Cuba and the United States will resume their relations… alea jacta est* / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

1419224626_989708By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

The decision by the governments of Cuba and the US to normalize diplomatic relations could go down in the record books as the news of the year – and among the most momentous world news of the century so far. The more than 50 years of litigious relations – one of the longest disputes in human history – will justify every headline, column, or essay that will be devoted to this topic.

But it is worthwhile to reflect objectively on the possible consequences that this decision will have on the Cuban people – a decision made without taking into account the internal opposition voices that for years have been sounding alarms about the potential dangers of repealing instruments of pressure such as the US embargo and the European Union Common Position – without the Olive Green government having, at least, ratified and implemented the International Covenants on Human Rights that it signed in February, 2008.

A lifting of these coercive mechanisms without a minimum guarantee that these agreements – as well as other demands made by Cuban civil society – will be implemented, would imply the definitive and certain recognition of legitimacy that this dynastic government so badly needs – right when it knows itself to be crushed by historical evidence, and seeks, desperately and at any price, some escape route. Continue reading

Havana: City of the “Marvelous” Unreality / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Jean-Paul de la Fuente, director of New7Wonders, the Swiss foundation behind the online contest to name the seven most marvelous cities of the world, is visiting the Cuban capital. Having been received by Marta Hernández Romero, president of the Havana Provincial Assembly of Popular Power, and Eusebio Leal Spengler, city historian, already De la Fuente takes on, from the moment of his arrival, the typical profile of the tourist who, from his birds-eye view, cannot perceive to what unsuspected point it is difficult for the average Cuban to live in his beloved city.

I cannot understand how anyone who knows at least something of the functioning dynamic of the Cuban capital can propose this city as a contender for such a prize, much less the inexplicable manner in which Havana ended up on the final roster alongside such urban centers as Barcelona, Chicago, London and Mexico City.

From there we can only presume that all these persons who voted to keep La Giraldilla‘s city among the final contestants for membership in that select group of urban marvels have one thing in common: none of them live in a shanty town in El Cerro, in a tenement in Centro Habana or in Marianao on the banks of the Quibú River, subsisting on a salary of 20 dollars a month for sustaining his whole family; none has suffered seeing his child drool over the inaccessible toy; nor does he know what an “un-ration” book is, nor has he asked himself, at five in the afternoon, gazing into his empty larder, “What the fuck are we going to eat tonight?” Continue reading

Cuban Health Care Workers’ Motives: Idealism or Necessity? / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

 

Raul Castro waves goodbye to a Cuban healthcare worker leaving for an overseas post

Raul Castro waves goodbye to a Cuban healthcare worker leaving for an overseas post

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

During an interview last Thursday on his afternoon radio program the host, Ninoska Perez, told me about the mood she perceived in the Cuban medical brigade workers dispatched a few days ago by Raul Castro. She was struck by the “unfriendly” demeanor some of these professionals showed upon leaving for West Africa to confront the Ebola epidemic. I could not comment because I had not seen the television program in question, but her observation did cause me to think about the motives of Cuban health care workers who have joined medical missions in recent decades.

Although regularly presented by the Cuban government as examples of lofty philanthropic aspirations, in reality these missions have become in the span of a few short years the main source of income for this Caribbean nation. We have all witnessed how the government in Havana — rather than simply acknowledging that this is a fee-based service from which it has, on the whole, profited handsomely — continues to portray my self-sacrificing colleagues as selfless messiahs.

At the same time it downplays the notion that a health care worker — someone who is paid poverty-level wages — might embark on such a mission in order to somewhat mitigate his desperate economic situation. The pretense is that this is more than simply a contract labor issue, something for which a fee is paid. In itself this is certainly not immoral, but the assumption is that the “new man” is motivated only by the purest form of altruism.

Far be it for me to question those who put themselves in harm’s way. As I am not God, I have no right to do so. In light of what they are doing, a modicum of humility on my part is in order since I am not the one facing possible exposure. Nevertheless, a number of facts come to mind that cannot be denied.

First of all, the Cuban professionals who have been sent on these missions for more than a decade now do not do so under the same conditions as their counterparts from other countries. Elsewhere, these things follow a natural course. In other words, the workers themselves make the decision to enter into employment contracts based on their own interests and prospects.

