“Recognizing changes does not mean we go along” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

José Daniel Ferrer, Felix Navarro, Hector Maseda, Jorge Olivera and Librado Linares

José Daniel Ferrer, Felix Navarro, Hector Maseda, Jorge Olivera and Librado Linares

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14ymedio, Havana, 19 March 2015 — Twelve years after the Black Spring, 14ymedio chats with some of the former political prisoners currently living on the Island. Two questions have been posed to those activists condemned in March 2003: one about their decision to stay in Cuba, and the other about how they see the country today.

José Daniel Ferrer

The whole time we were in prison, the Castro brothers’ regime did its best to pressure us, to force us to abandon the country. A few of us decided to say no, regardless of the circumstances. Today I am more convinced than ever that my having stayed is worth it. We are doing our modest bit to have a nation where there will never again be something like that spring of 2003, when so many compatriots paid with prison for attempting to exercise their most sacred rights.

“Today I am more convinced than ever that my having stayed is worth it”

Many things have changed, but they still maintain the repression, and sometimes increase it, against human rights activists and also against the people. Recognizing the changes doesn’t mean we go along, because what we don’t have is a prosperous and democratic Cuba. In the last days when I walked freely on the street, at the beginning of 2003, some people approached us and whispered in our ears, “I heard you,” referring to having heard us on some station like Radio Martí, one of the few media where they could learn about what the pro-democracy forces were doing.

Felix Navarro

Having stayed in Cuba after leaving prison is probably the best idea I’ve had in my entire life. Continue reading

More Than a Hundred Activists Arrested in Santiago de Cuba / 14ymedio

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of UNPACU (14ymedio)

José Daniel Ferrer, leader of UNPACU (14ymedio)

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14ymedio, Santiago de Cuba, 15 March 2015 — On Sunday morning over one hundred activists, mostly belonging to the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) and Citizens for Democracy (CxD), were arrested while trying to reach the Sanctuary of Cobre. Among those arrested was Jose Daniel Ferrer, executive secretary of the UNPACU and former prisoner of the Group of 75.

José Daniel Ferrer told 14ymedio that since last Friday organization members started moving towards the Sanctuary of Cobre, so the political police mobilized Continue reading

“Our actions can make people lose their fears” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar and Jose Daniel Ferrer

José Daniel Ferrer during the interview. (14ymedio)

José Daniel Ferrer during the interview. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 20 January 2015 — Few could imagine that this activist, born in the east of the country and leader of Cuba’s most numerous opposition organization, is also a compulsive reader and an avid collector of famous quotes. Conversing with José Daniel Ferrer is like a trip that starts with a pamphlet cast in the streets of Palmarito del Cauto, then jumps to the best texts about the French Revolution, and ends in the pages of some modern psychological treatise.

Yet, the biggest pleasure of speaking to a man like him is to see him behave as if he were free, despite the police surveillance and the years he has spent in prison. During a quick visit to Havana, Ferrer answered some questions for the readers of 14ymedio about the current situation of activism in Cuba and the new stage that is opening up for dissidents.

Escobar: How does the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) view the negotiations between Washington and Havana?

Ferrer: This process, which started after 18 months of secret talks, will be very positive in bettering the difficult life conditions of our people. However, the final result will best be appreciated as the announced relaxation of policies is implemented and also in the way that it is put in practice. If it is applied in an intelligent manner and is consistently complemented by solidarity and support to the independent civil society, it will yield better results than the prior policies. Continue reading

Humanitarian proposal from the Human Rights Commission / 14ymedio

José Daniel Ferrer, Elizardo Sanchez and Hector Maseda at the news conference. (14ymedio)

José Daniel Ferrer, Elizardo Sanchez and Hector Maseda at the news conference. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, 23 January 2015 — The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) convened a press conference at its headquarters to unveil an initiative to release, on humanitarian grounds, a total of 24 prisoners who have spent more than 12 years in Cuban prisons.

Presenting were Elizardo Sanchez, Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba and Hector Maseda, president of the Liberal Party of Cuba, who also promoted the Four Points of Consensus of the Cuban Civil Society, ratified and updated last December 22 in a meeting of the Cuban Civil Society Open Forum.

