Ah “Maria”! / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sanchez, HAVANA | 20 June 2014 – Livio went on a trip and left his friends in charge of the most precious thing in his life. It wasn’t a child, or a pet, or even one of those home appliances so idolized in Cuba. The “apple of his eye” was a marijuana bush, grown, watered and ready to be made into the first cigarettes. Oblivious to the care such a plant requires, the astonished “babysitters” chose to put it behind the glass of a window, away from the eyes of neighbors and potential informers. It survived, but on returning from abroad its owner swore he would never again leave his precious crop in the hands of neophytes.

This is not an isolated case. Marijuana — which we also call “María” — is a familiar presence in the life of any Cuban. Although the media does not talk about it, it doesn’t need advertising to be popular. It is smelled at parties, seen in the air at some public concerts, and detected in the half-closed eyes of more than a few who appear on national television itself. It is a fact, it is here, and not only through the “bales” that come in along the coasts—according the official press bad things always come from outside—but also as a “made in Cuba” product, with the flavor of red earth grown among the palm trees or in the fields of marabou weed. continue reading

Havana’s musical scene knows its cousin “María” very well. Some can’t imagine the act of composition without this eternal friend who “whispers the lyrics in my ear.” The parents of those “hooked” are relieved, thinking that at least it’s not cocaine. “Softer, more therapeutic, happier,” they say to comfort themselves. However, behind this apparent social acceptance of the herb is hidden a debate too-long delayed. Legalize or penalize? That’s the dilemma. A question that simply asking publicly puts you on the side of the enemy.

Those very old men who govern us… have prevented discussions of modernity. I want to live in a society that questions the therapeutic use or the strict prohibition of “María.” I dream of living in a country where my son, age 19, can participate, in turn, in the social debate about whether to legalize or penalize the herb that Livio cares for almost with devotion.

Not speaking of marijuana doesn’t uproot it from our land. Looking away doesn’t prevent thousands of cigarettes made from its leaves ending up between the lips of your children, my children, the children of others. Why don’t we set aside so much prudery and start talking about what we’re going to do with it? With its serrated leaves, so slender and striking… that right now are growing on countless terraces and in gardens and water tanks converted into planting beds all over this Island.

Let’s see if we can stop “smoking” the cigarette of indifference and talk… about what we need to talk about.

“Bullying” in Cuba? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana | 20 June 2014 – Damaris is almost forty and has several scars on her face. They were made by a 5th grade classmate with a hair clip. They were in the middle of class and a dispute over the ownership of a pen led the opponent to scream, “I’ll be waiting for you at four-thirty!” This is the worst threat a student can receive in a Cuban elementary school. The phrase lets you know that when school gets out strength and supremacy will be proved with fists or fingernails.

For Yosniel it was worse. He jumped from a water tank at the People’s Republic of Romania High School, after months of ridicule about the size of his head from his classmates in the dorm. He fell on concrete and no effort at resuscitation was able to save him. The next day, during the funeral, the very students who had ridiculed him offered their condolences to the bereaved family in the impoverished Romerillo neighborhood.

However, the problem touches both the poor and the better-off. The cold metal of a knife pierced the heart of Adrian, also a high school boarding student, because another student, stronger than he, decided he wanted his Converse sneakers. The parents of the dead boy were in the military, but even so they could not understand how the schools that were supposed to form the “New Man” could end up functioning with the same bullying as in prisons. continue reading

Cecilia, meanwhile, was always one of the ones who hit… not one of those who was hit. She would choose which uniform skirt she wanted, searching the lockers of the weaker and smaller students. One day she met her match in a skinny little gap-toothed girl who – with a knife improvised from a hacksaw blade – slit her face from ear to ear.

Abuse at school, bullying, is an issue that is rarely discussed in the national media, but it affects hundreds, even thousands, of students across the country. Among the most alarming characteristics of this problem is the complicity or indifference on the part of the teachers. Often the teachers support “these tough guys and girls” in order to control the rest of the students. The result is an institutional validation of a structure of bravado and abuse.

How can it be reported? No one knows. There is no telephone number that a student victim of bullying can call. There is no Ministry of Education circular protecting the victims in these cases. The parents usually respond to their children’s complaints of abuse with “hit him harder” or “show them who you are.” The teachers don’t want to get in the middle of a dispute and many school directors respond defensively, “You can imagine, I no longer know what to do with this boy.”

The truth is that the drama of school abuse is not reported, debated, questioned… meanwhile, the many Cecilias who are out there continue taking smaller children’s uniforms, cutting classmate’s faces with a blade, or mocking – to the point of suicide – the head size of another.

What’s Happening Today in Angola? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana | June 18, 2014 — He has been in power 35 years, he’s the father of the richest woman in Africa, and he has created in Angola one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. His name is Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and he’s visiting Cuba, which helped him to win a war that cost more than two thousand Cuban lives.

Yesterday afternoon the leader of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) arrived in our country, and the government received him as a fellow traveler. A long and bloody military conflict was fought on his territory beginning in 1975, in which more than 377,000 Cuban soldiers participated as well as some 50,000 Cuban civilians. Despite such prolonged and intense contact between the two nations, few on the Island are informed about the situation of this “liberated land” today.

