The Lessons of Lope de Vega / Yoani Sanchez

Memoria-flash_CYMIMA20140918_0001_16

Flash

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 18 September 2014 – A friend visting Cuba for the first time asked me why the government can put an end to the illegal distribution of the so-called “audiovisual packets.” “They just have to detect who makes it and trades in it, to be able to stop it,” the young man speculated. I reminded him of the work Fuenteovejuna, written by Lope de Vega. In three acts, the noted Spanish playwright tells how a town rebels against the abuse of power. The villagers unite against the injustice and together assume responsibility for the death of the local oppressor. “Who killed the Commander? Fuenteovejuna, señor,” we learned from the theater of the Golden Age and have put into practice, at least in the compilation and distribution of programs, documentaries and other digital materials.

My friend listened incredulously to my explanation, so I offered a more concrete example. Some months ago a traveled to Spain to participate in a technology event. Before saying goodbye, my family and friends asked me to bring them various things, as is common in such an undersupplied country. However, unlike other times when I left with a long list of shoe and clothing sizes, this time the requests were very different. A neighbor on the third floor wanted an update of the Avast antivirus and asked that I download a course in small business accounting. Two cousins noted the details of a videogame—with all the updates—so I could bring it back. A niece’s husband asked me for PDFs of some magazines about industrial design and almost all agreed that an off-line copy of Revolico—the Cuban Craigslist—would be fantastic.

The list of things to bring was very significant to me. I alternated the soap and deodorant, unavailable in the stores these days, with drivers for an acquaintance who lost the installation disks. The sweet seller on the corner asked me for a digital encyclopedia of pastry, and a friend who is learning to drive needed a simulator for a PC. A photographer colleague asked me to download some Android apps that wold let her retouch images and a relative learning English demanded all the chapters of a Podcast to practice that language.

The two nights I spent in Granada I barely slept two hours, because the list of what I had to download off the Internet was very long. I took advantage of the connectivity to also download about fifty TED talks, to bring some of the fresh wind of entrepreneurs and creative people to the Island. I renamed some files to be able to find them more easily in the numerous folders containing the requests and returned to Havana. In less than 48 hours the orders were delivered, even a Pilates course on video requested by the owner of a nearby fitness center, and a digital gallery for a university professor who urgently needed images of Egyptian art. Everyone was satisfied.

Several weeks passed and one day I got the latest update of the “packet” that was circulating. To my surprise, the TED talks included in it were exactly the same files I’d downloaded from the web and later renamed. So I could confirm that all of us—in one way or another—form a part of and feed this alternative bulletin board that circulates hand to hand.

Poor Commander, you already know that the packet is “all for one, señor,” like Lope de Vega taught us.

Cuban Tourists: Filling-in the Gaps / Miriam Celaya

The truth is that I don’t know all the numbers, but I have been browsing the ad pages of Cubatur, Havanatur and all the Cuban “tours” and I found that this year the “all-inclusive” offers have increased which, since the restrictions for Cubans to stay at hotels were lifted, better-off Cubans have been taking advantage of them.

I’m not criticizing anyone for wanting to enjoy a vacation –usually short– at a beach hotel due to lower prices. After all, shortages and discriminations for decades have created a thirst for consumption and pleasure in the Cuban population that manifests itself as soon as the luckier few have an opportunity to escape the everyday filth and misery for a few days.

So, the number of regular Cubans who regularly take advantage of all-inclusive packages has been creating a clientele that feeds on the assorted neo-affluent sectors, corresponding to the most diverse groups and backgrounds: owners and employees of private restaurants, professionals who often have foreign contracts, employees of “enterprises” and shops that operate in hard currencies, the managerial caste, and even black marketers. Everyone wants their piece of Varadero to live the illusion of “I can”, despite the sorrows. And, of course, “everyone stretches out his feet as far down the sheets as they will reach” like my granny used to say, so there are those who save all year to spend a couple of nights at a three-star hotel, up to those who visit a five-star hotel in the outlying resort islands several times a year. It is, definitely, the realization of a long-cherished dream.

