Dualities / Fernando Damaso

Photo Peter Deel

In the Republican Cuba each province had a governor and each municipality a mayor, who governed, in the case of the province with a Council of municipal mayors, and in the municipalities with a city council with councilors. The municipality was the local society organized politically to an extent determined by the necessary relations of vicinity, on a basis of financial capacity to meet the expenses of the government. It had autonomy, with powers to meet the peculiar collective needs of local society. The province was composed of the municipalities within its territory. So it was established in the Constitution of 1940.

From the year 1959, instead of perfecting what already existed, these structures were modified and, in the case of the municipality, which is what interests me, the mayor was replaced by a triumvirate of three commissioners, something also provided in the aforementioned Constitution, but with the number of commissioners in correspondence with the number of inhabitants in each municipality, rather than a fixed number for all.

As the experiment failed, due to the multiplicity of leaders, it was changed to just one, though with limited executive and financial power, and with the measures to be applied having to be approved or ordered by the central government.

In practice, the old town hall of municipal government became a mere administration. Then they experimented with the same dismal results, with the so-called JUCEI (Coordination, Operations and Inspection Boards, which were the municipal and provincial governing bodies). With the emergence of the People’s Power they thought that the problem would be resolved, looking to the experiences gained within the Republic and later, but these lessons were discarded, maintaining the inefficiency, now increased with the increase in bureaucracy.

The truly great problem is that, sitting on top of the existing bodies of government, both national as well as provincial and municipal, is the Party. It is no coincidence that every time there is a meeting of any of them, either the National Assembly or the provincial or municipal ones, the Party Plenary is held first and it establishes the scope and limits of what will be discussed and approve by the assemblies.

In this scheme, in reality the Party has the power, and of course it the Party that governs and the government (the People’s Power), are simply administrators. Herein lies its inability to solve problems, national as well as provincial and municipal. It is a duality similar to the two existing currencies where one, though it do not do so consciously, conspires against each other, because they occupy and act in the same small space.

In the capital this is the big problem, aggravated by the presence of the central government and its agencies and institutions, who influence and pressure the administration, which becomes an executor of the tasks of others, leaving its own tasks uncompleted.

The result is on view for all: broken streets and sidewalks without maintenance,  abandoned landscaping, chaotic garbage collection, terrible services of all kinds, buildings deteriorating and collapsing daily, poor health and other evils that affect citizens.

As long as our provincial and municipal governments do not have real, strong and resourceful leaders, who perform their duties as such, all this will be insoluble.

18 May 2013

Is There a Cuban Model of Wellbeing / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Peter Deel

A careful read of the extensive article, “A look at the Cuban model of wellbeing,” published in the daily Granma on 13 May 2013, raised, for me, some doubts and disagreements.

The cases with which the article begins are people of different ages who, for one personal reason or others, have decided to return to live in Cuba, representing an insignificant percent of the hundreds of thousands who have not, and who prefer to continue developing their life projects in line with other wellbeing models overseas, despite the economic crisis, the violence, unemployment, social isolation, rootlessness, the distance from their lived ones, the exclusion, discrimination, lack of solidarity, etc.

On the basis of these atypical cases, the entire posterior argument is structured, emphasizing the lack of a feeling of exclusion, the social spaces, social solidarity and the collective creativity and intelligence.

To suggest that there is no feeling of exclusion because everyone in the neighborhood knows everyone else, is an incredibly trivial argument, as is defending the bad custom of sticking your nose in other people’s lives, which is the result of the widespread surveillance among neighbors, leading to envy, gossip and the existence of mandatory collective activities which, far from avoiding exclusion, directly threaten the individuality of citizens, which should be respected. continue reading

In reality, seeing the same faces every day if pretty boring. The number of Cubans who gather in a park or sit around a table playing dominoes in a yard or even on a sidewalk is not an achievement, quite the contrary: it shows the lack of social spaces where one can visit in a pleasant and civilized way, the lack of recreation societies, clubs, fraternities, schools, etc. Perhaps these Cubans, if they had the financial resources, would prefer national or international tourism, or to go fishing in their boats, to meet with their friends in a cafe or restaurant, etc.