One of the aspects most discussed today among the internal dissidence on the Island, is the issue of who should be on the list of possible prisoners to be released. Debated is whether there should appear, among those who should receive this benefit, those accused of acts of terrorism, hijacking of planes, or other armed actions.

The group proposed by the CCDHRN includes people incarcerated for similar reasons, but it is argued that they are one the list for humanitarian reasons, which does not justify the acts committed.

US Congressional delegation meets with Cuban activists and independent journalists /14ymedio

Patrick Leahy, Debbie Stabenow, Chris Van Hollen and Sheldon Whitehouse entering their hotel in Havana. (EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa)

Patrick Leahy, Debbie Stabenow, Chris Van Hollen and Sheldon Whitehouse entering their hotel in Havana. (EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio, Havana, 19 January 2015 — On Sunday afternoon a dozen activists and representatives of Cuban civil society met with the American congressional delegation visiting Cuba. Chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, the group was able hear diverse opinions in response to the announcement of the reestablishment of relations between the two countries.

A member of the delegation confirmed that the Cuban authorities were aware of the meeting with the activists and had made known to the American side their displeasure with the meeting.

In a relaxed atmosphere, several of those present expressed the conviction that “this opens a new era” and demanded greater transparency in negotiations, according to what they themselves reported after the meeting. Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, gave lawmakers a list with the names of 24 prisoners who, on humanitarian grounds, should be included in an upcoming release process. Continue reading

The Political Legacy of Oswaldo Paya / 14ymedio

Oswaldo Payá's Funeral (Luz Escobar)

Oswaldo Payá’s Funeral (Luz Escobar)

14YMEDIO, 22 July 2014 – On 22 July 2014, the opposition leader Oswaldo Payá and the activist Harld Cepero died. Payá led the Christian Liberation Movement and promoted the Varela Project, which managed to collect some 25,000 signatures to demand a national referendum. Freedom of expression, of association, freedom of the press and of business, as well as free elections, were some of the demands of that document signed by thousands of Cubans.

Nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Payá was one of the most visible and respected figures of the Cuban opposition. In 2002  the European Parliament awarded him the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights by and he was able to tour several countries to offer information about the situation on the island. He was also an official candidate for the Prince of Asturias Award and received honorary degrees from Columbia University and the University of Miami.

Paya’s death occurred in the vicinity of the city of Bayamo, while he was traveling accompanied by the Spaniard Angel Carromero, the Swede Aron Modig, and his colleague Harold Cepero. The Cuban government explained the death as the result of a car accident, but his family and many Cuban activists have maintained their doubts about that version. An independent investigation into the events of that tragic July 22 has been requested in various international forums, but Cuban authorities have not responded to those requests.

On the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Payá, we asked activists who shared his democratic ideals, “What is the greatest legacy of the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement?”

Guillermo Fariñas, a psychologist and the winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize

The main legacy left by Oswaldo Payá Sardinas for the Cuban nation, beyond its geographical boundaries, was that he showed his people and the world that the Cuban government breaks its own laws. When the Varela Project submitted almost 25,000 signatures to the People’s Assembly on a citizens’ petition for a plebiscite, the Cuban government refused to hold one and in a crude way changed the Constitution. That in my opinion was his main contribution: demonstrating that the Cuban government is beyond anything that could be construed as the Rule of Law and that it does not even respect its own draconian laws that support Castro’s totalitarian state. Continue reading

Dissidents: “It implies an ignorance about how things work here.” / Manual Cuesta Morua, Antonio Rodiles, Jose Daniel Ferrer

Letter to Obama: The internal opposition questions that it doesn’t address human rights on the Island.

Manuel Cuesta Morúa, president of the Progressive Arc Party

“It is not very viable to address the proposal directly to self-employment in Cuba since it implies an ignorance of how things work here . It is the government which grants and takes away the license, which doesn’t allow loans from international banks, and which monopolizes the importation of goods and commodities. So the impact of these potential resources will always be limited.

