Tuesday, March 16, 2010
I have been thinking a lot about bodies. Free bodies. Imprisoned bodies. Dead bodies. Dancing bodies.
Tonight at the Teatro Mella on Linea in Vedado, I saw a performance by Danza Combinatoria of the Rosario Cárdenas company. The performance entitled Zona-Cuerpo (Body Zone) featured six dancers (two men and four women) with painted bodies, live music and chanting, and spoken words. The bodies interacted with one another, at times in extremely erotic poses and other times fighting violently with one another. The erotic poses that combined every imaginable preference and position transported the audience to another space, apart from the everyday struggles of life in Havana.
At one point toward the end of the performance, one of the dancers could no longer sustain herself, and had to be supported by the others. She was a limp vessel, being twisted, held up, dragged, and carried. Finally, the whole group tried to support, push, and encourage the image of a man on a screen as he walked forward, but in the end the man stops, frozen in time, and he disintegrated into nothing. The dancers fell to the ground, low red lights washed the stage, and slowly they writhd to life shedding all of their clothes. They were left to confront the world as they came into it, completely naked, and also completely free.
The dance company held an open forum with the audience after the show. One person referred to the freedom that the dancers exhibited on stage, saying how he too would like to inhabit that world. There were a large number of psychologists in the audience who spoke about how people go around with a lot of repressed ideas and feelings, and that the dance served as a metaphor for free expression of these repressed ideas. One retired factory worker stated that he felt transported from the struggle of the crowded guagua (the bus) to another world. He didn’t understand what the dance was about, he said, but he was able to see another world was possible. In what other part of the world does a retired factory worker pay the equivalent of 20 US cents to see a postmodern dance performance, and then stay to engage in an open forum about its meaning? He and his wife will still have to board a crowded bus to return home, but the best of the revolution was somehow present there in Teatro Mella.
I was reminded of the Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez’s film “Life is to Whistle” in which a psychiatrist explains to his patient that Cubans need to say what they have been bottling up inside to free themselves. He runs around the street shouting “doble moral” (literally meaning double morals but referring to the act of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite), “sexo”, and “libertad.” As people hear these taboo words, they faint. The dance performance tonight was a public expression of that which goes hidden in plain sight, and remains repressed in everyday life. Numerous people in the audience said they envied the dancers, they wanted to be on stage, they wanted to be liberated. One of the young dancers took the microphone and told the audience that the performance means nothing if they go home, go to sleep and forget about it. They must be willing to change, to free what is being repressed, to dance, to move, to interact freely.
The images of the emaciated body of the dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas, engaged right now in Santa Clara in a life threatening hunger strike for the release of 26 political prisoners, flashed into my head. Does one have to starve ones body to gain freedom? In the late nineteenth century, Cuba had the highest suicide rate in the world because so many Chinese contract workers, who were being treated like slaves on sugar plantations, chose to kill themselves rather than submit to continued bondage.
As I walked into the twilight falling on Linea, the P 1 guagua streaked by loaded with passengers squished against one another as if performing a postmodern dance, the boteros (collective taxis) belched thick black smoke as they roared down the road like motor boats on wheels, and I imagined a day when the Zona Cuerpo could be performed on Linea without professional dancers. That day all bodies will be free from Havana to Guantanamo, from Madrid to New York City.
Friday, March 12, 2010
The tourist resorts in Cuba are a weird circus mirror reflection of socialism on the island. You arrive at one of these 1980s modernist Soviet-style cement-block complexes and receive your “todo incluido” bracelet that provides you with unlimited access to the bar and an excessive buffet with all the food that one could possibly eat. The rum is cheap, the drinks all taste like alcoholic Tang, and the food lacks subtlety, but the mountains of food in a land of scarcity is quite shocking. While I can imagine tourists complaining about the low quality of the food, they are missing the point.
What is not included in the “todo incluido” package is any contact with the real life scarcity that almost every Cuban has to confront on a daily basis. The lack of money, rice, eggs, cheese, toilet paper is all carefully cropped out of the frame that the tourist sees. This is of course no different in Mexico, Jamaica, Los Angeles or any other neocolonial economy where the tourist is kept at a safe distance from reality. It reminded me of the conversation I overheard on the airplane to Cancun where two guys talked about how they were afraid to leave their Sandals resort in Jamaica for fear of being mugged. What is different in Cuba is that it is supposed to be different here.
The problem with Cuban socialism is not the tourist resorts, but that only the tourists have access to the plenty that should be distributed to everyone. Inside the tourist resort I saw a cook throw away an egg she was frying because it didn’t form a perfect round shape. Outside, it is hard to even find eggs. Inside fat tourists pile their plates high with several different kinds of meat, cheese and fish. Outside, Cubans eat gooey peso pizza and sandwiches with a thin slice of mystery meat on it. Inside, there is access to the Internet and CNN. Outside, well, you get the idea.
