The line for the bus at Coppelia is a special place, one of the corners so eloquent that if it disappeared one day Havana wouldn’t be the same. Yesterday at ten at night I was waiting for my P4 bus when a woman standing next to me with her daughter commented how “alive” the city was for the anniversary party for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). “Is that a joke, ma’am?” I asked, and she gave me a serial killer look.
The driver swore that not one more person could fit on the P4, so I got on through the back door. A drunk behind me was pushing to cut the line, but he was staggering around and trying to hold onto his bottle of alcohol at all costs and he lost his balance and fell. The driver started while the man was still trying to get on and he was almost killed in the attempt.
The woman of the “lively party,” at my side started screaming, and me, I answered, “He’s so plastered he won’t even make it to the corner!” She added, “He had to be black, all blacks are the same,” and started a lecture all about “those blacks” which if Martin Luther King had heard he would have died a second time. I looked around embarrassed. Everybody nearby was white. No one opened their mouths and I realized that they would all remain mute rather than defend the blacks. I got hysterical, I regretted it later, but at the time I wanted to strangle her, especially since her ranting was quietly being listened to by her young daughter, what a great example!
“Madam,” I said to her, “if I scream ‘Down with Fidel!’ you would be the first to jump on it. May I ask, then, why I have to put up with you talking like you’re the president of the Ku Klux Klan? And if I scream, ‘Down with Estaban Lazo!’ are you going to jump on that too or is it not the same?” The phrase came out rather awkwardly. She said nothing. People were staring at me and soon I felt like I’d stepped out of a tomb at the Colón cemetery, with worms crawling out of my half-gone skull.
I knew I couldn’t stop myself. That should not be the approach to dialog but sometimes dialog is simply beyond my capacity for tolerance. I got off at the stop at 23rd and A and walked the half mile home, talking to myself.
Photo: Leandro Feal, from the series "Trying to live with swing.”
My only certainty is that I am not a communist, the rest I’m not that sure about. I have trouble defining myself politically. It could be the result of having been born into a system different from the rest of the world -- outside its definitions of right and left -- into a system based on one man and above all, on his whims. I love listening to people when they explain their political positions to me (including the orthodox, of course), and it disappoints me not to be drawn to any. Beyond the rights and freedoms of man, there is no cause I feel committed to.
But one reads, is informed, and strives to understand the world, especially the ideologies that move it. Rather than get on a plane, the four hundred pages of a book -- nearly destroyed by its great many readers -- or a documentary on a flash memory, tell me the story of humanity beyond the sea. In general, I have decided to establish margins for a minimum comparison so as not to drive myself crazy. It is not very useful, from my point of view, to try to compare a democracy with a system of State capitalism, or a dictatorship with a developing country. I can compare the United States with Europe, Mexico with Argentina, Chile or Haiti; Cuba with the former countries of the Soviet Union, with Iran, with the Chile of Pinochet, the Spain of Franco, and even North Korea. Any other comparison, Cuba versus Uruguay for example, is tainted by a primary antagonism: Totalitarian Society versus the Rule of Law.
Thus, when a European unionist tries to convince me of “the achievements of the Cuban Revolution,” it makes me want to cry. First, because there are no unions in Cuba, at least not what would historically be known as a workers’ union, whose function is to enforce the rights of the worker versus the boss, the company or the State. It would be healthy to get to the root of the concept, to respect the meanings of nouns so as not to fall into ambiguity; as my friend Reinaldo Escobar says, “Bread means bread and dictatorship means dictatorship.”
On this point, the paths of the left, unfortunately, tend to greatly confuse me. So I find people who condemn all the dictatorships in the universe except for the one in my small country, and who are insulted when they hear Franco spoken of with respect, yet they venerate Fidel Castro. Others hate the western press for its sensationalism, but don’t criticize that a single party controls our newspapers.
There are those who are sure that the politics of the United States are interventionist and hegemonic, but they served as soldiers in Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia. There are even those who protest on the streets of New York against the war in Iraq with a three-by-three-foot poster of Ernesto Guevara. People, in short, who call the government of my country, “The Revolution.”
Working for the state is an ordeal: the wages are not nearly enough, productivity is zero, accountability is chaotic and worst of all you have to put up with the torpid meetings of a union which represents anyone but the worker. There are, however, those who have accepted all these conditions stoically and have endured years and years of state control in their jobs. It is not masochism that ties them to the apron strings of the state bureaucracy, but rather the little faith that a private investment will see them into their old age.
