From Cyberspace to Moringa / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The signing of 29 documents between the government of Cuba and various official and business interests from the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to the island has awakened great expectations among Cubans. One of the most striking things was the television news broadcast of the signing ceremony for the documents, which could be seen along with all of the boring protocol details. A parade of ministers and businessmen passed in front of the table placed in the hall the Council of State, and in the background an enormous stained-glass titled The Sun of our America stood under the watchful eyes of the presidents of both countries.

While the television-announcer-turned-master-of-ceremonies was revealing the nature of the initialed documents and saying the names and titles of the signatories, it was difficult to take in what was really happening. What is the difference, many wondered, between a memorandum of understanding, an exchange of letters, a framework accord, a cooperation agreement, a commercial contract, and a funding agreement? How could one discern the hierarchy that distinguishes an exchange agreement from an executive program? What is the basic difference between a framework agreement and a memorandum of cooperation?

What everyone did understand was that the Asian giant granted credits and made donations and investments in very sensitive areas. Examples of these are cyberspace, communications, digital television, improvements in the port of Santiago de Cuba, the supply of raw materials for the production of nickel, oil drilling, and the construction of a building complex associated with a golf course.

The rest, not wanting to overstate their importance, is filled with Chinese water meters, young Chinese learning Spanish in Cuba, packaging lines, office supplies, and transportation.

With regard to what was missing, at least among the 29 documents, nothing was heard about an increase in tourism, nor was there a single word about the Port of Mariel megaproject, and there was nothing about free-trade agreements such as those between China and other Latin American countries.

By chance—or benevolence—the number 13, a number so significant to the former Cuban president, appeared at the top of the Framework Agreement on the Establishment of the Agricultural Demonstration Farm, signed by the ministers of agriculture of both countries, which had among its objectives “cooperation on the science and technology of moringa, mulberry and silk worms.” What it said, a mere detail, passed unnoticed.

The Scam and the New Man / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

Products filled by scammers (14ymedio)
Products filled by scammers (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Havana, Eliecer Avila, 23 July 2014 – I grew up listening to my teachers saying that our society was building the man of the future, a different one, one that would have no defects, no malice, none of the vices “inherited from capitalism.”

Those of us who over the years strived to bring ourselves closer to something that is a good New Man, today find we are aliens maladapted to this society. It seems we had a monkey painted on our faces and anyone could mock us. Things had reached the point that my father, relentless defender of the best values, today tells me that if I continue trusting in everyone I might end up dead.

Just a few months ago I was at the bus station when a gentleman approached to tell me he’d spent three days sleeping there, on the floor and eating other people’s leftovers, because he didn’t have the money to return to the east. He had spent all he possessed “taking care of my mother who is very old and in the hospital here in Havana.” His eyes were sad, his clothes dirty, and his voice trembled. That boy wasn’t even 30 yet. continue reading

With my hands trembling as well—because I’d brought just enough for the ticket, the necessary bribes and something to eat during the long and uncomfortable journey—I took out 50 pesos and gave it to him. If I hadn’t done it, my conscience would have punished me.

Knowing that this money wouldn’t be enough to cover his passage and the bribes to Holguin—where he told me he lived—I decided to intervene with the authorities in the hopes of persuading someone to be benevolent toward his situation.

At the risk of missing my bus, I went upstairs looking for a boss, knocking on several doors until they indicated that those problems were dealt with directly by the person in charge. On going downstairs, the man I was defending had fled.

Why would such a young, healthy, strong guy prefer to dedicate himself to scamming and not use the same intelligence to survive in a less dirty way? 

Throughout the journey, more than 12 hours, I kept wondering, why would such a young, healthy, strong guy prefer to dedicate himself to scamming and not use the same intelligence to survive in a less dirty way? I have no doubt that this gentleman would shine in any theater audition.

Days later, two boys dressed in EJT (Youth Work Army) uniforms crossed my path, one of them obviously from Santiago, from his accent, and the other from Havana. They told me they were desperate to sell “some perks they’d handed out in the Unit,” as they needed money “for food,” and “you know how hungry you get there,” “shit man, help us out, you’re an easterner too,” pressuring me very strongly…

Already greatly annoyed by the desperate insistence of these two “gualdias” I did my calculations and figured that buying that package of personal toiletries would save me money over the terrible prices in the hard currency stores.

“This stuff you got is trash, I hope you haven’t been cheated…”

Big mistake. When I got home, my wife, more clear-eyed on these issues, looked at me and said, “This stuff you got is crap, I hope you haven’t been cheated again…” Indeed.

When I looked at it closely it was clear the bottles were recycled from the trash. Their contents, an odd mixture with the texture and color to look convincing at a glance, lightly scented with bath conditioner.

To make matters worse, I had to take antihistamines immediately, my forearms started to get red and break out in the places where the “combatants” had, without my permission, rubbed a sample of their products. I can’t imagine what could have happened if I had exposed my eyes and mouth to these suspicious chemicals.

Then I understood why so many pass down my street hawking these wares; they’re selling empty name brand perfume bottles!

Two weeks ago a gentleman, supposedly a friend of the mason repairing my house, appeared with a “sealed” can of Vinyl paint. He told me he got it at “the Mariel workshop” and his boss gave it to him or “scraping a few extra boards.” Already wary from the earlier experiences I was distrustful, and looking at the doubt in my face the gentleman broke the seals of the container and showed me the contents. It all looked good. So I bought it. Three days later the stink in the house was unbearable. We thought it was a broken sewer pipe. It was the paint. It was more than half dirty water and it fermented quickly.

These stories are only a tiny sample of what you face on a daily basis when you go out looking for something in this ever more aggressive capital.

To get wire, a tube, a door latch, or a lamp is a risk-filled operation, in which you are forced to wander through dark nooks and crannies and negotiate with characters who remind you of Colombian drug trafficker from TV shows.

