To Cusio And Libna, Wherever You Are / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 22 February 2016 — He was an acknowledged homosexual and she a convinced Jehovah’s Witness. One lived in the same tenement where I was born and the other in the dreaded “218,” where violence and sewage competed for a starring role. Cusio and Libna should have grown up with the conviction that every sexual orientation or religious belief is respected and necessary, provided it does not imply violence against the other.

They achieved something unthinkable in the Cuba of the eighties: reaffirming that beds and beliefs belong to all of us, and no ideology should interfere in them. They were the true survivors of uniformity, the shipwrecks of the storm of “parameterization” and police raids. Now in my forties, I continue to owe a debt to the lesson in plurality they taught me.

Cusio experienced abuse and neglect, but he was always smiling. From Libna, I learned patience, to swallow hard when everything is against me, and keep going. I lost count of all the humiliations I faced for not wearing the neckerchief, that piece of cloth that was making my neck itch and that now reminds me more of the yoke used on oxen than any ideological commitment. continue reading

One day I lost sight of both of them. We grew up, reached adulthood, and the game of childhood ended. I know Cusio stayed with his adoptive parents until their final days, in a Cuba where material poverty results in so many old people being abandoned. Of Libna, not a trace. I don’t know if she is still living on the island or if she decided to leave, with her persecuted beliefs, for some other place.

As time goes on I think about them more. I appreciate the lesson of humility that developed before my eyes, without expecting anything from me, not a vindication, not even a hug.

We Don’t Need a Thousand Years / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill during a meeting in Havana. (EFE)
Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill during a meeting in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 14 February 2016 — A Catholic pope and a patriarch of the Orthodox Church just shared a hug in Cuba. A thousand years of enmity have concluded with three kisses at the Havana airport and the signing of an agreement to protect the Christian flock. The scene for this historic event could not be more contradictory: a country where the government refuses to recognize its critics and has dynamited all the bridges for dialogue with the opposition.

From a cleverly publicized stage setting, Raul Castro has taken on the task of showing the island as a natural terrain for dialogue. However, to make use of this zone of ​​conciliation, the General demands two strict requirements be complied with. Participants in the negotiations can only be foreigners and should not express even the slightest questioning of the hosts. continue reading

Under these conditions, the government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas have engaged in peace talks for more than three years. A conflict in which thousands of human lives have been lost, people have been displaces, and continuing military clashes between both sides hinder the process of coming to an understanding and make any kind of agreement unthinkable.

The Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies have done the same thing. The hug between Francis and Kiril closes a stage that began in the year 1054 when the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. A schism that shaped a part of the world that we know today, and created a separation in everything from rights to questions of theology and doctrine. A chasm that seemed insurmountable until this Friday.

In the case of both the Colombian peace negotiations and a meeting between two religious leaders, the seriousness of the confrontation has demanded a good deal of sensitivity to get to the point of dialogue. Around the discussion table and in the improvised meeting room at the airport, those involved were conscious that in any mediation no one can emerge unscathed, without ceding even an inch.

The principals have to show willingness to agree, in part because of the exhaustion associated with any confrontation. But especially because they understand the damage their dispute is doing to the common people, desecrating the existence of the people and of the faithful. The pope and the patriarch have shaken hands because they know that in all those centuries of denying each other, the principal victim of their enmity has been the Christian flock.

In several photos of the February 12th historical meeting we also see Cuba’s general-president. The man who during his eight years in office has not demonstrated the greatness of narrowing the distance that separates him from his political opponents, who do not have blood on their hands nor arms stowed under their beds, but rather ideas that differ from those of the Communist Party and a sincere concern for their country, along with the imperative to promote peaceful change.

Refusing to talk while lending our national soil so that others can come to agreement, Raul Castro confirms his small stature as a statesman and reveals his fear of awarding legitimacy to the opposition. Despite his reluctance, we Cubans will end up understanding each other and we will not need to wait one thousand years to give each other three loud kisses on the cheek.

