A Misguided Decision / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

The economic and political sanctions imposed on Russian and Ukrainian leaders and officials by the United States and the European Union in response to actions on the Crimean peninsula do not appear to have been thoroughly thought through by the West.

Without delving too deeply into history, we should remember that Crimea, including the peninsula of the same name, was once part of the Ottoman empire. It was annexed by the Russian empire in the 18th century during an expansion directed by Catherine the Great. It also included Poland and Lithuania, which— along with Russian territory — would many years later would make up present-day Ukraine.

The peninsula was occupied by the Nazis during WWII until its liberation by the Soviet army. In 1954 Nikita Khruschev, the first secretary of the Soviet Communist party, decided to transfer jurisdiction to the Republic of Ukraine. It was a time when the USSR included Ukraine as well as fourteen other Soviet republics. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet and its naval and air installations have been based on the peninsula for many years. The largest proportion of the population is ethnically Russian, followed by Ukrainians and then Tatars. In the 1990s the Russian parliament attempted to reintegrate the Crimean peninsula into Russia, but the effort went nowhere.

The latest events in Ukraine — namely the demise of Russia’s protege there as well as its almost assured admission to the European Union and subsequently to NATO — set off alarm bells in Moscow. From a defense standpoint, losing an ally like Ukraine would be terrible enough for Russia since it would leave its southwest frontier exposed to Western military positions. But to lose the Crimea as well would have been totally unacceptable since it would have posed a threat to the naval base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, through which it gains access to the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Russian president, who portrays himself as a leader intent on restoring Greater Russia and the country’s pride, could not act otherwise, lest it lead to domestic problems. He did what he had to do, to the delight of his countrymen.

The West, spurred by the rapid developments and upset by the action, tried to exert political pressure with threats, instead of pushing for a peaceful and reasonable solution, which could have included the non-interference of Russian in the current Ukraine and the acceptance of its government at the expense of the independence of the peninsula and its later reincorporation into Russia, if its the citizens so decided. When a government puts another government between a rock and a hard place, closing off any dignified exit, it must be willing to see it through to its ultimate consequences which, in this case, would have been to go to war, which it was clear to everyone that the West wouldn’t do; not for the Crimean peninsula nor for the Ukraine.

The situation created, the tensions and actions on both sides, poisoned the world political atmosphere and awakened the ghost of the Cold War, which seemed as if it belonged to history. If the independence of the Crimea peninsula had been negotiated, perhaps it would have later been used as international pressure against Russia demanding, in addition, their acceptance of the independence of Chechnya and Ossetia, autonomous republics situated in its territory, which have spent years demanding and fighting for it.

The same thing happened in the USSR at the beginning of the ’90s, when it ceased to exist. The Republics that made up the Union decided to become independent, as is happening now to Ukraine. The Crimea already forms part of Russia and it’s a fait accompli. The important thing now is to consolidate independence and ensure Ukraine’s political, economic and social stability.

21 March 2014

The Pulse of the Street / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Lately, I have been taking the pulse of the street by wandering around various produce markets which have been set up since new guidelines governing commercial activity went into effect. Though they are generally well-stocked and offer a wide selection of goods, they all share a common denominator: high prices. This puts them out of reach of most workers and results in very poor sales. Perhaps prices remain high at the same time there is a wide variety of goods for sale and a possible increase in production. In the current climate customers buy only what they need to survive, so demand is not outstripping the supply, resulting in a decline in quality with the passage of time but without a subsequent decrease in prices.

We see the same situation being repeated in the case of pushcart vendors. A widespread  phenomenon that has sprung up spontaneously involves unlicensed street vendors, who operate near the entrances of some markets. Typically each vendor sells a different product  (onions, garlic, razor blades, fluorescent bulbs, powdered milk, etc.) and stands ready to disappear at the first sign of inspectors or other government agents.

Another notable development has been the closure by authorities of some private businesses such as family-run restaurants, cafes and  sweet shops, which had been operating for some time but which were accused of illegal activities such as buying supplies on the black market or having more employees than is allowable. Others have been shut down for poor sanitary conditions. These developments, along with the previous closure of private in-home 3D movie theaters, have darkened the mood in the neighborhoods, which seem to be waking up from their long, paralytic lethargy and questioning the so-called economic “updating.”

