Chronic shortages in Cuba are extending their tentacles with renewed vigor. The cycles of absence of numerous products are ever more frequent, even in the markets that trade “in hard currency.” Lately toilet paper has disappeared (for the umpteenth time in recent months), and similarly there have been short “gap” periods in which there have been no toothbrushes, toothpaste, wheat flour, powdered milk, soaps and detergents, sanitary napkins, etc. Nothing seems to be safe from the black hole that is Castro’s socialism, in which life is reduced to “not-dying,” while running a perennial pilgrimage after those articles which, anywhere in the civilized world, are a part of the most common reality.
With regards to food, it’s better not to talk about it. It’s enough to see the Dantesque scenes offered to us by the lines that form at dawn whenever someone announces that this or that farmers market “is going to have potatoes.” The police in Central Havana are practically on a war footing attending to the brawls that occur in the crowds who aspire to buy the longed-for tuber.
Now it turns out that the shortages have reached condoms, those attachments needed for the safe practice of what some call “the national sport.” Things have reached such an extreme that it has come to the point where drugstores and pharmacies have mobilized staff to change the expiration dates that appear on this product–already expired–to “update” it and be able to sell it. There is testimony that in some of Cuba’s interior provinces this task has been assigned to recruits doing their military service: a strategy of total combat in the face of the alarms set off by this small and humble latex object. According to the authorities, this is being done “because the dates on the containers were wrong.”
Consumers, however, are wary. In a country where corruption and deceit are part of the reality, no one feels safe. Some paranoiacs go to the extreme of suspecting it’s part of an official conspiracy to promote births in Cuba… What it really does is lead to an increase in abortions.
At the moment, a friend tells me, half-amused half-worried, that if in the 90s she had buy condoms to use as balloons at her son’s birthday party–today a young man of twenty-something– now she will have to buy balloons to practice safe sex.
The Cuban media, experts at manipulating jingoistic sentiments and fabricating nationalist trash, is using the anti-Cuba signs wielded by demonstrators against Nicolas Maduras’ government to manage at will national public opinion in the interior of the island. The task is simple, given the great disinformation of the natives here and the impossibility of accessing sources other than those offered by the Castro press monopoly. As a consequence, the most ignorant or naive, not to mention the ever-present useful idiots, walk around talking about how “ungrateful” the Venezuelans are, with the number of doctors and aid that “Cuba” has given them… As if it weren’t about a simple transaction of renting out slaves between masters, already generously paid for with petrodollars which are, in short, a treasure that belongs to the Venezuelans and not to the governing regime.
However, the most surprising thing is that these signs, along with the public burnings of Cuban flags, have been another touch that triggers outrage, not among the poor disinformed within Cuba, but among the Cubans of the diaspora, some of whom are speaking on behalf of “all” those born on this island, to attack the protesters who are every day risking their lives and liberty publicly and bravely protesting in the streets of several cities in their country.
I certainly understand the reasoning of susceptible Cubans: they feel alluded to when “Cuba” is insulted, and it’s no less true that directing the outrage against “Cubans” and not against the government would be, at least, erratic. Personally, however, I understand that it is not the intention of the opponents to Maduro and his cronies to insult Cuba, but to direct their rejection to the Castro’s regime, the outrageous interference of Cuban agents in Venezuelan intelligence and the army, the parasitism on the Venezuelan economy, the Castro control over national policy.
That’s why I do not feel alluded to in these acts. In fact, Cuba is for me something beyond the textile symbol of a flag. Venezuelan protesters are doing much more for their country than many Cubans, who today are offended by them, are willing to do for theirs. Believe me, my compatriots, with all due respect for their ideas, which as far as I’m concerned they can burn all Cuban flags they want, if this is the price to lift their own spirits and gain freedom. The day on which they fully regain their rights, and Cubans and Venezuelans sit down to talk together, I am sure that we will understand each other on the best terms. Until then, I offer them my deep admiration and respect.
Mass demonstrations in Venezuela. Image taken from Internet
The news agencies don’t have a moment’s rest these days: a satrap in Ukraine has been overthrown through demonstrations and street protests amid the harsh winter, people stand on long lines to see with their own eyes the pomp and pageantry in which the ex-ruler, an ally of Russia, lived.
