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Monthly Archives: December 2010

And They Lived Happily Ever After

It could pass for a joke in bad taste. It could pass for the invention of a playful spirit. Unfortunately, horribly unfortunately, it is neither: The place where the 34-year-old young man named Alexander Otero is standing in these photos is nothing more nor less than the ground that the People’s Housing Authority in Granma province gave him on which to build his home. Look closely. It’s worth analyzing this depressing and cruel image.

This is about the pater familias whose desperate action — planting a den of shame in the middle of the city of Bayamo to call attention to his case — was reported in his blog, in the previous entry. I promised to continue the story, as some readers requested, following the practice of serious journalism and its demanding readers.This is the required continuation.

Exact area where he is supposed to place his house

“The day after I spent the night in that makeshift hut with my wife and baby, the leaders of the government and the Housing Authority came to see me with the paper signed, sealed and delivered. They gave me the authorization to build on the land they assigned to me, with the condition that I immediately dismantle the shack which, they said, was creating political chaos among the population.”

For a man who spent 11 years waiting for a simple rectangular space, a fragment of ground to erect his poor dwelling, such a proposition was the light at the end of the tunnel.

“First they took my wife and baby, and took them to her father’s house, temporarily, they said, and they summoned me in the afternoon to officially show me the area where I could build a house for me and my family.”

When, hours later, an official followed orders to take him to the far outskirts of the city, in a semi-depopulated area of open fields, and showed him, “this was the place that had been assigned, Alexander Otero thought, essentially, that is was some kind of macabre joke.

“I felt an indignation that I can’t describe,” he told me in a voice filled with anger. “It was humiliation. Look what they gave me to build a house for my son: a place where there is no running water, no electricity. Look what they gave me to make me agree that I could no longer say they wouldn’t let me build a house in my city.”

At the back of the land, the home of his only neighbors, a woman and three children.

But the implied malice against the humble nonconformist could go even farther. Although it didn’t seem like it, they could do even more.

“That same Friday afternoon, and I am here on the ground, looking at the outrage committed me and thinking what the hell was going to do with this, came a police patrol and took me prisoner without any explanation. “

I listen and I think I can confirm his version: that same Friday I had agreed to meet with him a second time to see with my own eyes — and the lens of my camera — the site our officials had reserved for him. I waited a long time in my house and he never showed up.

“I was imprisoned for seventy-two hours. As that is the legal time they can detain you, they put me behind bars and exactly ten minutes before the end of precisely three days they took me out and levied a thirty peso fine for public disorder. So that’s what they considered my action of raising the rafters in that other place and spending the night there with my family.

Alexander and I talked while standing among the weeds at three in the afternoon. All around us, only the whisper of the grass, distant horses, solitude. The only house in the whole place was a few meters from the site where this young man was supposed to erect his, taught me what would also be his home: an obvious complaint against the socialist paradise that I’ve been told, since I first opened my eyes, was my country. I think of the cold, the insects, I think of his baby, and feel an overwhelming shame for the house that — with enormous sacrifices — my parents managed to build for me thirty years ago.

I look at this pestilent place and can’t drive from my memory the image of the residential neighborhoods, the areas reserved for the military and party leaders in my area, with  manicured gardens and spacious parking spaces, their solar panels for hot water, their savoir faire. For the incredulous: if there are not images of those house in this blog, it’s because it’s impossible. If I just took out my camera, it would be confiscated before I ever pressed the shutter. No one is allowed to take photos outside official residences.

I know that right now, while I am listening to this poor man talk, I’m lousy company, I would like to say have faith, fight for your rights, that one day there could be a better future for you and yours. I would like to wish him a Happy New Year. But the words won’t come. So we retrace our steps like zombies, searching blindly for the way back to town.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea

 

One Family, One Tragedy

Just a few hours ago a shocking even took place in my semi-wintry Bayamo: at approximately seven at night this Wednesday, December 22, a young man of 34, Alexander Otero Rodriguez, appeared at a central corner of the city, accompanied by his wife, Aliuska Noguer Tornés, 18, along with their baby, born 48 days ago.

Accompanying them, a relative and a friend.

In a few minutes they built a fiber-cement hut from fragile boards, in a vacant lot once occupied by a grocery store. They spread out on the floor — surrounded by weeds — the rickety mattress they brought on their backs, and got ready for the storm.

Alexander Otero just took the riskiest step of his life, the most desperate: publicly claiming the right to adequate housing for him and his humble family.

Side view

It took no time at all for the public officials, the police, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to come and question that blackish den where suddenly two people with a newborn baby had installed themselves. The answers from both young people were the same: “We’re not moving from here until someone puts an end to the way we are living. We have spent months wandering from place to place, we don’t have a home, and now that our son is born we are sleeping in the streets.”

From the front, with neighbors all around

Not late in coming, either, were the curious, the supportive neighbors, who were suddenly left speechless by what these people were doing; nor was the informant late in coming, a member of the intelligence services who, unhappily, tried to avoid my filming the event and taking photos of him.

I repeat: unhappy man, who never imagined — as I could never imagine — that a crowd of dozens of Bayamese would turn against him, almost expelling him, and showing an enormous contempt for his sudden “coming out of the closet” as a citizen repressor.

