The Risks of Journalism / Yoani Sanchez

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 May 2015 – If you has asked me a year ago what would be the three greatest challenges of the digital newspaper 14ymedio, I would have said repression, lack of connection to the Internet, and media professionals being afraid to work on our team. I did not imagine that the another obstacle would become the principal headache of this informative little paper: the lack of transparency in Cuban institutions, which has found us many times before a closed door and no matter how hard we knock, no one opens or provides answers.

In a country where State institutions refuse to provide the citizen with certain information that should be public, the situation becomes much more complicated for the reporter. Dealing with the secrecy turns out to be as difficult as evading the political police, tweeting “blind,” or becoming used to the opportunism and silence of so many colleagues. Information is militarized and guarded in Cuba as if there is a war of technology, which is why those who try to find out are taken, at the very least, as spies. continue reading

Belonging to an outlawed media makes the work even more problematic, and gives a clandestine character to a job that should be a profession like any other. Now, if we look at “the glass half full,” the limitation of not being able to access official spaces has freed us, in 14ymedio, from that journalism of “statements” that produces such harmful effects. To quote an official, to collect the words of a minister, or to transcribe the official proclamation of a Party leader, has been for decades the refuge of those who do not dare to narrate the reality of this country.

Lacking a press credential to enter an event, we have approached its participants in a less controlled setting, one where they have felt more free to speak

Our principal limitation has become the best incentive to seek out more creative ways of to inform. Government silence about so many issues has motivated us to find other voices that can relate what happened. Lacking a press credential to enter an event, we have approached its participants in a less controlled setting, one where they have felt more free to speak. From Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who answered several of our questions outside the press conference where our access was denied, to employees who alert us in whispers about an act of corruption in their companies or anonymous messages that put us on the trail of an injustice.

It has also been hard to work out our true role as providers of information, which is different from the role of a judge, a human rights activist and a political opponent. It is our role to make facts visible, so that others can condemn or applaud them. In short, as journalists we have the responsibility to inform, but not the power to impute.

Nor can we justify our failings because we are outlawed, persecuted, stigmatized and rejected. No reader is going to forgive us if we are not in the exact place of history’s twists and turns.

Cuba has 11,000 sources of pollution that affect water / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Ditch with sewage from the town of Guanabo, east of Havana. (Luz Escobar)
Ditch with sewage from the town of Guanabo, east of Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 20 May 2015 – On World Environment Day, this coming 5 June, Cuba will have 11,000 sources of pollution that affect ground water and coastal areas. This information was updated by Odalis Goicochea, Director of the Environment at that Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA), in a press conference Monday.

The figure is very alarming, especially when we take into account our dwindling water reserves. 2014 was the driest year reported since the beginning of this century, and 2015 looks like it wants to compete for this negative record. With a long and narrow island and with no major surface or underground water resources, the country needs to do a better job of managing its waste stream to protect the water. continue reading

The town of Guanabo, east of Havana, is a clear example of the drama that is damaging our most precious natural resource. Part of the sewage from the urban area ends up in the sea and is mixed with the water where people swim. In some areas, the air stinks from the waste exposed in ditches and ponds, becoming an epidemiological danger and contributing to environmental degradation in areas crossed by the filth.

2014 was the driest year reported since the beginning of this century, and 2015 looks like it wants to compete for this negative record

The residents have appealed to every agency, even writing complaints to the “Letters to the Editor” section of the newspaper Granma. However, the town continues down the slippery slope of apathy and ecological damage. “Before this was a nice beach, when families came with their children, but now the number of people coming is greatly diminished,” says Agustin, a resident of the area who has a home where he hosts tourists near to the famous Horses of Guanbo.

According to the latest report from CITMA, Cuba needs large investments in the environment, although the text also stressed that the provinces of Villa Clara, Holguin and Artemisa have improved environmental management in recent years, such that the latter has been selected to host the activities for World Environment Day. But there is a long road ahead, especially in the proper recycling of waste, the creation of a social conscience of respect for nature and the application of legal penalties to entities and individuals who contribute to the deterioration of the environment.

The country urgently needs to begin implementing solutions, because every day that passes water is slipping through the fingers of indolence.

May 20, That Hole in Our Memory / Reinaldo Escobar

On 20 May 1902, Cuba gained its independence from the United States of America
On 20 May 1902, Cuba gained its independence from the United States of America

Desde Aqui, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 May 2015 — Yesterday I invited my granddaughters to get ice cream. To boast of her knowledge, the oldest, who is in the third grade, said to me: “Today marks the 120th anniversary of the death in combat of José Martí, our National Hero.” She said it with the same pride in wisdom with which one day, many years ago, I alerted my parents to the fact that the earth was round.

“And tomorrow, May 20, what will we celebrate?” I asked her, imitating the emphasis of schoolteacher. Almost arrogantly she responded, “On May 20 nothing happened.”

As she was born in the 21st Century I invited her to look for the significance of the date on a phone app containing Wikipedia, which she could consult without an Internet connection. Surprise! The text there reads: “1902: Cuba achieves independence from the United States of America.” continue reading

But the newspaper Granma wasn’t having it: In the top right corner of the last page, where anniversaries often appear under the heading “Today in History,” it said: “1902: The neocolonial republic was installed in Cuba.”

I can foresee that in the future, that bright morning of the first day of the year will not be remembered as the end of a dictatorship, but as the beginning of another

The protagonists of History are not to blame for how the future interprets their acts. For example, the massacred aboriginals who inhabited our beautiful island never could have suspected the enthusiasm with which Cubans would celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Spanish colonial settlements. The people of Bayamo who watched their properties burn could never have imagined the degree of voluntary unanimity today attributed to the glorious fire of 1869. No one could have convinced those who lost a son, a father, a brother in the bloody events of 26 July 1953, that that date would be a national holiday.