Fortunately, to forget the sorrows of daily life, we can take a gallon of beer on the upcoming 26th of July in Artemisa. Celebrating, as Raul says, that “we are winning against imperialism.” Or is that other scam…

The Second Shipwreck of the Granma / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

It has a woman’s name and the fatality of a widow. The Carolina center, in Matanzas province, not only ground sugar cane for decades, but gave sustenance and prosperity to an entire village. On dismantling the mill, the former workers and the neighbors had to learn to live in a ghost town.

Carolina was one more among the 161 sugar mills that ground through the middle of the last century. In total, national production approached five million tons of sugar per harvest. The owners of the center, the Mirando Blanco brothers, never suspected that in October 1960 the industry that rose on their own efforts—theirs and others’—would pass into the hands of the State.

Imbued with revolutionary enthusiasm, many believed that the nationalization of the sugar industry would bring higher production and better working conditions. In an assembly where a new name would be selected for the Carolina, worker Piro Martinez suggested that the plant should be called Granma*. The reason was that one of the expeditionaries, Luis Crespo, had been born and spent his childhood in the batey (the sugarcane workers’ village). And so the name of that femme fatal was replaced by the English nickname for grandmother.

In the distance the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)
In the distance, the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)

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The disappearance, at the beginning of the nineties, of the “preferred market” established in the socialist countries sent all of Cuba into crisis, but especially the sugar industry. In 2002 the so-called Alvara Reynoso Task began, destined to dismantle 64 of the 156 sugar mills then in existence. Four years after that decision, only 42 mills survived. Granma was one of those chosen to disappear.

During the dismantling, the then Minister, General Ulysses Rosales del Toro, presided over several meetings. In one of them the engineer asked for the floor and challenged the official, “Ulises, do you know many 50 horsepower engines the center has? How many lathes, zinc shingles, angles, oxygen and acetylene tanks?” The question received no answer. Then the man said, with tears in his eyes, “If you don’t know, how will you control it so that the pieces aren’t stolen during the dismantling?”

The Granma tower still stands. (14ymedio)
The Granma tower still stands. (14ymedio)

That uncomfortable question seems to float still over what remains of the old mill. The chimney tower and the fireplaces where the main nave rested are all that couldn’t be torn from the landscape. No one in the village knows where the basic pieces ended up. Only an old American lathe managed to be saved, because a neighbor recovered it to undertake multiple jobs.

Ruben, a coachman who gives tours from the nearby village of Colisea, remembers the good times with nostalgia and looks critically at the present. “This center could have ground all the cane in the area. Now we have to send it to a mill 12 miles away and the resulting sugar isn’t enough to pay for the fuel or transport.”

A passenger in his coach introduces a dramatic note on the matter, “The story no one tells is the damage that was done to our local culture. This village was proud of its center because it was a place where all the problems were solved, from welding a piece to ordering a truck to move furniture.” His words ended with a phrase that still carries some of the sound of the mill, “Never mind those old men who wander the streets looking desolately at the tower, which smoke no longer comes out of.”

Out on the road that leads to the village, remaining as symbols, are a sprocket and an iron arch. On it can be read the name of the sugar mill that no longer exists, crowned with a miniscule replica of the historic shipwrecked yacht.

*Translator’s note: The yacht Fidel and the revolutionaries sailed in from Mexico to Cuba to launch a guerrilla war.

To the Rhythm of the Chinese Horn / 14YMedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Chinese Horn
Chinese Horn

14YMEDIO, Havana, Reinaldo Escobar, 22 July 2014 – On an unspecified date at the beginning of the twentieth century Havanans heard for the first time the sharp and contagious sound of an as yet unknown instrument, brought by Asian immigrants. It happened in the middle of a carnival parade and was played by members of a troupe called “The Good Chinese.” Soon after, the horn was brought to Santiago de Cuba where it became a main part of Santiago’s conga and was dubbed the Chinese horn.

In remarks to the press on the eve of his visit to Cuba, President Xi Jinping said, “China has sounded the trumpet for the comprehensive deepening of the reform, while Cuba is promoting the updating of its economic model.”

More than a century has passed since that memorable cultural event and another Asian wind instrument arrived in Havana today calling for a change in the rhythm. Perhaps less leisurely than that pushed by Raul Castro, characterized by the gradual introduction of slow and short movements in our society. It would be better if this were another troupe of good Chinese and not the messengers of a new authoritarianism.

The Political Legacy of Oswaldo Paya / 14ymedio

Oswaldo Payá's Funeral (Luz Escobar)
Oswaldo Payá’s Funeral (Luz Escobar)

14YMEDIO, 22 July 2014 – On 22 July 2014, the opposition leader Oswaldo Payá and the activist Harld Cepero died. Payá led the Christian Liberation Movement and promoted the Varela Project, which managed to collect some 25,000 signatures to demand a national referendum. Freedom of expression, of association, freedom of the press and of business, as well as free elections, were some of the demands of that document signed by thousands of Cubans.

Nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Payá was one of the most visible and respected figures of the Cuban opposition. In 2002  the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights by and he was able to tour several countries to offer information about the situation on the island. He was also an official candidate for the Prince of Asturias Award and received honorary degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami.

Paya’s death occurred in the vicinity of the city of Bayamo, while he was traveling accompanied by the Spaniard Angel Carromero, the Swede Aron Modig, and his colleague Harold Cepero. The Cuban government explained the death as the result of a car accident, but his family and many Cuban activists have maintained their doubts about that version. An independent investigation into the events of that tragic July 22 has been requested in various international forums, but Cuban authorities have not responded to those requests.

On the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Payá, we asked activists who shared his democratic ideals, “What is the greatest legacy of the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement?”

