(“Like dust in the wind.” The title comes from the 1977 song by Kansas. One of Padura’s non-mystery novels, the novel tells the story of a group of friends, all educated professionals, who come of age in 1980s Cuba. Marcos is one of the group’s next generation).
Cuban Repression Heating Up
[Cuban historian and literary critic living in Mexico]
Unauthorized translation – https://www.letraslibres.com/mexico/politica/40-grados-represion-en-cuba
The major achievement of the long day of Nov. 27 was not the promise to stop cracking down on dissent – something that a government like Cuba’s will never keep – but to have forced the authorities to negotiate. That is something you can’t take away from the San Isidro strikers.
Repression temperature rises like a fever in a pandemic. It is a repression at once systematic, intellectually dishonest, and cellular – the first thing that the political police do upon arresting an artist is to seize and ruin his mobile phone. The repression tries to become routine and normal, but cannot achieve this. A growing number of events such as the arrests of artist Tania Bruguera, and the harassment of the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR in Spanish), as well as the recent jailing of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, after a flawed trial, are shaking things up.
The San Isidro Movement is a collective of young visual artists, poets, musicians and intellectuals, with headquarters in one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. In early November, the police burst into the home of one of its members, rapper Denis Solís. After an exchange of insults, the young man was arrested, given a summary trial and sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt of authority. Members of the collective mobilized, went to police stations, and, instead of answers, got arbitrary arrests. They held vigils in the city’s parks that were broken up by force.
With alternatives unavailable, they decided to rally at the movement’s headquarters on Damas street, and to peacefully demand, via social media, the freeing of their fellow activist. State Security and the island’s political and cultural bureaucracy saw this as subversive. They tried in several ways to make the movement’s members leave their headquarters. They broke down the door on several occasions, launched physical and verbal attacks, and contaminated the water tank. At that point, the activists declared themselves on hunger strike, refusing to drink as well. Some members stayed with them to help out.
When news of the strike reached social media and a handful of independent and international media, the power elite began responding. As always, they resorted to personally discrediting their targets. Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sex Education, tweeted that the San Isidro young people were “vulgar, tasteless and awful.” Abel Prieto, ex-minister of culture, ex-presidential advisor and now president of Casa de las Américas, said they were “marginal” and “criminals.” In any Latin American country, these adjectives, aimed at young black, mestizo and poor people, like the San Isidro activists, would reflect governmental class bias and racism.
The major official media – Granma, Cubadebate and the social media accounts of government propagandists – added to this discrediting the well-worn plotline of “agents of imperialism.” According to the familiar script, the young people – who according to official rhetoric were “poor” and “marginal” – had received major financial contributions from the U.S. government, had ties to “terrorists” in Miami and the CIA; they backed the re-election of Donald Trump. Although one or another might have shown sympathy for Trump, that was not the identity of this heterogeneous group.
Another element of the official campaign against San Isidro was insistence that the hunger strike was fake. Images showing strikers, such as Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Osorbo, weakening, were convincing. But official media insinuated that strikers were eating and drinking. In a regime like Cuba’s, which exists on the symbolic legitimacy of an epically heroic revolution, opposition or dissidence cannot be epic or heroic. The insistence of official media that the strike is phony clashes with the police drive to clear the San Isidro headquarters.
Authorities’ aim has always been to break up and silence the public voice of this independent collective. When police blocked off the street, prohibiting access to family and friends, the justification was that these were public health measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The arrival at Damas 955 of writer and journalist Carlos Álvarez, editor of El Estornudo, one of the few publications, along with Rialta, El Toque, Cibercuba and others, to provide precise and accurate coverage of the conflict from its start, served as a poorly disguised pretext to take the headquarters as a public health measure.
Álvarez, author of two books that are essential to understanding today’s Cuba – La tribu (2017) and Los caídos (2019), both published by Sexto Piso – arrived from New York, and took a coronavirus test at the Havana airport. Shortly before the raid on Damas 955, three police officers came to him to tell him that the test came out “doubtful” or “altered” and that he would have to take a new one. When the writer told them that the test could be administered at the San Isidro headquarters, they told him that, no, it would have to be administered at a clinic.
