14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea, Havana, 9 December 2014 – One of my earliest memories is of my young self, singing, Set fire, set fire to the lock [of hair], while riding in a bus operated by Havana’s public transportation system. The other passengers around me laugh and a lady with sweet and mirthful eyes exclaims again and again, “That little blonde boy is a hellion!”
Havana at that time to me was that marvelous city which I would enter at dawn, riding through the tunnel, staying alert so as not to miss the fire station on Prado Street. Or it was that city which I would exit generally by train, at night, but not before stopping at la Casita de Martí [José Martí’s Little House]. All of this was in spite of the fact that my parents and I would go to Havana twice a year, in January and June.
Our agenda for our visits was always the same: the Aquarium and the 26th Avenue Zoo, with its little lead soldiers at the entrance, its bold squirrels that seemed not so much wild creatures as denizens of some tenement on Colón Street, the shit-flinging monkeys, the little train…and another day, to Lenin Park and the Botanical Garden. We would cover Old Havana by a route that invariably ended up in The Fort and its armories – at least until the day I stopped throwing tantrums to avoid embarking on the little Regla ferry, and then the tour would end with a slow cruise to park in that so-called “ultramarine town.” Then it was off to the Coppelia ice cream stand on any given day and later, in the afternoon, a stroll up and down the Malecón, re-enacting in the capital that small-town custom of zigzagging along the main street of Encrucijada. Such was the only way to pass the evenings in some innocent little town of the interior in those marvelous ‘70s.
Sometimes, in January, there might also be a visit to El Cerro Stadium, as our friend Ñico Rutina insisted on calling the Latin American Stadium, for my father and me to watch a baseball game. It didn’t matter who was playing whom, what my old man cared about (and still does, at 83) was enjoying the game, not being fanatical about a particular team. Our day trip would then conclude with the aforementioned visits to about a hundred of my parents’ relatives and close friends. All this to say – considering that we would alternate our stays among my Aunt Leopoldina’s house in Párraga; my Aunt Emilia’s house in the Little Cave of San Miguel de Padrón; or that of my Great Aunt Victoria in La Víbora – it can be seen that, at least on the east side of the Almendares River, very little of Havana escaped our routine itineraries for visits and outings.
Already by then, I could not escape the spell of Havana. Where people talked, walked, looked, breathed, and loved with ease, and “right” was “rye” [Translator’s Note: Habaneros are known among Cubans elsewhere on the Island for their rapid speech and lazy pronunciation of consonants]. Where defiant mulattos grew their sideburns long and dressed in the manner of their great-great-grandfathers, flashy black men in the days of the fleets. When from time to time could be heard, along some parallel street, the slow-moving cassock of one of the few remaining priests on the Island. When the stray cats were fat, not like those puny ones on Encrucijada Street, and actors in the latest adventure films might surprise you on any street corner.
“Where will all these memories go when I die?” I ask myself at times, like the android in Blade Runner. “Will that moment disappear with me when, for the first time, I watched a ship enter Havana Bay from the Point, while two other vessels lying at anchor waited their turn?” Or, fast-forwarding almost 40 years, there is an eternity in which I will always live in the entire night I spent with Her in a room on L Street, almost touching the sea, and at times would be surprised by the murmurs of another woman: Sleeping Havana?
I cannot answer these questions. I only know that upon learning of Havana having been selected as one of the Seven Wonders Cities of the World, all those memories have rushed to my throat. In any case something will remain, as today persists in our culture that spirit of the Athens of 500 BC, when a boy hand-in-hand with his father, regarded on a certain clear morning of the splendorous Mediterranean summer the road to Piraeus.
Because Havana, more than an obvious ruin, is a spirit, a soul, a mature woman with miles on her but still more beautiful than any 20-year-old. A certain something will persist when the tyrants and their henchmen no longer occupy more than a couple lines in the annals of history. A certain something to which all of us Cubans are joined in greater or lesser measure, and which provides the measure to explain why we love to exaggerate, to say that we Cubans “We Cubans are the greatest thing God ever conceived in this great wide world.”
14ymedio, 10 December 2014 — At least 34 activists have been detained so far in various locations of the country on the occasion of the celebration of Human Rights Day this Wednesday. In Havana are reported some 20 arrests of opponents who tried to reach the meetings opposite the Yara room, one of the headquarters for the Havana Film Festival, which started six days ago. Among those are at least 18 Ladies in White and members of the New Republic movement, intercepted when they headed towards Vedado in order to participate in the announcement by Berta Soler and driven to the Calabazar zone. Before the arrests, some activists yelled, “Down with the dictatorship and long live human rights!” After the first arrests, dozens of Government partisans approached the place, yelling, “Long live Fidel, long live Raul!”
A reporter from 14ymedio, present at the location of the incidents, could confirm the detention of several Ladies in White who began to arrive, separately, to the well-known corner. At first, only civilians were seen, the so-called enraged people, awaiting the activists. However, as the time of the announcement approached, there appeared several uniformed officers and police cars. One of the women from this human rights defense group who managed to get to the place was forced into one of the cars.
Security agent Carlos Serpa Maceira, present at the location, has threatened Luzbely Escobar, one of the reporters for this daily, who took photographs of the arrests. After a three-hour detention, the journalist has been set free. Security agents, especially bothered by her participation in the Havana Film Festival and her credentials for press conferences, have warned her that she cannot “present herself as 14ymedio at official sites.” Another 14ymedio reporter, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, was also arrested on this day and freed on Wednesday night.
The downtown Havana corner of 23rd and L has dawned between expectation and the most absolute vigilance. The announcement several days ago by the Ladies in White to meet at this point of the city to commemorate Human Rights Day made the government activate all its machinery to prevent it. Last night a children’s activity at the Coppelia ice cream stand was announced on national television, a frequent practice used by authorities to neutralize dissident gatherings.
In the Calixto Garcia township in Holguin, some 20 Security agents do not let pass anyone who wanted to enter an activity about human rights.
