Of Freebies and Schools / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

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Elementary school students (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 September 2014 – The school bell rings and the children enter the classroom followed by their parents. The first day of classes triggers joy, although a few tears are shed by some who miss their homes. That’s what happened to Carla, who just started kindergarten at a school in Cerro. The little girl is lucky because she got a teacher who has taught elementary school for several years and has mastered the content. “What luck!” some of the little one’s family members think, just before another mother warns them, “But beware of the teacher, she demands every student bring her a bit of a snack from home.”

On the afternoon of September 1, the first parent meeting took place. After the introductions and welcoming remarks, the teacher enumerated everything that the classroom was lacking. “We have to raise money for a fan,” she said, unsmiling. Carla had already suffered from the morning heat, so her mother gave the 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that was her daughter’s share, so she would have a little breeze while studying. ”We also need to buy a broom and mop for cleaning, three fluorescent tubes for the lights, and a trash can,” said the teaching assistant.

A list of requests and needs added some disinfectant for the bathroom, “Because we don’t want the flu,” said the teacher herself. The total expenditures began to grow, and a lock was added, “So that no one steals things when there’s no one in the school.” A father offered some green paint to paint the blackboard, and another offered to fix the hinges on the door, which was lopsided. “I recommend that you buy the children’s notebooks on the street because the ones we received to hand out this year are as thin as onion skin and tear just by using an eraser,” the teacher added.

After the meeting Carla’s family calculated some 250 Cuban pesos in expenses to support the little girl’s education, half the monthly salary of her father, who is a chemical engineer. Then the school principal came to the meeting and rounded it off with, “If anyone knows a carpenter and wants to hire him to fix their child’s desk, feel free.”

Who is Filling the University Classrooms? / Yoani Sanchez

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New students at the University of Havana (14ymedio)

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 2 September 2014 — Born during the Special Period, they have grown up trapped in the dual currency system, and when they get their degrees Raul Castro will no longer be in power. They are the more than one hundred thousand young people just starting college throughout the country. Their brief biographies include educational experiments, battles of ideas, and the emergence of new technologies They know more about X-Men than about Elpidio Valdés, and only remember Fidel Castro from old photos and archived documentaries.

They are the Wi-Fi kids with their pirate networks, raised with the “packets” of copied shows and illegal satellite dishes. Some nights they would connect through routers and play strategy video games that made them feel powerful and free. Whoever wants to know them should know that they’ve had “emerging teachers” since elementary school and were taught grammar, math and ideology via television screens. However, they ended up being the least ideological of the Cubans who today inhabit this Island, the most cosmopolitan and with the greatest vision of the future.

On arriving at junior high school they played at throwing around around the obligatory snack of bread while their parents furtively passed their lunches through the school gate. They have a special physical ability, an adaptation that has allowed them to survive the environment; they don’t hear what doesn’t interest them, they close their ears to the harangues of morning assemblies and politicians. They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage. They’re better than us and will live in a country that has nothing to do with what we were promised.

They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage.

A few months ago, these same young people, starred in the best known case of school fraud uncovered publicly. Some of those hoping to earn a place in higher education bought the answers to an admissions test. They were used to paying for approval, because they had to turn to private tutors to teach them what they should have learned in the classroom. Many of those who recently enrolled in the university had private teachers starting in elementary school. They are the children of a new emerging class that has used its resources so that their children can reach a desk at the right hand—or the left—of the Alma Mater.

These young people dressed in uniforms in their earlier grades, but they struggled to differentiate themselves through the length of a shirt, a fringe of bleached hair, or through pants sagging below their hips. They are the children of those who barely had a change of underwear in the nineties, so their parents tried to make sure they didn’t “go through the same thing,” and turned to the black market for their clothes and shoes. They mock the false austerity and, not wanting to look like militants, they love bright shiny colors and name brand outfits.

Yesterday, with the start of the school year, they received a lecture about the attempts of “imperialism to undermine the Revolution through its youth.” It was like a faint drizzle running over an impervious surface. The Government is right to be worried, these young people who have entered the university will never become good soldiers or fanatics. The clay from which they are made cannot be molded.

