Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Anguish of a Cuban American Blogger

From the moment a Cuban American sits down to start a blog, he knows the task ahead is overwhelming, that he is a lone figure on the shore with a mouth full of pebbles trying to be heard above the waves. There is no hope of ever overcoming the roar of the ocean, only maybe for an instant, that moment between crests when the thin tones of his voice can be heard.

Then comes the daily work of writing, which sometimes comes easily, others not. And after a while, it's really the same story in a thousand different guises: the latest lipstick-besmirched pig trotted out by the regime, the ever present chorus of willing media voices informing the world of the trotting out of the beauteous pig, and the truth that it really is a porker behind the grease paint. I am impressed by those who have carried on year after year. It can be disheartening.

It is no more disheartening than to see the world of blogs devoted to Cuba where there is often too little exchange of ideas and too much clash of personalities, where one-upmanship often takes the place of enlightenment, where some prefer to assert their own superiority rather than instruct their more information challenged confreres. It is a world rife with mine fields, where the most innocent of comments or even lack of commentary can start a verbal conflagration. Who needs it?

Things in Cuba are changing, the media tells us. Tourist apartheid is ending, we are to believe. Cuba experts are running around calling Raul "a pragmatist." It is Cuban Americans who are being vilified, incredibly as far the websites of mainstream media, as "dead-end," "hard-line, intransigent exiles." Even a Castro favorite "the Miami Mafia" is flung around by former government officials and/or Cuba experts. A scurrilous cartoon depicting the forced deportation of that uppity bunch of Cuban Americans, allegedly former Batistianos, a group which, gasp, has the audacity to vote like millions of other Americans appears on the website of one of the most distinguished papers of record in the country. Why not just disappear, melt into the great American conglomerate where we function so easily?

On the Cuban front, things are not much better. Pockets of resistance are just that, little groups of dissidents pictured in front of a bed sheet, emblazoned with whatever organizational affiliation in spray paint. Either the overwhelming majority of Cubans are with the regime (not true), or they have been cowed by fear into the political equivalent of battered-wife syndrome. Not that I even begin to criticize. I, personally, cannot know what it is to live with fear, latent terror as a way of life. Rather my admiration for those who raise their voices is immense. On this side of the Atlantic, some would have it that we are out of touch with those on the island, that we and our efforts are resented. Why bother?

But then sometimes, reading reports from the island, comes the impassioned plea from some group or other to publicize their plight. And it becomes apparent that blogging has some effect. Just when you feel like Cassandra, a post or two makes its way to other American venues, and you remember the mission. It is not about bringing the regime down, would that blogging could. It is not about being liked or even agreeing with each other. Because somewhere along the line, while we were sleeping it seems, the worm turned. Might became right, and the victims became the villains. It's as if we woke one morning to hear the epithets and arguments of a brutal dictatorship coming not from the island but from politicians, experts, academics, and even, most alarmingly, large swaths of the American public. Our parents, grandparents, newer arrivals, all faced the language barrier. We have no such obstacle. With our God-given talents, whatever they are, and all the advantages paid for by earlier generations, we can do no less than tell the truth to our fellow citizens. No one else is going to do it.

Literary Critic Lionel Trilling once wrote that at the heart of any great work of literature was the difference between appearance and reality, that the reader wants to rail at Oedipus "...can't you see? Can't you see?" It is an observation that has meaning in this context. It is the mission of the Cuban American blogger to demand of the country and the world, "Can't you see? It's just a foul-smelling, bespattered, gussied up pig." Because in the end, nothing matters, not power, or personality, or even Pope. Nothing matters but the lives and freedom of those left behind. And Cuban Americans like their pigs on the table with a little mojito, not at the helm of government.

Storms and Sisterhood

There's a tropical rainstorm outside, comforting in its way. I haven't been posting much because of all sorts of difficulties. Anyway as I was going over one of my best friends' homes earlier, it struck me. We were introduced when she became romantically involved with one of my closest friends. No one expected us to get along, let alone become close. We are very different in background, education, personality, you name it. Ah, but we know something they don't.

There's a sisterhood out there, a sorority of sorts- women who've seen trouble. When we meet, there is no secret handshake, no secret decoder ring, but we know. Sometimes it's a colleague at work, someone whose story you never really learn but you know all the same. It's a look, a spirit, a moment of empathy, the wisdom of knowing that you can survive the next curve life throws at you.

So as I sit here, the rain keeps falling on the just and unjust alike, and tomorrow the sun will come up, and life will have to be lived.