In Puerto Padre, Las Tunas, only a dozen activists have managed to get to the place they had given as the location for celebrating Human Rights Day, while at least ten others have been arrested.
In Tunas Park, two dissidents have been arrested and many others have not been allowed to get to the house of David Gonzalez, where an event was going to be held in commemoration of the date.
At this time in Guantanamo, there are 35 activists at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and one detained. Some special troops from the Ministry of the Interior since last night have surrounded the Altamira neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba, where the headquarters of the organization is. Nevertheless, in the morning hours some activists have managed to get to the most important market of the city to share statements about human rights among attendees at the site and also were able to hold a brief ceremony in reference to the subject. In Altamira, barely five activists have been able to participate in an event by the organization because the police will not permit them to pass.
The foreign press was also present at the site, and several activists have loudly denounced surveillance around their homes. In Palmarito de Cauto, the meeting will be in the afternoon, but Security forces have been present since early in the day, since the Communist Party has organized a “people party” with beer provided, and no passage allowed, in order to occupy the dissident meeting places in the area. The officials have gathered several people across from the headquarters of UNPACU and threatened that if they do not remove posters alluding to the date, there will be reprisals like those of last Friday where there was much violence.
Several activities are planned for the next hours. On the Island of Juventud, in Nueva Gerona, an event will be held at 2 pm.
In Mella there is also found a strong police operation even though there are no activities scheduled.
Translated by MLK
Note: This is and updated and expanded version of information reported in a previous article published earlier in the police operation.
14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 11 December 2014 — After reading the latest investigation published by the Associated Press involving Cuban musicians, I no longer have the least doubt that the AP is developing the most subtle and treacherous counterrevolutionary campaign of all time. Obviously I don’t have the documents that certify the identity of those who are financing this investigative journalistic project, but at least I know they are not doing it for free and that money must come from some fund.
The atmosphere related in their dispatches – government control over artistic creation, the circulation of information, and the ability of people to gather together – gives the impression that there is a police state in Cuba, where agreement is synonymous with conspiracy and where information is necessarily an arm in the hands of the enemy of the country.
In the latest link in the long chain of articles focused on this secret mission, the Cuban government is compared with that of Slobodan Milosevic and they do it with the ingenious recourse of matching the methods used to overthrow this disgraceful regime with the activities which, from within, are undertaken by some other discontented who, according to the AP, have similar objectives.
What I cannot understand is how the clever State Security agents and the talented members of the editorial board of Cubadebate don’t realize that they are playing into the game of this sophisticated smear campaign, surely generated at those American Intelligence sites that don’t even leave traces of their plans, as USAID and other entities have.
Soon we will see the effect of this work when, in front of television cameras, several Cuban artists will admit their panic, their willingness to betray and offer their expressions of regret. The worst is that the senior officials of State Security will be very pleased with these results, without suspecting that in some nameless office their worst enemies will be toasting to the success achieved.
How we are going to laugh when everything is declassified!
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 December 2014 — Six years ago Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone came through the front door to Cuba. This December, however, he has returned on a private visit which is evidence of the discrete recognition of failure. For the former Vatican Foreign Minister, the time between one stay and another has been filled with missteps. This is a man who returns in disgrace. Just like what has happened with the “Raul reforms” that he validated with his presence.
Cardinal Bertone has arrived on the Island to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but on this occasion, far from the cameras and the presidential palace. The man who helped to coordinate the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our country, has participated this week in the consecration in Santa Clara of a sanctuary to the Virgin of Charity del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.
Now, he prefers the ecclesiastical circles and has returned to the Cobre Sanctuary, where he said mass. The context today is very different from his previous stay, a few days after the installation of Raul Castro as president, which the prelate described as a “special, extraordinary moment.” In that February, he also asserted that the General “will continue (…) with a vision, if at all possible, of development.” However, the reality on display this December is stubbornly to the contrary.
The Cuba he is returning to is far from the hopes that some sheltered with the coming to power of Fidel Castro’s brother. Part of the Cuban population imagined the possibilities of an economic and political opening. However, the economic flexibilities ended up untying some knots only to tie others, and civil liberties never arrived.
Six years ago, Bertone said that he would have a conversation with “clarity, sincerity, an exchange,” with the new president, but the president seems not to have listened. The price paid by the former Vatican Foreign Minister for this family photo with the Government was high. While officialdom protected him, the most critical sector of the Catholic Church doesn’t look kindly on that embrace between the sickle and the cross. Excluding the dissidents from any possible dialog with the Cardinal, also signaled the bias of his point of view.
Accustomed to moving influences and cooking up agreements, the Vatican number two thought he could unstick the wheels of change. He met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who a few weeks later would be ousted and accused by Fidel Castro himself of having become addicted to “the honey of power.” Those faces that once welcomed him with smiles, today are no longer here or are in hiding.
Bertone, who was also the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office), came six years ago to teach at a conference in the Main Hall of the University of Havana. Even the newspaper Granma had something of the odor of incense in those days and published a communication from the Cuban bishops, in which they called on Raul Castro to take “transcendental measures” to satisfy the “anxieties and concerns expressed by Cubans.”
Bertone already saw his name in the history of Cuba. The mass that he celebrated in Havana Cathedral focused on the search for larger spaces for the Church within Cuba. In exchange for the ability to gain this space, he accepted all the concessions required. He adopted the official discourse against the “American blockade,” he didn’t meet with regime opponents, and he validated the flexibilizations offered by power as the path to the dreamed of country.
Today, Bertone is not who he was… nor is Cuba what he predicted. Said to have mismanaged influence, now separated from the epicenter of Vatican power, and touched by the scandal of the letters revealed by Benedict XVI’s butler, the man who has come to this Island is a shadow. But the Raul regime reforms are also shadows. Economic relaxations that haven’t managed, after more than five years since they began, to allow Cubans to live in dignity, nor have they provided larger spaces of freedom.
Chance or destiny – who knows? – this time the Bertone’s mass at El Cobre coincides with International Human Rights Day. A few kilometers from the sanctuary where he addressed the congregation, dozens of activists have been confined to their homes, threatened, and some of them have been arrested to prevent their participating in events planned to celebrate this date. The Cuba he did not want to see on his previous trip is knocking on the door with a call that combines desperation and reproach.
Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 10 December 2014 — The carnival was planned for days, months. The background music would slogans and false joy. The venue, the same Havana corner where the Ladies in White were called to remember the International Day of Human Rights. Meanwhile, the “corps de ballet” would consist of workers and students – taken from their workplaces and teachers – to occupy the site chosen by the activists. There would be no lack of food kiosks and some provincial towns added huge trucks dispensing beer because, in our case, instead of bread and circuses, the formula is alcohol and repression.
Then it was time for the parade. Around the Coppelia ice cream stand, in Havana, an unusual crowd of people dressed in civilian clothes caught the attention of some naïve bystanders who didn’t know if it was a line to buy an extinct product, or passionate movie buffs waiting for the Yara cinema to open. Moving their heads from side to said, like someone waiting for prey, they were wearing the clothes we all recognize as the attire of State Security when they want to go undercover, and displayed that physical state of over corpulence compared to the average Cuban. They weren’t dancing, like at carnivals, they just moved towards the women who came dressed in white and tried to shield with their bodies the act of forcing them into a police car. A macabre “corps de ballet” thus represented their choreography of reprimand.
And then the trumpet sounded, excuse me… the car horn. A small lady had managed to get to the left atrium of the heart of El Vedado. Dozens of faces turned and they spoke into the little cables hanging from their earphones. An agent, who for years infiltrated the ranks of independent journalists, unmasked without pain or glory, directed the orchestra. The loudspeakers blared previously recorded phrases, so there were no surprises nor spontaneity. The woman disappeared in seconds. The kids drank their soft drinks and Havana experienced one of the coldest days of the year. The spectacle continued for hours.
How many times as a child was I part of a carnival of repression without knowing it? What naive parties did I participate in that, in reality, were a cover for the horrors? Have those dances and street festivals also been a police operation? After this, it will be hard for me to ever enjoy a parade again.
TranslatingCuba.com note: Updates to this article made after what is translated below report more arrests, with more details from around the country.
14ymedio, Havana, 10 December 2014 — The central corner of 23 and L dawned on Wednesday amid expectation and the utmost vigilance. For days, the call of the Ladies in White to be in that part of the city to commemorate Human Rights Day led the Government to activate all its mechanisms to prevent it.
Last night national television announced a children’s activity at the Coppelia ice cream parlor—located on that corner—a common practice used by the authorities to neutralize congregations of dissident. So far it has been reported that twenty opponents have been detained trying to reach the site, among them are reportedly at least five Ladies in White.
A 14ymedio reporter, present at the site of these incidents, was able to confirm the arrests of several Ladies in White who began to arrive, separately, to the well-known corner. At the beginning there were only people dressed in plainclothes, the so-called “enraged people,” awaiting the activists.
However, as the time of the call to gather approached, several people in uniform arrived along with police cars. One of the women of the Ladies in White–a group that defends human rights–who was able to get to the corner was forced into a police car.
The security agent Carlos Serpa Maceira*, present at the site, threatened Luz Escobar, one of the reporters of this newspaper, who took pictures of the arrests. After a brief detention, this journalist has been released.
The foreign press was also present on the site and several activists have reported strong vigilance around their homes. The Patriotic Union of Cuba, in the east of the country, also reported a large police operation and Special Troops personnel in the villages of Mella and Palmarito de Cauto. In this latter place the Communist Party organized a “people’s party” dispensing beer to occupy the meeting points of dissidents in the area.
*Translator’s note: Serpa Maceira previously infiltrated the Ladies in White and acted as their spokesperson, before a “dramatic” unveiling on national television in which he was offered up as “proof” that the dissidents lie; this “proof” was based on the logic that, when he was masquerading as a dissident he lied and the foreign press believed him, ergo, the dissidents lie.
14ymedio, Havana, 9 December 2014 — On the afternoon of Tuesday, 9 December, Sonia Garro, Ramón Alejandro Muñoz and Eugenio Hernández were released from prison and are now in their respective homes. In a clear political gesture, Raul Castro’s government has given way before national and international pressure demanding the immediate release of the Lady in White, her husband and others charged in the same case.
In a telephone conversation with 14ymedio, Sonia Garro referred to health problems she has on leaving prison, and sent her thanks “to everyone who has supported me.” The Lady in White commented that she still doesn’t know the conditions of her new situation and that in the coming days she must report to the Sixth Police Station, in the Marianao municipality to learn more details.
The news was received a few hours before the worldwide commemoration of Human Rights Day, a date that Cuban activists remember with pilgrimages, meetings and street demonstrations. Every year the government unleashes a repressive wave around this time, which concludes with hundreds of detentions throughout the country, cuts in mobile phone service to block communications between dissidents, and a high number of house arrests.
For her part, Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, said that Garro and the other two activists received a change of custody conditions and as of today will not have to await trial in prison. This does not mean that the charges against them have been dropped or that their trials have been cancelled, she said. Soler also said that the movement she leads will continue to defend all those people who are political prisoners or prisoners of conscience. “We will maintain our morning demonstration on the corner of L and 23rd at eleven in the morning,” she concluded.
The detention of these three people had occurred during a demonstration by a group of Government supporters outside the home of Sonia Garro Alfonso and Ramón Alejandro Muñoz González in March of 2012. The Government sympathizers, supported by State Security agents, tried to block the couple from participating in events to mark the anniversary of the crackdown on dissent (the Black Spring) that began on March 18, 2003 and resulted in the imprisonment of 75 peaceful activists.
The prosecutors accused Garro, Muñoz and Hernández of public disorder and attempted murder. Sonia Garro Alfonso also faces the additional charge of assault for alleged use of violence or intimidation against an agent of the State. Her trial had been postponed without explanation on three occasions, in November 2013, June 2014, and the latest delay in October 2014.
Amnesty International has long called for the trial to be held in accordance with international standards. This would include “ensuring the right of the accused to call witnesses and to challenge the evidence against them.”
