Hard Times for Cuban Sugar Cane Harvest / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A sugar cane field in Cuba. (Flickr / CC)
A sugar cane field in Cuba. (Flickr / CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, 28 December 2015 – Guarapo,  sugarcane juice, may be harder to get in 2016, thanks to the climate, obsolete technology and missed payments to producers, all of which are affecting the current sugar harvest, according to information presented to the National Assembly on Sunday by the directors of the AzCuba Group.

Delayed payments from the last harvest to private, lessee and cooperative producers total more than 95 million pesos and are of particular concern in the provinces of Holguin, Mayabeque, Matanzas, Camagüey and Granma. continue reading

According to AzCuba president Orlando Celso Garcia, the drought in July and August and the excessive rain in the months of November and December also will negatively affect the sugar harvest.

The delay in starting by a group of centers in the so-called “little harvest” is another negative factor, and is due to the immaturity of the cane and infrastructure problems in the sugar mills.

According to AzCuba’s official figures, the technological and input needs of the sector required 173 million pesos in imports, but only 98 million pesos worth was approved.

Data from the last harvest were handled very discreetly in the official press, and no figure was given for the number of tons produced. A summary of the report prepared by AzCuba and published in the newspaper Granma limited itself to saying that although “the plan fell 4% short of what was expected,” production “grew 18% over the previous harvest.”

Cuban sugar production reached 8.5 million metric tons in 1970 and fell to 1.1 million metric tons in the 2009-2010 harvest, a figure that had already been reached on the island in the early years of the twentieth century.

Cuban Activist On The Brink Of Death After A Prolonged Hunger Strike / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Union activist Vladimir Morera Bacallao. (Source: Twitter)
Union activist Vladimir Morera Bacallao. (Source: Twitter)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 26 December 2015 – A blacksmith by profession, he never imagined that after so many years of fabricating bars for his neighbors’ homes, he would end up locked behind prison bars. The activist Vladimir Morera Bacallao will mark 80 days on a hunger strike this Monday, 28 December, the Day of the Holy Innocents. That is, if the authorities don’t release him or he doesn’t starve to death first.

Right now, Morera Bacallao languishes in intermediate care at the Arnaldo Milian provincial hospital in the city of Santa Clara. He was taken there less than a week ago, after his family and colleagues in the Cuban Reflection Movement (MCR) carried out a campaign demanding that the prison authorities pay attention to his case. continue reading

MCR leader Librado Linares told 14ymedio that morera Bacallao now weighs less than 95 pounds, and within the next few hours his health could deteriorate “to the point of no return.” Saturday afternoon, Linares, a former prisoner of the 2003 Black Spring, said “he is so weak now that he doesn’t recognize anyone.”

Linares says that he is “knocking on the doors of the Bishop [of Santa Clara] and some of the province’s fraternal organizations,” to prevent the hunger striker’s death and to achieve his immediate release. The dissident is calling on the national and international community to do everything possible, “to not let him die.”

Morera Bacallo, was sentenced to four years in prison in case 404 of 2015, accused of the crime of “injuries.” The basis of this accusation, according to his family members who attended the trial, was a blow to the head received by Ivis Herrera, second secretary of the Communist Party in the municipality of Manicaragua, in the province of Villa Clara.

Several witnesses confirmed that the injury occurred when the official fell to the ground while sliding on melted asphalt that had been thrown down in front of and around Morera Bacallao’s house. The dumping of the material was part of the aggressions of the area’s “rapid response brigades” against the dissident, instigated by Ivis Herrera himself.

The events, classified as “public disorder,” happened on 19 April of this year, on the eve of the elections for the People’s Power. The opponent decided to put a sign on the door of his house where he proclaimed, “I vote for my freedom and not in some elections where I cannot elect my president.” The text unleashed the fury of the town’s government rulers.

Most of the working-age people in Manicaragua work in military factories or are active members of the armed forces. Thus, the residents of the area respond with a special intolerance and violence against any public display of differences with the government.

Rapid response brigades assaulted Morera Bacallao’s house in April, breaking windows, beating the inhabitants without distinction to sex or age, and throwing bricks. The operation included the spreading of melted asphalt, along with insults and abuse. In the early morning hours, when it seemed that everything was over, the uniformed Special Brigade of the Ministry of the Interior arrived and arrested the activist.

From the moment he fell into prison, the dissident declared himself on a hunger strike and only abandoned it in June, 40 days later, when he was hospitalized and they promised they would review his case. As the authorities did not fulfill their promise, on 9 October he resumed his hunger strike in the Guamajal prison hospital on the outskirts of Santa Clara. There he lost more than 88 pounds, according to Arsenio Lopez Roa, an inmate who provided the information.

Last Monday, the medical team informed the family that the striker had “vomited blood at least eight times, during the transfer from prison to the hospital.” The same source predicted that “at any moment he could experience digestive bleeding.”

In November 2013, Morera Bacallao was sentenced to eight years in prison for reasons very similar to today’s, after suffering an act of repudiation. He was released after one year, on 14 December 2014, after consecutive hunger strikes. Two months later, his name appeared on the list of the 53 prisoners released after talks between Barack Obama and Raul Castro; a list that was not initially made public at the time of their release.

Cuban Faces of 2015: Zaqueo Baez Guerrero, Government Opponent / 14ymedio

Zaqueo Baez, activist
Zaqueo Baez, activist

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 24 December 2015 — About to turn 40, Zaqueo Baez was completely unknown until 20 September 2015, when he mocked the seven security cordons protecting Pope Francis minutes before his first Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. Clinging to the railing of the Popemobile, Baez, managed to deliver a letter to the pontiff and loudly denounce the “new evil” that violates human rights in Cuba.

Baez, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), was immediately arrested along with three other activists. After a several day hunger strike he was released, but not before being accused of public disorder, disrespect and resistance. Today he is in legal limbo, having no single document clarifying his situation.

