Where There’s Smoke / Fernando Damaso

For months Cuban authorities have been waging an intense campaign to end the blockade (or embargo) imposed by the US government against the Cuban government. Among Cuba’s demands are the release of three spies now serving time in US jails and removal of the country from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.

All this is in the context of an “invitation to the government of the United States to a mutually respectful relationship based on reciprocity, sovereign equality, the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter,” in the wording of a speech by the Cuban foreign minister at the sixty-ninth session of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 28, 2014.

Moreover, in recent weeks the New York Times has published several editorials in support of the same position, which have been reproduced verbatim by Cuba’s government-run press — something never seen before — which has added its own severe criticism of civil society, accusing it among other things of corruption.

The convergence of opinion among Cuban authorities, the New York Times and some political, business and social figures of the United States is striking. It is no secret, though the parties involved refrain from confirming it, that something has long been cooking behind the backs or with the participation of only some members of Cuba’s civil society.

At the end of the 19th century the governments of the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which ended hostilities in Cuba as well as Spanish control over the island. Neither the Cubans who had launched the initial revolt nor their political representatives took part in the treaty negotiations. This weighed heavily on Cuban-American relations during the era of the Cuban Republic and was considered by many responsible Cubans to be a politic mistake on the part of our neighbor to the north.

Trying to resolve the dispute between the governments of the United States and Cuba today, well into the 21st century, without the participation of Cubans who are neither part of the government nor in agreement with it would be making the same mistake twice.

The desires of Cuba’s current leaders to prolong the life of their failed system — albeit with surface embellishments and new faces — and the interests of certain American political figures cannot take precedence over the interests of the majority of the Cuban people who, unable to truly exercise their democratic rights, are hoping and fighting for real change.

12 November 2014

A New Anniversary / Fernando Damaso

It’s 495 years since the founding of Havana. Celebration after celebration is being held, however, the serious problem of lack of housing grows every day, without any real chances of a solution. The causes of it are many and the results extremely well-known.

According to official data there are 33,889 nuclear families in Havana who need housing, a total of 132,699 people. To these they should add that many of those families have spent 10, 15, 20 and more years living in shelters with and without minimal conditions, where children and even grandchildren have been born.

Lately there’s been a plan to resolve the situation with the construction of urban settlements in different parts of the city, consisting of groups of affordable apartment buildings.

In 2013, 746 of these apartments were built, and in 2014, 817 have been completed, and in the rest of the year 566 are expected for a total of 1,383. In 2015 it’s estimated that 1,480 will be built in that and following years, in line with the economic possibilities and the availability of materials and labor.

As the figures, are sometimes confusing, it is necessary to apply mathematics to understand them: 33,889 nuclear families between 1,500 annual apartments means it will take at least 22 years to resolve the problem.

If to this we add that, according to official data, every day in the city three buildings collapse, for a total of 1,095 annually, so in reality it would leave 405 of the estimated 1,500 buildings, because the other 1,095 would simply compensate for those that disappeared.

With this new data, it would then take 83 years. So this alone is not the solution.

So if you add to these affordable apartments come with a cement floor and the kitchen and bath aren’t completely tiled, leaving in the hands of the tenants, according to their personal means and interests, to improve the level of finishing, adding to that the construction defects that they present (cracks in the floors, damp walls, leaks, etc), the problem increases.

While domestic and foreign private investment in real estate is not authorized, and citizens, because of their low salaries and the high cost of building materials, lack the opportunities of building their own homes, it will be more of the same, and next year Havana will celebrate the anniversary of its founding in worse conditions than today.

17 November 2014

Extremism on the Table / Fernando Damaso

On the page 2 of the November 7th Granma, there is an article by the journalist Pedro de la Hoz, who is now also one of the vice presidents of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC), where, honoring his last name (in English ’hoz’ means ’sickle’), railing against the recent celebrations in Havana of a cheerleading event, the celebration of Halloween in some recreation centers with the participation of costumed young people, and even the wearing of clothing with the American flag.