The Cuban Railroad Died / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)
Railroad in Cuba. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 29 January 2016 – My father is a train engineer. It has been decades since he drove a train, long years in which he hasn’t sounded the whistle of a locomotive while passing through a village with children running alongside the line. However, this still agile retiree originally from Matanzas still marks the 29th of January on the calendar and says “it is my day.” The day still smells of iron braking on iron, and has the rush of the platform, where some leave and others say goodbye. continue reading

The date honors the guild established in 1975, during the finishing of the first stretch of the central line. At the celebration Fidel Castro operated a Soviet locomotive, a moment that is still a source of amusement among elderly train engineers. “Everything was ready and he didn’t even get the credit of making that mass move,” says an old conductor in his eighties. The event, more about politics than railroads, was enough to let the imposed anniversary go.

The 19th of November should be the date for those who carry the iron serpent circulating in our blood. The day the first rail link in Cuba was completed, between Havana and Bejucal, in 1837, should get all the credit to earn itself a celebration that goes beyond the fanfare of the politicians and the headlines of the official press. In those nearly 17 miles (27.3 kilometers) of the initial line, a lineage began that refuses to die.

Now, when I stand in front of the lines at La Coubre terminal in Havana and observe the disaster that is rail transport in Cuba today, I ask myself if the era of the “sons of the railroad” will come to an end. Old cars, unsafe, accidents, delays, long lines to buy a ticket, luggage thefts, the stench of the toilets… and an iron fence that isolates the platform and those going aboard from those who are saying goodbye.

The Cuban railroad died. There is not much to celebrate on this day.

The Internet Balloon Deflates in Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: El Nuevo Herald
Photo: El Nuevo Herald

Yoani Sanchez, El Nuevo Herald, 10 January 2016 – She raises the phone and holds it in front of her eyes. A tear rolls down her cheek while her son tells her, in a video call, that early mornings on the border “aren’t that cold” and he has “a mattress to sleep on.” Thousands of immigrant Cubans, stranded in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, are in contact with their families thanks to technology. Screens and keyboards bring close what geography separates.

The beginning of the thaw between Cuba and the United States aroused expectations of economic improvements and political changes on the island. Along with these illusions, there was growing hope of better access to the internet. While some marked the date of 17 December 2014 as the end of a diplomatic confrontation, the youngest identified it with a flood of kilobytes just off the horizon. continue reading

However, a year after the announcement of the reestablishment of relations between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution, Cubans have not been able to fully enjoy the status of internauts. The hoisting of flags in Washington and Havana has not brought the longed-for connectivity, nor the wave of new technologies that some predicted. But nor has the Cuban government had the ability to stop the flow of information that moves along informal networks.

If five years ago the great conqueror of state censorship was a minuscule USB memory stick, now people want more. The use of external hard disks is expanding and applications for cellphones and tablets are beginning to overcome the obstacles of living on “the island of the disconnected.” Among the graduates of the University of Information Sciences (UCI), where they prepared to be information soldiers, have emerged those who kow design software to bypass the difficulties in accessing information.

On the sidewalks, under the trees and on the stairs that lead to the sober government ministries on La Rampa – the street that passes the Coppelia ice cream stand and the Havana Libre hotel as it heads down to the Malecon – are crowded the customers of a wireless navigation service opened in the middle of last year. Despite the high costs of connecting, where an hour of websurfing coasts the equivalent of two days wages, the number grows every day of users about to feel what it’s like to be online.

Age and ideological affiliation don’t matter, the internet is the most democratic terrain Cubans have known. They can use it to put their house up for sale on a classifieds site, or to hold a videoconference with their exiled relatives on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Despite the censored digital sites and the unpleasant conditions of the wifi areas, those who peer into the web have a rare expression on their faces, scarecely known in these parts. They are surprised, happy… alive.

Every day, across the island, more than 150,000 customers on average access the internet, according to information provided by the state service provider, ETECSA. For a nation of 11 million people, right now there are only 58 wifi areas, though the state monopoly assures that this year another 80 will be ready. A drop in the ocean of need.

This global web comes to us bit by bit, not at all like the stratospheric balloons Google plans to launch in several areas around the world to connect citizens little favored by geography, economic hardship or censorship. “Project Loon” cannot be applied to Cuba as long as information is like a nightmare for the authorities, who want to avoid it at all costs.

The big question is whether Raul Castro took the step of opening a few wifi zones when he spotted the silhouette of Google’s balloons on the horizon. We will never know for sure, but we don’t need a very advanced computer algorithm to guess the answer.

