Goliath Opens His Wallet / Yoani Sánchez: A New Era for Cuba and the United States

Havana, Cuba. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press (Taken from the New York Times)

Havana, Cuba. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press (Taken from the New York Times)

[From the New York Times] HAVANA — In one of my earliest memories, I am in a schoolyard before a campfire. The kids are screaming and jumping around it while the teacher stokes the flames, where a ridiculous Uncle Sam puppet is burning. This image came to mind on Wednesday, as I listened to the speeches of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama about the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.

Generations of Cubans have grown up under the barrage of official propaganda against the United States. As the words directed against our neighbor to the north became more aggressive, our curiosity only grew. Overwhelmed by material precariousness, disillusioned because the so-called Raúl reforms have failed to fill their wallets or their plates, Cubans now dream of the material respite that might arrive from the other side of the Florida Straits. Without a fight, David, smiling, walks toward Goliath, who is about to open his bag of coins. The myth of the enemy is over; the difficult reality of coexistence has begun.

Sara is a teacher I know at an elementary school in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality. Without the help sent by her daughter every month she couldn’t survive. “Now everything will be easier, especially because we’ll be able to use American credit and debit cards here and my daughter is thinking of sending me one so I can get a little help whenever I need it,” she said.

Sara has decorated her classroom with a poster that includes images of the “Cuban Five,” spies whom the official propaganda considers heroes. (The Americans released the last three of them as part of a swap for a Cuban who had worked as an agent for American intelligence.) “They are back, so we will have to change the bulletin board,” she said with excitement and relief.

Bonifacio Crespo helps a brother with accounting for their private restaurant in Havana. They already have a new business plan. “We have the contacts to start importing raw materials, spices and many products for the menu, all we need is for them to expand the sending of packages from over there,” he said, his finger pointing toward a cardinal point he believed was north.

José Daniel Ferrer, a dissident, said that Havana had lost its “alibi” for political repression and economic control, and the independent magazine Convivencia (Coexistence) welcomed the news, but other dissidents worry that the government has yet to specify what it will do.

The tension between the two governments lasted so long that now some people don’t know what to do with their slogans, their fists raised against imperialism and their sick tendency to justify everything, from droughts to repression, on the grounds of being so close to “the most powerful country in the world.” The worst off are the most recalcitrant members of the Communist Party, those who would die before chewing a stick of gum, drinking a Coke or setting foot in Disney World. The first secretary of their organization just betrayed them. He made a pact with the adversary, behind the scenes and over 18 long months.

On Thursday, the party newspaper, Granma, was slow to reach the newsstands. Sometimes it is delayed when Fidel Castro publishes one of his delirious articles about the immensity of the galaxy or the memory of Hugo Chávez. In the long minutes of waiting, many speculated that Granma would arrive with some reflection from the comandante, but there was nothing. No evidence that would let us know whether he is for or against the risky step just taken by his brother. Many have read this silence as a sign of his delicate state of health, but by saying nothing, he has confirmed his political death, which is even more revealing and symbolic than his physical death will be.

Representatives of civil society do not want the United States to “extend a blank check” to the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere unless four demands are met.

First is the immediate release of political prisoners — there are over 100, Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates. Second is the ratification of United Nations human rights covenants. Third is the dismantling of the apparatus of repression: shameful assaults on so-called counterrevolutionaries, arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently and police surveillance of activists.

Finally, the Cuban government must accept the existence of civic structures that have the right to express opinions, decide, question and choose — voices that have not been represented in the current negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the United States. The road map drawn by the higher-ups has been hidden from us.

An opportunity has been offered, despite the valid criticisms of many who question whether Uncle Sam has conceded too much, while his counterpart was too stingy to offer meaningful political gestures. Civil society must take advantage of it, elevate its voice, test the new limits of repression and censorship.

Everyone is experiencing this change in his or her own way: Sara, dreaming of her new debit card; Bonifacio, who speculates about the dishes he’ll be able to include on his menu with new imported ingredients; José Daniel Ferrer, who hopes to increase activism in the eastern part of the country. For everyone, a new era has begun. We cannot confirm that it will be better, but at least it will be different.

Yoani Sánchez, a blogger, is the director of 14ymedio, an independent digital news outlet in Cuba. This essay was translated by Mary Jo Porter from the Spanish.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 19, 2014, on page A35 of the New York edition of the New York Times with the headline: Goliath Opens His Wallet.

