International Literature Festival Berlin

10.ilb - 15.09 bis 26.10.10 - Focus Osteuropa

José Manuel Prieto [ Mexico, Cuba ]

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José Manuel Prieto was born in 1962 in Havana. At age 19, after taking his school-leaving exam, he left Cuba and went to Novosibirsk to study electronic engineering, which is where he met his future wife Elena.  During the Perestroika he lived with his wife in St. Petersburg, where their daughter Alicia was born.  He has lived in Mexico City since 1995.

In 1996 his first book of stories ‘Nunca antes habías visto el rojo’ (Engl: You Have Never Seen Red Before) was published in Cuba. He published his first novel ‘Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia’ (Engl: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia) in 1998 in Mexico; an excerpt from the novel can be found in the anthology ‘Cubanísimo.  Junge Erzähler aus Kuba’ (Engl: Cubanísimo.  Young Writers from Cuba).  His second novel ‘Livadia’ (Engl: Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, 2001), which was published in Barcelona in 1999, has been translated into seven languages including German (to appear in February 2004). The novel has been praised as a jewel by literary critics among others in ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The New York Review of Books’.  This is not only because an intelligent interlinear network of literary references and allusions runs through the narrative texture in an original way, recalling Nabokov’s greatest moments, but also for the formidable history reflecting the post soviet Russia.  José Manuel Prieto has emerged also as a brilliant translator of Russian literature into Spanish.  His translation work includes poems by Gennadi Aygi, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Cvetaeva, and Josef Brodsky as well as prose by Andre Platonov, Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Vladimir Nabokov. In 2002 he published two new books: in Mexico his second book of stories ‘El tartamudo y la rusa’ (Engl: The Stutterer and the Russian) and in Barcelona his first travel book ‘Treinta días en Moscú’ (Engl: Thirty Days in Moscow). In 2007 his latest novel, ‘Rex’ appeard. He currently lives in New York where he is head of the Joseph A. Unanue Latino Institute at the University Seton Hall.

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North American Books I Read as a Child in Castro’s Cuba

October 19, 2011 | by José Manuel Prieto

Havana, Cuba. Photograph by Jordi Martorell.

In the spring of 2007, I was invited to a dinner organized by The Paris Review in honor of Norman Mailer. The novelist had just published what would be his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, and would have a conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That evening, when Mailer entered the room, with his very distinctive mien—that of a rather solid and stout man who, because of his age, used two canes—I was deeply moved. I told him—what else do you say in those circumstances?—how much I admired his books and that I started reading them when I was very young, many years ago.

A few days later I told a friend about this experience. “But, how?” he acted surprised, “Did you read Norman Mailer in Cuba?” And added, “Wasn’t he supposed to be one of the banned North American authors on the island?”

My friend had imagined, perhaps for a good reason, that you couldn’t find American literature in Cuba, that it was banned because both countries were at more or less declared war, an openly proclaimed enmity. I patiently explained to him that nothing like this ever happened. Mailer’s books and those of many other North American authors were not censured in Cuba; in fact, they were widely sold. You could find them in every library; they could be read by everyone.

However, his comment did make me reflect on the impact of our neighbor’s literature in Cuba. It made me think about how these books got past censorship and political fate, and it caused me to recall an intellectual itinerary, to take a brief inventory of the North American books I read as a child in Castro’s Cuba—and to consider how greatly that literature influenced my literary education. I’m talking about authors like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, William Saroyan, Sherwood Anderson, James Fenimore Cooper, Thornton Wilder, and many others: an endless list. These books demonstrated to me—and demonstrate to me today—the way literature can permeate borders and, above all, perforate the wall of hostility.

I was a child during the Vietnam War, when the newspapers were covered with the most damaging anti-American caricatures. The U.S. was blamed for every calamity, for everything that happened to the country: every death, every natural catastrophe. America was a heartless place, where people took drugs, violence had reach unprecedented levels, and racism dominated everything. That’s what you would find on the radio and television every day.

And if you didn’t listen to the radio or watch television, you might participate in study groups, which were organized to analyze the Maximum Leader’s latest speeches. These study groups were one of those public interventions that lasted for hours and hours, accusing the U.S. of the most treacherous aggressions—provoking the masses and agitating the imperialist aggressor’s puppet.

But what I want to call your attention to—what still surprises me today—is that all of that didn’t end up deeply indoctrinating me. It didn’t end up shaping my opinion of the outside world and of the United States in particular. It’s not that it didn’t have an effect, because of course it did, and my vision was tinged for years by the most common stereotypes; but it didn’t end up ruining everything for me.

I attribute my salvation to books. It could have been a book by Henry James that I surreptitiously read while the Communist youth leader monotonically spelled out a speech that we had all heard only a couple of weeks before. The Political Commissar’s speech couldn’t have differed more from the elegance I found, for example, in a story like Daisy Miller by James. That book captivated me. I fell in love with its extraordinary heroine to the extent that many years later, I titled one of my first short stories, written in Russia, “Daisy,” a name we also have in Cuba.

In my opinion, it’s obvious that the people in charge of publishing policies during the first years of the Cuban Revolution had a humanistic focus; it wasn’t very ideological. I think they considered major works by American authors books that should be part of the intellectual training of any educated person. And I don’t think that any library was purged of North American books. That wasn’t what happened, for example, at my school library, and I attended the famous Lenin school, where the nomenklatura sent their children.

