Another Absurd Prohibition / Fernando Damaso

Wandering around some of the shopping streets in Havana, with the objective of photographing shop logos embedded in the granite floors of their entrances, I was shocked at the Fontana store on Neptuno Street with the absurdity that accompanies us every dat.

When I was taking the picture, after having come to an agreement with the clerk who was sitting next to one of his dirty shop windows, a character who said he was the manager came out, angry, and told me it was forbidden.

On asking him why, he responded to me, upset, that it was an order from the superior bosses, adding: It is forbidden to photograph the floor, the store inside and out, the display windows and even the bars.

I smiled and answered him: Tell your superior bosses that it is forbidden to photograph the ruins that Havana has been turned into, cannot hide the reality

I’ve confronted this absurd situation in cafes, restaurants, shops, offices and other state property. It seems, indeed, to e a government regulation. Perhaps they think that someone could copy their primitive sales systems and abuse the public. Anything is possible.

But it’s not the case in private establishment, where they’re happy when people take pictures and the employees themselves will push the shutter for you, because it’s free advertising.

Clearly, between the private businesses and the state businesses there is a lot of difference: the former are pleasant, agreeable with good service, while the second, although the sell in hard currency, are dirty, disagreeable and with the worst service.

As a photograph is worth a thousand words, here I show you some that speak for themselves. The title photo is the sidewalk on Fontana, taken before the manager came out, the second is Neptuno between Consulado and Industria.

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18 September 2014

Solidarity or Propaganda? / Fernando Damaso

I wish I could be happy about the quick response by the Cuban government to the request for assistance from the World Health Organization and the UN general secretary in their efforts to combat the Ebola epidemic, but I cannot.

I am all too aware of the deteriorating state of our hospitals, the lack of hygiene, the poor medical care — provided mainly by students rather than doctors — the poor nutrition provided to patients, the shortage of drugs and many other problems.

I am referring, of course, to the medical centers which serve the average Cuban, which are the majority, not to the specialized centers catering to foreigners, VIPs or people who can pay for their services in hard currency.

A similarly rapid response should be applied to the serious problems that have afflicted our health care system for years. We make the mistake of trying to solve the world’s problems without due regard for our own. This seems to have paid off in that at least it generates a lot of free propaganda.

However, no one who speaks or writes about the magnificent Cuban health system has had to have their illnesses or those of their loved ones treated here. Furthermore, many Cuban bigwigs prefer to seek treatment in other countries, even that of the enemy. There must be some reason for this.

At a press conference in Geneva, Cuba’s minister of public health took the opportunity to propagandize about the country’s achievements and to emphasize yet again how many medical personnel have provided and are now providing care in other countries.

He also talked about the thousands of overseas volunteer workers, though without mentioning how much Cuba charges in dollars for this service — currently one of the country’s main sources of foreign exchange — or how doctors, nurses and other specialists are not being properly paid.

At one point during the press conference the minister stated that the Revolution did not wait for its health services to be developed before beginning to provide assistance to other peoples.

He neglected to mention that Cuba’s health services were already well-developed before 1959 and were among the best not only in the Caribbean but in all of Latin America. One need only look to official statistics from international organizations of the time to confirm this.

Given these questions, I am concerned that what we are dealing with here has more to do with propaganda than with solidarity.

September 2014

Absurdities of the Week / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Cuba is like an exaggerated version of the fictional village Macondo,* as is clear to anyone with half a brain. For evidence of this, one need only spend a few minutes reading the country’s state-controlled press.

On Monday new customs regulations went into effect. On Tuesday there were articles by two of our seasoned journalists, who reported how successful these measures were, so much so that they had both travelers and customs officials applauding in unison. It is striking how effective these regulations turned out to be, and in such a short period of time, especially if we consider that it took a full year and a trial run in three provinces to lower the price of natural gas and distribute it for free.

