Go Around / Regina Coyula

It’s an ordinary apartment in a quiet Havana neighborhood. You have to knock and go inside to find out if owner knows about the recommendation you have been given. There are no introductions. A girl leads you straight to a room in the apartment that is not a room but rather a little store, well-organized and well-stocked, given what it is.

“How much is this wallet?”

“Um, I don’t know if they told you but I don’t sell, I rent,” she says.

Huh?

“Yeah, I have a license to rent party clothes. What you have to do is leave a deposit for the full value of the article. If you don’t return it after ten days, I deduct it from my inventory.”

“Ten days, right?”

I leave with my wallet and a smile. “If you can’t go over, go around.”

9 July 2014

Postcard From a Journey (2) / Regina Coyula

Five hours of traveling to Santiago de Cuba. It’s still early but it’s already hot. I love Santiago. I realize that it is a city with its own personality and pulse. Music plays loudly, the women seem to wear a smaller size than they need, no one is in a hurry, everyone knows each other, or so it seems, by the familiarity of the way they treat each other which I don’t escape.

I wonder if at any moment this city isn’t going to go up or down, I don’t see even a single street that isn’t on an incline. I talk with everyone, in Santiago it’s the easiest thing in the world; people complain about prices, or the shortages that are seen everywhere, but it doesn’t reach the level of criticism I see in Havana, although clearly, my view is superficial.

This hot Habanera looks for any pretext to get into an airconditioned place. Lunch at El Baluarte, a restaurant that trades in national currency. The portions are small, but my last impression of the State food service in Havana is horrendous, this doesn’t seem as bad to me. I continue to go up and down the streets, commenting to my host that Santiago is a city that lives with its back to the sea, and he says I’m right, but takes me to a place known as Velazquez’s Balcony, with a spectacular view of the bay.

One peculiarity of the alternative transport in Santiago is the motorbikes. They have no license to carry passengers, but everyone uses them and they take you where you want to go. I talk with my driver who brought his bike from the former GDR where he was qualified to work in the Celia Sanchez textile factory. When they closed the business, he appealed for his bike and said they’d have to kill him to take it from him.

I asked him about the number of houses I saw under construction. Almost all are victims of hurricane Sandy,he told me, and I didn’t comment, but it’s clear that in the urgency to build technical standards have been overlooked and those thin boards portend future problems.

I remember my cousin Mayito Coyula with his observation that when you’re going to be operated on you always want the best surgeon and yet building houses is left in the hands of the equivalent of the orderlies.

Dinner is at a “paladar” (privately run restaurant) on Enramada Street; the prices are like those in Havana and the customers are all foreigners except my table. The best food and the best service of the whole trip. I go to Santiago without being able to eat a mango sponge cake.

1 July 2014

Brief Inventory of Personal Fears / Regina Coyula

As with almost everyone, as a girl darkness was a problem. I loved playing hide and seek, crouching in the bushes, but when evening came, the shadows became something dangerous, boogeymen coming to take me away, and I would run to the safety of adults and the light.

Another of my major fears at that time was that I would get sick on vacation, With chronic throat problems, tonsillitis threatened to rob me of the beach; and I had reasons to fear the colds all around me or a certain burning when I swallowed, or too strong a fan overnight.

Those fears gave way to others, trivial or important, but no less for this: the fear of failing an exam, losing a boyfriend, getting fat, of not sounding too combative in an era of ideological definitions given my petty bourgeois ballast.

Ultimately, the beach lost its charms for me years ago, because of the sun that pursues us everywhere on this little Caribbean island; I now had boyfriends and all it would take was for me to look at something to get fat. Coming from the bourgeoisie haunted me like a ghost in my youth, I couldn’t compete with those who maintained the discourse of the barricade, but they lived in the old houses and according to the manner of the overthrown bourgeoisie.

I continued to be a scaredy-cat, just my fears changes. I had a panic attack they day they did a caesarean to get my son out. I remember dressing in white and walking with a gladiolus in my hand to honor Orlando Zapata Tamayo on the anniversary of this death, and when a car stopped to ask directions I almost had a heart attack. Last December 10 (Human Rights Day) was another good occasion to be afraid.

