The First World’s bluest corner

The First World’s bluest corner

Translated by Achy Obejas, Aug. 26, 2010

I’m off getting married and honeymooning and all that so, in my absence, some good friends are filling in. Today’s look at the Havana Libre Hotel, the former Havana Hilton, modernism’s stake in the Cuban capital, comes from Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who resides on the island. The piece is dedicated to the 10th anniversary of his dad’s passing.


On the 13th of August, the first 10 years without my dad.

As a child, I lived on the outskirts of Havana, in a neighborhood called Lawton. I was the classic older parents’ only son, which meant that we hardly ever went downtown to the city. The 70s were going by in Cuba under the Communist Party’s First Congress (it was already clear that Fidel Castro would be an eternal entity) and, in spite of what history now tells us about that “decadent” and “institutionalizing” decade, the truth is that I lived in the domestic paradise of two workers who were as poor as they were in love: María del Carmen and Dionisio Manuel, the best parents in the world. I never thanked them for that dream childhood.

One day in 1978, they decided to take me to see the rest of reality. Wearing our Sunday best, we took various interminable buses and got off in the very heart of El Vedado. It’s the beginning, or the culmination, of “La Rampa”: 23rd Avenue and L Street (perhaps L for Luxury). And then it was my father who said it, while my mother held my shoulders, as over-protective then as she continues to be now at 74: “Look up, Landy…”

And, in fact, there it was. A huge mass of concrete. A needle tickling the sky’s proletarian belly. A geometric design (distorted because of my excitement) that, even when I was seven years old, was still the perfect metaphor for modernity: a new world, a new way, a future unknown to us in our little wooden houses in faraway Lawton. It was the building with the bluest aura on the planet, and whose only difference from the Hilton-franchised hotel from the 50s was the signage I read for myself on its snowy peak: Habana Libre.

We went in. The doors opened by themselves. A carpeted pasture (I had to ask what a carpet was called) caressed our orthopedic-style shoes. The lobby’s ceiling rose into a dome kilometers above our heads. The light was kind, and thus not even vaguely “national.” The voices of the Cubans there were also kind (no exaggerated hand gestures, no ghetto shouting). We breathed the tidy peace of that always necessary atmospheric phenomenon called air conditioning. The bathrooms were bigger than my house. My father bought a newspaper in English, also called Granma, and promised me to teach me that exotic First World argot.

In 1978, I was happy all of a sudden in a hotel inherited by socialist realism. From 1978 on, I became less happy, displaced in my own country as it chased an unreal capitalism that that first contact had left in my memory. Architecture is, first and foremost, ideology.

When my father, on that tedious Sunday on August 13, 2000, I wanted to leave him alone for a bit at that ugly funeral home in Luyanó (an old Popular Socialist Party headquarter) and visit our hotel one last time. I wanted to cremate him (although that was still impossible in Cuba then) and hurl his ashes down from the Habana Libre’s roof and over the empty sight of an imprisoned Havana. I wanted to leap over the city after my first 29 years of improbable life (Fidel Castro was then my mother’s age now). I was left without ever having said “I’m sorry” to Dionisio Manuel for many things but, beyond my indolence and my hurt, I had failed to give him a grateful embrace for the revelation of that blue on that Cuban corner at 23rd Avenue and L Street (perhaps L for Liberty).


Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo lives in Havana, Cuba. He’s editor of the irregular zine, The Revolution Evening Post, and the blog, Lunes de Post-Revolución ( His books include Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, 2001), Empezar de Cero (Extramuros, 2001), Ipatrías (Unicornio, 2005), Mi nombre es William Saroyan (Abril, 2006) and Boring Home (digitally domestic, 2009). He can be reached at

Race in Cuba

Race in Cuba: The Politics of Power and Hypocrisy

By Inéz Maria Martiatu Terry


Photo by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

The letter signed by 60 African Americans about the state of racism in Cuba, which ended decades of silence on Cuba’s racial policies, was the first shot. Naturally, certain sectors of the foreign press, representing interests that had always been racist, tried to take advantage of the situation. A good number of intellectuals on the island responded immediately, denying the accusations and the results of studies on the subject that they themselves had published — a response provoked by the fears of criticism from abroad.

The most important internal response came a month after the letter (from African Americans), on Thursday, Dec. 21, when Cuba TV broadcast A Cuban Battle Against Racism (the title plays off A Cuban Battle Against Demons, a seminal book on national identity by Fernando Ortíz, the island’s first significant post-colonial critic) on “Mesa Redonda,” one of the most coveted prime-time slots. Various specialists appeared on the show, and it was finally publicly recognized that prejudice, racism and racial discrimination persist in Cuba.

