European Parliament Members call for EU mediation to release Cuban artists from prison / 14ymedio

The vice president of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party in the European Parliament, Pavel Telicka. (European Democratic Party)
The vice president of the Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party in the European Parliament, Pavel Telicka. (European Democratic Party)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 24 April 2015 — The vice presidents of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party of the European Parliament, Fernando Maura and Pavel Telicka, have asked the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Frederica Mogherini, to intervene with the Havana Government for the release from prison of Angel Santiesteban and Danilo Maldonado. In a letter to Mogherini, signed by some thirty Eurodeputies, they also call for an end to the “prolonged confinement” of Tania Bruguera.

In a letter released this Friday, the Eurodeputies ask Mogherini to mediate for the withdrawal of the charges for “counterrevolutionary activities” against the regime opponent Antonio Rodiles and his partner Ailer Gonzalez. continue reading

Maura and Telicka argue that “any step in the advancement of international diplomacy must be accompanied by a demand for a radical change in Cuban policies that restrict freedom of expression and imprison dissidents,” and they demand that respect for human rights “prevails” in relations between the European Union and Cuba.

The graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto , has been in prison since last December on charges of contempt and he continues to wait for trial. He was arrested while trying to stage a performance with two pigs stamped with the names “Fidel” and “Raul.”

The writer Ángel Santiesteban is serving a sentence of five years for an alleged crime of violation of domicile. However, activists and independent lawyers have denounced the many irregularities that were brought to bear during his trial.

Bruguera is currently unable to leave Cuba, because she is being legally prosecuted for the events arising from her attempt to organize a performance this last December. Since then, the artist has denounced “a constant psychological war.”

In defense of our doctors / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

Cuban doctors before leaving on a mission. (EFE)
Cuban doctors before leaving on a mission. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, 23 April 2015 — Last night while watching the images of the homecoming of the doctors who participated in the fight against Ebola in Africa I was very excited. I believe that every man or woman in the world who decides to run these risks to save the lives of unknown human beings thousands of miles away deserves total respect and admiration. In my own family there are examples of this.

They are completely mistaken, however, those who think that, because of having different ideas, wanting Internet for everyone, along with real wages and basic freedoms, the opposition is against this solidarity or doesn’t recognize the courage and heroism of our physicians. Nothing is further from the truth. continue reading

On the contrary, if we could attend a democratic parliament many of us would fight the whole time in favor of better living conditions and of working for them. I believe that in the same way it is legitimate to share material and human resources with those with the greatest need, and it is also legitimate to wage serious debate in our country about wages, security, and the role of the State in general, with respect to Cubans who participate in these foreign missions. Many of them have written several letters telling us of their experiences, with their lights and shadows.

On the other hand, the fundamental problem of the income of Cuban professionals in the country persists. And this extends to all sectors and goes directly against what should be the primary objective, that is adequate attention to our own people.

The doctor who cares for families in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra in Cuba, has the same right to progress in life as the one who operates at the Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, as the one who works outside the country. All of them sacrifice equally, and the cost of this sacrifice, which extends to their families who are affected at all levels, should be studied, publicized and discussed.

I know clinical specialists and surgeons who don’t even have a bicycle to get to work and who serve interminable shifts with a snack that may be nothing more than plantains and a glass of sugar water. I also know guys who spend a month on an optometry course, leave on a mission, and on returning to Cuba are able to give their professor a ride in their own car. And what is wrong is not the latter, but the first.

In any case, I am not trying to fully address this issue in one article. So I return to the original idea, which is nothing more than to congratulate from the depths of my heart the doctors, nurses and support staff who returned home yesterday. I want to reiterate that they will always have an ally in us. The fight for democracy is also the fight for life, for peace and for people’s material and spiritual happiness, without which health is impossible.

Demographic Enigma / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The projected number of young Cubans in 2015 seems to have been mistaken. (14ymedio)
The projected number of young Cubans in 2015 seems to have been mistaken. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 23 April 2015 — The National Electoral Commission recently informed us that 63,441 young people had turned 16 since the previous elections in 2012, which gave them the right to vote on Sunday. However, demographic estimates made in 2006 by the government projected that by 2015, the country would have 275,389 young people aged 17 to 18 years. Where are the 211,948 missing young people?

According to the calculations of the Center for Population Studies, in 2015 Cuba has 138,866 18-year-olds, and 136,523 17-year-olds, totaling 275,389 young people in this age group. That Projected population for Cuba for the period between 2007 and 2015 was published nine years ago. continue reading

Logically, this includes not only those who turned 16 before the municipal elections on 19 April 2015, but also those who were born in 1998 and 1997 who turned, or will turn 17 or 18 in any month in 2015, because none of them had reached age 16 in September 2012 when the last elections were held.

Similarly we also have to add those who were born after September 1996, but who were not old enough to vote in the last election. If we just consider those born in 1997 and 1998, who had not previously been able to exercise the right to vote, the figure of those eligible to vote should be around 275,385 mentioned above. Missing, or having disappeared from the lists, are nothing more nor less than 211,948 young people.