Although it may sound paradoxical, my passion for literature, and particularly for North American literature, was cultivated by state-run publishing houses. They favored literature about social matters; priority was given to authors who in some way complemented the work of the Cuban Ministry of Truth or to books that denounced, in a sophisticated way, the Big Neighbor to the north. As a result, there were always North American titles among the books my mother—a big reader herself—would buy for us every week. One week it might be In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which must have been published to show the climate of unstoppable crime that existed in the U.S. The next week it might be Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, a book with no explicit criticism (I don’t think) and that I thought was full of mystery, and still do. Then she might bring home An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which was published to show the ugly side of capitalism. It was easy to find They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy, or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I still clearly recall an image from The Jungle that made me tremble as a young boy: There are giant cooking pots into which some always tired workers throws the entrails of the animals killed in the Chicago slaughterhouses, and one day one of them stumbles, trips, and falls in. But they leave him in there, because capital’s miserable logic impedes them from throwing out all that meat. Then, in a Chicago diner, a customer bites into something hard with his molars. He takes it out and examines it in the light. It turns out to be a button from the cooked worker!

Other books that sold well were the ones that talked about the exploitation of blacks in the U.S. I read them with particular interest. For example, I read Black Boy by Richard Wright when I was very young, and it painted segregation in the South in a tremendously vivid way. I can still clearly remember entire passages from the book and the names of many characters: Shorty, Richard’s fat, cynical friend who let people pat his behind for coins; Mr. Falk, the Irishman who let Richard use his library card to check out books that a young black boy couldn’t; the compassionate Mrs. Ross and her daughter, Bess, who helped little Richard so much.

I also read the “socialist” novel Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. I read the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos and his Manhattan Transfer. I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I read Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, of course. Hemingway was the epitome of the good North American writer: a lover of Cuba (fondly portrayed by him, we were told, in The Old Man and the Sea) and an author committed to the Spanish Republic (For Whom the Bell Tolls). In Cuba he was worshiped.

I read a lot of William Faulkner. I particularly remember an afternoon in which I should have been with my father, on one of his doctor’s visits, but instead stayed in the car and read. I was reading an ugly edition of As I Lay Dying from the state-run publishing house and, toward the end, when the family is carrying the mother’s body and must ford the overflowing river, I experienced a total acoustic immersion, a kind of sonorous hallucination: I could hear the wind’s roar, the water hitting the wheel hubs, the rustle of the tree branches. When my father finally tapped on the little window of the car to let me know that he was back, I had the impression that everything had gone completely silent because the book had stopped happening.

Ironic as it may seem, the books that were censored most were books that were light and cheap. Bestsellers, pulp fiction: in other words, books that could be a source of entertainment. As a result, it became a status symbol to have one of these books, even when it was something as insipid as Airport by Arthur Hailey. The children of Cuban secretaries and diplomats went around with those books in my school because they were exactly the types of books that the Cuban secretaries and diplomats would buy on their trips abroad. I managed to read almost all the best sellers of the time: Jaws by Peter Benchley, The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, and the most ingenuous, Papillon by Henri Charrière.

Alas, this early liberalism regarding culture in Cuba, from which I benefited as a reader during my childhood and adolescence, has today yielded to greater inflexibility, to a more dogmatic focus that doesn’t allow for such intellectual flirtations. Cuban readers’ vision of North American literature today is, to be very optimistic, from the seventies. In other words, it’s thirty years behind. In Cuba, nothing has been published by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, or (I believe) Toni Morrison. Important aspects of life in the U.S. have thus been largely ignored: in particular, the enormous ethnic diversity of the U.S., the rise of minority authors that has characterized the American literary scene in the last decades, and the gay revolution.

However, if my history of the American books I read as I child in Castro’s Cuba explains anything, it’s the power of literature to undo any stereotype, to annul even the most terrible accusatory campaigns and propagandistic platforms. Literature does more for the rapprochement of nations than thousands of well-intentioned speeches.

For me, literature was an antidote to propaganda—one that helped me gain a more human idea of the country presented as our main enemy, as always spying on us and ready to invade us. What image did I have, after all of these books, of Americans? They were obsessed in Faulkner, candidly provincial in Lewis, neurotic and scrawny in Salinger, brutally alone in Carver. A population—how to put it?—of humans, perfectly ordinary.

José Manuel Prieto is a New York–based novelist and translator. His latest novel, Rex, was published by Grove. He teaches literature at Seton Hall University.

Translated by Regina Galasso.

Here the link

In Foreign Lands: An evening with Pavel Lembersky and Jose Manuel Prieto

 at CEC ArtsLink Offices, 01/31/2012

When: 01/31/2012  Time: 6:30-8:00pm
Where: CEC ArtsLink Offices Address: 435 Hudson Street, 8th Floor, New York, NY 10014
Price: free RSVP e-mail:
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Pavel Lembersky and Jose Manuel Prieto will read from their novels and talk about how their unique émigré experiences shaped their writing and brought forth idiosyncratic new worlds of two very different protagonists.

Pavel Lembersky’s recently published novel,  Aboard the 500th Jolly Echelon tells a detective story in jazzily syncopated language with unlikely twists and philosophical implications. Jose Manuel Prieto’s Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, a book “woven from an abundance of subtle threads”, is a story of love, smuggling and a search for an elusive butterfly.

