This is the third time that an institution or ministry has denied me entry into a place with free access. It seems that some independent bloggers have been “unofficially” excluded from Cuban cultural events. I say “unofficially” because even though they haven’t shown me an official document with my complete name and identity card number that says: This institution denies admission to So-and-So, Such-and-Such, and What’s-Her-Face, in accordance with this law and this center has that right. They don’t have my photos and the gatekeepers don’t know my name, they don’t have a list that decrees me persona non grata.
I demand the Ministry of Culture to issue such a list, to clarify the reasons why I cannot attend concerts or participate in debates, that they show their faces and stop hiding behind the vague concept that The Institution Reserves The Right of Admission. I want Abel Prieto, the Minister of Culture, to articulate, legally, this exclusion so that I can, also legally, file a complaint with the Ministery of Culture for cultural and ideological discrimination. I want the bureaucrats to come out from behind their nameless masks and accept that the Cuban cultural policy is exclusionary and discriminatory, put their cards on the table and dot the i’s and cross the t’s, stop using the bureaucracy as a shield and the gatekeepers as babysitters. I want someone to explain to me in what human way a public institution—of the people—can reserve the right of admission and what are the conditions governing that right.
A group of people, among whom I count myself, cannot enter the debate about the Internet that is taking place this afternoon at 4 pm in the Fresa y Chocolate Center, organized by the magazine Temas [Topics]. At first we were about 10 – some independent bloggers and others I don’t know – now there are about 30 people piled against the fence.
According to the custodian, the ICAIC (Cuban Film Institute) restricted admission. Here are some photos; I’ll see if I can post more information later on.
The debate goes on, outside the door of the Fresa y Chocolate Room… however, there will be surprises.
Almost all countries have a government more or less corrupt but approximately every five years it changes and also it must answer for its actions before a civil power. They have secret services charged with protecting the interests of the country against possible external interference and against corruption among their ministers and officials, among other complicated and bureaucratic things. Under no circumstances does their work involve limiting the freedom of their citizens by repressing them, screening them for their political profile, worrying about what they say or whether they meet freely with others. Instead of occupying themselves with denying permission to leave the country, or keeping citizens from attending cultural events, attacking artists and writers for their work, firing people from their jobs because of the ideology, among other “activities” that our ministries specialize in, those of less paranoid countries perform more commendable functions in accordance with the laws of the country and the work assigned to them.
Because of this, I think that for Cuba to transition to an open society from a society “with some emergency exits”, some of the people now occupying positions of power in the government could take a long vacation and dedicate themselves, for example, to offering services, which by then won’t be so difficult to get a license for.
It is obvious that this little island, for some time, has not been governed only by two old men, but by the many mid-level and high officials of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) while Central Intelligence maintains the status quo and enjoys power almost at the same level as the old-timers, but in a more surreptitious way. It’s obvious that the person who today decides that Yoani Sanchez cannot travel cannot continue to occupy decision-making positions in a plural Cuba where we will all have the same rights regardless of our ideology. A civil servant whose decisions protect corruption and crime cannot later be responsible for prosecuting social vice. To purify does not mean to discriminate nor to despise, but if the National Assembly of the People’s Power continues with the same people who today applaud and raise their hands, I don’t think that change in Cuba is going to be very successful.
I went to visit my grandmother in Santa Fe. The old woman is 193 and she thinks it’s time to benefit her family with the assets she no longer uses. And so she let me know that she was giving me the motorbike of her nephew who left the country illegally three years ago and is not allowed to return since he was charged with desertion from the ranks of the Ministry of the Interior.
You can’t imagine my surprise when I saw that it was nothing more nor less than a Suzuki (the classic vehicle of State Security). My God! What the fuck am I going to do with this? I could not sneer at my grandmother’s gift, it might give her a heart attack, so I thanked her.
- Thanks, Grandma, I’m going to call for a truck to come and get it. - No, my grandson, if the bike’s good, you can ride it home.
Those words reverberated in my mind. Ride a Suzuki from Santa Fe to Vedado. And if someone sees me riding there? Nonsense!
- Ride, ride – my grandma said – and then tell me how it went. - That’s good, Grandma. - But why are you crying sweetheart? - From excitement, Grandma, from excitement.
I got on that bike and rode the fucking thing all the way to 5th Avenue. All the familiar faces were dying every time I turned the throttle. A police officer stuck out his hand… shit… I stopped and thought he was about to ticket me but then BOOM!, he jumped on the back
- Take me over there, I’m going to be late – he said quietly.
