Shakespearean tragedy

Havana is a city of slow solutions or incredibly precipitous ones. In the case of a deteriorating building, where the inhabitants live among the scaffolding with pieces of the ceiling falling in, the remedies take time and the necessary housing takes decades to construct.

But if the question is to close, to limit or to prohibit, resources crop up with surprising speed and the solutions arrive “today for tomorrow.” Following this logic, the residents of Central Havana discovered one day that our Maceo Park had grown a wall, covered in Jaimanita* stone, which preserves the wall and protects us.

The hundreds of sacks of cement that were wasted to create such a barrier might well have been used building houses for the residents of the famous Romeo and Juliet solar* located at Belascoaín and Concordia, which finally collapsed just a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the statue of the Bronze Titan now dozes in the park far from the cries of the children, beyond the couples who “squeeze” in the dark, and away from the drunk sleeping it off on a bench. The protagonists of the tragedy of collapse spend the night in doorways, shelter themselves in the farmer’s market or assemble other tents, always under the eyes of the police, who for the last two weeks have closed the street from Neptune to San Lázaro.

Entangled in a drama that exceeds that of the Montegues and the Capulets, residents of the collapsed solar realize that their future is being decided higher up. The possibilities of changing the future – of shared shelters and promises of microbrigades* – that they already glimpse for themselves, are minimal. Their fate, like that of Shakespeare’s tragedians, are already written in the stamp of the housing institute and the false ink of a bureaucracy that does not generate happy outcomes.

Translator’s notes:

Jaimanita = A local limestone used for high quality construction, including on many of Havana’s most elegant older buildings.

Solar = A type of single room occupancy housing with shared bathrooms, that can vary from adjoining shacks to an old mansion broken up into single room dwellings. Whole families may live in one room. The closest English word is probably “tenement.”

Microbrigades = See the notes for August 24th.

And my glass of milk?

After Raúl Castro’s speech on July 26, I ran into several friends who greeted me in a similar way, alluding to the “glass of milk” promised by him in front of the cameras.  From the nearly sixty minutes of his panegyric, people extracted this promise, announced like a conquest achieved, “that every Cuban can drink” a glass of the precious milk when he likes.

To me, one of those who grew up on a gulp of orange peel tea, the news seemed incredible.  I believe that we might put a man on the moon, take first place among all countries in the upcoming Olympics, or discover a vaccine for AIDS, before we would put within reach of every person on the island the forgotten morning café con leche.

I seem skeptical, I know, but the same thing happened to those responsible for editing Raúl’s speech for publication in the daily newspaper Granma (in paper and on the internet).  In both versions the promise of milk within reach of everyone was censored.

Stubbornly, I sat in front of the television again on Thursday, July 27, to see the rebroadcast of the speech and to hear again the immediate conquest we were poised to make.  My astonishment doubled when, at the moment corresponding to the already unforgettable phrase about the milk, the editing cut away and in its place they put a sea of flags in the Plaza Ignacio Agramonte.

At this point I don’t know if, in my food deliriums, I dreamed about the glass of milk, or if it really existed.

Similes, eternity and power

I avoid using words such as “eternal,” “always” and “never .”  The definitive scares me and the everlasting stinks.  So when I hear a political speech where someone says “its fire will be as eternal as the Revolution,” referring to the fragile fire of a torch, I run to my dictionaries and calm my fright with the linear definitions of the words “ephemeral,” “perishable” and “transitory.”

It turns out that the “eternal” is not only that which is going to last forever ad infinitum, but that which has no beginning, which was always there.  The temporal existence of the flame of the Santa Ifigenia cemetery no one doubts, because it is clear that once it was not and now it is.  Why then this absurd parallelism, this demonstrably false simile of comparing two transient things – if we consider them in time and history – and claiming that each carries within it the seed of immortality.

At times, the phrases of permanence have such an effect on me that I have to conjure up images of the future.  I see myself as an old woman trying to tell my grandchildren about all the things that today we perceive as perpetual.  In return I get from them the welcome thoughtlessness of the young, “Ah, grandma don’t talk about ‘that’ any more, everyone’s already forgotten it and you go on and on about the same old thing.”

It’s a relief that everything in this world has its days numbered.

All for one

In what are called “Stores of Currency Collection,” notice carefully that the stated objective is not to provide a service or to satisfy clients, but to remove the money from your pocket… seriously! This well-patronized model is a set of stores called “All for One.” You can find everything there from plaster figurines through scrub brushes all the way to water pistols for the kids.

These stores are very popular and usually there’s a line outside the door. Families buy gifts for Teacher’s Day, and a host of foodstuffs of great utility but dubious quality. It is precisely the latter to which I would like to refer, as the “sell-by” dates of most of the products make their sale to consumers a real scam.

On their labels, the products show they are from an Italian company called “ITALSAVE,” and another Spanish one called “Vidal.” I wonder if these companies know that the products they sell to the Cuban state are used to exploit the inhabitants of this island and that by the time they arrive in our hands there is such a decrease in commercial value that it would be better if they were incinerated.

This could go much further and we have to ask ourselves if between the shareholders of both companies, ITALSAVE and Vidal, they will not be, at some point, in Cuban hands. The old trick of buying yourself from yourself. The well-known scheme of being the bank, the seller and the buyer at the same time. It’s the only way one could conceive that someone would buy such a load of dysfunctional trinkets to sell to their own people, without demanding at least a minimal level of quality.

For anyone who might be able to continue the research (for me it is impossible given my well-known difficulties in accessing the internet), here is more information about these companies.

From the Italian company:



Italsav s.r.l.

