Photo: Truck with old refrigerators in my neighborhood.
Amelia is about 50 and lives alone, her husband died in the war in Angola and since then she’s received a miserable pension through the Veteran’s Association. As she doesn’t work for the State, tough she is still of working age, several times they’ve tried to take from her the pittance of 200 Cuban pesos she receives as “financial aid.”
Since she exchanged her refrigerator for a more energy efficient one, her life has been complicated: she has cold water but owes the state 2,000 pesos in thirty monthly payments, plus late fees, which she hasn’t been able to pay. For some months an “inspector” has visited her house weekly, to tell her of the really bad things that are going to happen in her case. It all started with a fine, which exceeded the unpayable debt itself. As that didn’t work, it moved on to the blackmail of threatening to remove the refrigerator, and finally the threat of a trial.
Amelia knows she can’t raise this sum, and her inspector, gaining confidence as she looked him in the eye, confessed to her that he has not been able to meet his own commitment to pay for his refrigerator, either.
In a bizarre “Year of the Energy Revolution,” an epithet that was written below the date on every official document and on school blackboards during all of 2006, Fidel Castro decided to update our home appliances. The energy itself never came, but our lightbulbs, fans and refrigerators were exchanged for new ones, along with promises that we would pay for them on the installment plan.
Some years later, a rather high percentage of Cubans owe thousands of pesos to the State, Cuban Communist Party meetings demand of their militants that they “ensure compliance with the commitments in their nuclei and their neighborhoods,” and, incidentally, “set an example by settling their own debts.” But after 50 years -- Party member or not -- the common denominator of the average Cuban is insolvency. This bankruptcy of the family economy is the result of government mismanagement, which now demands that we pay what we have never earned.
One of the characteristics of the rational being is to recognize his own limits, as well as others which -- for logical reasons -- must be adhered to so that coexistence works as harmoniously as possible. Some sectors of my society, however, break the boundaries of human cynicism on a daily basis, and at the forefront of this movement we find, without a doubt, official journalism and its famous National Television News (NTV).
One of the latest changes made by our appointed president was the modification of the retirement law: overnight -- without shouts, without rejoicing, without protest and without labor unions furiously demanding explanations -- Cubans were warned that our right to retire would be extended from age 60 to age 65 for men, and from age 55 to age 60 for women. So, without further ado, the “working masses” of the socialist paradise were forced to swallow this bitter pill from the abusive state and extend their working lives by five years.
But for some, no humiliation is too much; yesterday on NTV they aired a small report about the “tens of thousands of demonstrators” in France, who took to the street to protest the government’s intention to impose a law that is similar, though it adds only months of extra work.
The soft voice of reporter entertained us over screen shots of a Parisian street filled with strikers. “French workers,” she said, “are protesting the government’s intention to increase the retirement age by two years."
How far do the distant horizons of official cynicism reach? Is it an act of State vs. People sadism, or simply the laziness of the powers-that-be who forget to sweeten the pills of their subjects. Does the Party Central Committee want to demonstrate their impunity relative to the workers? Could it be considered an irony planned by the boys of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, who don’t want to retire five years later, and so they slip the information in between the lines to raise everyone’s temper?
I don’t know what the correct hypothesis is, but whatever it is, it’s nothing more than a cruel sarcasm aimed at us: for fifty years we have not protested to our working rights.
Marta is tired of hospitals. She, like most of her fellow citizens, has had bad luck with the public health service. One of the pillars of the Revolution in which she was born, it seems to her more and more like a building completely worm eaten to a miraculous static, one pillar short of destruction.
A few weeks ago she was caring for a relative in Calixto García hospital. Among other vicissitudes, the blood serum her patient needed was bought on the black market, most of the medicines were “resolved” and the treatment had to be supervised by her own relatives. By sheer effort they managed to remind the nurse of the exact time of each treatment, the name of each pill and they themselves undertook the measures needed to avoid bedsores.
As there was rarely water, they brought buckets; as there was no way to heat the water for a bath, they bought a heater; as it was too hot in the room they asked to borrow a fan. They brought everything: the soap, blankets, food, a chair for the visitors, cream, alcohol, vitamins and cotton.