“Imagine Borges writing philosophical conceptual anecdotes using the sparkling language of Isaac Babel. Sometimes the significant parts are located in the breaks between the [Pavel Lembersky’s] phrases, and one can feel the draught of pain and despair blowing from those gaps which perhaps irony alone can suppress.” – Anton Nesterov, «Nezavisimaia Gazeta»

“[Jose Manuel] Prieto seems as comfortable writing about the Crimea as he is about Istanbul, Finland, or Milan, his eyes wide open, his mind working, … steadily producing wonder and a few chuckles …. Nabokov’s spirit, alive and kind, has touched him with its butterfly wings.” –Aleksandar Hernon, The Village Voice Literary Supplement

Pavel Lembersky
Pavel Lembersky came to the United States in 1977. He graduated from The University of California at Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature, did graduate work in film at San Francisco State University, and worked on film projects with Jonathan Demme and Spalding Gray, among others.

Lembersky writes his prose and screenplays in Russian and in English.  He authored three collections of short stories River #7 (Slovo/Word, New York, 2000), The City Of Vanishing Spaces (Drugie Berega, Tver, 2002) and A Unique Occurrence (The Russian Gulliver, Moscow, 2009).  Lembersky’s work was included in The Anthology of Short Stories (ACT, Moscow, 2000). His short stories have been translated into English, German, Finnish and Vietnamese and have appeared in literary magazines in Moscow, New York, Munich, Jerusalem and Helsinki such as Solo, The New Review, 22, Little Star, Habitus, Calque, Kommentarii , Words Without Borders, and many others.  Pavel Lembersky is a frequent contributor to Teatr, Foreign Literature and Snob magazines as well as  Aboard the 500th Jolly Echelon (Franc-Tireur-USA, 2011) is Lembersky’s first novel.

José Manuel Prieto
José Manuel Prieto was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1962. He is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction including the international acclaimed Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex among others. Prieto’s work has been translated to many languages with an exceptional critical reception. He has been a Fellow at The New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Prieto has also translated the works or many Russian authors into Spanish, among others, Andrei Platonov, Anna Ajmatova, Iosif Brodsky, Vladimir Maiakovski.

Jose Manuel Prieto is an assistant professor at Seton Hall University and has taught at Cornell University and Princeton University. His currently lives in New York where he has finished his most recent novel Human Voice.

Hará como quince años escribí junto con el novelista Andrés Jorge un guión basado en dos cuentos de Lino Novas Calvo. La película finalmente se filmó con un guión en que trabajaron el director, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón y mi amigo Senel Paz (para ese entonces Andrés ya había dejado de participar en el proyecto). La película puede verse en línea y en ella trabajan Jorge Perugorria, Alex Gonzalez, Broselinda Hernández y Ana Celia entre otros. Estoy escribiendo un pequeño texto sobre esa experiencia que contó, por cierto, con la supervisión y los consejos del Lichi Diego.

Una Rosa De Francia, Película

Una Rosa De Francia” es una película, Drama, dirigida por Manuel GutiÉrrez AragÓn (21 películas más en este sitio) en 2005, estrenada el 3 de febrero de 2006.. Una Rosa De Franciaes de nacionalidad espaÑola con la participación de Cuba (20.00 %), EspaÑa (80.00 %). Este filme esta clasificado como no recom. menores de 18 aÑos. El estreno en España fue el 3 de febrero de 2006.


Sinopsis: Érase una vez en Cuba… en cualquier época en que queramos situarla historia. Un hombre tan seductor como criminal, Simón, navega en suviejo barco transportando emigrantes clandestinos camino de Nueva York.Los abandona en un islote a su suerte, sarcástico e impasible. Una patrulleranorteamericana descubre al barco clandestino e inicia una persecución sinque le importe violar las aguas cubanas. Un joven marinero del barco clandestino,Andrés, salva la vida de Simón y cae herido bajo las balas norteamericanas.Simón estará siempre agradecido al joven Andrés, pese a que éste se enamorecasualmente de una insinuante adolescente, Marie, que a su vez es una protegidadel malvado Simón. El conflicto está servido. Marie y Andrés, la enamoradapareja, intentarán huir de Cuba camino de Nueva York. Simón hará todo loposible y lo imposible para impedirlo.Once upon a time in Cuba…. at whatever time we want the story totake place. Simon a seductive but criminal man is travelling in an oldboat taking clandestine immigrants to New York. He abandons them on a littleisland and leaves them to their fate, sarcastic and impassive. A NorthAmerican patrol boat finds the clandestine boat and starts to chase itunbothered by the fact that it is violating Cuban waters. Andrés, a youngsailor in the clandestine boat saves Simon’s life and is injured by theNorth American bullets. Simon will always be grateful to the young Andrés,in spite of the fact that he happens to fall in love with Maria, a provocativeteenager who is under the protection of the evel Simón. Conflict is inevitable.Marie and Andrés, the couple in love, try to flee from Cuba on their wayto New York. Simón is going to do everything possible and impossible tostop them.

Producida por TORNASOL FILMS, S.A. (, I.C.A.I.C. (Cuba) con la participación de TVE, S.A.

