that, today, obstinately denies us its favors.

A Manual or a Sonnet?

If you have something to say you are already a blogger. Yoani, with her knowledge and experience, guides you in creating your own blog on the web.

Long ago I read that the acid test of a poet was to write a sonnet. The straitjacket of meter and cadence of its composition drew out the worst and best of whomever had already tried their hand in battle with assonant rhymes. I confess that with my irreverent seventeen years it seemed that those hendecasyllables, grouped in two quartets and two triplets, were only for those who had not been able to prove themselves in the freedom of modern poetry. Displays of novelty that I flaunted until I read Francisco de Quevodo, and the theory of rejecting the combination of “cuidado” and “enamorado” blew me away.

Well, I have to tell you that, like a sonnet, there is nothing harder to write than a technical manual. I know, you’ll laugh, and say that anyone can manage to produce a leaflet for a medication or explain how to use a washing machine. Try it and see if you can, experiment and you’ll see how difficult it is to create an instruction booklet that isn’t full of the same boring and graceless prose of so many others. You’ll realize, then, how hard it is to avoid sounding dully didactic or petulantly professorial, to avoid boring your readers to death.

I am telling you this because I just finished a manual about WordPress with the title, “A Blog to Speak to the World.” When reviewing the more than four hundred pages I composed, I wondered how I found–in this unstable Cuba–the time, the peace and the skill to finish this book. Some friends tell me I’ve been sidetracked into a minor genre… and that makes me laugh. I fact–I reveal to them–I have just composed my own delicate sonnet, with twenty chapters that are like fourteen lines and some technical advice instead of declarations of love. My book, in one of life’s coincidences, will be presented in Madrid this coming May 21, the birthday of the poet with the round pince-nez and the aquiline nose. The same insolent who wrote, “my flame can swim frigid water and will flaunt so cruel a law,” as if instead of eternal romance he was relating the act of managing a blog from a country drowning in censorship.

The Story That Wasn’t

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Today I was going to publish a text about Mother’s Day, a brief vignette where I would tell of my mother, her hands smelling of onions, garlic and cumin… from all the time she spends in the kitchen. I had the idea of telling you of the pleasure it gave me to see her come to the door of my high school in the countryside, bringing the food that had cost her an entire week–and great effort–to get. But just as I put the finishing touched on my little material chronicle, Juan Wilfredo Soto died in Santa Clara and it all became senseless.

The police batons are thirsty for backs in these parts. The growing violence of those in uniform is something that is whispered about and many describe it detail without daring to publicly denounce it. Those of us who have ever been in dungeon know well that the sweetened propaganda of “Police, police, you are my friend,” repeated on TV, is one thing, and the impunity enjoyed by these individuals with a badge is another thing entirely. If, on top of that, those arrested have ideas that differ from the prevailing ideology, then their treatment will be even harsher. Fists want to convince them where meager arguments can’t succeed.

I don’t know how the authorities of my country are going to explain it, but I doubt, this time, they will manage to persuade us it wasn’t the fault of the police. There is no way to understand how an unarmed man sitting in a downtown park could represent a major threat. What happens is that when intolerance is given free rein it feeds public disrespect and gives a green light to the police, and these tragedies occur. As of today, a mother in Santa Clara is not sitting at the table prepared by her children, but in a dark room at a funeral home, keeping vigil over the body of her son.