“Unusual Provocation,” Fidel Castro blames Kiev for the crash of the Malaysian Plane / 14ymedio

Buk missile battery, similar to what might have shot down the plane of Malaysia Airlines
Buk missile battery, similar to what might have shot down the plane of Malaysia Airlines

14ymedio, 18 July 2014 — Former Cuban president Fidel Castro published one of his “Reflections” today in Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth) in which he bluntly accuses the government of Ukraine of the crash of the Malaysian Airlines plane that caused the deaths of 298 passengers in the air space over Donetsk.

Without providing any evidence or reasons for the suspicion, Castro ended the first paragraph suggesting that the plane “had been hit at 30,000 feet flying over Ukrainian territory on a path under the control of the war mongering government of the king of chocolate, Petro Poroshenko.”

Continuing, the leader of the Revolution recalled the friendship between Cuba and Ukraine and the island’s support after the Chernobyl disaster (in the north of the country, then belonging to the Soviet Union), but argues that he cannot fail to condemn “the action of such an anti-Russian, anti-Ukraine and pro-imperialist government.”

As of today it has been a week since the last public appearance of Fidel Castro, when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between Russia and Cuba, which has historically been excellent, has become even closer in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, the Russian Federation ratified the cancellation of 90% of the enormous debt of the government of Havana the former USSR, some $30 billion dollars. During his visit to the island, Putin demonstrated that both parties are working on a program of economic, commercial, scientific and technical development until 2020 and their “business advisors” remain active.

Russia also counts on its ally in the diplomatic arena. In the United Nations the Cuban government votes with the Federation.

An Inexplicable Explanation / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The inside of a traveler's suitcase arriving from Miami (14ymedio)
The inside of a traveler’s suitcase arriving from Miami (14ymedio)

Customs restricts imports even more

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 14ymedio | 14 July 2014 — On the occasion of the latest customs regulations that further limit the products that travelers can bring to the island, a group of officials from the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba (AGR) held a press conference to respond to some concerns of the population. Among the pearls exposed there, it’s worth nothing an argument put forward by Idalmis Rosales Milanes, deputy chief of the AGR, where she tried to equate these actions with what happens outside of Cuba. “All countries,” she said, “regulate non-commercial imports to their territory.”

And it’s true. What this official didn’t say is that in all countries there are other regulations for commercial imports to non-state entities. If this weren’t the case, I would have to believe two things: that in the rest of the world all the stores are state-owned, or that the goods for sale in them are produced entirely in the country in which they are located. It gives the impression that this precision is for idiots, because it’s so irrational it’s embarrassing to have to clarify it.

The absurdity is normal only if the entire environment is also absurd. Whoever developed and approved these resolutions was personally persuaded that commerce is a crime unless it is performed by the only state monopoly that they themselves control.

Instead of developing a list detailing how many razors, pairs of shoes or fake nails can be carried in your suitcase, it would be much more useful to allow the importation and sale of whatever merchandise (non-lethal) is produced in the world, and to promote its free trade by private individuals who would be those who would assume the risk of being left with them in their shops if they weren’t able to sell them.

The law should allow the owner of a restaurant to import, in his condition as a private businessperson, the wine, pasta and cheese consumed by his customers. The seamstress should also have the right to bring fabric and dyes from other countries with which she designs her clothes, and the small trader must be able to count on the possibility of bringing the instant glue, the sponges for cleaning, and the hair dye, from other latitudes to the island. All this, backed and supported by commercial permits and import licenses… in the hand of the non-state sector.

That theses commercial imports are on a list of prohibited products, that there is a limit of the number of admissible pieces, that a diversified tax is imposed according to the article… all this would be almost comprehensible and, especially, debatable. What I can’t make heads nor tails of is this “dog in the manger” conduct, which neither eats nor allows others to eat, and in this case neither imports nor allow to be imported; neither trades, nor allows others to trade.

The Ochoa Case: A Turning Point / 14ymedio

IGNACIO VARONA, 14ymedio, Havana, Cuba | 13 July 2014 — The Cuban government’s support for the Soviet tank invasion of Czechoslovakia, the failure of the 10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest, the case of Heberto Padilla, the repudiation rallies of 1980, and Cuba’s Black Spring are chief among the breaking points for many who at one time backed the Cuban Revolution. A political process that at its beginnings more than a half century ago enjoyed strong approval inside and outside the island has become increasingly characterized by deception. This persistent flux from believing to not believing has made critics out of former sympathizers, and antagonists out of those who once gave ovations.

Inside Cuba, one instance of major fracture in the support for the revolution was the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa. This event took place on July 13, 1989, exactly 25 years ago. Along with him were executed three high-level officials of the Ministry of Armed Forces (MINFAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). A military court found them guilty of — and condemned them to death for — the crimes of drug trafficking and high treason. continue reading

Never will it be known the true extent of the disillusionment caused by this event in many communist militants as well as the rest of the population. The disappointment amongst the people that emanated from the so-called “Case Number 1” of 1989 fed the decision of many individuals to take the step toward dissension. Numerous dissidents cite this judicial process and its extreme sentences as the moment when they broke with the party line.

The 1990s could not be understood without the precedent of a televised trial that riveted millions of Cubans to the small screen, as if to the most impelling soap opera. After long days of hearing allegations and accusations, a bond was established between the TV audience and the figure of Ochoa that nobody could have foreseen. This “connection” consisted of a combination of respect and pity, to which was added the silent hope that the sentences requested by the prosecutors would not actually be applied in their full severity.

“I sat in front of the television set believing in the system, and when I arose I no longer believed in anything”, said María López, who at that time belonged to the Young Communists League (UJC). A few months after “El Indio” (“The Indian”) — as Ochoa was popularly called by some — Maria turned in her UJC membership card. “I could not tolerate such cruelty, besides which it always seemed to me that what came out in that trial was not the full truth,” she concluded. Like her, an unpublicized number of other militants distanced themselves from the organization, severing their ties or assuming a less aggressive stance.