On May 20, 1902 dozens of countries around the world publicly recognized the advent of Cuba as an independent nation. The joy was massive, sincere and overwhelming. And I do not say unrepeatable because 56 years later there was a first of January on which Cubans never thought that a tyrannical regime would be installed in Cuba.

I can foresee that in the future, that bright morning of the first day of the year will not be remembered as the end of a dictatorship, but as the beginning of another. Nor that when my great-grandchildren are asked what happened on that date, they will respond “nothing happened that day.”

Tania Bruguera’s Tribute to Hannah Arendt Worries Cuban State Security / 14ymedio

Tania Bruguera during her performance (14ymedio)
Tania Bruguera during her performance (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 20 May 2015 — Wednesday morning the artist Tania Bruguera began more than 100 hours of consecutive reading, analysis and discussion of Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism. The event, which started in the presence of a dozen people, began in the “Hannah Arendt International Artivism Institute,” which is named after the renowned German philosopher.

The artistic action comes just at a time when galleries and cultural centers throughout the entire city are engaged in getting ready for the start, this coming Friday, for the Havana Biennial. Bruguera is not invited to the official event, but has joined the alternative artists’ circuit staging performances, expositions and shows of their current works.

Hours before the reading, Bruguera was visited by two members of State Security, who expressed their concern because the artist had bought audio equipment. They also let her know that they were aware that she intended to “go out into the street” at the conclusion of the event and warned her not to do so.

According to what was made known in the announcement, the newly opened Hannah Arendt International Artivism Institute, “proposed to provide a platform for research into the theoretical-practical approach for a socially committed art, and for a specific political moment.” Its headquarters is located in Bruguera’s home, at 214 Tejadillo Street, in Old Havana.

Yoani Sanchez Wins 2015 Knight International Journalism Award / 14ymedio

Logo of the International Center for Journalists
Logo of the International Center for Journalists

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 19 May 2015 – The director of 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, has won the 2015 Knight International Journalism Award, the International Center for Journalists reported today. Priyanka Dubey, an independent Indian journalist has won the same award for exposing the atrocities of rapes, child trafficking and forced labor through her in-depth reporting, despite threats from human traffickers and gangs in her country.

The award, which will be delivered in Washington DC on November 10, has as its objective to honor journalists who, through pioneering work or technological innovation, have produced high-quality information and news that has had a significant impact on the lives of people in the developing world. continue reading

Yoani Sánchez has overcome censorship, arrests and poor Internet access to give the world a rare glimpse of daily life under Cuba’s communist regime and to open the door for other independent voices” read a press note on the announcement.

“Our winners this year show uncommon resolve in tackling censorship and sexual violence,” said ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan. “Thanks to their courageous reporting, Cuba’s closed society is more open and India’s democratic society is more responsive to the plight of abused women.”

“These winners are committed to upholding the best principles of journalism—acting as information leaders in communities that need it most and capturing stories in new and innovative ways,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “Their work continues to have wide impact and holds valuable lessons,” she concluded.

What will happen in Cuba? / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The new generations will also have to define what will happen in Cuba. (Franck Vervial / Flickr)
The new generations will also have to define what will happen in Cuba. (Franck Vervial / Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana 16 May 2015 – On the back of a copy of the I Ching were examples of questions about which one might consult this Chinese. Should I marry X? Is this the time to take a trip to Y? What will happen in Cuba? The readers of this copy from 43 years ago have had time to find out for themselves who they ended up sharing their lives with, or where they went on vacation. The situation for those of us who asked the ominous book about the fate of the Island has been very different.

The question written on that cover has continued to haunt me, as it has so many other Cubans. From restless foreigners who tried to practice their Spanish and ended up wanting to know the nation’s destiny, to foreign journalists, Cubanologists of all stripes, academics from various disciplines, politicians and career diplomats, coming from whatever part of the world. At one point or another our conversation always slid into the question: What is going to happen in this country? continue reading

After 17 December 2014, the question picked up steam. Hypotheses about possible scenarios are leaving behind the options of eternal immobility, foreign invasion and social explosion. At the same time, gaining credibility if the assumption that the driving force for change will come from above, in a more or less controlled form and with the critical approval of former foreign enemies. But anyone could predict that. What is lacking is the details.

Hypotheses about possible scenarios are leaving behind the options of eternal immobility, foreign invasion and social explosion

All indications are that on 24 February 2018, Cuba will unveil a president elected under the rules of the new Electoral Law. The characteristics of the person who holds this responsibility will be determined in line with the democratic character of the new regulations. If the current practice of a nominating committee that draws up a list of candidates or deputies is maintained, if it continues to be prohibited for candidates to present their programs, and if the current method in which the National Assembly appoints the president of the Council of State is prolonged, then the presidential chair will be filled by someone designated by those in power.

Exclusion as a policy / 14ymedio, Fernando Damaso

The Cuban flag serves as a symbol of the nation (14ymedio)
The Cuban flag serves as a symbol of the nation (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Fernando Dámaso, Havana, May 17 2015 – The Cuban government, since it seized power on January 1959, has maintained an authoritarian and exclusive approach to politics. Patriots, Cubans and citizens are considerations that have only been extended to those who unconditionally support the establishment. Those who do not or who simply criticize it are deemed unpatriotic, traitors, and anti-socials.