Jabitas (Plastic Bags) and Pensions for the Elderly

Selling 'jabitas' (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

Selling ‘jabitas’ (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 August 2014 – “I need some dark glasses,” Veronica told me one day when I ran into her on the street. Almost seventy, the lady underwent cataract surgery some months ago and now must “take care of my eyes,” as she explained to me. She works in the sun selling jabitas (plastic bags) to the customers of the farmers market on Tulipan Street. The harsh midday glare is hard on her eyesight, but that’s not the worst of her problems. “We have an alarm system to know when the police are coming, although sometimes they’re in plainclothes and catch us by surprise.” Last month she paid a 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US) for engaging in illegal sales, and this week she received a warning letter for recidivism for the same offense.

If you read articles like Randy Alonso’s about the absence of bags in the hard currency stores, you might come to believe this resource is being diverted into the hands of unscrupulous traders. However, it’s enough to simply know Veronica to understand that her business is one more of misery than of profit. For the four decades she worked as a cleaning assistant in a school, the lady now receives a pension that doesn’t exceed ten dollars a month. Without the resale of the plastic bags, she would have to beg, but she asserts that she “would die before asking for money in the streets.” She is not to blame, rather she is a victim of the circumstances that have pushed her into an illegal activity to survive.

Having to carry purchases in one’s hands in the absence of bags is something that annoys any buyer. But realizing that Randy Alonzo, one of the great spokesmen of the current system, doesn’t know the human dramas that lead to the diversion of plastic bags, is even more irritating. It’s not about callous people who are dedicated to enriching themselves through the fruits of State embezzlement, but rather citizens whose economic poverty leads them to resell whatever product comes into their hands. Right now Veronica is outside some business, wearing the old dark glasses they gave her, muttering “I have jabitas, I have jabitas, one peso each.”

Official Press: Triumphalism, Blacklisting and Censorship / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

News kiosk (Luz Escobar)

News kiosk (Luz Escobar)

14YMEDIO, Havana, Yoani Sanchez, 22 August 2014 – The phone rings and it’s a friend who works for a government publication. She’s content because she’s published an article that attacks bureaucracy and corruption. The young woman finished college two years ago and has been working in a digital medium that deals with cultural and social issues. She has the illusions of a recent graduate, and she believes she can do objective journalism, close to reality, and help to improve her country.

My friend has had some luck, because she exercises this profession at a time when the national media is trying to more closely reflect the problems of our society. The official journalist exists in a timid Glasnost, 25 years after a similar process in the Soviet Union. If that attempt at “information transparency” was promoted through Perestroika, on the Island it’s been pushed by the Sixth Communist Party Congress Guidelines. In this way, a more objective and less triumphalist press is pushed—from above. The same power that helped create laudatory newspapers, now urges a shift from applause to criticism. But it’s not easy.

The original sin of the official press is not the press, but propaganda. It emerged to sustain the ideological political-economic model and it can’t shed that genesis. The first steps in the creation of the current national media always includes an act of faith in the Revolution, It is also funded entirely by the Government, which further affects its editorial line. It’s worth noting that the official media is not profitable, that is, it doesn’t generate income or even support its print runs or transmissions. Hence, it operates with subsidies taken from the national coffers. All Cubans sustain the newspapers Granma and Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the Cubavision channel or Radio Reloj (Clock Radio)… whether we like it or not. Continue reading

Chrome Becomes “Legal” in Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

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Yesterday, the giant Google authorized the download of their well-known browser Chrome by Cuban internauts. The announcement came just two months after several of the American company’s executives visited Havana and saw for themselves the problems we suffer accessing the vast World Wide Web.

Among the topics of conversation between several members of 14ymedio and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, were precisely these restrictions. Hence, our satisfaction on knowing that the opinions of citizens interested in the free flow of information and technology influenced the elimination of this prohibition. An obstacle that, while it was in effect, affected the Cuban population more than a Government that is among the greatest Internet predators in the world.

During their trip to Cuba the four Google directors not only suffered the inconvenience of the digital sites censored by the Cuban authorities, and the high prices to connect from public places, but also experienced the restrictions imposed by their own company on Cuban Internet users. If must have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow to try to download Google Chrome and see the screen appear saying, “This service is not available in your country.”

We Cuban user, fortunately, had not expected the American company to be allowed to access the program from a national Internet Provider. Google Chrome, along with Mozilla Firefox and the controversial Internet Explorer, have been the most used browsers in our country. It simply required someone to bring an installer, after downloading it for free on a trip abroad, for it to pass from hand to hand—or flash memory stick to flash memory stick— and to be installed on hundreds (thousands?) of computers.