Is it a colossal miscalculation on the part of the National Bureau of Statistics? Perhaps the electoral authorities, who work in coordination with the Identity Card offices, didn’t find these guys, or put them in the wrong account? Or is this number of missing made up of those who have left the country or are in prison?

Most likely we will never know what has happened to these “lost” youth.

Yoani Sanchez: “I am not expecting that Obama is going to demand our rights” / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger(EFE) Santiago de Chile, 22 April 2015 – Yoani Sanchez said on Wednesday that the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States gives new hope to the inhabitants of the Island, but stressed that Cubans themselves must exert pressure to demand their rights.

“I am not expecting [US president, Barack] Obama, from the White House, is going to demand our rights, it is up to us,” said the regime opponent and journalist at a press conference in Santiago de Cuba, where she had arrived for a three-day visit.

On the normalization of relations between the two countries, the blogger felt that the United States has made several concessions so far, but the Government of president Raul Castro has been hiding his cards. continue reading

“The issue of human rights and freedoms, such as of the press, has been knocking on a closed door, but we don’t know if the Cuban government is going to cede anything,” she said.

Beyond the scope of the negotiations, Sanchez said that it is a beneficial process because it gives hope and externalizes the “conflict between the Cuban people and the Cuban government,” which, in her opinion, is the real conflict on the island.

“I would like for this process of negotiation to also bring acceptance on the part of the Cuban government of a multiparty system, of the legal existence of independent media, and a commitment not to violate human rights,” the journalist said. She predicted, however, that the regime will cling forcefully to the “absolute control” that it exercises.

On being asked for the reasons of the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, the regime opponent said that Venezuela’s economic and social crisis is a “determining” factor, due to the economic assistance it provides to the Castro regime.

Sanchez also welcomed the announcement of the trip Pope Francis plans to make to Cuba this coming September, before visiting the United States, and expressed her desire for the Pope to promote “the end of political imprisonment.”

Regime opponent Chaviano receives an additional 51 votes / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Hildebrando Chaviano and his wife Susana Mas (14ymedio)
Hildebrando Chaviano and his wife Susana Mas (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 21 April 2015 – Hildebrando Chaviano ultimately received 189* votes in the local elections held last Sunday, according to the final counts published on Monday. The opposition candidate was unaware of a third polling place, where he received 51 votes, adding to the 138 he received at the other two polling places.

The president of Chaviano’s polling station had not mentioned the third polling place. However, the information published on the ground floor of the FOCSA building, where he lives, showed that the candidate officially classified as “counterrevolutionary” received more support than initially thought. continue reading

Despite the mergence of this new group of voters, Chaviano still lost at the polls and accepts his defeat. The lawyer said that he has not lacked for expressions of support and respect from his neighbors and FOCSA employees. Pucho, as the neighbors call him, said he had heard “many positive things” and believes that people “are happy with the result” because it is something out of the ordinary.

The regime opponent commented that his preparation for these elections started at the end of last year. He confided that the Candidates for Change initiative, to which he belongs, could put together a more solid plan for the upcoming opportunities, because this time they only had a few months. Although not elected, Chaviano considers that what happened last Sunday has been a complete success and the noisy act of “Revolutionary Reaffirmation” staged by pro-government groups will not intimidate him.

Translator’s note: In the first two polling places the total votes cast (not counting annulled and blank ballots), was 741, of which Chaviano received 19% and the winner received 28%. We do not have these figures for the third polling place.

138 Votes for Chaviano / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Vote count in polling station number 2 of Hildebrand Chaviano’s district (14ymedio)
Vote count in polling station number 2 of Hildebrand Chaviano’s district (14ymedio)

In the polling place on the ground floor of the FOCSA building, the vote count placed the opposition candidate only 18 votes behind the candidate who won the nomination

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 20 April 2015 – At polling station number 2, located on the ground floor of FOCSA, the vote count ended near seven in the evening, and Hildebrando Chaviano, the opposition candidate, came in last place. So far, no news. But things change if the data are analyzed. Of the 448 valid ballots, Hidlebrando Chaviano received 105, only 18 fewer than the candidate finally nominated. A complete triumph for someone described by the official biography as “counterrevolutionary.” Also, 14 blank ballots and 25 cancelled ones were counted at this polling station.

“The population is not prepared, there is much ignorance and confusion created against us but even so, much has been achieved because never before has it come to a candidacy,” the lawyer explained to the EFE agency; he is a resident of the Havana neighborhood El Vedado where he ran and was elected by the residents of his zone. continue reading

In all, Hildebrando won 138 votes in his district, according to the telephone report by the opposition candidate himself minutes after the count ended. His colleague Leonard Hernandez, of Digital Spring, was an observer at the other polling station that completes the district (number 1 on 13th Street between M and N) and said that there were 33 ballots for the opposition candidate there.

Outside of polling station number 2, a small group of Government sympathizers began to scream “Viva Fidel” and other repeated slogans. Among them were numerous agents from State Security who observed each movement and each visitor. The international and Cuban press crowded the office in which the polling station was situated.

With the votes of the two polling stations added, the total of valid votes in the district was 741, according to information supplied by Chaviano. The winner, with 208 votes in his favor, received 28% of the total valid votes, while the support for opposition candidate Chaviano was about 19%, only nine points behind for this unprecedented candidacy.

