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

The Venezuelan Dialogue, From a Cuban Point of View / Yoani Sanchez

Photo from:

The dialog between the Venezuelan opposition and Nicolas Maduro is in full swing. Its critics are many, its most visible loser: the Cuban government. For a system that for more than half a century has disqualified and reprimanded its dissidents, this discussion table must present a sad acknowledgement of its own inabilities.

Last Tuesday stunned Cuban viewers could watch a debate between the opposition forces in Venezuela and pro-government representatives. The controversial meeting was broadcast on TeleSur, which is characterized by its tendency to back the work of Chavism with its reporting. On this occasion, however, it was forced to also broadcast the concerns and arguments of the other side.

The requirement that cameras and microphones would be present at the discussion proved to be a magnificent political move by Maduro’s adversaries. In this way the audience is engaged in the dialog and it’s more difficult to publish distorted versions later. The participants on both sides were allowed ten minutes each, an exercise in synthesis that the Venezuelan president, clearly, couldn’t accomplish.

For disinformed Cubans, the first thing that jumped out at us was the high level of the arguments the opposition brought to the table. Figures, statistics and concrete examples expressed within a framework of respect. The next day the most commonly heard comment in the streets of Havana was the popular phrase, “They swept the floor with Maduro.” A clear reference to the crushing critiques of his rivals. The government supporters, however, were notably timid, fearful, and offered a discourse plagued with slogans.

There is no doubt, this discussion table has been a bitter pill to swallow for those who up until a few hours before were accusing their political opponents of being “fascists” and “enemies of the nation.” Venezuela will no longer be the same, although the negotiations end tomorrow and Nicolas Madura will once again take the microphone to hand out insults right and left. He acceded to a discussion and this marks a distance between the path followed by the Plaza of the Revolution and another that recently began for Miraflores.

And in Cuba? Is this also possible?

While the broadcast of the Venezuelan dialogue was airing, many of us asked ourselves if something similar could occur in our political scenario. Although the official press presents these conversations as a sign of strength on the part of Chavism, it has also kept enough distance so that we won’t get illusions of possible Cuban versions.

It is less chimeric to imagine Raul Castro getting on a plane and escaping the country than to project him sitting at a table with those he dubs counterrevolutionaries. For more than five decades, both he and his brother have been dedicated to demonizing dissident voices, such that now they are prevented from accepting a conversation with their critics. The danger posed by the impossibility of negotiations is that it leaves only the path to an overthrow, with its consequent trail of chaos and violence.

However, not only do the Cuban regime’s principal figures show reluctance before any negotiating table. The better part of the Island’s opposition doesn’t want to hear it spoken of. Before this double rejection, the agenda of a chimeric meeting fails to take shape. The opposition parties haven’t yet come together on a project for the country that can be coherently defended in any negotiation and look like a viable alternative. We members of the emerging civil society have reasons to feel concerned. Are the politicians now operating illegally in the country prepared to sustain a debate and capable of convincing an audience? Could they represent us with dignity when the time comes?

The answer to this question will only be known once the opportunity arises. Until now the Cuban political dissidence has concentrated more on tearing down than on elaborating foundational strategies; the greater part of their energy has been directed to opposing the governing Party rather than on persuading their potential followers within the population. Given the limitations on disseminating their programs and the numerous material restrictions they suffer, these groups have not been able to carry their message to a significant number of Cubans. It is not entirely their responsibility, but they should be aware that these deficiencies hinder them.

If tomorrow the table for a dialog was set, it would be unlikely that we would hear a speech from the Cuban opposition as well articulated as that achieved by their Venezuelan colleagues. However, although negotiation isn’t a current possibility, no one should be exempted from preparing for it. Cuba needs for the people before those possible microphones to be those who best represent the interests of the nation, its worries, its dreams. They may speak for us, the citizens, but please, do so coherently, without verbal violence and with arguments that convince us.

14 April 2014

5 iOS Apps Essential for Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

Guava Mac

Where will the first Apple store in Havana be? I wonder sometimes when I am fabulating about the future. I imagine it on the corner of Galiano and Reina, above those arches that could well support an enormous apple. Although much is needed before we will see Steve Jobs’s creatures in a display window in Havana legally, these well-designed gadgets with their excellent technology have already broken into the national scene. In the informal market, the solidarity of so many travelers and the appetite for modernity have come together to make an iPad or MacBook Pro increasingly common in our lives.