This system is primitive in its simplicity, but it has been useful. This absurd and unnatural positioning has been applied to everything: democracy, liberty, human rights, unity, opposition and many other terms have been redefined according to the ideological and political interests of those who govern, giving the impression that the Island exists in an unreal political and geographical space, outside of planet Earth. continue reading

Difference has never been accepted; instead it has been repressed: a sad example is that of the so-called Military Units to Aid Protection or UMAPs (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción), those camps where thousands of citizens were forced into labor because of their religion, sexual preferences, fashion choices, or rejection of the authorities.

Only a few years ago, more for circumstantial political convenience than humanitarianism, different religious and sexual preferences were officially accepted, although in day-to-day practice, they continue to be regarded with reticence by a large part of the authorities. However, never have ideological and political differences been accepted, according to authorities, “due to the need to maintain national unity in the face of the enemy’s aggressions.”

Lately, in line with the atmosphere of dialogue between the governments of Cuba and the United States, although neither the aggressive language nor the violence have stopped, some topics regarded as taboo for many years have been put on the table. That of civil society, which had been banished from official discourse, as well as that of democracy and human rights are now very much present. Of course, it could not be any other way, “our civil society” is now spoken of, and for some time now “our democracy” and “the human rights which we defend” are pronounced. They seem to be the government’s private property, which, ironically, it has always frowned upon. Once again, exclusion reveals itself.

To attempt, as is the case today, to internationally legitimize governmental organizations as the only members of Cuban civil society is aberrant

There is only one civil society and it belongs to the country, it includes as many organizations and associations that support the government as it does those that question it, reject it or simply are not interested in politics and are dedicated to issues of ecology, religion, art, and others. To attempt, as is the case today, to internationally legitimize governmental organizations as the only members of Cuban civil society is aberrant.

The issue is not founded upon rejecting current organizations because they support the government, but because they are bodies of the same, which organizes, directs, controls, and finances them. Nobody accepts that they, with what their members may be able to contribute, can sustain themselves economically, maintain their bulky bureaucratic apparatuses, premises, transportation, defray intense propaganda campaigns and travel costs, organize and hold meetings, workshops, and even congresses, with the participation of dozens of foreign invitees, for whom all travel expenses are paid.

The Cuban nation is also only one, despite the authorities’ claims of owning it, taking into consideration only their supporters and excluding everyone else.

What’s even worse is that this governmental malpractice, perhaps due to having lived under its influence for too many years, has been adopted by some members of the opposition who not only apply it to the authorities but also to those who, within their own ranks, do not share their political opinions, not taking into consideration the serious injuries that doing so inflicts on themselves and, more importantly, on the opposition and, as a result, on Cuba. Today, we must do whatever it takes; leave personal differences aside and search for unity in order to save the country. There needs to be a real and responsible unity of all Cubans, regardless of how they think and without exclusion, for the good of the nation.

This month, we Cubans remember two important dates: May 19, the 120th anniversary of José Martí’s fall in combat, and May 20, which marks 113 years since the foundation of the Republic. In all of Cuba’s history, no one has been more inclusive than the Apostle, as José Martí is called among us. His thought, “the homeland is the fortune of all, and the pain of all, and skies for all, but no one’s fief or chaplaincy” and his dream of “a nation with all and for the good of all” still constitute matters unresolved. Let us dedicate our best efforts to their attainment.

Translated by Fernando Fornaris

“The Cuban people must get their voice back to begin the transition” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Rosa Maria Paya

Rosa María Payá. (14ymedio)
Rosa María Payá. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 17 May 2012 — In the summer of 2012, Rosa María Payá had just started out in the political arena. She moved among the young people who animated the Varela Project, El Camino del Pueblo (The Path of the People) and the Heredia Project, initiated by the Christian Liberation Movement founded by her father, the dissident Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas. Now 26 years old, she has two missions that consume most of her time. The first, is demanding an independent investigation into the death of her father, for the government to explain an “accident” which she believes was an attack. The second is leading the project Cuba Decides, which promotes a referendum on a proposal to hold free elections in the country.

Escobar: Your departure from Cuba came less than two years ago. How do you see the situation in the country upon your return?

Payá: We left Cuba under political persecution. The persecution against my father and my family before the attack, that ended his and Harold Cepero’s lives, continued after they died and became increasingly intense. They chased my brother when he was driving my dad’s car and did so in cars that have the same make as those that were chasing my father and that finally rammed [the car he was traveling in] on 22 July 2012. In addition, they did it with uniformed people, so that everyone — not only my family but also the local people — was aware of it. continue reading

We had always been persecuted, but this time they were doing it in an ostentatious way. There were also death threats over the phone, they began to spread slanders and defamations about us, they published those articles of the penal code which according to them would provide a reason to imprison us, accusing us of defamation. The situation became untenable and we decided to leave the country for the United States. Our experience was very dramatic. They ultimately killed my father and Harold and the danger was very great.

“These definitions of final departure, of living forever in one country or another, belong to the language of totalitarianism.”

This is my country and I will never stop living in Cuba. The center of my return has been to honor the memory of my father and to visit his grave. I would also like to get to Chambas in Ciego de Avila where the remains of Harold Cepero rest. If I do not do it now I will do it another time. With this I put on the table that there be an independent investigation into the death of my father, an issue that has been taken up by the Cuban democratic movement and political and intellectual personalities worldwide.

Escobar. You are now visiting Cuba. Do you have plans to return, even to stay more permanently?

Payá. Where I am visiting is the United States. I interrupted this visit to come to my own country. These definitions of final departure, of living forever in one country or another, belong to the language of totalitarianism. The Cuban government still keeps intact the power to decide whose departure is permanent and who is not allowed to return.

