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

Perception of Risks / Reinaldo Escobar

There are many who try to imprint their pronouncements with the hallmark of official discourse. To blend in and achieve uniformity with that language, they select certain words, certain phrases and investigate ways to say typical newspaper articles, academic dissertations or legal allegations.

One of the most recent linguistic elements of this nature consists of a curious pairing in which one part is the concept of “risk perception,” and the other part is “vulnerability.” Meteorologists, epidemiologists, traffic safety specialists, economists, don’t hesitate to say that to the point that the perception of risk is higher, one can reduce the vulnerability of the presumed victims of a danger.

I confess my ignorance of the origin of this equation, which not only seems logical to me but even lucid. I suspect that it has been imported from an international academic environment — perhaps from military strategy or scientific language — when some clever member of a Cuban delegation was caught out there sowing it in the fertile ground of lack of originality in the official phraseology. The funny thing is that the verbal combination is not indebted to either Marxist dialectic or the harangues of the barricade. It’s implacably cold, but catchy.

Try it yourself and confirm it. Say, for example, that the lack of information in our press about criminal acts noticeably reduces the perception of risk that a person in the street should have and, as a consequence, increases the vulnerability of a citizen to criminal attacks. The triumphalist tone of the ministerial reports to the Cuban parliament don’t allow an adequate perception of the risks that threaten our society, which leads to greater vulnerability, be it with regards to the economy, education, healthcare, tourism, or anything else.

If we think of all the vulnerabilities that open before us, like cracks on the edge of the abyss, when the lack of perception of risk posed by transparency, secrecy, the verticality of command, the lack of citizen participation in decisions, the absence of political debate, the penalization of dissent, in short, it’s scary.Perceiving the risks, decreases our vulnerability.

27 June 2014

We Were Young / Reinaldo Escobar

Almost 27 years ago the magazine Somos Jóvenes (We Are Young) was born. That edition was historic because of the publication of two investigations, one, The Sandra Case, about prostitution, and the other titled Academic Fraud? In that era we were able to publish a note in the state-owned newspaper Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth) announcing the launch of the controversial magazine.

Under the title Academic Fraud? we unmasked one of the negative phenomena of our society, which went far beyond that committed by the students facing their university exams, and manifested itself in other sectors that had nothing to do with the teaching process, at least formally. Continue reading

My Bad Memory / Reinaldo Escobar

Official institutions should do what they promise they will. If this institution is the most official of all and the promises touch on essential matters, then the inescapable obligation is almost solemn.

With the members of its organization and with the people whom it governs by law, the Cuban Communist Party has at least two outstanding obligations, both of them contracted during the First National Conference, held on 28 January 2012.

One of these is already drafted, “the conceptualization of the fundamental theories of the Cuban economic model,” and the other is the renewal of the Party Central Committee by at least 20%. Continue reading

14ymedio: Neither the First nor the Last / Reinaldo Escobar

14ymedio_logoAs Yoani Sanchez has already announced, midweek this coming week a new digital medium, baptized 14ymedio, will see the light. We have the intention to update it daily and, if possible, more than once a day.

When the Internet becomes, for Cubans, something simple and accessible as it is for every other 21st Century Latin American, perhaps them we’ll be on the list of favorites of housewives who want to make a dessert, of entrepreneurs who want to know where to invest their money, or why not to, of politicians who need to know the trends in public opinion. Continue reading

The Invisible Posters / Reinaldo Escobar

1398697393_plaza-de-la-revolucion-primero-de-mayo-cuba-580x326I haven’t heard that in the last half century someone has managed to bring posters with “politically incorrect” messages to the May Day parade. I don’t doubt it’s been tried; I even believe that with a good dose of ingenuity some brave soul raised a banner with second or third readings. But for this celebration, which has the declared intention of being the largest in the world, I would like to raise (or see) a board where one could read messages like these:

“Raul: the earth isn’t trembling, but we are.