Venezuela Wins, Intolerance Loses / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Opposition lawmaker Henry Ramos Allup is the new president of the Venezuelan National Assembly. (MUD)
Opposition lawmaker Henry Ramos Allup is the new president of the Venezuelan National Assembly. (MUD)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 January 2016 – If Hugo Chavez were alive and Fidel Castro active, the Venezuelan opposition would not have taken over the National Assembly. The comandantes knew that if they accepted an opposition majority in this body of power it would spell their political end. The Cuban leader eradicated the multi-party system in order to prevent something like this, while Chavez, leader of a military coup, shielded the electoral system and bought loyalty with oil.

However, the worst nightmare of both just took shape in Caracas. This Tuesday the deputies from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) became aware of their overwhelming minority given their small number of legislative seats. In a place where they can no longer even see the image of the “eternal president,” Chavez’s followers received a democratic slap in the face. continue reading

Accustomed to legislating with a marked numerical superiority, the ruling party found their disadvantage a bitter pill to swallow and stomped out of the room. For them, the coming months will be a martyrdom because they will hear a flood on contrary opinions, they will be held accountable for their decisions, and they will see laws approved that will affect their own bloc.

In the Castro regime’s manual, one can read in great big red letters the maxim to avoid at all costs allowing political opponents to take the microphones. One lesson that the Plaza of the Revolution taught Chavez, but that his clumsy disciple Nicolas Maduro did not assimilate well. Maduro’s arrogance made him believe that he would win the elections of last December 6, and today he is looking hard for ways to tie the hands of the National Assembly.

While the Venezuelan Supreme Court was hearing the ruling party’s challenges to three deputies-elect from the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), Cuban parliamentarians were meeting at the Palace of Conventions. In Caracas, everything was speculation and political tension, but in Havana the script was already well known: vote unanimously and, at best, listen to long hours of speeches about the supply of yogurt, the poor quality of the induction cookers recently hawked to the population, or the complications involved in obtaining a birth certificate.

Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, led by Esteban Lazo, was once again the image of docility, but its Venezuelan counterpart was transformed, this Tuesday, into pure effervescence. The South American nation has become, as of this moment, a country difficult to govern. But what democracy is easy?

Now there is only one parliament in this hemisphere that functions as a ventriloquist for power. One country where the legislators applaud a ruler who attends the National Assembly dressed in an army uniform, and spits at the minister of the economy to stop blushing about the failure of his programs. In this nation, where for nearly six decades we have not heard a real debate among legislators, this Tuesday we were proud and envious of Venezuela.

The One-sided Paralysis of the Cuban Press / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.
Television remains under a strict monopoly of the Communist Party to sustain a biased editorial line does not represent the national complexity.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 6 January 2015 – Sometimes I wish I lived in the country they show on television. This hopeful nation of rose-colored dreams presented by the official press. A place of props and slogans, where factory production exceeds goals and employees are declared “workplace heroes.” In this Cuba, bouncing off the antennas to reach our small screens, there is no room for sickness, pain, frustration or impatience.

The official Cuban press has tried to approach the country’s reality in recent years. Several young faces appear on TV programs to report on administrative negligence, poor services, or consumer complaints about bureaucratic paperwork. But even still, state journalism continues to be a long way from objectivity and respect for the truth. continue reading

Television, radio and newspapers are maintained under strict monopoly of the Communist Party, and not only because they are ideologically subordinated, but also because they are financed from the state coffers – money that belongs to all Cubans – money that they use to sustain a biased editorial line that does not reflect the national complexity.

The topics covered by the journalists of this partisan press represent the interests of an ideology and a group in power, not of the entire country. They never dare, for example, in their reporting, to question the authorities, nor the current political system, nor the organs of State Security nor the activities of the police, among other taboo subjects.

However, where the official press most betrays the precepts of balance and impartial information is in the testimonies they broadcast, in the voices they give space to and the opinions they express. By the grace of journalistic censorship, access to the microphone is granted only to those who agree with the government and applaud the actions of its leaders.

They never interview someone with a difference of opinion, or someone who believes the country should take other political or economic paths. Unanimity continues to fill the front pages and the news broadcasts, although for a long time now loud dissent has been heard on buses, in stores, in the hallways of institutions and even in classrooms.

