Stubborn Like an Islander / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The Islander (14ymedio)
The Islander (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 8 August 2014 – In the land of San Juan y Martinez, Bernabé Pérez Gutiérrez planted his first crops and fathered fourteen children. It was during the last years of the 19th century, and the immigrant baptized his farm The Islander, in memory of the Canary Islands where he’d come from. Today, his great-grandchildren are trying to keep one of the most important tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio running, with the their great grandfather’s same stubbornness and his love for the furrow.

The Islander is a family cooperative inserted into a larger entity called “Rafael Morales Credit and Strengthened Services Cooperative (CCS-F),” consisting of 64 tobacco producers, occupying over 250 acres. It also includes dairy and pig farmers. Only ten of these farmers lease their land (under usufruct), while others jealously hoard their property titles.

What distinguishes The Islander is not only the quality of their tobacco, their fruit or their flowers, nor even the hard work of the members of the Pérez González family. Its hallmark is that this site has been, since the time of Barnabas an example of a sustained endeavor that refuses to be subjugated, neither by the misfortunes of nature nor the whims of the bureaucracy.

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During the time of the Canary Islander grandfather, the Islander operated as a consultancy where the farmers came for advice. His son Pragmacio, who became the head of the farm with the death of its founder, converted a part of the house into an area for discussion groups where they analyzed newspaper articles with news of the Second World War and the evolution of the communist regime in Russia.

The layout of the estate is also unique in the area. In 1955, Bernabé’s children built a shrine to their father, who was devoted to the Virgin of Charity. Their religious fervor reached the point where during a drought they organized a procession with the image of the Patroness of Cuba in order to summon the rains. Under the small belltower, the priests of the area have baptized and married many members of the family and their neighbors.

Family denounces the unjust relationship between the producers of snuff and state monopoly that sells

However, the greatest peculiarity of The Islander lies not in its enormous ceiba tree, nor in the small chapel, but in its people. In the current times, where being an entrepreneur and defending the autonomy of the farmers generates suspicion and incomprehension, the Perez Gonzalezes are known in the area for being “grumpy.”

In a country where the established leadership obeys and doesn’t question the powers-that-be, the progeny of that immigrant have had to overcome many obstacles. The family obstinately denounced the unjust relationships between the tobacco producers and the State monopoly that trades in it. Often it’s not about demanding new prerogatives, but demanding that the directors and agricultural officials meet the standards they themselves have set.

Sitting in the doorway, where a sweet breeze blows, some descendants of the obstinate Canary Islander started listing their demands. Bushy eyebrows one and all, they bear the unmistakable family stamp that marks them as stubborn. They relate that among the most insistent of their demands is questioning the calculations of the Tabacuba Company in determining the tobacco growers’ costs for each bushel of leaves. Included in the formula are inputs such as fuel, fertilizer and herbicides, plus adding the wages paid to the workers engaged in planting, cultivating and harvesting and selection of tobacco.

“Every year it’s more expensive, particularly the wages, because nobody wants to work for four pesos,” commented Alfredo Perez, the current head of the family. “However, the company seems to live in another dimension far from reality, and the data they use for what they call the cost sheet.” Times have changed and the costs of living have skyrocketed, but the agricultural bureaucracy continues without updating their old numbers.

With his hat in his hand, Juan Pablo, with a degree in agricultural engineering, complains, “As if it were great news that they now tell us they will pay a little better for every bushel of tobacco, but for every percentage point they raise the schedule, the costs go up six or even ten percent.”

The floor passes from person to person, until it is Nestor Perez’s turn; Nestor dreamed of being a lawyer but they expelled him from the “university for Revolutionaries” for being too confrontational. With regards to the problems of the company, the young man has realized that “when the specialist comes to determine the quality of our offerings, they find a lot of irregularities, and categorize as ‘affected’ a tobacco the produces ample dividends for the company. That’s where the farmer has to stand firm and not accept the impositions. Ultimately we are the ones producing the leaves and we have to learn to set conditions.”

A family cooperative since the late nineteenth century
A family cooperative since the late nineteenth century

In the middle of the conversation, with the coffee cups now empty, another battle these farmers have waged comes up: the demand for proper electrification of the cooperative. In the late sixties they had provisional access to an alternative electrical line, installed illegally. This is what is commonly called a “clothesline” because it lacks adequate poles and transformers. Since then, and due to the increase in consumer appliances during the last 45 years, the low voltage affects not only domestic energy use, but also production. The Perez Gonzalezes have written letters to all the institutions involved and never stop raising the issue in public assemblies.

Technical problems directly affect performance. “There is a group of producers in the area who average over 15 tons of tobacco every year,” argues Nestor, while putting fruit in a basket. “With stable electricity we could reach 25 tons. We’ve proposed to the State that they open a line of credit for doing this work and we pay for it, but they haven’t accepted this proposal, which makes us think they they are intentionally trying to marginalize us for our way of thinking.”

Alfredo, the youngest of the family—but by no means the least tenacious—says that “although the cooperative is supposedly autonomous, in real life it is subordinate to the Tabacuba Company. For example, we’ve asked for disks for plowing, but when these items arrive, it’s the company that decides how to distribute them according to their own criteria. We can’t buy those any other way because there is no free market offering them.”

