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.

The Queen in Queen Street

Queen Street, our street of balconies and colonnades, of five peso pizzas and sewage running down the sidewalk. Avenue of shady deals and self-employment, with its furtive vendors advertising mattresses outside the stores and a Gothic church pointing to heaven. Along Queen Street children scamper to school in the morning, beggars stretch out their hands with a picture of Saint Lazarus, and prostitutes ply their trade at night. In its doorways there is room for everything, the beautiful and the rotten, the past and this present in halves that never quite come together, the smile and the grimace.

Yesterday, Queen Street’s noisy traffic stopped, the indigents rose from the ground and the food kiosks closed for a while. It was the day of pilgrimage of the Virgin of Charity, whose worship now spreads among Cubans after decades of forced atheism. Agnostics and the curious, devotees and political police, accompanied the entourage of a small image draped in its golden mantle. Many came with candles, sunflowers, dolls dressed as the Orisha deity Oshun, scarves and dresses in the color yellow. Thousands came through conviction and many others joined the procession to nose around. In a country where it’s not allowed to take to the streets as a form of peaceful protest, September 8th in Havana attracts parishioners as well as nonconformists.

Just at the moment when the “Queen” was turning into Queen Street, someone pulled out a poster with the word “Freedom.” It was just a second, but enough to live in anticipation — a biopsy in advance — the horror. People running, the plain clothes cops launching themselves at the hands that grasped that paper, and the contorted face of the priest, fearing the worst. For an instant, the image teetered among the petals placed around her. And then came the calm, the fear, the whispered prayers. One old woman said, almost as a lament, “Don’t politicize the procession, they won’t let Cachita out next year.” Madam — I wanted to say to her, but I kept quiet — if she is, as they say, the Virgin of all Cubans, she will accept us whether rebellious or tranquil, apathetic or protesting, whispering our prayers or shouting our discontent.”

Wooden Suitcase

Mine was painted blue with a handle and reinforced metal hinges to avoid my being robbed. It was a wooden suitcase that accompanied me to several agricultural camps, until I finally abandoned it, broken, in a dorm in Alquízar. I thought I would never again use such an object, especially after the end of the schools in the countryside was announced. It seemed that the low productivity and high risks discouraged the Cuban authorities from continuing to send teenage students to work in agriculture. But the specter of that reinforced heavy suitcase has returned recently, to confirm for me that nothing much changes on this Island.

With the start of the school year my son’s school filled with students dressed in their blue uniforms. Reunion hugs, laughter, morning assemblies with slogans like, “Long live Fidel and Raul!” along with various educational transformations. Among the most promising is the reduction in time devoted to the so-called tele-classes. An educational approach that tries to replace the teacher with a screen, a VCR and a remote control. The failure of the “emerging teachers” — very young and barely trained — has also been recognized after years of complaints and sad incidents.* Pragmatism prevails, according to a declaration from the Ministry of Education, while some warn: “Enough of improvisation.” With so many calls to eliminate the nonfunctional, it was a surprise to hear that students in the 11th grade will leave in just a week for “the school in the countryside.”

My son is happy, I won’t deny it. He imagines two weeks of fun, drinking water from the rivers, running through the rows of small seedlings, and prowling around the dorm for girls. However, from the viewpoint of profitability, these students’ time in a farm camp will be an economic loss for the country. From my own experience, I know; instead of fostering responsibility for work, these work-study experiments end up adding to the prevailing practice of faking it: “Duck, here comes the teacher, make him think we’re weeding.” There is also a certain concern about possible outbreaks of violence among the dorm mates, hence the deputy director of the school himself warned that the students cannot bring objects that pierce or cut, not even can openers. By Friday, they tell us, the parents must deliver the luggage with the belongings their children will take.

And I threw away my old wooden suitcase! I, who thought such absurdities were over!

Translator’s note:
*In one incident a young “emerging teacher” threw a chair at a student, killing him.

Gimme Cable!

