Privatized? / Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, 6 May 2015 — I have noticed that the old-time “conductor” has recently made a comeback on city buses (though the person driving them is still called the driver). Rather than using the fare box, passengers must now pay the conductor instead. Being the curious type, I got into a conversation with one of them and found out a few things that our informative newspaper Granma has not mentioned.

According to the conductor — the driver also joined in on the conversation — the buses are in essence leased to the workers, who are responsible for maintenance and repairs. However, the Chinese manufacturer will not ship spare parts because the state has not paid its bills. If anything breaks, fare receipts drop, so the bus company deals with it by unofficially passing the problem on to the drivers. Since the driver has his hands full, a co-worker — a driver himself — is there to make sure every passenger pays the requisite fare.

The workers must set aside a certain portion of their share of the receipts for bus maintenance, a percentage much lower that what the company gets, which amounts to more than half the receipts according to my source. And that is not his only complaint.

“Newspaper articles only talk about the things people complain about, but no one talks about what we are going through,” he says.

There is music in the background as we talk. Music can be heard on every bus these days, typically whatever a driver happens to like. On this particular day it happens to be love songs.

“I like timba and some reggaeton but this music relaxes me,” says the driver. “If I have problems now, can you imagine what it would be like if I played the other?”

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