A Sliver of Power

Yusimi Rodriguez

Shot from Revolution Square Havana by Stephen Morgan

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 6 — Though fascinated by it, I was thinking of putting the issue of power on the back burner, at least for a while – though lately I feel like everything has to do with it.  Yet what I chose to write about today was “The Last Thursday,” a regular monthly forum organized by Temas magazine and held in the Strawberry and Chocolate facility across from the Chaplin Theater in our capital.

On September 30 the forum was dedicated to the “Special Period” economic crisis, a stage that many Cubans aren’t sure has ended.  Unfortunately, I’m compelled to write about a different aspect of the gathering.

I arrived at the locale running at about four o’clock, the time the “Last Thursday” forum begins. I saw that the door was closed and I thought that the gathering had been postponed.  I asked the man standing there, who was holding a walkie-talkie, if the discussion was going to be held.  He told me that it was but that no more people would be allowed in because the place was full.  I told him that I didn’t need a seat; that I could stand or sit on the floor, that it was my birthday and that I had dropped other things to come to Last Thursday.

It was true; on September 30 I turned 34.  But that didn’t matter; the man still told me that I couldn’t go in, even though I insisted.  Other people came and we all pleaded for the same thing, all saying that we were willing to stand.  I still don’t know why I didn’t just gave up.  The fact was that it was humiliating to have to beg that man to let us into a place where admission was free, to an event that had been publicized on TV.

Despite this, he didn’t even bother to look at us in the face.  He simply sat down there inside and left us standing there outside, as if we were some mutts.  He only condescended to go to the door to open it for some worker or to let someone out who was already inside.

The best part, or one of the best parts, was when the director of a renowned Havana cultural institution showed up also wanting to get in.  I imagined that because he was who he was, they were going to let him in, and I had already begun thinking through my editorial about privileges granted to some people who hold certain positions have in this country.

Yet surprisingly they didn’t let him in either, though he said he had received a special e-mail invitation to the debate (as had many of those who were standing there).  But the gatekeeper didn’t bother to give the illustrious guest an explanation; he merely turned his back on him just as he had done the rest of us.  The culture official told the guard that he didn’t know who he was talking to.  I thought he was going to say “I’m the director of…,” but he didn’t go that far.  Instead, he used the argument that he was one of this country’s writers, that this fact should be enough, at least to win him a little respect.

Havana mural photo by MarcoPetrovic.

I don’t like officials.  In other circumstances that same director of a cultural institution would have represented power to me.  I’m sure that in other circumstances he would have felt like he was a representative of some power, a figure with certain privileges, someone who could sit down with our Minister of Culture and who could travel abroad on occasion.  That’s what I thought.  But now they were treating him pretty much like a sack of potatoes, and the gentleman looked disconcerted.

Welcome to reality, my friend.

The situation brought a kind of relief for the rest of us.  We even cracked jokes about the circumstances, perhaps because we’ve become used to these after such a long time.  In fact, it was during that Special Period —which has spanned a good part of my adolescence and my adult life— that I heard, “You’re not allowed in here,” and I didn’t expect any explanation.  I didn’t even think we were owed explanations.

But the writer/executive felt too insulted and pushed the door.  I thought that there was going to be a physical altercation, but at that very moment there finally appeared someone who was able to explain to the guard who he was dealing with (or, better said, who he was abusing).  But the gatekeeper said that though he would eventually let us and the others in who were standing at the door, he wasn’t going to admit the writer/executive.  In case someone hadn’t made it clear, it was not the organizers of “Last Thursday” who had the power to decide who got in – but him.

Since I’m not a well-known writer who can hold up some little book, and nor am I a culture official, I asked for a favor from that individual to please (I said please something like three times in a row) to please check with the organizers inside to see if there was any possibility that they might take care of things and allow us in to sit on the floor or to remain standing, because the issue being dealt with in the debate interested us greatly.  The man told me that he would try and went to take a look inside.  I really wanted to think that he was going to.

The best part of things like this is the solidarity that emerges, the jokes, and the things that you learn.  It turns out that this same individual is always on the door when Last Thursday is held, and on other occasions he prevented people from entering by telling them that there was no room inside, though later we found out that it was a lie.

