The beginning of the end of the Castro regime / 14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenechea

Anti-imperialist black flags in front of the United States Interest Sections in Havana
Anti-imperialist black flags in front of the United States Interest Sections in Havana

14ymedio, JOSÉ GABRIEL BARRENECHEA, Havana, 20 December 2014 – We Cubans continue to be as impressionable as ever. Thus, on the island, the masses seem to see the release of the three spies who were still in US prisons, and nothing else. Many opponents and exiles, for their part, only seem to see this bias among the great majority within Cuba. As a consequence, they immediately assume that Obama’s decision will only serve to strengthen the Castro regime.

What will remain three months from this melodrama that Cuban media officials have emphasized as focused on the three spies? Nothing, because among other things it has unfortunately revealed that los muchachones – the “big boys” – who some thought could become a part of the elite to replace the historic leaders, have no expressiveness, no people skills. They lack charisma to the point that the colorless Miguel Diaz-Canel – First Vice President of the Council of State – gives the impression of being a total politician along with the rest of them. continue reading

On the other hand, we must not overestimate the reaction of the masses. There was no more than an apathetic joy after the General President’s speech. Not even a spontaneous conga line, nor demonstrations like those of prior years when American monopolies were nationalized.

Only a few isolated acts whose protagonists have never made into to the core of public officials, members of the Party or the Communist Youth, or the usual snitches who we know flood the spaces where people tend to congregate.

Personally, at that moment I was in Santa Clara’s Vidal Park. I noted the disinterest, and the only concern on the faces of some young people appeared when they heard me predict that the Cuban Adjustment Act wasn’t long for this world.

Within three months, if in fact diplomatic relations are reestablished with the United States, there will be a functioning embassy, and most of all, every presidential measure from Obama to facilitate the flow of people, finances, goods and information. The Castro regime is one of confrontation, of segregated sterility. They only have three options: change the world, isolate themselves from it, or inexorably disappear. Their end will be:

1 – The hundreds of thousands of American tourists who can’t handle the hotels operated by the warlords and who, unlike the Canadians or Europeans, don’t mince words and don’t accept any restrictions on their basic freedoms to go where they want and meet with anyone they want.

2 – The money will rain down, and not to the dissidents but to the most effective sector of democratization: the thousands of small and minuscule businesses that will spring up left and right and that, ultimately, can’t help but clash with the “Raul stuff.”

3 – The unstoppable jet of information that will stream toward the opposition to an element much less suspicious of other spurious interests, and at the same time more educated and flexible, ideal for the times to come when, what we need will not heroes of the resistance but politicians.

4 – The almost certain abandonment of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which will deprive the regime of a convenient escape valve to lower the internal pressure at the difficult moment of the transfer of power from Raul to the colorless man he chose to replace him.

5 – The moral strengthening of the Church for having played a key role in this process, in the person of Pope Francis, who hopefully will not delay in visiting Cuba. An institution that has been upright against the dictatorship, even though some who never have been don’t find it convenient to admit it.

Although almost nobody wants to, or can, see it, in the midst of the current turmoil, the long night of the Castro regime is coming to an end. That is why Fidel Castro, to whom the details do not lie and indeed, he sees the essential, has remained, or they have made him remain, silent.

As in April of 1898, or in March of 1958*, the Americans have returned to do their part. Something that, unfortunately, they have almost never done, engaged in village style and prepotent foreign policies.

Perhaps thanks to this gesture, our two peoples, separated by barely 90 miles, are finally beginning to behave no longer like adolescent brothers, full of jealousy and small family resentments. And I speak now of a time beyond the Castro regime in retreat, when Cuba can join as one in the battles that loom over our –western – civilization.

*Translator’s note: In March 1958 the United States stopped shipping arms to Batista’s government, after Batista refused to end his suspension of constitutional guarantees and censorship of the press.

