Of Rafters and Slave Hunters / 14ymedio, Luzbely Escobar

Special border guard group.  (Luzbely Escobar)
Special border guard group. (Luzbely Escobar)

Gerardo and Agustin were stuck for two days with water up to their knees, among the trunks and roots on the coast. They had chosen a point west of Havana that they nicknamed the terminal for its frequent illegal exits, but the trip was thwarted. “They detected us, I don’t know how, because it was in the middle of the night and you couldn’t even see your hands,” they relate, still somewhere between surprised and upset. The capture of the two seems to be due to a new device, half truck, half scanner, that goes in search of rafters.

Last Friday a rare entourage was exhibited a few meters from the central Havana corner of L and 23. Two military jeeps, an overhauled vehicle and a motorboat were shown to the stupefied students who formed a circle of interest just outside the Cuba Pavilion. The teens fluttered around the objects, and an officer explained the modern work tools for “protecting the Cuban coasts from illegal entry and exit.”

The purpose was to familiarize the students with every detail of the work in the Ministry of the Interior’s Border Guards in order to attract potential soldiers. The device that they described with greatest pride was a truck that once belonged to the Trasval chain messenger service and that they themselves have fitted with GPS and motion and heat sensing cameras. Its mission? Finding amid the underbrush, darkness and waves those who have decided to escape from the Cuban paradise. continue reading

The curriculum of each of the members includes not only detailed knowledge about the functioning of the new technology but also proficiency in techniques of self-defense and neutralization of the “enemy.” The students seem to listen to the explanation with the playfulness of being halfway between the hiders and the seekers, between the coastal police and the fleeing rafters.

Barely a couple of years separate Gerardo and Agustin from those youngsters in the interested circle. Maybe they once crossed an intersection or shared a jitney or waited for the green light together at a stoplight. Nevertheless, if those students were to decide to become part of the Border Guard Troops, on a night as dark as hell some would be shivering amid the mangroves and others would push the buttons of a device designed to hunt emigrants. “We have to hold them and guard them until the people from Villa Marista come to look for them,” says one of the officers to motivate even more those who listen to him under the December sun of a Havana afternoon.

A girl asks about firearms, and a man wearing a beret pulled tight to his ears tells her that they must not go out armed on these missions due to “incidents that have occurred where fatal shootings have happened.” But continuing, he explains that they plan to place on the truck “an arsenal for confronting possible entry of speedboats with armed people or explosives.”

From the outside, the singular truck looks like a featureless gray box, but passing through its side door one finds a bathroom and a space that can be transformed into a bedroom or meeting room. The table used for discussing upcoming plans and operations folds up and is stored. The benches are opened and converted into two bunks, one on each side, where up to four people can sleep. The climate control permits them to endure the hot nights without opening the door which would cause them to suffer the persistent coastal mosquitoes.

Border guard boat.  (Luzbely Escobar)
Border guard boat. (Luzbely Escobar)

They carry a coffee maker, a rice cooker and a so-called “Queen” cooker (a Chinese-made pressure cooker) for cooking outside the truck. In order to make it all work, they carry an electric generator “so that the current is not a problem,” they assure with a certain vanity. The boast about resources does not stop there. They relate that they have “a campaign table in tow to set up the outdoor kitchen and a tent with a 40-person capacity.” This last is for the detainees, in case the people of Villa Marista take too long and they have to sleep at the capture site.

“This is a combat truck because it was born in combat,” one of the pompous drivers is heard to exclaim. “It is a unique prototype in the country and is called a mobile command post,” he stresses. “The boss,” he says while he points his index finger up, “says that he is going to make one more advance, but well, this takes financing, this takes resources.”

The news is worst for those who evade because this team acts as if they were really slave hunters with an obsession. “This is a fixed rotation. We go out for 20 days to the coast, and we have no relief. Those are 20 days without seeing the family,” they say, explaining the conditions in which they work.

In order to attract the girls to the circle of interest, an officer with ten years of experience clarifies that “in communications there are many women who do not have to go to the coast.” They laugh and blush, then he returns to the charge saying that “all the communications offices are climate controlled, there are many women who do this work.”

Nevertheless, after looking a while at the device the teens begin to speak of going on vacation with it to the beach, with its bunks and electricity. In the end one of them laughingly says thanks for the “classified information,” and heads down the street to the sea. In the air remains doubt about the next encounter between those adolescents and the officers: Will it be to petition for entrance into the elite group or to beg them not to tighten the handcuffs?

Translated by MLK

Has D-Day Arrived? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)
Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 — Today has been one of those days we imagine a thousand ways, but never as it finally happened. You prepare for a date on which you can celebrate the end, hug your friends who return home, wave a flag in the middle of the street, but D-Day is late. Instead, events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.

