Accessories and Sandwiches / Regina Coyula

The school year has just begun, the first for many children. Filled with enthusiasm and wonder, these little ones are unaware of the disruption their new status as students creates for many Cuban families.

Along with the canasta basica,* the school uniform is the last holdout of the ration book as far as manufactured goods are concerned. It is provided to each student upon enrollment in the form of a ticket to buy subsidized uniforms, which he or she must treat with great care since there won’t be any more given out until the fourth grade.

As everyone knows, education in Cuba is free but other expenses related to a child’s schooling come directly out of the family budget. I am not referring only to shoes, a backpack or a lunchbox. The first parents’ meeting will confirm what families already know from their own experiences or those of others.

There are always parents who offer to buy paint and others who offer to paint. There are always collection drives for cleaning supplies and sign-up sheets for mothers to clean bathrooms. It is now standard practice to start the school term every year by collecting five CUC per child to purchase fans.

Teachers and administrators adopt a stance of giving in to these family initiatives in a game of role playing in which it is assumed that the Ministry of Education will provide everything that is needed to do the work and that the family wants what is best for its children.

All this and other things that follow are part of an unwritten but demonstrably effective methodology, which only gets better from one school term to the next The youngest children must not bring backpacks, only luncheras (lunch boxes). If they bring soft drinks, they must be in plastic containers, even if they are in cans. Everything must be able to be kept at room temperature.

Special emphasis is given to the lunchtime sandwich. No roast beef, ground meat or fish. Chicken must be shredded, ham sliced. Even better if it is the ever popular perrito (or hot dog).

Every pre-schooler must bring a sturdy shoebox to store all his or her projects for the entire school term. They must also bring scissors for cutting paper, crayons, an eraser — all items available only in hard currency.

The classroom is a place where the disparities that have become entrenched in society are there to be seen. Every student has a right to education but equality ends there.

From the moment they arrive at school, even before morning classes begin, their footwear and accessories tell a story of which the students themselves are ignorant protagonists and about which their parents will speak in private with cynicism or shame, depending on their personal ideas about what constitutes success.

Translator’s note: The “basic basket” is an allotment of foodstuffs intended to provide Cubans with a minimum of 3,100 of calories per day. The items include beans, rice, sugar, cooking oil and coffee. There is also a monthly allotment of meat, chicken, and eggs. Prices for these goods are heavily subsidized but the items themselves are often in short supply.

5 September 2014

Vacations / Regina Coyula

With the heat, my summer option is to sit in front of the TV, but not in front of the summer programming which doesn’t interest me, rather to decide what I watch because in the end I have a TV for the halfway intelligent.

“24” with its thrilling season has been the thriller. And it’s not that I don’t know that later in the third season Jack Bauer will save the world once again with the help of Chloe alone, but he’ll still end up screwed; it’s that in this tacit agreement, I’m disposed to believe in Super Bauer if it’s told well.

Also the action movie, Die Hard, 5? 6? 7? Bruce Willis, Bauer’s putative uncle, does his thing in a Moscow unrecognizable for those left in the USSR.

Not everything is banal. movies like “Siberian Education” or “The Map in the Clouds” have added the dramatic note. Light humor comes at the hands of “Modern Family”; thanks for not putting canned laughter in “Breaking Bad,” excellent black humor, the best of the summer. “The Hammer and Tickle,” a Canadian documentary about USSR and Eastern European humor, made me laugh and made me think of copies, and the current drought of good jokes, in great measure due to the fact that so many of these jokes were island adaptations of the originals beyond what you see, over there.

But the best has been the arrival of Piura, the new puppy in the house. Perky, smart, loving, she’s already the boss of everyone. And like all my dogs, rescued. It’s an odd vacation idea to spend my days cleaning up pee and a good part of the night consoling a little puppy who’s afraid of the dark, but the dogcatcher understands me.

That’s been my vacation. It’s a really nice personal project that has grabbed my attention.

29 August 2014

Message for Yadira / Regina Coyula

I’d like to be able to have a conversation with the Cuban-American Yadira Escobar. The photo in her blog tells me that she is young, and the information she provides about herself indicates that she emigrated when she was very little. I have read much about how Yadira would like to return to Cuba, and I have also read about what her dream Cuba is.

Yadira is a self-proclaimed lover of freedom. Neither the Marxist collectivism nor capitalist individualism agree with her idea of what Cubans want; however, she missteps in inciting our academics, university students, and specialists of all kinds to be at the ready to plan the national course.

I can assure young Yadira that there is an intellectual contemplation coming from many places and many walks of life on Cuba, but their mark cannot always be found in official channels; it needs to be sought out in alternative sites, and in many cases, it is plagued, silenced and demonized.

The desires that this young woman echoes should be permanent in the different forms of broadcast and in the spheres of thought and debate that exist or that are trying to emerge in our country; that is, not only the virtual, but the physical as well.

