An Unfamiliar Cuba in the “Era of Changes” / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Covering Cuba in an Era of Change, Columbia University, New York

Covering Cuba in an Era of Change, Columbia University, New York

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, New York, 19 October 2014 — If it weren’t because the mediations are in English, because of the discipline in the adhering to the schedules, because of the coordination and care of each detail and because the quality of the service, it could be said that the conference covering “Cuba in an Era of Change”, in which I am taking part as an invitee, could be taking place at an official Cuban venue.

However, it is all taking place at the Columbia School of Journalism, New York, though, on occasion, the debate and its members seem to be following a script designed to please even the most demanding Castro delegate, not because of its focus on issues of the lifting of the embargo–not just in the news coverage in a changing Cuba where, nevertheless, we continue to endure a shocking lack of freedom–but in the combined half-truths and warped fantasies that aim to lay the foundations of the futility of American policy towards the Cuban government.

There is no doubt about the need to implement new policies to clear the current impasse in US-Cuba relations, but it is incorrect to regard as null the effect of the embargo on the Cuban government, the same way that “it’s an excuse that allows Castro to stifle dissent” is a thesis that constitutes a candid remark, to put it delicately.

If indeed the embargo is harmless, how do we explain the repeated complaints of the ruling caste, qualifying it as “criminal policy”, especially after the fall of the so-called European real socialism, when the huge subsidies that allowed the implementation of social programs ended, yet still nurture the “Castro” legend in almost every forum?

As long as the image of “the kind dictatorship” prevails, the one that universalized health and education “for the people” (…) Cubans will, unfortunately, continue to be fucked.

But life for Cubans will not improve by reinforcing old myths. So long as the image of “the kind dictatorship”, the one that universalized health and education “for the people”, forgetting that the price paid was our freedom; while that strange fascination about Fidel Castro, the maker of the longest dictatorship in the western hemisphere, continues to exist; while we continue to fall into the vice of alluding about those who are considered adversaries without allowing them participation in the debate, or just while some lobbyists, perhaps too sensitive, leave the room when someone–with the moral authority conferred by being Cuban and living in Cuba–dares to reveal truths that they don’t want to hear; while the voices of those who are really suffering the ebbs and tides of the policies are absent, it will not matter whether there is an embargo or not. Cubans will, unfortunately, continue to be fucked.

These past few days I have been attending, perplexed, the debates of many speakers who think they know, perhaps with the best motivation in the world, what the Cuban reality is and what is best for us. I’ve heard the old version of Cuban History where Fidel Castro is heir to the Martí philosophy, and successor to the struggle for independence. I have heard many compliments about the fabulous achievements of the Cuban system in matters of ecology, social services and even in economics. I have discovered the Cuba which those who move public opinion in this country want to show.

The notable absentees are still the Cubans, not just the ones from Miami, who they generically include in a big sack in these parts, as if they were mere numbers to swell statistics and fill out surveys, who they consider equal to Haitians, who flee their country for purely economic reasons, but also the thousands who continue to emigrate by any means in an ever-growing and constant way, and the millions condemned to drag a life of poverty and hopelessness in our Island. But the most eloquent vacuum, except for my exceptional presence here, is that of the journalists and independent bloggers that do cover the day-to-day from the depth of the Island. Once again, the foreigners’ sugar-coated view has prevailed.

Privilege of the powerful, the media and politicians, for whom Cuba is only an exotic and beautiful island, long ruled by a genius-–perhaps a tad tyrannical, but who will have to die someday–and replaced, in dynastic order, by his brother. An island inhabited by the most cheerful and happy people in the world.

Translated by Norma Whiting

Hey, “Mamá Iné”!… Are We Out of Coffee Too? / Miriam Celaya

Coffee beans (Flickr)

Coffee beans (Flickr)

14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 5 September 2014 — On Wednesday September 3rd, the official press conveyed another grim announcement to the Cuban people. Granma wrote: “The coffee harvest, newly launched in the province of Guantánamo, in eastern-most Cuba, will be ‘small’, with a decrease of 33% compared to the previous year.” The news adds to what appears to be the new information strategy (Raul-style “transparency”?) consisting in offering on newscasts on radio and TV, and in newspapers, a trickling of notes, articles and reports that show some negative figures on the Cuban economy, conveniently interspersed with other usual triumphalist breath. As a common denominator, such reports also bring proposals for typical solutions: calls for efficiency and “systematic actions” to ensure increased productivity to compensate for the economic debacle that is about to hit.