Well, it turns out that this year the “offers” to Cubans have skyrocketed. According to an accredited source (with the obligatory reserve), although some press reports state that foreign tourist participation has increased, the truth is that, in order to increase their income and fulfill quotas, tourist operators have had to extend and enhance the offers that so many well-off Cubans purchase. Cubans also serve to fill the gaps, so they will continue to collect fees, making use of what was, until recently, taboo: enjoyment.

This is not disclosed in the press, but it is so. That’s why the media publishes an occasional report in the news and on the regular press where there is a reference to “Cuban workers who enjoy camping facilities and beaches and recreation centers”; but I am absolutely sure that they never have dedicated one to show wealthy Cubans basking in the sun at hotels in Varadero or the outlying islands: we all know that they have already decriminalized the differences among us, but they should not be displayed so brazenly. These are the conditions to enjoy the benefits of Raúl-type socialism, aren’t they?

Translated by Norma Whiting

22 August 2014

The Unknowns Behind the Cultural Exchange / Juan Juan Almeida

Before the Portuguese awning maker and salt merchant Matias Perez* disappeared in the world, already Cuba and the United States were maintaining solid ties, including cultural exchanges, which continues being today an important part of our history and identity.

Just by glancing we can find Cuban elements in American culture and vice versa, so much so that “Cuban-American” is the highest expression of that cultural ethnic fusion between both nations.

The cultural reciprocity was frequent, artists came and went constantly. The thing got complicated during the first half of the 20th century when both governments–and I’m going to tell the truth, like it or not–began to have a relationship based on political principles so conflicting that paradoxically they made the arts sector, that of the expression of the spirit and creativity, a prisoner of circumstances. Continue reading

My Experience in Coral Park: The Church-Synagogue / Mario Lleonart

The temple of the First Baptist Church of Coral Park: “The Whale”

It was my Sunday of rest in the United States (July 20), on this voyage that I made, between July 9th and August 6th, leading a small delegation that included my wife and daughters, and four other brothers of our church in Cuba. It was my day to be seated to receive the Word.

The previous Sunday I preached in the Baptist church “Star of Bethlehem,”  in Hialeah; and in the nearly two weeks of the journey that remained, they hoped that I would preach to at least four more congregations: “Jesus Worship Center (www.iglesiadoral.org)” of Doral; the “First Hispanic Presbyterian Church” of Tampa; the “Christian House: JWC” of Kissimee; and the “Hispanic Baptist Church” of Naples. It was very opportune that this Sunday was included, because I had done so much speaking in the previous day that I had ended up literally without a voice.

The stained glass window of the Star of David

First Baptist Church of Coral Park is the congregation where brothers worship deeply and with great love for Cuba that today they wanted to dedicate to us their Sunday and their church. The same church in which pastored the well-remembered Rev. Jorge Comesañas whose name, unsurprisingly, was given to one of the neighboring streets, and especially to whom they arrived from their broken isle seeking healing for their wounds. Continue reading

Solidarity or Propaganda? / Fernando Damaso

I wish I could be happy about the quick response by the Cuban government to the request for assistance from the World Health Organization and the UN general secretary in their efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, but I cannot.

I am all too aware of the deteriorating state of our hospitals, the lack of hygiene, the poor medical care — provided mainly by students rather than doctors — the poor nutrition provided to patients, the shortage of drugs and many other problems.

I am referring, of course, to the medical centers which serve the average Cuban, which are the majority, not to the specialized centers catering to foreigners, VIPs or people who can pay for their services in hard currency.

A similarly rapid response should be applied to the serious problems that have afflicted our health care system for years. We make the mistake of trying to solve the world’s problems without due regard for our own. This seems to have paid off in that at least it generates a lot of free propaganda.

However, no one who speaks or writes about the magnificent Cuban health system has had to have their illnesses or those of their loved ones treated here. Furthermore, many Cuban bigwigs prefer to seek treatment in other countries, even that of the enemy. There must be some reason for this.