Given the way things work, however, we have already seen the beginning of the propaganda campaign leading to the upcoming May 1 commemoration, in which “all Cuba will shake from workers marching,” none of them with grievances and happy as always with their prosperous and sustainable socialist present and future.

3 April 2014

Use and Abuse of the Lab Coat / Fernando Damaso

During my childhood, adolescence, youth and young adulthood, doctors wore their lab coats only when they were working in hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities, and only for hygienic reasons. They were intended to help prevent the spread of germs between doctor and patient. On the street and in public places they dressed like anyone else of their social class. This seemed to be the case in the rest of the world as well, judging from films and television programs which portrayed medical personnel. 

In my country, however, lab coats seem to have become a kind of second skin, an official uniform for doctors, who never take them off. They wear them when walking from place to place and on buses, in commercial establishments and in the management offices of state enterprises and institutions. They were the damn things in preparation for travel to countries where they provide cheap labor, in assembly rooms where they receive their political and professional “orientation,” and even as they get on and off the planes taking them to their final destinations.

Undoubtedly, this use and abuse of the lab coat is not a coincidence but rather a response to political objectives. It serves as a propaganda tool, intended for both domestic and international audiences, which is used to promote one of the most important “achievements” of the regime.

The lab coat, which is worn at all hours of the day, seems to define the personality of our doctors. In Cuban TV news reports they are always seen wearing them, even when travelling on foot through fields and mountains, or on boats on rivers and lakes. They wear them in groups, “moving towards the bright future” together, as in old Soviet-bloc propaganda posters illustrating “the path towards communism.”

It would be desirable if lab coats were once again used for the purposes they were originally intended, which was for the well-being of doctors and their patients. Moreover, they would undoubtedly last much longer.

30 March 2014

Only Versions / Fernando Damaso

During these last few weeks we have “enjoyed” to the point of boredom the Russian version of events in Ukraine and in Crimea, and the Chavez version of the situation in Venezuela. In the first case, we have heard and read what has been said by the Russian President, Prime Minister and Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, and even by the deposed Ukrainian President who has been granted asylum in Russia, but we have heard absolutely nothing of what the new authorities of that country think.

In the second case, the same has happened, i.e. we have heard from the President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, but nothing from the opponents or students participating in protests and violence. In both cases, as is now usual, opponents have been labeled fascists (which has become fashionable), marginal extremists, terrorists and even traitors to their respective countries.

I do not hold our press solely responsible for this misinformation and distorted information, because it only obediently does as ordered by the authorities who for years have unconditionally supported anything that goes against the United States and the European Union, no matter where it comes from or who promotes it.

It is ironic being a people so politically educated, how our leaders never tire of repeating themselves, they hide information from us and do not allow us to analyze it and draw our own conclusions. Perhaps it is with a patronizing intent that we not lose time thinking, which is something they already do for us, and we can devote ourselves fully to our main and only task: to try to survive.

Fortunately, in the real world, despite prohibitions and restrictions, preventing access to information is practically impossible, since it is obtained from different sources.  The thing that offends is that though we are adults, they attempt to treat us like children, feeding us only ideological babyfood, let us reach higher!

Translated by Yoly from Oly

26 March 2014

That’s Life! / Fernando Damaso

Photo Rebeca

The Day of the Cuban Press was celebrated on 14 March, a day that commemorates the first edition of the newspaper Patria, directed by José Martí, in the year 1892. However, the celebration is exclusive — as is to be expected — the only participants are the government press, which has changed very little since its last congress. It continues to be complacent with the authorities who pay for it, as well as triumphalistic.

Some things–considered critiques–have been tried to improve its deteriorated image, they carefully balance a little salt and a little pepper in their articles and commentaries, to avoid calling the attention of the censors and other problems. Among these are the Letters to the Editor in the newspaper Granma, the same feature in Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), and “Cuba Says” on the TV News. Nevertheless they can’t hide the government’s footprints.

