Leon Padura: Cuba has hit rock bottom

“It’s like another crest of a long crisis.… We’ve hit rock bottom and the worst thing is that, if at other times there was still some hope that things were going to improve, I believe that what is most lacking today is not food, fuel, electricity, or coffee, what is most lacking is hope.”

Photo: Cuban writer Leon Padura

Photo of Cuban writer Leon Padura

31 July 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes is a Cuban novelist and journalist. As of 2007, he is one of Cuba’s best-known writers internationally. In his native Spanish, as well as in English and some other languages, he is often referred to by the shorter form of his name, Leonardo Padura. Wikipedia

Cuba Sanctions by USA

The United States maintains a comprehensive economic embargo on the Republic of Cuba. In February 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed an embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba, in response to certain actions taken by the Cuban Government, and directed the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury to implement the embargo, which remains in place today.

On June 16, 2017, the President issued a National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba. On November 8, 2017, the Departments of State, Commerce, and the Treasury announced certain changes to implement the President’s June 2017 NSPM. For additional information, please visit the relevant links below and the Cuba Restricted List. (US Department of State)

Leon Padura:”Cuba hit rock bottom”

30 July 2023 | Leon Padura | Havana Live

A Cuba where “control and fear is an industry that does work,” as demonstrated by the repression of the 2021 protests, which “was an explosion, a scream that Cuban society gave and the only thing that happened was that the controls and repression mechanisms became more acute, intensified…. It has also served to let people know that if they go out and break a window, they can go to jail for five, seven, ten years,” he said.

Writing bypassing censorship

Padura says that it is not easy to write in Cuba, but acknowledges that his situation is very different from that of other authors. His books come directly from his computer to his publishers in Barcelona, which is a “great advantage”: “It guarantees publication and that my book will not go through any filter of Cuban institutional censorship.”

In addition to censorship, in Cuba there is self-censorship, a “defense mechanism,” in his opinion, even “more humiliating, an exercise in personal castration,” he told journalist Almudena Casado.

But authors look for alternatives to write and publish, with strategies in the style of Carlos Saura’s first films, “full of metaphors and symbols,” or looking for publishers in Spain, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia.

At this time “it is almost impossible for a normal writer to publish unless it is a political propaganda book that has the support of some instances,” says this author, who has accumulated awards such as the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature, Cuba’s National Literature Award and the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

Chronicler of the Cuban social reality

For many, Padura’s work will serve as a newspaper library in the future to find out what the Cuban reality has been like. “I have done this exercise unconsciously at first and then I have realized that it was a requirement of that literature itself, to make a kind of chronicle of contemporary Cuban life,” he explains.

But this journalist has tried to ensure that his chronicle does not have a political character so that “it does not lose the support on which it was written” if the situation changes and he has preferred to elaborate it “from the social and human point of view of the personal traumas that these situations create” in Cuba.

“The powers try to erase from the past the moments that are inconvenient and only keep those that in some way reaffirm their position…. That is the reality of a totalitarian system,” he stresses.

Faced with this, Padura tries to preserve social reality through his main character and protagonist of his detective series, Mario Conde: “I think that in a few years, the vision of Cuba that is in those novels will be much closer to what has been the reality than what the Cuban newspapers have expressed.”

The passage of time

And in this period that Mario Conde goes through in the novels, from 1989 to 2016, both this character and Padura himself are not the same, “the passage of time inevitably changes people.”

Mario Conde has evolved, “he has definitely become more pessimistic, with more aftertastes, with more intention to preserve memory.”

Through Conde, Padura, who reveals that he has an idea for a new novel with some notes, analyzes the aging process itself, since “it is inevitable that, as time passes and we have more of the past than the future, in some way we become a bit conservative and more cautious, but at the same time we lose fear.”

“My mother (she is 95 years old) repeats a Spanish phrase ‘For the years I have left to live, I don’t give a damn about anything.’ As the years go by, she realizes that for the years she has left to live, she doesn’t give a damn about anything. You have to not give a damn about many things and I have learned that over the years,” he concludes.

People in Havana Talk

A woman wearing a face mask walks near a poster of the 8th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in Havana, on May 3, 2021. – Weakened by the tightening of the U.S. embargo and the absence of tourists due to the pandemic, Cuba has stopped paying its international creditors, but hopes to return to action and negotiate in the coming months. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)

10 May 2021 | Leonardo Padura | Dissent

Raúl Castro has relinquished his post as General Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. The government speaks of continuity, and only continuity.Leonardo Padura May 10, 2021

The following essay by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura was written in the weeks preceding the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, held from April 16 to 19. At the congress, Raúl Castro stepped down from leadership of the party and his successor Miguel Díaz-Canal was elected. The essay was originally published in Nueva Sociedad and is translated here by Peter Bush.   

