Naty / Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, standing, with Natalia Revuelta, seated.

Regina Coyula, standing, with Natalia Revuelta, seated.

Regina Coyula, Havana, 2 March 2015 — The passing of Naty Revuelta* on Saturday has left us with a deep sense of loss. If there is anything that stands in stark contrast to her intensely social life stands it is the somewhat clandestine nature of her death. It was a death that had been expected; months earlier she had suffered a stroke. Though she seemed to have recovered fairly well, her care — medical, familial or both — left her deeply isolated.

Inviting her to lunch was out of the question; visiting her became a complicated matter. For more than twenty years I entered her house with the same lack of formality with which she came into mine.

Yet I suddenly felt the need to schedule a meeting after various attempts to see her failed, including one when I was at her door. When we did manage to talk, she complained about being forced into an involuntary seclusion.

I cannot say that her mind was as lucid as it had been before the accident — in some conversations she often repeated herself — but she was totally coherent about what was happening and was fully aware of the wall that had been built up around her. Regardless of the quality of her medical care or the extent of her family’s devotion, I cannot help thinking that her last months would have been better if she could have relied on the closeness of her friends.

I spoke with her by phone last Monday. She had fallen again and had been taken to see the doctor but it did not seem serious so she returned home. I promised that my husband and I would drop by to see her on Tuesday and she seemed very happy with that prospect. However, she was readmitted that same Monday evening and, according to what I was told, lost consciousness shortly thereafter. I hope she was still looking forward to my visit.

*Translator’s note: Natalia “Naty” Revuelta was a married, well-to-do Cuban socialite when in the 1950s she met Fidel Castro, to whose cause she provided financial support. The two became romantically involved and she later gave birth to his child, Alina. This daughter later fled Cuba, settled in Florida and became of vocal critic of her father’s regime.

With a Capital C / Regina Coyula

Many prominent figures who consider themselves democrats enter into alliances — both tactical and strategic — as well as conversations with their political opponents based on dogma. One’s position on the embargo, as well as on renewed diplomatic relations with the United States, is a dividing line.

This aspect of our national experience is a result of our proximity to the United States as well as to a corresponding anti-imperialism in the extreme. It weakens the fight for democracy and serves as a political ploy that only benefits the Cuban government. It has nothing to do with civic dialogue, which should be about more pressing issues such as the relationship of salaries to prices, the tax burden and the national budget. Society must make a concerted effort to diminish profound social differences — enriching, not impoverishing — and to eliminate the obstacles that prevent further economic development.

It is very disingenuous to use a sham referendum as a means of choosing an “eternal” social model, especially since its eternity has failed to produce positive results in any country in which it has been tested. In our own country it now has so many loopholes that one is hard pressed to demonstrate that we even live under socialism. This is even more difficult when the measures adopted to relieve the economic crisis rely on capitalist remedies.

It is also highly irresponsible to design a future for the regime’s heirs while locking out the nation’s voters. Let’s hope that — for reasons of dialectical sense and common sense — such a fate is, as much as possible, avoided.

We need an open discussion about how to protect and fully enforce human rights, stripping away the aura of malignancy and subjectivity with which the government portrays them and making them binding. Civil society must take a leading role in dealing with these challenges.

Rather than defining whether we are for or against the Embargo or diplomatic relations, it is ultimately a matter of whether we are for or against the Change.

11 February 2015

Salve Regina / Regina Coyula

With the death today of the Queen of Campesina Music, Celina González, the noon news had a long and flattering account of her career. Fortunately, they skipped over the 1964-1980 hiatus when Celina disappeared from public view, briefly noting that “the duo Celina and Reutilio unfortunately disappeared,” or something like that.

The truth is that Celina had also enjoyed a successful solo career but was not considered sufficiently representative of the Revolutionary culture. There was even a period when her recordings were not played on the radio. The media later took notice of her only after her immense popularity in countries like Peru and especially Colombia. Even then, her best-known song, “Que Viva Chango,” was not broadcast until much later (I cannot remember when).