Dos Santos has held the presidency in an authoritarian form, concentrating in his own hands the powers of the president and prime minister, as well as controlling parliament, the judicial system, and the main political party of that African nation. In 2010 a new Constitution was adopted which ended the division of powers and confirmed the president as supreme commander of the armed forces and as the figure who determines the composition of the Supreme Court. continue reading

Angola is torn between the greatest contrasts and the worst tragedies. The misappropriation of public funds and the diversion of state resources are common practices that have allowed many to enrich themselves. The country’s main sources of wealth have become its major sources of problems. Oil, diamonds and uranium, added to its reserves of gold, iron and bauxite, have fueled an entire legion of the corrupt, sheltered under Dos Santos.

Diarrheal diseases, typhoid fever, malaria, tuberculosis and sleeping sickness are rife among the Angolan people, putting the nation on the list of countries at “high risk” with regards to health. Currently, more than four thousand Cubans are serving “missions” in its territory, in areas such as education, construction and healthcare, but this represents barely a drop in the ocean of needs.

HIV also preys on Angolans. Official figures admit to only some 200,000 cases of people suffering from the virus, but its enough to walk the streets and villages to realize the high social impact of this scourge. The mistreatement of women, child slavery, and constant sexual crimes also have a high incidence. Cocaine trafficking and the sale of human beings into servitude are lucrative businesses.

As if this picture weren’t enough, Angola has worrying indices of human rights violations. Limitations on freedom of association and assembly are some of the rights violated, which coincides with the identical practices carried out by the “friendly government” of the Plaza of the Revolution.

However, alarming indicators with regards to health and repression do not deter many Cubans from taking the Angolan route. This time they will fight not in the trenches, but as employees in clinics, businesses and schools. In the African country they receive economic remuneration superior to the low salaries on the Island. The so called “missions” to Angola are much more sought after by medical professionals than are those in Venezuela. They are sold at the highest prices in the “influence market” within the Ministry of Public Health.

Neither the Angolan nor the Cuban national media have reported that the president’s eldest daughter has already passed the barrier of two billion dollars in personal wealth. Isabel dos Santos controls more than 25 percent of the shares in Unitel, one of the country’s two telephone companies. She also participates in businesses in Portugal, where she is said to be the principal shareholder in the country’s largest cable television company. The lack of transparency around power in Luanda, and the people close to the leader, have seized key positions in the national economy.

While her father visits Havana, Isabel dos Santos is in Brazil, where the magazine Veja has published several photos of the Angolan multimillionaire during the inaugural ceremony of the World Cup. According to the publication, some 600 people – among them businessmen and celebrities – have “accommodated” the businesswoman in luxurious rooms in Sao Paule, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, to enjoy the football parties and the euphoria of the World Cup.

Stories like these will never be told in the official Cuban press. The families who lost their children in that far off land don’t know what has become of the country where their loved ones fell.

What Was the Havana Metro? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)
Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Conceived 30 years ago, it would have been the largest civil engineering project in Cuba, but it sank after Perestroika.

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana | June 17, 2014

It’s morning rush hour at the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor bus stop, a busy node in the city of Havana. Thousands of people rush to work, school, the office, or run errands. New bus routes, as well as signaling changes on the existing road network, have tried to relieve the headaches involved in mass transit in our country.

Thirty years ago, when the island was a satellite of the USSR, and other foreign capital was virtually nonexistent, an ambitious rapid transit project was conceived for the Cuban capital with a metro  system as the centerpiece. The civil engineer Felix C., today employed by a Cuban-Foreign construction equipment company, related his experiences working for the City of Havana Executive Group (GEMCH), the company then in charge of what was called “the work of the century.”

“I came here after I graduated, in the mid-eighties,” he said. “GEMCH already existed at the beginning of the decade and several projects for the metro came out of CUJAE (Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria) — the technical branch of the University of Havana. Several of us were even sent to Eastern European countries to study and participate in works of this type already being implemented.

During those years, in fact, everything seemed to be in place to build the metro in Havana. A series of articles published in the magazine Technical Youth in August, September and October of 1982, expounded in a straightforward way not only on the necessity, but also on the possibility that Havana could count on this type of transport. Enthusiasm was great. At that time relations with the USSR looked stronger than ever, and it was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro system. continue reading

In those years, public opinion about transit in Cuba was already very negative, although Soviet subsidies of oil allowed an average of 30,000 daily bus trips and a number of routes greatly superior to today, some arriving less than a minute apart, according to reports from a former Transport Ministry official. “If with all this service they couldn’t cope, the obvious solution was a metro,” he said.

It was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro

So a huge work team was put together and it started the engineering-geological studies that would confirm the technical viability of the project. The project objectives were developed, including those of the preliminary design phase, which would include stations such as Central Park, “which would be the deepest, because there the line would cross the bay to the east side of the city,” the engineer Felix C. remembers.

Stations were planned for several points in the city, one of them near the hill of the University in Vededo, and a line running to the south, under Rancho Boyeros Avenue. Today, it all is part of an almost forgotten myth. “Nobody remembers anything about this project,” says Felix. The authority charged with administering the Havana Metro was located in an enormous building which would also serve as a station, which was never built, on the land where the EJT Market is on Tulipan Street.

“I was working for GEMCH between 1984 and 1988,” said the old engineer. “In those tunnels was where I got my lung disease, and so I had to leave. Although by the time I left my job it was all over, all that remained of the initially planned lines were the bus routes.” He is referring to the infamous “camels” which emerged as a response to the severe crisis that begin with the collapse of the USSR, when all projects, great and small, failed.

Felix has done relatively well. In 2012, Ana A. Alpizar filmed a short, “Without Metro,” a reunion of many of the workers on that project who remembered how they had to reorient their professional plans with the end of those construction plans. Not all of them were lucky enough to find new positions.

