Oswaldo Payá: the nights of San Juan de Letrán

Oswaldo and “Ofelita” in 2010. From Along the Malecon

I published this post originally in Spanish. The good fellows at Translating Cuba translated it into English. Here is the English version.

It was the summer or autumn of 1984. Father Juan de Dios — who is now a bishop and yesterday celebrated the first funeral mass for Oswaldo Payá — chose several people to prepare a document that summarized what was said by Havana Catholics over the previous months in hundreds of meetings preparatory to the Cuban National Ecclesiastic Meeting (ENEC). The commission consisted of two priests — Juan de Dios and Father René Ruiz — and four laypeople: Oswaldo Payá, Ofelia Acevedo, Gustavo Andújar and this scribe.

For several months we met two or three times a week in the Church of San Juan de Letrán. Father Yeyo, the son of a former chef at the Havana Hilton and pastor of the church, didn’t stop complaining about our meetings (joking or serious?), but he prepared us snacks and exquisite dinners from his father’s old recipes.

Oswaldo was thirty-two years old with the nasal voice that later the whole world would hear, and wore little hick shirts and tacky pants, and gave the impression that none of that mattered in the slightest. Ofelita — we all called her that — had Bambi eyes and Isabella Rossellini skin: she had a beauty that took your breath away. Its delicacy hid the immense courage she would later demonstrate so many times, and could say things that would also take your breath away. She is one of those women who, when they enter the room, men lower their voices and tuck in their shirts.

During breaks and over dinner in those months I had dozens of conversations with Oswaldo. We talked about the subject that occupied us (the ENEC), of course, but also about Poland, Lech Walesa, the fate of Cuba, the political prisoners, about Valladares who had married Oswaldo’s cousin…

We agreed that communism was evil nonsense, but I thought it was immutable. Oswaldo Payá, no: he was the first person who told me, with absolute conviction, that communism could be overcome and that we had to do something to save Cuba from the disaster. I told him I thought he was a dreamer. History, to the infinite joy of both of us, would prove Oswaldo right.

But what fascinated me was his cheerfulness and his desire to do good. Oswaldo was the guy you would choose to go with to see a ballgame or a hopeless war. With him you always knew who you had at your side. And I imagine it was this that Ofelita saw with those eyes of hers today brimming over with tears, because a little while later they got engaged. She couldn’t have falling in love with his hick shirts and his fifties haircut, but with his capacity to imagine a better future and his courage to pursue it.

In Cerro parish, where he practiced his faith his whole life, they married in 1986. I remember that instead of entering the church to the Wedding March of every wedding, they chose a liturgical song: “People of kings.” I remember the crowded church, like today, but overflowing with joy. Because that day, like in the movies, the mischievous boy had conquered the most beautiful girl in school.

Years later, in 1991, we met at the “First Day Social,” an event for lay Catholics organized by Dagoberto Valdés. It had been some time since I’d seen Oswaldo, who was already, by then, a known and persecuted dissident. At lunchtime, when I approached his table, Oswaldo, sarcastically, was saying to someone, “Don’t sit next to me, you’ll get in trouble.” Then he raised his eyes and saw me, laughed and said, “Come, sit here, not even a miracle can redeem you.” And it was if no time at all had passed since our conversations at San Juan de Letrán. A few months later I left Cuba: we never saw each other again.

Oswaldo Payá’s death is devastating for his family, friends and colleagues, but a disaster for his country. His courage, his political talent and consistency are always precious, but more so in a country worm-eaten in its vital essence. May God help his wife and children who, in these days, have given us a lesson in integrity and dignity in the midst of tragedy. May God help us all, because to some extent, we will all pay the price of his absence.

The nakedness of my dreams

Do you “have intercourse in your dreams”? Are you “chased by animals in your dreams”? Do you suffer from “nakedness in your dreams”? Well, rejoice! I’ve got the perfect church for you. You can find all the necessary information on this flyer from the LifeZone Church I found at the Jamaica Center Station of the New York Subway. (Click on image to enlarge.) I know what you are thinking, but let me explain…

You may think the author of the flyer is a lunatic or a crook trying to screw the poor people of this hard-luck neighborhood for the little money they may have. Don’t be so fast to judge. Read, I beg you. They don’t just help you overcome your dreams of being naked, having intercourse and being chased by animals. If you “hear voices, experience unexplainable financial, marital and professional problem [sic],” they say they can help with that stuff too.

