By Domingo Amuchastegui
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews
The regime that Fidel Castro has headed for 44 years, suggests we make a careful study of the electoral processes and political elites, as one object of study, among many other topics. A general opinion is that Cuba does not have elections or competitive elections and, consequently, lacks democracy; another – no less general and repetitive – is to understand and project an image of power in Cuba absolutely centered around the figure of Fidel Castro, with no one else who is relevant or important.
The latter point has followed a certain and more recent corollary that grants the physical presence of Fidel Castro with magical powers, conditioning what could happen later or not, in terms of regime changes, transition, succession or continuity. Consequently, the special obsessive attention that exists regarding his health status, his fainting spells, incoherence and poor functioning of other vital signs.
The present analysis proposes to study these two dimensions – elections and political elite – to, first, review, both with a critical view, summarize the most outstanding features of the four decades of the Cuban regime, that is to say, the features the author considers that marked important high points for the current projection of these two dimensions. In second place, and through a discussion of the last elections held in Cuba between October 2002 and February of 2003, to analyze the behavior of both at the dawn of the third millennium.
In March of 1959, speaking in a mass event in the former Presidential Palace, Fidel Castro, when referring to the holding of elections in the near future, received a resounding rejection of such an idea from the hundreds of thousands of participants. As a personal witness and participant of the event, this did not seem prepared or manipulated but an accumulated reaction on which Fidel Castro was sure of obtaining such a result. The political or legal terms of this rejection were never defined and, thus, that NO to elections announced in the public plaza served as – there are many others that go beyond this analysis that also served these ends – one of the legitimate public features of the revolutionary regime, a situation that lasted from 1959 to 1976, the date when Popular Power was implanted and formed.
From 1976 until 1992, with a constitution approved and adopted – according to official statistics – with a 100 % of the voters, general elections have been held every six years. In the first, the PCC suggested to its militants who to vote for a total of six that were in the ballots with their biographies for the information on the candidates. On the one hand, the number of candidates has been reduced to two. Regarding the inference that the PCC directed its militants for whom to cast their direct vote, was rejected for the following elections.
From 1976 until 1992, with the adoption of an approved constitution – according to official statistics – general elections have been held every six years, with almost 100 percent of voters. In the first, the PCC instructed its militants to vote for one or several candidates for a total of six of those appearing on the ballots that included the biographies of the candidates as information for the voters. On the one side, the number of nominees has been reduced to two. As for the procedure of the PCC directly indicating to its militants who to vote for, this practice was abolished for the future elections. Although the PCC does not propose or formally or publicly launch the names of the candidates, all the voters in the neighborhood assemblies of each administrative division knew that the over-whelming majority of cases, the names proposed as candidates had the blessing of the Party, although they were not necessarily militants.
What is known as the National Assembly of Popular Power (ANPP) or Cuban parliament was made up of two groups. One, designated through deliberation or ratification of the Politburo in representation of the positions or posts that the Party and Government considered important for running the country and that they should be represented in the ANPP (a little over 50 percent). These designated, generally appeared also as elected in the different administrative divisions where the majority did not necessarily live in the areas nor was it their true residence. The second group, made up of the delegates of the provincial assemblies, usually previously chosen and accepted by the provincial and national instances of the party and, as national delegates, no additional voting was necessary because they had already been voted for in their administrative division – or according to what was promoted at the time – by indirect election while the Politburo, on the one hand, and the provincial assemblies, on the other, functioned as a kind of Electoral College or Great Elector with supreme powers.
By June of 1992 and under the impact of the internal crisis that occurred after the external events of 1989-1991, among the limited reforms that were made then, was the approval of a new electoral law (Reformed Electoral Law No. 78, 20/10/92) that introduced significant variations. The most important change was that all deputies proposed for the ANPP (609 members today) had to be elected or voted for individually and by more than 50% of the votes cast. In other words, although the mechanism of designation of the candidates to represent both groups (50-50) in the National Assembly, and with the situation that both groups now had to be elected on a personal bases, ended the procedure of indirect elections and an end to the monolithic image by making the election more individual and requiring 50% of the votes. This opened up a diversity of spaces for negative or punishment votes and, around the issue, the most diverse forms of political mobilization and transmission of messages and challenges to the regime. For the latter, these threats did not go unnoticed and formed part of the foreseen risks and part of the limited reforms then taken up.
During these decades, the historical political elite – the leading nucleus and pillars of the of the insurrection and revolutionary regime after 1959 – were drying up for several reasons (repeated failures, abuse of power, repeated incapacities, corruption, bureaucratization, disproportionate intolerance, regional conflicts, personality clashes, loss of charisma and others) until reaching the reduced numbers to their minimum expression of what it is today.
However, during this process of depletion, the Cuban leadership noticed and recreated, with some success, the generational substitution, that is, the process of a systematic promotion of young persons throughout the entire structure of power and all of civilian power on which the power resides.