“Things are not going to change overnight” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

University of Havana (14ymedio)
University of Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 20 December 2014 — “Now when they lift the blockade …” a student says jokingly to his friends sitting in Mella Park at the University of Havana. His sentence ends mentioning some a problem that has been solved, supposedly, by the foreseeable end to the US embargo on Cuba. The group laughs and continues talking about the next party of the Law School or the salary a computer engineer earns at a company like Google.

Sitting on a bench to the side and eavesdropping on the conversation doesn’t feel quite right, but it is, perhaps, the only way to capture accurately what the University feels about the latest news. Actually, few agreed to answer questions for this report, and one group of young people apologized with, “They’ve already been asking us a lot of questions today, the foreign press has been around all day.” On presenting myself as a reporter, one of them got up to leave. So it’s impossible to get a face or a statement, even though two or three loners are disposed – always in confidence and hurriedly – to offer their particular vision. continue reading

Alberto, sitting on the side of the grand staircase waiting for his classes to begin, is one. “We have to see if everything is not just words, but I’d give it a greater than 50 percent chance that things are going to go well.” He is still wary, however, both of the changes to come and of my identify, so he doesn’t even want to say what department he’s in.

A recently graduated professor is less concise. “Everyone’s talking now about the approaches [between the governments].” And this seems to be true, because near us three or four students are talking about it. She confesses, “I believe that the reestablishment of relations is more important than the return of the prisoners. At the end of the day, it’s what was expected. And of course it has much more influence on what will happen from now on.” She is also more positive than pessimistic about the future.

Beyond University Hill, toward one end of the city, is the José Antonio Echeverría Polytechnic Institute (CUJAE), the university for engineers. Its students were less timid about offering their opinions for this report, and in general were much more excited about the important statements of Wednesday.

The first response of three of them, Telecommunications Engineering students, about what to expect from the Cuba-US rapprochement, touched on the improvement in connectivity. “Imagine, in our career,” they commented. “We hope that very soon we have more opportunities to access the Internet and that there will be more advances in this. Even the professors have talked about everything it [the announcement] could mean. It’s going to be good.”

In the faculty of Civil Engineering, a young professor at the Hydraulic Research Center (CIH) says he also has faith. “When I got the news via SMS, before the announcement midday on Wednesday, I did not want to believe it. And Obama’s speech… it didn’t match the summaries on Telesur and I heard it again that night. I thought the translation was bad, but it’s true. It’s wonderful.”

Referring to the perspectives of his specialty in this new environment, he notes that, “The rapprochement could facilitate our use of the CIH equipment, which is in a pretty bad state. Right now, for example, we can’t test with the wave simulator.” However, the interviewee said that “things are not going to change overnight.”

A little more than two days ago the nation suffered a political shakeup, and Friday was the last day of classes for the year for many university students, who start their Christmas vacations next week. The year 2015 is a great unknown for some; but unlike other times the answer, whatever it is, seems to be really close. In a few words: the university students don’t know what to expect, but they are filled with expectations.

“This is going to get good” / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

University of Havana (Romtomtom / Flickr)
University of Havana (Romtomtom / Flickr)

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 19 December 2014 – The semester is ending at the University of Havana, a time when everything shuts down until the middle of January. But this year is different. Expectation runs through the corridors and the central plaza on University Hill, and the high attendance, on days close to Christmas, is surprising. Many have come to school these days just to talk with their colleagues about the great news: the announcement of the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.

In the humanities departments the debate is greater. “A couple of weeks ago we held a conference about the dangers of American interference… and now this,” says a young sophomore studying sociology, who adds, “I never thought this moment would come so soon.” He has just turned twenty and, when he says “soon,” he is speaking in relation to his own life. For others, the dispute between the two countries has lasted for an eternity. continue reading

In one of the rooms where some are using their “machine time” to check their email, a young woman complains to a friend. “My inbox is full from people asking me how things are over here.” She is quiet for a moment, realizing I’m listening, but then she continues. “How will things be? The same as always,” she concludes resolutely.

Below the Mathematics Department, in the so-called “park of the pig-headed,” the controversy sinks its roots deeper, given the privacy of the place. But it’s enough to ask a group of young people sitting on a bench if they’ve seen any American students around, for them to bring out the jokes and their thoughts. “No, I haven’t seen any today, but the way things are going we might see a lot of them pretty soon,” spits a girl wearing an iPod and Converse sneakers.