Some of the boredom of the year 1983 was broken by the visit of Oscar D’Leon and his performance at the Varadero amphitheater. Amid the tedium, he came to the Island of the Salsa Devil, to interpret with his voice our own son classics. Along with the shout of “siguaraya!”* which he launched in honor of the banned Celia Cruz, the most memorable part of his visit was the request, “Gimme cable,” which he repeated over and over during his concerts. He tugged on the microphone while demanding that the technician “Gimme cable, gimme cable” as he plunged into the dancing crowds, overcome by his music. On his departure he left us that phrase which became a metaphor for demanding freedom. “Gimme cable,” the kids would say when the parents demanded they cut their manes or get rid of the tight paints. “Gimme cable,” demanded the illegal vendor when the police confiscated his merchandise. “Gimme cable,” asked the husband, when the wife went through his pockets, consumed by jealousy.

The expression slept in some corner of my mind and has reemerged with the “appearance on the scene” of the fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba. Promised since 2008, it only made it to our coast this last February, and then lapsed into a silence quite suspicious for an effort that already cost more than seventy million dollars. At first it was announced it would multiply the data transmission speed by 3,000 times, but now, absurdly, they declare that it won’t provide broad Internet access to nationals. After accumulating several corruption scandals, the investigation of two deputy ministers, and official guidance to journalists not to talk about the details, the controversial cable has now become an urban legend. Some assure us that they’ve seen it, touched it, and say it’s already providing service to a few people. Others assert that it’s just a smokescreen to placate the discontent of the disconnected Cuban Internauts.

The truth is that not a single kilobyte flowing through its modern fibers has yet reached our computers. The prices for surfing the web from the hotels continue to be prohibitive and the connections there suffer from a slowness that borders on fraud. Not only that, the assault on the social networks — such as Facebook and Google — has intensified in State workplaces. In a desperate act to make us believe that this phantom umbilical cord between Santiago de Cuba and La Güaira, Venezuela really exists, Deputy Minister Boris Moreno swore a few days ago that it would be working in the coming months. But many of us feel like that Venezuelan singer trying to reach his Cuban public despite the controls of the “sound technician.” Gimme cable! we ask and demand. Gimme cable! we think… as in that old metaphor for freedom.

Translator’s note:
The siguaraya is a Cuban bush — considered an
orisha in the Santeria religion — which figures in the the title of a famous song, Mata Siguaraya, sung by Celia Cruz and others. The expression “this is the country of the siguaraya” means “anything is possible here.” Starting about 3:00 minutes in this video you can see Oscar D’Leon in Varadero trying to get a longer cable, and, at 3:30 you can hear him singing “dame cable” (give me cable) over and over, and watch with the efforts of several sound technicians to meet his demand.

Watertight Compartments

There are days for separation and others for confluence. Times when it seems that the strategy of confronting us is working, but also minutes in which we manage to leap over the narrow limits within which they want to enclose us. Last night was precisely one of those moments of probing, of identification and exchange. In Estado de SATS–”Creating a Space for the Confluence of Art and Thought in Cuba”–we find ourselves among people of very diverse tendencies, such as the members of Omni Zona Franca, the leader of the group Puños arriba (Fists Up), and the organizers of the Rotilla Festival, recently hijacked by official institutions. They spoke at a packed place, in the midst of the worst of the August heat, and with a great need to understand why censorship has been unleashed on them. I think that yesterday some brainy State Security guy must have lost his job. Because among the hugs, questions, swallows of tea, they exposed months and months of intrigues, professionally sowed, to discredit those actors of civil society.

The method is simple and nothing new. They call someone and tell him its not advisable to talk with someone else, to send him a simple text message, to respond to a greeting. To justify this distancing, they clarify that this hip hop musician, that blogger, or some music producer, works for the CIA, or has been trained by the Pentagon. They don’t have to believe it, it’s enough that the intimidation and fear seep in and few will approach those stigmatized. To sustain such rivalry it is essential to keep both parties away from each other, to not let them meet and discover — surprise! — that neither of them has tentacles, swastikas painted on their clothes, or a gun sticking out of their pockets.

