Monthly Archives: October 2010

From The Other Side of the Ruins

Every time I’ve heard the stories of prolonged trips and family separations from some foreign friends, I have come, inevitably, to the same question: why does it affect us Cubans so cruelly to be separated from our friends and loved ones?

I know cases of young Europeans who study at universities abroad, or Latin Americans who are working in the United States and stay to live there permanently. I’ve never felt in their testimony the same yearning, heartrending, suffering, the same agony, that the exiles from my country share.

To analyze the causes of this fact takes us along complex routes where the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of our nation’s history played a decisive role.

However, one of the practical reasons that I constantly return to could also explain it: we Cubans have lived so long together, so close to each other, always in the same house, that the concept of family and homeland has a very narrow scope for us.

Cubans in this era, with rare exceptions, are born and live their entire adult lives in the same household. There are two, three, sometimes four generations under one roof.

Moreover, from our earliest consciousness, we take for granted the almost total inability to move within the country or to know other parts of the world. And so part of what we take as “ours” — part of what is restricted in so many cases — is the portion of the universe we see around ourselves every day.

Moving house, separating ourselves from the family we were born into and shared all the years of our lives with, has a devastating impact whose scope would be incomparably more limited if Cuban existence were different.

That is why the phenomenon of housing in this country has a connotation that goes beyond what is normal at times. To talk about a home in Cuba, carries a heavy weight of meanings that make the issue an abyss of possibilities.

It is remarkable, the efforts, submissions, blackmail and suffering that are withstood in this land by those with access to the divine privilege of four walls to sleep within; and even the extent to which there is an absence of furniture has conditioned Cuban society as we know it today.

This, however, is not the particular point that I want to discuss. That is, I will not try to describe the situation of an area that constitutes one of the cornerstones of the misery that has overwhelmed my country. Others, with notable success –filmmakers, writers, photographers, fine artists — have already taken this on.

I prefer, rather, to turn my head in another direction, looking across the ruins and asking myself where have so many resources been spent, the materials, the labor, that could have been used to solve, or at least alleviate, the Dantesque condition of Cuban homes.

In what fantasy world of the absurd, and of government mistakes, are the resources of thousands of families invested? Resources that could be used to build decent housing, or to repair their battered walls?

I wanted to make a “leaflet,” an incomplete and epidermal record of my surrounding reality. Every Cuban, from his environment, could provide their own testimonies of governmental irresponsibility in managing resources, however, those that I refer to highlight, in my city, not only the shocking callousness, but also provide a clear reference for how strong the habit is, on this island, of thinking of anything and everything except the real welfare of the population.


About four years ago an event took place in Bayamo that transcended the boundaries of silence that the State imposes on such happenings: the regular and brutal eviction of “illegal” settlements in semi-rural areas of the city.

It affected hundreds of people who, without the possibility of a dignified life in the country, tried to come nearer to the provincial city in search of better working conditions and livelihoods. They had constructed shacks. They had adapted old walls of warehouses and sheds, as a starting point to began building their houses through shear hard work.

One morning, after stern warnings about the impossibility of remaining there, the authorities woke them up with bulldozers and police cars. They were firmly evicted and their third world homes were torn down.

Then, at just that time, a project had been approved in this province which I believe holds the laurel of being the most disconcerting waste of recent times.

It was to build a replica of the birthplace of our Apostle, in each municipality in Granma province. That’s right: 13 Martí cottages; one within reach of everyone.

The idea, as I heard it, came from the then First Secretary of the Communist Party in the agricultural town of Yara. This innovative manager decided to go down in local history as a contributor to an educated and sensible idea. Unfortunately, the most insane and incomprehensible projects, always arise among the party leaders and their enthusiastic followers.

Some are not even finished. Half were abandoned for various reasons. Others were inaugurated with great fanfare (read: with television cameras and partisan applause), and now nobody knows what to use them for. And others, such as the notorious case of my city, varied from the original idea for the sake of the necessary “savings”: instead of the entire house, only the facade was erected. The door opens inward to a semi-vacant space, where it rarely some cultural event is held; it also serves the neighbors for midnight mating, and for an overnight shelter for drunks.


Bayamo must have, in all of Cuba, more shelters per mile than any other area. It’s a fact about which I would like to sure, but I venture to advance and affirm it.

I greatly doubt that smaller cities can boast a greater number of underground pathways for refugees of war, as are hiding today in this city of three hundred thousand inhabitants.

According to the Chief-of-the-Works of one of the most comprehensive and extensive shelters of this provincial capital (who, of course, requested complete anonymity), investors could not even give me the exact amount of cement, iron rods, wood and aluminum used in construction of these underground passages.

“It turns out that building this whole thing started in the early ’90s – precisely when it was said that during The Special Period, the Yankees were going to attack, and so much time has been invested that the workers and supervisors have changed so we can’t measure the cost in the real sense. “

Because yes, that’s the point: according to the official talking points our Cuba is the permanent target of a U.S. invasion, ergo we must prepare for a “war of all the people.”

To this end, and under that slogan, million in resources have been devoted to testing military readiness in the famous “Days of Defense.” And millions of pesos in materials are used, in addition, to build these “tropical bunkers” which one day may be photographed or filmed, to reveal the size of the belligerent folly of those who made the decisions.


In 2005 a natural phenomenon known as Hurricane Dennis was merciless, among others, to the poorest inhabitants of the south eastern region of Cuba.

In Granma province, residents of coastal towns as Pilón, Niquero, Media Luna (damp villages where a simple glance reveals the thinness of men and animals) savagely lost their homes at dawn on the day Dennis chewed everything in his path.

It happened in July, a vacation month, and I preferred to spend my days to contribute what I could to the recovery of my fellow countrymen who were living in an inferno of insane proportions. I knocked on the doors of the bishop of my city and introduced myself as a young non-Catholic who, in his life, had entered the parish perhaps twice, but who wanted to join in the Church’s efforts to help the homeless.

Two days later I was in a truck surrounded by young Catholics, armed with tents and clothes collected from everyone, and donated by American churches en route to those villages that nature had destroyed without mercy.

I remember the yellow fields, tree trunks and fences pulled out of the ground. I remember the faces of the dispossessed who were on the road, and looks of sadness that exhibited even by the stray dogs. I remember the despair, the terrible feeling of madness, suicide, starvation, which weighed after each image that we contemplated from the car.