What has happened now is that we have gone from being illegal users to joining the brotherhood of more than 750 million people around the world using this program in an authorized manner. Services such as Google AnalyticsGoogle Earth and the Android App Store are now awaiting a similar thaw. Hopefully we will not have to wait from another visit to Cuba by directors of Google for these limitations to be eliminated!

21 August 2014

Dengue Fever and Tall Stories for Children / Yoani Sanchez

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Explaining death to a child is always a difficult task. Some parents reach for a metaphor and others lie. The adults justify someone’s death to children with phrases that range from “he’s gone to heave to live on a cloud,” to the tall story that “he’s gone on a trip.” The worst is when these inventions transcend the family and become the political information policy of a State. To falsify to people the actual incidence of death, is to rob them of their maturity and deny their right to transparency.

In 1981 an epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever broke out in Cuba. I was barely six, but that situation left me deeply traumatized. The first thing they told us in school was that the disease had been introduced by “Yankee imperialism.” The Uncle Sam of my childish nightmares no longer threatened us with a gun, but rather with a huge Aedes aegypti mosquito, ready to infect us with bonebreak fever. My family panicked when they began to learn about the dead children. The emergency room at the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital was a hive of screaming and crying. My mother asked me once an hour if anything hurt, her hand on my forehead checking for fever.

There was no information, only whispers and fear, a lot of fear. By not speaking publicly about the true source of the evil, the population could barely protect itself. In my primary school we kept running to the shelter—underneath the Ministry of Basic Industries—in the face of the “imminent military attack” that was coming from the North. Meanwhile, a small stealthy enemy ran rampant among people my age. That lie didn’t take long to become obvious. Decades later dengue fever has returned, although I dare say it never left, and all these years the health authorities have tried to hide it.

Now there is no one else to blame, as if hygiene hasn’t deteriorated in our country. It is not the Pentagon, but the thousands of miles of damaged plumbing leaking all over the Island. It is not the CIA, but the inefficiency of a system that has not even managed to build new drainage and sewer networks. The responsibility doesn’t point overseas, but directly at us. No laboratory has created this virus to kill Cubans, it is our own material and sanitary collapse that keeps us from being able to control it.

At least that story for children, where the evil always came from abroad, no longer works. The tall story, which presented us as victims infected by American perfidy, is accepted only by the most naïve. Like children grow up, we have found that the Government has lied to us about dengue fever and that those were not paternalistic falsehoods, but sophisticated lies of the State.

The Castros in Their Labyrinth / Yoani Sanchez (Fromthe New York Times)

HAVANA — A mix of grease and melted cheese drips from the pizza to the concrete floor. It’s a hot day and the man is holding the slice at the counter of a coffee shop. While he waits, the clerk comments on how this is “a country where no one understands.” To which the customer replies, now with his mouth full: “Well yes, and that 21st-century socialism thing is going to have to wait until the 22nd century.”

So far, the government of Raúl Castro has issued nearly half a million licenses for people to work in the private sector. This is a huge change from 1968, when every single job — even shining shoes — was nationalized. During the revolutionary offensive, all small businesses ended up in the hands of the government. Private Cuba was swept away and stigmatized, only to be reborn decades later. In 1993, spurred by an economic crisis, Fidel Castro permitted the reopening of the private sector. This turned out to be Mr. Castro’s worst defeat — one he tried to mask as a victory, as he usually did whenever he stumbled. Continue reading

“We can act creatively with respect to Cuba.” Interview with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Yoani Sanchez

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during the interview with Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sánchez, Washington | May 27, 2014

The debate about relations between Cuba and the United States has heated up following the publication of a letter signed by 40 American personalities asking President Barack Obama for flexibility toward the Island. The proposal has unleashed passions and speculation, also fueled by the imminent arrival in Havana of representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Cuban society, however, seems to remain out of the headlines, the hot articles, the replies — or support — like the so-called “letter of the 40” already circulating on the networks and in emails. Thinking about this uninformed population submerged in the big problems of everyday life, I did this interview with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who received me in Washington a few weeks before the launch of 14ymedio.

Question. The Cuban government has recently passed a new foreign direct investment law that has been met with both critics as well as a certain level of expectation. Will the promotion of this law change anything in U.S. Policy with respect to Cuba, specifically in regard to the ability of U.S. Citizens to invest in the Island?

