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Happy Ending for Chris Walter Johnson / Miguel Iturria Savón

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

The American citizen Chris Walter Johnson, a prisoner in Combinado del Este since August 2009, went from uncertainty and depression to euphoria when on Wednesday, 2 February, two guards helped him get into his wheelchair in the ambulance which drove him to the Havana airport, from which he departed to Los Angeles, California, on the day on which the sentence of 18 years imprisonment was supposed to have been made final by a Provincial Tribunal of the capital.

During his oral presentation, which occurred on 27 December 2010, the defense lawyer presented the summary of the clinical history of Chris Johnson, in which he demonstrated that his state of health isn’t compatible with the regime of penitentiary life. On passing sentence in the middle of January, the judges expressly rejected the document, tacitly accepted two weeks later.

The case had a happy ending, but it could have been disastrous for this 58-year-old sailor, who in a decade traveled 50 times to the island, where he had lovers and a daughter before they detected a kilogram of marijuana in a jelly container, for which he was accused of drug trafficking and attempted bribery. He was locked up in the La Condesa prison for foreigners, from which he had been transferred to the prison’s hospital located in Combinado del Este, but for him the bars and the stress accelerated the ailments of an old maritime accident.

Chris Walter Johnson survived more than a year in a wheelchair in Cuba’s largest prison. He needed an operation on a tumor in his spinal cord which put his life in danger. He also suffers from vertebral compression which obstructs oxygen access to his brain. The standing position made him lose consciousness.

Before Chris’s surprise release from prison, the defense lawyer commented to this reporter that he was happy because “it is an extensive but just decision, although we still don’t know if it was because of furlough, by expulsion from national territory dictated by the Minister of Justice, or a special exit permit from the Minister of the Interior, in accordance with to Special Instruction number 9 from the Government Council of the Supreme Tribunal.”

According to the jurist, “In normal conditions, there could have been an extradition, but no such bilateral treaty exists between Cuba and the United States.”

Johnson’s case illustrates other processes discussed by neither the Cuban nor foreign press. Dozens of tourists are paying behind bars for the habits, customs, and activities that conflict with our rigid, slow, and severe penal system.

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February 12 2011

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The Cuban Films at the Festival / Miguel Iturria Savón

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

When the 32nd edition of the Havana International New Latin American Film Festival opened, I commented on the event’s programme and the expectations by genres, nations and other details of interest, based on the preliminary information offered by the organizers. Now that the party is over, we need to recap the Cuban film industry, whose producers went through pains when competing against Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and other emerging film regional producers of countries in a better financial situation than our island’s.

Cinema buffs from Havana followed the national production closely, standing in long lines to enjoy its feature films and debuts, even when some of them were not as attractive in the end as we had hoped they would be. Of the 21 feature films in competition, 4 were home-made: Larga distancia (Long Distance) by Esteban Inausti; Casa vieja (Old House) by Lester Hamlet; Boleto al paraíso (Ticket to Paradise) by Gerardo Chijona; and José Martí: el ojo del canario (José Martí: the Eye of the Canary ) by Fernando Pérez-Valdés, all from 2010, and the last of which was presented a few months back.

A similar identification was noticable with both Cuban debuts (of 24 in total). Both Molina feroz (Fierce Molina) by Jorge Molina-Enríquez, and Afinidades (Affinities) by renown filmmakers Jorge Perugorria and Vladimir Cruz earned the favor of both audience and critics, which endorses our emotional connection with local productions and the artistic crew’s capacity to present problems and infer some clues regarding our national garbage dump.

Even when our films were no competition against those of Brazil and Mexico in the categories of medium and short features—2 from Cuba among 23 from the continent—hundreds of people sought to watch Los bañistas (The Bathers) by Carlos Lechuga, and Aché by Writer Eduardo del Llano, the creator of delightful Nicanor, featured in a handful of films that satirize the usual absurdities and stupidities. Lucero (Lucero) by German Hanna Schygulla—about a Cuban writer who migrates to Spain—also turned out to be attractive to those who envision their dreams outside of the Socialist paradise.

The interest in documentaries seemed lessened. These were shown at one of the four screens of the Infanta multiplex, and at localities like Caracol—UNEAC— or Glauber Rocha (which houses the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema). Of the 21 documentaries in competition, 4 were the work of Cubans: A donde vamos (Where We Go) by Ariadna Fajardo,about de exodus of peasants of Sierra Maestra; Alabba by Eliécer Pérez-Angueira; En el cuerpo equivocado (In the Wrong Body) by Marilyn Solaya; and Revolution by Mayckell Pedrero-Mariol—a look at the hip hop group Los Aldeanos. There was also an evocation of the Peter Pan Operation by pro-government Estela Bravo.