The awards to the most outstanding journalists were for the most part given to the most-recognized defenders of the government line, in the written press as well as for radio, television and digital. Their writings and commentaries, commonly, seem to respond to journalism-by-direction rather than investigations, which seem to be missing.

For now, it seems that the problems and dissatisfactions of ordinary Cubans are only voiced by the independent journalists and the bloggers who, as is to be expected, were not considered in this celebration, along with some alternative publications, which is quite discriminatory.

Ironically, on this day of praise, the underground press that existed during the years of the Batista dictatorship appeared; a press which, like now, opposed the regime, exposed its lies and offered the truth, forming no part of the recognized press.  That’s life!

17 March 2014

Blemishes in Calixto Hospital / Fernando Damaso

A few weeks ago I was “driven” to Calixto García General Hospital by a doctor friend who, like the Orisha deity Elegguá, opened doors for me. The purpose of my visit was to receive medical attention. I have no complaints about the professionalism of the medical staff who, in spite of the difficulties and shortages with which they must deal, work hard to provide a good service to their patients, whom they treat with kindness and concern. This experience allowed me to see first-hand the current state of the above-mentioned hospital, which for some years now has been subjected to a prolonged series of unending repairs after decades of neglect.

Construction activity is evident everywhere: dilapidated medical wings, demolitions in-progress, building materials stored outdoors and inside the hospital, mechanical equipment being moved, construction workers going back and forth without doing anything, people shouting and other signs of activity. In the few areas that have been completed, one can see details such as sloppy plaster work on the walls and crooked tiles on the floors, signs that the repairs will not last long.

I do not know who came up with the brilliant idea of putting the various medical departments’ outpatient clinics in the basements of their respective wards, both the ruined and the repaired. Access to these clinics is either along broken sidewalks and pathways, or through steep, narrow exterior stairs. There are no ramps provided for the physically handicapped so wheelchairs cannot be used, forcing families of the patients to cart them up and down in a dangerous and embarrassing display.

The clinics’ waiting rooms, which are without air-conditioning or good ventilation, are veritable saunas, making them unbearable for the patients seeking treatment.  It would be better to not even mention the older buildings, which suffer from roof leaks, flooded floors, peeling walls and broken doors. Dirt and decay abound and seem be be everywhere in the health service’s facilities. It is hard to imagine how services can continue to be offered in such wretched and unsanitary conditions.

Physicians lack even the most basic clinical tools such as light panels to view X-rays and computers to read test results. They often have no more than a table, two chairs and, at best, a stretcher, all in a state of deterioration.

One can observe a shortage of specialists to treat patients, which causes significant backlogs and wasted time for the clinics’ medical and nursing staffs, who carry on long conversations about problems in their personal lives, often using inappropriate language, while patients wait to be treated.

Those who manage to get into the waiting rooms quickly become bored reading the extensive propaganda slogans lining the walls, which remind them of the fallacy that “medical care is provided free at the expense of the State.” (In reality it is provided at the expense of its citizens.) They seem like commands, ordering everyone to accept it all with resignation. Meanwhile, others mill around outside, sitting on the sidewalks, fences and even the grass while awaiting their turns.

If there is an operation planned, then the process stretches out interminably. First there are various tests and analyses to be performed. Waiting for test results drags it out further. Then there is the wait to be admitted to the hospital, which can take months and often ends in bitter disappointment if tests have to be repeated because they are out of date.

Operating rooms show signs of an advanced state of decay. In recently renovated wings where post-operative patients are held, there is an obvious absence of a responsible administration as evidenced by a shortage of sanitary fixtures. Only one out three sinks is operable and showers lack their necessary hardware.

The situation is no better when it comes to janitorial services, which are performed by unqualified staff, who simply spread the dirt around by trying to clean an entire wing with one bucket of water. Even then, everything is done reluctantly, accompanied by constant complaining.

It should also be noted that those working in food service, which in general is badly prepared, do so in their street clothes, without using gowns, masks, hair coverings or gloves. During the day food vendors proliferate throughout the hallways, selling sandwiches, peanuts, coffee, chocolates, cookies and other items in clear violation of the regulations that should govern a health facility.