What the fuck, I’m on a Suzuki with a cop on the back. At the traffic light at the roundabout I hit the red light. An almendrón shared-taxi stops next to me with passengers and I hear a voice:
- Hello? You’re not with Porno Para Ricardo are you? Three kids were crowded at the window looking stunned. - No, no, no, that’s not me – I replied. - I think it’s him – said another. - No, I’m not fucking him!
The light turned green and I was out of there like a bullet.
- Ah, so you are part of Porno para Ricardo. I always knew there had to be someone there who was one of us. - Yes, well… you know… we are always infiltrating everything. - Look, let me off here, I’m close, and good luck with your work.
He got off and left. This can’t go on. I got off the Suzuki and flagged down a truck who took it home for me.
- How much do I owe? – I asked the truck driver. - Ah, but you are going to pay me, officer? - You motherfucker! Take it! – and he put the bill in his pocket.
I took the Suzuki in and immediately called the CI:
- Come, come, I have something urgent I have to talk to you guys about.
They came in 2 minutes and 25 seconds, it would seem they were 50 feet away.
- Well Ciro, we’re happy that you’ve finally decided to cooperate, we want to know w… - It’s not that. What I need is to get rid of this – I interrupted, indicating the bike. It’s a problem when they see me riding this and if it’s all the same to you maybe I’d like to exchange it for something more modest, I don’t know… a Carpati… any piece of shit.
- Listen, you! We’re not here to deal in motorbikes. You hear me?! – one of them shouted. - Did you say a Carpati? – the other one asked. I have a Carpati. - But Alejandro! What do you say… Rodney! - Hey, he’s offering to exchange paste for pearls – replied Alejandro. What do you say Rodney. - Look Ciro, keep this thing here, tomorrow I’ll bring the Carpati and you give me the Suzuki. - Done. And now, get out of my house!
The door closes and the phone rings: Ringggggg!
- Hello. - Hello, I’d like to speak with Ciro please. - This is Ciro. - Hey, they told me they saw you today on 5th Avenue…
The subject of Cuba makes people prickly and leads to heated arguments where you don’t even know what you said or what the other person replied. I had an historic one recently where one of my best friends ended up shouting “Communist!” What provoked him of course was the laughter of those present, and in my case a bit of sadness, about the absurdity of the current situation. In the end we came to agreement on most points and on any mystery we didn’t manage to understand.
So, people walk around here – and I include myself in this – wearing their emotions on their sleeves, with uncontrollable pain and zero rationality. A debate among friends is entertaining but when you look out the window you see that the level of confusion is sky-high.
The disinformation and abuse of polarized political subjects in the press and on television has led to miscommunication in personal relationships; parents who don’t talk with their children, “politics” as a taboo subject at the family table, the disguised discontent of daily life.
We have a government so paternal that in order to control our movements and our freedom of expression it has even reached inside our feelings, to prevent our dialogs, to use civil confusion as a weapon, with the sole objective of maintaining its power.
Paneque is an independent journalist among the 75 arrested during the Black Spring round-up in 2003; he was sentenced to 24 years in prison and is now at Las Mangas Prison in Bayamo. Prisoners can only make one weekly 25 minute call, on Saturday. On occasion he uses his scant time to call me, both to say hello and to dictate his posts. We post his writings on Pablo Pacheco’s blog, who shares his space with his fellow companions of the cause, which has become the Voice of some of the prisoners of conscience.
This Saturday when Paneque called me he was a little sad because he didn’t have visitors; the prison is under quarantine because of an epidemic of conjunctivitis that he himself is suffering from. His call was mainly to try to dictate a message of congratulations to the president of the United States, Barack Obama, for his recent Nobel Peace Prize. Unfortunately he was almost unable to talk to me; a person whose only function is to listen in on his telephone calls intervened because he considered the conversation counterrevolutionary.
Today Octavo Cerco marks a year of existence and if I could use the laptop to blow out the candles on a cake I would. Not only have I met many people whom I will love for the rest of my days, but I’ve also faced, at times, the painful task of writing without having the slightest idea how to do it. Now it’s like a vice, a challenge and a sense of freedom that delivers me from all ties and classifications: I write but I am not a writer, I report but I am not a journalist, I slip through to the network but I am not a computer expert, I criticize the government but I have no party, and I say what I please but I know I am not free.
I look at the balance of these last 12 months, and even though Ciro says that blogs don’t have birthdays I think they do, my life has taken a 180 degree turn and I have to celebrate it. But freedom is enigmatic and my cowardice, I have to admit it, has not turned to the same degree. I continue to close the windows, speak softly so strangers can’t hear me, with the same paranoia as always. However there is something good, now when I am most afraid is when I most throw myself into it, and that is something.