Con la actuación de: Jorge Perugorría, Broselianda Hernández, Alex González, Ana De Armas, Roxana Montenegro, Yoraisy Gómez, Marian Curbello, Sureidys Amador, Larisa Gil, Olivia Manrufo

Ficha Técnica de la Película

  • Productores ejecutivos: MARIELA BESUIEVSKI,CAMILO VIVES
  • Directores de producción: JOSEAN GÓMEZ,MAYRA SEGURA
  • Director de Fotografía: ALFREDO MAYO (A.E.C.)
  • Montaje: JOSÉ SALCEDO
  • Dirección artística: ONELIO LARRALDE
  • Montaje de sonido: RAÚL LASVIGNES
  • Ayudante de dirección: RAFAEL ROSALES
  • Efectos especiales: REYES ABADES
  • Efectos digitales: TELSON DPTO. DE CINE

Distribución de la Película

  • Totales
    Espectadores: 72.115
    Recaudación: 345.687,11
  • Por distribuidora
    Empresa distribuidora: ALTA CLASSICS S.L UNIPERSONAL
    Fecha de autorización: 18 de enero de 2006
    Espectadores: 72.115
    Recaudación: 345.687,11 €

Formato y otros datos

  • Formato:
    35 mm.
    Color Fujifilm.
    Panorámico 1:1,85.
  • Duración: 98
  • Laboratorios: FOTOFILM DELUXE
  • Lugares_de_rodaje: La Habana, Mariel, Cayo Romero (Matanzas)
  • Otros títulos: Virgin rose
  • Estudios de sonido: CINEARTE
  • Metraje: 2.673 metros
  • Fechas de rodaje: De 21 de febrero de 2005 a 16 de abril de 2005
  • Estudios de montaje: ESTUDIOS FINISTERRE

Aquí les dejo el link

Lounge Event- Reading with Writer, José Manuel Prieto at Americas Society

Lounge Event: Reading with Writer José Manuel Prieto

Thursday, June 16, 2011
7:00 p.m.
Americas Society
680 Park Avenue
New York, NY
Map of location

José Manuel Prieto. Photograph by Raúl M. González.

In conjunction with Consuelo Castañeda’s For Rent lounge, Cuban born and New York-based author and translator José Manuel Prieto will read from his latest novel Voz humana. Prieto is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship award and has served as a fellow at The New York Public Library Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. In addition, he has taught at Princeton and Cornell University.

Prieto is also serving as the guest creative editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, no. 82 (Cuba Inside and Out, Spring 2011).

Click here to register.

About the exhibition: For Rent: Consuelo Castañeda is the first of three exhibitions devoted to mid-career artists from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada to be presented annually from 2011 to 2013 by Americas Society’s Visual Arts program in our gallery.

The concept of For Rent proposes an innovative approach to our exhibition space—located in a landmark building at 680 Park Avenue—that consists of temporarily transferring the use and symbolic value of the gallery to the artists. As a point of departure for the project, Americas Society’s curatorial team proposes a topic to each artist. He or she then develops an in situ installation or environment that will become part of the organization’s institutional history. An expert on site-specific art will serve as an interlocutor to ensure the transparency of the process.

Consuelo Castañeda’s response to this call takes place at the intersection of her personal history as a Cuban artist and émigré, and Americas Society’s exhibition history. The subject proposed to Consuelo Castañeda was the Cold War. Using multiple strategies, Castañeda postulates the existence of an intellectual, social landscape meaningful to diverse groups of people. She asserts the possibility of an art venue as a trans-cultural, social space, and invites the public to lounge and contemplate the galleries and their history.  She excavates art history to unearth visual formats and systems that serve her goal of ordering information in such a way that generates knowledge about propaganda generated in both the “east” and “west”.

This exhibition includes a retrospective. The artist’s career is described through the reproduction of her work in wallpaper, arranged in light of her cross-disciplinary practice that began and flourished in the academic setting of post-revolutionary Cuba and evolved in Diaspora during her time in Mexico and now Miami. A radical curatorial intervention informs this project: it occurs as an invitation to Scottish filmmakers David Harding and Ross Birrell to present their twin screen installation Guantanamera at the exhibition’s center. Through arrangements of signs, branded symbols, and iconic cultural forms, Castañeda and her colleagues reframe the modes by which these images circulate and assume meaning in free-market and communist systems.

The interlocutor working on this project alongside Castañeda is Yasmeen Siddiqui in collaboration with Gabriela Rangel.

Americas Society is part of ¡Sí Cuba! Festival, a New York celebration of Cuban arts & culture. For the complete line-up of ¡Sí Cuba! Festival events around the city, please visit

Americas Society Culture Program Reservations

Americas Society Members – Reserve your FREE tickets today for guaranteed admission to our culture programs this season and Members-only Meet-the-Artist receptions! To reserve for this program, email or call             212.277.8359       ext. 4.

Not yet a Member? Don’t be left out! Join today to guarantee your free admission to our culture programs. Learn more about member benefits, and email, or call             212.277.8359       ext. 4 to join.

Non-Members admission – Limited seating will be available five business days prior to each Culture program on a first-come, first-serve basis. Please return to this page five days ahead of the event date to register. In the meantime, please sign up for our cultural email announcements to receive a reminder.

*Americas Society culture programs are open to the public and free of charge.

The exhibition For Rent: Consuelo Castañeda and related public programs are made possible in part with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency, and by a grant from The Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Inc. Americas Society’s Visual Arts program is also supported by Sharon Schultz Simpson and in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council. In-kind support graciously provided by Glasgow School of Art.

