Closed, for Cubans

There are regions in my country where I still cannot enter.  At least not unless I am loaded with official documents, authorizations, guarantees, and recommendation letters.  An entire list can be made out of these things.  I’m used to it: In Cuba, one can write – actually, those in power have already done so – an infinite list of the things that are restricted for Cubans.  There is a list of web sites which I cannot enter, a list of magazines and newspapers which are not allowed to be read in libraries (the list includes any which display my rulers committing any errors worth silencing), another list of films, such as “Before Night Falls” and “The Lost City”, which I can’t find in any of the state video stores or movie theatres.

As for musicians that are prohibited from receiving any radio or TV play – Alejandro Sanz, Willy Chirino, Porno Para Ricardo, etc.  The most outrageous situation is that of the people whom we are not supposed to call by phone or visit in person – but I do it anyway, and that’s why I probably am included in that list, too.  There is yet another list which consists of historical people who cannot be mentioned without evoking much offense – commanders Eloy Guiterrez Menoyo and Huber Matos, president Estrada Palma, and so on. There are dozens of lists which are composed of well-off people the same way that there are those made up of everyday people in Cuba.  But it is these outlawed regions of our geography which interest me the most on this Travel Report.

The post with which I inaugurated this blog was about how I could not enter the Cape of San Antonio in Guanahacabibes – in the far Western part of Cuba – for the simple reason that I was not a tourist.  At that time, the functionaries of the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment denied me the entrance, just as the orders mandated they do so to every Cuban resident on the island. While I was getting over that frustrating trip, a few vehicles with tourist license plates swiftly passed by, heading towards the Cape. They braked right by me, asking (in Andalusian and Italian accents) the solicitous guard where their destination lay as he opened the entrance gate.

In the extreme opposite of the country, halfway from between Baracoa and the Yumuri river – on the North coast – there lies another one of those “border” spots. In it, some locally known cavers, carrying all sorts of official authorizations, waited for almost an hour under the mid-day sun until the official decided that they could pass towards the Maisi Point.

The Sabana-Camaguey archipelago, which borders the northern coast of the central provinces, is also prohibited.  It’s made up of a strip of hotels from Santa Maria Key to Paredon Grande, with very little terrestrial access — some anti-ecological and enormously steep embankments from Caibarien to Turiguano — where vehicles which transport Cubans are carefully searched by police officers, who check to see how many documents people are carrying or make them get out of the car and stay there.  And you can’t just go in under the pretext of simple tourism.  If you don’t have a hotel reservation, or if you don’t have any credentials such as being an employee or participant in an already registered event, then you can’t go in.

The same thing occurs in Sabinal, which is less exploited touristically, and also in Romano Key, the largest and most conserved of the keys.  As if that wasn’t enough, there is at least one of those small islands which requires a double authorization project: Paredon Grande.  Any Cuban who gets there must show his/her permits, and since the terrestrial path goes through Coco Key (where at the entrance of Turiguano they already searched through the papers) then it turns out that you would get searched twice.

But on the Isle of Pines, which still has the official name of “Island of Youth,” it is an even more ironic case.  Up to well into the 20th century, Cuban sovereignty was not well defined in terms of this rugged area and with regards to those supposed North-American colonizers.  And now, in the 21st century, for a national resident to access that minor southern island (the most extensive and inhospitable) it requires even more permits and processes, moreso than a European Union citizen trying to pass from one country to another.  And let’s not even mention Largo Key, which lies about 100 kilometers to the East:  I’ve only been able to see it from an airplane.

But it isn’t just land that is forbidden.  There are also bodies of water which surround the island (and which are supposedly considered territorial waters) which the authorities consider to be malignant for Cubans.  A couple of youths from Smith Key (or “Granma Key” as it is officially known) who are owners of boats which are used to explore the interior bay of Santiago de Cuba, opened their eyes wide in disbelief when I suggested taking a look into the exterior part of the bay, where the Morro Castle starts to rise.  “That’s forbidden.”  And this is a national mandate: any Cuban who is riding upon any sort of water vessel must be heavily armed with authorizations, if not he or she runs the risk of spending the night in a prison.

