An Unfamiliar Cuba in the “Era of Changes” / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Covering Cuba in an Era of Change, Columbia University, New York

Covering Cuba in an Era of Change, Columbia University, New York

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, New York, 19 October 2014 — If it weren’t because the mediations are in English, because of the discipline in the adhering to the schedules, because of the coordination and care of each detail and because the quality of the service, it could be said that the conference covering “Cuba in an Era of Change”, in which I am taking part as an invitee, could be taking place at an official Cuban venue.

However, it is all taking place at the Columbia School of Journalism, New York, though, on occasion, the debate and its members seem to be following a script designed to please even the most demanding Castro delegate, not because of its focus on issues of the lifting of the embargo–not just in the news coverage in a changing Cuba where, nevertheless, we continue to endure a shocking lack of freedom–but in the combined half-truths and warped fantasies that aim to lay the foundations of the futility of American policy towards the Cuban government.

There is no doubt about the need to implement new policies to clear the current impasse in US-Cuba relations, but it is incorrect to regard as null the effect of the embargo on the Cuban government, the same way that “it’s an excuse that allows Castro to stifle dissent” is a thesis that constitutes a candid remark, to put it delicately.

If indeed the embargo is harmless, how do we explain the repeated complaints of the ruling caste, qualifying it as “criminal policy”, especially after the fall of the so-called European real socialism, when the huge subsidies that allowed the implementation of social programs ended, yet still nurture the “Castro” legend in almost every forum?

As long as the image of “the kind dictatorship” prevails, the one that universalized health and education “for the people” (…) Cubans will, unfortunately, continue to be fucked.

But life for Cubans will not improve by reinforcing old myths. So long as the image of “the kind dictatorship”, the one that universalized health and education “for the people”, forgetting that the price paid was our freedom; while that strange fascination about Fidel Castro, the maker of the longest dictatorship in the western hemisphere, continues to exist; while we continue to fall into the vice of alluding about those who are considered adversaries without allowing them participation in the debate, or just while some lobbyists, perhaps too sensitive, leave the room when someone–with the moral authority conferred by being Cuban and living in Cuba–dares to reveal truths that they don’t want to hear; while the voices of those who are really suffering the ebbs and tides of the policies are absent, it will not matter whether there is an embargo or not. Cubans will, unfortunately, continue to be fucked.

These past few days I have been attending, perplexed, the debates of many speakers who think they know, perhaps with the best motivation in the world, what the Cuban reality is and what is best for us. I’ve heard the old version of Cuban History where Fidel Castro is heir to the Martí philosophy, and successor to the struggle for independence. I have heard many compliments about the fabulous achievements of the Cuban system in matters of ecology, social services and even in economics. I have discovered the Cuba which those who move public opinion in this country want to show.

The notable absentees are still the Cubans, not just the ones from Miami, who they generically include in a big sack in these parts, as if they were mere numbers to swell statistics and fill out surveys, who they consider equal to Haitians, who flee their country for purely economic reasons, but also the thousands who continue to emigrate by any means in an ever-growing and constant way, and the millions condemned to drag a life of poverty and hopelessness in our Island. But the most eloquent vacuum, except for my exceptional presence here, is that of the journalists and independent bloggers that do cover the day-to-day from the depth of the Island. Once again, the foreigners’ sugar-coated view has prevailed.

Privilege of the powerful, the media and politicians, for whom Cuba is only an exotic and beautiful island, long ruled by a genius-–perhaps a tad tyrannical, but who will have to die someday–and replaced, in dynastic order, by his brother. An island inhabited by the most cheerful and happy people in the world.

Translated by Norma Whiting

“My Most Fruitful and Difficult Experience Has Been Jail” / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Antunez

Jorge Luis García Pérez, Antunez. (14ymedio)

Jorge Luis García Pérez, Antunez. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, LILIANNE RUIZ, Havana, October 25, 2014 — On leaving prison, it took Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, known as Antunez, some time to digest that he could go where he wanted without being watched. They had held him captive for 17 years and 37 days of his life.

