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.

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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.

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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

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18 April 2013

The Revolution Over the Swamp

I came to Cienaga Zapata — the Zapata Swamp — a few days ago, without housing or transportation or mosquitoes or crabs on the roads, only with guidance from a battered map and the goodwill of all the swamp dwellers I found along the way. I wanted to go to Giron (known to Americans as the Bay of Pigs), to Playa Larga, to talk with Nemesia, see crocodiles and coal, and to know the depths of the Zapata peninsula, where my map showed the names of hamlets. I did almost everything, except the last. In this April, those people who were never bombed don’t exist today. They’ve gone.

There are two swamps: an exterior one all along the road from La Boca to Playa Giron and Cayo Ramona, a swamp dotted with private restaurants and rooms-for-rent in well-painted masonry buildings, in Pálpite, Playa Larga, Caletón or Girón, where people live hoping for the tenuous capitalism that is permitted and a tide of tourists. It is their sensible businesses that support the relative prosperity of the swamp dwellers.

It’s true that in Cienaga there are a hospital, schools and roads, and that the majority of its communities have regular transport. There’s a computer club but no Internet for Cubans because they have no right to it anywhere. There are a civil registry office, bakery, electricity, police, forest rangers and others who work for the Ministry of the Interior — detecting illegalities among ordinary citizens, blind to the high officials. There are hotels, campsites, museums, a bookstore, snack bars, a theater group, and a video place. It’s true that almost none of this existed in 1959. So far so good — although the stench of the montage in the showcase is unbearable.

And is this enough for a human being? After 54 years of continual sacrifice, will all the prosperity that the people of Cienaga aspire to be contained in the badly delivered basic services, and a discreet comfort that, at the first opportunity, makes them put out the “for sale” sign and get well away?

But you have to shake your head in amazement when you compare the privileged places of the swamp, with those outside the tourist route.

Because there are villages in Cienaga — the real one, not the tourist or museum one — with no phones, no cell coverage, like the remote Santo Tomas, where electricity comes from a plant that runs a few hours a day. There’s a doctor, a little school with a teacher and computers but no Internet, a video place where you can only see what’s permitted, prefab cottages and a social circle with rum and cigars.

That’s better than nothing, of course, if a person doesn’t have the spirit of progress and children don’t mind getting older in the same conditions in which they were born. Those places have fixed transport once a day, and to get to civilization they have to pass through dust or mud, depending on the season.

So, naturally, people flee from Santo Tomas, Guasasa or La Ceiba, gloomy villages becoming deserted, because they fugitives suspect they will never improve their lives.

“What you see here is the work of the Revolution,” says a billboard to the right of the road at the entrance to town of Cienaga de Zapata — Zapata Swamp. I would add “What you DO NOT see here, is also the work of the Revolution.”

What is most needed in Cienaga? For starters, what I say in everything I write: Freedom. Freedom in the economic initiatives of the people, who can only engage in certain businesses; freedom in commerce and property; freedom of information, assembly, association, education and labor unions …

On this trip I couldn’t see any crocodiles, free in the wild, even when I went into a channel of soft and nauseating shores where something splashed from time to time. A child told me that in the old villages of the Zapata Peninsula they no longer see crocodiles: they’ve fled from the people.

I thought, you don’t see people either: they have fled from despair.

This Revolution over the same Cienaga for such a long time, weighs it down. And little by little, it is sinking.

18 April 2013

If Venezuela looks into Venezuela

Fifteen kilometers to the south of Ciego de Ávila, in the center of Cuba, there is another failed town, the outbuildings of the demolished central Stewart, that today is called Venezuela. One more ruin.

Venezuela was once a thriving town. More than 7500 workers earning their bread and some constant progress in a sugar refinery that became the third in production capacity in the whole country. One million sacks of sugar produced in 1952. Big old wood houses that still exists, though leaning a bit and unpainted. A Union capable of hard battles for their workers’ progress, without limits, even against governments or companies, as it should be. Hundreds of residents members of different political parties, lodges, religions, cultural societies, choosing to buy amid different newspapers or crowds of commercial brands.

All that was reduced to One. And often to Zero.

