Monthly Archives: September 2010

Stories of My Neighbors II

Photo: Alejandro Azcuy

AFTER THE SPEECH of the new president. After the announcement of the end of all gratuities*, my neighbor, who for several consecutive years had been named the Vanguard Worker of his factory, decided to cease his incessant effort. Which, day-by-day, he brought to his workplace. He would not work more until they paid him a salary that would allow him to afford an annual vacation, even if only in the worst hotel in Cuba, not to be demanding because I am a revolutionary, he declared. He was accustomed to going, every summer, with his wife and daughters to a resort and enjoying a peaceful well-fed week. It was his stimulus. He sat down, as in the Arab proverb, in the doorway of his house, which couldn’t even be called a hut. His roofs sloped, the walls have lost their cladding and their bricks, exposed to the weather, reveal a few cracks that allow the neighbors to know, from the street, in what part of the house its inhabitants are. Thus, to be precise, starting from now, without the “socialist benefits,” we will be talking about a hovel, a shack.   And he sat down, he told them, in the doorway of his home. He would pick at the calluses on his hands, created over so many years, while waiting for death or a more bearable fate. It didn’t take long for the representatives from the House of the Combatants and the Secretary of the Party Nucleus to show up. Every good worker is a Communist, as they told him, but if you cease to honor the working class than you are no longer a member. On leaving they decided to confiscate his purple Party membership card.

Then the directors of the factory visited him and were surprised by the horribly shabby condition of his dwelling. My neighbor, at first, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, when I explained, he responded with insults. The bosses let him know that since his absence, no one understood the old machinery which is now broken down most of the time. They couldn’t fulfill the orders of foreign clients and there were complaints. The delay in payments for the goods had gotten worse, and it was impossible for the factory to be profitable and, in consequence, goodbye to “socialist emulation.”

Patiently and painfully my neighbor explained to them that he had grown old without accomplishing anything. When I was a boy I started work with the American owners, it seemed unfair to me that the bosses went to New York on vacation, and their children, bad students, didn’t take advantage of having been born with money. But it’s also true that when I started working I soon bought this new house and my life changed.

After nineteen-fifty-nine, when I saw that the children of the owners and their henchmen wouldn’t be going on vacation on my effort, I gave myself to the revolutionary process. I was in the fight against the bandits, at the Bay of Pigs, Argelia, Angola, Nicaraguq, Ethiopia, and I forgot about me and my family. At the factory they gave me enough wages to survive and I never complained. When the Special Period came, then they gave me a little bag of goods. Later they stopped that and gave us ten chavitos — Cuban convertible pesos; after a little time they stopped that, too. Then I concentrated on earning the vacations to apologize to my family and make them shut up.

“Now what can I tell them?… I have no more justifications.”

Translator’s note: The Cuban regime calls the things it “gives” its citizens, in lieu of wages, “gratuities” — they include benefits ranging from lunch at one’s workplace to education. Many of these have been or are being eliminated.

Stories of My Neighbors (I)

Photo: Alejandro Ascuy

ALL NIGHT I LISTENED to my neighbor’s wife weeping. At intervals she claimed to be tired. Very tired, she insisted. Most of the time her husband wouldn’t respond, but when he did, he agreed: me too. Then she would moan, in a choking way that called to mind the crying of childhood. My anguish grew and dreams escaped me. I got used to it. The lament came to seem like inevitable music.

In the morning the sound of hammers makes me look out the window. My neighbor, the husband, with his two teenage sons, is making a raft from several empty tanks. I looked on the roof and they no longer have anything to store water. The wife spends the whole day shut in the house. She doesn’t open the windows, clearly so as not to watch the preparations for the family’s escape.

By the afternoon they already had the vessel ready. A refrigerated truck came to collect the raft. The three men went into the house to say goodbye, one by one. They came out even more sad, as if it were possible to increase the burden of so much anguish.

Before closing the refrigerator door they looked back at the house, perhaps hoping to see her one last time. But she didn’t look out. They gave the money to the truck driver, who then counted it and they took off. When the neighbors saw the dogs running behind the truck they couldn’t understand their desperation.

Long days passed and she remained shut up inside her house. From time to time worried neighbors called on some pretext, but she didn’t answer.