The oldest of the all the Canary immigrant great-grandchildren is named Ariel and speaks in direct sentences. While he’s talking, a lean dog with a sharp look sits under the chair where he is sitting. “The cooperatives were left without any batteries for their tractors,” says Ariel. “They have to sell them to us because we order them properly, but these are the things they do to isolate us from the rest of the cooperative. They say we’re a bad example.”

The afternoon advances, but the heat doesn’t let up. A part of the shadow of the great ceiba reaches the doorway. Juan Pablo summarizes the conversation with perfect clarity, “We know that in meetings where we haven’t been invited they warn the cooperative members that they should stay away from us because we are counterrevolutionaries. Someone always comes to tell us about it, because everyone knows that the only thing we want is to work.”

It’s time to go back to the fields, so the five men take up their tools and return to the furrows. Before saying goodbye, they raise one of the biggest pieces of nonsense they have to deal with. “For a farmer to receive a document of ownership for their home, they first have to donate to the State what they built with their own efforts and resources. And so then the State charges you for what you gave it. If you don’t give them the land, you can’t build your house legally.”

The New Gold Rush / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Panning for gold (14ymedio)
Panning for gold

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 August 2014 – Evening falls and the sound of the sieves in the rolling hills trails off. The three men collect their belongings. They’ve finished the first day in their arduous search for gold. Tomorrow they will wake up early and with the first light of day return to dig, wash, sift and find the little nuggets among the mud and sandstone. “If I find at least one gram, I’m going to finish the roof of my house,” says the most experienced of the stealth miners.

The Rafael Freyre area in Holguin province attracts hundreds of people every year who dream that a mine will help them out of their economic difficulties. Is it need? A hobby? Or a real gold rush? Everyone experiences it in their own way, but the oldest people in the area say that when “people have gold in their eyes it’s like a demon that will never leave.”

The stealth miners have created their own working tools from few resources. Among the most important is the “car,” a sieve with a piece of rubber where the mud is deposited, that then falls through the screen. It is a team effort, requiring at least three strong men. While two shake the sieve, the other pours water over the mud collected in the excavations. “Then the gold dust is left, in particles like a kind of pea hull, although there can also be nuggets,” says Fernando Ramón Rodríguez Vargas who lives in Levisa, Mayari municipality, and for years has dedicated himself to the pursuit of the precious metal.

Those who spend a lot of time in these tasks have developed and eye for finding where the gold is, they don’t believe in metal detectors. “They aren’t very effective because they go off everywhere, in this area there can be a little piece anywhere. The most commonly used method is the same as it is used by industries. I take a sample of the dirt and I wash it to check how much gold it contains just so I will know if it’s worth the trouble,” Veredia Elcok says, revealing his secrets. He has participated in numerous fortune hunting expeditions. He claims that the Cuatro Palmas area in Holguin is the most famous for the size of the pieces found, and because the gold “is at ground level.” continue reading

The second day of work is when your bones ache more. So the three men bathe in a creek early in the day to relieve the little punctures all over their bodies, and resume their excavations. The main symptom of “gold fever” is working and working almost to the last light, without eating. They go along making holes, because they aren’t in an area of surface tailings, the layer is deeper. The gold itself marks the path to follow, from the amounts they come across.

At one point they detect another group of searchers. That can cause problems, quarrels and strong competition. 

Everybody wants to take your seam, then they start to dig deeper around the hole and come in from underneath,” says Verdecia Elcok, who has dug with several friends and neighbors working together. You have to go faster, the hands sinking full speed into the earth and the sieve never stopping its “swish swish swish.”

The technique for finding a seam is to test and test. Consistency is key to this work, and perhaps because of this the stealth miners take on an obsessive look, incapable to letting themselves be deterred by defeat. Normally they look for the tracks of rivers that no longer exist. They’re like scars in the hills where water would have once swept along the mineral. There are also muddy areas on the banks of still running rivers that are good places for findings.

The third working day. The bread they brought is full of mold because of the humidity. On getting up, the three men have numb hands, and the skin on their fingers is cracked. Every muscle aches, but they have to keep going. Perhaps today will be their lucky day. The first hours on the site they work with more energy, but exhaustion returns and slows the pace as noon approaches. The whole time their feet are damp with the water flowing through the “car.” One hurt his hand another coughed all night. Around lunch time a 0.8 gram nugget restores their hope and they decide to continue.

They’re picking up tiny pieces, or “lice” as they call them. They hope to have a breeze to start the melting. One brings a little mercury. They put it in a pot and apply heat. It gives off a poisonous gas and the men stand upwind to avoid breathing the smoke. It’s a dangerous process, but almost magical. In the bottom of the vessel the gold gleams. Every 24 carat gram they sell will bring a price of between 25 and 27 convertible pesos, a little more than a dollar.

Gold fever can also become gold death. Verdecia Elcok knows this well. “Over in the La Canela area a lady—they call her Mimi—found the largest piece of the mineral ever found in that area, four-and-a-half-ounces. Now the woman has developed cancer from using so much quicksilver.” The mercury is taken from state industries, diverted from laboratories and chemical plants. It is a product that should be controlled, but it hits the streets and gets into the hands of miners and jewelers.

