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Challengers Gala / Miguel Iturria Savon

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

On Sunday morning November 21 you could hardly walk down Galiano Street in Central Havana, as expectation reigned in front of the American Theatre, home of musical and comedic performances, now converted into a Coliseum of muscles by the Cuban Association of Bodybuilding, which held its gala Challenge of Champions, broadcast on the sports channel of national television, something unusual since athletes who cultivate the aesthetic of the body are not yet officially recognized.

Those of us who could not get to the ticket sellers window of the theater went to the scalpers, who offered them for two CUC, equivalent to two dollars, an acceptable amount due to the rarity of the spectacle, distinguished by the initial parade of athletes, finalists of the previous year who took the stage together and then, to the beat of the music, everyone did their performance, while the jury made notes and the audience clapped or whispered.

Since in Cuba there is both a provincial and a national competition, which designates the winners by weight class, (65 kilograms,  70, 75, 80, 90 and over 90), all the champions have the right to appear at the Gala of the Challengers, with the goal of appointing  the best amongst them, making the event the most important and colorful as it will select the Absolute Champion, recognized as the most comprehensive body builder on the island.

Between the National Championship and the Challenge of Champions is a time of preparation, as these athletes depend on fitness, a specialised diet, will and self-esteem as the essential elements.

Competitors are not measured by strength, size or age, but by a set of requirements such as muscle mass (volume), definition, symmetry, harmony and vascularity.

On Sunday the 21st,  the jury appointed by the Cuban Association of bodybuilding chose five from among the champions presented at the match of the Challengers.  First place went to Tony, who also won in 2009 and retains the scepter of Absolute Champion. He was joined at the top by Trinquete, Miguel Castro, Tomás and Alburquerque, winners of the 2nd through fifth positions, respectively.

Leaving the American Theatre, while photographing the Champion and trying to ask his last name and other details, I thought of the enormous challenge of these athletes of the sculptured bodies, excluded from official competetion, lacking a national team and representatives within or outside the island, without travel or help to support their small gymnasiums, and classified years ago as lazy and narcissistic.

They lack support but compete for love, obtain public spaces, self-finance their training and events, have their own NGO (ACF) and legendary figures such as Miguel ‘Smorgasbord” Cambolo, Maximo, Ariel Flores and the legendary Sergio Oliva, Cuba’s most emblematic bodybuilder, former member of the national weightlifting team, who emigrated to the United States, where he won the Mr. Olympia prize between 1967 and 1969 and lost in 1970 to Arnold Schwarzenegger, a paradigm of success and a patron of the sport in North America and the world.

Translated by ricote

Of Danger and Other Miseries / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Weeks ago, in the municipality of Cotorro, southeast of Havana, dozens of photos of girls engaging in sexual acts with men and with each other were leaked by means of compact disks, flash memory, cell phones and digital cameras. Although some of the girls surprised the “curious” by their irreproachable prior behavior,  the most questionable part of this story lies not in the exercise of sexual self-determination of such persons, but in the unscrupulous person who put the images of these practices into the public domain.

This, in itself, converted the girls into victims of the crime of sexual outrage, perhaps because those involved did not give consent to the release of the images, which damages rights inherent in personality, privacy and self-image, although we know that the right to one’s own image — a part of the right to privacy — is violated in many places.

The photos published not only converted the girls into victims of their acts, it affected boyfriends, relatives, neighbors and others. One of the girls, aged 17, was convicted of dangerousness, on the charge of the presumed practice of prostitution. The trial was conducted with open doors, instead of being held in private as appropriate to the sensitivity of the matter.

The most unusual part of the hearing was that they took the photos — debated publicly in the courtroom — as evidence, something unnecessary as there was no denial of the practice of prostitution.

To make matters worse, the girl was subjected to a thorough interrogation, very indiscreet of course, about the intimate details of her practices, which reminded me of the witch hunts of the Inquisition. I never saw, with my own eyes, anyone so humiliated.

As if it were nothing, the girl was sentenced to four years in a specialized center for work or study, the maximum sentence for the crime of dangerousness. I have heard that these centers are nothing more than prisons.

