The Catechism According to Mujica / Yoani Sanchez

Socialism or Death

Socialism or Death

The language of diplomacy, although distant and calculated, gives us a glimpse of changing times. I remember that for years I could predict every word foreign presidents would utter once they arrived in Cuba. Never lacking, in the script of their speeches, was the phrase “the unbreakable friendship between our peoples…”. Nor was a commitment to total harmony between the political projects of the visiting leader and his counterpart on the Island. There was one path and fellow travelers could not deviate an inch from it, and so they made it clear in their statements. Those were times, seemingly, of complete agreement, no nuances, no differences.

In recent years, however, the expressions of the official guests who arrive have been transformed. We hear them say, “although there are points that divide us, it’s best to look for those that unite us.” The new expressions also include the declaration that “we represent a diversity,” and that “we come together in working together, maintaining our plurality.” Clearly, bilateral relations in the 21st century are no longer conceived with a monochromatic and unanimous discourse. They exhibit the variety that has become fashionable, although in practice there is a strategy of exclusion and denial of diversity.

José Mujica, president of Uruguay, has added a new twist to the discourse of presidents received at the Palace of the Revolution. He stressed that “before, we had to recite the same catechism to come together, and now despite our differences, we manage to be united.” Incredulous spectators on national television, we immediately asked ourselves if the doctrine to which the Uruguayan dignitary referred to was Marxism or Communism. According to today’s evidence, two presidents can shake hands, cooperate, pose together for a smiling photo, even though they have dissimilar or opposing ideologies. A lesson in maturity, no doubt. The problem — the serious problem — is that these words are said and published in a nation where we, the citizens, can have no other “catechism” than that of the party in power. A country that systematically divides its population between the “revolutionaries” and the “unpatriotic,” based purely on ideological considerations. An Island whose leaders stoke political hatreds among people without taking responsibility for these seeds of intolerance they consciously sow, water and fertilize.

This is Cuban diplomacy. Accept hearing from a foreign visitor what you would never allow someone born on this island to say.

The Crisis of the Sugar Missiles: Scenario and Possible Solution / Yoani Sanchez

6a00d8341bfb1653ef01901e67ea1d970b-550wiThe unforeseen, situations that nobody predicted, are for politics like pepper on food. When it appears that all the possible variables of a scenario are on the table, an event sneaks in among them that changes everything. Such is the case with the diplomatic crisis generated by the arms transported from Cuba in a North Korean ship, discovered in the Panama Canal.

After years of trying to clean up its act before international bodies, this incident sets Raul Castro’s government back decades, returning it to the era of the Cold War. There is no time left for the octogenarian politician to reverse the effect of such a a misguided operation. Between now and his announced retirement in 2018, there are not enough days to make people forget the bungling of those missiles hidden under a cargo of sugar. Someone else, in his position, would renounce or remove the Minister of the Armed Forces, but a play like that has no precedent in the Castro regime.

On hearing about the trafficking in this arsenal of war, the question that immediately jumps to mind is how many times have operations like this been carried out without being discovered. The testimony and speculations about Cuba’s sending troops and arms to countries in conflict abound.   It is symptomatic that on this occasion the contraband has been intercepted mid-journey, which raises a new question. Why in this case has it come to light? Clumsiness or intention? Bungling or being out of touch with the workings of the real world? The questions will be asked, but the answers are known only to a few.

The truth is that these events confirm the denunciations of those who, for years, have documented the support of the Plaza of the Revolution for guerrillas, insurgents, destabilization groups, and governments sanctioned by international organizations. Wrapped in the halo of “proletarian internationalism,” the help offered in most cases was hidden with subterfuges, such as merchant ships transporting soldiers or military equipment on the sly. It was the era when the sharp eyes of the satellites didn’t track the planet with such precision, and the Soviet bear was there to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for its outstanding disciple in the Caribbean. A bygone and remote era.

If Cuban political leaders believed they could still hide planes and missiles on a ship, send it through the Panama Canal and successfully arrive at a North Korean port, it is proof of their great disconnect from the reality of the world they live in. The statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also a part of this anachronism, attempting to explain the cargo as a shipment of “obsolete” military equipment off to be repaired in the country of the Kim dynasty.

The justifications or falsehoods that were once effective, fall on the ears of the citizens of this third millennium like bedtime stories for unsuspecting children. Their naiveté was left behind in the 20th Century and it’s a good thing, because the leaders can’t fool us as easily as before. In fact, the performance of the Cuban authorities has displayed such stupidity that it suggests it was an operation prepared by the Castro regime itself, in order to be caught red-handed.

Every time that relations between Havana and Washington seem headed for a rapprochement, some event generates an abyss between the two governments. The most famous example was the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in February 1996.

Could it be, on this occasion, that the orthodox within the power structure are dynamiting what they perceive to be Raul Castro’s weakness in trying to talk to the neighbor from the north? Or is it the General-President himself who has built this scandal to try to avoid getting to the negotiating table? The “conspiranoia” is infinite.