The Great Farm Loan

This fairly interesting AP version of the much vaunted lending of land to farmers concludes thus:
But if a farmland revolution is coming, it hasn't brought big profits to farmers yet. Diaz gets 2.50 pesos per quart of milk, up from one peso. A peso is worth slightly less than a nickel.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


This month Smithsonian has an article "Comrades in Arms" about the work of Hungarian-born photographer Andrew St. George (not his birth name) which chronicles the beginnings of the revolution. A staunch anti-communist, he fled his native country with the arrival of the Russians.
One of those characters Cuba seems to have attracted, he covered the Cuban Revolution as a free lance journalist because he, like the Cuban people, thought it was a nationalist, not communist revolution. And like many of the Cuban people, he left when he became disillusioned with that same revolution.

He sold his contact sheet of one of the first big rallies in Havana to Yale University where 35 years later, Lillian Guerra found the money to sort, catalogue and digitize them. It is a sad commentary, but I find myself vetting people politically as I read because in the case of Cuba and life in general, it pays to know your sources. I started wondering about Guerra after this quote in the article:

St. George's work "makes the Cuban revolution come alive," Guerra says. "What we get [in the United States] is so top-down—so much about what's wrong with Cuba. And in Cuba, the government encourages Cubans to believe they are in a constant state of war, with invasion from the United States threatened all the time."

After a little legwork, I find that the good professor, the child of Cuban parents, is one of those who believes in building bridges, is in fact one of the signatories to this fine document, not to mention "Historians against the War." All of which means nothing in terms of the images she saved for posterity, but which does tend to caution against her interpretation of events.

"It's during this rally that Fidel for the first time turns to the crowd and says, ‘If you agree with what we're doing, raise your hand,' " says Lillian Guerra, an assistant professor of Caribbean history at Yale University. Later, she says, Castro's calling for shows of hands at such rallies "became officially a substitute for electoral voting."

Fodder for thought.

Quote for Today

comes from Havana:

Con tantas prohibiciones, carencias y problemas acumulados durante casi medio siglo, autorizar la venta de estos costosos cacharros que muy pocos cubanos tienen dinero para comprar, es como un chiste de humor negro. Es mentar la soga en casa del ahorcado. O repartir caviar en Somalia.

With so many prohibitions, scarcities, and problems accumulated during almost half a century, allowing the sales of these costly contraptions which very few Cubans have the money to buy is dark humor. It's mentioning the rope in the house of the hanged. Or distributing caviar in Somalia.

-Luis Cine in an article on Cubanet here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bread, A Roof, and Liberty: Dispatches

Here is some of what is coming through from independent journalists in Cuba:

Oswaldo Yáñez writes that the Cuban people are not fooled. They know what they need: bread, a roof, and liberty. He writes that in their barred hotel, the political prisoners will not enjoy cell phones, rental cars, or microwaves. In other words, he points out the window dressing. He saves some very pointed comments for all those who are celebrating these meager reforms while decrying the dictaorships in Myanmar and Tibet. Perhaps their olive drab is different, he conjectures.

In the same article, he attaches a second topic: the recent meeting of all those who oppose the present system called by Dr. Darsi Ferrer. Attendance seems to have been about twenty, some representing groups. A series of principles were agreed upon:

1. Attention to and solidarity with the political prisoners.
2. A plan to meet the last Saturday of every month, hopefully with increasing attendance.
3. Each member pledges to work with his organization to raise the ethics, morality, and culture of participants.
4. To increase the work with the public thereby breaking the government block on information.
5. To work on the unity, transparency of action, to create a comfortable climate among organizations.
6. To publicize through all media available when the government fails to live up to the agreements they have signed.
7. To bring to the next meeting a problem with possible solutions to be discussed in the collective.

It is a big step for the stirrings of collective action. And as Yanez points out, the very idea that they were able to convene the publicized meeting was a step forward.

Article here.

And speaking of those human rights agreements the government of Cuba signed, they involve having observers come and visit prisons. So, what is the regime doing? According to this report by Álvaro Yero Felipe, they are moving massive numbers of prisoners out of Havana jails in fear of an observer's visit. Uh-huh.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Sharecroppers

In school, studying the literature of the American South, sharecropping was a motif symbolizing the dismal economic conditions of the poor, usually black. Today, via Penultimos Dias, I ran into this report that the Cuban government has begun "giving" land to those who farm it. The verb used in Spanish is dar or give. Alas, when I read on, the state TV used the word prestar, or loan. In that word lies a world of difference.

And I thought to myself, isn't it rich that a practice that was considered oppressive in the United States should be touted as a reform or a good thing and in effect should be an improvement? How dismal the lot of Cuba: that having been sent back to the Victorian Era by the economics of the revolutionary cadre, the move toward the economic conditions of the American South in the 1920's is considered a sign of progress.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Hot Commodities

Sorry, I missed including this one in the weekly round-up. We all know that corn prices rose sharply with all the ethanol hoopla, causing increases in the price of milk and a myriad of groceries. Then wheat prices rose in sympathy, bringing their own increases. Now comes word that rice hit an all time high last Thursday, sparking fears of unrest. Some of the poorest places on the planet depend on the staple, including.... Article here.