I do not know the girl but I am sure that right now, without counting upcoming sanctions, she has more than paid the consequences of her reckless immaturity. She is a victim of the person who devoured her honor. I went to her parents, who were present at the trial, to express my regret for what awaits them. What will become of her in prison with this kind of help?

Translated by ricote

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Perhaps the Beginning of the End? / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Last night, while waiting for the meteorologist who provides the weather on the National Television News, I heard the Appeal of General Castro to the people of Cuba to join the analysis of the Social and Economic Guidelines to be adopted at April 2011 Communist Party Congress.

I had forgotten about the One Party and its five-year congresses, but I remembered the Appeal in 1992, when they asked the people to offer their opinions, people said many things and the men in power turned the page. Once again, the same movie, like the “debate” from last year about raising the retirement age, and months later announcing the layoffs of a million workers, with the “approval” of the Party and the Workers Union which is controlled by it.

As it is not possible to understand the chronology of the absurdities and improvisations of those who run the country as if it were a cavalry regiment, I turned off the television and forgot about the weather. What’s the point of knowing about the rain, the cold or the cyclones, if it is the Palace gurus who unleash the hurricane?

I don’t think even in H.G. Welles, with his Time Machine, it would be possible to understand these broken gods who have lost their way, writing appeals and pulling out of their hats useless congresses to try to stitch together the torn national fabric. Of the Castro bulldogs would read The Invisible Man, The Food of the Gods, The Door in the Wall, and other works by Welles it might trigger their imagination and save us the little story of the Party’s role, its congresses, and its guidelines for governance.

Perhaps the Cuban general, like Welles with his fantasies, knows that dreams of domination have no basis in reality. The revolutionaries are not immortal, nor can people believe in a social model that delays transformations and turns its failures into endless nightmares.

The Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, reorganized in 1965, and recognized in the Socialist Constitution of 1976 as “the highest leading force of society and the state,” continued to political orthodoxy outlined by Lenin, founder of the former Soviet Union, to which we tied ourselves for three decades. At the disappearance of this resources and guidance, the island ship was left to the mercy of the winds. The five-year cycle was interrupted; since 1990 the congress has been held or cancelled according to the convenience of the Castro brothers, party secretaries-in-chief.

Now, after a decade of postponements, the wheels of the totalitarian train roll again, boarding the Party faithful. The whys and wherefores are superfluous, the dictatorship knows their masks. If the compass of the party congresses needs to be reset, they will impose guidelines and directions.  For me, however, it’s not worth the time that will be wasted in useless discussions. Opening the doors in the wall would require summoning all the forces on the national stage and normalizing life in the country.

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Government Neglect of the Mentally Ill / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Last Friday I ran into my friend Nora on a bus, she’s diabetic with a 9-year-old daughter and schizophrenic brother who is a patient in a Havana psychiatric hospital. They take good care of him, after he bounced back and forth between his father’s house and the Mazorra madhouse, during almost two decades of delusions, pills and ghosts that turned him into a human wreck.

On asking Nora about her obvious concern, she told me that the sanatorium summoned her and after several questions they warned her that since her brother had his own house and could count on her help, she should be thinking about moving him back into the paternal home or the house she shares with her husband and daughter, as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Health to reduce the permanent population of the hospitals for the insane and mentally retarded.

For her, the “return” will increase the problems because the death of their father worsened the brother’s insanity and only with the help of the neighbors where they able to get him in Mazorra, where they discharged him as soon as the hallucinations decreased. He was back after two or three months and she could barely go to work. If left in his apartment she had to visit him daily and bear the complaints of the neighbors. The whole thing was also a burden for her daughter and husband; when her brother went into a crisis they had to hide in the house of a neighbor while the husband managed the ambulance or tried to calm down his brother-in-law.

Nora and her brother own their own houses, but he can’t live alone, or with someone else, there is no one who can put up with the ever-increasing problems. For both of them the alternative lies in the health institution. There are, however, worse cases, sick people with no families or with relatives who are very poor, aging or don’t have adequate housing.

I remember, for example, the case of Peter, a 53-year-old schizophrenic without parents or siblings to put up with his rantings. He was homeless and was about to die on the streets of an eastern town until a relative got him into an asylum in Havana, where he improved a lot but then they moved him to a Transit Hospital located in Fontanar. There, among the crazies and the beggars, Peter looks like a zombie waiting for the decision of the Classification Commission, which decides who gets put in the street, who is returned to their province, and who goes into Mazorra.