Perhaps the old specialist is right to forget a project of such magnitude. The subway tunnels, in any case, remain buried in the past. The oldest professors in the Civil Engineering Department of Havana Technical University say this is true: the plans have been lost and the theses disappeared.

Today, nobody remembers this great project that would have solved the transport problem in the capital. The government’s priorities have changed and no foreign power is willing to invest in an extremely costly work in a country as impoverished as Cuba.

Super Dad / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 15 June 2014 – Ricardo has raised his two daughters alone. One August morning he woke up and his wife had left. Later he learned she’d been intercepted on the high seas and spent months at the Guantanamo Naval Base before arriving in the United States. At the time, the youngest of the girls still slept in a cradle and the oldest was learning her first letters.

They had hard times. The maternal grandmother’s aggressiveness didn’t respect paternal custody. “These girls need a mother,” she shouted angrily, every time she saw him. Nor was it easy for him in the village. A man abandoned can go unnoticed in Havana, but in the provinces it’s a constant joke, the talk of all the neighbors.

He had to face it all alone. He had to explain to his daughters what it means to start menstruating, and also the importance of using a condom. He had to stand in long lines at the pharmacy to buy sanitary pads and sell some of his belongings to buy them extra cotton every month. He specialized in ironing uniform skirts, mending stockings, and removing nits from their hair. At first his braids were loose at the top and fell apart in a few minutes, but later he was a total master. continue reading

He never went back to sleep in the morning. There was always one of his “women” who had to get up early and he made breakfast and woke them up. One of them says her “papi” makes the best peas in the whole country, while the other still asks him to edit what she writes.

He doesn’t speak ill of their mother. He prefers to build up their hopes that somewhere in California there is a sad-looking lady who is waiting to reunite with her daughters. But the letters don’t come more than once a decade and the last time she was more worried about her own unemployment problems than the girls she left in Cuba.

Ricardo could have disengaged and done what so many others do. Cuban society never would have blamed him for sending his daughters to their grandmother’s house. After all, the popular refrain would justify it, asserting that “a father is nobody.” His case, however, is not so rare. It happens that his story is lost among so many of our everyday emergencies.

Today he went out early, without making any noise, wanting to get a haircut and buy a little rum to celebrate Father’s Day. It’s Sunday, “the girls” will sleep late and the kitchen will already smell of the pot where the beans are cooking.

One Less Thread in the Social Tapestry / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 12 June 2014 — In a country where there are so few spaces for debate, the loss of any one of them is a tragedy. The departure of Roberto Veiga and Lenier Gonzalez from the magazine Lay Space leaves us with even fewer opportunities for debate. Their work was characterized by its willingness to address controversial and difficult topics in the pages of a publication which, in recent years, became an obligatory reference. With a respectful spirit, a true concern for the nation, and the ability to present arguments, these editors opened a reflective space that we, their readers, fear will be missed from now on.

Differences in ideas should not lead us to personal confrontation. A lesson that should be learned by more than one person who takes ideological contradictions as a pretext to channel their lowest passions. So, despite my points of difference with many of the ideas of Veiga and Gonzalez, and especially with their category of “loyal opposition,” I have always respected their work and considered it to be of great value. The public existence of their voices improved the quality of discussions within the Island, encouraging different points of view – which is always a good thing – and brought together political tendencies that seem to run along contrary paths. I regret that they never accepted invitations to also participate in non-official debates within the country. I hope, now they have been “liberated” from their jobs, that we will be able to exchange ideas outside the protection of the Cátedra Félix Varela.

Cuba loses and I can’t imagine who wins with this dismissal. The next archbishop of Havana? Is the church so fickle? One day they snatched the magazine Vitral from us, to turn it into a shadow of the multicolored light it once was. Now, it seems, the same will happen with Lay Space. I am not convinced by the declarations of its current director who assures us that the work of the journal will continue. I believe deeply in the stamp each human being imprints on a work, and in the case of this publication it’s clear that Veiga and Gonzalez were its principal sources of inspiration.

The ragged tapestry of our civil society just suffered the tearing of another thread.

A Ninth Cuban Dancer Defects to the United States / 14ymedio

June 11, 2014 (With information from El Nuevo Herald and EFE) – The number of dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba who have defected to the United States has increased to nine. Jaime Reytor joins the eight members of the company that fled last weekend in Puerto Rico and are already in Miami. The artists revealed Wednesday that they decided to defect from the island because “there is no future for young people.” They will perform next Sunday with the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami at a gala dedicated to the Russian ballet.

Eight dancers (Jorge Oscar Sanchez, Raizel Cruz, Carlos Ignacio Galindez, Ariel Soto, Monica Gomez, Yaima Mendez, Lisette Santander and Yinet Fernandez) participated in a press conference organized by the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami, in which they described their flight from the City of San Juan in Puerto Rico, where they were to participate in the show “The Magic of Dance,” where the Cuban director of art education, Alicia Alonso, was to be present.

“This is the country of the future. There are many options for work and places to choose from. We came here in order to dance and we will dance,” Jorge Oscar Sanchez, age 23, told EFE. He decided not to return to Cuba but to stay in the United States “in search of opportunities,” despite his sadness “at leaving behind family and friends,” because on the island “there is no future for young people.”
continue reading

Since 2007, at least 35 dancers have sought asylum in the U.S. and other countries, according to figures from the Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami. The artistic director of the company, Pedro Pablo Peña, said the steady drip of defections shows “the absolute discontent” of artists with the Cuban regime.