Just as he learned to do in jail, today he devotes his efforts to civic resistance, inspired by the doctrine of Gene Sharp and Martin Luther King. His movement gathers dozens of activists who carry out street protests and civic meetings in several provinces of the country and in his native Placetas.

Lilianne: Let’s talk about before going to prison, adolescent Antunez. What did you want to be?

Antunez: In adolescence, a firefighter. I liked the idea of rescuing people, putting out fires. But before going to prison I wanted to become a lawyer. I believe that was my calling.

Lilianne: Jail is a survival experience. Do you think it hardened you?

Antunez: The most fruitful and difficult experience, as paradoxical as it may seem, has been jail. I never could imagine that jail was going to be a hard as it was, nor that I was going to be a witness to and a victim of the vile abuses that I experienced. I do not know how to answer you if it hardened me or not. When I entered prison I had a much more radical ideology, it was less democratic. But jail, thanks to God and to a group of people whom I met, helped me to become more tolerant, more inclusive, and to respect various opinions.

As a prisoner, I went to the most severe regime in Cuba. The gloomy prison of Kilo 8 in Camaguey, commonly known as “I lost the key,” where the most sinister repressors are found. Torture forms part of the repressive mentality of the jailers in a constant and daily way. It was there where a group of us political prisoners came together and founded the Pedro Luis Boitel Political Prisoner’s Association, in order to confront repression in a civic way. Thus, I tell you that prison did not harden me, because if it had, I would have emerged with resentment, hatred, feelings of vengeance, and it was not so.

Lilianne: What is your favorite music?

Antunez: I like romantic music, Maricela, Marco Antonio Solis, Juan Gabriel. But I also enjoy jazz, although I am no expert. The music to which I always sleep is instrumental.

Lilianne: Will you share with us your personal projects?

Antunez: There is a saying according to which a man, before he dies, should plant a tree, write a book and have a child. Fortunately, there is already a book, titled Boitel Lives; CADAL published it in 2005. I have planted many trees, because I am a country peasant. I only need to have a son with the woman I love, Iris Tamara Perez Aguilera, so here I am now telling you one of my goals I am aiming for.

Lilianne: You know that a growing number of dissidents and activists have identified four consensus points. What do you think?

Antunez: I believe that they are standing demands that concern all members of the opposition and all Cubans wherever they are. I wish that more fellow countrymen would adhere to these four points. I believe that they represent the sentiment of all good Cubans: to free political prisoners, for the Cuban government to ratify the human rights agreements, recognize the legitimacy of the opposition and stop repression. Everything that is done for change, to free us from the communist dictatorship that oppresses us, is positive.

Lilianne: Why does Antunez not leave Placetas?

Antunez: Not everyone wants to go to Havana. I know many people who keep their rootedness. I would say that, more than roots, it is a spiritual necessity. I leave Placetas three or four days and I begin to feel bad. And that sensation that I have when I come up the heights, coming from Santa Clara… that is something inexplicable. The motto that I repeat, “I won’t shut up, and I’m not leaving Cuba,” means also: “I won’t shut up and I’m not leaving Placetas.”

Translated by MLK

Cuba and Ebola: Business or Solidarity? / 14ymedio

THE NEW YORK TIMES: “Only Cuba and a few NGOs are offering what this major emergency needs: professionals prepared to treat patients.”

VS

THE WASHINGTON POST: “The export of medical services will net Cuba 8.2 billion dollars in 2014, according to a recent report in the [Cuban] newspaper Granma.”

14ymedio, 23 October 2014 — Days after publishing an article entitled “Cuba stands at the forefront of the fight against Ebola,” the Spanish daily El País goes a bit further with a discussion of the issue. “The landing of white coats in countries decimated by scarcities allows Cuba to generate prestige with its international presence, to reset its conceptual discourse about fundamental human rights, and to promote government alliances in a good part of Africa, Asia and Latin America… where its vaccines and bandages are appreciated more than the Western powers’ exhortations for democracy,” writes Juan Jesus Aznarez. In addition, the newspaper echoes the news that doctors who travel to West Africa and contract the virus will not be repatriated.