14ymedio, ORLANDO PALMA , Havana, 8 December 2014 — Far away from the television studios where they fabricate the triumphalist news, and from the air-conditioned offices where they try to plan the economy, the farmers are holding the evaluation meetings in their cooperatives, in anticipation of the 11th National Congress of Small Farmers (ANAP) to be held in May. A strong of restrictions and complaints unfolds in each one of these.
Expressed in the language of the official media, the ANAP members are currently analyzing the projections for their sector with a view to pushing economic efficiency and “reversing the outcomes of the production priorities to feed the people.” The president of ANAP, Rafael Santiesteban Pozo, has declared that the meetings will emphasize the introduction of science and technology in the cultivation of food, but the testimonies of several farmers point to other priorities.
So far only 48% of the planned meetings have been held and yet to meet are those that must be held at the municipal level, first, and then at the provincial level. But a common denominator is already taking shape in the issues raised. Among the most repeated is the concern generated by the delays in the delivery of resources to meet the agreed-upon commitments. The limited access to irrigation infrastructure and seeds, and the limitation on acquiring tractors are the main complaints.
The tobacco growers, for their part, complain about not receiving fertilizers in time, or that the framework to support the fabric covering the tobacco doesn’t have the required quality; the producers of roots and vegetables express their dissatisfaction with the lack of realism in the contract terms and in general the ANAP members don’t seem willing to shoulder the blame for the shortages or the fact that the market stands offer goods at unaffordable prices.
On the other side of the table, where the leaders sit, they insist on strengthening the management boards and work to overcome the cadres, plus the usual calls to order, discipline and demands. In this way, the functionaries’ formula for solving the serious problems in Cuban agriculture is presented in inverse order to that proposed by the men who work the land.
If these latter are essential for improving the State payments for the agricultural products, increasing the supply of inputs and lowering prices, in addition to expanding the autonomy of the farmers when it’s time to decide what they want to grow and the final destination of their crops. State leaders, for their part, are proposing to increase production at any price and they insist that only this will improve the conditions in the countryside.
We have here a deep conflict on the priorities, whether to first increase production, or to improve working conditions. What we do know is that a few months after the congress of the most important farmers’ organization in the whole country, the demands of the men in the furrows approaches the needs of a medieval country than they do of a twenty-first century economy.
14ymedio, VÍCTOR ARIEL GONZÁLEZ, Havana, 8 December 2014 – She turned 24 and spent that day with her few friends who still live in Cuba. She is known as a faithful exponent of a generation marked by uprooting and escape. She decided to not complete her social service so that she could devote her time to making handicrafts and, thanks to her perfect English and various contacts, she also offers guided excursions to tourists. “My degree in languages does not pay for itself,” Camila admits.
Seated in her backyard, she shares that this was where colleagues from her faculty, as well as classmates from prep school, used to come for gatherings. Camila’s yard was “the party place,” as recognized on an amusing handmade “diploma” that she keeps in a frame on her wall. There are still some festivities held there, except that now these have been occurring less frequently because “everyone has been taking their own path…you know.”
I do know. And the gesture Camila makes with her hand, like an airplane taking off, confirms this. To prove her point, she adds, “Have you ever counted how many contacts you’ve had to remove from your contacts on your phone?” and then goes on to recount how, on her birthday, more people called her from foreign countries than from Cuba.
Camila tries to make light of this fact, perhaps without meaning to do so, with a subversive smile. However, she cannot mask the subtle aroma of yearning released by her words. Today she has friends in Europe, Asia and even Australia – but the US is her “second Island” because more than half of her absent friends are now residing there. She has had to update their phone numbers on her contacts.
Even so, the new area codes in Camila’s contacts are in contrast to the old photos that appear on her mobile phone screen. She doesn’t want to forget that they were taken here, when her friends were still living in Cuba and there weren’t so many calls as visits and well-attended gatherings – be they “to study for a test or to have a drink, or both.” Camila’s vision of the present for young people like us can be summed up thus: “Our generation is mortgaged. It is going to take many years for us to pay this spiritual debt – if indeed we still can.”
Her phrase, which I stole, is so impactful, that any other word is just unnecessary. “And who do you think,” I later ask Camila, “might join the list of those who call you from outside Cuba on your next birthday?” She raises her eyebrows and laughs, saying, “The way I see things, and if everything goes according to plan, perhaps I will be the one to call from outside Cuba on my next birthday, so that those whom I’ve left behind can give me their good wishes. The most likely thing is that you will have to change my number on your contacts.”
14ymedio, LILIANNE RUIZ, 7 December 2014 — Writer and journalist Angel Santiesteban continues to be detained, since August, in a border guard military unit located on Primera Street in Miramar. His jailers have announced to him this week that he may be transferred to a location yet to be identified.
The hut where Santiesteban has been incarcerated these months overlooks the street, just opposite the security checkpoint. It measures four by four meters. The prisoner cannot walk, stretch his legs, get sun or interact with other detainees. They only let him out once a week to use the phone and every twenty-one days to receive a two-hour family visit.
Santiesteban is thinner and paler. He relates that last weekend he began a hunger strike to demand better conditions like having the right to get sun, walk and run on the ground as is his custom, to have free access to the telephone like the other prisoners, and to receive visits every 15 days. “After an upset stomach, I refused to take oral rehydration salts and I stopped ingesting food in protest of my conditions of confinement,” he reports.
The writer explains that then two State Security officers told him that they would transmit his claim to the command and give him an answer within a week. They told him that “he has done much damage to the Revolution and that if he had accepted the offer they had made him last August his situation would be different.”
Santiesteban explains that in that month, when he was transferred to the border guard unit, officials from State Security proposed freedom to him in exchange for his leaving the country, which he roundly refused.
Wednesday he dropped the hunger strike pending an answer to his demands. Next April he should be released on parole if the authorities comply with the law which calls for release after the completion of half the sentence. Santiesteban also awaits the response from the Ministry of Justice which accepted the appeal of his case indicating that it admits that irregularities were committed in the trial held against him.