Via Newton snc – Zona Industriale
67051 Avezzano (AQ) – Italy
Tel. +39 0863 509033
Fax + 39 0863 497192


From the Spanish company:


Partida La Montana. s/n.
46293 BENEIXIDA (Valencia)
Tel: (96) 297 65 35
Fax: (96) 297 65 20

Text from street sign: Gap

The bread recipe

Every day I see for myself that they’ve robbed us of the recipe and the art of making bread, our bread… and I’m not saying this in the metaphorical sense of “making love,” as we say in Cuba, but rather in the plain and straightforward meaning of preparing the universal food, our daily bread… this thousand-year-old combination of flour, water, leavening and fire.

With each bend in the road during those years, the bread from my childhood stayed the same; from its mass I could shape small dolls and make marbles. Nobody can convince me that this new product – weightless, whitish, gum destroying, producer of grainy and dry crumbs that cover your clothes – is bread. Where is the solid bread, the type that would fill you up after eating a slice, which you could dip in black beans and smear with butter without worrying that it would break into pieces, like what happens with this “crumbling stone” that I just bought.

Evidently, this thing that I have on my table isn’t intended to please the palate because in a society like this one we must fight against pleasure, a petite-bourgeoisie weakness. A revolutionary that is a revolutionary eats bread like this without so much complaining.

This bread – that you can admire in the photo – seems to cry out what we already know: shutting down private bakeries – those in each neighborhood that we all knew with their “house specialties” and “secret touches” – led us to this dysfunctional, insipid and ineffective nationalization, and little by little has made us forget what real bread is.

The gift of invisibility

For years I boasted that I could become “invisible,” because at any moment I chose I could immediately go undetected and escape from complicated situations. Wrapped in this “Harry Potter” cloak, I eluded membership in the Union of Communists Youth, because — an incredible thing considering Cuba’s ideological extremism of the 1980s — no one asked me if I’d like to join.

I was also invisible for any position of responsibility that might be left vacant near me, and that required an unblemished applicant. I thus avoided, without hardly anyone noticing (until today), the almost obligatory enrollment in the FMC [Federation of Cuban Women] — by playing the old trick of having an identity card that matches one address but living in another; I also got around membership in a union, and I even managed to not let myself be stopped by “The University is for revolutionaries,” when I had the luck of studying in the School of Letters during a period of bureaucratic relaxation brought about by the severe conditions of the Special Period.*

However, the hiding trick no longer works. So I have “pointed myself out” in an act of extreme exhibitionism: writing this blog. My friend offered me the Golden Rule when he told me about a conversation he had with “the boys of the apparatus.”* He said: “I sign my own name to everything that I think and write, but you aren’t allowed to publish any of the things that you do or say, much less sign them.”

So, inspired by my friend’s advice, I got a little carried away and put my picture up on this blog. Although I appreciate the advice of all of those who have written, asking me to use a pseudonym and to take my face down from the Internet, I should tell you that this is part of an “anti-invisibility” personal therapy.

Translator’s notes:

Special Period = The 1990s in Cuba, a very difficult time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its support.

“Boys of the apparatus” = State security services, called variously “security,” “the Apparatus,” “the machinery,” “Armageddon,” “the chipper,” “the boys” or simply, “Them.” See Blog entry for 24 December 2007.

I’m back

I left cyberspace for a few days because a virus, named after the villain of a current Brazilian soap opera, has left me nothing to do but take hydration salts, eat mashed taro root and worry about whether or not there’s a tropical version of Ebola… fortunately it’s over and I’m back.


You know what it feels like when you try to pedal a bicycle with a rusted chain, a bent sprocket and stuck bearings? Well that’s the feeling that crushes me these days. All my energies, efforts and desires to do something are wasted on a mechanism that doesn’t move forward. At times, I have the impression that the design of life that makes me endure these problems, difficulties and daily inefficiencies is intended to not let me lift off into “flight,” to not let me get off the rusted bicycle until I am exhausted.

On this bicycle I’m talking about, I don’t control the handlebars, rather the stones in the road determine the direction and the only thing that works with any efficiency are the brakes. The street where I try to move forward is full of restrictive signs and no corner on my route has the right-of-way.

I know that it would be easier to toss the bike, to move to a neighborhood with broad roads well away from here, or to keep still, to have projects that exhaust and overwhelm me like a worn out flat tire. But it happens that there is a certain stubbornness and vague dreams of a future brand new bike that keep me on the saddle.

Morning orientations return

For the last six months, morning orientations have been reinstated, like an obligation, in all workplaces. This is not a new direction, simply a return to an old one that in recent years had been put out to pasture along with the other things “almost no one believes in.” So, alongside the militia uniform, the helmet of the microbrigadista* and the diploma highlighting “socialist emulation,” this ancient specimen of ideological indoctrination has also returned.

Normally it is carried out on Friday before the start of the workday, with the same dullness and lack of interest that has, for some time, affected the morning schools. Most of the participants do as they’re told, applaud with feigned enthusiasm at the end of some phrase said with an intonation of officiousness, and sigh with relief when everything ends. For the administrator who fails at the task of organizing it, they have already written up the sanctions that will result.

Some day when we prepare a place of honor for the absurd things of this period, we will need to save a space for the morning orientation. There we will gather up the stifled yawn, the subdued tone for singing a hymn – almost a whisper – the patriotic poems full of rubble and common places, the yellow files with the speeches that seemed to never end, and the knocked-about, tattered ephemera. Meanwhile, we have to assist in its forced rebirth.

* Translator’s note

Microbrigadista = “In 1971 a novel form of sweat equity, the microbrigades, accompanied government investments. Under this system groups of employees from given workplaces would form brigades to build housing while other employees agreed to maintain production at current levels. Housing units were then allocated among the employees from that workplace…. Microbrigades experienced a revival in 1986 due to several social forces.”

Source: Kapur and Smith, Housing Policy in Castro’s Cuba, 2002