To argue that raising the standard of living causes isolation is to ignore the development of precisely the new information technologies that allow one to connect to the entire world (which is not the case of Cuba where Internet is banned) and to expand relationships beyond the family, neighbors, the neighborhood, municipality, the province and even the country. More than knowing one’s next door neighbor and knowing all about him, which constitutes an invasion of his privacy and has the stink of too much politics, how one can know many different people with distinct models of wellbeing and exchange opinions and experiences and even compare them.

It is a mistake to confuse socializing with overcrowding. In our neighborhoods, because of the housing shortage and the poor state of most existing housing, several generations of the same family, and sometimes several families, occupy the same space previously occupied by a single family, undermining the personal life of their different members, a situation that is repeated with the next door neighbors and so on continuously.

The well-known “hot beds” — which is the same bed shared in turn by different people — of Central Havana, are not examples of socialization, but of extreme poverty.

The same thing happens with the crowds at bus stops, waiting for the bus that never comes, and the lines for bread and other products. Contributing their grains of sand to this “socialization” are the low wages, the meager pensions and the widespread inefficiency.

To look for this “socialization” in organized societies where citizens have economic independence is somewhat difficult, because they do not depend on each other, much less on their neighbors. They each live their life and make these individual lives form the life of the community.

Even more difficult is trying to find it in airports, subways and concrete blocks. I’m almost convinced that many of the people forced the shelters and hostels in Havana, would like not having to be face to face with their relatives and neighbors every second of the day and night, and would appreciate a few moments of solitude and tranquility.

The “us” that they are proposing to recover is not a sound proposal and has already been used too much in this country as an excuse to have our compatriots faced with the mistakes and deficiencies to set aside the brave “I” both for good and bad.

Whether in the sharing of the bottle, or transport, or the collective use of a private telephone, or in handing down school uniforms, or in shared snacks or shared medicine, it is not solidarity that is demonstrated, but only insufficiencies and shortages, unresolved for over fifty years of failed social experiments.

To suggest, generically, that in Cuba we can talk and have multiple social exchanges and we can afford a the luxury of a nice chat with many people, because of our high culture and education, is more a joke than a serious argument. Here, when talking or chatting citizens are careful who their partners are and must measure their words, for fear that it may cause them personal problems. Wielding the double standard (I think one thing and I say another: the official line) makes  conversations and honest chats difficult.

To strengthen the Cuban model of wellbeing, they propose not to have more but to be more, not to create more wealth, but more humanity, and to live well rather than better. In addition to rejecting the just natural desire of every human being to prosper, they suggest something a little ethereal and confusing for the ordinary Cuban, because they say absolutely nothing, seems more like the slogans of those who also say absolutely nothing.

In addition, they propose to promote social solidarity and strengthen community spaces. Again, more slogans.

If they actually want to achieve the wellbeing we do not have, do not waste any more time trying to present our difficulties, weaknesses, misfortunes and shortcomings as the original components of wellbeing. They are actually the “anti-well-being” components of the Cuban model. Wellbeing is only achieved by working and creating wealth, for which, in our case, profound economic, political and social changes are essential. There is no Cuban model of wellbeing, simply because the other model, the political, economic and social, the so-called socialist model, is a failure and has been incapable of achieving it.

14 May 2013

A Chameleon Word / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

There is a word in the Spanish language, which is used in different ways by the Cuban authorities, according to their interests: this is diversity.

In international relations it is widely used by the top leaders and their representatives, who demand respect for it. It’s logical. When the majority of countries have democratic governments, diversity is represented by those who do now. In this situation, the presence of these, Cuba among them, is only possible if it is accepted and respected. This happens in the United Nations (UN), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), and so on.

