Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A Family Visit

It's summer holiday time, and I'm in England visiting my children and grandchildren.  The weather is the usual English summer mix of grey cloud, rain and occasional sun.  But this doesn't deter us from pretending it's the Medterranean and stubbornly doing everything outdoors!  

This is a traditional English afternoon tea, served in a borrowed gazebo in someone's backgarden, for a 'baby shower' party.   And this is the lucky girl opening her presents!

The only person missing is Papa, who is still in Cuba because the British immigration service have refused his application for a family visit visa.  They don't have to give reasons, but we suspect they worry that he might 'overstay' (why would anyone want to go back to Cuba after sampling the delights of the UK?).  There is also no appeal procedure.  So we have to put in another application, which will take months . . . .   It's so unfair.  If they're so worried about people overstaying, why can't they just police the visas?  Grrrrr.........

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cuban Connection

The internet is the most amazing tool for writers - not just for research, but also for e-publishing and publicity. I don’t think we’ve all grasped the way it’s going to revolutionise our lives yet. My visit to Cuba and the blog diary I kept while I was there continues to have repercussions.
While I was in New Zealand, I was contacted by a publicist working for one of America’s leading Independent Publishers - they don’t call it ‘self-publishing’ (with all its vanity press associations) over there. They asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a novel set in Cuba, written by an ex-secret service operative who had once spent two months in a Cuban jail as the guest of Fidel Castro. Intrigued, I said yes and waited for Havana Harvest to arrive in the mail box. I also said that I’d like to interview the author and sent off a series of questions.
But for the internet the publishers would never have found my blog, or known I had an interest in Cuba, and I would certainly never have found Robert Landori’s novel or been able to talk to him about it. Book blogging is suddenly becoming an important tool in the marketing strategy for authors.
Robert Landori was born in Hungary, is multi-lingual, has a background in international finance and is a prolific story-teller (I’ll be posting my review later in the week on my book blog). He currently lives in Canada. Havana Harvest is his second thriller - the first, called Fatal Greed, is set in the murky world of Cayman Island based finance and money laundering. Both books are independently published and I was very interested to find out about Robert’s experiences with the American system. He was very generous in his responses to my questions.

When did you start writing - did you write as a child?
Never wrote a damn thing until my sophomore year at McGill. Too busy learning languages.
I spoke Hungarian and German colloquially, correctly, fluently and without an accent (a trick of the inner ear) by the time I was ten, and a governess came to the house once a week to teach me English. In 1947 my parents enrolled me in an all-French boarding school in Switzerland.

At school Robert also ‘elected to learn Spanish because it was easy.’ He goes on to say that ‘I made most of my money through speaking that language.’ One result was that he was sent to Cuba.

‘After I became a Chartered Accountant a client sent me to Cuba in 1959 because he wanted to deal with Fidel’s Government and I spoke the language, but he did not. A number of assignments in Spanish-speaking countries followed, but none involved writing. When, one day in 1986, I remonstrated with my then-girlfriend about her reading only ‘trash’ she, deeply hurt, retorted: “If you’re so smart and superior, why don’t you write a book that’s better.” I bet her that I would produce a superior novel within a year. And I did – from scratch: a 381 page thriller, called Galindo’s Turn.

Were you an avid reader?

Yes, I was. I read in Hungarian, German, English, French and Spanish.

What kind of books do you like reading?

Literally almost everything: classics, thrillers, spy stories, literary fiction, etc... Astronomy, chess, history and mathematics fascinate me and – obviously – I devour anything and everything on language.

Who are your favourite authors?

Hemingway, LeCarre, Alan Paton, Ferenc Molnar, Solshenitzyn and the late Mordechai Richler (a friend).

Have you always enjoyed story telling?

Most emphatically ‘YES’! Always have, always will. I’m a born storyteller, and good at it.

Quite a number of ex CIA and British govt agents have gone into fiction writing - John le Carre, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming to name but a few. Is this because they are forbidden to talk about their experiences and so find an outlet in writing about it?

This is not only true about the world of spooks. Players in the murky world of Mergers &, Acquisitions (one of my professions) are also restrained by contract from revealing telling details.

