Laura is gone, Laura is no more

In the same days when Laura Pollán lay dying in intensive care, Cuban television rebroadcast a dogmatic serial where they insulted the leader of the Ladies in White. Among the most notable signs of the Cuban government’s pettiness is its failure to respect a political adversary, even when she is dying. A system that so wallows in the funeral rituals of its own, shows no consideration when the time comes to deal with the deaths of others. This lack of compassion compelled them to deploy a crude police operation outside Calixto Garcia Hospital last night, shuffling her body from ambulance to ambulance so that we wouldn’t know to which morgue they were taking her. And, finally, they did not release even a short death notice in the national press. If honor honors, in this case denigration denigrates. They have lost a final chance to appear, at least, to have pity.

How do they feel now, all those women brought to scream insults in front of the door of 963 Neptune Street? What are they thinking right now, the members of the shock troops who shoved and beat Laura on September 24? Is there any remorse among the State Security officials who directed so many repudiation rallies against that peaceful lady in her sixties. Which of them will at least have the humility to mumble a condolence, to offer sympathy. Sadly, to all these questions the answer is still an infinite ideological rancor that doesn’t know how to pay tribute to an opponent. Laura has gone — has left us — and they lost the opportunity to repair so many atrocities. They believed that by hanging degrading epithets on her, preventing her from leaving her house, accusing her of being a traitor, “stateless,” they would prevent people from approaching her, from liking her. But in the dark hours of the morning, a funeral filled with friends and acquaintances rejected the effect of their demonization.

Laura is gone and now all the acts of hatred against her resonate even more grotesquely. Laura is gone and we are left with a country slowly waking up from a very old totalitarianism that doesn’t even know how to say “I’m sorry.” Laura is gone, to the sadness of her family, her Ladies in White and of every gladiolus that has grown and will ever grow over the length and breadth of this island. Laura is gone, Laura is no more, and there is not a single olive green uniform that looks clean in the face of the white radiance of her garments.


To El Sexto, the arbitrarily detained Havana graffiti artist

The tires squeal, the car doors fly open, three men pour out, all produced by the same mold: strong, military haircuts, cell phones clipped to their belts. There is no possible escape. No neighbor will provide refuge, the curious move away, frightened, and potential witnesses won’t want to talk. They force you into the car without showing you an arrest warrant, nor even an ID showing they belong to the police. The license place is private so as not to leave any institutional trace. Nor are the blows accompanied by any stamp or signature, not so much as an acronym. You have just fallen into the hands of the Cuban “paramilitaries,” those political police who never wear a uniform, who have the power to break all the laws, to lock you up in the absence of any crime, and to take you for a “walk” while shouting their threats and sinking their knees into your abdomen.

More and more often the methods of the mafia are found in the ranks of State Security. Their impunity even upsets the regular police, who watch as these guys with aliases fill the cells with detainees never entered into the station’s incident book. The practice of fishing on the margins of the law has become routine for the restless boys of Section 21, who feel themselves to be members of a select body who can block anyone from any place, or forcibly detain them, even inside their own homes. They are trained not to listen so it’s not worth the trouble to fill their ears with phrases such as, “I am a citizen, I have rights,” or “I want to see a lawyer…” or “What crime am I accused of?” For them, their victims are not individuals protected by a system of laws, but merely “worms,” simply “vermin”… those whom a despot like Gaddafi, in his time, called “rats.”

And there you are, inside that car that is a black hole swallowing the Constitution which should save you, encircled by the muscular arm of someone who calls himself Agent Camilo or Lieutenant Moses. For now, they are only going to frighten you, but in the future — when you are more daring — they will be tempted to scratch you with their fingernails, push your head into a bucket of water, play games with electric current and your testicles. Because when the government creates structures that are not accountable to any law, there is no possible defense for those who oppose it. These paramilitaries of today are the thugs of tomorrow. These elite forces, who project themselves as defenders of a dying system, may find their hands don’t hesitate to kill. They have already proved their frenzy by stopping abruptly in the street and forcing you into a car. The next thing they want to see running is your blood.

Question of Ownership

A woman, the owner of a recently opened snack bar, responds to the inquisitive questions of a reporter about her use of the public space. In the evening, her statements along with many others will be broadcast in an extensive television report about the invasion of common areas by the new private businesses. A very controversial topic. On one side are those spending their own money to build a counter, or to enlarge it to serve more customers, and along comes a demolition order for having extended into areas that don’t belong to them. On the other side, we encounter many passageways which, like certain entryways and walkways, are giving up space to the advance of construction extending from inside the houses. But it is notable that the penalization of this urban encroachment is not applied to everyone with the same severity. The state seems to have a free right-of-way — literally — to invade spaces, pushing pedestrians out into the streets, or constructing the greatest atrocities without any accountability to the people who live there.

