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

Raul Castro: Man Alone in the Crowd / Yoani Sanchez

Raul Castro during a public event

The shouts, the posters, the slogans in a million voice chorus, awaken dormant, extinct sensations. Seeing the sea of people passing in front of the platform, his heart skips a beat in his chest. The red face, dilated pupils, goosebumps and tension in the jaw. They are the first symptoms of the excitement crowds provoke in caudillos. A ritual they need to dip their hand into from time to time, to avoid the solitude of power.

Autocrats invent marches, huge processions, lavish parades–”the biggest in the world”–to rejoice in their own authority. They know that they, and only they, can force a million people out of their beds in the early hours, load them onto buses, write down the names of every attendee, and set them to marching through a great plaza. To make it clear who’s the boss, to send a message by way of a crowd chanting their name, worshiping them and giving thanks. A “mass” that would never dare to stand down, people whom they don’t rub shoulders with, whom they fear and who–deep inside–they despise.

Today, in the Plaza of the Revolution, an elderly man in sunglasses will preside over the May Day event. Days ahead of time every rooftop near the place has been checked out and guards have been posted at the highest points in the city, calculating how a shot could be fired at the platform. His own grandson will remain close to protect him and a fleet of cars will be waiting “in case something happens” and he has to escape. He doesn’t trust the very crowd that he himself has summoned.

The autocrat is afraid of his own people. Fear and suspicion. The feeling is mutual. He knows that the hundreds of thousands of heads he looks down upon are there… because they fear him, not because they love him.

30 April 2014

How Do We Make A Good Newspaper? / Yoani Sanchez

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 12.32.16 PMIn these times, when the great media of the press barely seem to survive the crisis, many are wondering, how can we make a good newspaper? The question includes not only choosing content, but also how to make it profitable and the dilemma between digital or paper formats. There are no clear formulas. Small websites become–in a short time–information reference points, while some of the news giants fall into the red and lose readers. No one knows for sure where the press of the future is headed.

We are used to technological advances and leapfrogging; Cubans will very like jump from an official press under the monopoly of a single party, to a multitude of media pushing to gain prominence. The day when non-government media is legalized, numerous publications–now underground–will be able to be read openly and even sold at the corner newsstand. Although that time is still to come, it’s worth it to begin preparing.

If I could highlight at least one indispensable feature of the press, I would choose interaction with readers. The close relationship between the writer of the information and its recipient is vital for a newspaper to meet the demands of modernity and objectivity. Right now in Havana, we are putting the final touches on a new digital media that will greatly help us to listen to your opinions. Without you, it would be only a medium talking to itself, ephemeral and inconsequential.

So back to the main question: How do we make a good newspaper? What are the topics that we should address in its pages? What sections are worth incorporating on the site? How can we involve you in developing the content? Which are the indispensable bylines we should include? What model or example should we follow? And the big question: Can we exercise quality journalism amid the current conditions in Cuba?

You can leave answers in the comments on this blog, on the Dontknow debate page, or on the CONTACT page. Thanks in advance for helping to give shape to the baby before its birth.

23 April 2014

Alamar and Hip-Hop / Yoani Sanchez


Let’s go to Alamar! My mother would say and we would head out to visit some relatives who lived in that so-called “Siberia.” We arrived in an area of ugly, coarse buildings haphazardly tossed on the grass. We would play with other kids among these concrete boxes in the high grass that grew all around. It smelled of the sea, and also of boredom. It should have been the city of the New Man, but it was just a failed architectural experiment.

Alamar, despite its urbanist failings, has been the hotbed of a vibrant and rebellious musical genre: hip-hop. Its amphitheater has hosted some of the most memorable alternative concerts in Island memory. Hard songs, composed with the words of daily life and the poetry of the street. Duels between opponents who, instead of throwing weapons or blows, launch words and rhymes. How did the stage for this “citizen laboratory” end up sheltering these lyrics of the rebellion? What happened with the victorious anthems that led to such corrosive verses of survival?