However, something caught our attention in a special way, to the point of asking the driver to stop.

Some of us got out: we wanted to prove that our eyes deceived us. Before us, on one side of the highway to Pilón, surrounded by ruined dwellings and peasants sleeping outdoors, a brigade of builders, obeying orders from above, were using large quantities of cement to re-erect hundreds of plaques with the faces of those who had assaulted the Moncada Barracks.

Before the cyclone, they had “decorated” the road with images of revolutionary heroes, and large billboards with ideological messages. Now that those affected were sinking into depression they had to rapidly erect the fervent propaganda.

I remember asking one of the buildings, containing my outrage under a dismissive tone, why couldn’t that same cement be used to manufacture homes for the homeless who watched them work in silence. His answer made me bow my head:

“I wish I could, muchacho, I would first build a house for me. My wife and my three children are sleeping under the boards that were my ceiling. I also lost my home.”

Even today, five years later, an unknown number of those affected have failed to repair the damage. Some have raised their shacks again, but never managed to get hold of another TV, another refrigerator. Many have not even been able to raise the shack of wood framing, cement and zinc where they spent the nights before the fury of Dennis in 2005.

But the highway to their devastated villages in the eastern Pilón, displays with an embarrassing pride, hundreds of immense billboards, hundreds of rectangles of cement from which the face of a martyr looks into infinity. The face of a man who probably would never have allowed his image to steal the materials from which a worker, a farmer, someone mistreated by life and by their bosses, might manage to find a bit of comfort for his bones.

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Posted by on October 25, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea


Moral Exchange

Apparently the uneven playing field in the euphemistic “cultural exchange” that is happening today between the United States and Cuba alarms no one.

Week after week, artists from this side of the ocean continue to arrive on American soil, filled with remarkable talent, an understandable excitement, and a willingness to return to the island that, until the last second, remains up in the air.

Week after week the new faces of musicians, comedians, and public and TV people from the island appear in the American media, without, in my opinion, generating a serious and significant analysis about the policy between the two nations.

How do I see it? Both are turning a blind eye, while artists from here parade across to the “enemy” nation, without, in fact, any national repercussions in Cuba, nor approaches or conditions on the part of the United States.

The Cuban press – what else can you expect? – is not aware of the considerable flow. With one exception: to praise the attitude of Silvio Rodriguez who, right in New York itself, demanded immediate freedom for the Cuban Five, elevating them into a category of heroes for some, while for others they’re considered textbook-case spies.

Anyone who has not passed across the Yankee’s stages lately, it is because they’re still in line, or because the authorities won’t grant them an exit permit because they are not considered “reliable.”

The number of the privileged is ever growing. From La Charanga Habanera to Los Van Van. The duo Buena Fe as well as the troubadour Carlos Varela and the multifaceted Edesio Alexander. All have appeared on TV shows, or have found space to promote their audiovisual products.

Before, long before, Paulo FG had gone to Miami with the safe conduct of his Italian citizenship, and had generated a Byzantine controversy with the televised statement of his faith in the Comandante.

We later learned, also, that Amaury Perez, not satisfied with showing off the rare privilege of a satellite dish in a country where this is against the law, spent a couple of days in Florida with family and friends. In passing, he granted an interview to the journalist Jorge Ramos, in which some of the later paragraphs came back to us with great interest.

The comedians Osvaldo Doimeadiós and Carlos Gonzalvo, also went to enjoy the nightclubs, television programs, and media headlines.

And so that the name “cultural exchange” will seem real, rather than a farce, the government of the island allows the American jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to perform in Havana, with national acknowledgment. The American Ballet Theater will also arrive shortly.

This imbalance of quid pro quo is simple mathematics. An aspect even more striking, however, is that seen in the circumstances in which, under President George W. Bush, this kind of exchange was permanently dropped from the agenda, to the point that everyone has forgotten who most craves to be part of the “exchange.” Everyone has forgotten the artists based in Miami.

Despite constant requests to sing in his homeland, there has been no “exchange” with the talented Amaury Gutiérrez, nor with the salsa dancer who, hands down, has been emblematic of Cuban dancers: Willy Chirino. Nor have Bebo Valdes and Arturo Sandoval been allowed to take part.

There have been no exchanges with Pancho Céspedes, or Alexis Valdés, Daisy Ballmajó, nor even with film celebrities such as Reynaldo Miravalles and Carlos Cruz.

The list is endless. Everyone could add a new name, a new figure, who would shudder with excitement at the prospect of returning not only to sing or act in their homeland, but to simply reconnect with their origins.

And this implies irresponsibility and insensitivity involving the governments of both nations which, for the first time, agreed on a bittersweet point: to deny Cuban artists living in Miami a chance to reunite with their original audience.

Each government has played its part in the conspiracy:

The establishment on the Island praises and magnifies that Silvio sang at Carnegie Hall, to denounce the “unjust imprisonment of the Five,” and to confirm his unbending attachment to the Cuban Revolution. However, in one of the contradictions inherent in that system, official spokesmen say they could not admit Willy or Estefan to the Cuban stage, because these characters would come with a political agenda and provoke people. An amazing and awesome way to bite your own tail.

For its part, the Obama government has enabled a ghostly exchange without conditions or demands for equal opportunities. And this, in politics, is an unforgivable defeat.

How do we understand that the author of “Unicorn,” a paradigm of the Cuban revolutionary process and the brilliant musician of all official events, gets — applause please — his necessary visa, but that this does not, in exchange, imply a trip, for example, for Pancho Céspedes to visit his own country? Why instead of negotiating the characteristics of this exchange, is what has happened so far a virtually unconditional acceptance of “shipments” from Havana?

Gray, too gray, clarifying the reality.

Moreover, the most execrable of the Cuban “cultural invasions” to the United States is the adaptation of their discourse and the morality transplant than many undergo, once they land in Miami.

It turns out, if we pay attention to the statements that the singer-songwriter (turned television presenter) Amaury Pérez offered Jorge Ramos in that controversial interview, the son of Consuelito Vidal is an intellectual who, despite his revolutionary commitment, is noted for his criticisms and discrepancies with the official model of his country.