After the strikers were evicted and arrested, most were taken to their homes. However, Otero Alcántara is still detained, and art curator Anamely Ramos, a student at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, was arrested the next day. The San Isidro Movement headquarters was shut down and the government issued in definitive form its public health justification: the violent intervention occurred because Álvarez’ arrival violated health protocols and risked spreading of the virus.
This episode of repression in Cuba could be added to a list of authoritarian uses of the coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean. The aim is to restrict civil and political rights. But it is is important not to get analytically caught up in matters of the moment. Cellular and physical repression, especially against the new generation of independent Cuban artists, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals does not respond, strictly speaking, to the pandemic, to the change of administration in the United States or to the uses to which it might be put by American political figures like Mike Pompeo or [Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs] Michael Kozak.
As could be seen for hours and hours last Friday, November 27, outside the Ministry of Culture, these young people who showed so much civic spirit, are not easily manipulated by the figures who have exerted hegemonic control of the Cuban conflict for decades. They weren’t marionettes, as the official press and its most extremist rivals obsessively insisted. Nor are they unaware that a list of concrete demands does not eliminate the possibility of greater change in the future.
Over the past few days in Cuba we have seen the systematic repression by a State that aspires to complete control of a generation – one that has expressed in various ways its rejection of laws that limit freedom of expression and association. That is, nothing more and nothing less than a widespread rejection of Decrees 349, which defines who is and who isn’t an artist; and 373, which regulates independent filmmaking. These rejections basically imply deep disagreement with obstruction of human rights on the island by the new Constitution and Criminal Code.
The same media that spent weeks justifying the repression of the San Isidro Movement was silent on the protest of more than 12 hours in front of the Ministry of Culture. The major achievement of that long Friday was not the promise to end repression – a promise that a State like Cuba’s will never keep – but to have forced authorities to negotiate. Whatever bureaucrats and propagandists may say, no one can take that away from the San Isidro strikers.
From, “The Transparency of Time,” Leonardo Padura, 2018. Unauthorized translation.
[Mario Conde is the lead character in a series of novels by Padura. Conde, a frustrated writer, started as a policeman, then entered the second-hand book trade. Rabbit and Candito are lifelong friends. La transparencia del tiempo is the 12th of Padura’s novels, some of which do not feature Conde].
After they had gotten barely 100 meters from the street, which had once been paved, the outsiders understood that they were moving into another universe, as if they had gone through a black hole into a different time-space dimension. The world of invisible people, Conde dubbed the territory they were entering. The alleys of trodden earth, steadily narrower and more tortuous, irregularly laid out, were molded by precariousness and improvisation. On each side of the pathways, covered with with ridges that made it impossible for any vehicle but a military tank to pass, were dwellings whose physical structures decayed as they followed some of the many rough tracks that split off from what appeared to be the main artery of the settlement.
Going deeper into the slum, they saw some masonry, cement-block houses, but improvisation and poverty soon took over everywhere: Rooms built with a few blocks and bricks, others with termite-ridden planks, some with zinc sheeting in various states of deterioration, and even pieces of cardboard in others. The places seemed to be covered with the most dissimilar materials for protection from rain and sun: roofs of zinc or wood, others covered with waterproof paper, to the precarious extreme of coverings with tarpaper or pieces of lighweight plastic affixed to a chunk of stone or an iron bar. The laws of urban development, of architecture and even of gravity were unknown in this hive of miserable lodgings, which made up a chaotic and suffocating sprawl.
Conde, who walked through Havana every day in search of books to buy, had thought he knew the most run-down places in the city, the old proleterian neighborhoods, always poor, like the very place where he’d been born and still lived. In other circumstances, he had had occasion to visit a “settlement” of eastern immigrants close to his own area, an informal bunch of houses built in an empty lot between two urban neighborhoods. There, he had seen overcrowded houses that shared walls, built with no order or plan, with walls that had never been plastered. But they fit the definition of houses. By his lights, that could be called poverty. Now he was witnessing jubilant misery, underground Havana: the catacombs of the catacombs.