14YMEDIO, Havana, 7 December 2014 — The women’s group Women for Democracy has been subject this Sunday to a broad repressive operation in Santiago de Cuba. While they were heading to the church of San Juan Bosco, 28 women from that movement were arrested or prevented from participating in Sunday mass, according to a report by their leader Belkis Cantillo.
The activist, in a telephone conversation with 14ymedio, explained that the political police were waiting for them at “las Alturas de El Cristo,” and the women were forced into several cars to be freed later at locations distant from their homes and the church where they were going.
“Some were left in sugar cane plantations or in the middle of the highway,” Cantillos also told this daily. “They were subjected to quite a bit of verbal and physical violence,” says the woman who, since last September, has led one of the most important dissident women organizations in the country.
Throughout the national territory other activists have complained about an increase in police operations and surveillance around their headquarters or homes. The reason could be the Monday morning start of the 5th CARICOM-Cuba Summit which will be held in the capitals’ Palace of the Revolution.
It is a common practice of State Security to resort to house arrests and detentions during events that involve foreign guests.
14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 6 December 2014 — Establishing the rules of a sport takes time. Let’s take for example baseball, one of the most complicated games that exists; one could ask where the rules for its practice come from, and why some are so convoluted. But when it comes to regulatory whim, let’s go to an activity that increasingly approaches the category of extreme sport, and that is the entry of products into Cuba trying to pass through the controls of the Republic’s General Customs (AGR).
Much curiosity is awakened by the heap of prohibitions, conditions and loopholes that regulate the arrival of luggage and packages to the Island. There are so many questions that the official press devotes a lot of space to explaining how the still-confusing system functions. But more than confusing, annoying, because it affects the way in which Cubans cope with their shortages, while also feeding a bulky staff of officials.
This Thursday the official daily Juventud Rebelde devoted a whole page to detailing, for the umpteenth time, how the mechanism works. With the title of The Other Package – a clear allusion to the demonized “weekly package*” – the text delves into the issues that it considers most important for public awareness in regards to international parcels.
For that it cites, for example, Law Decree 22, where it is provided that the total value of shipments may not exceed 200 CUP (Cuban pesos — roughly $8 US); and Resolution 208 from 2014 whose provisions establish that the import value of one kilo of miscellaneous items equals 20 pesos, so up to 10 kilograms of miscellaneous items can be imported via shipping, with the first 30 CUP (1.5 kilos) being duty free.
Until that point let’s say everything is clear. The complications come when the shipment is made of up “miscellaneous items” and “durable” goods like appliances or tires. In such case, “the sum of both values must not exceed the import limit legally established (…) because all that exceeds that figure will be confiscated after the person chooses the articles that he wants to prioritize.”
This is only the first complication of a thick tangle, because there are also sender-receiver considerations. A Cuban resident on the Island who finds himself on a trip, for example, will not be able to send to himself a package on return to his country. The condition would be that the delivery be classified as “household goods,” and not everyone in the world has this right. Who does? The bulky manual of the AGR offers an imaginative response.
Also, the number of entries into the country determines the quantity of products that can be brought in luggage, and this will affect also the ability to receive packages. In sum, a newspaper page is not enough to explain all that one needs to know when not knowing it could mean that they won’t let your soap or coffee pass through.
In a country where the government lives to complain about external harassment, the citizens live under the harassment of the authorities. Any effort to supply the informal market or even the family economy in an independent way can be considered illegal, without it mattering that said activity serves to remedy the shortages somewhat.
In the capital there are three delivery points for packages. The others are in Holguin, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero. Since there is no courier service, those who live distant from these warehouses are obliged to make inter-provincial trips. More complications, more work, more bother.
The directives of the AGR recognize that the existing installations are insufficient, and they resort to the now usual promise that “we will continue to expand service.”
If there is an excess of luggage or the package is too big – very easy to achieve given the strict margin established – then comes the expropriation, a point that has been avoided by official investigations.
When 14ymedio contacted the AGR asking about the matter, it reported the confiscated articles wind up at the Ministry of Interior Commerce (MINCIN), “so that they can be distributed to the Ministry of Health and Education and others.”
Nevertheless it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find in a hospital or school a flat screen television, a bottle of L’Oral cream or other products that are commonly confiscated on arrival into the country.
For its part, at the MINCIN, specifically the “office of attention to the people,” the operator does not know where to direct the question. “This is the first time that someone has called asking what happens to what Customs confiscates.”
One suspects that corruption within the AGR is rampant. After all, the popular wisdom says that in Cuba everyone has a need, so everyone has a price.
It is evident that travelers insist on tricking customs controls, and it is highly likely that they will keep trying. The contraband, another non-institutionalized sport, challenges the imagination, even that of those charged with writing the customs laws.
*Translator’s note: The so-called “weekly package” is a collection of videos and other materials, ranging from news articles to computer games, that circulates hand-to-hand in the ‘grey market’ as an alternative to the very limited official TV and radio programming and other Party-owned media.
14ymedio, Mexico, 5 December 2014 — The meeting Roads for a Democratic Cuba, held in Mexico, closed Thursday with a joint statement signed by the attendees and focused on the consensus points necessary for beginning a democratic transition on the Island.
We reproduce here the entire text of that statement:
We, representatives of diverse organizations and activists of Cuban civil society from the Island and the Diaspora, meeting in Mexico City under the auspices of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Christian Democratic Organization of America, have had the opportunity to concur on matters of common interest which we reflect below:
The urgent need for Cuba to move to democracy
The shared calling that this transition occur peacefully
The respect for diversity of non-violent methods of fighting
Understanding that it is up to Cubans to carry out actions that lead to solving the problems of Cuba, taking into account the role of those who live on the Island and the indispensable support that the Diaspora can and should offer.
How beneficial it would be for the entities of civil society, political actors, governments and international organizations from all over the world to offer greater solidarity in defense of human rights in Cuba.
