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.

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

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

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

Has D-Day Arrived? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 — Today has been one of those days we imagine a thousand ways, but never as it finally happened. You prepare for a date on which you can celebrate the end, hug your friends who return home, wave a flag in the middle of the street, but D-Day is late. Instead, events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.

The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishments of diplomatic relations surprises us in the midst of signs that pointed in the opposite direction, and also of exhausted hopes. Raúl Castro just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this December 10 repression fell heavily on activists, as it does every International Human Rights Day.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of the official bluster, of a certain turn of the ideological screw expressed in calls to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months. Clear evidence that all this discourse of intransigence was just for show. While they made the island’s citizens believe that even to cross the threshold of the United States Interest Section in Havana turned them into traitors to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics! Continue reading

Everything is Sold-Out / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

 Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)

Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, 16 December 2014 — The end-of-year all over the world presents a challenge for many enterprises and businesses, especially for those in the transportation sector. Nobody wants to miss the opportunity to considerably increase the profits to be made from an extraordinary rise in demand for services. To this end, strategies are plotted and necessary adjustments are made well in advance. It is also true that at this time there is a surge in ticket prices. What would be strange is if, assuming you have the resources to travel, you were unable to find any means to get to your destination by land, sea or air.

That is, unless you live in Cuba. This is an island whose land and total population are comparable to or exceeded by some large cities of the world.

Over here, starting in the first few days of December, you can already hear in any office that sells tickets to travelers the famous phrase, “No, Son, no, for those dates, everything is sold-out
It is also common to find someone who laughs and says, ironically, “But who in their right mind thinks they can wait till early December to start shopping for tickets? That’s something you start doing at least three months in advance!” Continue reading

Reactions from Cuba to the Obama-Castro agreements / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 17 December 2014 – A source from the US State Department has told 14ymedio that now begins the most difficult work, that there will be a lot of criticism, but also that many are feeling optimistic with this Wednesday’s achievement since the announcement of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. “We also have to keep in mind that President Barack Obama has announced this series of measures, but Congress can still place obstacles in the way of putting many of them into practice,” the source clarified.

Dagoberto Valdés, director of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), said, “It makes me happy to know that diplomatic relations are being reestablished between Cuba and the United States. I consider this as a first step towards normalization and coexistence between the two countries, I salute the release of the political prisoners, and believe that this reestablishment of ties will contribute to focusing attention on the fundamental problem of the Cuban people, which is relations between the Government and citizens. I hope that the dialog that has been established with another country can quickly be realized between a government and its own citizens.” Valdés also highlighted the words of president Raúl Castro about the need to learn to coexist among differences: “This is a breakthrough for coexistence.” Continue reading

Cuba and the United States will reestablish diplomatic relations / 14ymedio

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (Source: The White House)

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (Source: The White House)

14medio, Washington, 17 December 2014 (With information from agencies) — Cuba and the United States will reestablish bilateral relations. The announcement was made this Wednesday after it became known that the American prisoner Alan Gross had been released in response to a humanitarian request from Washington. In exchange, Barack Obama’s administration released the three Cuban spies from the group called “The Five,” who were still serving sentences in the United States, according to the Twitter account of René González, one of the group who had been released in 2011, after completing his sentence.

Gross, 65, “has already left Cuba on a plane bound for the United States,” said a White House source. “He was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government, following a request from the United States,” the source added, after serving five years of a 15 year sentence for “threats against the security of the State.” Continue reading

Obama: “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do” / 14ymedio

Obama during his speech

Obama during his speech

14ymedio, Havana, 17 December 2014 – US President Barack Obama announced in a speech from the White House this Wednesday that Cuba and the United States would resume diplomatic relations after the break that occurred in 1961.

“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” Obama said. “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do.”

The president said that the current classification of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism will also be reviewed.

The US Secretary of State will initiate conversations with Cuba “immediately” and it is expected that in the coming months the United States will open an embassy in Cuba. The first step in this process will be to address the issue of immigration between the two countries at a meeting scheduled for this coming January in Havana. Continue reading

Alan Gross, the hook that ended up being swallowed / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross

Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 – With the pessimism that has now become chronic in our society, many Cubans thought that Alan Gross would only leave Cuba, “in a box,” in an image allusive of a fatal outcome. The stubbornness shown by the Cuban government in its relations with the United States didn’t presage a short-term solution for the contractor. This Wednesday, however, he has been exchanged for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States, bringing to a close a long and complicated political chapter for both parties.

Gross was only useful alive and his health was rapidly deteriorating. And Raul Castro knew this very well. Hence, in recent months he raised the decibels around the proposed exchange for the agent Antonio Guerrero and the officials Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, all serving long sentences in the prisons of our neighbor to the north. To the extent that the 65-year-old contractor grew thin and lost his vision, official campaigns grew increasingly insistent about the exchange. When Gross threatened to kill himself, the alarms if the island’s government went off and the negotiating schedule accelerated. Continue reading

The Wall of Tears / Reinaldo Escobar

The wall of tears at the Jose Marti International Airport. (14ymedio)

The wall of tears at the Jose Marti International Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 16 December 2014 – In the days when Havana has as its only airport what we know today as Terminal 1, there was a wide unroofed terrace from which we said goodbye to family and friends. Many times, forever.

When Terminal 3 opened, it was no longer possible to see, from land, the so often filmed scene of the instant when people climb the airplane steps, but one chance was left. On the second floor there was a glass covered deck from which it was possible to look out, to see our loved ones pass after having gone through immigration and the security checkpoint. Connoisseurs of this detail took the opportunity to throw a kiss or make some meaningful gesture. This site was given the name “the wall of tears.”

One fine day they remodeled the building, hanging a false ceiling, relocating the shops and cafes, and replacing the transparent windows with opaque glass, or perhaps they merely painted it. No one offered an explanation They say that the order to block visibility came from a retired general who, at that time, directed airport operations.
Why? You go figure. We can speculate that the former military man, infected with chronic secrecy, wanted to avoid “any information leaking” at the final minute, or simply showed a lack of human feelings.

Now the wall remains blank. In some places you can see where someone tried to scrape the white paint off the glass, but every scrape has been quickly repaired. When Havana, someday, has an airport worthy of it, there will be magnificent tunnels leading to the doors of every airplane, but by that time travel will not be as dramatic, nor as difficult.