Under a totalitarian government like Cuba’s, however, the parameters are quite different since our professional workers are not operating from a position of personal freedom.

It is no secret that a health care worker on a medical mission almost never has any say over where he is assigned. And once in the host country, he is monitored as though he were a child. This applies to his personal relationships — from the people with whom he talks and associates to when and where he goes out with them — as well as to even very small payments for outside work, which are expressly forbidden.

Furthermore, while working overseas, his “salary” is no more than 15% to 20% of the contract price agreed upon by the two governments. In many cases this amounts less than the legal minimum wage in the host country. The remainder is retained by the Cuban treasury.

Upon his return, our colleague is not allowed to bring into the country anything more than stipulated by the mission director, which amounts to a few very limited boxes of merchandise, and then only after his period of service has officially ended. Back in Cuba, he can access only half of the salary he was paid, with the balance remaining frozen in some Cuban bank.

In the event he should decide to end his term of service earlier than expected for personal reasons, he would be considered a deserter and would forfeit all the money he had earned. Even his family would not be able to access his bank account. He would also be strictly prevented from returning to Cuba for eight years, even for a short period to visit his children or in the event of a serious illness or the death of one of his parents.

Given all this, it is understandable why Ninoska would describe the current contingent as “an army of slaves.” Setting aside the harsh description, it is evident that the relationship the government maintains towards individual workers is not one of respect but rather continues to be punitive and despotic in nature.

But there are parts of the world that still do not understand that the government that treats its citizens in such an arbitrary way is the same one that is sending our colleagues to Africa. It is the same one that is killing us at airports with astronomical prices and draconian customs regulations, the same one which pays us salaries that are laughable when compared to a cost of living that reaches soaring heights, the same one that does nothing to mitigate the state of affairs it itself has created and encouraged, all of which are incompatible with its humble proclamations of universal generosity.

Under such circumstances — knowing they face threats from an oppressive force that is both employer and executioner — it is impossible to assess the sincerity of some our health care workers when they appear in public singing the praises of the revolution, the party and proletarian internationalism. It is quite disturbing to see a familiar face among this group after having heard him complain bitterly about living and working conditions that are sometimes simply bad but often are appalling.

This “benevolent” government — the only one that is sends its physicians off to glory or to death — demonstrates its contempt for us in the most brutal way. And the reason it can do this with impunity is because it keeps trotting us around like victory pennants, or like the collateral behind the emotional blackmail it uses to garner votes and commitments from foreign governments in international forums.

That is why in domestic policy they can afford to grossly neglect the welfare of their own people. Who would guess that a government that takes the “laudable” action of sending a contingent to Africa larger than those of the rest of the world combined would be capable of subjugating its own people? How would a world dazzled by such an admirable initiative suspect that our civil rights are not respected or that on a daily basis we are subjected to physical attacks, arbitrary detentions and fully orchestrated acts of repudiation?

When Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, or John Kerry, US Secretary of State, praises the Cuban government — even when it is clear their remarks are limited only to its role in the current health crisis — they voluntarily or involuntarily concede ground and thus give Cuban authorities another slap on the back, allowing them to perpetuate their domestic policy of indentured servitude.

But those of us dealing with this grim reality are not deceived by those who have a monopoly on everything, even when they are disguised as sequined divas on the world stage. We don’t forget that this is the same government which continues to speculate with our most basic needs. We know that they intend to perpetuate our misery because they know that a bankrupt people, materially and spiritually impoverished, will always be more susceptible to their whims than a serene and prosperous people.

From Citizen Zero I wish my colleagues from Cuba and around the world much luck and success in this critical mission, which is essential if humanity is to eradicate this dangerous scourge. At the same time, I cannot help but abhor the way the Cuban government politically manipulates the personal risks these workers are assuming. Ultimately, it will be the infallible, inexorable and certain judgment of history that will separate the gold from the dross and the diamond from the coal.

27 October 2014

Who is really blockading us? / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

The brand name of this company selling chicken portions in Havana tells you its origin: these products arrive here from the other side of the iron curtain, from the enemy’s shore. This “Product of USA” reminds us that more than ten years ago the US Congress approved licences for selling food products to the Cuban government, on a cash-only basis, but with the result that also for years the chain stores selling in CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, i.e. hard currency) on the island have insisted in selling these chicken portions at up to 4.50 CUC (about $5). If we bear in mind that historically this has been one of the cheapest meats on the world market, we can easily see that food for the people is not exactly treated as a special case by our government when it comes to turning a profit.