“The changes have to be mental, above all losing fear and deciding to vote for the ones that you truly want, not for what they have always placed here for me which is not going to solve anything,” said the dissident who believes that his candidacy has given the citizens of his zone the opportunity to be “a little disobedient.”

Translated by MLK

The media success of a regime opponent / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Chaviano Hildebrand and his wife, Susana Mas. (14ymedio)
Chaviano Hildebrand and his wife, Susana Mas. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 19 April 2015 — “Who did you vote for?” an older woman was asked by her neighbors. “For Chaviano,” she said, on her way out of the polling station in the FOCSA building, just as a reporter from this newspaper was passing by. Maybe it was a coincidence, or maybe, after everything, the official myth that the Cuban opposition represents nobody fell today.

Someone, at least this woman who didn’t even notice who was listening to her, voted for “Pucho,” as Hildebrando Chaviano is affectionately called. The opposition candidate spoke with 14ymedio in the afternoon today, while resting a bit from the election hubbub in his 28th floor apartment, where he lives with his wife, Susana Mas, also a journalist.

It had been a marathon day. CNN, EFE, AFP and several other chains and news agencies had been interviewing him since the morning. One of them that has most impressed Chaviano is Cuban Television. “It was the first time I gave an interview,” he said. Although he didn’t recognize the reporter, and thought that a good part of his comments in front of the national cameras would be censored because of the content of his discourse, the candidate was somewhat surprised by the initiative. continue reading

Hildebrand Chaviano confesses that it will be a day he won’t forget. It is the first time a regime opponent has been presented in the elections, and the fact has not passed unnoticed. His biography, at the entrance to the polling place, was drafted with the worst epithets of the Electoral Commission, starting with “counterrevolutionary.” However, this has not stopped some neighbors from showing enthusiasm with the idea of seeing something different this time. A few days ago, Pucho said, a voter commented on his candidacy, “Finally I see people ashamed of this.”

CNN, EFE, AFP and even Cuban television have been interviewing Chaviano since the morning

There have been many other displays of affection. One of his old neighbors – Chaviano has lived in his apartment since 1961 – has developed a motto that everyone in the house joined in on: “Let’s vote for Pucho because we love him so much.”

While waiting for the counting of votes, starting at six in the evening, the opposition candidate speaks a little of what his plans are if he is elected. First, he says, is to improve the nutritional conditions of the elderly people in the community who are unprotected. He also anticipates fighting for better conditions for those whose housing is in a critical state of deterioration and who can’t get credit to make repairs.

In the long term, in a somewhat larger battle, Chaviano advocates defining the self-employed as legal entities. Ideologically liberal – a current he defends in the midst of the populist official attacks – the opponent wishes to grant guarantees to private entrepreneurs to promote the development of small local businesses.

When the vote count begins in the two polling stations where the photo of Hildebrando Chaviano is on display, two of his friends will help, as observers, while the ballots stack up for one candidate or the other.

Press Freedom in Cuba Is the Most Threatened in the Americas / 14ymedio

At the beginning of March, official journalist Leandro Perez was detained in Cuba while he was photographing an arrest (Indomar Gomez/14ymedio)
At the beginning of March, official journalist Leandro Perez was detained in Cuba while he was photographing an arrest (Indomar Gomez/14ymedio)

The Island is among the top ten countries of the world with the greatest censorship

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 21 April 2015 – The control that the Cuban government exercises over the media was one of the strictest in the world in 2014 and the most rigid in the Americas, according to the report published Tuesday by the Committee For the Protection of Journalists (CPJ). The nonprofit organization with headquarters in New York, which works to protect the world’s press freedom, puts Havana in 10th place on the list of States with the highest levels of censorship but notes “significant progress” in recent years.

The CPJ’s report stresses that “print and broadcast media are totally controlled by the single party and have to be ‘in line with the objectives of the socialist society.’ Although the Internet offers some space for critics, the service providers block the undesired content,” as is the case with 14ymedio. continue reading

The organization highlights the difficult situation of independent journalists and bloggers who have to use websites hosted outside of the Island or access foreign embassies or hotels in order to have an unfiltered Internet connection. In spite of the opening of some critical spaces, this content mostly continues to be inaccessible to Cubans who still do not have a high speed Internet connection.

The research by CPJ highlights that visas for international journalists are awarded selectively and that the Government “continues to persecute critical journalists through harassment, surveillance and short-duration detentions,” citing the cases of Juliet Michelena Diaz and Angel Santiesteban Prats.

The greatest worry in the case of Eritrea centers on the possible death of five journalists arrested in May 2001, about which exiled colleagues raised the alert. Faced with the impossibility of being able to confirm it, the CPJ keeps the professionals on the list of prisoners in order to prevent the case from falling into oblivion.

North Korea, with tightly controlled and centralized information, occupies second place on the list. The official number of people possessing mobile telephones (excluding those that arrive as contraband from China) is about 9.7%. The control of information in the Asian country is so remarkable that all mention of Jang Song Thaek, the ousted and then executed uncle of the leader Kim Jong-Un, has been eliminated even to the point of editing the audio-visual material in which he appeared in order to suppress images of him.

