Sin Evasión / Without Evasion
English translation of Miriam Celaya's blog "Sin EVAsión" from Havana, Cuba
Archive for Agosto, 2008
A brief note to my readers to thank everyone for the messages of support I have received from you since the start of my blog in February of this year, and especially those I have received since July, after revealing my identity. In truth, they have moved me tremendously. I will not disappoint you. I want to take this opportunity to clarify that during the summer months, due to circumstances beyond my control and because of the distressing conditions related to accessing the internet and the administration of my site, I have posted here, all on the same day, a number of entries for the last month and therefore some of them are outdated. I want to share them with you, in spite of everything; they constitute opportunities for dialog and debate which are always necessary in a country where an independent civil society, in addition to being limited, is virtually clandestine. I hope, in the near future, to find more opportunities to post to this blog. I know you’ll understand. A big hug.
From my personal perspective, the speech by Raúl Castro last July 26 ranks as the most gray, mediocre and disheartening that has occurred since 1959, especially considering that we have never been in a situation more critical or as complex in this country as we are in today, for both the government and the governed. Anyone could say that this comment is somewhat late, coming in the middle of August, however last February I published an article in this blog (Changes, the challenge for Raul), in which I referred to some interesting points from the speech he gave to the National Assembly after being unanimously elected as President of the Council of State and Government. In that speech he promised an agenda conducive to reforms: Institutionalization and readjustment of the functioning of institutions that do not meet the demands of the people, elimination of prohibitions and regulations, and promotion of local initiative, among others. Now I feel obliged to speak to retract my earlier position.
Last February it seemed that the younger of the Castro sons was ready to shake the old obsolete structure and bring about an era of change. Undoubtedly, his address was a risky proposal: Removing the stagnation of decades of inefficiency, allowing the development of “initiatives” not emanating from power, and eliminating prohibitions in a country where special permission is needed to breathe, these were a huge challenge. Another challenge was the need to rapidly implement the measures in order to alleviate the acute socio-economic crisis in the country. Obviously, Raúl Castro has not had the caliber to face up to these challenges. And let the record show that I do not mean ballistic caliber, but rather political and strategic.
The expectations awoken by that speech of February 24 were dramatically shipwrecked in just 5 months by the closing speech that commemorated the 55th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks. In the anniversary speech the national development program was officially circumscribed to supplying drinking water for Santiago de Cuba. The only mention of foreign policy was reduced to the traditional invective against the external enemy that lurks and mercilessly threatens us… As if nothing had happened in the international arena during this year; as if the Cuban government had not signed two important treaties on Human Rights; as if the European Union had not repealed its “Common Position” on Cuba; and as if elections were not forthcoming in that “enemy” country we have a stone’s throw from our shores. Nobody knows what happened to the olive branch the Cuban president (when he was interim) had extended in a conciliatory way to the United States government on July 26, 2007, and later on December 2 of the same year. The current speech not only contrasted with the apparent political will for change in Cuba that one could see (reading between the lines with goodwill) in the cryptic scrolls of his speech before the least talkative parliamentarians* on the planet this past July 11, 2008, but even more so all the ritual of this July 26 – the preliminary gala and presidential speech included – where he took an overwhelming step backwards, even compared with the same “celebration” the previous year.
If, for some weeks, I counted myself among those who favored the youngest of the royal olive-greens and, giving him the benefit of the doubt, attributed to him an ounce of common sense, here and now I publically distance myself from that group. I reaffirm the belief that a chimera is nothing more than that. Now we are doomed more to chaos than to the long-awaited changes in Cuba. One could argue that within six months of taking official power, Raúl Castro demonstrated his political incapacity to steer the destiny of a nation in the delicate and urgent moment of effective transformation, as much in the economic plan as in the sociopolitical. But it is equally essential to admit the inability of the governed to demand that the government, at the very least, meet the deadlines for complying with the minimum commitments pledged after half a century of empty promises.
“Least talkative parliamentarians on the planet”: This phrase is more amusing in the original Spanish, “los parlamentarios menos parlantes del planeta,” where both parlementarios (literally ‘those who talk’) and parlantes (’talkative ones’) have the same root.