His bold action had admirers and detractors. Some described him as heroic, others as disrespectful, but the event was recorded in a video that showed it to the world. After his release, the activist has been arrested on each of the multiple occasions in which he has participated in a protest. Nevertheless, he wants to stay in Cuba to continue fighting for his ideals.

Cuban Middle Class Takes Over ‘Proletarian’ Neighborhoods / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

The 12-story buildings are the most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, built with the technique of prefabricated pieces. (14ymedio)
The 12-story buildings are the most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, built with the technique of prefabricated pieces. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 22 December 2015 — “These buildings are earthquake resistant,” says the owner of an apartment for sale in a Havana neighborhood. The potential buyer listens incredulous, looking out from the balcony at other concrete blocks in the surrounding area. What was once a working-class neighborhood, where work and political “merits” were needed to get an apartment, is now becoming the scene of an emerging middle class.

Across the whole country, especially in the provincial capitals, tall buildings were erected in the decades of the seventies and eighties. Twelve stories is most common, followed by those with 18 or 14 floors, constructed from prefabricated pieces. The highest, at 26 floors, were built using the then novel approach of sliding formwork technology.

The so-called Microbrigade* Buildings, have become synonymous with the socialist architecture of Eastern Europe, transplanted to the tropics. It came to be predicted that these giants would replace Cuba’s traditional architecture, and shelter the New Man. Today, despite their exterior ugliness, many of the apartments are bought by an emerging middle class that aspires to see Cuba “from above.” continue reading

In 1979 Orestes Figueroa won a three-bedroom apartment he now wants to sell for 25,000 convertible pesos. “I won it because I had spent almost seven years working as a bricklayer and they awarded it to me based on my merits,” he says wistfully. Located near the Rancho Boyeros Avenue, the colossus in which the home is located is still maintained with a certain dignity, unlike others plagued by hydraulic problems, broken elevators and deteriorating construction.

Now retired, Figueroa has never forgotten the moment when they read out at an assembly the number of volunteer hours he had amassed to obtain that apartment. It was an afternoon of questioning glances and whispers among those vying for a roof. His Communist Party membership and participation in political activities helped him to rise on the list of those deserving an apartment. That night he couldn’t sleep he was so happy.

Those were the days when “loyalty to the process” functioned as an invisible currency with which one could acquire things ranging from appliances, to the right to a vacation in tourist facilities, to the allocation of housing. However, the happy owner had to pay 6,000 Cuban pesos for their new home: 10% of a 250 peso monthly salary for 20 years.

With the legalization of the dollar in the early nineties and the subsequent appearance of the convertible peso, a new form of “natural selection” emerged, where money regained its value for transactions. However, it was not until late 2011, when the buying and selling of homes was legalized, that thousands of apartments in proletarian neighborhoods hit the market.

The microbrigade members of yesteryear, like Figueroa, now weigh the possibility of exchanging the homes they won for the hard cash that would allow them to buy a smaller place and have something level over to supplement their very low pensions. They dream of finding some nouveau riche willing to pay cash for what was once acquired through labor and ideological efforts.

Lizbeth is part of the growing sector of Cubans with access to hard currency. She has always dreamed of living on a high floor, but does not have enough resources to buy a property in one of the buildings built “under capitalism” – i.e. before the Revolution. In a country that grows more horizontally than towards the clouds, the number of apartments in the heights is limited and there is not much to choose from. In 2014, over the whole island, just 25,037 homes were built, of which more than half were built by their residents’ own efforts.

“I didn’t want the Alamar neighborhood, east of Havana, because I don’t like the haphazard crowding of the buildings,” says Lizbeth. With family abroad and a thriving interior design business, the professional inquired in Vedado, looking at the buildings constructed by the microbrigades from the Ministry of the interior, the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television and other state entities. However, prices are higher in areas like Vedado, closest to the Malecon.

Her next choice was the Nuevo Vedado neighborhood, where most of these piles that were built in Havana are concentrated. Properties built by sponsors as diverse as the Ministries of Transport, the Armed Forces, the Interior, Labor and Social Security, or Basic Industry, among others.

“This is neighborhood of bosses and Party fanatics,” says the buyer scornfully, looking at prices that start at 25,000 convertible pesos and go up from there. She finally found something in Alta Habana that fit her budget, between the Electric Company building and the National Poultry Company. Despite the prejudices against housing constructed by the inexperienced microbrigades, the young woman believes that, given its recent construction, it is unlikely to collapse or be declared uninhabitable.

New plumbing installations. (14ymedio)
New plumbing installations. (14ymedio)

Indoors, many residents have invested in redoing the bathrooms and kitchens of what were once standard apartments, but most of the facades show the inexorable passage of time, with chipped balconies, unsealed aluminum windows and unpainted common areas with no lighting. In almost all, the water supply lasts only a few hours a day, so the terraces and small courtyards are filled with backup storage tanks.

These concrete giants, once the symbol of revolutionary architecture, have not been maintained for more than three decades. Water pipes have given way in several places and countless apartments are marked by ceiling leaks, while neighbors complain that their new concrete colossus has become “a great big tenement.”

The initial inhabitants, like Figueroa, leave slowly. While Lizbeth makes plans for what color she will paint the walls of her new home, the LED lights she will place in the entryway, and the tub she will install where now there is only an inconvenient shower. The earthquake safety measures built into these tall buildings did not foresee the earthquakes of the economy.

* Translator’s note:
For more information about microbrigades see page 26 of this report by Cuban architect Mario Coyula.

Cuba’s Energy Revolution is in a Tailspin / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

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14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 21 December 2015 – “Hurry! Get in! The patient is dying,” the driver warned the young man flagging him down at the corner of Calzada del Cerro. At the wheel was Carlos Alberto Valdes, a technician from the Electrical Generators Group of Havana, who was on a mission worthy of a movie. He had to repair the power plant at the Diez de Octubre Clinical Surgical Hospital, before an eventual power failure ended the life of a woman in a coma.