Thus, this crop will produce 342 fewer tons of coffee despite the installation of “another seven ecological pulp-extracting facilities” that will increase industrial performance to “reach 4.02 pounds per each can that will benefit”, superior to the previous coffee harvest figure. And, though we have not experienced severe weather to justify the lower production, and though they do not offer details about possible causes for the decreased harvest, everything is a prelude to coffee –as the sugar crop in previous years – is another traditional economic line in Cuba headed for extinction.

The Birth of a Tradition

Coffee is an essential component of our national culture, strongly rooted in our consumption and traditional customs, both at the family and at the social level since its introduction in Cuba in the late 18th century by French planters fleeing from the rebellion of slaves in the neighboring island of Haiti. Continue reading

Maduro and the Disaster / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

February protests in Venezuela (Diego Urdaneta)

February protests in Venezuela (Diego Urdaneta)

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 18 September 2014 — Lately, the Cuban personnel contracted by the Venezuelan Embassy in Havana are in the doldrums: there will be cutbacks among the long list of employees and no one knows exactly how many or who will end up “damaged.” It is rumored that when diplo-bureaucrats drop the guillotine–probably with the recommendations of the sinister Cuban advising commissioners–there will be a lot of Cuban workers “available.”

In case there is any doubt, not a single one of them is ever late or absent, though they were once the beneficiaries of all the Venezuelan petro-extravagances. All of a sudden, all personal problems, the irregular attendance, the requests for early leaves to attend parent-teacher conferences or doctors’ appointments ceased. As if by magic, discipline in the workplace has improved tremendously. No more playing computer games, gossiping about current TV soap operas which relieved the afternoon office boredom, and no more long telephone calls on the account of the Venezuelan exchequer.

The impending readjustment, however, should not surprise anyone. In recent months there were already signs that augured hard times: wages have been cut, lunches have lost their quality, size and variety, the “stimuli” and other benefits became more scarce, until they disappeared, as did the gargantuan parties for whatever reason, with eating and drinking galore, the ones that were attended by everybody, even the cat. Because, in the very Chavez and Bolivarian Embassy everybody was a big, happy family regardless of their rank and occupation, as befits genuine popular revolutions. Continue reading

Cuban Tourists: Filling-in the Gaps / Miriam Celaya

The truth is that I don’t know all the numbers, but I have been browsing the ad pages of Cubatur, Havanatur and all the Cuban “tours” and I found that this year the “all-inclusive” offers have increased which, since the restrictions for Cubans to stay at hotels were lifted, better-off Cubans have been taking advantage of them.

I’m not criticizing anyone for wanting to enjoy a vacation –usually short– at a beach hotel due to lower prices. After all, shortages and discriminations for decades have created a thirst for consumption and pleasure in the Cuban population that manifests itself as soon as the luckier few have an opportunity to escape the everyday filth and misery for a few days.

So, the number of regular Cubans who regularly take advantage of all-inclusive packages has been creating a clientele that feeds on the assorted neo-affluent sectors, corresponding to the most diverse groups and backgrounds: owners and employees of private restaurants, professionals who often have foreign contracts, employees of “enterprises” and shops that operate in hard currencies, the managerial caste, and even black marketers. Everyone wants their piece of Varadero to live the illusion of “I can”, despite the sorrows. And, of course, “everyone stretches out his feet as far down the sheets as they will reach” like my granny used to say, so there are those who save all year to spend a couple of nights at a three-star hotel, up to those who visit a five-star hotel in the outlying resort islands several times a year. It is, definitely, the realization of a long-cherished dream.

Well, it turns out that this year the “offers” to Cubans have skyrocketed. According to an accredited source (with the obligatory reserve), although some press reports state that foreign tourist participation has increased, the truth is that, in order to increase their income and fulfill quotas, tourist operators have had to extend and enhance the offers that so many well-off Cubans purchase. Cubans also serve to fill the gaps, so they will continue to collect fees, making use of what was, until recently, taboo: enjoyment.

This is not disclosed in the press, but it is so. That’s why the media publishes an occasional report in the news and on the regular press where there is a reference to “Cuban workers who enjoy camping facilities and beaches and recreation centers”; but I am absolutely sure that they never have dedicated one to show wealthy Cubans basking in the sun at hotels in Varadero or the outlying islands: we all know that they have already decriminalized the differences among us, but they should not be displayed so brazenly. These are the conditions to enjoy the benefits of Raúl-type socialism, aren’t they?

