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Cuban Revolution: Cuba’s Hotel Nacional: the iconic site that hosted Jean-Paul Sartre, Muhammad Ali and Yuri Gagarin | USA

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By January 1, 1959, the Havana Hilton, Riviera and Capri hotels had all been built, but the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was still considered the national hotel of the country. Within hours of the Cuban Revolution, the US crime figure Meyer Lansky, known as the “mob’s accountant,” telephoned one of his closest confidants in Cuba, Jaime Casielles, and asked him to hasten to the Nacional. “Lansky knew that [former Cuban president Fulgencio] Batista and his family had fled the country. He said to me: ‘Jaimito, we need to go around all the casinos and collect the money before the hordes are out on the street.” Everything on the island had changed.

For over a year the Nacional remained in the hands of its American owners but it wasn’t long before conflicts with the new government arose and the aristocrats and Hollywood stars started to disappear, although a new clientele would arrive to bear witness to a new era. On February 20, 1960, French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir checked into the Nacional, having been invited to Cuba by the editor of Revolución magazine, Carlos Franqui. Their objective was to see first-hand the political process that was unfolding.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro in 1960.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Fidel Castro in 1960. Cortesía del State de Alberto Korda.

“We lived in one of the best neighborhoods, in the Hotel Nacional, a luxury fortress, flanked by two crenelated square towers. Of its guests, who came from the United States, only two qualities were required: wealth and taste. As these are rarely reconcilable, if they possessed the first it was assumed, with few inquiries, they had the second,” Sartre would write on his return to France. “I turn the air conditioning up all the way to enjoy the cold of the rich. With 30 degrees in the shade, I go to the windows and watch with sumptuous shudders how those that are passing by perspire. It has not taken me long to find the reasons behind the still indisputable supremacy of the Nacional. It was enough to open the curtains when I arrived: I saw long, graceful ghosts stretching toward the sky.”

The palm trees. The same ones that had dazzled Lucky Luciano and other famous guests. But Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had not come to Cuba for the trees. The following day, the couple left for Santiago and from there they went to Holguín, where Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro was inaugurating a school in what had once been a military barracks. There they met the Cuban leader and Argentinian guerilla Che Guevara.

The Hotel Nacional, which is included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World list.
The Hotel Nacional, which is included on UNESCO’s Memory of the World list. Yander Zamora.

Once back at the Nacional, they were told that Guevara would grant them an audience in his office at the National Bank, the institution he headed, at midnight. “I was still lucky,” recalled Sartre. “Journalists and foreign visitors are received warmly and at length, but at two or three in the morning.” That meeting was immortalized by the photographer Alberto Korda and later described by Sartre in one of the articles he published over the following months in France Soir, and later compiled in the book Hurricane Over Sugar.

“The night did not enter that office. In those men in full wakefulness, the best of them, sleep did not seem to be a natural necessity but rather a routine that they had more or less freed themselves from. I don’t know when Guevara and his colleagues sleep. I suppose it depends: performance decides; if it dips, they stop.” Sartre was also surprised and moved by the youth of the revolutionaries – Castro was 33 and Guevara, 31. “The biggest scandal of the Cuban Revolution is not expropriating farms and lands, but to have brought boys to power,” he said. “Given that a revolution was necessary, circumstances dictated that youth should carry it out. Only youth had experienced sufficient anger and angst to undertake it, and had sufficient purity to carry it out.”

Guevara told them that night that Cuba’s was a “contrecoup revolution,” and Sartre came to the conclusion that it was a process with an ideology “free from elaboration,” perhaps “the most original revolution in the world,” based on “a direct democracy.” When he was asked in an interview what that meant, the author of Being and Nothingness replied: “This Fidel Castro who is continuously on the move in a helicopter or automobile; who often speaks three times a week on the television for hours on end; who explains everything his government does; who discusses every realization; who listens to the peasants and takes note of their complaints; who opens schools in forgotten corners and who argues passionately with his ministers: this is direct democracy.”

Part of the trench system dug on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Part of the trench system dug on the grounds of the Hotel Nacional during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yander Zamora.

Sartre and Beauvoir traveled all over the island, often accompanied by Castro, and on one of those journeys, one of the great anecdotes of their trip took place. Arriving at a popular tourist spot they asked for a lemonade. It was lukewarm and Fidel complained, asking why Cubans should be subjected to such poor service. The woman replied that her refrigerator was broken and the person who was supposed to fix it had not turned up. As Fidel continued to ask questions, the woman cut the conversation short with a phrase that augured what was to come: “You know how it is.”