It is identified as one of the main challenges to work in search of projects for unity of action and strategies for change. Similarly, it is agreed to salute the existence of different projects with these features aimed at achieving a Cuban democracy.
Recognizing the absence from this event of activists whom the Government did not permit to leave the country and others who for various reasons were not present.
Signed December 4, 2014.
Eliecer Avila: We Are More
Yaxys Cires Dib: Christian Democratic Party of Cuba
Manuel Cuesta Morua: Progressive Arc
Reinaldo Escobar: Journalist
Guillermo Farinas Hernandez: Patriotic Union of Cuba and Anti-totalitarian United Front
Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez: Orlando Zapata Tamayo National Resistance Front
Rene Gomez Manzano: Agramontista Current, UNPACU
Eroises Gonzalez Suarez: Liberal Cuban Solidarity Party
Andres Hernandez Amor: Christian Democratic Party of Cuba
Rene Hernandez Bequet: Christian Democratic Party of Cuba
Rafael Leon Rodriguez: Cuban Democratic Project
Omar Lopez Montenegro: Latin American Center for Non-violence
German Miret: Human rights activist
Armando Pena Guzman: Christian Liberation Movement
Marfeli Perez-Estable: Academic
Julio Pichs: National Cuban American Foundation, Cuban Consensus
Vladimiro Roca Antunez: Social Democratic Party of Cuba
Our team had a conversation with the New York Times journalist who has authored the editorials about Cuba.
14ymedio, 1 December 2014 — Ernesto Londoño, who authored six editorials on Cuba published recently by the New York Times engaged in a friendly conversation on Saturday with a part of the 14ymedio team, in the hotel where he is staying in Havana.
Our intention was to interview him, but he told us the rules of his media prohibit his giving interviews without previous consultation. He also declined our proposal to take photos. Instead, he was eager to listen to our opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There were two hours of conversation dedicated to refining, enriching and debating the controversial ideas that the newspaper has addresses in his editorials.
The following is a brief synthesis of what was said there, arranged by topics and ascribed to the author of each opinion.
Yoani Sánchez: Cubans are going to need a great deal of information to avoid falling into the hands of another authoritarianism. In 14ymedio we are including a plurality of voices, for example on the issue of the embargo. We leave it to the reader to form his own opinion from a variety of information.
Reinaldo Escobar: The official Cuban press, which is all the press, there are no public media, they are private property of the Communist Party. Now, has there been a change? Yes, there has been a change. Since a few years ago the newspaper Granma has had a weekly section with letters by readers where you find criticism of bureaucrats, things that don’t work or prices at the markets. But look, the emphasis is on the self-employed markets.
So far I have not read a profound criticism of the prices at the convertible peso markets that the Government has, which are abusive. Nor can you talk about the legitimacy of our rulers or the impracticality of the system. Here are two big taboos, and in the third place, the topic of political repression. If they report on a repudiation rally, they show it as something spontaneous on the part of the people, without telling how the political police were behind it, organizing it all.
Miriam Celaya: There are changes indeed. The problem is that there are real and nominal changes, and these changes are generally nominal. Now everyone in Cuba can legally stay in a hotel, which before was forbidden. They never explained why it was forbidden before. But Cubans cannot really afford the luxury of a hotel stay, with wages being what they are; nor can they buy a car, a house, or travel. The problem with the reforms is that they are unrealistic for the vast majority of Cubans. They are a government investment in order to buy time.
There are two of those reforms that are particularly harmful and discriminatory for Cubans. One is the foreign investment law, which is explicitly for foreign investors and it does not allow Cubans to invest; and the other is a new Labor Code which does not acknowledge autonomy, the right to strike, and which spells out explicitly that Cuban workers cannot freely enter into contracts with potential companies investing in Cuba, which constitutes a restraint and a brake.
Víctor Ariel González: Yes, things are changing, but we ask ourselves if really those changes offer a brighter horizon and why people keep leaving, even more are going than before.
More Apathetic Youth?
Miriam Celaya: It is a backlash against ideological saturation, a submissiveness which conditioned almost every act of your life to obedience, to political subordination, whether picking a university career, a job or an appliance, anything. Everything was a slogan, everything a roadblock. This has subsided somewhat, but previously, it was impossible to take a step without hearing “Motherland or death, we will triumph” and go, go… The investigations they undertook to see if you belonged to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution… the youth of today have not experienced that bombardment of “the enemy that harasses us.” I did not bring up my kids in that, on the contrary, I tried to detoxify them. So this generation, the children of the parents of disenchantment, grew up devoid of that and are at a more pragmatic level, even at a marketing one, whose greatest dream is to leave the country.
Eliécer Ávila: The law governing the leasing (in usufruct) of lands for farmers to work them was the basis of a plan for increasing food production and lowering prices — so that the average salary for a day’s work might be more than just three plantains.
I come from the banana plantations of El Yarey de Vázquez, in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas. The nation’s food supply is the most critical element in our collective anger. In January of last year, a pound of onions cost 8 Cuban pesos (CUPs). Later, between March and April, the price rose to 15. In May it increased to 25 CUPs and now, the onion has disappeared from low-income neighborhoods. It can only be found in certain districts such as Miramar, at five convertible pesos (CUCs) for 10 onions — more expensive than in Paris — while the monthly Cuban salary still averages under 20 CUCs per month).
I know very few farmers who even own a bicycle. However, any young person who joins up with the Ministry of State Security is in no time riding around on a Suzuki motorcycle.
Yoani Sánchez: When talking about the end of the embargo, there is talk of a step that the White House must take, and for me I don’t care for the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the White House. It hurts my Cuban pride, to say that the plans for my future, for my childrens’ future, and for the publication of 14ymedio depend on what Obama does. I am concentrating on what is going to happen in the Plaza of the Revolution and what civil society here is going to do. So for me I don’t want to bet on the end of the embargo as the solution. I want to see when we will have freedom of expression, freedom of association and when they will remove the straitjacket from economic freedom in this country.
