A Leader Of Civil Society, A Real Story Without A Moral / Reinaldo Escobar

Desde Aqui, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 27 March 2015 — On a cold November morning in the late eighties, some two hundred of us were trying to come to an agreement to organize a line to buy interprovincial bus tickets at an agency in Havana’s Playa municipality. As usually happens in these cases, the line had two heads, both justifying themselves with loud protestations of their indisputable evidence of having arrived first.

The vast majority of those gathered there were trying to spend Christmas in some province. For inexplicable reasons, two parallel lists had been drawn up, both established at different times. At that time – and to some extent still – the police prohibited these lists, so it wasn’t possible to appeal to the police authority to establish some order in such a confusing situation. Continue reading

An Innocent Proposition / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 11 March 2015 – The announced intention to promulgate a new Elections Law has already generated controversy.

It is striking that there is no talk of reforming the current law, only of writing a new one. As a blog is no space for legal dissertations, I want to limit myselt here to formulating a completely innocent proposal:

“Let the Cuban voters know how the candidates think.”

Or, to put it another way:

Let every voter have the ability to know how the deputies he or she elects is going to vote Continue reading

The potatoes arrived! No more potatoes! / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 February 2015 – Early in the morning Josefina heard on the morning news that Artemisa province had started the potato harvest. She heard that the “planned economy” target was almost 8,800 tons of potatoes and that the harvest would run through the middle of April. Almost intuitively, she looked through the blinds of her 8th floor apartment from where she could see that at the nearby farmers market there were two trucks unloading some sacks.

At that moment her daughter Olivia was staging the daily drama of putting on her primary school uniform and Josefina was faced the dilemma or whether to go stand in line before taking her daughter to school. “The potatoes are here!” her neighbor shouted and half the building leaned over their balconies to confirm it. By twenty minutes to eight she had already left her daughter, hair uncombed, at the door of the school, where an aide asked her, “Is it true? Are the potatoes here?”

The line extended around the corner, but her friend who sells plastic bags outside the market beckoned her to come and stand behind her. Half an hour later, Josefina had achieved her purpose. She hadn’t eaten a real potato for six months, and had only rarely had the hard currency necessary to buy a bag of dehydrated potatoes. The additional advantage was that 20 pounds of potatoes only cost 20 pesos in national money*, less than what she would have to spend for a little packet of instant mashed potatoes.

As she was leaving the market she heard the authoritative voice of the administrator shout, “No more potatoes!” A few steps away two burly young men whispered their proposed alternative, “A ten pound bag, only two fulitas (“little dollars”)**.”

Translator’s notes:

*See this article for a discussion of Cuba’s dual currency system.

**In other words, the black market potatoes cost more than four times the official market price… but they are available.

And the Conceptualization…? / Reinaldo Escobar

Granma newspaper in the wastebasket

Granma newspaper in the wastebasket

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 27 January 2014 – It’s been three years since the Communist Party of Cuba’s First National Conference. As can be expected, few are the people, including a great part of that organization’s own militants, who remember what was agreed to at that meeting and, to an even lesser extent, which of the adopted accords remain unimplemented. But, who cares?

The “Work Objectives” approved by the Conference, point 62 of Chapter II, titled “Ideological and Political Work,” outlines the need to “work especially on the conceptualization of the theoretical fundamentals of the Cuban economic model.” Eight months prior to that Conference, the Communist Party of Cuba’s Sixth Congress had revealed the Guidelines (Lineamientos) that would govern the country’s economic and social policies. All pointed to the fact that, since conceptualization could not be the source of inspiration for the Guidelines, it could at least be its after-the-fact theoretical justification.