The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishments of diplomatic relations surprises us in the midst of signs that pointed in the opposite direction, and also of exhausted hopes. Raúl Castro just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this December 10 repression fell heavily on activists, as it does every International Human Rights Day.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of the official bluster, of a certain turn of the ideological screw expressed in calls to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months. Clear evidence that all this discourse of intransigence was just for show. While they made the island’s citizens believe that even to cross the threshold of the United States Interest Section in Havana turned them into traitors to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics! continue reading

On the other hand, both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The US president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer, before the coveted and greatly demanded steps of democratization and political opening in our country would be achieved. The dilemma of what should have come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. However, the fig leaf of the American embargo remains, so that no one can say the resignation as been complete.

Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and other prisoners of interest of the American government. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.

Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by – as one of its main pillars – the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?

In the central market of Carlos III, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting football or videoclips, but a speech by Raúl Castro and later one by Obama through the Telesur network. The first allocution caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the US president, particularly when he mentioned relaxations in the sending of remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.

It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition, like the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of disappearance. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. Lacking is a public timeline by which commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of the synergy of both announcements to extract a public promise, which must include, at a minimum, four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months.

The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island. Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to think that the day we have longed for is not close. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

Everything is Sold-Out / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

 Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)
Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, 16 December 2014 — The end-of-year all over the world presents a challenge for many enterprises and businesses, especially for those in the transportation sector. Nobody wants to miss the opportunity to considerably increase the profits to be made from an extraordinary rise in demand for services. To this end, strategies are plotted and necessary adjustments are made well in advance. It is also true that at this time there is a surge in ticket prices. What would be strange is if, assuming you have the resources to travel, you were unable to find any means to get to your destination by land, sea or air.

That is, unless you live in Cuba. This is an island whose land and total population are comparable to or exceeded by some large cities of the world.

Over here, starting in the first few days of December, you can already hear in any office that sells tickets to travelers the famous phrase, “No, Son, no, for those dates, everything is sold-out
It is also common to find someone who laughs and says, ironically, “But who in their right mind thinks they can wait till early December to start shopping for tickets? That’s something you start doing at least three months in advance!” continue reading

The problem is that if you don’t find an option to travel by plane, train or bus, then you have to take a “suck it up and endure the consequences.” This means that you have to go outside Havana to get on some ancient American truck that’s more than 50 years old (that’s been jerry-rigged for such long hauls), and deal with a unlicensed driver and zero guarantees for passengers’ safety.

Even so, the price to board these hulking masses of steel exceeds 200 pesos. Thousands of people of all ages, including babes in arms, travel to and from the eastern end of the country seated on long iron benches, holding on by the tippy-tips of their fingers, and tossed from their spot every time the vehicle brakes or makes some sudden move to get ahead, or to avoid colliding with cars that are travelling in the opposite direction at hundreds of miles per hour, where there are no paved roads.

Rain, cold, hunger, darkness, the need to answer calls of nature (which, when you can do it, you might do it on the grass): these are among the benefits of this type of travel that can last, depending on the destination province, between 12 and 20 hours – if there are no breakdowns.

These people are the ones you later see on the news, reported injured or deceased in the accidents that take place daily on these routes. Of course, those reports don’t dig at the root of the problem, but rather lay all blame on the drivers of these contraptions.

A serious reflection on this subject – or on any other aspect of the daily life of Cubans – brings us to the inevitable conclusion that without a new political system, we will never climb out of this underdevelopment, which is perilously covered-up by our own selves.

I pray once again, at this end-of-year, that the backwardness, ignorance and above all the irresponsibility of the State does not cause the loss of life for so many Cubans on our roads. Unfortunately, the statistics are stacked against me.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Reactions from Cuba to the Obama-Castro agreements / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 17 December 2014 – A source from the US State Department has told 14ymedio that now begins the most difficult work, that there will be a lot of criticism, but also that many are feeling optimistic with this Wednesday’s achievement since the announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. “We also have to keep in mind that President Barack Obama has announced this series of measures, but Congress can still place obstacles in the way of putting many of them into practice,” the source clarified.

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), said, “It makes me happy to know that diplomatic relations are being reestablished between Cuba and the United States. I consider this as a first step towards normalization and coexistence between the two countries, I salute the release of the political prisoners, and believe that this reestablishment of ties will contribute to focusing attention on the fundamental problem of the Cuban people, which is relations between the Government and citizens. I hope that the dialog that has been established with another country can quickly be realized between a government and its own citizens.” Valdés also highlighted the words of president Raúl Castro about the need to learn to coexist among differences: “This is a breakthrough for coexistence.” continue reading

Eliécer Ávila also considers the policy shift announced by Obama to be positive. “The changes are already here and are a reality, it is the job of civil society to adapt and strengthen its strategy to continue to struggle for human rights in this new scenario, which I hope will end up being favorable to those who dream of a prosperous and free Cuba. Those who want to look back and not look forward are wasting their time,” he pointed out.