The “Balseros” (Rafters) Crisis that would occur five years later was comprised of individuals who, besides suffering the miseries of the Special Period, had lived through the trial. Part of the disillusionment that would manifest in fragile vessels crossing the Florida Straits emanated from that event. Although hunger and the lack of prospects where the primary goads toward the exodus, for many of those who launched themselves to the sea, the death of of Arnaldo Ochoa had contributed to severing their emotional ties to the system.

“It was the moment in which totalitarianism removed its mask”, noted Ezequiel Méndez, who is now based in Los Angeles, USA. On that July 13, Ezequiel had guard duty in the unit where he was serving his compulsory military service. He remembers seeing the “long faces of the officers, which gave us to understand that something was going on”. Within the army, the execution of these four military men was especially disturbing, but fear and silence were the major expressions of this emotion. “In the mess hall, when the TV set was turned on for the broadcast of the trial, nobody said a word…everyone was very, very quiet”, recalls Ezequiel about those days.

A quarter century after the effect of those executions, the disappointment has not diminished. Rather, other disappointments have been added to it. The government was never able to recapture lost sympathy, and the days are over when military feats produced heroes.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

“I owe to my father the hatred of authoritarianism that he embodied” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Mario Varga Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa at his home in Madrid (14ymedio)
Mario Vargas Llosa at his home in Madrid (14ymedio)

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa discusses literature, democracy and Latin America in the second part of an interview with 14ymedio. First part of the interview: “The myth of Cuba has been cut to shreds”

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 15 July 2014 – During my conversation with the writer and Nobel Prize Winner in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa in his home in Madrid, we spoke about his passion for Cuba and his disappointment with the revolutionary myth, as we reflected yesterday in the first part of this interview. Today I share with our readers the rest of this dialogue, centered on democracy, literature and Latin America.

Question: How do you see the health of the democratic model and civil liberties in Latin America?

Answer: If we compare it to the ideal, of course we get depressed. But if we compare Latin America from a democratic point of view looking at the last few years, there has been considerable progress.

When I was young, Latin America was a set of dictatorships and the democracies, such as Chile and Costa Rica, were really the exception to the rule. That has changed radically today, there are virtually no military dictatorships. There is one dictatorship, which is Cuba, one quasi-dictatorship, which is Venezuela, and beyond that some democracies that are far from perfect. There are varying degrees of quality and there are some Latin American democracies that are very basic and others that are more advanced. However, the democratic trend predominates over the authoritarian tradition that was so strong in our peoples. continue reading

My impression is that this is not coincidental, it’s because there is a much much wider consensus about democracy than in the past. There is a rightwing that has accepted that democracy is preferable to dictatorship, that offers more institutional guarantees for property and for business. We also have a leftwing that wasn’t democratic either, that has accepted—or resigned itself—to democracy. Which explains cases like Uruguay, where a very extreme left took power, and yet, the democratic way works, freedom of expression works, and the economy and the market work.

This also explains the phenomenon of the Concertación (Concentration) in Chile, which respected the precepts of democracy and didn’t change the political economy of the dictatorship, because it gave good results. The Concertación respected this model but expanded economic freedom and political freedom, which brought Chileans an extraordinary period of prosperity and calm.

This trend toward democracy will continue, with ups and downs, but it’s difficult to imagine there will be a reversal that reestablishes the authoritarian tradition that was so catastrophic for Latin America.

 

Question: How do you see the case of Peru?

Answer: Peruvians have had many dictatorships throughout our history. If I weigh it from my birth to today, we’ve probably experienced more dictatorships than democratic governments. Perhaps the greatest difference is that the last dictatorships we’ve had, from General Velasco Alvarado’s to Alberto Fukimori’s, had such catastrophic consequences that a part of the population has somehow been vaccinated against the idea that a dictatorship is more efficient for bringing economic prosperity or for achieving social justice.

We have experienced dictatorships of the right and left that have brought widespread corruption or an atrocious impoverishment of the country, like during the Velasco era, which was a leftist military dictatorship, or during the first term of Alan Garcia, which wasn’t a dictatorship but it was a populist government which, with its nationalizations and its defiance of all the international organizations brutally impoverished the country. Finally, Fujimori’s dictatorship was probably the one that was most thieving. An investigation by the Ombudsman calculated that more or less six billion dollars was stolen and sent abroad by the Fujimoro regime. For a poor country like Peru, that’s significant.

All this was so disconcerting; as of 2000 there hadn’t been a consensus in Peru for political democracy and economic freedom. There had been a consensus for democracy at some times, but there had never been one for economic freedom. Today, for the first time, there is. That consensus has brought 15 years that are so good, so prosperous, that my hope is that it lasts until its irreversible. Although the truth is that nothing is irreversible, as modern history has demonstrated.

“Literature was an indirect way of resisting the authority of my father doing something he hated and that he wanted to eliminate from my life”

Question: In the foreword to a book of poems for children written by José Martí, he said “Son, scared of everything, I take refuge in you.” In your case, were you so scared of reality you looked for refuge in literature?

Answer: Yes, literature was my refuge when I was a kid, when I met my father with whom I had a very difficult relationship. I met him when I was 11 and he was a very authoritarian person who practically isolated me from my maternal family, with whom I’d lived in a virtual “paradise.” My father was very hostile to my literary ambition. As soon as he discovered it, he thought it was a terrible failure in my life. I owe him many things: discovering the fear and discovering the hatred of authoritarianism that he embodied. My father’s hostility to my literary vocation made me cling to this vocation and I found a refuge in literature, a different way of living that life of fear I had in my parents’ house, because of my father.