However, the task of theorizing seems to be more complex than the practical application or, to say it in official jargon, “the implementation” of the Guidelines, which have a structure led by Mr. Marino Murillo, Minister of the Economy. Who is responsible for the conceptualization? What entity is committed to undertake it? No one knows. Continue reading

The Children of Melchior / Reinaldo Escobar

The Magi, the Three Kings

The Magi, the Three Kings

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 January 2015 – January 5, 1957. Under the enormous tamarind tree in the yard of my house in Camaguey, my cousin Alcibiades looked at me incredulously when I read a letter I intended to leave for the Three Kings. We were both 10, but he knew everything about life: where babies came from, how to light a cigar, and the basic differences between a Ford and a Chevrolet.

With his usual insolence he said, “Are you bonkers? Don’t you know it’s your father who puts the presents under your bed tonight?”

“Yeah, of course,” I said, confused, and put the letter in the pocket of my shirt. Continue reading

Are You One of Those Human Rights People? / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 9 December 2014 — Victims of political illiteracy — as so aptly described by Dagoberto Valdés — many people do not know the difference between being a member of an opposition party, a civil society activist, an independent journalist or a protester in their own right. All are usually accommodated under a single definition: “Those human rights people.”

I’m not going to give a history here — which needs to be written – of the Cuban movement in defense of human rights. In the last thirty years, several have specialized in researching, noting and reporting on violations committed in the country of those rights enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued on 10 December 1948. Continue reading

Between confrontation and dialogue / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 31 October 2014 – There has been a lot of talk lately of the presumed improvement in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba. In both countries there are tons of supporters for two antagonistic positions, which in summary and without a desire to simplify, can be reduced to two terms: confrontation and dialog.

Rivers of ink and saliva have been spilled to argue both ways and the more reasons are put forward the further away the solution seems. The worst is when the passions lead to personal attacks and the dismissal of those who think differently. And so I renounce mentioning names here and refrain from appealing to disparaging epithets.

If I were forced to choose I would vote for dialog. I resist confrontation.

But it is not enough. We immediately have to respond to another question that introduces a new dilemma: an unconditional dialog or without conditions.

The General President has insisted that he is willing to sit at the table as long as he is treated equally or, and it’s the same thing, under the condition that his legitimacy is not questioned. And of course without being asked to renounce the “bedrock principles of the Revolution.”

What legitimacy are we talking about? If we refer to the number of countries with which the Cuban government maintains diplomatic relations, its presence in international organizations or its ability to dictate laws and enforce them across the length and breadth of the country, then we have no choice but to admit that the Cuban leaders enjoy a high level of legitimacy even though they are considered dictators, usurpers or repressors of their people, and that is very evident in lack of popular will expressed in free elections. Continue reading

What You Saved Yourself From Camilo! / Reinaldo Escobar

Camilo Cienfuegos (archive photo)

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 31 October 2014 – For the first and last time, I saw him from afar for a fraction of a second on 21 October 1959, the day he passed through Camaguey to arrest Comandante Huber Matos. No one understood anything, but the presence of Camilo in the midst of the confusion gave us confidence that everything would be solved in the best possible way.

The details of the moment when his disappearance was reported (a week later) has been erased from my memory, but I haven’t forgotten that instant when they announced the false news that he had been found. People on the streets brought out flags and pictures of the Virgin of Charity. The joy was brief, but unforgettable.

How is it possible that in all these years, when not a single square yard remains unexplored, that not a single vestige has appeared (…)?

For a long time I was convinced that he might appear at any moment. In the years when I thought myself a poet, I even penned some verses describing his return. All the times I flew between Camaguey and Havana, every time I do it, I wondered what could be the reason for plunging into the sea… how a Cessna, that never flies too high, could fall on a site other than the island platform? How is it possible that in all these years, when not a single square yard remains unexplored, that not even one vestige has appeared, a part of an engine, the propeller, what do I know…

If he had survived what happened and not been involved in another similar incident, Camilo Cienfuegos would today be another octogenarian at the summit of power. If he had not been sacked, imprisoned or shot, he would be burdened today with the responsibility for a national disaster. We would no longer be discussing if he was more popular than the “other one,” but if he was as guilty.