For individual countries, diversity works in two different ways. If in those countries that have democratic governments, which do not share the Cuban political-ideological spectrum, the defense of diversity support parties, movements and opposition groups. If governments are authoritarian and populist, and respond to the interests of the Cuban authorities, then diversity is attacked, accusing its representatives of being bourgeois, stateless, fascists, mercenaries, lackeys, allies of the empire, and so on. continue reading

However, extreme deformation is produced in the national situation, where the word diversity becomes a true chameleon, constantly changing color according to conveniences. In political matters it is totally excluded, supporting this exclusion with the concept of a single ideology for more than fifty years, accusing those who do not share it of all the known expletives and even some created for this purpose (worms, annexationists, traitors, etc.), meanwhile using questions of gender, race and sex, with the objective of attracting these social clusters into the government fold, through pro-government organizations and institutions created and funded for this purpose.

This is not the only chameleon word used by the Cuban authorities. There are many others. Insult serves as a simple example.

Until so many of these words fail to shed the thick ideological veneer, with which they have been covered for their circumstantial use, and resume their unique and real significance, the speeches and official statements that use them continue to enjoy little credibility.

11 May 2013

Questionable Congratulations / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Peter Deel

Although the United Nations stopped being a credible institution many years ago, at times it still issues announcements which can leave us astonished. This is what happened when a letter from the United Nations Director General for Food and Agriculture (FAO) was published yesterday in the state-run press. In it the Director General congratulates the former president of Cuba and all the Cuban people for having fulfilled the goal of reducing the number of malnourished people by half before the year 2015.

First of all, diplomatic protocol dictates that such a letter be addressed to the current president and not the former president — no matter what personal sympathies this important official might like to express — given that this is, supposedly, an official UN communiqué. Secondly and most importantly, where is the FAO getting its figures for such reports? Are they perhaps supplied by each government to the representative in that particular country?

It is hard to understand how someone can responsibly claim that a country with an inefficient agricultural sector — one incapable of producing the most basic staples for its population, or at retail prices affordable to most of its citizens — has reduced the number of malnourished people by half. Does this half perhaps refer to all the various types of civil servants and those who belong to the huge government bureaucracy? Is it average citizens who make up the other half?

We Cubans know all too well how serious malnutrition is. We must struggle day to day to find food; it is a juggling act just to survive. Has the FAO’s representative in Cuba ever looked into what the situation really is? Judging by appearances, it would seem that he moves in the highest circles of power — sometimes mistaking himself for one of its officials — if we take into account his public statements, which often appear in the  state-run press. Perhaps they stem from absent-mindedness on the part of the Director General, who resides in Rome.

We trust that statistics from the other participating countries have been gathered in a more serious way and are, therefore, more reliable. At least this would not lead to the macabre irony of telling someone who is malnourished that this is not the case because the FAO has officially declared it to be so. One final question: Of all the countries in the world, is it only the sixteen mentioned in the letter (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chile, Cuba, Fiji, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Nicaragua, Peru, Samoa, São Tomé and Príncipe, Thailand, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam) which have reduced malnutrition by half?

7 May 2013

Reform That Cannot Be Postponed / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

In the 1950s one of the principal objectives of the fight against the dictatorship was the full restoration of the constitution of 1940, some of whose articles had never been fulfilled. Once the new regime was in power, however, it ignored this constitution and the country began to ruled according to the so-called Fundamental Law, which legalized a priori any action carried out by authorities based on the principle that “the revolution was the source of power.”

It was not until 1976 that a new constitution was drafted, one with a new socialist character, modeled largely on the USSR’s Stalinist-era constitution, which by then had already itself been revised. It was drafted by a commission created expressly for this purpose rather than by a constituent assembly, which would have included representatives from the country’s entire political spectrum. Upon completion it was submitted to a national referendum (whose participation was more formal than real) and was approved by referendum with few significant changes, the way things always get approved in Cuba.

This constitution — amended and ratified in 1992 and 2002 — is the one now in force, although it remains unfamiliar to the majority of the population and even to the authorities, who take it out only to highlight a few of its articles when they find it politically convenient, ignoring some and violating others. For most citizens the constitution is really just one more document without any practical application for solving their day-to-day problems and, therefore, useless.