The mass media, people in the workplace, on the street, families in their houses, almost everyone expresses an opinion in which the primary consensus is: Cuban society, particularly among young people, is mired in a crisis of values. In support of this assertion they use multiple examples of a diverse nature, such as lack of respect and general rudeness, contempt for family values, the breakdown, the absence of the most basic rudiments of education, physical and verbal violence, the increase in alcoholism, disinterest in work, social indiscipline, indifference or apathy, consumerism…. And so on, producing an endless list.
Of course, there will be no lack of “sociologists” of the system, who see in this a kind of indicator that demonstrates that Cuba falls within a universal trend. Believe me, I have heard these judgments more than once. I always answer them by saying that what is lamentable is that in this country we only seem to have the capacity to follow the most negative trends of the global village without ever receiving anything of the more positive advances. But let’s not go there. What is truly essential is that, in actuality, nobody seems to know with any certainty what values should be transmitted. Not even the government, with its principal responsibility for everything that happens here (or perhaps we should say, “what never happens”).
I say this because we know that at the macrosocial level the “ideal” values (that is those that go beyond the familiar framework – school and work – and pervade the common space, collective environments, the public plazas, and make up the “model citizen” to which, by right, we aspire), are transmitted through symbols, that in these times, have become as chaotic as Cuban society itself. It is this national reality and the response it gives rise to that brings the crisis of values, not the influence of globalization. If someone is surprised by this text, if you feel confused, or think that I am writing under the influence of some toxic substance, you only have to stop and observe carefully. Consider, for example, the space occupied by the esplanade that stretches in front of the Hotel Riviera, where, in 1978, to mark the celebration in Havana of the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students, the so-called Fountain of Youth was inaugurated, which initially ran with water, like any other respectable fountain.
Recalling that summer with the city filled with young people from every latitude, and I myself at age 19, I can remember my naiveté and that of many others as we enthusiastically joined in on the song of Mike Purcel, which was the theme at that long-ago festival, popularized by the harmonious voice of Argelia Fragoso. We were so far from imagining that one day, beside a fountain that symbolizes peace and friendship between the young people of the world, a giant bottle of Havana Club rum next to a can of Cristal beer would be placed to serve as an advertising “hook” to attract people to the tents, as can be seen in the photo at the top of this post. Or that these beverages and other products would be sold in CUCs [Cuban Convertible Pesos], the currency of the most favored (who are the least in number). At the other edge of the same plaza, next to the portapotties, a food stall perfumes the air with the aroma of rancid fat reheated too many times. Across the street on one side there is a gas station with its little snack counter, while in front of the symbolic Youth Plaza they’ve opened the upscale shopping center, “Galerías de Paseos.” It will not be necessary to clarify, once again, what kind of currency you need to have in your pocket to buy what is for sale in all these places. And to leave no doubt or confusion about the symbols, next to the already mentioned refried chicken stand (refried again and again), three flags proudly stand together, of which one is least like the others: the Cuban tricolor, the red-and-black July 26th… and the corporation CIMEX.
In short, I am unclear if a conglomeration of such strong symbols were supposed to contrast with the invitation for young people to consume alcohol, if the CIMEX flag alongside that of Cuba and the other one is a reference to the importance that the currency has for the survival of the nation, or if consumerism is one of the values to be instilled in the younger generation. Surely my contemporaries remember that, in the “glory days” of our ugly fountain, used jeans, pullovers with tribal icons or English letters, Adidas shoes and other accessories not produced by CAME, were unequivocal (and demonic) signs of amusing ideology. And I have made it clear that I’m not complaining because they have left behind those times in which the Holy Office carried credentials from the PCC [Communist Party of Cuba] and threats hung over any innocent youthful dream that smelled of “capitalism. On the contrary. What really has me alarmed is my incapacity to interpret the new symbols in the old markets; most of all, because they come from exactly the same center of power that produced them 30 years ago.