On this program, we Cubans learned that Amaury disapproved the White Letter, but signed the Black Letter by phone, supporting the execution of some of his fellow citizens, and argued for serious changes in the way of this country is led.

On his return to Cuba, the Amaury whom I admire for his boundless charisma and a willingness to always dialogue, also returned to his political silence and intellectual docility.

Another case of fear was that of David Calzado, director of Charanga Habanera, when he outdid himself in opportunism and, like a chameleon, changing his skin with ease, “varied slightly” the lyrics of one of their popular songs during their U.S. tour.

Instead of satirizing the suffering of the nostalgia, the longing of those who today do not live with their families, with the chorus that goes, “You are crying in Miami, I am enjoying Havana,” the turncoat decided to conquer the Tyrians and Trojans with, “You are enjoying Miami, I am enjoying Havana.”

Back home, in his comfortable capital, the song would never be sung that way, under pain of censorship.

So then, in what measure has there been a real exchange, and how far has a relaxation between the two governments reached, but only in a one-directional way: bound for the United States?

Without a sensible and sober policy in this sense, such a segregated and limited cultural exchange between the two opposing governments cannot be just.

I welcome the visits of my brothers to the nation Martí also visited and Varela protected. I support everyone, honest and opportunistic, mediocre and talented, Los Aldeanos and Sara González, Isaac Delgado, Manolín and Paulito FG, to express their art in any country in the world without ideological constraints putting a brake on their expansion.

But I support it, as a fundamental premise, because the opportunity to perform on stages beyond the seas should open the door for all, not only to the virtuous on this side of the water, much less should it be a privilege for those who change their morals whenever they change the ground under their feet.


With a Homeland, but Without a Master

On the morning of Wednesday, July 7th of this year 2010, I received a peculiar visitor in my house: actually, I received him on the porch.  I invited him to sit down, next to me, on the small bench that delimits my home’s garden.  The living room in the house, the interior of my living space, is only destined for friends or people I don’t know but whose presence I have solicited.

Since this visitor didn’t meet either of those two conditions, he was kindly received on the porch.

His name is not important right now.  Only, that it was the official from the State Security whose visit I earned on “my own merits” since my first texts appeared on the web (at that time this blog was not thinking about being created).  No rebel, no one who stands up, no honest man, no inquirer stays in my Cuba of today without his own respective official.  It is a right we all have.

Well, my Security official’s visit had a concrete purpose that morning:

–          I’ve come to negotiate with you – he said, with sarcasm.

I want to make something clear: unlike the bird-brains they have assigned to counteract this blog, poor devils with no brain nor meritorious reasoning, the official who “attended” to me was the most decorous they could have assigned me.  Someone with good manners, knowledgeable about his occupation, cordial when the time demanded and energetic when my words offended his institution. He was not stupid, a good debater.  Someone who, if we took  away his occupation of persecutor of political miscreants, and overcame that innate arrogance of those who take advantage of the impunity that the authority grants them, would be one of the people whom I would receive in the living room of my home.  He could have been my friend.

So, we moved on to what he was coming to negotiate.

–          What advantage do I get from your business offer? I asked, in a funny way.

–          A Visa to the United States – he said, proud of his judgment.

I smiled, once again.  It was ten in the morning, and the dark circles under my eyes certified the 500 miles from Havana to Bayamo that I had traveled the night before.  I was coming from my interview at the United States’ Interest Section in Cuba.  They had just granted me, good until this coming December, a Visa in order to be able to reunite with my family members in Miami.  A Visa which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with my political posture, something that my official admitted as if known by all: I would leave Cuba just like another member of a family to reunite.  Just that.

The juicy “business” they proposed was elemental:

–          Behave — he said fluidly – and we won’t put any barriers towards your leaving the country.

You should understand: behave meant, in a more direct language: stop writing.

I can’t hide how enjoyable, grotesquely, that proposition was to me.  Benevolence in exchange for my silence.  The approval of the owners of this beautiful island, in exchange for my “good behavior”.

I don’t remember my exact answer. I think I faked that I would evaluate his proposal, very interesting and beneficial, really.

I had already evaluated it, actually.  Two days later, on July 9th, I posted the “Prologue to the Little Brother”.  I had just founded this space that counts today, after three and a half months, 31 published articles.

Looking back on what my life has been in the past three months, I must admit that it has had more charm and sleepless nights, more stress and delight, than ever before in my 26 years.  And above all, truth be told: more danger than I ever thought possible, like an entirely free man, in this country which I love from one end to the other.

I have experienced the brilliant pleasure of sitting down to write, each day, with the enviable sensation that everything I say is my deepest truth.  A truth crowded with subjectivities, points to analyze, polemic and personal opinions.  But in the end, a truth that, as I said in that Prologue, does not admit blindfolds nor does it tolerate disadvantages.

I have discovered, thanks to my decision to be a journalist as independent from the official press as from the sensational opponents, the real meaning of freedom of speech.  What I have published on this blog has only been approved by my conscience, my aesthetic standards and my ethical perceptions.  I have not asked anyone for accountability, I have not asked anyone for acceptance.

I have learned to value, and to respect, the fear of those who stay quiet out of necessity, from feeling defeated before the immensity of the retaliations: “I have a family, Ernesto; I have a son who I need to support.  I feel an immense envy for what you are doing, I would love to be able to do it also, but if they fire me from work like they did, how would I feed my family?”  I nod, and I give them a hug, even though I can’t defeat my depression all day, and I thank them for sneaking in, in the refuge of their homes, a memory stick that will go from one hand to another, copying and reproducing the texts that I publish here every three days.

And I have also learned, how couldn’t I, the size of hate and of repression in almost all its forms.  And I underline “almost”, because except physical violence and the gray bars of prison, I have already experienced on my own flesh, in my individual essence, the high price implied by being consistent with the Marti perception which prays: “Liberty is the right that each man has to be honest, and to think and speak without hypocrisy” in my totalitarian Cuba.

Many friends have been warned, they have been terrified on account of me: “If you mix with a social scourge like him, you will be treated as such.”  Of course: many have abdicated my friendship.  They have put our links on standby until these times of bad smell and pests pass, even though it is likely that by that time, their friendship will be hollow, unnecessary.