A lady found a four-and-a-half ounce piece. Now, she has developed cancer from using so much quicksilver

If they get lucky, the three “seekers” will have to be cautious. If they’re seen to be spending a lot of money in town, people will start to investigate where it came from. Someone could follow them to their place and find the exact site of the mine they’ve found. Everything has to be handled with a lot of discretion. There is also the danger of the Forest Guard, which imposes fines of up to 1,700 pesos. According to the Mining Act “the subsoil is the property of the State, the only entity authorized to extract minerals and to exploit it for research purposes.”

However, the State isn’t interested in many of the small deposits. The costs of exploitation would be greater than the earnings, so it isn’t done.

Sometimes it is not gold that glitters. “I have found old coins and indigenous remains,” says Rodríguez Vargas. The biggest frustration for those who pick through these hills is having to leave the area with no results.

Gold fever infects everyone equally, regardless of age, gender or education. “You can find a doctor who, in his spare time, is on the bank of the river, a teacher, a young student, a pregnant woman or one with a kid,” says Verdecia Elcok. “Because in the end it’s just like the fisherman, who always has to return to the sea.

The official institutions categorize these miners as a real “invasion of prospectors.” They accuse them of harming the environment, especially the topsoil because they remove and wash it. The streams and water reservoirs of the area are also affected by turning over and carrying the sediments. Verderia Elcok admits that “the waters are polluted and the farmers’ animals have fallen in the holes that are dug. There have also been accidents in the area, but this is a question of necessity, not avarice.”

A study by researchers at the Institute of Geology and Paleontology concludes that the “organization of this activity under business structures including State, cooperative and self-employed,” should be encouraged. The report suggests “local governments should provide the knowledge and power necessary to enhance the usefulness of the rocks and minerals present in their regions.” However, for now, the decision whether or not to exploit a site depends exclusively on the highest levels of government.

The days of searching are over. The stealth miners return home. They will return to the hills in a couple of weeks. The youngest of them sold his refrigerator to buy a half liter of mercury. “You’ll see, the next time we’ll find more gold and even a pirate’s treasure,” he says with the golden glint in his eyes that everyone in the area knows very well.

New Alliance Between Dissident Groups / 14ymedio

14YMEDIO, Havana, 12 August 2014 — The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and the Pinero Autonomous Party (PAP) formalized an alliance Monday in Santiago de Cuba.

Speaking to 14ymedio, José Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of UNPACU said that both organizations share a commitment to strengthening the activities of the nonviolent struggle and invite smaller groups to join the alliance.

The Patriotic Union of Cuba is the now largest and most active Cuban opposition group. Started in 2011, the organization brings together more than two thousand members in the East, says Ferrer. There would be a similar number in the central and western areas, according to UNPACU’s own estimates.

The merger with PAP was based on the Declaration of Altamira—a reference to a region of Santiago de Cuba—whose key points include the autonomy of those who join UNPACU, collaboration in the training of members, and dissemination of activities that are undertaken together.

The trend to consolidate alliances and agreements among the Cuban opposition has accelerated in the past two years under the leadership of the Patriotic Union. The most important of these confluences happened last year with the merger of the United Antitotalitarian Front (FANTU), represented by Sakharov Prize winner Guillermo Fariñas, and UNPACU.

Warehouses for Old People / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

An old man looks at his reflection. (14ymedio)
An old man looks at his reflection. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, August 11, 2014 – “Very soon the best businesses in Cuba will be trash and old people,” blurts out the owner of an old age home, without blushing. Places like hers aren’t recognized at all by the law, but they have emerged to meet the demand of an increasingly aging people.

It is estimated that in a decade that more than 26% of the Cuban population will be over 60. The needs of these millions of seniors will be felt in Public Health, social security, and the network of old age homes available in the country. Throughout the Island there are only 126 homes with room for fewer than 10,000 elderly, a ridiculous figure given that the demands are increasing. With regards to specialized doctors, the country has fewer than 150 geriatric specialists.

Housing problems are forcing more families to entrust the care of their grandparents to state or religious institutions. That, coupled with the economic problems and low pensions, make caring for the elderly ever more complicated for their relatives.

There is no welcome sign and if someone calls to ask for details she responds cautiously.

“My father of almost 90 got sick,” says Cary, a entrepreneur who offers services as a caregiver to the elderly. “I didn’t want to send him to a nursing home, so I had to devote myself to taking care of him full time. Then it occurred to me I could do the same for other old people.” The woman has a thriving business, where she offers clients, “breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks.” continue reading

Cary’s home is advertised online, costs at least 70 CUC a month and, its owner says, “Here we have a hairdresser, barber, pedicures; they can even stay from Monday to Friday. We treat our clients with kindness and like family.” There is no welcome sign on the pleasant home, if someone is interested and calls to ask for details, she responds cautiously. Potential clients must come recommended or be the friend of a friend.

On the list of self-employment professions permitted, is “caretaker of the sick, disabled and elderly,” but the license only allows attention, without other benefits. Cary should take out several additional licenses, as a dispenser of food—because the elderly eat in her house—and a license to rent rooms, which authorizes overnight guests. The cost of the three licenses would make her business unprofitable. She already has problems with the police and now she has to tell the neighbors that she is taking care of some of her father’s “brothers and cousins.”

Despite the high prices, these initiatives are in great demand, due to the limited capacity of the state asylums and their deteriorating installations. Getting into these official places is not easy. You need to go the family doctor, who will refer the case to a social worker. The decision may take years, although some accelerate it by paying a “stimulus” to get the paperwork in record time. Then you have to way for a space to open in a place in the municipality or the province.