Connected to the life-support equipment was a 30-year-old woman who was taken to the Diez de Octubre intensive care unit after a complicated operation carried out at Hijas de Galicia Hospital. Her life depended on one of the frequent blackouts plaguing the Cuban capital not happening, an otherwise common occurrence since the hospital’s power plant wasn’t working. continue reading

Stories like this are repeated across the island, along with others where a power failure does not cost the life of a human being, but aborts a working day, cancels some bureaucratic paperwork, thwarts a tryst, or stops a movie halfway through. Power failures continue to be a constant in the lives of Cubans, despite the Energy Revolution launched a decade ago.

Among the main programs of this marathon campaign, led by Fidel Castro, was the placement of emergency generations in places key to the economy and public services. By 2007, 6,301 generators had been installed in the country, most of them of Chinese origin, of which 3,798 are still in place.

Although they continued to be imported and installed in different locations, the number of active installations did not grow significantly. Cuba 2014: Economic and Social Landscape noted that as of the end of that year 3,855 of these pieces of equipment were working, some 10% fewer than in 2013, and they were generating 19.9% of the country’s electricity. Each of these power plants uses 198 to 227 grams of diesel fuel per kilowatt.

Technological obsolescence, lack of spare parts and the diversion* of the fuel intended for these devices have combined to diminish their effectiveness and limit their social utility. This is confirmed by the testimony of Valdes himself who, upon detecting that the failure of the hospital generator was caused by the battery, told this newspaper: “There are no batteries in the whole country.”

This reality contrasts with the 2006 comments of Eusebio Martinez Rios, director general of the company belonging to Unecamoto Group which managed the installation of the equipment in the country. The official told the official press at that time, “They can last more than 20 years before undergoing major repairs.” A decade later, the number of faulty generators taken out of service exceeds a thousand per year. The Energy Revolution is in a tailspin.

Most of the equipment was installed in economically and socially prioritized locations, such as hospitals, polyclinics, hotel facilities and water pumping stations. In the heyday of the Energy Revolution consideration was also give to placing them in multi-story buildings, to maintain the elevators and water pumps in case of blackouts, but this did not happen. In some of these buildings you can still see the concrete structures meant to serve as bases for the “power giants.”

“The problem is that all the equipment has a certain lifespan and you cannot abuse them, and above all they need to be well maintained,” says Valdes, noting that presently the company has “no parts for these electric generators.” The equipment runs off fuel oil or diesel and they are also frequent victims of vandalism and “diversion of resources.”

“When we try to start up the electrical plant the fuel has been stolen,” a technician of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) told 14ymedio. He experienced a power failure some years ago that shut down television across the whole country. “It had been assumed that the generator would allow us to continue broadcasting, but we couldn’t turn it on because it was dry,” he said. It took a very long 40 minutes to get the signal back up, while viewers were left in suspense in front of the screen.

In addition to technical problems and theft, this equipment generates pollution, especially the smoke they emit and the noise they make when they are running. Complaints by residents in the vicinity of the generators have become so frequent that Jorge Alvarez, director of the Environmental Regulatory Office, said in an edition of the official TV show Roundtable that the generators “pollute the environment with fumes, noise and vibration.”

Carlos Alberto Valdes resolved the hospital’s emergency — and protected the life of the patient — by taking a battery from another generator at the Surgical Clinic and moving it to the one in need. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul,” a hospital employee kept repeating as he stood by watching. The young woman who survived didn’t even know how close she came to dying, thanks to a capricious blackout and a broken generator that wouldn’t start.

*Translator’s note: “The diversion of resources” is an expression commonly used in Cuba in place of the more accurate phrase, “the theft of resources.” The thieves are often the managers and employees of the enterprise itself, who supplement their pitiful wages with “a little something off the back of the truck “ as one might say in the U.S.

Critical Times for Cuba / 14ymedio, Pedro Campos

The change in the Venezuelan Assembly involves the loss of one of Raul Castro’s biggest supporters (EFE)
The change in the Venezuelan Assembly involves the loss of one of Raul Castro’s biggest supporters (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Campos, Havana, 21 December 2015 – The year 2015 is drawing to a close and Cuba is living in critical times. There are five main factors that contribute to the Cuban situation: the breach of the fundamental agreements of the 6th Communist Party Congress; the aging and political exhaustion of the “historic leadership”; the spasm in Cuba-United States relations; the reversal of the leftist wave in Latin America – in particular the parliamentary defeat of the Maduro government in Venezuela; and growing popular discontent with the centralized economic and political model, evident in the exodus of Cubans from the country and in the growth and improved organization of the opposition.

The situation is leading to an economic and social crisis and, predictably, to a political crisis, that obliges all Cuban actors – especially the government – to think in terms of the general interests of the people and to put aside those of specific groups.

1. Clearly, had the principal agreements of the 2011 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba been implemented with respect to self-employment, cooperatives, business autonomy, and the opening to foreign investment, the situation today would continue reading

, at least, be one of prosperity. Instead, the staunch support for the Statist model continues to depress farm output and cause retail prices to rise, and the awful dual currency system continues.

Although slight changes have improved the situation of minority groups and strengthened the development of an emerging middle class, economic and social conditions for the dispossessed majority continue to worsen. The impoverishment of state employees – who are the majority – has also worsened, aggravated by problems in transport, food and housing, which are everyone’s greatest concerns.

2. Raul Castro has said he will retire from the government in early 2018. His legitimacy, like that of Fidel Castro and the other “historic” leaders who have ruled this country for more than half a century, comes from his participation in the assault on the Moncada Barracks, his presence on the yacht Granma that brought the revolutionaries from Mexico, and his presence in the Sierra Maestra during the Revolution, not from being elected by a direct and secret vote of the people. Among this group, who may arise enjoy their legitimacy, and so would have to pass the test of direct and democratic election to achieve that legitimacy before the people.