Complaints filed but the guard remains

What’s interesting is that people have started filing complaints about the way this guard deals with the public.  Someone even found out that he has a police warning about making threats.  Notwithstanding, they’ve kept him on there (or could it be that his position with the public is what makes him the most suited person to be at the door?).

Cooling off on Havana's Malecon seawall. Photo: Serge Dias de Sousa

When he came back I asked him if there was any answer from organizers.  He never responded.  I repeated the question every time we opened the door for people who were leaving the discussion.  I even found out from one of them that the place wasn’t so full.  She had chosen to leave because her Spanish wasn’t good enough to follow what was happening inside.

Then it occurred to us to tell the man that if some of the people inside had left, then there must be some space for others to come in.  Still there was no answer.  I then asked him what his argument was now for not letting us to enter.  When he finally had no other alternative than to respond to me, he looked at me and said, “I don’t know what the argument is.”

Even when we no longer had hope of entering, we remained there.  For me, what was happening there outside of the debate on the Special Period was suddenly more interesting.  We continued pleading, of course, though I think that it was by the force of inertia.  It was past five in the afternoon when the guard again came to the door – and incredibly he opened it.  I had been among the first in this group to arrive, so I found it logical that I would go first – naive as I am.  The only reason I was lucky enough to get into the discussion on the Special Period was that I was woman.  I knew it when I entered.  The guard allowed us to enter because we were women and we had been standing there for a long time.

A concession to the women

It was great that it only took him one hour and ten minutes to realize that we were women.  There were men there who had showed up before some of the females, but they were males; therefore they didn’t have a chance of either seeing or participating in the debate.

Powerful Shadow. Photo by Liset Cruz

In any case, they stayed until the end, and I even heard the guard communicating on his walkie-talkie about a rapid response brigade that was ready to intervene in case those people who were trying to get into the forum created any type of problem.  I would like to believe that they misunderstood what they heard; given the circumstances.  It’s possible that their adrenaline and paranoia levels shot way up, but what need could there have been for a rapid response brigade when all of us were students and workers (with jobs at the moment), and when we had not physically attacked or threatened to attack anyone?

Whenever a situation like this finally ends, it’s like when you’re leaving a cinema.  People don’t head home all at once; it’s necessary to exchange greetings, to discuss (some more) about what was saw inside.  Plus, those of us who were kept outside had to share our experiences.  My male friends called me a traitor —jokingly, of course— for having taken advantage of my feminine privileges and entered at the last moment.  Cubans have the virtue of making jokes about everything.  The guard passed by us on the side and then disappeared.  His share of power for the day had been spent.  We wouldn’t see each other again until the next “Last Thursday”; that’s what we were thinking at least.

But the man made a sudden half turn and started coming directly toward one of us who had been standing outside the whole time.  To be exact, it was the brother of one of people who had been on the panel of specialists that participated in the debate; though at no time did he use that argument to get in.  “What’s your problem?” the guard yelled, “I’m done working now; so if you want, we can take it to the corner, let’s go.” That’s what he said as he shoved the shoulder of our comrade, who didn’t respond aggressively.  Another young guy questioned the man about his aggressive behavior, and they argued only inches from me.  I didn’t know if I should leave, ask them to calm down, or wait.  Fortunately, there were no blows exchanged.

The guard finally went away, and along with my relief I also felt a bit of sadness for that man – so convinced that he was doing his duty.  What came to my mind were those movies where there are always a good cop and a bad cop.  This man’s last name is Pavon (according to him), the same as the other Pavon (Luis Pavon) who led the repression of so many people in Cuba in the 1970s.  He too acted in the belief that he was doing his duty, serving in accordance with official government policy in those years.  That earlier Pavon, publically reviled in 2007, was the visible face of “parametration” and the repression of homosexuals, and he paid the price.  That’s the job of a bad cop.  This other Pavon is also a bad cop (it seems that the last name Pavon has bad karma).


What I don’t have clear in this story is who’s the good cop, if there is one.