The economist Marta Beatriz Roque, however, says it is too early to have an opinion. “We have to wait to see how events unfold. Right now we are trying to find out the names of the political prisoners the government is going to release and under what conditions; then we can offer an opinion.”

José Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), argues that it can be positive if Barack Obama’s administration has decided to take steps to normalize relations with the Havana regime, “If and only if they don’t forget the commitment they’ve made many times and in public with Cuban civil society with regards to respect for human rights in our country.” He added, “The solution to our problems is in the non-violent struggle of Cubans seeking their rights and freedoms, everything else is secondary.”

Ferrer believes that the American government has made a gesture of goodwill, but, “Now we have to see if the Cuban regime reciprocates and demonstrates its goodwill in practice. I strikes me that while the secret talks were being held, the Cuban government postponed conversations with the European Union at exactly the point when they were going to talk about human rights.”

On the streets of Havana, people expressed great happiness and everyone relates what happened with this Wednesday’s date, the day dedicated to St. Lazarus, a very powerful saint among Cubans. Projected on the TV screens at the Carlos II Market, located in the center of the Cuban capital, were the speeches of both leaders. In the audience, many threw kisses to Obama and hugged each other.

Cuba and the United States will reestablish diplomatic relations / 14ymedio

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (Source: The White House)
Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (Source: The White House)

14medio, Washington, 17 December 2014 (With information from agencies) — Cuba and the United States will reestablish bilateral relations. The announcement was made this Wednesday after it became known that the American prisoner Alan Gross had been released in response to a humanitarian request from Washington. In exchange, Barack Obama’s administration released the three Cuban spies from the group called “The Five,” who were still serving sentences in the United States, according to the Twitter account of René González, one of the group who had been released in 2011, after completing his sentence.

Gross, 65, “has already left Cuba on a plane bound for the United States,” said a White House source. “He was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government, following a request from the United States,” the source added, after serving five years of a 15 year sentence for “threats against the security of the State.” continue reading

The White House denied that US president Barack Obama would visit Cuban during the two years remaining in his term of office.

Obama made a statement from the White House in which he announced the immediate resumption of relations with Cuba, as well as the outlines of a new policy. “Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Cuban president Raúl Castro also offered a speech in which he stated that, in a telephone conversation with Obama, they had “agreed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. This doesn’t mean that the main issue has been resolved: the economic blockade.”

The New York Times reported that Havana and Washington undertook secret negotiations in Canada over the last 18 months, encouraged by Pope Francisco. The dialog culminated in a meeting at the Vatican. Pope Francisco announced he was “deeply pleased” by the historic decision.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, speaking from the Mercosur Summit now being held in Buenos Aires, also welcomed the reestablishment of relations, calling it a “historic rectification.”

The situation of Alan Gross – arrested in 2009 for distributing satellite telecommunications equipment while serving as a subcontractor to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and sentenced in 2011 – was seen as the main obstacle to a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Washington had refused to consider the possibility of a prisoner exchange with Cuba. Gross repeatedly criticized the lack of an effort on the part of the US government for his release, and this year undertook a week-long hunger strike to pressure the White House.

Obama: “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do” / 14ymedio

Obama during his speech
Obama during his speech

14ymedio, Havana, 17 December 2014 – US President Barack Obama announced in a speech from the White House this Wednesday that Cuba and the United States would resume diplomatic relations after the break that occurred in 1961.

“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” Obama said. “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do.”

The president said that the current classification of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism will also be reviewed.

The US Secretary of State will initiate conversations with Cuba “immediately” and it is expected that in the coming months the United States will open an embassy in Cuba. The first step in this process will be to address the issue of immigration between the two countries at a meeting scheduled for this coming January in Havana. continue reading

United States actions in Cuba, Obama said, will focus on improving conditions with regards to human rights and the implementation of democratic reforms in Cuba, as well as other issues of mutual interest, such as immigration, counter-narcotics, environmental protection, and human trafficking.

The White House also announced changes with regards to travel, such as favoring the expansion of general permits for travel to Cuba for all authorized travelers, or the ability to use American credit and debit cards on the island, and easing the policy on remittances. With regards to the latter the allowable amount will be increased from $500 per quarter to $2000, and will no longer require a license specific to the expediter.

Also authorized is the expansion of sales and commercial exports of certain goods and services from the United States (for example, some construction materials or agricultural machinery), as well as allowing travelers returning from the island to import a maximum of $400 in goods, of which no more than $100 may consist of a combination of tobacco and alcohol products.

Obama said that the United States will offer its support to increase Cubans’ access to communications, both through the commercial export of certain goods and the authorization for service providers to implement the mechanisms necessary to provide commercial telephone and Internet services.

“This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas, but we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.” The US president will be present at the meeting in Panama at which topics such as human rights and democracy will be discussed.

