Misguided Opinions / Fernando Damaso

It comes to my attention that in recent months the World Bank has reported that, according to their evaluation, Cuba has one of the best public education systems in the world, with acceptable teacher pay, and the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has said something similar about the public health system.

What’s more, CNN has placed Cuba among the ten countries with the highest level of public hygiene. With the majority of my years having been lived in Cuba, and having suffered and continuing to suffer from one system or another, it seems to me like a bad joke. Continue reading

What Isn’t Working? / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Let’s take a look at four different situations.

In the case of the national railway, the authorities in charge claim that its problems are due to outdated equipment and the lack of proper maintenance resulting from a lack of spare parts. The system has not been updated in more than fifty years. As a result the No. 1 train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, which used to run daily, now only makes the trip every three days. For the last eight years the Havana to Holguin train has not run at all.

Those that are running do so at reduced speed and with a fewer number of train cars. When the air conditioning in one of the French-made train cars breaks down, it remains permanently of service and passengers must resort to opening tiny windows instead. The system also suffers from organizational problems and widespread indiscipline.

For years the sizes of school uniforms sold at the beginning of the school year have not corresponded to students’ actual sizes, which have become much smaller to poor nutrition. Though the problem persists year after year, the ministries of education and industry have still not come up with a solution.

Camping, the only vacation option available to the average Cuban, does not live up to expectations or its costs. Camping facilities are run-down, the food is of poor quality and badly prepared, amenities are minimal and the available services leave much to be desired.

Drinking water is in short supply in the suburb of Villa Panamericana near the town of Cojimar. Planners did not take into account the fact that project’s cisterns relied on gravity and that the supply came directly from the tank itself, so of course it cannot reach the third, fourth or fifth floors of the town’s existing buildings.

One might think that this string of calamities is directly related to those provide these services. That assumes that these people do not know how to do the work or simply do it badly. However, in spite of a constant turnover of directors, administrators and personnel, things are no better. One would then have to assume that it is the system itself that is not working.

Neither classic nor actual socialism has worked in any of the countries in which it has been tried. The evidence is plain to see. In Cuba it has never worked, not in the past and not in the present. I think this will also be the case with “prosperous and efficient socialism.” At least that is how I see things so far.

8 October 2014

A Simple Concern / Fernando Damaso

Photos Rebeca

After years without maintenance, abandoned to their fate and in a total state of disrepair, the authorities finally decided to “rescue” — the fashionable word — the building known as La Manzana de Gomez, a building finished by the Gomez Mena family in the year 1917, which occupies the space between Zuleata, San Rafael, Monserrate and Neptune streets.

According to reports it will be converted into a hotel and that is precisely where my concern lies, because this construction project does not answer directly to the Office of the City Historian, who is the only person who has been worried about respecting the identity of the city and its buildings.

To start, it’s announced that it will be called the Gran Hotel Manzana, eliminating the “de Gomez” in an absurd desire to erase at all costs of the Republican pasts. I don’t care much about that, as I am convinced that Havanans will call it the Gran Hotel Manzana de Gomez, exactly as has happened with so many other names they’ve wanted to change, which, however, remain, because traditions are stronger than voluntarism, orders and decrees.

What worries me is that in the granite floor of the property doorways, are embedded different logos of the original shops that occupied it, as well as the building itself–some of which I reproduce here–and it would be a serious mistake destroy them, they are part of the identity of the City of Havana, to build a modern floor, as happened with the neighboring Hotel Plaza, where the tile floors weren’t slippery, and were replaced by modern floors, which seem designed more for skating than walking.

Another negative experience was the replacement of the original floors where they built the nearby Hotel Central Park, and the destruction of the beautiful white and green sidewalks Granite Street San Rafael. All losses are irreparable due to the irresponsibility and ignorance of the authorities and citizen indolence.

If it proves impossible to repair and polish the original floor, due to its state of disrepair, they should at least save the logos and include them in the new floor to be constructed, as it would be an original detail that would give greater value. It would be desirable for the City Historian and other personalities to take timely action in this matter. We shouldn’t continue passively allowing them to destroy our city and erase its historic memory.