In Venezuela, student demonstrations continue, supported by opposition leaders finally came together to confront the Maduro government. In Ecuador, the opposition has just delivered a commendable blow to the government authorities by winning an unquestionable majority vote during local elections this Sunday February 23rd in important places like Quito and Guayaquil, putting the brakes on the rampant President of the “citizens’ revolution.”
The world is moving at breakneck speed, changing scenarios and uncovering new players, while we in Cuba remain in the political Jurassic era, with a government of dinosaurs perpetuated in power. continue reading
Judging by the official Cuban press, external reality does not seem to exist, so the “events” may be a gray “syndicate” congress in a country where no syndicates exist, a few “reforms” that do not reform anything, or whatever is dictated by a government that misgoverns a colony of ants that spends its days striving for sustenance, untouched by the joy of the liberated, ignorant of the will and courage of the opponents of Nicolas Maduro, the civility of Ecuadorians who opted for the polls to control the excessive power ambitions of a thug vested as president, and of everything that happens in the world beyond the reefs of a damned Island.
Venezuela hits us especially close, because of its shameless sponsorship by the Cuban dictatorship, obsolete and ruined, extending its evil shadow over a nation rich in natural and human resources. Fortunately for them and for us, Venezuela is not a country of zombies. Nevertheless, it causes sadness and apprehension all at once to see evidence that other peoples are capable of what we are not.
Pity our country, Cuba, whose children choose silence and flight instead of exercising their rights against the olive green satrapy that condemns them to slavery and poverty.
The recent declaration of the birthplace of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (Camaguey, 1814-1873) as a National Monument on the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding, originally named Villa de Santa María del Puerto del Príncipe, (today, Camagüey) awakens in me the evocation of a special woman who has always resonated in my spirit.
Tula is that great poet who once chose the pseudonym La Peregrina to publish her poems, never imagining that over 150 years later, this obscure writer would borrow her familiar name to use as the distinctive signature of my own work. Because Tula Avellaneda was my first pseudonym as citizen journalist, a personal way to hide my identity behind the name of a Cuban for whom I have great affection, admiration and respect, as if she were a close friend. The strength of her dynamism was a kind of symbolic shield in the process of exorcism against the demons of fear. Tula is, in short, the only woman for whom I secretly keep a friendly complicity not devoid of a trace of envy.
Because, you know what? I’ve always preferred the Tulas over the Marianas. The nineteenth century was rich in extraordinary Cuban women. Most of them, however, went down in history for their relationship with the wars of independence, and in particular for their link — either maternal or marital- – to men who were the protagonists of these military contests. A few were warriors themselves, so they transcended as patriots for a nation that, unfortunately, has always rendered greater worship to violence than to poetry, love, and literature. continue reading
To date, the women warriors are “Marianas” (after the Grajales saga, enjoining her youngest son to grow up to go to war for an ever bloodthirsty Motherland), but, by the same token, they were relegated to the perfect stereotype of the patriotic stoicism that offers the glory of the memory at the same time that it strips away humanity, to such an extent that I can’t recall any portrait of Mariana Grajales where she is smiling, or at least with a kind and loving facial expression. In fact, her effigy was built more on hate for the enemy than on love of any kind.
A similar fate befell on the portraits of other famous and respectable matrons of the nineteenth-century’s patriotic altar: hieratic expressions, frowns, pursed lips. Such rigid perfection that it becomes alien and distant. Accordingly, they have been stored in our memories, but not in our hearts.
Tula, on the other hand, transcended through her human essence which ran over in her literary work and in her disobedient character which defied the conventions of her time. An intense, passionate and creative life was her personal crusade, breaking gender taboos. A single mom, passionate lover, free spirit and controversial, her tempestuous character shows through even after the majestic serenity of her portraits. She never felt sufficiently loved by those she loved — although she outperformed all — never understood by her contemporaries, she was respected and feared at the same time, and often condemned by the moral values of her time, but she prevailed over adversity and was a successful woman in a world where success was an eminently masculine scepter.