In all of these cases ecological protection, which is the justification for restricting or controlling the access to protected zones in the world, is discarded simply because of the differences which exist for a foreign citizen and a national resident who wants to visit any of these areas.  The foreign visitor would be content just to go in and take a quick look, while a Cuban, when he or she has no reservations (if the area is a hotel zone) could wait up to three months while searching for authorizations from up to half a dozen functionaries — and that really is a valid justification! And, mind you, this is always with the risk present of having such access being denied just because of trivial whims.

Where our internal exile is really colossal is in Caimanera, the city closest to the perimeter of the US Naval Base in Guantanamo.  We Cubans consider the territory where the Base is located to be part of our country, and we hope that one day it will really be that way.  Of course, we can’t enter that place, but in addition, those who run this country have really gone to the extreme, so much so that in Caimanera, a city which is fully national, no Cuban can get in unless they are pre-authorized and justified by an application filled out by any family they have who are residents of that town, and even they, the family, have to inform the authorities first.

The reason for so much discrimination is really shameful: trying to keep Cubans from leaving the country illegally (perhaps our island is a jail, which is supposed to be the only place where anyone can escape illegally from), protecting the environment,  (which they protect from Cubans who go by foot, and not from foreigners who drive down such zones with their polluting automobiles which can easily exterminate any endangered species), and to prevent diversions of naval vessels and any provocations to the Base…

Out of all these excuses, and out of all the flagrant discrimination which they conceal, we can reach some painful conclusions.  The most obvious: that Cubans who are residents of their own country are not considered to be citizens who possess inviolable rights before the State (whose sole purpose is to guarantee these rights), and instead, our role is something very different.  We’re supposed to be people who live in a place where others rule, and where our value is below that of politics and the interests of our rulers.  The colossal fear which these individuals have of losing authority through illegal exits, improbable clandestine disembarkations, or through the psychological pressure of a conflict with the Naval Base, can never make sense in the 21st century of continuing to discriminate against its own citizens.  This only accelerates the need to get the leaders out of the way, for they have already lost the opportunity to fix things.  Today, the goal is very clear: tear down all the silent walls and discrimination which the fears of an older generation erected, be at peace with our own people, and reconstruct our pride.

When any Cuban can stare out to the sea from the Cape of San Antonio, without blushes or permits, then that will be a good sign.

Translated by Raul G.

Gandhi Smiling in the Wee Hours

Early morning hours. Eight students from “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas, passengers without tickets on a train. They are between cars, standing or crouching, shivering from the most intense cold in the world. In the door to the right, two cops: they don’t let them pass. At the door to the left, three railway officials: they have them surrounded. A man of enormous size and arrogance shouts from the station: the train will start only when those damn students who got on in Santa Clara without tickets get off. This happens at two in the morning in a place isolated even from itself: the town of Guayos, more than halfway to Camagüey, the destination of the boys.

There are many other travelers who don’t have tickets, and they don’t bother them, then why harass the young people?

Two months earlier, some of those same students boarded a train without tickets. That is normal in Cuba: the national railway doesn’t meet even twenty percent of passenger demand and there is a regulation that allows people who board without tickets to ride once they are on the train by paying double the established fare, to the delight of some industrious pockets. This system was applied to these boys, with the peculiarity that after having been squeezed (each one had to give a third of their monthly university stipend to stay aboard), they saw the money disappear into a pocket without getting any ticket or other proof of the transaction. So, it was the officials who got fatter.

What did they do then? They wrote about it in a letter to the State newspaper Juventud Rebelde, the national escape valve of anyone disgusted who can’t deal with the primary causes, and that let to a purification process in certain instances on the Cuban Railways. There were sanctions against a couple of people. We return to Scene 1.

The little train boss, fired up by that event, in a Mafia-like revenge decided to take it out on the Santa Clara university students, until one night we, forced by inevitable lack of transport, got on the train. Far from the station, the character noted our unmistakable presence and ordered us to get off. Faithful police and functionaries pushed us from car to car until they had us all cornered. And there, with shouts, threats of fines and jail cells, they demanded that we get off the train at the first stop.