On March 4, the explosion of La Coubre in the port of Havana was clearly audible from the Hotel Nacional. The French steamer was anchored there with a cargo of 76 tons of weapons and ammunition for the revolution: 136 people were killed and the following day, during the memorial, Castro gave a famous speech during which for the first time he used his slogan “Homeland or death.” In the stand that day were Sartre, Beauvoir and the main leaders of the revolution, and it was there that Korda took his signature photograph of Guevara, with his beret and defiant gaze, which turned the guerrilla into a global revolutionary icon.

The French intellectuals remained in Havana until March 15, 1960, and a week after they departed the Nacional was expropriated. When Sartre and Beauvoir returned, in October of the same year, the hotel had started to fill with literacy teachers, frontline revolutionary workers and rural villagers from the mountains who had come to Havana to study. The guests at the Nacional were no longer America’s rich and famous.

Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin during the cosmonaut’s visit in 1961.
Fidel Castro and Yuri Gagarin during the cosmonaut’s visit in 1961. CORTESÍA DEL HOTEL NACIONAL

In July 1961, three months after his trip into space, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin arrived in Cuba and met several times with Castro, exchanging caps and participating in the events to mark the anniversary of the 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks. Before delivering his welcome speech, Castro asked Gagarin: “How long did it take you to go around the earth?” The cosmonaut replied: “An hour and a half, comandante.” Fidel smiled and said: “Then start counting.” Today, a bust of Gagarin adorns one of the bars in the hotel, in front of portraits of Venezuelan leaders Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro and the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio da Silva, who have all been guests.

The same gardens at the Nacional where Gagarin had strolled were filled with anti-aircraft batteries and trenches a year later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The location of the hotel, on Taganana Hill, made it a key strategic point for the defense of Havana if the situation had escalated, something which did not occur due to the removal of Soviet warheads from the island by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, without consulting Fidel. This did not go down well with the Cuban leader and soon crowds of protestors thronged the seaside promenade on Havana’s shoreline, chanting: “Nikita, sissy, you don’t take away what you’ve given.”

As the revolution became more radicalized and the US imposed its embargo, the Cuban economy was Sovietized and tourism became viewed as an evil, while culture on the island entered its gray quinquennium. The jailing of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971 on charges of “subversive activities” provoked the rupture of a section of the Latin American and European intelligentsia with the revolution. Among the first signatures on a letter of protest over the Padilla case were those of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Top left and bottom: images taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Top right: a tractor donated by employees of the Hotel Nacional during the Land Reform of 1961.
Top left and bottom: images taken during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Top right: a tractor donated by employees of the Hotel Nacional during the Land Reform of 1961. CORTESÍA DEL HOTEL NACIONAL

By the mid-1980s Cuba was welcoming only 150,000 tourists per year, half of them from Socialist countries, and the hotels were falling into disrepair. A story did the rounds: a hotel guest was showering when he felt the bath move beneath his feet. Fearing an embarrassing episode, he wrapped himself in a towel and went downstairs to complain. “Look, knowing how things are here, you’re lucky you didn’t end up in the lobby,” the receptionist told him.

A lack of maintenance also started to tell on the Nacional and it was forced to close its doors from 1990-92 to carry out a vast remodeling. When it was reopened, Cuba was in the midst of an economic crisis due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which was known as the “Special Period.” Attracting tourists and foreign currency had become a national priority. Cubans were prohibited from staying in hotels so that rooms could be reserved for dollar-paying guests. The crisis hit Cubans hard, with power outages lasting 12 to 14 hours a day and a scarcity of food, medicine and public transportation exacerbated by the toughening of the US embargo. Some American humanitarian organizations started to send aid to the island and one of these missions, in 1996, was headed by US boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Half a million dollars’ worth of medical supplies were distributed and among the party was the US journalist Gay Talese, who had been commissioned to produce a report. In Ali in Havana, Talese recounted the difficulties encountered on that five-day trip, where the former heavyweight champion was feted as a hero wherever he went.

Ali’s hands shook and he could hardly speak due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, but he was friendly toward his admirers, who stopped him in the great lobby of the Nacional to ask for his autograph. “It took him 30 seconds to write his name on whatever card or piece of paper,” Talese said. “But he wrote it in full, ‘Muhammad Ali.’ He didn’t just write ‘Ali’ to save some time. He has never short-changed his fans.”

