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.

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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

The Deluded / Regina Coyula

There are those who walk without watching who walks behind, if they seem mysterious speaking on the phone it is for the purpose of mortifying a little the listening elves, they take for granted that some neighbor(s) take(s) note of their movements and visits, but it does not interest them. They live with the decision to behave as free beings without allowing the government’s barriers, within which all that is not expressly authorized is prohibited, to constrain them in the least.

Others prefer a stealthy attitude, they communicate with signals, they have designed an alternative vocabulary and they live under the conspiracy theory in the category of major players.  They sleep with one eye open, they see ulterior motives in everything.

Not many of the first group are free, nor are many of those controlled by paranoia watched.

Translated by mlk.

18 June 2014

A Chronicle Owed / Regina Coyula

To Carlos and my traveling companions

To Carlos Ríos and Juan Carlos Linares, my entertaining and courteous travel companions, and to the people of Piura.

When someone asks me what I thought of Lima, I amswer that I was not in Lima but in Miraflores, an area of the city located along the seacoast where the green spaces are impeccable, and the traffic-filled streets are clean and crowded with the Toyotas and Kias. Even the dogs and cats are looked after by the local government. There are tall buildings, enormous stores and restaurants. That’s Miraflores, a district of Lima where anyone would enjoying living, even in spite of high walls and electrical fences.

I was invited by the Institute for Freedom to participate in a seminar on digital journalism and communication technology. These were luxurious conferences, attended by people highly-qualified in their fields. I went to learn and I learned a lot. I also had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people. It felt strange to be treated so cordially in the markets, restaurants, stores and when asking for directions on the street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne sees a different Lima in Gamarra, an impressive commercial perimeter whose counterpart — if there is one — might only be found in some Asian megalopolis. In Gamarra you can hear money growing. This pedestrian-oriented rectangle produces more wealth than many countries. All the activity can make you feel dizzy. Not far from here I can see a hill encrusted with little houses, which arouses my curiosity. It is a poor area where the police do not dare enter, where the recipe for material success goes unfulfilled. We have to leave Gamarra before nightfall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I would have liked to check out the bar frequented by Zavalita and Ambrosio in Conversation in the Cathedral, or to walk through the University of San Marcos and see if there is a bust, at least a plaque, commemorating Vallejo’s time there.* I had to settle for a bridge and the Chabuca Granda shopping mall in Barranco — a beautiful old area — and a delicious ride on a double-decker tour bus to the city center.

We Cubans always end up talking about food, but to go to Peru and not talk about its food would be a crime. The seviche — which is also spelled with a c and a b — in the food market is unforgettable, as are the huancaína fries and the enormous sweet corn kernels.

mirafloresI must admit that I never dreamt that in a such busy week I would make new friends who will forever stay with me. And there was the city itself, which I pretended to recognize even when Miraflores did not resemble the opulent and modern residential area of Vargas Llosa’s novels.


Translator’s note: A reference to a novel, Conversation in the Cathedral, by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. The plot revolves around the lives of Santiago Zavala and Ambrosio — one the son of a government minister, the other his chauffeur. A chance meeting leads to a conversation between the two at a bar known as the Cathedral. Zavala is a student activist at the National University of San Marcos who opposes the Peruvian dictatorship of the 1950s.

13 June 2014

Prosperous and Sustainable (2) / Regina Coyula

My troubles did not end with the molars. Thinking myself clever, a month ago I bought a combined ceiling fan and light fixture at the Plaza Carlos III shopping mall. From an initial price of 120.00 CUCs, it had been reduced to 35 because it was missing its shade. I did not think twice because the phallic bulbs they have been selling since the “energy revolution” will not fit inside any shade anyway. But to paraphrase a popular saying, when something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I should have thought twice and walked away.

The electrician installing the new appliance pointed out that the screws used to attach the blades were not original. There was also evidence it had been repainted, indicating that the fan had been installed and for some reason uninstalled. He recommended that I return it.

With the item still under warranty, I went back to Carlos III to ask for a refund. The same employee who had sold me the fan told me that, although it was Wednesday, the day they handle returns, I would first have to go to the studio several blocks away where they would give me the paperwork authorizing the return.

The box the fan came in was bulky and quite heavy. As everyone knows, I am a certified expert in public transport, so I had the foresight to call to my brother, who owns a car, to help with the transaction.