The situation reached a point of deterioration that the State was forced to delegate the care of the Catholic Church

The old age homes hit bottom during the economic crisis of the 90s. The situation got to the point where the State was forced to delegate part of the care and hygiene tasks to the Catholic Church. Many of the old age homes were almost completely overseen by religious congregations, such as the Servants of the Abandoned Brothers, the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and the Brothers of St. John of God. Thanks to this collaboration complete collapse was avoided, although they barely built and readied new sites.

Self-employed people have began to take a position in this sector: private homes that are rebuilt to fit a hospital bed, the doors widened for wheelchairs, and accessories are added to bathrooms to support older people. All this is done with great discretion, without anything noticeable from the outside of the house that would suggest a conversion to a private asylum.

“Most of the cases we take care of come from far away,” explains Angelica, a retired nurse who has opened her own old age home. She has competitive prices, around 60 CUC, and it includes clinical services and physiotherapy, physical exercises and excursions to Saturday work parties.

The responsibility is great, but the families of the elderly are very demanding, given the high price they pay. The majority are people with a child who has emigrated who pays, from afar, for care for the father or mother. “Sometimes they make first world demands, like an electric bed, or putting cameras in the rooms to monitor what the old people do all the time,” Angelica complains.

I’ve had to accompany some of my clients in their last moments,” the lady says, who despite also being elderly herself is strong and agile. “I can’t advertise it, but I also offer the service of being with the old man in his death throes, holding his hand, reading and talking to him, so he doesn’t feel alone at the moment of death.”

“If my children continue with the business, soon I will be a client of my own old age home,” she says with a certain pleasure. A bell rings and while she goes to feed a ninety-year-old sitting in front of the TV, Angelica reflects outloud, “Don’t let anyone send me to one of the State’s ‘old folks warehouses.’ I want to stay here.”

The Cow That Would Change Cuba / 14ymedio, Ignacio Varona

Illustration of a cow. (14ymedio)
Illustration of a cow. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, HAVANA, Ignacio Varona, 4 August 2014 – When she died they erected a life-size marble statue of her, and when they milked her she liked to listen to music. The entire country lived attentive to the milk given by Ubre Blanca (White Udder), the most famous cow in Cuba. She was an animal that not only left her name in the Guinness Book of World Records, but also left a trail of people who remembered her, either with affection or with derision. A new documentary by Enrique Colina recreates the life of this ruminant creature, and the political and social delirium that was generated by her prodigious milk production.

In the space of less than fifty minutes, his documentary “La Vaca de Marmol” (The Marble Cow) recounts those moments in which the entire future of the country depended on the milking of those prodigious udders. With humor and occasional moments of true drama, the director and movie critic tackles a story that appears taken more from mythology than from reality. The story of Ubre Blanca is told by those men who cared for her, milked her and cured her of her diseases on the Isle of Pines, but also by the voices of ordinary people who grew up hearing of a future when milk “would run in the streets” as a result of the increase in production, for which this cow was supposed to be the vanguard.

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Colina is a creative genius who needs no introduction. His program 24 y segundo for years has produced the most intelligent critical cinematography and entertainment on Cuban national television. Also, he has ventured in the direction of documentaries, producing classical pieces such as Jau, Vecinos (Neighbors), and Chapucerías (Shoddy Work). In 2003, he made his debut in fictional cinema with the film “Entre Ciclones” (Between Cyclones). His work has been noted in the Cuban film panorama for its good humor and its incisive criticism of social problems.

On this occasion Colina has turned his talents towards reintroducing us to Ubre Blanca. One of the most amazing testimonies that this documentary is that of Jorge Hernández, the veterinarian who attended to the celebrated cow for a good part of her life. Through the statements of this man we see the atmosphere of pressure and vigilance over those who attended directly to the world-record milk producer. “You cannot allow this animal to have even a cold,” Fidel Castro had pronounced on his first visit to the dairy farm. And so it had to be

With humor and certain moments of true drama, Enrique Colina tells the story of Ubre Blanca – White Udder

Linda Arleen, a cow in the United States, had previously inscribed her name in the Guinness Book of World Records for her milk production. Exceeding that record became a personal battle for Fidel Castro against the United States, his archenemy from the north. Ubre Blanca therefore began to be milked as much as four times a day, surrounded by conditions unequaled anywhere else in the world, and by an attentive team that dared never to make a misstep, nor skip a single task.

Care for the cow included having its food tested by being first given to another animal, so that Ubre Blanca wouldn’t be poisoned, as that was an obsession of El Comandante Castro. The dairy workers lived practically quartered with the cow so that she would lack nothing. “The milkings themselves were good, but we ourselves were treated as if we were crap,” one of the caretakers said decades afterwards. Thus it went day after day, until finally Ubre Blanca was found to have broken the world record and was elevated to the title of the new world champion, as a result of her having produced 110.9 liters of milk in a single day.

Surrounded by photographers and journalists, with three milkings daily and with the pressure of a high-ranking athlete, Ubre Blanca became sick, diagnosed with cancer of the skin, and had to be sacrificed. Her rapid deterioration pointed to an excessive exploitation of the animal, and to all the stress that she was submitted to in the last years of her life. Her name would, in the end, serve to thicken the large list of failed projects that were ascribed to Fidel Castro. There would never be another Ubre Blanca, and the entire Cuban cattle industry fell off the precipice of apathy and inefficiency.