Alan Gross, the hook that ended up being swallowed / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross
Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 – With the pessimism that has now become chronic in our society, many Cubans thought that Alan Gross would only leave Cuba, “in a box,” in an image allusive of a fatal outcome. The stubbornness shown by the Cuban government in its relations with the United States didn’t presage a short-term solution for the contractor. This Wednesday, however, he has been exchanged for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States, bringing to a close a long and complicated political chapter for both parties.

Gross was only useful alive and his health was rapidly deteriorating. And Raul Castro knew this very well. Hence, in recent months he raised the decibels around the proposed exchange for the agent Antonio Guerrero and the officials Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, all serving long sentences in the prisons of our neighbor to the north. To the extent that the 65-year-old contractor grew thin and lost his vision, official campaigns grew increasingly insistent about the exchange. When Gross threatened to kill himself, the alarms if the island’s government went off and the negotiating schedule accelerated. continue reading

Barack Obama, for his part, made clear that any change in policy toward Havana would come up against the insurmountable obstacle of an American imprisoned for “threats against the security of the State.” Even the New York Times had suggested an exchange in one of its editorials on Cuba, and the publication of that text in such a prestigious newspaper was read as a preview of what would happen. As in every political game, we see only one part, while in the intricacies of power the threads of the agreement made public just today were being woven.

For those of us who know the mechanism of pressure used by the Plaza of the Revolution toward its opponents, the capture of Gross itself was a move aimed at recovering the Interior Ministry’s agents. The contractor wasn’t arrested for what he did, but rather for what they could do with him. It was a simple hook and he was aware of this from the beginning. His crime was not in having brought satellite equipment to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet, but rather in carrying in his pocket a passport that immediately converted him into a medium of exchange on the board of tense bilateral relations between Washington and Havana.

If we review the five years of captivity endured by Gross, we see a well-designed information script that the Cuban government used to put pressure on the Obama administration. Each image that came to light publicly, each visitor allowed to see him, was authorized with the sole condition of reinforcing the exchange proposal. In this way, the Castro regime has managed to get its way. It has managed to exchange a peaceful man, embarked on the humanitarian adventure of providing connectivity to a group of Cubans, for intelligence agents that caused significant damage and sorrow with their actions.

In the game of politics, totalitarian regimes manage to win over democracies because the former control the public opinion inside their countries, determine all legal results to suit their purposes, and can continue to waste their nation’s resources trying to free the moles they sent to their adversary’s camp. Democracies, however, end up conceding because they must answer to their own people, they must live with an incisive press that criticizes them for making or not making certain decisions, and because they are forced to do everything possible bring their dead and alive back home.

The Castro regime has won, although the positive result is that Alan Gross has emerged alive from a prison that promised to turn into his grave. Now, we can expect long weeks of cheering and slogans in which the Cuban government will proclaim itself a victor in its latest battle. But, there is no space in the national pantheon for so many still-breathing heroes, and little by little, the recently returned agents will lose importance and visibility. The myth created for them from a distance will begin to fade.

With the main obstacle for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations eliminated, the only unknown is the next step. Is the Cuban government planning another move to return to a position of force vis-a-vis the US government? Or are all the cards on the table this time, before the weary eyes of a population that anticipates that the Castro regime will also win the next move.

Translated by Mary Jo Porter and Ernesto Suarez

The Wall of Tears / Reinaldo Escobar

The wall of tears at the Jose Marti International Airport. (14ymedio)
The wall of tears at the Jose Marti International Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 16 December 2014 – In the days when Havana has as its only airport what we know today as Terminal 1, there was a wide unroofed terrace from which we said goodbye to family and friends. Many times, forever.

When Terminal 3 opened, it was no longer possible to see, from land, the so often filmed scene of the instant when people climb the airplane steps, but one chance was left. On the second floor there was a glass covered deck from which it was possible to look out, to see our loved ones pass after having gone through immigration and the security checkpoint. Connoisseurs of this detail took the opportunity to throw a kiss or make some meaningful gesture. This site was given the name “the wall of tears.”

One fine day they remodeled the building, hanging a false ceiling, relocating the shops and cafes, and replacing the transparent windows with opaque glass, or perhaps they merely painted it. No one offered an explanation They say that the order to block visibility came from a retired general who, at that time, directed airport operations.
Why? You go figure. We can speculate that the former military man, infected with chronic secrecy, wanted to avoid “any information leaking” at the final minute, or simply showed a lack of human feelings.

Now the wall remains blank. In some places you can see where someone tried to scrape the white paint off the glass, but every scrape has been quickly repaired. When Havana, someday, has an airport worthy of it, there will be magnificent tunnels leading to the doors of every airplane, but by that time travel will not be as dramatic, nor as difficult.