Very recently, happy on returning from a seminar on citizen journalism and social networks in Lima, Peru, I was taken to the “little room” by customs officials. My luggage wasn’t overweight, there was nothing illegal, but they did a detailed search of my luggage, and retained for “customs inspection” SCAN0000, a laptop with charger and mouse, a camcorder with two tripods and four memory cards, two external drives, all new in their original box, in addition to my camera, my tablet, a USB drive and my phone, the latter not even having a charger; articles that on leaving Cuba didn’t need to be declared for personal use.

The other suspicious articles were four books written by my husband, which also left with me, a book about social networks I was given, and the folder with the conference agenda and my handwritten notes.

I spoke to you of far. All these valuable articles often upsetting the balance of saving money, how not to feel a punch in the gut to see them disappear into a sack, no matter how much you’ve got all the right paperwork. At that time it came to mind the cases of theft in customs. But that wasn’t the greatest fear.

With my hands crossed over my knees so as not to show my nervousness, I saw how a piece of my privacy was handled with impunity. The little I said was to make clear the arbitrariness of which I was the object. I didn’t waste energy, because those officials face other officials; the political police who ordered the measure.

Then a strange fear is provoked, because I gave no thought to abandoning my openly critical stance towards the government. The fear that set my adrenaline flowing, confirmed for me the nefariousness of a regime which, far from serving its citizens, is allowed to ride roughshod over them, over their sovereignty.

It’s time to recover this sovereignty.

4 June 2014

Irony

A fine irony is my having seen the documentary Gusano* (Worm) the same day I heard the news that this Monday the European Union could take definitive steps to lift its Common Position on Cuba.

The measures adopted by the European countries in 1996 have to do with respect (or rather disrespect) for Human Rights in our country, and in essence little has changed.

No one doubts the diplomatic success of the Cuban government which, in addition, less than two weeks ago, brought together 33 Latin American and Caribbean presidents and the secretaries general of the Organization of American States and the United Nations respectively, without the issue of Cuban Human Rights going beyond a formal mention.

Now the European Union will go on a tangent, and all this without any advances in the area of civil liberties. Clearly, this isn’t Syria or Chad; it’s not even North Korea, they will say on Monday in Brussels.

Ah! the economy, how many crimes are committed in your name!

*Translator’s note: This video will be available with English subtitles in the coming week.

7 February 2014

Dear Readers

I intend to take a vacation from the until the second week of January. If circumstances permit as everything indicates they will, I will devote myself to putting my house in order, an enormous task for me under the mountain of fabric that has accumulated on the sewing machine, and at night, like grandmothers of old, I will knit while watching television, an almost useless labor in the winter (?!) that we experience.

You can always find me on Twitter (@lamalaletra), reporting whatever happens to me in 140 characters.

I’ve told this anecdote many times, but I don’t remember if I’ve told it here. Just before the start of the Panamerican Games in Havana in 1991, my husband turned on the TV waiting for the news that the government, as we knew it, had fallen. In the face of that obsession, without giving it much thought, I said one day that it wouldn’t happen until 2013. He started laughing at me like a crazy person, he’d look at me, point his finger, and go off into more fits of laughter. When he calmed down he said to me, “You’re crazy.”

Well readers, not even a prediction as conservative as mine has come true. Or perhaps it has, and with that unnatural bureaucracy and the usual secrecy, we’re still doing the paperwork.

I have no plans, so I will enjoy the lovely parties to come.

May 2014 be a better year for everyone.

22 December 2013

Comrades and Factors

I was convinced that my former G2 comrades wouldn’t trouble themselves with me. A little poking around in this blog is enough to convince them that I’m a hopeless case. But it wasn’t the blog that made the comrades who “serve me,” pay me a “prophylactic visit” yesterday morning. It was to advise and warn m not to participate in the Estado de SATS program on December 10 and 11.

They were emphatic: they would not allow us to hold the event. Arguments that banning it would just give it more visibility were useless, with the consequences that would result from bringing the power of State Security down on a group of people who are holding meeting and who are not going to overthrow the government.