This situation requires that, in Raul Castro’s remaining time in power, a process of democratic negotiation is undertaken in Cuban society that enables a broad inclusive national debate, a new constitution and a new multi-party Electoral Law that allows his successor to run as a candidate in democratic elections.

These are also the two years left to the “historics” to finish dismantling the calamity of the Statist model imposed in the name of socialism, and to develop a free market economy that includes free cooperatives of every kind and size and self-employment without restrictions, and, in addition, where the state enterprises that remain are indispensible they must have a high level of autonomy and for the most part be co-managed with their workers. Alongside them, private businesses of all sizes should be developed, including with Cuban capital from outside the country and with foreign capital.

Should Cuba not advance in this process of democratization and the expansion of the economic system to one that supports new entrants of all kinds, the nation’s future could be very uncertain and bleak.

This is also the time remaining to Fidel Castro’s brother to resolve the fundamental problems with the United States, to ensure that relations with the neighboring country benefit Cuba without jeopardizing its sovereignty.

3. The spasm in relations between Cuba and the United States stem from the Cuban government’s demands for a total lifting of the blockade-embargo, the elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the return of the Guantanamo Naval Base. Also contributing are the emigration crisis and the presence of 8,000 Cubans stranded in Central America, as well as the upcoming election year in the United States, which will make it more difficult for the Obama administration to move forward in normalizing relations. All this suggests a somewhat grim picture, although the president of the United States and some US lawmakers are pushing Congress to address the issue of Cuba.

The underlying problem is that the United States Congress has indicated that it will condition any progress on the issue of democratic changes in Cuba, “concessions to imperialism” that the “revolutionary” government is not willing to concede.

Nobody understands what concessions to imperialism could devolve political and economic sovereignty to the Cuban people, who fought a revolution that triumphed in 1959 to restore institutionalized democracy and the 1940 Constitution violated by Batista; objectives that have always been postponed by this “revolutionary” government. It is not a concession to imperialism; it is a debt to the people.

There are indications that this impasse might be being supported by figures within the Cuban government itself opposed to the necessary changes, those who say they would prefer to see the island sink into the sea rather than compromise on these positions. This sinking does not enjoy majority support among Cubans.

4. The reversal of the leftist wave in Latin America is creating conditions for greater pressures on the Cuban government to advance toward democratic changes. The great parliamentary defeat of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) will probably lead to a drastic reduction in Venezuelan oil flowing to Cuba, and in part to the exchange of doctors for oil, which will significantly affect the Cuban economy and Cuban society in general. This will force Raul Castro’s government to pay for the oil it consumes, but now from other nations, with payment conditions that will not be as beneficial as those contracted with President Maduro.

It should also serve to make the government embark on the path of the economic reforms approved by the 6th Communist Party Congress, to date only narrowly applied, and open spaces for democratic participation, where all sectors – including the opposition and those who think differently – can engage publically without repression.

5. The disaster sustained by the economy due to lack of government willingness to advance the economic reforms approved by its own Communist Party, the lack of democratic advances, the hopelessness because there are no tangible improvements in the changing relations with the United States for those at the bottom, and the loss of Venezuelan aid have increased popular discontent, the exodus of Cubans to other countries, and the size and organization of the opposition.

Accustomed to ruling for more than half a century with the opposition crushed by repression, the government doesn’t know how to deal with a growing peaceful alternative that, banned and lacking outlets, manifests itself in dissimilar ways, both in the heart of the Communist Party and in official institutions, as well as in the streets.

This entire set of circumstances puts Raul Castro’s government up against a very clear dilemma for 2016. Either advance in the fulfillment of the agreements of the 6th Party Congress and start a process of internal democratization that facilitates a greater relaxation of the cords of the blockade-embargo, or watch the Cuban economy and Cuban society become involved in a serious period of turbulence with unpredictable consequences.

2016, Expect the Unexpected / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

President Raul Castro at the inauguration of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba
President Raul Castro at the inauguration of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 December 2015 –The current first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba turns 85 in 2016 and, if re-elected at the Seventh Congress to be held in April, he will be seated in an unacceptable precedent, because at that age it is only appropriate to lead a circle of grandparents.

Although the First Party Conference, held in January 2012, did not specify an age limit for a functionary to serve in a political or governmental post, it did establish “limits with regards to term and ages, according to the functions and complexity of each responsibility.” continue reading

As they say in the movies, “it’s nothing personal” against Raul Castro, it’s that the country doesn’t need to re-experience the disruptions of mid-2006, when ill health prevented the then “Maximum Leader” from continuing to rule the nation.

In his speech at the Sixth Congress, Raul Castro warned that this would probably be the last with the presence of the “historic generation.” And in the Seventh Congress that warning would be a source of major drama. The risk now run by the octogenarians, is that the longer they delay in passing the baton, the more probable an unexpected rupture.

It is hard to believe that the Communist Party of Cuba does not have a single member under 65 (or even under 70), with sufficient capacity to assume the leadership of the organization. Perhaps it is not just about intellectual preparation, indispensible for a “correct application of Marxist-Leninist theory to the revolutionary practice,” nor the experience accumulated in “direct work with the masses,” nor should there be a scarcity of virtues such as integrity, diligence, capacity for teamwork, and others that are in demand in these cases. Most likely it is a lack of confidence that the anointed one would want to maintain continuity. It’s enough to look at what Raul Castro himself has done with the legacy of his brother to imagine the changes that would be introduced by a man without so much ballast.

Obviously, the optimal would be the Communist Party renouncing its constitutionally mandatory hegemony, and opening the opportunity to other political tendencies, but that is another topic.

The year 2016 will be terminal for Raul Castro, at least according to the Chinese horoscope, because on 8 February the Year of the Goat will end, which is the sign under which he was born in 1931. Now begins the Year of the Monkey, whose motto is, “I am the unexpected.”