4 October 2014

The Eternal Scapegoat / Fernando Damaso

Every year around this time, Cuban authorities put together a report on the damage caused by the “blockade” (in reality an embargo), which this year it will present to the United Nations in October. To this end, state agencies and institutions report losses they have suffered during a period from 2013 to 2014, using statistics to emphasize the impact.

In addition to its actual impacts, the blockade is also blamed for all mistakes, weaknesses, irresponsibility, lack of productivity, delays and any other problems. It has become a kind of River Jordan, a place to wash away all one’s sins. These reports are like tropical hurricanes. Every time these storms hit the island, they are blamed for any damages suffered, from a sugar harvest which has already failed to a building which has collapsed in advance of the atmospheric event.

If these reports are to be believed, the chaotic state of agricultural and livestock production, the widespread lack of productivity, the technological backwardness of what few industries we have, the housing shortage, the disrepair of streets and sidewalks in our towns and cities, the poor quality of education and health care, the lack of internet access, low wages, unsanitary living conditions and many other ills that beset us are due principally to the “blockade.”

This blockade is more than fifty years old. What is striking is that only in the last twenty or so years that it has been denounced at the United Nations. Back when the former Soviet Union was subsidizing the Cuban government, it did not seem to be a problem. It was even the subject of jokes. It only became a problem once the subsidies ended and we actually had to work.

For years efforts have been made to convince us that we are both politically and economically independent. Why then this debilitating interest in wanting to buy everything from the United States? Why not purchase what we need in the Americas through Mexico, Argentina or Brazil? Or in Europe through France, Italy and Russia. Or in Asia through Japan, South Korea or China?

In truth the problem is not so much one of distance or of increased costs but, as you might surmise, a lack of financial resources. In order to be able to make purchases anywhere in the world, hard currency is required. And hard currency can only be obtained through economic production and export. Similarly, in order to obtain credit, you have to fulfill certain requirements and then spend it as agreed. The era of living off others is over. As the refrain of a popular song goes, “Work that yucca, Taino!”

Similarly, the problem of the blockade will not be resolved through the United Nations or a favorable vote by a majority of its member countries, for whom it is a political ploy to stay on the good side of the Cuban government. The solution will only come about when the governments of Cuba and United States decide to reestablish normal diplomatic relations. For this to happen, they must sit down and talk, and to be willing to both give and take. Intransigence won’t work here. Anything else is simply propaganda and a waste of time.

30 September 2014

The High Cost of the Five / Fernando Damaso

The trial in which the five Cuban spies were found guilty and sentenced to prison — a place where they enjoy internet access, regular phone calls, the means to entertain themselves (painting supplies, tools for writing poetry, etc.), sanitary living conditions, comfortable jail cells, medical care, nutritious food, gym facilities, a wardrobe and other comforts — has cost and continues to cost the American taxpayer a tidy sum of money.

However, it has undoubtedly cost the Cuban people even more. We are the ones paying the high salaries of their lawyers. Through our embassies overseas we pay to support the various solidarity groups seeking their release, the members of which are also invited as political tourists on all-expense-paid visits to Cuba.

As though that were not enough, there are also the round-trip airline tickets for all their extended family members, who routinely visit them in prison and proselytize on their behalf. There are also the costs associated with providing these family members with wardrobes, spending money, food and lodging. Add to this the expenses for the spies who have already been released and who now serve as international spokespersons.

There is the ongoing expense of demonstrations of support in Cuban schools, factories and businesses. There are the marches, rallies and concerts in their honor, the art exhibitions, the books dedicated to them, and many other such commemorations.

Considering all the people held in detention, it is fortunate that only these five — members of the so-called Wasp Network — have agreed to become heroes by decree. Otherwise, the costs for both the American and Cuban taxpayer would be exponentially greater.

25 September 2014

Another Absurd Prohibition / Fernando Damaso

Wandering around some of the shopping streets in Havana, with the objective of photographing shop logos embedded in the granite floors of their entrances, I was shocked at the Fontana store on Neptuno Street with the absurdity that accompanies us every dat.