At a press conference in Geneva, Cuba’s minister of public health took the opportunity to propagandize about the country’s achievements and to emphasize yet again how many medical personnel have provided and are now providing care in other countries.

He also talked about the thousands of overseas volunteer workers, though without mentioning how much Cuba charges in dollars for this service — currently one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange — or how doctors, nurses and other specialists are not being properly paid.

At one point during the press conference the minister stated that the Revolution did not wait for its health services to be developed before beginning to provide assistance to other peoples.

He neglected to mention that Cuba’s health services were already well-developed before 1959 and were among the best not only in the Caribbean but in all of Latin America. One need only look to official statistics from international organizations of the time to confirm this.

Given these questions, I am concerned that what we are dealing with here has more to do with propaganda than with solidarity.

September 2014

Absurdities of the Week / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Cuba is like an exaggerated version of the fictional village Macondo,* as is clear to anyone with half a brain. For evidence of this, one need only spend a few minutes reading the country’s state-controlled press.

On Monday new customs regulations went into effect. On Tuesday there were articles by two of our seasoned journalists, who reported how successful these measures were, so much so that they had both travelers and customs officials applauding in unison. It is striking how effective these regulations turned out to be, and in such a short period of time, especially if we consider that it took a full year and a trial run in three provinces to lower the price of natural gas and distribute it for free.

The International Freedom for the Five Day — there are now only three of them — has occupied the front pages of the two main state-run newspapers. This year it will run until October 6, with vigils, marches, exhibitions, book sales, an international symposium, and demonstrations at universities, community centers and workplaces. This will include an event dubbed Kids Paint for Peace in which “all the nation’s children,” which can be interpreted to mean “all children without exception,” will paint asphalt and and fly kites in support of the Five.

It seems that all is going well considering that this campaign will represent the loss of vast amounts of time – including that of private citizens — and a waste of resources in pursuit of a new national pastime. If the state-run media is to be believed, this issue is of concern not only to Cubans on the island but to Cubans throughout the world. Please, let’s not get carried away! Remember that overstatement usually ends up being counterproductive.

As though that were not enough, it seems we must now celebrate the 69th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s college admission, the tenth anniversary of his historic speech at the Aula Magna and the fifth anniversary of his address to university students warning them of the threat of extinction to the human race. Remembrance has its place, but I do not remember any remembrance of the day on which Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Ignacio Agramonte or José Martí — to mention three examples — began their university studies, much less a remembrance of many of their truly historic speeches.

It seems that a large segment of today’s Cuban youth — at least the ones who appear in the official media — find time to commemorate almost any event. Many years ago the cult of personality as practiced in other countries of the former Soviet bloc was severely criticized here. In light of all the damage it caused, people swore this would never happen in Cuba. Has this been forgotten? It might be a good idea to remind our young student leaders of this.

It is noteworthy that this summer, which was certainly quite a hot one, there were no new measures taken to stimulate the economy, unless you count the new customs regulations. We hope that September brings some new changes, though they are unlikely to meet the expectations of most Cubans. Nevertheless, something is better than nothing, even if it comes in dribs and drabs.

*Translator’s note: The setting of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

6 September 2014

Pot With Missing Cord Doesn’t Come With a Guarantee / 14ymedio, Regina Coyula

Fachada-centro-comercial-Puentes-Grandes_CYMIMA20140908_0003_13

Exterior of the new Puentes Grandes shopping center (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, Regina Coyula, 8 September 2014 — Tiendas Panamericanas [Panamerican Stores], owned by the CIMEX corporation, has just launched a grand (for Cuban national standards) shopping center. Utilizing the building formerly occupied by the old towel factory, Telva, on the corner of 26th Avenue and Calzada del Cerro street, a side addition was built, doubling the space. The opening of Puentes Grandes has been well received, being that until now only small stores have existed in that neighborhood, and the closest shopping centers — La Puntilla, Galerias Paseo, and Plaza Carlos III — are located about two miles away.