It seems that, in spite of all the construction activity and resources invested, there are still some blemishes in Calixto. Despite good medical care, in the end its hospital services leave that patients with bad memories. They are forced to put up with them because, unlike foreigners and VIP patients, they do not to have access to the specialized centers which are featured in news reports and shown to visitors who still believe in the myth of “Cuban medical prowess.”

8 March 2014

The Holes in the Belt / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Two upsetting phenomena have occurred in the last few weeks: some products have disappeared from the market stalls, both those selling in Cuban pesos and those selling in hard currency, and prices overall have gone up. Cleaning products on sale for Cuban pesos don’t exist or are scarce, and personal hygiene products are even available in hard currency. In the farmers markets a pound of onions, lemons, or a small cabbage cost fifteen Cuban pesos or more.

It seems that the announced upcoming monetary unification and the new mechanisms of established trade, plus the reduced production, have been the principal causes.

In our commerce, supply and demand are unresolved issues: they seem to be locked in due to many years of absence. A product costs the same from the time it arrives at the market until it goes bad, and discounts don’t exist, while the ordinary citizen finds his pension or wages are less every day, able to stretch to less and less, without any real prospects of an increase. He finds himself between a rock and a hard spot, hoping some family member “out there” will help him out by sending some money or that there will be a miracle, at a time when these seem ever more rare.

The discomfort this creates is palpable in the street, and there are few who don’t express it: you just have to listen to what people say at the bus stops and on the buses, in the stores, and wherever two or more people get together. In these conversations the authorities don’t come out very well. For now, it is only this, but no one can be sure that this will always be the case and that tomorrow, those who today only talk, might not begin to act. Everything is possible: it just depends on how many holes are left for tightening our belts.

13 March 2014

By Their Own Right / Fernando Damaso

School courtyard

In its campaign to restore lost ethical, civil and moral values, the government is emphasizing the important role to be played by educators and the family. While it is good that responsibility for this is being returned to the latter, it is something that should never have been taken away in the first place. In its desire to monopolize everything, including conscience, the state took upon itself the ridiculous task of creating a “New Man,” a being that would respond to its ideology and policies. It was task in which, like so many others, it has failed.

When discussing teachers, it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, what teachers are we talking about? Most of our educators were trained in the same system, one which could hardly preserve values since it relied on those who, with rare exceptions, did not themselves possess them.

These are people who practice double standards, who participate in forced promotions, who sell test results and grades, who use the classroom to teach official dogma.

This contributes to the formation of human beings who are easily manipulated, people without appropriate standards, who feel obligated to think and behave in accordance with the majority in order to avoid getting themselves or their parents into trouble.

This is made worse by the politicization of the classroom and by schools which allow students to be used in despicable acts, known as “repudiation rallies,” against citizens who do not agree with government policy, evidence of which is all too common.

Education is not one of the sectors that enjoy financial advantages, which causes many teachers to leave to find work in tourism, joint ventures and self-employment, all of which offer better working conditions and lifestyles.

Additionally, few students choose careers in teaching. When they do, it is often because they have no other options. The fact that a policeman receives a much higher monthly salary than an educator speaks volumes about the absurdities that exist in our society.

While it is true that it is essential to restore these lost values, in a situation with widespread poverty and difficulty — one without a clear pathway out — it becomes a very difficult and time consuming task.

The family and the school should once again occupy the positions they had always held in their own right. But, in order to fulfill their responsibilities, they must overcome the disastrous state in which we now find ourselves.

4 March 2014

Five Minus Three Is Two / Fernando Damaso

Photo Peter Deel

On the 27th, after serving his sentence, one of the “Cuban Five” spies was released and subsequently deported to Cuba. For several days, the official press and the authorities have launched a media circus, which starting today will grow. There are only three now serving sentences in U.S. prisons. I am sure, however, the manipulative media campaign will continue to talk about five. They have a lot invested in it and it would be like renaming an already known product.

This, ultimately, is nothing more than a publicity campaign like any other. In addition, it’s always cost the Cuban authorities time and work to react to reality. If once, many years ago, they were considered revolutionary, for decades now they have been profoundly reactionary.