According to the words of Otero Rodriguez, this action was the culmination of an inhuman waiting that started 11 years ago, when he first asked for a small space to build himself a home. Since then, the Housing Department continues to ask him to wait while, he said, they allocate huge amounts of land for houses for government and military officials in the area.

Alexander Otero and his family. In his hand, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba

“For months Aliuska and I have lived as nomads, renting at night in a small room or sleeping in the Bus Terminal. When our son was born, we asked the authorities to pay attention to our situation (homeless and with a baby), and they only thing they did was to sell us these fiber-cement boards and seven bags of cement, without giving us authorization to build a house.

After leaving the Maternity Hospital, the three had continued to sleep in the open.

“In parks, in terminals, in doorways. We have knocked on the doors of the Housing Authority, we have been to the Party headquarters, and all, absolutely all, have shown no interest in our case. They tell us their help — selling us the boards and the cement — ended there. So here we are unable to move on with our life.”

Aliuska Noguer, and her small newborn

At nine at night, with a considerable crowd in strong support, both parents challenged the bureaucrats of the Housing Authority and the President of the Municipal Assembly of Peoples Power, and the handful of officials who dared to pass through the circle of neighbors.

Otero Alexander’s words were always the same, “As long as I don’t have in hand some land where I can build a house for my family, they won’t take me from here alive, and I charge them with the life of my child if they try to take me by force and pull down this roof.”

Another view from the front

I want to make clear the most exciting part of this, which at four in the morning got me typing like one possessed, and I am still excited by what I witnessed: the unyielding support of thirty, fifty people surrounding that place, who not only give them blankets, food and drink, but in an act of public spiritedness — never seen by me in my environment — they do not hesitate to denounce the corrupt officials, they don’t hesitate to back up with their own fists the decision of this young man, and they didn’t even feel gagged when a crouching repressor tried to block my camera.

I believe it’s time for me to reconsider what I published just two days ago in this same blog, about the ancestral fear of Cubans.

“Enough of lies, of thieving leaders. Enough of the only escape route in this country being emigration. I am Cuban and I do not want to leave my country,” were other words of Otero Rodriguez. “It is not I who should leave this country; those who should go are those who cause things like this, injustices like this.”

Interior of the improvised shelter

One of the options the young parents had rejected was an ambulance, sent by the authorities, to take the mother and baby to the hospital.

“My son is not sick. The illness my son has is to not have a home. The one most ill is me, I have a huge stomach ulcer, and I will not move from here.”

Arturo Pérez Sánchez, President of the Municipal Assembly of Peoples Power, also went to the site in person, stating that “acts like this are very damaging, they bring down the Revolution,” and then asking the people to retire so he could speak to Alexander Otero alone, a request that the masses disapproved and denied — and so he tried to evaluate the case in the early hours of the morning.

“Anyway,” repeated Otero, “without a signed document I’m not leaving here. We know too well about false promises. The second I leave they will knock me down, and I’ll be sleeping in the street again.”

From this morning of Thursday, December 24, I am sure that the life of this father, strangled by inefficiency, laziness, and the misery to which he’s been condemned, will change drastically, in one sense or another: he will, perhaps, receive a poor site where he can “legally” erect this same shack; or he will be expelled in some way from his scrap of ground and be punished for his act of rebellion.

I intend to follow this event, in the future, as the best way in which I can squeeze the hand of this brave Bayaman, along with so many supportive neighbors, and tell him he is not alone. From now on, he is not alone.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea

 

The Persistence of Fear

An anecdote not often shared relates that, at the end of a meeting between Fidel Castro and Cuban artists in 1969, where he pronounced his polysemic “Words to the Intellectuals,” a discordant — and unexpected — voice spoke up.

It was Virgilio Piñera, perhaps the most immortal and lacerated playwright our Island has given birth to. A frail man who, facing the  Commander in olive-green with his six feet and more and his gun in his belt, must have seemed like an insignificant blade of grass.

They say that, once in front of the microphone, pale due to his natural color and because of his nerves, the interjection of the effeminate Virgilio took less than ten seconds.

“The only thing I can say is that I feel very frightened,” he said. “Only that. I don’t know why, but I am afraid…”

His tortured life didn’t allow him to know that he wasn’t wrong that time, that fear would be his destiny.

I think of Virgilio when I hear from the mouth of another intellectual, and friend, very similar words. The only difference is that this teacher, this young writer knows perfectly well why he is afraid.

His name is Francis Sánchez and, like me, he lives in a little provincial city, Ciego de Ávila, where exercising individuality implies more risk than in the cosmopolitan capital. For a long time his name has been known among professionals of letters for his literary laurels, and his publications in the country’s diverse magazines.

Anyone who sees him, with his nicely fleshed-out body and his well-trimmed mustache, would think he was the most complacent and docile of citizens. A perfect pater familias who, like any ordinary Cuban, deals with the shortages and dissatisfaction. And shuts up.

But Francis Sánchez bears a cross of ashes on his forehead: he has never consigned himself to renouncing his condition as a free man, his condition as a non-conformist Cuban who doesn’t know how to close his eyes against the reality he doesn’t like, that doesn’t suit him.

Like a good man of letters, knowing the absolute impossibility of publishing his questioning articles in any institutional media, the personal chronicles about the country that he longs to have and doesn’t, he decided, like many of us, to open his personal blog. If I remember rightly, he just opened it with the excellent name: Man in the Clouds.