The Privilege of Living in Cuba / 14ymedio, Cederistin Dominguez

14ymedio, CEDERISTIN DOMINGUEZ, 10 December 2014 — The independent press that usually criticizes the Cuban government using human rights as a pretext should come out into the street today, December 10. Our children, especially those in primary school, will be playing, jumping and doing pirouettes in all Havana’s main plazas. Representatives from the United Nations, the foreign press and especially the national press will enjoy a great time there, watching the carnival of happiness and color that the children will give them spontaneously and voluntarily.

How do I know? Well, because I have lived in Cuba my whole life, and I know our children, and they are very prone to playing on the tenth of December… Why this day? Well, I don’t know, the truth is that now that you ask me it is a little strange. . . It’s cold, it rains and it is a school day.

What I do know is that it coincidentally matches the world day of human rights and at least our children will not be bored in cages learning mathematics, physics or Spanish. After all, we are barbarians in all that. continue reading

But while I do not “cover the sun with a finger,” I also criticize what is badly done. For example, a very pretty activity that they should do more often with the children is acts of repudiation. The last time my boy told me that an old lady almost died while they were dragging her son and that they crushed a pile of people. Those things are very important so that children learn to behave and don’t turn out later to be like those vulgar youth who are rather critical of Raul.

Over there, those strange countries have even prohibited parties and governments from using children for politics. And they call that democracy? Here there is democracy and how. Check it out, even the newborns and fetuses, although they are unaware of their own existences, are already defending the revolution on the national news.

That is what our enemies will not pardon us for. The traitors are determined only to see the little specks in the eye, no different from the whole world’s, and from that they make a huge problem. So what if those children, when they grow up, will not be able to elect their own government, so what if they earn a laughable salary, so what if half of them by age 25 will no longer be here (having gone into exile), so what if they are expelled from their universities or their jobs if they think differently, they will not be able to associate or meet or access the internet, yadda yadda. The same old song as always… The good thing is that the people are aware that all that is false.

Look, why don’t they talk about the beauty of the choreography that the children are doing? Much more open and improvised than that of the Chinese or North Korean children. Here each child throws a ball, jumps or laughs when he feels like it… That is a the painful truth, but of course, that is not what they see… What interests them is all that bunch of nonsense that the neighbors from the north and the Europeans have put in their heads. That’s why we suspended the meeting that we had planned for these days with those evil freaks.

Okay, I am going to grab my raincoat and go out for a walk because today for sure they will sell sweet cookies in the street, and I have to take advantage…

Translated by MLK

The Fall of an Untouchable / 14ymedio

José Antonio Fraga Castro. (Still from Vimeo)
José Antonio Fraga Castro. (Still from Vimeo)

Labiofam relieves José Antonio Fraga Castro, Fidel Castro’s nephew, from his post as president

14ymedio, Havana, 8 December 2014 — The company Labiofam will replace José Antonio Fraga Castro as president of the group. Last Thursday, during a meeting with the directors of the business group, included on the day’s agenda was the application of a sanction to the leader, Fidel and Raul Castro’s nephew. The company’s workers commented that the punishment was motivated by his participation in the decisions about the development and possible commercialization of the perfumes “Ernesto” and “Hugo,” inspired by the figures of Ernesto Guevara and Hugo Chavez, respectively.

Fraga, to avoid an administrative and labor sanction that would “stain his record” decided to announce his retirement. On Saturday the news was communicated to the workers, and in the coming days it’s expected that a new person will be designated to fill his job.

At the end of September, Fraga had to present his apologies to the families of Hugo Chavez and Ernesto Che Guevara, after the persistent circulation of rumors about the commercialization of some perfumes with their names. The president of Labiofam alleged that it was the result of an “ill-intentioned and distorted focus” in one of the company presentations at a congress this year. continue reading

The perfumes Hugo and Ernesto
The perfumes Hugo and Ernesto

Labiofam lambasted the American Associated Press agency for having published an article about the creation of the perfumes, which had not yet been registered or commercialized under those names. The official press intervened in the controversy, and repudiated the commercialization of the perfumes, recalling that, “the symbols of yesterday, today and forever are sacred.”

Choreography of an Interrogation / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Arrests at a gathering on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)
Arrests at a gathering on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

“Sit down!” ordered ‘Number One.’

“I’m comfortable like this, thanks,” I responded.

14ymedio, VICTOR ARIEL GONZALEZ, Havana, 12 December 2014 — “But you didn’t come here to be comfortable,” he concluded, and for once we were in agreement on something, Number One and I: I was not comfortable. It was Human Rights Day, which in Cuba is a sad date, and a mob of agents dressed in civilian clothes had arrested me together with other journalists as well as dozens of independent activists.

I was taken by force from the bus on which I was returning to the editorial office after taking photographs in the middle of Vedado, and also stripped of my mobile phone from which they also erased information. They put me into a patrol car that was parked at the corner of 21 and L, where they transferred me to bus full of uniformed police officers at the park at 21 and H. From there, accompanied again by plainclothes agents, they took me in a private car and I came to stop at the Aguilera station, an old barracks from the Batista police era.