Guillermo Fariñas, a psychologist and the winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize

The main legacy left by Oswaldo Payá Sardinas for the Cuban nation, beyond its geographical boundaries, was that he showed his people and the world that the Cuban government breaks its own laws. When the Varela Project submitted almost 25,000 signatures to the People’s Assembly on a citizens’ petition for a plebiscite, the Cuban government refused to hold one and in a crude way changed the Constitution. That in my opinion was his main contribution: demonstrating that the Cuban government is beyond anything that could be construed as the Rule of Law and that it does not even respect its own draconian laws that support Castro’s totalitarian state. continue reading

Manuel Cuesta Morúa, promoter of Constitutional Consensus

I see the legacy of Oswaldo Paya in his pioneering activity to demonstrate that it was possible to generate civic trust towards democratic change. Even he had many doubts that the public would respond positively, would commit itself to a proposed change, especially at a time like the 90s and early 2000s when it was even more difficult for the civic movement. That’s what he sowed, what he left as a legacy, which demonstrated this as a future possibility for all pro-democracy activists on the island.

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the digital magazine Convivencia

First we recall our brother Oswaldo Paya with much love and affection and I would especially emphasize the future, in his legacy, the legacy he has rendered to all Cubans and so I think of the three gifts he left us. First, his posture, his civic attitude. He was a citizen who forged this society and who knew how to awaken a consciousness to fight for democracy in a peaceful way, and from there came his second contribution. Oswaldo was a man who fought tirelessly throughout his life with peaceful methods without being provoked or coming to violence. Finally—I have to say it—as someone who is also a Christian: he was a man who understood that religion could not be alienated or be divorced from the reality in which he lived, and that was why he was deeply committed as a Christian to work for democracy in Cuba.

Jose Conrado Rodriguez Alegre, Catholic priest

Oswaldo has left us a legacy full of sincerity and honesty; a love sacrificed for his country and a genuine commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel embodied in social life, in political life, in the good of others, everything that has to do with society as such. His was a radical commitment to the gospel, but at the same time, as it should be, to every human being. In remembering him, we must pay tribute to the man he was in every dimension, while we feel the pain of the brother we lost and we ask God that there be many others like him, men who can give their lives for others, in silence, in humility, in the midst of the misunderstandings of men, but certainly with a total commitment and a quality of life that today illuminates the existence of those of us still here.

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU)

There is no doubt that the late Oswaldo Payá left an everlasting impression. We remember him as a determined and courageous Cuban who, from an early date, assumed the method of nonviolent struggle with the intention of bringing Cuba the rights and freedoms that we have lacked for half a century. The work of the Christian Liberation Movement set a tone in peaceful actions in favor of the fair, free, democratic and prosperous Cuba that we all want, this was the side he was on.

The Varela Project, the citizen initiative launched by Oswaldo in which so many of us became involved full-time, also set a tone in the actions of the fighters for democracy. Initially, there were more than 11,000 people, in complex and difficult circumstances, circumstances that were against those who collected signatures and against those who signed that citizen petition. The fact that for the first time so many Cubans defended a proposal, putting their names and identity data, supporting the five points that made up the project, it was a real milestone.

Personally Oswaldo was a great friend with whom I shared both difficult and happy moments. We are very mindful of that. The Cuba Democratic Union (UNPACU) will render the homage he deserves on this second anniversary of his tragic death.

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Today, from 6:45 PM (Havana time) there will be the premiere of a documentary about Oswaldo Paya of the Varela Hall of Ermita de la Caridad in Miami, Florida. The video can also be viewed simultaneously on www.vocesdecuba.com.

The Battered Press / 14ymedio, Fernando Damaso

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Two papers, same owner, same front page. (YS)

14YMEDIO, Fernando Damáso, Havana, 21 July 2014 — It is no secret that the editorial policy of a newspaper responds to the interests of its owners. In countries where freedom of the press exists and is respected, newspapers abound, reflecting many different interests. In countries where freedom of the press is clearly absent, one, two or three newspapers are sufficient, more than enough to cover the form, because they all say the same thing and defend the same principles.

The case of Cuba is a good “bad example”; Granma, Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), and Trabajadores (Workers), each in its area of influence, serve a single objective: to defend at all cost the established political economic system.

In Republican-era Cuba, with a population half as large as today, there were 14 national newspapers: Diario de la Marina, El Mundo, Información, El País, Excelsior, Prensa Libre, Mañana, Alerta, El Crisol, Ataja, Tiempo en Cuba, La Calle, Diario Nacional and Noticias de Hoy. There were also two newspapers in English and three in Chinese, as well as newspapers in each one of the six provinces.

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Some came out in the morning and others in the afternoon. Some included comic strips and were printed in color with photographs, and some had weekend supplements. In their Sunday additions the newspapers multiplied the number of pages and had a great number of advertisements. They sold for five cents during the week and 10 cents on Sunday.

This variety of daily papers covered the entire Cuban social spectrum, from the most conservative positions represented by Diario de la Marina, to the most radical represented by Noticias de Hoy, the newspaper of the communist. Between one or another there appeared the whole gamut of political, economic and social concepts. Some prioritized political news, and others events. All of them dedicated space to culture and sports, where qualified journalists had regular columns.

In their Sunday editions Diario de la Marina, El Mundo and Información devoted ample space to literature, visual arts, theater, music, film, science, among other topics, with articles written by prestigious intellectuals who were not forced to toe the editorial line.

Leafing through old copies, articles appear from important personalities and journalists such as Enrique José Varona, Juan Gualberto Gómez, Rubén Martínez Villena, Raúl Roa, Carlos Márquez Sterling, Sergio Carbó, Jorge Mañach, Anita Arroyo, Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring, Gastón Baquero, Felipe Pazos, Mirta Aguirre, Eladio Secades, Edith García Buchaca, Alejo Carpentier, Agustín Tamargo, Enrique de la Osa and many others who make up the endless list and demonstrate the multiplicity of views.

Every citizen could freely choose the one most corresponding to their own, without dogmatic impositions of any kind.

