• Henry Constantin

    (Camagüey, 1984) Journalist, writer and photographer. Expelled from Journalism studies on two occasions, both for political problems: in 2006 from la Universidad de Oriente, and in 2008 from la Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas.
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Blog Moved: Please Read “Travel Reports” on Translating Cuba

You can read this blog here.

Another Ship Bound for Korea / Henry Constantin

I have been to Korea a couple of times and the memory of it feels like a weight on my chest. People there work from sunup for a monthly salary that only gets them through a week. They do not know what the internet is and have never used email. They arrive punctually for political rallies and applaud mechanically, as they have been taught to do since childhood. When they leave, they look as though they feel they have wasted their time. They disparage American imperialism and capitalism but seem to have a certain envy of people from there, with their mobile phones and brand-name shoes.

That is Korea. In the hills fourteen kilometers north of Mayarí Arriba in Santiago de Cuba there is a little house belonging to Empresa Forestal Sierra del Cristal filled with men subject to the same gag orders and shortages as their counterparts in North Korea, where our arms are being sent without consent from us, their owners.

People in North Korea do not need to import more armaments. They already have enough — nuclear ones too — and they are not being brought in to make them happy. Like us, what they need besides the essentials of life are to have the tools of freedom put in their hands, not in those of the huge state which wastes them on surveillance.

These include computers, cell phones, flash drives, photo and video cameras, satellite antennas for internet and television, books and manuals on digital technology, human rights, peaceful resistance, a free press and civil society. They need access to Twitter, Youtube and Facebook so they can learn to publish whatever they want. They need roundtrip tickets to anywhere, to learn and bring about their hopeful ideas about the reality of their twin brothers in the south who enjoy an excellent standard of living.

Because Cuba’s foreign policy should never be that of “happiness now in your own home.” As we become more free as people and more prosperous as a nation, Cuba should not forget all the people in the world who are going through things as bad so bad as we are going through. Human solidarity, at the end of the day, is what has been preached for 50 years in our schools and media, though not always with peaceful, innocent or disinterested intentions.

Cuba and the world need to change a great deal. The humble workers cutting timber in the Korea of Crystal Mountain, where I got the traveler pretext for this article, deserve a better life. The North Koreans of the peninsula, which have similar scarcities, too.

And we Cubans need better international politics, one that in addition to looking after ourselves, also includes solidarity with all human beings who are down — regardless of their flag — with the oppressed, not with the little men clinging to eternal and total power: some day our shops will carry internet and computers and books, instead of hidden arms. Some day.

20 July 2013

A Lighthouse Against Old Discourses / Henry Constantin

A lighthouse at the entrance of a bay: a sexual metaphor, or a social one, if we see the bay as part of that Cuba that isn’t fertilized, even if the lives of millions of Cubans have been spent in an attempt to make it fertile.

This lighthouse does shine; not like the resumes of the army general and his officers, in which are divined the economic and social long night they promised to patient Cubans. It’s not a bad lighthouse nor is it like the mists that raise the unanimous applause of the still mute Parliament, or the journalists’ repetition of those numbers only useful to spotting the rear ends of the millions on the island who don’t even have money to buy toilet paper.

The same day that the current president of the Republic talks about the deteriorated civic values, the monstrous malformations in the conduct of Cubans, of cancers of the spirits that grow as much as the economic problems, his police shamelessly mistreating and arresting peaceful people who confront them only with civic values. What did he talk about then?

Because of this I don’t believe the current president. So I am publishing this photo of a lighthouse where I arrived after a dawn of mosquitoes, at the entrance to Manatee Bay, in the north of Las Tunas province. A lighthouse is my own metaphor that there are indeed sure ways to improve this island without the trauma of an infinite reform that hasn’t made us the slightest bit happy here.
Of course it’s not easy to get there: by the dark mountain path there are guards and trails to get lost in, but it’s better to walk with a bad helmsman and an old map. Those who still insist on guiding us with the same mistaken lighthouses as always, the fairy fires that lead us again and again into the reefs or the swamp.

Now, what we need are not more energetic or exhaustive speeches: we need to rectify this bad light and build our own lighthouses, new goals and distinct paths other than those designed in the offices upstairs, to see if, sometime, something really changes down here.

New and true lighthouses, for this island that at the same time is a drifting boat and the promised land. It’s what we are trying to do.