With mastery and a certain touch of humor, Enrique Colina also reviews all the worship of the cow that occurred subsequent to her death. This worship ranged from the work of the taxidermists to maintain her skin, to the marble sculpture of Ubre Blanca that even today is located at the entrance of La Victoria farm, where that production miracle occurred. The jokes in the street, and the suspicion left by that illusion also have a place in the documentary.

A certain apprehension can be seen to overcome the caretaker who believes that the ghost of Ubre Blanca still walks through the beautiful stable that they created for her. With air conditioning, special pastures and 24-hour-a-day monitoring, that cow ended up being a prisoner of her fame, and of an obstinate man who believed that a country could be governed in the same way he ordered a dairy to be.

Translator’s Note: This documentary reportedly was shown in Cuba only once, when it was entered into a film festival, and has not been shown since.


Translated by Diego A.


Cholera Spreading in All Cuban Provinces / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 7 August 2014 – Health authorities in Cuba are facing one of the most serious epidemiological situations in recent years, seeking curb the spread of cholera, dengue fever and the chikungunya viruses which are spreading to much of the country.

In Camagüey province the cholera outbreak has claimed the lives of at least 11 adults. According to the official press 530 cases of the disease have been detected in populations of Camagüey, Sierra de Cubitas and Sibanicú, in addition to at least 1,200 cases of dengue fever.

In Havana, the number of possible cases infected with the Vibrium Cholerae virus reaches 150. The Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine reports that there are nine people currently hospitalized who have tested positive for the disease.

The warning is also in effect in Villa Clara, where cases of cholera have been recorded in more than half of the province during the last month, according to the official newspaper Vanguardia. Independent journalist, Yoel Espinosa Medrano told Radio Martí in July that at least three people have died in the town of Santo Domingo.

The Maleconazo in a Can of Condensed Milk / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Karl Poort, 5 August 1994
Photo: Karl Poort 1994

14ymedio, YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 5 August 2014 – We had run around together in our Cayo Hueso neighborhood. His family put up several cardboard boxes in vacant lot near Zanja Street, similar to those they’d had in Palmarito del Cauto. His last name was Maceo and something in his face recalled that Titan of so many battles, except that his principal and only skirmish would entail not a horse, but a flimsy raft. When the Maleconazo broke out he joined in the shouting and escaped when the arrests started. He didn’t want to go home because he knew the police were looking for him.

He left alone on a monstrosity made of two inflated truck tires and boards, tied together with ropes. His grandmother prepared water for him in a plastic tank and gave him a can of condensed milk she’d been saving for five years. It was one of those products from the USSR whose contents arrived on the island congealed, after the long boat ride. My generation grew up drinking this sugary lactose mixed with whatever came to hand in the street. So Maceo added the can to his scanty stores—more as an amulet than as food—and departed from San Lazaro cove.

He never arrived. His family waited and waited and waited. His parents searched the lists of those held at the Guantanamo Naval Base, but his name was never on them. They asked others who capsized near the coast and tried to leave again. No one knew of Maceo. They inquired at the morgues where they kept the remains of the dead who washed up on shore. In those bleak places they looked at everyone, but never saw their son. A young man told them that near the first shelf he had come across a single raft, floating in nothingness. “It was empty,” he told them, “it only had a piece of a sweater and a can of condensed milk.”

Editor’s note: Today is the 20th anniversary of “The Maleconazo.” You can read more about this uprising and the subsequent Rafter Crisis in previous posts:

“We want to contribute to personal and community reflection of pastoral agents” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Erick Alvarez
Erick Alvarez

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 August 2014 – To mark the publication of a letter sent by five young Cubans to Pope Francisco, 14ymedio interviewed Erick Álvarez Gil, coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) in Havana. At just 28, this young man joined the organization in 2009, and holds a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications.

Question: What are the antecedents of this document?

Answer: This letter was sent on the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, and also two years from the time Oswaldo handed a letter to the Cuban bishops in 2012, which reflected some of these concerns and also touched on the issues of relations between Church and State, and Church and Society. These ideas are still dormant and still a source of concern to us, so we went back to the idea of a letter and put it in the hands of the Pope and also sent it to the Cuban bishops, priests, religious, missionaries, and the most committed laypeople in the Cuban Church.

Q: As I understand it the letter is dated May 5 and was delivered to Pope Francisco on the 14th of that month, but only now has been disclosed to the public. Why the wait time between sending the letter and publication?

A: We didn’t send the letter to any media, the aim was not that the letter would be published openly. Our objective was to send it to the main actors of the Church in Cuba and the more committed lay people. We did that late last week and, as happens in these cases, it is already public. continue reading

Q: Have you received any response from anyone about this letter?

A: We have received no official response, but we have received feedback from other young Catholics who have had access to it. An official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba has contacted us to meet and discuss some of the issues in the letter. That conversation should be this week. Also Monsignor Alfredo Petit Vergel, who is my pastor at the Church of San Francisco de Paula, and one of the two auxiliary bishops of Havana, saw me on Sunday and told me of his desire to sit down and talk about it.

Q: What are your expectations from this letter that has begun to spread?

