Forbidden Magazines for Cuba’s Higher-Ups

Martin Guevara*

Newspaper seller. Photo: Juan Suárez

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.

A woman and six balconies. Photo: Juan Suarez

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.
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Also see this interview with Martin Guevara.


12 thoughts on “Forbidden Magazines for Cuba’s Higher-Ups

  • September 3, 2014 at 3:35 pm
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    Alhough you doubt whether Fidel Castro is the only sincere scholar in Cuba, any others do not have the access to relative information and materials enjoyed by the former dictator.

  • June 10, 2014 at 9:38 pm
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    This is a great article.

    I didn’t pay much attention to the magazine thing but rather focused in what grabbed my attention straight away. Laziness and inefficiency.

    The snaps during working hours, the absence from work and the looking at the windows are a very typical scene in Cuban work culture. Hours
    and hours that could count to billions of hours wasted doing nothing for over 50 years while our competitors were working hard.

    This is what the communist ideology brings to humanity. This, combined with the government political and commercial errors are the main reasons why Cuba is in bad shape economically, that’s the reality even when the government tries to convince everybody otherwise.

  • June 9, 2014 at 10:31 pm
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    Martin Guevara, what is your point? Are you saying your description is an accurate description of all periodicals read by Cuban “elites” and if so, how does it differ from what went on before the revolution and how does it compare with “elites” in other countries?

    If you your point is that Cuban communists and officials are decadent or hypocritical, then say so and give us your thoughts on how new, and pervasive this is. If however, you are saying this is similar or not significantly different than other “elites” say that too.

    Emagicmtman at least tries to put the issue in some context. Yes, in the US and many capitalist cities, there is an abundance of media, but most of it is as unworthy or worse than what you describe. The fact that one can find good books, periodicals and video doesn’t change the unfortunate fact that access doesn’t dictate readership.

    As someone who has struggled in the US to find and promote more positive information in all the media for over 70 years. I would be interested in the relative successes, not just lousy examples. Watch broadcast TV, most cable content, and yes most Netflix and you will see a preponderance of violence, mysticism and dumb stuff. Having attended over 20 different schools in the US, I don’t blame people. I understand all too well why this happens. But a more challenging question is how much has the revolutionary process in Cuba affected readership and choices of materials? I doubt that Fidel Castro is the only sincere scholar in Cuba.

    So what have you learned that is positive or useful from this study of yours?

  • June 9, 2014 at 7:37 pm
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    “Hatuey” was the brand name of a beer produced by the Bacardi family. It was seized but eh Castro regime along with their rum distillery and other properties. That was Fidel’s way of thanking the Batista family for supporting the July 26 Movement with money and weapons.

  • June 9, 2014 at 7:09 pm
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    Vogue, Cosmo, Vanidades, People, Latina and other glossy fashion and gossip magazines are still very popular in Cuba. My wife includes a few such mags in her monthly care package to her family and they get snapped up. Seems that despite the instant news cycle around the world outside of Cuba, most Cuban women still look to these revistas as well as the telenovelas for hints on the lastest fashion trends and celebrity gossip.

  • June 9, 2014 at 5:45 pm
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    Hello Carlyle, it was in different periods of time, in 1976 begun in Cuba the first shop in the Hotel Habana Libre (ex Hilton) to buy in foreign currency (american dollars, usually) suddenly in a few months there were a lot of small shops in dollars, at the first the “pinchos”, ministers, high position military and police men, and the old bearded rebels from Sierra Maestra, they could make their purchases in these shoppings with cuban currency, but when the system became sophisticated they couldn’t do that. So Bucanero, Cristal and Hatuey ( a trade mark of beer of those years) were available for the Communists VIP in pesos at the beginnings, and then in dollars-

  • June 9, 2014 at 4:45 pm
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    The internet is changing things around Moses and as in the USA newspapers rarely line the sidewalks along with the mail man delivering magazines as most people get their info on the likes of Justin Beaver and his ilk via the internet.

  • June 9, 2014 at 3:48 pm
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    Thanks Martin Guevera, I wonder whether the described slobs ttaking their ‘titi” to the beach house were able to purchase Buchanero or Cristal?

  • June 9, 2014 at 1:56 pm
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    Your inner curmudgeon is showing, again.

    In the USA, one can buy and read a wider range of great Cuba writers than one can find in Cuba. That says something about Cuba.

    Book sales of all kinds are up in the US, thanks in large part to the explosive growth of e-readers. Self-publishing and small market publishing specialty has increased as well.

    More movies are now watched on Netfix and other online sources than in the theatres and can be accessed from anywhere in America. So called “thoughtful films” have never drawn the largest audiences and there have always been trashy block-busters. However, because of the internet, there is now a much greater access to art films, documentaries and other “thoughtful films” than ever before. More such movies are being made & distributed and more people are watching them than ever before.

  • June 9, 2014 at 12:13 pm
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    An amusing account of work-a-day life of the elite in the corrupt Castro regime.

    Fidel’s obsession with medical journals is an interesting detail which supports the frequent observation that he is a hypochondriac. That he will call up Cuban experts on a given topic and subject them to a monolog of his own knowledge on that subject is yet more proof he’s a narcissist of the first order.

  • June 9, 2014 at 11:15 am
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    Not only have things not changed since 1986, they have gotten worse. Today access to gossip magazines is easy. The contraband today are fancy cars, expensive perfumes and designer clothes. While all of those knucklehead Che T-shirt wearing lefty foreigners are tramping around Cuba taking charming pictures of collapsing buildings, these higher ups are sipping chardonnay and giggling their arses off at the stupidity of these “true believers”.

  • June 9, 2014 at 11:13 am
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    Thanks for your interesting snap-shot of both bureaucratic- and street-life in Old Havana during the 1980’s. I’m sure Kim Jon Un and before him, Kim Jon Il, and other higher-ups in the DPRK enjoyed the same forbidden fruits as the higher Party bureaucrats and their children during the 1980’s. At least now, whether legally or illegally, a far wider audience (at least in Cuba if not the DPRK) enjoy such trashy publications and films.
    In our crazy, up-side-down, world the opposite is now true here in the States. Most serious books, whether the old-fashioned hard-copies or now e-books, are so little read that the N..Y.TIMES Book Review, besides listing the pop-culture trash, have to add a “now keep in mind” addendum to their regular best seller list just to mention thoughtful books which should receive a wider audience. The same is true of films: only block-buster “product” is available in the multiplexes at the malls, or at the remaining picture palaces downtown in the hinterlands. One must migrate to New York or a few other major cities on the East Coast or to the Left Coast, to see more thoughtful films. All the rest is spectacle, the modern equivalent of gladiatorial matches in the colosseum. Hence, this is just as much a reflection of cultural decline as what you reveal. All is Kali Yuga!

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