The only problem that remained unresolved was the obstruction in the bathroom; but the fact that the toilet always had stinking reddish-green water and the tap on the sink wouldn’t stop running, could be considered minor in view of all the layers of grime everywhere, the destruction of the windows and the wires hanging from the false ceiling.
Marta told me she ended her stay exhausted; all she asks of heaven is that she dies of a heart attack in her own house, without having to enjoy the comforts of the Cuban public health system.
The first time I heard talk of the Ladies in White was on a Father’s Day. The Ciro and Claudio Fuentes made a documentary about the Cuban opposition, as a counterpart to three days of a fictional soap opera about the dissidents, which had been airing on the show The Roundtable.
I will never forget the contrast between the interviews in the documentary, and the manipulated images from Cuban television. A friend of mine always says that common sense is what allows us not to believe something that only shows one side, and I answer him: Exactly, I live in a foolish country. Despite knowing that the official press lies, the first time my instinct was confirmed, the delight was indescribable: I had proof.
Saturday, the day before Father’s Day, I had been to greet the Ladies; it is to them that I own my deepest congratulations. During the twenty-four hours of the festivities, they will be the voices of the fathers who cannot play with their children, and their white clothes will be a reminder that behind the bars of the socialist paradise there are just men. Pablo Pacheco cannot play with his son Jimmy. He is not alone, however: in a church in the capital a group of women will pray that next year they can be together.
I have only fainted once in my life: I was walking along 23rd Avenue and saw a car run over a dog. The driver and his passenger got out, grabbed the animal by the legs and tossed him, dying, in a garbage can three feet from me. The last image I saw before falling: the agitated dog, bleeding among the trash, while my ears caught the squeak if the tires of the Moscovitch car pulling away at top speed. When I woke up I was in my bed: my friend who was with me had managed to get me in a taxi and bring me home safe and sound, although I didn’t wake up, even at door of my house.
Perhaps that moment has marked my obsession with stray dogs: they touch my soul, I feel helpless not to be able to take them all, I shudder when I see them crossing the street. The other day a friend of mine – totally pessimistic with regards to the future of this country – was teasing me about my fears for the animals; but people carry such a burden of indolence and dogs have been the direct victims of the phenomenon of national apathy: mangy, injured, super thin and grimy, they are a part of the daily landscape of my city, like the trees and birds.
Their terrible situation is only surpassed by their compatriots in the animal world, the residents of the zoo: they are also skinny, dirty and half sick, living in tiny cages for their size (the low roof over the hawks and eagles is truly disheartening), and sometimes they are all alone, giving the impression that their only purpose is to educate us in the fundamentals of animal abuse.
A friend sent me a very worried letter about my physical condition; from Spain she came across a list of seventy-four traitors to the country among whom she found me. It is because I signed a letter, together with other representatives of civil society, asking for flexibility in the sale of food and permission for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.
The controversy fascinates me; here in Cuba I have another blogger friend who called me immediately to say that in her opinion they should tighten the screws until we don’t even have water to drink, because only this will end the dictatorship: it did not occur to me to call her a “fascist”, nor to her to call me a “Castro-ite assassin.” As usual, we ended our dialog in total harmony; she raised certain questions in me, and I left her with some doubts.
It would not be the first time on my small island that we’ve had nothing to eat; we already lived through – and it had nothing to do with the foreign policy of the United States – the time after Perestroika and Glasnost, which sent seventy years of communism straight to the fires of hell. I don’t think democracy is exportable, nor hunger a detonator of social consciousness. I have always wondered how many hours we spent on August 5, 1994, in a “Malecon Slaughter” styled after that of Tiananmen. Does anyone today speculate that China is democratic?
Since I’ve had the use of reason, Cold War politics have only served so that the Minister of Foreign Affairs can repeat over and over at every world summit the infinite mantra of “blockade, blockade, blockade,” while the private accounts of the country’s owners are “growing, growing growing.” Meanwhile, the European and Latin American left applaud as if some economic restrictions could justify the longest western dictatorship.