At this point, tendencies never before seen appeared publicly. First, the V Congress of the Young Communist Union (UJC) in 1998 and under the direction of Roberto Robaina, gave free reign to criticisms of policies and old leaders that was applauded by all: the generation responsible for so many errors, was not able to assume and solve with the necessary criticism the errors of the past. This was only possible by part of the new generation.
In a more conciliatory tone, but with the same demolishing charge of criticism, the discussion of a document appears in 1990, known as the Call of the Party to the IV Congress and whose writing and debate were promoted by the then twosome Raul Castro-Carlos Aldana. In the document there was full acknowledgement of the generational problem, although not in the critical terms of the V Congress of the UJC. Instead, it analyzed the existence of three groups of three different generations: the one that made and defended the revolution since the beginning or the historical generation; the intermediate generation that was in their 40s at the time (today bordering their 50s); and the third or younger generation from which the cadres and leading figures were gleaned – clearly, the new political elite – of a current and future substitutive group of the historical elite. This latter, with still certain exceptions, has no longer become the main source from which new figures appeared to occupy new posts or changeovers.
The exile began to be aware of these tendencies with the adequate scientific rigor during the latter decade of the 20th century, by the multidisciplinary team of the Florida International University (FIU) in its first study about the transition in Cuba. The changes in the Cuban leadership during that same decade, widely confirmed the preliminary documented analysis of the FIU team.
The team offered more proof during the second half of that same decade. In 1996, during the only military parade of the past 20 years, the Brigade General that headed it was in no way related to the historical elite, either by age, family ties or any others. We were confronting a new generation of military chiefs, a key component of the new elites. A year later, the V Congress of the PCC served to offer new proof of the tendency that confirmed a deep transformation in the composition of the political elite of the Cuban regime.
After 26 years of electoral processes, the last elections took place between October 2002 and February of 2003. The repeated objections are well-known and more than well known but, currently, the result today has continued to be the same: the voters overwhelmingly endorsed the options presented to them by the regime. Some reading and new proposals must be reflected upon to refresh this approximation and the analysis of this phenomenon. Our contribution today leads in that direction and the latest elections offer an excellent opportunity.
Let us start by saying that, after 10 years of a reformed electoral law – as described above – no political current of dissidence or internal opposition has been able to structure an effective mobilization for a negative or punishment vote; nor by the exile nor, much less, an agreement between both forces. There can be differences in interpretation but the fact is one: this has not been achieved; no one can coherently propose it and for almost all it seems unimportant.
The Cuban regime is interested in the electoral process as restructured because it has an important instrument of internal and external legitimization. It has amply exhibited and divulged the figures obtained because they developed a crushing support thanks to the many mechanisms used to promote almost total assistance to the ballot boxes. But let us not forget the following: what happens in the voting stations where the voter use their rights, ballot in hand, without any control has not become, until now, a recourse of unrest, much less of an opposition. Regarding the claim of altered statistics or major frauds, direct observation demonstrates, simply, that this has not been necessary and, consequently, nor have the recurring publicity claims concerning the data.
Voting, regardless of thousands of restrictions, is important. Just let us recall when the individual and secret vote was installed in the IV Congress of the PCC, there were delegates who did not support Fidel and Raul Castro, a few, but there were and there were several members of the Politburo who got laughable numbers while members of the Central Committee won more votes. This sent a clear message with many implications.
The strangest things is that, this time, during the course of the last elections, without being called for nor guided, an important sector of the population, one way or another, decided not to support the candidacy of the regime. Let us study the data of the municipalities that are more important and representative, to some extent.
The term representative, avoiding unnecessary debates, is applied because in the municipalities the voters know the candidates perfectly well; he or she is a neighbor, they have the same problems, interact, buy in the same grocery shop or buy the same things, under the table, from the same vendor, go to the same doctor or policlinic and, therefore, know each other perfectly well and this has an influence on how they cast their vote and is, thereby, defined as representative in opposition to the majority of those designated of whom there is not this direct knowledge or interaction.
Let us go now to a careful study of the data of the last municipal elections:
Registered voters Did not vote Blank ballots Spoiled ballots
8 352 948 4.25% 2.78% 2.54%
The total percentage was 9,57. Rounding the number, almost 850 thousand persons that could suggest the figure was around the million mark.
Here, two points should be remembered that influence the makeup of the final negative or punishment votes. One is an estimate or suggestion that among those 850 thousand are included, in some manner, those who have explicitly asked to participate in the visa system to go to the U.S. that are approximately half a million.
The other point to remember is that the electoral vote does not include the emigration that still hold their Cuban citizenship and also recall – a no lesser important issue – that within the ANPP there were deputies who came out for the adoption of double citizenship with obvious direct implications for the election process, a motion that was disapproved.