The former painters Edel Torres and his uncle Manolo are another example of the critical importance of the health institutions for psychiatric patients. For 17 years Edel bounced back and forth between his father’s house and large mental hospital in the capital. When his father died, Manolo moved in with him, but in three years he couldn’t deal with the frequent crises, the cost of food and medicine and the deteriorating house. After a decade of living together, Manolo is a beggar and Edel fights the same voices and demons that haunt him.

Nora and her brother Ernesto, Peter, Edel and Manolo, Alain, and dozens of the insane and retarded who increase like the marabou weed, resulting in a heavy burden on institutions and families. It is not a question of forgetting them in the hospital, or returning them to their “place of origin,” which they would not have left if they were in their right minds. The solution is not to relocate them like obsolete factory workers, if we can’t provide them social protection.

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The Empire of a Diva / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

The Havana Ballet Festival, held from October 28 to November 7, and dedicated the Alicia Alonso’s 90th birthday, had moments of greatness with figures and groups from the island, North America and Europe, but it overemphasized the legend of the Prima Ballerina Assoluta, which distorts the situation of the National Ballet, marked by the exodus of its best dancers and choreographers, and by the aesthetic of classicism which distinguishes and limits its creative delivery.

The talent and founding work of Alicia is undeniable, as are her triumphs in New York, Paris, Moscow and other capitals from 1940 to the late sixties. In addition, she forged a generation of ballet dancers, together with her ex-husband, Fernando Alonso, former director of the National Ballet of Cuba; but if the Diva directs from backstage, then her visual problems and the passage of time immobilize her, so that both the School and the Cuban Ballet, mounted in the image of her Pharaonic royalty, exist despite Alicia, although through the system of stars of the Castro regime she is awarded the throne until death, which explains her incessant choreography, master classes and distinctions.

To avoid offending Alonsova’s fans, I will refer to the honors received by the Diva during the 22nd International Ballet Festival of Havana, which  drew companies from 18 nations, including: American Ballet Theater, the Royal Ballet of London and the English National Ballet, the ballets of the Operas of Berlin and Munich, the National Dance Company of Spain, the Malandain Biarritz Ballet, the Teresa Carreño Ballet Theater, Stars of New York City Ballet, and guest dancers such as Maruxa Salas and Vladimir Vasiliev, who gave Alicia the Galina Ulanova Foundation Prize of Russia.

During the Festival opening a documentary was presented on the life and creative path of Doña Alicia, honored in turn by the Cinematheque of Cuba, which opened a collection of black and white photographs in the Chaplin gallery, accompanied by posers and scenic objects evocative of the Diva.

The Cinematheque and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry showed the films: Alice In Wonderland, made in 1962 by Pastor Vega; the short Spiral, by Miriam Talavera (1990), and Alicia, the Eternal Dancer, by Manuel Iglesias (1996); The Origins Gallery of the Great Theater of Havana, meanwhile, home to the Ballet and the Opera, presented the film Sleeping Beauty, with choreographic adaptation by the former ballerina.

The Origins hall inaugurated a beautiful exhibition of small sculptures, Pieces of Memory, by Isabel Santos Red, made from wax, metal and wood, alluding to moments and figures in the ballet, and especially to Alonso.

We know that in all forms of art there is a desire to be in the limelight, but the role of our Diva is the height of Egomania. Alice no longer twirls in the lake of the swans, nor is reincarnated in Carmen or Giselle, but she cannot seem to find the door to retirement.

Palms for the Glory of the Despot / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Most passers-by hurrying between la Manzana de Gómez and the former Havana Asturian Center, barely notice the presence of five unmoving palm plumes against the front of the  neoclassical palace converted to a home for the collections of the  Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Foreign tourists are accustomed to look up and take photographs, and sometimes they ask about the unusual “plants.”

The answer lies in one of the windows of the entrance to the palace, where 29 of the court’s artists painted works to honor the 80th birthday of Fidel Castro in mid-2006. The tyrant was gravely ill and had designated his brother as successor, but his executors ordered the creation — of symbolic value because the metal palm trees and ridiculous before the architectural excellence of the Asturian Center — to evoke the name of the Sierra Maestran hamlet which sheltered the then freedom fighters, who had spent a month escaping from the soldiers of the previous tyranny.