I reminded them of the truth expressed by Esteban Morales when he said that the cancer that would defeat the government would be corruption and not the dissidence. It was a civilized conversation because I believe in dialog and not confrontation; indeed, I made clear my interest as a citizen and activist in the ratification of the United Nations Covenants.

I don’t know if they believed me when I assured them I do it for free. On their part there was respect, but also a very clear message: If you go, we will arrest you.

That was interesting. What happened in the afternoon I don’t know how to describe. In the midst of a late lunch, five neighbors showed up at my house, four of them from right by my house and the fifth a stranger. The stranger spoke on behalf of the group which she presented as “the factors of the community.”

I was surprised. The visit of the factors seemed to me to be a neural short-circuit after the morning’s visit. For my neighbors I’ve been either with “the Human Rights People” or a Lady in White, but on this opportunity I had been promoted to a counterrevolutionary leader organizing an activity.

When the others spoke they talked about martyrs, about the revolution and the imperialist threat, and topped it all off with they couldn’t allow me to carry out this activity. They felt a little disconcerted when I told them they’d been lied to, that I wasn’t a member of any organization nor did I organize anything, but I was in favor of democracy, free expression, freedom of association and information, and that’s why I strongly believe in the need to ratify the UN Covenants.

I had the very strong impression that my neighbors didn’t know what I was talking about. They retired in silence, only the unknown neighbor repeated, “Know that we won’t allow it.”

I have lived in this neighborhood all my life, if one day we they organized a repudiation rally against us they would have to import the repudiators. Except for the unknown neighbor who lives in the next block and received the “orientation” to call together “the factors,” the rest were uncomfortable, and I even reassured one who apologized later for the position she had taken as a Party member.

To my visitors of the morning and the afternoon: we are on opposite sides, but let everyone think and act according to their conscience, I don’t engage in the fame of hatred and revenge that I detest from both sides. As said Nicolás Guillén said: the master should be ashamed.

6 December 2013

Twenty-five Cents / Regina Coyula

I do not like beggars. I was raised on the idea of begging as a holdover from the past, a scheme to get an income without working. From the time of the Special Period here, I have changed my point of view. I’ve seen extremely old people begging, almost with regret, with a dignity that has nothing to do with the act of begging. As a counterpart, professional beggars have appeared in tourist areas. Young women begging to be able to buy milk for rented babies they carry, or gullible foreigners approached with a false colostomy.

Yesterday, I encountered a beggar in my path. As I advanced towards her, I figured she was two parts scheming and one part crazy. She was sitting on the doorjamb of an interior street at 5th and 42nd, one of the busiest hard currency stores in the city, her strategic position enabled her to address everyone who entered or left via 40th Street, especially those using the parking log. The car in Cuba continues to represent a certain status, even if it’s a Palaquito (Fiat). As is my usual custom, I passed at a distance. I was alone and there wasn’t anyone else, so if she was talking to someone, it was to me.

“This is communism.”

I went back to the woman’s side, and to buy time, looked again in my wallet without finding any change.

“Why do you say that my dear? Do you think that in communism you weren’t there?”

The beggar didn’t look at me, nor had she looked at me before. Her gaze wandered from the half-empty bowl of coins at her feet to the opposite wall. Terse and forceful, she earned the chavito (Cuban Convertible Peso, ~one dollar U.S.) this post cost me.

“I worked 35 years and here I am. This is communism.”

2 December 2013

Kokuba / Regina Coyula

Image from ElPais.com

Kakebo notebooks. Image from El Pais.com

The kakebo comes from Japan and is a hybrid between a calendar and an accounts book.  It is said that Tomoko Hina, the first Japanese woman journalist, was the one who at the beginning of the 20th century developed the first kakebo in order to arrange and record household expenditures.  Housewives adopted it in order to organize the family economy and optimally administer resources.  Now its application has extended and there are kakebos of all kinds and all varieties and models, for big families to singles.  And for the first time here the year 2014 will feature Kakebo, book of accounts for household savings, published by Blackie Books (17.9 Euros).