The night before they were due to return to the US, Castro invited the group to the Palace of the Revolution. Ali and Fidel mocked up a few punches for the cameras and, as they were leaving, Ali’s wife Yolanda Williams told the Cuban president he would be welcome in their home if he ever visited the US. Castro said that he had been to the US before, to participate in a United Nations General Assembly, but he had not been allowed to leave his hotel room. “But things change,” he added.

However, Fidel Castro was mistaken. Things did not change, tensions mounted and a year later a bomb went off in the Hotel Nacional.

English version by Rob Train.

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Sonny Barger, founder of Hells Angels, dies at 83 | USA

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Hells Angels founding member Sonny Barger in 1979.
Hells Angels founding member Sonny Barger in 1979.Janet Fries (Getty Images)

Sonny Barger, the founding member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, died on Thursday in California at the age of 83. Barger was the face of the biker gang that became one of the main counterculture movements in the United States in the 1960s. Barger’s family confirmed his death in a message on Facebook. “Please know that I passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer,” the message stated.

Sonny Barger – whose real name was Ralph Hubert Barger – was born in northern California, and taught himself to ride a motorcycle when he was 11 years old. It was an American-made Cushman scooter. From that moment on, he tried to only assemble motorbikes with parts made in the US, a task that became increasingly difficult as the world became more open to international trade.

In 1957, he founded the Hells Angels chapter in Oakland, California. This chapter was founded nine years after the first one opened in Fontana, in the same state. Barger was the national president of the Hells Angels, a group that became notorious for its links to violent and organized crime. Barger was arrested more than 20 times and spent 13 years of his life in prison for different crimes. In November 1992, for example, he was released from federal prison after spending four years behind bars for organizing to kill members of the rival Outlaws Motorcycle Club. When his parole came to an end in 1994, 700 bikers came out to celebrate the news.

Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.
Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969.

But the darkest chapter of the Hells Angels took place on December 6, 1969. That night, the biker members were hired as security guards at the Altamont Free Concert in California, where the Rolling Stones performed. Representatives of the band reportedly offered the Hells Angels $500 worth of beer in exchange for providing security. Members of the biker gang had worked without incident as security at concerts for bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. But at the Altamont Free Concert, which brought together 300,000 people, the situation became violent. During the Rolling Stones’ performance, fights broke out in the audience. Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old concertgoer, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels after approaching the stage. The incident was caught on camera and became a central scene in the Maysles Brothers documentary Gimme Shelter, in which Barger admitted the bikers did not have the training to do security work. A few days after the concert, in a call to a local radio station, he said: “I ain’t no cop. I ain’t never gonna police nothin.’”

The incident stained the image of the Hells Angels and Barger – who had the name Hell’s Angels Oakland tattooed on his right shoulder – struggled for several years to change the gang’s violent reputation. “Catholics probably commit more crimes than we ever thought of,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994 after being released from prison on parole. “Probably politicians commit more crimes.”

Writer Hunter S. Thompson compared the biker gang to the student protesters of the 1960s, who paved the way for civil rights in America. “The difference between the student radicals and the Hells Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present, or the status quo,” he wrote in his book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The Hells Angels were one of America’s most striking subcultures, and their influence can be seen in many areas of society. In one of his books, Barger claims that Harley-Davidson – the motorcycle brand favored by the group – adopted the gang’s ideas into its models. Barger played himself in the 1967 film Hells Angels on Wheels, where he appeared alongside Jack Nicholson. He also had a small role in the TV show Sons of Anarchy.

Barger was a difficult character to define. He got up at 4.30am to feed his dogs and horses, then worked out for three hours, doing weights and going jogging. By 8am, he was on his motorcycle and driving down an off-beaten track. Unlike the stereotypical biker, he wore a helmet that covered his entire face. This was due to the fact that he had his vocal cords removed in 1982 after suffering from throat cancer.

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Art fakes: Disputed ‘Basquiats’ seized by FBI shake the US art world | Culture

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While New York surrenders once again to the genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat with an exhibition of unpublished work curated by his family, in Orlando (Florida), there is considerably more controversy over the work of the artist who died at the age of 27. An exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art dedicated to the former close friend of Andy Warhol, entitled Heroes & Monsters, has cost the head of that gallery his job, while the FBI investigates the authenticity of 25 of the works, not to mention the threats made by the director against an expert who had been commissioned to evaluate the authorship.

Although the scandal began to take shape in February, when the exhibition opened, the FBI raid took place last Friday with the seizure of the paintings with a contested attribution to Basquiat. Aaron De Groft, director and chief executive of the museum, has relentlessly defended that these are genuine works, while emphasizing that it is not a museum’s role to certify the authenticity of the works it exhibits. “[The paintings] came to us authenticated by the best Basquiat specialists,” he told the local NBC television station in February.