How much of Robert Landori is there in your main character, CIA agent Robert Lonsdale? (I note the shared history - born in Hungary and the familiarity with banking and the world of the secret services.)
Obviously, there’s a lot of Landori in Lonsdale... as well as LeCarre, Deighton and Ted Allebury.

In both Fatal Greed and Havana Harvest you weave your story around actual events. How difficult is it to combine fact and fiction in this way?

If one is a good story-teller and one has a vivid imagination it is not difficult at all. BUT, THE DEVIL IS ALWAYS IN THE DETAILS, so one has to get the background right AND THIS IS AN ART THAT ALSO REQUIRES FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE. .

On your website you talk about someone called Dania and her part in the genesis of the novel. Could you elaborate on this for readers of this blog?

Dania was a sixteen year old idealistic student in Santiago de Cuba when she was recruited into the Revolutionary Movement in 1956. Her future husband, Roberto Cisneros, and also one of her uncles – Arturo Duque de Estrada – were already members of the underground opposition organised by the student leader Frank Pais in Oriente Province with the objective of ridding Cuba of the Dictator Batista, if necessary by force.
When Fidel sent his famous message to her uncle that Fidel, his brother Raul and El Che were on their way back to Cuba from Mexico on board the yacht Gramma, Dania decided to join the guerrillas in the Sierrea Maestra. She became Raul Castro’s ‘field clerk’ and fought alongside him.
In December 1958, while working at setting up a fifth column in Havana on Fidel’s orders, Dania and her husband were captured by Batista’s secret police. She was nine months pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in prison. In great pain, she escaped a few hours after giving birth with the help of the prison’s doctor. Had she not done so she would have been shot the next day, as would have been her husband.
Her husband was severely tortured to the point where he never recovered his sanity completely. Totally disillusioned by the way the Revolution became compromised and turned into a dictatorship he, like so many other idealistic members of the July 26th Movement, committed suicide by immolating himself in front of his children.

In 1968, Dania and I were arrested while we were having lunch at the Havana Libre (previously Hilton) Hotel. I was accused of spying and was kept in solitary for 66 days. She was charged with nothing and let go the next day, BUT she was fired from her job and could not find employment (except as maid, or dish washer or waitress) for about four years. Finally rehabilitated in 1972, she married again and worked as a senior official in the Ministry of Tourism until her retirement.
She left Cuba in 1990 after giving up her pension and her apartment, and went to live in the US with her parents and sisters.
In 1993 she gave me a book to read: Case Number 1 of the Year 1989 – the Trial and Execution of Arnaldo Tomas Ochoa Sanchez, also known as El Moro (because of his dark skin). I felt that Ochoa had been treated unfairly. It seemed to me that Fidel and Raul had known all the time about Cuba’s involvement in drug trafficking and arms dealing and that Ochoa had committed no crime that merited the death penalty.
By writing HAVANA HARVEST I tried to right – at least partially – a great injustice.
Having just been to Cuba to meet some Cuban writers I’m interested in your take on the country’s current political situation and the direction it is moving in. What do you see as the future for Cuba?

Fidel has recently announced (although he recanted later) that his economic model is not working. He’s right. An industrious, imaginative and independent-minded people, like the Cubans, are far too enterprising to live within a centrally controlled economy.
After the disappearance of the present geriatric leadership (within the next five years) Cuba will quickly morphe into a Social Democratic state similar to what the Province of Quebec is like today: strong entrepreneurship through small and medium-sized businesses active in the agricultural and hospitality industries, in other words, tobacco, sugarcane, rum distilling, market gardening and floral produce, cattle and horse breeding, at one end, and hotels, restaurants, etc... at the other.
Two new industries may become a factor: off-shore banking and health services.
It is likely that Cuba will make serious inroads into the revenues of islands such as Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda etc...
Partly due to the current publishing crisis, there is tremendous interest in independent publishing in Europe at the moment. This doesn’t just apply to first time authors, - quite a number of well established authors are bringing out their own work. What advice would you give authors thinking of doing this?

By all means self-publish, but make sure that you buy the best of the industry – a house that has strong, wide-ranging and EFFICIENT distribution facilities. This costs money, so don’t venture into the self-publishing field unless you have at least $50,000 to throw at the project.

How did you choose Greenleaf Publishing? Did you try any commercial publishers first and if so, what was their reaction?

