A Conversation with Marta Rojas, one of Cuba’s Most Important Living Writers

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In the apartment of Marta Rojas- here on display with a picture of her with Fidel Castro, a personal friend- one of post-Revolutionary Cuba’s foremost living writers

The old writer draws a picture from a stained folder in the musty wooden cabinet and contemplates the image of her younger, more beautiful self, many years ago, sitting next to Fidel Castro. We draw closer to her, a collective gasp of astonishment escaping us all. We can see the resemblances in her face, her eyes. These two women- the one in the photo and the one holding the photo- are the same person, separated only by half a century’s time. Together, they constitute one of Cuba’s most important writers, a witness to massive upheavals and an unmatched chronicler of history.

Marta Rojas, a Cuban journalist and Revolutionary heroine who exudes an inexplicable brightness of spirit, smiles youthfully as she flips through the pictures of her past life: here she is again with Castro, testifying at a table in the early months of the Revolution, her shapely, wine-dark face in the picture lowered down to speak into a microphone before her; here she is on that picture hung up on the wall, standing there in the black and white photo taken when she traveled to Vietnam to cover the war as a correspondent.

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An Endless Enigma: The Future of Change in Cuba

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Atop the Escambray Mountains in Topes de Collantes Cuba, watching the Caribbean Sea to the south

When people ask me, knowing that I’ve been there twice in the past year, what I think about the prospect for change in Cuba, I’m always struck with the sense that there’s a premade answer they want me to respond with.

Yes! They’re expecting me to say. The pressures for democratic reform are pushing to a tipping point! That as clandestine groups plot revolution in dimly lit alleyways and garages, flag-waving masses of disgruntled citizens will soon pour into the streets demanding change, and that as corrupt government bullets ring out in retaliation, Cuba will become the next bloody iteration of Venezuela or Libya or Syria; that heavily romanticized rebels (perhaps even with the aid of a glorious NATO bombing campaign spearheaded by the United States) will fight on with gathering strength in the mountains, in the plains, and in the streets, finally deposing those communist dicks in Havana in a fiery show of cinematic, democratic glory.

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On Losing my Camera After Cuba

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The camera is gone. The images are missing. Now, after having my school-rented Nikon mysteriously stolen not even two weeks after returning from Cuba, the only way I can recreate the time I spent on that slender Caribbean island is to rely solely upon my memory.

For the two weeks I traversed the Cuban countryside, my Nikon was slung as preciously over my shoulder as a revolutionary would carry his rifle. At every possible moment, I lifted my camera from my side and carefully sought out shots like a soldier setting the crosshairs on the enemy. With my lens, I endlessly sought to reinterpret that feverish tropical dreamscape, trying to divine meaning out of the passing of the Earth around me. By the end of the trip, my efforts had yielded an enormous pictorial catalogue of my journey.

It was my second time traveling in Cuba. The first time I went I had gone with two friends, on our own, and we had stayed in around Havana, whiling the bulk of our week there wandering the labyrinthine tanglework of broken backstreets that are as emblematic of that city as the Eiffel tower is of Paris. And though I was exhilarated by the first trip- by the adventure of exploring a new land where I could practice my pent-up Spanish language skills- I was not in love. The second trip, however, was different.

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How the Zapatistas Resisted Neoliberalism

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When they first emerged out of the jungle early that morning, New Year’s Day 1994, it seemed at first that the Zapatistas materialized out of nowhere.

Their takeover was quick, a flash of ominous lightning that struck Mexico with a force unseen since the sepia-tinted, early days of the Revolution.

Within the space of just a few hours, the scantily armed rebels of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army)- black-masked mountain dwellers who looked out upon the world with dark, mysterious, indigenous eyes- overran the numerous large towns that strung across Chiapas, the southernmost
zapatistas4Mexican state whose rainforests border Guatemala to the south, effectively taking over the entirety of the state. By the time the millions of urban dwellers in Mexico City several hundred miles to the north, presumably reeling from the previous night’s drinking, awoke to this development, the rebels had already broken the news, having issued their startling ultimatum to the world: the Zapatistas had declared war on the Mexican government.

Not only had they declared war on their own government; they had begun the first leg of a cosmic battle against the brutal economic ideology of neoliberalism, whose coercive and terrifying tendencies was the symbolic culmination of the more than five hundred year tradition of exploitation, abuse, and genocide directed against the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

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A Dark History of Neoliberalism

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The Neoliberal Coup d’état, which took place in the late 70’s and early 80’s, has solidified corporate power in the world to an extent beyond imagining

In my upcoming piece about the 1994 Zapatista Uprising in Mexico, I had made, as part of the essay, an attempt to explain the economic ideology that was responsible for sparking of this rebellion.

The ideology is a brutal, austere doctrine that often involves the use of torture and propaganda to coerce populations to accept it’s disastrous programs, which more often than not deal a death-knell to the poor. I soon realized, however, that a few skimming paragraphs wouldn’t do justice to understand the immense power this ideology wields. The only way for people to understand this monster- which is called Neoliberalism- would be to dedicate an entire piece to it.

Neoliberalism- Friedrich Hayek

Friedrich Hayek- considered by many to be the Grandfather of Neoliberalism. His ideas were later transmuted to American Economist Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work.

Originally a fringe intellectual movement that could hardly get enough steam to garner
mainstream academic notoriety, the political doctrine of Neoliberalism was founded by German economist Friedrich Hayek in the steaming wreck of post-war, 1940’s Europe.

Centered around the deregulation of all corporate laws (which were then, as they often are now, perceived as corrupt remnants of FDR’s New Deal interventionism), Neoliberalism views the whims of the market, even with its rollercoaster-like fluctuations, as the highest aspiration of the human spirit. Nothing could interfere with the rhythms of the free market, Hayek argued- not even, or perhaps especially– the government. Continue reading

Economic Gods and the Destruction of the Planet

Burning EarthA couple million years ago, God granted humanity a lease that may soon be running out.

