The Unknowns Behind the Cultural Exchange / Juan Juan Almeida

•September 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Before the Portuguese awning maker and salt merchant Matias Perez* disappeared in the world, already Cuba and the United States were maintaining solid ties, including cultural exchanges, which continues being today an important part of our history and identity.

Just by glancing we can find Cuban elements in American culture and vice versa, so much so that “Cuban-American” is the highest expression of that cultural ethnic fusion between both nations.

The cultural reciprocity was frequent, artists came and went constantly. The thing got complicated during the first half of the 20th century when both governments–and I’m going to tell the truth, like it or not–began to have a relationship based on political principles so conflicting that paradoxically they made the arts sector, that of the expression of the spirit and creativity, a prisoner of circumstances.

The Cuban Government historically has used art and culture as a machinery for social control and as influence, as much national as international. Today, in the era of globalization, the internet and social networks, much more so.

It was for this purpose, and in order to undermine with patience and subtlety the controversial law of the embargo, that at the end of the ’90’s the “Battle of Ideas” was created, a real strategy that built new masks.

In 1998, with a depressed economy and more than fifty percent of Cuban artists unemployed. The financial strain was such that it managed to break even the connection with inspiration and many important names decided to emigrate. But this time, the Cuban Government was not prepared to lose so easily its cultural heritage.

For such purpose it invented the figure of the “independent artist,” a category that still permits them to enjoy more of the destination than the trip, to give them the possibility of, paying a paltry sum of Cuban pesos, establishing legal residence indefinitely outside of Cuba, even in the United States, without losing the status quo.

Other less well known artists also managed to find a legal loophole, many times covered in false work contracts that they get weaving a net of bribes, in order to be domiciled outside the island.

That is how various actors, writers, filmmakers,  musicians, artists, dancers and even lecturers leave Cuba, like they left the mango marmalade the coffee, and the guava shells, to produce in liberty.

On living outside the island, these artists hold accounts abroad. Today they come to the United States for cultural exchange, they act, they triumph with poses of lofty urban climbers, and although none of them says it, nothing keeps them from collecting. The embargo law sanctions sending dollars to Cuba; not so the rest of the world.

As a Cuban, I don’t like to stimulate the climate of hostility that separates us as a people and that also serves as a political and economic platform for groups that manipulate us from both shores of the Florida strait.  I believe that contact with exponents of the culture coming from the island is a good thing. I am in favor of exchange; but not this lie that turns it into contraband.

Translator’s note: From Wikipedia: Matias Perez was a Portuguese born, Cuban resident, who started a canopy business in Havana in the 19th century. He was carried away with the ever increasing popularity of aerostatic aircraft, and became a balloon pilot, ascending at least three times before he disappeared while attempting an aerostatic flight from Havana’s Plaza de Marte (today, Parque Central) on June 28, 1856. A few days earlier he had made a successful attempt, flying several miles. His second try, however, became part of Cuba’s folklore: when somebody or something disappears into thin air, Cubans say: “Voló como Matías Pérez” (it flew away like Matias Perez)

Translated by mlk

4 September 2014

Exclusive Sale of Honey / Juan Juan Almeida

•September 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In the city of Santiago de Cuba, they just opened a trading house specializing in honey which, according to its publicity, is one of the foods permanently present in the east of the country. The Beehive, as it’s called locally, offers customers an exclusive range of nutritional product that can be purchased in different types of bottles, making it accessible to all Santiaguans. That’s fine, but there are more important things to resolve and they are fully visible.

I marvel when I hear and read all this craziness. Honey is not a remedy for the bile accumulated over so many years of heartache. Molasses will not sweeten the national decline.

9 September 2014

August 1994: Safeguarding the Physical Well-Being of the “Leaders of the Revolution” / Juan Juan Almeida

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

1994 began with uncertainty and ended in despair. A number of astrologers were in agreement: there was reason to believe something unusual would happen later that year. This was partly due, they said, to increased solar activity. In early August large solar flares occurred.

Aside from the considered opinion of those who can see everything in the stars, it was the year in which Cuba reached the low-point in the economic decline that had begun with the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989. The crisis was exacerbated by several factors including a sugar harvest that barely amounted to four million tons and an unfortunate but predictable outbreak of polyneuritis, which forced authorities to make vast financial expenditures.