In addition to other absurdities, archaic articles and inconsistencies, this constitution decrees one-party rule, the exclusivity of state organizations as the only legal avenues for expression, and the irrevocability of socialism. It also enshrines the idea that none of the freedoms for citizens recognized in its text can be exercised to oppose anything stipulated in the document or in its laws, or in opposition to the existence or aims of the socialist state, or against the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism. Once again everything is ideologically generalized, ignoring the fact that the so-called “Cuban people” are not made up only of sympathizers of the regime, but also of many thousands who are not, and who have and hold, as Cubans with equal rights, other political, economic and social viewpoints.

If we hope to have dialogue and peaceful means of resolving our problems, it is necessary to have constitutional and political reform which permits the decriminalization of the opposition and expansion of civil liberties. This must not be seen as something contrary to economic reform or as an objective to be achieved after such reform. It is rather something that cannot be postponed, a necessity brought about by the appearance of new constituencies that are not being legitimately represented by current state institutions.

4 May 2013

Illicit Appropriation / Fernando Damaso

“Civil Society Forum on Human Rights in Cuba.” From Cuba’s Communist Party daily, Granma.

A few days ago the government organized a Online Discussion Forum for a generic Cuban civil society, about human rights in the country, with an eye on the upcoming report from the United Nations Human Rights Council: the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

As expected, there was representation only of women, intellectuals, religious and Cuban artists who support the regime, and from pro-government organizations and government institutions such as the National Union of Jurists of Cuba, the Federation of Cuban Women, the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, the Council of Churches, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, the Cuban Movement for Peace, the José Martí Cultural Society, the Council of Scientific Societies Health Solidarity Organization the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, among others.

It was all one voice (the choir syndrome), as if they had rehearsed repeatedly the same arguments already worn out on the marvelous Cuban political system, the democracy of our socialism, the focus on gender, racial equality, and the respect for sexual diversity, the blockade, terrorism, etc. It wasn’t worth spending a single dime on the carefully planned event, with totally known figures, lacking any originality and not bringing anything new.

I’ll touch on another aspect that stands out: the appropriation of certain terms which were previously considered taboo by the authorities and which had been dismissed from the official vocabulary, such as democracy, human rights, diversity, civil society, etc.; instead they used socialist democracy or our democracy, socialist rights, unity, dictatorship of the proletariat, and so on.

It seems that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of failures, both domestic and international, the latter lost credibility and validity, and have had to dip into what was once considered taboo, albeit properly recycled ideologically. Thus we see that by using the term democracy, the authorities say ours is the most perfect and best there is on the planet; the only human rights defensible are those officially accepted; diversity refers only to gender, race and sex, excluding the political; and civil society consists only of those who share the system’s ideology.

The attachment to the politically archaic, outdated and outmoded is so entrenched, that to leave it behind seems an impossible task for the authorities, despite the updates, experiments and other adjustments, designed for their survival.

Meanwhile Cubans, whatever they think, are not part of the terms in use, and this trying to monopolize them by the government, without understanding, accepting and respecting diversity as an indispensable component of the unit, will continue to block the paths for the solution our national crisis.

30 April 2013

Mottoes and Slogans / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

A month ago I wrote about the motto that will preside over the May Day celebration in Cuba: United for a Prosperous and Sustainable Socialism. I thought anyone with half a brain would realize the absurdity of that and would recommend replacing it with something more palatable.

This didn’t happy and today, a couple of days from the day, they are repeating that slogan to the point of exhaustion in the press and on radio and TV. It’s like fingernails on the chalkboard. Socialism never has been and never will be  prosperous and sustainable. Its global failure proves it. The motto seems more typical of capitalism, despite its crises and problems.

The motto and the slogan, which in this case is the same, I brought to mind some used in different years, when they wanted to mobilize the masses in pursuit of some task or goal. I remember “Humanism yes, communism no” (clearly they were hiding the ball), “Fidel this is your house” (political innocence), “Fidel and Khrushchev, we two together” (survived until the October Crisis).

Also, “The ORI (Integrated Revolutionary Organizations) is the fire, take care you don’t get burned” (pure sectarianism), “The ten million [tons of sugar harvested] achieved” (the harvest failed), “Convert the setback into a victory” (as a sequel to the prior one), “Armed struggle is the only way” (lasted until the triumph of the Popular Unity in Chile), and the most absurd of all, “Now we are going to build socialism” (after more than twenty years of sacrifice for it). The latter ranked first for a long time, until displaced by the current one.