There are many people who cannot enter and others who cannot leave and I’m not just talking about opponents, such as the Group of 75; I’m talking about professionals who “for issues of the public interest” cannot travel, perhaps, and as one example, a doctor because he is the only neurologist in Holguin. Freedom of movement that gives the right to enter and leave the country is not guaranteed. The times I leave Cuba, the times I decide to be outside of Cuba and the government’s repression with respect to limiting my freedom of movement are situations that are real.

Escobar. During your stay in the United States you have had the opportunity to talk to many people, and even with part of the US delegation participating in the talks with the Cuban government. Have you talked to them about your demand for an independent investigation into the deaths of Oswaldo and Harold?

Payá. The Government of the United States, from the United States Congress itself, has publicly called for this independent investigation to be carried out. More recently, on the occasions that I have met with Mrs. Roberta Jacobson and at the White House with Mr. Ricardo Zuniga, I have had the opportunity to bring it up. Because if this had been previously a request to the American government, now that they are talking with the Cuban government it should also be one of the issues discussed. I have understood that the matter has been talked about, but so far I don’t know what the response of the Cuban government has been.

My father denounced “the fraud change,” this process of scrubbing its image started by the Cuban government in the face of the international community

Escobar. There is a lot of debate about whether the government’s reforms are going to lead to a transition and also a lot of debate about the validity of the conversations that were announced on 17 December. What is your opinion on all this?

Payá. My father denounced and exposed what he called “the fraud change,” referring to this process of reforms and the scrubbing of its image started by the Cuban government in the face of the international community. But without recognizing the rights of Cubans, without actually, for Cubans, substantially changing things. In fact they have barely changed except maybe for the fact that there are more paladares (private restaurants).

The wellbeing of Cubans is still not a priority and of course they continue to violate our fundamental rights. There has been an effort to change the image at the international level that has borne fruit. We are experiencing a process where it seems that the international community is very interested in including the Cuban State in the family of world nations. We have seen it with the Organization of American States, in the negotiations promoted by Obama and in the process of negotiations with the European Union.

It seems very good to us that Cuba is included, but Cuba is not the Cuban Government. The citizens remain excluded precisely because they lack a tool to participate, because they do not enjoy basic human rights.

Escobar. Cuba Decides, this project that you are now promoting, could that be this tool?

Payá. The National Assembly of People’s Power never responded to the request of thousands of Cubans presented in the Varela Project. There we asked for a referendum. Cuba Decides is a project that in some way gives the appropriate continuity to that demand, that doesn’t come from any political party nor from any organization of civil society, but from the citizenry. It is a demand that is not based in any political color, it has no partisan position.

Escobar. So Cuba Decides is not a project of the Christian Liberation Movement?

Payá. All the opposition political parties and all civil society organizations are invited to take up the campaign. I repeat: it is not from a political platform because it has no political color. We are specifically demanding that they ask Cubans if, after 67 years in which there have not been ​​free and multi-party elections, they want a process of free, fair and multi-party elections, recognition of different political parties and access to the media. Do they want this process of free, multi-party and fair elections, yes or no?

“We demand that Cubans be asked if they want free, fair and multi-party elections, yes or no”

Escobar. Are you counting on the backing of the Christian Liberation Movement to carry out the project Cuba Decides?

Payá. My opinion is yes, but the project has no owner. If tomorrow someone goes out into the street saying “I Am Cuba Decides,” he is Cuba Decides. Anyone is Cuba Decides. The point is that we have invited many organizations to participate, we have not left anyone out, but we have not based it within any one [person or organization].

Escobar. Recently, the Government announced that it intends to adopt a new electoral law that would be in effect for the elections of 2018. Among various actors in Cuban civil society, especially in the context of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum, there has emerged the initiative to maintain a storm of ideas so that each one adds to what we think should be in new electoral law. How do you see this initiative?

Payá. This initiative seems very good to me and I believe it complements what Cuba Decides is asking for. In fact, the Varela Project includes elements of an electoral law that is very specific on what changes there have to be in the current law to have minimally democratic and free elections. A representative part of the Cuban citizenry has already demanded those changes. It is interesting and opportune that this exercise is being done from within civil society. The Varela Project is one proposal, and there have been others, demonstrating that there is the capacity and diversity to design the country we Cubans want.

Escobar. Do you feel yourself to be a leader for the future?

Payá. The Cuban Government cannot claim to represent Cubans because it has not been democratically elected by its people. Nor have we as the opposition been elected. I do think that the opposition and civil society represent the vanguard of citizenship, but I do not want to speak for Cubans because Cubans never elected me. I have a proposal: that Cubans have a voice. I love the exercises that are being done and the proposals that are being presented. The Cuban people must get their voice back, not to begin democracy but to begin the transition. Cuba Decides is one citizen initiative and we invite everyone to participate, joining with us to demand that Cubans have the right to decide.

This would be the trigger to get to a stage in which the proposals of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum can be presented and face the citizenry. Cuba Decides is not intended to replace other projects, nor presented as the only way. It is one step among others.

Russia and Raúl Castro’s Mediating Role / 14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenechea

Raúl Castro and Vladimir Putin in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution in July 2014. (EFE/Alejandro Ernesto)
Raúl Castro and Vladimir Putin in Havana’s Palace of the Revolution in July 2014. (EFE/Alejandro Ernesto)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Jose Gabriel Barrenechea, Santa Clara, 5 May 2014 — Russia is not the West’s Enemy, with a capital “E.” And even if it were, it would not be taken seriously. Russia is no longer the industrial superpower of the ’70’s and ’80’s, nor is it a leader in innovation. Its population is dwindling to catastrophic levels, as its share of GDP in comparison to those of other countries. It is indeed true its army is still the only one that can face the American army in all-out symmetrical war, but for how much longer?