This lease was a very unique one, for it allowed us as the human species to live on Planet Earth, a planet that, as far as we know, is the only celestial body capable of supporting life.

And yet, despite the refuge Earth gives us in the freezing vacuum of space, we have turned it into a ticking time bomb.

In the past century and a half, three Gods, which I call the “Economic Gods,” have seduced humanity into the destruction of its own planet: Growth, Capitalism, and Free Markets.

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The Economic Gods have reconfigured our worldview to only see the world in a manner that conforms to Economic Growth: where wildlands are called “resources” and “resources” need to be supposedly “developed”

These three Gods, to whom we’ve all become unwitting servants, rule the world unquestioned, with hardly a murmur of dissent- it is broadly assumed that Global Capitalism is the only viable model for a sustainable world economy, and that if Capitalism as it stands (which has now entered its volatile and dangerous Late Stage) entails a new, genocidal era of mass extinction, that “we had better get over it” because “new jobs and a growing economy are more important anyways.” Continue reading

The Eleventh Hour

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The world is beautiful yet painfully precious

 

A few weeks ago I had an experience that I can’t seem to get out of my mind.

I was in Havana, Cuba, sitting on the seawall that lines the city, watching the rows of the mirrorlike waves as they rolled in from the emptiness of the ocean. The night had a strange beauty to it: an incandescent fan of sunlight had gathered over the western horizon, and the heavy swells of the Atlantic heaved up slowly, unfurling over the barnacle-encrusted rocks with an oil-like fluidity.

Contemplating this scene, I remember thinking what a beautiful, what a magnificent, what an utterly precious planet we live on. Though that thought inevitably led me to a horrible question, a question that’s haunted me for the majority of my life: what would it be like if our Earth were to die.

And then I grew sad, for I remembered, in that moment, that such a possibility is right on our doorstep.

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #6: Raúl

Estan abierto– Are you open?”

The waiter on the dirtied steps of the cafe shook his head disinterestedly, sucking in on his cigarette for a lingering breath of blue tobacco smoke. Raul grunted mutedly and shot off down the street, motioning impatiently for the three of us to follow suit.

“Abierto?” he shouted out at the next place we ran into.

No answer. We continued walking.

“Abierto?”

Nope.

“Abierto?”

Nope.

“Abierto?”

“Señor,” the latest restaurateur said, regarding us in the flickering lights of his establishment like a flock of miscreant teenagers. “You’re from Habana. You should know better. There are no restaurants open this late. It’s fucking Tuesday night. Dios mío.”

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #5: Rachael

Rachael

Rachael (pronounced with an emphatic rolling of the beginning R- “Rrrrachael”) was a short, melancholic student who had been a student of English and French at the University of Havana for the past three years. She came up to the door downstairs wearing bronze-tinted knockoff sunglasses and listened quietly to the instructions of our hostess Marta, who spoke to her with the same grandmotherly slowness with which she had originally addressed us. Rachael nodded as she listened to the lecture, though already, you could tell, she was in no mood to follow any sort of itinerary.

Despite the slight rung of body fat that clung against her torso, she was nonetheless a beautiful girl, and managed to hide her depressive nature with a quiet charm and inclination to laugh that suited her perfectly to the task of guiding us around town for the first time.

Eating in a crowded, sweaty, streetside café where a mass of people had conglomerated IMG_20170312_121442under the fans of the open-air veranda to escape the oppressive mid-afternoon humidity, we dug into heavily loaded plates of arroz y pollo while Rachael, at our curious requests, regaled us with different aspects of her life.

Her fiancée, who she spoke about with a wispy glow of longing in her eyes, had escaped to Miami in search of better job opportunities (when, or more importantly how he got to Miami, I didn’t bother to ask.) One day, she hoped, she’d be able to join him in south Florida and perhaps create a new life with him there.

 

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Cuba Unveiled, Dispatch #4: Visions of Havana

How long does it take to become entranced by a country?

Does it take a day?

A week?

A month?

A year?

It took me barely thirty minutes after our jet skidded down on the tarmac to become possessed by the allure of Cuba- a land to whose ecstasies I’ve been forbidden most of my life.

We had been riding in the taxi for barely twenty minutes, the driver revving us up onto the highway, or autopista. Wilting fields of sugar cane attended to by sweaty men with machetes, peeling revolutionary-era murals lining walls of weathered cement, salt-rusted train crossings shaded by thick groves of palms, and aquamarine apartment buildings slid past in a feverish tropical landscape, like something drawn straight out of a García Márquez novel. A scorching mosaic of government-run plantations stretched out in all directions, and as we rode we kept the windows rolled down, the humid wind wafting our hair as we happily contemplated the sun-beat earth around us.

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El Campo- the country- surrounding Havana

Our taxi driver, a saturnine old African who spoke the slurred Cuban dialect of Spanish, shot haphazardly through the streams of traffic, careening his Mazda through different lanes with complete and utter abandon.

For a few minutes I tested my Spanish on the man, asking about where he was from and how long he’d lived here and what it was like to grow up in such a country. My Spanish was working well, despite periodic misunderstandings due to his accent. Thinking about the raft-bound immigrants that’ve made the crossing to Miami, especially the recent wave in 2014, I asked if he knew anyone who’d escaped to the other side of the Gulf Steam.

He was consumed with a sudden, snorting laugh. “Half of Havana,” he said, his answer uttered without any discernable traces of sarcasm. He jammed the stick backwards and jerked into the left lane.

We were in Havana now. Buildings closed in on us, accumulated, grew close together as we came into view of the city.

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