I don’t know what optimism that escapes my understanding makes Yadira think that nationalism can create a harmonization. According to what I see, the overdose of misdirected nationalism has been a source of social friction and has divided us into communists or anti-patriots, team-players or apathetics, the right or the left, revolutionaries or defectors, and other always antagonistic comparisons.

Nationalism is one of the tricks that Cuban government propaganda has used to try to convince everyone that all thinking contrary to what is official is unpatriotic. The fatherland is another thing; it is something intangible that goes with someone and manifests itself in each person in a different manner; it is an emotion and sometimes an aroma, and is, above all, an unbearable taxonomy.

In effect, a large percentage of the population voted for an eternal socialism. I, who see how the people vote and later see how it is justified, who knows the way in which the vote is controlled from the electoral system down to personal decisions–including intimate ones–would allow myself to doubt the sincerity of the counts and the sincerity of the voters.

I cannot decline to comment on Yadira’s vision of the March 13th ferry tragedy. She was very tiny when the terrible events occurred, but with a little information about the fateful night, no one can talk about an accident. An accident implies an involuntary action; Yadira seems to not know the survivors’ story. On the contrary, she accepts as valid the version that the Granma newspaper provided.

The drowned children did NOT fall from the boat as in the happy little simile that she uses. The boat was attacked; with powerful water jets it was flooded and sank. I leave the details of the nightmare to her investigation. Such an act cannot be classified as anything more than criminal. Since then, the decision for adults to subject minors to a dangerous journey has vanished.

To live in Cuba gives me a little more of a view of the country. People don’t escape because of the constraints of the Embargo; people escape because the ruinous economy doesn’t allow for prosperous opportunities, because in a government of 55 years, they keep talking about experimental economies.

In the sickness of the administration, the corruption and the squander, the effect of the Embargo has been minimal. I invite Yadira to see the guidelines of the economic policy laid out in the Party’s latest congress. The words embargo or blockade aren’t there. And if the motivation to abandon the country at first glance appears economical, political decisions have put us where we are.

If popular sovereignty were sacred, the labels of Cubans from Cuba or Cubans from Miami would have disappeared a long time ago; I don’t dare imagine what we might have been; but I’m sure that the Cubans that work, govern, and opinionate, and among them I picture Yadira, could have done better in the last 55 years.

And without appealing to the generous and disinterested help of any world power–we already know how interested you are and the privileges that you’ve enjoyed in the name of sovereignty–the search for democracy is a problem among Cubans.

Translated by John Daniels

15 August 2014

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet / Regina Coyula

Woe is Me, Who Was a Poet…

…or thought I was, which is worse. In keeping with this, I would have become a “fine poet of felt verses,” as literary criticism says when it has nothing better to say. Common sense and love of writing have left me here, where I feel so comfortable. I found a very yellowed piece of lined paper bearing this text typed by an Underwood, following an interminable train ride from Santa Clara to Havana taken along with a group of youths who were returning from a rock festival. Speaking of Frank Abel, does anyone know what has become of him?

HEAVY METAL

To Frank Abel Dopico 

The rock-and-rollers love the nocturnality of trains

then

the rockers run away from home

they beg for money at the station

and they go to another province

to imagine what it’s like to travel.

In the parks

the rockers are blue

they make love and urinate in the solitude of sidewalks

all pleasure they find in the cross-eyed hands of Jimmy Page.

They have a calling to be cops, the rockers

they raise the decibels

exorcism by percussion

it’s the train and it’s Led Zeppelin

there is a monastic silence in the rockers

they tear their hair and they huddle to weep in the corner of the car.

They don’t think of the following day

they clasp their hands and kiss the crucifix.

The sweet rockers

rehearse with amphetamines and other complications

to imagine how it is

to travel.

(June 19, 1990)

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 July 2014

Postcard from a Journey (3) / Regina Coyula

Nuevitas is my third and last stop on this whirlwind of a trip. The Santiago/Nuevitas journey takes eight hours, two of them in the 16-kilometer stretch between Manatí and Camalote. My trip is the next to last before this itinerary is suspended, pending the repair of the roadway. A passenger who appears to be a regular suggests making the round through Guáimaro, but the driver informs him that around there the roadway is worse. The news spreads through the bus, almost all the passengers know each other and the crew, complaints are heard, but there is nothing to be done.

It is a monotonous journey, a plain copped with trees — and notice I say trees — of the marabou weed variety. I see cows, the only ones during the whole trip; a slender herd, beige spots against the green pasture.

I’m startled by the ghost of the Free Algeria sugar mill in old Manatí. Some rickety structures and two chimneys testify to it. I grew up hearing the phrase “without sugar there is no country,” it was something so understood that to bump up against the ruins of the industry that gave us the title of “the sugar bowl of the world,” inevitably causes me to think of who bears the responsibility for a disaster of such proportions.