The International Freedom for the Five Day — there are now only three of them — has occupied the front pages of the two main state-run newspapers. This year it will run until October 6, with vigils, marches, exhibitions, book sales, an international symposium, and demonstrations at universities, community centers and workplaces. This will include an event dubbed Kids Paint for Peace in which “all the nation’s children,” which can be interpreted to mean “all children without exception,” will paint asphalt and and fly kites in support of the Five.

It seems that all is going well considering that this campaign will represent the loss of vast amounts of time – including that of private citizens — and a waste of resources in pursuit of a new national pastime. If the state-run media is to be believed, this issue is of concern not only to Cubans on the island but to Cubans throughout the world. Please, let’s not get carried away! Remember that overstatement usually ends up being counterproductive.

As though that were not enough, it seems we must now celebrate the 69th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s college admission, the tenth anniversary of his historic speech at the Aula Magna and the fifth anniversary of his address to university students warning them of the threat of extinction to the human race. Remembrance has its place, but I do not remember any remembrance of the day on which Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Ignacio Agramonte or José Martí — to mention three examples — began their university studies, much less a remembrance of many of their truly historic speeches.

It seems that a large segment of today’s Cuban youth — at least the ones who appear in the official media — find time to commemorate almost any event. Many years ago the cult of personality as practiced in other countries of the former Soviet bloc was severely criticized here. In light of all the damage it caused, people swore this would never happen in Cuba. Has this been forgotten? It might be a good idea to remind our young student leaders of this.

It is noteworthy that this summer, which was certainly quite a hot one, there were no new measures taken to stimulate the economy, unless you count the new customs regulations. We hope that September brings some new changes, though they are unlikely to meet the expectations of most Cubans. Nevertheless, something is better than nothing, even if it comes in dribs and drabs.

*Translator’s note: The setting of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

6 September 2014

Unprotected / Fernando Damaso

In Cuba, animals, for the most part, are unprotected. There are no laws or regulations that define how they should be treated, nor sanctions for those who abuse them. Flora and Fauna, for the most part, deals with problems relating to the extinction of species, but doesn’t interest itself in domestic animals, much less pets and other affectionate animals. They depend totally on their owners, consistent with their feelings and financial capabilities.

There is no governmental agency or organization that answers for them. There are some regulations prohibiting their presence, even with their owners, in certain public places, like beaches, recreations centers and others, and fines are imposed if they are violated.

This lack of regulated State attention, as happens in most civilized countries in the world, seems not to be on our authorities’ list of priorities. Continue reading

Different Times / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

In my far-off childhood, extracurricular organizations — whether public or private — were concerned principally with sponsoring weekend trips to interesting natural locations, cultural institutions or factories.

The goal was to encourage our love of nature, expand our general knowledge, provide opportunities to attend age-appropriate entertainment events, enhance participation in sports, arrange excursions to the beach, and other such activities.

We were also involved in social service activities such as participating in public health campaigns, collecting donations for the blind, cancer treatment, park improvements and other causes. We were interested in all of them. They motivated us and taught us civic and social responsibility. We were never used as tools for political or ideological ends. Continue reading

The Bad Seed / Fernando Damaso

 Photo by Rebeca

Getting two Cubans to agree is more difficult than getting an Israeli and a Palestinian to agree. When it gets complicated is when you have to get several to agree. Historically, this has been one of our great defects. The Ten Years War failed to achieve its objectives, not only because of the push by Spanish troops, but mainly because of the divisions within the insurrection.

The same thing happened with the War of Independence, and if the Americans hadn’t intervened we would still be a Spanish colony. There were divisions within the Council of Government, within the Army and between the Council of Government and the Army. Although we don’t like to admit it, given our cheap nationalism, it’s the truth. Continue reading

Between the Keffiyeh and the Kippah / Fernando Damaso

In recent weeks the Palestinian issue, and specifically what is happening in the Gaza Strip, has captured the attention of the media. Over here the image shown is that of poor peaceful Palestinians attacked and brutally slaughtered by the bellicose Israelis.