Right now, as I write these lines, students are marching along the Malecon with flowers, the people who work in offices are leaving earlier than usual because they are going to throw flowers in the sea for Camilo. A ritual now lacking the emotions of the first years, when those who went to the shore to pay homage did so with tears in their eyes, and without having to be summoned by the director of a workplace or the principal of a school.

Death has immortalized among us his cheerful and popular image. If there is something beyond, and from that place he is watching us, he must feel happy to have disappeared in time. The death saved him from the ignominy, and the probable temptation of corruption and the humiliation of having been treated as a traitor and as an accomplice.

My October Crisis / Reinaldo Escobar

"The Nation On the Brink of War" -- The Missile Crisis referred to in the official Cuban press.

“The Nation On the Brink of War” — The Missile Crisis referred to in the official Cuban press.

By Reinaldo Escobar — One of my recurring journalistic fantasies consists of managing to reveal some hidden secret. Among my darkest objects of research are two in the month of October: The Missile Crisis and the death of Camilo Cienfuegos. On this occasion I will speak of the first, but as I have no access to the archives I will tell when I myself experienced in that critical episode in our recent history.

I was 15 and was working in the coffee plantations of Guisa, in the Sierra Maestra. That was the first great mobilization of Cuban students for volunteer work, according to agreements reached at the First Confgress of the Secondary Students Union (UES), held on 6 August of that same year, 1962. Thousands of us students participated in this harvest which yielded – according to published data – the highest output in history, over 27 million pounds of coffee.

On Monday, 22 October, more or less at the time that president John F. Kennedy imposed the naval blockage on our island, our backpacks were stuffed with coffee beans, without anyone noticing any alteration in the routine. And so the week ended. Without telephones, electricity or portable radios.

(…) I saw a photo of Fidel displaying the five fingers of his right hand with a headline (…) “The Five Points of Cuba”

The first of November I had to “go down to the town” to visit a doctor because I was suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea. On throwing myself off the cart that left me in Guisa, I ran into a bar where I found rustic facilities to relieve my cramps. At eye height, there were a few sheets of the newspaper “Revolution” – the newspaper Granma didn’t exist yet – stuck on a nail. On looking over the first page, I saw a photo of Fidel displaying the five fingers of his right hand with a headline that said, as I remember, “The five points of Cuba.”

Stunned as I was, I was pulling off the sheets – which someone had had the delicacy to put in reverse chronological order – one by one. My feelings at this moment, apart from the physical, were many. On the one hand I felt guilty for not being behind one of the “cuatro bocas” – the “four mouths” as we called the Czech-made machine guns – at the supreme moment when “the maximum leader” proclaimed “we are all one in this hour of danger.”

(…) While our world was about to burst, our brave little brigade was gathering the coffee beans, abandoned to its fate

At times I had the insane idea that while our world was about to burst, our brave little brigade was gathering the coffee beans, abandoned to its fate, without even knowing the risks, with no one coming to rescue us, to protect us. But every time I this worry came to me, I rejected it because this should be the anguish of my overprotective mother, and not of a “soldier of the Revolution” always ready to give “the last drop of his blood.”

Fifty-two years have passed and there are few things still unrevealed about that crisis. If there is any revelation left to me after telling this personal story it is the detail of what our little group was called, twelve beardless boys answering to the name “Lenin Peace Prize Brigade.” We had been baptized thus because this was the name of the award Fidel Castro had received seven months earlier, from the hands of the Soviet scientist Dmitri Skobeltsyn.

I must confess that at that time I could not hear the contradiction that a leader decorated for his peaceful vocation had been about to trigger the last war in human history.

Shortly afterwards I realized the horror encapsulated in that situation, but it was already over.