The tactics used by Eritrea and North Korea are repeated to different degrees in other countries with strong censorship. The repressive regimes cling to power thanks to a combination of monopoly over the media, harassment, surveillance, threats of prison for journalists and restrictions on the entry of and movement by foreign correspondents.

Seven of the ten countries with the greatest censorship – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Iran, China and Burma – are also among the world’s greatest jailors of journalists, according to CPJ’s annual prison census.

In Saudi Arabia – the country with the third greatest censorship – the monarchy in power does not limit itself to silencing domestic dissidence, and partners with other Governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to assure that criticism of institutions in each of these countries is harshly repressed.

In Ethiopia – fourth in the ranking of countries that censor – the threat of prison has contributed to a strong increase in the number of exiled journalists. The anti-terrorism law approved in 2009, which criminalizes any coverage that according to authorities “foments” or “offers moral support” to illegal groups, has been imposed on many of the 17 journalists who are prisoners of the country’s jails.

Vietnam – the sixth most-censored country – uses a vague law against “the abuse of democratic liberty” in order to incarcerate bloggers, and Burma – the ninth – is supported by the Official Secrets Act of 1923 in order to prevent criticism of its military forces.

In Azerbaijan – the fifth most-censored country – the criminal defamation laws have been extended to social networks and can carry up to six months in jail. Iran, seventh on the list, has one of the world’s strictest Internet censorship regimens, with millions of websites blocked.

The other four countries (Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) were close in finishing the ranking, since they all have every few independent media outlets.

Translated by MLK

We are 1.7 million / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A woman checks the list of candidates for the municipal elections. (14ymedio)
A woman checks the list of candidates for the municipal elections. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 April 2015 — Years of masks, whispers and fears have made Cubans find delving into political issues as difficult as delving into enigmatic, dark abyss. The few surveys and inquiries conducted independently in recent decades have encountered a suspicion that leads us to question: Why are you asking me that? What will you do with the information?

However, there are times when our actions are the most conclusive and direct of responses. As in the elections held last Sunday for the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power, where more than 1.7 million people didn’t vote, annulled their ballot, or left it blank, or even voted for one of the only two opposition candidates. continue reading

With as 88.3% participation, any foreign observer would think that we take the district elections very seriously. Amid voter apathy of so many democratic countries, the participation of Cuban voters could be misinterpreted as a sign of civility, but in fact it is evidence of the tight controls under which we have lived for over half a century. Going to the polls does not signal assent or support.

To not vote or abstain has for too long signified a act that marks us as disaffected or counterrevolutionaries, in a country where ideological fidelity opens doors, guarantees futures and results in privileges. On the other hand, the act of selecting our representatives has been taken over by automatic behavior, aware of our limited power to influence the solution of local and national problems.

The district delegate becomes a sort of scapegoat, one whose management capabilities are limited and lacking in autonomy

The district delegate becomes a sort of scapegoat, a target of the complaints and demands, but one whose management capabilities are limited and lacking in autonomy. How many years have to told this people’s representative, in successive “accountability meetings,” about the poor quality of the bread, the deterioration of the streets? Without, in the three decades of their existence, these figures managing to improve anything.

Hence the phrase, “everything, if nothing is going to change,” repeated by millions of voters, who also counsel their friends, “Go to vote so they don’t single you out.” A combination of disbelief and faking it, skepticism and fear, has been the principle force for “going through the motions” of marking a ballot, folding it and placing it in a ballot box as closely watched as it is ineffective. A reflexive gesture, some unavoidable paperwork that many try to get done with as quickly as possible, with neither hope nor confidence.

A combination of disbelief and faking it, skepticism and fear, has been the principle force for “going through the motions” of marking a ballot

To the more than 1.7 million Cubans who this weekend showed their disinterest or disagreement with the elections, the same number or twice as many individuals who think the same might join them, but they are afraid of standing out. For every person who doesn’t enter the polling station, scribbles on the ballot, or just writes nothing on it, should be added many more who wanted to but didn’t dare to be so bold. The voting booth might have hidden cameras – they think fearfully – or the ballot could be marked to detect disobedience, they tell themselves.

The president of the National Electoral Commission, Alina Balseiro, said the nearly six percentage point drop in attendance compared to the last municipal elections was due to the absence of the “hundreds of thousands of Cubans” who are traveling abroad. The official has to know that this explosion of travel is also a way to vote against a system that hampers their personal and professional development within national borders.

It is worth emphasizing that the brave who chose not to give in to their fears are more than double the number of those who are active in the Communist Party. The courage it takes for the former far exceeds the effort to pay the annual dues of an organization that has hijacked the name of the country and boasts of representing the soul of all its citizens. In the ranks of those who refused to validate their vote is, therefore, greater willpower and honesty.

This Sunday, we sent a loud and clear message. Without our agreement, without spaces for us in the national mass media, and even in the face of possible punishments, 1.7 million Cubans stepped from the shadows of faking it to the harsh sun of assuming our positions publicly. A force for change that the government fears and that the dissent should channel.