Obviously, no one feels comfortable if they are trounced like that. During my trip to the Aguilera cells they held me without handcuffing me, maybe hoping for some violent reaction on my part so they could beat me up right there or later insinuate that I am one of them and therefore “they were treating me well.” That’s how these State Security guys work, mine also spoke of “accidents” that have happened because of not handcuffing arrestees. “What I am committing is a violation of procedure,” said the man next to me, in the rear seat of the Greely. True: It is a violation that unknown perpetrators kidnap a free citizen. continue reading

Returning to the scene of the interrogation, here I am next to a couple of henchmen who shared that December 10 with me. I will describe them: ‘Number One’ is older and calls himself Javier. His supposed position as lieutenant colonel was let drop by ‘Number Two,’ who had earlier identified himself as “Captain Ricardo” and is quite a bit younger.

When they brought me up to the interrogation rooms, Number Two was waiting for me, and his intervention started badly. He called me a “spoiled little boy” and “frustrated engineer.” Number One then arrived, authoritarian and even more unpleasant, his head polished by a splendid shave. “Sit down!” had been almost his first words directed to me, because the beginning phase of the choreography of the interrogation was intimidation or the attempt to establish authority.

Seeing that I would only be allowed to speak when they wanted me to, I tried to remain quiet most of the time. I wanted them to end their diatribe as soon as possible. One told me, among other things, to learn “to listen” and drop the “stobbornness” – he meant to say “stubbornness.” Number Two insisted, “You have problems, you have problems, you have problems.” The choreography was in phase two: informative-educational.

In that part of the dance Number One left the room, then entered to interrupt Number Two and then left again. The third act was when Number One interrupted his subordinate again, I don’t remember much of his discourse, and he said from the open door in a paternal and severe tone: “Your brother . . . came looking for you,” concluding with “We’re going to free you soon.”

Before describing the choreography’s fourth act, that of the threat, I find it imperative to clarify something about these guys: It is well for them to know that they do not have to “free” me, simply because I am already free. Freedom, more than walking around on a slave island and in a dilapidated city that individuals like my interrogators police and terrorize, is a state of grace.

They are less free than I because they obey orders, and because they feel the need to arrest someone who thinks differently in order to try to demonstrate that they are stronger. But it is easy to see that they are scared to death, because when they display their little borrowed power – in this country the powerful really are not they, but their bosses – they only demonstrate how startled they are that a little group of peaceful people like me think and express themselves differently.

Watch out for fear, officers, it cuts both ways. The act threat act in your interrogation served to reaffirm my conviction that there will be no going back. You will be able to threaten me and my family, but I will keep writing while I have the means.

Really, you have left me no other option. I only hope that by the next choreography you will have rehearsed your macabre dance a little more and studied the script better.

Translated by MLK

Matraka Productions regrets that the Associated Press “Revelations” damage the independent cultural sector / 14ymedio

14ymedio, 12 December 2014 – The independent promoter Matraka Productions expressed its regret in a statement about the damage the Associated Press has done to the unofficial cultural sector by linking the receipt of grants from the US to allegedly subversive actions. This Thursday the American agency published the results of an investigation, which claims that the Agency for International Development (USAID) promoted rap and hip-hop groups critical of the government.

USAID has played down the information from the AP and recalls that it is known that the agency “supports programs of civil society in Cuba and other restrictive environments” as part of the actions of the US government to promote democracy, a spokesperson told the EFE press agency. “Any claim that our work is secret or covert it is simply false,” he said.

The official press has published in its entirety the extensive AP investigation, as well as the documents in support of it, as they have also done with reports from the same American press agency on other USAID alleged covert operations such as ZunZuneo. continue reading

“In the ongoing investigation by AP, in their righteous grandeur, they have determined to exempt from responsibility those that catalog as “receivers unaware” of the origin of the funds. And they identify as manipulators, scammers and illegals in offshore activities the private contractors and companies who were clearly employed as implementers and in the US-Cuba dispute,” says Matraka in a communication sent to 14ymedio.

“We fear that these revelations are going to contribute to a radicalization in the authorities’ view of the independent cultural sector of our society, and the perspective that there might be an authentic civil society, capable of generating its own initiatives and discerning its interests. With these kinds of scandal, national public option gets the idea that any subsidy is synonymous with subversion, and that any grantee may itself be a subversive element.”

Matraka Productions spoke of the difficulties that face independent artists on the island, who are subject to censorship. “The reasons for such a wide range of prohibitions are always put forward on behalf of a universal revolutionary judgment: the American enemy!!”