This isn’t the first time the government has decided -- with a rope around its neck -- to allow citizen initiative to sustain the national economy. We already saw, in the nineties, the emergence of private restaurants -- los paladares -- B&Bs, taxis, and little jobs in food service and household help. Today there is little left of that explosion of the self-employed. That is the problem: for how long will they let you keep your business?
To launch a restaurant, rent a room, or sell pizzas is not a short-term investment. People want to see the fruits of their efforts but the likelihood that the bureaucracy will, one day, knock on your door to take away all your permits has cycled through the history of the Revolution. I have a friend who had been operating a fairly popular restaurant for two years, when one afternoon an inspector came and took her papers to “verify them.” She is still waiting for them to be returned and in the meantime she cannot open the doors of her restaurant. She has received no explanation. She committed no crime.
She has moved her son to three different schools. Between the “emerging teachers,” those who swear there are no Spanish words accented on the antepenultimate syllable (the word for which, in Spanish -- sobreesdrújulas --is itself accented on the antepenultimate syllable), and the political propaganda, she couldn’t take it any more. The last time she put the boy in a theater workshop, she discovered with horror that he was assigned the role of Antonio Guerrero, one of the “Cuban Five” in prison in the U.S. for spying. The little guy left the first school with three warnings in his file: for asking to borrow an eraser; for crying because he wanted to go home; and, the most absurd, for not wanting to sign the previous warnings.
In the second elementary school the director welcomed the new students and their parents with the nice information that, “This school is on double section.” The poor thing was trying to say they had classes in the morning and classes in the afternoon. Then, at the group meeting, the guide warned, “Don’t worry if it’s five o’clock and your children haven’t arrived home, those who misbehave are punished with detention.”
I don’t know what human form the “historic leaders” are planning to get their hands on to reverse all the damage done to the educational system. An increase in the education budget would be insufficient as what is wrong goes far beyond the economy; paying a decent salary to teachers might serve some purpose if they had the necessary pedagogical and academic knowledge, but they don't. To develop a new faculty nationwide would take, at least, ten years. And meanwhile, what are our children learning?
The Cuban model was not working for us even when I thought of it.
When the socialist block collapsed the model didn’t work, not even for us.
After much reflection, the Cuban model will no longer be working.
The Cuban model hasn’t worked, not even for Chavez.
Before me, the Cuban model had worked.
What I created as the Cuban model, failed.
The Cuban model will not work for us, not even when Raul makes changes.
It is possible that the Cuban model would not work, not even for us.
That the Cuban model has not worked doesn’t affect my visits to the aquarium.
If the Cuban model worked for us, I wouldn’t have created it.
If the Cuban model would have worked for us, I would have retracted just the same.
The Cuban model would never work.
The Cuban model would have worked in another dimension.
He who has published in Granma that the Cuban model doesn’t work, will be shot.
Work! Cuban model!
I’ve made quite an effort not to write about Fidel Castro. First, because I’m not capable of saying anything serious about his persona (sometimes I would like to take him less lightly); second, because reading his “Reflections” has the same affect on me as do some science fiction fanzines (I like the genre), and third, because the Commander-in-Chief is today, despite himself, a ghost from the past of Cuban politics.
But he won’t stop talking! He publishes books, predicts the future of the human race, speaks about himself, confuses José Martí with Lenin, changes the past, annuls the future, and has a temper tantrum in the present because he is running out of time. He continues to appear over and over in scenes more like the theater of the absurd than the desperate politics of a system in ruins. Whether at the aquarium, or at a special session of the National Assembly, the costumes are worn at the seams, but the piece is played as if elegantly staged. Always surrounded by bodyguards (we call them “avatars” for their physical appearance), the old man doesn’t fall down but slips through the recesses of his mind, destroyed by power. After so many years enjoying the life of a Messiah, it is impossible for Fidel Castro to now assume that his death will not change the course of history, that the Year Zero will not be repeated, that Cuba will continue on its path and that his brother will or will not make some changes when he no longer exists (before himself being absorbed by the Change once he’s left alone). He has written his apocalyptic script like a prelude to departure. He will not take us with him because he can’t, but until the last instant of his earthly existence he will assign roles, cut off heads, vilify his enemies and announce -- through some kind of amazing theory -- the end of the world. He will die, but not before trying to make us believe that all of humanity is going with him into the grave.