My telephone, tapped with aberrant notoriety, has only remained in the address books of a few suicidal friends.  A virtuous painter, a Buddhist engineer, an Argentinean soccer fan on his wheel chair, and another handful of Bayameses (people from Bayamo) who might even fear for their own existence, but are more fearful of surviving without the irreducible friendship that we have known how to nourish for so many years.

Too many slanders have been raised against me.  Dirty, vile hits, for which I was always ready, but even then they don’t stop surprising me, and lead me to question myself about the limits of human degradation.

The founders of so much barbarity and so much social exclusion should have to answer to their children, to their grandchildren, all their questions.

That is why I, who maintain my friends on the verge of collapse, who have had to make my family lose their sleep, who have gained the disapproval of many for putting my stability, my personal security at risk, I ask them for forgiveness for my acts, but with humbleness I confess: I would not change a single second of these last three months of my life, for all the peace and all the protection of the planet.

I also confess, for whoever takes me as their enemy – they are not my enemies: I don’t have, inside of me, space for enemies; nor would I make any deals with them, nor with them would I ever conduct any business that included a single one of my articles,  one of my words.  I don’t gamble with my truth.  I am neither a blackmailed brain nor pen.

The longing to reunite with my family again, who now live in real freedom, is immense, and for that I have been willing to do almost anything.  Except biting my lips.  If the final punishment for being consistent with myself is imprisonment inside this green Island, I will accept it with the dignity of someone who still has much to do, much to write, much to live in this country that made me, with pride, a Cuban.  I will accept staying on this side of the ocean, with a homeland, but without a master.

Someone who is sheltered by books, by music, by scriptures and the unconditional love of his partner; someone who saves in his chest of relics the friendship of the incorruptible, the sincere; someone to whom God gifted with an immense spirituality to feed him during  harsh times, during sufferings, during the death of loved ones and the betrayal of friends for silver coins; to conclude, someone who deep inside has the antidote against all hate; someone like this cannot be repressed nor frightened.

Liberty is a spiritual state said Mahatma Gandhi, and I do not have words to thank him for the favor of giving me that maxim as a life premise.

At three and some months from writing this kamikaze blog, in which each time I offer the best and worst of me, I do not stutter in thanking all who dedicate 5 minutes of their time on reading it, and whose good energies inevitably come to me; nor do I stutter when thanking myself for taking this, the most assertive and committed decision of my young years of existence.




Is Now The Time To Eliminate the Travel Permit?

The question has been going around and around in my mind, with a subtle persistence, since I found our recently that for the eighth time in three years the Cuban government has denied Yoani Sanchez an exit permit.

For those unaware of the Cuban reality, let me clarify: This country of ours demonstrates, today, one of the most backward and arbitrary travel permit systems that can be found anywhere in the world. A system expressly designed, without failures or slip ups, to endlessly impede any personal effort to come to know another country, and, at will and without any effort at all, to impede the travel of an “uncomfortable” citizen.

This is one of those points where my socialist Cuba does not admit moderation, pros or cons, or lukewarm analysis: it is an official aberration, that we deliberately crush point 2 of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“Every person has the right to leave any country, including their own, and to return to their country.”

There are two possibilities: either we Cubans cannot count ourselves as human beings, and if so this prerogative does not apply to us; or, I don’t know how else to say — what other words to use — to stand in any forum, before any international competition, and categorically deny that Cuba violates any human rights.

In the endless arsenal of terminology and “bureaucratese” to leave Cuba, I think there is not other evidence more flagrant in the authoritarian will of the system, than the so-called “white card,” which is popular parlance for the Permission to Leave granted by the Department of Immigration and Foreigners.

A White Card because, apparently, that is a complete description of it: a sheet of paper where the Government concedes the questions and with immense grace allows you to leave the country. Temporarily or permanently — “definitively” as the latter is called.

So great are the obstacles to be overcome, so important the privilege of that card, that more than a few people, after obtaining one, make an offering to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Santiago de Cuba, a devout promise for a favor granted. The Patron Saint knows what that fragile sheet represents.

This Permit to Leave is the exclusive patrimony of the Department of Immigration. They grant it, they deny it. There are no ways to access the oracular voice that pronounces the Yes or the No. Although it is an open secret that the institution which, in these matters, gives the last word is: State Security.

The citizen exhausts himself in the hundreds of suffocating procedures, collects such a large number of letters and certificates that, with so much paper, it is an attack on the permanence of the forests; and in the end… he never knows if all his effort and hours of waiting for officials makes any sense, because the white card is never discussed. When it is denied, there is no explanation.

Now, looking at this through the lens of the new reality that, it seems, is starting to spread across the Island, I think my question takes on a different meaning. Is this the precise moment to put out to pasture this monstrosity, this Cuban immigration system?

And I clarify that with this approach, I only pretend to assume for a second the logic of those who erected the white letter as a compulsory procedure. Otherwise, my question would be disingenuous: there should never have existed such a violation of our individualities.

But looking through the lens of power, we can analyze what this prerogative, this faculty that the Government claims for itself to decide who leaves this country, as if it were a private plantation. Why, then? Because, in the nation as we have it today, I don’t believe there is anything they were trying to show the world, by establishing this Exit Permit.

What other purpose can they have to deny a human being the right to travel freely, except to prevent the mass exodus that would lead the world to suspect the truth behind the social paradise?

Or to put it more simply, at some point the white card must have fulfilled an ideological objective: preventing the testimony of those who abandoned the Island from destroying the Revolutionary myth of a united and happy Cuba. It was the same principle of those who strafed the Berliners who chose to tackle the wall and cross into West Germany. But let’s be clear: do we have, today, a mentally challenged world, incapable of reasoning?

After seeing that in 1980 ten thousand people took refuge in the Peruvian embassy; after the Rafter Crisis when young people chose the sea and the jaws of the sharks rather than the reality they suffered at home; after hundreds of thousands of Cubans chose international visa lotteries, Spanish citizenship, and the legal loopholes that let them escape this Caribbean island… In truth, what is the use of the iron Exit Permit? What hidden truth and illusion does it sustain?

None, save to prove clearly the militaristic character of the State that decides who will escape the fence, and how, and who will grow old within it.