Regarding the data mentioned above, it is important to examine certain hypotheses. The first is that the data of the negative or punishment vote has not been the product of a strategy or tactic of the organized opposition, much less from the exile, as called by some historians. A second is that the most important documents presented by the opposition, the Payá Sardinas and Cuesta Morúa, after months of propaganda merely received, respectively a little over ten thousand. This hypothesis is only to observe the enormous schisms existing between the very modest numbers for both projects and the almost million negative and punishment votes of the last elections. This schism demonstrates how far the organized or dissident opposition and exile are able to guide, mobilize and coherently capture those thousands of hundreds.
Another important hypothesis, is that the almost million votes may, also, reflect the vote of the almost half a million who seek to leave the country. If this is the case, the importance or transcendence of almost a million becomes relative and loses potentiality. This also ratifies that one of the main causes to explain the weakness of the exile and the internal opposition has been, and continues to be, what could be typified as a pattern of evasion; that the greater part of the strongest dissatisfied do not come together in answering terms nor feeds the forces of opposition but is only interested in leaving the country and once out, they lose political activity.
The last hypothesis about these figures is to study the possibility that regime can or not assume political changes and local and territorial improvements that would allow them, eventually, to stop and revert the tendency of these votes.
For both – the regime and the opposition – these hypotheses should make up, in good measure, their protagonist potential.
When, on January 19, 2003, the candidates to deputy – chosen among the mass of delegates voted for in the municipalities – were submitted to popular vote – the general or national election or ratification of the designated – little over 91 percent, or, almost 9 percent rejected, one way or another, to ratify the candidacy to deputy. The variation in the municipalities and national wide was scarcely 1 percent. The difference to the previous electoral processes where the government could exhibit figures of 95 and 98 percent, this time the figures went from 90 to 91 percent.
These figures had never occurred previously and the public admission was no less unusual. A simple arithmetic progression – and this is another important hypothesis – could create, in a period of six years, numerical proportions that would completely and definitively demolish the monolithic image of the past, consolidate the image of a sufficiently numerous and broad sector that could not be hidden, denied and politically and legally continue to be ignored in terms of its own constitutional and legal framework.
All this could seem unimportant for many here and that others ignore or keep quiet about, but it had an enormous political impact in the Cuban power structure. While many leaders of the PCC and government considered the results to be satisfactory – considering the extreme economic and social tensions of the period –, for Fidel Castro the results were hardly admissible. He immediately called meetings to examine the results in detail and abundant criticisms and warnings were levied against provincial leaders with the highest numbers of what could clearly be identified as negative or punishment votes. Later changes of these leaders suggest a clear connection between these and the statistics of the mentioned elections.
Curiously, several of the provinces with the most alarming results were those exposed to foreign investments and tourism such as Havana (13,45 percent), Matanzas (10.20 percent) and Holguín (9.31 percent), while the provinces of La Habana, Pinar del Río, Cienfuegos and several eastern provinces were noteworthy for the low index of negative or punishment votes. This phenomenon reminds us, once again, of the imperative need of territorializing the socio-political studies of the Cuban reality because it becomes more evident that a linear reading of the patterns of social and political conduct is not possible nor of mentioning a people that do not demand their representation in absolute and linear terms.
The statistics, again, suggest the need to pay attention to two questions of special importance. They are, first the need to test and analyze the patterns of voting that offer some significant territorial variations by province and, secondly, that in the majority of the cases mentioned there may be a clear coincidence with the highest indexes of punishment votes in the three territories (provinces) with a higher degree of foreign investment and tourism, a question that can be an important reference to the endless debate about the pros and cons of the embargo and tourism.
It is also worth noting how another important chink appeared in punishment that also was not used this time: there were no significant individualized votes in any case and the vote was in favor or against in block, with the government slogan of a unified vote or vote for the whole list of candidates, either way, the massive selectivity to individualize and penalize the most conspicuous cases prevailed.
It should be remembered that the slogan A United Vote or A Vote for All occurred after the reform of the electoral law and its objective was, and continues to be, that the fragmentation of votes or individual votes for some and not others could indicate that many candidates would not have the sufficient votes, mostly those designated from the central power. It may be either a problem in the second round but a mechanism of punishment that could be used in many ways and that up to now has not been proposed nor employed in any way. The government was deeply concerned when it observed, through the surveys made after the electoral vote, how many of the interviewees were inclined in favor of voting for some and not others; in other words, with a possibility of having a differential or selective vote in the case of the designated persons. The solution – maintained till now – was to prepare a very strong propaganda in favor of the United Vote. Many useful experiences can be understood this way with interesting results, an issue completely ignored by the internal opposition and the exile.
The first studies of a decade ago already clearly indicated an important social and political rise among the intermediate and younger generations. The tendency in this last decade continued to win ground and spread towards new categories of activities and posts in which this new elite grew significantly.