“At first I was a little nervous because it was a very strong impact. It was leaving your family behind to go and find your profession, to be a dancer . . . It’s very hard. I keep thinking about my family,” said Ariel Soto. “They didn’t give us the opportunity of showing us how to reach our potential. I didn’t want to be frustrated because I have a life ahead of me. I’m 23 years old and I want to grow and not stagnate,” he said.

Another dancer, Yaima Mendez admitted that “I’ve been working since I was a child, and could not see the final result of that sacrifice” and that “it always hurts. It’s something very tough, very heavy, but I needed it to fulfill my dreams in a big country.”

According to Raizel Cruz, all dancers in Cuba support the decision of any artist who defects. “I dance, but I come with the mindset of doing anything. Whatever it takes,” he said.

According to the América Tevé channel, Cuban tennis players Randy Blanco (age 21) and Ernesto Alfonso (age 24), who participated in the Davis Cup elimination rounds, also held in Puerto Rico, fled and arrived yesterday at Miami International Airport.

Translated by Tomás A.

Who is Writing History? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

 

Miriam Celaya, La Habana | Junio 02, 2014

Themes

No one could have anticipated a short time ago that the formulas to define the Cuban reality would be so radically transformed. In the last five years, we have been witnessing the gradual extinction of phrases and words that constituted an indispensable part of the official lingo, and the emergence of others which had been demonized, since they were considered remnants of a shameful bourgeois past which from which the revolution of 1959 had saved us.

Our language is foreseeing a scenario which is very different than that of the last 50 years. Lately, we rarely hear such terms as “comrade”, while in the official media, such phrases as “revolutionary intransigence”, “socialist emulation”, “voluntary labor” “collective vanguard” and “moral incentives” are infrequent, as are others, typical of the inescapable dialect of the old Soviet-Marxist period.

Thus, Cubans have once again become “señor” and “señora” and we have also stopped being “users” or “consumers” and have been transformed into “customers”. It is not the same or equal. It is a question of category based on a consumption level of access. For example, those who enter a store to buy the products of “local industries” in national currency remain “consumers”, but shoppers in stores dealing in hard currency are “clients”. continue reading

Now being a “comrade” means belonging to the lowest social ladder.

Cubans are also considered “clients” when they open a cellular phone account at the telephone company, as are those who can allow themselves a few vacation days in all-inclusive beach resort. It is worth mentioning that a Cuban client is not the same as a foreign client, because, after all, prosperity here always comes from “outside” No wonder foreigners or Cubans living abroad are the only ones who have a legitimate right to invest on the Island.

All this explains the extinction of the “comrade” among Cubans with greater purchasing power, and, by extension, among those who dream of attaining that level. Now to be a “comrade” means belonging to the bottom of the social scale or -to define it in the popular undying parlance- to be “broke”. Comrades are out of style.

At the same time, terms such as “investor”, “foreign capital”, “performance”, “competition”, “economic strategies”, “business autonomy”, “trade”, “tax culture” “legal guarantees for investments”, etc. have become commonplace, which point to the gestation of a paradigm diametrically opposite.to the old revolutionary discourse

We shouldn’t think that all euphemisms have been abandoned completely. To Cuban authorities, the private sector does not exist in Cuba, but “non-state forms of employment” do, and there are no Cuban-born entrepreneurs, but “self-employed workers”.

But the discourse is not being transformed from just the Cuban political authorities. Now that the interests of the ex-communist Castro regime graciously coincide with foreign capital interests, changes are also being observed in the discourse and the attitudes of certain Cuban-American entrepreneurs, as well as in intellectual and political US sectors.

The interests of the ex-communist Castro regime graciously coincide with foreign capital.

They are not limited to reinventing vocabulary terms, but they go beyond that, to interpret the so-called Raúl reforms as the driving force behind “significant changes” that are leading to the “development of business potential” of Cuban “citizens” by virtue of which “half a million entrepreneurs“ currently exist. These are the “leading democratic catalysts” that will “empower civil society”.  In fact, these “entrepreneurs”, forged in the heat of the reforms, are “starting to rewrite” the history of the country.

Inexplicably, a group of those who, at the beginning of this “revolutionary” process, felt compelled to pack and leave their homeland, but not before being stripped of their property and their capital, today seem to assume this “economic autonomy” as a possibility in the absence of political and civil liberties, and even believe that it’s possible to go forward with the democratization of Cuba by taking advantage of the economic “openings” in recent years and an imaginary Cuban entrepreneurship.

This formula is inconsistent with historical facts, since these same bilked-out millionaires, with their great capitals, did not stop the consolidation of the regime that bamboozled them at that time. In the new democratizing strategy, what possibilities could our measly native entrepreneurs have –taxi drivers, cart owners, trinket vendors, bike-taxi drivers, owners of small eateries and cafeterias– when they can’t even count on the basic right of free association

We are not against the vital need for change and the power of capital, but let’s not disguise certain private interests with rhetorical discourses and good intentions. Capital and good wishes have poured into China and Viet-Nam, those two exemplary jewels of innovation and prosperity that nobody would wish for themselves.

I agree that the history of Cuba is, in effect, being rewritten, but, so far, the Castro regime has been dictating its script.

Our Own Dangerous “Twin Towers” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Tejas Corner. 14ymedio
Texas Corner. 14ymedio

Havana, June 9, 2014, Victor Ariel Gonzalez — Corrugated fiber-cement sheets and wooden planks form a security fence in the shadow of the two tallest buildings of an iconic Havana site: the “Twin Towers” at Texas Corner, where 240 families live, marooned, as the buildings crumble.