Her talent as a poet, novelist and playwright was the liberating gift of femininity sentenced to containment and censorship for women of her time. That was her way of transcending and rebelling, so her legacy goes beyond the narrow confines of her Nation and of a time, and she is remembered with pleasure and nearness. Tula was (is) beautifully imperfect, therefore credible.
Now, two hundred years after her birth, few Cubans know of her life and her work, but her house in Camagüey has been officially declared a National Monument. I don’t know whether, had she ever imagined it, Tula might feel satisfaction over such a late tribute as part of her city’s half-millennium celebration. Knowing her personal genius, I suspect that when she died she knew that she had constructed her own monument with the flair of her pen and the fiber of her peculiar nature.
Either way, I appreciate the opportunity that has led me to write this poor tribute to La Peregrina, my old and eternal spiritual friend, who scored, with her strength of character and the grace of her verse, the young soul of this fan who’s already traveling through the twenty-first century and, with much less talent but with equal passion, disobeys other taboos in the Cuba of today.
Although several days late, I take advantage of a brief opportunity to connect to wish all readers a happy New Year and to wish them every success in 2014. As a special note, this blog is turning six years old around these days, so I intend to renew it in the coming weeks. I have been a bit away from this website due to other work commitments.
I was very busy during 2013 but greatly satisfied, including seeing the bookCuba in Focuspublished, which was co-edited by my colleagues Ted Henken and Dimas Castellanos and has come out in its English version. We aim to have it published also in Spanish, for better circulation in Cuba.
At any rate, we will continue move forward with our work, hopes and optimism. I wouldn’t know how to face life in any other way. I will return soon, eager with new passing pursuits. Thanks and a big hug.
HAVANA, Cuba , December, www.cubanet.org – After more than seven years since Castro I’s famous “Proclamation”, which marked his departure from the management of the government, Castro II’s performance has failed to find a path capable of leading to a happy port to end the cruise of a shipwrecked revolution.
A look at the socio-economic and political Cuban landscape lets us discern a confusing scenario in which no significant economic progress is taking place that allows for overcoming the permanent crisis, while the social sphere continues its decline, reducing the performance and quality of services, particularly in the areas of health and education, while, politically, the totalitarianism of the military elite continues. New regulations are being established that will attempt a “more flexible” system in order to wash the regime’s face and offer a gentler image outward, at the same time as repressive methods are increasing and extending inward, against dissident sectors and the general population.
The failure of the system has been sufficiently demonstrated after 55 years of dictatorship. However, the situation does not seem to point to its finale — in the face of the erratic government policies, the absence of independent institutions capable of influencing the most relevant changes and the lack of freedom of the press and information, among other factors — the reality provides an inaccurate picture in which the urgent need for radical change and the uncertainty about the future coexist simultaneously.
It is known that social transformations take place independent of the will of governments. However, these can slow or accelerate said processes. In Cuba, the tower of power has convincingly demonstrated its willingness to defer, as much as possible, a transition that would end up snatching its political power, so it is betting on a different type of strategy that will allow for its continuity beyond the changes that the system may undergo. A difficult challenge, but perhaps not so unlikely if -given the weakness of domestic civil society to prevent it- the international scenario feels complacent towards the regime or deems it propitious.
Many analysts agree in pointing out the unequivocal symptoms of the breakdown of the Cuban socioeconomic system as it existed under Fidelismo. Others, more optimistic, even claim that we are in a stage of post-totalitarianism. Right or not, the fact is that the Cuban reality is not the same as it was five years ago, and there is the impression that we are witnessing the end of a long period that will give way to a new era. For better or worse, Cuba is changing, but the relationship between the regime and society remain despotic and power at the top remains intact. What’s more, the historical gerontocracy seems to have found a way to perpetuate itself as a class by having mutated on itself, while avoiding a social mutation. Thus, two simultaneous and parallel systems are currently presiding in Cuba, wherein the rules of market economies, which benefits only the elite, coexists with a “socialist” distribution, which endangers the rest of Cubans. Such is the “transition” conceived by the government.
Now then, in its linguistic meaning, transition is the change from one mode or state to another one which is qualitatively different. In politics, it is the equivalent to the process of transformation from one system into another, and it has been widely used in the definition of a transition towards democracy after dictatorial governments or systems, independent of its duration and its varying repressive signs. Therefore, in the case of Cuba, it would mean a transition towards democracy, whose fruit would be the rule of law, with an inclusive constitution, not governed by political parties of ideologies of any kind, with separate powers and respect for social and individual rights, inasmuch as public power would be subordinate to a set of laws.