Spurred by curiosity, I visited Puentes Grandes last Saturday. Hundreds of people had flocked to the place. There was a line at the handbag security station, because bags and purses are not allowed inside stores that take convertible currency. There was another line at the entrance. We were going on half an hour already. In other circumstances I would have left, but resisted the impulse just to be able to write this article. Finally, I went through a narrow entryway where, as always, are those who wait, and those other, clever ones who butt the line. The interior entrance is quite spacious, with metal shopping carts, and other cute small plastic carts on wheels for which I predict a brief, happy life, and baskets. All is set up for the customer to select his purchases; merchandise is kept behind the counter in the perfume and household appliance departments.

A large interior arcade connects the grocery and housewares area with the hardware department, where I was detained by an employee. To go from one area to the other, you have to now go outside and re-enter, even though just days before you could walk directly between departments and check out at any register. Why is this? The employee doesn’t know, but he was assigned there to enforce the trajectory. I had placed various items in my cart, then had to stand at the register line, go outside, stand in another line to leave my purchases at the handbag security station, then go stand in another line to enter the hardware area.

Continue reading

Of Freebies and Schools / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Estudiantes-primaria_CYMIMA20140912_0002_16

Elementary school students (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 September 2014 – The school bell rings and the children enter the classroom followed by their parents. The first day of classes triggers joy, although a few tears are shed by some who miss their homes. That’s what happened to Carla, who just started kindergarten at a school in Cerro. The little girl is lucky because she got a teacher who has taught elementary school for several years and has mastered the content. “What luck!” some of the little one’s family members think, just before another mother warns them, “But beware of the teacher, she demands every student bring her a bit of a snack from home.”

On the afternoon of September 1, the first parent meeting took place. After the introductions and welcoming remarks, the teacher enumerated everything that the classroom was lacking. “We have to raise money for a fan,” she said, unsmiling. Carla had already suffered from the morning heat, so her mother gave the 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that was her daughter’s share, so she would have a little breeze while studying. ”We also need to buy a broom and mop for cleaning, three fluorescent tubes for the lights, and a trash can,” said the teaching assistant.

A list of requests and needs added some disinfectant for the bathroom, “Because we don’t want the flu,” said the teacher herself. The total expenditures began to grow, and a lock was added, “So that no one steals things when there’s no one in the school.” A father offered some green paint to paint the blackboard, and another offered to fix the hinges on the door, which was lopsided. “I recommend that you buy the children’s notebooks on the street because the ones we received to hand out this year are as thin as onion skin and tear just by using an eraser,” the teacher added.

After the meeting Carla’s family calculated some 250 Cuban pesos in expenses to support the little girl’s education, half the monthly salary of her father, who is a chemical engineer. Then the school principal came to the meeting and rounded it off with, “If anyone knows a carpenter and wants to hire him to fix their child’s desk, feel free.”

Puro, Buy My Stimulus” / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 12 September 2014 — Passing near the Chinese cemetery on 26th Avenue, a young man leading his bike by the hand, said to me, “Puro, buy my stimulus.” I confess that it took me a few seconds to decipher the code. Clearly the “puro” was a reference to my youth, but what was difficult to understand was the “stimulus.” How can you buy such a thing?

As he explained to me, it was a plastic bag that contained a quart of vegetable oil for cooking, two bath soaps, and some ounces of detergent that he’d been given at work as a “stimulus” for having stood out in socialist emulation.

I didn’t believe a single word and committed the journalistic folly of rejecting his offer. If I had said yes, now I’d have a photo here of the products, laid out on the wall of the cemetery with the graves in the background.

When I told the story to my friend Regina Coyula, author of the blog Bad Handwriting, she told me this is the latest scam. The allusion to having been chosen as the vanguard, a standout, or special prize winner, makes you think that the potential seller is a “true believer” who has no recourse but to sacrifice the material honors his political-social conduct has earned him, to alleviate his urgent needs.