For this reason, the promoter reemphasized his “Cubanness” and the right of artists to seek sources of alternative funding for the survival of their work. “We do not, nor can we, feel guilty before the revelations of a foreign press agency: we do not feel guilt for looking for sources of funding to do the work as we shape it. We don’t feel obliged to seek the indulgence or approval of anyone. We don’t feel guilty for trying ‘to change everything that should be changed*.’”

*Translator’s note: A phrase from Fidel Castro’s speech delivered on 1 May 2000 in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The Spell of Havana / 14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea

The Historic Spanish Dance Society in Havana (BDG)
The Historic Spanish Dance Society in Havana (BDG)

14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea, Havana, 9 December 2014 – One of my earliest memories is of my young self, singing, Set fire, set fire to the lock [of hair], while riding in a bus operated by Havana’s public transportation system. The other passengers around me laugh and a lady with sweet and mirthful eyes exclaims again and again, “That little blonde boy is a hellion!”

Havana at that time to me was that marvelous city which I would enter at dawn, riding through the tunnel, staying alert so as not to miss the fire station on Prado Street. Or it was that city which I would exit generally by train, at night, but not before stopping at la Casita de Martí [José Martí’s Little House]. All of this was in spite of the fact that my parents and I would go to Havana twice a year, in January and June.

Our agenda for our visits was always the same: the Aquarium and the 26th Avenue Zoo, with its little lead soldiers at the entrance, its bold squirrels that seemed not so much wild creatures as denizens of some tenement on Colón Street, the shit-flinging monkeys, the little train…and another day, to Lenin Park and the Botanical Garden. We would cover Old Havana by a route that invariably ended up in The Fort and its armories – at least until the day I stopped throwing tantrums to avoid embarking on the little Regla ferry, and then the tour would end with a slow cruise to park in that so-called “ultramarine town.” Then it was off to the Coppelia ice cream stand on any given day and later, in the afternoon, a stroll up and down the Malecón, re-enacting in the capital that small-town custom of zigzagging along the main street of Encrucijada. Such was the only way to pass the evenings in some innocent little town of the interior in those marvelous ‘70s.

Sometimes, in January, there might also be a visit to El Cerro Stadium, as our friend Ñico Rutina insisted on calling the Latin American Stadium, for my father and me to watch a baseball game. It didn’t matter who was playing whom, what my old man cared about (and still does, at 83) was enjoying the game, not being fanatical about a particular team. Our day trip would then conclude with the aforementioned visits to about a hundred of my parents’ relatives and close friends. All this to say – considering that we would alternate our stays among my Aunt Leopoldina’s house in Párraga; my Aunt Emilia’s house in the Little Cave of San Miguel de Padrón; or that of my Great Aunt Victoria in La Víbora – it can be seen that, at least on the east side of the Almendares River, very little of Havana escaped our routine itineraries for visits and outings.

Already by then, I could not escape the spell of Havana. Where people talked, walked, looked, breathed, and loved with ease, and “right” was “rye” [Translator’s Note: Habaneros are known among Cubans elsewhere on the Island for their rapid speech and lazy pronunciation of consonants]. Where defiant mulattos grew their sideburns long and dressed in the manner of their great-great-grandfathers, flashy black men in the days of the fleets. When from time to time could be heard, along some parallel street, the slow-moving cassock of one of the few remaining priests on the Island. When the stray cats were fat, not like those puny ones on Encrucijada Street, and actors in the latest adventure films might surprise you on any street corner.

“Where will all these memories go when I die?” I ask myself at times, like the android in Blade Runner. “Will that moment disappear with me when, for the first time, I watched a ship enter Havana Bay from the Point, while two other vessels lying at anchor waited their turn?” Or, fast-forwarding almost 40 years, there is an eternity in which I will always live in the entire night I spent with Her in a room on L Street, almost touching the sea, and at times would be surprised by the murmurs of another woman: Sleeping Havana?

I cannot answer these questions. I only know that upon learning of Havana having been selected as one of the Seven Wonders Cities of the World, all those memories have rushed to my throat. In any case something will remain, as today persists in our culture that spirit of the Athens of 500 BC, when a boy hand-in-hand with his father, regarded on a certain clear morning of the splendorous Mediterranean summer the road to Piraeus.

Because Havana, more than an obvious ruin, is a spirit, a soul, a mature woman with miles on her but still more beautiful than any 20-year-old. A certain something will persist when the tyrants and their henchmen no longer occupy more than a couple lines in the annals of history. A certain something to which all of us Cubans are joined in greater or lesser measure, and which provides the measure to explain why we love to exaggerate, to say that we Cubans “We Cubans are the greatest thing God ever conceived in this great wide world.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Counterrevolutionary Activities of the Associated Press / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 11 December 2014 — After reading the latest investigation published by the Associated Press involving Cuban musicians, I no longer have the least doubt that the AP is developing the most subtle and treacherous counterrevolutionary campaign of all time. Obviously I don’t have the documents that certify the identity of those who are financing this investigative journalistic project, but at least I know they are not doing it for free and that money must come from some fund.