Isolated from everything, his reality has become a mirror of a future where his image is not included. It no longer matters that the history of the Cold War is a rotting corpse that will never be revived. His only option is to construct a scene where he is not the premonition of his own illness, but rather the illness of the rest of us: nuclear war as a palliative of the mortality of a single human being. Whether well constructed or not, fear and opportunism will do the dirty work. Each one of the actors in his staged scenes follows his script exactly, from asking the entire Cuban art world to reproduce the Cuban Five, to requesting, tearfully, to be allowed to kiss the Commander.
In the government they’re pulling their hair out trying to prevent the economy from a near-term collapse, the power is rearranging itself, and corruption is becoming the new face of island totalitarianism. Meanwhile, at the University of Havana Fidel Castro, looking for his own eternity on the earth that is going to swallow him, reminds us that “...the hard work of warning humanity of the real danger that it faces falls on Cuba, and in this effort we must not lose heart.” But the stage machinery of his act dissolves on the faces of this audience of bored twenty-somethings; they do not feel beholden, they long to leave the country by any door, and their memory of nuclear confrontation comes down to the movie “Lisanka.” Comrade Fidel faces a public that cares not a whit about his misunderstood mortality and his prediction of nuclear catastrophe, because the only bottomless thing about the University of Havana student body is their twenty years.
Image: “Your passport, citizen” by Erick Perez Jorge Mota
Following the universal law of Cuban telephone lines, after the downpour on Wednesday my phone died. “No line,” was the post-mortem note, in English, on the little handset screen. On Thursdays we reported the outage several times because, as the experts say, the more reports that are made about the same break, the faster ETECSA will come.
On Friday I canceled all my plans and prepared to wait for the technician. Hours passed: I read, I wrote, I scrubbed and cleaned, I didn’t talk to anyone all day and had time to speculate. I came to the conclusion that there was a high percentage of probability that the technician who services me also has a small job with the Department of State Security (DSE). At six in the evening my theory became an absolute certainty. I went out and called the users-service-line to ask them to tell me, if not the hour, at least the day my repair is scheduled for: “I’m sorry, we do not have that information, it could be any day between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon.”
Anticipating that the wait could be extended to September, I tried to cover the month of August in morning and afternoon watches with my friends. If I had to leave home for some emergency, I had to call my mother so she could rush over and not leave the house empty. Life is like that, you just have to wait longer than expected and stop looking for the guy to turn up.
My and Ciro’s time was the most affected, of course. I told him about my theory of the technician moonlighting for the DSE, and he looked at me with that face he makes when he thinks I’m being paranoid. There are those in Cuba who think everyone is from State Security, even if it's proven otherwise.
I was wrong. Saturday at eight-thirty in the morning the man in question showed up. He didn’t give us time to make bets about his Security origins. He looked terrified, poor thing. He came in and before saying “Good morning,” he asked, “Do you have a modem connected?”
The little box for my phone line is in the bedroom, behind the bed. He was tinkering with it under my scrutinizing gaze. It looked like he didn’t put a microphone in it, but one never knows. Either way, the things I talk about in bed are inconsequential. He said the problem wasn’t in the box and that he would have to make a sketch of all the wiring in the house. I put on my I-don’t-think-so face when Ciro’s voice came from the living room, “It’s already fixed.”
We left the bedroom. I started to feel guilty toward the guy. At the end of the day, he had fixed my problem and my cogitations, I thought, seemed as fantastical as the reflections of comrade Fidel.
“Would you like a coffee?” I asked, with the idea of lowering his guard.
I couldn’t get to the kitchen because he decided to make a call.
Previous position: On guard!
I stood a few inches away with the obvious intention of overhearing what he was saying. I didn’t understand a thing. I think he used slang and hung up quickly. I must have been staring, I was really surprised. How is it possible that one can’t understand someone speaking Spanish less than a yard away in a quiet atmosphere? With the satisfaction of having been proved right, and the discomfort of having a security agent in the room, I went to put the coffee on. He started a conversation.
“Did you see the Roundtable show yesterday?” he asked Ciro.
“Our TV is very bad.”
“A man talked about the global economic collapse.”
But Ciro was not intimidated, “Well, according to Karl Marx, in the future there will be no money, no leaders.”
The guy was a little disconcerted. I put his coffee in front of him and didn’t say a single word.
“There will always be leaders.”
“ Really? What do you call the president of Sweden, or Denmark or Finland?”
That was the last thing I caught. I didn’t want to be a part of it, although it was cracking me up. Suddenly everything had become extremely hilarious. He drank the coffee quickly and left. We made bets later, which are ongoing: State security or not State security?
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.