“I find it interesting that this initiative is based in the United States and not Cuba. It is dangerous for Cuba, like the hug of a bear, because Cuba is very weak as a nation. Nor do I see in this letter a clear defense of human rights and freedoms, and that makes me a little suspicious.” Continue reading

Tradition and Mirror Images / Regina Coyula

Alicia Alonso

Alicia Alonso

I stopped having any contact with the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) almost thirty years ago. That experience was marked by some close friendships, affection and oversized hatreds. But reading “BNC’s Dancers Reveal a Long Tradition” brought me back to an Orwellian 1984 when a group of dancers — all young people at the time — staged an attempted protest. Basically the issues were the same as those being raised in writing today: poor lodging, transportation and food during international tours. In addition the dancers of that time, who “we are now longer the same people,” also complained of favoritism, which was a factor in choosing who would go on tour. Though everyone would have preferred to practice internationalism in Europe, it was the era of friendship with Nicaragua. And then there were the roles. The principal ones were also under fire, since many of them were cast based on personal rapport rather than on merit.

Among the non-conformists there were excellent professional leaders in both the company and the UJC (Union of Communist Youth), who were treated badly by the BNC. The atmosphere was tense in classrooms, dressing rooms and behind the scenes. Situations were neutralized with threats or favors, which explains the anonymous nature of the current complaint.

Certainly our dancers live better than most Cubans, but if we compare them to their counterparts in world-class companies — a league which includes the BNC — they are malnourished, exploited and involved in shady dealings. Everything is done to increase the stipend and better the quality of life. Because for many years dancers and maitres were able to work anywhere in the world without having to hand over a substantial portion of their earnings to the Ministry of Culture — a gift courtesy of its prima ballerina assoluta — the BNC opened a pathway to exile.

Nothing seems to have changed, nor do I think it will, but it is my heart’s desire that the young people who authored the letter of complaint in 2013 might be able to fight for their artistic and labor rights without the need for anonymity.

It was well-known within the BNC that Alicia Alonso and Fidel Castro were mirror images of each other. Each ruled at whim, as in a royal court. Each was surrounded by sycophants, eager to fawn and even to play the fool. Some did it out of conviction, others in hopes of gaining advantage. Subordinates maintained a love-hate relationship with the matriarchal-patriarchal figure. But woe to anyone who dared question a decision or challenge their leaderships! It was embarrassing to see how many of the people who mocked her backstage would file through the diva’s dressing room after a disastrous performance, or her office on the following day, to assure her that she had been magnificent, divine (though never a “bitch.” No, that would have been very coarse). At the time Jorge Esquivel was still her partenaire. With Orlando Salgado it would have been even worse.

My personal relationship with Alicia was decent enough until Fidel Castro gave a reception for the BNC after a successful international tour. Bruzón, one of Castro’s personal bodyguards, approached me to say that Fidel wanted to meet and chat with some young dancers. I rounded up a few, including some who inevitably felt uncomfortable, and drove them to a small establishment.

Castro was talking to Alicia, her husband, Sonia Calero and Alberto Alonso when I burst in, preceded by Bruzón and this insolent group. As directed by the bodyguard, I introduced them one-by-one to Fidel, who went about asking them questions. At one point Alicia’s thumb, painted “pink pearl,” found its way into my shoulder, a gesture which foretold of problems. “He already knows them,” she told me in a tone of voice that matched the finger in my shoulder.

The next day my boss was called into Carlos Aldana’s office. At the time he was the heir apparent and was “dealing” with ideological issues, in other words party-related matters. Alicia had called him to demand my ouster. Aldana realized it was just a tantrum; my boss was aware of everything there was to know and backed me up. But in light of complaints from “the old lady,” I was not allowed to have further dealings with the company. Almost all the rebels of that period now live outside of Cuba, so it does not behoove me to lie.

For some scatterbrain who plugs along cluelessly, in the same way that Aldana used to deal with ideological issues, I “dealt” with the country’s dance movement. It’s the stuff of G2.*

Regina Coyula
*Translator’s note: Also known as DI, an acronym for Intelligence Directorate, the main state intelligence agency of the Cuban government.

