Monthly Archives: February 2010

Book Fair or Circus in Havana?

Bolshoi Dancers performing in Havana as part of the Book Fair.

The Havana Book Fair has begun.  I remember it like the usual party: getting together with friends, some who are not there physically, like Guille Vidal; from some part of the universe he must be laughing at us, we who still haven’t learned to quit with the insults.  “The only thing that matters is to leave your existence in your writing,” he said, “the sticks and stones of life, these also help you to be a better person, more creative,” he declared. I also remember professor Salvado Redonet, digging through the last literary harvest for possible anthologies, “all of us, like Virgilio Piñera, we are all afraid,” he told me once.

At the Book Fair we writers exchange our recent creations and also the injustices of the officials, then we come to a consensus about how best to protect ourselves, demand that they respect us, and above all make them know we are not alone.

The majority of the writers of my generation emigrated.  Now we don’t have a group at the PABEXPO exposition center, nor in the sad former prison of La Cabaña.  Now they are only shadows, exhalations escaping from their books.

Before the end of the first year of this blog, The Children Nobody Wanted, I am already a writer marginalized by officialdom. I am neither dead nor absent, but it is as if I were. They used to call me at home from five provinces, in previous years, to invite me to present books, participate in talks, and what I liked best, to visit the prisons, the schools in the countryside, the factories. But the Cuban Book Institute (ICL), I suppose under orders from its superiors, refused to let me participate.

I just told those who wanted me to visit that it didn’t matter: forget the censors and their evil, you do your part, promote literature that is the best of human endeavors.

Currently the Book Fair has become a great deception, its function, rather than cultural, is to be a social event, there are hardly any new editions.  Eighty percent of the books are re-issues, and the other books they offer have spent years sitting in the inventories of warehouses and bookstores. The only new editions you can find are in political-social literature, and some titles from the guest country. The prices of even the cheapest books represent several days wages for the average citizen. The foreign publishers offer books destined to become pulp, Havana is the last stop, the final opportunity to unload this stock.

It is time to have the Book Fair every two years and stop creating this circus; the State must try, once and for all, not to put on a political event but rather a cultural one, with the primary objective of promoting universal literature, and above all, national literature.

What I do know is that every day that passes it is more and more necessary to keep the blog, The Children Nobody Wanted; as far as my marginalization as a writer, I accept it.

This status represents the circumstances of the authoritarian system in which I live and which I detest.

Crossing the Barbed Wire to Come to Havana

Luis Felipe Rojas arrived in Havana two days after having “crossed the barbed wire.”  After several phone contacts, we planned to meet in Central Park.  I remembered his Rastafarian dreadlocks.  When I arrived, I text messaged him that he could find me at the foot of the Marti Monument, as planned.  He responded with an apology, he would be there in another forty minutes.

I looked for a bench near the statue.  Some hookers were talking. I remained absorbed in an idea that was simmering for a new story.  A tourist asked a young man to photograph him.  After returning the camera, the boy offered to sell him boxes of cigars. The gentleman declined.  I continued creating in my mind.

The hookers hurried off, fleeing a police office closing in from the other end of the park.  The military sensed their evasion and kept watching them as they moved away looking down San Rafael Boulevard there at the corner of the Inglaterra Hotel.  I too kept looking as they retreated.  They were badly dressed and their bodies were not appealing.

The cop positioned himself between two cars and from there set up his surveillance point.  He approached a young black man to ask for his documents, then detained him.  Two other officers arrived, calling on their walkie talkie for the patrol car, which appeared in seconds.  They emptied the boy’s pockets, searched him thoroughly, and took him away.  On the faces of the cops I saw their pleasure in having done their duty.

In the forty minutes I waited I counted nine arrests.  All young people, black or mixed race.  When Luis Felipe showed up I felt calm: he is no longer a Rastafarian.  We gave each other the hug we deserved and I wanted to move away; I was afraid that he, because he was black, would suffer a similar fate.

We talked, sharing what had happened in our lives since our last meeting, our perspectives and fears, the beatings and threats, and of course we laughed.  We agreed to meet the next day at my house because a Mexican journalist wanted to interview us. Again we gave each other a fraternal hug and kiss.

The next afternoon, while I was waiting for him, my Mexican friend having already come, he called me on his cell and said he was on his way.  Later he sent a message that he was outside my house.  I waited a bit, and noting the delay, went to look for him, he wasn’t there.  Puzzled, I returned to the apartment and told the foreigner what had happened.

He insisted on calling Luis Felipe’s cell, but he didn’t answer.  I knew something was happening, but I didn’t want to worry my visitor.  I would about to leave again, but at that moment Luis Felipe came in.  He said he had been detained at the door of my building and they immediately took him away, to Linea Street, and there started asking him questions.  When Luis Felipe told them that several journalists were waiting for him, they decided to let him go.  Perhaps they preferred to avoid the scandal,

Then we laughed, especially when the journalist took the memory stick out of her camera to hide it and replaced it with another one with tourist shots.

That’s the best thing of all, that even after crying, we always laugh.

Enough Already With The Abuse!

…THUS SHOUTED THE MUSICIAN JAUN FORMELL, leader of the band Van Van, in the Plaza of the Revolution at the culmination of the “Concert for Peace”; one can infer that he did so to please Cuban officialdom.