This is my opinion: I could be wrong, I could be right. Perhaps it is naïve to think that this liberalization would promote the democratization of Cuba, but the contrary ends up being – when viewed coldly – equally naïve. I appreciate all those who have kept this controversy alive on the web in a civilized and objective way, especially Ernesto Hernandez Busto in Penultimos Dias, who has made me feel that a harmonic and divergent Cuba is not so far off; one where, as Reinaldo Escobar said, political dissent is decriminalized.
To those who ask for my head, just an observation: I think they will have to fight it out with the boys from the Department of State Security, who have already laid claim to it.
After several desperate days in the island-sauna, today the sky turned black, flashes of lightening lit up the darkest areas of the city, and, finally, the droplets of this much-delayed rain that we have been waiting for since May, fell.
Even when I was a child I liked very much to “see rain.” My mother told me that every drop, as it fell to the ground, was like a ballerina doing pirouettes. Perhaps it was that metaphor that made rain something almost mystical for me: it washed me, gave me peace, made me think of those things that an ordinary day under the sun doesn’t let me feel.
When July arrives it is so hot that my brain “fries” as if it were a computer hard drive; the power goes out, whether by a sadistic act or terrible chance the “Guiteras” thermoelectric plant, like every summer, has just begun a maintenance phase, adding to the blackouts; the fans stop; and just the smell that announces a downpour is capable of bringing me peace.
The optimism drained out of me without my ever having been able to enjoy – much to my regret – a moment of that feeling with so many names, but which is defined by only one verb: to believe. Once again that other Claudia – the skeptic – criticizes the naïve: I warned you that the action was “doubtful.” When Pablo Pacheco called me, excited about the start of talks between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government, I told him, “I have no illusions, but I’m glad that you, from prison, and sentenced to twenty years for writing your opinion, have not lost faith.”
A few days later the transfer of the political prisoners began which I have decided to christen as “The Exchange.” Always so skeptical! I control myself. It buys a little time; at best they will release someone before Fariñas’ spirit is released from his body. What naiveté on my part and cynicism on the part of my government. When I learned, after the hemming and hawing typical of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that Mr. Manfred Nowak, the United Nations Council on Human Rights special investigator on torture, would not be coming to Cuba, everything became clear: we are the presence of The Exchange, and like it or not, he could rot in jail. Even I get paranoid and wonder if the two decisions (a Cardinal-General dialog, and denying entry to the investigator) could have risen simultaneously in a single mind. Wasn’t it about, at the beginning, freeing the sick journalists and dissidents? At what point did “move to another province” became a step toward “release”? Is it torture to imprison a man for his ideas? And to change the prison he is in, what’s this?
I would love it if tomorrow someone showed me evidence that I’m wrong, that my friends would lecture me, “You’re always so radical,” that the detractors of Octavo Cerco would invade the forum with comments like: Claudia, you’re wrong! Take it back! Raul Castro has freed the sick! But I don’t know why this transfer of prisoners, the refusal to admit the investigator, and a dialog without deadlines or commitments, reminds me of the game “Pin the tail on the donkey,” that competition where you blindly try to stick the tail in place on a painted animal, guided by the shouts of a group who don’t even agree where on the paper the animal’s head is.
Sometimes what we call in my country "geographical destiny" does not touch us for just a few meters, as is true in my case: I live in El Vedado, in an area where I have water every day. Despite the philosophical statement "man thinks as he lives," I try to get out of my wet environment to verify that, around me, others learn to live without water.
I have a friend who, long ago, gave up on the idea of having a white toilet; the water comes every two days and the tank never has enough for the luxury of clearing it out with every use: disgusting yellow marks are a reminder, every forty-eight hours, that whitening the porcelain may become a luxury. But she doesn’t complain, there are others – whom she knows – who are worse off. For Leo, over in Central Havana, water comes through the pipe once a week. As his house has been declared “uninhabitable,” he can’t put a tank on the roof because of the risk of the roof falling in on his head. Outside the capital it’s worse, they can go a week without a drop of water coming out of a half broken sink that’s not even worth repairing.