But to this type of profit in CUC we have to add its analog in CUP (Cuban pesos). Also years ago the state-run Food and Business Companies joined in the party: many administrators immediately “saw the light” and proceeded to start selling a pound of raw chicken on the black market for 25 pesos, that’s to say, the price  of the prepared product, like fried chicken, and so they keep hold of the surplus oil, and you can guess where that ends up.

In the end, Liborio, [a cartoon character representing the typical poor Cuban peasant] poor man, caught in the cross-fire, doesn’t receive his monthly bag of chicken, oil — and lots of the other things, speaking of Lindoro, [incompetent Lindoro is an archetypal useless boss of an unproductive Cuban company] –  that the people in headquarters get: poor Lindoro, who, in reality is the only loser. And the main culprit in all this continues to be the Cuban government, because of its obstinate and half-assed economic focuses, and also because of its unscrupulous pricing policy — the same one which fixes the price of a USED Geely auto at $38,000, which doesn’t cost $5,000 new, or which tries to sell us a shitty Suzuki moped for over $12,000 which cost a little more than $300.

Here everything comes down to the same thing; simply and straightforwardly our government is always pursuing one goal: blocking the well-being of the people by every means possible. And so, we should ask, who is it that is really blockading us? Lets see what the “Yankee Blockade” theorists have to say about that.

Translated by GH

9 October 2014

 

What Happens If Ebola Comes To Cuba? / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

The Ebola outbreak on the world epidemiological scene will obviously involve a huge challenge for every country that is reached by the current epidemic, already registered as the greatest in history and that in recent days has reached about 9000 confirmed cases — although experts say that figure is an undercount.  The World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that the epidemic is not being confronted will all the political rigor that the moment demands on the part of the international community and also warned that if the situation is not brought under control in time, by 2015 it predicts an incidence of about a million and a half cases.

It is easy to conclude that arriving at this state of things the danger would only grow exponentially.  We are confronting an extremely contagious illness of non-vectoral transmission, that can be spread person to person through the most subtle contact with any bodily fluid of an infected person — and that may be transmitted sexually to boot, given that the virus is isolated in semen until 90 days after recovery. Continue reading

New Customs Restrictions in Havana: Another Turn of The Screw / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

I avert my gaze with disgust from the broadsheet of troubling portents that the newspaper Granma has become. Recently, the newspaper published new customs regulations the Cuban government has imposed on its own people. In essence, they amount to a significant reduction — now significantly less than 120 kg — in the weight of non-commercial goods allowed to be brought into the country by the average citizen.

There is also a significant reduction in the value of merchandise allowed to be brought in, from 1,500 pesos beforehand to 1,000 pesos now. Everything determined to be above this limit is to be confiscated. Additionally, there is an ominous decision by the Ministry of Finance and Prices to raise the duty on merchandise received by mail from 10 to 20 CUC — some 500 pesos, the equivalent of a month’s salary — on each kilogram above the initial 1,500 grams.

Like a soothsayer looking into his crystal ball, I can clearly see the inevitable consequences of these measures. Without much effort, I can spot the corrupt customs officials in every Cuban airport rubbing their hands and growing increasingly rich, charging the helpless traveller ever juicier extortion fees, enriching themselves with impunity with millions stolen under the impassive gaze of all the political and government authorities gathered around the feast. Continue reading

Why Is Another Cuba Necessary? / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

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By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Among the series of international instruments related to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Implementing them requires two basic steps. First, they must be signed. By doing this the state in question agrees to analyze their meaning and by implication to accept their stipulated terms.

The second and more significant step requires them to be ratified, an action which requires the state to modify those aspects of its constitution and statutes that are not in accordance with the spirit of the covenants. Once ratified, the government’s position goes from one of tacit compliance to mandatory compliance. Since these amendments become binding, they ensure, at least theoretically, respect for the rights outlined therein.