Translated by Norma Whiting

22 August 2014

What Purpose Did the Dual Currency System Serve? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

"This commercial site accepts payment in national currency"

“This commercial site accepts payment in national currency”

14ymedio, Havana, Miriam Celaya, 27 August 2014–The information that the Central Bank of Cuba (BCC) published on August 19th in the paper edition of the newspaper Granma about “the next issuance of high denomination bank notes (100, 50 and 20 pesos, CUP) with new security measures” brings back to the forefront the issue of the dual currency and its unification, as announced by the same official press, a change which will take place in the near future.

Security measures that will begin to appear in the above currency issues starting in 2014 consist of the placement of a watermark with each patriot’s image corresponding to each denomination placed in the upper left corner of the front face of such bills. In addition, another watermark will repeat the bill’s denomination on the upper left portion of said image. Meanwhile, lesser denomination bills will continue to carry the watermark with the image of Celia Sánchez, to the right of which will be added the corresponding denomination of the bill.

Some believe that such measures respond primarily to the large amount of counterfeit currency that, according to some, is currently circulating, which should gradually start to disappear as the new notes start to replace the existing ones in circulation. However, most of the random 50 people surveyed in Havana felt that this is a preliminary step to the announced monetary unification, which may be imminent.

This second view seems to be reinforced by the fact that just two weeks before the information of the BCC, Granma had published an article that addressed the issue of the dual currency and the need to eliminate the “distortion of the economy”, especially in the government sector. Continue reading

A Thief Who Steals from a Thief… / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

Computer store (14ymedio)

Computer store (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 23 August 2014 — “Beds, furniture, mattresses, heaters”, is the soft cry from a reseller who prowls around the Carlos III Market entranceway. A few steps away, another dealer advertises his wares: “airs,’microgüeys’, washing machines, rice cookers, ‘Reina’ brand pots and pans…” The cries are not too loud, but measured, uttered in a tone just loud enough to reach the ears of the nearby walkers, or of those people who enter or leave the market.

Speculators move around with stealth and pretending, like one who knows well that he is operating at the margin of what is legal. So, as soon as he sees a cop or some individual he suspects of being an “inspector”, the cries are abruptly suspended. Many turn away instantly, but the more adventurous stay and buy themselves a beer and adopt the carefree air of one who just wants to cool off from the heat wave of this merciless August air. They know they don’t fool anyone, but neither can they be charged with a crime if they are not caught dealing in the illegal market.

For years, black market traders have flourished all around shops operating in foreign currencies. They speculate in several different products, from sophisticated electronics equipment to cosmetics or toothpaste. They come in quite a few categories, depending on the product they sell, but all belong to this illegal trade network that is many times more efficient than the legal markets: the chain formed by hoarders and/or burglars-resellers-receivers. There is currently an official media campaign being developed against the first two links (hoarders-resellers).Government media particularly blame those who traffic in products that are scarce, while shortages–another epidemic that has turned endemic–affect the country’s commercial trading networks. Continue reading

Absence Breakdown and an Unforgettable Brief Trip / Miriam Celaya

Miami. Image taken from the internet

Another absence breakdown in my old blog, once again abandoned for more demanding reasons: obligations I could not postpone, having to do with work, as happens to individuals whose income is dependent on their jobs, and a brief (very brief!) one-week trip to Miami, because I needed to finish several articles and a presentation at an event.

I could not relate how rushed my trip to the “endearing monster” was, though my Cuban friends in Miami assured me that I was not in the US, but “in Miami,” which feels the same but is not. And indeed, one feels so encircled by Cuban surroundings in Miami that –if not for such a difference in the setting–it would seem you haven’t left Havana.

I visited Radio and TV Marti, I was on various shows of their causes, I met some of the journalists, commentators and friends who were just voices on the phone up to then, and I reunited with colleagues, journalists and bloggers and other émigrés, like Luis Felipe and his wife, whom I was able to hug.

I was at Cubanet for a very short while, where I also felt welcomed by colleagues in the writing profession; I met again with my friend Hugo Landa, whom I had met in Stockholm in 2013. I spent a very enjoyable time with all of them.