For the birthday I’ve received a gift: two strangers in the street stopped to talk to me about my blog. I can’t express the combination of terror and joy I felt, though I can’t adapt to the idea that people see me in the street and know that I am literally “in the thick of it”; I know in time I’ll get used to it. For now, I live in the moment, my blog is part of my life and as I said one day to Ivan when he hadn’t yet started his blog Desde la Habana: you will feel like it’s your child, you will not abandon it.
Yoani’s prison wall is nothing more than the wall of the Malecón. You can move your body as far as that point and from there beyond the sea only your Internet identity can continue – talking on Twitter, showing up on Facebook, living in Wordpress – to “the outside world.” Many have not been able to read Generation Y from within Cuba, but everyone knows the blogger’s record of denials for Exit Permits.
In a country where nearly everyone is obsessed with leaving, there is nothing more sadistic on the part of the government than punishment with imprisonment. Paradoxically, the thing that increases the solidarity of citizens the most is to see the Cuban dream – travel – crushed by grotesque legislation.
While the Cuban authorities play cat and mouse with their prediction – in their declarations abroad – of eliminating the White Card, in Cuba they use their last days in power to deny it. Yoani Sánchez is only 34, not Raúl Castro nor anyone inside the circle of power is going to live long enough to keep her within the borders of this island: they have already lost the war.
I often hear people generalizing about an entire people and it turns my stomach. Every so often I hear, from friends as well as complete strangers, phrases like: This country is like this because of its people, there are only cowards here, you write on the Internet because you know nothing is going to happen, all the dissidents are working for State security, in the whole country there isn’t one leader worth anything, and so on and so on ad infinitum.
Most of the time I don’t answer because I always end up exhausting all my arguments without managing to convince anyone of anything. It’s hard to face off against someone who has managed to put a group of citizens into a sack of absolutes and then on top of that judges the sack by the material it’s made of, not by what it contains. But even so, when the comments hit close to home I can’t help pushing back against the stereotypes I’ve been accused of.
I was very happy because a doctor friend had promised to give me a face mask for when I ride the bus, when a foreigner who was listening to my conversation interrupted to give her opinion about H1N1.
- Today I read on the Internet that it seems that Cubans are not quite aware of the problem.
First I counted to ten because you can’t start trying to convince someone with a stream of passionately delivered arguments, particularly when we have been living for months with a kind of medical ambiguity: Is there an epidemic or is there not? The television and radio say nothing, after two huge concerts—first Jaunes and then Manu Chao—the airports remain open, in the drugstores there is nothing to prevent colds and if you have a fever they send you home and you have to manage as well as you can.
- How can Cubans be aware if the mass media says nothing clearly? Not only is there H1N1, there is dengue and hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, unfortunately I can’t confirm what I’m saying because the Ministry of Health is silent.
I don’t think that reporting nothing is the worst of it—we have learned and informed ourselves of things without them—but I didn’t say that. I think the saddest part is that they do nothing: the buses are crowded with people, soap and detergent is available only in CUCs, insect repellant is a luxury and if tomorrow were the first of May, we would all go to the square to march in numbers exceeding however many thousands were at the concert on the 20th.
I have lived weighed down by the ideal of the moment: the indispensable citizen. Throughout the short history of my life I have come to reflect, voiceless and faceless, the different types of indispensables that the country has needed. At times they were those who voted early, who denounced the evil done, who sacrificed themselves in the name of the revolution, who carried a gun to other places to kill or be killed. As if each one was previously chosen at some moment in a speech by Fidel Castro, having their respective advertising spot on TV, where they invited us—the dispensables—to join ourselves to a strange imperishable collective.
But the qualities of the indispensables have become increasingly ambiguous, until they have come to be completely obscured and the only essential left in the realm of the tangible was to keep one’s mouth shut at all costs. I found it soothing, this change in the supposed “New Man” who was metamorphosing annually depending on the prevailing discourse and who never existed.
“These are the essentials,” the TV announced yesterday and I wondered who would be the ones to sacrifice themselves in the name of an ideology that no one remembers. But times have changed, now the indispensables are those who work for a wage of 400 pesos a month without a murmur, who work the land to make a gift of their crops to the state and those who don’t aspire to live on the fruits of their labor. The idealists, the fanatical defenders of the good, those who believe in a bright future, they are no longer indispensable.