Havana: The State Retreats

May 26, 2011

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen


When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.

All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”

Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.

Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance to observe the first signs of the inverse process: the dismantling of this gigantic state, visibly in retreat. I saw the detritus left behind: the disaster of a dysfunctional economy and a deep financial crisis aggravated by a dual currency system. All amid the growing discontent of the population and surging dissidence.


In Havana I buy every bit of printed news on sale at the kiosk near the casa particular where I’m renting a room. Such an unusual interest in publications almost no one reads immediately gives me away as a visitor from abroad. I ask for the recently released official publication “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social” (“Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy”), but it’s sold out, the elderly vendor informs me: “All Havana is reading it.” In the end, I buy it secondhand, for ten times the original price, from a passerby who has overheard the conversation.

It’s a twenty-nine-page pamphlet whose 291 points set forth the coming “update” of the Cuban model. These points, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma affirms, were distilled from the vast consulta, or survey, Raúl Castro declared would take place on July 26, 2007, when “more than four million Cubans raised more than a million points.” By and large, the guidelines attempt to reduce the cumbersome size of the state to make it more compact and less costly.

The crux of the debate, I gather, after penetrating the technical jargon all Havana is reading and discussing as if it were a best-selling novel, is whether a new role can be assigned to the state: Can it be imagined more as referee than as star player while ensuring that it doesn’t lose control? There is of course no question that the governing party must remain in power and “safeguard the conquests of the revolution.”

I come to see that in fact the Party is trying to adjust to a transformation that began without much government participation, something the Cuban people started doing on their own. The government is like a general who mandates an “orderly retreat” when his army is being crushed. The “Guidelines” are for keeping up appearances.


Life under socialist rule is an eternal game of cat and mouse between a state that jealously guards its status as the sole moving force and the permanent guerrilla warfare of private initiative, the black market—the powerful current that runs beneath the nation’s apparently monolithic surface and, to a large degree, keeps it functional. The state, one might say, now proposes to gain access to this current by drilling some artesian wells to allow it to rise to the surface in a more or less controlled way.

I’m amazed, for example, by the amount of street food one can buy, in contrast to the hungry years of the so-called Período Especial that began in 1991. Along the Calle San Rafael, in the city’s historic center, I count at least ten food stands, most of them doing business in Cuban pesos. Yes, prices are quite high; yet the markets are well stocked (by Cuban standards) and there are buyers, even at prices that are prohibitive for much of the population. The private grocers, along with the state stores that sell at “liberated” market prices, have made the arduous task of feeding oneself and one’s family somewhat less difficult. The country imports 80 percent of what it consumes, at a cost of almost $2 billion per year. In 2007, the government began to parcel out fallow land for individual farming, nearly three million hectares of it, almost half of the country’s farmland. Still, as the young Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejando noted in an interview in the magazine Espacio Laícal, “the dissolution of the centralized state system’s monopoly on agricultural commercialization” has yet to be achieved. It is this factor of state subsidy—and not underdevelopment or hurricanes—that keeps Cuban campesinos from filling the stores with produce.

Ration cards, it is announced, will soon be eliminated—a lifelong dream for many that finally seems to lie within reach. Not because the economic bonanza of Developed Socialism has allegedly been achieved (as happened in the USSR, where, we were told, there were no libretas, or ration cards) but because the state by now has hardly anything to distribute. The bodega I pass by every morning, which has a working public phone I use to make calls, is still as empty as it would have been during my childhood, when my mother had to work miracles to stretch out the permanently insufficient quota of rationed bread.


“Despite Cuba’s beseeching overtures,” my friend the essayist Victor Fowler tells me when I pay him a visit late one dark night, “the Chinese didn’t want to join in the game of ‘keeping’ faraway Cuba, as the Russians had.” The USSR, the sugar daddy that gave billions of dollars to the Cuban Revolution for more than thirty years, passed away in 1991. Its place was taken by Venezuela, which sells Cuba 100,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for medical services. But this model, too, has begun to spring some leaks because of Hugo Chávez’s blunders and Venezuela’s own precarious situation.

The government has therefore seen itself forced to turn to the last creditor left standing: none other than the Cuban people themselves. The government has stopped deploring those who desert the state economy as speculators and parasites, and baptized them with a new name: cuentapropistas (“own-accounters”). This is the most recent of its last resorts.

The first step was the publication of an unintentionally comical list of 178 authorized activities for cuentapropistas. The list includes such exotic careers as clown and “button upholsterer” but prudently omits other professions such as doctor or computer programmer. Education in those fields is financed by the Revolution, doctors especially being one of the country’s primary sources of income. Cuba maintains so-called “medical missions” not only in Venezuela but also in South Africa, Bolivia, and many other countries.

The list was received with great enthusiasm. According to Granma, 80,000 Cubans had requested cuentapropista licenses by November of last year. The government has declared, in response, that it will import $130 million worth of merchandise to create a wholesale market from which these new entrepreneurs can buy the materials they need. Even more paradoxically, and still in accordance with the “Guidelines,” it will be the state, as well, that sets prices and taxes earnings at rates some fear are so high that they will cripple fledgling businesses. There is an ideological basis for these contradictions: “No one must be deceived about this,” declared Raúl Castro, in the aforementioned speech.