Autocracy in Perpetuity
Assuming this definition, it is obvious that the changes implemented based on the roadmap (“The Guidelines) born of the VI Congress of the PCC, don’t point towards a transition, but seek to legitimize the perpetuity of the autocracy. This is really an official strategy for sui generis continuity, where changes regulated by the government do not seek to preserve the system (so-called “socialist”) itself, but the political power and privileges of an elite class.
The success of this strategy would depend on the behavior of several factors, among which stand out, on the one hand, the growth and strengthening of the opposition and of independent civil society groups to the point of representing an alternative to power, and, on the other hand, the policies of democratic nations in their relation with the dictatorship or with the opposition. At present, the wear and tear of the regime and its lack of credibility are undermining its profile, both inside and outside Cuba, while the slow consolidation of the opposition and its related sectors does not indicate that foreign or domestic support will become more effective. This is equivalent to a relative stagnation in the overall situation, reflecting a precarious internal balance consisting in increases in social discontent, the growth of the opposition and its activities, and an increase of repression in varying degrees, from coercion to beatings, arrests and imprisonments.
In a general sense, and with Raul-style power nearing the end of its fifth year, the advances promised by the government have not taken place. Instead, Cubans feel that the grip of the general crisis of the system has worsened, while the government continues to score new failures in its main objectives: stopping and eradicating corruption, creating a strong inflow of hard currency and pushing forward the domestic economy, which not only makes an negotiated transition impossible to attain, but it also seriously undermines the aspirations for the continuity of the dictatorship.
HAVANA, Cuba, December, www.cubanet.org – During the days when the cruise ship Semester at Sea was anchored on Cuban territory, over 600 visitors, including students and teachers -mostly Americans– carried out a tight schedule of “meetings” with Cuban university students and toured “sites of historical and cultural interest”.
The December 11th edition of Granma published some of the opinions of the young northerners during “a brief meeting with reporters”: “I had never been so well received by the population as we were here,” commented a student from the University of Nebraska, while another one from the University of Virginia said that “Cubans are very welcoming”. But according to some in Havana who tried to contact the visitors, there was a strong undercover operation, with agents dressed as fruit vendors, pedicab drivers and even “pompously attired mulatto women” -those who dress in costumes around Old Havana to entertain tourists- monitored the area the whole time the cruise ship was anchored at port.
Other undercover individuals were posing simply as regular Cubans. However, Cubans’ sense of smell was not fooled when it came to identifying members of the pack of hounds.
Cubans who were interviewed by the visitors in each of the official program activities were selected among the most loyal communist militants, while Castro journalists covered the visit with their usual triumphalism, as if this were about another one of Castro’s achievement. But despite the careful planning of the visit’s programming by the Cuban authorities in the interests of the government’s political promotional agenda, and despite the students’ lack of contact with the population or with the diverse independent civil society, a group of them, despite controls of the political police, attended songwriter Boris Larramendi’s concert offered at the home of Antonio Rodiles (Estado de Sats), where they held a live dialogue with those in attendance, according to testimony of blogger Walfrido López, who was later detained at a police station after being violently arrested along with Rodiles and other activists and dissidents.
These students heard first-hand testimonials from those who are vying for a new Cuba, and they learned of repression and terror. They were also witnesses of the repudiation rally organized outside the home of Rodiles, in which the authorities had no qualms about using elementary school children, high school teens, and musicians who are eager to keep their perks and travel privileges, as in the case of Arnaldo y su Talisman. Arnaldo may need a huge talisman someday to explain his criminal complicity with those who repress other Cubans. There may probably be other trips and exchanges with these and other American students. Many of them reported the lack of information they have about the Cuban reality and about the true nature of the dictatorship. Hopefully these visits, laden with messages to the free world will recur. Totalitarian regimes don’t have antidotes against openness, and the satrapy will definitely not be able to keep hidden any longer the slavery and repression it has imposed upon Cubans for 55 years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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)