“Although the United Station and other countries have expressed willingness to contribute money, only Cuba and a few NGOs are offering what this major emergency needs: professionals prepared to treat patients,” says an editorial in the New York Times praising Cuba’s involvement in sending human resources.

In August, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a roadmap to address the crisis caused by the epidemic. Since then the needs of all types required by such an outbreak have been specified. So far 4,877 people of the 9,936 reported cases (almost all in West Africa) have died. Among the affected, there are 443 health workers, of whom 244 died. Continue reading

Users Bothered By Increase in Internet Prices at Presidente Hotel /14ymedio

14YMEDIO, Havana, 24 October 2014 — Jorge Suarez has been connecting to the Internet for six months at the Presidente Hotel. In recent weeks he has seen an increase in the number of clients who use the wireless connection of the central Havana lodging. Nevertheless, some days ago he got a bitter surprise when the employees informed him of an increase in the price of the service. The measure was not due to a regulation by the Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise (ETECSA) but due to a decision by the management of the place.

The management of the Presidente Hotel has decided to increase the service to 8.50 convertible pesos since it has required a minimum purchase of 4 CUC in the cafeteria of the place, to which is added the price of an hour of Internet connection which is 4.50 CUC. The decision is aimed at decreasing the number of people who show up daily to their facility to navigate the web or check their email. “These people were filling us up, and that is not good for tourists,” says a cleaning lady who prefers to remain anonymous.

While most places that offer the navigation service keep the cost at 4.50 convertible pesos per hour, the Presidente Hotel has invoked the “discretionary” rate. Clients confirm that before the increase in connection costs, the service had been deteriorating, and most of the time at the desk they said that “there were no internet cards to sell.”

Jorge Suarez tells how he was losing confidence in being able to access the network from the well-known hotel establishment. “I knew that they were going to do something to hinder the connection, because every day the workers in this place looked with harsher faces at those of us who came and sat on the terrace or in the lobby with a laptop or a tablet,” he explains. “They told us that we had to make a purchase to be able to be here, but the prices of everything in this place are through the roof.”

The young man, a civil engineering graduate, has no other means of viewing digital sites or answering his email. “I would prefer internet in my home, I only come here because I cannot access a home connection.” The measure implemented in the Presidente Hotel leaves him without any options. “The price before already seemed expensive to me, but the new one is simply beyond reach,” he says with frustration.

According to official statistics in Cuba – with a population of more than 11 million inhabitants – there are 1,014,000 computers and more than 2.9 million internet users. The figure, nevertheless, has been questioned by those who assert that as “internet users” the government includes people who only have access to a national intranet with health or cultural content.

Cuba is the least connected country in Latin America, in spite of the fact that in February 2011 a fiber optic cable was installed between Venezuela and the east side of the island, which at first was announced as the best option for guaranteeing the highest connectivity in the country. Three years later, the government has only opened something more than a hundred public navigation places and offered an email service via mobile phones.

Cubans like Jorge Suarez keep waiting to become web surfers.

Translated by MLK      

Fear Has Seized the Artistic Community of Pinar del Rio / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

The strange ramblings of Utopito, Pedro Pablo Oliva. (Source: Web Utopias and Dissent)

The strange ramblings of Utopito, Pedro Pablo Oliva. (Source: Web Utopias and Dissent)

14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez,Pinar del Río, 25 September 2014 — The artists’ guild in Pinar del Rio is living in distressing times because of the cancellation of the exposition by Pedro Pablo Oliva, “Utopias and Dissidences.” Talking about the most famous of the Pinareno painters has turned into a sad argument by Tyrians and Trojans, some in favor, almost in whispers, and others not so much, also in a quite low tone. But what the whisperers have in common is that they are living a fear that is corroding them and brings up the miseries and limitations that we humans all suffer, but that situations like this multiply.