This began to cover several sectors of the scenario of civil society, the PCC and the government, that today it totally covers.
Let us observe these categories and posts:
a) At the level of the Politburo, young persons of the so-called intermediate generation, such as Carlos Lage, Abel Prieto, Yadira García, Roberto Robaina, Juan C. Robinson, Pedro Sáez and Jorge L. Sierra, currently between the ages of 43 and 53; in other words born between 1951 and 1961.
b) At the level of first secretaries of the PCC in all the provinces with ages ranging from 32 and 50.
c) At the level of the Council of Ministers, the changes have been greater. The ministers of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Finance and Prices, Accountancy, Transportation, SIME, Public Health and Assistant to the President, are in the hands of persons under the age of 40 while the Judiciary, General District Attorney, Culture, Agriculture, Industry, Fishing and the Team of Coordination and Support of the Commander in Chief are in the hands of the intermediate generation, between 45 and 53 years of age.
d) The election of 2002-2003 was equally revealing and marks notable promotions in relation to 1992-1993. Of the 14 946 delegates voted for at the administrative level, a total of 6 652 are under 40 and 4 847 are between 41 and 50, a figure that surpasses with a wide margin, two thirds of the delegates. At the same time the promotion of women was 3 493 for 35,96 percent representing an 8 percent in increase in relation to the previous election.
e) Another significant variation in relation to the first 12 years of elections is the actual proportion of deputies with university degrees and higher mid level education that already reaches 99,1 percent. Among the leaders of the intermediate and younger generations, the predominating professional profile is engineering.
f) In the make up of the new elites, a component not less notable and especially sensitive for the Cuban reality is the racial factor. The subject was strongly debated during the 1980s, particularly during the III Congress of the PCC where there was a prolonged discussion of the subject. Last decade and what there is of the current one, the blacks and mestizos have registered an important increase. This controversial subject finds in the Cuban leadership two positions. One is of Fidel Castro who, publicly, has touched on the subject from a Marti point of view – that the definition of the human being covers all and that this, white, black or female is recognized and advances according to its merits in a society that opens up all the opportunities to the individual person. The position of Raul Castro, repeatedly, has been to refer explicitly to the presence of the problem, to call it by its name, in relation to opportunities, social mobility and progress and the need to have more presence, stable and numerous, of black and mestizo representation in all the structures of power and where the FAR is the best example. The promotion of officers to majors, colonels and brigade generals during these last ten years, has been the highest of all times. In the ANPP with 609 deputies, 67,16 percent are white while 32,8 percent are black and mestizo, a figure that represents an increase of 4,55 percent.
g) The generational succession within the FAR is, for obvious reasons, of critical importance. In the first place, it should be remembered that higher officials with combat experience should continue until 2015, including a numerous group of brigade generals who received ascension during the past decade and who represent the intermediate generation. Those representing the younger generations such as majors and colonels come from the ranks of the camilitos, the military schools founded during the 1960s where pre-cadets are formed and who will later join the ranks of the military academies of the FAR. The camilitos move on to those institutions between the ages of 16 and 17.
Regarding the formation of this new elite, their present and future role in FAR and the rest of the power structure of the country, Raul Castro declared during the latter part of 2001 that: “men and women who will occupy, in the future, important responsibilities in defense as well in the rest of the spheres of the country, including the maximal leadership of the nation, are not waiting to arrive, they are among us … in the case of the FAR there are already camilitos who are generals or colonels at the head of important combat units and the majority of the key posts of the higher command.”
Thus, the old generations in the process of exhaustion and extinction, those names that are historical, have prepared for a wide process of generational substitution of power but, also, by doing so, have promoted the format of a new elite.
The election results of 2002-2003 clearly demonstrate how the Cuban election mechanism, since the reform of 1992, could be an important tool to reflect a variety of national, territorial and local dissatisfactions.
Neither the Cuban opposition or dissidents, nor the exiles – unless playing into the hands of the regime or if it manipulates the statistics – has proposed or formulated serious studies in this field. From these extremes, it is impossible to experiment and test the potential for such a mechanism for the political struggle.
The figures of 2002-2003 seem to offer a wide volume for a different activism and potentially more effective than any considered up to now and its message does have a tremendous impact on the structure of power as was proven this time. Opposition and exile are enormously apart to be able to take advantage of this power and use this resource.
The diseased obsession to continue the absolutism, even today, of the power in Cuba around the figures of Fidel and Raul, is unnatural, prevents seeing and understanding the great transformations that have occurred within in terms of figures who represent the elite who are completely new, whose social, cultural, technological, psychological and political components are, also, completely new and who the opposition and exile will have to deal with in the coming decades.