But Francis Sánchez is afraid, and doesn’t hide it.  He tells me:

“You are a single boy, Ernesto. We are four. It’s not the same.”

And suddenly I feel very small, devoid of reasons before a circumstance like this: an honest Cuban has decided, knowing the risk, to endanger the stability of three people other than himself: his wife and their two children. And he has decided not how we choose one option ahead of another, or how we shuffle the possibilities on the negotiating table. No. Rather, he is someone who cannot contradict his abiding spirit, and who knows that it may cost him very dearly, and be very hard, but still he crosses the thin line.

One of his phrases has left me trembling like a leaf. He told me, with subtle indignation:

“I feel very afraid, not for myself, but about what could happen in the future to my family. And this fear only irritates me more. Because the fear is the most incontrovertible evidence that I must confront the country in which I live: I don’t want to feel afraid! I shouldn’t be afraid if the only thing I am trying to do is to express what I think!”

His rationale is scathing. Absolutely no one should fear for his integrity, social stability, if what he wants to do is done everywhere in the world of free people: raise his voice against the imperfect, the deformed, what he considers unacceptable. We should fear terrorists, pedophiles, those who corrupt. But men with their own voice, never.

But, that is the daily life of Cubans.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard, from the mouth of one person or another, “I would love to do what you are doing, but I can’t.” And then, a long or short list of reasons that sweeten a painful reality: fear is stronger than the need for expression.

And so the mask never fails to hide the unpleasant features of our personality, and to camouflage the fear that takes hold in the most varied pretexts.

What are the most frequent arguments I hear in this regard? In the first place, the impossibility of survival without the employment offered by the State. Some say, “If, like you, I had at least one family member outside this country who could help me economically, I’m sure that I would have founded a Party, I would no longer go to the polls, I would say what I think in the assemblies at work, I would have opened a blog.”

Others say, “If I didn’t have a family to support, I would have exploded long ago and would have screamed at the officials everything I think of them.”

There is something undeniable, beyond ethical and moral judgment, that these words prove: There has never been a better partner for totalitarianism than naked fear. If this century’s technology has been the worst enemy of those who would like to control the minds of men, since ancient time it has been fear that has provided the fuel to sustain the machinery of the dictatorships.

What do people really fear in my socialist Cuba? It’s worth asking. It’s not the fear of death or disappearance, as used by tropical dictators like Trujillo or Somoza. The Cuban people’s fear is more ethereal: the fear of disintegration as a social being.

Losing a job without any possibility of finding another livelihood; the constant defamation surrounding a person; the exclusion from spaces and organizations that you used to frequent, and as may be the case, being refused admittance even to public cultural institutions. Add to that suffering constant harassment not only against yourself, but worse still, against your loved ones and your friends. And, depending on the strength of your positions and your consequent activism, physical repression and prison.

So the more I think about cases like that of Francis Sánchez, and so many others who once broke their chains and decided to play according to their own rules, I remember the vibrant words I heard from the mouth of Father José Conrado: “We are all afraid. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke a response of paralyzing terror. The problem is when one has to conquer it in the name of a great responsibility.” And there are many more examples, dignified, beautiful, which make me believe more and more that to rely on presumed accommodating arguments is an irresponsibility that is even more costly, in terms of the eternal weight on one’s conscience.

After listening to Pedro Luis Ferrer quote his favorite phrase — “Nobody knows the past that awaits him” — I discovered what is in truth the greatest of my fears, the supreme terror I could not face: the fear of facing, in the future, my children and my grandchildren, and having to explain to them where I was and what I was doing when my country was suffering so much fear.

Now that President Raul Castro has said, with regards to the 6th Communist Party Congress, that from this point forward the only necessity is that each Cuban speaks the truth, whatever that might be, and that everyone must do so without fear (his exact words, confirming an open secret: Cubans have a sense of raging panic around expressing their truest opinions), I think it is the perfect time for all of us to dedicate five minutes to self-examination, and of taking the President-General at his word, lest we soon repent our failure to do so.

December 21 2010

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea

 

In a Coach, Down a Dark Alley

His face is a catalog of discouragement. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, his horse’s reins in his hands, he  seems to me like a pillar of salt from another time. With several days growth of beard, and a yellowish coat he must have exhumed from a closet in these days of winter.

“Would you give me a second, please? I’m a journalist and would like to ask you a few questions.”

From his seat, over my head, he looks at me with discouragement. He doesn’t agree, nor refuse. He’s just there.

“I would like to ask you about the strike you people held a week ago,” I said, with fear that once again I would receive the same evasive answers as on my previous two attempts: a tattooed young man told me, next to his horse, “No brother, I wasn’t here that day”, and drifted away in a hurry; and a chunky old man, wearing a palm frond hat, answered in a more sincere way, “Look, I don’t want to get into more trouble, go ask someone else”.

A little over a week earlier the coachmen from my traditional Bayamo had undertaken an unthinkable action: two days of absolute strike.  A strike in a country without strikes, a country with the only constitution in the planet that does not recognize such a right for its laborers.

The unusual news spread across the whole island: the news exclusive had made it all the way to my hospital bed in Havana through a young nurse who took it with natural cheerfulness, “Bayamian, the coachmen of your town are on strike. Let’s see if you people light the city on fire again.”