One Year After December 17, Who Took The Lead? / 14ymedio, Pedro Campos

Raul Castro and Barrack Obama announced on December 17, 2014 the normalization of relations between Cuba and the US
Raul Castro and Barrack Obama announced on December 17, 2014 the normalization of relations between Cuba and the US

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Campos, Havana, 17 December 2015 – Several articles have already appeared alluding to the first anniversary of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the USA and evaluating the results.

For some nothing has happened: nothing has changed. But diplomatic relations were restored and there have been some institutional agreements on drug control, human trafficking and postal services.

For his part, President Obama issued several resolutions which, according to various political analysts, converted the embargo into Swiss cheese, and he started to talk about the issue of compensation, while several high-level political, diplomatic and economic delegations from the United States have come to Cuba to study and propose solutions and agreements, although little or nothing has been achieved. continue reading

The Cuban government also has a proposal of its own: “There can be no normalization of relations between the two countries while the blockade and the Cuban Adjustment Act are maintained and Guantanamo Naval Base is not returned,” it says, adding, “we will not take a step back… we will not make concessions,” which in good Castilian means: the investments that we are going to allow here are those of interest to the Cuban government, under the conditions we set.

One thing has become very clear: the Obama administration’s willingness to advance the development of multilateral relations, and to cooperate in various fields with the Cuban government and society, and the unwillingness of the government in Havana to take concrete steps that do not benefit the narrow interests of the Government-State-Party, by which they do not mean those of the entire Cuban people.

The Obama administration, responding to strategic interests in the region, has demonstrated to the world, to its own people and to the Cuban people its readiness to advance in the normalization and strengthening of relations with Cuba, taking a series of steps within the purview of the executive branch. It has made ​​clear that there are a number of laws related to the blockade-embargo which can only be repealed by Congress, which has been working to try to lift them.

The Cuban government is “standing its ground.” It knows that for there to be movement in Congress with regards to the laws of the embargo-blockade, it would have to start a clear process of democratization in Cuba, there would have be an amnesty, decreeing freedom of expression and association and it would have to initiate a dialog with the opposition and those who think differently, and with the whole nation, about a new constitution and a new democratic electoral law.

But it gives no signals in that direction, as much as it is the only existing party and according to the current constitution directs the destiny of Cuba and resists implementing the agreements of its own 2011 6th Communist Party Congress. These agreements addressed the establishment and development of self-employment, cooperatives, business autonomy, and the opening to foreign investment. Meanwhile, the economy continues to tank and the Cuban government’s image constantly deteriorates.

It is clear: if there is freedom, if there is democracy, if there is respect for human rights, no one is going to come to demand you comply with these precepts. It was written long ago: a political democratization and a diversification of the economy would permit a cushioning of the impact of investment and closer relations with the United States. Falling on deaf ears.

Moreover, in the last month, Nicaragua’s closing of its border with Costa Rica, to block Cubans from heading to the United States, has created a regional immigration issue with many sharp edges. Everything indicates that Cuba is behind the Nicaraguan decision, as part of its announced interest in eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act. However, what it seems to have done is demonstrate to the world the inability of its unproductive statist economic system and the lack of political and civil liberties in Cuba which, instead of attracting young people pushes them to emigrate, at the same time it has shown its interest in complicating, rather the solving, the Cuban-US referendum.

Who has come out ahead in this process? The government of the United States has demonstrated flexibility, tolerance and a willingness to resolve the dispute with Cuba. And this has been a point in its favor.

The government of the Cuba has demonstrated the exact opposite: inflexibility, intolerance and an unwillingness to resolve the dispute, and in addition, the inability to anticipate changes, and even its flouting of its own constitution by failing to comply with the guidelines of the Communist Party, because, in its Stalinist fashion, it believes that it would be “like delivering the Revolution to its class enemies: the self-employed, the cooperatives, the small, medium and large capitalists.”

Cuban leaders have confirmed that in order to remain in power, they are capable of reneging on Party agreements that they themselves shaped, agreements that should guarantee the economic, political and social development of the country, decentralize power, diversify and broaden the productive forces and the productive relationships that expand the economy.

One would have to conclude, therefore, that even the Communist Party, under pressure from its bases, conceived solutions that go against the interests of populist and decadent statism represented at the highest levels of the Party and the government. This also would be another point in favor of Obama’s policy which, instead, favored economically aiding Cuban entrepreneurs, for which the Cuban government has not provided the necessary facilities.

Today, the Cuban government does not want to walk the blue carpet laid out by Obama, nor the red one laid out by its own Communist Party, nor a combination of both. It prefers to continue riding on the old nag, lame and battered by the most vulgar Stalinism that does not help to solve the problems with the United States, and that leads to the abyss Raul once spoke of, although I do not think that is the path he wants to travel.

Clearly, what happened in the presidential elections in Argentina and in the parliamentary elections in Venezuela points to a complication of the Latin American scenarios for this stagnant Cuba. In addition, it makes a democratization of politics and the economy more urgent than ever.

Jose Daniel Ferrer Barred from Havana and Warned He Could Return to Prison / 14ymedio

Jose Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of UNPACU.
Jose Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of UNPACU.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 18 December 2015 — The leader of the National Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Jose Daniel Ferrer, was deported to Santiago de Cuba by order of a Havana judge who warned him that he could return to prison to serve his sentence (25 years) if tried to leave his province again. The opponent has been on parole since 2011, the year he was released, after being convicted during the Black Spring of 2003.

Ferrer was arrested Thursday morning, the 17th, at the headquarters of the organization in the capital and taken to the police station on Acosta street.  continue reading

The detainee told 14ymedio by telephone that after remaining there until noon, man who called himself Vicente Rodríguez Hernández appeared, accompanied by a lieutenant colonel of the Interior Ministry (MININT).. “He came dressed in a judge’s robe and carrying numerous documents. When asked to identify himself as a judge, the man said he had forgotten his identity card, but in ay event he did not have to show it to me.”