 

The Bridgettines, in the Shadows of Power / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)
The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana 6 February 2015 — Discreet and elusive, donning gray habits and cross-adorned veils, they attend mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Pinar del Río. The three nuns, originally from India, belong to the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget headed by the Italian religious Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Known as the Generalessa, Mother Tekla is one of the most influential women in the Vatican, and her ties to the Cuban government have been reinforced in the last few years.

The Bridgettines ­– a religious order of nuns founded in 1911 in Sweden by Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad – recently inaugurated a new convent in the city of Pinar del Río. A little more than a decade after opening their impressive headquarters in Havana, this religious order has now turned its attention to Cuba’s far western province. No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. continue reading

“While we’ve been waiting for years for [the authorities] to approve a complete restoration of our convent, the Bridgettines have managed to open a new convent, and even built a hostel for tourists,” protested a nun of the Daughters of Charity who chose to remain anonymous.

Last November 26th, Jorge Enrique Serpa, Bishop of Pinar del Río, blessed the new Bridgettine building. Their headquarters are located on what was once a homestead known as “Celestino the Mute’s Farm,” which was sold off by the original owner’s grandchildren due to family quarrels and financial difficulties.

The nuns bought the mansion nestled on a 2.5-acre property thanks to the efforts of Bishop Serpa himself. The diocese helped look for a building, negotiated the selling price with the owners, and helped the nuns sail through the red tape. Everything was undertaken with the utmost discretion, as is characteristic of the Bridgettines.

Work on the property started only a few days after the nuns settled in. The freshly painted façades, the hauling of building materials, and the constant presence of construction workers caught the attention of the residents of Galiano and Cuba Libre, two adjacent communities suffering from a high degree of poverty and social inequality. Nobody knew what was being built. Yet as the chapel was nearing completion, the public was informed that apart from their pastoral work focused on the care of the elderly and the poor or the region, the nuns were planning to build on a ten-room hostel on their property. At present, only a few of the rooms are ready for occupancy, and reservations have to be requested by email. The rate for a double occupancy room is 50 CUC, breakfast included. The hostel also offers a suite for 65 CUC.

No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution

Time is of the essence. An avalanche of visitors from the United States could begin arriving in the next few months if the U.S. Congress lifts travel restrictions to the Island. The regions of Viñales and María la Gorda, the marinas at Cape San Antonio, and Jutías Key and Levisa Key are among the most important attractions in the western Cuba. Consequently, the city of Pinar del Río would be a mandatory stop on the way to most of these sites. Construction at the Bridgettines’ hostel has picked up in recent weeks.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy, and that for the moment does not have much to offer in the way of accommodations. Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s privileged position allowed her to have beforehand knowledge that the United States and Cuba were negotiating a rapprochement with the Vatican’s support, and especially with the help of Pope Francis.

The Generalessa and the Comandante

The Bridgettines’ first convent in Cuba was inaugurated a few days before 75 opposition members were arrested in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003. At the time, Church–State relations had worsened due to the publication of a pastoral letter from Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, in which he called for more economic freedom and social justice. The political tensions at the time heralded the repressive wave unleashed shortly thereafter. Yet Mother Tekla would not be deterred.

In an event* broadcast on March 8, 2003 on Cuban State television, the Generalessa and the Comandante expressed their mutual affection and exchanged accolades. Fidel Castro was made Commander of the Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in exchange, the Cuban Council of State awarded Abbess General Tekla Famiglietti the Order of Félix Varela.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy

Both parties plotted the creation of the Havana convent in 2000 during Mexican president Vicente Fox’s inauguration. From that moment on, the Generalessa –born in southern Italy in 1939, and Abbess General of the Bridgettines since 1981 – would strengthen her friendship with Castro, showering him with gratitude and affection. When the Comandante suffered a fall during a 2004 speech in the city of Santa Clara, Mother Tekla rushed to send him a letter, published in the official Cuban press, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy reacted angrily at the publicized presence of the political élite at the Havana convent’s opening ceremony. Three days after the event, the Cuban Conference of Bishops released a stern reprimand against Famiglietti in a communiqué calling on her “to clearly differentiate the person of Holy Father John Paul II…and his scriptural foundations ­– as is to be expected of him – characterized by dignity, respect, serenity, and moderation, and not associate the Holy Father with excessive praise in words and deeds, as we have seen some Church figures do at these events.”

As a gesture many understood as evidence of a break with the Bridgettines, Jaime Cardinal Ortega boycotted the convent’s inauguration. Moreover, the Cuban Conference of Bishops let it be known very clearly in its statement that “no Cuban bishop or clergy designated to officially represent the Archdiocese of Havana or the Cuban Church was present at the event.”

The advantages accorded the Bridgettines were very frustrating for the over fifteen Catholic religious orders and several priests who had been waiting for many years for a response to their request to serve in Cuba. For their part, the Cuban bishops did not delay in making it perfectly clear that when it came to the matter of the Bridgettines’ presence on the Island, “the Catholic Church in Cuba did not in any way actively participate in bringing them to the country, nor did it plan their arrival, nor did it coordinate their plans in any way.”