“What the hell is this, Conde?,” Rabbit asked him, looking from one side to the other as if he didn’t believe what his eyes were showing him.
“Underground life,” Conde said, attempting to define the environment surrounding them. “This is another life. But it is also real.”
“This is life?,” Rabbit said, doubtfully.
“Yes, Rabbit, though it’s supposed to be invisible,” Conde said. “I’ve told you: There’s always someone who’s worse-off…Worse off than me, for instance.”
“And how is that there are people who are so fucked? Here, in this country? By now?,” Conejo asked, alarmed. He continued: “This looks like Haiti, Africa…or hell. And remember, I was born in a crappy place, poverty-stricken, but, fuck, compared to this, my house was the Taj Mahal, man.”
“You don’t know what poverty is, Rabbit,” Candito finally said, moved to emerge from his silent observing.
The outsiders would soon find out that people had begun to settle the place in the 1990s, when the Crisis began. A group from the country’s East, looking for any possible solution to their misery, had emigrated to the capital. The explorers had hoped to find a way to survive, and, out of necessity and spontaneous generation, had happened upon this unpopulated area, a sort of no man’s land in which, stubbornly, they established themselves, with the stony obstinacy that grew out of their situation: This was life or death. With cardboard, pieces of wood and zinc sheeting, the pariahs had built the first dwellings and dug the first pits for their bodily wastes.
Then began a silent battle for survival of which most of the country’s inhabitants were never informed, because there was no news about it, as if the island’s Palestinians* didn’t even rate that much. Given that this was an illegal ocupation of State land, the various agencies involved, including the Police, had started to to harass the occupants, trying to drive them out.
But every attempt at eviction was followed by the return of the displaced, accompanied each time by new, desperate familiies who kept coming from all parts of the country to join the founders. Overnight, they would rebuild their rustic houses where the old ones had been torn down, and they would build new ones on nearby lots, and there they would plant their flag, like the conquistadores they were.
Responding to repeated attempts at expulsion, the residents of the unnamed slum started to raise barricades of necessity against offensives by the forces of legality. Cordons of children and women – if they were pregnant so much the better – were designed to block police cars, as well as the pitiless bullozers manned by squads of builders who had become demolishers.
The fight went on for several years, maintained by the absence of other options for people determined to survive, without water and sewer service, electricity, and even without the little book that guaranteed the nation’s citizens a subsistence diet at subsidized prices.
It was a fight in which the people under assault had nowhere to retreat. So they stayed determined and strong. Thanks to all that perseverance and desperation, they won a pyrrhic victory: Up against the impossibility of offering them any alternative that included conditions of even minimal dignity, someone had decided to look the other way and let them maintain their insecure existence, on condition that they remain invisible.
*Cuban slang for people who come to Havana from Cuba’s eastern provinces.
[The novel is set mainly in Mexico City toward the end of the 2012-2018 presidential term of Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. The narrator of the following scene, and the character named Landa, are political operators for a powerful PRI senator. Espinoza is the senator’s office accountant].
Cuba: a one-time insider’s “heresy”
Joaquín Villalobos was a top commander of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front during the civil war in El Salvador. He is now a consultant on security and conflict resolution. The following are excerpts from a two-part essay in the July and August issues of Nexos, a Mexican journal.
From El vendedor de silencio, Enrique Serna, 2019
[Miguel Alemán was president of Mexico in 1946-52]
He’d been waiting nearly an hour and a half in the outer office. Before long he would finish the book he had brought with him to kill time: Maeterlinck’s The Lives of Bees. He got up to stretch his legs. In front of the picture window that looked out on the main plaza, he admired the imposing cathedral, built of pink stone, tinted purple by the fading light of sunset. The plaza’s pigeons, frightened by the church bells’ ringing, flew off in formation to the gazebo handrail. He wouldn’t mind settling in Zacatecas when he reached retirement age. A pretty province, too attractive to be governed by a swine like Leobardo Reynoso.