There were dailies that exploited sensationalism and yellow journalism to sell their copies quickly, and those that offered more serious news in a measured way, which were most of them. Newspapers were hawked on the streets by vendors, using as promotional hook the main news on the front page, always leaving up in the air a question that forced you to buy it, if you wanted to know everything.

Some famous hooks, often repeated, were: See how they caught him! He struck her and fled! He stole and jumped from the second floor! Get the scandal! Here is all the evidence! The cyclone is coming tomorrow! and others.

The main points of sale were the bus stops, where they were offered to the passengers through the windows in quick sales transactions. In addition, there was home delivery by subscription or, more leisurely, by distributors that roamed the neighborhoods. They were characterized by punctuality, thus ensuring that the papers arrived daily before breakfast or before dinner, depending on whether it was a morning or evening edition.

After 1959, the Republican-era press had a sad ending, first with the invention by the government of “tag lines”—short texts, supposedly written by “revolutionary” workers, were added at the ends of articles and reports to reject the opinions expressed—and finally, with the intervention and closure of the newspapers.

The Republican-era Cuban press was dismissed during the last half century by the spokespeople of the ruling party, forgetting that it provided an important service in the defense of citizens’ interests and in critiquing the different governments in every era, a source of pride and an example to imitate in these times, where free opinions are only possible in the few independent newspapers that exist against all odds, persecuted and suppressed by the authorities, and whose circulation is hindered.

“I do not know if it makes much sense to try to legalize the Hispano-Cuban Foundation on the Island” / 14ymedio, Marta Beatriz Roque

Martha Beatriz Roque, the new president of the Cuban Hispano Foundation. (14ymedio)
Martha Beatriz Roque, the new president of the Hispano-Cuban Foundation. (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Havana, 18 July 2013 — The Cuban economist Martha Beatriz Roque has just been named president of the Hispano-Cuban Foundation (FHC). The institution has tried to “promote the presence and relevance of the FHC in the island.” 14ymedio was able to speak with the prominent dissident to get her impressions about the new appointment and her immediate plans.

QUESTION: How do you feel to have been chosen for this position?

ANSWER: It is a tremendous responsibility, because when the board members of the FHC decided to choose me for this position they based it on some expectations that I must now meet. A challenge of this nature, one always takes it as a challenge, with a bit of fear too, because I know it will not be easy.

Q. What are the first steps that you will take starting now?

A. First I must organize the Cuban side. The patronage in Madrid is very well defined, but here there are some steps that need to be taken in that regard. The first is to legalize the situation at the Embassy of Spain in Cuba and then there will be many other steps and concrete actions. But contrary to how Raul Castro thinks things must be done in Cuba, when he advised doing everything slowly and gradually, we will try to make our plans a reality as quickly and swiftly as possible.

Q. Do you intend to try to legally register this entity in the Register of Associations of Cuba?

A. In Spain this foundation is legalized, it is based in Madrid and is well known in the European Union. Legalize it in Cuba? …? I don’t know if it makes much sense even to try.

Q. Will you continue as usual with his work as head of the Community Communicators Network and the Institute of Independent Economists?

A. Yes, of course, one has nothing to do with the others. All tasks that come starting now with this new responsibility will be in addition to what we do every day. I hope I have the time and energy.

Offering Fish At Your Door? Be Careful! / 14ymedio

Tending their nets (14ymedio)
Tending their nets (14ymedio)

Rosa Lopez, Havana, 17 July 2014, 14ymedio — Many Cubans opt for the informal market instead the high prices of the products in hard currency stores. Who among us has not bought cheese, ketchup or milk in illegal trading networks? However, when we acquire something in secret and do not know the seller, the chances of being scammed or buying spoiled merchandise multiply. The greatest danger, however, is to buy a product that damages our health, hence it is important to be careful with certain foods.

Every Cuban adult has some experience to tell about a fish sold as red snapper and it was actually tench, Claria or barracuda. With the fish slickly packaged and displayed furtively, the trader assures us that it is ” good, white with few bones.” Later, in the pan or dish, frustrated, we discovered the deception.

Some customers claim to have a good contact to buy seafood that so far has not failed them. Lucky them! By contrast, the vast majority is supplied by an illegal and unstable market whose providers change frequently. The fish markets under state management offer little variety and high prices, not to mention the long lines that sometimes form in front of their doors.

It is easy to think that living on an island we can have our tables filled with seafood, oysters, sardines and other sea delicacies. Nothing is further from reality. In Cuba it it easier to find turkey hash “made in USA”, than a good marlin steak or grouper head soup.

The restrictions imposed on both private fishing and the sale of fish push us to the black market when looking for a good product. The species may have been caught in oxidation ponds belonging to factories or industries, and could introduce chemicals into our bodies that bring negative short and medium term effects.

On the island there are many reservoirs and coastal areas that contaminated by discharges from industries and settlements. Fish that live in those stretched should not be used for human consumption. An example is Havana Bay, whose waters are polluted by oil, sewage and other waste discharges.

Another threat is ciguatera, a food poisoning that is endemic in the tropics caused by eating infected fish. The fish afflicted with this disease cannot be identified by smell, taste or color.

If a stranger knocks at your door offering a tempting fish filet or steak, be careful. It may not be what they say, or in the worst case, it could damage your health.

“Unusual Provocation,” Fidel Castro blames Kiev for the crash of the Malaysian Plane / 14ymedio

Buk missile battery, similar to what might have shot down the plane of Malaysia Airlines
Buk missile battery, similar to what might have shot down the plane of Malaysia Airlines

14ymedio, 18 July 2014 — Former Cuban president Fidel Castro published one of his “Reflections” today in Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth) in which he bluntly accuses the government of Ukraine of the crash of the Malaysian Airlines plane that caused the deaths of 298 passengers in the air space over Donetsk.

Without providing any evidence or reasons for the suspicion, Castro ended the first paragraph suggesting that the plane “had been hit at 30,000 feet flying over Ukrainian territory on a path under the control of the war mongering government of the king of chocolate, Petro Poroshenko.”