The others continue with jokes. They mock Martí’s verses about his life in the United States, “I lived in the monster and I know its entrails.” In a chorus they convert the phrase to, “I lived in the monster, how I miss it!” [a play on words in Spanish]. “If you see some yumas [a term for Americans that is softer than “gringos”] around here, let me know right away, I’ll be in the Great Hall,” they promise, cackling.

The university remains one of the schools with the greatest ideological control. From the departments located on Colina Hill, the students often leave to participate in acts of repudiation against the Ladies in White headquarters, a short distance from there. Tania, who came to find out if there would soon be some open doors so that she can familiarize herself with the site, believes that it will be her turn to climb the steps “in a new era.”

When asked how she knows this, she exclaims, surprised, “But didn’t you hear Raúl? The thing with the Americans is over. It’s over!” It’s surprising that everyone here seems to be so well aware of it. Especially if you take into account that people this age are the greatest consumers of the audiovisual materials of the so-called “packet.” They watch little television and even make fun of those who still stay home to watch “the Saturday movies” on the national programming. However, everyone says they saw Raúl Castro’s speech.

The classrooms are nearly empty. Exams are over and just a few remain preparing for special meetings. On the wall there are still some old announcements for activities of the University Student Federation (FEU), along with a photo of the five spies who have already “returned to the homeland.” The expectations raised by some of the relaxations announced by Obama are high. “I’m very interested in studying on a scholarship in the United States, if all that is easier now then at least I can try for it,” says a girl who enrolled in the Law School just three months ago.

Everyone seems well adapted to the idea of the new policy change. If you look closely, there’s not much to distinguish them from young people at a university in Los Angeles or Florida. They dress fashionably, some have a tablet or laptop where they read or write, and their frame of reference seems much broader than that of their parents’ generation. “What I want to see starting to come here are videogame championships…” says one with a gleam in his eyes. Everyone agrees that among the most important announcements made on 17 December is the one having to do with telecommunications and connectivity on the island.

“Internet, now comes the internet,” says a young woman looking at the scant menu offerings in the university cafeteria. And so she remains in her reverie, filling her head with the kilobytes that “Obama is going to send over” and a bold prediction: “This is going to get good, you’ll see, you’ll see…”

Querido Raul, Dear Obama, Querido Pope Francis / 14ymedio, Tania Bruguera

Images from <a href=

14ymedio, Tania Bruguera, Vatican City, 18 December 2014 – First of all I congratulate you because a historic moment is what is always expected of political men and this moment has been 17 December 2014. You have entered into history by arguing that the embargo/blockade is an apparently empty word, by changing – with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations – the meaning to 53 years of politics defined by one side (U.S.) and used by the other (Cuba), to politicize Cubans’ daily lives, wherever they may be. I wonder if this gesture is also a proposal to kill ideology. Cuba is now defined starting not from death, but finally starting from life, but I wonder, what life and who has the right to these new lives?

Now, querido Raúl:

Today as a Cuban I demand that you let us know what your plans are for our lives, that you establish as a part of this new stage a process of political transparency were we all have a space to participate and the right to have a different opinion without being punished. That when we have to deny many of the things that defined us, this process doesn’t come with the same intolerance and indifference which, up to now, has accompanied the changes in Cuba, where acceptance is the only option. continue reading

Today as a Cuban I demand that there be no privileges or social inequality The Cuban Revolution has distributed privilege as a reward for a sense of trustworthiness, which is synonymous with fidelity to those who are in the Government, or on its side. This has not changed. Privileges have defined the social inequality that we have experience since forever, an inequality that was clothed in Revolutionary meritocracy and that today is transformed into loyal entrepreneurship. I demand that the material and emotional rights of survival of those who may not want to be part of this new stage be defended.