At the beginning of this year an avalanche of reports filled the television broadcasts. The protagonists were young people who claimed to live “in the best of all possible worlds,” smiling with confidence in their future and not even dreaming of emigration. Not included among the opinions were those from anyone in the process of leaving Cuba, or feeling frustrated by their professional prospects, or submerging themselves in illegalities to survive.

In the almost 70,000 hours of annual television broadcasts not a single self-employed person complains about their high taxes. Parents who fear the growing violence in Cuban streets are never encountered in the Cuban media, and women beaten by their husbands don’t appear demanding legal measures to protect them from the abuse.

The teachers whose pay doesn’t allow them to live a decent life find no echo of their demands in the media, nor do dissidents appear to demand respect for their opinions. An inmate denouncing bad prison conditions has no chance to appear before the cameras, nor do the patients who have been victims of medical ethics violations or bad treatment in the Public Health System.

This entire area of Cuba, the widest area, remains outside the authorized media. Because the official Cuban press doesn’t exercise journalism, rather it proselytizes. Although it is made up of many professionals with university and post-graduate degrees, they do not have the freedom to engage in the work of reporting. Instead of looking for the truth, they try to impose an opinion. What they do cannot even call itself “the press.”

The Deadly Kiss of Price Controls / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)
The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 January 2016 — I was ten years old when Fidel Castro launched the economic battle he called the “Rectification of errors and negative tendencies.” The Maximum Leader’s rage fell, at that time, on private farmers and on the intermediaries who marketed their products. Cuatro Caminos Plaza in Havana, then known as the Single Market, was assaulted by officials and after that raid several foods disappeared from our lives: onions, garbanzo beans, chili peppers and even taro.

Almost a decade later, when the country had reached bottom with food shortages and scarcities, the government again authorized non-state food markets. The first time I approached a stand and bought a string of garlic, without having to practice stealth, I recovered a part of my life that had been snatched from me. For years we had to appeal to the illegal market, to a precarious clandestinity, to get things ranging from a pound of beans to the cumin seeds needed to season them. continue reading

However, the return of “farmers markets” has not been free of attacks and government animosity. The official press blames private producers for the high prices of many foods, and the figure of the intermediary has been demonized in the extreme. In the last 2015 session of the National Assembly, the idea was floated of imposing price regulation on certain food products, to force merchants to reduce the amounts.

At first glance, this would appear to favor consumers. Who wouldn’t consider it good news that a pound of pork without bones would not exceed 30 Cuban pesos, or never reach the astronomical 50 peso asking price in Havana’s Egido market at the end of 2015. The initial reaction of customers would be to welcome it, because a single lemon would no longer cost one Cuban peso, nor would papaya sell for 5 Cuban pesos a pound. However, behind the regulated prices come greater evils.

What could happen is that the products subjected to price controls would disappear from the agricultural markets and once again go into hiding. We would not be able to go to the corner to buy a pound of onions, like we have done over the last two decades, but would return to the times when we’d end up at the side of some road or in the middle of nowhere illegally dealing directly with the producers or the persecuted intermediaries.

Consumers would end up paying the piper for a measure that does not solve the problem of the lack of productivity on our farms or of the extremely low wages.

An economy is not planned on a whim, nor is it managed by force of restrictions, rather it is a fragile framework where lack of confidence and excessive state control are like a deadly embrace, leaving us without the ability to breathe on our own. In this grip, controlled prices come to be feared as the kiss of death that strangles commerce and leaves it lifeless.

Beans, ah, the beans! / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)
Beans are an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. (DC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 31 December 2015 – Tiny and tasty, they seem to look at us from the plate and mock the work it takes to get them. Beans are not only a part of our traditional cuisine, they constitute an effective indicator to calculate the cost of living in Cuba. The price increases these delicious little bits have experienced in the past year is proof of the disastrous economic policy promoted by Raul Castro.