Now in Miami he says he is willing to share the stage with Gloria Estefan and with the controversial group, Los Aldeanos, though he says he doubts they will agree to it because they play a different kind of music.  As if that music was mediocre (the Master has revolutionized music by joining genres and creating new rhythms).  We understand that he said it to assure his return to the Island and to keep his protected status.  The great musician said, “We speak of social issues, but they (Los Aldeanos), speak of strictly political issues.”  That is, they speak of marginalization, hunger, drugs, the persecuted, social stratification, the lack of rights and opportunities, none of which is “social” unlike the themes of: The Dance of the Tired Oxen, Pastorita is Sexy, The One Who Loves You Will Make You Cry, I Am Going To Publish Your Photo in the Press, Marilu, The Black Man is Cooking, Sandunguera Who Goes to a Higher Level, You Wanted to be The Beast, With a Tin and a Stick Dancing Until Another Day, The Black Man Ain’t Got Nothin’ Sir. These lyrics, fatuous and anodyne, are a phenomenon that happens in national music, accompanying the big hits of Formell.  To be honest, the lyrics are a device to say nothing.  Ask the Master, without belittling him, not to confuse social issues with his popular themes.

The musician Juan Formell, as they say “has never stepped on anybody’s toes,” and like a good merchant, comes to Miami and many other cities in the United States to sing to the “abusers” the same things he shouts from Havana. But now, face to face, he doesn’t reaffirm it as a shout of principle, now it is said like a prayer because what matters is to charge, to line the pockets of the producers and public who, according to officialdom, are those who keep the five spies* prisoners and pay money to end the Castro dictatorship; but ultimately, it seems that money has no ideology, nor does Juan Formell.

But this travesty, this attempt to change his stripes, happened so blatantly last year when another famous orchestra, just to perform in Miami and other cities, agreed to replace certain lyrics of a song to give the opposite meaning, after being promoted with a video clip, to not offend the exiled Cuban community.

One could say “money talks.”  Another might answer, “Where there is no shame, neither is there art.”  A few, like Pablo Milanés, after so many years of equivocation, want or need to say the truth, although they are convinced of it and only comment among family and friends; it’s the price talented artists pay to live like capitalists in a socialist country.  They keep their thousands of dollars, some are millionaires (the greatest bootlickers), with the facade that the only thing that matters is the art. They suppress their feelings and free expression and it terrifies them when another artist speaks freely.

It’s true that for groups like Los Aldeanos or Porno Para Ricardo, among others, it would be an honor to share a stage with Juan Formell, but what is more certain is that if they allowed these young people to sing with them, it would be a way for the great musician to clean his soul and his past history, to come out from under the official shadow.

For now, it’s almost impossible for this to happen because the famed Juan Formell will not go along with it, after all the kicks he has endured in silence throughout his artistic career, for raising his voice against Cuban officialdom.

Anyway, I am sure, that with all due artistic respect for the great musician Juan Formell, if he were to share the stage, he would gain much more than the young musicians would, particularly in the face of the unchanging story, as he looks at us and shouts, always the same thing, without changing reality one iota.

Translator’s note:
The Five Spies: Five Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. for spying for Cuba and other crimes. In Cuba they are known as “The Five Heroes” and their photos are plastered everywhere along with demands for their release.

157 Years Since the Birth of the Most Universal of all Cubans

It was José de la Luz y Caballero who popularized this phrase of Socrates among Cubans: Where did we come from, who are we, and where are we going?

I was 17 years old when I was sent to La Cabaña prison for the crime of “concealment” (I had knowledge of my family’s illegal departure from the country). I assumed that my future was destroyed, in addition to the shame before my friends and their families for my incarceration. At that age I knew depression. My family had been dispersed throughout the prisons of Havana. My sister in Western Women’s Prison, my brother in the Combinado del Este, my sister’s husband in Valle Grande. My mother moved with a back pack from one end of the city to the other. She never recovered her smile.

Thanks to reading about the life of the Apostle, I understood where I came from and I accepted my fate: José Martí was imprisoned at my age, and the reason, by the strange coincidences and ironies of life, was for writing a letter to Carlos de Castro y Castro, in which he accused him of treason for not supporting the cause of the Cubans.

From the prison I intensified my study and discovered what until that moment was to me unthinkable, that my vocation was literature, and I vowed to devote my life to it whatever the cost. And if my writing could serve any purpose, let it be devoted to the people I come from. Emphasize and scream about their hardships, sorrows, anxieties and conflicts. This has been my duty, an insignificant effort, when compared to the work of José Martí.

Abdala Extract, 1869

(…) Love, mother, and the homeland,
It is not ridiculous to love the earth
Nor the grass that our plants trample
But the invincible hatred against the oppressor
It is the eternal rancor of the one who is attacked (…)

In his Complete Works, among many sayings, after studying and gaining full knowledge of the approaches of Marx and Engels, we can read his definition: “Socialism is the upper stage of slavery.”

In those readings I learned about his Masonic militancy, a doctrine in which I had been raised by my mother, and that she received from her ancestors. I swore that when I obtained freedom I also would be.

The day before going into the battle that claimed his life, May 18, 1895, from the camp of Dos Rios, the Master wrote what would be his last letter to his friend Manuel Mercado.  It was considered his political testament, where he did not rule out that every day he was about to give his life for his country.

Since then I learned that in the life of José Martí we have the greatest school to guide our own lives, especially in these times when opportunism and corruption are the Cubans’ best weapons for survival.

Image: Lauzan