I see that now, at that time I didn’t see it. Literature was an indirect way of resisting the authority of my father doing something he hated and that he wanted to eliminate from my life. Writing became something more important, more transcendent, more intimate than it had been. Until then, it was a kind of game that my mother’s family celebrated in me. With my father it was a risk to write poems and “little stories,” but at the same time it was a way of defending the freedom and the autonomy that I lost when faced with him.

Yes, in my youth literature was a refuge, but in my life literature has been much more than this. In literature we can live what we can’t experience in our own lives. We are beings endowed with imagination and desires, those eternal dissatisfactions because life never gives anyone everything they desire. We want lives more diverse, rich and intense than those we have. That is why we have invented literature, why we have fiction, to compensate for how limited our lives are.

So literature is a refuge, but it also has the ability to complete those incomplete lives we are obliged to have. However, literature is much more than that, because while it appeases that appetite for different experiences, it sparks, sparks the need, which results in greater dissatisfaction. If we read a lot it turns us into beings deeply dissatisfied with the world as it is. Nothing is better than good literature to make us discover, in such a vivid, persuasive way, that the world works badly and that it’s not enough to satisfy human aspirations/

“That is why we have invented literature, why we have fiction, to compensate for how limited our lives are.”

When you finish reading a great novel, like The Kingdom of this World, by Alejo Carpentier, or One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, or a story by Jorge Luis Borges, what do you discover? That reality is very poor compared with that wonderful reality you’ve experienced with this fantasy, this language. This makes us dissatisfied and rebellious people, who want the world to be better than it is, and this is the engine of progress.

The world has been evolving, we have come out of the caves and we’ve reached the stars. Literature is an extraordinary stimulus for dissatisfaction and rebellion, and also a permanent critique of what exists. If this criticism and dissatisfaction didn’t exist, literature wouldn’t exist.

Question: So literature is to blame for so much dissatisfaction?

Answer: I think so, and the best proof of that is that all the regimes that have tried to control life from the cradle to the grave, the first thing they’ve done is to try to control literary creation. They try to subjugate fiction, because they have seen the danger in the free creativity that fiction signifies. Religious dictatorships, ideological dictatorships, military dictatorships… the first thing they do is establish systems of censorship. I don’t think they’re wrong, because in some ways literature is a source of sedition, discrete and indirect, but a source of sedition.

Question: You chair the Fundación Internacional para la Libertad (FIL) [International Foundation for Freedom]. How do you evaluate the work of the foundation? Do you think you’ve wasted your time?

Answer: I don’t know if it’s had the effect we wanted it to have. The fact that it exists, it’s been twelve years, we’ve had a lot of conferences, seminars, spreading liberal ideas. We defend democracy, but within democracy we defend the liberal doctrine, against which there are many prejudices. Even the word liberal has been demonized and that is a great victory for the more dogmatic left, having turned the word “liberal” into a bad word, associating it with exploitation, injustice, dictatorship.

The task of the International Foundation for Freedom is to combat this demonization of the liberal doctrine and to spread the culture that has brought these major reforms and changes to society since the creation of democracy, of the idea of Human Rights, of the idea of the individual as the pillar of society, endowed with rights and duties that must be respected and exercised freely. Those are the kind of ideas that we want to spread and to what extent we have succeeded? We have done something and I think it would be worse if we hadn’t done the things we’ve done, even if they are insufficient.

“The myth of Cuba has been cut to shreds for the most part” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Mario Varga Llosa

The writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, talks about Cuba in the first part of an interview with 14ymedio

Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)
Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 14 July 2014 — Mario Vargas Llosa, writer, politician, excellent analyst and even better conversationalist, received me at his home in Madrid for this interview. The minutes flew by with his proverbial grace for dialogue as he offered me his reflections about democracy, freedom, literature, Latin America and Cuba. Today I share these with the readers of 14ymedio who in some way were there, without being in that room lit by the light of summer and the lucidity of the writer.

Question: I know that Cuba has been an important part of your passions, to say nothing of your great obsessions…

Answer: Absolutely. The Cuban Revolution was for me, as it was for many young people, the appearance of a possibility many of us had dreamed about but that had seemed unattainable. A socialist revolution, which was both socialist and free, socialist and democratic.

Today that may seem like an act of blindness, but it wasn’t at that time. At that time, that’s what the Cuban Revolution seemed to us, accomplished not for, but outside, the Communist Party, a Revolution that was backed up by every heroic exploit. In the first days of the Cuban Revolution, we saw in it what we wanted to see.

A Revolution that would make great social reforms, that would end injustice and at the same time would allow freedom, diversity, creativity, that wouldn’t adopt the Soviet line of strict control of all creative and artistic activities.

We believed it was going to allow criticism and this is what we wanted to see in the Cuban Revolution and for a good number of years that is what I saw in it, despite going to Cuba, despite being linked very directly to the Casa de las Americas, in which I came to sit on the committee. That was what we saw because the Cuban Revolution had the ability to feed that illusion.

Question: At what point did you start having doubts?

Answer: Of the five times I went to Cuba in the sixties, the fourth time coincided with the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) and it was a shock to know that they had opened what were almost concentration camps where they took dissidents, thieves, homosexuals, religious people. I was very impressed especially by the case of a group I expect you know, El Puente (The Bridge). I knew many of the girls and the boys who made up the group, among them were lesbians and gays, but all were revolutionaries, absolutely identified with the Revolution. A good number of them went to the concentration camps, where there were even suicides. continue reading

That affected me a great deal, because it seemed impossible that something like this was happening in Cuba. So I wrote a private letter to Fidel Castro, where I said, “Comandante, I really don’t understand, this doesn’t fit with my vision of Cuba.” Then they invited me to visit Cuba and have a meeting with Fidel Castro. We were about ten or twelve and somehow we demonstrated our surprise about what was happening.

