Born on the Roof / Yoani Sanchez, 14ymedio

Screen grab from Madagascar (1994), a film directed by  Fernando Pérez

Screen grab from Madagascar (1994), a film directed by Fernando Pérez

14ymedio, YOANI SANCHEZ, Havana, 28 October 2014 – Some cities have a subterranean life. Metros, tunnels, basements… the human victory of winning inches from the stone. Havana no, Havana is a surface city, with very little underground. However, on the roofs of the houses, on the most unthinkable rooftops, little houses have been erected, baths, pig pens and pigeon coops. As if above the ceilings everything were possible, unreachable.

Ignacio has an illegal satellite dish on a neighbor’s roof, it is hidden under grape vines that gives undersized sour grapes. A few yards away someone has built a cage for fighting dogs, which seek out the shade during the day, thirsty and bored. On the other side of the street several members of one family broke down the wall that connects to the roof of an old state workshop. They’ve built a terrace and a toilet on the abandoned place. At nightfall they play dominos, while the breezes of the Malecon wash over them.

Carmita keeps all her treasure on top of her house. Some enormous wooden beams with which she wants to shore up her quarters before they fall in. Every week she climbs up to see if the rain and the heat have swollen the wood and cracked the pillars. Her grandson uses the roof for trysts, when night falls and the eyes barely distinguish shadows, although the ears detect the moans.

Everyone lives a part of their existence up there, in the Havana that wants to stretch to the sky but can barely manage to rise a few inches.

The Utopias and Dissidences of Pedro Pablo Oliva / Yoani Sanchez, 14ymedio

Excerpt from 'The strange ramblings of Utopito' from the Pedro Pablo Oliva exhibition, Utopias and Dissidences (14ymedio)

Excerpt from ‘The Strange Ramblings of Utopito’ from the Pedro Pablo Oliva exhibition, Utopias and Dissidences (14ymedio)

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, 27 October 2014 – Some years ago I visited the studio of the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva. We had hardly seen each other on any previous occasion, but he led me into his studio and showed me a work to which he was giving the finishing touches. An enormous vertical canvas rose in front of me and the artist remained silent, without explaining anything. In the middle of the fabric two figures levitated. One was Fidel Castro, translucent as if we were looking through an X-ray, looking aged and with a somewhat ghostly air. Between his arms he was squeezing to the point of suffocation a languid girl who seemed to want to escape from that grip. It was Cuba, exhausted by such all-consuming company. At his feet, a group of tiny little citizens with empty eyes were watching – or imagining – the scene.

I could never forget that picture, because in a limited number of inches Oliva had traced the national map of the last half century. His daring in that work affected me, as he had already done in his classic The Great Blackout (1994), released when the power cuts were more than an artistic metaphor. Now, years later, I learned of the cancellation of his exposition Utopias and Dissidences in the Pinar del Rio Art Museum. The official justifications suggested that the city didn’t have the “subjective favorable conditions” to open the show. A contrived way of rejecting the uncomfortable images where the character of Utopito was questioning the ideologues and their dreams, starting from the outcomes.

However, Oliva’s tenacity has run ahead of the culture officials and he just announced that the censored exhibition will eventually be held at his workshop. Thus, as of November first his admirers in Pinar del Rio and across the whole island will be able to enjoy some of the works of Utopias and Dissidences, because given the small exhibit space not everything will be able to be included.

In this same room where a lifeless politician squeezed his country to the point of suffocation, in a few days we will be able to see if she managed to escape this fatal embrace, continue her life, continue her creation.

Tiananmen Returns / Yoani Sanchez

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

The Tank Man became internationally known, caught standing before a column of tanks in the Tiananmen revolt (1989)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 September 2014 – Memory can rarely be put to rest. Memories don’t understand permissions or authorizations, they return, period. For a quarter of a century the Chinese government has tried to erase the events of Tiananmen Square, but now the thousands of young people who are protesting on the streets of Hong Kong evoke them. It’s hard not to think of that man with the shopping bag stationed in front of tank, while looking at these people who demand the resignation of an official as servile to Beijing as he is unpopular.

Twenty-five years of trying to clean up the official history of what happened in that other social explosion that ended in the most brutal repression hasn’t accomplished much. Those streets full of peaceful but exhausted people show it. However, there are also great differences between the 1989 revolt in the Asian giant and the current demonstrations in their “special administrative region.” The fundamental change is that we are participants—from our televisions, digital newspapers and social networks—in every moment the people of Hong Kong are experiencing. The lack of information that surrounded the Tiananmen Square protests now has its counterpart in a barrage of tweets, photos and videos coming from thousands of mobile phones

For how many years will the Chinese government try to erase what is happening today? How will they strengthen the Great Firewall within the country so that people don’t know what is happening so close by? The violent repression of last Sunday only serves to add to the determination and the number of protestors in the streets of the ex-British colony. However, despite the multitudes and the numerous digital screens shining in the Hong Kong night, memory persists in taking us back to one man. An individual who was returning from the market and decided that the treads of a tank were not going to crush his remaining civility. Twenty-five years later, reality is echoing his gesture.

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