We decided this was discrimination and vengeance and abuse and they had no right and in the end we decided to remain still and silent. We didn’t want to get off in Placetas. A girl explained to the police the reasons for the disobedience. The train boss swore definitely to stop it in Guayos: “I’m going to call the Party and whomever.” Instinctively, we move closer. The police smoke nervously, without looking us in the eye. A civilian with the suspicious air of a negotiator wants to know what we want. To go to Camagüey and pay what we owe. The shrieks of the train boss, obstinate about telephoning the station, feeling it all on the dark platform. Some hesitated: What if they arrest us? What if they kick us out of the University? No one answered the one who had spoken: his girlfriend looked at him and spit her gum out the window.

Welcome to the land of El Mayor*, says the most visible sign on the Camagüey train station. With our bags over our shoulders, still smiling still scared, we separate that morning at the station. We look back, the stopped train, its masters incapacitated and its servants hideous, in the early morning when some young men lost their fear.

*Translator’s Note: El Mayor is the nickname of Ignacio Agramonte (1841-1873), a hero of Camagüey in the fight for independence from Spain.

The Fourth Issue of La Rosa Blanca

Download Rosa Blanca 4 Here

The Third Issue of La Rosa Blanca Magazine

This is the third issue of La Rosa Blanca, you have to walk a lot in order to publish it, and walk even more to deliver it in a country mute and without internet. Every issue of La Rosa Blanca, which I’ll post in this blog as I’ve done before, since I don’t have any effective way to post it someplace else, is the sum of a few eventful trips to collaborators’ houses and loyal readers.

This magazine is also the end of many trips. In the province of Las Tunas, up north, I meet Christian essayist Frank Folgueira at his house, a stubborn historian focused on the history of another one of the towns – Manatí, which is also my birthplace – hit by the plague that is just ending. As if it were a national affliction, in Encrucijada de Villa Clara, in an old high roof wooden house from before the revolution, I meet Gabriel Barrenechea, suffocated by the gray vigilant atmosphere of his village, writing his stories and copious economics and political essays by hand.

Havana… and fourteen long flights of stairs to reach the apartment of two friendly Cubans, Yoani and Reinaldo, because La Rosa Blanca publishes some articles from Generation Y, which needs from channels like this one to be read in Cuba. Afterwards, down Tulipán street, we turn and continue for a couple of streets, in Nuevo Vedado, and underground – and under the sea which floods this island – we meet Rafael Alcides who breaks his self-imposed silence to offer us a few articles of unheard of tidiness.

A bit farther away, where Vedado and Downtown Havana meet, Yoss delivers dozens of writings of every kind, but always weighing more towards fantasy and science fiction, giving a breath of fresh air to the seriousness that national reality imposes on the magazine. I come back to Camagüey, and go to the only house where everything is discussed, freely and thoroughly, located in Agramonte, and I meet with the intellectual Rafael Almanza going through one of the thousands of pieces that make up his work.

Maybe, instead of coming back to Camagüey, I go from Havana to Pinar del Rio, where Dagoberto Valdés and Karina, Virgilio, Jesuhadín, Néstor, Servando and the others patiently try to inculcate a culture of tolerance in all Cubans. Or I’ll go to Bayamo, where my friend Ernesto Morales, who’s been just expelled from his post working as an official journalist – he’s finally managed to get that badge of recognition of his honesty and bravery – writes and blogs in the tense and isolated environment of the eastern provinces; or maybe to visit Elia, in Las Tunas, in search of Carlos Esquivel’s poems, a miraculous writer who has resisted the temptation of the big cities, and refuses to leave his indolent land.

From the work of all of them, and many others, comes La Rosa Blanca, which will later spread from computer to computer, from memory to memory, and even through old three and a half inch floppy disks, with the same silent fragility which characterizes its making. Here it is.

La Rosa Blanca 3.pdf

Translated by: Xavier Noguer