The presumed judge informed the opposition leader that, according to the law, he is subject to the regulations of parole and cannot leave his province nor file for residence outside Santiago de Cuba, without court authorization. He added that if he violated these measures, he could return to prison.

Ferrer said that he told him, “Save yourself the explanation and take me to jail now, because that is an order I will not obey.” He continued, “They would not give me a copy of the documents they read from, so I refused to sign anything.”

The “court session” was filmed at all times by a man in uniform, and his captors told him that the recording would be proof that he had been duly warned.

At 3 pm, Jose Daniel Ferrer was taken in a van, escorted by two policemen, to the eastern provinces. They spent the night in Las Tunas and at approximately 11:30 am on Friday he was left in the city of Santiago de Cuba.

The Thaw and St. Lazarus Fight Over a Date: 17D* / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

An image of Saint Lazarus in a Havana Street (14ymedio)
An image of Saint Lazarus in a Havana Street (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, 17 December 2015 — Dawn broke, this Thursday, to hundreds of pilgrims and promise keepers in the sanctuary of Rincón, south of Havana. The front pages of the world’s newspapers celebrated the first anniversary of the announcement of the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, while the people of the island lit candles to a figure with sores and crutches. The 17th of December has been imposed as a date of diplomacy, but in this land it is still the day of Saint Lazarus, the saint of the sick and marginalized.

Ramón Zulueta is one of the pilgrims who waited for midnight in the crowded chapel where some pray to the Catholic image, while others call it Babalu Aye. A few months ago Ramón watched his only son depart for Ecuador, a son who is now a part of the thousands of Cubans stranded on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. “I come to ask the saint to help him,” he explains to 14ymedio, holding in his hands a small wooden airplane he has brought as an offering. continue reading

A couple of teenagers who have come from Matanzas pray very near the altar, asking that “they won’t close it,” in reference to the possible elimination of the Cuban Adjustment Act that grants the island’s residents immigration privileges to enter the United States. “I already told the ‘old man’ that if he helps me get there, from that side I am going to send to raise a life-size image,” promises the young man, kissing his fist.

A few yards away is a couple accompanied by their young children, among them a baby of barely six months. “We want a healthy and prosperous 2016,” asks the woman, who runs a private diner in the nearby town of Santiago de las Vegas. “For us, not much has changed,” she said, when asked about effects of the reestablishment of relations between Washington and Havana, but added, “something will happen for us now.”

Next to the color purple and garments made from jute sacks to please the leprous saint, some of those gathered wear clothes printed with the stars and stripes from the country to the north. One of the most obvious transformations of the last 12 months is the proliferation of Uncle Sam’s ensign without triggering the official repudiation of years past.

Cuban-Americans are also present at the scene. “Now it is easier to travel,” says Victoria, the daughter of exiled parents who have never returned to the island, but to whom she will take back a collection of photos of “the places they loved.” The measures adopted by Barack Obama to ease the sending of remittances have greatly helped the oldest members of her family, “who are on this side,” she said.

Among the avalanche of diplomatic statements and meetings between the two governments, the Cuban people try to capitalize on the most practical accords, which so far “are few,” reflects Victoria. The increase in the amount of remittances and the expansion to 12 of the number of reasons Americans can travel to Cuba are, right now, “the most popular measures.”

“It has gone very well for me,” says Esteban, a young man of 32 who works as a waiter in a private restaurant in the Playa district in Havana. “A lot of yumas come to eat now and they leave good money,” he comments. For Esteban, the best part of this year of reestablishment of relations between the perennial enemies is, “the custom of leaving a 10% tip is sneaking into Cuba,” he says smiling.

Early in the morning a man arrives dragging an enormous stone on his back. The sun’s rays barely penetrate the shadows all around. It is estimated that every year more than 15,000 pilgrims arrive in less than 40 hours in this village in Boyeros to ask for better health or more fortune. The majority are very poor people, although the new emerging middle class can also be seen.

“Last year I came on foot, three miles, but this time I made a greater sacrifice. I paid a Panataxi from Central Havana to the junction,” jokes a man who sports a shirt with Barack Obama’s face. “I am asking Saint Lazarus to enlighten us and open the ways of this country, because if not I don’t think I will spend next 17 December here,” he says, while placing a red candle beside others already lit.

Family members of prisoners also pour in. “My son has already ‘pulled’ five years and he has three left,” says a lady who prefers not to give her name and who carries in her hands a picture of an old man with his two dogs licking his wounds. “I come to ask Babalu to open the prison bars for my son and for so many young people who all they have done is try to survive in this country.”

In the sanctuary some hold hands and pray quietly. Others take out their phones and cameras to take pictures. Yassiel, 27, has filmed a dozen short videos at the entrance to the place with the promise keepers carrying heavy wooden arms or legs. “It there were a wife zone here, I would load them up right away,” he comments.

However, internet connections are very far away from the traditional sanctuary that seems frozen in time. Neither Barack Obama, nor Raul Castro, nor even the pious Saint Lazarus have managed to allow Cubans to fully enjoy the miracle of connectivity this year. “No man lives only on promises,” comments Yassiel, and it is unclear if he is saying it to the image of this man with sores and a sad face who, today, has reclaimed his 17D.

*Translator’s note: Like Americans say “9-11” instead of September 11, 2001, Cubans say “17D” instead of 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro jointly announced the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba.

17D*: How Optimism Fades / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, at the headquarters of the United Nations. (EFE)
President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro, at the headquarters of the United Nations. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 17 December 2015 – Perhaps the most visible impact of the restoration of relations between the US and Cuba, begun a year ago today, is expressed in the hopes that it awoke in third countries. Governments, businesses and independent institutions, sensing that the starting pistol had been fired, raced to position themselves, not in today’s Cuba, but in the one they imagined it would soon be, by virtue of the announced change.