It was the only time I’ve talked with Fidel Castro, it was all night, from eight at night to eight in the morning. It was very interesting and although he impressed me, I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. He told me what had happened to many very humble peasant families, whose sons were trainees, and they complained that their sons had been victims of “the sickos,” that’s what Fidel said. The gays and lesbians for him were “the sickos.” He told me something had to be done, that perhaps there were excesses, but they were going to correct it.

I remember Che Guevara had already left by then and no one knew where he was. Then Fidel Castro—during that conversation—made allusions to where Che might be and show up. He was also very histrionic, standing on the table, telling how they’d set up ambushes, he was a very overwhelming personality, but I realized then that he did not allow interlocutors, only listeners.

It was almost impossible to pose any questions, however brief. It was the first time and since then I was left with many doubts, much anguish that I didn’t dare to make public and I continued returning to Cuba until Fidel’s support for the interventions of the Warsaw Pact countries in Czechoslovakia.

Question: How did you experience the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague in 1968?

Answer: That made a tremendous impression on me, and it was the first time I made public a letter criticizing Cuba. I wrote an article titled Socialism and the Tanks, saying it wasn’t possible that if Fidel had always defended the autonomy, the sovereignty of small countries, now that a small country wanted its own version of socialism, for the Soviet tanks to invade and for Cuba to support this. How is it possible?

Despite this they continued to invite me, but when I returned to Cuba there was already a situation of panic among the intellectuals. My best friends wouldn’t talk to me or they lied to me. There was terror. It was a few weeks before the imprisonment of Heberto Padilla and the poet was totally beside himself, talking like a mad man, feeling the spaces close in on him and very soon he would no longer be able even to function.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting

I was with Jorge Edwards, just during the months that he was described as persona non grata. I remember that thanks to Jorge, who was diplomatic, we could bring Jose Lezama Lima to eat in one of those dining rooms where only diplomats could go. Poor Lezama, he ate with happiness, he loved to eat.

We talked about everything but politics, of course. But on leaving, on saying goodbye, I remember he squeezed my hand and said, “You understand the country in which I am living,” I responded yes, but he came back and squeezed my hand again and repeated, “But you understand the country in which I am living,” and I answered, “Yes, I understand.” That was the last time I saw him.

Soon came the capture of Padilla, the letter that several of us wrote and that meant the rupture with a number of important intellectuals who weren’t Communists but we had made the cause of the Cuban Revolution our own. For me that was very important, because I regained a freedom that had been lost during those years, because of this blackmail that was so effective, of “not giving arms to the enemy,” “you can’t attack the Cuban Revolution without yourself becoming an ally of colonialism, imperialism, fascism.”

Well, since then I was much more free and I was left forever, up to today, with the idea of having contributed in some way to this myth and to helping a system—already 55 years old—that had converted Cuba into a concentration camp and that has frustrated at least three generations of Cubans.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so insistent in my criticisms of Cuba, it’s a way of exercising self-criticism. Because I believe that we contributed a lot, and the Cuban regime was highly skilled in this, getting the support of intellectuals, journalists, academics, that contributed so much to this myth, that still survives, although it seems like lies and happily the support is from ever smaller circles.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting, the disinterest. Many people are tired of the Cuba issue and then there is a great detachment. Many times when the topic of Cuba is on the agenda, there is such skepticism, as if it weren’t a social and human phenomenon. What can you do against an earthquake, a tsunami? Nothing, because Cuba is like an earthquake or a tsunami for many people.

Football Hangover / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The World Cup on Cuban TV (14ymedio)
The World Cup 2014 on Cuban TV (14ymedio)

Gone is the last game, the German goal, Götze’s hands raising the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Gone are the get togethers with friends, wrapped in the flag of Italy or Costa Rica, to go see the games in some public place. Some of the excitement remains, it’s true, but the roar that ran through Havana when the ball entered the goal in Rio De Janeiro or Sal Paulo is now just a memory. The painted faces, the arms raised in imitation of the spectators from their seats, and the euphoria shared with millions all over the globe. The football party is over, now comes the hangover.

The hangover is a return to real life. Back to the store shelves and a realization that the shortages are greater than they were four weeks ago. Learning that yesterday a hundred Ladies in White were arrested for trying to pay tribute to the victims of the sinking of the 13-de-Marzo tugboat. There is no catchy tune performed by the famous to accompany this hard existence, rather the rumor of friends who warn us of “what’s out there”… “dengue fever, cholera, Chikungunya and even giant African snails.”

Like a kick to the head—and without failing to miss the opponent—reality returns. There are no arms to stop this fast ball that is daily life, unstoppable and painful. We are back to our world without lights, without loudspeakers that roar GOOOOAL, and without that familiarity created by competitive sports. In short, we live in “a world” where the rules are strict, the referee implacable, and there are no prizes.

Monday morning, I already saw them, as if waking from a dream. They were the hundreds of thousands of Cubans, especially young people, who were immersed in the passion of the Cup as if they themselves had kicked the ball. Today they realize they aren’t Germans, Dutch or Argentines and that a difficult Cuba awaits them on the other side of their doors. A Cuba that in four weeks has not stopped in time, waiting for the whistle to resume its course, rather it has deteriorated. Will they be willing to change the rules of the game of this reality? Or will they wait for the next reason to escape in front of the TV or the ball?

Bowling Pins, Sweets and Dangers / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)
Putin and Raul Castro together on Cuban television. (14ymedio)

“These are the last sweets!” The cry could be the simple proclamation of a candy seller, but I heard it twenty-three years ago at my high school in the countryside and it was the first evidence I had of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The person shouting was Olga, a student who resold what the wives of the Russian technicians in Alamar gave her. She was the bridge between our Cuban money, worth less every day, and a series of products such as candy and canned goods “Made in USSR.” I remember this teenager, who warned us of the coming of shortages, like a blind Tiresias, alerting us to the adiós of the “bowling pins” (as we called the Russians).