In the middle of the pandemic, homicides mount in in 18 states, with more than 6,000 killings
Despite the lockdown, in March and April of this year almost 340 more people were killed than during the same period in 2019. The hot zones: Guanajuato among states, and Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez among cities
By Arturo Angel, 5/21/20
A gunfight inside a bar that cost seven lives; an attack on a business with high-powered weapons and grenades that killed four; killings of police, of the former head killer of a powerful cartel and thousands of people in alleged fights, and robbery attempts, among others.
The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed violence in Mexico. On the contrary: In March and April of this years – the first two months of the public health emergency – 6,098 people were killed, 338 more than during the same period last year. Killings increased in 18 of the 32 states despite lockdowns.
Guanajuato leads all states in murders. But 30 cities throughout the country account for one of every three homicides of men and women reported during the health crisis. In 17 of these cities, violence has increased by as much as 100 percent.
…The biggest increases were seen in the state of Campeche, where the number of homicide victims increased by 100 percent; in Michoacán, 83.5 percent, Zacatecas, 46 percent; Hidalgo, 37 percent; and Durango, 30.8 percent.
Of most concern are the increases in Guanajuato, Chihuahua and Baja California, because they are among the four states with the biggest numbers of reporting killings during the pandemic. The fourth is the state of México, which registered a slight uptick of 2.8 percent in homicides.
The other states suffering an increase in violence are: Sonora, Yucatán, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, Querétaro, Oaxaca, Colima, and Morelos.
…Thirty cities reported a total 1,992 homicides in March and April, nearly one-third of all the killings reported in Mexico in the first two months of the pandemic. In 17 of these cities, the numbers of murders increased by comparison with last year.
Five of these cities saw increases of more than 100 percent: Ensenada, Baja California, showed an increase of 195 percent during the pandemic; Uruapan, Michoacán, 182.4 percent; Cajeme, Sonora, 146.4 percent; Celaya, Guanajuato, 136.7 percent; and Morelia, Michoacán, 109 percent…
…Why does the violence continue despite the pandemic and stay-at-home measures? Why doesn’t it at least decrease?
Security expert Alejandro Hope said there may be several reasons. A leading one is that much of the violence is tied to organized crime, which continues despite whatever slowdown of civilian life may be underway.
Notably, according to official estimates, at least six of every 10 murders are allegedly connected to organized crime. But in states such as Guanajuato and Jalisco, that rate runs higher than 80 percent.
“It’s also the case that there are homicides that happen at home, or that are more a matter of domestic violence,” the expert added. “Confinement doesn’t lower the number of those killings – it’s the opposite.”
[After the epidemic has passed] For some time, at least, they would be happy. They now knew that there is one thing that one may always yearn for, and sometimes obtain: Human tenderness.
– Albert Camus
La Peste/The Plague, 1947
Translated from French by Peter Katel
Extract: “Special Report: The Secret Files”
May 1, 2020
Semana [Colombian newsmagazine]
SEMANA reveals evidence of an Army computer surveillance program in which most of the targets were journalists, including several Americans. Politicians, generals, NGO staff and union activists were also among the 130 subjects.
Army units carried out for several months one of the most sensitive intelligence investigations in the country’s recent history. Between February and early December of last year, the activities of more than 130 citizens were targeted for what the military termed “profiling” and “special tasks.”
Extract of story by Manu Ureste, Animal Politico, April 28. 2020
[A French study, “A nicotinic hypothesis for Covid-19 with preventive and therapeutic implications,” (in English here) suggested a possible use for nicotine in anti-coronavirus therapy.
Mexican medical experts are dubious]:
“As doctors, we have a lot of solid evidence that a smoker’s lung is unhealthy. Therefore, it is highly implausible that, if tobacco puts you at risk for everything, that there is something it can protect you against – much less a lung infection. That, right away, makes us especially skeptical about this study’s results,” Uri Torruco, infectious disease specialist and a graduate of the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Medical Science and Nutrition.