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

False “Powers” / Fernando Damaso

For many years, perhaps too many, the word power has been an important part of the language of government. We have been, certainly quite doubtful, a medical power, a moral power, an education power, a sports power, a cultural power, a scientific power and many more to overcome the mythical number of seven powers, that cheap perfume from our parents, who smelled everything and nothing in particular. Something similar has happened with so many powers.

Underpinning the little word in a pharaonic concept of everything Cuban, we are led to believe it was true, and the harsh reality had to come and show their inconsistency and falsehood, although there are still some, both inside and outside of Cuba, who still believe in it, mainly due to lack of accurate information or primitive fanaticism.

All these fake monuments, raised to more easily manipulate the majority of the population and, unfortunately, they met their goal, mere ruins today, that compete with the buildings that collapse every day, at least in the city Havana.

No one today, with half a brain, would dare to speak of power in something, under pain of ridicule and not being taken seriously, which is an irrefutable sign of deteriorating political and ideological current that runs through Cuban society.

Ordinary people today are not interested in being a part of any power, consumed with their daily struggle and survival with their family, with the least possible state interference. This is the case although officially they try to demonstrate the opposite, with the unreal slogan of “”neighborhood-revolution” that is everywhere; but individualism has developed and it’s every many for himself in a society still too closed, despite the implementation of the new government “Guidelines.”

Luckily, the Pharaonic seems to have gone over the edge and, along with him, so many powers that never really were.

27 March 2013

Fresh Air / Fernando Damaso

After too many days of suspense, melodrama, necrophilia, sentimentality and hysteria, all in the style of Latin American magical realism, a time of fresh air was finally reached, with the election of the new Pope.

Jesuit and Latin American, for the first time in the long history of Catholicism, his presence has impacted both believers and non-believers for what it represents as a promise of changes within the Catholic church, which must mold itself more to the passing of the new times, if it wants to amplify and deepen its evangelical mission before the advance of extremism of all kinds in different world regions.

Francis the first, the Argentine pope, faces a very complex task, both within the fold, bringing order and restoring the Church’s ethical and moral principles, and externally, seeking peaceful coexistence among nations and easing tensions between different religions.

Two important events marked his ascent to the throne of St. Peter: the resignation of the previous Pope, in an act of extreme modesty and responsibility, both quite rare in the world today, and that he is a man of humble origin and of a firm honorable career as priest, bishop and cardinal.

His papacy, aside from the many difficulties that he will surely face, will have in its favor the faith of millions of believers and the respect of all people of noble sentiments who aspire to a world of tolerance and peace where the rights of every citizen are respected.

Translated by: Jenessy Rodríguez 

18 March 2013

The Unreality of a Slogan / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

The slogan of the Cuban Workers Union (CTC) for their gathering to celebrate May 1 is “United for a Prosperous and Sustainable Socialism.” It seems there are different types of socialism, and the one with which we are familiar is that of the ration book, which is neither prosperous nor sustainable. Furthermore, I believe that all the former socialist countries — most notably the now defunct Soviet Union — have more or less had a similar experience with it too, and in general have rejected it. In spite of the difficulties and problems associated with the transition to capitalism, none of them want a return to the former system.

To call for this new type of socialism after more than fifty years of failed socialism is not only ridiculous, it is not even serious. Do the CTC and its political and ideological directors really believe that anyone will believe their new narrative? The unhappy experience of poverty, lack of productivity, squandering of resources, poor services, absence of freedom, impositions, restrictions and other tragedies that Cubans have endured have made us deeply incredulous about the prospect of a new luminous future within the next fifty years. The problem is that those who are proposing this are the same ones who proposed it more than fifty years ago, even though some of them have different faces. We are not about to trip over the same stone twice. Once is quite enough. And, besides, we have already paid and continue to pay a very high price for it.

At any rate, with or without the slogan, the parades through the different plazas will be massive, happy and colorful, as befits a well-organized society — one sealed with signed promises and checklists of accomplishments — in which civic inertia, fear, and concerns over employment and education are common. Turnout will be high, though privately most of the participants will care little about the celebration.

In short, the workers — ”with all their material and spiritual needs satisfied” — have only to applaud and give thanks to their government and its leaders “for the goods they have received.”

24 March 2013

Shortages / Fernando Damaso

A street vendor being detained.

A recent tour through Nuevo Vedado revealed shortages at the area’s produce markets. It is worse in the state-run stores, where shelves are completely bare, while those still in use hold little merchandise. The situation is better in the private markets, where the available merchandise is of better quality, the selection is greater and, as you might expect, the prices are higher. In spite of constant harassment by authorities, the so-called carretillero, or street vendors, also offer wide selection and good quality, though also at higher prices. People ask, “What’s going on?”

It seems that, in spite of “the successful accomplishment of established goals and productive achievements” touted by the official media, the reality is quite different. Once a week potatoes — a crop completely controlled by the state — will appear on a few shelves at state-run markets, prompting long lines. Stores have been unable to guarantee a steady supply.

Without steady production there cannot be a stable supply. If the systems for harvesting and distributing a crop are not working properly, the product will not reach the consumer, to whom it is ultimately targeted. Until production, harvesting and distribution of crops is freed up and everything is transferred to private hands, trying to preserve the state’s monopoly against all odds will not produce results. All the efforts over many years at getting the system to work have failed. It has proved inefficient. Now is the time to abandon it and stop playing around with the nation’s food supply.

21 March 2013

Excesses / Fernando Damaso

Photo by Rebecca

Photo by Rebecca

When a famous person dies, respect, consideration, and moderation should prevail at the funeral services, and should not be turned into something dramatic and sad, into a farce. Last week in Venezuela, and even today, they’ve exceeded all limits and have become something more like a folkloric spectacular than a mournful farewell, they have taken possession of the country and flooded the media. A central and disjointed and repetitive discourse, full of maudlin oaths, prayers, invocations to Christ, with pleas for forgiveness and even tears, was the official base of some later demonstrations, closer to collective hysteria and a sincere sorrow.

In the political manipulation of the illness of a leader and, in the last two months, the use of it emotionally to maintain popular support for the government at all costs, reached a catharsis last weekend, with the huge hype raising the figure of Hugo Chavez to Mount Olympus of the Gods, where they use all the adjectives available in Spanish, while his body remains unburied.

Our country was not foreign to him, and for three days, something quite unusual for a foreign personality no matter how close they were to the authorities, Cubans said farewell to him at the Plaza of the Revolution, with artillery salvos, beating of chests before the cameras, speakers and presenters dressed in black, and newspapers printed in black, all in mourning. Clearly it is not impossible to find a happy medium: either we fall short or go too far, and as usual, the latter happens.

Undoubtedly, loss is painful for anyone, and even more so when it is a public personality, whether or not we agree with their ideas but, as a neighbor of mine says: good is good, but not too but not too much of it. Luckily, for the tranquility of many, the election of the new Pope has taken over the headlines.

14 March 2013

A Spent Word / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

The word “people” is widely used by politicians, mainly by those who are leftists or populists. Phrases such as the power of the people, the people decide, the people command, the people’s opinion, the people aroused, the people condemn, the people support and many others are seen and heard with great frequency. For these politicians the people are all homogenous, and include only those who share their political and ideological views, lumping everyone together without taking into account others who might think differently. The reality, however, is something else. Among the people there are views that are similar and views that are different. It is not a closed circuit but rather an unlimited open space. It would be more correct to speak of one or more segments of the people, of minorities and majorities, but certainly not of all the people.

Because of this, but mainly because of its demagogic usage, it is not a word of which I am fond. I much prefer the word citizen, which seems to me to be more  precise and which suggests a higher degree of individuality and awareness of rights and responsibilities. I see a citizen as someone far removed from the masses (a word which fortunately has been out of favor for a number of years), as someone capable making his or her presence in society felt.

One of our principle problems (though not the only one, by any means), is having to accept being confined by this generic concept of the people instead of having defended our status as citizens. The people, as well as the masses, have always been manipulated, serving as a platform and basis of support for flawed ideas, much to the nation’s detriment. This would not have happened if society had been made up of citizens – people who fulfilled their duties while demanding respect for their rights.

Reestablishing the role of the citizen is an arduous and complex task, but a necessary one if we truly want to overcome the moral and civic vacuum in which we find ourselves. It is essential for the real economic, politic and social change that the country demands.

11 March 2013

Facing a Complex Situation / Fernando Damaso

After a prolonged ordeal, which saw the release of more political statements than medical reports on his state of health — all in an effort to keep hope for a recovery alive in a society as convulsive as Venezuela’s — its president has passed away.

Aside from what this loss means for his country as well as for the left and for Latin American and Caribbean populism — his stature as a charismatic leader makes it difficult to replace him with any of the officialdom’s current leaders — it will lead to many problems after the initial period of grief and mourning has passed. Once people’s lives get back to normal, uncertainty will loom over our country.

Accustomed to living off subsidies from other countries — first for more than thirty years from the former USSR and the defunct Socialist camp, and later from a chavista Venezuela — we once again find ourselves in a disadvantaged position, without having resolved our long economic crisis, and without having created either the conditions or the mechanisms for doing so.

We were committed heart and soul to political and economic agreements with Venezuela, mainly with its president, who in most instances made decisions and took actions based on his own personal judgement, which did not always correspond to the interests of his country, as he tried to emulate Bolívar. Now that he is physically gone, no one can predict how the new authorities will act, and whether they will be confirmed or replaced in the coming constitutionally mandated elections. In the end what happens in Venezuela will not be determined by Cubans, regardless of all the official expressions of support for the chavista authorities, but rather by the Venezuelan people in the exercise of their rights as citizens of a free and sovereign nation that does not tolerate foreign interference.

This complex situation for Venezuela, a country rich in petroleum, is even more complex for Cuba, a poor country without properly utilized resources. I think that our authorities, both before and now in the face of this new reality, have been and are analyzing how to avoid the tempest blowing our way. After two disasters we are trying to resolve once and for all our economic problems by ourselves rather than continuing to look to others to pull our chestnuts out of the fire.

7 March 2013