A: Our expectations were never based on the public and mass distribution of the letter, even though we knew that it could happen when we sent out a lot of emails.
We want to contribute to the personal and community reflection of the pastoral agents with the greatest responsibility within the Church, those who can influence the pastoral action of the Church, especially in the political positions taken by the higher-ups in the Church hierarchy. This is the issue that most concerns us, in addition to all the general issues there may be at an ecclesiastical level.

We write from a political movement, we present ourselves this way from the beginning of the letter, which is eminently political. It deals with political issues and how the Church projects itself toward society.

Q: The letter also comes at a possible turning point, for renewal, for the Cuban Church.

A: The Church is now in the process of designing a new plan to guide pastoral action in the coming years and a dialog is imminent and necessary, with the laity as well, where these elements can be considered. There are also some Cuban bishops, such as Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Monsignor Alfredo Petit Vergel and perhaps others, who are finishing their time in episcopal government, and there are imminent handovers in the upper Catholic hierarchy and in the bishopric. The reflections arising from the opinions we offered in the letter might have some influence on the appointments made.

Cardinal Jaime Ortega calls for “deepening the reforms” / 14ymedio

Cardinal Jaime Ortega entering the Cathedral of Havana
Cardinal Jaime Ortega entering the Cathedral of Havana

14YMEDIO, Havana, 2 August 2014 – This Saturday a Mass of Thanksgiving was held at the Cathedral in Havana for the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The Archbishop himself celebrated the Mass which was attended by other Cuban and foreign bishops.

Ortega Alamino made is entrance into the room at 10:20 in the morning, awaited by a crowd of worshipers, tourists and foreigners.

At the ceremony the prelate stressed that “the faith and hope promulgated by the Church do not defraud.” Moreover, he prayed that those governing the country “continue deepening the changes our country so badly needs.”

During the service a letter Pope Francisco sent to Cardinal Jaime Ortega was read, in which the Pope blessed his ministry. In addition, several speakers took the floor, either to celebrate Ortega’s work, as well as to remind the Cardinal that he still “has a long way to go.”

Jaime Ortega, 78, resigned almost three years ago, but still remains at the head of the Archdiocese of Havana.

The celebrations will include a Cultural Gala to be held tonight [August 2] at 8:30 in the Padre Felix Varela Center.

The Many Faces of the Buquenque / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Buquenque (14ymedio)
Buquenque (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 1 August 2014, Havana – When you walk through Fraternity Park, amid the bustle of Havana, you hear the cries of masculine voices calling out possible destinations for trips to diverse places in the capital. Near the Aldama Palace they shout out that there are two spaces left for Boyeros and Santiago de las Vegas. A little further on to the left, under the shade of the laurels, they invite you to go to Cotorro, and on nearly reaching the Capitol they announce cars for Alamar. For the most part they are American cars, Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, made before 1960, with the exception of the odd Lada or Moskvitch, devoted to the singular transport that combines the characteristics of a taxi and a bus.

This type of transport is popularly called almendrones [almonds – after the shape of the classic American cars], which for 10 or 20 Cuban pesos (depending on the distance) run on fixed routes. At the origin points a new figure appeared one day, a character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”

For a long time buquenques thrived outside the law, charging (chiseling, some say) each driver 5 national pesos for the service of bringing him passengers, but recently the legislation that protects self-employment opened a space for them. Of course it didn’t call them buquenques, but the job appears as number 53 on a list of 201 activities as “Taxi trip manager.” In the “description of scope” the law defines the work content as: “Manages passengers to fill the capacity of vehicles at stops authorized by the corresponding Administrative Board.” If properly registered they should pay the national treasury 80 Cuban pesos every month.

Put this way, one imagines a coat and tie and even a web page to make reservations, but it’s not like that, rather it’s a shouted offer, often unnecessarily loud, where the volume of the shouts, and a certain authoritarian air, almost orders the passenger to get in the car. continue reading

A character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”

The Cuban scholar Argelio Santiesteban, in his singular dictionary The Popular Cuban Speech Today (Editorial Ciencias Sociales, 1997), defines the word buquenque as “pimp, flatterer,” but some of the drivers might define them as a plague of parasites. At least that’s what Agustín Pérez thinks: “When I get to the end of the trip, I don’t stop at the initial stop, rather I pick up passengers along the road, there are always people who need to make a trip between intermediate places. That way I save five pesos and avoid dealing with those guys.”

Oscar Rodriguez doesn’t pay for a license as a taxi driver and so he avoids the inspectors, although he’s calculated that there’s more business along the authorized routes. “The buquenques don’t care if I have a license or if I’m working under the table, what they care about is that I give them five pesos and what I care about is not hanging around the stop.”

The activity of the “passenger manager” extends to the interprovincial environment. So, next to the Havana Bus Terminal you can see them shouting out cities in the interior. The most popular are Pinar del Río, Santa Clara and Matanzas, any further and the trip isn’t profitable. The buquenques are apparently more organized there and when coordinating travel to Pinar del Río, if they discover a passenger wants to go to Cienfuegos or Varadero, they advise the appropriate buquenque, more out of hope of reciprocity than solidarity.

Begging for trouble with drivers and passengers, the buquenque spends hours in the street, often without being able to count on a nearby public bathroom and having to eat whatever comes to hand. He is one of those characters of current times in which the slightest government opening has created mediocre escape valves.