The “Guidelines” establish a path toward the socialist future that suits Cuba’s needs, and not toward the neocolonial and capitalist past toppled by the Revolution. State planning and not the free market will be the distinctive feature of the economy, and the concentration of capital will not be allowed, as the third of the “general guidelines” states.


The other policy all Havana is talking about consists of layoffs. The government is going to eliminate 500,000 jobs by the end of 2011 and up to 1.3 million over the subsequent three years. When I read this news in New York it frightened me, but in Cuba I’m struck by two things. First, among all the people I talk to—friends, former classmates, people I meet in the street—no one is currently working for the state. I even speak to a doctor who resigned from her job in order to owe nothing to the state and be able to emigrate when she could (a punitive five-year delay is imposed on working doctors who express a desire to leave).

Second, I sense no great anguish about the layoffs, perhaps because it doesn’t make much sense to talk about “layoffs” in a situation where salaries are symbolic at best. The meager salary paid by the state, $15 to $20 per month, is almost valueless. In an economy where a cell phone costs $40 a month and there are a million cell phones in use, it’s clear that money is coming from somewhere besides the state. A friend told me he sees the layoffs “as a relief” and also as “an opportunity for many people.” “This is the point where the state will stop meddling and finally allow us to earn a living.” It will be riskier, but it will also mean living in greater freedom.

prieto_2-052611.jpgThomas Hoepker/Magnum PhotosEdgar Leonardo Prada Rosales, a student and fan of Che Guevara, Chivirico, Cuba, 2008

An important point here: the words used about a country like Cuba have to be very carefully examined. An “unemployed” person is often not unemployed, a “demonstration” is not a demonstration but an activity organized by the government, and so on in a very long et cetera. Totalitarianism—as Victor Klemperer explained—begins first of all in a linguistic subversion of reality.

Against this linguistic subversion, the bloggers and independent press have rebelled. I follow a number of the blogs written on the island, in particular that of Yoani Sánchez, who describes the Cuban catastrophe in ways anyone can understand. She won the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Award for digital journalism, given by the Spanish paper El Pais. A true media cuentapropista, Yoani does what the behemoth state newspaper Granma cannot do: she offers an accurate account of the daily life of the Cuban people. Predictably, she’s been accused of working for the CIA, but no one believes that. Many Cubans understand that an expression of dissent does not mean that you are in the service of a foreign power.

Even so, the impact of the blogs is limited. These bloggers are apparently allowed to keep blogging only because such a low percentage of the population has access to the Internet. Only a million and a half people in Cuba (14 percent of the population) are able to go online and for those without a state-approved connection the cost is exorbitant. The connection is, moreover, exasperatingly slow, as I learn when I check my e-mail in the press room at the Hotel Nacional, an architectural jewel of the gilded age where, my Internet struggle concluded, I stroll out to the garden to see the peacocks and listen to musicians running through the now doubly nostalgic tunes of the Buena Vista Social Club.

I’ve arranged to meet here with Orlando Luis Pazo, thirty-nine, another blogger. A former scientist, Pazo spent years recombining DNA at Havana’s Polo Científico “to make vaccines.” He talks about las Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White, wives of the victims of the so-called Black Spring of 2003 when seventy-five members of the opposition were jailed. Many of them were independent journalists arrested under what’s known as the Ley Mordaza or Gag Law, Law No. 88 for “the protection of national independence and the economy of Cuba.” Accused of being agents of the United States, the dissidents were given sentences of up to twenty-six years in prison.

The most important thing now, says Pazo, is that the Damas—who protest by walking through the streets of Havana dressed in white and holding gladiolas—have not been spontaneously attacked by the population, which, for the first time in years, has come to view them sympathetically. One source of this change may have been the fate of the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, whose death in February 2010, after a long hunger strike, provoked international protest. Pressure from the Damas, as well as another hunger strike by Guillermo Fariñas—awarded the 2010 Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament—along with mediation by the Catholic Church and its most visible representative in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega, brought the dissidents their freedom. More than fifty of the political prisoners who are acknowledged as such by the government were sent to Spain last July along with their families. Recently, another thirty-seven, along with two hundred relatives, were also released. These maneuvers, many believe, were designed to leave the dissidents in political limbo and put an end to their influence in Cuba.

The best-known and most-admired dissident is Oscar Biscet, forty-nine, a Cuban doctor and anti-abortion activist. In 1997, Biscet, who was among those jailed in 2003, founded the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, an NGO that seeks to promote the objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Biscet was one of the last of the Black Spring prisoners to be freed, on March 11, 2011. He remains in Cuba. “There’s a kind of truce right now,” said Pazo. “Both sides are waiting.”


All too visible is the city’s near-feral state of abandonment. Apart from the glitteringly renovated Habana Vieja district—which now resembles one of those model towns built by the Disney corporation, and where, under the guiding hand of the eminent historian and seasoned entrepreneur Eusebio Leal, semiprivate galleries and restaurants do business—the city’s deterioration is palpable. Many once-elegant buildings have sprouted clumsy, jerry-rigged additions, and I’ve never seen so many iron gates here before: barred windows and balconies, security grilles on stairways and doorways. This seems another visible manifestation of the state’s retreat: where it pulls back its protective mantle, a space is freed for the forces of criminality.