10 July 2013

The University

The University belongs to the Revolutionaries, says the slogan on a central wall of the University of Camagüey, the first opened by the government of the older brother, Big Brother, in the gray gray gray years of the seventies, on the northeast side of my city. But today, when sometimes we feel just half gray, we look around, a little sadly, to see that little has changed.

I haven’t woken up yet, but, like in a Monterroso story, I see the sign, the dinosaur footprint, is still there.

The 2012-2013 school year has ended, and the reforms in this country don’t touch the essential: respect for the other. Even Ignacio Agramonte University — as if The Older had once refused equality of rights to his enemies — displays the same discriminatory sign in front of which I was photographed 7 years ago, recently expelled from another university.

A dean of this place still shouts this little phrase at a meeting, and a rector, from ISA (Superior Art Institute), remembers the student he ordered out of the university. Still the university, like the armed forces, elected offices, political and business administration, the press, the diplomatic service, “solidarity” missions, and who knows how many more things on the island, are not for all Cubans: they are for the Revolutionaries. The country still is not with all nor for the good of all, but for the Revolutionaries — and even for them, to top it off, all they get is leftovers.

We all know today that the only requirement to be a revolutionary is to remain silent, smile and look away while Cuba is falling apart on us. The best revolutionary in Cuba is he who tries to revolutionize the least.

Ignacio Agramonte is the same university that expelled Harold Cepero and other boys at the beginning of 2000, when they collected signatures for the Varela Project. It is the same place where the freedom of other friends as turned bitter while they studied and worked there.

It’s where some who knew me have said, “Beware of being friends with Henry Constantin.” But this post is not only about the trip I took this afternoon to the University of Camagüey and its little sign stinking of apartheid; it was to talk about everything Cuban universities lack.

Cuban universities need not only to erase this sign. They also need to raise salaries and student stipends, reconstruct and modernize their facilities and services, de-politicize the internal rules, authorize free association among students and professors and remove all the partisan controls on their properties.

We also need to support non-state universities — because a single educational system is the best way to prepare us for the single command — to update the curricula, become more focused on technology and information sciences, eliminate military and political subjects, connect professors and students with the reality of the country and the word, and empower them to influence it, so that physical and spiritual exile are not the only options.

Cuban universities urgently need to become self-sustaining, modify subjective and imprecise evaluation methods, measuring only academic and creative performance, abandoning discrimination in admissions according to geographic provenance, increasing the evaluative demand, applying exposition and opposition of ideas in the classes, introducing the civic and human component in the curricula.

It’s a lot, but to eliminate the little sign would be a good step.  Or to change it so that we make it into a wall-museum, where our children and grandchildren will stop for a minute, and remember that that university and that Cuba should never return.

27 June 2013

Of UMAP* and Other Demons / Henry Constantin

UMAP: Citizens' force used for the good of society. Brilliant idea of

UMAP: Citizens’ force used for the good of society. Brilliant initiative of military cadres.

A common school, half in ruins, half with children in uniform, with its Cuban flag and signs on the walls. The boys talk among themselves, then look with curiosity at the stranger, who takes photos of enormous homeless sites behind the surviving classrooms. Everything seems normal in that country schoolhouse. But there is a shadow. The stranger quickly quits with the photos. The last: some cement squares next to the door, “like a booth in a military unit,” he thought. He crosses the potholes of the road and approaches the wooden houses. They welcome him, give him water, talk about the sunshine and the plums. The stranger, who has already been introduced, happily drinks the coffee they also offer him, smiles, and thanks the lady and shuts up. It’s that there is a shadow.

Then, he asks the man of the house, an old man with a mustache, “Is it true that the elementary school, a long time ago, was a UMAP*?” He points at the half-boarding Batalla de Guisa school, whose kids have no idea what was suffered there forty-some years ago. The farmer stops smiling. He hesitates, stutters, speaks softly, looks at the floor. “Yes, yes… but no. I’m not looking for problems.” Someone says, “They took the people there to some banana groves to work.”

Other visits to the farmers around then, other evasions, “Yes, yes, some of that happened.  One guy set himself on fire and the screams could be heard for miles. But I do not know anything else. ”

One lady says, “There was a lot of damage. There were dungeons, there at the end.”

So I ask, in other houses, people who lived there, in the hamlet of Manolin, ten kilometers from the southern town of Cuatro Caminos, Camagüey, in the sixties, that time of so much luminous Revolution, and so many prison cells and firing squads — more than any time in the history of Cuba.