“I would like to know the causes of this strike, in essence, what were you demanding?” I asked him, vaguely hopeful before his silence, a silence that, at least, didn’t push me away from there as his coworkers had done, their voices paralyzed by fear; I could have been a State Security agent, an informant, a plainclothes cop.

He takes his time, chews his cigar and speaks without looking at me, as if something in the distance really caught his attention.

“Man, the only thing we were asking for was for them to leave us barely enough money to  eat. That’s all. For them not to abuse us anymore.”

His words, said in the same peevish tone, thrill me. I wasn’t expecting this access to the truth.

“Why the abuse, what has changed?” I ask.

“The amount of money we have to pay the State now, in order for them to let us work. The taxes and payments due to thousands of different made up things they have recently imposed on us, just because.”

What is officially handled with the carefully chosen terms such as “Tax Adjustment,” is summed up for this man and for millions of other Cubans, as something very simple: the rates imposed by the Ministry of Prices and Finance for the practice of self-employment, in the majority of the cases, are simply exorbitant. It’s unsustainable.

Long before this forty-eight hour strike coming from a very humble sector, I had received news about the tax outrage. I heard testimonies from a neighborhood barber who, after twenty-six years of practice, was being forced to give up his work permit because the two-hundred pesos that the State fixed as his monthly share had become astronomical.  In the last month, he had had to sell  a couple of his possessions in order to make up the sum.

“How much were you paying before, and how much are you paying now? ” I proceed with my interview, afraid that the six people who would fill up his carriage would appear and my brief investigation would be cut short.

“Before, the monthly permit fee was 130 pesos. Now, they brought it up to 150 pesos, plus 87.50 pesos for Social Security, plus 10 percent of our daily earnings, for using this place to park our carriages.”

I tried to rapidly calculate the figure we were talking about, and asked him for daily numbers; quickly adding  it up, we agreed on an approximate total for his monthly taxes: around 500 pesos.

The carriages in Bayamo have, for some time, left off being traditional museum and classic colony pieces, to become a solution to the severe urban transportation problems.

Every morning, a legion of workers paid 1 Cuban peso and traveled on them to hospitals, schools, grocery stores.  Waiting for the city buses had become, for many, an unbearable chimera, alleviated only by these mobile artifacts, an unequivocal symbol of the villa founded in 1513 by the vicious Spaniard Diego Velazquez.

And all of a sudden, on an ordinary morning, the daily peso for the carrier doubled and in some cases, it tripled; the coachmen had just raised the prices of their fares, and the laborers’ salaries remained the same: 300 pesos, average, a month.  The math was stressful for those who had to travel on them daily.

“The thing started from problems with the people, look,” he tells me, and now, for the first time I think he’s engaging in our conversation.  “We had more discussions than trips.  Many didn’t want to pay us, they would call us thieves.  And the only thing we could say was, ‘Go complain to the authorities!  We don’t want to raise prices, but they’re forcing us to!’ We were like that for almost a month.  Until we had to get together and present the problems.  And a moment came where we couldn’t take it anymore, young man, and we had to stop.”

His words spill out as he vents. They carry the suppressed anger, vibrant, of someone who can’t resign himself to it all.

The day they reported they wouldn’t work anymore, the State forced private trucks and buses, with other routes, to cover their trips. Not one person from the union was able to intervene, not a voice from those other transportation modes was allowed to protest: the master spoke, you could only obey.

On the second day, they gathered them at the headquarters of the provincial Government, bearing a peculiar and fragmented manual of intelligence.  Never all together. They relied on the ancient maxim, “Divide and conquer.”

They pressured them in small groups. Under the guise of more clearly explaining the mechanisms they removed the seeds of disagreement with sophisticated threats: if they persisted on keeping their reactionary position they would forever lose their license.s They would no longer be able to work with their animals, which by the way, had cost them several thousands.

“Imagine for yourself if the people had not been intimidated,” he makes a gesture of annoyance, drowsing in his seat again at the level of my forehead. “We all have children here, families. We all have to kill the hunger, and this is the about the only thing we know. There are many who can’t even recover their initial investment, you understand? Who would continue after that?”

I could imagine the rest of the story, though the man didn’t tell me. I assumed from the fear, the hesitant speech, the refusals I’d received previously: it was the panic of being branded counterrevolutionaries. The investigations by the intelligence services, the interrogations to determine the leaders of the discontent; they were, in those days, taking over the area with their inexhaustible presence, the repressors with kid gloves from State Security. In Cuba they cannot allow the sowing of public unrest.

This is, in effect, the chronicle of an announced conflict: the grandiose plan to revive the Cuban economy not only contemplates the layoffs of hundreds of thousands; not only does it contemplate permits to exercise ridiculous professions — button-coverer, scissors grinder — to make a personal livelihood; but it includes, in addition, a Cyclopean increase in taxes for all private businesses, although the fundamental ingredient, money, continues to be absent from the family horizon.

The immediate consequence? Thousands of self-employed workers thinking, with anger and helplessness, about giving up the work that in the last years had allowed them to feed themselves, badly. Offering a license placed at an impossible height. Infinite shame should be the only name of this congress.

“Thanks very much for your time,” I say, by way of goodbye, when I see that our fleeting interview is ending. “And have a good day.”

I turned and before taking off I heard his voice again, and I paused for another second, looking again at his face without dreams or hopes.