Diario de Cuba, December 1, 2013

Bastion 2013 and the Ghost of the Enemy /Orlando Delgado

A soldier during the Bastión-2013 maneuvers. (JUVENTUD REBELDE)

It happened in the early morning hours of Monday, 19 November: suddenly the usual transmissions were cut and all the official TV channels were linked. Many thought it might be news of great impact: the death of Fidel Castro or something like that. The image of Raul Castro raised the expectation. But it was all a big fiasco. Castro II announced the beginning of the military exercises all over the country. Perhaps war is coming, many wondered.

We all know how far the country is from participating with its men in any of the conflicts that plague the planet. The regime doesn’t have the will nor the resources for it. The words of the General were clear: “With the engagement in this exercise we propose top continue raising the level of preparation and cohesion of the organs of leadership and control of the troops (…) to confront the different actions of the enemy.”

It remains doubtful what actions they’re thinking of resisting, because any moderately informed person knows that “the enemy” is not planning any military actions. It’s a great blunder to believe that the United States (a country with which we have ties of all kinds) is thinking of a military attack on Cuba. This is the strange idea that the regime constantly tries to sell to justify huge and unnecessary military expenditure in a bankrupt economy, as well as for maintaining internal repression.

Bastion 2013 — as these maneuvers are called — are simply intended to remind Cubans about “our eternal struggle against the empire,” in line with the Castro ideal that “as long as imperialism exists, the Party, the State and the people will offer themselves to the greatest defense. The Revolutionary guard will never be neglected.”

It’s well known that, lacking enemies, totalitarian systems invent them, their livelihood depends on confrontation with an external rival that supposedly tries to “colonize” or “invade” the national territory. Such an archaic idea in the 21st century, with an economic interconnected at the planetary scale, and where borders tend to disappear, is obvious to the least of the analysts.

The Cuban leaders live in another epoch, disconnected from reality. They force citizens into a condition of western pariahs in the era of the Internet and smartphones.

One of the collateral objectives of these useless efforts in which university students and other sectors of society participate, is the constant glorification of violence as the only method to resolve the differences that exist in any modern community, to the detriment of the peaceful way.

Reconciliation and open dialog among all Cubans (living where they live and thinking how they think) should be the fundamental premise for the rebirth of the country, leaving being once and for all the ballast of Castro’s totalitarianism that today oppresses is. Cube is not a bastion and the vast majority of its people just want to live in peace. The speeches of the barricade have died and the only Stalinist dictator of the West — without a doubt — also has an expiration date.

Orlando Delgado

From Diario de Cuba, 25 November 2013

“The Prices In The All Stores Are Fined” /Jorge Olivera Castillo

Havana, Cuba, November, www.cubanet.org — The details of the corrupt practices detected in the Carlos III Complex of stores and in a municipal entity in the business of community services reinforce opinions about the incapacity of the government to stop a phenomenon that has metastasized in Cuban society.

As on previous occasions, people have counted on documentary proof of the facts, recorded on flash drives that are distributed furtively from hand to hand.  One never knows who is the initial provider, but presumably it is a premeditated act in the Ministry of the Interior. The lack of official information is compensated for by the traffic in copies, rented or sold, to a clientele eager to find out the identity of the guilty parties and their schemes to enrich themselves.

Both cases, occurrences in Havana, again reliably demonstrate the infeasibility of economic centralization. In most state enterprises. a lack of administrative control still prevails, which facilitates the growth of corruption in all its forms.

The efforts by the General Controller of the Republic to put a stop to it are worth nothing. Few wind up in prison. The rest contrive to continue their dirty shenanigans which include embezzlement, extortion and bribery.

“Prices in all the stores are ’fined.’  Besides being already inflated by order of the enterprise that provides the merchandise, extra is added that is later shared between the management, the financially responsible, and the employees,” a store clerk explained to me on condition of anonymity.

“Our salary is a pittance. If we don’t do this, it would be like working for free. It’s true that we steal from the customer, but those are the rules of the game. This is every man for himself,” he added.

In the conversation I found out that the managers make off with the greater part of the illegal revenues. In some cases their earnings exceed 300 convertible pesos a day. Such dividends represent a fortune in a country where the average salary is less then one convertible peso daily.