It seems that time doesn’t pass in vain, and the old men of today find it hard to change something, fearing they will lose everything. It’s understandable: age no longer allows them to start over.

The issue of the spies, rather than an act of humanism, is a way to entertain a part of the population, so they forget their everyday problems, and to make some sense of the absurd protests and demands of the “government’s friends” abroad, which also assures paying tourists for the Cuban people, and feeling like they star in something, the more to the left the better, to be different to most.

There’s someone else who, I’m sure, contrary to their natural feelings, would prefer for the situation to continue, so that they don’t lose their “little goodies,” which they’ve been enjoying for years: their families. From ordinary unknown citizens, by the work and grace of the authorities, they have become public figures, who travel, dress well, give lectures, participate in events, receive awards, and who have resolved their problems of housing, transport, food and clothing, all at the expense of our pockets, because their “merits” shine by their absence, a non-being who on a new scale of values, is considered a “merit” to be a family member of a confessed spy.

These are some of the absurdities that persist in Cuba and that have disrupted our society, making the young and not so young people prefer to emigrate, and the old, condemned to their misfortune, dream of better days in the years they have left to live.

1 March 2014

Economic Independence? / Fernando Damaso

According to official propaganda — intended to validate the experimental economic measures taken during his early years in power and which is repeated incessantly — nationalizations and interventions were aimed at returning the wealth held by foreigners, mostly American, to the people.

Statistics show, however, that this was not exactly the case. Those most affected were in fact Cubans, who held between 82% and 85% of the nation’s wealth. This included the entrepreneurial and successful middle class, the principal generator of wealth and employment, most of which was liquidated during the early years. What little remained was finished off during the ludicrous “Revolutionary Offensive” of the 1970s.

In his book, The Owners of Cuba 1958, Guillermo Jiménez focuses on the island’s 551 most influential and powerful families. He notes that only 102 were foreign; the rest were Cuban. In most instances the foreigners were based in Cuba and had Cuban families, including all 65 from Spain. There were 24 Americans, some of whom had Cuban wives and lived in Cuba. At the time the nationalizations took place, the economy was largely in Cuban hands. Some 61.1% of bank deposits were held in Cuban banks, while Cuban-owned sugar processors accounted for 62.2 of daily production, with Americans accounting for 38.4%.

I bring this up because now much is being said and written about the importance of attracting foreign investment to shake the moribund Cuban economy out of its coma. The same government responsible for expelling Cuban investors (who were the majority) and foreign investors (who were the minority), now calls for their return. And what about Cubans? Priority should first be given to Cubans living in Cuba, then to Cubans scattered around the world, and finally to foreigners. Or is it that the authorities do not care about the vaunted economic independence?

It is true that in today’s globalized world no one can pursue economic development on his own, that capital is necessary, no matter where it comes from. But there must be some respect shown to one’s own nationals. At least that is what one expects of intelligent governments which actually look out for the interests of their citizens.

26 February 2014

Another Inconsequential Congress / Fernando Damaso

One of the main problems confronting Cuban workers is low salaries, an issue that affects manual, service, technical and professional workers alike.

The current annual monthly salary of 440 pesos (some 20 dollars) means that many people are able to survive only by resorting to collateral activities, both legal and illegal. It matters little if there is more than one wage earner per family since, as the number of family members increases, so do the costs. As the saying goes, “If there is only enough for one, there won’t be enough for two, much less three.”

Until now the government’s response has been one-sided, claiming that “before raising salaries, production must first be increased.”

Among the issues to be addressed at the 20th Congress of the Cuban Central Workers’ Union (CTC), however, this does not appear to be one of them. It seems priority will instead be given to ratifying of the so-called Labor Code — drafted by government officials and put up for discussion by workers — though it is no secret that such discussions have always been and continue to be mere formalities. As in similar instances, once approved, it will be a dead issue. (Such was the case with the so-called Family Code, Civil Code and Governmental Ethics Code, among others now forgotten.)