Every day many people walk past, where the sidewalks of Calzada Del Cerro and Diez de Octubre intersect. Life goes on as usual at the foot of the gray structures, 20 floors and 200 feet high, which dangerously dominate the landscape.

A glance behind the makeshift wall leaves no doubt about the problem: chunks of rust-stained concrete detached from the walls are scattered in the grass, evidence of the deterioration of the buildings. If you look up, the poor state of the structural walls, which support thousands of tons, is revealed, with their broken edges and numerous areas where rebar is exposed. continue reading

The corrosion causes the metal framework inside the concrete to expand, creating pressure on the covering, cracking and loosening pieces. People say the concrete is “bursting.” This is inevitable in construction using low-quality materials or inadequate technology in the concrete-fabricating process. The phenomenon now affects both 20-story structures on Texas Corner.

An unpredictable and deadly shower of concrete hailstones weighing several pounds

With rust replacing metal, the reinforcing steel loses its structural strength, which is its sole purpose. The building weakens, significantly shortening its useful life. Those who inhabit the buildings are at risk, but not only them. Before the agency responsible for repairing properties extended the protective perimeter in October 2013, passersby were exposed to an unpredictable and deadly shower of concrete hailstones weighing several pounds.

Children play after school in the portion of the park remaining outside the fence. A neighbor, whose little granddaughter is running around there, recalls that construction of the towers was completed in 1992: “I myself participated in the work because during that time I was in the micro.” She is referring to the “microbrigades,” crews of unskilled laborers who built multifamily housing in exchange for a place to live. “They gave me an apartment here, but I’ve always had problems. The windows don’t keep the rain out.”

She remembers that the south tower was built entirely by prisoners, while the north was under the control of those who would be the future owners. In both cases, the work left much to be desired technically. “One time they came around collecting money to retouch the exterior bearing walls, but the people wouldn’t agree because the windows were going to stay the same and the problem was not really going to be solved.” That was several years ago.

Now emergency intervention is needed. But those who installed the fence in only a few days—supposedly the same ones who would repair the towers—have not continued the work, which has been postponed indefinitely. The residents have not been informed of a date for the work to be done. The months go by and the risk increases every day as the corrosion silently advances.

Translated by Tomás A.

Cold Kisses Under the Tropical Sun / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The fear of not being able to leave, of remaining locked on the island, is shared by many of my compatriots. Those who have never traveled fear they will grow old without ever knowing what’s on the other side of the sea. Cubans living abroad are not exempt from this fear. Many of them, when they visit the Island, have a recurring nightmare that they will not be allowed to board the plane when they leave. It is precisely this feeling overwhelms the main character of the novel “Eskimo Kiss,” by the novelist and journalist Manuel Pereira.

The book, as yet unpublished, describes the experiences of a man who travels to the land he left twelve years ago. His mother’s advanced age compels him return to the “country of mirages,” as he calls it. His arrival is accompanied by the panic of being trapped and that apprehension is mixed with the constant feeling of being watched. To him, his country is “like a moustrap” during the four days of the “humanitarian entry permit” the authorities have given him.

It is not only that perception of confinement that overwhelms the character of Pereira, but the difference between what he remembered from his homeland and what it really was. The distance, years and emotions tend to put a patina of sweetness and harmony on loved ones and everyday life that is often shattered when they are reunited. Nor does a nation fading away, in a moral freefall, do much to help allay the impression of suffocation that runs through the pages of this book. “Will he be able to escape?” we ask ourselves from the moment we start reading. To get to the answer we have to immerse ourselves in the reality—as well known as it is absurd—in which we ourselves are trapped.

Raul’s Reforms as Strategy for Survival / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

 Cart vendor in Havana (14ymedio)
Cart vendor in Havana (14ymedio)

Six years since General-President Raúl Castro assumed power in Cuba; it could be argued that almost as many legal changes have been implemented as were introduced during the early days of the revolution and, without a doubt, a lot more than in the four decades preceding “Raulismo”

Viewed in perspective, Raúl’s reforms are significant and are -at least in appearance- a break from Fidel’s directive, marked by immobility, by such measures as:

  • Distribution of land in usufruct to private farmers and cooperatives
  • Approval of “non-state forms of production” or “self-employment” (private business), which eliminates State monopoly on employment
  • Approval of sales and purchases of real estate, cars, and other goods , as well as lodging for Cuban nationals in hard currency hotels and tourist facilities
  • Authorization for free contract of cellular telephony and internet connections; sales of computers, printers and other hardware in stores accepting only dollars
  • Comprehensive migration reform act, one of the most radical transformations, conditionally eliminating “authorizations” for exit and entry and extending stays abroad up to 24 months
  • And more recently, the new Foreign Investment Law, which relaxes some limitations of previous legislation established in the 90’s, though it retains others

Such measures should be a substantial turn-around in a society subjected to a centralism which previously invalidated all vestiges of autonomy. In fact, some foreign media exaggerate the process, multiplying, to the point of fable, the effects of government measures as if this were an effective socioeconomic change. Unfortunately, such changes have been more nominal than real for Cubans. There have been no benefits at the macroeconomic level that indicate a positive trend towards ending the crisis. continue reading

In addition, the past few years denote a regression, not only in the economic indicators, but also in social benefits, such as health and education, the former severely affected by the exportation of professionals under contract, involving substantial hard currency income for the regime –particularly through physicians and technical staff tied to that field- and the latter, by the shortage and/or disqualification of teachers due to low wages, among other reasons.

The reforms are significant and constitute a break with Fidel’s directives.