The “Van Troi” polyclinic, located at Charles III Avenue and Hospital in the middle of Havana, is undergoing another “remodeling.” Only two years ago it had been subjected to a “complete makeover” and re-opened with much hype and fanfare with all new equipment, an intensive care area, all very “gussied up” and with lighting in the outdoor areas; even the doctors were boasting, “Look at this, all fixed up!” All of this is part of the works executed for the People by this entity without face or body, both having been given to the so-called Battle of Ideas in whose shadow the same ones who badly repair an old polyclinic construct with great care a public space for ideological screaming. I say this because as far as I know there has not been a single sign of deterioration in those horrible and expensive flagpoles that form the “Mountain of Flags” built in what is commonly called the “protest place” in front of the U.S. Interests Section, very close to the terrifying statue of Marti where the severe Apostle appears to threaten the Interest of the Empire by preparing to launch the child sitting on his right arm at it.
I know, having been informed by one of the maintenance people for this large monumental area – born as a place of the revolutionary cult in the heat of the “Battle for the boy Elián” – the regularity with which they monitor all the components of this ritual space, from the special paint to the pathetic metal palms, which are renewed constantly because they are subject to aggression not from imperialism but from the salt air. That the huge poles that hold the flags are regularly and carefully monitored by highly qualified specialists proves the importance to the Cuban government of reinforcing the myth of David and Goliath. Only the biblical David was much more austere; he needed only a slingshot to defeat the enemy.
Meanwhile, when I went to the Van Troi polyclinic with a terrible toothache few months after it reopened following the ‘reconstructive’ work a couple years ago, I could see that they had already suspended gastroenterology services due to a mysterious obstruction in that area. Bit by bit they are left to provide other services, in the midst of the deterioration of the medical equipment and the building. I am not going to mention here, for modesty’s sake, the issue of hygiene at the clinic.
And so it stood, until it occurred to me to go to the consulting nurse at the end of July in order to get a prescription to buy pain medication. I put my hand over my mouth when I saw a poster in the waiting room announcing that the Van Troi polyclinic is nothing less than a “Work in Progress” with a current budget of 482,261.08 pesos. How wonderful! Now the endless cycle will start again, of rushed and slipshod work, the illegal sale of building materials to individuals (the price in the stores in CUCs is prohibitive), another strident re-opening and, God willing, another budget within a few years to halt the premature deterioration. And so we continue, “Cuban-ing.”
I have always liked old books and documents. The old things awaken an uncontrollable curiosity in me and not without justification. For example, it has never disappointed me to review some of the many newspapers and magazines that circulated in Cuba before the Revolution, and even from the start of this controversial process the fragments demonstrate the deliberate erasing of history in the revolutionary version with which we have been indoctrinated for decades.
Examining some editions of Bohemia (the good, the old, perhaps some would say the poetic), inherited from the paternal library, I recently found an interview conducted in the year 1959 by the journalist Tony Delahoza with the engineer Manuel Ray who was then the Minister of Public Works under the prematurely ousted President Urrutia. Ray’s job was to ensure that the ministry’s projects already under construction were finished; among these was the aqueduct that would guarantee a water supply for the city of Santiago de Cuba.
It’s possible that the vice of “forgetting” the past affects not only the majority of the Cuban people, but also those who govern them. Because, had he known this, perhaps the president wouldn’t have announced on the 55th anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Baracks, like one of the accomplishments of the revolution, like a novel program, or like an example of the government’s concern for the people, the upcoming drinkable water supply for the afore mentioned city. For me personally, moreover, I find it difficult to guess what those who fell in that assault would have thought if they had learned they were giving their lives so that more than half a century later the heroic Santiagans would have access to this precious liquid. Incidentally, as an additional point of fact, it’s useful to remember that the only Santiagan of this heroic deed was Renato Guitart.
More than an “Heroic City” Santiago de Cuba should be proclaimed a “Martyr City,” not only because of what it suffered in the past as the scene and victim of the violence that was the assault on its principal military barracks, and later its clandestine struggle that brought its share of mourning for many Cuban families, but also to have to wait for five long decades of water scarcity (that is to say, for water) to have the promise that was made by that mendacious, bloody scoundrel, President Fulgencio Batista, finally be completed by the current government.