The way in which the machinery of creating enemies can be efficient and dissuasive then becomes the model, the perception of real danger has been the offering of a local artistic community that shows its solidarity by emulating Nicodemus: they do not want to be seen or heard. They have given to the victim their absence and silence. They have been simple spectators, once again, of the crime of exclusion and disqualification. Listeners at a trial in which they themselves have been condemned although they may only have attended as the public.

The inquisitors of Pedro Pablo Oliva have known how to stimulate in the neurological systems of many Pinareno creators the amygdala situated in the temporal lobe which fires that feeling that we call fear. Although a scant minority has risked and has stood out in spite of also admitting its fears. These last have revived the artistic brotherhood in Pinar; some few carry the decorum of many; someone said one day, those few have meant a breath of hope in the middle of so much impoverishing hate against someone who only has sown love and has been consistent with himself. That is the price of honesty.

The others, the majority, are captivated by reforms that award airplane trips and trips for compensation that rot the soul and ruin the brush.

On the other hand, the common people possess an intuitive intelligence, flavorful and uninhibited and tell you to your face what they think. Overall, they do not plan to fly or exhibit in halls of the elite. Without any ambiguity that take sides with Pedro Pablo, both as a person and an artist, and lament the fear of his fellow painters, according to rumors.

That’s why I think that, although what has happened has been a sovereign injustice, it has served to put on the table who is company for cocktails, galleries and inaugurations and who accompanies you on the road overcoming their fears and discarding the complicity of silence and pretense.

It has been painful for Pedro Pablo, his family, work team and all of us who love him as a friend and national treasure, but instructive. Although it may seem utopian, I think that the night we are living today will not have the last word. It only serves as the anteroom for the light of day.

Translated by MLK

Burma is closer than we think … / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The Burmese activists Nay Phone Latt (left) and Soe Aung (right). (14ymedio)

The Burmese activists Nay Phone Latt (left) and Soe Aung (right). (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Prague, 15 October 2014 – A few years ago, when I was overcome with despair about the situation of my country, I thought about those who were in worse shape with regards to the lack of freedoms. Two nations invariably came to mind: North Korea and Burma. The first of these still tops the list of places where few want to live, while Myanmar (Burma) has undertaken a slow and imperfect process of opening.
In Prague I just met two Burmese who are contributing to these small changes, the blogger Nay Phone Latt and activist Soe Aung.

Question: Nay, you are just 34-years-old and you were arrested for spreading information about the 2007 protests in your country on the Internet, and then convinced of the alleged crime of violating the electronic law. Do you think that now the access to information is more free?

Nay Phone Latt: Right now there is less censorship in the media, it is not as strong as before. I’m speaking not only of digital media, but also of the written press that is subject to fewer controls on the part of the government. The problem we still have is that some of these media are in the hands of the ruling party and the others, which are private, belong to people who have very good relations with the military, so many are corrupt. However, there are always some who try to be independent.

There are still very clear limits on what you can write and what you can’t. For example if someone posts an article criticizing the Government and uncovering a corruption scandal, they can get into serious trouble and even end up in jail.

“There are still very clear limits on what you can write and what you can’t”

Q. How has the situation changed since the election in 2012?

Soe Aung: Currently in Burma we have a Parliament whose majority is still made up by the military. The Constitution reserves a quarter of the seats in parliament and 56 of the 24 Senate seats to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. Meanwhile, the opposition National League for Democracy (LND) has barely 43 seats. Thus, it is every difficult to promote changes, becaue this isn’t a real democratic process.

Q. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi is the most visible face of dissent in Burma What other opposition groups are calling for changes?

Soe Aung: There is the movement known as Generation 88, because there was a popular protest in 1988 against the military junta. These demonstrations, composed mostly of students, were brutally repressed. Currently the group is still very strong in Burmese society and demands a democratic and open society.

Q. What are the main problems for the Burmese people now?

Nay Phone Latt: First, the lack of trust in institutions, in the police, the judiciary and the government. People have a lot of disbelief, they are very skeptical. The whole society has lost trust in the military regime. We have lost the ability to believe.