What happened was that reality set in. Alamar was one of the areas of Havana hardest hit by the economic hardships of the Special Period. It saw thousands of its inhabitants leave during the 1994 Rafter Crisis, and suffered extremely long power cuts accompanied by robberies and other acts of violence. The Russian technicians left, the squatters made the empty homes they left their own, and the Chilean exiles who lived there, for the most part, returned to their own country.

Then the immigrants from the eastern provinces arrived, illegal constructions extended on all sides, and the police declared that bedroom city a “danger zone.” A “people warehouse,” conceived for disciplined and mediocre people, demonstrated that when you play with the social or constructive alchemy, you rarely achieve the desired results.

Amid the gray cement, the tiny rooms and the boredom, hip-hop has become the daily soundtrack. Alamar has its own rhythm. A cadence that hits the head like the waves that crash against its dogtooth coastline. Like the picks hitting the ground to lay the foundation of a quadrilateral and submissive future that never came.

21 April 2014

Violence and Public Discourse / Yoani Sanchez

Poster for the sixth anniversary of the magazine Coexistence

A woman hits a child, who appears to be her son, on one corner. The passersby who see it don’t get involved. A hundred yards further on, two men get in a fight because one stepped on the other’s shoe. I arrive home thinking about this aggressiveness, just under the skin, that I feel in the street. To relax my tension I read the latest issue of the magazine Coexistence, which just celebrated six years since its founding. I find in its pages an article by Miriam Celaya, who coincidentally addresses this “dangerous spiral” of blows, screams and irritation that surrounds us.

Under the title “Notes on the anthropological origins of violence in Cuba,” the scathing analyst delves into the historical and cultural antecedents of the phenomenon. Our own national trajectory, steeped in “blood and fire,” does not help much when it comes time to promote attitudes like pacifism, harmony and reconciliation. From the horrors of slavery during the colonial period, through the wars of independence with their machete charges and their high-handed caudillos,  up to the violent events that also characterized the republic. A long list of fury, blows, weapons and insults shaped our character and are masterfully enumerated by the journalist in her text.

The process that started in 1959 deserves special mention, as it made class hatred and the elimination of those who are different fundamental pillars of the political discourse. Thus, even today, the greater part of the anniversaries commemorated by the government refer to battles, wars, deaths or “flagrant defeats inflicted” on the opponent. The cult of anger is such that the official language itself no longer realizes the rage it promotes and transmits.

But take care! Hatred cannot be “remotely controlled” once fomented. When rancor is kindled against another country, it ends up also validating the grudge against the neighbor whose wall adjoins ours. Those of us who grew up in a society where the act of repudiation has been justified as the “legitimate defense of a revolutionary people,” may think that blows and screams are the way to relate to what we don’t understand. In this environment of violence, for us harmony becomes synonymous with capitulation and peaceful coexistence is a trap that we want to make “the enemy” to fall into.

19 April 2014

The Foreign Investment Law: Jumping Beyond Its Own Shadow? / Yoani Sanchez

A gentleman with a beard and a shabby shirt reads the newspaper in a Reina street doorway. “These people are re-inventing the wheel…” I can hear him say. The daily he has in his hands has a tabloid insert with the new Foreign Investment Law, recently voted on in the National Assembly. Unanimously approved, the controversial legislation comes at a time when the Cuban economy is in desperate need of foreign capital.

The rush to get investment has not caused, however, greater flexibility in areas such as contracting for personnel. The recently approved law will maintain the state’s monopoly as the employing company. Only through this entity will a foreign business be able to contract for its workers. People trusted by the government will continue to rise to the top of the list it’s time to get hired.

Thus, Raul Castro’s government guarantees that the workforce of foreign investors will be people the government trusts. If we understand that economic autonomy is an indispensable requisite to achieving political autonomy, we know very well that the General President is going to assure that the best salaries are going to go to the pockets of the proven faithful. In this way he maintains the ability to buy loyalty with privileges, which has characterized the Cuban model.

However, ideological fidelity and working ability don’t always go hand-in-hand. New businesses with foreign capital will see their performance hampered–among other reasons–by not having access to the best available human capital. On this point it’s clear that the Foreign Investment Law can’t jump beyond its own shadow. It continues to be marked by the fear that individuals can make themselves independent–both with regards to wages and politics–from the state.

17 April 2014