The campaign “Por Otra Cuba” (For Another Cuba), launched by members of Cuba’s civil society, seeks to secure the rights outlined under the above agreements, which were signed by the Cuban government back in February 2008. Though more than six years have passed since their signing, they have yet to be ratified. In fact Cuba is among an “elite” group of eight governments that have not yet taken this second and definitive step. Continue reading

About The Matter of Academic Fraud in Havana / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

University Entrance Exam in Mathematics to be Repeated in Havana

It happened several years ago and it’s now one of those open secrets that even the kids know about: the bribery of teachers and professors at all levels of teaching has ended up being, as a result of habituation, something almost folkloric; and although it would be unfair to tar the innocent and the guilty with the same brush, it was certainly worth while having fired off warning shots about a matter which has reached scandalous proportions, all the more so for having had the public spotlight shone on it, in view of the terrible moral consequences, with implications for all of us.

We are not always talking about bribery in the form of straightforward cash. There is a whole range of resources available to the brown-nosers and ostentatious people to achieve their objective and once the target teacher has been singled out all you have to do is study his needs and specific tastes in order to fire the shot, which could be delicious snacks, made to measure clothes, expensive perfumes or exclusive invitations, for example. Continue reading

Memories of One December 10th / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Act I: The Barricade

I notice the foul stench the moment I turn the corner and see the piles of garbage blocking the street. A pair of patrols is stationed, threateningly, half a block away. I keep walking as though it has nothing to do with me but a State Security agent — dressed in civilian clothing and without identification, as per usual — stops me and I realize that it is, indeed, about me.

“Good afternoon, where are you headed?” he challenges me.

“To a friend’s house,” I reply, allowing myself this small amusement.

“But… to whose house?” asks a second agent, approaching inquisitively and also dressed as a civilian, of course.

I cut to the chase and look him in the eye. “Yes, I’m going to [Antonio] Rodiles’ house.”

“Let me see some identification,” he demands, as though issuing an order. The radio transmits my information and immediately the agent returns, this time with an unequivocal command. “You cannot pass!”

“Yes, I need to get by,” I reply.

“No, you cannot,” he shoots back.

“Then let’s see what you do about it because I need to pass,” I say self-righteously.

Because of my “insolence,” I am subjected to a thorough search for a cellphone I do not have.

“Frisk him and take him away!” he finally orders. It is 4:20 PM. Continue reading

Congratulations: Free Trade of Agricultural Products / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By: Jeovany Jiménez Vega

The decision of Cuban authorities to ease restrictions on the commercializing of agricultural production (to be implemented in practice as outlined, it would be that and not a greater increase in “flexibility”) must be received with relief in both corners of the ring, for both producers and consumers; the first for obvious reasons, the latter because they are stake-holders from the first round at their local farmers markets. Continue reading

It’s “Free” . . . But Healthcare Costs Us / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

“Your health service is free… but it costs”

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

You’ve been able to see them for almost two years in every health care unit of the Cuban Public Health System, from any primary care office or clinic, passing through each second level hospital, even in tertiary care centers in each Institute.  They welcome us from the door of the consultation room or from the trade union wall and assure us that our omnipotent government has always been zealous to guarantee absolutely fee medical care for our people.

Seen that way, without more, it would seem a simple matter.  In this world, where to the shame of the species, dozens of thousands of children still die of curable illnesses because they do not have access to a few tablets and a measly intravenous infusion, it would be the most natural thing for Cubans to prostrate ourselves in gratitude before such an excess of philanthropy.  But if there is one thing we learned long ago it is that here, when you look into the background of the matter, we have all been charged.

It is true that the hospital does not charge us directly at the hospital or at our children’s school, but without doubt the cash register at the “hard currency collection store” (TRD*) charges us, and in a currency arbitrarily overvalued 25 times in relation to the other currency in which we are paid an unreal salary of little use to us.

These words are not trying to be an inquisitorial onslaught against the health care system to which I belong, whose essential function is impeded by limitations that no sector in Cuba can escape.

Any gratuitous attack would leave on this page the odor of the knife in the back, an aroma that this Cuban detests, but 40 years of hammering did not end up convincing me that guaranteeing a right, or trying to, grants in any way authority to my government to deprive us of other rights as essential as that.