And I say coming decades, not as a lapse, but because the subjective position that perceives a downfall, ipso facto, upon the disappearance or death of Fidel, I invite you to reread the words of Raul Castro: “the new generations or elite are already an important part of power and tomorrow will control all power and they are responsible for its restructuring, redesigning and reorientation These will be the new elites, in relation to their experience and vital interests, are the ones who will have rethink their own formulas of continuity and change. It would be naïve to imagine that if they were invited to hand over power they would do so submissively. This is not the way the game will end. At least, this is the scenario of the events and not the wished that seem to outshine with more force.”
In the meantime, the exile will die biologically and politically. Young people, blacks and mestizos who left the Island and who have become politically active in recent years are only some exceptions while the young persons of the second generation in exile separate themselves from effective activism, In the great majority. A generational substitutions and elites as has happened in Cuba and that continues to be produced has no equivalence neither from here nor among the opposition and the Cuban dissidence.
The author is a professor at the University of Miami.
By Dailene Dovale
October 4, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews
It is December 31, 1958. Natalia feels depressed, in a rented house. She is alone, or almost alone, because around her instead of grapes and happy relatives, she has guns, weapons of all kinds. Natalia Bolívar Aróstegui, the charismatic girl of the Havana aristocracy, barely has a peso and spends it on elementary food and a bottle of Bacardi Rum.
“I drank it at the top of the bottle”, she will say decades later, when she turns her gaze to the past and remembers herself sad, with her friends of the Revolutionary Directorate in the Escambray Mountain Range and she is waiting, waiting for an attack they were planning against Batista, waiting for a change. That night she hears persecutors passing by on 31st Street. The tyrant fell, and Alberto Mora, head of action and sabotage for the Directorate, warned her the next day. The Revolution triumphed.
It is difficult to imagine the life of ups and downs and vagaries of Natalia when they set foot in her home on Friday, September 13, 2019. A place of peace, where the breeze and clarity pour in, there are colorful sunflowers moving to the rhythm of the wind and a moving view of trees and red tiles. It is difficult. It is necessary, then, that Natalia arrives with her dress of flowers and her blue shoes, toad style, to count in a low but firm voice the summits and depressions where she has walked her existence.
– Let me see if I can open this – she apologizes – I drink a lot of water because I am diabetic – she says and clears her throat, after taking her favorite place in the room, a mahogany balance with blue lining.
– And the coffee? – he asks his daughter Natacha, with a somewhat tough look, dark clothes, the main help in writing her memoirs.
– They already gave me coffee – I clarify.
– She has, but I haven’t – claims Natalia. And the daughter blurs as quickly as she appears.
During her childhood, Natalia studied at an American school, the St. George School. The contrasts are there since that time. She speaks English in class, and then enters the domain of the Spanish language at home and feels the powerful influence of Isabel Cantero, Chicha, her black nanny.
Chicha’s mother, a slave of the Cantero de Trinidad, came to Natalia’s family as a gift to her medical grandfather. “My grandfather was not a slave and he took her in as part of the family. When she gave birth to Isabel, she was raised with great love”.
When the grandfather dies, Chicha moves in with Natalia’s mother and becomes her manager, takes the children to the park, takes care of them and pampers Natalia. They join. She is their main source of love, while her parents, María Teresa Aróstegui and Arturo Bolívar, who is related to the Liberator of America, play the strictest and toughest roles to form a disciplined girl, ready for work and adult life. Then Chicha becomes the nanny of his daughters Natasha and Bubby. In her old age, Chicha goes to live in Trinidad with her family. She survives the hundred years and leaves in Natalia the wisdom of the Afro-Cuban religions and culture.
– Miss Lidia, you have death behind you – says a Matanzas santero to a renowned ethnologist during one of his investigations. – With whom, with me?
– Not with you, with the one who comes behind – and points to the then very young Natalia Bolívar.
Natalia is a disciple of Lidia Cabrera. She meets her at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where she arrives as a guide at the hands of Octavio Montoro, a relative who connects her to Martha Fernández and a group of women who planned the foundation of the palace. There he approaches the ethnology room and finds in Lidia another inspiration to continue studying the Afro-Cuban culture. She also discovers José Luis Wangüemert who marks her entry into the Revolutionary Directorate (and becomes an unforgettable love). To be found, she also finds an omen of death.
– Then there it sounded to me everything that was going to happen in two weeks. I was going to fall prey to death, to tell my family. Imagine, I forbade my family to talk to Lidia. And then he gave me Oggún’s necklace, which is very pretty, and he said: “When they come looking for you… because they are going to come looking for you, you hook this necklace that I give you, with Ochosi’s arrow that is for protection against the police and all the henchmen.
When you are apprehended, you hook the necklace under your blouse.
She is taken to the Bureau of Investigations, it is the 24837 dam. (“Play the ball and it comes out”). In the Laguito they show her the cement block where they were going to put her and throw her into the bay of Havana if she didn’t say all the security houses where, for example, Raúl Díaz Arguelles and Gustavo Machín were sheltering. She resists in silence.