However, there could be a simpler answer behind all this, as incredible as it seems: the Cuban leadership really believed that it could still continue playing with toy soldiers and ignoring the provisions of the United Nations, without being discovered. Holding power for too long makes those who exercise it into a species of autistics, disconnected from reality. So this could be one of the most chronic cases of political autism we now have in our global village.

In the midst of the complex situation in Cuba, why would the government dare to undertake such a ridiculous operation? After so many efforts to appear before the international community as a country transitioning through a process of openings, where does this “sugar missile” piece fit? Well, it doesn’t fit!

Evidently the relations between old ideological allies are still placed above pragmatic diplomatic strategies.  Old comrades are still prioritized, although to the eyes of the world they are seen as a family dynasty, a recalcitrant violator of the human rights of their citizens, constantly threatening the rest of the planet with nuclear conflict. The fellow travelers support each other, so they have to violate the same UN resolutions to achieve it.

Now that the boxes of missiles are discovered — the MIG-21 airplanes and the rocket batteries — it remains to be known how Raul Castro will get out of such a delicate situation. An apology would not be enough, because the government would still have to comply with some diplomatic sanction resulting from its actions. Acting the fool and reaffirming their “sovereign right” to send arms to be “repaired” in North Korea, will further isolate the island’s authorities at a time when economic support from abroad is urgently needed.

The insolence will also conspire against a possible loosening of the European Common Position, and against the easing of the American embargo. To reply with a barrage of government attacks against the president of Panama won’t accomplish much, because this problem involves other nations who don’t appear willing to forget so easily.

So, then, how does the Castro regime turn the page, minimize what happened, and present the world with a real posture of mea culpa and peaceful engagement? The only solution that remains is to announce political change, the opening so often demanded by its citizens and by international  agencies and governments.

The only thing they can do to overcome this huge mistake is to focus all attention on the total decriminalization of dissent in Cuba, the legalization of other political forces and the final dismantling of totalitarianism.

From “Cuba Libre” in El Pais.

23 July 2013

The “Crisis of the Sugar Missiles” / Yoani Sanchez

 sugar missilesThe Congress of the Journalists Union of Cuba (UPEC) has just been contradicted. Barely a few days after that meeting of official reporters, reality has put them to the test … and they failed. Yesterday, the news that a freighter flying under the North Korean flag, coming from Havana and found with missiles and other military equipment in its hold, jumped to the first page of much of the world’s press. In Panama, where the arms were detected, the president of the country himself sent out a report via Twitter about what happened. Knowing that in this day and age it’s almost impossible to censor — from the national public — an event of such scope, we awoke this morning to a brief note from the Ministry of Foreign Relations. In an authoritarian tone it explained that the “obsolete” — but functional — armaments were being sent to the Korean peninsula for repairs. It did not clarify, however, why it was necessary to hide them in a cargo of sugar.

At a time when newspapers are offering lessons that governments can’t get away with secrecy, the conformist role of the official Cuban press is, at the very least, painful. Meanwhile, in Spain several newspapers have challenged the governing party by publishing the declarations of its former treasurer; in the United States the Snowden case fills the headlines which demand explanations from the White House about the invasion of privacy of so many citizens. It is inconceivable that, this morning, Cuba’s Ministry of the Armed Forces and its colleagues in Foreign Relations are not being questioned by reporters calling them to account. Where are the journalists? Where are these professionals of the news and of words who should force governments to declare themselves, force politicians not to deceive us, force the military not to behave toward citizens as if we were children who can be constantly lied to?

Where are the resolutions of the UPEC Congress, with their calls to remove obstacles, abolish silence, and engage in an informative labor more tied to reality? A brief note, clearly plagued with falsehoods, is not sufficient to explain the act of sending — secretly — arms to a country that the United Nations itself has warned others not to support with the technology of war. They will not convince us of their innocence by appealing to the antiquity of the armaments; things that produce horror never entirely expire. But, as journalists, the most important lesson to come out of this “crisis of the sugar missiles” is that we cannot settle for institutions that explain themselves in brief press releases, that cannot be questioned. They have to speak, they have to explain… a lot.

17 July 2013

Humor as Exorcism / Yoani Sanchez

9152419424_dac84809ec_oI leaned against the window carefully. The glass had a crack running through it and with each jolt it seemed likely to shatter. A few minutes, a roadway traversed by collective taxis, an arithmetic exercise: count all the people on the street who were smiling. In the first stretch, between Rancho Boyeros Avenue and the Maravillas Cinema, none. One lady was showing her teeth not for joy but because of the sun, which made her eyes squint and her lips open. A teenager in a high school uniform shouted at another. I couldn’t hear because of the engine noise, but there was no joking in his words. Coming to the Plaza de Cuatro Caminos, a couple was locked in a kiss at the corner, but there was nothing playful about it. Rather it was a carnivorous kiss, devouring, predatory. A baby in a stroller looked close to laughing, but no, it was just a yawn. Coming to Fraternity Park, I was barely able to calculate some three laughs, including one from a cop who was mocking a boy in handcuffs being shoved into a patrol car.