Some accept it as a more or less entertaining opportunity in which they can show off their talent for marketing, as is the case with Leopoldo. “Fifteen days after leaving Guantanamo and without even having a place to sleep here in Havana, I found this job and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Now I’m renting a room and by the end of a year I’m going to buy something. Then I’ll bring the rest of the family. Here, among these wolves, I’ve learned to defend myself.”

Pedestrians pass by indifferent to the dramas and comedies that are woven behind the curtains of this profession, where you have to know how to show a fierce face to your competitors and another, friendly one, to your customers, without ever confusing the roles.

Translator’s note: The word buquenque can be translated  for broader usage as “busybody.”

Nostalgia for “The Special Period”? / 14ymedio

Pigs (14ymedio)

, Havana, 31 July 2104 — I knew about nostalgia for the colonial era, the Republican era and even for the “marvelous” eighties, what I never could imagine was that anyone could be nostalgic for the Special Period. But everything is possible on this island and if you don’t believe me, then read the June 23rd article in Juventud Rebelde, “The happiest children in the world,” by Glenda Boza Ibarra.

This young Cuban from the east recounts with great candor her childhood full of “good and nice” times, in which she dedicated herself – as a form of entertainment – to counting the few cars circulating in her neighborhood. Eventually, the journalist says: “I can’t complain, because I was born in this country, a place where children have everything they need to be the happiest in the world.”

To a great extent the conditions we are raised in determine our tastes, needs and aspirations. A native indigenous to our island would have perceived the disgusting Paris of 1492 as a dazzling paradise, and a pigsty like the suite of a three star hotel.
The aspirations, tastes and evaluation criteria of this young woman from Las Tunas were curtailed by the circumstances in which her childhood unfolded in the midst of the Special Period, particularly bleak in eastern Cuba. It is precisely because of these circumstances that she no longer sees the barefoot children who once again occupy our streets, terraces and paths, nor the tremendous cultural decline that has occurred between my generation and hers.

However, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for Glenda. Nostalgia is nothing more than the desire to escape a troubled present to a past in which we had not yet suffered the difficulties we are now subject to. She confesses the strange naivety of her childhood when she writes “we weren’t worried about the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor the disintegration of the USSR,” a reflection that she has already begin to expand her range of expectations, that her new circumstances have raised her cultural level and her aspirations.

Will there be such a change that Glenda will reject, outraged, the pigsty, or on the contrary will she become one more member of the sect of pig farmers? Only time will tell.

Days to Turn Off the TV / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Woman watching TV (14ymedio)
Woman watching TV (14ymedio)Days

YOANI SÁNCHEZ , Havana, 29 July 2014 There are days when it’s better not to turn on the TV. Right now, just pushing a button can dump us in an avalanche of official propaganda for the birthdays of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. From July 28 to August 13, the boring national programming will be filled with the cult of personality, ideological kitsch and political sentimentality. Children’s choirs will sing to the “Eternal Commander,” people who barely saw them pass by on the street will share anecdotes, and endless biographical scenes will bombard us from all sides.

“Right now the news has no news,” complained a neighbor who wants to know what is happening in the world and can’t see anything but processions of red and olive green. I felt the same today with the first news of the day. An hour after it started I couldn’t extract the least national or international information, only praise for the “immortal warrior of the race of Bolivar,” and the “wise guerrilla who loved him like a son.” I tend to have little patience with this overdose of flattery, so I turned off the TV and began calling several friends so they could tell me what was going on here and there. At least we have “Lip Radio”!

The ruling party continues to confront the distribution of information, serials and movies in the so-called “combos” or “packets.” However, it makes no real changes in its television programming to attract young people. Instead, the small screen becomes a loudspeaker for slogans and boring material that viewers find annoying and reject. Thus, they can never regain the ground they have lost to illegal satellite dishes, content copied onto USB sticks, and hard disks full of documentaries. If they continue with the ideological excesses of recent days, official TV will, very soon, become a monologue that few listen to.

Angel Santiesteban is Being Held at the Acosta and Diez de Octubre Police Station / 14ymedio


14YMEDIO, Havana, 28 July 2014 – Since July 23 Angel Santiesteban’s family has denounced his disappearance from the Lawton Prison Settlement. That day the prize-winning author was taken from the place where he was serving a five-year sentence for an alleged crime of violation of domicile and injury. Until this morning his whereabouts were unknown.

This newspaper investigated, calling 18806, the police service number, and learned that Santiesteban is currently detained at the Acosta Station on Avenues Acosta and Diez de October. The duty officer there told 14ymedio that the writer is accused of the crime of “escape.”

The family has denied this accusation and his sister, Maria de los Angeles Santiesteban, in a statement to Diario de Cuba said, “My brother has never had an idea like that. He never agreed to leave Cuba and he had the opportunity, he was in the United States three times and he traveled the world.”

This coming Wednesday morning Angel Santiesteban may receive visits from relatives, according to what14ymedio learned. Today, however, they did not allow a fellow journalist to deliver a package personal hygiene products.

Ángel Santiesteban has received major literary awards, including the Casa de las Americas Prize in 2006. Just two days ago his novel The Summer God Slept was presented in New York, and he won the Franz Kafka Prize for Fiction 2013.