However, now our leaders have added and subtracted points, now they have placed in the balance of a benefit-cost ratio, for example, repressing peaceful opponents with prison. Now that they have also launched a cry for help for the rusty national economy, would now not be the perfect time to rid themselves of the political cost involved, nationally and internationally, of not letting Cubans travel freely throughout the world?

I believe letting the white card evaporate, eliminating the steel barriers, and allowing Cubans to have the same opportunities to travel as the rest of the free citizens of the world, would begin to solve a specific problem: permanent — “definitive” — emigration.

Why do Cubans leave their country forever? Why do they “desert” (another aberration of terminology)? Those athletes, doctors, artists, who leave to settle permanently in other countries. Elementary: Because it is so difficult to leave the country, they must seize the opportunity. Now or never.

But the Jurassic apparatus aside, I am convinced that the vast majority of Cubans would choose to travel, to work for a time outside of Cuba, raise capital and, then what? Take advantage of the opportunity to spend that money in their own country, among their family and friends.

Like so many Mexicans do, who cross the border to earn a living however they can; as the South Americans do to find work in Europe, while leaving their family in their birthplace: returning to invest or spending their earnings elsewhere.

We all know that a serious percentage of the national economy is supported by… Whom? The exiles. The emigrants. The just under two million Cubans who have scattered across the world. So what would be the impact if those with capital could enter and leave the country, like other citizens with money, they could get on a plane?

Finally, I believe that there could be no stronger evidence of real change, verifiable, in the way the country is run, no better way to improve national opinion, than to remove these travel barriers. Cubans would start to feel respected by their government. They would start to believe in a will to find solutions beyond permits to run a barber shop, or depriving them of their jobs. And they would start to plan their lives not according to whether or not they will leave the island forever, but how they will come to know other countries, make a living with hard work and honesty, and then return home like the prodigal son.

Putting an end to the virtual prison in which we are forced to survive, would also avoid the rigmarole of the indefensible, the desperate explanations, when an uninhibited Cuban asks them why they can’t travel like so many workers and middle class and lower class people in other countries.

Ricardo Alarcon, the President of our Parliament, would have been saved, for example, from that demeaning argument that still today surprises us, when a Computer Institute student wanted to know why he could not go to Bolivia, to see where his admired Che Guevara died.  (“Imagine if 3 billion people in the world could travel, the congestion there would be on the airlines…”)

But above all, our leaders would stop using the sacred right to travel freely as a means of repression against those who choose to meet their arbitrariness with words and peace.

It is not about Yoani Sanchez, or many artists “who can’t be trusted,” or the peaceful opposition, or the children of “deserters” from a sport or a medical mission. It is about the fact that this is the right time to show, not the world, but Cubans, that our rights are part of the review that a more sensible and humane government wants to undertake in the country today.

If the arrogance didn’t cloud their reason, I think the logic of this thinking would ultimately prevail. By cruel misfortune, our recent history is marked by the disregard of logic.


Our Nobel of So Many Days

Well-deservedly, my friends and I have been calling each other since last Thursday to congratulate ourselves. Some cheer from a distance, while others of us reach out our hands. Friends from different eras and generations: classmates from my university days; acquaintances I may have met on the streets with whom I’ve shared literary ideas at times.

And I underline well-deserved, because congratulating each other for the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa is an act of justice to ourselves: so much positive energy on his part, so many hours dedicated to his novels, so much saliva invested in rabid debates around his political ideas, we simply have to assume that this award is a prize for us as well, his readers.

Personally, I don’t hesitate to launch a categorical affirmation: nothing has influenced or determined my thinking more, my world-view on literature and artistic phenomenons; nobody dynamited my adolescent brain more with every type of libertarian, anti-totalitarian and cosmopolitan idea than this Peruvian Spaniard who today, for his work and by the grace of an elusive prize, is the most famous writer in the world.

Some of us had already lost hope. The Nobel seemed like a conflagration against him when, in the 1980s, right after publishing the incredible and insane novel, The War of the End of the World, Mario seemed predestined to hang it on his wall.

I was discouraged thinking about the lofty embarrassments for the Stockholm Committee which seemed as if they had never read Cortázar, Carpentier nor Borges, nor Kafka nor Joyce. And it irritated me still more to see that each year the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a figure even more exotic and unthinkable within the rich panorama of world literature. The Swedish professors seemed to have laid out the world map across a wide desk, point out the regions that had already received their awards, and randomly pick a writer from a non-awarded country.

The Nobel Prize seemed to be a novel prize: awarded to inconsequential writers who, logically, from then on would be enshrined. (The most baffling case in recent times was, without a doubt, that of 2004: the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, author of love novellas written for dozing travelers, who seemed to have revived, with the astonishment of his expression, the American playwright John Steinbeck, winner of the prize in 1962, who said at the time that he himself could not believe it.)

And then, when it seemed least probable, someone picked up the phone at 5:30 in the morning in New York, and in broken Spanish it was communicated to the writer who was preparing for a conference for his Princeton students, that within 14 minutes the world would know his name as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature.

What was Vargas Llosa doing at that precise moment? In the interplay of ironies that sometimes God, or destiny, or karma constructs it is a surprising refinement: in the instant when his wife Patricia handed him the phone, Vargas Llosa was preparing a conference about Jorge Luis Borges, and was re-reading for the umpteenth time the novel El Reino de este Mundo, by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier.

For my part, what was I doing the instant that I learned my literary paradigm had just had his name inscribed among the unforgettable by the Nobel committee? I was sleeping soundly on a semi-London-like morning in my tropical Bayama, protected from the rain and cloudy sky, when the first ring at 7:30 in the morning forced me to emerge from my drowsiness, and assimilate the simple sentence with which my exalted friend said good morning:

“They gave the Nobel Prize to Vargas Llosa.”

After that, five more phone calls, at intervals of a few minutes, confirmed that it was not a tactless joke or a painful mistake.

Let’s just say: only those who are capable of loving literature with a sickening passion; only those who understand what it means to stay awake all night, and feel the anguish of not being able to comment to anybody at that time how fascinating the piece they have just read is, only they are capable of understanding the powerful link that is established between and author and his most faithful reader.