Those who respond say yes and open their eyes as if amazed at what they’ve just be reminded of. They know more or less that the collapsed schoolhouse was a UMAP camp, run by officers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and serious things happened to those interned there.

“What things?” and then they hesitated, “Better ask so-and-so, who lived closer.” And the faces of mystery, the silence, the evasions in the faces of the interviewed farmers tell me more than everything they can say to me: there are the silent screams of an abysmal shadow that hangs over the people in Cuba, not only those of these fields of Najasa, but so many in this country who live filled with fear of saying in public what they want and what they know.

And I write it of course: the biggest problem with the forced internal silence about the UMAP issue is not that there is discrimination based on sexual behavior today in Cuba and it remains in the minds of thousands of Cuban men and women and in the structures of leadership, nor that the one who manages this issue officially here is a member of the governing family — which stinks of nepotism — nor than they try to hide the past, among other reasons to avoid a settling of accounts, inopportune repentance and reparations for the victims. The worst is the infinite fear that still infects millions of people in this country, a logical fear induced from above which, while it exists, prevents Cubans from speaking freely of their desires, concerns and complaints, of their past, and even more seriously, of their present.

That grave mystery that the people around the little school that was UMAP remember fearfully, is proof. Where there are people afraid to speak there is no peace.

*Translator’s note: UMAP, “Military Units to Aid Production,” was a series of concentration camps where the regime imprisoned its “enemies” including homosexuals, religious believers, writers, artists, intellectuals and others.

18 May 2013

A Revolution on the Backs of the Humble / Henry Constantin

I will not site this trip in any place in Cuba because it could have taken place in any of the thousands of fields in this country with any of the hundreds of thousands Cuban peasants.

I’ve had travel companions more distinct in this world. I’ve traveled among fresh pines with workers in the sawmills in Pico Cristal; among hives and smoke with the collectors of bees’ honey; on a mountain of ice with fishermen from the Bay of Pigs; surrounded by resigned conscripts to military service; or with euphoric musicians from an orchestra; with the president of the ICRT who did not specify what kind of journalist he was when I talked to him and began to wonder about his acquaintances from Camaguey; sandwiched between dozens of faithful Pentecostal or Catholic missionaries; in official cars — when they thought they could make another official journalist out of me — or in the cop cars of lawless people with grim looks when they were convinced otherwise; crammed with Cubans of all provinces and odors…

But a few days ago I had an unusual travel companion.

I traveled with a cow. A very sad and sick cow, lying on the floor, not mooing, as if she guessed that her journey was ending at the slaughterhouse. “She got stuck in the mud, spent the night there, and when we saw her and managed to get her out, she couldn’t stand up,” the owner told me, unknown but talkative, sitting beside me in the truck.

And why were they taking her to a slaughterhouse more than twenty miles away? “We don’t want any problems, my son. We don’t have a certificate for the death of this animal. And without this paper we have to keep delivering the milk as if she were alive.”

Then the interviewee started to turn toward me: “And how much do they pay at the slaughterhouse for the cow?”

“For this one, 700 pounds, it will be some 90 pesos total.”

Ninety Cuban pesos is less than four U.S. Dollars. Almost what this peasant paid to hire transport to the slaughterhouse.

“But they will give you some of the meat?”

“No, nothing my son. And afterwards I have to take more paperwork to the vet, get the stamps on it and pay more. I’m the owner of the cow, but I have to give an account to the State of everything I do with her, even after her death.”

And he smiled at the absurdity, while I ended up outraged at so much abuse. But the hardest thing is not the cow itself that the law forces you to give to State functionaries, after having raised it for so many years, without help from any State enterprise; the worst is not even the possibility that the children of this peasant eat a lunch of offal and their mother suffers from low iron, while the fortunate functionaries eat the meat itself but avoid the sun and the getting up at dawn, and others meet and exhort and scold the farmers so that they will keep on working, and others spy on them so that everything gets done. The hardest thing, the most devastating was the end of the conversation.

“And you don’t protest all of this?”

“Ah, my son, what for?”