It exhausts me just thinking about all the neurons I wasted trying to explain this to the employee, more neurons than she ever had. Fearing I would have a heart attack, a young man, clearly someone of importance in the chain of command there, came to my assistance. He understood and simplified the issue:

“I don’t know why they told you to come here,” he said, “because the problem is with the store, not with us.”

Back again to Carlos III. The same employee reiterated that this was not her problem, pointing to a faintly printed piece paper on the wall behind the counter. Even with perfect vision a customer could still only guess that it had something to do with the store’s return policy. But I had my own plan. I put the fan in the middle of the counter and asked to speak to the floor manager. Since this was preventing her from attending to the other “users” — at this point you will have noticed that being a customer in Cuba is highly unusual and no doubt considered unpatriotic — the employee told a young man to go get Alain. Upon hearing my explanation, Alain told the employee, “Give her a refund.”

And with money in hand I could not help but blurt out a well-worn phrase:

“That is why this thing must fail.”

At a minimum I enjoyed the gestures and words of affirmation from the line of people behind me.

11 May 2014

Prosperous and Sustainable (1) / Regina Coyula

My adolescence coincided with the era in which almost all Cuba’s dentists left the country. When I finally saw one, the most expeditious course of treatment was to remove two of my molars that in other circumstances would have been saved. But those battle-hardened dentists could not be bothered with such details as a teenager’s smile, no matter how cheerful it may have been. So as soon as I could, I had a permanent bridge made. My little bridge allowed me laugh without embarrassment until two years ago when old age began to move things around. Every time the bridge came loose, I — more stubborn than it — put it back in place. But by the end of last year it finally gave out.

In the judgement of the prosthetist a new permanent bridge was required because neither removable bridges nor dental implants were suitable in my case due to the shallowness of the occlusion. These bridges are metal but the clinic did not make them, which meant I would have to go to the School of Dentistry.

So off I went to see a Doctor Lorenzo, the only person authorized to treat patients at the school. I went on a Wednesday but Lorenzo only sees patients on Mondays. Come early, I was warned.

The following Monday I arrived at seven in the morning. At eight the doctor’s secretary appeared at the doorway and announced that the doctor had to deal with a personal matter and would not be coming to work. The following Monday I was unable to go and the Monday after that I found out, also at eight, that Lorenzo would not be seeing patients since the school was closed for a week-long break.

Last Monday the orbital paths of Dr. Lorenzo’s and myself were finally in alignment but it was for naught. Sitting behind his desk, Dr. Lorenzo was seeing patients while on auto-pilot. In my case that meant there was nothing that could be done since the metal fabricating machine had been broken since November.

Caramba! Considering how easy it is to post a little announcement, a note could have saved me three trips here.”

Whenever I asked Lorenzo where I could have the work done, he responded with the mantra, “Go to your healthcare provider.”

“But my healthcare provider told me to come here!” I said.

“Go to your healthcare provider.”

“And you can’t tell me where else to go?” I asked.

“Go to your healthcare provider.”

I went to my healthcare provider, the national reference center, and in my conversation with the prosthetist she described the conditions of her workplace. There had been no equipment in place since 2011, visitors spill out into the hallway and no journalist had looked into it.

She mentioned other places where it was possible to have the work done but I would have to go on a personal basis since the clinic only referred cases to the School of Dentistry. She did not say it but “on a personal basis” sounded to me like, for the right amount, I would be able to laugh out loud without any molars missing.

9 May 2014

News / Regina Coyula

Starting this month I will be on  BBC Mundo’s blog about Cuba. I still haven’t seen it, I don’t know what it’s called, but the project interests me because I will share it with Nórido, journalist from the newspaper Trabajadores (Workers); with the author of a blog called Alego33, which I’ve read and which seems excellent to me; and with Leonardo Padura, journalist and novelist who needs no introduction.

In the group, I am the woman, the only one who didn’t study journalism, and the dissident; several people approached me to object to the adjective in the introduction to the blog, but it’s not a lie, I dissent.

I will try to keep up, although this will continue to be the more personal space, a bit ignored lately, it’s true, because I have had work to do, but especially, study. I will also publish in 14ymedio. Not bad for someone at my age.