Continuing, the leader of the Revolution recalled the friendship between Cuba and Ukraine and the island’s support after the Chernobyl disaster (in the north of the country, then belonging to the Soviet Union), but argues that he cannot fail to condemn “the action of such an anti-Russian, anti-Ukraine and pro-imperialist government.”

As of today it has been a week since the last public appearance of Fidel Castro, when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between Russia and Cuba, which has historically been excellent, has become even closer in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, the Russian Federation ratified the cancellation of 90% of the enormous debt of the government of Havana the former USSR, some $30 billion dollars. During his visit to the island, Putin demonstrated that both parties are working on a program of economic, commercial, scientific and technical development until 2020 and their “business advisors” remain active.

Russia also counts on its ally in the diplomatic arena. In the United Nations the Cuban government votes with the Federation.

An Inexplicable Explanation / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The inside of a traveler's suitcase arriving from Miami (14ymedio)
The inside of a traveler’s suitcase arriving from Miami (14ymedio)

Customs restricts imports even more

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 14ymedio | 14 July 2014 — On the occasion of the latest customs regulations that further limit the products that travelers can bring to the island, a group of officials from the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba (AGR) held a press conference to respond to some concerns of the population. Among the pearls exposed there, it’s worth nothing an argument put forward by Idalmis Rosales Milanes, deputy chief of the AGR, where she tried to equate these actions with what happens outside of Cuba. “All countries,” she said, “regulate non-commercial imports to their territory.”

And it’s true. What this official didn’t say is that in all countries there are other regulations for commercial imports to non-state entities. If this weren’t the case, I would have to believe two things: that in the rest of the world all the stores are state-owned, or that the goods for sale in them are produced entirely in the country in which they are located. It gives the impression that this precision is for idiots, because it’s so irrational it’s embarrassing to have to clarify it.

The absurdity is normal only if the entire environment is also absurd. Whoever developed and approved these resolutions was personally persuaded that commerce is a crime unless it is performed by the only state monopoly that they themselves control.

Instead of developing a list detailing how many razors, pairs of shoes or fake nails can be carried in your suitcase, it would be much more useful to allow the importation and sale of whatever merchandise (non-lethal) is produced in the world, and to promote its free trade by private individuals who would be those who would assume the risk of being left with them in their shops if they weren’t able to sell them.

The law should allow the owner of a restaurant to import, in his condition as a private businessperson, the wine, pasta and cheese consumed by his customers. The seamstress should also have the right to bring fabric and dyes from other countries with which she designs her clothes, and the small trader must be able to count on the possibility of bringing the instant glue, the sponges for cleaning, and the hair dye, from other latitudes to the island. All this, backed and supported by commercial permits and import licenses… in the hand of the non-state sector.

That theses commercial imports are on a list of prohibited products, that there is a limit of the number of admissible pieces, that a diversified tax is imposed according to the article… all this would be almost comprehensible and, especially, debatable. What I can’t make heads nor tails of is this “dog in the manger” conduct, which neither eats nor allows others to eat, and in this case neither imports nor allow to be imported; neither trades, nor allows others to trade.

The Ochoa Case: A Turning Point / 14ymedio

IGNACIO VARONA, 14ymedio, Havana, Cuba | 13 July 2014 — The Cuban government’s support for the Soviet tank invasion of Czechoslovakia, the failure of the 10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest, the case of Heberto Padilla, the repudiation rallies of 1980, and Cuba’s Black Spring are chief among the breaking points for many who at one time backed the Cuban Revolution. A political process that at its beginnings more than a half century ago enjoyed strong approval inside and outside the island has become increasingly characterized by deception. This persistent flux from believing to not believing has made critics out of former sympathizers, and antagonists out of those who once gave ovations.

Inside Cuba, one instance of major fracture in the support for the revolution was the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa. This event took place on July 13, 1989, exactly 25 years ago. Along with him were executed three high-level officials of the Ministry of Armed Forces (MINFAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). A military court found them guilty of — and condemned them to death for — the crimes of drug trafficking and high treason. continue reading

Never will it be known the true extent of the disillusionment caused by this event in many communist militants as well as the rest of the population. The disappointment amongst the people that emanated from the so-called “Case Number 1” of 1989 fed the decision of many individuals to take the step toward dissension. Numerous dissidents cite this judicial process and its extreme sentences as the moment when they broke with the party line.

The 1990s could not be understood without the precedent of a televised trial that riveted millions of Cubans to the small screen, as if to the most impelling soap opera. After long days of hearing allegations and accusations, a bond was established between the TV audience and the figure of Ochoa that nobody could have foreseen. This “connection” consisted of a combination of respect and pity, to which was added the silent hope that the sentences requested by the prosecutors would not actually be applied in their full severity.

“I sat in front of the television set believing in the system, and when I arose I no longer believed in anything”, said María López, who at that time belonged to the Young Communists League (UJC). A few months after “El Indio” (“The Indian”) — as Ochoa was popularly called by some — Maria turned in her UJC membership card. “I could not tolerate such cruelty, besides which it always seemed to me that what came out in that trial was not the full truth,” she concluded. Like her, an unpublicized number of other militants distanced themselves from the organization, severing their ties or assuming a less aggressive stance.

The “Balseros” (Rafters) Crisis that would occur five years later was comprised of individuals who, besides suffering the miseries of the Special Period, had lived through the trial. Part of the disillusionment that would manifest in fragile vessels crossing the Florida Straits emanated from that event. Although hunger and the lack of prospects where the primary goads toward the exodus, for many of those who launched themselves to the sea, the death of of Arnaldo Ochoa had contributed to severing their emotional ties to the system.