Today as a Cuban I demand that we not be defined by the markets, or the use that the leaders can make of us. I ask for equality for that Cuban who, due to the blockade/embargo gave his life, for example, working in a factory to proudly arrive home with the title of Labor Hero, and who today has no place in the world of foreign investments and can only aspire to a retirement defined in socialist times and not in these times of the market economy. What is the plan to not reproduce the mistakes of the other countries of the former socialist camp? To not turn us into the Cuba of 1958? To repair the emotional abuse that the Cuban people have been subjected to under the politics of recent years. To ensure that there will be social and material justice? To ensure that we will not be a colony nor that we will have to unquestionably accept these benefactors as it happened before with the Soviet Union and with Venezuela?

Today as a Cuban I demand to be able to demonstrate peacefully in the street for or against a government decision and to be able to reclaim political and social rights, without fear of reprisals. That associations and political parties with points of view different from the official be recognized. That civic activism, civil society and those who have a different point of view be decriminalized. That political parties born from popular desire be legalized. That direct elections be established where all parties can participate and that ideological differences be resolved with arguments and not with acts of repudiation.

Today as a Cuban I reclaim the right to be political beings, not just economic entities or tokens of symbolic exchanges to make history.

Today as a Cuban I want to know what is the idea behind the nation we are building.

Today as an artist I propose that Raul put the work Tatlin’s Whisper #6 in the Plaza of the Revolution. Let’s open all the microphones and let all voices be heard; that it not be just the clatter of the coins we are offered to fill our lives. That the microphones not be kept off. That we learn to do something with our dreams.

Today I would like to propose to Cubans wherever you are that you take to the streets this coming December 30 to celebrate, not the end of the blockade/embargo, but the principal of your civil rights.

Let us make sure that it is the people who benefit from this new historical moment. The motherland is what we grieve.

Conquering Democracy is our Task/ 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Obama during his speech
Obama during his speech

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. continue reading

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.

Translated by Norma Whiting

“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. continue reading

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

Whether the glass is half empty or half full is a sterile speculation, never engaged in by thirsty people living in a desert. We read and reviewed the speeches, surprised by the surprises and disappointed by what omissions. Today is a new day, not in our calendar, but in History. We are obliged to recognize that, at the very least, we had been making fools of ourselves by holding on to an anachronistic agenda.

From here until April, when the Summit of the Americas takes place in Panama, the entire world will have its eyes set on the government of Cuba. There will be many attentive eyes and many proponents of the expected confrontation, be it a brief detention, an impediment to getting to a meeting, the slightest sign that serves to demonstrate that Raúl Castro doesn’t deserve such a vote of confidence. They know it and will have to choose between loosening the repression or letting the world down.

I am betting that they will let the world down, but I am hoping to lose the bet. All the signs and accumulated experience clearly say that this only a new maneuver to win some time and to allow them to get away with their schemes, but this is also an unprecedented move and things can always turn out differently. The most important thing is that the domino game has been shaken up and it is time to move the pieces.

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

The organization welcomes the commercial opening that can result from negotiations with the European Union and the United States, and states as long as it is accompanied by a change with regards to the rights of Cubans, it could be positive “for post-Castro democratization.”

“Although the increase in funds for a totalitarian State will make repression more effective, UNPACU accepts the challenge of confronting it, if, over the long term, the Cuban people benefit from an increase in economic and material well-being,” the organization said.

The statement concludes by noting that repression has continued in recent days on the island and that the Government has continued to detain opponents, and it calls on all democrats to ensure that “current reality is not subjugated to the latest news.”

The Pinar del Rio magazine Convivencia (Coexistence) founded by Dagoberto Valdés, has also issued a statement through which it welcomes the resumption of diplomatic relations between both countries, and hopes that the climate of dialogue is extended to independent civil society “based on respect for unity” and “the exercise of sovereignty”.

The release of the political prisoners gives joy to the magazine’s Editorial Board, which reminds us that the Cuban Government should ratify the United Nations covenants on Human Rights.

Convivencia places special emphasis on the intervention of Pope Francisco as a mediator in the dialogue between the two countries and hopes that the Church continues to intervene between the opposition and the authorities.