It is not a secret, even to the most optimistic mouthpieces of the mercantile post-Castro era that “Raulist changes” are just the best survival strategy of the Castrocracy, because no change in Cuba will be real unless it is accompanied by political change.

European and other economic powerhouses put their expectations in a kind of quasi-race to access untapped markets before the United States and economically powerful sectors of the Cuban exile community assume prominence on the Island, while native citizens [living in Cuba] are just hostages of those interests and of the government which, nevertheless, continues to dominate life and property. Of course, nobody cares; as if the uncertain fate of 11 million Cubans was a deserved punishment or simply that the exclusion was a matter of “collateral damage” in the battle for the market.

For the powerful, it is not about empathy any more, with the “beautiful people” with smiling faces peeking out of tourist postcards, wielding either rifles or maracas indistinctively, according to the occasion, or –as demonstrated recently- marching, submissive and happy, before the official podium every May Day. It’s about an opportunity to be first and to arrive on time, capital in hand. Cubans, sadly, don’t have a goddamn way of defending themselves against that other power that far exceeds the one that has dominated them for over half a century. It turns out that the Cuban revolution was a waste of time. At the end, capital always wins.  And long live Raulismo!

At the Train Station We’re All Fighters / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz

 Central Station, Havana. (14ymedio)
Central Station, Havana. (14ymedio)

In Havana, travelers bound for the provinces don’t just say goodbye from the platform, they wage a daily battle for survival

Lilanne Ruiz, Havana / June 4, 2014 – It’s seven p.m. in Havana. The train to Guantanamo has just arrived at Central Station. “Let’s go, have your tickets ready!” the conductor shouts, while inching open the gate to the platform.

The travelers push forward, some carrying all their luggage, others squeezing through and waiting for a family member to pass their boxes and suitcases to them through the bars. “Take care, I’ll call when you get there,” says a voice. Only the passengers can get to the cars. No one complains. They’ve never lived the classic scene of saying goodbye from the platform to someone departing on a train.

The Central Railway Station in Havana is an imposing building, built in 1912. The deteriorated ceilings are propped up by wood in the platform-access areas. Despite the neglect, the building endures and impresses.

In the lounge several rows of seats are arranged without a view of anything. It seems like an immense classroom, but without a teacher or blackboard. You can’t see the platform, only the wall. It is a lifeless scene, that gives no sense of movement nor help to make the wait enjoyable. continue reading

There are only 11 weekly trains to meet the demand. For the eastern region, those to Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Bayamo-Manzanillo, depart every three days. Those are the biggest, with 10 or 12 cars of 72 seats each. For the route to the center of the island, there’s one to Sancti Spiritus and one to Cienfuegos. Another goes to Pinar del Rio and five smaller ones travel to Guines and Los Palos, in Mayabeque .

Travelers who gather at Central Station, uniformed in poverty, are forced to improvise. They dress with what they can and assemble their luggage from what’s available. Briefcases, sealed plastic buckets, cardboard boxes covered with tape. If they can carry it, they bring it.

The figures of Ministry of the Interior (MININT) officials in battle dress stand out. They are armed. It is not known if they will be traveling or if they are patrolling. One of them, sitting two benches to my right, drinks from a bottle of homemade wine. He works in Havana but lives in the east. He goes on vacation every five months and returns to see his family. In the boxes, he says, he’s carrying packages of macaroni, spaghetti, and crackers that he’ll sell at the military unit before leaving.

Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the country is a crime comparable to transporting beef

He’s lucky to be able to transport all of this. For other people, moving goods is a problem. Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the country is a crime comparable to transporting beef. You may not carry more than two kilograms of cheese because the authorities assume that that is the limit of household consumption. Although farmers are allowed to sell the milk produced by their cows, it is prohibited to sell cheese.

If they can’t sell, how would they survive? “In the East there is no money,” says a woman waiting to go to Jiguaní the next day. When she came to Havana the train broke down at 3:00 a.m. in Ciego de Avila and did not get underway until twenty-four hours later. The passengers, united by adversity, got off the train to talk and share water and food.

Despite a potential fine of 1,500 Cuban pesos, vendors selling bottles of ice water pass through the waiting room. There is no water on the train. Women carrying satchels offer sorbets, candies, and mints. The state-owned outlets offer sliced pork and rice with black beans in small cardboard boxes for 25 Cuban pesos, or hot dogs for only 10 pesos. The cheapest offering is bread and ham for 3 pesos. The ham is a slice slightly thinner than a razor blade and the bread is the color of white cement. Hunger helps one overlook the poor appearance of the food.

A cardboard box is the usual luggage of travelers. (14ymedio )
A cardboard box is the usual luggage of travelers. (14ymedio )

A wrinkled old woman is chewing hungrily. She lives in Dos Rios, where José Martí died , and she is the granddaughter of an Afro-Cuban soldier from the war of 1895. She came to Havana to spend a few days with a granddaughter and brought back a box of malangas because “you can’t get it there.” The bag that her belongings are in was once a sack for detergent. Her clothes look worn, but as clean as if they had been washed and dried in the sun.

Two women wearing the uniform of those employed by the “Safety and Security Agency” contemplate a sandwich wrapped in plastic without deciding whether to eat it. It is the snack given to them by the state, their employer. Most sell it to get 20 pesos. I ask them why the platform is barred and the gate controlled as if for barnyard animals. “They try to board the train without a ticket, that’s how to make sure people pay.”