In fact, Russia is not the enemy because it shares real enemies with the West, the enemies we really should fear. And we share them because Russia is part of the West. continue reading

The proof of this not only lies in Russia’s Christian tradition, but more importantly, it is one of the countries that has influenced Western culture the most. If you make a list of the ten most important figures in any scientific field, technology, the arts, music, philosophical inquiry, or of the literature of our Western civilization that have paved innovative and unforeseen paths, said list would invariably include at least one Russian surname.

Russia’s problem has been, as compared, for example, to France or Spain, that the segment of its society that has supported rationalism (and I mean rationalism as defined by Karl Popper) has not been able to replace the traditional and instinctively Russian characteristics of its society. As a matter of fact, Russian rationalism, which peaked at the end of the 19th century until approximately 1925, has been repeatedly purged by a pseudo-rationalistic survival method derived from tradition and national instincts. This pseudo-rationalism, a form of modernized half-baked Asiatic culture, started winning the race once the Bolshevik counterrevolution dissolved the constitutional convention of 1917, culminating with Stalin’s rise to power.

Needles to say, the continuing success of “Asiatic culture” in Russia has had a lot to do with mistaken impression the rest of the West has of it. This was understandable when the West indisputably ruled the world, and every nation fought for its piece of the pie. But now that is not the case at all. It is very clear that in this moment in time our civilization and its values are beginning to lose the unrestricted worldwide supremacy they once enjoyed.

Western civilization should try to do away with the anachronistic last vestiges of bloody civil wars, and what we call world wars, all waged for the sake of global domination. The West should attempt to lure Russia into joining the consensus building and security structures that have been gradually established since 1945. For this to work we should bear in mind that Russia is not a second or third-rate country. Russia has a genuine imperial tradition. In other words, Russia is not Poland, Czechoslovakia, nor even Turkey. Russia cannot be asked to just fall in line. It should be given its rightful place among the great nations.

Around 1920, José Ortega y Gasset said that Europe would unite only when it saw the enemy coming over the horizon. That danger exists today, and not only for Europe, but also for the whole West, and it comes from authoritarian China, and particularly, the Islamic world. China is a traditional empire with incredible rates of economic expansion. The Islamic world is experiencing an explosive demographic growth. While in the West, the United States is the only country whose population is increasing.

Jihadism threatens Russia’s entire southern flank, and after the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many Islamists perceive Moscow as the perfect personification of the enemy, more than they even do Washington. Or at least Moscow is the enemy they can hurt with greater ease. As far as China is concerned, not only does it threaten Russia’s Far East, it has now started expanding into it. It should be noted that the population density on the border between the two countries is 62 percent higher on the Chinese side than on the Russian. The Russian Far East is full of natural resources that the country cannot exploit in the face of an expanding China that needs them more and more.

In the next few years, when the Arctic Ocean is opened for navigation, Moscow will not benefit if it does not by that time exercise total control over its Far East, and especially its Pacific coast. Russia will need to maintain a naval force in that ocean, which in itself clashes with the Chinese strategic interest of controlling all its adjacent seas, and what they call “the first island chain” that surround them: Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Australia.

Therefore both nations are already clashing on the continental mainland and on the ocean, and in the future they will do so with even more force.

In the face of all the jingoism of recent years, the first step should be changing the way the average Westerner sees Russia. The cultural achievements of the rational segment of Russian society should be disseminated throughout the whole West. The rediscovery of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Mendeleev, Lobachevsky, Chekhov, Eisenstein, Shostakovich, Tarkovsky… could help change the perception that the average Westerner has of Russia. Meanwhile, Western admiration for Russian rationalism might motivate the Russians to rediscover it for themselves.

Saving Russia is of vital importance. In the first place, it is part of our civilization, and secondly, because the West finds itself under threat. Only an alliance between the Russian bear and the American bald eagle could perhaps save them from being subordinated by other civilizations that are on the rise.

Cuba can play a significant role in the rapprochement between these two giants that Alejo Carpentier described as being situated at the two extremes of the West. It would be a very, very positive step if Raúl Castro were to realize this before embarking on his next visit to Russia to attend the festivities of the victory over Nazi Germany. If this were the case, and Castro were to indeed try to do something to secure a rapprochement, he could secure a legacy for himself and significantly bolster Cuba’s prestige as well.

Translated by José Badué

Cuba and Venezuela, in the same mirror / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Line to buy food in Venezuela (Twitter)
Line to buy food in Venezuela (Twitter)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 14 May 2015 – “I got soap and some toys for her son,” one Venezuelan mother was telling another in Tocumen Airport in Panama. At her feet a carry-on looked like it was about to explode it was so full, as the lady enumerated everything she was taking back to her country. The conversation reminded me of my own compatriots who return to the Island with luggage stuffed with products, including everything from toothpaste to sewing needles.

In a situation of scarcities, we human beings end up looking like those “leafcutter ants,” capable of carrying a part of the forest back to their anthills. But the task of seeking what we lack at any cost also locks us into a cycle of obsessions, where buying eggs, stocking up on milk or locating the market that has toilet paper will consume a major share of our time and energy. We end up trapped in a cycle of survival, in which we can hardly concern ourselves with our role as citizens. continue reading

However, there will also be some who want to explain the hardships in their own way. Like the official analyst who, some days ago on Cuban television, addressed the scarcity of basic goods in Venezuela. In that lady’s opinion, the blame for the shortages falls on the sector that hoards, or fails to import, merchandise in order to provoke social chaos. In her discourse, the “evil rich” make it difficult for the “good poor” to put a plate of food on the table. A line of argument so ridiculous that I stopped to listen to it, as if it were a comedy show.