And it is here — more than at the door of the TRD and the hotels, or in the immoral taxes of the General Customs Office, or in the extortionate cost of each consular administration abroad, among other hundreds of shameful examples — where we millions of Cubans have been charged the true currency exchange: it has been through the humiliation of the famous diplo-tiendas*, or in the door of the prohibited hotels, or through the despotism of the migratory authorities or the mistreatment by any other kind of official or through the systematic deprivation of our civil and political rights.

And invariably in the background posters like the one illustrating this post justifying as life-saving the entitlements that crush us at every step.

On the other hand these public governance schemes are not unique to Cuba nor to socialism, as has historically been insinuated to us.  There are dozens of examples of countries — and not necessarily from the first world — that sustain health and education systems as public and free as ours, and all without demanding in exchange such high doses of individual freedom.

Very true it is that sustaining the presumed public health costs each state on a world level very dearly, and Cuba was not exactly going to be the exception, but also I remember here that each Cuban worker has about 30% deducted from his monthly salary precisely to cover these public expenses.

I also remember that when our state undertakes to guarantee public health and education services — the two prime examples — it does not fulfill only a duty but its more conspicuous obligation, perhaps its only authentic obligation.

In particular, I ask myself by what magic method the Cuban government invested $4386.00 pesos in me alone, for the approximately 120 consultations that I did in my last 24-hour medical shift, in which I used only — if we except the $24 pesos that they paid me for night hours — my stethoscope, my blood pressure monitor, and some disposable depressors.

But as I am not an economist, I better leave the accounts to others and dedicate myself, as a good cobbler, to my shoes.  After all, it is true that it costs us . . . and quite expensively, for sure.

*Translator’s note: The government itself named the stores that sell only in hard currency, “Hard Currency Collection Stores”–TRD is the Spanish acronym–making explicit that their major purpose is to capture for the government coffers (through extreme overpricing) a major share of the remittances Cubans receive from their families abroad. Many items are often, or only, available in these stores (or in the black market).  An early incarnation of these stores were known as “diplotiendas,” that is “diplomat stores” catering to foreigners residing in Cuba.

See:  It costs.  By Regina Coyula.

Translated by mlk.
28 April 2014

 

With Regards to the Promised Salary Increase for Doctors / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

The art of consecration

It’s said that on a misty winter day the old Chinese emperor, aroused by the longing for spring, desired to delight his eyes with a painting of a beautiful bird, and as the desire of any emperor is an order for his vassals, the search began immediately, first among the artists of the court, and later further and further afield, to the borders of that vast empire that seems to be the borders of entire world.

So, after long investigations, they found in the most distant region, a painter as skilled as he was wise: it was said that after so much reflection on the mysteries of the universe he had come to glimpse the most hidden secrets of the universe; it was said he could talk to the birds in the forest.

That humble maestro was presented to the sovereign who solicitously asked what he needed to paint the perfect bird, a beauty never seen in live, a bird worthy of adorning the palace of an emperor. The wise painter answered that he needed a large workshop, five servants, one year, and one hundred gold coins. “So be it!” commanded the emperor.

They tell how a year passed and the maestro was sent for and he came, just as he was, and to the scandal of the idle court, wearing his stained painter’s smock. The sovereign asked, “Is your work ready?”

“No my Lord,” responded the maestro, “now I need a still larger workshop, ten servants, five years and two hundred gold coins.”

“So be it!” commanded the emperor.

They tell how five winters later the maestro was again called to appear before the sovereign. “Let’s see,” he said, “show me, finally, your work.”

“It’s still not ready, my Lord,” responded the maestro, “I need ten more servants, five more years, and five hundred gold coins.”

Not believing his ears, the emperor consulted his ministers and counselors who warned him against such an absurdity. But the longing for spring overcame him and he decided, again, that it would be thus.

Finally after five more long winters, the emperor, compelled by hope and curiosity and determined not to wait one more day, decided to visit himself the workshop of the painter who now seemed too demanding. When he entered with his entourage he found himself enveloped in a mysterious light, in silence, in the middle of the spacious salon. The maestro bowed with respect.

“Everything is ready, my Lord,” he said, and immediately revealed to the incredulous a blank canvas. At the offense, the emperor stared, understanding nothing.

Only then did the maestro take a few minutes to mix the exact colors, and according to the legend, before the astonishment of the emperor and the amazement of the court, he painted, in sublime and serene strokes, the most beautiful nightingale in the world.

10 March 2014