Violence is good for no one and should be avoided, because it only causes pain, suffering, destruction and death, wherever it comes from. The solution of settling differences and contradictions through peaceful means has always been more intelligent, although it is much more complex. Unfortunately, in the Middle East historically, that has been very difficult if not impossible. This land has been prodigious in expulsions, returns and new expulsions. The blame is equal on all sides. Continue reading

A Repetitive Hack / Fernando Damaso

Photo by Rebeca

With regards to the Cuban hack living in Miami, I’ve decided not to write any more, but it seems that drinks were passed around (in a letter he declared his love for them) and in one of his last writings he dismisses representative democracy.

He complains that in the United States you can’t but a business wherever you want, it has to be in a commercial area. That you are subject to inspections, forced to follow regulations and ordinances. You have to pay taxes. You can’t paint your house whatever color you want or put up fences without authorization. You have to have a permit for a rally or protests, and journalists can only publish what newspaper owners approve.

The hack seems to want to practice anarchism in an organized society. From his arrogance he asserts: Cubans don’t understand anything about this, they haven’t the least idea about the implacable et cetera.

It seems that this gentleman, when he travels to Cuba to deal with his work and have a little fun, hasn’t realized that here, after some time and overcoming the anarchy stage of years back, there are also all the regulations he criticizes and much more, and they are enforced through big fines, demolitions and even seizures without it being a democracy, much less a representative one.

On the subject of protests and demonstrations it’s more radical; they are forbidden and, if you hold one, you will be severely reprimanded by the authorities.

In the case of the press it’s simple: all the media are state-owned and the only articles approved by the authorities appear in them.

I think the hack knows this well, since he writes for one.

I don’t know how much they pay him for his weekly diatribes on the same topic: how bad it is living in Miami. Nor do I know if he is paid in dollars or Cuban Convertible Pesos, but it would be nice if he would be a little more serious, and stop thinking that we Cubans over here are stupid enough to believe what he writes.

28 July 2014

A Badly Garnished Dish / Fernando Damaso

Every now and then the Cuban Authorities mount the spectacle of ’external subversion’ against the regime. As if it were a ’blue plate special’ it’s seasoned with a press statement from a second or third rate official, articles on the subject from some government journalists, a session on the Roundtable TV Show with energetic participants, an anecdote about an alleged event that took place in a cultural forum, and statements about some media junkie being a double agent.

It happens that, despite the political events they participate in, a great part of Cuban youth don’t believe in the country’s current political, economic and social project, and try to abandon the country by any means possible to pursue their lives in other lands.

If the constant defections of athletes, artists and professionals weren’t enough, along with the illegal departures on boats, rafts and other methods by hundreds of Cubans, you only have to talk honestly with the young people in any neighborhood in our towns and cities to know what they really think.

The double standard is well-rooted here, right along with the invasive marabou weed, and you shouldn’t give much credence to what is said in an assembly or mass event, or in front of a microphone or camera. At those times, most of the young and not so young say what the authorities want to hear, so as to avoid trouble.

The solution is not ’blue plate specials’ every now and then, but the adoption of profound measures to resolve the current critical situation and to offer, rather than a long delayed future, a prosperous and dignified present.

7 August 2014

Overstatement / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Typically, we Cubans are short on economic issues and pass on politics. At least that has been the case for the last fifty-six years. We veer between shortcomings and excesses, never finding a happy medium, as so many of the world’s nations and peoples do. We now seem to be in a period of unrestrained overstatement.

First there was the celebration of 61st anniversary of the assault on the Moncada and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes barracks. Given the hours devoted to scheduled programming on radio and television and the tons of paper and ink expended on this topic, one would think this event had completely changed the history of mankind, except that, so far, mankind has not noticed.

The series of neighborhood concerts given by the singer Silvio Rodriguez — which compelled him to say that, until giving them, he was not aware how bad (he used another word) Cubans were — was described as an epic accomplishment.