All these hardships can only be resolved – who even dreams any more about getting an answer to the letter sent to the Central Committee detailing your plight?! – in the black market. Plumbers with a truck, hoses and plenty of water bring, for a few hundred pesos, the dry tanks and appease the need for cool refreshment in the heat of this rainless June. As not all the neighbors can pay the illegal plumber, there is always someone who calls the police to snitch and denounce the crime of “buying water on the black market.” For my part – and there’s no convincing me otherwise – in Spanish we call it envy and it is one of the primitive features of the New Man: human misery.
This venom towards the welfare of others, however, has odd results: a few days ago a friend told me how he had been caught red-handed filling his tanks, because a neighbor called the police and denounced the plumber. My friend was left without water, the vendor ended up with a fine of fifteen hundred pesos and the neighbor – this is the part that is absolutely incomprehensible to me – also was left without water because the State can no longer thank each informer with a bonus. Why didn’t the neighbor show the same perseverance in reporting the wasted water flowing out of broken pipes and tanks all over the city? For example, the tank of the electric company next to my building overflows so much it makes me think I have a spring under my apartment. Sadly, I know why he did it: his “fighting spirit” in the face of evil deeds doesn’t climb the stairs of the official out of cowardice, because the State’s tank has the impunity to squander water while his neighbor doesn’t have the right to enjoy a shower, and this seeing the collapse “to the bottom” has become, unfortunately, a national sport.
I still remember, though I was very young, the canned food and soap that my mother kept in a Russian metal basket, so we would be prepared for a U.S. military intervention. It was called “a state of Red Alert,” if my memory doesn’t fail me, and sometimes we had rehearsals about how to protect ourselves; luckily I didn’t participate in them. According to my father we would have to hide – my mother and I – in the basements of buildings, and stay there until the war ended.
The image was terrifying, made worse because at five I didn’t understand the difference between “eternal test to prepare for defense,” and “imminent armed confrontation.” I thought – for many years, in fact, I believed – that one day I would have to hide from U.S. soldiers who would try to kill me with their machine-guns.
Several times, with tears in my eyes, I said goodbye to my toys. At about eight I read the diary of Anne Frank and the example of that brave girl gave me the strength for when it would be up to me to survive in the dark.
In high school I discovered the lie, I felt so mistreated I never said anything to anyone. How could they have terrorized us like this for fun? In a good Cuban there is a phrase for this: they “took us for a ride,” me and my whole family. Even in the Special Period my mother suffered when she had to open some of those Soviet cans of food, meant to save us from starvation as the bombs fell.
The worst thing is that official speech hasn’t evolved very much. There are still high school classes in PMI (Integral Military Preparedness), and before they are sixteen teenagers know how to crawl on the ground “like special forces soldiers” up to a trench and shoot a rifle, and they also know by heart what to do when we are in a ridiculous state of “Red Alert.” But something happened to us, the adults, and also to them: my mother no longer saves cans (except for hurricanes), my friends don't fear running to the basement with their children to protect them from bullets, the PMI teacher is not as demanding (he knows we’ll never be in a real trench), and young children in elementary school are not afraid of one day becoming Anne Frank.
Every month I find myself overwhelmed by the absence of random staples; it can be oil, shampoo, detergent, milk, eggs or sanitary napkins. Every time the end of the month approaches, the question that comes to mind is, “What are we missing now?” Sometimes I can’t wash, other times cleaning is agony, or my pot of beans is distraught by the abandonment of its inseparable companion, rice.
I try to remember the moment when all this started, and I’m surprised to find that since I was a little girl the economy has played hide-and-seek with me. I still remember clearly the things my mother sighed for when I was only seven: food, cigarettes, shoes for me. Others populated my adolescent longings: chocolate, meat, a pair of shoes, soap. Here I am an adult, still finding myself frustrated by the persistent absence of simple things.
I wonder, as do the rest of Cubans, how long will it be until a bottle of hydrochloric acid, to clean the bathroom with, comes to star in my life? Could it be that when I am eighty a roll of toilet paper will still evoke nostalgia?
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.