The character, calling on crossover Stalinist-style ideology, shouts to the heavens speaking of banality, sexism and sentimental silliness, asserts his right to expound on his arguments and judge those who don’t think like he does.

All correct: everyone can think as he likes and defend his opinions, which is not a very common practice in Cuba, where the media only publishes those characters with ties to the regime, among which the man in question is an example.

It struck me that de la Hoz, so concerned about foreign influences, although he recognizes that we live in a global village, has never defended Cuban traditions related to Holy Week, Christmas Eve, Christmas, seeing out the old year and seeing in the new (without additional ideological elements) and, in the case of Havana, the celebration of Carnival, which has been totally lost and has nothing to do with the current booze and food binge, to name just a few.

I don’t think that celebrating Halloween, practicing cheerleading, wearing a shirt or short with the stars and stripes and even celebrating Thanksgiving threatens national identity. Working against our national identity is forgetting our customs and traditions, social indiscipline, lack of respect, rude language, and generalized marginality, street violence, corruption, double standards, opportunism and many other evils.

Hopefully the recent article doesn’t unleash some new witch hunt.

7 November 2014

From Columns to Bars / Fernando Damaso

Photos by Rebeca

Some years ago Alejo Carpentier wrote a column which he called “Havana, A City of Columns.” The proliferation of colonnades along our major streets once caught the attention of anyone who visited the city, though they seem perfectly normal to those of us living here.

They protected us from the scorching sun and the torrential rains. You could walk under them almost uninterrupted along major thoroughfares such as Monte, Reina, Galiano, Belascoaín, Jesús del Monte and Jesús del Cerro except when you had to cross the street.

Today everything has changed. The columns have collapsed and with them many of the colonnades. Others have been closed to pedestrian traffic by residential and business occupants, who set up walls and metal fences as they see fit, in violation of regulations governing public ornamentation and city planning.

While this is troubling, what is even worse is that Havana is no longer the city of columns but rather the city of burglar bars. They are like marabou weed in the countryside, spreading everywhere. Bars of all types can found on residences, shops, businesses, schools, parks, fountains, cafes, restaurants and kiosks, disfiguring the city and making it seem like one big jail.

Paradoxically, when we were uneducated and poor — according to authorities — property was respected and there was no need for bars. Now that we are civilized and there is no poverty — again according to authorities — there is no respect for property and bars are everywhere.

As the saying goes, it seems the violin is for one thing and the guitar for quite another. The concept that everything belongs both to everyone and to no one is as complicated and difficult to understand as the mystery of the Holy Trinity. For your enjoyment, I have interspersed some photos of various types of metal bars.

7 November 2014

Virtual Reality? / Fernando Damaso

When I hear some of our nation’s leaders talk about the Republican era — and many of officials repeat what they say — I get the impression the country was one vast wasteland, without an education or public health system, without highways, aqueducts, sewers, water mains, electricity, telephones, hospitals, schools, factories, businesses, cinemas, theaters or many other things.

Could it be that our towns and cities were a highly developed virtual reality? Does what we see today, now all quite dilapidated, not exist before 1959?

In reality it all existed. Furthermore, it was in even better condition than today and was continually getting better. When you have no important accomplishments to your credit but rather only a series of failures, you must deny the existence of everything that came before, which allows you to pretend you were starting from scratch. Then whatever you have done, good or bad, becomes the sole reality. That is what we have tried to convince the younger generation, who have no firsthand experience of the Republican years.

When we ourselves were young, we were  proud of our country. We respected the national anthem, the flag and the coat of arms. We were aware that not everything was perfect or even worked well, but we tried to improve things and, most importantly, we did not leave Cuba. The only aspiration of today’s younger generations is to emigrate to some other part of the world where they can realize their personal goals. They have lost any hope of being able to solve all the many problems which have accumulated over the years. This is the reality, and not the virtual kind.

I remember a scandal from the Republican era that involved an intoxicated US Navy seaman desecrating the statue of José Martí in Havana’s Central Park. Today, some Cubans use this site and the doorways of the surrounding buildings as a public urinal, mainly at night, in the face of widespread public indifference. Anyone wishing to verify this need only take a stroll through the area in the early hours of the morning. In reality there is much that has been lost, and not just material things.