In the neighborhood where I live, for example, a hotel covering an entire block rose at an incredible pace. Initially it was planned as a shelter for the patients of what is called Operation Miracle, but for about a year, responding to the laws of supply and demand, it has opened its doors to the public. This institution — without the consent of a single neighbor — stole a part of the sidewalk of Hidalgo Street. Where before there was room for us to walk by free from the danger of cars, the enormous building now has its truck loading area, an ugly ramp where there are never any vehicles unloading goods.

The damage appears to be irreversible in this case, because unlike the improvised constructions of individuals, here we’re talking about a mass of concrete which no one could cut a piece out of. People on foot, many of whom come out of the market and who used to walk along a sidewalk protected by curbs, feel like it’s not even worth it to complain. “It belongs to the State and you already know…” they tell me when I try to call for volunteers to protest. And the saddest thing is, they’re right. Not even the incisive reporter who criticizes the expansion of certain private businesses on prime time news, will prepare a story about this piece of the city they have taken from us.

The Solitaire Bureaucrat

– Just a minute, ma’am, I’m almost done with this row.
– Can someone shut that kid up? It’s making me lose my concentration and I can’t find the damned ace of clubs I need to finish this round.
– There goes the phone again, but I’m just about to break my own record so I wouldn’t even dream of answering it.
– Niurka! Come over here, girl. Look how many points I have! I think I’m the best solitaire player in this company.

If someone did a statistical study of the most-used applications on the computers in State offices, neither Word nor Excel, much less Access, would appear at the top of the list. The big winner of this survey would be the famous card game known as Solitaire. Our bureaucrats are bored and they relieve their tedium putting aces, hearts and diamonds in order. We don’t know if they spend so much time on this entertainment because they have so little to do, or if, in reality, it is the low salaries that lead to turning their workday into a tremendous waste of time. How many times have we waited in front of a secretary — clicking away while staring raptly at the screen as if we weren’t even there — to come to realize that instead of filling out forms or transcribing letters, she’s stacking cards one atop another on a deep green digital table.

While receptionists and employees perfect their card skills, we — the clients overwhelmed by some paperwork — find our patience tested. They accumulate rows with a red king here and a black queen there while, in the uncomfortable seats of a civil registry or notary office, the hours pass for those who need an answer or a document. Sometimes another office worker comes in and dozens of looks try to tell her: we’ve been waiting since eight o’clock, we still haven’t had lunch, please… help us. But without raising her gaze beyond her desk, the recent arrival suggests her colleague should move that seven of spades because otherwise the game will be lost. But when closing time comes and they tell us, “You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” we feel like the ferocious monarch marked by the letter K, and would like to grab his royal sword from the screen that has stolen the day from us.

We Don’t Believe the Television

Laura Pollán, leader of the Ladies in White. Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

I often complain about this self-sufficient little fatty  in every Cuban home — the television — and its excessive influence on our lives. This week, for example, the nightly programming has been saturated with political messages that we later hear repeated in schools, workplaces, offices… in the infinite spiral of ideological propaganda. But in the midst of this slogan overdose from the loudspeakers, we can also find people who have not watched the National News for months and who can’t remember the last time they flipped through the newspaper Granma. They are people who lead a parallel life to that broadcast on the official screen, those have voluntarily vaccinated themselves against the excesses of hegemonic discourse.

But the growing suspicion with which so many of my compatriots receive the news and opinions broadcast through legal channels eases my mind. Not only do they apply it to the exaggerated figures for agricultural production, but this lack of confidence extends to the reports on foreign relations, the physical state of some public figure, and even a simple sports commentary. Cubans increasingly doubt what they are told, begin to read between the lines, and interpret, in reverse, information in the national media. The disbelief has gotten to the point where insult is deciphered as praise and vice versa. Those demonized by partisan publications are thus transformed into admired beings — albeit in a whisper — and even those fired from the government apparatus acquire a certain aura of appeal.

Knowing this peculiar phenomenon of reinterpretation, the number of people who have called me to ask about the health of Laura Pollan does not surprise me. The great number of friends and onlookers who have gathered outside the Calixto Garcia Hospital emergency room where she was admitted for acute respiratory distress is comforting. Considering all the insults, curses, and lies that have been launched against this woman on the official television, the reactions of so many Cubans in solidarity with her is a revelation. The dozens of text messages transmitting medical reports about the leader of the Ladies in White, the prayers at shrines throughout Cuba, and the encouragement from so many other peaceful activists, are the major silencers of this shrill character who — in our living rooms — launches into a tirade we no longer believe in.