It’s an experiment I’ve carried out on several occasions, to see if we really are the smiling people so talked about in the stereotypes. In most cases, the number who express some level of happiness has not exceeded five in a trip varying between two to six miles. Clearly this doesn’t prove anything, unless it’s that in our daily circumstances laughter is not as abundant as they want us to believe. Still, we remain a people with a great deal of humor. But the jokes act more like the rescuing piece of driftwood that saves us from the shipwreck of depression, not as evidence of our happiness. We laugh to keep from crying, from hitting, from killing. We laugh to forget, escape, shut up. So when we see a comedy show that touches all the painful springs of our laughter, it’s as if the valves open and the whole of 10th of October Avenue starts to laugh, including the buildings, the street lamps and the traffic signals.

Last Friday something like this happened at the “De doime son los cantantes” show, presented at the Karl Marx theater by the actor Osvaldo Doimeadios. A tribute also to the best of our vernacular theater, the comedian offered magisterial interpretations and monologues. From the economic hardships, the migratory reform, the excessive controls on the self-employed, to the corruption scandals associated with the fiber optic cable, these were some of the themes that most made us roar. We laugh at our problems and our miseries, we laugh at ourselves. After the distraction ended, the audience crowded into the hot aisles to exit. Outside, Primera Street was packed in the late night. I took a bus home and leaned against the window… no one was smiling. The humor had been left in the seats and on the stage, we had returned to our sober reality.

27 June 2013

The Productive Forces and Their Ties / Yoani Sanchez

9086778792_67dd2efe3c_oThe same day that Marino Murillo, Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning, appeared on television explaining the prosperity potential of the Cuban economic model in the municipality of Pinar del Rio, he met urgently with several farmers. The meeting took place in the town of San Juan y Martinez and focused on the agricultural state of emergency across the country. Among other topics, the official demanded that the cooperative members in the area — especially those dedicated to the cultivation of tobacco — sow more vegetables and grains. “The country is experiencing a food crisis,” he said, without provoking any turmoil among those listening because ordinary Cubans don’t remember any state other than crisis, anxiety and chronic collapse. “Keep sowing, and later the resources will come…” he said hurriedly to people who had heard more unmet promises than mockingbird songs.

At one point the meeting changed direction and those called together began to set the day’s agenda. Then the complaints rained down. A fruit grower explained the impediments to contracting directly with La Conchita factory and marketing his guavas and mangoes. Instead, he had to sell his production to Acopio, the State entity, which in turn was charged with supplying the pulp and jam industry. The official intermediary still exists, and gets the major economic share, the grower asserted. For his part, 400 yards of wire fencing to enclose the land costs a State agricultural company some 80 pesos ($3.30 USD); while the farmer affiliated with a cooperative can expect to pay 600 pesos ($25.00 USD) for the same amount. A sack of cement — indispensable in expanding the facilities of a farm — has a maximum value of 20 pesos ($0.83 USD) for the State farm, and 120 pesos ($5.00 USD) retail price for the cooperative member.

When the relations of production become a straitjacket for the development of the productive forces, then these relations have to change. This is in keeping with one of the Marxist conclusions we most study in high school and college. Thus, on comparing Marino Murillo’s declarations with the testimony of several farmers and the agricultural disaster all around us, one can only conclude that the current economic model behaves like a deadly embrace for the development and prosperity of Cuba. It’s not particularly helpful that the officials tell us that now, indeed, prosperity and progress are just around the corner. If the man in the furrow remains gripped by the absurd, who establish so many restrictions, they should step aside and make way for others who can do it better.

19 June 2013

Looking for a Lost Pill / Yoani Sanchez

Photo taken from http://habanero2000.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/ansioliticos-en-la-habana/
Photo taken from http://habanero2000.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/ansioliticos-en-la-habana/

The piece of paper was left under the door, but he only found it the other day. The list was written in rough handwriting, with spelling that exchanged “R’s” for “L’s” and some “B’s” for “V’s.” But he understood everything. Diazepam continues at 10 pesos for a dozen pills and should be delivered within a day, at least for the next month. Paracetamol is also available, so next to the name of that medicine he put the number two. This time he didn’t need alcohol, but Nystatin cream is a yes so he marked it. His son, restless by nature, could also use some meprobamate so he also wrote down the number for a several week supply. This dealer was reliable, he’d never been cheated, all the medications were good quality and some were even imported. More than once he’d bought the sealed jars that said, “Sale prohibited, free distribution only.”

The business of medications and other medical supplies is growing every day. A stethoscope on the black market costs the salary of two working days; a Salbutamol spray for asthmatics costs the wages of an entire work day. Given the undersupplied State pharmacies, patients and their families can’t sit around with their arms crossed. A roll of tape costs around 10 pesos in national currency, the same price as a glass thermometer. You can break the law or continue diagnosing fever with a hand to the forehead. The danger, however, comes not only from violating the law. In reality, many customers self-medicate or consume pills that no doctor has prescribed for them. Given the clandestine seller, it’s not necessary to show a prescription and he never questions what the client is going to do with the pills or syrups.