The old relationship with the Kremlin comes to mind now, with Vladimir Putin’s visit to Cuba. We have seen the official delegation on national television with its businesslike demeanor in suits and ties, no longer speaking of Marxism-Leninism or the dictatorship of the proletariat. They look different, but so much the same. The same glance from above they once had when they knew our island was just a small domino in the game of power. They come looking for alliances, to define the contours of those blocks they are reassembling – right before our eyes – in a new return of the Cold War. We are one step away from returning to our old status as a satellite, diminished before Moscow’s power, its oil, the debt relief it just granted us.

Not a single official commentator has hinted at the dangers entailed in this approach, nor to the Russian government’s need to use Latin America as a diplomatic “launching pad” against its old enemy, the United States. In the midst of this renewed confrontation among the great powers, we are trapped as a disposable and negotiable part, as the case may be. The risk is such that I again remember Olga and the last Soviet candies she offered us in that dorm. Those sweets in extinction predicted an end, the goodies being announced today, like a new airport and possible Russian investment in the Port of Mariel project, compromise our future. You don’t have to be blind, nor Tiresias, to realize it.

12 July 2014

El Sexto Facing Trial / 14ymedio

El Sexto at his home in Havana (14ymedio)
El Sexto at his home in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, 9 July 2014 – The graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado, known as “El Sexto” (The Sixth), has been in custody for five days charged with “violation of domicile and injury” and will be prosecuted, according to several friends and Cuban activists. Interviewed by the newspaper just two weeks ago, the artist is being held incommunicado and will be tried this week, according to reports from his family on Wednesday.

This newspaper was able to contact the photographer Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo who, in speaking of El Sexto, said, “he has no attorney, no money, no one left free in Cuba who is able to help him.” The young man has spent several years in the sights of the Cuban political police for a series of graffiti and expositions where he questions the powers-that-be and gives voice to outlawed civil society. His friends believe this could be a “settling of accounts.”

Several witnesses say that a domestic incident and a complaint from the father of El Sexto’s wife have “served as a reason for the police to charge his and to remove him from the streets where he realizes his art.” There is still no official version of events and the authorities are not providing clear answers to the several phone calls made to investigate the situation of the detainee.

In late 2012, the writer Angel Santiesteban Prats was convicted on similar charges and still remains an inmate of a forced work center on the outskirts of Havana. As a general rule, people critical of the government are not judged on political grounds but rather for “common crimes” with the objective of reducing solidarity and international pressure.

Are We In Transition? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Seminario-transiciAn-espaAola-Madrid_CYMIMA20140709_0006_13

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 9 July 2014 – Right now I am taking part, along with several Cuban activists, in a seminar on the Spanish transition being held in Madrid. Organized by the Association of Ibero-Americans for Freedom and the Spanish Transition Foundation at the Casa de America, the event includes the participation of nine activists from within the Island from many different sectors, such as law, citizenship, human rights and journalism. An opportunity for us to meet with each other without the police cordons or acts of repudiation.

While I listened to several speakers, I remembered when, in 2011, I watched the series The Transition, with the voice of Victoria Prego. Coincidentally, the morning I started to watch the excellent scenes of that documentary and the analysis that accompanied it, a friend from Madrid visited me. She looked at the TV screen and said to me, “I experienced many of those events, but at that time I didn’t know we were in transition.” Her phrase has stayed with me as solace and hope all these years. Today, in the Casa de America, I remembered it.

Are we Cubans living in the transition? Just asking this question is enough to annoy some people and excite others. A transition – the experts and analysts tell me – needs more political, social and economic evidence. A word of such magnitude requires real substance, not just desires, others warn me, also with very good arguments. If it turns out that an irreversible and defining change has occurred within Cubans, could we see that as the transition? In this case, the micro look beats out the macro analysis.

Every day I meet more people who are no longer collaborating, who no longer believe, who no longer support the system. I also stumble upon people who aren’t interested in watching official TV, or taking part in official events, or accepting official perks. What do we call that? May the transition theorists forgive me, but if that is not a change, what is it? “Pre-transition” perhaps?

“Cuba’s problem is within Cuba” / 14ymedio

Speaking at the Atlantic Forum, Yoani Sánchez tells Mario Vargas Llosa that help is needed to move the center of the discussion to the island.

Vargas-Llosa-Yoani-SAnchez-Madrid_CYMIMA20140709_0001_11

14ymedio, Madrid, 8 July 2014 — “Cuba’s problem is within Cuba. The locus of the discussion needs to be moved to the island.” This was the powerful message from Yoani Sanchez, 14ymedio director, to Nobel prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa at the VII Atlantic Forum, at the Casa de América in Madrid, Spain. Vargas Llosa had asked Sánchez how the Cuban opposition could be aided from the outside, whether there might be some common themes to emphasize, such as the embargo. “The embargo, tourism…all of that is just transferring the problem outside. To the White House, to the airports…” said the journalist and blogger, stressing that the way to push for a transition in Cuba from outside the island is not to turn attention elsewhere.

This exchange took place during the event organized by the International Foundation for Liberty, whose theme this year is the economic and institutional consolidation of Ibero-America. Vargas Llosa, foundation president, started off the proceedings by asking Yoani Sánchez about the actual scope of the so-called “Raulist” [for Raúl Castro] reforms on the island. The journalist qualified them as “small transformations caused by necessity and not by political will”, meaning that they do not correspond to the real changes that the country needs. continue reading

However, there are differences between Raúl and his brother, Fidel Castro. “The repression hasn’t ceased,” Sánchez said. “It’s just that the current version of it is more continuous, it’s in every minute, it leaves no evidence so the victims can defend themselves. Fidel was more media-savvy.”