Conquering Democracy is our Task/ 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Obama during his speech

Obama during his speech

Translated by Norma Whiting
14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 18 December 2014 — As befits the ripples derived from the polarization and the long-held political conflicts, the surprising news about the release of Alan Gross by the Government of Cuba, and of the three confessed Cuban spies by the US government, coupled with the simultaneous announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, has unleashed a wave of passion on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Some have catalogued it as a “victory for the dictatorship,” others as “the betrayal of the democratic aspirations of Cuba and of the US global leadership,” and there have been some who consider a “moral crime” what they term the exchange of people unjustly imprisoned in Cuba and three criminals who caused deaths and the mourning of Cuban families.

In all conflicts, each party is partially right, but when we talk about such significant historical events as the radical turnaround in the US-Cuba relations after the 50-year dispute, it is necessary to set aside the passions and calmly analyze the new scenario in order to extract the greatest possible benefits.

On the other hand, we should not perceive as a loss the release of an arbitrarily imprisoned American citizen, who was also used as a hostage by the Cuban dictatorship, as were an important group of political prisoners. All of them have now succeeded in reuniting with their families and moved on with their lives. If this is Raúl Castro’s supposed “victory,” I would call it a Pyrrhic victory.

The Gordian knot that maintained the stagnation and confrontation has been broken, and and now we might want to exploit this window of opportunity

But, in any case, with the liberation of both Alan Gross and the three vassals of the Castros’ fiefdom, those issues have been exhausted. What is really important is that the Gordian knot that maintained the stagnation and confrontation has been broken, and now we might want to exploit this window of opportunity, rather than continue with lamentations and catharsis that do not lead anywhere at all. It is about the old adage of the half empty or half full glass, so to speak. I choose to see it half full and to do whatever possible to fill it to the very brim.

Let’s say, for instance that, going forward, no one will be able to accuse us of being “mercenaries at the service of an enemy country,” especially when we visit the US Embassy or participate in the debates, cultural or academic activities, video-conferences, or courses about technological uses of information and communication and English language that are taught there. Neither will they be able to continue to justify the David and Goliath theory, nor the reluctance to ratify UN Covenants signed February 2008, among many other resources employed by the regime. It is true that they don’t need excuses to suppress and to hijack citizen’s rights; but today, Barack Obama has put the ball in our court, which has placed the Cuban leadership under political pressure.

Another point to monitor will be how the agreements will be applied, and how the US will ensure that the real beneficiaries of such momentous changes are Cubans and, especially, the emerging civil society. In any case, the US government has confirmed its commitment to the long-neglected democratic aspirations on the Island, and it also assumes a great deal of historical responsibility for the consequences arising from such a decisive step.

It is hard to imagine all the juggling that the Cuban government will have to do in order to reconcile the “anti-imperialist” principles of ALBA and its regional allies with this renewal of relations with the Northern villain. If there is something the left does not forgive it is adultery or ideological bigamy. At any rate, Cuba’s side now has a four-month grace period until the Americas Summit, to be held in Panama, to show the US that Cuba is willing to make advances in terms of human rights. Obama’s message was, as such, almost an ultimatum.

Barack Obama represents a new era, while Raúl Castro is the past

To recap, superficially analyzing the respective speeches of the presidents of the two countries, the contrasts are obvious: one, young, smartly dressed in civilian clothes, talking about what he expects for the future of these policy changes from the seat of his government; the other, an octogenarian, stuffed into a ridiculous military uniform and crushed under the weight of medals and epaulets, reading a sheet of paper in a nasal voice and with funereal airs, from a horrible office where there isn’t even a simple computer. Barack Obama represents a new era, while Raúl Castro is the past, even though we try hard to ignore that reality.

In addition, it is pathetic to assume the success or failure of our struggle against the dictatorship will depend on the policies of a foreign government. The US has shown a unique ability and willingness to support Cubans, but winning democracy is, without a doubt, our own task.

The independent civil society, including the whole spectrum of opponents, activists, journalists, etc., can now choose between two attitudes: clinging to the anachronism of belligerency and the entrenchment which we have criticized the regime so much for, or assuming the challenges offered by the new era. The moment can be interpreted as a defeat or as growing pains. Personally, I prefer to grow.

“We hope the government will announce the names of the prisoners benefiting in the coming hours” / 14ymedio, Elizardo Sanchez, Reinaldo Escobar

Elizardo Sanchez

Elizardo Sanchez

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 18 December 2014 – The spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Elizardo Sánchez, shares with the readers of 14ymedio his reflections on the rapprochement between Havana and Washington announced this Wednesday, after more than five decades of rupture.

Escobar: Does the National Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation have the names of the 53 prisoners that the Government of the United States expressed an interest in releasing this Wednesday?