Aung Soe R.: In my opinion, our biggest problem is still poverty. We still have very poor people in our country who do not even have a piece of land to grow their own food. We have experienced an economic opening but the big winners are the military and the people close to them who have become very rich.

Artist El Sexto Will Face Trial in a Few Hours / 14ymedio

Daniel Maldonado, "El Sexto"

Danilo Maldonado, “El Sexto”

The trail of the independent artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto – “The Sixth” – has been set for tomorrow at 8:30 AM in the Plaza of the Revolution municipal court.

The cartoonist and creator of numerous graffiti is accused of the alleged crime of threatening his wife, which could mask political retaliation. The complaint was made by Danilo’s wife’s father, who was also present as the main prosecution witness.

Friends and colleagues fear that the court hearing is a way of settling accounts with this uncomfortable “king of the spray can.” In statements to 14ymedio, El Sexto has demonstration his dissatisfaction with the legal process and has confirmed that his wife was present during the session to “state what occurred.” Right now the couple is living under the same roof together with their small daughter and hope that “the charges won’t go forward.”

With regards to tomorrow’s trial, Maldonaldo believes, “There won’t be any problems, although there is always the pressure. Just for the simple fact of thinking differently, I feel exposed in front of them.”

In recent decades it has become a frequent practice to bring common crime charges against activists and artists who undertake work critical of the government. In a similar situation right now is the writer Angel Santiesteban, condemned and sentenced to prison on alleged charges of violation of domicile and injury.

Gorki Aguila, the famous singer and leader of the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo is also on the list of those awaiting trial, accused of alleged “drug abuse.”

As a general rule, people critical of the government are not judged on political reasons but for “common crimes” with the aim of limiting solidarity and international pressure.

Official citation of Danilo Maldonado

Official citation of Danilo Maldonado

Berta Soler: They Must Put An End To This / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Berta Coler, Leader of the Ladies in White

Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White

14ymedio, Havana, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 21 October 2014 — Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, has called for a vigil this October 21 in front of the Diez de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. The reason is the new suspension of the trial of Sonia Garro.

Soler explained that there are “dubious things” in the way the authorities have handled this latest extension. “Sonia called to tell me that a captain had told her that the trial was suspended, but she did not believe it.” The activist also said that Sonia Garro’s defense lawyer “was unaware” of the decision. The new date for holding the criminal trial has been set for next November 7.

“We do not trust the Cuban Government, therefore the vigil goes on,” the leader of the Ladies in White told this newspaper. Soler does not rule out that “all this supposed suspension is for the purpose of demobilizing the people.” So, “we are going to be there anyway,” she announced.

There will also be a vigil in the interior of the country because it is expected that in front of the courts of Santiago de Cuba and other cities peaceful demonstrations similar to that in Havana will take place. The Diez de Octubre municipal court is at Juan Delgado and Patrocinio, and Berta Soler says that “the plan is to begin at 8:00 a.m. and last until noon. It depends on whether they let us or not.”

The activist also reported that “since this Saturday, State Security has reinforced vigilance over the Ladies in White.” This is the third time that they have suspended the trial of Sonia Garro. “They must to put an end to this,” she demands.

Translated by MLK

Lech Walesa: “Cubans need responsible leaders” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Lech Walesa during the conversation with Cuban activists, with his translator Tomasz Wodzyński

Lech Walesa during the conversation with Cuban activists, with his translator, with his translator Tomasz Wodzyński

The Nobel Peace Prize winner speaks with several Cuban activists on the situation of the island and the possibilities for democratic change

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Warsaw, 21 October 2014 — Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa had an agreement that death annulled. The two would go to Havana when the democratic transition occurred to support the process of political and civic reconstruction in our country. The “Cuban change,” however, has been too long delayed and the Czech died before realizing his dream. The Solidarity leader, meanwhile, has only been able to have contact with the island through dissidents visiting Poland.

Yesterday, Monday, Walesa talked for more than two hours with a group of activists from diverse provinces and political leanings. It was if a piece of Cuba had arrived in the autumn cold of Wasaw. I share here with the readers of 14ymedio the first part of that conversation.