The taste for iPhones has strengthened the market for applications for these smart phones. Useful packages, including games, maps of the whole country, dictionaries and audiovisual publications, can be acquired in numerous private workshops throughout the Island. The technicians in these matters are very young, offering also to unlock terminals, jailbreak, change the glass if it breaks, clean the start button, and supply a wide range of connectors to recharge the battery, or plug it into a computer. There is something for all tastes and pockets.

Among the iOS applications most requested by domestic customers, here is a list of the five essential ones. Tools needed to elude censorship, solve daily problems, and amuse us a little.

- OffMaps2: Excellent functionality with maps of several Cuban provinces and the ability to use these without an Internet connection. Its “street” is pretty true to live, with the addition of being able to locate sites of interests in our surroundings, wherever we are. The geo-locator service works by triangulating off cellphone towers and not by satellite. Although less precise, it keeps us from getting lost in cities and towns we visit for the first time.

-  Minipedia: An offline version of the famous interactive encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The advantage of this application is that it doesn’t require a jailbroken phone. You can get the Spanish XL database, updated but without images. Other apps compete with Minipedia, among them Wiki Español and the functionality of Wikipedia installed in the Safari navigator itself, although this latter needs a jailbroken phone.

- Messy SMS: For those interested in sending text messages to friends without the phone company being able to snoop on the contents, this application is perfect. You and your friend simply agree on a password and with that you can encrypt and decrypt texts sent. Fun, easy and necessary for those times when more than one indiscreet eye is spying on our private messaging.

-  WordLens: Nice functionality that mixes the camera with a translator for several languages. It allows you to immediately translate posters and written phrases within reach of our phone’s camera lens. Although the result is a word-by-word translation, without any literary or metaphoric flight, it helps in situations where we’re in a hurry and don’t know how to decipher what a text says.

- PhotoStudio: To edit your photos with just a few moves on the screen, this app comes in handy. It includes filters, the ability to crop or resize an image and even add text on it. After working on the photo, we have the option to save it, export it, or upload it to a social network… although this latter only if we have access to the Internet.

I hope that these slices of the apple serve as signs that point the way to a day when Apple, without restrictions, will come into our lives.

11 April 2014

Many Happy Returns! / Yoani Sanchez

Happy Blog-Birthday Generation Y!

At seven I had an incomplete smile. I was losing my baby teeth and also I read every sign I came across in the street. It was a time of learning and scraped knees from falls during games. Today, I once again blow out the same number of candles on an imaginary cake. This time it isn’t for me, but for the virtual creature that was born on 9 April 2007, and which in this time has experienced dentition, fevers, laughs and stumbles.

Generation Y is celebrating its birthday with almost one thousand published posts, about a million and a half comments, several friends lost, and others gained.

In this time, I have never suffered the horror of a blank page. Rather I feel that neither time nor Internet connectivity have sufficed to tell all that the Cuban reality has offered to my eyes. This blog now has a life of its own. It breathes in its readers and has a parallel existence where I can’t reach it, hide it, protect it. It has stood the tests of my initial fear, official demonization, the distrust of many, technological collapses and even the survival instinct that more than once told me to abandon it. Here it is with the bruises and experience of its seven years.

A new era will begin soon. Generation Y will move to its new home within a digital, collective and modern press. On the next birthday cake there will be other faces to include in the photo. Let’s blow out the candles for them now!

8 April 2014

Apretaste! A Craigslist for the Island of the Disconnected / Yoani Sanchez

Home page of the site Apretaste!

Tatania wants to sell a stroller, Humberto is interested in some sneakers, and the retired woman on the corner is offering a mahogany desk. Individual barter and buying-selling alleviates the shortages in state markets. So it’s become common to see walls plastered with ads offering houses for sale or the services of someone who repairs furniture. The classified sites on the Internet also trade in anything you can imagine, from an illegal satellite dish to birdseed.

Despite the poor connectivity, Craigslist-style sites are very popular on the Island. Some of them have developed strategies to reach Cuban readers, such as the distribution of classifieds via email. This is the case with Apretaste! which offers the service of sending and receiving information via email for users on our “Island of the Disconnected.” Winner of a hackathon held in Miami this February, the site has great potential and boasts a simple design that loads quickly.

Visiting Apretaste!, I remember a phrase I always repeat when I encounter something hard. “Creativity is the capacity to open a window when the door is closed,” I tell myself, like a mantra in complex situations. And this classified portal is a diminutive and promising window that has opened in the iron wall of disconnection. A breath of air flows through it.