The biased analyst was an outstanding student of the school of “Castroism,” in which Hugo Chavez and Maduro were also trained, and where they learned that while filling political discourse with a constant reference to the enemy may not serve to appease the burning hunger in the stomach, at least it keeps the needy entertained. A policy of fanfare, where there are always “the others” who do evil things and boycott the government, which claims to be the target of attacks coming from all sides.

A policy of fanfare, where they are always the others who do evil things and boycotting the government, which claims to be the target of attacks coming from all sides

The truth is that long lines outside markets are not a media hoax nor an exaggeration of the Venezuelan independent news media, but a reality that affects the entire country. Flour is unavailable for everyone and economic instability knows no social classes nor distinguishes ideologies, although the corruption and an extensive network of privileges awarded to those closest to power offer them a significant material respite. In these circumstances individuals are reduced to their condition as desperate consumers, a situation that results in a more controllable society, and a citizenry less attuned to the political scene.

As in a warped mirror, we Cubans see our worst moments reflected in Venezuelans. If previously we could say with pride that we share a culture, a language, and even geographic proximity, now we see ourselves in issues no one would want to brag about.

We are both a people who have learned to wait, stand in long lines, always carry a bag to catch on the fly any rumors of a reappearance of some product. The luggage we check at the world’s airports travels loaded with the same things and full of the same anxieties of deprivation. When we listen to ourselves speak it is now difficult to distinguish if we are in Havana or Caracas, if we are waiting outside a market in Maracaibo, or in Santiago de Cuba. Are we them or are they us?

Cuban Airbnb Market Doubles in Just 40 Days / 14ymedio

Airbnb website offers private accommodation all over the world.
Airbnb website offers private accommodation all over the world.

14ymedio biggerCuba is Airbnb’s fastest-growing market, Brian Chesky, the group’s executive director, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. The company, based in San Francisco, began offering its services on the Island this April, allowing travelers from the United States to rent private rooms on the Island via the Internet.

“It has been forty days since we launched in Cuba. We started with 1,000 homes and now we have 2,000,” Chesky congratulated himself. The success is even more amazing when you take into account the fact that the vast majority of homeowners do not have Internet and must resort to intermediaries to offer their services. continue reading

The Airbnb director believes that US president Barack Obama’s announcement on December 17 of last year to restore diplomatic relations with Havana has been a boon for the company, as have the relaxations of the rules for travel to the Island, although they still don’t permit Americans to visit as tourists.

Chesky was in Washington on Monday to meet with the US president and several businessmen to promote the Executive’s global entrepreneurship program. “The desire of President Obama is to unite the American and Cuban communities,” added the newly appointed staffer for the White House on issues related to the Island.

On its website, the company founded in 2008 explains that “Airbnb believes Cuba could become one of the largest markets in Latin America group.”

More than half of the rooms offered at the Island are in the capital (with a price ranging from $23 a day for a room to $370 for an apartment for nine people). The offers in other localities such as Morón, Camagüey, Santa Clara and Cienfuegos are much more modest and prices remain below the average for Havana.

François Hollande expresses his admiration for Fidel Castro / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 12 May 2015 — “I wanted to experience this historical moment. It is the history of Cuba and of the world! Fidel Castro wanted to meet me and I also desired it. Regardless of what one thinks about what he has done, he belongs to History. I also wanted to meet him out of respect for the Cuban people.” With these words, French President Francois Hollande commented to reporters before his meeting on Monday with the Cuban president in Havana.

Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal, who is accompanying him on the first trip to the island by a French head of state, described Fidel Castro as character who is “mythical, beyond politics.” continue reading

During the meeting, which the French authorities kept secret until the last minute, Hollande and Castro addressed issues such as the “blockade” and its consequences for the island. The president, who transferred power to his brother Raul in 2006, spoke also of the need to avoid “war.” Hollande, for his part, said he was “surprised that he was so informed on current issues” and that he was so interested in food issues.

At the meeting, however, there was no talk of human rights, despite that fact that in 2003 Holland, then first secretary of the French Socialist Party, published in the newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur an opinion which he expressed his outrage at the “wanton brutality of the Castro regime.”

“That was 12 years ago,” the French president justified himself, and today Fidel Castro “is an old man.” He added in response to a question from the French journalists, “You can’t say: well now, you be held accountable before the tribunal of history.”

“I told him that I knew what his place in history would be and that one part of the French had looked at the Cuban Revolution at times with fervor and others with criticism.”

Should foreign leaders meet with civil society when they visit Cuba? / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, 11 May 2015 — The arrival in Cuba of French President Francois Hollande has fueled the controversy about whether the presidents and other foreign leaders visiting the island should meet with representatives of civil society. The debate has intensified since it was announced that the agenda of the French President, Francois Hollande, on Cuban soil includes only a meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino as representative of civil society.

Manual Cuesta Morua, Coordinator of Platform for a New Country: “Civil society actors are the most legitimate interlocutors to express the concerns and demands of the population.”


Luis Morlote, President of the Hermanos Saiz Association (Saiz Brothers Association): “The Cuban Revolutionary delegation, the true civil society (…) we cannot be in the same space (…) as a supposed civil society (…) that is paid and manipulated.”

Other presidents and international leaders who have visited the country in recent years have also chosen not to have contact with opponents and independent activists. The argument for this decision lies in not offending their hosts and trying to remove obstacles from the path of understanding with the Cuban government. Meanwhile, the authorities of the Island themselves do not recognize the legitimacy of these independent groups.