In the world of advertising, when a slogan is developed for a campaign, that is as like the motto and the slogan, there is usually some random sampling from a certain number of people to determine if it sticks in people’s minds. Depending on the results obtained, it was used or not.

It seems that now the mottoes and slogans are made by one or a number of feverish minds, sitting behind their desks, believing that their ideas are shared worldwide. They forget that times have changed and with them the people as well. Even a cursory glance would prove otherwise, it is not so easy to actually fool most of the population.

Anyway, as I wrote then, the events on that date will be a success, both in the capital and in the provinces and municipalities. Cubans will come, not because they wish to do so or believe in what they do are doing but because they feel they must do so to avoid possible effects on their jobs, schooling, travel abroad, promotions and other scraps that depend on the state.

This situation has been repeated year after year, and if it shows anything, it is how much we still lack of having a civil society that is the driving force of the nation. Therefore, the mottoes and slogans are the least important and can be absolutely false and even virtual. They actually do not mobilize anyone: the instruments of mobilization are completely different.

27 April 2013

Differences and Pluralism / Fernando Damaso

For some time, our main political leaders have begun talking about the need to accept and respect differences, both in Cuban society and the world. Although, in regard to the world, at least in the speeches and communications, and even some regional and international organizations. In the national sphere it’s not the same and they limit themselves, so far, to questions relating to culture, religion, race and sexuality. The issue of differences in political conceptions seems to be taboo, and not part of the official language.

To accept and respect some differences, excluding other important one, is not serious nor sufficient: acceptance and respect should encompass everything but, even more, it is essential to create the constitutional and legal framework to ensure their practical implementation, and failing this it is all just words which, usually, are gone with the wind.

“Pluralism,: which is a more all-encompassing than “differences,” is a pending issue for the authorities, to which they have to pay special attention, if they truly want to walk the path of economic reform, although they want to call it an “update” when what it needs is to be “fixed.”

Without constitutional and legal changes that delete or modify the different articles that prevent and repress pluralism, our society cannot advance and, much less, get in line with the times. To keep one-party hegemony, political and social organizations organized and controlled by it, a National Assembly legislates and, itself, decides the constitutionality of legislation (judge and jury) and elects the president and fills the main posts, based on a proposals from a so-called Nominations Commission, without direct participation of voters and other absurdities, refusing the proclaimed acceptance of differences, or, and it’s the same thing, of pluralism.

It’s true that this is not an easy task, for those who have held absolute power for more than fifty years, but, sooner rather than later, they will have to decide to take the bull by the horns, for the good of the nation and of all Cubans.

23 April 2013

Chat in Plaza Vieja

Some unsuspecting tourists who I ran into at Cafe El Escorial, Plaza Vieja, asked me, in the course of a friendly conversation, why don’t we Cubans solve our own political problems like the Libyans or Syrians.

Without going into too much detail, I tried to explain that our situation was somewhat different and that Cubans, tired of failed violent solutions to resolve our political contradictions, for some time have chosen to do so peacefully.

I told them that since the establishment of the Republic in 1902, violence has always been our first choice to resolve things, perhaps influenced by the many years of armed struggle for independence, and that far from achieving independence, it had made things worse. continue reading

So it was, I explained, in the so-called Revolution of ’33 against Machado,with a lot  of attacks, sabotage, bombings and fireworks and other acts of a terrorist nature that, although they overthrew the dictator, laid the foundations of gangsterism and subsequent violence. This situation was only partially resolved in the year 1940, with democratic elections which confirmed the correctness of peaceful methods until 1952.

Again, in that year, I told them, with the coup and the subsequent clandestine armed struggle, through attacks on barracks and government institutions, bombings, sabotage, fireworks, bombs and gun battles, along with torture and crimes of repression by the authorities, violence was again enthroned as the way, as in ’33, to topple a dictator, and it continues to the present time.

Now, between new opposing forces — the government and its opponents — with different degrees intensity, we have divided families within themselves. So I summarized to them: more than fifty years of sterile confrontations where we bled, have clearly demonstrated the error of the violent option.