When I was taking the picture, after having come to an agreement with the clerk who was sitting next to one of his dirty shop windows, a character who said he was the manager came out, angry, and told me it was forbidden.

On asking him why, he responded to me, upset, that it was an order from the superior bosses, adding: It is forbidden to photograph the floor, the store inside and out, the display windows and even the bars.

I smiled and answered him: Tell your superior bosses that it is forbidden to photograph the ruins that Havana has been turned into, cannot hide the reality

I’ve confronted this absurd situation in cafes, restaurants, shops, offices and other state property. It seems, indeed, to e a government regulation. Perhaps they think that someone could copy their primitive sales systems and abuse the public. Anything is possible.

But it’s not the case in private establishment, where they’re happy when people take pictures and the employees themselves will push the shutter for you, because it’s free advertising.

Clearly, between the private businesses and the state businesses there is a lot of difference: the former are pleasant, agreeable with good service, while the second, although the sell in hard currency, are dirty, disagreeable and with the worst service.

As a photograph is worth a thousand words, here I show you some that speak for themselves. The title photo is the sidewalk on Fontana, taken before the manager came out, the second is Neptuno between Consulado and Industria.

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18 September 2014

Solidarity or Propaganda? / Fernando Damaso

I wish I could be happy about the quick response by the Cuban government to the request for assistance from the World Health Organization and the UN general secretary in their efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, but I cannot.

I am all too aware of the deteriorating state of our hospitals, the lack of hygiene, the poor medical care — provided mainly by students rather than doctors — the poor nutrition provided to patients, the shortage of drugs and many other problems.

I am referring, of course, to the medical centers which serve the average Cuban, which are the majority, not to the specialized centers catering to foreigners, VIPs or people who can pay for their services in hard currency.

A similarly rapid response should be applied to the serious problems that have afflicted our health care system for years. We make the mistake of trying to solve the world’s problems without due regard for our own. This seems to have paid off in that at least it generates a lot of free propaganda.

However, no one who speaks or writes about the magnificent Cuban health system has had to have their illnesses or those of their loved ones treated here. Furthermore, many Cuban bigwigs prefer to seek treatment in other countries, even that of the enemy. There must be some reason for this.

At a press conference in Geneva, Cuba’s minister of public health took the opportunity to propagandize about the country’s achievements and to emphasize yet again how many medical personnel have provided and are now providing care in other countries.

He also talked about the thousands of overseas volunteer workers, though without mentioning how much Cuba charges in dollars for this service — currently one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange — or how doctors, nurses and other specialists are not being properly paid.

At one point during the press conference the minister stated that the Revolution did not wait for its health services to be developed before beginning to provide assistance to other peoples.

He neglected to mention that Cuba’s health services were already well-developed before 1959 and were among the best not only in the Caribbean but in all of Latin America. One need only look to official statistics from international organizations of the time to confirm this.

Given these questions, I am concerned that what we are dealing with here has more to do with propaganda than with solidarity.

September 2014

Absurdities of the Week / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Cuba is like an exaggerated version of the fictional village Macondo,* as is clear to anyone with half a brain. For evidence of this, one need only spend a few minutes reading the country’s state-controlled press.

On Monday new customs regulations went into effect. On Tuesday there were articles by two of our seasoned journalists, who reported how successful these measures were, so much so that they had both travelers and customs officials applauding in unison. It is striking how effective these regulations turned out to be, and in such a short period of time, especially if we consider that it took a full year and a trial run in three provinces to lower the price of natural gas and distribute it for free.

The International Freedom for the Five Day — there are now only three of them — has occupied the front pages of the two main state-run newspapers. This year it will run until October 6, with vigils, marches, exhibitions, book sales, an international symposium, and demonstrations at universities, community centers and workplaces. This will include an event dubbed Kids Paint for Peace in which “all the nation’s children,” which can be interpreted to mean “all children without exception,” will paint asphalt and and fly kites in support of the Five.