“Don’t mention my name in what you write, boy,” he says, and I can barely suppress my pain, furious frustration, at hearing this plea from an adult man, independent, whom the system has completely neutralized with fear. “The only thing they haven’t done to me is seize the coach for saying things I shouldn’t.”

I make a gesture with my hand: don’t worry about it, it won’t be me who will threaten his poor living for his family.

I return to my personal bubble, suffering in silence for a hostile reality, that every day is more incompatible with the happiness of Cubans; a reality that from my earliest awareness has only threatened to worsen, bringing worse news, worse years, more acute shortages. Returning to my laboratory of ideas I can’t stop thinking about a phrase of the poet Lezama Lima who asked, with biting bitterness, how can we find out way out of this dark alley.

 

Paper Talismans

After letting me in, they pointed to the hospital bed with clean linens and asked me to sit.  They both attempted, with their subtle tricks, to hide the cylindrical cube full of cotton balls stained in red that laid right beneath it. They couldn’t.

“How are you, how are you feeling?” the male doctor asked me in an amicable tone, while he unwrapped his medical instruments and prepared his space.

“I am perfectly fine,” I joked. “You are the ones who tell me I’m not.”

They both smiled, maybe because of my skirmish way of fending off the irresistibly disturbing nerves that made me clumsy and most likely gave my face an expression similar to stupidity or abandonment.

The doctor seemed to be younger than he really was, probably due to his long hair, tied back in a pony tail, that fell over the back of his white gown.  The lady, a robust brunette, with an easy smile.  Later, I learned a curious fact: they’re husband and wife.  Three children in common.

‘First, let me borrow your finger,’ he said, in his hand was a sting that appeared in my childhood nightmares to puncture the tip of all five of my fingers from both hands.  “Bad start,” I thought with bitterness.  I’ve always preferred every needle in the world in my arms or butt, than that sharpness sucking out drops of blood from my finger tips.

Said and done.  An electric shock on my middle finger: “I always do it without shame,” he said.  “If I do it with pity I might have to pinch twice.”  And I agreed.  Yes, he definitely does it very well.  And with no shame at all.

Then, they both took a few seconds.  He spoke again:

“You should basically already know how the process goes, but we’ll explain regardless.  Now you should lay on your side, in fetal possession, facing the wall and with your back to us.  You’re going to hold your legs as if you are really cold.  We are going to lower your pants a little bit and pull up your shirt.  You will feel some jabs on the iliac crest, specifically in one of those small dents right on top of your butt.  Later, a subtle sting: the anesthesia.

“The anesthesia is just to fool my psyche” I thought.  I knew perfectly well that it would only numb the muscle zone, but further than that, where we were really going, there would be nothing it could do.

“The first thing we’re going to do is take a sample of the marrow, from the inside of the bone,” he continued.  “That is the biopsy.  There, you won’t feel a thing.  After, there will be some manipulation, and perhaps some pain.  We need to take a sample from the hip’s flat bone in order to do a biopsy.  The most important part is that you can’t move for anything in the world.  There are some patients that scream, and others say the anticipation is worse than what it really is at the end… but no movement, ok?”

And I agreed, knowing – just by pure intuition – that those stories of painless, fast procedures, are just as beautiful as fairy tales, but even a little more fake.  They are the doctors manual’s descriptions, their attempt to avoid giving us pain, and they place them in our heads as a way of distraction.  But just that.  They know it.

What did I feel during that mortal second, sort of like “the beginning of the end,” when I had to place myself in such a vulnerable position? Abandonment. That exactly. I felt just as helpless, as fickle, as those fetuses I was now pretending to mimic.  The certainty of knowing that nothing that could come after this moment would be pleasant.  And that I couldn’t do anything to avoid it.

A freezing, super thin serpent, advancing inside of me.  A first jab: the sour sting of the anesthesia covering my tissue.  Movements from the doctor’s fingers over the infiltrated area, stimulating the hip’s surface with his hands.  Then, a second jab.  And a third.  A bearable pain so far: something that carefully penetrated, that placed a needle there, where the marrow grows, and that sucked out part of that spongy material.

Yes, palpable pain.  My hands clung to the railing of the stretcher, feeling goosebumps and electrical shocks that started in my body and ended up mixing with the coldness of the needle.  Something like that, more or less: when the only guide is your imagination and the carnal perception, one cannot not be too exact.

Some minutes of intense but controllable pain, while I thought, between muscle and cheek contractions: “It’s almost over, it’s almost over, it’s almost over.”  And it was, at some point.  I stopped feeling the snake inside of me, the frigid material of the needle.  But then the feminine voice, as encouraging as a mother’s, said behind me:

“Now we’re going to the second part.  Be strong, let’s go.”

And nothing was rational, coherent again.  Nothing was controllable anymore.

A piece metal started moving forward centimeter by centimeter, brusque, violent, moving tissue in search of its objective: the bone.  A huge trocar (As I later saw), a spiked cylinder, with another cylinder inside, that barely gained ground with the push of the trained hands, and for every advancing millimeter would extract grimaces from my face.  Always inside, always thick: a short path measures in inches path I experienced as endless.

Trocar used for bone marrow biopsies.