Only one union trained to tell their workers that they must continue working in silence even if the receive less each time; one school where the boys learn a bunch of things that won’t give them any prosperity after graduation if they stay in that town or country. Very little to eat in the street, the farmers market selling very tiny potatoes, some bananas and malangas (a tuber resembling sweet potatoes),amid very fertile soil.

A fish market of chopped fish 30 kilometers from the Júcaro port. A boring museum with the stuff of Indians, Cuban independence warriors, union workers and bourgeois that soon will be another office in this poorly preserved town-museum. The headquarters of the Union that used to give battles against the masters in the republic, demolished.

Huge billboards with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez announcing a future that neither they nor their followers will be able to give to their people. Eternal silences in the nights. And the refinery, that majestic mass of human labor, that factory that 60 years ago exceeded the million sacks of sugar, became a silent ruin.

And that is only the visible part. There isn’t freedom, which is not easily measurable, because people get used to silencing their wishes of progress to avoid jail or being fired from jobs, they get used to the same newspaper, radio and television; to the same politicians, to the same useless currency. They adapted themselves to thinking about running away, very far, without home or family when they can’t take it any more: that custom is the worst thing that happened to Stewart, to Venezuela.

This is Venezuela’s mute drama. That could happen to the other Venezuela, if they don’t learn the lesson of others and vote badly or remain silence in these decisive days, in which I forget that stupidity of not meddling in the problems of people of different flags; between the solidarity for other men, and respect for the very dubious sovereignty made to protect bad governments, I choose solidarity. And I also believe, as did José Martí and Bolivar — liberator of foreign lands — that homeland is humanity.

And Venezuela pains me.

Translated by: @Hachhe

11 April 2013

The Best Site in Pinar del Rio

1363755818_teatro-milanesWhat makes a city is its people. The Capitol is not the most important thing in Havana, nor are the abundance of churches and alleys what is most striking of Camagüey, nor is the Moncada Barracks the greatest thing in Santiago, nor are their seawall walks the most pleasant parts of Caibarién, Cienfuegos, Gibara and Puerto Padre. It is the people who live or have lived there, their work, their faith, their worth or their dreams, who give meaning to those places.

And Pinar del Rio is a city that — forgive me for all the other valuable things that don’t appear in this blog — makes more sense because in many of its houses, ever stronger, grows the magazine Coexistence.

Occasionally Dagoberto Valdés, friend and editor of the magazine Coexistence, sends me a text message, a text that is not like the others, although it is also news: there is an Editorial Board. And I must be, and the finicky editor of texts that he lets loose in his alert counsels, and I’m glad because I cam going to see a ton of friends and good people, “good for me and good for this island bathes in waves of despair,” all at once.

So once more I pack my backpack, and correct the commas in an article I’m sure I haven’t sent them yet, and get a ticket or hang around the waiting lists at the bus stations. And begin the trip to Pinar del Río.

I’ve traveled a lot to the city that seemed a remote land before: since that first trip of curious journalist, when with my beard and covered in road dust I arrived at the home of Dagoberto Valdés, a few months from the end of the magazine Vitral, to help put out the first issue of White Rose. And instead of people consumed by sadness or resentment against the deserters, and the every-man-for-himself in which so many Cubans sail today, I found a team focused on their work, optimistic and affable, wonderfully resilient.

(That was my first trip to Pinar del Rio and the Magazine, in a very journalistic and traveling summer, when I still hadn’t been out of the University of Santa Clara did two months later, which I was two months later, by chance. And I joined the Editorial Board in February 2011, my own birthday present, four months before I was kicked out of the ISA. Obviously, my relationship with the magazine had a strong impact on me).

The red signs announces the closing of the workshop (also a museum), and the blue sign said "Strictly Forbidden to Stop Dreaming"

The red signs announces the closing of the workshop (also a museum) after 13 years, and the blue sign says “Strictly Forbidden to Stop Dreaming”*

Coexistence brought me to the home-based museum of Pedro Pablo Oliva*, and The Great Blackout epic my Cuban favorite. Coexistence gave me the chance to film, which I still owe them for, when a phenomenal jury gave Henry Constantin its audiovisual prize. Coexistence, that had managed to weave together a ton of friends in Pinar del Rio and outside the city, which they shared with me.