Jobs’s Genius and My First Frankenstein

Image circulating on the internet, attributed to Jonathan Mak

For that mess of cables and circuits to come to life and become my first computer, all I was lacking was the small pump that blows air over the red hot microprocessor. But how to find that in the Havana of 1994, completely submerged in the miseries of the Special Period.* Without that whirring mechanism of blades, the Frankenstein I’d spent half a year assembling would get too hot and suddenly switch off. During those days I thought constantly of Steve Jobs in the garage of his adoptive parents where he created Apple Computer. His inspired genius led me to understand that innovation is more enjoyable than the tacit consumption of something invented by others. A few days later, a combination of a household fan and aluminum heat-sinks allowed me to write in WordPerfect 5.1 and create a university newsletter called Letter by Letter. Hundreds of miles from my improvised workshop, the NeXT hardware division had just closed down and it was still a few months before the Pixar film Toy Story would be released.

Since that time, the evocation of Jobs has accompanied me on all the risky computer adventures to which curiosity and need have propelled me. All around me were many people like the restless Steve, ingenious teenagers who, lacking space — even a garage — and the legal possibility of founding a company, took the road of emigration and ended up taking their talent and their ideas far from here. Despite this massive stampede, here, among various friends, we continued to feed the cult of the guru in black shirt and faded jeans, longing to be a bit like him: bright, clever, understood. When the mediocrity of technological censorship touched us, we projected ourselves onto that adopted boy who became a frame of reference for the world, with his genius impulses and white earbud headphones. He probably didn’t know that we Cubans would have to wait more than a decade to be able to legally buy a computer in a store.

Yesterday, the student who never graduated from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, died at age 56. He left us a bitten apple painted on a host of technological gadgets, and wondering how many more he could have created if pancreatic cancer hadn’t taken him so early. To those of us who never exchanged a word with him, nor withstood the harangues of this CEO, we are left with the myth, the sweet legend of his genius. It comforts me to think that my laughable Frankenstein — built 18 years ago — would have overheated even more without the fresh and inspiring air that Steve Jobs radiated over us all.

*Translator’s note:
The Special Period: In a January 1990 speech, two months before the fall of the Berlin wall, Fidel Castro warned of coming hardships and first used the phrase “a special period in a time of peace.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its 30 years of subsidies to Cuba came to an abrupt end. Oil imports dropped 90%, industry was paralyzed, agriculture shifted from machines to manual labor, food rations sank precipitously and hunger became widespread, followed inevitably by the diseases of malnutrition.

Tip, Propina, Trinkgeld

The Canadian put the tip on a small plate, almost 10% of what he paid for lunch with a young woman he’d just met. He left the restaurant rubbing his abdomen with satisfaction while she headed to the bathroom. The girl, however, went by the table where they had eaten and put her companion’s two shiny convertible pesos in her purse. From the bar, the bartender’s shrewd eyes caught the moment and he shouted to the waiter. But when he tried to catch her she had already gone, without saying goodbye to the bewildered tourist waiting for her in the sun. With this loss, the waiter calculated that he’d been left without the most substantial reward of the day. Annoyed, he finished drying the glasses and arranging the knives and forks.

For many years, to accept tips was an act catalogued almost as counterrevolutionary. To receive a small economic stimulus from some client could be seen as a petty bourgeoisie tit-for-tat, an undignified gesture. Those were also the times when money had no real value, when it could not be converted into goods and services given the strict ration market that governed our lives. Perhaps this explains the mistreatment employees subject their clients to, conduct which, sadly, continues even today. But it can be said that with the return of tourism, the appearance of the dual monetary system, and the opening of stores that operate only in hard currency, this propina makes some sense, discretely slipped into a hand, or left under the checked napkin wrapped around the bill.

Right now, the main incentive for those who work in snack bars, restaurants and hotels lies in the possibility of a visiting foreigner leaving them some material gratification. There are also Cubans who have begun to reward good service at certain places, handing out centavos here and there. But the most sought after customers are those who come from countries where it is established practice to give the waiters a percentage of the total consumed. In the State sector, however, there sill exist administrative measures against this practice, and in the airports ECASA — the management company — has tried to eliminate it without much success. Despite the stinginess of some and the prejudices of others, the habit of rewarding good service is gaining ground. At times deserved, and in other cases insistently demanded or simply included in the bill, tipping now prompts grins, accelerates the arrival of the trays, and makes the distressed waiter of this story smile again.