When, in February of 2008, the former Minister of the Armed Forces assumed the presidency of the country, many were betting on the pragmatic character of his mandate. His sympathizers never stopped reminding us of the phrase in which he asserted, “Beans are more important than canons.” They predicted that our national agriculture would work like certain farms managed by the Ministry of the Armed Forces and the Youth Labor Army. continue reading

Hopes that overlooked José Martí’s accurate maxim, “A nation is not founded like a military camp is commanded.” The behavior of a soldier in the trenches can never be equated with a farmer’s day, and an officer’s command to bend one’s back over the earth has nothing in common with the efforts of a peasant to hire someone to bring in his harvest.

The harangues against the invasive marabou weed, launched by Raul Castro in his first years as president, fueled expectations, as did his call to put a glass of milk on every Cuban’s breakfast table. The Raulistas discerned in those statements the soaring of food production and the bringing down to earth of prices, to be consistent with wages. But neither occurred.

Instead, in recent months consumers have suffered a significant increase in the cost of agricultural products. If the year started with a pound of black beans costing between 12 and 15 Cuban pesos, at the close of December the price varied between 15 and 20 pesos – the wages of an entire working day – reaching the staggering price of 30 pesos in the case of garbanzo beans.

Meanwhile, the average monthly wages in the country only grew from 581 to 640 Cuban pesos (roughly $25 US), a symbolic increase which, expressed in a worker’s purchasing power, equals about three more pounds of beans a month. The results Raul Castro has achieved with his much-vaunted methods are not far removed from the little his brother Fidel Castro achieved with his grandiose agricultural and livestock projects.

The usufruct leasing of land to farmers ran up against the bureaucracy, excessive controls and the poor state of the leased land. El Trigal, the experimental wholesale market, is a sequence of empty stalls, petulant bananas and high prices. In reality, it is easier to find an apple brought from thousands of miles away than an orange or chiromoya planted in our own fields. For the coming year, the country will spend 1.94 billion dollars on food imports, and nobody even talks about the battle against the invasive marabou weed any more.

“I have to earn my beans,” says a teacher, as he justifies dedicating his workday to cooking pork, along with a portion of“Moors and Christians”– as we call black beans and rice – that he sells illegally to the workers at a hospital. Because yes, our lives revolve, rise and fall around those delicious little bits that we long to put on our plates. Expensive and tasty, they are the best indicator of the General’s failure.

From Information to Action / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

Yoani Sanchez accepts the Knight International Journalism Award 2015. (karinkarlekar)

14ymedio biggerGeneration Y, Yoani Sanchez, 12 November 2015 — My grandmother only knew how to write the first letter of her name. She would sign documents with an almost childish looking capitalized “A.” In spite of being illiterate, Ana always advised me to study and learn as much as possible. Nevertheless, that laundress who never went to school taught me the best lesson of my life: that tenacity and hard work are needed to accomplish one’s dreams. She instilled in me the urgency of “action.” Action with a capital “A,” like the only letter of her name that she could write.

However, action can become a problem if it is not appropriately accompanied by information. An uninformed citizen is easy prey for the powerful, a guaranteed victim for manipulation and control. In fact, an individual without information cannot be considered a whole citizen, because her rights will constantly be violated and she will not know how to demand and reclaim them. continue reading

The most expansive authoritarian regimes in history have been characterized by a strict control of the media and a high disregard for freedom of information. For these systems, a journalist is an uncomfortable individual who must be tamed, silenced, or eliminated. These are societies where a journalist is recognized only when she repeats the official government rhetoric, applauds the authorities, and sings praises to the system.

I have lived forty years under a government that considers that information is treason. At first, when I learned to read and began to pay attention to the national media, with its optimistic headlines and data on the country’s economic over-achievement, I blindly believed what those newspapers were saying. That country that only existed in the ink of the Cuban Communist Party’s national newspaper was similar to the one my teachers taught me about in school, similar to the one from the Marxist manuals and the speeches of the Maximum Leader. But it did not resemble the reality.

From the frustration between my desires to know and the wall of silence that the official Cuban press imposes on so many issues, the person I am now was born.

My first reaction in the face of so much manipulation and censorship – like that of so many of my fellow citizens – was simply to stop reading that press which served those in power, that propaganda disguised as journalism. Like millions of Cubans, I sought information that was hidden, censored news articles, and I learned to hear the radio transmissions coming from outside even with the interference that the government would impose on them.