Less than one week later the first dissidents of the Black Spring were arrested, as was reported in headlines worldwide. The Bridgettines kept quiet, and just concentrated on moving forward with building their convent and hostel in Old Havana. Their stance caused other Catholic orders to distrust them so that now, fifteen years on, the distrust still lingers. In fact, the levels of distrust have only worsened with the Bridgettines’ purchase of the property in Pinar del Río. 

In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban president Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

In 2004 Mother Tekla found herself in a tight spot. Six novices from India who were living in a convent near Rieti, Italy, went before a prosecutor to lodge a formal complaint against Abbess General Famiglietti, accusing her of resorting to violence, blackmail, and threats. The nuns swore that Famiglietti went so far as to confiscate their passports and health insurance cards. They also went on to claim that they were being so exploited when it came to their work at their convent’s hostel that they had no time to pray. Pope John Paul II himself was forced to intervene, speaking publicly in support of the Generalessa’s work “that has been so valuable to the whole Bridgettine family.” The nuns’ lawsuit was filed away without Mother Tekla ever facing any charges.

The name Tekla Famiglietti would again surface in a Wikileaks cable exposing a meeting she held with American officials in Rome. During their encounter, the Generalessa boasted of having visited Fidel Castro’s home “on numerous occasions,” and that she advocated for the lifting of the US trade embargo on Cuba. By contrast, she did not say one word about the imprisoned dissidents.

Another Wikileaks cable cast doubts on the renovation of the Havana convent without the mediation of the Cuban Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban President Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

To Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The waters now seem to have calmed down, and the relationship between the Bridgettines and the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy has reached a certain level of normality. According to sources close to the Archdiocese of Havana “our relationship has indeed improved, but we still keep a proper distance.” Still, the Bishop of Pinar del Río has served as a key ally in the expansion of the order into his province, and he has finally managed it so that the Bridgettines have won the favor of Cardinal Ortega y Alamino and the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

The Bridgettines have successfully run their hostel in Havana – on Oficios Street in the heart of the historic district – for more than a decade. The sign on the façade reads “Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget,” yet the convent’s doors are usually locked.

Lorenzo Montalvo Ruiz de Alarcón y Montalvo, Quartermaster General of the Navy and Minister of Shipbuilding of the Royal Treasury and Bank of Havana, lived in this same building at the end of the 18th century. Many years later, the renowned Café de Copas would also find a home there. Consequently, none other than Eusebio Leal – Havana’s official historian, who also happens to maintain a close relationship with Mother Tekla – supervised the allocation of this historic building to the Bridgettines.

Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order

Impeccably restored at a cost of US$4,000,000, raised for the most part by the Generalessa herself, the former mansion now boasts an intercom ensuring access only to guests with reservations. Since religious orders are tax-exempt, even when they run lucrative businesses, the Cuban National Tax Office’s logo is clearly missing from convent’s door.

Upon entering this Havana hostel, one encounters a central courtyard embellished with well-kept plants, and the soothing sound of water flowing from a fountain. A nun of few words greets guests. The hustle and bustle of the streets is left behind. It feels like crossing a temple’s threshold.

The hostel consists of only eleven rooms, and offers no brochures explaining its history. It does not offer direct Internet service either. Reservations must be requested by writing to an email address whose domain is a Cuban domestic server, and then waiting for a response. Several travel sites list and recommend the hostel, but with the same halo of secrecy that surrounds everything associated with the Bridgettines.

The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

A room in the convent is priced at around 50 CUC a night, and in high season it goes up to 75 CUC. “It’s a very peaceful place, and guests aren’t allowed to bring in another person to spend the night,” says a Polish family that stays there every time they travel to Havana. “And this is a good thing, since we travel a with a small child.”

The real world is outside, on the corner, where a café with live music functions as a meeting point for prostitutes and foreign customers. The nuns are wary of allowing Cuban guests, who they politely refuse, telling them there are no vacancies.

Before long, the Bridgettines will be offering another tourist oasis, but this time, in Pinar del Río. Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order. The deal that the Generalessa and the Comandante once reached still stands. With an almost eerie quiet, the Bridgettines have managed to position themselves in the shadows of power.

*Translator’s note: The televised event was in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Cuba. First conceived by German Communist Clara Zetkin in 1910, it became a national holiday in the USSR after the October Revolution of 1917, by order of Vladimir Lenin himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, most former Communist countries no longer observe it. It survives in a handful of countries, including Cuba, Russia and North Korea.

Translated by José Badué

The Potato, the winning candidate in Pinar del Río / 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez

Line to buy potatoes in Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)
Line to buy potatoes in Pinar del Río. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 20 April 2015 – On the day that Cubans voted to elect the local representatives of the People’s Power, the State markets in Pinar del Río put potatoes on sale.

Chance, someone said, is the daughter of causality and hence the suspicion of some who interpreted the sale of the highly valuable tuber as an electoral strategy to get the voters to leave their homes or to set aside possible plans to flee to the homes of friends or family who live far away. Who would allow themselves to lose a chance to buy potatoes for one Cuban peso a pound just to escape their commitment to the delegate elections. Very few. A triumph of political marketing in the best Soviet style. continue reading

The State markets are located very close to the polling stations. “Killing two birds with one stone,” as they say. Vote and from there go to the market to buy potatoes.