In addition, the Editorial Board said that the agreement between Obama and Castro will show that the fundamental conflict “is between the Cuban government and its citizens, not between Cuba and the United States.”

Convivencia hopes that this historic event and the lifting of all blockades, especially the one the Cuban government sustains over the initiative and entrepreneurship of its own citizens, allows the creation of the conditions necessary for the Cuban people to be the protagonists of their own history,” the statement concludes.

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

The curriculum of each of the members includes not only detailed knowledge about the functioning of the new technology but also proficiency in techniques of self-defense and neutralization of the “enemy.” The students seem to listen to the explanation with the playfulness of being halfway between the hiders and the seekers, between the coastal police and the fleeing rafters.

Barely a couple of years separate Gerardo and Agustin from those youngsters in the interested circle. Maybe they once crossed an intersection or shared a jitney or waited for the green light together at a stoplight. Nevertheless, if those students were to decide to become part of the Border Guard Troops, on a night as dark as hell some would be shivering amid the mangroves and others would push the buttons of a device designed to hunt emigrants. “We have to hold them and guard them until the people from Villa Marista come to look for them,” says one of the officers to motivate even more those who listen to him under the December sun of a Havana afternoon.

A girl asks about firearms, and a man wearing a beret pulled tight to his ears tells her that they must not go out armed on these missions due to “incidents that have occurred where fatal shootings have happened.” But continuing, he explains that they plan to place on the truck “an arsenal for confronting possible entry of speedboats with armed people or explosives.”

From the outside, the singular truck looks like a featureless gray box, but passing through its side door one finds a bathroom and a space that can be transformed into a bedroom or meeting room. The table used for discussing upcoming plans and operations folds up and is stored. The benches are opened and converted into two bunks, one on each side, where up to four people can sleep. The climate control permits them to endure the hot nights without opening the door which would cause them to suffer the persistent coastal mosquitoes.

Border guard boat.  (Luzbely Escobar)
Border guard boat. (Luzbely Escobar)

They carry a coffee maker, a rice cooker and a so-called “Queen” cooker (a Chinese-made pressure cooker) for cooking outside the truck. In order to make it all work, they carry an electric generator “so that the current is not a problem,” they assure with a certain vanity. The boast about resources does not stop there. They relate that they have “a campaign table in tow to set up the outdoor kitchen and a tent with a 40-person capacity.” This last is for the detainees, in case the people of Villa Marista take too long and they have to sleep at the capture site.

“This is a combat truck because it was born in combat,” one of the pompous drivers is heard to exclaim. “It is a unique prototype in the country and is called a mobile command post,” he stresses. “The boss,” he says while he points his index finger up, “says that he is going to make one more advance, but well, this takes financing, this takes resources.”

The news is worst for those who evade because this team acts as if they were really slave hunters with an obsession. “This is a fixed rotation. We go out for 20 days to the coast, and we have no relief. Those are 20 days without seeing the family,” they say, explaining the conditions in which they work.

In order to attract the girls to the circle of interest, an officer with ten years of experience clarifies that “in communications there are many women who do not have to go to the coast.” They laugh and blush, then he returns to the charge saying that “all the communications offices are climate controlled, there are many women who do this work.”

Nevertheless, after looking a while at the device the teens begin to speak of going on vacation with it to the beach, with its bunks and electricity. In the end one of them laughingly says thanks for the “classified information,” and heads down the street to the sea. In the air remains doubt about the next encounter between those adolescents and the officers: Will it be to petition for entrance into the elite group or to beg them not to tighten the handcuffs?

Translated by MLK

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

On the other hand, both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The US president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer, before the coveted and greatly demanded steps of democratization and political opening in our country would be achieved. The dilemma of what should have come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. However, the fig leaf of the American embargo remains, so that no one can say the resignation as been complete.

Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and other prisoners of interest of the American government. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.

Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by – as one of its main pillars – the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?

In the central market of Carlos III, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting football or videoclips, but a speech by Raúl Castro and later one by Obama through the Telesur network. The first allocution caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the US president, particularly when he mentioned relaxations in the sending of remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard from around the corner.