Vargas Llosa also inquired about the birth of 14ymedio, remarking that, because of the many barriers it might face in Cuba, he never thought it would actually be created and maintained. “It’s a digital project because the printing houses in Cuba are under more surveillance than the barracks,” Sánchez explained, leading to a discussion of 14ymedio’s objectives. “Who is our readership? I think of people like my mother who, when I speak to her of injustice and human rights I don’t get her attention, but when I point out that this year she’ll have to double her spending to just maintain her current level of purchasing power, she is interested and exclaims, ‘this needs to change’.”

Sánchez spoke of the diversity of opposition movements on the island, although she emphasized that their principal limitation continues to be the state’s communication media monopoly. “In Cuba there is a great underground market for information,” she said, adding that technology is key to overcoming this barrier.

The Forum also included the writers Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, Álvaro Vargas Llosa y Carlos Alberto Montaner, who presented their latest book, “Últimas noticias del nuevo idiota iberoamericano (Ed. Planeta)” [Latest News from the New Ibero-American Idiot, (Planet Publishers)]. The three authors — Colombian, Peruvian and Cuban, respectively — returned to analyzing the changes that have occurred in various Latin American countries and Spain, almost 20 years after the publication of their “Manual del perfecto idiota latinoamericano” [Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot].

Carlos Alberto Montaner pointed out that “the idiot is now also part of political life in Spain” and that the stability of Spain’s democracy is endangered by the presence of radical groups. “If that strange popular front were to become institutionalized and politically powerful, the country would head towards economic folly and alienate investors”, he added.

Nine Cuban activists travelled from the island to attend the Forum. However, Venezuelan opposition member María Corina Machado was unable to attend, having been barred from travelling outside the country because of her alleged implication in a plot to destabilize the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Repaying Debts With Loyalty / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 4 July 2014 – The Cuban government has sided with Russia on every vote in the United Nations that has concerned Ukraine. It is a surprising outcome in a country that has traditionally defended concepts such as the self-determination of peoples, sovereignty and territorial integrity as key survival issues; a country which now looks kindly on the transfer of immense and rich Ukrainian territories to the control of Moscow.

Also noteworthy is the attention the government has devoted to discrediting its peaceful opponents, labeling them “mercenaries in service to the empire,” given that it has coined the term “independent militias” as a part of its official language, targeted to those who, with the undeniable support of Russia, are leading an authentic operation of imperial expansionism.

But loyalty is profitable and on Friday the lower house of the Russian parliament ratified the cancellation of 90% of Cuba’s debt with the extinct Soviet Union. The gesture will save the Island from a payout of 31.7 billion dollars.

The Russian-Cuban accord, now ratified by the Duma, also provides that the remaining 3.5 billion that makes up the old debt will be paid over ten years and that the amount will be placed in special accounts dedicated exclusively to investments in the Cuban economy.

He who pays with loyalty runs no risks. The one left in a delicate position is he who collects under this concept, because once the debts are settled, the insolvent debtor can suspend his commitments without anyone being able to claim anything.

When Vladimir Putin steps foot on Cuban soil this coming 11 July he will sign the agreements and joint statements, none of which will compel a future commitment to vote for or against Russia in international forums. Clearly I’m speaking of that future we so greatly desire, that future after the change.

4 July 2014

Producers of Shoddy Work: Beware! / 14ymedio, Katia Tabares

Wooden toys (14ymedio)
Wooden toys (14ymedio)
  • The 2014 ONDI Awards to outstanding Cuban designers cause us to reflect on the limitations suffered by these professionals.
  • Several winners from years past no longer live in Cuba – they have moved on in search of new professional horizons.

14ymedio, Katia Tabares, Havana, 27 May 2014 — Within the first minutes of conversation with a designer, one realizes that caution is in order. Just as if, while facing a dentist friend, we might smile on just one side of our face so that our cavities wouldn’t show, when we find ourselves around these design professionals, it is best to watch ourselves. Their trained eyes will spot the poorly-lettered sign we’ve hung on the door, the kitschy centerpiece on the table, and the cut of our shirt that binds our arms. Then will we have fallen under the “dictatorship” of visual, functional and decorative quality. May Design have mercy on us!

This is how I felt this past weekend while viewing winners of the 2014 ONDI Awards, given every two years by the National Office of Industrial Design. Exhibited in the gallery of La Rampa cinema, in the capital neighborhood of El Vedado, these images represent a wide variety of conceptual and esthetic solutions. The first prize went to Luis Manuel Ramirez who developed a lighting system and other objects for the home, featuring quality, good taste and potential adaptability to multiple circumstances.

If we attend the exhibition accompanied by the smallest members of the household, they might remain attached to the toys designed by Adriana Horta Ramos and Eduardo Velazco Alvarez, who won the prize in the student category. Using wood as their primary material, these novelties for children ages 3 to 6 are a major cut above the plastic and tacky products that populate the display windows of our stores. continue reading

There is much to admire, as the laurels were distributed among various categories, such as Visual Communication Design, Industrial, Furniture and Apparel, in addition to a Design Project Award. From simple pieces for daily living such as Ernesto Iglesias Diaz’s functional spice containers that won Honorable Mention, to the interior design of the New Varadero International Hotel by Carla Oraa Calzadilla, recognized for its optimum use of space, lighting and furniture selection.

One of the honors went to the project to update the interface of the Infomed digital portal, used by Public Health professionals. It is accessible from the so-called “intranet”, for those users who possess an email connection and nationwide navigation capability. For years this portal has been crying out for an upgrade to its disheveled appearance and is now on its way to achieving it. Yondainer Gutierrez Fernandez and Yelene Bequer Crespo have taken on this task, although the actual carrying-out of their proposal remains to be done.

Cuban design is trapped between two contrary forces: the quality of its professionals and the few opportunities for these professionals to make their ideas reality.