I felt like I would drown if I wasn’t informed. But, then another moment came. A moment when I switched to “action.” It wasn’t enough to know everything that was being hidden from me and to decipher the truth behind so many false statistics and such editorial grandiloquence. I wanted to be part of those who narrated the Cuban reality. Thus, I began my blog Generation Y in April of 2007, and with it I took the path of no return as a reporter and a journalist. A path filled with danger, gratification, and great responsibility.

During the past eight years, I have lived all of the extremes of the journalistic profession: the honors and the pains; the frustration of not being allowed to enter an official press conferences and the marvel of finding an ordinary Cuban who gives me the most valuable of testimonies. I have had moments where I have exalted this profession and moments in which I wished I had never written that first word. There is no journalist who does not carry the burden of her own demons.

Now, I lead a media outlet, 14ymedio, the first independent news platform inside of Cuba. I am no longer the teenager who turned her eyes away from the official press, looked for other alternative news sources, and later began her own blog as if she were someone opening a window into the entrails of a country. I now have new responsibilities. I lead a group of journalists, who every day must cross the lines of illegality to perform their jobs.

I am responsible for each and every one of the journalists who are a part of the newsroom of our news platform. The worst moments are when one of them takes longer than expected to return from covering a story and we have to call their family to say that they have been arrested or are being interrogated. Those are the days that I wish that I had not written that first word…or that I had not written that first word the moment I did, but much earlier.

I feel that if we had moved towards action, and if we had exercised our right to inform much earlier, Cuba would now be a country where a journalist would not be synonymous with a tamed professional or a furtive criminal. But at least we have begun to do it. We have moved from information into action, to help change a nation through news, reporting, and journalism. It is Action with a capital “A,” like the one my grandmother wrote on those papers though she never really understood what they were saying.

Note: Speech delivered by Yoani Sanchez on 10 November in New York, at the ceremony for the 2015 Knight International Journalism Awards. The director of 14ymedio was given the award last May by the International Center for Journalists for her “uncommon resolve in the fight against censorship.”

The Lilliput Rebellion / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Gulliver being tied by the Lilliputians (CC)
Gulliver being tied by the Lilliputians (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 5 November 2015 – Calling for austerity while living in opulence has been common practice for Cuban leaders for more than half a century. Demands to “tighten one’s belt” are brandished about by officials with fat necks and ruddy faces, who for decades haven’t known what a refrigerator with more frost than food looks like. This contradiction undoubtedly annoys those who have to divide rationed bread with a family member, or cleverly cut up a bar of soap so it will last for several weeks.

The popular unease before the contrast between words and deeds could have led the journalist Alexander A. Ricardo to publish a metaphorical but accurate text in the opinion section of the Havana Tribune*. Under the title The Travels of Gulliver Junior, the opinion column refers to someone who “is seen in giant enjoyment of the shores of the Mediterranean, or as a dwarf adventurer without a problem in his life, in his visa.” continue reading

The allusion in the column was published some months ago when Antonio Castro, one of the sons of the former Cuban president, was discovered by a hidden camera while on vacation in Bodrum, Turkey. A place he arrived at from the Greek island of Mykonos on board a 150-foot yacht, and where he stayed with his companions in luxury suites.

It is hard not to relate the opulent life of Fidel Castro’s son and the calls for savings being launched today by his uncle from the dais, with the ironic phrase of the journalist: “Once he gets home he says nothing, He deceives his countrymen with stories about shipwrecks.” The similarities between the symbolic history and the real-life story have made the article go viral, and it is spreading via email within Cuba.

The coincidences grow when A. Ricardo writes, “he returned to weigh anchor, this time for the north, where the cold climate distanced him long ago,” which coincides with the onward journey of the ex-president’s son to New York, where he was also photographed, sheathed in sportswear and with a teddy bear in his hands.

“Thanks to his father Gulliver Junior travels quite often,” reads the text appearing in the newspaper of the Cuban capital. That is, because of the precarious economic situation imposed on millions of Cubans by his progenitor, now he can give himself luxuries that exceed what could be paid for with the retired father’s pension. But the Lilliputians are also getting tired. Could this journalist’s article be a sign of that indignation not at all diminutive?