Oh! and they can provide “deliverance from spells, voodoo, curses […] bad luck, witchcraft, failure, poverty, household wickedness, etc.”

Well, consider this. I don’t know this people, and I don’t go around town telling everybody about my problems. So, just tell me, how did they found out all this stuff about me before posting the flyer at my bus stop? I just have to find out. I’ll have to pay a visit to the LifeZone Church. I’m ready for “spiritual warfare,” my friends, whatever that is.




Requiem in Five Slogans

Kai Chase, Michael Jackson’s chef, recently declared that her boss kept a strict healthy food diet. He used to have fruit juice and granola with almond milk for breakfast, spinach salad and chicken for lunch, and seared ahi tuna for dinner. After that, he would go to his bedroom and take enough Zanax pills to kill a mid-sized buffalo. When it came to food, MJ thought that ‘you are what you eat.’ Regarding Zanax, I guess, he was following another dictum of his generation: ‘If it feels good, do it.’ The end of the King of Rhinoplasty came to prove another 70’s saying: ‘Shit happens.’

His peculiar inconsistency reminds me of the Joker in Full Metal Jacket. When they ask him why he has written ‘Born to Kill’ in his helmet while wearing a Peace & Love button in his shirt, he answers, “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.” People who grew up with MJ and the Joker believed that incongruence between beliefs and behavior was a byproduct of the repressive morals of a conservative society. The new generation was supposed to be different, less stuffy and hypocritical. They—we— were going to be free, liberated and happy. But shit indeed happens. We replaced old laws and commandments with new ones just to find ourselves as incapable of following the rules as ever.

In the new paradigm sins of the flesh were replaced with sins of the meat. Now it was OK to sleep with whomever we fancied. On the other hand, we were supposed to become vegetarians because all those flatulent cows were destroying the environment.  It was also understood that ‘if it feels good, do it’ applied to drugs, but not to dispatching three Big Macs for lunch.

This new paradigm, of course, needed a revised eschatology too. Instead of the old rich tapestry of angels with trumpets preceding the Beast, from the 60’s to the 80’s, the end of the world had the shape of an atomic mushroom cloud. After communism died of cardiac arrest, environmental catastrophe became the metaphor for the Apocalypse. But for one reason or another, the end was near. How could anybody failed to notice they were talking like Jehovah’s Witnesses?

Of course, the believers of this religion—as usual— were united by a sense of moral superiority and the perceived mission of imposing their opinions on the rest of their fellow human beings. The new zealots looked down on those cheeseburger-eating, overweight philistines who populate the Midwest. And they would become indignant whenever they saw a Mother Earth-killing Hummer burning fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow.

It was not a question of right or wrong. The young apostles wanted many a good thing—maybe too many. They became victims of their own propaganda. ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible,’ is not, after all, a realistic proposition. They wanted to end hunger and eat organic food without realizing that you couldn’t feed six billion people by practicing some sort of medieval agriculture. They denounced the risks of using fossil fuels but didn’t want to hear about atomic energy.

Several years ago, in a long article about Leonardo DiCaprio for Time magazine, Joel Stein offered a rather amusing example of these contradictions. Mr. DiCaprio—facing the moral dilemma of ordering lunch—explained to him: “I shouldn’t be eating hamburgers, because the methane gas cows release is the No. 1 contributor to the destruction of the ozone layer; and the No. 1 reason they destroy the rain forest is to make grazing ground for cattle. So it’s very ironic that I eat beef, being the environmentalist that I am. But then again, if I ordered the tuna sandwich, I would be promoting the fact that they have large tuna nets that capture innocent little dolphins…” And Mr. Stein adds, “This goes on for quite some time.”

Like DiCaprio or the Joker, Michel Jackson was an image of our mutually excluding aspirations.  He wanted to live forever and sleep through the night—which at the end became an insolvable contradiction. A freakishly talented man became a freak. He couldn’t see beyond the end of his nose, so he spent millions buying himself four or five noses without bothering to get a replacement heart—the only organ he needed in June 25. To quote another famous phrase from the 60’s, ‘[Wasn’t] he a bit like you and me?’


Now departing for Havana…

Sunday, December 13, 2009

11:30 AM My wife, our three children and I arrived at JFK Airport at 11:30 AM. I was the only one flying to Cuba, but they came anyway. We presumed once my bags were checked, we could enjoy a nice lunch together. My flight was scheduled for 3:00 PM, but the travel agency asked me to be at the airport four hours before the departure… Of course, I didn’t bother to ask why.