Letters of intent from the capitalist world multiply and presidents and ministers, musicians and baseball players, filmmakers and entrepreneurs arrive on the island. All of them calculating that the streams of dollars will soon flood the country.

What has happened here is just like in the stories about the simple announcement of the coming of a railroad; the land on either side of the proposed tracks goes up in price. But the date when the train will arrive remains unknown. continue reading

The Americans have been clear that they have not changed their objectives, only their methods. The Cuban leaders insist on not moving even an inch from positions they classify as “the unshakable principles of the Revolution.”

Raul Castro’s advantage over Barack Obama is that he doesn’t have a parliament demanding equity in the steps taken, nor does his party have to subject itself to the scrutiny of an electorate jealous of every concession, calculating every gain. But this advantage only helps him do nothing. The American negotiators no longer know how they are going to alert the Cuban side that Obama is not the dictator of the United States, but only its president, and that if there are no signs from Havana in the hoped for direction, those in Congress who oppose the policy of rapprochement will be proven right.

What are the signs that the Americans are eager to see? First, guarantees that they can invest and reap dividends from their investments. Second, respect for all human rights. The relationship between both aspirations deserves a book, but can be reduced to the idea that an atmosphere of economic and political freedom is the environment most supportive of a market economy.

The resistance to turning the wheel in that direction is adorned or masked – according to how one prefers to see it – with the political will to guarantee certain margins of social justice expressed in the highly publicized achievements in health and education within reach of everyone. Behind it all, there is a group of hierarchs obsessed by power who do not want to risk it. Venezuela just proved it: authoritarian regimes cannot trust in democracy, “not the least little bit,” as an Argentinean* was known to have said.

In Cuba there is a repressive apparatus made up of tens of thousands of individuals charged with blocking opponents from expressing themselves or meeting together. If the country democratizes, they will not only lost their jobs and privileges, but they feel they would be victims of revenge. So the officials in charge of each case strive to make their reports convincing and every opponent appears as a traitor and a dangerous agent of imperial forces. This troop, well trained and well armed, has been educated in the principal that the only order that can and must be disobeyed is the order to “cease fire.” If Raul Castro were to try to decriminalize political dissent in order to democratize the country, he would be converting his most loyal and submissive servants into his potential enemies. And he knows it.

One year after that hopeful 17 December, it can be affirmed that each party has reached the ceiling of its possibilities. Repealing the embargo, suspending the American-taxpayer-financed radio and TV broadcasts from Florida to Cuba, paying compensation for damages caused by American policies, returning Guantanamo to Cuba, all seem to be gestures too difficult for the White House; as difficult as it would be for the Cuban government to introduce a multi-party system, ratify the United Nations covenants on human rights, allow free enterprise, or legitimize independent civil society.

The lands purchased on either side of the railway line began to depreciate today, because the damn train is not about to run down the rails any time soon.

Translator’s notes:
*Like Americans say “9-11” instead of “September 11, 2001,” Cubans say “17D” instead of “17 December 2014,” the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro jointly announced the restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba.
**The phrase is associated with Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In Spanish: “ni tantico así.”

Jose Daniel Ferrer Arrested at UNPACU Headquarters in Havana / 14ymedio

Jose Daniel Ferrer, UNPACU leader
Jose Daniel Ferrer, UNPACU leader

14ymedio bigger14medio, Havana, 17 December 2015 – Early this morning State Security arrested Jose Daniel Ferrer at the national headquarters of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU), in Havana, according to sources of the opposition organization.

Several UNPACU activists denounced through the social networks that the assault was carried out violently early in the morning after military and police forces were seen around the building late at night. The headquarters of the organization in the capital is the home of Arcelio Rafael Molina Leyva, an activist in Havana, located at 2103 Calle 30, Apartment 5, between 21st and 23rd Streets.

This is the third assault on the headquarters of the organization in Havana in less than a month. The previous one took place on the eve of Human Rights Day and the police seized a laptop, organizational documents and several CDs with audiovisual material. Activists believe that the UNPACU’s growing strength in the capital is the reason it is being subjected to so much police harassment.

The Inebriated Pupil / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

Screen shot of the Cuban television program 'The Amazed Pupil’ directed by Iroel Sanchez.
Screen shot of the Cuban television program ‘The Amazed Pupil’ directed by Iroel Sanchez.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, Havana, 14 December 2015 – The Astonished Pupil is a recent program on Cuban TV directed by Iroel Sanchez. The show continues the logic that has characterized Sanchez in recent years. Every time the gentleman opens his mouth it is to speak badly of everything modern, free and useful, from the internet and Facebook to denouncing “the great lie represented by Western democracy.” It seems that he and his friends know best about another world of which they don’t have the vaguest positive memory.

Continuing in this theme, his media program has a chaotic script, tries to mix entertainment with the most leftist of propaganda, and broadcasts materials such as speeches by radical separatists in Catalonia. continue reading

The strangest thing about it is that it is presented as something new and accepted without question, when enough time has passed that all these arguments have been profoundly dismantled by excellent political and intellectual analysis, demonstrating the lack of both logic and principles in such positions and their manipulated reasoning.

Today they presented a documentary called something like “Modern Slaves,” a phrase that refers to almost everyone on the planet, according to Sanchez, who believes that representative democracy and respect for human rights and the natural laws of markets are the most effective way to achieve development.

The voiceover narrating the materials appears to come from someone who has drunk disproportionate amounts of alcohol mixed in every possible variation and without eating any food. There is no other way in which a human being could affirm so much nonsense all at the same time.

It is precisely the freedom of expression achieved with these “slave societies” which allows any failure to make a “documentary” with his very particular vision of the world and to broadcast it, so that later on someone else can come along and use it against a country deprived of the opportunity to access YouTube and choose what they like and discard the rest.