Why don’t they want to pay? “There are those who travel with nothing but a bottle of water and 5 pesos. Ay mami, this is very hard,” one answers. She doesn’t finish the sentence and laughs out loud as she walks away.

“In Havana, the fight is better than in the East,” everyone repeated

Those who sell and those who buy have a word in common: fight. “In Havana you fight.” “Here the fight is better than in the East,” everyone repeats. They come to the capital because they believe that the wages are higher. They do masonry, or work in agriculture with private producers, who pay fifty pesos a day (more than twice the average wage).

A young mother nurses her four-month-old baby. She carries a cargo of detergent, soap, toothpaste, and candies for kids. “The east is hard. Worse than Havana,” she says. She came from Guantanamo with a box of mangoes and guavas for her family in the capital: “There the fruit is sweeter and cheaper,” she says.

A woman wanders through selling plastic sandals. She explains that it is good business to buy in “La Cuevita” (a large unofficial market in the San Miguel del Padron municipality of Havana) and resell for a little more to travelers in the station. “We are all fighters, and this is the fight for survival,” she says, indicating the station with a sweeping gesture. “We’ll sell whatever is available, even caskets. Life is hard.”

The sandal-seller says that some regulars are homeless and spend the day at the station. They search in the dump for anything they can sell. “They go to La Coubre, the reservations and waiting-list terminal near the Central Station, to sleep on cardboard boxes they put on the ground. There they take advantage of and steal the suitcases from those unfortunate ones going back to the country,” she reveals.

The last train has left for Sancti Spiritus at 9:20 p.m. In front of the television in the waiting lounge men and women huddle who do not seem like travelers. They’re not waiting for anything. When the train has gone, the employees and a policeman prepare to close the terminal. They shoo them out: “Get up, we’re closing.”

Everyone obediently withdraws until the next day, at 6:30 a.m., when everything begins again.

Translated by Tomás A.

“One of the Hallmarks of the Twenty-first Century Will Be Overcoming the Burden of Political Labels” / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, Reinaldo Escobar

Eliecer Avila. 14ymedio
Eliecer Avila. 14ymedio

We speak with the founder of the political movement Somos+ (We Are More)

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana | May 30, 2014 – Eliécer Ávila launched the website this week of the political movement Somos+ (We Are More), which he created in June 2013. This 29-year-old computer engineer published a letter to young Cubans asking them to participate in “the reconstruction of the country.”

Question: What are the objectives of this movement?

Answer: We call ourselves Somos+ because we believe that every day there are more of us in Cuba dreaming of a different future. Among our objectives is to start talking among ourselves to know how many of us there are who have different ideas about how the country should be managed, from an economic, political, social point of view with regards to rights and freedoms.

Today we are isolated, and thus we have the idea that we are 11 million people thinking the same thing but not talking to each other about it, because there is neither the necessary confidence nor the platform to serve as a loudspeaker for people to express themselves without fear.
We are aware that in this early stage there will not be many people who want to be part of the movement, but we hope that we can count on a vanguard. We don’t expect to be a mass movement, but we can bring together an important number of responsible and thinking young people around a project for Cuba. We believe that it’s not enough to describe and criticize problems, we have to go from complaints to active participation and this participation implies that we need to organize ourselves. continue reading

Q: This has been a significant step in the evolution of your activism. At what point did you decide to found Somos+?

A. In February 2007 a video released on alternative sites showed a discussion I had with Ricardo Alarcón, then president of the National Assembly of People’s Power. From that moment hundreds or thousands of people from across the country approached me.

I noticed that people had huge cravings, cumulative desires, to share ideas, and that there was an enormous overlap in these ideas. I heard very similar things in Guantanamo, Camaguey and Pinar del Río. Then, in the same way that a businessman identifies what is called “market niches,” a politician or an aspiring politician should know how to find the missing link in a certain chain that will make things start to happen.
What we lack are platforms where the greatest possible number of Cubans can come together to talk; for example there are 20,000 of us who support the urgent need to give Cubans open access to the Internet.

“It’s not enough to describe or criticize the problems, we have to shift from complaining to active participation.”

Q. Throughout this half century there have been many initiatives to create political platforms. What differentiates Somos+ from what has happened so far? Is it about continuity or rejection?

A. We can’t ignore these organizations, many of them very respectable like the Varela Project that collected more than 11,000 signatures and presented them to the Parliament. There are precedents in the history of the Cuban opposition that have been developed by talented, serious, hard-working people. All these initiatives deserve respect. But everyone can come up with his own, named, initiative, something with his own history specific to the time the project is undertaken.

Q. One of the issues most discussed currently among the opposition is that of unity. Do you think creating a new movement contributes to or hurts this aspiration?

A. In order to join forces there have to be forces and I think that everyone, on their part, can capitalize on all the energies in their group, and in their generation and this is also a way that in the end we’ll have more forces to unite.

Q. It’s almost inevitable that a political movement is labeled based on classifying it among the known political leanings. Left, center, right, social democrat, liberal, Christian democrat, etc. What do you think would be the label most acceptable to Somos+?

A. The issue of labels, although to our regret it still exists, in the long term will be seen as a remnant of the 20th century. I have the impression that one of hallmarks of the 21st century with regards to political conceptions, will be overcoming the burden of political labels. On some issues we may have opinions leaning to the right, and on others to the left. So those who feel obliged to define us using these old classification tools will have to settle with placing us in the center.

We’re not unaware of the importance of the free market, but we observe with close attention that there has to be social justice. The different tendencies can be expressed like the legs of a table which, when everyone has the same freedom of action, we have to find social equilibrium.