Lech Walesa: Tell me what can I do to help speed up the democratization process in your country. Am I likely to see a Free Cuba before I die?

Dagoberto Valdés. I have good news for you and a suggestion of how you can help. A significant and growing group within Cuban civil society has identified four points on which we agree and which are demands to the regime. It is a way of organizing ourselves, but not the only one. There are other agendas, but I will now read the four issues on which we converge: the release of political prisoners, the ending of political repression, ratification of International Covenants on Human Rights, and recognition of Cuban civil society as a legitimate interlocutor. You could collaborate with us to disseminate these and support them in international forums.

Lech Walesa: I like those points, but I would add a fifth which would be to ask that “Raul Castro leave power,” because I think when the previous four are achieved it will be because the current system has been dismantled. If the rulers accept that agenda, that would mean that they would lose power immediately. So I think that they will never approve them, but in any event I support them.

I like those points, but I would add a fifth which would be to ask that “Raul Castro leave power”

Yoani Sánchez: You wonder when you can visit a free Cuba, but for now what has happened is that a fragment of an already free Cuba has come here. A plural, diverse and growing group of Cubans, who behave as free beings, have come to Warsaw this week. Isn’t that hopeful? Continue reading

Seasonings and Their Uses / 14ymedio, Rebeca Monzo

14ymedio, Rebeca Monzó, Havana | October 14, 2014 — The high cost and the limited selection of basic produce forces us to trek from one farmer’s market to another in search of the most essential ingredients for our kitchens.

These days the prices for vegetables as basic as onions, garlic and peppers, indispensable in the kitchen, are so unbelievable that you would think they were threaded in 18 carat gold. The hard-currency stores have stocked various imported spices of good quality that generally are somewhat more economical.

So here I will list some of them, along with their uses and applications:

Garlic Powder.  Well known by all for its use – however, being a concentrated product, it must be used carefully, with a concomitant reduction in the amount of salt used in the same recipe. Very appropriate for soups, and meat and fish sauces. A little goes a long way. Continue reading

Back Channel to Cuba / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Presentation of "Back Channel to Cuba" at UNEAC (14Ymedio)

Presentation of “Back Channel to Cuba” at UNEAC (14Ymedio)

The Villena room was too small for the audience, which endured sweltering heat during the two hours of the presentation of the book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

The free event, at the headquarters of the Cuban Artists and Writers Union (UNEAC), had raised such high expectations in the academic world and in public opinion that almost two hundred people gathered his Monday at 4:00 in the afternoon to meet the authors of a book that has been presented outside of Cuba as “revelatory.”

Researchers Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande had to face being accosted by the press before entering the room where they were awaited by figures as diverse as Ministry of the Interior agent Fernando González – imprisoned in the United States for 15 years – and the Cuban-American businessman Max Lesnick. Continue reading

“I am prey, our family is prey and all of and Venezuela is prey” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Venezuelan Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo Lopez, in Prague

Venezuelan Lilian Tintori, wife of Leopoldo Lopez, in Prague

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Prague, 13 October 2014 – We met a year ago in beautiful Prague at Forum 2000, with human rights activists from all over the world. Unlike that October, we are now missing Leopoldo Lopez. The Venezuelan politician and activist has been imprisoned since early this year, accused of various crimes that have all the hallmarks of a political montage.

Amid the celebrations for the quarter century of the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, Lilian Tintori speaks with 14ymedio about repression in Venezuela.

Question. Which led to Leopoldo López being imprisoned?

Response. My husband Leopoldo Lopez is in prison for saying what all of Venezuela wanted to hear. The majority of Venezuelans want change. In January he raised his voice and started a peaceful campaign in the streets for constitutional change in Venezuela. By the second month of the protests there were so many people in the streets that they ambushed him and put out an order to arrest him for murder. Something that has nothing to do with Leopoldo, who is a progressive leader who has fought for freedoms, for democracy. He was the mayor of Chacao twice and won international awards for the transparency of his administration. Continue reading