I laughed and cried, when I was in Miami, overwhelmed by the emotions of long gatherings with cousins I grew up with, who left Cuba recently, and with very dear friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I also had the privilege to visit my father’s favorite brother, his playmate as a child and a friend in their youth, who left Cuba for good 52 years ago and they never saw each other again.

It was at once moving and wonderful to see that over half a century of barbarism and separation imposed by the Cuban political power have not been able to erase the love between us. They wished to divide us and have only managed to multiply us beyond the Florida Straight. While it is true that it’s come at a high cost, the hatred has failed.

I haven’t been able to answer the question “how is Miami?” frequently asked by relatives and friends on my return to Cuba. Miami is indescribable, at least for me. It’s not my cradle and will never be my home, it is true, but in that city the energy and strength of the people of this Island vibrate, the people who have made Miami grow and contributed to its prosperity, with their tremendous capacity for work, so it will no longer be alien to me.

Miami surrounded me with sincere affection, I was not an intruder nor an outsider, and maybe that’s why I don’t know–nor can, nor want–to define it.

Just two words come to my lips when someone asks my impression of her: love and hope. That is what Miami means to me.

Translated by Norma Whiting

7 July 2014

Money Bristles, Yesterday and Today / Miriam Celaya

About the previous post, which -as expected- elicited many well and ill-intentioned comments, I noticed one in particular, a reader commenting about what used to be our digital magazine Consenso, which the commentator himself referred to as having opened a Cuban window on the world. I happen to agree with him and, as part of the management group and the editorial board of that magazine, I thank him for the memories and the praise.

But the truth is that his comment inspired me to search through those articles that were published at the time in Consenso, among which I found one from my friend and colleague Reinaldo Escobar relating to the subject of the debate: money. Because, though some were biased in reading my post and tried to twist the meaning of what I said, attributing it to my personally attacking those “who did not like14ymedio.com”, when read correctly, it shows that what I attack is the vice of envy, questioning other’s finances, exactly the same matter that Reinaldo Escobar discussed in Consenso in 2007.  Contrary to my habit of not posting here articles I have not authored, I reproduce it today, with the previous authorization of the writer. You be the judge about its worth, and I hope you enjoy it.

Money Bristles

Reinaldo Escobar

It seems almost superfluous to explain that any political activity generates costs, from the essential existence of a professional staff, dedicated to party work on a full time basis, to the development and dissemination of documents, including trips involving transportation, food and lodging outside the cities where they reside; organizing seminars, meetings or press conferences, or simply connecting to the Internet. Can you think how it would be possible to carry out politics without these things? Continue reading

If the Shoe Fits… / Miriam Celaya

As expected, the birth of the new site 14ymedio.com attracted immediate attacks from the servers of the Cuban regime. A few hours after the media’s first appearance, it was redirected by official cyber-hosts to a dedicated page (oh, the satrapy’s supreme homage!), not to the disqualification of counterrevolutionary journalistic medium as such, but to its “insignificant” manager, the multi-award-winning — and multi-abominated — Yoani Sánchez-Cordero, evil among the worst.

Interestingly, the essence of the invectives against Yoani the terrific is not the legitimacy of exercising the right to free opinion, of creating an information media to and from Cuba, or of the desire that the media become, in addition to a source of diffusion, an enterprise producing income to Yoani and her associates, paying for her collaborators, promoting independent journalism and creating sources of employment. “The chicken in a chicken and rice meal”, as the ever soporific Lázaro Barredo might say, who had been director of the libelous “Granma” for a brief period, but who has currently disappeared from the public scene. It is about questioning what capital this blogger has available to fund such an enterprise, whether or not she deserved the awards she has received, and about the nature of her fabulous emoluments, which, in the imaginary collective of her embittered detractors is close to half a million dollars.

However, what is truly amazing is that there are some petty characters in the internal dissent (and even more conspicuous, characters of “the external”), who have joined the same chant, thus indicating that the perverse nature of the olive green autocrats has soaked into the conscience of Cubans beyond suspected limits, also poisoning a sector of those who call themselves – and indeed are — enemies of the Cuban dictatorship. Continue reading

Note to my Readers / Miriam Celaya

In recent months entries in Sin_EVAsión have been sparse. I beg the readers to excuse my absences from this blog. Contrary to what may seem, such “gaps” are due to the increase in volume of my work. As you know, though this blog was not exactly the digital place where I started as a citizen journalist, it did contribute significantly to the dissemination of my work. It opened several possibilities for publication elsewhere, in which articles I wrote regularly appear.