I once had the privilege of hearing her sing a capella — in full form and powerful — at the home of choreographer Victor Cuellar. I mentioned this to her years later when I met her and her son, Lázaro Reutilio, in 1990 amid the hustle and bustle of buying our (I guess it was one of hers) now-deceased Aleko.*

*Translator’s note: González, performed with her husband, Reutilio Domínguez from 1947 to 1964, when the duo disbanded. In 1981 she formed a duo with her son, performing songs she and her husband had made famous. Her best-known song, “Que Viva Chango” (also known as “Santa Barbara Bendita” or “Blessed St. Barbara”) was a tribute to the Afro-Cuban god of fire and his Catholic counterpart, St. Barbara. She later recorded a version, “Que Viva Fidel,” with different lyrics that paid homage to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.

4 February 2015

A Very Economical Economic Conference

Talking about the Cuban economy these days is a complex task but, if it can be done without alluding to Marx or Keynes, I am at least grateful. My bus ride on the P3 to Acosta Avenue and Tenth of October proved so entertaining that it actually felt short.

An ordinary-looking man in his forties was explaining the gist of our current economic situation to the person sitting next to him in the same way that those books for dummies explain things like string theory. The person reading the book may not be able to explain what a lepton is, but at least he has a basic understanding of something which up to that point had been a mystery.

But getting back to the P3, the forty-something man was yelling —  a way of talking loudly that comes so naturally to us Cubans — to keep the din of the bus’s motor from drowning him out. As a result, all those around him on the guagua* were forced to listen. I could see at a glance that almost all the passengers were leaning in so as not to miss a word.

The person sitting next to him seemed to almost regret having get off at the same stop as me. The forty-something stayed on the bus, yelling from the window, “But don’t worry, my friend. It’s all screwed up in the end. There’s no one left.”

I was amazed. The language this man used was like a flawless populist scalpel dissecting the current state of the Cuban economy. If only Dr. Juan Triana or any of the consultants involved in the “economic update” had the gift of explaining it so that it made sense to a carefully coiffed repa*, to a black man in a SEPSA* uniform, to someone like me. And all for the modest price of forty Cuban pesos. The cost of a ticket.

*Translator’s note: Guagua is the Cuban word for bus. Repa is a slang term for a young person from one of Havana’s a poor working-class suburbs. SEPSA, the Spanish-language acronym for Specialized Security Protection Services Company, provides a variety of comprehensive security services to Cuban businesses.

30 January 2015

Capitalism Straight Away, or the Chinese Method First? / Rafael Alcides

By Rafael Alcides — It’s December 17th. The majority (and right now there are about 30 of us in line at the pharmacy) is celebrating the agreements between Raul and Obama; if there had been firecrackers, they would have lit them. Anyway, implicating everyone with her finger, a woman with a child in tow and a voice choked by emotion was saying: “Saint Lazarus has made this happen!”

As I was saying, the majority, because among the old guys (there were eleven, counting me, and I’m not from that neighborhood; I’m just in line there because my pharmacy didn’t have my medicine), there are three in opposition: one who says that, without the mediation of dissidents, the agreement constitutes a betrayal by Obama, a betrayal that will be recorded in history with words of mourning.

The others shoot back with what about the Human Rights people* in this long-awaited moment, they’re thinking about their piece of the pie; and the man, a chubby guy who looks like a lawyer, noting the lack of a quorum and all the unfriendly faces, leaves without offering anyone his place in line.

Another one is a dentist, who later they will tell me is not one of those Human Rights people, but while his cohorts debate the future of Cuban socialism, he’ll continue saying that without an elimination of the Embargo on the horizon, the agreements between Raul and Obama have been nonsense and it’s obvious that Raul is not Fidel.