In conclusion I clarified that the new generations and those who, despite their advanced ages, have learned the sad lesson of our history firsthand, mostly are betting today on the citizen struggle, which does not mean passivity, but constant activity by word and action.

To some people, I told them, this option may seem slow but, in practice, it is what is shaping the necessary civil society and giving concrete and influential results. The changes that are occurring are still not accepted officially, and although some orthodox in the government don’t want them, these changes are leading to the political, economic and social transition, that the country needs and that citizens demand.

I do not know whether or not I convinced my clueless interlocutors but, as I left, they said they appreciated the explanation.

19 April 2013

Victory or Defeat / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

The result of the Venezuelan elections — a Pyrrhic victory for the ruling-party candidate in spite of having all the levers of power at his disposal as well as the celestial help of the deceased former president and his entire retinue — shows the degree of polarization of the population between those who accept the government’s agenda and those who reject it. Among those who exercised their right to vote, 51% supported it while 49% did not. This does not take into account those who chose not to vote for one reason or another. It is a group is made up of several million Venezuelans who, while not swayed by the opposition, cared even less for ruling-party candidate.

It is noteworthy that in a very short period of time — barely seven months since the October elections — one million voters switched sides from the ruling-party to that of the opposition. The reasons for this were the illness and subsequent physical demise of the Bolivarian leader, and his replacement by an uninspiring and dull figure devoid of charisma or his own power base. In spite of latching on to the cadaver of his predecessor in hopes of rising in the political firmament, he did not get very far. The future for a president with these personality traits is far from assured, as time will tell.

What is shocking is how the print and broadcast media in this country played along with stories and reports of big, tumultuous demonstrations in support of the ruling party candidate, portending an overwhelming landslide victory against “the representative of the bourgeoisie and imperialism,” with ten million votes and even a twenty point advantage. Neither turned out to be the case. It was pure media manipulation. The bubble burst when confronted with reality. Now the question to ask is: Was it a victory or a major defeat for chavismo? Again, only time will tell.

15 April 2013

Gullibility / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

These days, perhaps influenced by what is happening in Venezuela (which seems to be contagious), gullibility is having a deep impact on our government’s journalists as evidenced by various articles, whatever the subject matter. It is a fundamental aspect of political reporting — both foreign and domestic — as well as of articles on culture, science, sports, business and history. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Reports on the upcoming elections in Venezuela have been about only what the ruling party candidate says or does, completely ignoring his opponent unless it is to attack or criticize him. When it comes to telling only one side of a story, these “correspondents” get the gold medal.

On the domestic front everything is great. When important leaders make appearances and ask students what they know about current world events, the answers center on the “sacred” Cuban elections, the tense situation on the Korean peninsula and unfailingly the “blockade” of Cuba. Are students not interested in the country’s problems?

They never fail to mention “the latest injustice in the case of the Five,” which involves the actor Danny Glover not being allowed to visit one of them for the tenth time because he arrived unexpectedly. The International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban Five, created to address this issue, states that “any person included on a prisoner’s list has a right to visit him.” Do Cuban prisons work this way? “The Humanism of the Revolution is Fully Alive in the Cuban Penal System,” reads one headline.

“Without flowers the world would be a sad place,” says a farmer who harvests them. He explains to a journalist their importance in funeral services, adding, “Imagine someone dying and there being no flowers for the final goodbye.” Do flowers not serve other less sad purposes? Another headline reads, ”The Santiago Crematorium Now in Operation;” the article states, “A service there will cost 340 pesos.”* Have journalists forgotten that the minimum monthly salary is no more than 240 pesos?

Another article on healthy aging states, “The expert stresses the need for a healthy, varied and balanced diet containing fruits and vegetables (ideally six servings a day).”* Is the journalist aware that pensions are meager and fruits and vegetables are expensive?

I think this is more than enough to demonstrate my point. Is this to be “our American” epidemic?**

*Translator’s note: From the journal Juventud Rebelde.

**The term “our American” have been used to refer to multi-national initiatives proposed by Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution movement.