Commercial publishers and their gate-keepers, the literary agents, are swamped by good material and unless one has a friend in the business, or one gets to be very lucky, one is bound to be rejected. (Even F. Scott Fitzgerald had to publish his own stuff).
I am proud to say that I had over 70 rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. Altogether I have written six books of which only two have been published
Everybody is writing books these days, so what you need to do is to find a publicist who can create a brand name out of your name, thereby separating you from the run-of-the-mill. I was fortunate to meet such a person: Sarah Wilson. She was the one who introduced me to the Greenleaf Group.

Publicity and getting books into the book retailers is always the hardest part. How do you go about this?

Like John Grisham, I packed a bunch of copies of my first published book into the trunk of my car and went from book store to book store across Canada and the North-Eastern Sates of the US. I met over 20,000 people who told me what they looked for in the type of books I was writing.
My latest book is promoted by Sarah Wilson through blogging, supported by a modest advertising budget. I also lecture frequently on Money Laundering and Terrorism and appear on radio and television whenever I can.
In other words, I beat my own drum constantly and furiously.

What’s the next project? (If you’re able to talk about it, that is!)

I’m in the process of writing a sequel to Fatal Greed, my first published book.
I’m also in the process of arranging for a digital (electronic) version of Havana Harvest.

Is there anything you would like to say that isn’t covered by the questions I’ve just asked - feel free to add any comments that you want to.


Havana Harvest is published by Greenleaf Publishing, part of the Emerald Book Company 

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Goodbye to Cuba

So, we have finally managed to get out of Cuba - the chaos of Havana airport can’t even be imagined! This is where 3rd world communist regime meets 1st world capitalist tourist industry - and it doesn’t work. It took more than 3 hours just to check everyone in for the flight (yes, we queued!!!) which - if it had been on time - would have left before everyone got through security and passport control. (They photograph you going out was well as coming in.) The flight finally took off 2hrs and 20mins late and many, like Neil, missed their connections at the other end.

There are a lot of images that have stayed with me. The poverty has made a big impression, as well as the amount of control exercised by the state over the Cuban people. This, of course, is the reason why Art and Literature only flourish underground - freedom of thought and expression are disallowed. Every street has its policeman sitting on the corner twenty four hours a day, and every street has its government representative to keep an eye on the residents and make sure they conform. Political dissidents go to jail.  What impresses me most of all, is the friendliness and good humour of the Cuban people - I’m not sure I could be so cheerful and welcoming in those circumstances.

These are a few of the images I’ve brought back.

In Havana a lot of people have erected shacks on the roofs of buildings. This man had pigeons in a cage.

Public transport in Trinidad - this is how the locals go to work. Taxis are only for tourists.

St Francis of Assisi - one of the most beautiful churches in Havana.

Dereliction - the other face of Cuba.

The image of Chez Guevara is everywhere - here it’s aptly juxtaposed with a police car.

Sunset over the sea from the old fort in Havana.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Cuba: Havana

We travelled from Trinidad to Havana by bus, on Cuba’s empty highways. They’re pot-holed and bumpy, but there isn’t any traffic. We booked the bus that left at 7am, hoping to get to Havana by lunch, but the bus didn’t turn up until 9.15. But, hey! this is Cuba.

Havana is a mixture of the breathtakingly beautiful, like this wedding cake building, recently restored

 and the gut-wrenchingly awful. There are beautiful old buildings - Spanish, colonial, art-deco - but many of them are falling down.

There are gaps in the streets where some buildings have vanished and people are living in condemned tenements with cracked walls and dodgy roofs. Water pipes and electricity cables swarm up the front, snaking through windows providing supplies that can’t possibly be safe.

But there is also World Heritage money filtering in, and some of the more important buildings are being restored, like this beautiful building off the Vieja Square.

We hadn’t booked a hotel, as it’s low season here, but found that if you walk through the door you’re asked to pay double the prices quoted on the internet. The doorman at one hotel said, no problem, he had a friend called Pepe who has a casa familiares. Good room, air-conditioned, 25 CUC. Pepe came to collect us and here we are in a tiny room which has a shower cubicle in one corner, a noisy AC unit and a view out into a very real Havana street.

 Pepe speaks no English and the notices pinned up have obviously been translated by Google. ‘Attention! Oily Staircase’ And ‘Please take care to dress in case of balcony’.