And indeed, a visitor often hears of assaults, robberies. My godmother tells me a particularly striking story about a bus held up by armed men, “just like in Mexico,” she adds. The rumor is so persistent that the national news service has to go to great lengths to deny it two days later.

Even so, Havana is still safer than most cities I’ve lived in, and it has something more: the sea. I take a long walk along the Malecón, the boulevard that runs along Havana’s sea wall, then clamber aboard a 1956 Oldsmobile that, despite its veteran status, is the kind of vehicle most people use to get around. Transport continues to be hard to find and I see large crowds at the bus stops, despite the new buses, imported from China, which, I was flabbergasted to learn, have air conditioning, something I never thought I would live to see in this country, where the heat can be intense. All the same, it is the carros particulares like this Oldsmobile that have brought about a perceptible improvement in transportation, taking pressure off the state system for a fare of 10 Cuban pesos, or about 50 US cents.

The two girls sharing the back seat with me are speaking Mandarin; I take them for tourists, whose presence is palpable in Havana. The newspaper Juventud Rebelde (“Rebel Youth”) announces a record of two million foreign visitors between January and October 2010. My seatmates turn out to be Chinese students who are learning Spanish on the outskirts of Havana in the gated resort community of Tarará. I’d forgotten that Cuba continues to be a destination for foreign students—some 30,000, including a group of one hundred from the US who are studying medicine at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina.

Still, there is a shortage of professors in Cuba, and education is far from what it was in my youth. More than half of all classes are televised. I revisit the school I attended in the 1970s: the Escuela Vocacional Lenin. This emblem of an architectural style one might call Soviet gigantism, housing more than four thousand students, still rises amid luxuriant tropical vegetation, though it’s a pale copy, today, of what it was when Leonid Brezhnev inaugurated it in 1975. Back then it offered an impressive education, particularly strong in vocational training, albeit with a hefty dose of ideological indoctrination and living conditions that I now realize, as I revisit the dormitories and student dining hall, were quite spartan.

Many parents now pay private tutors for classes in mathematics and science. This would have been not only unthinkable but also quite unnecessary during the period when the state spent more than 15 percent of GDP on education. “If I don’t do it, she won’t be ready for the university entrance exams,” I was told by a former classmate whose daughter is in her final year at the Escuela Lenin, still the best school in the country. She tells me about the constant pilfering—even mattresses are stolen from the school dormitories.


For years the government refused to allow Cuban writers to publish elsewhere. Some, such as the now-celebrated Reinaldo Arenas, were jailed for having done so. The situation changed dramatically during the 1990s; Cuba’s publishing industry collapsed and most writers started publishing outside of Cuba. But those books, my own included, do not circulate on the island. Still, things are far more relaxed. Invited by the leading Cuban poet Reyna María Rodríguez, I read a chapter of my next novel at one of the country’s only nonofficial cultural spaces, which with great wisdom and perseverance Rodríguez has managed to set up.

On my way to the reading I duck into one of the few bookshops still in business on Calle Obispo where once there were many of them. The shelves hold only books put out by state publishing houses; nothing imported and, as expected, nothing critical of the Revolution. This is part of life where the state is not about to give up control. The last privately published books in Cuba appeared at the very start of the Revolution and were banned as subversive. Among them was Orwell’s Animal Farm, whose long-ago Cuban publishers sought to alert readers to the dangers of an omnipotent totalitarian state—the very state the ruling party has now slowly and with utmost care begun dismantling, in fear that it may blow up in its hands.


Which brings me to a question that’s been on my mind for a long time: How to do away with a totalitarian state? How to put an end to it? The world has witnessed a number of different methods: military defeat, “political reform as a path to economic reform,” economic reform with a freeze on political reform. Nazi Germany in 1945, the Soviet Union in 1991, and China in 1978 are examples of these variants.

It seems quite clear—from the articles about Vietnam in Granma and a recent visit by a group of Cuban economists to Vietnam and Laos—that Cuba has opted for the Chinese and Vietnamese model: economic reform without any prospect of political reform. Or perhaps it would be more correct to speak of a “Cuban model.” Until 1968, Cuba itself had a mixed economy, with up to 60,000 small businesses such as shoe stores and food stands that made life slightly easier. Fidel Castro put an end to all that during one of his longwinded speeches: “There still subsists,” he said,

a “cream” of the privileged, who prosper from the work of others and live considerably better than anyone else while watching others work. Able-bodied idlers who start up a food shack (timbiriche), or other business, and earn 50 pesos a day in violation of the law, in violation of hygiene, in violation of everything…. Many people may wonder what kind of revolution would permit such a class of parasites to remain in existence after nine years, and they have good reason to wonder. In short: Are we going to have socialism or are we going to have food shacks? We did not have a revolution, señores, in order to establish the right to commerce!

On that memorable day, the country’s last vestiges of private property came to an end. Among the many things that vanished was the snack my school once served first-graders; my parents would give me a 20-centavo coin to pay for it. Runaway inflation followed—one of the earliest political memories of my childhood—accompanied by shortages of everything. Another thing that disappeared was the beautiful imported scarf my mother had paid the exorbitant sum of 80 pesos for; it was snatched from her one night in the middle of carnival.