Despite the successive sweeps against drug smuggling, the phenomenon seems to increase rather than decrease. In the Havana area of Puentes Grandes an old trash bin turned into a pharmaceutical warehouse is the emblem of the government strategies and failures to prevent illicit sales. The police are incapable of eradicating the situation, because the diversion of medications is carried out from grocers, pharmacy technicians, nurses, doctors, even hospital directors. The greatest demands are centered around analgesics, anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, syringes, cotton and painkiller creams. The illegal drug market also goes along with adulteration and counterfeiting.

Some small white pills, costing three times their official value, can end the problem, or be the start of others, more serious.

19 June 2013

Playa Siboney: Where the Fiber Optic Cable Touches Land / Yoani Sanchez

Playa Siboney, the telephone company’s work for the fiber optic cable.

The residents of Siboney have reasons to be sad and upset, very upset. Hurricane Sandy devastated a good part of their coastal infrastructure, destroying houses, throwing up huge rocks on the shore, and seriously damaging the area’s vegetation. More than eight months after this hellish morning when the storm affected them, very little has been done by the State to reconstruct the place. Some locals have restores a part of the walls that surround their houses which the strong winds toppled. Although there are bulldozers and trucks carrying stones and dirt everywhere, they are not focused on once again raising the ruined village. They have, instead, a more pointed objective: the fiber optic cable that links this region of Cuba to Venezuela.

Several owners of private restaurants and rooms or houses for rent are complaining about the decline in international tourism after the debacle of Sandy. “The foreigners come with the idea of staying a week or more, but when they see the state of things these days they leave after two days… if they even stay that long.” the natural beauty of the place makes its current situation more dramatic. Facing a sea so blue it looks like a retouched postcard, many people try to make a living however they can. “But at least you will soon have the Internet, with the cable so close”… I provoke them, in search of information, as well. The reaction when the tendon that cost more than 70 million dollars is mentioned, comes loaded with pure skepticism. “With this cable they’ve protected even us!” says a lady with eyes almost the same color as the Caribbean, glancing about as she talks.

A  “coffin of concrete and metal” is the first place the fiber optic cable touches ground in Cuba.

The point where the so-called ALBA-1 touched land in 2011, shows no benefit of the data that circulates through it. A “sarcophagus” of concrete with a heavy metal cover, serves as the first “stop” of the cable that also links to neighboring Jamaica. A guard keeps his eyes on the place where so many kilobytes enter and leave. The irreverent hurricane from last October passed, ripping apart the previous box from where the end of the cable was guarded, leaving entirely open the framework fibers and its cover. The next morning after the incident, local residents looked out curious to see the place’s “new tenant.” Heavy equipment immediately appeared to recover it and make a small causeway under which it ran. After some weeks of work carried out by a brigade from ETECSA Telecommunications Company, the work is now in the hands of the Armed Forces (MINFAR).

As hope is the last thing to die, or so the older people there insist on recalling, the neighbors of Siboney are still waiting for the miracle of reconstruction and connectivity. “This could be the people with best Internet access in all of Cuba,” says a young man fishing from a cliff.” But I can not tell if he’s making a joke or is serious, as the harsh sun forces his face into a permanent grin. The truth is that this place still in ruins, could become more prosperous and have more opportunities to have access to the web.

Private businesses could attract more visitors with ads in cyberspace, they would have better information about upcoming weather patterns, and who knows, they might even launch a crowdfunding campaign to restore the nearby beach. But that’s a dream too far, I’m assured by an old man chewing tobacco and wearing an olive green cap that comes down over his ears.

Away from the beach… near the Internet

Less than ten miles from where the fiber optic cable made landfall is one of the Internet cafés in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The air-conditioned room with four computers and an attendant employed to watch what each user does in front of the screen. The stratospheric prices for most people (4.50 CUC for an hour), means there are no lines access the site. It’s time to do some testing on the connectivity and the sites allowed or not allowed.

Among the sites censored on this connection are Cubaencuentro, Cubanet and Revolico. Perhaps also other portals and sites are under the same “loop,” so it will be very useful for users to help rebuild the list of banned sites.

The good news is, sites that can be read without difficulty include:  Café Fuerte, Penultimos Días, Diario de Cuba and El País, as well as the sites of Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

A speed test of the new connection, resulted in the data shown in the following image:

In summary, although this is not the Internet we dreamed of, given it high prices, censored sites and the inability to connect from home, at least it’s a crack that has opened the wall of disconnection. Now it is up to us to force this slit to become a door… may we live to see it.