The underground economy saw record numbers of transactions, comparable to state retail sales but with prices that were twenty times lower. As a result of financial imbalance, budget deficits and excessive monetary liquidity in the hands of consumers, life in Cuba became a continuing drama, making novel attempts to flee the island illegally — the “13 de Marzo” tugboat incident and the launches from Regla and Casablanca being two examples — quite common.

The government realized this was a time bomb on the verge of detonating, leading either to a new stampede from the island or a widespread revolt. Therefore, to increase morale within the military, a series of promotions was announced on June 6 of that year.

But by August Havana had become a sweltering city, with the sea breeze serving as the poor man’s fan. On August 5 around twenty young men were sitting on the sea wall along the Malecon at Puerto Avenue near Cuba and Chacon streets. Perhaps because they were poor or perhaps because some of them were black, the men aroused suspicion.

Trucks carrying members of the special brigade appeared and began harassing the youths. Exhaustion, hardship, rage and even longstanding grievances led to an explosion of civil disobedience. The men gathered there responded by marching down the street en masse and shouting, “We’ve had enough” and “Down with Fidel.”

Others joined them, and then many more joined those. It was not an anti-social riot carried out by criminals; it was a spontaneous popular reaction to circumstances, which was repressed with perverse excess. The reaction by the Cuban government was brutal. It counter-attacked from all sides.

Using force, trickery and bloodshed, it confronted groups of Cubans, quashed the protest and infiltrated the demonstrators’ ranks, casting a chill over libertarian bravado.

The police made a public show of force. Helmeted riot squads with shields and combat vehicles patrolled the streets of Havana, especially those in the Old Havana, Guanabacoa and Tenth of October neighborhoods. The assassins of law used the technology of enforcement to threaten everyone, leaving the city’s population with a somber, frightening and discouraging vision.

In the national media everyone was forced to publicly repudiate what was being called “the events of August 5.” They had to cheer even when there was no reason to do so. But what few of them realized was that a plan had been put in place to “safeguard the physical well-being of the leaders of the revolution.”

Yes, those khaki-clad men who grew old repeating the spurious slogan “To defend the revolution to our last drop of blood” had an evacuation plan for such contingencies. It involved gathering their families together and heading not for the frontline but for the front of the plane where, instead of trenches, there were comfortable seats and flight attendants serving champagne.

I know this because on August 5, 1994 — even before the sun had fully risen in the sky — I received a short phone call from a security officer asking me not to leave the house. Five minutes later my father’s chief bodyguard, Raul Romero Torreblanca, showed up and told me gather essential items because they would be coming by to pick me up. There was no explanation.

Doing otherwise was not an option. For many years Cuban officials (the most high-ranking) were asked to identity key family members and, even though I was no longer to the liking of the top leadership, my name still appeared on the list my father had drawn up.

Torreblanca left. Three hours later the phone rang again. “All clear,” I heard someone say. “Situation under control.”

Asking around, I discovered that not all the leaders or their family members had gotten the same call, or comparable instructions. As my grandmother used to say, “Those who steal always lie.”

11 August 2014

The First Cuban Forklifts / Juan Juan Almeida

•August 31, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Photo taken from Granma

Nelson Espinosa, director general of MONCAR, a business located in the Havana municipality of Marianao, told the newspaper Granma that the production of the first 15 Cuban forklifts, a result of collaboration with the Chinese entity Auto Caiec LTD, distinguished his business’s performance during 2013.

With 40% national integration in terms of physical components, the equipment is in a testing phase and capable of supporting up to 2.5 tons.  We are now in 2014 and they have not manufactured one more.  I suspect that the future of MONCAR is related to the manufacture of the T-34M war tanks that Raul Castro inaugurated in 1960 and these are the holy hours when he did not build even one tractor.

Translated by mlk.

18 August 2014

Don’t Talk About Tomorrow Any More, It’s Today / Juan Juan Almeida

•August 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

La Demajagua, the official newspaper of provincial committee of the Cuban Communist Party of the Granma Province, reports as important news that a junior high school with an initial capacity of 520 students, is being constructed in Bayamo at a cost of 800,000 pesos. The execution, those responsible for the work assure us, is under the control of several companies, led by the Education Construction Agency. All this without any date, nor any idea when it will be available.