19 May 2014

Performance / Regina Coyula

I have nothing to say, I have nothing to say… were the lyrics of a song Mario Aguirre sang in all seriousness in the long ago play at the Studio Theater, Something Very Serious. When they asked him for an encore, with the same music, he changed the lyrics: I have nothing else to say, I have nothing else to say

So it is for me with the May Day celebration, so you can read my post from last year, and it’s all the same. I have a photo of a printed poster taped to the door at the Endocrinology Institute where I was two weeks ago, and I saved it for this date. But my phone has problems with Bluetooth and I couldn’t transfer it to my PC or another phone, and having wasted time trying to get the photo from my phone’s screen, I’ll explain it:

As medicine will be at the front of the May Day parade, the workers have to be at their workplaces at two in the morning. From there they will go to the assigned collection point at four-thirty, where the posters (which reference anything but the workers’ demands) will be handed out. They all have to wear their white coats, and should see the secretary of the Union (that is the secretary of the Institute) for assistance.

This method, extensively tested over the years, will ensure that they can easily fill a great number of plazas.

P.S. And if medicine is marching first because of their economic happiness*, how many are marching last?

*Translator’s note: Cuban medical workers were recently notified they would receive large raises.

2 May 2014

It Costs / Regina Coyula

All the hospitals I’ve visited lately have put up  some eye-catching posters: "Your health service is free, but it costs." I’ve seen these relating to ophthalmology, surgery, orthopedics, dentistry, and I recently saw a generic one for the Institutes. Then they enumerated a list of services, from the simplest and least inexpensive to complex procedures costing thousands of pesos.

For the citizen who made several unsuccessful visits before finally receiving a medical consultation after a long wait; for  the person whose hospital admission is like moving day, having to take a tub and heater for bathing, a fan, a lamp, insecticide, and the major part of the food in the house; for the man resigned to the unwritten law that in order to receive appropriate health care he has to provide something extra, snacks for each shift, cigarettes for the nurse, a little "gratuity" to facilitate the ultrasound or the analysis—this colorful wall poster is nothing but propaganda. Propaganda and a neutralizer. It doesn’t cost you, so don’t complain.

(And I’m not saying whether it costs, with the pseudo-salaries and inflated prices.)

I admire the skill and dedication of the doctors, but the excellent service that we were promised as "medical power"—not because of the number of physicians per capita (although you can find that in the Amazon or in northeastern Brazil), but because of the quality of health service as a whole—was lost along the way. And no one can convince any Cuban that the fault is due to the blockade and the imperialist threat.

During a wait of over an hour for a scheduled appointment (visible through a window in public view) with of an employee whose function is to deliver laboratory results, a young man who decided to lie down on a bench and sleep through the wait—with that grace Cubans have for taking the edge off any situation—in front of one of the afore-mentioned signs, caused all of us who were waiting to laugh: The public health costs us, but because it’s free …

21 April 2014

Impressions of an Unprecedented Event / Regina Coyula

Those of us in Cuba who sat in front of the television at dawn, witnessed an unprecedented event: The dialogue between the government and the opposition in real-time, from Venezuela.(*)

Unprecedented in the sense that the majority of Cubans, born after 1959, don’t know what opposition to the government is. They have heard talk about mercenaries and traitors and but to see, sitting across from the Venezuelan government, a group of politicians with other points of view, provokes different reactions.

I followed the speeches of both sides with equal interest. The government remained on the defensive against accusations from the opposition, but within a framework of respect. Only the Vice President of the National Assembly seemed to confuse the meeting room with a platform for agitation, and Capriles, from whom I expected much more, organized his time badly to leave the impression that there was a catharsis around the presidential election loss.

I found the topics on the table very familiar. The Venezuelan government went for the Cuban model–I refuse to repeat that this is socialism–and the achievements in education and healthcare fail to hide the other realities which they enumerated in facts and figures. President Maduro too often forgot that he was elected with half the votes, which means that his support comes from half of Venezuelans. One of the great responsibilities of Chavism is the social fracture provoked, and as well stated on both sides of the table, with two opposite halves you can’t make a country. However, they have a Constitution that is not Chavista but Venezuelan and in which citizens feel they are represented and protected, at least in theory.

IO don’t have a lot of optimism about the future of these encounters. They are different postures and it was left very clear that those in power don’t intend to cede it. The violence and shortages affect everyone regardless of ideological tint. But Maduro is that the opposition will only enter Miraflores as visitors.

(*) From TeleSur, which for Cuba is a major window of information not offered by national television.

11 April 2014