12 April 2013

The Attributes of a Candidate / Fernando Damaso

I acknowledge that the recently deceased Bolivarian president, Hugo Chavez, was never a favorite of mine. I always considered him to be a melodramatic populist with a genetic predisposition towards authoritarianism, and rejected the pretension that he was the twenty-first century reincarnation of Simon Bolivar. It is not surprising then that, given his personality and charisma, some of his public and clownish actions — quite the opposite of what one would expect from a responsible head of state —  provoked laughter and gave him a certain appeal among the poorest segments in Venezuela, Latin America and other regional societies, as well as applause from certain people accustomed to extremes. continue reading

His successor, now the ruling-party candidate in the upcoming presidential election, is a colorless personality, devoid of charisma or personality. In his proselytizing campaign he employs his predecessor as an icon, attempting to canonize him while desperately trying to be like him by appropriating his personality and his votes in the hopes of achieving victory. I believe this will mark the first time in history that a country votes for a deceased candidate so that someone else, who pretends to be his immediate reincarnation and a kind of clone, can occupy the presidency. Without a doubt, it is a novel approach, one which goes far beyond anything that happens in Macondo* or that imagined by any of Latin America’s magical realist authors.

It remains to be seen if, after April 14, the elected president — faced with the country’s currently critical situation and the problems that must be addressed — will govern by following word-for-word the directives sent to him by his predecessor in the form of spiritual messages from the great beyond, or dictated to him in whispers by a reincarnated bird or other small animal.**

It seems that these days anything goes, even if it makes you look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. Due to a Caribbean idiosyncrasy, we Cubans reject ridiculous people, especially if they are “dullards,” or as they are popularly called, “lead streams,” “worn-out screws” and “broken bridges.” In other words, people who are intolerable and impassable.

From what we have seen so far, the ruling-party candidate possesses all these attributes. Once again Albert Einstein’s appraisal hold true. Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.

Translator’s notes: 
*Maconodo is the fictional town which serves as the backdrop for Gabriel García Márquez’s novelOne Hundred Years of Solitude.
** Venezuelan presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro recently claimed to have received the blessing of Hugo Chavez in the form of a little bird who appeared to him in church.

9 April 2013

Strange Institutions / Fernando Damaso

All professional associations in Cuba – those that claim to represent attorneys, architects, economists, artists, journalists and craftspeople, among others, as well as those made up of women, students, farm workers, laborers and others – which purport to the world to be NGOs, are in reality governmental organizations. They are organized, directed, financed and controlled by the state. Rather than defending the interests of their members, they really serve as straightjackets, forcing them to behave within established political and ideological boundaries. Anyone who dares to go beyond or to ignore them in the belief that he has some degree of independence is immediately called to account. If this does not achieve the desired result, the person can be dishonorably expelled from the association, which then makes him into a social pariah and, if he is a professional, leaves him without the right to legally practice his profession.

There is a group of people, a majority, who belong to these associations. As one might expect, they strictly comply with all the “commandments” in order to be able to work, study, travel, enjoy some advantages and receive official recognition. Another, less numerous group attempts to operate on the inside with some degree of independence by adopting contrary positions – the official one sometimes; more liberal ones less often – trying “to be on good terms with both God and the devil.” There is also a group of rebels who do not belong to either of these two. These individuals lack legal support and must act independently and at their own risk, without the possibility of access to the governmental platforms.

These organizations do not engage in controversial actions. They are really peaceful backwaters with the normal rivalries and hindrances characteristic of each sector. However, when someone – be it either an individual or a group – dares to act independently and with a certain degree of bravery by calling something into question, these organizations – headed by its most orthodox members – become courts of inquisition, drafting and publishing accords, communiques, declarations and letters with many “voluntary” signatures. The violator of the sacrosanct commandments is then incinerated in a bonfire of the most extreme intolerance. Examples of this practice abound and are quite well-known in every organization.

