HAVANA TIMES — I was allowed to return to Cuba in 1986. They had told me I didn’t have permission to study, that I had to work. I had profound knowledge about books and rum and – arbitrarily, it seems – they gave me a job at the Ediciones Cubanas publishing house.
There, I was tasked with receiving and distributing the magazines and newspapers destined to high-ranking Party members, from Fidel Castro, through the Central Committee to all of the members of the Politburo. I was surprised at the number of sensationalist magazines I had to include in the packages sent to the highest officials.
Fidel only received US medical journals. At the time, he was sincerely interested in the field and followed research as though he were a medical doctor. There’s always been a widespread habit of exaggerating all of Fidel’s aptitudes (and to invent some), but the claims that he was an extremely studious person is true.
Whenever he had the time, he was either reading or asking someone about a topic of interest to him. If his interlocutors were Cuban and had the misfortune of working in a field of particular interest to him, they knew he’d ask them all sorts of questions for hours, and do so, of course, without tolerating any question put to him. No, only he spoke, only he had concerns, and only his concerns were valid. That’s how things were with Fidel.
Many others in the Politburo, however, received such magazines as Hola, from Spain, and Paris Match. I had no problem with this, even if the magazines were for them and not their wives, as the section chief told me in his efforts to indoctrinate me. I thought people should be able to read what they please. What I didn’t consider right is that the rest of the population should be denied access to this kind of gutter press and that it should be demonized and attacked as an ideological tool of capitalism.
Looking down on people as idiotic, clumsy and unprepared for the materials that higher-ups read and enjoyed was one of the constant attitudes of the revolutionary leadership. At home, the children of high-ranking military officers or ministers could watch films such as Rambo or Chuck Norris movies (the most coveted ones at the time), while Cuban cinemas and television did not show these, labeling them imperialist garbage and a distortion of reality. They, however, felt that their families (and themselves) were at a higher level and could thus access such materials safely.
This was more or less the situation when it came to travelling abroad. In fact, with the exception of athletes and some scientists (under close watch), no one other than Party members were allowed to travel.
There was a clause in my contract clearly stipulating I could make no mention of where the magazines were coming from. I imagine they only hired people that were trustworthy, as the possibility of placing some kind of poison in those magazines was so real that I always felt there was a camera on me at all times.
I began to doubt this when I saw the long naps that my superior took, placing his arms on the desk and his head on top and merely closing the door to his office as a precaution. Perhaps, in much the same way everyone knew that people slept, skipped work or left the premises to drink coffee or rum during working hours, the surveillance person operating my imaginary camera simply knew all this, and it was logical for the section chief not to care about this in the least. The only person that couldn’t take a nap, then, would have been the camera operator.
Ediciones Cubanas was located on O’Reilly Street, in the old town. One had to get there early in the morning (to later take a nap, hunched over the desk), because what was important at all Cuban workplaces was punching in on time. After that, one could go home and return before the end of the work day to punch out.
The neighborhood was a marvelous place at the time. Even though I knew Old Havana well, I had never before taken note of the hectic and vibrant life of its streets. In a way, these streets reminded me of Cecilia Valdes’ passages in Cirilo Villaverde, the crowds of people, the din of the city, the small coffee shop at street level, the pastries, newspaper vendors vociferating the names of the official periodicals and the weekly comic strips Palante and Dedete, the conversations between elderly people who ran into one another on the street. The idle hours.
The fact I enjoyed walking down Old Havana a lot didn’t keep me from having a premonition when I knocked back some grape brandy with my friend Evelio after arriving in Cuba, after having spent two years without drinking a drop of alcohol. Shortly afterwards, I was getting wasted every night and began arriving late or skipping work altogether. So I began asking a doctor friend to write up medical certificates for me (just as in school, one only needed a doctor’s note to justify one’s absences).
In exchange for some bottles of rum, my doctor friend would write up the “I certify” notes that I would later fill in with three different illnesses I had learned some years back, to justify my absences at school: acute pharyngitis, chronic sinusitis and an ankle sprain. None of this was very novel or original. All of my superiors knew it was bull, but they only cared about having some official document that would keep them out of trouble for tolerating this.
They did the same thing, when they took off in a company car and headed to a beach house with their lovers. There were no consequences. Even the general manager skipped work this way. I am not saying they didn’t look for better excuses than those illnesses, I am saying it was the same procedure.
The higher the position, the more common was the practice of skipping work to take a “titi” (as young women were colloquially referred to at the time) to a beach house, accompanied by their large bellies, a baseball cap, a roasted pig and a few crates of ice-cold beer.
Also see this interview with Martin Guevara.