With the Somos+ movement there will never be a single idea. We are open to people who are members of the Communist Party or who have openly declared themselves to the right or left. We want to bring together those who believe in clear goals. There could be many Communists here who are in agreement with us that we need a greater degree of participation, that we lack a democratic parliament, that Cuba needs to be inserted once and for all into the technological globalization to be present in the world. We will not refuse anyone the right to participate because they have a different ideological viewpoint.

“A good strategy for making progress in this field as turbulent as this is to pay less attention to what the adversaries say”

Q. What does a person have to do to join the Somos+ movement? Do you include Cubans living outside the island?

A. We are going to take our ideas everywhere. Already in eight provinces we have been invited to give conferences on the subject. It’s about young people who are eager to do something and don’t know how. Friends, family, neighbors who get together.

Among the founding documents that are posted on our website there is a summary of our ideas and principles, and also a Letter to Young People where I explain our motivation. We have included a form that people can fill out with their particulars, both those living on the Island and those who live anywhere else in the world, provided they share the objectives of our movement.

Q. Presumably that now attacks will come. From official institutions that will accuse you of being another mercenary of the empire and from sectors of the opposition that will say that your movement is a maneuver by Raúl Castro to make people believe he is democratizing. What answers do you have for one or the other?

A. A good strategy for advancement in this very turbulent field is to dedicate less attention to what your adversaries say and more attention to communicating with people. That is what we are going to spend 99.99% of our time on, regardless of what extremists from either sector say.

Q. I’d like it if you would get ahead here of the one question you are going to be asked from all directions and with the worst intentions. How is the movement financed?

A. The members of the movement will make voluntary contributions to help defray costs. That is reflected in our bylaws. It’s impossible to do what we want to do without resources and it would be very irresponsible to try to do it without stable economic support. Our finances will be public and we will prepare a report so our accounts can be audited.

If you sell a pig and you want to bring a part of the profit to our movement you can do so, like Christians do in their churches to maintain the church. This movement is our faith.

Implicit in the bylaws is that any natural or legal person can make donations as long as they comply with certain principles: that the money does not come from illicit sources, that they are not trying to influence the politics of the movement with a donation, that they haven’t participated in violent acts. We don’t believe that the enemy of our adversary is necessarily our friend. We would love to have a public debate with the Communist Party on the topic of how to finance a political organization.

Q. One last question that someone asked Fidel Castro in 1954, when he was your age: Do you plan, at some point, to perpetuate yourself in power if you achieve your purpose?

A. We won’t leave for tomorrow the issue of handover of positions. Internally we have elections and this will be a habit we will continue. I personally disagree with any initiative that can lead to a person remaining in power. The 1940 Cuban constitutions addresses this with great clarity.

A Turn of the Screw Against the Informal Market / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 30 May 2014 – A regulation of the General Customs of the Republic, published last Wednesday, has sellers of imported products and other private traders on edge. The official document includes new restrictions on travelers carrying goods to Cuba.

The measure adds to an escalation against the private market that hit a low point last December 31 when the government closed the so-called boutiques and outlets of varied merchandise, run by the self-employed. Many of these vendors transitioned to illegality, now offering their wares via catalogs that circulate hand to hand.

The Official Gazette has put special emphasis on warning of administrative or criminal liability for anyone who brings “foreign packages” to the Island. A direct reference to the so-called “mules” who bring clothing, shoes and other products sent by Cuban exiles to their families on the Island. continue reading

A video posted on the website of the Official Gazette shows a dramatization of the arrival of a traveler with 150 USB flash drives. On being questioned, the visitor said he did not know the contents of what he had brought because it came from another person who was sending it to his family.

For Antonio Tapia, who just bought an iPod through the classifieds website Revolico.com, it is “significant that Customs has chosen to issue their warning through these new technologies.” According to him, “For weeks we’ve been under a barrage of official propaganda against these technologies and now this shows up.”

The informal sellers are also very worried. On Reina Street in downtown Havana several outlets for imported clothing have been closed since the beginning of the year. However, most have continued to provide their customers with a wide range of dresses, brand name shoes and jewelry, although now they must do so illegally. “It gets worse and worse,” says Yanaisa, who has a boutique specializing in women’s underwear.

At José Martí International Airport Terminal 2, 14ymedio spoke with recent arrivals coming off a flight from Florida. So far no one has said they perceived a change in customs searches compared to previous trips. Carmen, age 61 and living in New Jersey, said that she was “very scared” when she heard about the measure because she always comes “loaded with gifts and commissions from others.” However, she reported “no problems of any kind” entering the country.

The effects of this new turn of the screw on the importing on merchandise could start to be felt in the coming weeks. But at the same time, in the words of Ruben Eduardo, a seller of computer parts, “We can always invent something.”

Over One Thousand Arrests of Activists in May / 14ymedio

14ymedio, Havana, 2 June 2014 – In its latest report*, for the month of May, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported 1,120 arrests of peaceful dissidents and activists. This figure is one of the “highest in recent decades with regards to the number of arrests for political reasons,” the document reports.

As an example, the report cites the case of journalist Guillermo Fariñas, winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, who has been arrested every Monday over the last 19 weeks. In the introduction to the list of detainees, the text reports an increase in “repressive violence against citizens who dare to disagree publicly.”

This report is prepared monthly by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent organization led by Elizardo Sanchez; the government of the island does not recognize the organization in any legal way.

*Translator’s note: Although the report is in Spanish it is laid out in such a way that an English-speaker reader can grasp the dates, places, and names of those arrested.