When historical continuity is severed and whole eras are distorted or swept aside, you get the situation we have in Cuba today. The country is no longer of interest to most of its citizens. Everyone carves out his own little personal corner and adapts it to meet his needs, forgetting about everyone else.

3 November 2014

Tiny Flags Return / Fernando Damso

Illustration: The Fool by Eduardo Abela

I began thinking about the tiny flags printed on fabric or paper that everyone used to wave in rhythm at the city’s weekly demonstrations during the “battle of ideas.” Like Abela’s fool, they have passed into oblivion along with his creator.*

However, they have reappeared in the hands of healthcare workers, clad in their white lab coats, off to confront, with those from other countries, the Ebola epidemic on the African continent.

First of all, I think that — besides being uncomfortable — travelling dressed in a white lab coat while carrying a tiny flag comes off as extremely quaint, though it seems to be more part of a propaganda stage set than the mission itself. Continue reading

Has Stagnation Returned? / Fernando Damaso

For years, stagnation was a constant of Cuban-style socialism, as it was in the socialism of Eastern Europe. Starting in 2006, with the change at the helm, it seemed as if the country was going to awaken from its long lethargy and start to move forward, albeit too slowly for many people. A few timid steps were taken, but they were enough to create some hope that, finally, we would begin to travel along the correct path, leaving behind years of failed experiments and constant political, economic and social improvisation.

There began a process of eliminating absurd prohibitions, which pleased everyone, although it was known that the contents of our wallets would be insufficient to fund such niceties as travel, hotel stays or buying a car or house. It also seemed as though the economy was going to begin to take off, salaries and pensions would improve, and we would begin to live as normal people. Congresses and conferences were convened wherein short-, medium-, and long-term plans were discussed and approved which, according to their creators, would facilitate our secure path towards development, without pressures but also without slow-downs.

Some years have now passed since then, and the scene has changed but little: agriculture continues to lag behind the demand for reasonably-priced foods for the majority of citizens, livestock breeding continues to be stagnant, milk production is seriously below national demand, basic industrial products are scarce, health and education services get worse daily, the lack of hygiene is widespread, the state of the epidemiological system is worrisome, streets and sidewalks remain broken and unrepaired, buildings collapse and new housing units are not built, businesses are deteriorating and under-supplied, and incivility is rampant.

The list of problems could go on ad infinitum, adding to it, besides, the prevailing corruption, diversion of resources, social violence and generalized indiscipline. It appears that erstwhile gains are insufficient, or that actions taken do not resolve the problems that prompted them. It could be that, without realizing it, we are falling once again into stagnation.

It is true that it is unjust to own lands when the owner does not work them, or when the lands are unproductive. However, it is also unjust to work them and make them productive, and not own them. The same thing happens when business properties are legally transferred to non-agricultural,autonomous cooperatives. After the State, through its interventions, nationalized these properties when they were in good condition and let them deteriorate, now it pretends that the responsibility to repair them falls on the private proprietors – while the State continues to maintain ownership of the real estate.

We are face to face with a reality. As long as the State, which during 56 years has demonstrated its economic illiteracy and its incapacity to make productive ventures out of agriculture, livestock breeding and industry – as well as being unable to run its enterprises and services at a quality level – continues to try to maintain itself as the absolute owner of everything in the name of the people (that generic entity) – and doesn’t permit real Cubans the exercise of real private ownership, nothing will work.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

23 October 2014

I’ll Stick With "America" / Fernando Damaso

The official government Cuban press sometimes surprises us with some “profound” article that causes us to think. Last Tuesday one such article appeared in Juventud Rebelde with the title, “Abya Yala, the aboriginal name of America.”

This kind of gesture aimed at erasing the 522 years since Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America, marked on Oct. 12, has now become a mental trauma for some people. Just to be critical, they have even criticized the concept, “Meeting of Two Cultures,” which seems right to me.