Answer. U.S. Policy with respect to Cuba is guided by the commitment to support the desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their own future, supporting U.S. interests and promoting universal values. Continue reading

Reaping the Whirlwind / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Today, while I publish this text, thousands of students from Havana are sitting in front of their Mathematics exam. The schedule for admission to the University has had to incorporate a new test date for this subject, after a scandalous case of fraud. The leaking and selling of the questions ended with the cancellation of the previous test results, three teachers arrested, and an unknown number of students investigated.

Although fraudulent practices are common in Cuban schools, this case has provoked a profound reflection in our society, including in the official press. We have seen on our small screens dozens of interviews with people who repudiate cheating by copying another, and the lie of procured knowledge you don’t have. Few, if any, reflect on the environment of hypocrisies, double standards and simulations in which these teenager, now between sixteen and seventeen, have come of age. Continue reading

Ah… You’re Not in the “Package” / Yoani Sanchez

Collective taxi

Climbing into a collective taxi at midday, with its whole body heated by the sun and creaking at every pothole, is a shocking experience. You duck your head and make yourself small to sit on the improvised seats. A loose thread hanging from your pants leg or skirt catches on a badly set screw, its metal tip never rounded off. Then comes the hardest test: accepting the driver’s musical taste, which is playing full blast. But it’s also a unique sociological experience, a journalistic look that calls you to reflect on this peculiar reality we inhabit. Continue reading

14ymedio / Yoani Sanchez

Yesterday I was arguing with a friend about the importance of journalism in the current Cuban situation. He wanted to convince me to join his opposition party and I reminded him that a reporter should not have any kind of militancy. It was an affectionate conversation, peppered with jokes, but one which made clear the different positions that must be taken by a reporter versus a politician.

Now here I am, remembering the conversation of a few hours ago and posting on my personal blog the face and name of a shared dream. A medium that we hope will support and accompany the necessary transition that is going to take place in our country. A space dedicated to narrating a reality where there are people like my friend, but also other people who applaud the current system, out of conviction, opportunism or fear. A space to report on Cuba from within Cuba.

It will be a difficult road. In recent weeks we have seen a preview of how official propaganda will demonize us for creating this medium. Already, in fact, several people on our work team have received the first warning calls from State Security. However, we have no reason to be hesitant. 14ymedio emerges with nothing to hide. Information regarding its editorial approach, ethics and financial commitments will be available on our web page which will go live on May 21. Although we had hoped to have it working today, I have to admit that technology is, at times, extremely capricious.

For those who are wondering why this name, so unique and different, the fact is that we originate from the fourteenth floor in the fourteenth year. In addition, it includes the “Y” that has accompanied me all these years, and the word “media” with all its journalistic connotations. We wanted to shy away from appropriating the name of Cuba for use on our masthead, and instead we have chosen the most universal of codes: numbers.

Now, all that’s missing is that it pleases you, generates debate, and provides you with information. Thanks in advance!

14 May 2014

Repression by Episodes / Yoani Sanchez

Photo from http://www.ojocientifico.com/

What does the insect caught in the web feel as it watches its predator approach? What are its thoughts in the seconds between the anticipation of the attack and death? It must be a lot like the days in which a repressive trap is built around an individual, a group, a society. Similar to that script that builds the justifications for a blow, molding public opinion, filling in the archive that will later be presented to the press or the courts.

The current strategy against the Cuban opposition resembles the slow creep of the spider’s legs toward its victim.

We are living in a soap opera episode-by-episode, an attempt to demonize technologies and the dissidence, who knows if to repeat those dark days of the Black Spring of March 2003. The blow approaches, in the insistence in which the press repeats certain refrains, its obsession with themes like Zunzuneo and trying to link it with the violence of four supposed terrorists recently discovered in the country. Like in a bad TV show, the threads are showing in the tying together of mobile phones, Twitter, death and war. Fortunately these soap operas barely work any more on a Cuban public too focused on their daily needs, overwhelmed by material shortages, saturated with ideology and obsessed more with escapism than with civic consciousness.

The trap is almost set. Will it be used? Who knows. But there’s not much that can be done to stop it, except to denounce it. At the end of the story the spider is always bigger, stronger, more imposing.

12 May 2014