Except for En el cuerpo equivocado (In the Wrong Body)—applauded by the gay community and premiered ahead of the festival—and Revolution, which was viewed clandestinely through flash memory and CDs, the rest of the documentaries did not leave much of an impression, and the same goes for the videos about intellectuals like Ambrosio Fornet, Manuel Pérez and Rogelio Martínez-Furé.

Only a handful of experts and dozens of apprentices were interested in the script and poster competitions, categories for which our artists presented 6 and 7 works, respectively, of a total of 25 and 20, headed by Argentina, with 8 and 4.

Among the 28 animation films in competition—3 of which were from Cuba—Nikita Chama Bom by Juan Padrón-Blanco was well admired. He gave us a pleasant island alternative to a world in nuclear war. Also well received was Pravda—by the mentioned writer Eduardo del Llano—which features the character of Nicanor, detained by the police in the early morning for doing graffiti.

Shown from December 2-12, Memorias del desarrollo (Memories of Development) by Miguel Coyula-Aquino produced the largest stir. Coyula-Aquino offers us a memorable collage of remembrances and fantasies that revolve around a lone character at the margin of politics and ideology.

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Translated by T

December 14 2010

The Government of Our Saints / Miguel Iturria

February 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I agree with Jesus, friend and owner of a Moscovitch car from the eighties, who tells me his ex-wife is very ill but has not gone to Rincón to pray to Saint Lazarus, but he had to accompany nearly thirty neighbors and relatives who hired him to drive them to the famous leper colony of Santiago de las Vegas, south of Havana.

“I don’t like to go because the landscape is bleak, especially between December 16 and the middle of January, but it’s difficult to refuse them because they are people who pay for the trip to keep their promises. They have souls full of faith and that’s admirable. The problem is what you see before you arrive and while waiting for your client: beggars of every kind, deranged people who drag stones and chains and aggressive vendors who take advantage of the circumstances.

Jesus is Catholic by inheritance though he rarely goes to church; he knows the Bible, the rituals, the saints and collects stories and stamps and likes to gossip about the legends of St. Lazarus, the Virgin of Charity, the Virgin of Regla and other venerated Cuban saints.

He says that in the Bible two Lazaruses appear: that of the dogs, and the Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Martha and Mary. He says the story about Lazarus of the dogs is a parable of Jesus Christ, that is an illustration to focus on reality, which is something imaginative and nonexistent recorded in the words of the Gospel Luke.

I ask him if it doesn’t seem like an evangelical interpretation, not very Catholic, but he asks me to let him continue, because “Christians and Protestants worship the same God and study the same Bible, although the latter rejected the images and disagree on various points.”

“In the parable of the rich and the poor, Lazarus was the sick beggar who asked for the crumbs of the powerful; only the dogs pitied him, so they appear at his side in the images reproduced by his worshipers. Both the rich and poor died the same night, but God only received the beggar and send the miser to hell.”

I inquire about the other Lazarus, that of Bethany; he explains that he existed, he was a friend of the Lord and resuscitated Jesus Christ four days after he died, although little is known of his existence, so the sacred legend merges Lazarus of the parable with the true one, perhaps because neither knew how to solve their problems in life.

Seeing that I’m smiling, Jesus asks me, “Can you imagine Cubans without the promises of Saint Lazarus and the appeals to the Virgin of Charity? Don’t they seem more believable and worthy of reverence than our rulers?”

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Spanish post
February 3 2011

Who’s Who? / Miguel Iturria Savón

February 3, 2011 Leave a comment

In mid-2005 I read the Who’s Who in Cuban Politics?, a reference work that is the responsibility of the Master in Sciences Julio Aleaga Pesant, who updated it in 2007 after endless research in the main cities of the island. For this he relied on territorial research teams who monitored the official and independent press, documents in archives and alternative civic institutions, and even resources from the exile and several Internet sites.

Since mid-2010, Aleaga Pesant and his provincial collaborators are at work once again preparing a new, printed and digital version of a study of the citizens who are main actors in that prickly and fidgety political and social Cuban stage, so determined by the predominance of a party that excludes all others, controls both government and the economy, and exerts a monopoly over education, culture and the media.

The Who’s Who? of 2011 struggles against the manipulation of information, but gives predominance to tolerance and inclusion beyond the usual ideological walls, and this allows it to include citizens and institutions that venture into politics, from humanistic projects to leaders of the alternative society, opposition parties and movements, librarians and independent journalists, and the women who demand the freedom of political prisoners.

The top leaders of the Communist Party are featured in it, obviously, as well as its network of organizations, the deputies of the National Assembly, and the members of the Councils of State and Ministers.

According to Aleaga, the only requirement for anyone to be included in the investigation is to be a resident on the island and to participate in its politics. The document, therefore, will be a reference tool for researchers and students of the island reality. The informative lists facilitate, moreover, potential future actors and scenarios of a nation that is beginning to move.