This contradicted statements that had hastily been made to deny the situation. And yet this happened on TV — the mass medium par excellence in our country, and where the most pointed evidence of this very racism continues, especially in the lack of black actors in featured programming that frequently uses them only in police procedurals to play delinquents who practice Afro-Cuban religions.

What erroneous policies have allowed such an important issue to Cuban society to go without resolution in these 50 years of revolution? The triumphalism that decided the problem was solved in 1962; the imposition of a single Cuban subject that did not take differences into account; and the fear that a public discussion on the matter would produce schisms before enemy threats from abroad. These were the pretexts used to keep the dialogue and/or discussions about these and other important matters to society as a whole from ever taking place.

A growing number of scholars have engaged with these questions for years, going against the tide of partisan opinions trying to put off discussion and analysis of the issue. The hip-hop movement has opened a space in which to confront matters of interest to youth, particularly black and mulatto youth. The inclusion of women in a decidedly masculine endeavor such as rap is particularly notable. Young people of color struggle against racial discrimination and patriarchal oppression. They’re interested in family, the vindication of beauty, the relationship between the sexes, violence, prostitution, drugs, the double morality/hypocrisy, corruption, racism, police harassment, conformity and the defense of diversity, including homosexuality/lesbianism.

There’s still much to do. Although the answer lies in education and a strong involvement in cultural work, it’s still a long ways off. The hegemonic sectors of our society that have historically benefited from this inequality will not give up their privilege after a mere bout of conscience. It will be necessary to seek the help of the courts. If we don’t keep in mind that racism is linked to the exercise of power, it will continue to play out as a consequence of its obvious economic, social and cultural benefits to the hegemonic sectors. 

Inés María Martiatu Terry is a Cuban writer and cultural critic whose many books include Over the Waves and Other Stories, published in the United States. She has received various awards, including the Ministry of Culture's distinction for national culture.

Translation by Achy Obejas. Read her piece on race in Cuba in the first installment of this series. Read the second installment of this series by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura.

Cuban activist blogger speaks on Internet censorship

Cuban activist blogger speaks on Internet censorship

Gary Leverton | December 4, 2014

Photo by Yue Yin/
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo speaks to the Marquette community in Raynor Memorial Library’s Beaumier Suites. Photo by Yue Yin/

Students and community members piled into the Beaumier Suites in the basement of Raynor Memorial Library Tuesday to listen to Cuban activist Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo speak on government censorship in Cuba and what activists like him are doing to combat it.

Pardo Lazo documented what he saw in Cuba, particularly social media. He has blogged for several websites that include, El Nacimal, Diario de Cuba and Orlandoluispardolazo. He also has his own photo blog, Vocescubanas.

His particular blogging has always been difficult, as he said Cuba’s government is severe and repressive on anybody who opposes it. With more Internet use around the world, the Cuban government has tried to transition itself as well in order to retain this power.

“They are transitioning from power to power,” Pardo Lazo said. “They are attempting to mutate without losing central control.”

Instead of trying to completely block the Internet, Cuba is attempting to control it. The country developed its own blog called the Blogoserfa Cuba on Twitter and Facebook. The government-controlled blog will not include any independent bloggers like Pardo Lazo.

The Cuban government also developed EcuRed, a website similar to Wikipedia. Unlike Wikipedia, where information is changeable, this information is nearly impossible to change. Cuba’s government also said that no independent person can develop a website. The only way to register a website in Cuba is to have a website for a business a citizen owns, which the government will monitor.

Not only has the government controlled independent bloggers, but it pretended to be an independent blogger to give the illusion that it provides citizens freedom on the Internet.

“Cuba is a black hole in terms of connectivity,” Pardo Lazo said.

The repression of the Internet is causing citizens to attempt to leave Cuba. Since 1995, 600,000 people immigrated to the United States. Other Cubans are trying to fight back against the repression. The Ladies in White, an activist group in Cuba, has attempted several protests against the repression, but many of these members have been arrested without charges.

“I have been arrested three times,” Pardo Lazo said. “One time was particularly difficult because I was unable to contact my family for four days. I was eventually released with no charges against me.”

Despite all this, there are many ways independent bloggers are able to get their messages out. There are democratic embassies that allow bloggers to print their work. There is also a black market system used to get Internet access, but Pardo Lazo said it can only be accessed safely after midnight.

Included in the black market system are offline packages, which usually include a DVD or hard drive of information that would be unavailable otherwise. If the black market is not an option, people set up Wi-Fi networks in neighborhoods to receive Internet.

Pardo Lazo said the threat of censorship is something that is necessary when searching for stories.

“When censorship is not coming for you, you’re doing something wrong,” Pardo Lazo said.