A light stump against the hip: the bone resistance.  And almost immediately the indescribable, unpronounceable, extraverbal pain as is almost everything sublime or terrible, from the metal clinging to the bone and intending to detach a bone particle.

Could I pick an adjective for that pain? Yes.  But it is a poetic adjective that only I can comprehend, and only I can know how exact it is.  This pain wasn’t “fulminating,” nor “infernal,” according to how we try to describe terrible things.  It was rather a sweet pain.  As simple as that.  A sweet pain that made me scream without opening my mouth, and tensed my hands against the railings while inside me the tip of a sharp cylinder hurt my bone.

“You’ll feel a pull,” said a voice I couldn’t identify: whether his or hers.

And the pull came.  But it didn’t detach anything: my hip stayed intact.  A few seconds to rest.  I would dare to assert that it was a rest for them too, vaguely disappointed for not getting it the first time.

Then, on that gray-like second where even thinking was bothersome, a door that opens, that closes, and a smell that at this point I could perfectly recognize, was snuggling with stealth.  A swaying voice: “How is my boy behaving,” that in an instant disperses the terror that makes me tremble, that makes my hands and feet sweat in the middle of an antarctic climate.

Her name: Lismary Cruz.  The hematologist who, starting a week ago, would come say hi at seven-thirty everyday with a smile similar to a balm, auscultating me, answering my never-ending questionnaires with an encouraging presence that was more than professional, it was angelic; and that along with other specialists was dedicated to something that, at least for me, had no small importance: to put their commitment and talent in efforts of preserving my life.

Her hair was jet black, wavy, accentuating her white skin.  Small height, and with a facial beauty that didn’t allow her – according to her funny and egocentric words – to scare the septuagenarian patient next to my bed, that was complaining about his hiccups: “I have to find someone very ugly to scare you so your hiccups go away, dear.  Even if I wanted, I wouldn’t be able to.”  And then, the amusing smile.

“How is my boy behaving?” she said, her voice breaking the momentary silence.

Somebody answered excellent, that I am a man, that I was taking it without moving not even a millimeter, and I, wanting to ask what it meant to be a man, what it meant to take it, how to face what I was now feeling, and that was growing again, gaining more strength, ever since that masculine voice, which despite everything that was comforting said: “Here we go again.”

Lismary got close to me, she put her hands near mine.  My instinct asking for help: I took her hand as if she was my mother, or my sister, or my girlfriend: taking care not to hurt her, gagged from the pain but calm because, unconsciously somehow, I trusted her more than the rest.  I believed that if she was present nothing bad could happen to me.  Even though, in reality, this wasn’t true.

The pushes they needed to introduce the trocar once again made my torso move.  At times they were so strong they moved me some degrees.  It hurt.  It deeply hurt.  My legs were shaking.  Lismary’s support took me to a subliminal place as did her voice, talking close to me, attempting to calm me down, saying “We’re almost done,” when the truth was we weren’t; suddenly her voice, even though I can’t remember right now why or how, started talking to me about origami, about the artistic shapes some can give paper, and about how she felt a passion in making them.

“You have to give me one, I’ve never had one,” I said on a moment of lucidity and peace, as I immediately close my eyes and feel how my tears finally won the battle.  They grew tightly against my eyelids.  And the trocar attaching to my bone, biting it, attempting to latch on to it in order to cut a piece… as the pull came again, and once again, in vain.

Silence again.  I hear them stay quiet.  And I hear a hectic noise of hands and instruments, and steps I later understood: the doctor had to yield to the masculine strength.  My bones were too hard.  That’s exactly what they told me.  Lucky me, young and strong bones; but now, that was unfortunate.

The inward pushes, the meat not giving in, the pain that’s already bittersweet, which causes me spasms and quick complaints I shut with my knees on my mouth.  I want everything to be over already.  I wish it had never started.  It hurts too much.  Way too much. Sometimes it feels as if it’s drilling, others as if it’s crushing.  I don’t know.  I don’t even know how I didn’t totally faint.  It may be because of Lismary’s redeeming voice, that says things I do not understand but that do soothe me; maybe because with my suffering I thank, after all, these stupendous doctors that take the time to study me and focus all their thinking on me.

An inaudible crunch.  No ears heard it.  Rather it was heard by my insides.  And the trocar now came counterclockwise, coming out, finally imprisoning a yellowish particle (bones are not white) that I didn’t see, and I don’t want to know if it was extremely small or gigantic, but it put an end to a frightful half hour.

Now I could relax.  I was now able to slacken my muscles. Feel the cotton balls cleaning me up, that would also end up in the cylinder bucket under the stretcher.  I could hear my hematologist’s voice saying: ” We finished, we finished”… with a secret compassion she couldn’t confess, with an empathy for my pain that professionally she couldn’t show, but that I know she experienced.

Sitting down, getting up.  Looking at those two young doctors, also future hematologists, that didn’t allow that slight moment to fill up with grayness despite the suffering, and dedicated jokes and encouraging words to me.  Their names, which I also learned later on: Roy Roman, Hany Trujillo.  I looked at them and I thought, for a second: I am nothing.  Artists are nothing.  I write for me, I don’t deliver my vocation to no one in particular, even though my product is finally consumed by some one that is not me.  But these people dedicate every second of their lives to work for everyone else’s health.  Blessed be.