10 June 2013

Entrance Exams: An Assessment of Education in Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

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Paradise

They’re no longer dressed in blue uniforms and some boys even show off their rebellious manes. Hair that no teacher will demand they cut — at least for the next few weeks — hair that will ultimately fall to the razor of Obligatory Military Service. They still look like students, but very soon many of them will be marching with rifles slung over their shoulders. They are young men who just, days ago, finished their school days at different high schools all over Cuba. The college entrance exams are long past and this week they’ve learned who will have a place in higher education.

Just outside the schools, the lists of the accepted and unaccepted speak for themselves. José Miguel Pérez High school — in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality — could be a good example to explain the situation. This educational center is one of the best performing high schools in the capital. A situation partly due to the professional and economic composition of the neighborhood, which means many parents can afford after-school tutors (we refer to these as “dishtowels” — they clean things up). Despite these advantages, the end-of-year statistics for this school are more alarming than satisfying.

Of  233 12th grade students in this high school, 222 took the entrance exams and only 162 managed to pass all tests. The rest will have to go to a second round, or content themselves with failure. The highest number of low marks was in Math, in which only 51 students achieved a score of between 90 and 100 points. In the applications for careers, teaching specialties are repeatedly put down as a back-up choice; “To guarantee getting a place, even if the tests don’t go well,” these potential teachers of tomorrow say, with a certain indecency.

Statistics from José Miguel Pérez High School

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Categories L to R: Total Students in Grade 12; Passed All Subjects; Failed One or More Subjects; Did Not Appear

The beginning and end (?) of a mistake

The young people who completed secondary school this year are the products of the educational experiments led off by the so-called Battle of Ideas. They are 17 and 18 today, so they started junior high as the “Emergent Teachers” program was gaining strength, a program that put hastily trained young people barely out of their teens — if that — at the front of the classroom. Today’s graduates were educated in classrooms where television and VCRs were the protagonists, for lack of sufficiently trained teachers. At the most difficult times they could count on receiving at least 60% of their classes from a screen. They also went through puberty at a time of rising ideological indoctrination. While it is true that this has always been inherent in teaching in Cuba over the past five decades in, its climax came after the Elian Gonzalez case. Fidel Castro took advantage of that event in the late nineties to impart a twist to the political discourse in all aspects of national life.

Those who graduated from the twelfth grade a few weeks ag, are the first batch who did not have to go to boarding schools in the countryside. Encouraging news for the young people themselves and especially for their parents. However, the readjustment for teachers caused by the change forced many of them to rethink careers based on study, books and binders. The teachers who came from these schools in the countryside had to adapt to new conditions. Despite the difficulties of the former regime of internment, for the teachers these countryside schools were sites of direct contact with the farmers who sold or traded for agricultural products. One of the few incentives for working in such a place was being able to take some bananas, taro, pork or fruit to the city at a much cheaper price than in the markets of Havana. The loss of that little privilege discouraged some teachers from continuing on the path of teaching.

Memorize or question?

The countless hours lost in the classroom to teacher absenteeism is another of the hallmarks of recent graduates. To this we have to add the decline of the investigative character of science instruction, due to the deterioration or absence of chemistry, physics and biology labs. In many high schools chemistry experiments were practically canceled due to the shortages and fear that students would have access to the chemicals. Physical education, computer science and English were the biggest losers in the exodus of teachers to other areas of employment. High school education emphasized rote learning of dates, names, events, without progress in creating their own opinions, a spirit of asking questions, or the capacity of discernment. Graduates can hold in their heads the years and important days of our country’s history, but fail to form their own opinion about what it all means.

The quality of handwriting, spelling and the correct use of Spanish also fell short as educational objectives. This coming September, university classrooms will see students with serious deficiencies in all three areas. But that does not mean that they will be faced with excessive demands or be unable to complete their programs of study. They will attend a University whose quality of teaching is far from that once exhibited in Cuba. In the 2013 ranking of Latin American universities, the University of Havana fell from position 54 to 81, another sign pointing to the urgent need to review the entire educational model. The educational level of the new entrants to higher education, has forced them to lower the bar.

The tinkering with the alchemy of learning, the successive experiments marked more by the voluntarism than scientific analysis, the excessive presence of ideology in every subject, the encouragement of docile, rather than questioning, minds, students’ limited access to updated materials (read internet) and the educational fraud that flourishes where ethics is absent, are all undermining one of the main pillars of national identity: that which consists of knowledge, academics and teaching. But a problem can not be remedied unless we confess that it exists. So while they continue speaking in a triumphalist tone about Cuban education, it will continue to sink into mediocrity, into material and pedagogical deterioration.

6 June 2013

Loose in Havana, Gandalf and Elton John / Yoani Sanchez

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The Poster for British Week in Havana

London has come to Havana. During this week of British Culture that is celebrated from the first of June in our country, even the climate has decided to be in sync with that of the other Island. Grey skies, drizzle, mist at dawn. All we lack is the silhouette of Sherlock Holmes sneaking around a corner or a magician knocking with this staff on the wood of our door. They are days of great music and a chance to appreciate unusual schedule in the movie theaters. Since last Tuesday they have been showing a selection that includes the 2013 Oscar winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, and also the biographical film Marley, about the life of the famous reggae singer and composer. The selection of cartoons for kids and teens will probably attract a good audience at a time when many are on vacation from school.