The repertoire of the 2011 volume has as precedents other reference works such as the Cuban Biographical Dictionary (1878-1886) by Francisco Calcagno; the Who’s Who in Cuba?, known as The Blue Book, by Luisa M. de la Cotera O’Bourke; the Who’s Who in the Cuban Sciences? by the Minister of Science, Technology and Environment, and Organizations of Cuban Civil Society Not Legally Recognized, by Alberto F. Álvarez y García, sponsored by the Canadian Foundation of the Americas (FOCAL, in Spanish); and, lastly, the 2005 document by A. Pesant, which consisted of 1,396 names—officials from the military regime, opposition leaders and gilded entities—and which was updated in 2007 for a total of 1,598 names.

The specialist warns that the objective of the Who’s Who? is to register public servants who have an influence on society, which makes it an important reference tool for libraries, documentation centers, the press, and students of history and politics. Despite the fact that the project was boycotted by the military regime through arrests, data theft and the refusal to include it in the Copyrights Registry, the document was circulated in and outside of the country in print and digital versions.

In its final stages, the pamphlet is undergoing a synthesis of the data that was collected from Cabo de San Antonio to Punta de Maisí, hindered by the minuscule and manipulated official database and by the dispersion of pro-democracy organizations, yet partly facilitated by publications in the diaspora like Cuba Net, Cuban Transition Project and websites.

Regardless of specifications regarding schedule, the individual registry, classification, quality and general tables, it is worth congratulating the coordinator and his assistants, as we are sure that their effort shines a light on the road to the transparency of information, as this new biographical framework will contribute to dislodging the wheel of immobility.

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January 23 2011

A House With No Surprises / Miguel Iturria Savón

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

The fictional long-feature film Old House (Casa Vieja) has returned to the cinemas and to Screen #2 of La Infanta, where it can be enjoyed from 13-26 January by those who did not have the pleasure of watching it during the last Havana Film Festival, whose jury awarded it a Special Mention and the Popular Award, which lifted its maker’s Lester Hamlet’s ego; he expressed to Cacilia Crespo, journalist for The Film and Video Programme, that the re-writing of the play by Abelardo Estorino gave him the chance to speak from his essence and nationalism, to “narrate, from a human standpoint, a new conflict; to seek, to find, to suggest.”

According to the filmmaker, his first work has found its natural niche within the present national film world, because it “speaks from the history of history and tells naked truths, undresses its fears with courage, and already participates in a conscious process of thousands of viewers who have welcomed it in their lives.” He adds that it is “a Cuban film made from patriotic pride.”

This defense is allowed but one needs not to exaggerate. Old House does not tackle any new conflict nor does it suggest anything extraordinary, even if it deals with enduring motivations of aesthetic resonance—cohabiting, sexuality and the existential trances of a family stuck in time—from a human angle. The family is stuck in the 90’s, but with a 60’s resonance in a run-down house where the patriarch is dying, an event that forces the youngest of his sons—a successful yet shy gay man who, without intending to, unties certain taboos and miseries sheltered by male chauvinism and social intolerance—to return home.

The melodramatic atmosphere of the household is one rooted in family values and traditions. A revolutionary past and the respect for established order—referenced by cyclones, armies, mobilizations and labor, as symbolized by the oldest son—palpitates within the home. The actor who plays this role is aging Alberto Pujol, whose character is a married man with children who works as the chauffeur for a town politician, and who despises the irreverent street-sweeper (Isabel Santos) who implores the recently arrived son to assist a young girl from the community who has been offered a scholarship abroad but has been denied an exit permit.

The rest of the film revolves around reminiscences of the mother (Adria Santana) and her other children (played by Yadier Fernández and Daysi Quintana), the brother of the dying man (Manuel Porto), some exterior shots of the coastal town, and funerary and burial scenes where some government secretary directs the acts and is interrupted by the main character, who hates hypocrisy.

The contradictions in Old House are reduced to the distancing of the prodigal son—shy, cultured and mundane—from family masks and from the immobility of the townspeople, which is why, prior to his return to Spain, he tells his mother he only loves “living things that change.”

That’s where the “naked truths” and the “patriotic pride” end. There is nothing transcendental, neither in the acting performance of characters—limited by spaces and dialogs that were written for a different medium—nor in the geriatric atmosphere of stillness, poverty and lack of expectations. Perhaps the clue to the film needs to be looked for in the recreation of misery, the love frustrations of the marrying sister and in the untimely and honest street-sweeper played by Isabel Santos.

The reception of a work of art does not always confirm its worth or its contemporary character. Maybe hundreds of people witnessed their own secrets revealed by the characters of Old House, but the film seemed, to me, ambiguous and poor. The topic of the stigma of the homosexual in the family, the return of migrants who come back with a different perception, and the patriotic myth is well-digested bread in the island’s film milieu.

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January 26 2011