Recently I also began to work with the new newspaper 14ymedio, an opportunity I could not pass up and a space where I will continue to work with opinion work, analysis, or reporting. In the blogger platform of that medium, my son, Victor Ariel and I have also started a collective blog. The title of this new blog is “A Pie y Descalzos” (On Foot and Barefoot), which aims to provide an overview of Cuba “from a viewpoint at ground level” i.e., from the common people. As a result, I’m often overwhelmed with work, which consumes my time and energy, affecting updates to this site.

I also have to ensure my regular income, because one cannot live by just romance and good intentions. If, however, in previous years I wrote for Sin_EVAsión almost exclusively, for some time I have had the opportunity to make some money writing for other media publications, so I am doing that. I am not the New Man, so my critics may vent their fury on this note and with a statement I make without a hint of pretense (as is my style): I love the money I get from the fruits of my labor and with my limited talents; I owe it to nobody, and I don’t intend to be embarrassed by it. To hell with the parasites and the envious ones. As an addendum, I will say I don’t get remittances, which fills me with satisfaction.

As for my friends I know they don’t need any explanations, but my respect and affection, so I address this note to them as well, to let them know that I’m still with them.

However, Sin_EVAsión will continue as my personal platform, the most intimate and beloved, the space of my own individual “me”. If my work has been of any value in this site, I owe it to my readers. Thanks for following, and don’t leave me. I won’t leave you either.

Eva-Miriam

Published in Sin EVAsión, 23 May 2014 by Miriam Celaya

Translated by Norma Whiting

Who is Writing History? / 14ymedio, Miriam Celaya

 

Miriam Celaya, La Habana | Junio 02, 2014

Themes

No one could have anticipated a short time ago that the formulas to define the Cuban reality would be so radically transformed. In the last five years, we have been witnessing the gradual extinction of phrases and words that constituted an indispensable part of the official lingo, and the emergence of others which had been demonized, since they were considered remnants of a shameful bourgeois past which from which the revolution of 1959 had saved us.

Our language is foreseeing a scenario which is very different than that of the last 50 years. Lately, we rarely hear such terms as “comrade”, while in the official media, such phrases as “revolutionary intransigence”, “socialist emulation”, “voluntary labor” “collective vanguard” and “moral incentives” are infrequent, as are others, typical of the inescapable dialect of the old Soviet-Marxist period.

Thus, Cubans have once again become “señor” and “señora” and we have also stopped being “users” or “consumers” and have been transformed into “customers”. It is not the same or equal. It is a question of category based on a consumption level of access. For example, those who enter a store to buy the products of “local industries” in national currency remain “consumers”, but shoppers in stores dealing in hard currency are “clients”. Continue reading

The Embargo and Absolute Power / Miriam Celaya

Lifting or easing the embargo will strengthen the Castros’ power. No economic benefit justifies the absence of democracy. Lifting the embargo would allow the Cuban government to apply for credit at US banks, and would make it legal for US citizens to visit Cuba as tourists.

clip_image002-1HAVANA, Cuba- In the last week, various opinions have circulating about a letter sent to the president of the US, signed by US and Cuban-American intellectuals and political personalities asking for further easing of the embargo. Debating opinions sparked following the publication of the letter shows at once the relevance of relations between both governments in an eventual political transition in Cuba and the complexity derived from the many facets of a too long-drawn-out dispute.

So far, it is not known what strategy would take place in “drawing near” to the regime which would lead to an effective advance in human rights and democracy on the Island. The extreme positions have tinged a controversy which –judging by the signals stemming from it- will probably settle between the Cuban exile community’s economic power interested in investing in Cuba, some US political sectors and the political power of the Cuban regime. And what role do the common Cubans play in all this? That of passive recipients, the same as in the last 55 years.

It is undeniable that, under conditions of absolute power, the lifting or easing of the embargo will reflect its full benefit in favor of the consolidation of power of the Castros and their elite. However, does this mean that the embargo, or -as some sectors propose- its intensification, will be positive for the present and future of Cubans? At a time when the Cuban government is in desperate need of foreign investment capital, wouldn’t it be possible for those participating in the dialogue to establish a rational agenda to foster an evolution to a multilateral political and inclusive scenario for Cubans? Continue reading