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Monthly Archives: January 2012

Benedict in His Labyrinth

To the already boiling cauldron that awaits Benedict XVI on the tropical island he will visit this coming March, another definitive ingredient has just been added: A too possible death. Unfortunately probable.

If it was complex to step on Mexican soil where, according to official figures, 47,515 people have lost their lives since Felipe Calderon declared the war on drug trafficking in 2006, at least the Pope had a countervailing reality: It’s a democracy. And in democracies, one can pray for the victims, call for peace, criticize the incumbent president. Without major complications.

It’s another kettle of fish when the papal visit makes landfall in the world of dictators. There, the world is turned on its ear, eyes are ready, as if at a fair, sniffing, questioning and observing how the saint conducts himself. And His Holiness knows that whatever he says or does not say will be urgently used by the dictators, or their detractors.

In the troubled reality of a country where hundreds of political prisoners cry out for justice from their cells; where women are beaten by unscrupulous police in uniform or in plain clothes; where too many controversial deaths have occurred in a couple of years (Zapata, Juan Wilfredo , Laura); is now added what could be a black harbinger of his visit, too shocking to be ignored by the Vatican: Wilmar Villar Santiago Mendoza, ready to die at any second.

The political opponent, sentenced to four years in jail for contempt, resistance and attack (yes, those euphemisms by which the Cuban Penal Code defines the act of public protest), is reported to be in very serious condition after more than 50 days on hunger strike, and according to testimony from relatives, “only a miracle could save him” from the terrible complications of pneumonia.

Miracles do happen, we know. But too sporadically. And if you’re not in the hands of the Pope — relying on his exalted credentials — to ask for a miracle for this poor Cuban on the verge of death, makes the labyrinth of Pope Benedict XVI, I believe, even more intractable.

Why? First, because if he finally meets the archaeological Fidel Castro, a symbolic leader with no official power today, there would be no justification not to meet with the Ladies in White or some of the dissidents who have asked for attention from the Papal Nuncio. I do not think that in just three days of hectic travel the 84-year-old man has time for both.

Second, because if it was already scandalous for a representative of universal peace and harmony to visit a country with one of the largest prison populations in the world, where political opponents have died in hunger strikes or in circumstances never clarified, and not to ask publicly and forcefully about them, it would be unforgivable to arrive in a country where only weeks before another dissident has died from a horrible hunger strike, and to remain silent.

The critical condition of Wilmar Villar Mendoza has given a brutal slap to the table where both sides receive his letters: on one hand the Catholic Church, with its absolute guide stepping on Cuban soil, and on the other the Cuban government represented by the evil alter-ego of Fidel Castro that is his younger brother.

Because the Vatican could announce without shame that its relations with the Cuban government have improved markedly in recent years, when even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged in her 2010 annual report on religious freedom in the world that Cuba had shown remarkable progress in this regard, and when 75 political prisoners were released thanks to the efforts of the church. But (unless the miracle asked for by Wilmar Villar Mendoza’s doctors takes place, I repeat) I do not think the Pope wants to carry the same eternal stigma that Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will carry, having visited the island when Orlando Zapata had just been buried, and having kept an embarrassing silence in this regard.

The families of the brave Santiaguan will be the only ones to weep with real pain if the end that they themselves, devastated, have predicted comes to pass. But for elementary practical opportunism, I don’t know who desires more that this young man — crushed by a hunger strike — recovers his health at the last minute: the satraps of my country, or Benedict XVI.

January 18 2012

 
 

Super Patriots


One.

In the distance, a horizon of clouds promised to relieve the temperature. From my bicycle I felt the comfort ahead of time, even though my sweat was forcing me to squint to see the semi-deserted road. On my back a backpack, inside it a bouquet of flowers.

The pedaling became much easier. Before arriving at the cemetery, a short slope slipped the tires almost to the corroded and faded double iron doors that lead into the sacred ground.

Sacred ground: crass euphemism. The depression of the cemetery of my city killed the dead.

So I arrived there. It was a Thursday in 2010, almost three in the afternoon. I was not going to visit my dead. I went for those of someone else. Those of a stranger who, from Miami, sent me on plea with his lovely mission which I had to read only once before taking it on as mine:

“I have read your blog with great pleasure, I ass that you live in Bayamo, the same town where I was born and from where I left when I was six years of age. I have never returned. I would like to ask you an enormous favor, I don’t know if you will forgive my daring to do so. Somewhere in the provincial cemetery rest the remains of my aunt Amanda. She died in a tragic accident when she was less than twenty, before I was born. According to my elderly mother, her sister was the most beautiful girl in the Bayamo of her time. Her eyes adorn the homepage of my personal blog. Would it be too much to ask you to look for her grave and put flowers on it in my name, and send me a photo so I can see the site where someone so important to us rests?”