As it is customary in trips to Cuba, the first thing I did when I arrived at the airport was to have my bags wrapped in plastic. After that, they looked like huge transgenic potatoes. Why did I do it? I don’t know. When you go to Cuba, you are supposed to become part of the  herd. Conservation instinct overcomes any though of common sense or good taste. Everybody wraps his or her bags in plastic, so you do it too. You convince yourself that the trip is going to be even worse than you already expect it to be if you don’t do it.

11:45 AM While I was in the line to wrap my bags, my wife was already in another line to check-in my luggage. There were four clerks at the counter to process two hundred passengers. I never saw more than two of them working at the same time. They would go for a walk, chat with their colleagues, make phone calls… After almost an hour, they finally weighed my bags and checked my traveling papers. Then, they told me to pick up my bags and deliver them to another counter.

12:40 PM This third line was a dream—short and sweet as a beach weekend. I gave my bags to the clerk and asked her if I was ready to board the plane. Unfortunately, she told me I had to make a fourth line in order to pay the airport charge and overweight fee.

I went to the counter she had indicated and realized immediately there wasn’t a waiting line there. It was much worse than that. About a hundred people were waiting by the counter. From time to time, a guy with shiny ridiculous glasses would call a name and a lucky bastard would put on a happy face and go to the counter to get robbed… I mean, a lucky passenger would go to the counter to pay the airport charge and overweight fee. So I had to take off my MP3 player’s earplugs. Up to that moment, Bob Dylan, with his nasal voice, had protected me from the idiotic comments of my fellows travelers. Now, with my ears naked, I really was among my people. There was a fifty-something pachydermatous woman who was talking to everybody and nobody in particular. While waiting to be called, I was destined to learn quite a few details about her utterly uninteresting life. She had gone six times to Cuba since immigrating to the US. She usually was drunk for the length of her stay in the island. In her first trip to Cuba, they didn’t charge her any overweight fees in Havana. Nevertheless, she told her husband—who hadn’t traveled with her—quite a different story in order to keep for herself the $2000 he had given her to bribe Cuba’s custom officers.

Having a loud, garish voice and telling stories nobody wants to hear is not considered a crime in any country. I am a staunch opponent of death penalty. But after listening to that fat lady sing for fifteen minutes, I would have applauded if somebody would have come and given her a lethal injection. Little did I know then that after those unbearable fifteen minutes, I would have to listen to her for two more hours. When they finally called my name, I hated her as if I had known her my whole life.

2:50 PM After that season in hell, the people at the counter told me I had to pay $254.00 ($107 as airport charge and a $147 overweight fee). I had never felt so happy paying money to get nothing in return. At the end of the transaction, the guy who collected the money admonished me: “Hurry up,” he said. “They are boarding the plane in ten minutes.” By the sound of his voice and his body language, you wouldn’t think he and his incompetent, lazy colleagues had made me wait in lines for four hours for no other reason than their infinite disregard for their customers.

I ran to see my wife and kids. In front of the metal detector, we said good-bye. At that moment, I started my fifth waiting line of the day while taking off my wristwatch, belt, shoes and glasses. I looked in vain for a little bit of dignity to take it off too, but none was left. “I am ready to go to Cuba,” I thought.

2:55 PM I arrived at gate B23 panting for air like an alpinist in the oxygen-deprived peaks of the Himalayas. “Are they sending us to Havana in a World War II bombardier?,” I thought when I saw the “B23” sign. The place was deserted. A sixty-something Cuban gentleman—tall, black and elegant, and branding a moustache that would turn Pancho Villa green with envy—was the only person there. He was a charter company clerk and he looked like he had played the maracas for Buena Vista Social Club back in the day. I asked him for information about my flight and he said there was a half an hour delay. “All the other passengers went downstairs to board the plane, but the gates won’t open until 3:30 PM, and the plane will take off at 4:00 PM.” “So you think we are leaving at four o’clock?”, I asked him. “I don’t think anything, mister,—I know”, he replied and it seemed he was terribly offended by my question.

“Splendid”, I thought, “I’ll have time for lunch”. I bought myself a ham and cheese sandwich—wrapped in plastic and as transgenic looking as my bags—and a coffee with cream and no sugar ($11) and sat down like an Assyrian king  to read the “Autos” section of my Sunday edition of The New York Times. Finally, I was leaving for Havana, or at least that’s what I thought…

To be continued…