And Coexistence included me in its Editorial Board, and that night of the first meeting my modesty about being an upstart, for being the last to arrive and from the farthest away, they treated me almost equal to the founders, freely and without hesitation, with the right to edit and critique every new issue of the magazine.

A building in ruins in the center of the city.

A building in ruins in the center of the city.

Usually the traveler goes to see Soroa and Las Terrazas, climbs the hills of Vinales or goes down in the caves of Santo Tomas, spends an afternoon at Guyabita or breathig in the best tobacco brangs, bathing in Maria La Gorda, taking the waters of Los Portales and looking how it flows to the Gulf of Mexico from Cano de San Antonio or enjoying the clouds from Pan do Guajaibon.

All that is good, if one wants to know only the superficial. But if you want to know something of the best of humanity reborn in Pinar, and you left without a greeting to the people of Coexistence, without the magazine, a photo or a conversation, the traveler, possibly, would have missed everything.

*Translator’s note: Pedro Pablo Oliva is a painter in Pinar del Rio who fell on the wrong side of the government. The associated events are detailed here by: Yoani Sanchez, Dagoberto Valdes, Miriam Celaya and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo.

20 March 2013

L is for Liberty

A beheaded Indian atop his white horse races around Las Tunas, this faded and drab Eastern balcony what I love so much because there they have loved me. The Indian is a bad omen, according to the elders of Las Tunas, perhaps because of the already genetic fear of a population that in the 19th century was attacked too often and burned too often. There are those who say, to spread fear at night, that the last apparitions of the headless one were before an apocalyptic hailstorm and a bloody car accident many years ago. But it has not come out again.

And I think it’s because, decapitated after all, he has no head to see his surroundings. Because a subtle tragedy, without blood or fury or visible cataclysms, happens every day. In the schools of Tunas — as its citizens abbreviate Las Tunas — and in the whole country.

If you travel to the village of Cucalambé — eminent poet of Las Tunas, whose formal name was Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo drop in on Vicente Garcia park. Look at the statue of the much-discussed gallant general, walk through the bright new boulevard that stretched from the little Catholic church, have an ice cream at Las Copas, take a peek at Jose Marti Plaza, the most inventive Cuban monument to the man from Dos Rios. All that is very nice. But if you don’t want to upset yourself, don’t want any further on the boulevard that Ramon Ortuno Street.

Because a few blocks further on, like someone looking for the bus station, there’s a nursery school, a kindergarten — as the grandparents call it — that is called “Little Friends of MININT,” that is the Ministry of the Interior. I went through there at the same time as the parents were picking up their kids under 5, who do not read or write, but who surely have already received lectures in that place about the institution in charge of control and exhaustive surveillance over Cubans, those who spy, interrogate, beat and imprison people. I discovered that place and, dying of laughter at the excessive brainwashing, took a a picture of it. Then came the bitterness.

Bitterness is not the name of the place, which is just a detail in the landscape of Cuban education. The bitterness is because I remembered that I’m alive and I have a son who lives in a country where all this, these kindergartens for toddlers, primary and secondary schools for kids and teens, the high schools and poly-techs, and the universities belong to the state. And those who control the state — which I insist on writing in lower case, because that’s how I think of them — manage them without any ethical respect for our children.

On the contrary, they use them to teach and evaluate the discipline of their own political ideas. And worse: they train them in the arts of obedience, of saying yes when they think no, of setting aside their truth, of running away when they can’t take it any more. Without the permission of the parents, who also took the same classes.

Once I asked Dante, my son, who just turned 7,what letter he’d learned that day. “F for Fidel,” he answered. Not F for Family, which is what I try to teach him, not F for fortunate, which is what he deserves. No, those were not the most important words he learned that day. That day he learned F, for Fidel.

They saw education in Cuba is free. I don’t know. It’s true that in exchange for so much schooling and education the government doesn’t ask us for money, no. It asks us to give our liberty, which is worth more.

The Indian doesn’t go headless any more in Las Tunas. Or there is no disgrace to say it, or those it happens to are so used to it and silent, that that rider on a white horse dissolves in the past. But this April 4th there’s a party for our children, the students, who, for now, continue in that only possible — free and compulsory — school. For now.

1 April 2013