And the other old guy who opposes is wearing dark glasses, is very respected by the group, and totally rejects the agreements. That’s why, in order to debate things fully, and because these guys are old, we follow Jose Marti’s old men in “Los zapaticos de Rosa**” and distance ourselves; meanwhile, there in the entrance to the pharmacy the majority continues, with the Saint Lazarus devotee as their leader, believing capitalism is already here.

“No sir, as a former military man,” some cross-eyed guy assures the man with the dark glasses, “I can tell you that the Army general has not handed the keys of the city over to the enemy. You are right when you say Fidel himself has said one thing one day and the complete opposite the next, but that’s politics. It’s the political chess game. With each new power play the scene changes. It can’t be any other way.”

“For that very reason,” insists the man with the dark glasses, “I don’t believe Raul when he says that this has been done without sacrificing our principles, and tomorrow I’m turning in my Party I.D.; I don’t want to have it on me when they let the businessman off the plane who will take charge of cleaning up the garbage, and the one who will take on the issue of transportation, and the one who’s already budgeting for the construction of two hundred thousand houses in six months, for starters, and I won’t go on because the rest you can figure out on your own.”

“Stop posing as a national oracle,” admonishes the military guy, losing his temper. And in an even worse mood, the man with dark glasses replies:

“The oracle here is still Fidel, and with his flaws, Raul.  I abide by the law of physics. If you remove a brick from a dam, just one brick, you’re bringing about the end of the dam. Look at the Chinese, look at the Vietnamese. Tons of Chinese millionaires today. Tons, thousands. And leading the Party. The only thing missing now is what the bourgeoisie and the lackeys of imperialism call ‘democracy.’”

“In any case,” says the man dressed in bermudas and an Industriales baseball cap, “is that good or bad?  Because what I want are busses that transport me, trucks that pick up my garbage, and for my family to not have to live in barbacoas [jerry-built tenements], cramped quarters.”

“But not by those means, because that would be the end of socialism,” objects the military guy, agreeing with the man in dark glasses.

“But what’s more important: the means or the end result?”

That came from one of the old guys who hadn’t spoken yet, apparently someone of authority in the group and who addressed the crossed-eye guy and the soldier as “my brother.”  His summons surprised the one with the dark glasses:

“So then, for you principles don’t matter. Very strange considering your history. A guy like you.”

“I trust Raul,” says the historical one. “You were talking about the Chinese, but we aren’t Chinese here. And if it’s necessary to be Chinese, we’ll become Chinese. And if we have to do what the Chinese haven’t done yet, we’ll do that, too. Socialism hasn’t worked at all anywhere in the world, and Raul, who’s in touch with the world, has seen this. That’s why he’s done this, so get ready for what’s coming.”

Since the historical one seemed to know a lot about what was coming, the group got quiet, willing to listen. The quietest one was the man with dark glasses; but, suddenly, as if coming to his senses and more interested in his present than in the future, he unexpectedly asked:

“And what about me? You know me; the sixty-four awards, seals and medals I have at home say something, the son of mine who died in an internationalist war, and everything else you know. Outside of Cuba, I could live like a king. So tell me, can he who has suddenly made it all clear, at the end of his life, stand to see us back where we were when we started this thing?”

Except for the man with the dark glasses, everyone sided with the man in bermudas and baseball cap. Rectifying things is the work of wise men, he was saying. There was no agreement, however, on whether or not Raul would take the necessary steps to dismantle the system, whatever those were, without causing damage, doing it without seeming to, one step here, another there, taking his time.

“But, what about me?”

“Raul doesn’t have time to do things slowly,” said a fragile but energetic-for-his age doctor who had intervened twice before.

“And what about me?”

Nobody paid attention to the one in dark glasses, he kept repeating his “what about me’s” but the people ignored him. Their attention was on the argument between the doctor and the military guy.