It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition, like the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of disappearance. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. Lacking is a public timeline by which commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of the synergy of both announcements to extract a public promise, which must include, at a minimum, four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months.

The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island. Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to think that the day we have longed for is not close. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

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

The problem is that if you don’t find an option to travel by plane, train or bus, then you have to take a “suck it up and endure the consequences.” This means that you have to go outside Havana to get on some ancient American truck that’s more than 50 years old (that’s been jerry-rigged for such long hauls), and deal with a unlicensed driver and zero guarantees for passengers’ safety.

Even so, the price to board these hulking masses of steel exceeds 200 pesos. Thousands of people of all ages, including babes in arms, travel to and from the eastern end of the country seated on long iron benches, holding on by the tippy-tips of their fingers, and tossed from their spot every time the vehicle brakes or makes some sudden move to get ahead, or to avoid colliding with cars that are travelling in the opposite direction at hundreds of miles per hour, where there are no paved roads.

Rain, cold, hunger, darkness, the need to answer calls of nature (which, when you can do it, you might do it on the grass): these are among the benefits of this type of travel that can last, depending on the destination province, between 12 and 20 hours – if there are no breakdowns.

These people are the ones you later see on the news, reported injured or deceased in the accidents that take place daily on these routes. Of course, those reports don’t dig at the root of the problem, but rather lay all blame on the drivers of these contraptions.

A serious reflection on this subject – or on any other aspect of the daily life of Cubans – brings us to the inevitable conclusion that without a new political system, we will never climb out of this underdevelopment, which is perilously covered-up by our own selves.

I pray once again, at this end-of-year, that the backwardness, ignorance and above all the irresponsibility of the State does not cause the loss of life for so many Cubans on our roads. Unfortunately, the statistics are stacked against me.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

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

Eliécer Ávila also considers the policy shift announced by Obama to be positive. “The changes are already here and are a reality, it is the job of civil society to adapt and strengthen its strategy to continue to struggle for human rights in this new scenario, which I hope will end up being favorable to those who dream of a prosperous and free Cuba. Those who want to look back and not look forward are wasting their time,” he pointed out.

The economist Marta Beatriz Roque, however, says it is too early to have an opinion. “We have to wait to see how events unfold. Right now we are trying to find out the names of the political prisoners the government is going to release and under what conditions; then we can offer an opinion.”

José Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), argues that it can be positive if Barack Obama’s administration has decided to take steps to normalize relations with the Havana regime, “If and only if they don’t forget the commitment they’ve made many times and in public with Cuban civil society with regards to respect for human rights in our country.” He added, “The solution to our problems is in the non-violent struggle of Cubans seeking their rights and freedoms, everything else is secondary.”

Ferrer believes that the American government has made a gesture of goodwill, but, “Now we have to see if the Cuban regime reciprocates and demonstrates its goodwill in practice. I strikes me that while the secret talks were being held, the Cuban government postponed conversations with the European Union at exactly the point when they were going to talk about human rights.”

On the streets of Havana, people expressed great happiness and everyone relates what happened with this Wednesday’s date, the day dedicated to St. Lazarus, a very powerful saint among Cubans. Projected on the TV screens at the Carlos II Market, located in the center of the Cuban capital, were the speeches of both leaders. In the audience, many threw kisses to Obama and hugged each other.

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

The White House denied that US president Barack Obama would visit Cuban during the two years remaining in his term of office.

Obama made a statement from the White House in which he announced the immediate resumption of relations with Cuba, as well as the outlines of a new policy. “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.”

Cuban president Raúl Castro also offered a speech in which he stated that, in a telephone conversation with Obama, they had “agreed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. This doesn’t mean that the main issue has been resolved: the economic blockade.”

The New York Times reported that Havana and Washington undertook secret negotiations in Canada over the last 18 months, encouraged by Pope Francisco. The dialog culminated in a meeting at the Vatican. Pope Francisco announced he was “deeply pleased” by the historic decision.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, speaking from the Mercosur Summit now being held in Buenos Aires, also welcomed the reestablishment of relations, calling it a “historic rectification.”