For some, the most distasteful aspect of the type of end game that is now foreseeable is that it will not allow for any clear condemnation of the outrages committed by the Revolution, or the violence that established the totalitarian state. They fear, and not without justification, that the moral damage done to millions of Cubans will linger beneath the surface far into the nation’s future. And it remains to be seen whether the Cuban state will learn to live in a newly diminished form, with millions off its payroll and owing it nothing. I can imagine a return to the old ways once the economic tempest seems to have passed or, somehow, a new sponsor is found to finance the state.

Though conditions are different now, it wouldn’t be the first time a period of privatization and reform was followed by a giant step backward. The announcement on April 19, during the Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, that eighty-year-old Party stalwart José Ramón Machado is now second-in-command in the Cuban hierarchy looks more like a move into the past than into the future (particularly since he happens to have the same name as one of the most hated of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary presidents, the dictator Gerardo Machado). Gradually, however, I came to doubt that this could happen. Not because the powers that be don’t want to continue their old system of state control but because they cannot. But even in its newly diminished form, the Cuban state will continue to be disproportionately large compared to any other country in the region. It may take years for that to change.


Before my trip a friend gave me the address of a casa particular, one of the private houses that have a license from the government to rent out rooms. This innovation came about during the crisis of the 1990s when the state was in need of rooms to house tourists. The house I stayed at is in a neighborhood of former middle-class splendor, two blocks from the offices of the United States Interest Section.

It isn’t a tourist area so there’s little street food available at night. One evening shortly before my departure, I was walking back to my room and noticed a sign that said Se Vende Comida (Food for Sale). I ducked down a narrow alley between two houses and saw a family watching the Brazilian telenovela of the moment. In the next window a young woman was frying steaks, throwing them into hot oil in a blackened pan. It was typical Cuban food: rice, beans, boiled yuca. All for 20 pesos, or about a dollar, served up in typical Cuban fashion in a small cardboard box. When the woman handed it to me she said: “Cuidado, que está extremadamente caliente.” (“Careful, it is extremely hot.”) She didn’t say muy caliente, but extremadamente.

I’m not sure why but I was powerfully struck by this nuance. It suggested the reserves of people waiting to be allowed to live an adult life. The protector state, now in retreat, educated and instructed them but also immobilized them and made them dependent, confining an entire population to a prolonged childhood. The time has come to allow them to grow up.

April 27, 2011

“La isla entera”, conversación con Mark Weiss (versión en español)

Por José Manuel Prieto

Recientemente salió publicada en inglés la que es hasta la fecha la más completa antología de poesía cubana aparecida en los Estados Unidos. Se trata de The Whole Island/La isla entera, publicada por University of California Press y antologada por el poeta neoyorkino Mark Weiss. En sus 624 páginas el volumen abarca la producción poética cubana de los últimos sesenta años e incluye autores tan conocidos como Nicolás Guillén, José Lezama Lima, Fina García Marruz, pasando por poetas más recientes como el cubano americano José Kozer y Raúl Hernández Novás hasta cerrar con poetas más jóvenes como Omar Pérez y Javier Marimón. La antología es bilingüe, lo que incrementa su valor a la vez que da fe del verdadero rigor con que fue hecha. La prensa estadounidense ha sido unánime en sus elogios: “Effectively broaden[s] the sense of poetic terrain outside the United States and also create[s] a superb collection of foreign poems in English. There is nothing else like it.”–The Nation “This impressive, bilingual anthology is the first comprehensive overview of the Cuban poetic tradition… A useful introduction to little-known riches.”–Latin America Foresight / Foreword Magazine “This unique anthology of Cuban poetry . . . is invaluable for both its scope and its concern for political and literary context.”—Choice.

Mark Weiss es una figura visible en la escena poética neoyorkina y es autor de varios volúmenes de poesía entre los que cabe destacar su más reciente As landscape(Chax Press, 2010).  Fue durante la presentación de La isla entera en The Americas Society, la casona señorial de la Avenida Park, cuando me surgió la idea de hacer esta entrevista. Como traductor, yo mismo, de poesía, me interesó más que nada conocer esa parte del proceso creativo de tan amplio volumen, indagar en lo que representó coordinar la labor de los varios traductores que colaboraron en el libro. En la entrevista que sigue Mark habla en extenso de todo este proceso. Sostuvimos nuestra conversación en inglés y la presento aquí vertida al castellano.

New York, 2011

José Manuel Prieto: En alguna parte de la introducción dices que se trata de la primera antología que en un solo volumen, recoge el quehacer poético cubano más reciente. El resultado es notable, su principal virtud es que da al lector una visión no teñida de exotismo. Empecemos, entonces, por el comienzo: ¿cómo se te ocurrió la idea de compilar una antología de poetas cubanos? ¿Fue una necesidad personal o bien respondiste a algún encargo? ¿Qué conocías de poesía cubana antes de comenzar a trabajar en La isla entera?

Mark Weiss: Yo conocía algo de la historia de Cuba. Algunos años atrás había trabajado en una traducción de El Monte, de Lydia Cabrera, que no llegó a publicarse, pero antes de comenzar la antología conocía muy poco sobre poesía cubana o cultura cubana en general. Esto a pesar de que, por un número de años, había traducido al poeta José Kozer (Stet, el fruto de aquel trabajo apareció en el 2006), y de que la poesía cubana era tema frecuente en las conversaciones con mis amigos. De modo que debí comenzar a estudiar el terreno prácticamente desde cero.

Seguir leyendo aquí…