People in Havana talk. They talk about everything. They talk a lot, for example, about the resurgence of COVID-19, which in the last two months has reached figures verging on a thousand daily new cases of infection, when we had become used to less than a hundred.

They talk about the news of so-called additional restrictive measures as a consequence of the pandemic: more closures, more controls. They talk about their poor neighbor who has just tested positive and is in the hospital. They talk, naturally they do, about the various embryonic Cuban vaccines, pinning their hopes on them as a future lifeline.

They are also talking, right now, about how the Cuban government authorized the country’s farmers to kill cattle to sell their meat and gave them the facilities to sell milk after an almost sixty-year ban on such activities. And that’s no small deal: you were given a worse sentence in Cuba for killing a cow than in India.

You could go to prison for twenty years, for much longer than some murderers. Now, you will be able to sell meat and milk but, of course, subject to controls. Everything in Cuba is regulated and controlled, although everything soon sidesteps regulations and spirals out of control, like the spread of the epidemic. The real problem is that few cows remain in Cuba, a country that once exported meat.  

The decision to “liberate” livestock comes as part of an array of sixty-three measures of which, the official media assures us, “thirty are considered to be a priority and others of an immediate character, in order to stimulate the nation’s production of food”—something, as people keep saying, that is a problem that only gets worse. Those measures also included a reduction in the price of electricity for food producers, and price increases determined by the government.

People talk all the time about their money not going far enough. The long-awaited, much heralded currency unification has been implemented, removing from the scene the so-called convertible pesos (CUC), which had a degree of parity with the U.S. dollar, but were exchanged at a rate of 24 Cuban pesos (CUP) for each CUC . . . although sometimes at 12, or one for one, according to the commercial or administrative context of the exchange, the logical result being that you never knew the exact cost or worth of anything. That’s how the national economy functioned, or attempted to.

The official exchange rate for one U.S. dollar has now been set at 24 CUP, to avoid an excessive devaluation of Cuba’s currency. And state pensions and salaries have been increased fivefold in CUP, if not more, while the prices of products in state shops have gone up sevenfold, if not much more. However, as those state shops are out of stock, and there are long lines outside that may cause a hopeful shopper to spend five or six hours in the sun and rain with no bathroom to do what you have to do (people talk about that, endlessly), the black market for currency exchange has set the dollar and euro at more realistic rates: around 48 pesos to the dollar and 56 to the euro. And rising.

Naturally, people also talk about the fact that President Joe Biden hasn’t once glanced in our direction. They were hoping for changes to the extremely restrictive measures imposed by the previous administration, which ramped up the embargo, practically banned the transfer of remittances from the United States to Cuba, shut down the consulate in Havana, and made travel harder for Cubans with family on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Nowadays, any Cuban citizen hoping for a visa must go to a third country. To Guyana, say. And when they’re talking about that, people wonder: is Biden more of the same? So far Cubans feel that’s the case.  

But, most of all, people talk about “things” being bad. About the economy being in crisis, what with tourism being paralyzed and the traditional lack of efficiency, about the increase in dissident activity, about life becoming increasingly expensive and people going under. Even Miguel Díaz-Canel, the President of the Republic, says as much when he calls for immediate solutions—it’s urgent, and there’s no time for long-term palliatives.

And although people do talk about the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, I’m sure that fewer words, comments, and thoughts are being devoted to it than one might reasonably have anticipated. Even the official media, controlled by the party, has talked much less about it than on previous occasions. People find it hard to fathom what the congress will debate as regards “the updating of the Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic Model of Socialist Development and the implementing of the Lines of the Social and Economic Policy of the Party and the Revolution.” That is, they’ll talk the same talk, yet again.

Moreover, it’s said the congress will initiate changes. But we can only be sure about one, which we’ve known was coming for several years: General Raúl Castro will relinquish his post as General Secretary to the present President of the Republic.

What will that change bring? People don’t know and are hardly in a position to speculate. They know, because they’ve been told, that the congress will be an exercise in continuity, in the reaffirmation of the irreversibility of socialism in Cuba, or, in other words, that existing forms of government, politics, and social organization will basically be preserved.