Among the beneficiaries of these illegalities must also be mentioned the hundreds of former counter-intelligence officials. Not a few are listed on the security payrolls of each shopping center, others work as inspectors of those who have to deliver part of the booty. Refusing to do it is the shortest path to jail.

In the end, everything functions without setbacks. They only have to comply with the established codes. From time to time, the general controller, Gladys Bejerano, in order not to completely lose her credibility, decides to put an end to some of the corruption. It is like putting your hand in a drum with your eyes closed. You will always extract a corrupt person, but at a low level, since the big ones are untouchable.

Jorge Olivera Castillo

Cubanet, November 20, 2013

Translated by mlk

ETECSA, A Bankrupt Monopoly / Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina

DSC07931That we are in a state of ruin is something that no Cuban in his or her right mind really questions, though we have become all too accustomed to the cynicism of the architects of this disaster, who continue to blame the “Yankee blockade” for all the misery afflicting people.

As though this were not enough, it is appalling to see Havana overrun with billboards and posters touting utopian slogans such as “Let us fight for a prosperous and sustainable socialism.” And “Revolution means never lying or violating ethical principles.” Or “Banish the fear of looking for problems in fulfilling our duties.” One cannot walk even a few kilometers to refill a mobile phone account, to wait in line in hopes of resolving some bureaucratic issue or to file a complaint without coming across a marquee announcing, “ETECSA, on line with the world.”

What is obvious is that the state telecommunications monopoly, commonly known as ETECSA, is no longer a public-private partnership with financial backing from the multi-national telecommunications firm Telecom, whose employees wore uniforms, drove a fleet of vehicles and had access to spare parts in order to respond to the needs of its customers.

Some 85% of workers questioned believe that, ever since ETECSA fell into the hands of GAE – a business arm of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) – it has become a kind of Cinderella. Innumerable questionnaires indicate that it has also become known for its inefficiency.

Rolando Chapotín, a 70-year-old retiree from Vedado, describes how an ETESCA employee fit together various bits of cable to fix a problem with his landline. “It was obvious he did not have the parts he needed,” says Chapotín, “but he worked hard to resolve the problem until fortunately it was fixed. That young man made me forget about all the waiting in line and arguments with bureaucrats. Now I would like to know where the hell all the money that GAE takes in is going.”

To the question “Why does it take so long for ETECSA to resolve problems that have been reported?,” a technician replies, “We don’t have the vehicles, we don’t have the materials, we are short-staffed, wiring is no longer well-sealed and whenever there is a downpour, the problems multiply. There’s also a significant number of customers who have spent three months waiting for their landlines to be repaired.” The technician summed it up by saying, “ETESCA might be on line with the world, but not so much with Cuba.”

From Moron to “Cuba Says”

The government sponsored website Cubadebate reported that this past October a meeting of company directors from the eight eastern provinces was held in the town of Morón. It was chaired by Mayra Arevich, an engineer and the current chief executive of ETECSA. The goal was to prioritize the handling of complaints from the public and to analyze problems associated with mobile phones and landlines, services to which only three million customers currently have access.

Hilda Arias, ETECSA’s head of mobile phone services, told those present that there would be an increase in capacity of 270,000 just this year, resulting in a growth of two million mobile phone lines, or the equivalent of 18% of Cuba’s population.

According to anonymous sources a significant part of this increased capacity is destined for use by the Revolutionary Armed Forces Ministry (MINFAR), the Council of State, the Council of Ministers, the offices of the Communist Party and other governmental organizations. These are services to be paid for indirectly by private customers.

A recent installment Cuba Dice (Cuba Says) — an ongoing series broadcast by Star Television News (NTV) in which official journalists solicit opinions on pertinent topics from people on the street — raised the issue of problems with telecommunication services.

As might be expected, 90% of respondents complained of punitive fees on mobile phone and internet services, and the ludicrous 5 CUC mandatory monthly charge for maintaining cell phone service.*

Other complaints involved overcharging to refill pre-paid cell phone accounts, long lines at branch offices and retail outlets, and the inability of local customers to take advantage of double-airtime offers available to overseas customers.