As we travelled across the island through Camaguey, Santiago and Santa Clara, there was not even a whisper about the “dissident” who had died during a hunger strike a few days earlier, or the others who were arrested while trying to attend his funeral. For days there was no official mention of the death, but eventually the state media had to respond, and they did so by blaming the death on the “imperialists” the “mercenaries” and the foreign press. The few Cubans I talked to who knew anything about the hunger strike death echoed the state media explanation. Most Cubans, however, were too busy dealing with their everyday problems to notice. It was strange to read the international press on the few occasions I could and see how distant its concerns were to the vast majority of people on the island. The press both inside and outside of the island seemed to be describing a fantasy Caribbean island that only existed in their minds.
Another “dissident” in Santa Clara has vowed to continue his hunger strike until his death unless twenty-six political prisoners are released from jail. I didn’t know about this until I was back in Havana and was able to get access to the Internet. But while I walked through an alley behind the main square in Santa Clara I saw a graffiti that repeated the words that the Juanes sang when he performed at the Peace concert in Havana in the fall. It read: “It’s time to change.” Maybe Cubans should get bracelets too, allowing them unlimited access to food, drinks, and nice beaches. Until then “todo incluido” is a tourist fantasy sucking precious resources and mocking a
Saturday, March 6, 2010
A woman who cleans and cooks in a house in Vedado told me today, “it’s the law of the jungle here.” She was referring to the way people chase money, and mostly the all important CUC, called fula, divisa, dolar, peso. Like the Inuit, who apparently have 30 different words for snow, the Cubans have 30 different names for money, not because there is so much of it, but because there is so little of it.
The question I wake up with everyday is how can people survive on their extremely low state salary. And the answer is: they don’t. People must supplement their income by doing odd jobs, some legal some not so legal, receiving remittances from friends and relatives abroad, tips from tourists, or the black market trade. And mostly people rely on extended friend and family networks to get by in lean times.
One of the thriving arenas of entrepreneurial activity in Havana is the rental of rooms to foreigners. The prices range from 25-50 CUC for a legal room, and slightly less for an illegal rental. For those who rent rooms legally, the taxes are quite high. In slightly posh neighborhood of Vedado, it is over 300 per room per month no matter how many days the room is actually rented. At the end of the year, the government taxes the entire amount as income at about 40%. Anytime someone refers a tourist to a “casa particular,” they receive $5 a day. This rate supposedly holds regardless of the rental price. For long-term rentals, the “commission” is 100 CUC a month per room. You can see how lucrative this business can be in a country where the minimum wage is about 10 CUC a month.
Hypothetically, imagine someone arranging the housing for 10 rooms for a group of students. That person would make a whopping 1000 CUC each month for next to no work. Meanwhile, the professor, surgeon, architect, or lawyer earns anywhere from 20- 30 CUC a month. The value of work and commodities have no relation to any standard measure or value. Today I saw a kilo of Provolone cheese that cost 30 CUC (35 USD) in Palco, an upscale supermarket. Meanwhile the pizzas on the street cost 4 Cuban pesos (about 25 US cents). The pass for a multi-day film festival going on now costs 40 US cents for Cubans, but a bottle of olive oil costs 18 USD. The bus costs 40 Cuban cents (about 2 US cents), but an hour of Internet access costs 8-10 US dollars.
The other day, when I changed a 100 CUC note in a bar, I was given change that I later discovered included a counterfeit 20 CUC bill. The paper was a different quality, and the watermark of Martí was missing, but otherwise it was a fairly good fake. Word on the street is that fake bills are being produced in Miami. Is it that Cubans on the island lack the technology or the gumption to counterfeit currency? Some people suggested passing the bill onto someone else, or perhaps going back to the bar and passing it off to them. It seemed like bad karma either way. What would Randy Cohen do? What would Jesus do? Or more appropriately, what would Che do?
It made me think that as long as everyone believed the piece of paper had value, it would keep circulating, and nobody would be the wiser. But once someone decided that the value the bill declared was an empty promise, the whole chain of obligations responsibilities would fall apart. The bank note would be just a piece of paper. The dreams and hopes that the bill could produce would vanish into the air, leaving the holder with the distinct feeling that they had been scammed. This is a sentiment not unheard of on the streets of Havana, especially among young people.
I decided to keep the fake 20 CUC bill as a souvenir of all of the fake promises, the promises made by banks and politicians, the promises made by lawyers and doctors, the everyday promises we make to each other as well. This fake 20 CUC bill takes on a new value now as an objet d’art. This tattered piece of paper is a poem, a flag raised in honor of the false prophets and false profits of people chasing the fula and dreams on a humid and rainy day in Havana in late February.