It seems that all is going well considering that this campaign will represent the loss of vast amounts of time – including that of private citizens — and a waste of resources in pursuit of a new national pastime. If the state-run media is to be believed, this issue is of concern not only to Cubans on the island but to Cubans throughout the world. Please, let’s not get carried away! Remember that overstatement usually ends up being counterproductive.

As though that were not enough, it seems we must now celebrate the 69th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s college admission, the tenth anniversary of his historic speech at the Aula Magna and the fifth anniversary of his address to university students warning them of the threat of extinction to the human race. Remembrance has its place, but I do not remember any remembrance of the day on which Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Ignacio Agramonte or José Martí — to mention three examples — began their university studies, much less a remembrance of many of their truly historic speeches.

It seems that a large segment of today’s Cuban youth — at least the ones who appear in the official media — find time to commemorate almost any event. Many years ago the cult of personality as practiced in other countries of the former Soviet bloc was severely criticized here. In light of all the damage it caused, people swore this would never happen in Cuba. Has this been forgotten? It might be a good idea to remind our young student leaders of this.

It is noteworthy that this summer, which was certainly quite a hot one, there were no new measures taken to stimulate the economy, unless you count the new customs regulations. We hope that September brings some new changes, though they are unlikely to meet the expectations of most Cubans. Nevertheless, something is better than nothing, even if it comes in dribs and drabs.

*Translator’s note: The setting of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

6 September 2014

Unprotected / Fernando Damaso

In Cuba, animals, for the most part, are unprotected. There are no laws or regulations that define how they should be treated, nor sanctions for those who abuse them. Flora and Fauna, for the most part, deals with problems relating to the extinction of species, but doesn’t interest itself in domestic animals, much less pets and other affectionate animals. They depend totally on their owners, consistent with their feelings and financial capabilities.

There is no governmental agency or organization that answers for them. There are some regulations prohibiting their presence, even with their owners, in certain public places, like beaches, recreations centers and others, and fines are imposed if they are violated.

This lack of regulated State attention, as happens in most civilized countries in the world, seems not to be on our authorities’ list of priorities. Continue reading

Different Times / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

In my far-off childhood, extracurricular organizations — whether public or private — were concerned principally with sponsoring weekend trips to interesting natural locations, cultural institutions or factories.

The goal was to encourage our love of nature, expand our general knowledge, provide opportunities to attend age-appropriate entertainment events, enhance participation in sports, arrange excursions to the beach, and other such activities.

We were also involved in social service activities such as participating in public health campaigns, collecting donations for the blind, cancer treatment, park improvements and other causes. We were interested in all of them. They motivated us and taught us civic and social responsibility. We were never used as tools for political or ideological ends. Continue reading

The Bad Seed / Fernando Damaso

 Photo by Rebeca

Getting two Cubans to agree is more difficult than getting an Israeli and a Palestinian to agree. When it gets complicated is when you have to get several to agree. Historically, this has been one of our great defects. The Ten Years War failed to achieve its objectives, not only because of the push by Spanish troops, but mainly because of the divisions within the insurrection.

The same thing happened with the War of Independence, and if the Americans hadn’t intervened we would still be a Spanish colony. There were divisions within the Council of Government, within the Army and between the Council of Government and the Army. Although we don’t like to admit it, given our cheap nationalism, it’s the truth. Continue reading

Between the Keffiyeh and the Kippah / Fernando Damaso

In recent weeks the Palestinian issue, and specifically what is happening in the Gaza Strip, has captured the attention of the media. Over here the image shown is that of poor peaceful Palestinians attacked and brutally slaughtered by the bellicose Israelis.

Violence is good for no one and should be avoided, because it only causes pain, suffering, destruction and death, wherever it comes from. The solution of settling differences and contradictions through peaceful means has always been more intelligent, although it is much more complex. Unfortunately, in the Middle East historically, that has been very difficult if not impossible. This land has been prodigious in expulsions, returns and new expulsions. The blame is equal on all sides. Continue reading