– They started hitting me and putting things in my ears. That’s why I’m deaf. My family is mobilized, but they call Julio Laurent, a guy who’s more of a killer than Ventura. I’m scared! This is already dying, I said to myself. I played a hot-cold game with him.
What do they call you?! They shout. She has several names. Rosa and the Witch, because of all the necklaces she was wearing. What’s your name?! They repeat I don’t know what your name is! They have caught you, they threaten you, because in her house they found papers, bonds that she kept for those who were leaving the country or going to the mountains.
What do you do with that necklace, you who are Catholic, Apostolic, Roman? Just then you understand everything. That was the godson of the old man who foresaw his capture, and the necklace was the same one that the killer had received when he became a saint. From there they start talking in Yoruba. A tense dialogue, which concludes when he says:
– What do you want?
– What do I want? That they look for my mom and bring me a sandwich with a chocolate serum – she answers that day with her mouth full of blood, and now, as an old woman, she smiles when she thinks about how close she came to death.
“I felt like eating something or taking something cold. My mother arrives, she is very nice and almost all the phrases were converted into French when she said that Laurent is the murderer. And I, shut up, don’t say that we don’t even go out at Easter”.
They let her out and she immediately goes to the Brazilian embassy. She only brings one piece of clothing. Then she is joined by her friend Raúl Díaz Arguelles.
Two weeks later she leaves the Brazilian embassy and goes into hiding. He never thinks about leaving his country. He rents houses. He hides his identity under other names. She is already on file with the entire police force. She does not give up, they attack the Fifteenth Police Station. She takes Raúl and Tabo Machín with Frank Arango to a small town near the Escambray. “He returned with Tabo’s cousin, the house he had left in Orfila was full of weapons. I had to take care of all that”. There she was surprised on January 1, 1959.
Natalia becomes silent. “I’m going to have to go to the bathroom,” she interrupts. As she leaves, she goes through her room: paintings on all the walls, little bird rattles that sound in a constant jingle. In my hands I discover a lock of white hair; it is Natalia’s and must have flown towards me in one of those breezes that cross her home.
A traitor to her social class, she is accused by her family when everyone follows the path of migration and she stays in her beloved Cuba. Despite the sadness of seeing her loved ones leave, despite feeling that the Board of Directors was being humiliated, she could not walk away.
“I took Fine Arts with the guns. I was the director for six years, I did the Napoleonic Museum there because Julio Lobo left me the entire Napoleon collection. Many of the collections are in the museum because they were left to me. Always with the lawyers of the owners and the lawyers of the museum, we made the minutes with a delivery, how shall we say, of indefinite loan. They would leave things to me to protect them. You know that in revolutions looting is common. That’s why they threw me out when I didn’t allow the sale of artworks.
– What year was that?
– It was in ’66. They threw me out and sent me to clean graves in the cemetery, but those are such nasty things… – and it leaves the idea in a fine thread that fades into thin air.
“What did I go to, Natalia, after? They moved me right away. Do you know why? I was a character at that time. I knew all the writers and all the artists from before… I knew them all very well. I complained and after that they sent me on my way… Do you know what “on my way” is? With the iron things opening a hole in the rocks at the exit of the Havana tunnel, in Pastorita’s famous apartments. The already created National Council of Culture sends me to work with the iron rod to break the rock.
“My life is very complicated,” she repeats, evoking the guagüeros who used to collect money on the buses and, after eliminating that post, work with it. They are all abakuá. Moved by a Natalia, recently given birth, weak and very thin, they decide to help her. “Natalia, you stand here in the hole, take the iron, throw it there, you pretend you are opening and we open next to you”.
Her pilgrimage through the world of work remains just as eventful. She is an administrator of a blumber factory, an administrator who studied four months at the Louvre Museum and knows how to handle two languages, for example.
“That’s where they got me from. Where do they get you from, Bolivar? She lands, like a damaged UFO, in agriculture. First in supplies, then in agricultural plans and in the Nazarene command post, where she serves as a translator for the presidents who come from all over the world to see the Ten Million Dollar Sapphire.
“I had a good time because I was in an environment that was more cultured and interesting. Many presidents passed through there and with Fidel several times. Sometimes he was upset about something and he would get involved with who he was with, with the King of what I know, and I would say that I am not going to tell him. It was a lot of fun, really.
The laps continue after the failed harvest. From the duck, goose and chicken breeding plan to the jewelry store at the National Bank of Cuba and the Numismatic Museum, located in the oldest bank in Cuba. Upon arrival, everything is stained with dye. They clean the floor with iron-bristle brushes.