I took my first steps almost without being able to breathe.  I said to both: “Thank you very much. You both are phenomenal,” and leaning on my tiny doctor I started heading to my bed in room 12A.  Every step was an agony.

Minutes later, still raging from fear and pain, laying facing down, I had to take my pillow off my head and pay attention to the woman who, graceful once again, timely once again, opened her hand and extended two miniature origami, recently created.

Lismary said they were for behaving well.  I smiled, surprised, grateful: sensing that in that pair of shapes she was giving me other energies that she maybe didn’t even understand yet.  In my insides I felt I had a clear suspicion that those weak figures, in yellow and pink, origami born from a tremendous circumstance, at the same time beautiful, would prevail in me going forward as a talisman made out of paper against the hard times still to come.

Translated by: Angelica Betancourt

 
 

The Worst Guarded Secrets in the World

The Australian Julian Assange has succeeded: his Wikileaks website is today’s star of the headlines. I do not think that the history of politics contains another incident more exotic and fit for Hollywood, and one where the revelations of the diplomacy of a certain government mixes so many nations in a complex skein, to the point where it starts to look very like backyard gossip.

Assange, who has just been arrested in London and will soon face some timely charges alleging sexual abuse and harassment in Sweden, has benched Osama Bin-Laden with regards to who attracts the greatest gringo hostility: he has become public enemy number one, starting on the day he announced he had 250,000 Department of State documents up his sleeve. And especially now that  he has cleared up any doubts and proved to us he wasn’t joking.

Now that his website makes it easy to find a range of classified documents about the relations of the United States with the world, and has moved Hillary Clinton, and apparently will continue moving the global chessboard of foreign relations, various aspects of the “Wikileaks” case are of particular interest.

International reactions: With the exception of a handful of lawless governments or opportunists — among whom I would like to exclude my country, but I can’t — who have received the news like kryptonite for their rabid anti-Americanism, the vast majority of nations have condemned the leaking of these documents, some publicly, some less so.

It is not, however, about an epidemic of morality. The causes of this widespread rejection point, rather, to the feeling common among politicians: As Mexico’s former ambassador to the United States, Jorge Montaño, recently said, there is nothing extraordinary about the tone in which U.S. diplomats communicate with their superiors on subjects of “strategic” interest. Harder things, in more direct language, are shared among politicians of any nation with a domestic naturalness. And here, let he who is without sin cast the first stone: show us your records.

The only difference between  current American diplomacy and that of all other countries, is that Julian Assange chose as a victim the most powerful nation in the world, while the dirty laundry of our governments, at least for now, remains in the shade. The choice is certainly more than reasonable: I do not think any newspaper in the world would have devoted their front page to leaks about the foreign policy of Equatorial Guinea.

Incidentally, we Cubans cherish a stupendous Wikileak, the precursor of those newly released: A couple of years before leaving — officially — the presidency of the republic, our former President Fidel Castro published, in full, a telephone conversation he had with the Mexican President Vicente Fox in which he “diplomatically” urged him to leave his country so as not to cause an embarrassing incident when George W. Bush arrived at the Summit of the Americas. El Comandante was, that time too, a visionary pioneer: the first Wikileaker in history.

Another interesting aspect of the case in question is as follows: From the point of view of freedom of expression, is it respectable or censurable to air objectionable information of governmental interest?

According to the President of the Inter American Press Association, Gonzalo Marroquín, who was asked by CNN about it, it is perfectly respectable for an individual, exercising his right to free expression — guaranteed even by the American First Amendment — to publish documents of public interest if it is within his power to do so. But Marroquín had to acknowledge that the investigation must focus on whether Julian Assange’s accessing of these reports was in violation of any recognized legal provision, in which case it would be subject to a legal, not a journalistic, analysis.

Let’s be clear: Of course there is no way to take over 250,000 State documents without violating the law, unless there is a Department of Copying and Reproducing Diplomatic Documents to which one can come with a flash memory and say, “Please …” Julian Assange’s revelations constitute a personal outrage whose reasons are still unknown (did the Australian ever reveal his real intentions?), and cannot be watched with approval, although they can be with amusement, by citizens possessing civic awareness.

But from the standpoint of universal human rights, which are respected in democracies, Wikileaks itself should be able to publish these records without being censured for it, and without the server behind his portal being knocked out as was accomplished by some higher American spheres, just because someone does not want certain issues to be known.

For its part, and from another perspective, the U.S. government is already accumulating so many lessons that I see no difference from an irresponsible kid in kindergarten: They had to “learn” from security mistakes relating to the Twin Towers; they had to learn from the incident involving a couple of citizens who snuck into the White House and took photos with President Obama, making a mockery of presidential security; and now they must learn to keep their secrets better if they don’t want to see them in the headlines. In the United States today, in many ways, “security” is a word with atherosclerosis.

However, we must recognize, leaving aside political seriousness, and leaving aside our admittedly boorish anticipation of what Oracle Wikileaks is going to surprise us with next, there is something positive that has come from this unusual scandal: It is not only Big Brother who watches the citizens. The citizens have also learned to monitor Power.

Who knows if, after all, these media revelations might generate unexpected side effects among the governments of the world which, though annoying to politicians, would be applauded by us citizens: the obligation to play ever more cleanly, more honestly, and more respectfully, just in case the Wikileaks custom sweeps through the world like one more plague.