It turns out that, according to the so-called “original peoples” (who in reality are not so “original” being that before them came many others, even going back to the first being considered human) and their defenders, Earth is not called that, but rather, “Pachamama,” and America is “Ixachilan,” “Runa Pacha,” or “Abya Yala.” That is, according to these “originalists,” gathered in multiple workshops, conferences, campaigns, congresses and summits, it was decided that, as of 2007, instead of “Americans” we are “abyayalesians.” If we follow this logic, then instead of “earthlings” we should be called “pachamamians.” Really, I do not like these little names. I’ll stick with the current ones.

Every country names the “Earth” and “America” in its own language, but for all, they are “Earth” and “America.” This is what allows that, although we speak different languages, we can still understand each other. This business of everyone pretending to give his local name to those things that involve us all, aside from being a ridiculous pursuit, is just nonsense. Besides, America, when it had contact with Europeans, was no great nation or even close to being one. There resided in America various tribes, some more developed than others, that warred amongst themselves, had their own dialects, and lacked a common language. The Spanish language, as the poet Pablo Neruda pointed out, allowed us to understand each other, just as did Portuguese and English.

This snobbery of wanting to change historical names constitutes a true waste of time and resources. Respecting and admiring what our ancestors – from the Greeks to the Aztecs, without forgetting other civilizations – contributed to the development of humanity, those peoples known as “original” should devote their efforts to making up for the hundreds of years of backwardness they suffer in relation to those who are not “original” but who, nonetheless, by virtue of talent and hard work, have given humanity the majority of goods of all kinds that we enjoy – and that many “originals” also enjoy, starting with their leaders.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

19 October 2014

Misguided Opinions / Fernando Damaso

It comes to my attention that in recent months the World Bank has reported that, according to their evaluation, Cuba has one of the best public education systems in the world, with acceptable teacher pay, and the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has said something similar about the public health system.

What’s more, CNN has placed Cuba among the ten countries with the highest level of public hygiene. With the majority of my years having been lived in Cuba, and having suffered and continuing to suffer from one system or another, it seems to me like a bad joke. Continue reading

What Isn’t Working? / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Let’s take a look at four different situations.

In the case of the national railway, the authorities in charge claim that its problems are due to outdated equipment and the lack of proper maintenance resulting from a lack of spare parts. The system has not been updated in more than fifty years. As a result the No. 1 train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, which used to run daily, now only makes the trip every three days. For the last eight years the Havana to Holguin train has not run at all.

Those that are running do so at reduced speed and with a fewer number of train cars. When the air conditioning in one of the French-made train cars breaks down, it remains permanently of service and passengers must resort to opening tiny windows instead. The system also suffers from organizational problems and widespread indiscipline.

For years the sizes of school uniforms sold at the beginning of the school year have not corresponded to students’ actual sizes, which have become much smaller to poor nutrition. Though the problem persists year after year, the ministries of education and industry have still not come up with a solution.

Camping, the only vacation option available to the average Cuban, does not live up to expectations or its costs. Camping facilities are run-down, the food is of poor quality and badly prepared, amenities are minimal and the available services leave much to be desired.

Drinking water is in short supply in the suburb of Villa Panamericana near the town of Cojimar. Planners did not take into account the fact that project’s cisterns relied on gravity and that the supply came directly from the tank itself, so of course it cannot reach the third, fourth or fifth floors of the town’s existing buildings.

One might think that this string of calamities is directly related to those provide these services. That assumes that these people do not know how to do the work or simply do it badly. However, in spite of a constant turnover of directors, administrators and personnel, things are no better. One would then have to assume that it is the system itself that is not working.

Neither classic nor actual socialism has worked in any of the countries in which it has been tried. The evidence is plain to see. In Cuba it has never worked, not in the past and not in the present. I think this will also be the case with “prosperous and efficient socialism.” At least that is how I see things so far.

8 October 2014

A Simple Concern / Fernando Damaso

Photos Rebeca

After years without maintenance, abandoned to their fate and in a total state of disrepair, the authorities finally decided to “rescue” — the fashionable word — the building known as La Manzana de Gomez, a building finished by the Gomez Mena family in the year 1917, which occupies the space between Zuleata, San Rafael, Monserrate and Neptune streets.