There are cases worth sharing. One of them is the story about a reader of Garcia Marquez’s found in Moscow, copying by hand on yellowish paper, a Russian translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude, because she didn’t have money to buy that masterpiece and wanted to have it at home. Another one, which Julio Cortázar told: is about a young girl who, the night she decided to commit suicide, started reading his novel Rayuela. For some reason that desperate young girl wanted to end her life at a specific time at dawn, and while she was waiting she started to skim through the Argentine’s book. In a letter written later, that potential suicidal was thanking Cortázar for saving her life: his novel was able to let her ignore her depression, and the assigned time for her end arrived without her being able to let go of her reading.

As for me, I believe that reading Vargas Llosa is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in life, even though I haven’t had to copy him out by hand (but I have had to steal him with thousands of contraband devices), nor has he freed me from attempting suicide.

The first book I read with his name on it, I mention today with love because it is a lesser novel: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Afterwards, I embarked on a marathon until I’d read every one of his novels, searching through the bookstore catacombs to find some book by him, and practicing a kind of literary prostitution which led me to seduce, during my years at the University, a young librarian only because she let me take home Vargas Llosa’s books, which were not allowed to leave the library.

The last one I read — a gift from someone who loves me enough to know that man lives not by bread and remittances alone — so that from the United States  to Cuba came The Lover’s Dictionary of Latin America, a collection of a huge number of articles on the issues surrounding our continent.

I think those who argue, ridiculously, of a presumed anti-Latin-Americanism, should review this compilation of more than 400 pages where an intellectual totally committed to his continent, is devoted to writing about its athletes, cities, eating habits, dictatorships, the common man and, of course, its literary history. Few writers know the roots of their origins better than this Peruvian who is a naturalized Spanish citizen.

Also for those who scream that Mario Vargas Llosa is the personification of anti-nationalist evil, they should ask themselves if there exists more proof about the destiny of one’s country, than to run for president as he did in 2000. Again, a historical irony about the novelist: he lost that election against someone who would later become the worst dictator in the recent history of Peru: Alberto Fujimori.

Today, Fujimori is behind bars for crimes against humanity, and Mario Vargas Llosa is the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As I once wrote in an essay about his political views, to read Vargas Llosa in my Cuba of the parameters and the impossibilities, seems so much like an exercise in subversion, that searching through his entire work has a decidedly seductive appeal. At some point, Milan Kundera said that the one book banned under a totalitarian regime is more powerful and enticing than all the libraries in a free country put together. I think there is no contemporary literature more fascinating for Cuban readers than Mario Vargas Llosa’s.

But I am speaking not only of his novels. His monumental work also includes his work as a journalist and essayist, incredibly universal, extravagantly different, incredibly universal, that confirms in no uncertain terms what this man is really: an enslaved writer. A patient of the word who writes at seventy-four as if his life depends on it.

Into what subject of social, literary, political, biographical or advertising interest has the ex-presidential candidate writer not poked his nose into? Very few. His work is an Aleph of themes. I would dare to argue that wherever Vargas Llosa has not sniffed around with his particular visions and his incendiary words, where he has not opined with distinction or with insolence, where he has not generated a brilliant article, a personal chronicle, a linguistic analysis, or a well-reasoned debate; where he has not put people’s backs up, venomous sores of an emblematic hatred; on wherever that is, I don’t think there’s anything worth looking at.

On one occasion, I had the privilege to interview someone who knows him all too well: the Peruvian Franscisco Lombardo, who, with notable success has brought two of his well-known novels to the big screen: Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, and The City and The Dogs.

I asked him if Vargas Llosa was an almost moral obligation. His words to define the writer were categorical: “You can worship him or you can hate him, what you can’t deny is the admiration, or at least the respect due to those who defend what they believe, regardless of their doctrine, and knowing that they could pay a very high price for it.”

Mario has paid a heavy price for being consistent, above all, with himself. They never forgave him for supporting the Cuban Revolution, in its infancy, and then abandoning the triumphal boat and returning to be its eternal castigator. He has been demonized by the orthodox left, that cannot now forgive him for being a champion of liberal thought.

A journalist from Granma, not even worth mentioning, published the news of his Nobel yesterday, pointing out that he deserves an anti-Nobel in ethics. We know what it’s about: a poor journalist, an enslaved pen, who could not confess that he also reads his novels with devotion, on pain of becoming “available” — i.e. unemployed — now that a work place in Cuba is a privilege to be conserved.

I confirm with my own case what I once heard a notable writer say: the best thing we can point to about the Nobel Prize is that every year it makes a writer fashionable. With the satisfaction of a collection I chose, this time, Conversation in the Cathedral, and began to reread it with the same devotion with which I closed the final page five years ago.

I can’t think of no better way to honor this man, from my pride as a reader, and as a Latin American, than to dedicate a few more hours of my life to the novel it took him the most years to finish. And to feel that among all the millions of us readers who appreciate his dedication to the word, we feel the incomparable happiness — since last Thursday — of a huge dept repaid.


Padre Jose Conrado: The Enormous Importance of Our Not Remaining Silent

Sacerdote José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría

In July of this year, a humble Cuban priest received a prize of international scope which, although it never appeared in the national press, became known to us with suspicious speed. Father José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría, pastor of the church “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus,” in Santiago de Cuba, was awarded the Prize of the Community of Democracies, in Poland, for his enormous efforts in the service of freedom and human rights in Cuba.

Up until then I knew little of Father Conrad. I am not Catholic nor do I practice any particular religion, but I try to surround myself with the most varied and different things possible. Getting to know the life and work of this man with a brilliant attitude is a priceless gift to me.

A priest whom the Cuban church had to exile almost by force in the mid-’90s, because they feared for his life. A priest who suffered, on December 4, 2007, a horrible act of repudiation at his parish, which led to pure violence, and had wide international repercussions.

What I am publishing here now is just a snippet of the interview of at least 4 hours that Father Conrado and I enjoyed in Santiago de Cuba, just a month ago. The full text will appear in my book of interviews with prominent personalities in the alternative cultural and public life in Cuba, which will soon be completed.

I must confess to my readers that it was a real exercise of journalistic contortion to summarize an interview of nearly 30 pages, with a rather lengthy introduction, which I offer you here. When an interview subject is so brilliant, it is painful and complex to select some answers and leave the others for later.