(Appropriate to all employment sectors)

“Millionaires the world over, invest your money in Cuba. We promise not to strike or demand wages.”

(Workers from the Mariel Special Development Zone)

“Doctors had the patience to wait for better wages, we do too.”

(Workers in Education)

“We don’t need independent unions to support the Revolution.”

(Self-employed Cubans)

“No change in the currency will change our attitude to work.”

(Foodworkers Union)

“We don’t need alternative sources of information. What the newspaper Granma tells us is more than enough.”

(Union of Cuban Journalists)

And so on as long as the fantasy lasts us. It wouldn’t be luck, but that texts of this nature would manage to leap the barrier of “Revolutionary vigilance.”

I also doubt–forgive me brave souls–that the necessary dose of courage could be assembled, even to dare subtleties like these.

However, these play-on-words would be harmless jokes, if on the platform they had the gift of reading what is in the minds of those who march (not to mention what those who didn’t attend were thinking). If the invisible posters (by some miracle) soon materialize, then there would be others who would begin to tremble.

28 April 2014

Play it again, Sam / Reinaldo Escobar

My former colleague Jose Alejandro Rodriguez who aptly handles the Letters to the Editor section in the newspaper Juventud Rebelede (Rebel Youth), last Wednesday published the comments of a reader annoyed by the absence of beer in the snack bars and markets.

Since I noticed the absence of this refreshing liquid a couple of weeks ago, I supposed it would be difficult for anyone to venture to complain about its lack because, if he did so, the intrepid one would betray himself as a consumer of a product considered luxurious in our complex trade relationships.

I remember when our the first hard currency snack bar opened in our neighborhood and the commentators agreed that it would be counting on people who were spending their “bucks” on something that wasn’t a basic necessity. Life demonstrates that we were wrong. Despite the fact that a worker who earns 480 Cuban pesos a month has to work 8 hours to give into the whim for a cold brew, it’s clear that neither Cristal nor Bucanero can be considered privileges of the new rich.

If pitted olives were missing, or Norwegian salmon, maybe no one would notice, except for foreigners living in the country and a few others among the economically well-off, but it happens that there is an authentic popular complaint against the loss of domestic beer and Jose Alejandro has been the first to break the news in the press, although with the limitation that the complaint was directed against “the producing entities, distributors or sellers of beer in Cuba” and that “it’s past time when they should have explained the why so sudden disappearance.”

Why, in the midst of a campaign against secrecy, haven’t our media gone and knocked at the door of those who are obliged to give an explanation? Is it because from the top management of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation no one has sent down the order to address the issue? Or perhaps it’s because no official journalist dares to confess that he himself drinks a brew from time to time or has anything to do with those who do. I myself have been a victim of this unspeakable guilt complex that leads us to give the impression that we are not even aware that beer is missing.

The unborn body of this New Man, who failed among us, usually appears as a ghost to give us a fright when we are about to make a consumer misstep. Touch wood!

14 April 2014

The Prisoners / Reinaldo Escobar

Not a week goes by that we don’t receive a phone call from some Cuban prison to denounce physical abuses, denial of visits, lack of medical care and other outrages. The vast majority are common prisoners, men and women, many of whom say they have been politicized in prison. The majority consider themselves totally innocent of the charges that sent them to prison, others accept their responsibility for the imputed events but feel they’ve received a disproportionate sentence.

It’s almost impossible to verify these complaints and this desire for objectivity from which we suffer keeps us from talking about every case. Our greatest treasure is the credibility we’ve achieved among our readers, but every call provokes a dilemma that makes us see ourselves as egotists or cowards, after listening to a Cuban behind bars spell his name–so we will get it right–and state the name and rank of the boss of his prison, the person who denies him medications, suspends his visits, or sends him to the punishment cell.

However serious the crime committed, no citizen should be helpless against the abuses of power. Whose duty is it to protect their rights?

7 April 2014