We checked out the Hemingway connection at the Ambros Mundo hotel, which has a beautiful roof garden with views over the city, but didn’t drink in the blatantly tourist-rip-off Hemingway bar. I found the Moderna Poesia bookshop, with lots of local authors, but no imported books at all. The best experience we had here was in the newly built Museum of Contemporary Cuban Art, opposite the Museum of the Revolution. It has ‘Granma’ - the boat that ferried Castro to Cuba - parked outside in a glass case. The paintings and sculptures in the galleries were stunning, but most of them date before 1956. Cuba used to have a vibrant artistic culture. Why do Communism and Art and Literature not go together?

Many Cubans are descended from African Slaves brought in to work the sugar and tobacco plantations. The fort at the entrance to the harbour still has the entrance used by the slavers and the guns that were used to defend against pirates. It is a grim place, once used by Che Guevara as his training camp.

The best experience was to sit in one of the squares, drinking the obligatory Mojito (they don’t do anything but rum and beer) listening to music. All the cafes have live bands. And often there was a Santeria consultant sitting at a table waiting for customers. Santeria is big here and seems to co-exist with Christianity very well. This woman was sitting right outside the cathedral.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Tuesday Poem: José Martí

José Martí is one of Cuba’s greatest poets and, next to Che Guevara, their greatest revolutionary hero. He was born in Havana in 1853, was imprisoned by the Spanish as a political dissident at the age of 16 and transported to Spain. When he was released he published pamphlets on the injustices suffered by political prisoners, travelled to Mexico and began to campaign again for Cuban independence. He spent a great deal of time in Venezuela and New York, working with other dissidents, returning to Cuba with them to fight against the Spanish in the first War of Independence. He fought on horseback in a tuxedo, making him an easy target for the Spanish troops. He was killed in battle in 1895 aged 42. His most famous collection is the Versos Sencillos, published in 1891.

Versos Sencillos XLI

Cuando me vino el honor
De la tierra generosa,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa
Ni en lo grande del favor

Pensé en el pobre artillero
Que está en la tumba, callado:
Pensé en mi padre, el soldado:
Pensé en mi padre, el obrero.

Cuando llegó la pomposa
Carta, en su noble cubierta,
Pensé en la tumba desierta,
No pensé en Blanca ni en Rosa.

When they brought me wine of honour
From the generous earth,
I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa
Nor of the great honour.

I thought of the poor gunner
Who is silent, buried in the tomb:
I thought of my father the workman:
I thought of my father the soldier.

When the important, pompous
Letter arrives at your house
Think of the empty tomb,
Don’t think of Bianca or Rosa.

This is a loose translation - not literal. Marti is playing with Bianca and Rosa, the white and the red, which have political associations - the white for the flag of peace, the red for the blood of war. There’s also a play on red and white wine, though ‘vino’ means ‘I came’, it also means ‘wine’. Blanca and Rosa are also girls’ names, so there’s another association. Difficult to convey all this in English. The last stanza is literally ‘When the pompous card arrived at the noble roof, I thought of the deserted tomb, I didn’t think of Bianca or Rosa.’ But the intention seems to be to make the reader think, when the honour arrives for them, about the emptiness of earthly rewards, when the reality of the gaping tomb is waiting for them. So I’ve translated it as an admonishment. The other problem for a translator is the form - Marti used mainly four line stanzas with an ABBA rhyme scheme. This is almost impossible to replicate without losing the sense, so I’ve settled for rhyming (or half-rhyming) only the first and fourth lines.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Retail Therapy in Cuba

It’s a bit difficult to get any RT in Cuba. There are shops, but not as we know them. Cuba has a dual economy. There is tourist currency (the CUC or Cuban peso) to use in restaurants, hotels, shops (if you can find them) and local currency available only to Cubans to purchase things. Tourist shops are visible around the main tourist areas in Havana, but in the smaller towns they are often non-existent. Trinidad has a small supermarket which has a limited choice of imported tins and packets, but it would be difficult to feed yourself well from its contents and Cubans can’t afford to shop in it anyway.