According to reports it will be converted into a hotel and that is precisely where my concern lies, because this construction project does not answer directly to the Office of the City Historian, who is the only person who has been worried about respecting the identity of the city and its buildings.

To start, it’s announced that it will be called the Gran Hotel Manzana, eliminating the “de Gomez” in an absurd desire to erase at all costs of the Republican pasts. I don’t care much about that, as I am convinced that Havanans will call it the Gran Hotel Manzana de Gomez, exactly as has happened with so many other names they’ve wanted to change, which, however, remain, because traditions are stronger than voluntarism, orders and decrees.

What worries me is that in the granite floor of the property doorways, are embedded different logos of the original shops that occupied it, as well as the building itself–some of which I reproduce here–and it would be a serious mistake destroy them, they are part of the identity of the City of Havana, to build a modern floor, as happened with the neighboring Hotel Plaza, where the tile floors weren’t slippery, and were replaced by modern floors, which seem designed more for skating than walking.

Another negative experience was the replacement of the original floors where they built the nearby Hotel Central Park, and the destruction of the beautiful white and green sidewalks Granite Street San Rafael. All losses are irreparable due to the irresponsibility and ignorance of the authorities and citizen indolence.

If it proves impossible to repair and polish the original floor, due to its state of disrepair, they should at least save the logos and include them in the new floor to be constructed, as it would be an original detail that would give greater value. It would be desirable for the City Historian and other personalities to take timely action in this matter. We shouldn’t continue passively allowing them to destroy our city and erase its historic memory.

4 October 2014

The Eternal Scapegoat / Fernando Damaso

Every year around this time, Cuban authorities put together a report on the damage caused by the “blockade” (in reality an embargo), which this year it will present to the United Nations in October. To this end, state agencies and institutions report losses they have suffered during a period from 2013 to 2014, using statistics to emphasize the impact.

In addition to its actual impacts, the blockade is also blamed for all mistakes, weaknesses, irresponsibility, lack of productivity, delays and any other problems. It has become a kind of River Jordan, a place to wash away all one’s sins. These reports are like tropical hurricanes. Every time these storms hit the island, they are blamed for any damages suffered, from a sugar harvest which has already failed to a building which has collapsed in advance of the atmospheric event.

If these reports are to be believed, the chaotic state of agricultural and livestock production, the widespread lack of productivity, the technological backwardness of what few industries we have, the housing shortage, the disrepair of streets and sidewalks in our towns and cities, the poor quality of education and health care, the lack of internet access, low wages, unsanitary living conditions and many other ills that beset us are due principally to the “blockade.”

This blockade is more than fifty years old. What is striking is that only in the last twenty or so years that it has been denounced at the United Nations. Back when the former Soviet Union was subsidizing the Cuban government, it did not seem to be a problem. It was even the subject of jokes. It only became a problem once the subsidies ended and we actually had to work.

For years efforts have been made to convince us that we are both politically and economically independent. Why then this debilitating interest in wanting to buy everything from the United States? Why not purchase what we need in the Americas through Mexico, Argentina or Brazil? Or in Europe through France, Italy and Russia. Or in Asia through Japan, South Korea or China?

In truth the problem is not so much one of distance or of increased costs but, as you might surmise, a lack of financial resources. In order to be able to make purchases anywhere in the world, hard currency is required. And hard currency can only be obtained through economic production and export. Similarly, in order to obtain credit, you have to fulfill certain requirements and then spend it as agreed. The era of living off others is over. As the refrain of a popular song goes, “Work that yucca, Taino!”

Similarly, the problem of the blockade will not be resolved through the United Nations or a favorable vote by a majority of its member countries, for whom it is a political ploy to stay on the good side of the Cuban government. The solution will only come about when the governments of Cuba and United States decide to reestablish normal diplomatic relations. For this to happen, they must sit down and talk, and to be willing to both give and take. Intransigence won’t work here. Anything else is simply propaganda and a waste of time.

30 September 2014