However, the most pointed criticisms involved the refusal by officials to increase the number of landlines and pay phones, restrictions which impact the poor, who cannot afford the cost of mobile phone service.

In interviews company directors distanced themselves from the serious financial problems facing ETECSA and its inability to made new investments in infrastructure. They say that most of its income, which is in the form of convertible pesos (CUCs), is spent just on subsidizing local phone service.

“Mobile phone service in Cuba costs 2.50 dollars a month,” says Hilda Arias, the aforementioned director of ETECSA’s cell phone services. According to Arias the company is obliged to offer double-airtime minutes to attract overseas customers due to the need for “fresh sources of hard currency.”

Sniffing around

A former ETECSA director, who requested anonymity, stated that in the 1990s a Telecom vice-president informed his Cuban partners that his company was willing to make the investments necessary to provide a landline to any Cuban who asked for one.

“At the time international calls were the principal source of ETECSA’s revenue and it was clear that increasing the number of domestic customers would increase profits,” he says.

“The company’s Cuban partners, however, were strongly opposed and agreed to only a modest expansion, with priority given to workers in healthcare and education. Assigning the remaining increase in capacity was left to the mercy of Revolutionary communities and organizations.

“Up till now,” says the former director, “Cuba has not even been able to double the capacity it had in 1959, when there were eight landlines for every hundred residents and it ranked 14th in the world in terms of telephone coverage.”

In contrast the former director points to the case of neighboring Haiti, which had a rate of phone coverage lower than that of Cuba. But because landlines and pay phones were considered obsolete, it successfully extended mobile phone service to nearly 85% of the population in a very short period of time.

Asking not to be identified, a former MININT official stated, “One of the justifications for slowing the growth of phone service in Cuba is that there is a requirement that any increase in private telephone coverage be augmented by an equivalent increase in the monitoring capabilities of the CIN, MININT’s counter-intelligence branch. The systems for telephone surveillance, known as K1 and K2, must have a capability of 100%, as was the case in the former East Germany.”

According to this source, internet use is also under surveillance. Monitoring, however, is not clandestine. State Security actually likes citizens to feel they are being watched.

“ETECSA has become a military organization,” says an anonymous worker. He is referring to the change in administrative structure under the aegis of GAE. “Now the old branches are called divisions and other department have been reclassified with names like Strategic Projects and Logistics.”

In spite of these changes, some ETECSA directors and workers are still dipping their hands in the till. As is the case in any given part of Cuba, corruption thrives in the absence of other financial incentives. Sources indicate that one distinctive feature of ETECSA is that it is the employees who previously worked at MINFAR and MININT who have proven to be the most corrupt.

Some ETECSA workers admit to having been shocked when Miamir Mesa, an engineer and former head of the company, was given a promotion and put in charge of the Ministry of Communications after a notorious corruption scandal which came to light in July 2010 involving Cubacell as well as Logistica, a firm with ties to foreign companies.

During his tenure at ETECSA he used and abused “means of collateral responsibility” for which company directors were called to account for irregularities and misdeeds by their subordinates.

The client is never right 

At the end of the October 25th broadcast of Cuba Says on NTV, a constituent from the Carmelo people’s council in Havana’s Vedado district — a man nicknamed “el Master” in reference to his level of college education — made a statement.

“No one has yet explained to me why Cubans complain so much,” he said. “A mobile phone contract costs 120 CUC but they have reduced it to 30. A nation’s mobile phone system is not some trinket meant to be sold on a street corner. ETECSA serves society and a society must work with the resources at its disposal. Let’s be clear. Mobile phone and internet fees are high but no one is taking money out of anyone’s pocket. We might pay 4.50 CUC for one hour of internet time but we might also get a surgical procedure for free that would cost $20,000 in the US.”

He added, “We Revolutionaries have not seen the need for an election in fifty-four years. To those non-conformists who have left for other parts, well, let them stay there.”

Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña

Diario de Cuba, November 18, 2013

*Translator’s note: The fee, roughly equal to five US dollars, is equivalent to 25% of the average monthly salary in Cuba.