The atmosphere related in their dispatches – government control over artistic creation, the circulation of information, and the ability of people to gather together – gives the impression that there is a police state in Cuba, where agreement is synonymous with conspiracy and where information is necessarily an arm in the hands of the enemy of the country.

In the latest link in the long chain of articles focused on this secret mission, the Cuban government is compared with that of Slobodan Milosevic and they do it with the ingenious recourse of matching the methods used to overthrow this disgraceful regime with the activities which, from within, are undertaken by some other discontented who, according to the AP, have similar objectives.

What I cannot understand is how the clever State Security agents and the talented members of the editorial board of Cubadebate don’t realize that they are playing into the game of this sophisticated smear campaign, surely generated at those American Intelligence sites that don’t even leave traces of their plans, as USAID and other entities have.

Soon we will see the effect of this work when, in front of television cameras, several Cuban artists will admit their panic, their willingness to betray and offer their expressions of regret. The worst is that the senior officials of State Security will be very pleased with these results, without suspecting that in some nameless office their worst enemies will be toasting to the success achieved.

How we are going to laugh when everything is declassified!

 

Cardinal Bertone returns to Cuba / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Tarcisio Bertone with Felipe Perez Roque in Havana in 2008. (Reuters)
Tarcisio Bertone with Felipe Perez Roque in Havana in 2008. (Reuters)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 December 2014 — Six years ago Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone came through the front door to Cuba. This December, however, he has returned on a private visit which is evidence of the discrete recognition of failure. For the former Vatican Foreign Minister, the time between one stay and another has been filled with missteps. This is a man who returns in disgrace. Just like what has happened with the “Raul reforms” that he validated with his presence.

Cardinal Bertone has arrived on the Island to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but on this occasion, far from the cameras and the presidential palace. The man who helped to coordinate the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our country, has participated this week in the consecration in Santa Clara of a sanctuary to the Virgin of Charity del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

Now, he prefers the ecclesiastical circles and has returned to the Cobre Sanctuary, where he said mass. The context today is very different from his previous stay, a few days after the installation of Raul Castro as president, which the prelate described as a “special, extraordinary moment.” In that February, he also asserted that the General “will continue (…) with a vision, if at all possible, of development.” However, the reality on display this December is stubbornly to the contrary.

The Cuba he is returning to is far from the hopes that some sheltered with the coming to power of Fidel Castro’s brother. Part of the Cuban population imagined the possibilities of an economic and political opening. However, the economic flexibilities ended up untying some knots only to tie others, and civil liberties never arrived.

Six years ago, Bertone said that he would have a conversation with “clarity, sincerity, an exchange,” with the new president, but the president seems not to have listened. The price paid by the former Vatican Foreign Minister for this family photo with the Government was high. While officialdom protected him, the most critical sector of the Catholic Church doesn’t look kindly on that embrace between the sickle and the cross. Excluding the dissidents from any possible dialog with the Cardinal, also signaled the bias of his point of view.

Accustomed to moving influences and cooking up agreements, the Vatican number two thought he could unstick the wheels of change. He met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who a few weeks later would be ousted and accused by Fidel Castro himself of having become addicted to “the honey of power.” Those faces that once welcomed him with smiles, today are no longer here or are in hiding.

Bertone, who was also the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office), came six years ago to teach at a conference in the Main Hall of the University of Havana. Even the newspaper Granma had something of the odor of incense in those days and published a communication from the Cuban bishops, in which they called on Raul Castro to take “transcendental measures” to satisfy the “anxieties and concerns expressed by Cubans.”

Bertone already saw his name in the history of Cuba. The mass that he celebrated in Havana Cathedral focused on the search for larger spaces for the Church within Cuba. In exchange for the ability to gain this space, he accepted all the concessions required. He adopted the official discourse against the “American blockade,” he didn’t meet with regime opponents, and he validated the flexibilizations offered by power as the path to the dreamed of country.

Today, Bertone is not who he was… nor is Cuba what he predicted. Said to have mismanaged influence, now separated from the epicenter of Vatican power, and touched by the scandal of the letters revealed by Benedict XVI’s butler, the man who has come to this Island is a shadow. But the Raul regime reforms are also shadows. Economic relaxations that haven’t managed, after more than five years since they began, to allow Cubans to live in dignity, nor have they provided larger spaces of freedom.

Chance or destiny – who knows? – this time the Bertone’s mass at El Cobre coincides with International Human Rights Day. A few kilometers from the sanctuary where he addressed the congregation, dozens of activists have been confined to their homes, threatened, and some of them have been arrested to prevent their participating in events planned to celebrate this date. The Cuba he did not want to see on his previous trip is knocking on the door with a call that combines desperation and reproach.