I have been enjoying some of the programming not only for me but also for many others. Especially thinking about those young Cubans , or forty years ago, secretly listened to an English quartet which the official media now play everywhere. The striking colors and the design of the poster for this “British Week” has evoked for me the iconography of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and also the delightful adventurers in the Yellow Submarine. So some of us have also taken it as a tribute to those battered Beatlemaniacs from back then. These days, however, the greatest comfort comes from the window cracked open to let in this fresh air that comes to us from the outside. This gift of sensing that culture can make the Atlantic seem narrower, the passing years shorter, the losses recoverable.

5 June 2013

The Return / Yoani Sanchez

la-maleta-de-viaje-de-yoani-sanchez1-450x600My suitcase is parked in a corner, the tiny gifts that traveled inside it already in the hands of friends and relatives. The anecdotes — for their part — will need more time, because there are so many I could spend the rest of my life parsing their details. I’m back now. Beginning to feel the peculiarities of a Cuba that in my three months absence has barely changed. The number of uniforms was the first thing that jumped out at me: soldiers, customs, police… why do you see so many uniforms simply on landing at José Martí Airport? Why is there this feeling of so few civilians and so many soldiers? After the dimmed lights of the halls, the none too friendly question of a supposed doctor interested to know if I had been in Africa. Where are you coming from, honey? She jerked her head around noticing my blue passport with the shield of the republic on its cover.

Outside, a group of colleagues and family waited for me. The embrace of my son, the most cherished. Then having again entered my own space and the unique pace at which life transpires here. Catching up with the stories, events in the neighborhood, the city and the country. I’m back. With an energy that the daily stumbling blocks try to cut short, but with enough left over to undertake new projects. One stage of my life is ending and another is emerging. I have seen the solidarity, I have felt it and now I also have the duty to tell my compatriots on the Island that we are not alone.

I have brought so many good memories: the sea in Lima, the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, the Freedom Tower in Miami, the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, the affection of so many friends in Italy, Madrid with its Museo del Prado and its Cibeles Plaza, Amsterdam and the canals running through it, Stockholm and the cyber-activists from the whole world I met there, Berlin and the graffiti that covers what was once a wall dividing Germany, Oslo surrounded by green, New York that never sleeps, Geneva with its diplomats and the United Nations headquarters, Gdansk laden with recent history, and Prague, beautiful, unique. All these places, with their lights and shadows, their grave problems and their moments for leisure and laughter, I have brought with me to Havana.

I am back and I am not the same person. Something of each place where I was stayed with me, and the hugs and words of encouragement I received are here today, with me.

3 June 2013

One Year Later / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate, Yoani Sanchez

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The wheel of life doesn’t stop turning: Luis Pavon Tamayo died in Cuba, one of the Torquemadas of the infamous Five Grey Years.

One Year Later: Originally posted in January 2008

What pushed me to this adventure of writing a Blog was the bad taste left at the end of the controversy of the intellectuals in January 2007. On an afternoon like today, the 30th of January, we waited – a group of young people – to be able to enter the conference: “The gray five years, reviewing the term.”  The meeting in the House of the Americas would try to channel and institutionalize a debate that had been raising the temperature of Cuban emails for a couple of weeks already.  A select list of guests began entering the “Che Guevara Room,” while our “group of impertinents” watched, from outside, as midnight arrived.

We were there, obviously protestors, blocked by the custodians and the bureaucrats from entering, to debate and discuss our encounters with censorship and dogmatism.  We put a rhyme to a cadence as an appeal to the main organizer of the event: “Desiderio, Desiderio, hear my opinions,”  but that didn’t work either.  Inside, the voice of the Minister of Culture repeated the idea that in a place under siege, dissent is treason.  Meanwhile, on the same corner of G and the Malecon, the frustration of those who were not heard disintegrated into exhaustion and a mass return home.

A year later, I don’t know what we have left of those “Words of the Intellectuals” exchanged by email.  What is left to us from that package of complaints and demands that started as criticism of the political culture of the revolution and grew to a questioning of EVERYTHING?  I sense that the debate was hijacked by the institutions, jailed by an academic world full of concepts and fancy words, and condemned to take the course of the imminent conference of the UNEAC [Cuban Writers and Artists Union].

However, we were left – at least those of us who were outside – with the conviction that we can’t wait to be allowed inside the next debate. To me, personally, it added a definite push to start this exorcism called “Generation Y.”  It gave me the spatula for the long contained vomit (sorry for the nasty metaphor) that has fallen resoundingly over this Blog.

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Here is a small text about the “Intellectual Debate,” a point of rupture that marked my life in Generation Y. // The punishment of the censors, of the Torquemadas from so many eras, is the in the end some of their victims end up being more free than them.