Two.

I had only a name beginning with “A,” the year of death and the approximate month of the funeral. “Mama doesn’t remember well, Ernesto, forgive me for burdening you even more with this task.” So my search relied on two and a half pieces of data and a mountain of good will.

I was lucky: I happened on the most solicitous employee of that sad place. Cemeteries usually infect the living with their effluvia. The employee, with a translucent shirt he had to constantly pull away from his torso, bathed in sweat, and with thick glasses, put a book in front of me that seemed to hold all the truths of this world, and of another, never better said.

“Turn the pages gently,” he warned me. “Remember it’s nearly 50 years ago. Get ready for the dust.”

And there I passed my next two hours. In a volume of almost five thousand pages, written in pencil, deciphering the hieroglyphics of hurried and disinterested letters, trying to find the exact date of the burial of a lady I had never known but who was very important to someone else, a stranger. Once we knew the date she entered the necropolis, we would know the street, row and pantheon where her remains reposed.

When, a couple of hours later, the employee returned from a room behind me with the stub of a cigar in his mouth, I got up with a piece of paper in hand and some satisfaction in my voice:

“Street 12, Row 308, Grave 44 L.”

Three.

The pictures took longer than expected. Standing before the rectangle of cement that covered — like a headstone — the grave of Amanda who never made it twenty, I found myself not knowing what to do.

How to send images of such a scary place, with stinking weeds surrounding the edges of the sepulcher, a bent and rusty tin cross adorning the head, a powdery dust announcing the state of abandonment of Amanda’s grave.

I cleaned it. I straightened the cross as best I could. Without any tools, aided only by my hands and will, I cleared the site of weeds run wild. I pulled the flowers from my backpack, put them in a reliquary filled with water. My sweat pasted my T-shirt to my body. Overhead the clouds darkened the sky announcing their danger: a downpour and me on a bicycle.

Nothing mattered.

The image of a distant family, an elderly woman eyes moist, honoring with her tears the site of her beautiful sister; the image of a stranger hugging his mother, thinking about his aunt and putting into context the abstraction of his mythical Amanda; the beautiful charge of my enterprise absorbed every second of the afternoon.

When I was sure that some thirty digital photos would allow me to choose which ones to send off electronically, which would offer the best panorama, the most comprehensive, the least depressing possible, I thanked the employee with a handshake that represented myself and those exiled from Bayamo, and began to pedal once again.

Four.

No, the infamous downpour didn’t damage the digital camera. I did damage the gears of the bike which, without grease, made a noise like grasshoppers for several weeks. But the photos were safe. If I could manage to connect myself to the Internet (with my clandestine connection), in a few minutes a stranger’s afternoon would change completely.

Five.

“Dear Ernesto:

“You made me cry. I have cried for happiness and little for the melancholy of several members of my family. I will never know how to thank you for your gesture. Right now I’m a little embarrassed, when I can tell you more you will receive the mail you deserve. I just want you to know that in Miami you have one more family.”

Epilogue.

On February 20, 2011, two months and twenty days after stepping on American soil, an article entitled “Uncomfortable Freedoms” appeared on this blog. It was my position on the American restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba — which months later I addressed in other texts — where I responsibly criticized the positions of Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio.

The day after this publication, my wife received a brief message on her cell phone. I will try to reproduce it verbatim:

“I can not describe how disappointed I am Ernesto. Your article seemed to me the most hypocritical and lamentable that I have read in a long time. What a shame, having once been a true patriot.”

I smiled halfheartedly. I had just win something like an enemy, who would not hesitate in the future to employ offensive epithets against me from his patriotic and well-known blog, and between us was raised an impenetrable wall of political posturing.

I never got to know him. The lunch date set for some weekend never came to pass. I was sorry I wouldn’t get to kiss an old woman who kept intact her love for her dead sister, that I could not tell her in my own voice the details of the day when I humbly honored the memory of her Amanda.

I carefully conserve the memory of a sweaty Ernesto, determined to clean an unknown grave, excited at the thought of causing happiness in a distant home. And since then I have also conserved an almost absolute certainty: I am not disposed to believe in libertarian yearnings, in the search for the well-being of a trampled Country, from someone who is not capable of refining his own human condition.

10 January 2012

 
 

The Winners’ Trophy

She said it with a tone somewhere between surprise and disappointment:

“They don’t give a damn, Ernesto. How mistaken we exiles are.”

And I nodded because I knew too well what she was talking about. For her, a woman from Santiago who hadn’t stepped foot on her native land since 1999, living in Miami and linked to the Hispanic media, it was a startling discovery.