For their part, activists argue that representatives of the Cuban government, when they travel abroad, receive and meet with politicians who belong to the opposition in their respective countries and also with leaders of civil society in other nations. They also complain that an exclusively official agenda will never let the visitors approach the real problems of the country, and will give them a skewed vision of Cuban reality.

Contact with civil society: Yes or no? It seems to be one of the questions that is most difficult to answer for those considering a trip to Cuba.

“Return to Ithaca” or the Magic of Censorship / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Scene from the film "Return to Ithaca"
Scene from the movie “Return to Ithaca”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 4 May 2015 — The reunion of five friends on a roof terrace in Central Havana is the thread on which Return to Ithaca’s plot rests. Leonardo Padura wrote the screenplay and Laurent Cantet directed this French film about Cuban topics.

The film is currently circulating underground among Havana moviegoers, preceded by the best possible presentation: the official censorship that prevented its showing during the latest edition of the Latin American Film Festival, held in Havana in December, 2014. However, Return to Ithaca has been shown at the Charles Chaplin auditorium in Havana, in the framework of the French Film Festival, being held throughout the month of May.

The film has become the cultural phenomenon of the moment, largely “by the grace of” the official censorship in a country where direct or veiled criticism of the system remains an event, even when — as in this instance — it makes use of worn-out clichés and platitudes. continue reading

The second element in its favor is participation in the script by Leonardo Padura, who has, in recent years, become a fashionable writer inside and outside Cuba, especially since the success of his greatest achievement to date, the novel The Man Who Loved Dogs, a best seller that has sparked what has been termed in literary cliques as “Paduramania”.

Almost the entire cast of the film is composed of experienced and well-known actors such as Isabel Santos, Nestor Jiménez, Fernando Hechavarría and Jorge Perugorría, though it should be noted that the actors do not always come out unscathed from the setbacks imposed on them by the script’s faults and the confinements of the straightjackets their characters embody.

Apart from that, Return to Ithaca is but a mediocre movie that, perhaps with the pretense of presenting the drama of a generation born and raised in the deceit of half a century of a failed Cuban socialist revolution, barely manages a pathetic caricature summarized in the five life stories of resentful and frustrated individuals who do not even come close to representing the spirit of their generation.

The plot, settings, characters and actions turn on stereotypical machinations to the point of lacking credibility and dramatic force. The script is somewhat forced and artificial, in addition to widely appealing to the ease of profanity and vulgarity that, for some, has become “the recourse of Cubanism” in film and literature. It seems that, regardless of what level of education or schooling we Cubans may have, we can only express ourselves through the use of obscene language.

Neither do the characters’ stories reach sufficient depth. They are stiff, synthetic, lacking nuance and not very credible, all of which fail to convey their personal conflicts or to move the viewer’s emotional fiber, thus establishing an atmosphere of distancing between actors and spectators bordering on rejection.

Plot, settings, characters and actions turn out stereotypical machinations to the point of lacking credibility and dramatic force

Amadeo (played by Nestor Jiménez) is the reason for the 50-something reunion of this group of friends. He is a writer who left Cuba to go live in Spain for reasons his friends only find out at the beginning of the movie.

So Amadeo decides to stay in Spain during a working trip to avoid betraying his friend Rafa (played by Fernando Hechavarría), a talented painter who has been harassed and marginalized because of his lack of political commitment to the system. When the reunion takes place, Rafa, who has never asserted himself over the hedge of official censorship, feels bitter about having to survive producing paintings lacking in artistic value for sale to tourists, while Amadeo embodies the misfit émigré who has never been able to write again since his departure, and is now determined to stay in Cuba.

Tania (Isabel Santos) is a doctor specializing in Ophthalmology who, during the so-called Special Period crisis of the 90’s, authorized her minor children’s departure from Cuba. Her decision plunged her into a depression, which she tries to overcome by appealing to her religious beliefs of African origins, as evidenced by the hand of Orula on the bracelet she wears on her wrist. Tania’s debate centers on whether or not she acted correctly when she distanced herself from her children.

Eddy (Jorge Perugorría), manages some enterprise or “firm.” He is a cynic, a hedonist, an opportunist, a parasite, and he is unethical. He travels frequently, he “gets around by car,” constantly gets calls on his cell phone and arrives on the scene with two shopping bags and a bottle of whiskey, a real sign of his status. He is the living image of the great pretender.

Aldo (Pedro Julio Díaz), a character and a perfectly forgettable performance, serves as host for the meeting. He is a frustrated engineer dedicated to the crafting of batteries and just barely making a living, the reason his wife left him to leave the country with an Italian. He is the resigned, conciliatory type, and – together with his mother, with whom he still resides – is one of the plot’s most obvious clichés: a decent and nice Afro-Cuban living in poverty in Central Havana, in a promiscuous environment, surrounded by marginal individuals who sacrifice pigs on the roof terrace next door, of couples who argue loudly from their balcony and of good-natured neighbors who shout out the scores of the baseball game they are watching on TV.

His mother is the kindly black woman who gives good advice, with a scarf wrapped around her head, who makes the best black beans that everyone wants to eat, and who humbly sets the table before leaving the room. She is a shockingly dispensable character.

The cliché of drawings showing El Malecón, the harbor, the Plaza of the Revolution and the Capitol’s cupola are abundant, as silent evidence that the story takes place in Havana, which the same the scenery painted on cardboard could have validated. This almost forces one to remember – in contrast — the masterful way in which Fernando Pérez managed those icons of the Havana environs in his film Suite Havana, where, rather than mere scenes, they are co-stars conveying the spirit of the cityscapes.