*Translator’s note: A newspaper published by the Provincial Committee of the Cuban Communist Party

I no longer want to find you, Camilo / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Flowers for Camilo Cienfuegos at a primary school in Havana's Plaza district (14ymedio)
Flowers for Camilo Cienfuegos at a primary school in Havana’s Plaza district (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 October 2015 — The wall of the Malecon tastes of salt and is rough to the touch. Standing on it, my school uniform splashed by the waves, every October of my childhood I threw a bouquet of flowers into the sea. The tribute was addressed to a man who had died fifteen years before I was born. His face was on the walls and in schoolbooks, with an enormous smile beneath a broad-brimmed hat. Those were the days when I still dreamed of meeting Camilo Cienfuegos.

The story, repeated to the point of exhaustion in school assemblies and official propaganda, told of a plane that disappeared while the Commander was flying between the cities of Camagüey and Havana. For the children of my generation it was an almost magical enigma. We believed that one day we would find him, a bearded jokester, somewhere in the Cuban geography. It was just a matter of time, we thought. continue reading

But the years passed and on this long and narrow island there has never been detected even a single piece of that twin-engine Cessna. New technologies burst into everyone’s lives, satellites search every inch of the planet, and mythical cities, submerged or buried, are found all over the globe. But of Camilo, not a single clue.

The illusion that he would return to unite “the highest leadership of the country” was giving way to another desire. In the mid-eighties I heard talk of Camilo Cienfuegos as the hope for change. “If he were here, none of this would have happened,” the elderly intoned. “He wasn’t a communist,” my grandfather said.

Once again we want to find alive the hero of Yaguajay, but this time to lead our dissatisfaction and to help us overcome our fear.

In the Special Period the urge to discover at least a vestige of that tailor-turned-guerrilla forcefully resurfaced. We speculated that if the circumstances of his death were unraveled, Fidel Castro’s government would fall like a house of cards. The best-kept secret of the Revolutionary era would also be its end. But even in those years the mystery was not solved.

A few days ago a little girl reminded her mother she needed to take a bouquet of flowers to school to throw into the sea on the day this Havanan not yet turned 30 disappeared. A second later the girl asked, “But is he dead, or is he not dead?” Her mother explained the official version in a bored voice, ending with a categorical, “Yes, he’s dead… he is not breathing.”

The mystery has collapsed. Not because we found answers, but because we got tired of waiting for them. Right now, nothing would change because we know that Camilo Cienfuegos is alive somewhere – with his graying beard – unless it is scientifically proven that the official version is true. Nor would there be a great commotion on finding out his death was an assassination order by his own compañeros from the Sierra Maestra.

Time, implacable, has ended up burying Camilo.

Camilo Cienfuegos. (CC)
Camilo Cienfuegos. (CC)

The Faces Of The Cuban Dream / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The musical On Your feet! based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. (Matthew Murphy)
The musical On Your feet! based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. (Matthew Murphy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 20 October 2015 — “What is the Cuban dream?” he asked, as one inquires about the hour, the quality of the coffee, or the afternoon’s weather forecast. Around the table we all remained silent in the face of this question launched by the visitor. More than answering him about the country desired, the provocation made me think about the need for our dreams to reflect that faces of those who hold them, the people who inhabit them.

I remembered this conversation last Saturday, while enjoying the musical On your feet! in a crowded theater on Broadway in New York. Based on the lives of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the work transcends the story of a Cuban couple making their way in the competitive world of entertainment in the United States, to become a story of nostalgia, tenacity and success. continue reading

Before the spectator’s eyes, a story develops beginning with the pain of exile and memories of a life left behind on the island. A reference that is maintained throughout this play, currently being staged at the Marquis Theater in the Big Apple. Directed by Jerry Mitchel, the musical successfully details the transformation of sadness into energy and of the melancholy of emigration into entrepreneurship.

On your feet! is primarily a celebration of Cuban identity that manages to get the audience out of their seats and dancing, with tears still running down their faces. Through the excellent musical performances of Ana Villafañe in the role of Gloria Estafan, and the rest of the cast, the play captivates without becoming cloying, and connects the audience with the culture of our country beyond the stereotypes.

Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in the roles of Gloria and Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet!)
Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra in the roles of Gloria and Emilio Estefan (On Your Feet!)