The program offers the example of Ada Colau, a woman who became known for her activism against evictions in Spain and was elected mayor of Barcelona. It is a perfect example of Colau’s good luck to live in an “evil Western democracy,” because if she lived in the Cuban paradise, instead of important responsibilities and recognition, she would have received only kicks in the butt right up to today and called a CIA agent and counterrevolutionary for defending the rights of thousands of eastern Cubans fleeing poverty to settle in makeshift neighborhoods in Havana, who are treated inhumanely in many cases, despite having small children and being vulnerable.

It is a shame and untenable that works consistent with our reality are censored – works produced by Cuban theater directions, filmmakers, documentarians and writers – while television time is given over to programs paid for by public funds produced by these people who over and over again sell these same ideologies of eternal failure.

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Editor’s note: The author is president of the movement Somos+ (We are more)

The Path To Learning, Paved With Politics / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother. (Lilianne Ruiz)
“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother. (Lilianne Ruiz)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz, Havana, 15 December 2015 — “On the path of Martí, with the guidance of Fidel, for the homeland and socialism: Moncadistas* always ready.” With that motto the school day begins every morning for Claudia Martinez, a fifth grader in Havana’s Plaza district whose parents try to soften at home the ideological excesses of Cuban public education.

The girl learned to read with stories of combat, biographies Sierra Maestra fighters and anti-imperialist slogans. Of the 222 pages in the current edition of the first grade reading book, 21 pages are dedicated to teaching the official version of the Cuban Revolution and its political figures. Guns and olive green uniforms abound in its illustration, although few would expect such a profusion of military themes in a children’s reader. continue reading

When she reached the fourth grade, Claudia was already skilled in repeating slogans and phrases taken from Fidel Castro’s speeches. The book that perfected her reading in this grade started with some words spoken by the former Cuban president and another similar fragment was waiting on page 215 of the same volume. Overall, 10% of the reading book is dedicated to recounting the exploits of the figures in power or praising the system. Here, “The path to learning is paved with politics,” said Claudia’s mother, wryly.

Education in Cuba is “a function of the state and is free,” according to the Constitution, which also, in Article 39, calls for “promoting the patriotic and communist education of the new generations and preparing children, youth and adults for social life.”

“Why does education promote values associated with communism?” whispers Claudia’s father, who dreams of being able to choose the education his daughter receives, but sees this as “impossible for now.”

Now 34, and also schooled under the same education system, this Little Pioneer’s mother recognizes that “it’s true that the teachers have a program they must follow.” However, the parents have never been able to meet with the methodologists “to influence these programs,” she complains. She is aware that in the current circumstances, the parents “have no involvement in the design of the curriculum.”

Daniela, a young schoolteacher who prefers not to give her last name, says that using the schools to promote an ideology “is normal” and adds that the teachers are trained to “include elements in every class that develop the students politically.” In her classroom she talks to them “about socialism, the Revolution, and all the past history that none of them have experienced.”

By hiring private teachers and tutors, many families not only try to improve the academic performance of their children, but also to reduce the level of ideology in the teaching. “I’ve spoken with the math teacher who comes here to the house,” says Claudia’s grandmother, “so that the math problems don’t keep putting political examples in front of the child.”

In one of last year’s schoolbooks, the student solved an arithmetic word problem that said, “If Rene Gonzales, one of the Five Heroes, was sentenced to prison in 2001 and released in 2011, how many years did he spend in jail?”

“We give her a lot of fantasies, fairy tales, and craft books to read, to offset what she receives in school,” says her grandmother.

Claudia dreams of becoming a lawyer someday, but her parents are more concerned with the present. “We fear she will become someone who shouts slogans and lose this desire to debate and search for the truth that we teach at home,” explains her mother. “I have a dilemma,” she confesses, “I know that we are raising her to cause trouble for herself.”

As the children advance to the higher grades, ideology becomes even more present. Leo studies technology in Pinar del Rio where, a few weeks ago, the teacher lashed out against a dissident. He called him a “millionaire, traitor and enemy of the country,” although he didn’t know that Leo knew the man through his family. The young man stood up in the middle of the classroom and shouted that it was all lies. When he told his parents, they supported him, but this is an isolated case.

As a general rule, teenagers listen passively to the political harangues delivered in the classroom and their families call on them not to contradict the official discourse. “I warn him to say yes to everything they tell him, because why set himself apart?” says Layren Lopez, the mother of seven-year-old Harold who already knows how to read and write. “This is nearing its end,” says the woman.

Recently, Harold’s parents obtained Spanish nationality, through the so-called Spanish Law of Grandchildren. “I have a contact who will help me to enroll the boy in the school for children of diplomats,” says the mother. The school, in an exclusive area of Havana’s ​​Playa district, has its own curriculum, which in no way resembles the education system on the island.

“We will have to pay tuition in convertible pesos and his grandmother will take him there in the car, because it’s a long way from us. But there he will not have to say Viva Fidel!” says the relieved Lopez, who receives financial support from her father, who lives in Barcelona, ​​to avoid what he calls “the brainwashing of the child.”

Ideology reaches its highest levels in the teaching of history. At the Tenth Congress of the Young Communists Union (UJC), several delegates called for teaching the subject “creatively, in order to make the class ideal place to promote patriotic and revolutionary sentiments,” and, in particular, to develop youth leaders for the organization who are well trained “politically and ideologically.”

Classes on national history do not support nuances. The Cuban Republic was not sovereign and was “corrupt”; José Marti is the “intellectual author” of the assault on the Moncada barracks; the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra is “a continuation of the wars of independence” and, “before 1959, children in Cuba had no schools or shoes.” Deviating from the script could result in a note of disapproval.

*Translator’s note: Moncadistas refers to those who launched a failed assault on Santiago de Cuba’s Moncada Army Barracks on 26 June 1953, generally considered the start of the Revolution.