De Groft had for months championed the importance of the paintings, asserting that they are worth millions of dollars, until an expert showed up who’d been hired by the owners of the paintings and she began to question his version of events. The director was fired on Tuesday, just two business days after agents seized the 25 suspicious works. The museum’s board of trustees met for hours that day, but not before warning employees that anyone who dared to discuss the matter with journalists would suffer the same fate as De Groft. Hence, it is impossible to know the version not only of the former director, but of any worker at the center. Nor can any information be gleaned at the New York exhibition, a mixture of unpublished work and memorabilia, where organizers are fearful of the devaluation caused by the Orlando scandal.

FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.
FBI agents during the seizure of the dubious Basquiat paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24.Willie J. Allen Jr. (AP)

“It is important to note that there is still nothing that makes us think that the museum has been or is the subject of an investigation,” Emilia Bourmas-Free told the local chain on behalf of the art gallery. Cynthia Brumback, chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees, expressed itself in similar terms in a statement, saying that the board of trustees is “extremely concerned about several issues related to the exhibition Heroes & Monsters,” including “the recent revelation of an inappropriate e-mail correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” as reported by The New York Times.

The statement refers to a disparaging message sent by De Groft to the specialist hired for the expert opinion, cited in the FBI investigation as “Expert 2″ but who the New York Times has confirmed is Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland. This expert, who received $60,000 for a written report, asked the museum not to have her name associated with the exhibition, according to the FBI affidavit. Angry, De Groft threatened to reveal the amount of the payment and share the details with her employer, the university.

“You want us to put out there you got $60,000 to write this?” wrote De Groft, according to the affidavit. “Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.” The board said it has launched an official process to address the matter. The scandal was precipitated a few hours after the closing of the exhibition, which had originally been meant to travel to Italy.

Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.
Facade of the Orlando Museum of Art, with the promotional poster of the exhibition dedicated to Basquiat, on June 2.John Raoux (AP)

The mystery of the cardboard box

But how did the paintings get to the Orlando Museum? The museum and its owners maintain that the paintings were found in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The New York Times reported that questions arose over one of the paintings, made on the back of a cardboard shipping box with FedEx lettering in a typeface that was not used until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death, according to a designer who worked for the company.

Both De Groft and the owners of the paintings maintain that they were made in 1982 and that Basquiat sold them for $5,000 to a famous television screenwriter, now deceased, who deposited them in a storage unit and forgot about them.

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Ramón Estévez regrets his name change to Martin Sheen | Culture

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At the beginning of the sixties, Ramón Estévez was desperate. His first steps as a television actor had gone well, but he felt stuck in that medium and wanted to get into theater and film. However, at the time, his name held him back: there were few successful Latinos in the United States. “Whenever I called for a position, whether for work or for an apartment, they answered me hesitantly when I gave my name, and when I arrived, I found the position already filled.” He said in 2003. And so, Ramón decided to create an artistic name by merging the name of Robert Dale Martin, the CBS network’s casting director, who had helped him in those essential appearances on the small screen, and that of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who, as Estévez’s little sister Carmen recalls, “regularly appeared on TV.”

This is how Martin Sheen came about, and owing to his great talent, he triumphed first in theater and, later as an actor in the movies, notably: Badlands, Apocalypse Now, The Departed, and Wall Street. However, the identity of Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez did not disappear: this name remains in all of Sheen’s official documents (passport, driver’s license and marriage license)… and in the actor’s soul. Last week, in an interview with Closer magazine, he confessed that one of the great regrets of his life was his change of name. He speaks with pride of the obstinacy of his son Emilio, who kept it despite “his agent’s advice to change it”. In relation to his own decision, he reflects: “Sometimes they convince you, when you don’t have enough insight or even enough courage to stand up for what you believe in, and you pay for it later.”

Martin Sheen in 'The West Wing' reunion, last October.
Martin Sheen in ‘The West Wing’ reunion, last October.

Over time, Sheen recovered his Galician roots, the land where his father, Francisco Estévez Martínez, was born. His father was an immigrant who left Parderrubias, in Salceda de Caselas (Pontevedra), for Cuba at the age of 18 in 1916. He left with no Spanish, a language he learned on the Caribbean Island. In the early 1930s, he emigrated to the United States to a modest Irish neighborhood in Dayton (Ohio), where he married another immigrant, Mary-Ann Phelan.