Nuevitas, seaport… I don’t manage to distinguish the port, the nitrogenized fertilizer factory releases a yellow smoke and there is threat of a rainstorm. The cloud cover is refreshing, there are no trees; Nuevitas is an industrial city, irregular but monotonous. The “mini train” is the substitute for the bus, an open wagon thrown over a tractor, horse-drawn carriage and bicycle-taxis.

An unexpected event turns out to be amusing. My visit coincides with the police citation given to the lawyers of the Cuban Law Association. A man wearing a cap and dark glasses take photos of us, to which I return the gesture, which disconcerts him, causes him to cross the street quickly and disappear from sight.

It’s almost 4 pm and I’m dying for breakfast. The only restaurant in the city is Nuevimar, where we are the only diners besieged by a legion of flies. The water in the glass looks cloudy and tastes bad. The service is slow, I’m hungry but also apprehensive. I make up for all this in a privately-run bakery that features a varied selection. I’ve had no coffee, and the deprivation is giving me a headache.

The lawyers are very sorry for the unexpected police intrusion; I’m exhausted, sleep-deprived, having traveled more than 19 hours in less than three days; and the trip to Havana is still ahead and due to my lack of experience I’m going to be cold in the Chinese-made Yutong bus. So, I prefer to sleep a little in the bus and train station until the 7pm departure of the bus.

From the window I manage to see a bit of the coast, I don’t see a port nor ships. Nuevitas reminds me a little of Cojímar, but without the charm of Cojímar.

I arrive in Havana at 5 in the morning. A boatman asks me for 7 CUC to take me, then reduces the fee when I threaten to find another taxi. At 5:30 I’m already at home, sleeping.

Click here to view the slideshow

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

2 July 2014

Postcard From a Journey (1) / Regina Coyula

Like Silvio, I think the people are screwed; unlike him, however, it didn’t take me so much time to realize it, but traveling outside Havana let me see it first hand.

The domestic terminal at Jose Marti Airport is the original airport building. After checking your luggage you have to go up an escalator.  “It’s almost always broken,” a regular traveler told me. Upstairs you  get in another line to pass through a little door in groups of five. Behind this is the x-ray control and then you enter a large area of souvenir shops, closed at five in the morning, with a snack bar at the end where there’s nobody, all of which leads to a large waiting room.

Neither the poster of Santa Lucia beach looking like paradise, nor the other two that you sit against, managed to overcome my claustrophobic impression of that room without even one window.

I discover another snack bar which, unlike the one at the entrance, sells in national currency. Bread with mayonnaise and mortadella or a hot dog (served cold), soft drinks on tap or in cans, and coffee.

I head to the bathroom which, although clean, smells dirty.

I return to the waiting room and, luckily, to divert your attention from such an ugly place, there are several televisions. I concentrate on an Animal Planet program until they call my flight.

Another little line between a plasterboard half wall facing an open door, but the employee still makes us wait fifteen minutes until we go through; we have to go down a staircase to the final boarding pass check and then, finally, walk to the plane.

A trouble-free trip and the Holguin airport, much more agreeable than Havana’s. At the exit of the building we’re accosted by many drivers, all trying to “fight” for fares to the city. So many options facilitates price haggling.

I’ve heard so much talk of Holguin as “the city of parks” that I assume from its name the Garden City neighborhood will be a garden. Mistake. It’s a suburb of little houses constructed by people’s own efforts with whatever resources they could come by. There are better and worse, but the architects didn’t come here; there are no sidewalks, well, there are barely streets, and there are no trees. This explains why men and women protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas.

Urban transport doesn’t seem bad, there are also a lot of biketaxis and carts pulled by horses. Unlike Havana, the “almendrones” (1950s American cars in use as shared taxis) are prohibitively expensive.

The center is more amicable, there are the parks that give the city its nickname, there’s a boulevard full of life, and at a local concentration businesses run by the self-employed I find the replacement part for my mixer that I’ve been seeking for months. When the seller tells me the price is 180 pesos I ask him if the mixer is included.

Instead, we eat at an air-conditioned restaurant with a decent menu, which costs a lot less than the part for the mixer. I ask my friend if satin is made there, because it’s the fabric of choice in the decor. Missing no details, the restaurant has red satin tablecloths and curtains, and the seats are white with red bows. After that Christmas decor, I enjoy the beer we have at “The Cave,” a local tribute to the Beatles.

The interprovincial bus terminal is a dark and dirty place. The loudspeaker voice is incomprehensible. I know the announcement is for my trip because there aren’t any others at that time.

Holguin reserved this ugly surprise as a goodbye; I prefer to think of the good impression made by all the people I had the chance to meet.

30 June 2014