What reasons did the commissioners have to censor this poor film during the last film festival in Havana?

Return to Ithaca exudes the oblique, patronizing and folk interpretation of a team of foreign filmmakers and, as such, it’s oblivious to the reality it that wants to present. Therefore, since they are ignorant of the intricacies of such a complex, varied, and nuanced community, the final result offers a superficial and plain view of that reality, unfolding, as a touch of local color, what actually constitutes yet another unfortunate stereotype.

In general, the plot clings to the past — which is really the only element all the characters have in common — by appealing to victimization, to catharsis and to forced conflicts between them, while the Cuban socio-political system, reflected primarily among the memories of the characters, is the invisible villain, the victimizer, flowing from each actor’s lines, though only in the third person, singular: “they sent us to agriculture,” they made us go to the harvest,” “they took us to pick tobacco in the countryside,” “they did not let us listen to The Beatles,” “they fucked up our lives,” and others along the same lines. A non-committal “they did such-and-such to us,” a kind of impersonal culprit entity which is, all at once, the system and nobody, and that allows sneaking the bundle out through the open escape hatch.

And, to put the icing on the cake, there is a version of Return to Ithaca, this calamitous cinematographic accident, that breaks both scenic as well as temporary and situational planes, so that, in some passages, the viewer witnesses a sudden and dramatically useless blackout on the roof, and immediately afterwards, as if by magic, the characters converse with a perfectly lit up Havana in the background, or a roof scene ends and — without a transition — the next scene takes place indoors, with the characters seated around a table in the dining room, savoring Aldo’s mother’s incomparable black beans.

If this disruptive intention was to surprise the viewer, it only serves to baffle him.

In short, when the parade of credits indicates that Return to Ithaca is over (at last!), the viewer can feel a strange mixture of relief and disappointment. Relief, because it will probably convince him that the most wasted 90 minutes of his life are just over. Disappointment, because, just like the very characters in the movie, he will feel deeply cheated. And so perhaps, as it happened to me, he will get up from his chair wondering what reasons the commissioners had to censor this poor film during the last film festival in Havana.

*Orula, a major Orisha in the Afro Cuban religion of Santería, (Yoruba in English), is the future prophet and the counselor of humans.

Translated by Norma Whiting

The Two Halves of Raul Castro / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The meeting between Raul Castro and Pope Francisco. (EFE)
The meeting between Raul Castro and Pope Francisco. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 May 2015 – Raul Castro arriving in Italo Calvino’s other homeland, like the Viscount of Calvino’s book, landed divided in two, split down the middle. He came from a flood of soldiers and armaments at the Red Square parade in Moscow, where he showed his Communist nostalgia recalling the “glory days” of the Soviet Union. In Rome, however, he arrived with his other side taking the lead. At the Vatican he became the man educated in a Jesuit college and even confessed to Pope Francis that he might be disposed to return to the Church and once again take up prayer.

This Sunday, the two contradictory and irreconcilable pieces of Raul Castro have returned to Cuba, a country also fragmented between the celerity with which it feeds hopes and the slow pace of reality. The official media only reported the tour of one of the General’s parts, that of commitments and continuity and the embrace of the Kremlin comrades. However, with regards to the meeting with the pope, they only reported the words of thanks for the mediation between Cuba and the United States, accompanied by a reference to the pope’s upcoming visit to the Island. continue reading

Why did neither prime time TV news nor the newspaper Granma report Raul Castro’s declarations about a possible return to the faith? Because this part is not suitable to be aired indoors, it should only be exposed to a foreign public. Inside the house, within the national frontiers, the image must continue to be that of a tough, strong man of clenched fist, who neither wavers nor exhibits any weakness. In Cuba he is not willing to show the moderation or the diplomatic side on display during his trip. Here, he wants to make it clear who leads and reaffirm that there is no room for differences nor opposition.

At home, the image must continue to be that of a tough, strong man of clenched fist, who neither wavers nor exhibits any weakness

To add to the contradictions, while the General-President was engaged in a foreign tour, Fidel Castro published some reflections that reinforce the choice of Marxism-Leninism. Speaking out for an atheistic and materialistic ideology a few hours after his younger brother was received by Saint Peter’s successor. It was not a coincidental text, nor a careless one. It focused on reining in the reformist side that Raul Castro exhibited before democratic governments. The commander-in-chief also needed to make clear the limit of the transformations Cuba is experiencing, which so far have been timidly focused on the economic sphere without going so far as political changes.

Like the story written by Italo Calvino, it is very difficult for these two halves to coexist without confrontation. The pope, the French president and Barack Obama, among others, have shaken the hand of the politician who says he is willing to talk. They do not observe how the military and intolerant side, that is also a part of him, behaves on Cuban soil. Under this Raul Castro are authorized the acts of repudiation against the dissidents, State Security’s harassment and surveillance of activists and the greater part of the population which doesn’t even dare to criticize the system out loud.

A Raul Castro who maintains a benign moderation towards the outside world and a harsh authoritarianism within Cuba would be a terrible scenario for the future

Which of the two halves will prevail? A Raul Castro who returns to religious faith, propels a comprehensive reform of the country and sits down to talk with the internal opposition? Or that other, raised up in military intransigence, who incites political hatred and puts the interests of his family clan above the urgent needs of the nation? Will there come a time when he cannot sustain such duplicity?

In the last part of the book by the famous Italian-Cuban writer, the two halves of the protagonist are sewn together and live in harmony after trying to annihilate himself. In the Cuban case, that could be the most devastating of the choices. A Raul Castro who maintains a benign moderation towards the outside world and a harsh authoritarianism within Cuba would be a terrible scenario for the future.