A gentleman of seventy said, before placing his ballot in the ballot box, “I’m going to finish with this delegate quickly, I don’t know who he is and I don’t care,” to immediately add, “I’m going to get in the potato line, there are a lot of people and they close at noon today.” With a certain tone of electoral authority, he concluded, “The potato won these elections, my friend.”

If from the mood of the inhabitants of the city of Pinar del Río it was clear that something had changed, it was because they were celebrating the victory of the absolute winner of these unforgettable elections which took place on the market stands and which had as the only candidate a food that appears very sporadically in these markets.

Meanwhile, in the balloting there was a notable boredom among the poll tenders, anxious for closing time to arrive. Indifference and apathy surrounded the process to select “the most capable.” “It’s tedious and nobody takes it seriously,” said a commentator at the Parque del Bosque Peña de Pelota in the city center.

On this “historic election day,” the potato had no rival candidate and carried the day with a resounding victory.

The vote of inertia / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

A woman looks at the biographies of the candidates before voting. (14ymedio)
A woman looks at the biographies of the candidates before voting. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, Havana, 19 April 2015 — “He abused me, but I love him… many years together, I don’t want to leave him.” How many times have we heard this phrase in the mouths of women who suffer domestic violence from their husbands. And how difficult is it for family, friends, specialists in psychology, to convince an abused person to denounce their situation, to take action for their own good, to free themselves.

The victim has developed a deep inferiority complex, feels dependent and doesn’t conceive of life outside the “protection” of her owner. Although she has all the capabilities to be much better off without him. continue reading

“He gives me everything, it’s true that he has this character; he won’t let me go out, if I say what I think he punishes me, he won’t let me work, he says what he gives me is enough. If I talk with the neighbor – the man in the big beautiful house – he shouts at me and beats me, but I know deep down he loves me, and he does take care of me.”

The classic symptoms of the victim of domestic violence are also seen in the relationship of people with their governments when, for more than half a century, they have been the tough masters of the house.

Everyone spends their life lamenting the “untenable situation,” the streets, the trash, wages, water, bread, Internet, prices, bureaucracy, censorship… But deep down, no one, or to be fair, few, dare to upset Dad.

And so it explains a thousand and one times that, on a day like today, people come out to participate in an absolutely useless exercise, such as district elections in Cuba.

Sometimes we don’t realize how much the struggles for democracy resemble those that were fought for gender equality or against discrimination. In all of them, the most difficult thing is getting the victims to change their attitude to life, to cease playing a passive role and become protagonists of their own history.

But that does not make us tire of telling the people, like we continue to tell abused women: you don’t depend on anyone, it’s all in your mind. You have the courage to break free, not only will you be better off, you will also discover that through your own efforts you can be happy.

Post Summit Debate / 14ymedio

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14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 17 April 2105 – This Friday morning, the Forum for Rights and Freedoms convened a group of activists to a meeting under the title After the Summit in Panama, what next?  The event took place at the home of Antonio González Rodiles, director of the opposition group Estado de Sats.

About 70 attendees heard testimony from Berta Soler, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez, Gorki Águila, Roberto de Jesús Guerra and other activists who participated in the Civil Society Forum during the recently concluded Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama.

The discussions addressed issues related to the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States and on the actions taken by the representatives of civil society sent to Panama by the Cuban government.

Rescuing bread / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar

Among the many businesses that have flourished since the recent relaxations for self-employment, there are not many bakeries. (14ymedio)
Among the many businesses that have flourished since the recent relaxations for self-employment, there are not many bakeries. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 17 April 2015 — Eliot’s Bakery dawned this Friday with the kneading blade broken and a line of people waiting to buy a baguette or a bagel. Eliot’s brother hurried over to fix the broken blade, because, “You can’t have a day with no sales, the loss is tremendous,” says the concerned baker.

This self-employed worker has opened a unique business in Havana’s Timba neighborhood, offering a great variety of baked goods. Every day that he manages to overcome the high prices of raw material and the infrastructure problems, he counts as an accomplishment. continue reading

Among the many businesses that have flourished since the recent relaxations in self-employment, there are not many bakeries. Given that there are growing complaints about the poor quality of this product in the rationed market, it is surprising that daring Cuban entrepreneurs haven’t set out to knead and bake for every taste.

Very close to Colon Street, in one of the buildings known as “pastorita” on Bellavista Street, a few weeks ago a poster appeared announcing wonderful breads in a huge freshly printed graphic. In a ground floor apartment a simple wooden shelf has been installed to display the products. The bakery’s strong point is bread, but there are also panetelas, cakes and other fine desserts.

A bag of 15 large rolls costs 20 Cuban pesos and they even have sesame seeds. The word has passed among the neighbors and now they ask for special order breads that live only in the memories of some of the oldest people. From the early hours of the morning there is an unmistakable aroma of loaves slowly baking in the oven.

Every day that he manages to overcome the high prices of raw material and the infrastructure problems, he counts as an accomplishment.