Cuban design is trapped between two contrary forces: the quality of its professionals and the few opportunities for these professionals to make their ideas reality. The exodus of a good portion of the graduates of the Institute of Industrial Design (ISDI) points to the dearth of possibilities for the professionals of this field in our country. If right now there were a celebration in the works to bring together previous years’ winners of the ONDI Awards, we would have to await their arrival from all latitudes of the planet where most of them reside.

The material restrictions, the devaluing of good design in projects ranging from a cafeteria interior to a school uniform, make it so the graduates of this specialization see little hope of gaining true recognition for their work, beyond prizes and awards that hardly make good living room decorations. At certain levels, our society underappreciates the detailed work of these adepts in typography, color schemes and drafting. Bureaucrats and high-level officials don’t seem willing to bend toward the “exquisiteness” of good taste. They inhabit the realm of shoddiness, improvisation and arbitrary form.

Our streets are filled with political billboards that look like they came out of a word processor equipped solely with Times New Roman font, bold, red only, and exclamation points galore. Coarse writing, overused symbols, out-of-date visual cues that don’t even work on children, continue to permeate televised ideological propaganda and the design of many public places. Timid official discourse is accompanied by an equally moth-eaten esthetic.

However, a breath of hope traverses these days on 23rd Street in the area around La Rampa cinema. If at least half of the design projects exhibited within these walls were carried out, we would no longer be ashamed to stand before a designer and smile, show off our shirt, the home decoration, the recently painted sign. We would have gained at least a few centimeters on that bad taste that extends in so many directions.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

The Loneliness of the Tobacco Growers / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Farmer with tobacco leaves
Farmer with tobacco leaves

Reinaldo Escobar, Pinar del Rio, 5 July 2014

The tobacco growers of San Juan y Martinez listened — between astonishment and helplessness – to the National Assembly debates. They expected that their difficulties and the problems of payment would be addressed during the discussions of some committee. They were disappointed.

In the Rafael Morán, cooperative, located in the town of San Juan y Martinez, frustration spread among the farmers. Just weeks earlier, the producers had been visited by a representative of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), representatives of the Communist Party in the town, and several members of the National Tabacuba Business. The tobacco farmers expressed their difficulties and complaints to these officials.

The meeting was part of the government campaign called “We’re going for more …” whose visible face was Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura. The State offensive to improve production led to these meetings between the producers and the authorities of the sector. In the meetings the feeling of many producers emerged, some of which asserted publicly that “If there’s no change in the price of tobacco, it is going to be very difficult.” continue reading

Among the main complaints expressed by the tobacco farmers was the discrepancy between the real costs of producing tobacco and the price that the state companies pay for dried tobacco. According to the official figures, it should cost a farmer 1.255 Cuban pesos (CUP) to produce 100 pounds of tobacco, but in reality the costs far exceed the official estimate.

Even the slightest setback so that leads the tobacco harvest to being considered “affected,” which lowers its price and leaves the producer in arrears. The disagreement with the payments made by State, the only permitted buyer, for the so-called “affected tobacco,” also showed up at the meeting. This supposedly damaged raw material is used industrially in the production of cigarettes. In the case of the plantations of San Juan y Martinez, the “affected leaves” are excellent quality and quality cigars and cigarettes can be made with them.

“It brings in great wealth in hard currency, and yet the peasant loses,” the producer laments.

The State standards establish that tobacco is “affected” if it doesn’t have good colors nor an adequate constitution to be considered high quality. But this doesn’t justify the paltry price of 345 Cuban pesos (CUP) per 100 pounds, established by the official valuation. If a farmer has the least amount affected, then he loses all the economic support that could pay for the crop. For its part, the State gets huge dividends, especially in the international market.

Hence, the concern of these tobacco growers on seeing that the National Assembly hasn’t been informed that there is no review process for the popularly called “purchase law.” The absence of any discussion of this subject made the growers feel cheated and forgotten. In the case of Pinar del Rio the prices are higher than in other provinces, so the dissatisfaction is higher in other tobacco-growing regions of the country.

“We haven’t seen our demands reflected,” claims Néstor Pérez González. “We also discussed the situation of poverty in the area, which is reflected in the farmers’ standard of living and doesn’t reflect the fact that this municipality exceed its tobacco production goals,” the farmer says.

During the conversation Néstor Pérez expressed his concern without restraint.” This year has been critical, so we are predicting a worse economic scenario for the area.” The crop damage has been caused by excessive rainfall during the period. A consequence of this situation is that the farmers have perceived the injustice of low payments for the so-called “affected tobacco” more seriously. “It will be affected, but it brings in great wealth in hard currency, and yet the peasant loses,” the producer laments.

“The so-called ‘cost sheets’ that they are offering us are well below the real costs of production; thus our demand that the prices should be raised,” says Juan Pablo, who combines his tobacco with the growing of lowers and fruit. The problem greatly affects the cooperatives such as the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPC).

The tobacco growers have taken the pulse of the situation and feel that are being left aside. “We had the illusion that the Assembly would reflect and we would glimpse some change.” However, the last parliamentary session has brought more frustration than hope to the tobacco growing area of San Juan y Martinez and the mythical Hoyo de Monterrey.

It’s a Long Way to Cyprus! / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 3 July 2014 — Yesterday on the bus, with the summer heat and after the long wait at the stop, two men commented loudly on their annoyance. “This sure doesn’t happen in Cyprus!” one said to the other, and laughter rang out all over the bus. He was referring to a monologue by the comedian Nelson Gudín, which has become a viral phenomenon on the alternative distribution network for videos. The actor plays a drunk who, among many other absurdities, complains about the space given in the national media to relating the problems of other countries, while remaining silent on ours. The old technique of “the mote in another’s eye…” which is one of the pillars of the official Cuban press.