I hope that one day Tatiana, Humberto, and the retired lady on the corner can not only use the powers of Apretaste! through email, but also enter it on the web, click, enter a phrase into its simple search engine and find, in this way, whatever they need.

7 April 2014

#MejorDesnudosQue: Better Naked Than / Yoani Sanchez

Better naked than…

A woman with her breasts bare is an oracle in an ephemeral work of art. It is Havana in the eighties and the scandal caused by the exhibition “Nine Alchemists and a Blind Man” ends with its closing and the demonization of more than a few artists. The uncovered skin is a challenge, a protest, in a country where power, still today, sheathes itself in olive-green uniforms, long sleeves, hot outfits that hide, instead of display.

Authoritarians handle nudity badly. They feel impure, dirty, humiliated, when in reality it is the natural and primitive state of human beings. Totalitarians are prudish, prudish and timid. Any libertarian gesture frightens them, and they perceive too much exposed skin as a gesture of defiance. They think this because–deep down–they see the human body as something impure and obscene. Hence, undressing their opponents constitutes one of the repressive practices they most enjoy. They believe that by stripping them of their clothes they reduce them to simple animals. The same mental mechanism that leads them to call their critics “worms,” “vermin” or “cockroaches.”

In a windowless cell a guard forces a political prisoner to undress; in a room where no one can hear the screams, three women grope around under the clothes of a recently arrested citizen; in a dorm at a school in the countryside the showers don’t have curtains so no student can possess the territory of her own body; in a cold gray room the Jews were stripped of their clothes before entering the gas chambers. Undressing to humiliate, undressing to dehumanize, undressing to kill.

The images coming from Venezuela confirm that the practice of stripping people of their clothes as a moral punishment continues. A young man is stripped by a group seeking to degrade him by exposing every inch of his skin. However, they end up making him into a beautiful icon, pure, innocent. There is nothing dirty about the human body, there is nothing to be embarrassed about appearing before others as we came into this world.

What is shameful is these others, hiding behind their uniforms, trappings, the military ranks they awarded to themselves. They should be embarrassed to be hiding under the dishonorable garb of their fear.

6 April 2014

Membership Card or Passport? / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Silvia Corbelle

The whole neighborhood called him by the peculiar last name he’d inherited from his Basque grandfather. Vertical for ideological reasons, he always made it clear that he was “a man of the cause.” Meeting after meeting, report after report, complaint after complaint, few exceeded him in offering proofs of faith in the system. He was also characterized by his severe face against the protestors and the hugs he gave to those who shared his ideology. And so it was, until a week ago.

The family tree bore fruit and the combative man just managed to get his Spanish passport.* In his Communist Party nucleus they told him to choose: foreign nationality or continuing to be a member of that organization. Faithful, but not stupid, he chose the first. As of a few days ago he premiered his new life without red card or statutes. He has already started to wink at some of the dissidents in the neighborhood. “You know you can always count on me,” he blurted out at someone who, until recently, he’d always kept a watch over.

It’s a curious party organization that brags about exercising internationalist solidarity, but doesn’t want dual nationality communists in its ranks. At least such narrow-mindedness is helping to convert certain extremists into “meek foreigners.” Given the speed with which they change, one wonders if they previously believed in what they were doing, or were simply opportunists. Perhaps in preferring an EU passport they are just choosing a different mask, a new tone for their chameleon skins.

*Translator’s note: Spain’s Law of Historical Memory set a limited period during which Cubans who could prove a Spanish grandparent qualified for Spanish citizenship.

28 March 2014

A Day Without the Self-Employed / Yoani Sanchez

The sleep of reason produces monsters. Francisco Goya

The day started with a certain nightmarish atmosphere. The little sip of morning coffee was missing, because the seller with a thermos and paper cups wasn’t on the corner. So she dragged her feet to the bus stop, while keeping an eye out for a collective taxi. Nothing. Not even an old Chevrolet came down the avenue, nor was there one of those ingenuous station wagons that can fit up to twelve people anywhere in sight. After an hour’s wait she managed to climb on the bus, irritated that she didn’t even have a little paper cone of peanuts to calm the hunger pangs emanating from her stomach.