A sister who came from the countryside broke down the door. The doctors assured them that her family still hadn’t put the raft in the water and that she had been poisoned.

Blogging Blind

RECENTLY I HAVE BEEN HOPING I might read my blog for the first time. Some friends have seen it and described it to me, and I feel the same pleasure as when they speak to me about my children. They suggested that I buy a card that would let me enter cyberspace from the services in hotels. Two and a half months after starting the site, I still haven’t been able to see it. I’m anxious to read it, feel it, smell it. I imagine its design would give me a feeling of tenderness. Recently an old man asked me if I was sure if civilization existed outside this island.

Shrugging my shoulders, I think so, I told him. And he looked at me a long time, seeking the lost truth. It’s that, he commented, how is it possible that we’ve forgotten?… I got tired of throwing bottles into the sea, he said. I got tired, he repeated and took off, pondering. Recently a lady told me that the scenes of war on the news seem to have been filmed in secret television studios. I told her no: in other places there are also social contradictions, political conflicts, famines, diseases, etc. It’s that they never show happiness, she observed, except on the national news where everything is going well, all the plan targets are met, the people interviewed are happy, they don’t complain, they’re not worried, they don’t have different ideas… Beyond our borders the people are always killing? Sometimes, I answered. Then, she continued, they don’t eat apples, don’t go on cruises, don’t vote peacefully? In some places, I said. The woman kept staring at me.

Surely you are one of them, she declared. Who? I wanted to know. Those who write the national news full of happiness and make us believe we are living in paradise… Do me a favor, she asked, I’m losing my sight, if I try to make conversations with you another time remind me that it’s you, so I won’t waste my time… When I got home I turned on the news, the Afghans were running back and forth. I wasn’t sure if in the background I thought I saw a sugar cane field, and even the smoke from a smokestack. I went to the TV and turned it off.

Recently they have also, “Interrupted the Email Service.” Now, I go to Havana in search of a kind soul who uploads a text to my site; it makes me remember the excitement I used to feel in those early years of writing when I was wandering around the city trying to find a typewriter with a good ribbon and someone who would type, behind their boss’s back, several pages of a story I planned to send off to a literary contest. I have no complaints. From the beginning I knew what would happen if I chose the “status” of a writer within the island; in consequence, some benefits, or managing a space to write the problems that surround and distress me, and by extension, receiving institutional attacks.

Recently in Havana the cost of the written word has gone up. Owners of authorized email charge in convertible pesos (cuc) for a service to communicate with families in other countries, or for the whores to keep in touch with their foreigners. Since the beginning of last year, when they tried to deny access to Cubans to connect from the hotels, the private rentals have gone up to three cuc, and they say that before the end of the month it will increase to five.

Recently I have my doubts: I don’t know if words are going up in price or have lost their value.

Prison Diary (5) (Mother)

Photo: AP

She enters the room in search of her son; on the previous visit they told her he was in the punishment cell for indiscipline, he would be there for twenty-one days with half rations of food and no sun; so, to see him, she would have to come back the next month.

Now, she searches through the dozens of prisoners with their families without finding her son; it’s impossible not to recognize him, the guards must have been wrong to let her enter the visiting room. She goes to the door to ask the officers; her son isn’t there. They insist he is and show her his photo on the card everyone has for identification.

The mother returns to the room and patiently searches, one by one. Coming to the last one without finding him she starts to cry, but understands that she’s losing time and later the guards won’t take it into account, so she overcomes her nervousness and starts to search again, also fruitlessly.

When she returns anxiously to see them the guards fly into a rage, they tell her son is there, that if she didn’t raise him, find the person who did to show her where he is.

She prefers to keep quiet, without clarifying that she raised her children alone and never had anyone to help her. And she looks again at each face. When she searches and doesn’t find him, she ashamed to bother the sergeants one more time.

In the room, there is only one boy who is sleeping, alone, with his face hidden in his arms, but as much as she looks at him there is nothing to indicate he is her son. The shaved hair, too small head, skinny arms, very white skin and narrow back. Her son is tall and strong. Still, she notes that all the prisoners are with their families and he is not. She approaches him, heartbroken, despite knowing that he needs to sleep.

Fearfully, she touches his shoulder; the boy raises his head and hugs her.