Unemployment, corruption, economic cuts and social unrest… in Cyprus… were a topic of discussion and analysis by the panelists on the Roundtable show on several occasions. To underpin the axiom that “it’s hell out there and paradise in here,” the unpopular TV program placed a special emphasis on the difficulties being experienced by this member state of the European Union. So much time and so many reflections were dedicated to it, that the character played by Gudín ended up commenting, “Huh?… I didn’t know we were living in Cyprus?” The sarcastic phrase has almost become a slogan on our streets.

Just let an official delay some paperwork, for an ironic voice to note, “this guy surely comes from Cyprus.” That lady who is out of work due to economic adjustments, “is probably Cypriot,” her acquaintances will comment maliciously. Not to mention the empty shelves because of shortages; “It shouldn’t happen in Havana, only in Nicosia,” a frustrated customer claimed a few days ago. “At this rate, we’ll know more about the antagonisms between the Greeks and the Turks than about our own national problems,” a university professor pointed out to his students.

By the work and grace of the ideologues of the official press our principal preoccupations no longer take the form of an island in the Caribbean, but of this other one in the far off Mediterranean, where all the problems are concentrated.

“El Sexto” or the King of Spray / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

El Sexto at his home in Havana (14ymedio)
El Sexto at his home in Havana (14ymedio)

We spoke with El Sexto, the young man who has made graffiti one more method of denunciation.

Yoani Sánchez, Havana | June 26, 2014 – Winking at art, a non-authorized decoration on the walls, graffiti maintains its irreverent and clandestine air that distances itself from galleries and approaches our eyes.

If one day there is a tour of Cuban graffiti, it will have to include this gangly young man called El Sexto*. A character of the night, of agile fingers, he has marked facades, bridges and traffic signs all over Havana with his art.

Many consider him an artist, others accuse him of vandalizing the city and marking landmark places, but, how does El Sexto see and construe himself?

Question: Graffiti, performances, paintings, charcoal draawings… you work in many techniques.

Answer: I have tried to insert new technologies in my work as well. For example, I developed a line of placing QR codes (quick response code) messages about Cuban society and politics. After leaving them stuck to walls, on products in the market, on the wall of a cell in the police station… People were very curious tio know what the little quadrangle filled with pixels was saying, so they would look for someone with a smart phone with the QR reader application to understand them.

Then they would read the message: “El Sexto,” “Down with the Castros!” or the dissemination of some event on the alternative scene. It was a form of mocking censorship through new technologies.

Question: Many Cuban artists opt for the metaphor, perhaps to stay out of trouble and to not be censored. You go for an ever more direct language. Has no institution approached you to organize an exposition?

Answer: So far no one has approached me to present my work in any institutional gallery. I am an artist outside the permitted limits. Although the official world doesn’t accept me, other Cuban artists have offered me solidarity and encouragement. At first I thought that the art scene wasn’t looking at me, didn’t know my work. However, I’ve been in contact with some major figures such as Ezequiel Suárez, Garaicoa, Los Carpinteros, and to my surprise they value my art and are up to speed on what I’m doing. This has given me greater commitment to my work and makes me improve every project I undertake.

“I had to look out for the guards at the Museum of the Revolution in order to paint on the façade of the Museum of Fine Arts.”

Question: Can you talk about the graffiti movement in Cuba?

Answer: Yes, there are young people who are joining this phenomenon. Right now, I am working with a group that sees in the idea of painting walls as also being a way of promoting social phenomena. Helping to give a face and form to figures of the alternative scene and also artistic, technological and even journalistic projects. We create graffiti, flyers, umbrellas, shirts… with the symbols that distinguish these projects and to go to public places where people ask, “And this, what’s this?” A way of arousing curiosity and disseminating these phenomena.

Question: In the last year you left the country for the first time and you were in Miami. How did that first trip abroad go?

Answer: It’s been very important in my life. Especially the stay in Miami where I could meet so many Cubans and see what they’ve managed to achieve. That gave me a lot of happiness but it also made me very sad to think of all the lives that have been shattered on this side because they don’t have freedom to fulfill themselves. I learned a lot about publicity; it nurtured me, the ways in which people want to spread an idea among as many people as possible. But I also understood on those trips that I am here, in the street, I need the Cuban streets to realize my art and to inspire me. So I returned home.

El Sexto’s signature on a traffic sign  (14ymedio)
El Sexto’s signature on a traffic sign (14ymedio)

Question: You were also in The Hague, Netherlands, what did you do there?

Answer: My art tries to call attention to what is happening here. So in The Hague I gave a public performance – which coincided with the so-called Night of the Museums in that city – where I used a 24-yard chain to convey the sensation of confinement and lack of freedom that we experience in Cuba. It was very cold and my body was totally shaking in the street, while people waited in long lines to enter the museum halls, also joining the piece and creating a great impact on those who were watching.

“In The Hague I performed with a 24-yard chain to convey the feeling of confinement we experience in Cuba.”

Question: You’re always living with one foot in the street and the other in jail. Are you afraid?

Answer: I’ve been given many fines for painting facades, fines I will never pay, because it’s my art. This has been a path to my individual freedom, I’m going to build myself toward greater sincerity. Even if I’m taken prisoner tomorrow, I will continue doing it.

Question: Of all your graffiti, which do you like best?

Answer: The one that has come farthest with me is my signature, El Sexto, and although I like them all, that one in particular took me a lot of work because of the place where I did it. I had to look out for the guards at the Museum of the Revolution in order to paint on the façade of the Museum of Fine Arts, so there I am, in that place, despite censorship.

Question: Future projects?

Answer: I’m going to do a performance that has a lot to do with the direction of my career. I still don’t have a date but I’m working on it. It will be a piece in which I will refine with my art and my own body the wall where I will paint it.

Translator’s note: Follow the link for an explanation of the nom-de-plume “El Sexto,” whose given name is Danilo Maldonado Machado.

26 June 2014