To buy the “stimulus” is almost a sado-political vengeance, but selling fake merchandise, that is oil that isn’t good for cooking, soap that doesn’t produce lather, and lime instead of detergent, is already a mockery… the old scam in new clothes.

Ministerial Hustling / 14ymedio

Habanarte in the Casa del Alba

Habanarte in the Casa del Alba

14ymedio, Havana, Luzbely Escobar, 11 September 2014 – When I was younger and went out looking for something to do in Havana’s evenings or nights, one day I stumbled over Julio. I went out with a girlfriend from Berlin and he was looking to make a living scamming innocent foreigners. He approached us intending to invite us to a Rumba Festival, but was disappointed by our refusal. The trick was easy: lead the unwary to Hamel Alley where there was almost always the sound of drums and right now there was the Festival he mentioned.

I had warned my German friend about those characters who invent everything to attract the tourists, and the truth was that, in those days of September 1993, there wasn’t much to do. Every encounter ended in a park, along the Malecon, or the home of a friend. Julio didn’t give up and told my friend, Angelica, that he knew a place where there was salsa dancing. We turned our worst faces to the old rockers and took off before they came up with something else. I remember my friend at the end of this episode telling me, “That’s what I would call cultural hustling.”

I’m telling this story because right now there is a cultural event called Habanarte. I support the theory that this is more or less the same thing, but organized by the Ministry of Culture itself. With a program that includes everything but which, in reality, brings little new, one more festival where supposedly a program specially designed for the event is created, which comes to be a kind of umbrella that covers everything and anything that’s happening in Havana lately. Thus, this umbrella festival takes credit for everything and even includes visits to museums on its list of events.

Presentations by the National Ballet of Cuba, Haydée Milanés, Descemer Bueno,
among others, are part of the shows absorbed by Habanarte. Also, the Art in the Rampa show, and even the sixth Salon of Contemporary Art, have been put under the umbrella.

An odd, or revealing, piece of data is that the Paradiso agency confirmed the participation of 1,500 Venezuelans and announced that the event in question is being marketed to tourists passing through Havana and Varadero. The perfect mix to ideologize even more the cultural spaces that, gradually, we Havanans have conquered to relax the everyday political ballad.

At the press conference that took place a few days ago, we learned that the Festival Information Center will be located at the Casa del Alba, the most rancid epicenter of political propaganda masquerading as culture. All this made me remember Julio and his fake musical event, and my friend Angelica who realized the farce in time. However, unlike that lie to get some money from unsuspecting tourists, Habanarte is a huge ministerial balloon scamming thousands of people.

(The event takes place from 11 to 21 September, but the official opening is on September 12, at 11 pm, at El Sauce Cultural Center, of Artex, with a concert by El Chevere de la Salsa, Isaac Delgado.)

Rejoice, Rise Up and Persevere, Pope Francis’s Verbs for Cubans / 14ymedio

Pilgrimage for the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Havana

Pilgrimage for the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre in Havana


14ymedio, Havana, 9 September 2014 – A letter sent by Pope Francis to Cubans has highlighted three verbs he invites pastors and the faithful to put into practice. On the occasion of the Feast of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre—our Cachita—this Monday, 8 September, the Bishop of Rome has urged us to rejoice, rise up and persevere. The message seems full of clues and enigmas to solve.

The Holy Father, for example, has emphasized, “What joy the authentic soul feels in daily events, and not in the empty words that abound, blown away with the wind.” Pope Bergoglio has also called us to rise up, but “not about the big things, rather in everything you do, with tenderness and mercy. María was always with her people caring for the little ones. She knew loneliness, poverty and exile,” allusions also emphasized with the verb persevere.

The message takes as its context the widespread pilgrimages that have occurred on the Island for the Feast of Cachita. To the yellow flowers, the promises kept and the acts of faith, we now add the Pope’s words, which have been shared publicly in churches throughout the country.