Miriam Celaya: The reasons for the establishment of the embargo are still in effect, which were the nationalizing of American companies in Cuba without proper compensation. That this policy, in the limelight for such a long time, has subsequently become a tug of war is another thing. But those of us with gray hair can remember that in the 70’s and 80’s we were under the Soviet protectorate. Because we talk a lot about sovereignty, but Cuba has never been sovereign. Back then, Soviet subsidies were huge and we hardly talked about the embargo. It was rarely mentioned, maybe on an anniversary. Fidel Castro used to publicly mock the embargo in all forums.
Reinaldo Escobar: They promised me that we were going to have a bright future in spite of the blockade and that was due among other things to the fact that the nation had recovered their riches, confiscating them from the Americans. So what was going to bring that future was what delayed it.
Miriam Celaya: The issue remains a wildcard for the Cuban government, which, if it has such tantrums about it, it’s because it desperately needs for it to be lifted, especially with regards to the issue of foreign investments. I am anti-embargo in principle, but I can see that ending it unilaterally and unconditionally carries with it greater risks than the benefits it will supposedly provide.
Victor Ariel Gonzalez: The official justification says that as we are a blockaded country so we have the Gag Law. Because we are under siege and “in the besieged square, dissidence is treason.” There are those who believe that if the embargo is lifted that justification would end. But you have to say that this system has been very effective in finishing off the mechanisms for publicly analyzing the embargo, it has killed off independent institutions.
Then, how will people be able to channel discontent and non-conformity with the continued repression the day after the lifting of the embargo?
Reinaldo Escobar: They will have another argument for keeping repression when the embargo is lifted. Write it down, because “this will be the test” as they say around here: “Now that the Americans have the chance to enter Cuba with greater freedom, now that they can buy businesses and the embargo is over, now we do have to take care of the Revolution.” That will be the argument.
Yoani Sánchez: In this country people are very afraid. Including not knowing they’re afraid, because they have lived with it for so long they don’t know that this is called “fear.” Fear of betrayal, of being informed on, of not being able to leave the country, of being denied a promotion to a better job, not being able to board a plane, that a child won’t be allowed to go to the university, because “the university is for Revolutionaries.” The fears are so many and so vast that Cubans today have fear in their DNA.
Eliécer Ávila: We also need to understand how Cubans make their living. Ninety percent of Cubans do not work where their calling or vocation would take them, but rather where they can survive and make do. In this country, to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences is truly to be the idiot of the family. This is the same guy who can’t throw a quinceañera party for his daughter, who can’t take his family out to dinner at a restaurant. The successful person in this society is the manager of a State-owned cafeteria. This is because he controls the supplies of chicken, oil, rice, etc. and sells the surplus on the black market — which is really how he makes his living. The fundamental tactic to create social immobility in this country is [for the State] to make as many people as possible feel guilty about something.
Eliécer Ávila: People think that because there is now self-employment in this country, that there is a way to be more independent of the State — which is true up to a point. But the question is, how does a self-employed business person survive? I had to leave my ice cream business. After having received my degree in information technology, I was sent to the interior as a sort of punishment for having an incident with Ricardo Alarcón, who at that time was the President of the National Assembly. It was a turning point for me as I tried to become one of the first self-employed people in my town. I had a 1967 German ice cream maker. The process requires 11 products — including coagulant, which someone had to steal from the ice cream factory. Or rather, I should say, “recover,” because in this country we do not call that kind of thing “stealing.” The milk had to be taken from the daycare center, or from the hospital, so that it could be sold to me. The point is, there simply is no other way.
All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing are sustained by illegality.
Yoani Sánchez: … Or in the capital that comes clandestinely from abroad, especially from the exile. There are restaurants in Havana that could be in New York or Berlin, but those have received foreign money or are engaging in “money laundering” from the corruption and from the highest leadership itself.
Eliécer Ávila: Many of these businesses are created so that government officials can place their children, grandchildren and friends in them, people who are no longer interested in the creation of the “New Man” nor in achieving a communist society. Rather, they want to launder their money and insert themselves in society like any other person.
I do not know a single communist worker in Cuba who has been able to launch a business. Those committed Revolutionaries, who gave their all, are today the people who don’t have onions in their kitchens.
Yoani Sánchez: Self-employment has been presented as one of the major indicators of the “reforms” or the Raul regime changes. But on the issue of self-employment many things are not considered: they have no access to a wholesale market, they can’t import raw material nor directly export their products. Thus, the annoyance all Cubans have with the customs restrictions that went into effect in September. The Government justifies is saying that “every country has this kind of legislation,” but in those countries there are laws for commercial imports.
Miriam Celaya: They made a special regulation for foreign investors, so they can import, but not for Cubans.
Yoani Sanchez: Another issue that greatly affects the economy is the lack of Internet connection. We’re not just talking about freedom of expression and information or being able to read 14ymedio within Cuba, but that our economy is set back more and more by people not having access to the Internet.
Luzbely Escobar: It’s not only that: Self-employment is authorized only for selling or producing, but the professionals cannot join that sector with their abilities. You cannot be a self-employed lawyer, architect or journalist.
Miriam Celaya: A large administrative body was created to control the self-employed and it is full of corrupt individuals, who are always hovering over these workers to exploit them and relieve them of their gains. Some tell me that there are fixed fees for inspector bribes. Here, even corruption is institutionalized and rated.
Eliécer Ávila: In this country, for everyone who wants to lift his head towards progress, there are ten who want to behead him. There is much talk of “eliminating the middleman.” However, the great middleman is the State itself, which, for example, buys a pound of black beans from the farmer for 1.80 CUPs, then turns around and sells that pound for 12 CUPs at a minimum.
The New York Times Editorials
Eliécer Ávila: It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what we need as a nation.
Miriam Celaya: I have an idea. Rather than making gestures about the release of Alan Gross, rather than making gestures about making the embargo more flexible, I think that the strongest and clearest gesture that the Cuban government could make would be to liberate public opinion, liberate the circulation of ideas. Citizens should manifest themselves; this is something that is not happening here.
Reinaldo Escobar: Without freedom there is no citizen participation.