I was very puzzled when I first arrived because I couldn’t see where Cubans could possibly buy food and clothes and domestic necessities. There are no obvious shops and there didn’t seem to be any of the markets or stalls I’m used to seeing in poorer countries. When I started looking I realised that Cuban shops were concealed by the queues outside - often just holes in the wall, or dark cellars where ration coupons could be presented to get an inadequate supply of meat, bread and vegetables. In Trinidad, racks of clothes and a small choice of household goods were housed in a large shed - you could only find it if you knew which door to knock on. It reminded me of Russia in 1990.

This is a pharmacy with empty shelves. The polyclinic looked like a derelict tenement, though the nurses' uniforms were impeccably white. Cuba has more doctors per head of population than any other country in the northern hemisphere, but what they treat their patients with I’m at a loss to know.
This queue was for a butchers and at one point it stretched all the way down the street. Queueing is a way of life for Cubans. We also found a vegetable shop (Cubans only) that contained only some rather sad looking pawpaws, mangos and a few green beans.

There isn’t always enough food to go round. When my daughter was pregnant and eating for two while visiting Cuba she asked some young women what they did when they were hungry and they told her that they spooned sugar into hot water and drank that. If you go into one of the tourist supermarkets you will be asked to buy food by Cubans hanging round the door. It’s impossible to refuse.

Once off the main Tourist Highway, food in restaurants and cafes isn’t always plentiful either. There’s good fish, caught locally, and it’s often accompanied by black beans and rice. Chicken is a dubious choice - often thin and stringy - of corn-fed European chooks there are none. Lunch is particularly difficult to get. Out of the main centres, the cafes display menus several pages long, but whatever you ask for is likely to be ‘temporarily unavailable’. You will be offered the ubiquitous cheese and ham sandwich - Cuba’s unofficial national dish! There are also a lot of eggs, which Cubans buy in specialist egg shops. Egg on rice is another staple meal.

But above all food is expensive - expect London restaurant prices everywhere. I don’t begrudge the Cuban economy my dollars, but I wish I knew where the money was going, because the lives of ordinary people don’t seem to be improving.
The Egg Shop:

We are staying with a Cuban family who are feeding us really well - mango and pineapple for breakfast with bread rolls and coffee, and some fantastic fried fish and rice for dinner. I haven’t asked, but I suspect that they get extra rations for feeding tourists and so it helps them.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Adventures in Cuba: Trinidad

Cuba is hot - the temperature here in the little town of Trinidad is around the 40 degree mark with humidity in the nineties. It’s the hurricane season and, although the mornings start bright and clear, by mid afternoon the thunderstorms start drifting in from the Atlantic. The vultures circle overhead riding the thermals. Often, later in the evening it rains - hot tropical rain that finds its way into everything. There’s no point in trying to stay dry because the humidity is so high that you’re already wet.

We travelled from Havana to Trinidad by bus, fortunately air conditioned. The buses are all imported from China, like the wheat for the bread and a lot of other goods. There aren’t many vehicles in Trinidad, a few tourist cars, one or two vintage American limos, but mainly horses and carts, rickshaws and taxis.

The small town is about 200 miles - a five or six hour drive - from Havana, on the opposite coast, facing the americas. It has brightly painted single story houses with rough cobbled streets. They sometimes look like a stage set for a spaghetti western - tumbleweed and a lone cowboy riding out of town. Except in this case the cowboys are Cuban. The town in very Spanish, with a backdrop of mountains. We were surprised by how far it is from the sea, but it was deliberately built like that to prevent the town from being sacked by pirates (particularly the notorious Welshman, Henry Martin). The road to the beach meanders like a labyrinth.

We’re staying with a Cuban family and have a tiny bedroom and shower and our own small roof terrace (though it’s too hot to sit on it for long). Not all of them are so nice, but this was found for us by one of my daughter’s Cuban friends.   IT has been a problem in Cuba - we're staying in places where it doesn't exist and the odd internet cafes we've found had download times so slow it was a struggle just to read email.  So my apologies for the big gap since I was last in touch. 

It’s too hot to do much during the day except wander a little and flop into a bar, but in the evening we go dancing. It’s the low season, so there are very few tourists here, but the musicians still play and there are a number of professional dancers who visit the bars and will dance with the tourists and teach them the steps. Contact is strictly controlled. The guy in white is only a week out of jail after being convicted of going out with tourists, but didn’t seem to be reformed! Apparently it’s forbidden to date more than 3 in a year.