26 May 2013

Universal / Yoani Sanchez

sif2013Someone sitting at the table behind spoke in French, while in chairs at the side two Brazilians exchanged ideas. Two steps further on some activists from Belarus were talking with some Spaniards who had also come to the Stockholm Internet Forum. An event that began on May 21 in the Swedish capital bringing together people interested in digital tools, social networks and cyberspace. A real Tower of Babel where we communicate in the lengua franca of technology. The global and virtual village is now contained in an old factory on the edge of the sea. And in the midst of this back and forth of analysis and anecdotes, are six Cubans, also willing to contribute their labor as cyber activists.

This is without a doubt the most enjoyable stage of my long journey and not because other places haven’t been filled with beautiful impressions and lots of hugs, but because here I have met up with several colleagues from the Island. Some of the people who, in our country have grabbed hold of new technologies to narrate and to try to change our reality, today are gathered here. The young attorney Laritza Diversent, the director of Estado de SATS, Antonio Rodiles, the keen blogger Miriam Celaya, the information engineer Eliecer Avila, and joining us for one day as well, the independent reporter Roberto Guerra. Here in Stockholm it has felt rather like Cuba, though certainly not because of the weather.

The Internet Forum has allowed us to feel like citizens of the world, to share experiences with those who live in different situations but, in essence, surprisingly similar ones. It’s enough to chat with another attendee for a little while, or to listen to a talk, to realize that in every word spoken here is the eternal human quest for knowledge, information… freedom. Expressed on this occasion through circuits, screens and kilobytes. This meeting has left us with the sensation that we are universal and that technologies have made us into people capable of transcending our geography and our time.

like_webb23 May 2013

Three Parameters, One House / Yoani Sanchez

For Sale or Trade. From martinoticias.com
For Sale or Trade. From martinoticias.com

Placing zeros to the right seems to be the preferred sport of those who put a price on the homes they sell in Cuba today. A captive market at the end of the day, the buyer could find a lot of surprises in the wide range of classified ads. From owners who ask astronomical sums for their houses, sums that have nothing to do with the reality of demand, to real bargains that make you feel sorry for the naiveté of the negotiator. Many are pressured to sell, some by those with the smarts to realize that this is the time to buy a house on the Island. It is a bet on the future, if it goes wrong they lose almost everything, but if it goes well they position themselves — in advance — for tomorrow. The slow hurry up and the fast run at the speed of light. These are times to make haste, the end of an era could be close… say the smartest.

It’s surprising to see, with barely any notion of real estate, how Cubans launch themselves into the marketing of square meters. They talk about their space, usually with an over abundance of adjectives that make you laugh or scare you. So when you read “one bedroom apartment in central Havana with mezzanine bedroom,” you should understand “room in a Central Havana apartment with wooden platform.” If they talk about a garden, it’s best to imagine a bed with soil and plants at the entrance; and even five-bedroom residences, after a visit, are reduced to two bedrooms partitioned with cardboard. The same mistrust with which people view the photos on the social networks where young people look for partners, should be applied to housing ads here. However, you can also find real pearls in the midst of the exaggeration.

Right now there are at least three parameters that determine the final cost of a home: location, physical state of construction, and pedigree. The neighborhood has a great influence on the final value of the property. In Havana, the most prized areas are Vedado, Miramar, Central Havana, Víbora and Cerro, for their central character. The least wanted are Alamar, Reparto Eléctrico, San Miguel del Padrón and La Lisa. The poor state of public transport significantly influences people’s preference for houses that are near major commercial centers with abundant spaces for entertainment. If there is a farmers market in the vicinity, the asking price goes up; if it is near the Malecon it also goes up. People shy away from the periphery, although among the “new rich,” those who have accumulated a little more capital whether by legal or illegal means, the trend of looking for homes in the outskirts has begun. It is still too early, however, to speak about a trend to locate in greener and less polluted areas. For now, the main premise can be summarized as the more central the better.

The physical state is one of the other elements that defines what a home will cost. If the ceiling is beam and slab, the numbers fall; meanwhile constructions from the 1940s and ‘50s enjoy a very good reputation and appeal. The lowest values are for the so-called “microbrigade works” with their ugly concrete buildings and their little Eastern European style apartments. If the roofing is light — tiles, zinc, wood, ceiling paper — the seller will get less. The state of the bathroom and kitchen are another point that directly influences the marketability of the property. The quality of the floors, if the windows are barred and the door is new — of glass and metal — these are points in its favor. If there are no neighbors overhead, then the seller can rest easy. Also very valuable are houses with two entrances, designed for a large family seeking to split up and live independently. Everything counts, anything goes.