“The Army general has all the time in the world,” the military guy insisted angrily. The one in bermudas and baseball cap backed him up:

“These people last a thousand years. Gallego Fernandez is 100 and look at him still standing stronger than a light post.”

“No sir, Gallego isn’t 100 yet,” specified the historical one.

The doctor explained himself, appealing to their common sense:

“I’m saying that Raul doesn’t have time to waste making changes one baby step at a time; not in the crushing conditions the country finds itself now; whatever he is going to do, he has to do it quickly, he’s opened the gates and that’s very delicate, he no longer has the outside enemy as the excuse that allowed him to keep the non-conformists here on the inside in their place, and they will become more courageous.  Without stopping to think about whether he hurts one or one million, he has to do it like Fidel did when, suddenly, at a burial he said that when I said digo [I say] it was really Diego, and in the process turned us into socialists. In fact, that was also on a 16th day of the month.  Just like that, the way you rip off a Band-Aid. That’s the kind of time he doesn’t have.”

The historical one didn’t understand the objection. He spoke for everyone:

“Everyone has their methods, and in the one I’m talking about, Raul would avoid responsibility and end up as the one who corrected Fidel’s mistakes. For starters, this is about Cuba, not the conceited fame of anyone. Do you remember the last interactions between the Godfather and his son, Mike Corleone? Imagine Diaz Canel acting like he’s talking and, behind him is Raul—who has resigned, alleging that he was really really sick but in reality he’s healthier than all of us—speaking for comrade Diaz Canel. We are, as my pal and neighbor used to say” — then he signals for the man with dark glasses — “in the very moment when the Chinese, after wasting thirty years making cement in the back yard with a cauldron and wood fire as if they were frying pork rinds, enter history. Talk to the Chinese about those lost years. In the same way, anyone here today who has felt deceived, will applaud later.”

It wasn’t a finished debate. There was still hardly any blood.  Someone was saying that maybe a Chinese method was coming that didn’t use Cuban capital, recalling the economic philosophy of the bonsai*** set forth by Murillo; for his part, the dentist continued to repeat like someone obsessed, that without an elimination of the embargo, Obama and Raul’s agreements were nonsense, even more so considering that not so long ago Raul had claimed that we could withstand the embargo 55 more years.

Then the doctor, perhaps fed up with that guy’s lamenting, raising his voice and confronting him, said that the plural in Raul’s “we could” was an exaggeration, that Raul hadn’t experienced one second of the embargo, that during 55 years Raul had woken up in air conditioning, that he had sat in an air-conditioned car, walked into an air-conditioned office, gone to bed with air conditioning and had only gotten sweat on his shirt when he went out to review a military unit, catching some sun on the way in order to synthesize his vitamins, or when he went hunting.

And that’s when it started. The military guy demanded the take back his words; audacious, the doctor refused; and while those two old men were being subdued by the group, I heard a woman who had been cleaning her upper dentures with a nail file say to an old man who had just arrived, as she put her teeth back in, energetic and ready to interject:

“With these changes that are coming, I would like them to do what the Chinese still haven’t done; if for no other reason than for the people here to be able to say what they think without things like this happening.”

Translator’s notes:

*This phrase does not refer to any specific organization; the expression “human rights person/people” is widely used by Cubans to refer to anyone engaged in any way in working for democracy and human rights in Cuba.

**”The Little Pink Shoes” is a very famous poem in Cuba by José Martí. It tells the story of Pilar, a privileged little girl, who while playing on the beach sees a poor little sick girl with cold feet and no shoes. Pilar gives the girl her shoes, telling her, ‘Oh, take mine, I have more at home.

***Marino Murillo is Cuba’s Minister of Planning and Economy. The late Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a regime opponent, coined the term “bonsai businesses” to refer to the types of small private businesses now allowed by the regime: bonsai, of course, are very small, and are subject to constant “trimming” to make sure they are not allowed to grow to any significant size.

Translated by: Kathy Fox

10 January 2015