The elections we didn’t have / Reinaldo Escobar

1948 Election Propaganda : "The wise distinguish"

REINALDO ESCOBAR, Havana. 6 October 2014 – This Sunday news agencies around the world, especially in Latin America, awaited the results of the first round elections in Brazil. The question of whether Dilma Rousseff will remain president of that vast country, simply the question, will be one of concern and anxiety to many people in Cuba and I’m not just referring to those in the offices of the Plaza of the Revolution who could see this or that project at risk, should the continuity be broken.

The actual experience of political change is a phenomenon alien to our country for the vast majority of the people. In fact the “youngest” Cubans who ever exercised the right to choose between one president and another, are now 88-years-old, because they would have had to be 21 in 1947, which would have allowed them to choose between three candidates: Eduardo Chibás, from the Cuban People’s Party (known as: Orthodox); Juan Marinello, for the Peoples Socialist Party (Communist); and Carlos Prío Socarrás, from the Authentic Party, who was ultimately the winner of that last contested election.

In 1976 citizens were led to believe they would become voters

Since then the concept of elections has become fuzzy, especially since 1976 when citizens were led to believe they would become voters, because they could approve a slate of candidates created by the will of those who were unwilling to relinquish power.

What is curious is that the commentators of whatever media, privately owned by the Communist Party, will speak with the greatest naturalness of the matter of 26 October, when the mystery of the Brazilian second round elections will be cleared up. They will address the subject without daring to say a single word that would make their readers wonder why Brazilians and other Latin Americans have that right and we do not.

If the multi-party system is that “multi-trash” system that renamed the only ex-president still alive, the re-election of Dilma Rousseff should also be considered illegitimate. If Aécio Neves emerges as the winner, they will have to turn to one or more psychiatrists to explain, with the “maneuvers of imperialism,” the irrevocable decision of a free people.

Street people / Reinaldo Escobar

Callejeros-Habana-Buenos-Aires_CYMIMA20140928_0001_16 (2)

In the two photos that I compare here I am not intending to insinuate that it’s the same in Buenos Aires as in Havana, because there will always be people sleeping on the street.

The Havanan (or maybe he is from another province) who sleeps shirtless in the full sun on the centrally-located Avenue of the Presidents at the corner of 23rd, in the heart of El Vedado, has left his shoes in reach of anyone who might steal them, figuring, perhaps, that there’s no one more poor than he. The pants he is wearing are tied with something that clearly isn’t a belt, and one could wager that he has ingested a goodly dose of alcohol. In the background, a reminder of the World Cup, the Argentine flag flies accompanied by one from Germany and another from Brazil.

The Argentine (probably an immigrant) protects himself from a slight chill with perhaps too many clothes and has something like a briefcase for a pillow. His image could illustrate the drama of many unemployed, people who have seen their lives shattered with the latest crisis. Behind him are more or less luxurious cars, contrasting with his misery. On the walls are the libertarian slogans of some graffiti artists that nobody has bothered to paint over. The street looks clean and everyone who passes by ignores him.

If they are sleeping they are dreaming of different, but equally unattainable, things.

28 September 2014

“I am optimistic I will see prosperity in Cuba” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, 8 August 2014, Reinaldo Escobar – Pinar del Río born and bread, and a member of the editorial board of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), Karina Gálvez has made some important decisions in her life. She wants to continue to live in Cuba, to help change the country from civil society and some to recover the piece of patio that the authorities confiscated from her parents’ house. Today she talks with the readers of 14ymedio about her personal evolution, the Cuban economy, and her dreams for the future.

Question: Isn’t it a bit contradictory to be an economist in Cuba?

Answer: When I graduated, the final subject of my thesis focused on the economic effectiveness of the use of bagasse (sugar cane stalk fiber) for boards. The result of the investigation was negative, because making boards in those conditions was expensive and the product quality was very bad. But they ignored us.

Q: Since the conclusion of your studies you have dedicated yourself to teaching. Did you ever instill in your students that socialism was the best way to manage an economy? Continue reading