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

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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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

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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“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 Point of Inflection / 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.

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

“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