The Cubanology BiWeekly Report

The latest edition is available here and well worth the read. This one is hoppin'. I am happy to note that there is an article by much missed George Moneo in this one, as well as Gusano and CubaWatcher. Not to be overlooked, as some people who have CRS due to advancing years have, is Henry Gomez's contribution to the discussion over Raul's reforms. Read it.

That Revolutionary Raul: Hotels Next

Yes, boys and girls, your ordinary citizen can now ante up to the check-in at any hotel establishment on the island of Cuba, as long as he or she has the money to pay in hard currency. Ah, there's the rub.

A cursory search reveals at least one hotel in Varadero where a weekend stay costs about 120 dollars. Do a little simple math. Convert it to CUC's and then divide it by the average monthly salary of a average Cuban. Soon you realize that a weekend in Varadero would cost the equivalent of 5 and a half months complete take home pay. Now say you make 35 thousand a year, it would be like paying about 10 thousand dollars for your weekend.

These new "reforms" then would seem to be the height of cynicism. And they are, but not in the way you would expect. Yes, there is cynicism in decreeing "changes" dressed in the finery of "reforms," "changes" the metaphorical equivalent of allowing a nation of convenience store clerks to stay at the Waldorf in NYC, as long as they can afford it, not bloody likely. But it is more cunning still.

If you look at the "reforms" that have made the latest splash in the media, they all have one thing in common. Cell phones, computers, appliances (except for the lowly toaster, they'll have to wait 'til 2010 for them), they are the appurtenances of modern life, the must haves of the global consumer society. Your average American hears, "Cubans will be allowed to buy microwaves," and immediately pictures them in addition to the Kraftmaid kitchen with the Kitchen Aid appliances, not as a replacement for the lone hot plate with the grease of twenty years and the fraying cord, the cost of which must be paid out for years. So to the uninformed, the impression made is that Cuba is joining the 21st century.

Now Cubans may be isolated, but they have a sense of how the other half lives. All they have to do is look at the tourists, the party apparatchiks, and the State stores, or look to their exiled kin. And in part, they realize how little likelihood there is that they will be able to afford these luxuries the rest of the world takes for granted. As usual with the regime, appearance is all.

That's the true genius of these "reforms," they are designed to appeal to the Cuban sense of self. Raul is dismantling the assemblage of fiats that make Cubans feel like second-class citizens in their own country. While no substantial reforms have been forthcoming that will allow Cubans to avail themselves of these "changes," those decreed are designed to make them feel they could. One wonders if the removal of the two-tier currency will be next.

Still among the banned, however, are the rights of free assembly, free speech, free elections. Call me a skeptic, but I'm looking for one tell, and that is the release of the political prisoners. The day that Dr. Oscar Biscet walks out of whatever hell hole they've transferred him to a free man; then I will believe change is truly on the way. Until then, I fear I have misjudged Raul, who may very well have been the brains behind keeping the throne all these many years.

(An abridged version is posted on Babalublog.)

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sunday Self-Indulgence

Teach your children well. Let's start with this Fox News video clip via Townhall about the plethora of scantily clad ladies on the covers of mainstream magazines. Check out the near nude Lindsay Lohan on the cover of New York magazine. A few weeks ago, they had Eliot Spitzer with an arrow toward his crotch labelled "brain." And I thought that was a bit crude. Says something about our taste and common sense, doesn't it?

I'm a believer. In "Missing a Generation," Michael Barone has a novel take on the presidential candidates. One interesting assertion in the piece is that much of our recent politics has consisted of a battle battle between the two halves of the boomer generation. mmmm.

Time is on my side. In a move reminiscent of the Roman Catholic church's decision to let bygones be bygones with Galileo, Blackpool, England has reversed a 44 year old ban placed on the Rolling Stones after a near riot broke out in 1964. Story here. And in the old rockers never die category, 63 year old Ray Davies of Kinks fame is still touring and still looking for something. Read the interview here.

On a steel horse I ride. As a "The Deadliest Catch" aficionado, or aficionada, for that matter, it was with great trepidation that I caught this headline. While it was none of our now familiar boats and crews, it was one of the factory ships. 4 people lost their lives. A sad associated story comes from one of the survivors.

You really got me. Finally, in a development out of 1984, it seems that Big Brother might literally be watching, at least in Miami Dade if law enforcement gets its way. They want to use unmanned aircraft in SWAT type operations. The FAA's response: "not so fast." Read all about it.