Martin Sheen’s life has been profoundly marked by his childhood. His father worked at NCR Corporation, an industrial conglomerate that began manufacturing cash registers. Shortly after his marriage, the company sent him to the Bermuda Islands where his first children were born. Sheen was the seventh of ten children (nine boys and one girl), and the first to be born in Dayton, in 1940, after the family moved to the US. His left arm was clasped by forceps during birth, leaving it three inches shorter than his right arm. As a result of this, the character that Sheen interprets in the series The West Wing of the White House, President Josiah Bartlet, puts on his jacket with a strange twist of the body. As a child, he suffered from polio which kept him bedridden for a year, and at the age of 11 his mother died. Thanks to the support of a catholic charity and his own father’s efforts, the family remained united against the distribition of children to orphanages or foster homes, a common practice at the time.

Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of 'Apocalypse Now'.
Martin Sheen abd Francis Ford Coppola during the recording of ‘Apocalypse Now’.

He was the eccentric of the family: he decided to go into acting. Against his father’s objections, Ramón, the most reserved son only enjoyed the theater and decided to study acting. “You don’t know how to sing or dance!”, his father told him, to which his son replied: “You love westerns and in those nobody sings or dances”. “But you don’t ride a horse either!” was his father’s comeback. Despite this discouragement, he moved to New York, following in the footsteps of his idol, James Dean.

In the mythical episode Two Cathedrals of The West Wing, he explains how the character President Bartlet reflects the experiences of his own childhood and adolescence. Estévez/Sheen: a practicing Catholic and relentless campaigner against global warming, a man in favor of civil and immigrant rights, he was arrested several times during demonstrations outside the White House. His activism began when he was just 14 years old in a golf club where he worked. He led a strike of caddies, protesting against the club members’ use of bad language in front of children.

Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a "Fire Drill Fridays" protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
Actor Martin Sheen takes part in a “Fire Drill Fridays” protest calling attention to climate change at the U.S. Capitol in WashingtonJOSHUA ROBERTS (Reuters)

And then there’s the Spanish context. Francisco Estévez did not teach his children Spanish, but the Estévez family went back to their roots. Francisco was able to return to his hometown in Galicia in 1967 (just as Sheen landed his first big role in In the Custody of Strangers), where he began building a house, while making regular trips back to Dayton. He would never see this house finished. He died in Dayton in 1974, and was buried with his wife and son Manuel, who had died in 1968. His only daughter, Carmen, ended up working as an English teacher at a school in Madrid, where she married. For years people in Madrid have bumped into Sheen during his visits to his sister. Carmen finished building her father’s house and inaugurated a river promenade dedicated to his memory. Indeed, she has kept the memory of the Estévez alive in Salceda de Caselas.

The Camino de Santiago, a dream come true

In the early years of the 2000s, Sheen, his son Emilio Estévez and his grandson, Taylor, walked the Camino de Santiago. In Burgos, the grandson met a girl, and at the end of the walk he decided not to return to Los Angeles, but to remain in the Castilian city, where he got married. Influenced by that experience, Sheen and Estévez made the film El camino (2010), in which both co-starred and the latter directed. A few months ago, Sheen spoke proudly of El camino, a great success, and a faithful portrayal of his spirituality. During filming, at a lunch under huge pergolas at the back of Burgos cathedral, Sheen explained: “I am a Catholic, and a lot of that spirituality is in this movie. I have had an extremely happy life, with the normal highs and lows of a career. I have survived disease and my family is wonderful [his four children, including Charlie Sheen, are actors]… I believe in a church that does incredible work in the Third World. Other things, like some of the pronouncements from the Pope [at that time, Benedict XVI], are more difficult for me. I live my faith, and it is between God and I.” A few meters from Sheen and the journalist, at the long tables, was a strange group that didn’t not look like actors: “That’s my wife, that’s my sister and her husband, that my best childhood friend… I’ve invited them to come and have a good time with Emilio, Taylor [who worked as an assistant] and me”. Taylor Estévez currently works as a stunt coordinator in California.

Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009.
Martin Sheen at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with his sister Carmen, 2009. Andres Fraga

Carmen Estévez says that for decades the family did not understand their father’s deeply Galician sense of humor, until they realized that for much of the time he was not being serious. This sarcasm was inherited by his son Ramón/Martin, and he made a display of this in Burgos. In response to a question about his career, he said: “With my resume full of bad movie titles, what can I say. I’m an actor and that’s how I’ve supported my family. But I’ve been in about 10 films that I can be proud of…” at which point he dropped his cup of coffee and blurted out: “See? For gloating over my career. Divine punishment”.

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