7 May 2013

So Nemesia Doesn’t Cry / Henry Constantin

1366650256_casa-de-nemesia-en-soplillar-foto-de-inalkis-rodriguezNemesia Rodriguez is the most famous person from the Zapata Swamp. She lives in Soplillar, which is nothing more than houses around a ball field near Playa Larga, in a simple masonry house with iron railings at the door and a comfortable sofa — a gift from by Fidel Castro — in the living room. Friendly, talkative, open, humble in her manner and her environment, she welcomed this stranger who interrupted the sewing work, with no reproach for the unexpected visit.

I confess that I sat in her uncomfortable little living room: three huge portraits of Fidel Castro, at my back and side, one of Raul and another of Celia Sanchez watched me all the time, smiling and victorious from the simple innocent victim they knew how to bring to their trench. The portrait of the mother dead in the April bombing — an amplification given by Kcho — lies amidst the Cuban presidents. When I arrived, Nemesia had in front of her, covered with her sewing work that she put aside to talk with me, a Bible.

I listened with respect. I was not there to provoke mournful memories, or discuss about the two opposing Cubas that we defend, but to know her closely. I felt it was my pain for her lost mother. I remained silent before all her words of affection and gratitude to people who, for me, the deserve the most resounding oblivion, but to her they brought some interested compassion and support.

I understand because I too have seen my mother in distress and crying every time the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) interrogates her for the crime of being my mother, and the murky emotions against those individuals and bosses are inevitable. The pain of Nemesia is of being an orphan, endless pain that no one wants to come to, it is dignified that we remain silent before it; her appreciation of those who see as protectors those who definitely damage them, and then don’t want to know, nor can they repair the damage, it’s understandable and human.

But there is forgiveness, that few attempt to cultivate in this country — and never those who should ask for it — and reconciliation among Cubans who have amassed mountains of errors, as high as the Sierra Maestra.

They encourage all of the grudges of the past and only speak of unity for the trenches and the power, not of forgiveness and coexistence, they composed this poisoned elegy of politicking and manipulation, and have made millions of children repeat, they provoke a victim to pubicly repeat their bleak history, and swell all the sadness of the victim in this last trip of 2011 in Santiago de Cuba, and they could not prevent their ending up in intensive care in Saturnino Lora hospital because the heart failed so much revived emotion, “They don’t speak any more in the suffering of the past because they kill you, not the planes,” the doctors told the MININT officials, Nemesia’s guides, those, those who enjoy cultivating bad memories in a country that needs reconciliation and to speak of the present, who are the real culprits of every open sore still on Cuban consciences.

And that, apparently, they lack.


22 April 2013

May Day in Varadero

As usual, at this time of year Varadero is full of foreign tourists. The best beach and the most stunning hotels in Cuba are full of workers, employees, small business owners, retirees, professionals and young recent graduates from the remote corners of the world: a representation of the working class who, according to the ideologues of Marxism and Communism, would be the great exploited in the capitalist countries. Here, fortunately, they swam on the beaches of the island of the proletarian Revolution.

The irony is that the workers of that island remained outside these beaches, because they are very poor. If they didn’t manage to climb the ladder to a high state office, or to lose a relative in the waters of exile who would later come back and invite them, or learn some difficult way to prosper in a Cuba where almost all ways of prospering have something illegal or shady about them, these proletarians Cuban who will parade on May Day on Wednesday will not enter the hotels where the foreign proletariat stay.

The first Cuban government that manages to fill, without subsidies or handouts, the hotels in Varadero with domestic tourism will not need red flags or banners in the streets: their parade, the more honorable one you could conceive us, will be the thousands of Cuban workers finally visiting the best, furthest, and most impossible  beach in their own country..

30 April 2013

The Sierra and Forgetting

1363301334_neblinaUnbelievable. Some time ago the post office left at my house an envelope full of my maps that I had inadvertently left behind at a little house in Sierra del Cristal, back east. The extraordinary thing is that they arrived at my house two years and two months — the date was shown on the postmark — after they day they were sent: something suspicious they kept longer than usual in our respectful post office; they opened it, and then sealed it and sent it on.

How different the peasants and workers in the wood whom I could never thank for this postal favor, and all the others of those trips, who accepted no pay, although they lived so humbly it hurt. A chicken, the only one, sacrificed and cooked for guests; the little rice shared with strangers from Camaguey; a workday dedicated to free guide service for some stubborn boys climbing, among the thorns and mountain streams; the most falling-apart shoe in the world immediately sewn up; all that solidarity, integrity, even amid the monumental scarcities with which they live.