She gets up every day at five in the morning, grabs her backpack and goes out to fight the different types of transport that can take her to her work place: the city of Caimito. Because there are only four doctors she has duty every two days—unpaid—and then returns to her house because the family medical practice they assigned her to has no door.
Even though they aren’t included among her patients, she takes care of the inhabitants of the Llega y Pon* shanty town in the neighborhood. In this area the work is more difficult, no one is registered and so they don’t exist: the children don’t have milk, the old people don’t have a special diet, electric light is a golden dream and hygiene is a bad word. She has tried to take action but always runs up against the wall of the bureaucracy: they have to go back to their place of origin, even the newborns, which in this case means the place of origin of the mother.
It’s one of the saddest stories I’ve heard, always when people talk to me of birth and primary care the dark shanty towns come into my head. Growing up surrounded by the major cities and seeming to be, for the government, unavoidable. Speaking on the subject a doctor friend told me that ten children without milk were not a flag to call into question the Cuban health services. But to me, neither a doctor nor a politician, I wonder how can a State that declares itself Socialist allow itself the luxury that children like that exist?
Photo: Leandro Feale taken from the series Objects and Portraits
Technology is becoming the most dangerous nonconformist on the Island: computers, flash memories and SIM cards are the new heroes on the State Security black list. To take out a camera in a place of conflict is becoming more difficult than shouting Down With Fidel on a bus. For the State, the Internet is not a means of communication at the service of the citizens, it is a weapon for “the counterrevolution.” We have come to a point where progress has become a risk to the status quo.
The good thing is that progress is inherent in society. As a friend said, “there is no one now who can stop it.” The cellphone ringtones passed around by Bluetooth are irresistible: El Comandante shouting, “Answer the phone for fuck’s sake!”, the music from the series Day and Night, the National Anthem, the chorus of the reggaeton song, “Si se va a formar que se forme,” recordings of the police. In short, humor and disrespect are a weapon to combat fear; and technology, the ability to laugh without looking behind you.
You walk through the door of the doctor's office and the psychiatrist already knows it—here, take this so you can start solving the problem while we stabilize the treatment: imipramine with trifluoperazine—it’s your turn for the national antidepressant. Few escape: meprobamate, nitrazepam, amitriptyline, methylphenidate, phenobarbital, PV2 and, for those with possibilities, Prozac. There is something for every taste, pills to forget, to not hate, to sleep, to not sleep, to laugh, to not dream, to not think, to be strong, to be weak and to live permanently in a mental nirvana, analogous to a certain extent to the state nirvana of our leaders.
For a retiree with a pension of 200 pesos the black market is well supplied but it’s expensive. Nevertheless, the family doctor doesn’t have the heart to deny anyone a prescription for meprobamate, she too has taken one before catching the bus to go to work. Others survive with strange mixtures: PV2 (stimulant) and amitriptyline (antidepressant) in the mornings; and meprobamate (sedative and muscle relaxant) with nitrazepam (barbiturate) at night… a happiness bomb.
I don’t pretend to know the statistics, but I don’t know a woman older than 40 who lives without meprobamate or trifluoperazine; among men imipramine is more in demand, although alcohol wreaks havoc. As it happens, those who work for 300 or 400 pesos a month, from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, painfully pushing the enormous wheel of the inefficient State bureaucracy, are the most addicted. A friend not yet thirty said to me the other day when she came to my house:
- Don’t you have a meprobamate around to relax me before leaving for the party? - Of course not, and anyway there will be drinks at the party, that will relax you. - Meprobamate relaxes me more.
This is an excerpt to a version of the song, Epitaph for Vladimir Visotski by Karsmarski Jacek (Polish dissident songwriter), which includes Ciro Diaz in his latest album, The Blue Slug, that I listened to compulsively for at least two months, especially on the street with my mp3 inherited from a friend who now has an I-pod. (Download the lyrics here) (Download the recording and album cover here) The song (in summary, which runs about ten minutes) is about a desperate artist going through the circles of hell in search of an answer or death, and at the end of his journey there is only loneliness and the weight of the supreme power above himself. So I found myself at times catching the bus across Havana at 12 noon in August under the perennial sunshine and with the distressing feeling of not going anywhere, or arriving too late, or going for pleasure ... I feel that I have already arrived at the eighth enclosure (this is the finale of the song) where there is nothing, and I feel useless and empty, and I look at people without faith who walk along the street and who have so much fear that they no longer know they're afraid, and who have seen so many Roundtables and so many news broadcasts that they no longer know what belongs to reality or just to the TV screen. They cannot discern that they no longer believe, but cannot disbelieve either, and just move along past me not going anywhere.