With this news*, I eat breakfast with which, for years, my family’s economy has passed through a Kakebo.  A school notebook with the grid paper that they hand out freely, have been our expense control.  The page, divided in the middle to reflect the Cuban pesos on one side and the convertibles on the other.  Before, we had tried to manage our accounts by dividing our money into four parts corresponding to the money for the month destined for food each week, only to invariably violate the envelopes before the immediacy of an unexpected expense.

We resigned ourselves then to record expenses until the day on which we open the drawer and now there is no money; for a brief stage, with variable success, pockets, wallets and old ashtrays are checked, today often earmarked. Now it is known that it is time to eat the pseudo-bread of the notebook, I cannot buy coffee and the oil must be stretched.  Extravagances like beer, beef (including hash), or butter, a short while ago became harmful options, and not precisely to one’s health.  Must-have luxuries?  Coffee and hair dye.  That of bars, tobacco and meals out is a misplaced concern.

I’m dying to know what kind of welcome the sale of these Japanese philosophy notebooks will have in Spain.  I don’t know about the rest, but I can’t get it out of my head that whoever has to keep accounts, does not spend eighteen Euros on some other consumer object. For my part, I am about to abandon the daily notes, because I have arrived at the conclusion that everything has come to everyone in Cuba: on the topic of expenses and income, this film is backwards.

*Translator’s note: The link is to an article in El Pais about Kakebo notebooks

Translated by mlk

6 November 2013

A Sentimental Education / Regina Coyula

Phrases and slogans are often survival strategies, empty expressions that are repeated time and again until they form a part of the landscape.  The University is for Revolutionaries is one of these phrases that nevertheless makes sense when we can peek inside a protest rally or act of revolutionary reaffirmation such as that held last week against the Ladies in White.

I will not dwell too much on the potential risk of filming, so evident in the distancing of Luz Escobar from what is going on all around, especially seeing and hearing the demand of some of the participants beating on the door for entrance to Laura Pollán’s house; she wasn’t disposed to let these battle-hardened classmates discover and enemy among them.

I want to call attention to the use of university students in these demonstrations of hatred. They are brought in deceitfully, taking into account the importance of gregariousness among the young, and from there, the behavior expected of them. Spontaneous or induced, the fear of showing a lack of ideological firmness which has repercussion on their professional future, to be clever and/or charismatic for different purposes.

The students are taken there during school hours, for a curricular activity that counts as attendance, they are saddled with a badly told story, and between the generalizations and omissions each constructs their own version. Later it is the individual attitude that becomes collective (again, the gregariousness).

Meanwhile, they continue singing songs, which could be annoying but not threatening, but there are always the spontaneous or the indoctrinated who want to excel, raise the stakes, and in this enervated environment these young students, those good kids who worry about the environment and look after their grandparents, I don’t say they don’t think twice, no; they don’t think to commit any vandalism in the name of THEIR revolution, a revolution that is neither theirs nor a revolution (again, emptied of content).

The Ladies in White represent a part of what in any democratic country makes up the opposition to the government. Systematically demonizing them increases their visibility, and however many videos are edited to make them appear evil, their peaceful march continues to garner sympathy.

The fairs of hatred mounted by the repressive apparatus with the government’s permission in Neptune Street, very close to the University, should be incompatible with the current campaign for economic optimization, austerity and savings. The buses and fuel to take the students from the distant universities such as CUJAE or Varona Pedagogical, snacks, a screen mounted in the middle of the street for audiovisuals, a meeting point at Trillo Park where they distribute the troops …

These fairs of hatred should also be incompatible with the current campaign to eradicate antisocial conduct and bad habits and to recover civic discipline, given the shortcomings of the New Man to perform in his environment. They serve, however, the complete opposite: recalling the shameful episodes of the eighties, Jewish children in Nazi Germany, spurring on the worst of each university compelled to scream, as you can see so well in the video.

Many will allude to individual responsibility. Every young person is already grown and knows what they are doing. And therein lies the subtlety of government repression: it doesn’t matter what you think, just scream and nothing will happen to you. The road to democracy will have as one of its biggest challenges to mend the anthropological the damage of such “subtleties.”

23 October 2013