At work that day she couldn’t do much. The director didn’t make it in because the woman who cares for her daughter was absent. The same thing happened with the administrator; her Russian-made Lada blew a tire and the tire-repair guy in her neighborhood closed early. At the lunch break the food trays were so empty they barely weighed a thing. The guy with the cart selling vegetables and tubers, with which they stretch the lunch menu, didn’t come by. The head of public relations had a nervous breakdown because he couldn’t print the photos he needed for a visa. The door of the nearest studio had a sign saying “Not Open Today,” so his travel plans were ruined.

She decided to walk home to avoid having to wait. Her son asked if there was something to snack on, but the bread delivery man, with his sharp cry, hadn’t shown up. Nor were the pizza kiosks open, and a raid on the farmers market had left all the stands empty. For dinner she cooked the little she found and washed the dishes with a rag from an old shirt, because there weren’t any vendors selling dish mops. On top of everything, the fan wouldn’t go on and the appliance repairman wasn’t in his workshop.

She went to bed, in a pool of sweat, uncomfortable, hoping she would wake up to the return these figures who make her life possible: the self-employed, without whom her days are a sequence of deprivations and aggravations.

27 March 2014

And You, Son, Don’t Stand Out / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Silvia Corbelle

You’re getting your bag ready for school and listening to your mother nag. “Don’t get into anything that’s going to make a ton of trouble for you later,” she shouts from the kitchen. So you go to the morning assembly at school, withdrawing into yourself so they won’t notice you. The bell rings to enter the classroom and there’s the history teacher with her Manichean version of the past. You know it wasn’t like what she says because you’ve read other versions in your grandfather’s books, but you keep quiet… so as not to look for trouble.

Your voice went hoarse and then you were a soldier serving your time in the military. You had to learn the lesson of survival. So when the officer shouted and demanded greater dedication, you mentally repeated, “Better not to be noticed.” Get by unscathed, don’t get involved, avoid them noticing you, were your premises at that age. Don’t offer an idea, don’t suggest a change, the only thing your bosses will hear from your mouth is “at your service!” Later you made it to the university, where the objective was to get a diploma, to graduate, without any complications.

Your children were born and when they were little you read them the riot act about simulation, how to fake it. “Make sure you don’t stand out, it only brings trouble,” you counseled them from the time they could understand. With this action you prolong the cycle of simulation in your offspring, as your parents once did with you.

But you have not come out unscathed. You’re not a crook who has deceived others, but you have cheated yourself. With so much self-restraint, limiting your expressions, and avoiding speaking up, you have become the mediocre man you are today, a being tamed by the system.

26 March 2014

Cosita / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Silvia Corbelle

She left Banes on a hot and dusty morning. In a bag, some underwear and the address of relatives in Havana. When the train got to Central Station, Cosita took a deep breath and filled her lungs with that aroma of burnt oil typical of the capital. “I’m on the roof*,” she said to herself, with a feeling of victory. Six months had passed and she was returning to the city with a record of a police warning and a piece of a washing machine boarding the train with her.

Cosita settled into her cousin’s room and started to collect plastic bottles and pieces of nylon from the nearest trash cans. With these she made artificial flowers which she sold in order to eat and to “give something” to her Havana relatives. She asked around the neighborhood looking for single men — older ones — to whom she could offer herself as a “cleaning lady, who can do everything around the house,” but didn’t find any takers. She knew her days were numbered until the police would stop her in the street and discover she was an illegal. One more “Palestinian,” as many capital residents disrespectfully call people from the east of the country.

They caught her one gray and rainy afternoon, while she was selling flowers outside the farmers market. They imposed a fine, for illicit economic activity, and warned her that she had 72 hours to get out of the city. But Cosita couldn’t leave yet. She’d managed to acquire half of an Aurika washing machine, and didn’t have any way to transport it. A neighbor had also given her an old child’s wardrobe, without doors or drawers. These were all the material possessions she’d acquired on her Havana adventure and she wasn’t going to leave them behind.

The truck drivers wanted too much to transport her “treasures” to Banes. She could no longer sell her nylon decorations and the relatives who had welcomed her feared a new fine for having an illegal in their home. Cosita left, on a cold December night, with her piece of a washing machine and her bag as empty as when she had arrived. The wardrobe was abandoned in a hallway and someone used the boards to cover up a window where the rain was coming in. The clothes rod replaced a broken broom and the nails were reused in a chair.

Cosita, in Banes, dreams of returning to Havana. She tells her friends stories of her days in “the capital of all Cubans” and dreams of that “children’s furniture, of good wood,” that someday she might manage to bring — as a trophy — to her village.