The museum of a subject as arid as numismatics becomes a sensation among ambassadors and personalities of culture. Music, ceramics, painting converge there…
On one occasion, Adolfo Suarez, the first president of post-Franco Spain, visited with Fidel Castro. For Natalia this fact – Fidel talking all the time with her and Adolfo Suarez and not with the then Minister of the Bank – caused her to be fired from her job.
“That was in 78 or 79, they left me a year and a half without a salary and without being able to work with either Alicia Alonso or Sergio Vitier. One day I said I was going to kill the minister.
Her friend José Alberto “Pepín” Naranjo, worried, asked her why she was harassing the minister and she told him the truth.
“They sent me to say how much the state had to pay for the year I was out of work and out of money. I survived because my mother had money in the bank.
Not only did her impeccable work arouse suspicions. In a country of workers and peasants, she proudly defends her aristocratic ancestry. And to top it all off, she denies any political party “that forces me to do something I don’t want to do.
It’s the middle of the Special Period, in a restaurant in Old Havana, under the promise of a steak and a cold beer, she and a babalawo friend of hers are talking. The waitress interrupts, “lunch is ready”, she warns them.
– Hey, stay here – he keeps her.
Then a trucker arrives with a box of books. And silently, as if carrying the holy grail, he gives it to the bartender.
– Hand me that book, let me see it.
– No, you have nothing to do with it – the bartender spits.
– Hand it over!
– What do you want it for?
– Get it for me! Natalia, look…
– Hey, I have nothing to do with Marx, Lenin or Engels, so why should I open it?
– Open it – he says.
“It was The Orishas in Cuba, with a cover of complete works by as many communists as there may be. The guy was selling it for a hundred pesos, and a hundred pesos before that was a hundred pesos. I’m leaving like a wildcat, I’m eating the steak, of course, and I’m leaving for Uneac. Look at what you are doing. He gave them a changó. The choricera was formed, as one would say in good Cuban. They closed the printing press. The police got involved. And they had to present my book, and it was Cuba’s bestseller.
The book is the result of collaborations with filmmakers such as Titón, who sought advice for their films or plays. The book, which received the unconditional support of her psychiatrist friend Beatriz Begoña, was born five years late and in the midst of an unprecedented popular reception.
“We did a coconut shoot, with all the people who had helped me make the book and who were already dead: my psychiatrist, Enrique Rodriguez Roche, Lidia Cabrera, people who were dead and I put a scribble with the names on top of them.
Scribbling, he says, is what Elegguá is put on a chair. The presentation-homage was accompanied by Arsenio Gutiérrez’s group, with drums and songs. She and Reynaldo González are in the garden of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, surrounded by so many people that the Special Brigades are necessary. Days later such a scene is repeated in the Cuba Pavilion. A line of three days and nights. Some friends fear for their safety.
“Natalia, you have to find yourself a bodyguard so that you can go with him, since you are going to go alone, they are going to kill you, that’s full. And she who doesn’t, for the people there is no need for protection.
Next to the room there is a small studio, full of books, photos of Natalia, Natalia with her daughters, Natalia alone. Her daughter Natacha, who now brings a smile, is looking for her mother’s iconic photos. “At different times, she always likes to dress up. Even on birthdays, she still dresses up sometimes.
Working with Natalia is easy but very complex. Sometimes they do not agree because “we are from different generations”, admits Natacha while she checks, folder by folder, the moments of celebration, of trips, with Lidia, with Eusebio Leal.
“She is the lead singer, we are all together, but for now, everything is fine”.
They can have small discussions but always reach a consensus. Natalia is quite incisive when it comes to putting a period or a comma. They both learn.
“Listen to everyone. You learn from everyone, because even the least educated man teaches you something,” Natacha confesses. It is one of the teachings she sees in her mother and, above all, being a good friend. “Even if her friends are in the worst stage of their lives, she always stays by their side”.
And it is true. In the Elogio Oportuno, a space coordinated by Fernando Rodríguez Sosa, she signs the book La sabiduría de los oráculos (The Wisdom of the Oracles) with a little brother-in-law that says her name in Mandarin and draws a little Cuban flag on some of them.
“Natacha, give her the address and phone number,” Natalia orders if anyone asks for a contact or another opportunity to have her near. And then, in front of a pink and white cake – in celebration of her 85th birthday – she will remember again Lidia Cabrera, Fernando Ortiz and all her friends who opened the doors of being Cuban and knowing how to be Cuban. “Thank you for this. All my thanks to them”.
But no feeling is pure and happiness has nuances. This is a painful moment, as he confessed that Friday afternoon. “Seeing Havana, which is my Havana, how it has been destroyed. That has given me such great pain, destroying the great houses, the great stories of Cuban architecture”.
“And if someone dares to ask you why I haven’t left my country… I’ve traveled all over the world, but this is my country,” he stresses almost fiercely.