In any event, I believe that few interviews published in this blog have so much depth and relevance as this one that the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría was kind enough to grant me from his church.


For those who know of his priestly office, one of the hallmarks of Father José Conrado is his concern for creating awareness among his people about the reality of our country. This is not someone who surreptitiously, when the opportunity arises, refers in his oratory to related aspects of Cuban politics and life. Rather, José Conrado has shown a particular interest in raising awareness among his followers; giving them arguments to assess in full measure the reality in which they are immersed.

– Father, do you remember when you first became conscious of this? Or do you remember when was the first time you began to define yourself as a religious official with very defined positions on politics?

– From the Seminary I was very clear about the role of the word, in my case the Word of God, implying a serious commitment in this sense. In fact that is the definition of a homily, it is preaching the Word of God and the reality that is before you.

I fully agree with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, when he said that a homily was delivered with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.

Therefore, the very essence of the work of the Church is to refer to this reality that must change itself in light of the Word of God …

– But while some priests in their masses avoid direct references to the plight of Cuba, you do the opposite …

I question the claim that other priests do not. What I think is that everyone has their own style and their own way of approaching issues.

Look, I always make reference, for example, to the fact that if there had not been a person with a video camera the day I read the letter to Fidel Castro in 1994, it wouldn’t have been known that I read it before 700 people one day in Caridad. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read it just the same. But the fact that it had the repercussions it did was coincidental.

That is to say, what isn’t known at the social level, or not known by those who don’t attend Church, doesn’t meant that Cuban priests don’t have the same principle.

Especially during the hardest time of the Special Period, I think all the priests and bishops had the same feeling. Maybe not always as directly, but there was always a serious reflection on the reality that the people were living through..

We must also take into account one thing: we all feel fear. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke this response of paralyzing fear. It would not be honest to say that we are not afraid. We all are. The problem is when you have to overcome fear in the name of a responsibility. That responsibility is what leads you to express yourself and, what you believe, in reality. And that is the result of an ethical awareness of what concerns us all.

My insistence on the political issue in homilies stands out because the totalitarian system always tries to silence the critic, to make disagreement impossible, and this makes it rare for a person to express something which, in the background, is likely shared by the vast majority of his listeners. But not all dare to say it.

However, I think that is precisely the responsibility of a priest in a country like ours. The fact that people are not able to raise their voices for fear of reprisals, or because of the habit of silence (as Eliseo Alberto Diego says: “In silence we became so dumb.”) is one of the challenges a priest faces under a system like this.

I was thinking about the number of letters that still circulate online, signed by him. The letter to Raul Castro, in 2009, his farewell speech when he had to go into involuntary exile in 1996, the text he wrote on the occasion of the retirement of Archbishop Pedro Meurice. I remember the impression his highly narrative prose gave me every time: an absolute fascination.

– I have felt with your words something unique: the vibration of truth. You feel deeply what you say, and whoever hears it or reads it, it is a very vivid warning. When you condemn totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but universally, you do so with a passion that makes an impact. Where does that this strong aversion to totalitarianism come from?

– I would say it was the experience that led me to a very critical position. The experience of the reality I was living every day. This was exacerbated specifically with the Special Period.

No doubt this was a situation that all the people suffered, and it was the humble people who paid a high price for it. I’m talking about people suffering from polyneuritis, the agony of a country that was expressed by those who threw themselves into the sea at the risk of losing their lives. The terrible tragedy of families separated by distance or death.

I saw in the parishes where I was at that time, in Palma Soriano and Contramaestre, how people grew thinner from week to week, how they steadily lost weight. It was an awful thing. There was this horrible despair, and suffering. And that there was no response from those who had the authority, and all the power in totalitarian systems is with those in power, was perhaps what bothered me most.

The essence of this system is to take away people’s responsibility for their lives and give it to the powers-that-be, those who rule. That makes them more powerful and more responsible before History: obviously, there is no possibility for people decide for themselves, to assume that share of power that is the responsibility of each person, and the centralization of all the decisions in every facet of life — economic, political, social, cultural — makes them responsible for everything that can happen in a country.

But I cannot give up my own responsibility, the share that falls to me, and that is why I have taken a clear position and am critical with respect to the form of this country and how it is governed.


– The Community of Democracies gave you the “Bronislaw Geremek” Prize this year in Krakow, Poland, for your well-known and undoubted efforts with regards to freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Cuba. Your speech, entitled “Every generation has the right to dream its own dreams,” should be studied in all universities, should be read before all the good people of this world as a beautiful testament to the commitment of a priest to the full freedom of man.

You also said in your speech that you received the award “on behalf of the Church that suffers, fights, prays and waits in Cuba.” Do these words really describe the feelings of the Cuban Church?

– Of course. I think the Catholic Church in Cuba has made an effort to serve and is dedicated to the cause of man.

Santa Teresita church in Santiago de Cuba

When you look at the communities that make up our parishes you see this: people fighting, suffering, waiting, praying from the fact that he lives. These communities are composed for the most part of very simple people who have withstood the difficulties, have resisted even persecution. For over 50 years the Church has not been seen as a good thing Cuba, and Christians have never been “first class” citizens. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but the suspicion has always been political: they are not people who can be trusted. But they are the faithful and it is the Church.

Many believers and even priests have left the country. They saw no way out. Others abandoned the Church. I remember times when the parishes were virtually empty because of the persecution of Christians. But always there were those who stood their ground.

In fact I believe that if today the Church is present and alive in the hearts of this people it is the result of the faithfulness of the institution towards those in need.

– It is impossible not to ask you your views on the current process of releasing the political prisoners, in which the Catholic Church had a role. The controversy was centered primarily on two aspects: 1. Was if right for the church to ignore the opposition in its dialog with the Government, and 2. Was it ethical and humane that those who were released were immediately exiled. What is your position on this?

– We must start from a known fact: the rules of this game were not defined by the Church. It had a mediation role only between the persons directly affected, the Ladies in White, the families of the prisoners, and the Government, which finally ceded to solve the problem.

I think that the Church is not civil society, nor can it supplant the opposition. Nor did it try to do so. Simply, there was a specific problem, a really serious situation with these prisoners of conscience, and the opportunity to reach an agreement was there.