So I enjoyed a hug from Luis Eligio, a resounding kiss from Raudel of the Eskuadrón patriota (Patriot Squadron), the warm greetings from the members of Matraka and Talento Cubano. I also listened to them as one listens to a well-known story: the long suffering of the demonization I have lived through in person. When the public was given the floor, I asked them if they realized they had been thrown into the same bag as the protestors and that anything could happen to them from now on. Someone said that since there were so many of us in that bag, the problem now was for those who had been left outside of it. I went home happy, at the proof of how ineffective the machinations of the political police are turning out to be, how difficult it it is to keep everyone compartmentalized.

The Transition

Recently, with a friend from Spain, I watched a documentary by Elias Andres and Victoria Prego about the transition to democracy in that European nation. There were thirteen episodes, filled with details covering the period from 1973 to 1977, between the death throes of a caudillo and the birth of a plural society. Through images and the voices of important political actors in this process, they analyzed the Law for Political Reform, the death of General Franco, the coronation of Juan Carlos I, and the legalization of the Communist Party. My friend, now over fifty, didn’t get up from her chair even once during all the hours those chapters lasted. At the end, she said something that gives me strength at this time, “I was there, in many of those times and places, but while we lived through it we didn’t know it was the transition.”

I think the same thing is happening to us Cubans. We are in transition, something seems to be on the verge of being irreparably broken on this Island, but we don’t realize it, sunk in the day-to-day and its problems. Afterward, the documentary filmmakers appeared and in thirty minutes narrated what for us has taken decades. Analysts will create their timelines, laying out the events of what has happened here, what, some day, will be history. Cubanologists, for their part, will say that the indicators of the fall were already apparent, and will choose a date on the calendar to mark the end. Filmmakers will take pleasure in reconstructing “zero day” and even little kids will agree yes, that’s right, and say that they also have memories those times.

But the main change will not be the death of an old man in his bed, a person about whom Cubans care less and less, nor the legalization of some other political force to compete against ancient Communist Party of Cuba. The substantial transformation has already started to occur in our minds. A slow metamorphosis, timid and fearful, but ultimately an evolution. An irreversible process where we are leaving behind something that seemed to us, at times, eternal. When we sit in front of the television and watch the documentary about those years, our grandchildren will ask us questions and after-the-fact reflections will flourish. We will discover a great deal, only then, about those events of transcendental importance on which, for now, the official press is totally silent. But there will be others who will point with pride, “I was there, I lived it, and in my stomach I felt the vertigo of the transition.”

Counterfeit Money

Her son pulled on her skirt asking for candy, while the guard demanded the ticket from the cash register and someone asked, insistently, for the purse-check ticket. In the midst of all this madness, she made the mistake of not checking her change for the purchase, a little over 6 CUC that had to last until the end of the month. When she got home she discovered that hidden among the coins was one with the face of Che Guevara, who, with his majestic gaze, tried to make himself pass for a one convertible peso coin. The lady ran back to confront the vendor, but no one paid any attention. She’d been ripped off by one of the most common tricks of the hard currency stores: giving her a three Cuban peso coin in place of a shiny CUC, with eight times the value. She had the urge to throw that tiny coin through the window, but her husband recommended she sell it to some tourist to recover the lost money.

Life offers these unpredictable somersaults. The face of Guevara, the former Central Bank president (1960), looks at us now from a coin that is used primarily as a souvenir or as an object of deception. That man who had the irreverence — some will say the disrespect — to sign the national bank notes with his brief nickname, “Che,” is contained within a circle of metal of doubtful value. Trapped in this monetary duality that he never imagined hovering over the chimeric “New Man” of his discourses. All around the hotels, now, one sees the elderly with their poverty-level pensions, showing a foreigner the “merchandise” of these shiny three-peso coins, with a beret and jacket-clad guerilla. Meanwhile, the clever hand of a cashier managed to sneak them into a client’s change, taking advantage of the distraction of a confused customer caught between the demands of her son for candy, and of the doorman who checked her bag.