The new CTC statutes to be discussed will address such things as how to increase production, conserve resources, replace imports, be more efficient, encourage strict compliance with existing legislation and collective agreements, fight corruption, restore discipline and preserve moral values — topics that address the interests of the State more than those of workers.

Cuban workers need labor unions that will truly represent them, with leaders that emerge from their own ranks and are democratically elected, not hand-picked by the Communist Party. Rather than be a governmental organization, the CTC should instead serve as a counterweight restraining the excesses of the state and its leaders who, even when drafting and implementing measures which disadvantage workers, claim they are acting in those same workers’ behalf.

Currently, the Cuban workers’ movement lacks a key battle weapon: the right to strike. Last used on January 1, 1959 to consolidate the gains of the insurrection, it was completely banned by the new authorities.

This is a one of numerous taboo subjects that will not be discussed at the workers’ congress.

It is striking that this has never been a cause of concern to the many union activists from overseas who have been invited to previous congresses, though it is a tool used routinely in their respective countries to defend their rights. It is safe to assume that it will be of no concern at this conclave as well. Do they really believe that here it is the workers who are in charge? Well, anything is possible in such a complex world.

Officially, the congress “will be a great success” and the workers’ delegates — carefully chosen by the party — will unanimously approve the accords being submitted to a vote, including the obligatory clauses calling for the release of “the Cuban Five” and a “lifting of the blockade,” in yet another “demonstration of the unbreakable bond between the “workers and their government.”

It will all be done for benefit of the authorities and their foreign guests who — after much celebration, special treatment, fine dining and sightseeing, with all expenses paid by Liborio — will return to their respective countries, touting the marvels of Cuba, of its unique system, of its “original workers’ movement” devoid of demands, demonstrations or anything of a similar nature.

This will ensure they are invited back to the next congress… assuming there is one.

Diario De Cuba, February 19 2014, Fernando Damaso

Bureaucratic Absurdities / Fernando Damaso

Photo: Rebeca

Government bureaucrats like to complicate things and, in turn, the lives of citizens. From their privileged positions of power, they do and undo at whim.

With the matter of cooperatives, the form of work preferred by the State for the self-employed, they have formed a terrible entanglement: they began with the so-called agricultural cooperatives of different types, and when they decided to leave the rural framework, they found no better name for the new ones than non-agricultural cooperatives.  They even now have their abbreviation: CNoA. Why not call them simply cooperatives?

Another spawn is the first denominated Wholesale Market of Agricultural Supply Products the Wheat Field, located somewhat distant from the center of the city, with the inconveniences that that entails. In reality it is no more than a simple Hub Market since its structure lacks the adequate spatial arrangement for buying and selling, besides which supply and demand do not work there: you pay the same per pound if you buy 20 or if you buy 200.

Before the Chinese merchants sold cheaper than the Spanish and Cuban grocers, because they formed a group and bought in bulk at lower prices, which permitted them to give discounts to their clients. The advantage of a wholesale market is precisely that of offering a variety of products at lower prices than in the retail market, depending on the volume of the purchase.

This is what permits the retail merchants, after deducting their expenses, from not having to raise their prices for the consumer in order to earn profits.  A question: Why not equip the old central Mercado Unico on Cristina Street, today in a state of abandon, as the Wholesale Market?

Another: Why in the state businesses, given beneficially to individuals, is all the attention of the supervisors from the Integral Management Oversight (DIS) centered in each territory? When they were state-run, in spite of their poor functionality, they were never controlled with regards to comfort, the presence of workers, hygiene, quality of services and their offers, as well as other aspects.

Now, like inquisitors, they fall on the individuals, handing out fines right and left, with fees of 1200, 700 and 200 pesos, and, if they think there is a recurrence, withdrawing the license. No one suggests that they not control and ensure compliance with established regulations, although these are exaggerated and sometimes even absurd, but it has to be the same for everyone, both individual as well as state businesses. Or is it that the state businesses enjoy carte blanche?

If you want the updating, although slow and limited, to introduce some small improvement in the difficult lives of the citizens, you have to, at least, eliminate the bureaucratic absurdities.

Translated by mlk.

22 February 2014