If we had more information on what an assembly of the country’s maximum decision-making body might imply, people would perhaps have more to say. But secrecy is part of the Cuban political system. Nevertheless, one imagines that the departure of historic cadres and leaders will not transform past political practice, even though at an economic level, as I’ve pointed out, changes have gradually been introduced, because the country is suffering one of its worst crises in terms of finance, production, and supplies—not as severe as the 1990s, but almost.

With less expectation in the air than perhaps ought to be generated by a meeting of the only party of government, it would be desirable if the congress, held between April 16 and 19, were to raise more issues for debate and provide an idea of potential outcomes. That one result of the conclave could be a more thorough shake-up of economic structures that have been openly plagued by dysfunctional mechanisms and laws (like those that decimated the country’s livestock) or of the much delayed currency unification, which happened, because it could be deferred no longer, at the worst possible moment for the national economy (to cite only a couple of examples following on from what I previously mentioned), changes that could bring more hope to a population experiencing a period of infinite hardship, aggravated by the presence of the pandemic, which has disrupted the world economic order, and not only the island’s.

At a symbolic level, the congress marks a historical change in Cuba, since for the first time in six decades neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will be at the helm. Over recent years, and increasingly over recent months, General Raúl Castro has made only sporadic public appearances, while President Díaz-Canel has enjoyed levels of visibility that surpass Fidel’s (if my memory serves me). As a result, we must wait to see whether the handover of power is for real and complete and what it means in terms of the new realities facing the country and the world. Although, I repeat, they speak about continuity, and only continuity.

A big vaccination campaign against COVID-19, with Cuban-made vaccines, may be the one great legacy of the Eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April 2021. Raúl Castro’s exit from the active political scene logically represents a quite visible historical turn in the immediate term. But people need more. Not simply to talk about, but to improve their daily lives. I believe we Cubans deserve that much after making so many sacrifices.

And urgently, right now: no more long-term solutions that mostly never materialize, that vanish in time and space, in incompetence and oblivion.

Leonardo Padura is an award-winning Cuban novelist and journalist. Among his works are The Havana Quartet and The Man Who Loved Dogs.

Leonardo Padura

Princess of Asturias Award for Literature 2015

Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes, aka Leonardo Padura (Havana, Cuba, 9th October 1955), is a Cuban novelist and journalist, known especially for his series of crime novels featuring the detective Mario Conde.

Since 2011, he holds both Cuban and Spanish citizenship, the latter being granted to him by the Spanish Government via certificate of naturalization. He studied Latin American literature at the University of Havana and began his career in journalism in 1980 in the literary magazine El Caimán Barbudo and in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper.

After working for several years as a journalist, which helped him gain “the experience and life lessons he lacked”, as he has put it, he began the series of novels featuring the detective Mario Conde with Havana Blue (1991).

In his crime novels, Padura makes a criticism of Cuban society, because, as he has said, “I learned from Hammett, Chandler, Vázquez Montalbán and Sciascia that it is possible [to write] a detective story which has a real feel for the pulse of the country, which denounces or touches on concrete, not just imaginary realities.”

Mario Conde is a cop “laden with melancholy”, a disgruntled drinker with a messed-up life who would have liked to have been a writer. This series of novels by Padura has enjoyed major international success and has been translated into several languages, besides winning important literary awards.

Mario Conde is “the way that I have found to interpret and reflect Cuban reality”, asserts Padura. In addition to the aforementioned book Havana Blue, to date the series comprises Havana Gold (1992), Havana Red (1995), Havana Black (1998), Adios, Hemingway (2001), Havana Fever (2003) and Herejes (2013). He achieved undisputed international success with his novel The Man Who Loved Dogs (2009), based on the life of León Trotsky’s murderer, Ramón Mercader. He has also written film scripts, short stories and essays, in addition to editions of his interviews and news articles.

Among other awards, Padura has received the Café Gijón Prize (1995), the Hammett Prize on two occasions at Gijón’s Semana Negra or Noir Week (1998 and 2006), the Premio de las Islas (2000), the Prix des Amériques insulaires et de la Guyane, the Prize for the Best Crime Novel translated in Germany and in Austria (2004), the Raymond Chandler Prize (2009) and the Francesco Gelmi di Caporiacco Prize (2010) for The Man Who Loved Dogs. This book also earned him the Prix Initiales (2011), the Critics Award from the Cuban Institute of Books (2011) and the Carbet del Caribe Award (2011). Holder of the 2012 National Literature Prize of Cuba and 2014 City of Zaragoza International Prize for Historical Novels, he was awarded France’s Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2013.

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