Miriam Celaya: What is going on with these editorials? They are still giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government. Cuba’s government today is a small group of old men, and when I say “old” it’s because of their way of thinking, of individuals who have remained anchored in discourse rooted in a cold war and belligerence. The Cuban people are not represented in that government.
Yoani Sánchez: I read editorials when they came out but last night went back to read them more calmly. The first editorial is perhaps the most fortunate, because it achieves a balance between one side and the other, but there are some that I think are really pitiful. Such as the one about the “brain drain” because these medical professionals are living a drama in this country that is not recognized in these texts.
First, I am against the concept of the theft of, or brain drain, because it accepts that your brain belongs to someone, to the nation, to the educational structure, or to whoever taught you. I think everyone should decide what to do with his or her own brain.
That editorial gives no space to the economic tragedy experienced by these professionals in Cuba. I know surgeons who may be among the best in their specialty in Latin America and they can’t cross their legs because people would be able to see the holes in their shoes, or they have to operate without breakfast because they can’t afford breakfast.
Miriam Celaya: There is something in that editorial that cuts and offends me, and it’s that slight of condescension, for instance, in this quote: “Havana could pay its workers more generously abroad if the medical brigades continue to represent an important source of income”… But, gentlemen! To do so is to accept the slavery of those doctors. It is to legitimize the implied right of a government to use its medical personnel as slaves for hire. How can that be?
Yoani Sánchez: With regards to these medical missions, I must say that the human character, no one can question it, when it comes to saving lives. But there has to be a political side and that is that these people are used as a kind of medical diplomacy, to gain followers, and because of this many countries vote at the United Nations on behalf of the Government of Cuba, which has practically hijacked many countries because they have Cuban doctors in their territories. It becomes an element of political patronage.
Another aspect is the economic, which is pushing doctors to leave because they can see the appeal of having a better salary, they can import appliances, pots for their home, a computer. Also, every month their bank account gets a deposit of convertible pesos, which they only get to keep if they return to Cuba and don’t desert from the mission. From a labor and ethical point of view it is very questionable.
Another issue is the negative impact it has on the Cuban healthcare system.
Luzbely Escobar: You go to a clinic and it is closed, or of the three doctors on duty, only one is there because the other two are in Venezuela, and then there is total chaos.
Miriam Celaya: In these editorials, I have read “Cuba” instead of “the Cuban government,” and I have read that the members of “the dissidence” were considered “charlatans.” These definitions, in addition to being disrespectful, put everyone in the same bag. Here, as everywhere else, society is complex, and, while it’s true that there are charlatans among the opposition – and among the government too — there are a lot of honest people who are working very faithfully for a better Cuba, with the greatest sacrifice and risk.
When they demonize it, then it seems that they are speaking the government’s language, as if they had written this in a room of the Party Central Committee and not in a newsroom of a country in the free world. Such epithets, coming from prestigious media, end up creating opinion. That’s a big responsibility.
Yoani Sánchez: In this country the nation has been confused with the government, the homeland with a party, and the country with a man. Then this man, this party and this government have taken the right to decide on behalf of everyone, whether it’s about growing a tomato or a cachucha pepper, or what ideological line the whole nation is going to follow.
As a consequence, those of us who have ideas different from those of that party, that government, and that man in power, are declared to be “stateless” or “anti-Cuban” and charged with wanting to align ourselves with a foreign power. It is as if now, that the Democratic party is governing the United States, all Republicans were declared to be anti-American. This is, like all the countries in the world, plural. If you walk down the street you are going to meet every kind of person: anarchist, liberal, social democrat, Christian democrat and even annexationist. Why can’t this so plural discourse be expressed in a legal way? And why do people like us have to be excluded from speaking and offering opinions?
Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MLK, MJ Porter and Norma Whiting
14ymedio, Luzbely Escobar, Havana, 5 December 2014 – Although its organizers deny it, La Tendedera (The Clothesline) is trying to emulate Facebook inside Cuba. The competition is tough because among the youngest on the Island Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has many followers. More than a year after its creation, its tropical competition has only managed to attract 4,500 users, and there are no clear figures on how many are really active.
In an interview published Wednesday by the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), Kirenia Fagundo, leader of the project Cuba Va (Cuba Goes), which includes La Tendedera, tells readers about the obstacles and challenges facing the digital site. At the beginning, the social network was designed for those without access to the Internet, the young woman explained. However, currently it is only possible to access it from the Youth Computer Clubs, which inhibits its expansion and is an inconvenience for users.
Presented to the public on 7 September of last year, La Tendedera isn’t hosted at the Cuba Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) national data center, which “would facilitate connectivity through the intranet.” The programmers didn’t want to wait for it to be ready and opened public access to those attending the Youth Clubs. A mistake that has been detrimental to the quality and expansion of the service.
The slowness at which the website loads is one of the problems most mentioned by La Tendera’s users. The platform is way too heavy for the low speed Cuban networks. Although, according to Fagundo, it’s hoped that a lighter version will be hosted on the ETECSA servers and finally be accessible from the national intranet.
On inquiring among several users, what comes to light is not only the speed and the access restrictions which conspire against this tropical emulation of Facebook. The most widespread criticism, not reported by the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, is the impossibility of interacting with users beyond our national borders. You can only connect with other domestic users who have registered on the service. “If I travel outside the country I can’t update my profile, because you can only access it inside Cuba,” says Julian Casanovas, a high school student.
The announcement a few weeks ago, that Youth Club will begin to charge for its services, has been a new obstacle for La Tendedera, although the majority of these sites still having implemented the charge. “If only a few people come here now, imagine when you have to pay to do it,” says the administrator of one of the sites in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality, who asked to remain anonymous.
La Tendedera’s creators don’t appear to have learned the lesson. Despite the great limitations imposed by the Cuban networks’ slow speeds and lack of connectivity, they are planning to create a national version of Twitter, provisionally called Pitazo (Whistle). Will this new project also languish before the indifference of users and the competition from the large social networks? The answer can already be anticipated. Cuban users don’t seem disposed to put up with limitations.