4 February 2015
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
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.”
*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
The ruling elite accustomed themselves to living in secrecy, with that phrase, “Silence, the enemy is listening,” so convinced that all information about their lives was a matter of state, disrespecting public opinion, including that which sympathizers still have, with silence around the life (or death) of Fidel Castro.
This can only happen in a country that feels no obligation to offer explanations and where the journalists do not dare to do their job. It’s not serious to try to justify that such discretion is essential because it involves a man against whom hundreds of attacks were planned (though they never got close). Today this person is a sick old man, retired from public service, whose image for years now is always deferred and in photos.
Nor do I believe that Raul Castro needs time to prepare anything, because he controls the power and if there are cracks in the corridors of power, military counterintelligence should keep the General-President (HIS ministry) updated about the operative situation.
Fidel Castro occupied so many hours of television and so many headlines; in short, he dominated the media, that it’s logical, given the information vacuum, that his health status should be the object of all sorts of speculations.
9 January 2015
One of the things that I am going to miss when Cuba is an ordinary country, will be these days when digital piracy is still patriotic and on any corner you can acquire the best of the Discovery Channel, the magnificent series of the History Channel, or the captivating serials of ABC or Fox. With regards to the series, I am greatly enjoying Mad Men, partially broadcast here in the early hours of morning as “The Men of Madison Street.” With these series and movies on demand, I only turn on Cuban TV for the news, a brief moment of Telesur to read the news crawl across the bottom of the image.
If I, who am a great joker and not interested in reality, nor MTV, nor soap operas and all I want is to stay far from national programming; what about my neighbors. The head of the family, my neighbor Tomás, whom I’ve already talked about here, has lost the fight. It seems that as a Party member, they’ve “targeted” him in the fight against the audiovisual packets, but his wife and even his daughter, also a party member and civilian employee of the Ministry of the Interior, adore The Voice, El Gorda y la Flaca, Dancing with the Stars, Belleza Latina, and especially Case Closed. Tomás’s wife made a strong statement of her intentions to Tomás, and given the volume at which she did it, to the rest of the neighborhood:
“So here people can hold their ‘worm’* meetings and nothing happens (that’s us); they can hold their religious meetings and nothing happens (my neighbor Tania, whom you also know), and I can’t watch “Case Closed”? Because to me %$#@!… I get the &$%#!… I watch it and you’re not going to stop me!”
*Translator’s note: Gusanos (worms) is a common insult used by the Castro regime against those who leave Cuba and/or who don’t support the regime.
7 January 2105
(Published on BBC Mundo 17 December)
It didn’t fail to surprise me although I wasn’t taken unawares. I’d said among friends, who called me crazy, that Gross and the three wouldn’t be exchanged, that without Human Rights there would be no relations.
I respected the point, but I recalled the politics are cooked up with subtle ingredients that don’t appear in the news (much less the news in the newspaper Granma) but there were indications and because of these indications the news of the year didn’t come out of nowhere.
Now, with Gross in the United States and the three in Cuba, the implementation of the conversations that have taken place begin, conversations that open a parenthesis for a calm transition in which the successors of the nomenklatura live with peace of mind and even participate, if they want, in the multiparty politics that will come.
Before the announcement, workers speculated about what its contents would be.
I don’t believe everyone is happy, neither in the government nor in the dissidence, but the doctor, the closeness of the patient, shouldn’t cloud the judgement when the time comes to made a diagnosis.
The economy, as we know, is very pragmatic, American investors will weigh the risk in numbers and not in violations of human rights.
The Cuban government, for its part, needs to normalize its relations with the neighbor to the north and anxiously await new capital. The Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) will finally fulfill the function for which it was conceived.
Civil society needs to take advantage of this undoubtedly favorable junction to deepen the struggle to establish a true State of rights.
For my part, I think that today, 17 December 2014, opens a new stage in the long journey of Cuba to insert itself among the modern and democratic countries.
19 December 2014