The summer road trip take by twenty or so young people from Sabaneta in Guantanamo province to Miraflores in Ciego de Avila — names which by sheer coincidence matched those of two places in Venezuela, recalling the last electoral campaign of that country’s late president — were part of an admirable campaign.

The victories by the Cuban baseball team — reinforced with professional players — against a team of American college students constitute a great accomplishment which swept aside memories of the defeat suffered the previous year by the Cubans at the hands of American team. The sliver and bronze medals which our athletes win are as valuable as those of gold and even shine more brightly because they were won with heart. Apparently, athletes from other countries do not have the heart to compete.

There are even dead people who go on living even after their deaths because they are eternal. It’s not that they get older every year but simply that their birthdays are remembered.

In any normal country the output of a factory or farm is not considered newsworthy. Here it represents a heroic labor achievement. One might add that our children are the happiest in the world, our women the most emancipated and that our citizens enjoy the best health and education systems in the world as well as the most generous social security benefits. The list goes on and on.

Superlatives on a daily basis have become a bad habit. Moderators of radio and television programs, journalists, artists, politicians and even national leaders all do it. Today’s sad reality must be masked with big-sounding words. The problem is that overstatement to the point of ridiculousness is only a step away.

2 August 2014

Was Moncada Necessary? / 14ymedio, Fernando Damaso

Moncada Barracks

Moncada Barracks

A great deal has been written about the assault on Moncado Barracks in Santiago de Cuba and the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Barracks in Bayamo on 26 July 1953. At times, with great exaggeration. Some, forgetting the differences in times and objectives, as compared with the Cry of Yara in 1868 or that of Baire in 1895, which started our war of Independence.

About the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in Bayamo on 26 July 1953 much has been written.Sometimes exaggerated. Some, forgetting the differences in epochs and objectives, as compared with the 1868 Cry of Yara, or the Cry of Baire in l895, which kicked off our war of independence.

In response to the events of 1953, traditional Cuban political sectors reacted with surprise. They were used to solving national problems through dialogue and peaceful means, and suddenly armed struggle makes its appearance as a method of fighting against tyranny. Even some of those who would later become traveling companions of the revolutionaries, described the act as a putsch, although later they retracted. Others, less dogmatic and more dialectical, saw in the action a path for its principle organizers to rapidly achieve political prominence and popular support. Continue reading

A Hilarious Conclusion / Fernando Damaso

Artwork by Rebeca

An article by a young Cuban journalist was just published in the so-called youth newspaper under the arresting title “The Happiest Children in the World.” In it she recalls her childhood of aged, half-bald dolls previously belonging to her older sisters, toys given to her by a neighbor after he was too old to play with them, Soviet nesting dolls, daily blackouts, nights spent in darkness and many other shortages. In the end she comes to the conclusion that she “was born in this country, a place where children have everything they need to be the happiest in the world.”

I do not know if the author is trying to be slyly ironic or if she has been a practicing masochist since early childhood. She presents no evidence that would lead to such a conclusion. It could be that for her this is what constitutes happiness, but such generalization is a bad habit on which Cubans too often rely. Statements about having the best baseball, the best boxing, the best education, the best health care, the most courageous people and so forth are far removed from reality.

If this were true, then we would also have to accept that we are the happiest people in the world. This would be in spite of the fact that more than 80% of our homes are in disrepair, that many families live in inadequate and unsanitary housing, that streets and sidewalks are inaccessible, that neighborhood sewer lines are broken, that potable water is scarce, that public sanitation is notable by its absence, that the health and education systems are poor, that social indiscipline and violence are endemic, that salaries and pensions are at poverty levels, that prices for consumer goods are exorbitant, that public transportation is chaotic, that the economy is not growing, that every day the country moves further backwards, and on top of all this that we live without internet access or civil liberties.

One should be careful about what one writes and publishes as well as a little more responsible. Accepting misery and shortages as a normal way of life without working to change them does nothing to help eliminate them. It is one thing to repeat slogans but quite another to discard objectively in order to fill up pages. You don’t want too much of a good thing.

24 July 2014