 
 

The Departure of the Patroness

My mother contracted the debt in my name, and hours later made me aware of it. She said:

“I promised the Virgin that you would go today to her leave taking. At seven in the evening they are taking her to another community, so do not wait too long to go.”

For a deluded second I tried to evade the obligation. I tried, for example, to say “I already have a commitment, you didn’t tell me far enough in advance,” but I gave up immediately. There are certain requests from mothers that, although they are camouflaged as mere suggestions, have a military strength. You comply, and talk about it later.

So there I was, at the parish of San Juan Bosco as night fell in Bayamo, docile before a debt I did not contract and did not have much interest in settling: I have never confessed it, I haven’t even wanted to think about it in a conscious way, but since April 2009 I’ve experienced something like a vague resentment toward the Virgin of Charity.

A family member whom in life I loved with a passion, was murdered by two savages who, in doing so, also forever made off with piece of my joy. At the moment of death, as the worst criminals had done at the time of Christ, my uncle, paradigm of the greatest virtues of my blood, carried the Virgin on a card in his wallet, and on a gold pendant around his neck.

From that time on I, spiritual by definition but rational and atheist by upbringing, could not think of the national deity with the same emotional respect.

So what was this leave taking to which my mother sent me? It was the farewell to Bayamo of the statue of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre, who has been making the rounds of all the provinces of the country since August. The primary way in which the Catholic Church has wanted to pay tribute to the Patroness of Cuba on the 400th anniversary — coming up in 2012 — of her appearance in the Bay of Nipe.

According to the legend, this tiny Virgin appeared in the midst of a raging storm, floating atop the waves, to protect three helpless fisherman who had no other option than to offer themselves up to heaven. Some say the image came from the shipwreck of a boat that carried it, and that explains its appearance in the water. Others speak of the divine.

What is known is that she appeared in 1612, and since then the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre has been the patron saint of the nation, boasting another even more glorious title: The Virgin Mambisa. Our patriots of the 19th century carried her to their encampments and venerated her in the midst of enemy fire.

They embroidered her image on their shirtsleeves, and gave thanks to her when they returned alive from the battle with the Spaniards. Now, commemorating her four centuries, the ecclesiastical authorities have taken a replica of the original (which is jealously guarded in Santiago’s El Cobre) and is presenting her to all Cubans.

She arrived in my city a few days earlier from Holguín. According to testimonies from my friends, her reception in Bayamo was really an apotheosis. They spoke of twenty thousand people following here through impassable streets, and masses overflowing with humble parishioners. Now she continues her journey.

Two blocks from San Juan Bosco Church I could barely move.  Neither the anomalous cold of this warm region, nor the evening rush prevented many thousands of devotees from coming to see her go.

This more personal, more intimate contact, with the keeper of a faith rooted in the religious and cultural consciousness of a nation, offered a perfect opportunity for the consecration of the faithful, and for those who also had something to ask, but didn’t even know how to do so. This was confirmed for me by an amusing question from the priest who officiated at the mass:

“How many of you are coming to our parish for the first time? Please raise your hands.”

A multitude of hands, amid a whispered camaraderie, rose above our heads. My arm among them, of course. Many did not know how to pray, had never attended a mass, and as was evident in their faces, they found themselves confused, faintly blushing, to be in a temple that had, until then, been something foreign and distant.

But now that the Patroness was within those resonant walls, there was a particular feeling, one of hope, that extended from that religious altar; it was a time to abdicate disbelief and to ask the divine for what cannot be reached on a human plane.

I saw emotional faces. Hands joined together, eager eyes. I heard murmured prayers carry the dreams of those who wait and suffer. I saw the sick, the crippled, the malformed, faces martyred by physical or spiritual pain where only in a congregation like this one could they find a glimmer of peace. I saw friends with unmentionable plans, with obstructed paths, with material needs transformed into spiritual anxiety. I heard prayers for the imprisoned, persecuted, humiliated. An infinite set of ideas and people.

And all, everyone who presented themselves before this beautiful and humble figure, delicately naive, experienced the most harmonious and conciliatory moment of their recent days.

I remembered the aura of solemnity and the faith in the impossible that emanates from the temple located in El Cobre, where Cubans of every ideology, race, nationality and religious creed, at some point finally arrive. Some, to repay sad promises on their knees; others to give the Virgin their Olympic medals, their university degrees, or their crutches; and others, like me, out of elementary social or cultural interest.

I think back to my home, full of photographs and mental images, I did not understand how mysterious is the terrain of faith and human sentiment. I knew, though, that this show of brotherhood, its energy spread by a voluntary multitude, none of whom were summoned or forced to do anything, who in other times had held firm to their faith despite persecutions and exclusions, was indisputable proof that people can be deprived of all their liberties, except spiritual freedom.

And if I could not come to discover my faith before an image created by human hands, dressed by humans, devoutly carried by humans, I could enjoy the event as a sociocultural phenomenon that identifies and defines us, but that I cannot sensorially partake in; and so perhaps I should look with humility on all those Bayamese who asked for their lives, their miseries, and their desires.  And who did it with real passion.

Now that an untimely Hodgkin’s Lymphoma forces me to write from a hospital nearly five hundred miles from home, and threatens a radical change in my life as a healthy and future-oriented young man, I can’t help but envy those who attain such spiritual communion and find in her solace and peace.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea

 
 
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