Routine and the Past Star in this 26th of July / 14ymedio, Ignacio Varona

Ramiro Valdes
Ramiro Valdes

14yMEDIO, Ignacio Varona, Camaguy, 26 July 2014 – Very early this Saturday many of us observed a new event for the 26th of July. The strict codes of ritual demanded that the commemoration of the 61st anniversary of the assault on the Moncana Barracks in Santiago de Cuba and of the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks in Bayamo, be celebrated this year with moderate pomp. If the “important” anniversaries are commemorated in style, in Santiago de Cuba or Havana, the intermediate ones happen in provinces with fewer resources.

The choice of the newly created province of Artemisa to host the main event, obeys the fulfillment of this liturgy. Also an experiment has been developing in it to streamline the administrative functions which it has taken on because the Port of Mariel megaproject is in its territory.

In the era in which Fidel Castro had the capacity to stand for four to six hours in front of a microphone, those events were anticipated as time to summarize accomplishments and to announce the news. In 1989, in one of his long speeches he warned of the possible disappearance of the Soviet Union. The last great surprise on the 26th of July was the day in 1993 that the Commander in Chief announced the dollarization of the Cuban economy. Since then, especially after 2007, his brother Raul has had very little to promise and has delegated the speech on several occasions to Mr. José Ramón Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party. continue reading

This time the opportunity was given to Ramiro Valdes who, besides being a native of Artemisa, is a member of the Politburo, vice president of the Councils of State and Ministers, Hero of the Republic of Cuba, and the only survivor of the Moncada attack who holds high positions in the party and the government with Raul Castro. It’s enough to know the name of the main orator, the hypothesis of a “half-baked” 26th of July was confirmed. Plus the fact that there were no festivals in Havana on the eve of the event, no commemorations in every neighborhood, not even the typical soup that was served on other occasions. Routine has ended up destroying all the excitement around the event.

A speech without surprises or charm, larded with slogans without any news, revelations of critiques

Ramiro Valdez read a speech—badly, of course—based exclusively in the past. He repeated the thesis of the calamitous yesterday that won’t return and declared that in his “vocabulary, the word ‘defeat’ is erased.” A speech without surprises or charm, larded with slogans without any news, revelations of critiques. The man who once called for “taming the wild pony of technologies,” dedicated today to a new diatribe against them, asserting that “the new technologies are used as an element of subversion.”

After the ceremony, when the official announcer for national television said that the cameras and microphones were returning to the central studios in the capital, most of the audience immediately returned to their provincces, while the rest of the citizens, TV viewers or not, regretted that this Day of National Rebellion had fallen on a Saturday, so that one of the few opportunities for a holiday was lost.

26 July 2014

Was Moncada Necessary? / 14ymedio, Fernando Damaso

Moncada Barracks
Moncada Barracks

A great deal has been written about the assault on Moncado Barracks in Santiago de Cuba and the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Barracks in Bayamo on 26 July 1953. At times, with great exaggeration. Some, forgetting the differences in times and objectives, as compared with the Cry of Yara in 1868 or that of Baire in 1895, which started our war of Independence.

About the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in Bayamo on 26 July 1953 much has been written.Sometimes exaggerated. Some, forgetting the differences in epochs and objectives, as compared with the 1868 Cry of Yara, or the Cry of Baire in l895, which kicked off our war of independence.

In response to the events of 1953, traditional Cuban political sectors reacted with surprise. They were used to solving national problems through dialogue and peaceful means, and suddenly armed struggle makes its appearance as a method of fighting against tyranny. Even some of those who would later become traveling companions of the revolutionaries, described the act as a putsch, although later they retracted. Others, less dogmatic and more dialectical, saw in the action a path for its principle organizers to rapidly achieve political prominence and popular support. continue reading

There is no doubt that the event became, as noted during the celebration of its eighth anniversary, “the little engine that helped to start the great motor.” The deaths in combat and the murders, the trial of the surviving attackers, their imprisonment, the development of a program document and its clandestine spread among different sectors of society, the campaign for amnesty, and the resulting release of everyone, created that the conditions that later served as a base for the disembarkment from the yacht Granma on 2 December 1956, the guerrilla struggle on different fronts from 31 December 1958, and the triumph of the Revolution on 1 January 1959.

Over the years, and with the knowledge gained from those involved in the action, the event has been the object of several interpretations and evaluations

The assaults on both barracks, there is no doubt, constituted a heroic act of the Cuban youth involved, in honor of the centenary of the birth of José Marti, whom we call the Apostle. Over the years, and with the knowledge gained from those involved in the action–from their telling of it or writing about it–the event has been the object of several interpretations and evaluations, taking into account everything that happened afterwards.

Some believe that it was not necessary and that with political pressure and public opinion, the ouster of Batista could have been accomplished and democracy restored in the country, this without the high-cost paid in the lives at that time, and also the cost in lives and material losses of all kinds which we have continued to pay ever since.

Others believe that it was essential and that the attacks on the barracks were just. Although, subsequently, many of the plans that formed a part of the original platform have been proved unworkable, at that time they were accepted and supported by the majority of Cubans, regardless of the social class to which they belonged.

There are also those who, despite everything, continue to be in total agreement with what happened before and what has happened since.

The Moncada attack, although still present for its living protagonists and the generations that have accompanied them for years, recede in time more and more for new generations. Young people see it as an event of the past, more a part of history than of their daily lives. Lives that are full of contradictions, dissatisfactions, problems and needs of all kinds, both material and spiritual, unresolved and without real prospects of resolution. If that event is to continue to be relevant, it needs to address these events in the day-to-day lives of every Cuban.