All this on the Pico de Cristal — Crystal Peak — which at 4,000 feet is the highest mountain in Cuba outside the Sierra Maestra. And the least docile of all I visited. Relatively close to the northern coast of Holguin in the area of Levisa, they say it is easier however to climb it from the south, coming from Santiago town Mayari Arriba, which is about 15 kilometers away.

The summit is almost on the border of the two provinces, although it falls on the Holguin side. A bust of the Mambi General Calixto García, facing north, surrounded by thorns, gives the sense of belonging that those from Holguin have.


The Sierra del Cristal beat me once, when I ventured unguided with a fledgling group, which went into shock three hundred meters from the top, our shoes broken, completely losing the way forward and back, out of water and crackers and with threatening rain that poured down on us, what they call “drizzle” in those uninhabited hills, which are the wettest of the country, is the same thing as saying torrents of water or mud pushing you off some cliff.

The annihilated scouts advanced and recoiled a thousand times, without reaching the top. Afterwards I didn’t not know if we went down or fell down. A hospital worker from the forest company that cuts down the pine trees in that region, came out to find us with the shock that any mountain spring would have hit us with. She found us wasted in little pieces, lying there exhausted and peaceful on a sandy ford of the Levisa River.

But last year we had a rematch, more organized and tough, and better guided, and we got there. That stretch of the Levisa river is the most striking natural thing in Cuba. In the first trip we only passed through it in our way to the mountain — if you come from the southeast, as we did, it’s a crossing point — but in the second trip, with more time and knowledge of the field, we continue downstream to the north.

And the discovering of the great white sand beaches, and the infinite waterfall ladder, more abrupt and continuous than the ones of the niches of the Escambray, conquered us. The white sand seems to release from  the saline deposit of the slopes of  Pico de Cristal itself; from that beach surely comes the name of the mountain and the region.

The water runs down there, constant and very cold no mater the season, through plastic pipelines that take advantage of gravity, from the mountain to the houses where the workers spend the night. The hidden caves of that prehistoric mammal, the almiqui, can be found with a little patience and a good eye. The wild dogs howl all night, and traces of wild pigs can be found any path near the river. On the mountain there are treacherous roads that the guide doesn’t warn us end at some precipice and vines everywhere. Pico de Cristal, stubbornly locked in it isolation and trails, is the only great mountain in Cuba for travelers who love the difficult.


But another mountain, less easy to beat, amazes in these parts: a mountain of oblivion. Tucked in the middle of nowhere, are the workers of Sierra Cristal Forest Enterprise and dozens of coffee farmers. Those who cut or plant pines — although deforestation always wins — usually live there, in the middle of the mountains, one or two weeks or two weeks at a time, because the difficultly they have — with the bad transport and the bad roads — getting back and forth from their homes in Mayari Arriba or Tumba Siete or Los Jagüeyes.

But in those immense hills, in their camps there is no electricity no, no phones or music or shops or parks or people to talk to but themselves. And they die of boredom and apathy, with old clothes and the frugal food they eat not to faint — beware, in the middle of the lost mountains there are no doctors — and some drown their nights in waves of alcohol, in a boring destruction it’s not easy to escape. All for a very poor wage that leaves their families in poverty, a wage they cannot haggle about because they have no union to engage in the battle of rights.

The coffee farmers, even with the recent increases of the money the state company pays for their product, continue to suffer the evils of the Cuban countryside: a forced and demanding monopoly with non-negotiable prices paid for production — and always watching for skimming — and this amid an almost complete lack of equipment and supplies to facilitate the work.  After an endless series of absurdities from higher up, it always ends with the overwhelming presence of the State and its officials.

These are the stories one hears while walking through the felled pine trees or sliding through the wet and muddy coffee plantations, where it seems those who should solve the problems never come.

The person who first talked to be about the Crystal Mountains was a gentleman who was with the rebels there in the ’50s, with that guerrilla troop protected by the incredible nature and the even greater solidarity of the people of Mayari Arriba.

This “Second Front” as they call it in the town, a few days ago celebrated the 55th anniversary of the struggle to improve the lives of many people. Whoever walks along those mountains realizes that obviously those guerrilla leaders didn’t accomplish much. And time is running out.

14 March 2013

Photos From Cienaga de Zapata and Playa Giron (The Bay of Pigs)

What you see is the work of the REVOLUTION

Thank you Fidel for the first meal of the Revolution

Below: The village of Santo Tomas





18 April 2013