The five palms of the Castro brothers illustrate the subordination of art to tyranny. The sculptures are allegedly the responsibility of the Guayasamin Foundation, with the artists who accompanied the island despot in the opening of the “Chapel of Man.”

Among the creators of the chapel are celebrities such as: Eduardo Abela, Agustín Bejerano, Roberto Diago, Nelson Domínguez, Roberto Fabelo, Flora Fong, Ever Fonseca, Gómez Fresquet, Joel Jovel, Alicia Leal, Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho), Manuel López Oliva, Manuel Mendive, Juan Moreira, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Cosme Proenza, Ernesto Rancaño, Zaida del Río, Eduardo Roca (Choco), Vicente Rodríguez Bonachea, Alfredo Sosa Bravo and others who propose or assume ministerial projects, like those painters and sculptors of medieval courts.

Not all of them illustrated the metal palm trees that “grow” between the flagstones of Parque Central and the Placita de Alvear. If we look up we can appreciate the zoomorphic dualism of the images of Manuel Mendive, the naked woman of Zaida del Rio, the white dove and the red circle of Moreira, the aboriginal with a mask of Sosa Bravo, the human figure of Jover, and drawings with fish, flags and the facades of buildings which embellish the inert plumes with their visual allegories.

More than honoring the tyrant in his eightieth birthday and marking the legend of the reunion with his brother successor, we have a street installation that eventually will change its location, perhaps to the village of Cinco Palmas, situated 25 miles from Media Luna and 40 from Manzanillo, in eastern Cuba, where hunger, isolation and lack of expectations are causing the exodus of its humble villagers.

The work, however, illustrates the connivance of many artists with centralized despotism and exceeds the limits of shame. Maybe it’s a way to avoid suspicion and maintain one’s position at the top of the heap, to secure retail space and foreign travel at the expense of others forced into exile or survival between galleries and local cultural centers, where they teach classes and sponsor community workshops.

The Press That Devalues the Writer / Miguel Iturria Savón

November 5, 2010 Leave a comment

In October, when the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, author of The City and the Dogs, Conversation in the Cathedral and The Feast of the Goat, the Cuban press downplayed the contributions of the great novelist and wasted ink on slander, due to the author’s criticism of Castro, whose spokesmen break their spears over anyone who demystifies our dictatorship.

Long ago, however, the American reporter Joseph Pulitzer suggested that “real journalism never takes sides, no matter what happens,” advice rejected in Cuba and elsewhere on the planet. On this Caribbean island bias is still the norm and censorship the law, because the media are in government hands and are based on ideological simplifications, which idealize allies and demonize enemies.

For Pulitzer, “A free press must always advocate for progress and reform. Never tolerate injustice or corruption. Fight demagogues of all stripes. Belong to no party. Oppose privileges and public pillage. Offer its sympathy to the poor and always remain devoted to the good.”

He noted further that the media has to be ethical and professional and provide two sides of every coin, that is, the version of each warring party, always equally displayed. “If not, then it isn’t journalism: It’s just trash, and the worst kind, that is the typical garbage that sells itself to any political or economic interest distinct from the real truth of things.”

In Cuba we are far from applying those definitions, although we know that in other latitudes Pulitzer’s advice is included in the codes of ethics of newspapers, magazines, digital media and radio and television stations. Set-ups and half-truths are expensive because the media are based on news sources, but to reverse the pyramid and expose the voices of people without an agenda, elucidates the problems and oxygenates the atmosphere.

There is very little credibility in the press. By design it is a part of the ideological department of a single party and of ministerial interests, so that its perception does not approximate reality, as it excludes its images, including art, literature and socio-historical notions of the country.

When Pedro de la Hoz, Granma’s cultural writer, lashed out against Mario Vargas Llosa, he accomplished nothing more than to demonstrate the impunity and self-censorship of those who serve a regime that loathes ethics and truth and opposes any critical appreciation, even in the case of a writer recognized with awards such as the Prince of Asturias Prize in Letters (1986), the Cervantes Prize (1994) and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.