When these people aren’t talking about the history of yesterday, they talk about the plans for tomorrow; but they never say today. There is no doubt, that time and its ravages are the perfect pretext of the Revolution. You’ll see.

13 August 2014

Fiesta and Funeral / Juan Juan Almeida

•August 15, 2014 • Comments Off

Photo taken by Juventud Rebelde

Starting on the morning of Tuesday August 12th, we have the International Youth Day celebrations all over Cuba; but, in view of the fact that, in the words of José Ángel Maury, who is responsible for the UJC (Young Communist League) International Relations, “We have the happy coincidence that it takes place on the eve of the Commander-in-Chief Fidel’s birthday,” the climax will be a huge chorus of Cuban young people and artists singing Happy Birthday Fidel at dawn on August 13th.

And if that doesn’t seem enough, in order to make it up to three, the communist organisers have contrived to combine the festivities of the 12th with the “Yes I have a Brother” day, to commemorate the 60th birthday of the dead President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and Fidel’s 88th. It seemed to me I was hearing my talkative grandmother when she said “If anyone doesn’t like soup, they give him three cups of it.”

Translated by GH

12 August 2014

A Troubling Harbinger of Cuba’s Future / Juan Juan Almeida

•August 14, 2014 • Comments Off

It was all much easier when we did not have names for things and you simply had to point with your finger. Back then, the difference between “this” and “that” was merely a gesture. But with the advent of letters, words, paragraphs and know-it-alls it is now more difficult to describe with any precision what the future Cuban landscape will look like.

Throughout our history we have all wanted the same thing: a lasting change that will bring about what is best for Cuba; a pluralistic, diverse, democratic country brimming with happiness. It is worth remembering that it was for this that young men fought one August 4 — on a day like today but in 1955 — in a failed assault on the Presidential Palace. But back to the topic at hand, if things continue as they are now, this “yes but no” and “more of the same” will remain constant features of national life. It is not simply a matter of trying to express what we want but of achieving a better understanding of the way to go about it.

When I set aside emotion and rely on reason, I am saddened to see that the Cuban opposition — and I say this with all due respect — is inclined to reject social reality in favor of literary fiction. Yes, they are courageous people who risk their lives in the streets, but by pursuing parallel agendas and defending personal initiatives, they make it hard to believe they can coalesce into an alternative political force or become a significant or successful social movement which, at this point in time, could encourage unanimity.

This is not impossible but first they must acknowledge the overwhelming need to come together and organize themselves. More than a union, they must form a pact. Competing to demonstrate acquired leadership skills, as they now do, is like swimming in a make-believe desert to feed one’s ego. While this may be laudable, it does nothing to help one’s country.

Meanwhile, as time marches on, those on the island and those in exile express conflicting opinions. The kings of prevarication who currently make up Cuba’s governing clique are looking like heirs-in-waiting.

All indications are that — barring a miracle or a cataclysm, which are unlikely — Cubans will be presented with a souvenir: the imposition of a governmental succession that transfers power from the current office holders to their children, friends, in-laws, cousins and/or close associates.

But it is not I who is saying this. Sir Isaac Newton himself expressed it in his laws of motion and universal gravitation: “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” There are those who do not want to acknowledge this because they are too invested in a funerary transition, or because they spend their time being fascinated with themselves.

The heirs to power, the leading players, will almost certainly be family members of current leaders who already hold strategic positions, party officials who have amply demonstrated their loyalty, and military men such as Raúl Rodríguez Lobaina, Lucio Juan Morales Abad and Onelio Aguilera Bermúdez whose devotion was formed in the heat of battle in places such as Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.

They are the new Caesars, people who, like water, have the ability to go around any obstacle and adapt to any circumstance. Their task will be to restructure the country, guiding it towards “who knows what.” They are certainly willing to fight to stay in power and one day Cubans — worn down by time and memory — will give in and agree to live in oblivion, allowing victims and victimizers to coexist. One fortunate aspect of a laboratory run by pirates is that, instead of eye patches and gold chains, they sport embroidered guayaberas and treat “the Fatherland” as their personal inheritance.

4 August 2014


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.