Life of a Cuban Editor

Ernesto Perez Chang

Edificio de Esquina de Tejas. Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — I won’t mention his name (he doesn’t want me to). I don’t need to, anyway. It could be replaced with any other name. I’ll say only that he is an editor, one of the best in Cuba, perhaps. He is sixty-five years old and has spent more than half his life publishing books of every kind.

He has worked with passion, despite the terrible circumstances he still faces: a salary that barely gives him enough to put food on the table and an old house, worn through by humidity and about to collapse completely. He is distressed by these daily hardships but doesn’t complain – he can’t bring himself to do it, he’s afraid.

A few days ago, while speaking to him on the phone, I noticed he was somewhat agitated and that his voice was weak. He told me he had spent the night shoveling debris out of his living room. With the rains, yet another chunk of his house had come down and almost killed him.

He has gradually lost everything because of the water and falling debris: the furniture, the books he had kept for so many years, his clothing. Today, he lives in a corner of what was once the kitchen. The things he has managed to preserve are heaped in a tiny space.

He knows perfectly well that their time could come at any moment. The rains are relentless this time of the year in Cuba and there is no hope of getting a new house, because my friend isn’t a Party higher-up or a military officer. He is a simple editor of literary books.

He tells me that he learned to obey orders during his years of work at State publishing houses. If those “above” order you to “lie on your stomach”, you must scramble to flip yourself over, without hesitation. From my own experiences, I know that swimming against the current can be very dangerous. That I know.

He offers me that piece of advice with the kindness of a father, without realizing he is a victim who has been trained through blows. It is his secret for leading a half-life in a country of survivors. What he doesn’t see is that he has barely even lived over the past sixty-five years.

Faced with the economic crisis that affects everything, including Cuba’s publishing houses, most editors have lost their jobs and currently survive thanks to contracts which are few and far between and never pay anyone enough to lead a decorous life.

His life is frozen in the same, endless scene, where he is the same person every year, besieged by the same fears. Declining health, a life that is slowly ending, a house that won’t be able to take the next downpour, which could force him to spend his last days at a government shelter, his books under a pile of debris, his profession scorned in a world of commercial enthusiasm and make-up.

The profession he loves so much has taught him that, in Cuba, the field of the written word is more like a swamp. He’s seen colleagues sink in this swamp for having failed to notice a poem’s subliminal message, for not “correctly” interpreting a passage in a novel, the subversive moral of a story or a corrosive word used in an essay.

In Cuba, literature, and culture in general, is produced beneath the watchful gaze of suspicious functionaries. One can’t risk what little one has, and being an editor in Cuba means learning to read things carefully, questioning and suspecting everything. Hares, after all, can leap at you from anywhere.

One might think such a risky job entails good money, but the truth is that, in Cuba, editors are considered second-rate. The extremely low, ridiculous salaries have remained the same for more than twenty years and, to make matters even worse, part of an “every man to himself” policy set in motion to refloat the rusty and sinking ship, the job market has been reduced dramatically in recent years.

Faced with the economic crisis that affects everything, including Cuba’s publishing houses, most editors have lost their jobs and currently survive thanks to contracts which are few and far between and never pay anyone enough to lead a decorous life.

The publishing industry doesn’t have a steady output of books, revenues depend on inadequate distribution mechanisms divorced from the producer and, during the long periods of dead-time, the editor and corrector (another species about to become extinct), who aren’t qualified for a different profession, exposed to the maelstrom of unemployment and restrictions in all of the economy’s profitable sectors, simply do nothing and are condemned to live in the worst kind of poverty.

Though salaries were never enough to live on, at least they represented a fixed monthly income that took some of the pressure off and could be used to cover utilities such as water, gas, electricity and phone bills, services that become more expensive every day, in total disregard for people’s average wages.

Foto: Juan Suárez

Now, everyone is abandoned to their own resources and neither skills nor experience mean anything. What counts, rather, is being in the right place at the right time, so as to secure a contract or position, getting a hold of a computer in good condition (a humble editor wouldn’t be able to afford buying a computer, which costs about thirty times his monthly salary, let alone maintain and update it), learning to use editing software, accepting the flimsy salaries and, after completing one’s work, being able to wait for months until the company has the money to settle its debts with its contractors.

We should also bear in mind that one cannot become a self-employed editor as private initiative is not authorized in the editing sector.

Under these circumstances, the lives of all Cuban editors have become far harder than ever before, and there is no union in the sector to protect them, something which, in good measure, has made it possible for institutions (the best at anticipating the negative repercussions a written word can have before suspicious bureaucrats) to make irrevocable and unquestionable decisions.

As I write these lines, it is raining cats and dogs in Havana. The stains of humidity on the ceiling of my house grow day by day, and I know it won’t be many years before I begin to retreat to a corner to avoid falling bits of roof, like my friend. There are no signs the rain will let up, not even for a brief moment, and my friend, who is afraid of so many things, will remain in silence.

4 thoughts on “Life of a Cuban Editor

  • Here’s the punchline: After his doctor found out that he was receiving his medication in a care package or by “mule” from the ‘States, his doctor asked if he could get extra medication for another elderly patient. The truth is that this medication IS available in Cuba, just not on a consistent basis. I am told that once a high blood pressure patient’s body gets adjusted to a certain dosage of a certain medicine, it is dangerous, even deadly to unnecessarily change the medication. In my wife’s grandfather’s case and I suspect many others, prior to our care packages, he sometimes spent months without any medication or adjusting to other less appropriate medications. He was often dizzy or even unable to stand simply because the medicine was either too strong OR not strong enough. Anyway, Castro apologists will herald the fact that he can go to a doctor and be correctly diagnosed with high blood pressure with virtually no out of pocket costs. If the story ended there, Cuban healthcare should be applauded. What they fail to consider is that this service is NOT free, the facilities are inadequate, and the prescribed medication is usually based upon approximation and not best medical practices.

  • You send him blood pressure medicine? Silly Moses, haven’t you heard: Cuba has fabulous free healthcare! There must be some mistake…

  • This essay reminds me of my wife’s 82 year-old grandfather. He is a retired lawyer who ran the HR dept. for Cubans at Guantanamo base for many years. His retirement income is only 9 cuc per month! That’s about 10 USD. Imagine that. Work all your life, sacrifice everything for the revolution and end up like this. Thankfully, he lives downstairs from his daughter (my mother-in-law) and she takes care of him. We send money every month as well as his blood pressure medicine. Thank God he has a granddaughter with the means to support him. I can’t imagine how he would survive without his families help. It makes me sad to think there are seniors like him with nobody to help them.

  • Another moving and beautifully written essay. Such a sad waste of human potential you describe. A talented and highly educated man reduced to living in the corner of a crumbling ruin.

    I look forward to more from you, Ernesto.

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