For me, with my memory too fresh, it was just a description of a cadaver that I knew every inch of: the cadaver of Cuban freedom, seen through the lens of national apathy.

My interlocutor had returned the day before from her simmering and fun-loving Santiago. She went there more for a family emergency than for an excess of nostalgia or tourist reasons: her mother has lung cancer.

Her narratives of a country defeated by an army of the hungry, the ineptitude, the lack of productivity, the shortages and unsanitary conditions, fell into the background. She summarized it in two quick sentences.

Her real discovery, that which — I am sure — she would tell a hundred more people after me, was another:

“They are accustomed to living without freedom. Meanwhile, over here, we overestimate the “popular support” for the dissidents; over here we have the idea of a people in rebellion against their tyrants, people aware of the protests in the streets, the Ladies in White, the opponents of Palma Soriano, I didn’t find any of that over there…”

What did she find? A panorama that she seemed to be seeing again in front of me, image after image: a sweaty crowd, their carefree faces, moving their hips to the beat of reggaeton playing on the speakers. Hundreds of young people pressed tightly together, not to defend women from police beatings, but to buy the bad-smelling beer sold by the State. Arguments, at full throttle, hundreds of screams, not asking to be able to travel freely, not demanding freedom of expression and association, but rather discussing the latest baseball game between the Industriales and Santiago.

“When I asked them about the opponents of Palma Soriana who we’d seen dozens of times in the media in Miami, I almost always found the same reactions: indifference. This, in the best of cases. In the in-between cases: ‘These are shi..ters… they live to get beaten, total, they’re not going to change anything.’ In the worst cases, ‘The only thing they’re looking for is a visa to leave the country.’”

Inevitably, I recall the opposition I knew in my country: honest, consistent, serious. People who had paid a huge price for daring not to be two-faced. But I couldn’t help but think, also, of a certain little up-and-comer in a youth opposition party in my city who, after my expulsion from the mass media, wanted to “hire” me to teach journalism to the ten members of his group. What was the attraction that “freedom fighter” found to tempt me with his offer?

“You give us some little classes, which you can, and I will immediately sign a certificate saying you are politically persecuted and have collaborated with the dissidence. With this and your own history, you’ll be in la Yuma — the U.S.A. — before you know it….”

I still check my conscience regarding whether I was too hurtful in my response.

But what I don’t doubt is the God’s truth: The romantic enthusiasm that permeates certain circles outside Cuba, that constant feeling of the epic of a people in struggle against their oppressors, this perspective of society that has closed ranks in search of its rights; it is a beautiful view, but false.

Cuba has eleven million souls. Ivonne Malleza is one. José Daniel Ferrer is one. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation is Elizardo Sanchez. Bloggers truly active in the struggle don’t exceed ten. Yoani is one. Dagoberto is one. Biscet is one. The courageous protagonists who protest by banging on pots and pans in the Cuatro Caminos markets and who protests in Fraternity Park never exceed five, always surrounded by fifty, a hundred, impassive observers who do not move a finger to fend off the thugs.

I want them to be more. There were not ninety Ladies in White scattered throughout the country, but there were at least ninety thousand that should have been. I wish that the nine million Cubans who affixed their signatures  (signatures infected with fear and apathy) in 2002 to guarantee Socialism in the Constitution of the Republic, would have added more of their names to the Varela Project, which that same year collected eleven thousand real names. I wish that one day the crowd would be reversed, and that the handful of those cornered, encircled by the crowd, were not Laura Pollan and her women, but rather the tools of the system surrounded by brave Cubans. But my desire is not enough.

We Cubans crush the larvae under military boots, and as Kant warned, “Whomever voluntarily turns worm should not protest if they decide to trample him.” Two million of us have escaped. Eleven million remain inside. Half of those eleven million also want to escape. Of the other half, the majority watch the bulls from the sidelines and wait for better times. They subsist. A much too small minority don’t want to escape, nor are they resigned to living without freedom, They are almost as few as the family that has taken over the whole Island, and that will drift away only when all its members are already dead.

So brief is the recent history of my country. In a cruel paragraph one can put tons of words, books, frustrations, desires, longings.

I think it’s time to take off our masks and look at our wrinkles in the mirror: The Castros won. They will die in power. They will yield when it pleases them, or when it pleases biology. And the millions of Cubans (unmotivated at present) in the public plazas every May Day, the hundreds of Central Havanans congregating in front of the homes of the disaffected to launch repudiations, insults, blows, and those who looked with amazement at my friend, a woman from Santiago who thought she would find her countrymen at war and found them at a party, they are the undeniable trophy of the winners.

January 4 2012

 
 
 
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