“It was the moment in which totalitarianism removed its mask”, noted Ezequiel Méndez, who is now based in Los Angeles, USA. On that July 13, Ezequiel had guard duty in the unit where he was serving his compulsory military service. He remembers seeing the “long faces of the officers, which gave us to understand that something was going on”. Within the army, the execution of these four military men was especially disturbing, but fear and silence were the major expressions of this emotion. “In the mess hall, when the TV set was turned on for the broadcast of the trial, nobody said a word…everyone was very, very quiet”, recalls Ezequiel about those days.

A quarter century after the effect of those executions, the disappointment has not diminished. Rather, other disappointments have been added to it. The government was never able to recapture lost sympathy, and the days are over when military feats produced heroes.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

“I owe to my father the hatred of authoritarianism that he embodied” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Mario Varga Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa at his home in Madrid (14ymedio)
Mario Vargas Llosa at his home in Madrid (14ymedio)

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa discusses literature, democracy and Latin America in the second part of an interview with 14ymedio. First part of the interview: “The myth of Cuba has been cut to shreds”

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 15 July 2014 – During my conversation with the writer and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa in his home in Madrid, we spoke about his passion for Cuba and his disappointment with the revolutionary myth, as we reflected yesterday in the first part of this interview. Today I share with our readers the rest of this dialogue, centered on democracy, literature and Latin America.

Question: How do you see the health of the democratic model and civil liberties in Latin America?

Answer: If we compare it to the ideal, of course we get depressed. But if we compare Latin America from a democratic point of view looking at the last few years, there has been considerable progress.

When I was young, Latin America was a set of dictatorships and the democracies, such as Chile and Costa Rica, were really the exception to the rule. That has changed radically today, there are virtually no military dictatorships. There is one dictatorship, which is Cuba, one quasi-dictatorship, which is Venezuela, and beyond that some democracies that are far from perfect. There are varying degrees of quality and there are some Latin American democracies that are very basic and others that are more advanced. However, the democratic trend predominates over the authoritarian tradition that was so strong in our peoples. continue reading

My impression is that this is not coincidental, it’s because there is a much much wider consensus about democracy than in the past. There is a rightwing that has accepted that democracy is preferable to dictatorship, that offers more institutional guarantees for property and for business. We also have a leftwing that wasn’t democratic either, that has accepted—or resigned itself—to democracy. Which explains cases like Uruguay, where a very extreme left took power, and yet, the democratic way works, freedom of expression works, and the economy and the market work.

This also explains the phenomenon of the Concertación (Concentration) in Chile, which respected the precepts of democracy and didn’t change the political economy of the dictatorship, because it gave good results. The Concertación respected this model but expanded economic freedom and political freedom, which brought Chileans an extraordinary period of prosperity and calm.

This trend toward democracy will continue, with ups and downs, but it’s difficult to imagine there will be a reversal that reestablishes the authoritarian tradition that was so catastrophic for Latin America.

 

Question: How do you see the case of Peru?

Answer: Peruvians have had many dictatorships throughout our history. If I weigh it from my birth to today, we’ve probably experienced more dictatorships than democratic governments. Perhaps the greatest difference is that the last dictatorships we’ve had, from General Velasco Alvarado’s to Alberto Fukimori’s, had such catastrophic consequences that a part of the population has somehow been vaccinated against the idea that a dictatorship is more efficient for bringing economic prosperity or for achieving social justice.

We have experienced dictatorships of the right and left that have brought widespread corruption or an atrocious impoverishment of the country, like during the Velasco era, which was a leftist military dictatorship, or during the first term of Alan Garcia, which wasn’t a dictatorship but it was a populist government which, with its nationalizations and its defiance of all the international organizations brutally impoverished the country. Finally, Fujimori’s dictatorship was probably the one that was most thieving. An investigation by the Ombudsman calculated that more or less six billion dollars was stolen and sent abroad by the Fujimoro regime. For a poor country like Peru, that’s significant.

All this was so disconcerting; as of 2000 there hadn’t been a consensus in Peru for political democracy and economic freedom. There had been a consensus for democracy at some times, but there had never been one for economic freedom. Today, for the first time, there is. That consensus has brought 15 years that are so good, so prosperous, that my hope is that it lasts until its irreversible. Although the truth is that nothing is irreversible, as modern history has demonstrated.

“Literature was an indirect way of resisting the authority of my father doing something he hated and that he wanted to eliminate from my life”

Question: In the foreword to a book of poems for children written by José Martí, he said “Son, scared of everything, I take refuge in you.” In your case, were you so scared of reality you looked for refuge in literature?

Answer: Yes, literature was my refuge when I was a kid, when I met my father with whom I had a very difficult relationship. I met him when I was 11 and he was a very authoritarian person who practically isolated me from my maternal family, with whom I’d lived in a virtual “paradise.” My father was very hostile to my literary ambition. As soon as he discovered it, he thought it was a terrible failure in my life. I owe him many things: discovering the fear and discovering the hatred of authoritarianism that he embodied. My father’s hostility to my literary vocation made me cling to this vocation and I found a refuge in literature, a different way of living that life of fear I had in my parents’ house, because of my father.

I see that now, at that time I didn’t see it. Literature was an indirect way of resisting the authority of my father doing something he hated and that he wanted to eliminate from my life. Writing became something more important, more transcendent, more intimate than it had been. Until then, it was a kind of game that my mother’s family celebrated in me. With my father it was a risk to write poems and “little stories,” but at the same time it was a way of defending the freedom and the autonomy that I lost when faced with him.

Yes, in my youth literature was a refuge, but in my life literature has been much more than this. In literature we can live what we can’t experience in our own lives. We are beings endowed with imagination and desires, those eternal dissatisfactions because life never gives anyone everything they desire. We want lives more diverse, rich and intense than those we have. That is why we have invented literature, why we have fiction, to compensate for how limited our lives are.