The place also offers products of a more standard size that cost a peso each, as well as hotdog buns and others shaped like croissants. Eliot doesn’t need to go out hawking his wares. Sitting on the balcony of his house, he serves all those who come looking for a taste or texture other than the insipid bread from the State bakeries.

A few years ago he tried to open a barbershop in the apartment courtyard, but it didn’t go well. The thing ended up at the police station and they confiscated what little he had acquired to start his business. A pair of old barber chairs were loaded onto a truck and, in the end, he even spent a long time at the station, having lost his cool with the big guys dressed in blue.

Luckily, life smiles on him now. The mothers of the area can count on getting snacks for their kids, and the owners of nearby cafes wake up at dawn to get a good supply that they later sell as snacks and sandwiches. Briseida, a retired woman who collected her pension this morning, waits for the broken blade to be returned. “Today I’m going to give myself the taste of some good bread,” she says.

Who Are the “Rich Cubans”? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Many immigrants come to Havana from the provinces, hoping to expand their narrow horizons (14ymedio)
Many immigrants come to Havana from the provinces, hoping to expand their narrow horizons (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 April 2015 — It is a fact that permanent poverty creates distortions in perception. The most obvious example is the value judgments we Cubans place on the supposed “riches” of some, based on a comparison with our own poverty, which is the general state of the nation.

It is common for people from the towns and cities of the provinces to see, in the country’s capital, the wealth that they themselves do not enjoy. Viewed superficially, any observer would say that Cuba is no exception in this, because it is well-known that the capitals of all countries absorb a great deal of the immigration from the diverse points of their own national geographies, attracted by better job prospects, cultural options and the many other possible opportunities that more developed and cosmopolitan cities have to offer. continue reading

But the distinctive feature in the Cuban case is that Havana, far from symbolizing a promised prosperity, or the eventual realization of the dreams of an immigrant from the interior, is an impoverished and ruined capital, whose only – and doubtful – attraction is that it is also the capital of tourism, of contraband and corruption, currently the most promising and immediate sources of moderately ‘juicy’ incomes for those who can’t count on the support of remittances from family members who emigrated abroad, and so it is a mecca for those fleeing the narrowest provincial horizons.

Havana is the city with the largest influx of international tourism and, in consequence, where there are the greatest number of prosperous private business, whose owners have been able to pull together a relatively large amount of capital and whose employees receive a remuneration greatly superior to that of state employees, and so enjoy a standard of living much higher than that of most Cubans. They have come to constitute a sector that perceives the overall atmosphere of mediocrity and poverty that permeates the island as a brake on their capacity to consume and their personal development.

The legal aberrations that make a Cuban from the provinces “undocumented” in the country of their birth, have resulted in a profound cynicism among social sectors

Aside from the proliferation of restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, or rooms to rent for foreign tourists, along with the shady domestic operators, the extensive capital geography offers refuge and anonymity to the provincial immigrants who survive in a precarious balance of double illegality: that conferred by the law (Decree 217) – which expressly forbids those who have no address or job in the capital to remain there beyond a certain length of time; and that which derives from this: the inability to legally get a job without a residence in the city. A closed circle that, with few exceptions, condemns to marginality and exclusion immigrants from the interior who decide to establish themselves in “the capital of all Cubans.”

The economic deformities, coupled with the social exclusions and the legal aberrations that make a Cuban from the provinces “undocumented” in the country of his or her birth, have resulted in a profound cynicism among social sectors based on their place of birth, their access to advantageous jobs or the ability to start private businesses and their ability to consume.

Thus, a fragment of “new rich” has arisen, representing those who have some means of income several times greater than the average Cuban’s, that sees themselves as a group distinct from that marginal and miserable mass, often forced to break the law to guarantee their survival.

However, in an economy in ruins, where there are no legal guarantees for anyone, where the laws of the market are barely a joke and the authorities have total control of lives and property, it is absurd to speak of a “growing class of rich Cubans.” At most, we could be facing a proto-entrepreneurial class that fights to sustain itself and defends a limited private space in the face of eventual and real changes that will allow them to really soar; but which is starting to socially distance itself from the most socially disadvantaged and create their own niches.

If some class is “growing” in Cuba, it is that of the excluded and extremely poor.

If some class is “growing” in Cuba, it is that of the excluded and extremely poor. In the interior of Cuba poverty has increased, there is almost zero access to the Internet, fewer cell phones, and infinitely greater problems with transportation, food, water and electrical systems, not to mention medical or other services. But this does not make the capital an emporium of riches that spontaneously or naturally despises immigrants from other provinces.

It is the Government itself that exiles the immigrants who come to the capital, deporting them to their places of origin, which deprives them of their rights as citizens of the Island. The Government, moreover, restricts the rights of all of us, denying our economic, political and social freedoms addressed in the United Nations covenants, signed by Cuba in February 2008, but never ratified.

The disdain of many Havanans toward those they call “Palestinians” – in reference to their ‘statelessness’ – born in the eastern provinces where major poverty and lack of opportunities are concentrated, is just a sample of the contempt that the Government itself feels for all Cubans. They encourage grudges between us when we have an executioner in common.