*”La placa,” [in the original Spanish] is one of the popular ways to refer to Havana.

Translator’s note: “Cosita” literally means “a little thing.”

25 March 2014

A Few Days With Nauta / Yoani Sanchez

Now you can read your email on your cellphone

“The line’s long but it’s moving fast,” someone tells me outside a Cubacel Office. After an hour and several shouts from the guard whom we crowded around at the door, I managed to enter. The clerk is bleary-eyed and warns me that I can only open a Nauta email account there, but “under no circumstances is the account configured for a mobile phone.” This provokes a little, “It doesn’t matter, I know how to do it, I already downloaded the Internet manual.” The little twist of the knife works because she asks me, curious, “Oh really… and could you help a friend of mine who doesn’t know how to do it?”

This won’t surprise my readers, we’re in Cuba where restrictions and chaos mix. Where the same entity that should help its clients ends up asking them for help. So I lent a hand with the friend and her email activation.

After gaining her trust, I was able to get a little information from the bored clerk. “I’m sure the Internet will be available soon on cellphones,” I let fall, just another comment. She clicked her tongue and offered, “Don’t get your hopes up,” turning to me from the desk. Then I attacked, “Well, if it’s the Venezuelan cable, I imagine the service will expand.” And that’s when the employee hinted to me, “This cable comes from somewhere else,” while putting her index finger near her eye as the signal for “vigilance.”

I go home, stumbling at every step because I’m looking at the cellphone screen where it shows new messages. First I write several friends and family members warning them that “this email is not reliable or secure, but…” And then a long list of ideas for the uses of a mailbox that isn’t private, but that I can check any time from my own cellphone. I ask several acquaintances to sign me up for national and international news services via email. Within an hour a flood of information and opinion columns is stuffing my inbox.

I spend the following days searching out the details of the service, its limits and potential. I conclude that for sending photos it’s much cheaper than the previous method through MMS messaging. Before, the only option was to send an image, with agonizing slowness, costing 2.30 CUC ($2 USD). Now, I can do it through Flickr, TwitPic and Facebook through their email publication service, paying 0.01 CUC for each kilobyte. The average photo for the web doesn’t exceed 100 Kb.

Among its possibilities, is also the ability to maintain a flow of long texts — far beyond the 160 characters of an SMS — with Cubacel users who have already activated the service. In the first 48 hours I managed to create news feeds for other activists in several areas of Cuba. So far all the messages have arrived… even thought the Nauta contract threatens to cut off the service if it is used for “activities…against national independence and sovereignty.”

I also tested the effectiveness of the GPRS connection, needed to send and receive emails, from several provinces. In Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Holguín, Camagüey and Matanzas I was able to connect without major problems. There are some stretches of road where there aren’t even signals to make calls, but the rest of the tries were successful.

 It’s not all good news

Coinciding with the new email service on cellphones, there has been a noted deterioration in the sending of text messages. Hundreds of messages in recent days never reached their recipients, although the telephone company quickly charged for them, which points to an act of censorship or the collapse of the networks. I would prefer to think it’s the latter, if it weren’t for the fact that among the greatest failures were activists, opponents, independent journalists and other “uncomfortable” citizens.

On the other hand, let’s not be naive. Nauta has all the hallmarks of a carnivorous network that swallows information and processes our correspondence for monitoring purposes. Very likely there is a filter for key words and minute-by-minute observation of certain people. I don’t discard the possibility that the content of private messages will be published in the official media, should the government deem it appropriate. Nor do I rule out phishing to damage the prestige of some customers, or the use of information–such as emails published on social networks–to impersonate others.

All these possibilities need to be taken into account when using the new service, because there is no independence between the telephone company and the country’s intelligence services. So every word written, every name referenced, every opinion sent via Nauta, could end up in State Security’s archives. We need to avoid making their job easier.

After a week with Nauta, my impression is that it is a crack that is widening. Through which we can project our voices, but also through which we could be abducted. A poor imitation of the web, a handicapped internet, their service is very far from what we have demanded as 21st century citizens.

Nevertheless, I suggest using this new option and pushing its limits, like we have done with text-only messaging. Used cautiously, but with a civic conscience, this path can help us to improve the quality and quantity of information we receive and of our own presence on the social networks. Its own name already says it, if we can’t be internauts… at least we can try being nautas.

24 March 2014