So literature is a refuge, but it also has the ability to complete those incomplete lives we are obliged to have. However, literature is much more than that, because while it appeases that appetite for different experiences, it sparks, sparks the need, which results in greater dissatisfaction. If we read a lot it turns us into beings deeply dissatisfied with the world as it is. Nothing is better than good literature to make us discover, in such a vivid, persuasive way, that the world works badly and that it’s not enough to satisfy human aspirations/

“That is why we have invented literature, why we have fiction, to compensate for how limited our lives are.”

When you finish reading a great novel, like The Kingdom of this World, by Alejo Carpentier, or One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, or a story by Jorge Luis Borges, what do you discover? That reality is very poor compared with that wonderful reality you’ve experienced with this fantasy, this language. This makes us dissatisfied and rebellious people, who want the world to be better than it is, and this is the engine of progress.

The world has been evolving, we have come out of the caves and we’ve reached the stars. Literature is an extraordinary stimulus for dissatisfaction and rebellion, and also a permanent critique of what exists. If this criticism and dissatisfaction didn’t exist, literature wouldn’t exist.

Question: So literature is to blame for so much dissatisfaction?

Answer: I think so, and the best proof of that is that all the regimes that have tried to control life from the cradle to the grave, the first thing they’ve done is to try to control literary creation. They try to subjugate fiction, because they have seen the danger in the free creativity that fiction signifies. Religious dictatorships, ideological dictatorships, military dictatorships… the first thing they do is establish systems of censorship. I don’t think they’re wrong, because in some ways literature is a source of sedition, discrete and indirect, but a source of sedition.

Question: You chair the Fundación Internacional para la Libertad (FIL) [International Foundation for Freedom]. How do you evaluate the work of the foundation? Do you think you’ve wasted your time?

Answer: I don’t know if it’s had the effect we wanted it to have. The fact that it exists, it’s been twelve years, we’ve had a lot of conferences, seminars, spreading liberal ideas. We defend democracy, but within democracy we defend the liberal doctrine, against which there are many prejudices. Even the word liberal has been demonized and that is a great victory for the more dogmatic left, having turned the word “liberal” into a bad word, associating it with exploitation, injustice, dictatorship.

The task of the International Foundation for Freedom is to combat this demonization of the liberal doctrine and to spread the culture that has brought these major reforms and changes to society since the creation of democracy, of the idea of Human Rights, of the idea of the individual as the pillar of society, endowed with rights and duties that must be respected and exercised freely. Those are the kind of ideas that we want to spread and to what extent we have succeeded? We have done something and I think it would be worse if we hadn’t done the things we’ve done, even if they are insufficient.

“The myth of Cuba has been cut to shreds for the most part” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Mario Varga Llosa

The writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, talks about Cuba in the first part of an interview with 14ymedio

Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)
Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 14 July 2014 — Mario Vargas Llosa, writer, politician, excellent analyst and even better conversationalist, received me at his home in Madrid for this interview. The minutes flew by with his proverbial grace for dialogue as he offered me his reflections about democracy, freedom, literature, Latin America and Cuba. Today I share these with the readers of 14ymedio who in some way were there, without being in that room lit by the light of summer and the lucidity of the writer.

Question: I know that Cuba has been an important part of your passions, to say nothing of your great obsessions…

Answer: Absolutely. The Cuban Revolution was for me, as it was for many young people, the appearance of a possibility many of us had dreamed about but that had seemed unattainable. A socialist revolution, which was both socialist and free, socialist and democratic.

Today that may seem like an act of blindness, but it wasn’t at that time. At that time, that’s what the Cuban Revolution seemed to us, accomplished not for, but outside, the Communist Party, a Revolution that was backed up by every heroic exploit. In the first days of the Cuban Revolution, we saw in it what we wanted to see.

A Revolution that would make great social reforms, that would end injustice and at the same time would allow freedom, diversity, creativity, that wouldn’t adopt the Soviet line of strict control of all creative and artistic activities.

We believed it was going to allow criticism and this is what we wanted to see in the Cuban Revolution and for a good number of years that is what I saw in it, despite going to Cuba, despite being linked very directly to the Casa de las Americas, in which I came to sit on the committee. That was what we saw because the Cuban Revolution had the ability to feed that illusion.

Question: At what point did you start having doubts?

Answer: Of the five times I went to Cuba in the sixties, the fourth time coincided with the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) and it was a shock to know that they had opened what were almost concentration camps where they took dissidents, thieves, homosexuals, religious people. I was very impressed especially by the case of a group I expect you know, El Puente (The Bridge). I knew many of the girls and the boys who made up the group, among them were lesbians and gays, but all were revolutionaries, absolutely identified with the Revolution. A good number of them went to the concentration camps, where there were even suicides. continue reading

That affected me a great deal, because it seemed impossible that something like this was happening in Cuba. So I wrote a private letter to Fidel Castro, where I said, “Comandante, I really don’t understand, this doesn’t fit with my vision of Cuba.” Then they invited me to visit Cuba and have a meeting with Fidel Castro. We were about ten or twelve and somehow we demonstrated our surprise about what was happening.

It was the only time I’ve talked with Fidel Castro, it was all night, from eight at night to eight in the morning. It was very interesting and although he impressed me, I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. He told me what had happened to many very humble peasant families, whose sons were trainees, and they complained that their sons had been victims of “the sickos,” that’s what Fidel said. The gays and lesbians for him were “the sickos.” He told me something had to be done, that perhaps there were excesses, but they were going to correct it.

I remember Che Guevara had already left by then and no one knew where he was. Then Fidel Castro—during that conversation—made allusions to where Che might be and show up. He was also very histrionic, standing on the table, telling how they’d set up ambushes, he was a very overwhelming personality, but I realized then that he did not allow interlocutors, only listeners.

It was almost impossible to pose any questions, however brief. It was the first time and since then I was left with many doubts, much anguish that I didn’t dare to make public and I continued returning to Cuba until Fidel’s support for the interventions of the Warsaw Pact countries in Czechoslovakia.

Question: How did you experience the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague in 1968?