Sánchez: We have collected over a hundred documented names of political prisoners, but we have absolutely no idea of who will benefit under this agreement with the list of 53 “plus one.” I can add that in what was, until now, the United States Interest Section, they tell us that they don’t know the details either.

Q. Does “plus one” refer to the person who has been mentioned as a spy for US government?

A. Indeed. It has been said that it is a person “of Cuban origin” and that qualification introduces doubt as to his identity, because it suggests that it is a Cuban-American. We must wait for the Government of Cuba to announce it; we hope they will do so in the coming hours.

Q. What news do you think is more relevant, the release of the three intelligence officers or the reestablishment of diplomatic relations?

A. What we are seeing as of this Wednesday is a campaign focused on “the great victory obtained by the Cuban government” with the release of these three intelligence officers, but, in my opinion, what is transcendent is the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. That is a truly historic event and from it can come consequences of enormous importance.

Q. What is your impression of the reasons for the silence of Fidel Castro?

A. I do not know what to say. It may be due to health reasons. You cannot forget that he will be 89 in nine months, or perhaps he preferred to keep quiet, or to wait to see the reaction of the people. I don’t know. He knows.

Cuba and the United States Conclude the Cold War / Ivan Garcia

cuba_usa_flags1-620x330

The morning of December 17 had not heralded anything new for Silvio, who is 43 years old. The previous night, after crawling a kilometer and half tied to a stone of considerable proportions along a narrow carriageway road to the Sanctuary of San Lazaro, south of Havana, to fulfill a religious vow and to pray for the health of his wife, his sons and his ailing mother, he thought that his quota of emotions was already exhausted.

“Imagine, all night under a cold damp, praying to St. Lazarus. I arrived home at dawn. About 10 o’clock in the morning I called a cousin who lives in Hialeah [Florida] and he tells me that they had made a swap between the three imprisoned Cuban agents in the United States, for Alan Gross and a spy in the CIA who had been 20 years in a Cuban prison.

“Then at noon, President Raúl Castro in a televised message announces that the relations between the two countries, the financial flow, and communications will resume, in addition to the release of the agents. It was a surprise. It suddenly appears that Americans are no longer enemies,” says Silvio while waiting for a taxi.

Undoubtedly, the news of the day in Havana, and on the island, has been that the United States and Cuba have ended its own particular Cold War. Continue reading

A New Dawn / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Sunrise in Havana (14ymedio)

Sunrise in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 18 December 2014 – At 7:00 in the morning this December 18th the sun appears on the horizon at 120 degrees to the east. The smoke of the refinery and the capricious clouds help create that kitsch of nature that is the sunrise. Everything seems to be the same on the island, but Cubans can now see an invisible ray of hope opening up.

Today is the first day of a healing process, or it could be, not to be guilty of excessive optimism. Starting now, in an almost unexpected way, the historic difference between Cuba and the United States will modify its character. There will be a tweaking of language and the first word to disappear will be “enemy,” for which “neighbor” may be substituted, not the most endearing of terms but also not one that exudes so much hatred. Continue reading

An Intelligent Accord / Fernando Damaso

Finally, after more than fifty years of tensions, contradictions, offenses and mutual aggressions, the governments of Cuban and the United States have reached agreements that demonstrated intelligence and a sense of responsibility on the part of both sides, the primary accord being the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

This first step has required the efforts of various personalities and governments, strikingly among them the work of Pope Francis and the government of Canada, as well as others which have not been mentioned specifically.

The freeing of prisoners here and there, which was a minor obstacle (although for years it has been inflated and used for propaganda in the national circus) became a springboard for what was truly important. Now today, in spite of the outdated revolutionary rhetoric to which our authorities are addicted, they have faded to the background, outshone by the truly transcendent news. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we will be free of seeing them on our TV screens, like test patterns, for the next few days. This seems to be a necessary evil. Continue reading

The Cuban Wall and the Changes of 1989 / Juan Juan Almeida

Twenty-five years later some people are still trying to knock down a piece of the Berlin Wall.

On November 9 and 10, 1989 Germany experienced an event that quickly and with just enough lubrication sent the rusty wheel of history spinning. It was an event that marked the beginning of the end of European socialism: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Such a seminal event did not come out of nowhere. It was not a coincidence nor did it happen spontaneously. There were events leading up to it.

Protests were growing in Leipzig, Dresden, East Berlin and other cities demanding democratic change. The government of the former German Democratic Republic was unable to cope with the ever growing number of its citizens fleeing to Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin. Continue reading

The opposition hopes that a dialogue will open between the Government and civil society / 14ymedio

Poster on a Cuban street demanding the release of "The Cuban Five"

Poster on a Cuban street about the release of “The Cuban Five”

14ymedio, Santiago de Cuba, 18 December 2014 — The news of the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States has been embraced by opposition organizations in Cuba with optimism and hope that this agreement may facilitate the establishment of a dialogue between the Government and civil society on the island.

The Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), in a statement issued on Thursday, stated that the Cuban government has lost its “great alibi” to justify repression and the lack of human rights in Cuba. “Any change, and especially the loss of an excuse for repression, can create a space for the people to reclaim their voice, lost for over half a century.” Continue reading

Reactions that won’t appear on the news / Regina Coyula

I was in the salon stretching my feet, and although some of the women there had never heard a thing about Alan Gross and acknowledged their inability to recite the names of “The Five,” the news of the re-establishment of relations with the United States was greeted with jubilation by that heterogeneous group, and yes, there was unanimity in that. While one threw kisses to the image of Obama on Telesur, I had to slightly cool the enthusiasim of those who thought (and it was more than a few) that reestablishing relations and lifting the embargo were the same thing.

The best was the only male, a young man who was getting a complicated haircut with designs. The triumphant boy rose from his seat at the risk of ruining the hairdresser’s work and raised his arms as if he’d scored a goal, with the phrase: “This is our Berlin Wall!”

17 December 2014

Fidel Died / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuban democracy has taken so long that now it seems we Cubans can wait for a little longer. President Obama, with his historical Cuban speech, is indeed recognizing the future rights of a leftist dictatorship that in turn never recognized the rights of Cuban citizens.

Yet, his Cuban counterpart, General Raul Castro, dressed in military uniform instead of his much more accustomed expensive suits, delivered a simultaneous speech so solemn that he sounded like in a funeral. It was obvious that this was his fraternal farewell to Fidel Castro, who cannot be part anymore of the Cuban equation in the new era opened today. I dare say that Fidel Castro has died and that the apocalyptic announcement may take place in the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, on January 1st.

Next, we’ll see in Cuba the masquerade of new investments and markets and local licenses for business and more access to internet and even an electoral reform, but private property will remain a myth and no fundamental freedoms are conceivable for Cubans while only one Communist Party keeps monopolizing all political life, with the State Security from the Ministry of the Interior as the real source of governance of a model based on secrecy and, of course, impunity to repression. Continue reading

Of Rafters and Slave Hunters / 14ymedio, Luzbely Escobar

Special border guard group.  (Luzbely Escobar)

Special border guard group. (Luzbely Escobar)

Gerardo and Agustin were stuck for two days with water up to their knees, among the trunks and roots on the coast. They had chosen a point west of Havana that they nicknamed the terminal for its frequent illegal exits, but the trip was thwarted. “They detected us, I don’t know how, because it was in the middle of the night and you couldn’t even see your hands,” they relate, still somewhere between surprised and upset. The capture of the two seems to be due to a new device, half truck, half scanner, that goes in search of rafters.

Last Friday a rare entourage was exhibited a few meters from the central Havana corner of L and 23. Two military jeeps, an overhauled vehicle and a motorboat were shown to the stupefied students who formed a circle of interest just outside the Cuba Pavilion. The teens fluttered around the objects, and an officer explained the modern work tools for “protecting the Cuban coasts from illegal entry and exit.”

The purpose was to familiarize the students with every detail of the work in the Ministry of the Interior’s Border Guards in order to attract potential soldiers. The device that they described with greatest pride was a truck that once belonged to the Trasval chain messenger service and that they themselves have fitted with GPS and motion and heat sensing cameras. Its mission? Finding amid the underbrush, darkness and waves those who have decided to escape from the Cuban paradise. Continue reading

Being in “The Packet” / Wendy Guerra

A man with a pack over his shoulder walks down a Havana street.

A man with a pack over his shoulder walks along a Havana street. (EFE)

Wendy Guerra, Habáname, 15 December 2014 — About three years ago, a young man – tall, blond and ungainly – would haul an enormous sack full of DVDs of pirated movies, music videos, TV shows and series. Today, this same young man – now more poised and better dressed – walks the streets of Miramar with a small memory stick in his pocket, dispensing information to any of the households that can pay 15, 5 or, most commonly, 10 CUCs [Cuban convertible pesos] per week to download the latest broadcast content from international channels. For those who are unable to pay this fee, for those who lack the necessary resources, there are the memory devices that we record and distribute. This happens week after week in every Havana neighborhood.

“The Packet.” This is what we locals call the mountain of information that, on a weekly basis, the anticipated visitor sells and distributes to relieve the Cuban people’s dearth of options for visual references and news sources. Continue reading