No one can take away Natalia’s Cuban identity. “I didn’t last more than a month outside my country. And if you ask her who Natalia Bolivar is, she will immediately say: “Cuban”. She needs nothing more than a root to her island deep in her chest.
February 4, 2021
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Cuba joins the global community today in the commemoration of World Cancer Day, a disease that, according to the Pan American Health Organization, is the second leading cause of death in the Americas.
The Antillean nation’s contributions in the creation of drugs to treat this disease, which according to statistics cost the lives of 1.4 million people in 2020, while another four million were diagnosed, stand out.
One of the innovative Cuban drugs is HeberFERON, unique in the world, and also currently used in the action protocol against COVID-19 with very good results.
Doctor in Biological Sciences Irlado Bello Rivero, leader of this project at the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), commented to the Cuban News Agency on the history and evolution of this important product.
He pointed out that in 1957 Human Interferon Alpha 2b and in 1961 Human Interferon Gamma were discovered for their antiviral properties, but it was not until 1981 when they appeared in the nation.
When their antitumor effects were proven in in-vitro cancer systems, the alpha 2b variant was among the first to be used in the world against practically all tumors, since it inhibits cell growth.
The senior researcher said that Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz was interested in this possibility of treating cancer and sent a group of experts to be trained on the subject and to deepen the technology for the development of interferons.
As a result, he explained, the Human Alpha Leukocyte Interferon, obtained for the first time in a natural way from white blood cells and leukocytes infected with a virus, began to be produced in the national territory.
He added that this formulation was also successfully used in the treatment of conjunctivitis and hemorrhagic dengue.
The Center for Biological Research was inaugurated, where this study was furthered; then the CIGB was created in 1986, and in the 90’s we were already producing Interferon alpha 2b and gamma interferon by recombinant means, he said.
Bello Rivero pointed out that clinical trials of the two products were carried out separately and they were registered in viral activities for almost any disease and type of cancer; their formulations also evolved and greater stability in the blood was achieved.
However, interferons did not have all the effects on cancer patients that were evidenced in vitro and other alternatives for the disease appeared, such as monoclonal antibodies and vaccines, he added.
The specialist commented that although this interest was waning in the world, in the archipelago there was a vast experience in their use and this was one of the few places where the two variants were produced.
Therefore, he continued, they were dedicated to combine them in a mixture, since it was known that together they generated a superior biological potency.
He emphasized that in 1998 they came up with these ideas and in 2005 they managed to define a new combination that allowed them to patent the product.
No one else has combined them in this way or managed to put them in the same bulb in a stable way, because they are very similar biologically but physically and chemically they are very different, he said.
He emphasized that they demonstrated the superiority of the new option over alpha and gamma interferons separately, through clinical trials in patients with basal cell carcinomas, the most frequent skin tumors with a high incidence worldwide.
The anti-tumor response was faster and more complete, he said, and this was also evident in advanced tumors that had not responded to previous treatments or surgery.
In 2008, the formulation was registered, not yet in its final version, which happened in 2016 already under the name HeberFERON for the treatment of basal cell skin cancer, especially in advanced patients and those at high risk of recurrence in the disease.
Bello Rivero reported that they began evaluating the drug in malignant brain tumors and in high-risk renal carcinomas after surgery, with very good results to date.
He specified that both studies are in Phase II, and the projections, when the COVID-19 pandemic allows it, are to register its use for these types of cancer.
According to the expert, HeberFERON has not yet crossed national borders, but the interest of other countries in the drug increases in the pandemic context.
Bello Rivero commented that it is remarkably effective in negativizing SARS-CoV-2 patients a few days after administering the first dose, even in those with viral persistence after 15 days.
He also pointed out that it influences the anti-inflammatory response, which contributes to reducing the number of patients seriously ill with the new coronavirus.
The website of the BioCubaFarma Business Group, to which the CIGB belongs, adds that the administration of this drug allows shortening the response windows against the viral infection without having to use lopinavir-ritonavir and chloroquine.
Researchers report that in the last decades, skin cancer has increased in the world. In Cuba some five thousand new cases are reported every year, with a tendency to increase, particularly basal cell carcinoma, although spinocellular carcinoma and melanoma are also present.
According to PAHO data, melanoma of the skin is among the most frequently diagnosed cancers among men.
The institution itself warned that if measures are not taken to prevent and control cancer, it is expected that the number of people who will be diagnosed will increase by 55 percent, which means approximately 6.23 million people by 2040 in the Americas region.
In addition, he emphasized that cancer patients have a higher risk of suffering from severe COVID-19, since they have a higher mortality rate due to an underlying condition.
In Cuba, attention to this health problem is a priority for the government and, consequently, for the sector’s authorities, with broad intersectoral and community participation, as well as comprehensive and integrated management between the different levels of care and sectors of society.
Recent information indicates that the use of HeberFERON has been extended throughout the country, with the opening of more sites for this purpose in the different municipalities.