Answer: That made a tremendous impression on me, and it was the first time I made public a letter criticizing Cuba. I wrote an article titled Socialism and the Tanks, saying it wasn’t possible that if Fidel had always defended the autonomy, the sovereignty of small countries, now that a small country wanted its own version of socialism, for the Soviet tanks to invade and for Cuba to support this. How is it possible?

Despite this they continued to invite me, but when I returned to Cuba there was already a situation of panic among the intellectuals. My best friends wouldn’t talk to me or they lied to me. There was terror. It was a few weeks before the imprisonment of Heberto Padilla and the poet was totally beside himself, talking like a mad man, feeling the spaces close in on him and very soon he would no longer be able even to function.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting

I was with Jorge Edwards, just during the months that he was described as persona non grata. I remember that thanks to Jorge, who was diplomatic, we could bring Jose Lezama Lima to eat in one of those dining rooms where only diplomats could go. Poor Lezama, he ate with happiness, he loved to eat.

We talked about everything but politics, of course. But on leaving, on saying goodbye, I remember he squeezed my hand and said, “You understand the country in which I am living,” I responded yes, but he came back and squeezed my hand again and repeated, “But you understand the country in which I am living,” and I answered, “Yes, I understand.” That was the last time I saw him.

Soon came the capture of Padilla, the letter that several of us wrote and that meant the rupture with a number of important intellectuals who weren’t Communists but we had made the cause of the Cuban Revolution our own. For me that was very important, because I regained a freedom that had been lost during those years, because of this blackmail that was so effective, of “not giving arms to the enemy,” “you can’t attack the Cuban Revolution without yourself becoming an ally of colonialism, imperialism, fascism.”

Well, since then I was much more free and I was left forever, up to today, with the idea of having contributed in some way to this myth and to helping a system—already 55 years old—that had converted Cuba into a concentration camp and that has frustrated at least three generations of Cubans.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so insistent in my criticisms of Cuba, it’s a way of exercising self-criticism. Because I believe that we contributed a lot, and the Cuban regime was highly skilled in this, getting the support of intellectuals, journalists, academics, that contributed so much to this myth, that still survives, although it seems like lies and happily the support is from ever smaller circles.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting, the disinterest. Many people are tired of the Cuba issue and then there is a great detachment. Many times when the topic of Cuba is on the agenda, there is such skepticism, as if it weren’t a social and human phenomenon. What can you do against an earthquake, a tsunami? Nothing, because Cuba is like an earthquake or a tsunami for many people.

Football Hangover / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The World Cup on Cuban TV (14ymedio)
The World Cup 2014 on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

Gone is the last game, the German goal, Götze’s hands raising the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Gone are the get togethers with friends, wrapped in the flag of Italy or Costa Rica, to go see the games in some public place. Some of the excitement remains, it’s true, but the roar that ran through Havana when the ball entered the goal in Rio De Janeiro or Sal Paulo is now just a memory. The painted faces, the arms raised in imitation of the spectators from their seats, and the euphoria shared with millions all over the globe. The football party is over, now comes the hangover.

The hangover is a return to real life. Back to the store shelves and a realization that the shortages are greater than they were four weeks ago. Learning that yesterday a hundred Ladies in White were arrested for trying to pay tribute to the victims of the sinking of the 13-de-Marzo tugboat. There is no catchy tune performed by the famous to accompany this hard existence, rather the rumor of friends who warn us of “what’s out there”… “dengue fever, cholera, Chikungunya and even giant African snails.”

Like a kick to the head—and without failing to miss the opponent—reality returns. There are no arms to stop this fast ball that is daily life, unstoppable and painful. We are back to our world without lights, without loudspeakers that roar GOOOOAL, and without that familiarity created by competitive sports. In short, we live in “a world” where the rules are strict, the referee implacable, and there are no prizes.

Monday morning, I already saw them, as if waking from a dream. They were the hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially young people, who were immersed in the passion of the Cup as if they themselves had kicked the ball. Today they realize they aren’t Germans, Dutch or Argentines and that a difficult Cuba awaits them on the other side of their doors. A Cuba that in four weeks has not stopped in time, waiting for the whistle to resume its course, rather it has deteriorated. Will they be willing to change the rules of the game of this reality? Or will they wait for the next reason to escape in front of the TV or the ball?

Bowling Pins, Sweets and Dangers / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)
Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

“These are the last sweets!” The cry could be the simple proclamation of a candy seller, but I heard it twenty-three years ago at my high school in the countryside and it was the first evidence I had of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The person shouting was Olga, a student who resold what the wives of the Russian technicians in Alamar gave her. She was the bridge between our Cuban money, worth less every day, and a series of products such as candy and canned goods “Made in USSR.” I remember this teenager, who warned us of the coming of shortages, like a blind Tiresias, alerting us to the adiós of the “bowling pins” (as we called the Russians).

The old relationship with the Kremlin comes to mind now, with Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cuba. We have seen the official delegation on national television with its businesslike demeanor in suits and ties, no longer speaking of Marxism-Leninism or the dictatorship of the proletariat. They look different, but so much the same. The same glance from above they once had when they knew our island was just a small domino in the game of power. They come looking for alliances, to define the contours of those blocks they are reassembling – right before our eyes – in a new return of the Cold War. We are one step away from returning to our old status as a satellite, diminished before Moscow’s power, its oil, the debt relief it just granted us.

Not a single official commentator has hinted at the dangers entailed in this approach, nor to the Russian government’s need to use Latin America as a diplomatic “launching pad” against its old enemy, the United States. In the midst of this renewed confrontation among the great powers, we are trapped as a disposable and negotiable part, as the case may be. The risk is such that I again remember Olga and the last Soviet candies she offered us in that dorm. Those sweets in extinction predicted an end, the goodies being announced today, like a new airport and possible Russian investment in the Port of Mariel project, compromise our future. You don’t have to be blind, nor Tiresias, to realize it.

12 July 2014