The situation of Alan Gross – arrested in 2009 for distributing satellite telecommunications equipment while serving as a subcontractor to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and sentenced in 2011 – was seen as the main obstacle to a normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

Washington had refused to consider the possibility of a prisoner exchange with Cuba. Gross repeatedly criticized the lack of an effort on the part of the US government for his release, and this year undertook a week-long hunger strike to pressure the White House.

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

United States actions in Cuba, Obama said, will focus on improving conditions with regards to human rights and the implementation of democratic reforms in Cuba, as well as other issues of mutual interest, such as immigration, counter-narcotics, environmental protection, and human trafficking.

The White House also announced changes with regards to travel, such as favoring the expansion of general permits for travel to Cuba for all authorized travelers, or the ability to use American credit and debit cards on the island, and easing the policy on remittances. With regards to the latter the allowable amount will be increased from $500 per quarter to $2000, and will no longer require a license specific to the expediter.

Also authorized is the expansion of sales and commercial exports of certain goods and services from the United States (for example, some construction materials or agricultural machinery), as well as allowing travelers returning from the island to import a maximum of $400 in goods, of which no more than $100 may consist of a combination of tobacco and alcohol products.

Obama said that the United States will offer its support to increase Cubans’ access to communications, both through the commercial export of certain goods and the authorization for service providers to implement the mechanisms necessary to provide commercial telephone and Internet services.

“This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas, but we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.” The US president will be present at the meeting in Panama at which topics such as human rights and democracy will be discussed.

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

Barack Obama, for his part, made clear that any change in policy toward Havana would come up against the insurmountable obstacle of an American imprisoned for “threats against the security of the State.” Even the New York Times had suggested an exchange in one of its editorials on Cuba, and the publication of that text in such a prestigious newspaper was read as a preview of what would happen. As in every political game, we see only one part, while in the intricacies of power the threads of the agreement made public just today were being woven.

For those of us who know the mechanism of pressure used by the Plaza of the Revolution toward its opponents, the capture of Gross itself was a move aimed at recovering the Interior Ministry’s agents. The contractor wasn’t arrested for what he did, but rather for what they could do with him. It was a simple hook and he was aware of this from the beginning. His crime was not in having brought satellite equipment to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet, but rather in carrying in his pocket a passport that immediately converted him into a medium of exchange on the board of tense bilateral relations between Washington and Havana.

If we review the five years of captivity endured by Gross, we see a well-designed information script that the Cuban government used to put pressure on the Obama administration. Each image that came to light publicly, each visitor allowed to see him, was authorized with the sole condition of reinforcing the exchange proposal. In this way, the Castro regime has managed to get its way. It has managed to exchange a peaceful man, embarked on the humanitarian adventure of providing connectivity to a group of Cubans, for intelligence agents that caused significant damage and sorrow with their actions.

In the game of politics, totalitarian regimes manage to win over democracies because the former control the public opinion inside their countries, determine all legal results to suit their purposes, and can continue to waste their nation’s resources trying to free the moles they sent to their adversary’s camp. Democracies, however, end up conceding because they must answer to their own people, they must live with an incisive press that criticizes them for making or not making certain decisions, and because they are forced to do everything possible bring their dead and alive back home.

The Castro regime has won, although the positive result is that Alan Gross has emerged alive from a prison that promised to turn into his grave. Now, we can expect long weeks of cheering and slogans in which the Cuban government will proclaim itself a victor in its latest battle. But, there is no space in the national pantheon for so many still-breathing heroes, and little by little, the recently returned agents will lose importance and visibility. The myth created for them from a distance will begin to fade.

With the main obstacle for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations eliminated, the only unknown is the next step. Is the Cuban government planning another move to return to a position of force vis-a-vis the US government? Or are all the cards on the table this time, before the weary eyes of a population that anticipates that the Castro regime will also win the next move.

Translated by Mary Jo Porter and Ernesto Suarez