In itself, by definition, it was a very serious thing that these people were arrested for their opinions or for exercising their right to free opinion. There was never any guilt in this sense. On the contrary, the exercise of freedom for every person is the guarantee of justice and the proper exercise of social life.

Then, that they were given long sentences for this reason can only be called an aberration.

That point is the problem that motivated the Government’s response, and among other factors influenced the church in this; it was, first, the serious criticism of the repressive acts against the Ladies in White, and, second, the expression of their disagreement with the existence of these prisoners of conscience, among whom were many Catholics as well. But whether or not they were Catholics, it was an unacceptable situation.

An interesting question would be why the Government chose the Church. In my opinion, it was because they knew that it is listened to by all parties, and this is undoubtedly a recognition of the seriousness of the institution and the church community.

What space did the Church have for this negotiation? That is assuming it was nothing more than a mediation. To get the parties to agree, to counsel them, and to lead them to a positive outcome for everyone.

I agree that unfortunately the prisoners did not get a real release, because what has happened is only a change of conviction: instead of prison, deportation. It’s obvious: in Cuba, where many people see the highest ideal of happiness as getting out of the country, and where it is so hard to do so, some see it as a prize. Like they won the jackpot. But that is a reading as it is seen from here; for the rest of the world it is not the same. Nor is it for those who understand how this process should have played out, since obviously there has not been compliance.


– First tell me about the letter sent to Fidel Castro in 1994. What was the essence and motivation of this letter?

– It was not really a letter but rather a letter that I read. As I said before, someone took a video and then spread it around the world.

It was, in fact, an act of desperation. I saw the agony of the people, heard the testimonies of those who came to tell me their tragedies, and it filled me with a feeling of impotence at not being able to solve their problems and I saw that, on the other hand, those who were responsible for it did not give them a hearing. That was truly the breeding ground that made this letter possible.

I remember that day, which was of Caridad, when I finished the homily in front of 700 people, I said: “I know that in all my masses there are crazy sheep who come hear what I say when I go to other places. I urge these crazy sheep to forward to its destination this letter which I am going to read now.” And I began to read.

Perhaps the most important phrase, which sums up the feelings of the full text, is where I say “Everyone is responsible, but nobody more so than you.” The reason for the letter was this: to address myself to the one most responsible, who had the largest share of power.

– Did you receive any response from the president, or any official spokesperson?

– No. The answer was silence.

– Then, 15 years later, in 2009, you sent another one to his brother, newly installed as President. This one was a letter, and it had a wide digital circulation throughout the country. Did you have any real hope this time for a response, or that your claims would influence Raul?

– Look, there are times when one acts as a way of asserting your own voice, because you have a commitment and a responsibility. But not because you know that this act will have the desired response.

What I cannot do is remain silent before the reality I see, that I suffer and that so many people suffer. What’s more, my voice represents nothing more than another Cuba, but it has value.

So I felt that it was my duty to let him know what I think, and also to hold him accountable for what happens in this country. And it is not that, as I clearly said in the letter to Fidel Castro, “It is not that you don’t know the reality of Cubans,” because it would be an insult to tell someone so well informed that he didn’t know what was going on in his own country. No. They know perfectly well what is happening. What is missing is the real political will to change it, especially because those who suffer most in this situation are not them.

Raul Castro could not be uninformed about what is happening in this country. But for me to publicly say it to him was a form of compromise, to say something like, “Hey, you know what’s going on, at least you can’t say that you didn’t, because I told you publicly.”

What’s more, when there are few possibilities to make decisions that won’t be final, it gives those who have all the power twice the obligation. Because under a system that puts everyone in a straitjacket, depending on the decisions of the bosses, they must be held accountable for everything they do or don’t do.

So I believe that we have to respect and acknowledge the work of all the bloggers, of the independent journalists, of the peaceful opponents, of people like Yoani Sánchez or the Ladies in White, who have raised their voices and are fighting against all odds. We would be in an even worse position without these people who run the risk that needs to be run to be faithful to a fundamental commitment to the truth.

Clearly, one of the foundations on which the system operates is what Soledad Cruz described as: “There is no one who can bring it down, but no one who change it.” That is: They put in your head the idea that no matter what you do, nothing will change. This concept is the basis of totalitarianism.

And basically, I do believe many things are changing. I think they, the rulers, are assuming their responsibilities. What is happening is that they are admitting it publicly. But if they change something, however minimal, it is because they are realizing the responsibility that they have.

Therefore it is very important that we not remain silent. When you raise your voice, you warn of danger, and that has power. A system with such an absolute power, if there are no restrictions, no compensations, it is a real monster. So, although we pay a heavy price, we must raise our voices.

As Father Varela said to those who accused him of imprudence, “It is imprudent to speak out and warn of the danger? That is the prudence of the weak. My heart does not know it.”


– Finally, father: in your own words you officiated at your first mass citing Marti’s credo: “I have faith in human betterment, the utility of virtue, and in you.” Still today, many years later, do you really believe in a future of reconciliation for our country, despite the great anthropological damage suffered by the Cuban people?

– Gandhi said, the tyranny and wickedness of men does not have the last word. The last word goes to the other side. It’s always a word of salvation, not condemnation.

And I think that when, a hundred years from now, someone writes the history of Cuba, and of this period, many will remember all those things with sadness. But many will also react. In the end the human being is made to be happy. Eventually people wake up to a better, more just, life.

It is real that in any country, under any system, criminal situations can occur, human aberrations, we can also have this evil within us. No one is immune from error or falsehood. But I also think that man is able to evolve and change, and I deeply believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion for the better is the challenge of every age and every person.

The temptation to be discouraged, hopeless, it is somewhat logical. But for the Christian it has no place. Not that you can not go through stages of despair, what happens is that eventually you have to overcome it. Because life goes on and we all have a responsibility to keep fighting and to build a different future.

In addition, I repeat that we must distinguish between systems and people. Systems pass, but human beings, to the extent they open themselves to grace, the deep love and mercy of God that is capable of transformation, of breaking down barriers, it is capable of reversing any circumstances.

But above all, I believe in the possibility of overcoming, because basically man, by his nature, always wants the best. And the best is certainly not what we have. The best is not this.

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Posted by on October 6, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea