Mandela: My Belated Personal Tribute / Miriam Celaya

Photograph from the Internet: No Comment.

Time goes on and the funeral of the famous first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, still occupies the pages of the press. Almost everyone feels indebted to praise the infinitely glorious Madiba, re-editing, in countless paragraphs, the deceased leader’s life and seeking to enhance his virtues persistently, to the point that we no longer know for sure if Mandela was a human being or a saint on earth. It is praiseworthy to remember with admiration and respect people who have realized valuable deeds, but I don’t personally react well to icons, paradigms or however they are defined.

Well, then, for all good things Mandela did for his people, for his example of relinquishing power when he could have retained it, due to his charm and charisma, his ability to forgive, so necessary and lacking among us, and all the good things he did throughout his long life, but I prefer to remember him as the man he was, an imperfect individual, as all of us human beings are, which puts him in a closer and more credible position in my eyes.

So, in the presence of so many stereotyped speeches and so much politicking brouhaha deployed at the funeral of a deceased who may have wished less fanfare, I decided to honor him in my own way: celebrating his existence because he lived to fulfill such lofty mission as freedom and justice for his people, during the pursuit of which he suffered repression and imprisonment, just as Cubans aspiring to the same ideals for their people are still suffering, as those who have lived in the confinement and injustices of a dictatorship not just for 27 years, but for over half a century.

But I will allow myself a special tribute to Madiba by modestly imitating him in forgiveness and reconciliation: I forgive you, Nelson Mandela, for the friendship with which you paid tribute to the vilest dictator my people has ever had, and for the many instances on which you exalted him and gave him your support. I forgive you for having been wrong in granting privilege to the oppressor instead of the oppressed, for placing your hand –redemptive for your people- on the bloodied shoulders of the one who excludes and reviles mine. I forgive your accolade to the myth that was built on violence, although you were a symbol of peace for humanity. I forgive you for having condemned us though you hardly knew us, forgetting the tribute in blood that my people made in Africa for which you, like a fickle mistress, thanked the satrap, who has never had the dignity to sacrifice himself for us, for you, or for your kind.

I forgive you, then, and I am reconciled with your memory to keep remembering and respecting the best in you. I know many, with vulgar hypocrisy, will demonize me for questioning you, but they won’t hurt me, because my soul is hardened by virtue of having been attacked and criticized before. It is my hope that this time my detractors will be so consistent with your preaching of kindness they seem to admire so much that they will eventually forgive me. May you also forgive this Cuban’s audacity and irreverence, who believes in the virtue of the good works of men, because she has no gods, but I was not able to resist the temptation to also utter what’s mine in the hour of your death.

And if either you or the mourners of the day won’t forgive me, I don’t care. At any rate, it will be further proof that, deep down, you’re not perfect; at least we’ll have that in common. Don’t take offense, in either case, you were a great person, and I will never match any of your many merits. Rest in peace, sincerely.

13 December 2013

The “Forbidden” and the “Mandatory” / Miriam Celaya

Rafters - Picture from the Internet

Rafters – Picture from the Internet

In numerous conversations with Cubans, émigrés as well as those “on the inside” (I share the experience of living every day under this Island’s sui generis [unique] conditions with the latter) surfaces a phrase, coined through several decades, whose credibility rests more on repetition by its own use and abuse in popular speech than on reality itself. “In Cuba, whatever is not forbidden is mandatory”.

I must admit that the former is true enough. If anything abounds in Cuba it’s prohibitions in all its forms: those that truly are contained in laws, decrees, regulations and other provisions of different levels, all aimed at inhibiting individuals and controlling every social or personal activity, what the coercive nature of the system imposes on us, even if not legally sanctioned, (for example, male students can not wear long hair, music of any kind may not be broadcast through radio or TV, people may not gather in certain places, etc.) and those we invent, that is, the self-imposed prohibitions of people who since birth have been subjected to fear, indoctrination, permanent surveillance and to the questionable morality of everyday survival that forces one to live thanks to the illegalities, that is, violating injunctions established by the government beyond common sense. It is natural that transgressions abound most wherever greater number of taboos exist.

Now, the “mandatory” is another matter. It is rather about a total legend that, be it through ignorance or for another number of reasons (irrational at that) it’s a legend that serves many Cubans to unconsciously justify their behavior and to embed themselves in the civic mess that is choking us. The list of “obligations” would be endless, but some of the handiest can be summarized as follows: belonging to organizations that are pure pipe dream, such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Federation of Cuban Women, Territorial Militia Troops, Cuban Workers Central, Pioneers Organization, High School Student Federation, University Student Federation, etc., all of them with payment of dues and attending different rituals according to the agendas, also supposedly of a “mandatory” nature.

But many Cubans seem to consider it mandatory to vote for the Delegate, attend meetings and accountability meetings, to shout slogans, sing the National Anthem, salute the flag, honor the martyrs of the revolutionary calendar, to sign political commitments, other documents and a very long list.

Actually, there is the assumption that failure to comply with these “obligations” would result in some reprisals, such as the loss of one’s job, our children not being accepted in some study centers, not being eligible for certain child-care or semi-boarding services for children of working mothers, etc.. However, many of us have found from experience that none of the above mentioned is in truth mandatory, but it constitutes the general answer to the fundamental prohibition that weighs over this nation: it is forbidden to be free.

Oh, Cubans! If ever the courage that drives so many to brave the dangers of the sea in an almost suicidal escape, to create a new life away from here, to survive in such precarious conditions inside, and to succeed against all obstacles outside of Cuba, could be turned into overcoming the fear of the regime, how different everything would be! If so much energy could be directed towards changing our own reality, we would make the world of prohibitions disappear in no time, that world that has kept us in chains for half a century, and we would stop feeling compelled to be slaves forever.  It is not mandatory, but it is also not prohibited.

Translated by Norma Whiting

25 November 2013

Cuba in the HRC: Punishment and Penance for Democracy / Miriam Celeya

UN Human Rights Council

The recent election that resulted in Cuba joining the membership of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) for a period of three years has aroused contradictory positions in various opinion sectors, both within and outside the Island. No wonder, since it means the recognition of a totalitarian government that has curtailed all individual and collective freedoms for Cubans for decades, and even today continues to deny rights as essential as those of association, freedom of press, speech and information, just to mention some of the most hard to conceal.

Some optimists, with exaggerated candor, consider that the presence of representatives of the Cuban government – not “of Cuba” — in the HRC could be positive as leverage over the government, since the authorities would be subject to greater scrutiny from the organization, and to fulfill the obligations characteristic of democratic systems, which would lead to an eventual easing or transformation of the human rights situation in Cuba.

Pragmatists, however, are of the opinion that, up to now, belonging to international organizations and commissions that, at least de jure, and with varying degrees of success in advocating the defense of economic, political and social progress for Humanity, has not been an important or sufficient element to promote democratic change in Cuba.

In fact, as the official press release boasts, “Cuba was a founding member of the Council, where it remained until 2012, (…), so we are returning to the forum after a year as a State observer” (Granma, November 13th, 2013, p. 5) without an incidence of any sensible improvement on human rights in Cuba. Additionally, the Cuban government has received recognition in such sensitive areas as health, education and nutrition on more than one occasion, despite the deterioration suffered by the first two items and the chronic failure of the third. Many Cubans interpret so much recognition as a mockery of the plight in which they live and as an affront to decades of resistance, sacrifices and efforts by the essentially peaceful internal dissent.

Of course, the official press is ecstatic. A Granma editorial (Wednesday November 13th, 2013, front page) proclaims Cuba’s election to the HRC as an “earned right” and “a resounding recognition of the work undertaken by our country in this matter”. And, so there be no doubt that the government will persist in applying human rights their own way, using the same excuses as always, that edition’s page 5 editorial reprinted a statement by Anayansi Rodriguez, the regime’s ambassador to the Geneva-based international organizations.

She said that this “is a victory of the Cuban peoples that have learned how to withstand more than five decades the U.S. embargo”, and later warned that “there are no unique democratic systems. Each nation has the right to determine, in a sovereign way, what is the most convenient system for its full realization of human rights”, an ambiguous phrase that Cubans know how to clearly interpret as “the Castrocracy will continue using access to international agencies as another resource to legitimize the oldest dictatorship that the civilized world knows and adulates”.

This is nothing new under the sun, which sometimes seems to show more spots than light, as demonstrated by other obscure members also elected to the HRC on this occasion: Russia, China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Namibia and Mexico, countries in which, independent of nuances and gradations, violation of human rights is part of everyday reality.

Obviously, for the United Nations and its various forums, the precarious global balance requires certain concessions, even those that hurt democratic values. Thus, for better or for worse, the Cuban dictatorship will have another three years grace to try to destroy this international organization.

It is known that, beyond Cuba’s negligible human or financial support to the UN, the primary mission of Castro diplomacy is to jeopardize the functioning of all the forums created for the promotion of democracy, to thin out discussions, to distort agendas, to create antagonism, to polarize the minds and to make use of the venues as platforms to attack the governments of free nations, particularly the US, though that country – of its own choosing — does not belong to the HRC.

The democracy dreams of Cubans, orphans of rights, will gain little or nothing with this pat on the backs of the Castros. The consolation prize (for chumps) is that they will not win over the HRC or democratic countries with such dubious membership either. To some extent, except for the gaps, we will both suffer punishment and penance.

Translated by Norma Whiting

15 November 2013

Deserters and Granting of “Pardons” / Miriam Celaya

A friend of mine, whom I will refer to as “Greta”, is a doctor and holds a responsible position at a clinic in an “upscale” neighborhood in Havana. Although not well versed in political issues and ideologies in general, or in Marxism in particular, for many years she accepted membership in the PCC [Cuban Communist Party] because being a member facilitated access to certain benefits, such as getting her daughter into a child care facility quicker, a semi-boarding school for her older child, and a little faster advancement in her career, beyond what would be expected of her average talents.

Greta is not, therefore, a communist revolutionary or even a system sympathizer, nor is she of the opposition, but an opportunist, sheltered into the regular rhythm of a system that does not bother you much as long as you pretend obedience and follow the guidelines.

Or at least that’s the way it was until very recently, when a “professional division” of the municipal CCP went to a meeting of militants at her clinic and expressly gave the directive for an ideological mission: because of the increasing attrition of doctors and other health professionals from the so-called internationalist missions abroad, all members of the “party nucleus” of the clinic were required to visit relatives of the deserters to inform them that such defectors should not consider themselves final émigrés, but that they had a period of two years to evaluate their return to Cuba to continue to quietly practice their profession and to enjoy “all rights”, just like the rest of Cubans on the Island. (Yikes!)

Greta dropped her nail file (she uses the nucleus meetings to update her manicure or to check her cell phone). She could not believe her ears. Now, in addition to her daily walks visiting patients, their families and doctors’ offices, responsibilities of her job, which she carries out well, she would have the additional duties of visiting the “deserters” homes because the political authorities generously “pardoned” them. She, who had managed to not participate in repudiation rallies or in sanctioning meetings, would have to “get at the conscience” of the relatives of the doctors and technicians who have left so they would, in turn, convince them of the possibilities of “returning to the motherland”.

Barely a week before, Greta had made her regular visit to the parents of a good friend, a doctor like her, one of those “deserters” who resides in the US as of a year ago and works as an ambulance paramedic. She picked up a few pictures that he had sent and had some delicious coffee sent by the ex-traitor to his parents. Her friend, or anyone who she knows of, would never dream of coming back to reclaim rights in Cuba… not even those who stopped practicing their profession and now work in other jobs in the health care field.

The militants looked at each other, perplexed. Just a few months ago, the clinic’s management had called a morning meeting to condemn the betrayal of a new defector (another one) who had betrayed his people and the revolution and didn’t even deserve a drink of water… What was this crusade now, pardoning those who had never asked to be pardoned and who, it is clear, would never make use of it? It was the height of absurdity.

And that’s the point where Greta’s tolerance collapsed. She rose from her chair and snapped at the “cadre of leaders” that that was their job to do, and not that of the doctors at the clinic. That’s why they had been assigned a salary, an air-conditioned office and a car with a tank full of gas, while she and the rest of the staff of doctors had to wear out their shoes walking the streets in the heat of the sun to accomplish their jobs. That said, Greta picked up her purse from her seat and left the meeting, leaving behind a stunned silence, followed by a murmur of approval, and barely five minutes after that, the meeting came to an end.

Greta is now waiting for the next meeting, at which they will certainly take away her party card and a great burden off her shoulders. I asked if she was afraid of losing her job and she answered, in her usual smiling and mocking way “with the great number of physicians abroad and all the ones that will continue to stay abroad, they will probably ask me to please not leave… In short, it’s likely that, along with my party card, they will take away my administrative duties, so I will fare better than before: more time to dedicate to my patients, to my family and to myself.  I may even start a private practice, like some of my other doctor friends. I will be one more of so many deserters who will be staying.”

Going forward, Greta will have to be careful. This type of desertion of a doctor towards the private sector inside Cuba will certainly not be granted the authorities’ pardon.

Translated by Norma Whiting

8 November 2013

Assange: With the Indians or With the Cowboys? / Miriam Celaya

Photo taken from the Internet

On Thursday September 26th, the conclusion of the Youth Bloggers Interactive Workshop, taught by Pedro Miguel Arce, columnist for the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada was held from Monday the 23rd at the headquarters of the Information Center for the Press in Havana under the auspices of the José Martí International Institute of Journalism. A video-conference was held so that fleeting shooting star and, at the time, renowned Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, could have an interchange with students, journalists and Cuban bloggers, that is, nothing more nor less than with the representatives of the official press.

On Thursday September 26th, the conclusion of the Youth Bloggers Interactive Workshop, taught by Pedro Miguel Arce, columnist for the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada was held from Monday 23th at the headquarters of Information Center for the Press in Havana under the auspices of the International Institute of Journalism José Martí. A video-conference was held so that fleeting shooting star and, at the time, renowned Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, could have an interchange with students, journalists and Cuban bloggers, that is, no less than with the representatives of the official press.

Of course, we must not forget that Julian Assange seems to be quite candid, and, not by choice two evil women — whom now Mr. Columnist for La Jornada, an expert in communication, defines as “two dubitable Swedes” — tried to involve him in a lawsuit under “false accusations,” who knows with what intentions. By the way, I don’t quite understand the use of the adjective “dubitable” in this context, but it really doesn’t sound very kind. At first I would have wished that some of the students and young Cuban bloggers gathered there had pointed out to the editorialist that that’s not how revolutionaries refer to women, but then reconsidered when I recalled the revolutionary methods used in Cuba to treat females: the Ladies in White and other women embarrassing to the regime are living testimony of this. In comparison, it could almost be said that Mr. Arce is the perfect gentleman.

In any event, Assange contributed little to the journalists’ meeting. In addition, the invitation to the Australian was made quite late, the Assange case is already more than cold, so the issue does not qualify for marketing. As for his solidarity and sympathy with the four spies for the Cuban dictatorship, it went from being a pretty gray parley for someone who once shone in the minds of Internet freedom, but at the end is an inconsequential personal position that could be dispensed with, yellow ribbon and all.

Once there were independent Cubans who were attracted by the somewhat romantic idea of standing up to the monopolies of information and, in fact, there were those who openly declared their admiration and sympathy for Assange. Not me. Personally, experience has taught me to distrust all messiahs of any color, especially those that offer the status quo as an offset to total anarchy. We know by now that under the skin of this smiling little blond, who strives to come across as sympathetic, are hidden twisting paths, very different from the transparency he claims in his preachings.

However, this star in its twilight fell sharply into the temptation to take sides when he accepted an interchange — not with an audience representing the full spectrum of Cuban digital journalism with multiplicity of voices, proposals and thoughts which could be a real show of freedom — but with a select group of individuals who had to go through the most rigorous screenings to be elected as soldiers of that monotone barricade present in said online journalism workshop, the voice of authority of the Cuban dictatorship.

What is more, although independent blogger Yoani Sánchez was mentioned in the Assange-Castro-journalism dialogue, to brand her once again as a U.S. government mercenary agent and all the usual attributes government media have showered her with, she was not able to answer many epithets and accusations because she was not invited to the event and workshop, despite being the best known exponent and founder of the independent blogosphere, creator of the Blogger Academy and the largest blogger platform in Cuba, and has even published works on the use of Word Press.  Assange, the champion of free speech, the angel of truth, did not question her unusual absence or that of other bloggers and journalists from independent digital media.

But some truths, though out of context, did come out at the meeting. For example, I agree with Assange in that the Internet “for the first time offers us the most powerful tool to destroy media control and manipulation. But we face a great battle. The Internet allows each one of us to express the truth.” Don’t we know it, the bloggers and independent journalists who use the web to express our truths and break the official media blockade, which keeps us in a constant battle, not just on the web, but also in our physical lives! The government is sure to know that it doesn’t allow the expansion of internet usage at the same time it keeps many of our pages filtered, while maintaining a constant harassment against the exercise of freedom of expression, opinion and information! That explains why it is not possible that there is a Cuban Assange.

That is why it’s interesting that Assange has declared he is impressed that Cuba “has managed to withstand 50 years of embargo within a mere 90 miles away from the U.S.”, and he doesn’t know how this has been possible. The truth is that, to clarify to ‘solidarity Julian’ the issue of “the embargo” and “the heroic resistance of the people” would be quite difficult, judging by the oblique view he has on Cuban history and reality. It’s almost pitiable the (naïve?) way this guy, so shrewd and experienced in computer battles seems to have fallen victim to the media hallucinations manufactured by the Castro totalitarianism. Personally, I don’t think so, but my readers already know that I tend to be insightful with some eccentric characters…Assange is not the exception.

However, to give him the benefit of the doubt and to assume his intentions to be good, we could give him a very brief answer, telling him that what he terms “the resistance of the Cuban people” — which, in reality is the ability of the longest dictatorship in the West to cling to power — may be due, among other factors, to the solidarity of people like him.

So, thank you, Julian, but, seriously, don’t strain yourself! We have had enough without your support. At any rate, I return the favor with this post: I may be one of the few proud Cubans who paid some kind attention to your cyber-presentation as an ally of the Castro’s long media-monopoly. After all, I’m embarrassed for you. Your unfortunate fling has brought to mind a phrase from the most authentic popular jargon, which years ago was used to pass sentence to the worst of the worst faux pas: “Yo! Your thong fell off!”

Translated by Norma Whiting

30 September 2013

Sounds Good to Me / Miriam Celaya

Clothing sales by the self-employed. Photo from Internet

Things are looking bad for the sale of clothing, so much so that many of Havana’s retailers who pay to be licensed as seamstresses or tailors are concerned about what’s coming. As of 28 September 2013, an official provision has gone into effect establishing that they can only sell clothing made by hand, on pain of heavy fines and confiscation of all the industrially-made apparel they offer.

So far, the numerous private small business in Central Havana have remained open and are selling the same imported clothes, without any official operation taking place. But there is a grim anxiety circulating among them and they know it’s only a question of time before the hordes of inspectors and pack of uniforms come down on them.

Anais, one of the dozens of clothing vendors who have opened private businesses in Central Havana, has already lived four decades, and before having a self-employment license she knew how to make money working for herself. In fact she had a business selling imported clothing, which then came from State warehouses stores, through one of the multiple chains of smuggling networks that have proliferated on this Island since the bans were instituted as a method of governance.

So she shrugs her shoulders at the new official threat: “When I hear that the inspectors are about to come down this street (and I’m sure to hear ahead of time), I’ll close and go to the office and surrender my license. They’re not going to screw me over. I took all the merchandise I had in my house and put it in a safe place, so I will continue to sell “under the counter.” That’s what I’ve always done! Licensed or not, I’m not going to starve. We’ll see who has more to lose.”

Just half a block from Anaís a middle-aged couple complains. The man is more withdrawn and talks in monosyllables or just nods, approving what his wife says; she is more talkative, perhaps because she feels more confident talking to other mature woman like herself, or perhaps because she needs the catharsis.

I tell them who I am and what I do — something for which they don’t give out licenses in Cuba– but that doesn’t scare them one bit. “Just don’t use our names,” they ask me.  Of course not, I don’t even ask. In reality, it’s not necessary, I’m just digging into what the media says, in what lies beyond the laws, the regulations, the statistics.

I’m more interested in people and their reasons than in the government’s regulations and the propaganda of its spokespeople. Life is on the streets, very different and distant from those who make the laws and what the media shows.

The woman tells me that a couple of years ago she took our a license as a dressmaker and began selling there, in the doorway of her sister’s house, and some time later, when they prohibited selling in doorways, she moved to the living room of the same house. It went well, so she was able to invest more money in merchandise and her husband also took out a license as a tailor.

Neither of them knows how to thread a needle, but she knows this business: before she was already “selling some clothes that just came my way, you knowl but always with a fear that the police would catch me. Once they took a backpack frull of t-shirts and I had to pay the owner from my own pocket.”

So when she saw the chance to earn money legally she took out a license. The official who helped her never said she couldn’t sell industrially-manufactured clothing, although it’s true that the permit says it’s for handmade goods.” But, she remembers, “from the beginning everyone here sold imported clothes and no one ever warned us about anything, nor did the inspectors fine us or take the merchandise. Instead they let us get excited, and spend money locally, on the display racks, the pegs and all those things, and we invested in the clothes coming in through the airport where we certainly had to pay duty on them. Now they are saying that we Cubans don’t pay the tariffs, so what have we been paying for at the airport?”

Then the husband tells me, “That’s the problem. In this country there are too many limits and too many things prohibited.”

The story of another young entrepreneur is similar, who just points out that when he got his license specifically asked officials at the tax office if he was only allowed to sell hand-crafted clothing, to which they responded with a typical phrase, full of complicit winks: “This is Cuba , you know that you can always do more. You have to swim and put way the clothes.” The young man laughed, “I do not want to store the clothes, I want to sell them and make money.”

In a total of seven private shops I visited the feeling is one of uncertainty and discontent. All of the interviewees think that the solution would be to have a wholesale market in the country to legalize the sale of manufactured clothing, but we know that isn’t going to happen.

The crux of the matter is that in a couple of years private businesses have successfully competed with the State’s hard currency stores, whose sales have fallen sharply as the self-employed multiplied. A greater variety for sale, more acceptable prices, better quality and friendly service are factors that distinguish the private owner versus State establishments, advantages that the government is in no condition to match, let alone surpass.

Moreover, a significant number of these private retailers are former state workers who have become “available” — the State euphemism for being laid-off — but who already engaged in illegal sales before having a license; that is they are trained in smuggling activities and surviving on the margins of legality, so that — as the last elf-employed young man I interviewed told me — the government is just leaving the path open for crime: “Here many people know how to ’struggle,; so that’s why they don’t have a license. Who’s going to take out a license to sell the same cheap clothes they sell at the fairs all things being equal? And how are the police going to control so many people?”

It is clear that with the implementation of self-employment the government has opened a Pandora’s box that it cannot now close without facing the consequences. However, despite the repressive nature of the new provisions and the official obstinacy in refusing to license as retailers, the balance remains negative for the authorities. What was before is no longer. Meanwhile, there are more and more discontented Cubans in the streets. Given the circumstances, it seems fine to me, to see if once and for all an awareness of autonomy and rights blossoms among the Cuban people.

7 October 2013

The Conspiracy of “The Divine Shepherdess” / Miriam Celaya

The Divine Shepherdess in the background, in El Morro Havana.
The Divine Shepherdess in the background, in El Morro Havana.

A title that cheesy might seem like something straight out of the most mediocre thriller, but it refers to real events: The Divine Shepherdess restaurant, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Gaviota corporation of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), tucked away in an area of the Historic Morro-Cabaña Park, has been closed to start a bidding process. Its workers have been made “available” on the “employment exchange,” in hopes of future “relocation.” They are the new victims of another conspiracy of the olive-green mafia.

None of them saw the blow coming. Frustrated and deeply worried about the loss of their income and anxious about unemployment, the 23 workers have addressed letters of complaint to different agencies, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. To date, they haven’t received any responses.

However, many of them resist assimilating what happened, without understand that the conspiracy was planned in careful detail by the uniformed leaders. There are those who, naively, still believe there is hope of a solution. But theirs is a lost battle: from the beginning the die was cast and their fate sealed. The economic interests of the military leadership would not stop for trifles such as respecting the work of a handful of perfectly dispensable individuals.

The Plot

Months ago it began to be rumored that The Divine Shepherdess would be among the restaurants that would form part of the pilot experiment of non-agricultural cooperatives that the Government proposed to develop, immersed in its controversial “reforms.” In the beginning, the workers were concerned about the possibility that this would give rise to a layoff plan to increase profitability and efficiency, characteristics of a cooperative; but soon their enthusiasm over the idea of working autonomously and increasing their personal incomes, without incurring the risk of the illegalities that abound in all state institutions, in particular in those operating in convertible currency, as this one did.

Given a major venture “from above,” they were assured there would be no layoffs. This dispelled their initial reserves and raised the expectations of those who thought it would be a new and advantageous start of a restaurant in a privileged position, right at the entrance to Havana Bay, within La Cabaña fort, on the other side of the city: a panoramic view of the capital and a place frequented by numerous foreign tourists.

The first surprise surfaced when, on a Roundtable TV show dedicated to the topic, a journalist declared that “the workers of The Divine Shepherdess” didn’t want to form a cooperative. Astonished at such a slander, they wrote the program demanding that the Institute of Radio and Television elevate their written complaint to the most diverse authorities. The official media have not rectified the mistake and, with the passing of days, they took the incident as a small involuntary slip up, perhaps due to misinformation or confusion on the part of those responsible for the program.

Shortly after, the president of Gaviota corporation appeared before the workers at the restaurant in person, conciliatory and paternal and, among other things, explained to them that the cooperative would be positive, favorable to everyone, and was an essential part of the economic transformations that were imperative for the country. It was a plan prioritized by the Government, ineluctable. So, they had to elect four workers who would represent all of them, to attend a seminar about what a cooperative enterprise would be and the characteristics of the transformation process to the new way of operating the restaurant.

The elected representatives, in effect, went to the seminar and gave their utmost to educate themselves about the issue, while the expectations of their comrades rose given the imminent change.

The Blow

The first blow to their illusions came when, at another meeting, they talked to the employees aspiring to be cooperative members about taxes and concrete figures. They were simply astronomical. According to the parameters imposed, they would have to pay, in addition to all the taxes imposed by disimilar concepts, 40 CUC for each square yard of occupied space, including the parking areas, which, for obvious reasons, don’t generate the same income as the lounge-restaurant itself.

And this was the least of the figures they heard: to start the cooperative they would need an advance of 116,000 CUC, a definitely shocking sum. A sense of unreality started to set in, expanding like a solid body in the middle of the meeting and sparking a general outcry. This must be an error, they couldn’t be serious. Surely someone made a mistake. Where could they get such a huge sum of money? But no, the number had already been assigned by the specialists and Gaviota’s board. Ah, comrades, we must ask for a bank loan and accept the repayment terms and interest rate!

They decided that a representation of the workers would go to the bank to apply for the loan and make the arrangements. Nobody wanted to be discouraged.

MINFAR: A Tax Haven in Itself?

The friendly bank employee didn’t understand what these people were asking for. What credit were they talking about? Based on what funds did they believe they could qualify for a loan, and especially such a large one? In fact, she explained to them, The Divine Shepherdess had never invested a single cent in the coffers of the bank. What’s more, Gaviota itself hadn’t realized any income in all the years of its existence, from any concept, as if it were a ghost entity. But then, what could the workers do? The kind bank employee didn’t know; she only knew what they couldn’t do: obtain credit.

But, beyond the drama of a work collective, this leads to considerations of another kind in a country where, at least by right, there is a tough battle being fought against corruption and illegalities, for which the General-President has created an implacable Controller who conducts the most rigorous searches and who operates through an inflexible body of inspectors in coordination with the People’s Revolutionary Police (PNR). Those with carts, hustlers, small traders and every kind of operator of a timbiriche — a very small business — could attest to the frequent operations and physical inspections that regularly subjects them to a ton of fines, in addition to the other scoldings at the slightest violation (or suspicion of it).

But, assuming it’s true that there are no visible traces of the financial transactions of the “state” corporation Gaviota in the bank (also a state entity), if we ignore that their income, investments and accounts are absolutely unknown, how can they be subjected to the controller’s checks? By virtue of what supra-constitutional rights would a military corporation be exempt from fiscal scrutiny? Do they consider their finances to be “sensitive information” and so secret, simply because they are an economic entity of MINFAR, though eminently capitalist?

And is it that this is a corporation which includes both restaurants and hotels in the country’s different tourist sites, transport bases, stores and other establishments, with significant income, and in which, in addition, thousands of civilian employees work, paying social security and earning salaries, vacations, and other benefits such as maternity and sick leave, etc. Are there no bank records of their costs and incomes from these concepts.

Undoubtedly, there are dozens of unanswered questions in this as in other macro-businesses of the olive-green elite. We know that the elite doesn’t market through timbiriches. At least no one has seen anyone with military epaulets dragging a cart with food, fruits and vegetables through our streets, nor selling jewelry or other merchandise in little stalls; humility is good only in speeches. Everything suggests that in Cuba there are three currencies circulating, two of them visible, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Cuban Peso (CUP), and an invisible and untraceable one, the capital of the military monopolies.

So it’s no surprise that, given the obvious financial incapacity of The Divine Shepherdess workers, and given their complaints and demands, the director of Gaviota stood before them again, this time frowning, authoritarian and invested with all the powers, and he unceremoniously snapped that the assigned figures for the taxes on the space, as well as the initial capital, “were not negotiable.” Curtain.

Epilogue

The beleaguered workers were told that on Friday, September 20, 2013 the restaurant would be closed and a bidding process would proceed. Because it turns out that there already is (and in reality, always has been) an investor with disposable capital to take over the “cooperative.
” As readers may have guessed, it is a prominent member of the anointed caste who surely did not need a bank loan or an income statement to amass the money needed.

As for the workers, well — and thank you for asking — each one is at home trying to swallow the bitter pill. You might be wondering what use it was to them to pay their union dues promptly for years, to attend “Revolutionary” marches called by the same power that has now evicted them, and that — trying “not to distinguish themselves” — meekly and without question obeyed every direction from the heights. For now, they are just waiting for someone to explain to them what the president of Gaviota meant when he told them that “no one would be left defenseless.”

From Diario de Cuba

30 September 2013

Central Havana: A Municipality in Danger of Extinction / Miriam Celaya

Photo by OLPL

It’s no secret to anyone that the Cuban capital is falling to pieces. It’s enough to walk around any part of the city to observe the death throes of an urban landscape that is becoming blurred, its buildings disappearing under the combined pressure of time and neglect. No municipality escapes the decline. There are ruins or pre-ruins from the ancient Old Havana — despite enjoying the partial benefits derived from its patrimonial grace and the museum-tourist interest efforts of the City Historian — to the once aristocratic Miramar, of course, saving the marked differences between both areas.

Nevertheless, we can affirm that Central Havana is the municipality displaying the worst state of the buildings. Perhaps because it is the smallest on the whole Island, the most densely populated, the one with the most ancient buildings contained within its small geography and, fatally, the one of least interest to official purposes.

In Central Havana, in addition, a multitude of multifamily buildings from the first half of the 20th century crowd together, old rooming houses and guest houses in precarious condition and almost completely unmaintained, and old shops, worm-eaten theaters and other rundown spaces.

A commercial area during the Republican period, the accelerated deterioration of old businesses and fleabag hotels, many of them closed and propped up, adds a grim note to an urban node that seems marked by misfortune: Central Havana, crowded with inhabitants, right now seems a municipality condemned to disappear.

It’s enough to walk down any of its crowded streets to feel surrounded by this kind of agony of crumbling bricks, peeling plaster, broken sewers, an environment of filth, overflowing trash bins, unpainted buildings, debris, the intense odor of accumulated poverty, at times ill-concealed by the efforts of this or that stubborn resident, who tries to maintain the little piece that he or she miraculously and precariously inhabits safe from the extinction that is upon us.

Only a miracle could save Central Havana, but where would it come from? Perhaps from God? From the government-executioner itself? From its wretched people? There are ever more buildings that succumb and fall to the ground, usually taking with them the life of some stubborn resident who refused to give up his home. Ever more vacant spaces are opening in its neighborhoods and in the hopes of its inhabitants.

It’s true that all of Cuba is dying and succumbing to despair, but today I want to dedicate this complaint, almost a requiem, to the municipality where I live. Allow me to show my readers, in just a few photographs by me and my friends Orlando Luis Pardo and Dimas Castellanos, some images of the landscape that greets my eyes every day and that says much more than any of my words. Take them as an insignificant sample of the immense destruction achieved by more than 50 years of government abandonment and contempt. Here they are.

Photo OLPL

Trash dump with Martí, Shield and Flag. Photo by Dimas Castellanos

Corner of Belascoaín y Animas. It’s now razed. Photo by Dimas

Barcelona Street (The Capitol Building is in the background)

Former Campoamor Theater. Photo by OLPL

Avenues Infanta y Carlos III. Photo by OLPL

Central Havana. Courtesy of Dimas

Balcony collapse. Aguila Street. Photo by Dimas

Urban landscape of Central Havana. Photo by Dimas

Typical Building in Central Havana. Reina Street.

20 September 2013

“Pioneers for Communism”: Doctrine with Bandana / Miriam Celaya

Aspiring Pioneer in 1965

This school year my grandson César began the first grade. He is pleased with the expectation of learning to read and write, but above all he is very excited that soon he will get his blue bandana and become another “pioneer for communism,” like his father 28 years ago, and like his confrontational grandmother a long time before that.

Last Monday, fresh from school, he phoned me: “Grandmother, I’m going to recite poetry and I learned what all the children in my class have to recite the day we put on the bandana.” And he continued, in his clean fresh voice, repeating the rhymed doctrine in the worst doggerel:

For my commander with the sweet smile

I keep forever the sun and the breeze

For my commander with his beard and hat

I cut garden flowers in January

For my commander lost in October

This blue bandana covers me   

Struck dumb for a moment, absorbing the bad effect, I surprise myself seeking the stupidest consolations in the world: at least it’s not an ode to the Unnameable, or to the Argentine who murdered so many Cubans with impunity… although I recognize this is a fool’s comfort; before and after, the Revolutionary catechism includes in the program those two protagonists in the sainted olive-green, and there will be other bad poetry, and there will be slogans and ritual perfidies.

Then I was assaulted by the old memories of my own initiation into the Pioneers, when I was the same six-years-old that César is today, and walked gap-toothed and happy about the nearness of my bandana, blue and white then, on the light gray blouse of my elementary school uniform. A photographer came to the school to take pictures of the kids aspiring to the Pioneers, seated one by one at a desk in the school courtyard with an enormous Cuban flag as the background and a pen in hand, as if we were writing the application form, although hardly any of us knew how to write even a little. Because then it was an essential requirement to aspire to the Pioneer organization and to receive authorization from our parents, who had to sign this form giving us their consent, before we could belong to it.

In the span of 48 years some details have changed. For example, in my generation membership in the Pioneer organization was not mandatory, the Pioneer stage was limited to the elementary school years, the bandana was only worn for certain dates and ceremonies, and the textbooks weren’t so overwhelmingly ideological. But basically the content of the organization has always been the same: to establish mechanisms of social control in service to the government, beginning with the manipulation of the conscience of the great masses from very young ages. Thanks to this method, eminently fascist, most of those individuals were subject, if not to the ideology itself, at least to passive submission, acceptance.

For children, however, being Pioneers does not represent a political-ideological affiliation, which in effect it is, rather the bandana is a sign denoting belonging to a school, a group of friends and classmates, who share learning, games, common interests. The bandana says “they are big,” they already know how to read and write or are close to having this knowledge. They ignore that they will receive, between poetry, readings, mottos and slogans, the systematic official brainwashing that their parents and grandparents born under this regime received before them.

In fact, the process of “Communist Pioneerization” has degraded over the last 30 years, through the generation gap between Cubans born just before or just after the establishment of the Castro regime, and the guerrilla caste of the Moncada barracks attack, the Granma Yacht and the Sierras, and those in the wake of the growing disenchantment that occurred basically from May 1980, following the events at the Peruvian Embassy and the Mariel Boatlift.

The “Revolutionary” romance had ended, and in consequence, the conscience of tens of thousands of Cubans gradually began to become independent of the official discourse, while publicly expressed attitudes continued to respond to the call of the government. Thereafter, almost every Cuban who deviated from the Castro creed began to wear two faces and to hold two, opposite, moral standards: a “real” one, for private life with family and close friends; another “false” one, to blend into the labor collective and into society (in “the mass”) and to keep themselves safe from reprisals and accusations.

Thus, the Pioneer initiation rite that marked the official and socially acceptable indoctrination for ideological servitude, has also become a turning point in the exercise of the so-called “double moral standard” (immorality). A vile pact tacitly accepted by the parties, in which the government pretends to believe that all Cuban parents accept the “Pioneer-Communist” militancy of their children, at the same time that they teach their children to “go with the flow” of the doctrine in the schools and to repeat the verses and slogans praising the regime, while at home illegalities and even anti-government speech survives. “What you see and hear here you don’t say at school,” “if the teacher asks you say this, but in reality things are different.”

Finally, there are the children who wear the bandana of “Pioneers-for-Communism-we-will-be-like-Che” even a few days before emigrating with their parents in search of a freedom they don’t find in their own land. And with this practice, for one generation after another, we have inculcated lying and hypocrisy in our children as values for facing life.

Maybe that’s why hearing my grandson recite the stanzas of that bad versification left me cold. However, quick as a flash I thought of a solution when, surprised by my silence, my little boy asked me, “Grandma, why are you quiet? Don’t you like poetry?” “No, but I know many nursery rhymes prettier than that. Let’s make a deal: I’ll teach them to you.” He was delighted. I also know the power of verses, but not to indoctrinate, rather to enrich the soul, to make us free. We’ll see which verses better calm the spirit of my boy, but I’m inclined to think they will be the ones I recite.

16 September 2013

Violence in Cuba: People’s Helplessness and Protection of Power / Miriam Celaya

Havana Police. Photo OLPL

It was Saturday morning at ten-thirty, and was out with my oldest grandson. I was driving our old little car down a street in Central Havana as we turned a corner and I had to stop. On the left side of the street, a van parked at the curb was taking up a lot of room, while in the left lane, in the middle of the intersection, a young man was having an animated conversation with a girl, blocking my way.  Since I thought that maybe they were too absorbed in their talk to notice that I wanted to proceed where they were standing, I blew the horn once. The young man glared at me, clearly annoyed at my interruption and immediately, without moving an inch, continued with his talk.

I insisted then, blowing the horn once again, and he turned to me, gesticulating angrily, and cursing me out. His face was irate, and, to my surprise, he challenged me to get out of the car. I didn’t even have time to be scared and couldn’t believe such an irrational and unexpected situation. My grandson was terrified, pressed against the back seat, while the girl tried to grab the young man by the arm, in an effort to get him over to the other sidewalk. I finally had enough space for my little car to move and continued on our way. If the girl had not intervened, the young man would have hit me, even with my grandson watching. I would have been helpless in the middle of the street.

“Grandma, who was that man? Why did he want to hit you?” The kid asked, still overwhelmed by the event. “I don’t know who it was. I’m sure he was a little crazed and mistook me for someone else.” I did not know how.to explain to my grandson why a 20-something total stranger had become so violent in a matter of seconds when I had not offended him at all and he did not have the slightest reason to act in such a way. Nor could I explain to him that the brief episode was just a sample of the level of violence that is reaching Cuban society, particularly in the capital, manifesting itself in an increasing spiral of aggression between individuals and groups for the most insignificant reasons, most often without any reason.

Almost every day one hears of assaults, burglaries, knives fights, murders. The news of the attacks seem endless and events happen daily and in the most dissimilar places. Recently, a woman was beheaded by a subject in a moving public taxi in a Vedado-La Palma route in the presence of other passengers, including a child. A few days ago, three men were attacked by a youth gang in Mulgoba, In the Boyeros area, leaving one dead of a stab wound and another one hurt of several fractures as a result of the beating.

At a bus stop, a young man mortally stabbed a family man who was out with his wife and children, simply because the victim claimed his place on line, which happened to be just in front of that of the attacker. Another bus driver was assaulted by a passenger who refused to pay his fare, and had to be helped by another driver of a bus that stopped at the same bus stop. Another bus driver from Guanabo was also attacked with a knife by an irate passenger who did not want to pay for his fare. The driver had to stop at the village clinic for treatment. It is a fact that buses are potentially among the most prone to violence in the capital.

Central Havana. Photo OLPL

A street in downtown Havana. Photo OLPL

The list of violent events becomes endless and it’s growing. One could almost say that each municipality in Havana is competing for the highest crime rate and, unfortunately, they all seem determined to reach the first place. At the same time, the impunity of criminals and the police inaction are staggering, so the feeling of insecurity among the population is intensifying. Many people say that they fear going out because of the possibility of becoming victims of the violence that has become commonplace.

Testimonies of knife assaults abound. It would seem that the law of the jungle has descended on our streets and that the strong and warlike elements are taking over, displacing decency and imposing terror among peaceful people.

The accumulation of frustration, poverty, marginalization and lack of a social project that would afford the population a modicum of prosperity, coupled with widespread corruption, even the very law enforcement for public order favor the emergence of the worst scenarios in a nation already marked by polarization, deep social differences and exclusions.

Marginal sectors, increasingly prone to violence, are marking the symbol of the system’s social decay, pointing to a spiral of unpredictable consequences if the situation doesn’t get under control. There are already decent people who have made the decision to acquire self-defense weapons of various origins and nature to defend themselves in case of aggression, whether in the streets or in their own homes. Violence as protection against violence, violence in response, as social code. I can’t think of anything worse that could happen.

The authorities are clueless. The official press continues its praises of the system, depicting an imaginary Cuba where only flourishing cooperatives exist, model hospitals where the best specialists in the world save the lives of children and all the sick poor people that in other countries would not stand the slightest chance to survive or to undergo surgery, or where schools are getting ready for the start of a new year which, incidentally, future criminals will also attend. Because this is also a revolutionary achievement: there might be many illiterate delinquents in the world, but not a one of them is Cuban. I have not heard of any of these violent acts where the police have had an important role, protecting “the public” or capturing the wrongdoer.

In fact, right now I can’t recall a single event in which the police have been even near the conflict. Most of the evidence I have collected reflect the tremendous distrust and suspicion of the population in relation to the euphemistically called “law enforcement”. Chances are that while the crimes are taking place, uniformed law enforcement entities may be supporting agents of State Insecurity whose job seems to be cracking down and trying to uselessly intimidate peaceful opponents, with that other form of selective violence, and making use of police vehicles not in the pursue of muggers and troublemakers who sow fear in society, but to carry away those who are dreaming of and working toward a better Cuba.

However, it appears that in a few years we will have more scientists in the Ministry responsible for these matters of internal order. This Sunday September 1st, Juventud Rebelde published a report (Orgullosos de servir a la sociedad, by Ana María Domínguez Cruz), which reported that students from the thirteenth detachment of cadets of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) composed of 400 young people across the country of which 250 belong to districts in the capital, have served their period of “preliminary military training” before being injected into university careers, such as Journalism, Psychology, Law, Computer and Medical Sciences, among other specialties not related to Agronomy or any of the technical schools or offices the General-President so much endorses as the most necessary for the country. With these cadets, states the report, “the ranks of MININT will be fed by educated and committed professionals”.  We already know on which side the commitment rests.

There is nothing to hope for. The press does not reflect what is happening in Cuba in real life: Everything seems to be fine with the country and the news about the assaults and crime is no more than rumors of those who want to damage the revolution’s image and create an opinion state that is adverse to the system. Everything indicates that the blue-uniformed police are not going to be more efficient and are not going to improve the social order and public peace, but we are certainly going to have more well-educated and learned MININT with the assigned task of pursuing and harassing anything that threatens the political power. That’s too bad for everyone.

Translated by Norma Whiting

2 September 2013

Shoal Philosophy / Miriam Celaya

miriamshoalclip_image001HAVANA, Cuba , August, www.cubanet.org – Every Cuban must have heard countless times a compilation of phrases that try to encompass all the Island’s popular wisdom: “don’t bother”, “you’re not going to solve anything”, “what the heck, you are not going to change anything”, “don’t look for trouble” , or this next one, which is the paradigm of evading commitment: “I don’t care about politics”, though the ones who utter it ignore that mere membership in the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution implies a direct relationship with the politics of government.

All of them, without exception, could be part of a manual on how to better serve the interests of the dictatorship because they appeal to passivity, to limitless waiting, to subordination, and to complicit subterfuge. But, without a doubt, the crown jewel and the one most frequently used is “don’t call attention to yourself”. It is the quintessential advice, and it serves to brake the spontaneous impulses of any dissatisfied individual in any circumstance, because “to call attention to yourself” in Cuba is to leave the flock, to rebel against absolute power, to fault at the most elementary prudence, and it can manifest itself even in the smallest sign that could set the individual apart from the rest.

It is interesting that such a no-nonsense phrase should be the currency in a country where people don’t think twice about hurling themselves into the sea and crossing the Florida Straits on board any artifact buoyant enough to take them to the other shore, to another realm, where calling attention to yourself isn’t necessarily an imprudence, but just the opposite, most of the time.

But let someone express his intention to stop paying the syndicate, the MTT (Territorial Troops Militia), not attending the May Day parade or the assembly of accountability for the well-known phrase “don’t call attention to yourself” to make its appearance.

Recently, a young man working in a private restaurant told me about a visit an official of the national union made to his place of employment, to educate employees about the importance of “creating” a union, affiliated to what she called” the national union movement”, to “defend the workers’ interests.”

It’s beyond the absurd, only possible in Cuba, that a State official will interrupt the work of a private business to encourage employees to organize to make a stand against management – the prime and essential reason for unionizing — with the complacent consent of that same management, and with the independence that a true syndicate must have as its premise the freedom to associate, which doesn’t exist in Cuba.  The strangest thing of the matter is that the vast majority of workers in those private businesses have joined the “syndicates” created from and by the same power that has unleashed a wave of layoffs at State workplaces.

My young friend insists that, initially, some workers were reluctant or undecided, and there were those who naively asked if membership was compulsory, but, here and there, an infiltrated delegate would drop the little phrase “don’t call attention to yourself” and the stirrings of rebellion were diluted, wrapped in the protective anonymity of the collective.

“It is the philosophy of the shoal, the school of fish,” says my friend, a definition that is based on the tactics of the sardine or anchovy in which the individual is diluted in the group so he’ll have a better chance at survival, which, however, does not prevent predators from feeding on them.

I acknowledge that my friend is somewhat cynical, but this does not negate the gist of his remark. And the civic abandonment and the lack of rights in Cuba is such that it has developed a kind of slavery syndrome of thought, so that when some people have a modicum of freedom, they refuse to make use of it and continue to be subjected to the snare and the master.

Nevertheless, the emergence of private initiative could mark a major turning point in the resurgence of sectors that might strengthen the weak fabric of civil society, a reality which the independent unions that exist in Cuba cannot ignore. This requires implementing a program, or at least for these groups to make specific proposals which are attractive to this new labor force. It would be an essential step to achieve union autonomy.

Government’s interest in keeping this labor force subjugated indicates the recognition of the risk implied by the potential autonomy of the sector; an opportunity that activists could well take advantage of in order to fight that widespread social evil, the shoal philosophy.

From Cubanet

Translated by Norma Whiting

29 August 2013

CUBACEL recharges: Why Isn’t It Allowed From Inside?

Double Recharge…Double happiness this summer from 30 July to 2 August… Gift of 30 text messages… Other surprises on these days.

For some time and with some regularity, many Cubans have received refills on our phones thanks to the generosity of friends and advocates who support us from the outside. Many others receive it by the kindness of family and friends living outside of Cuba

These refills, promoted by a subsidiary of ETECSA, CUBACEL, S.A, the telephone company responsible for cellular telephone service in Cuba, are announced through a message that appears on our phones with the following content: “CUBACEL Reports: PROMOTION . Recharge the balance from overseas from 20.00 CUC and get twice the amount recharged”, then it shows the beginning and ending dates of the promotion.

And this comment is stressed by the writer because I have always been shocked at the explicit declaration which, by all accounts, is discriminatory, harmful to Cubans living in Cuba and violates their rights to enjoy a service even if they have the ability to pay. I have asked several employees of the Príncipe branch on Carlos III Avenue, and their answers have been evasive, if not incriminating: “It’s management’s decision” “We only work with the public, we don’t make the rules” “Why are you asking me? you should be asking Raúl” I wish I could ask him, though that would be the least I would ask him.

That is, it’s not just about the real and true fact that CUBACEL and ETECSA take it upon themselves to arbitrarily interrupt at will telephone communication of those pesky customers who don’t have, according to the system’s standards, the “correct” political leaning, thus, ETECSA violates the contract’s conditions, but, in addition, it voids everyone’s rights, including those of people who are obedient or quiet, who don’t bother with political matters.

In short, I would like to know what this policy is about. It is exclusionary for Cubans residing here, whose money seems to be of absolutely no value for this telephone company managed by – how well we know it — the Ministry of the Armed Forces, that is to say, Castro II.

So I appeal to the imagination, information or wisdom of readers to help me understand what, needless to say, the employees of the Cuban revolutionary telephone company will never explain. How is it “politically” possible that a Cuban who has 20.00 CUC to recharge his cellular phone will be unable to benefit from his own country’s company promotion? Could it have anything to do with the criminal imperialist blockade? Could it be that the evil “Big, Bad Wolf” and other stateless Cubans can’t prevent us from having émigrés recharge our mobile phones and yet have the power to influence media policy dictated by the no less big, bad Cuban dictatorship?

No doubt, the communications issue is extremely delicate for the aging olive-green cupola. It isn’t merely about the undeniably most expensive cellular telephone service in the world, but, in addition, the only one that discriminates against its clients for the simple geographically tragic fate of living inside CUBACEL territory.

Translated by Norma Whiting

2 August 2013

The Political Burden of the Dictatorship after the Dictatorship / Miriam Celaya

Days ago, I had the opportunity to read a smart and funny article by Eugenio Yáñez, in which, based on the age of the highest representatives of the government, the writer was questioning the “youth” proclaimed by Castro 2 in his recent speech for the 60th anniversary of the assault on Moncada barracks. Almost at the end of that article, Yáñez successfully launches a judgment referring to the olive green gerontocracy still in power in Cuba: “Instead of trying to distort reality, it would be better to clear the way for new generations that will do it better, because it’s impossible to do it any worse”.

The extent of the case, as simple as it is accurate, brings to mind a debate a couple of years ago with several of my friends that focused on a discussion about who could be the alternative political actors we might consider for the presidency of a Cuba in transition. On that occasion, there were very interesting analyses around opposition figures and programs of the most diverse leanings and positions, including the dissident spectrum from the last part of the ’80s decade until today. The opinions of those debating were, of course, also very different and emotional at times.

I will not fall into the naïve temptation of retelling a version of that reunion here, or the viewpoints of each participant because, after all, it was not about trying to decide the Cuban transition in a simple dialogue among friends, nor does Cuba possess the necessary minimal conditions for freedom and democracy, political maturity or enough civility, even among the dissident ranks, to tolerate criticism or opinions that are different from their own evaluations. In fact, almost every figure carries within him the messiah virus or the belief that he eats the egg of absolute truth for breakfast every morning, and only the more honest ones, the best, have the ability to recognize the evil in their own hearts, and to keep it duly restrained and not allow it to expand and dominate them. Even the people seem to interpret the criticism of any leader or program as a divisive attempt. Often, people seem to need idols more than freedom itself.

But back to the question, the fact is that at that unique and unforgettable meeting attended by several intelligent and acute individuals, the idea that raised the most debate was that of a fellow member who closed the circle, declaring: “Anyone who is democratically elected and supports civil liberties conducive to the exercise of all human rights will do as president for me, since, if that were the case, we would be guaranteed the right to criticize him, to speak out against his administration, to demand, to force him to listen to demands and, within a reasonable period of a few years, to remove him from office in new elections if he doesn’t meet the voters’ expectations”.

I must confess that at that time I wasn’t 100% on board with his proposal, though I could understand he had made a good point. Maybe I was driven by distrust in imagining what the performance of certain shady characters would be when anointed with legitimate power leading the destiny of a nation in the turmoil of a transition that will undoubtedly be difficult. That prospect terrifies me still.

However, Yáñez’s article has made me think about the Cuban reality and once again taken me back to that memorable gathering where, as so often happens, a group of friends discussed the hypothetical future of a democratic Cuba. That friend and Yáñez are both right: the Castro regime has deliberately performed so badly that no one else could do it worse, not even the worst of the worst hidden kingpins we have in every sector of Cuban society. But, to elect “the wrong thing” so we won’t have the worst one, doesn’t sound to me like a good political sense.

Definitely, in the presence of a democratic election, I would not vote for just anyone. However, due to the stubbornness of the eternal Moncada octogenarian boys who cling to power, I can’t help but to recognize that any other option would be preferable, at least for the majority. The dictatorship has become the point of reference to such an extent of what a government should not be that it has sealed the evil within the fate of the Cuban people, even long after it’s gone. And so, paradoxically, it could still play a political role, in case it becomes indirectly responsible of an unfortunate future election of the transition that awaits us.

Translated by Norma Whiting

9 August 2013

The Many Faces of a Conflict. Prostitution in Cuba, Part 1 / Miriam Celaya

mcjiclip_image001In Cuba there are no institutions that guarantee the rights of the most vulnerable. Prostitution is not even mentioned as a problem by the Government.

It is said that prostitution is the oldest occupation in the world. There aren’t any cultures whose histories have not recorded the practice of sexual services in exchange for money or something of value. Other forms of prostitution are fashioned in exchange for favors or privileges.

Prostitution’s time-worn persistence throughout the ages offers an almost infinite variety of forms, circumstances and considerations, sociological and psychological as well as historical, economic, gender-associated and even political. The darker margins of the phenomenon today refer to the trafficking of women through international networks specializing in human trafficking for sexual means –- victims of which are illegal immigrants and young people in impoverished areas — slavery and, specifically, the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children.

Prostitution in ‘Revolutionary’ Cuba’

Recently, the Miami newspaper El Nuevo Herald published an article about the so-called prostitution’s “hustling” (George Porta, El Jineterismo es una Forma de Genocidio [Prostitution is a Form of Genocide] ), which brings into discussion the issue of prostitution in a country that was considered a territory free of the sex trade in the decades following 1959.

“Hustling” is the expression in the marginal vocabulary that defined the prostitution that started to proliferate more strongly in Cuba since the decade of the 90’s of the last century, fueled by the economic crisis after the collapse of the former USSR and the socialist camp, and the increase of tourism as an alternative, developed by the government to generate foreign exchange income. Thus, it is all the more controversial because Cuban prostitutes in the last 20 years don’t stem from — as often happens in other underdeveloped nations — social sectors hit by illiteracy, ignorance and other similar afflictions, but are members of generations formed and indoctrinated in supposedly superior moral principles of “the new man” and many of them hold significant educational levels.

The image of the poor naïve country girl, deceived by some wily suitor who “disgraced” her and ended up exploiting her in some brothel in a provincial city center or at the capital was left back in pre-1959 history. Today’s prostitute is usually a young woman who has completed at least the ninth grade and who consciously uses her sexual attributes to achieve, in a brief time, the material benefits that she knows she cannot achieve from a salary or from the practice of a technological or professional university career.

The “hustling” does not represent a homogeneous caste either. This is a well-differentiated phenomenon in layers or strata, by category, age, physical attributes, qualifications, aspirations, relationships and other factors, of the young woman in question. Thus, there are different types, from the cheap street “jineteritas”**, that satisfy quick sex in a car or in a hallway or small room in a hovel to the spectacular and expensive prostitutes at gyms and spas, beautiful and refined, providing a more “personalized” service, many of whom dream of an advantageous marriage to a dazzled foreign tourist or to some executive at a mixed-capital firm, or to accumulate sufficient funds to emigrate by themselves.

Between both extremes is a world of prostitutes of the most diverse conditions and goals, many whose minimal objective is to survive day-to-day, with no plans or ambitions, dependent on a reality without expectations for a future.

However, the causes of prostitution in Cuba, though they relate to the ongoing economic crisis and the rise of international tourism, are deeply rooted in the deterioration of other values not necessarily linked to the issue of gender inequality, sexism or oppression of women. The phenomenon is much more complex and has deep surges, a legacy of the vulgar egalitarianism that prevailed in the years of subsidized socialism.

Sometime after, there was an inversion of values in Cuba in the social appreciation of the prostitute. Many of these women who used to sell their sexual services to foreigners in the 90’s – previously a reason for disdain and social stigma – turned into a sort of popular heroines, when they became family providers and sometimes even benefactors of their distressed neighbors. In particular, the “class” prostitutes who often provided medicine, hygiene products or food to the most destitute, significantly changed the perception of the profession: to prostitute oneself was not only more lucrative, but could be considered as a source of solidarity and prestige. By the way, by then, we Cubans were not that “equal”.

The same transformation did not take place with the lower-class prostitute. Segregationist prejudice gained momentum starting in those years, stemming from differentiations in purchasing power which spontaneously settled among prostitutes as well. Before Castro, the poorest prostitutes were popularly known as “coffee with milk”. Today’s are “sugar water.”

Having said that, could a jinetera always be defined as a victim of gender and of poverty? Does jineterismo, as in prostitution in Cuba, adjust itself to the definition of “genocide” that the article in El Nuevo Herald proclaims? Personally, I prefer to turn away from the hype. It is a fact that prostitution as a social phenomenon favors the proliferation of related crimes: pimping, human trafficking, gender exploitation, drug trafficking, etc. It is also axiomatic that the material shortages, coupled with the moral crisis, stimulate the spread of prostitution in Cuba.

However, beyond social “tolerance”, experience shows that there are survival options not associated with prostitution that were adopted by most of the women in Cuba, even in the worst moments of the crisis, and that a high percentage of prostitutes voluntarily elected that profession as the most expeditious, for profit and not just for “reasons of survival.” Thus, a large number of prostitutes do not feel the need to be “liberated” from an activity that offers them what, in their perception, is defined as “freedom”: purchasing power above the Cuban medium.

It isn’t about denying the existence of prostitution either, or the importance of anticipating its consequences, but about more accurately interpreting the facts. Assuming the inevitable, everything points to the certainty that prostitution has returned to stay: there is no tourist destination that doesn’t attract this type of profession. So what will matter is how we’ll deal with it.

In principle, any adult of sound mind is the owner of her own body and of her acts, as long as she does not undermine the rights of others, so being a prostitute or not would be – in the first place – a matter of choice, depending on whether the law determines if it constitutes a crime or not, and whether they pursue related criminal activities. Another issue is when a person is forced into prostitution, in which case it is a flagrant violation of her rights as a human being.

It is reprehensible that there are no institutions in Cuba capable of guaranteeing the rights of vulnerable social sectors, that prostitutes are unprotected, that the prostitution of minors is not prosecuted and condemned severely, that the roots of evil are not confronted, and that laws are almost always limited to punishment (the so-called “re-education”) of the prostitute, the weakest link in the chain. Cuban prostitutes, especially the “street” ones, are more likely to be victims of violence, whether by a pimp or by police extortion. On not few occasions the pimp and the police are the same person.

The issue of prostitution is hot, and it’s even part of the political agenda in many developed countries. Some current proposals focus on the regulation of prostitution, previously legalized, though a strong trend has also developed in favor of criminalizing the purchase of sexual services and not their sale.

In Cuba, unfortunately, we are very far away from instituting an effective strategy on the subject. It is known that the first step is to recognize the existence of the phenomenon, submit it for public debate and study its scope and social consequences, which requires the political will of the government: all of it a chimera

In any case, this could well be an important point on the agenda of many independent Cuban organizations interested in problems with a civilian edge. So far, there are no thematic programs on the issue in the emerging civil society. Starting and sustaining the debate will be the initial stimulus that will unleash the proposals.

*Jinetera: female jockey or horse rider, used graphically in the context of hustling.

**Jineterita: diminutive form sometimes used to describe an unimportant, insubstantial, or young prostitute.

Translated by Norma Whiting

21 August 2013

Alcoholism, Corruption and Other Demons…

Image taken from Miscelaneas de Cuba

(A version of this article was originally published in Cubanet [and is translated here])

The exclusive news was first offered by Cuban TV’s Havana Channel, in an evening program on Wednesday July 31, 2013: six people had died and 40 remained hospitalized due to ingestion of methyl alcohol (wood alcohol). According to official investigations, alcohol came from an Institute of Pharmacy and Food warehouse. Stolen by two employees who had access, the alcohol was then sold illegally by a woman from Arimao, in the municipality of La Lisa, where all the poisoned individuals also resided.

It unofficially appears that said illegal dealer is a marginal person of low and irregular income and that her son was among the disadvantaged people who died.

In the days that followed, the National TV News and the written press have continued to update some facts about the case, while taking advantage of the tragedy to highlight the niceties of the Cuban health system and to stress the efficiency of the work of the Integrated Medical Emergency (SIUM) and Toxicology. There have also been testimonials, more ridiculous than moving, of some survivors who have promised their families, “and the Revolution”, that they will stop drinking, as if, in tandem with the bad experience, they had overcome the existential miseries that have pushed them to alcoholism, or as if, ultimately, they were not victims of the illusion they insist on calling “Revolution”.

So far, there have been 16 deaths, several people remain admitted and others have been discharged from hospitals, while they are still reporting some additional cases of poisoning, even in other municipalities, and a combined operation of the National Police and the Ministry of Public Health continues to be active, with a command post set up in a school district to monitor the situation.

Beyond the Events

(Image from the internet)

At first glance, what transpired in a Havana neighborhood might seem like a single isolated event, but such an impression would be misleading. While the high cost in human lives conveys unusual sensationalism to the official press, in reality, it is just the tip of the iceberg, the most visible external manifestation of a generalized crisis arising from economic collapse, the failure of the system, the lack of prospects, hopelessness and loss of values. Only under Cuban conditions or under those of other societies as broken as ours could similar events take place.

This time, there was the combination of rampant corruption, widespread alcohol addiction and low purchasing power of the poorest sectors of the population, all factors that contribute to the trafficking of various toxic substances in the illegal markets.

In fact, illegal trade of alcohol is widespread in the capital, where almost all neighborhoods have one or several of these dealers of spirits of dubious origin and composition, both from clandestine stills and from thefts of legal networks of stores and warehouses. Though trafficking and consumption have always existed, they have proliferated since the 1990s’ crisis, when even the ration card, unable to keep up the hefty subsidies of previous years, guaranteed a monthly quota of rum for each family nucleus.

Cubans with better memories will certainly remember the weekly meetings of the leaders of the [Communist] Party and the Popular Power, televised every Tuesday, which the people dubbed “Meeting of the Fatsos” because of the participants’ glowing looks, in contrast to those of the hungry and emaciated population. In one of the reunions the then First Secretary of the Provincial Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, Jorge Lezcano, cynically stated that what the population could not lack was rum. Alcohol consumption was, therefore, an official policy aimed at dulling people’s thinking: alcohol to forget our frustrations in the midst of the worst shortages in the last century of Cuban history.

As a consequence, alcohol consumption has increased through the years, at the same time as the average age of its consumers has significantly decreased.

For years, Cuban wit has dubbed these concoctions with different names which, in the way of the marginal language, translate into the effects of their ingestion: mofuco, tiger’s laughter, man and earth, train’s spark and the like. Though trafficking and consumption have always existed, they have proliferated since the 1990s’ crisis, when even the ration card, unable to keep up the hefty subsidies of the previous years, guaranteed a monthly quota of rum for each family nucleus. On the other hand, in a country where life offers more frustrations than expectations, it is not surprising that alcoholism has reached truly alarming levels

Thus, the misadventure of several dozen drunks has fired off the official alarms and, this time, events have cut across to the media, but the overall decay of the system is evidenced in all areas and levels of national life, far exceeding the government’s ability to address the crisis. It is the metastasis of a terminally ill system, without the means to cure the nation’s moral unhealthiness

The continuous succession of events demonstrates the irreversibility of corruption under this government: officials who get corrupted, illegal markets that grow and diversify, increases in prostitution, alcoholism and drugs.

There is little left to defend of socialism Cuban style, let alone the kindness of a system where the reality exceeded the macabre and corruption is a means of survival. Today, Cuba is a country where it is possible for stolen human fat from a crematorium to be traded as if it were pork fat, where you can buy a school exam, a surgery or a dental prosthesis, where individuals can applaud an official speech, attend a “Revolutionary” march and steal from the very government they pretend to support, where dozens of mental in-patients at a hospital can die of hunger or cold weather, and where most of the objectives are enclosed in the perspective of an exit with no return.

Translated by Norma Whiting

16 August 2013