The musical deserves a prolonged applause not only for its artistic virtues and superb staging, but above all, because it exalts values our society urgently needs to reclaim. It is about the lives of people who inspire in way very different from the models imposed by the Cuban government’s official propaganda. Gloria and Emilio do not provoke uncritical appreciation, fear, docile gratitude, but rather the desire to imitate them… to overcome.

Someday, when Cuban children open the schoolbooks that teach them to read, they will no longer see individuals dressed in military uniform with rifles on their shoulders. Instead of that excessive worship of men at arms, we will find real images of success, of social, scientific and cultural achievements. In those pages the real models will appear, the faces of the Cuban dream.

There Are In The Country of Solidarity, There Are No Foreigners / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Graffiti painted on a wall and later erased in Havana. (14ymedio)
Graffiti painted on a wall (left) and later erased (right) in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 12 October 2015 — Pepes, Yumas and tourists are some of the names we give to those who visit our country. For many Cubans, these travelers are their main source of income, through accommodation, transportation, dance and language classes. Some also share classrooms at the university, or work in a joint venture. However, in most cases their stay is brief, they are passing through, for only a few days or months. What happens when they come to stay?

A painting on a Havana wall addresses the contradiction between the official discourse that prides itself on the solidarity of a nation, but one where the immigrant has no place. This drawing of Che Guevara with a contentious quote – “In the homeland of solidarity there are no foreigners” – lasted just a few hours in its makeshift place, before the censor arrived in the form of a blue brushstroke to cover it over. For the government, when the foreigners arrive on their cruises, stay a few nights and leave their cold hard cash in the state coffers, everything seems fine. It is a whole different thing when they decide to come and stay. Then, the nationalistic hostility that characterizes the Cuban system shows itself. continue reading

Cuban immigration law is perhaps one of the strictest on the planet for a foreigner who settles in the national territory. For decades, living here was a privilege allowed only to the “comrades” of Eastern Europe, apprentice guerrillas, and political refugees from Latin American dictatorships. Diplomatic personnel and some chosen academics completed the map of natives of other countries who would stay in Cuba more or less permanently.

The island ceased to be a country of immigrants, where the crucible of identity joined together cultures far and near. Chinese, French, Arabs, Haitians, Spaniards and Poles, among many others, brought their customs, culinary recipes, and entrepreneurial initiatives to achieve the wonder of diversity. Today it is rare to see gathered around family tables people who were not born here.

At the end of 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics announced that the number of foreign residents in Cuba in 2011 represented just 0.05% of the population. A figure that contrasts with the 128,392 foreigners – 1.3% of the population – that we shared the island with in 1981. Two factors explain the sharp drop in foreign residents: the implosion, in the 1990s, of the socialist camp, whence the “technicals” of yesteryear; and, above all, because our country long ago ceased to be a nation of opportunities.

While foreign residents were leaving, temporary visitors were becoming an economic “lifeline” in the face of an increasing material misery. These latter were, for a long time, the only ones with hard currency, and with it the ability to buy shampoo in the “diplotiendas” (diplomat stores), and to experience the enormous luxury of enjoying a cold beer in a hotel bar. The tourist became the Prince Charming of many young Cuban women’s dreams, the son-in-law that every father-in-law wanted, and the preferred tenant of rooms for rent.

Even today foreigners are seen by many Cubans as wallets with legs who walk the streets, which must be emptied of every coin. It is difficult for a foreigner in Cuba to determine to what extent the friendliness they come across in the streets is the natural kindness of our people, versus a histrionic performance the objective of which is to get one’s hand in their pocket.

Cubans have lost the habit of living – equal to equal – with “the other.” Sharing jobs with immigrants, accepting that people speak different languages on a public bus. Our kitchens have been impoverished by lack of contact with other gastronomic experiences, we have become less universal and markedly more “islanders” in the worst sense of the word. We have lost the capacity to tolerate and welcome other ways of doing, speaking and living.

How will we react when our country becomes a destination for immigrants? Will they be condemned to the worst jobs? Will xenophobic groups emerge that reject those who come from overseas? Will there be NGOs to protect them? Programs to help them integrate? Politicians who don’t fear them? All these questions need to be answered in a shorter time frame than we think. Cuba could again be, very soon, a nation of people who come from many places.