In these cases the outrage, which is political, ideological and directed from above, has nothing to do with the actual feelings of his or her colleagues. Unfortunately, these attitudes are widespread and the institutions as such are incapable of defending the interests of their members. Instead, they serve as prosecutors responding to “the boss’s orders.” The consequences are disqualifications, personal insults, acts of repudiation and other unpleasantries directed from on high at the allegedly guilty parties, chosen as the propitious victims of the moment based on the interests of the authorities, who are the ones really in control.

6 April 2013

Citizen Helplessness / Fernando Damaso

The Electric Utility, it seems, opens a hole in what’s left of the sidewalk to replace a pole, does its work, and leaves as a souvenir the broken sidewalk, a pile of dirt of prevent or hinder the passage of pedestrians and places, barely, a piece of a piece of wood from a cable spool, and eyes that saw them go.

The Havana Water Department opens a trench in some street, even if it’s newly paves, puts in its pipes, fills it with dirt and, barely, covers it with a thin layer of cement. In a few days the stretch becomes a pothole that prevents or hinders the passage of vehicles and eyes that saw them go.

You arrive at the door of a neighborhood store that sells in freely convertible currency (CUC) and, when you tries to enter, the guard tells you  to wait, that the entry is two by two. You look inward, through the glass, and observe there are only three customers and you ask, “Why two by two?” Finally you go and buy your products. The cashier is next to the guard at the door. He looks at your products, and the cashier collects you money and when you are going out you have to show your purchases and proof you paid for them, as he rummages through your plastic bag.

The kiosk, also selling in CUC, where there offer a few dairy products and open and there’s an employee inside, watching the pedestrians pass. You greet him the clerk, without returning the greeting, says they’re not selling anything because there’s no electricity. You are stunned and ask: “Is it because you don’t know how to add with pen and paper?”

These are a few examples of what constitutes an infinitely small part of civic helplessness. Someone may say: protest, do not accept it, demand your rights. You can, but it’s like plowing the desert, and you only risk a rude or violent response, depending on the mood of the person you demand them from, who enjoys impunity. What about the authorities? Fine, thank you. They are concerned with other things, preferably politics.

This is the result of living in a country where, for more than fifty years, the exercise of citizens’ rights and respect for them has been a pending matter.

2 April 2013

If They’re Serious About Saving / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Peter Deel

The country’s leading authorities continually talk about the need to save resources and use the limited ones that are available for important issues, to support development and help in solving the many existing problems and overcoming the shortages. Undoubtedly, it is a fair demand, but it would be even more so, if they looked within themselves, and decided to save on those government activities that represent large expenditures and provide no wealth.

I am referring to the high subsidies enjoyed by the so-called mass organizations (CDR, FMC, CTC, ANAP, FEU, FEEM and others)*, institutions that present themselves as NGOs, but are, in fact, far from it; they are organized, directed and primarily funded by the State and solidarity groups abroad and while visiting Cuba; in addition there are some political campaigns, including that for “The Five**” (with the current adaptation of a mansion in El Vedado*** for its headquarters), payment of attorneys and multiple trips around the world for their families.

If they reduced the inflated payrolls of professional staff of these organizations, groups and campaigns, we would see a substantial savings in salaries, travel and maintenance, along with the great amount of free transport, housing and locales (usually the best), in municipalities as well as and in the provinces, helping to increase the housing stock to the public.

These measures don’t need commissions nor long studies and experiments for their implementation, as the sad reality already one of general control. If these savings also include major political organizations and some super-ministries, which enjoy carte blanche to own vehicles of all types, buildings, homes and locales (often underutilized), the results would be even greater and would be approved by the majority of citizens.

That is, if you really want to save, there is enough fabric available to cut within the State, without trying to apply them only to ordinary Cubans, demanding greater sacrifices.

Translator’s notes:
*All of these organizations are arms of the government: CDR =Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (the block watch groups); FMC = Federation of Cuban Women; CTC = Cuban Workers Union; ANAP = National Association of Small Farmers  ; FEU = Federation of University Students; FEEM = Federation of High School Students.

**”The Five” refers to five Cubans found guilty of spying in the United States.  Four of the five remain in prison. The Cuban government presents them as national heroes unjustly convicted.

***El Vedado is one of the nicer neighborhoods in Havana.

30 March 2013