So far it resembles a real estate market like any other anywhere in the world. However, there is a situation that defines, in a very particular way, the value of homes for sale. This is their pedigree. This refers to whether the house has belonged to the family for forever, or if it was confiscated in one of the waves of expropriations in Cuba. If the previous owner left during the Rafter Crisis of 1994 and the State handed the property over to someone new, the price is lower. The same thing happens if it was taken during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, a time when property was awarded to others after the emigration of those who had lived there up until that time. But where the prices hit rock bottom is with those homes confiscated between 1959 and 1963, when great numbers left for exile. Few want to take on the problem of acquiring a site that later may go into litigation. Although there are some who are taking advantage of this situation to buy real mansions in the most central neighborhoods at bargain prices.

In order to check the location, the state of construction, as well as the legal past of the house, potential buyers are aided by their own experience, a good architect and even a lawyer to dig through the details of the property. Each element adds or removes a cipher, one zero or one hundred to the total price people are willing to pay. In a captive market anything is possible; it’s as if knowledge of real estate has only been sleeping, lethargic, and now returns with amazing force.

18 May 2013

From the Washtub to the Washing Machine / Yoani Sanchez

From a distance you feel the strokes… bam, bam, bam. The arm raises the thick fat stick and then lets it falls hard on the twisted sheet. The spray of lather explodes with every stroke and white water seeping from dirty fabric mixes with the river. It is very early, the sun barely up, and already the clotheslines are waiting for with damp clothes that must dry in the morning. The woman is exhausted. From the time she was a teenager she has washed her and her family’s clothing in this way. What other choice did she have? In that little village lost in the eastern mountains all her neighbors did the same. At times as she slept her body would move restlessly in the bed and repeat the hint of a movement: up… down… bam… bam… bam.

Lately the discussion of women’s emancipation in Cuba has been focused on persuading us of its extent, showing the numbers of women in parliament. There is also talk — in the official mass media — of how many have managed to climb into administrative positions, or to lead an institution, a scientific center or a business. However, very little is said about the sacrifice involved for them in managing in these positions with their busy domestic schedules and material shortages. You only have to look at the faces of those over forty to note the tense frown common in so many Cuban woman. It is the mark left by a daily life where a good part of the time must be dedicated to burdensome and repetitive tasks. One of these is the laundry, which many of our countrywomen do, at least a couple of times a week, by hand and in very tough conditions. Some do not even have running water in their homes.

In a country where a washing machine costs an entire year’s salary, we can’t talk about women’s emancipation. Facing the washtub and the brush, or the boiler filled with baby diapers bubbling on the firewood, thousands of women pass many hours of their lives. The situation becomes more difficult if we move away from the capital and look at the hands of the women who clean, with the strength of their fingers, the shirts, pants and even the military uniforms of their families. Their hands are knotted, stained white by the soap or detergent in which they’re immersed for hours. Hands belie statistics about emancipation and the fabricated gender quotas, with which they try to convince us otherwise.

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1980s Aurika washing machine imported from the USSR to Cuba and still used by many Cuban families ... in the absence of another.Photo from museodelanostalgia.blogspot.ch

Other texts with this theme: With Clitoris and With Rights; Violence Against Woman.

15 May 2013

From the Jewish Museum to the Stasi Museum / Yoani Sanchez

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The Jewish Museum in Berlin

The building is shaped like a dislocated Star of David. Gray, with a zinc-clad facade and little openings that provoke a strong sense of claustrophobia. The museum is not only the objects on its walls and in its display cases, the museum is all of it, each space one can move through and even the voids — with no human presence — that can be glimpsed through certain gaps. There are family photos, books with their gold-embossed covers, medical instruments, and images of young people in their bathing suits. It is life, the life of German Jews before the Holocaust. One might expect to see only the testimonies of the horrors, but most dramatic is finding yourself facing the testimony of everyday life. Laughter captured — years before the tragedy — is as painful to look at as are the emaciated corpses and piled up cadavers. The proof of those moments of happiness make the tears and pain that follow more terrifying.

After a time between the narrow corridors of the place and amid its bewildering architecture, I go outside and breathe. I see spring greenery in Berlin and think: we can’t allow this past to ever return.

A tiny window, the only source of light in a German Stasi cell.
A tiny window, the only source of light in a German Stasi cell.

And not very far from there, stands the Stasi Museum. I enter their cells, the interrogation rooms. I come from the perspective of a Cuban who was detained in the same place, where a window looking outward becomes an unattainable dream. One cell was lined with rubber, the scratch marks of the prisoners can still be seen on its walls. But more sinister seeming to me are the offices where they ripped — or fabricated — a confession from the detainees. I know them, I’ve seen them. They are a copy of their counterpart in Cuba, copied to a T by the diligent students from the Island’s Ministry of the Interior who were taught by GDR State Security. Impersonal, with a chair the prisoner can’t move because it is anchored to the floor and some supposed curtain behind which the microphone or video camera are hidden. And the constant metallic noises from the rattling of the locks and bars, to remind the prisoners where they are, how much they are at the mercy of their jailer.

After this I again need air, to get out from within those walls. I turn away from that place with the conviction that what, for them, is a museum of the past, is what we are still living in the present. A “now” that we cannot allow to prolong itself into tomorrow.

10 May 2013