The Cuban Catholic Church and the Opposition: An Unnecessary Conflict / Miriam Celaya

Havana Cathedral

The dialogue between the government of General Raúl Castro and the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church continues to generate discussions between different opposition groups and the independent civil society sectors. It was expected that half a century of stagnation would bring, as its first consequence, the creaking of rusty hinges when trying to turn on any mechanism of this old obsolete machinery, as it also seems logical that, since it’s been going in reverse, now it’s really hard to move forward.

It is not easy to search and find consensus in a country orphaned of civility and freedoms for such a long time. Most Cubans today have never participated in genuine elections, we have not been activists in a real political party, we have no unofficial places for public debate, we have no free access to information and communications, nor have we enjoyed any the benefits of democracy, but the worst part of all of that is that we haven’t been free. Just like fearful and ignorant slaves, there are those who would not even know what they would make of their lives when the day comes when they have the freedom to fully put their lives in order. That is Cuba’s sad reality, inherited in great measure from 50 years of dictatorship, but also because of 400 years of history that show what costly results triviality and irresponsibility can have on a country.

The moment Cuba is living through has peculiar elements that mark a before and an after. Each analysis can take what it considers a landmark as a guideline, whether the accumulation of elements in the overall socioeconomic and political crisis, the struggle of dissent within the country, the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the hunger and thirst strike of Guillermo Fariñas, the sustained and courageous action of the Ladies in White, and the increased activity of alternative journalism in all its forms, among other factors, and others that may be unintentionally omitted here. This “before and after” could assume any of these factors, seemingly isolated, as a reference point; however, the pulley that has come to unite some pieces and has helped initiate the rotation of the mechanism has been the Catholic Church. That is a fact.

Just as circumstances present themselves -or how they are broached from all the factors that have had an influence on them- I think that now it is more realistic to weigh the indisputable: changes are taking place and the mediation of the Catholic Church is an important factor in this. Thus, far from taking note of idealistic solutions intended to satisfy the vanity of one or the other opposition leader or overestimating the importance of sectors of the emerging civil society (in which in my own activity as a blogger is included) and, at the same time, without denying the validity of all elements in their own performance, I prefer to take into consideration how positive the Church’s role in this process can be, and how much it could contribute

Some people criticize the mediation in the figure of Cardinal Jaime Ortega, alleging he has never supported the opposition, never visited the prisoners or delivered against the excesses of the dictatorship, which is not fully consistent with reality (let’s recall, for example, the famous pastoral letter “The Motherland Belongs to All”, a document that had great resonance in 1992). As for me, I am not –nor anything of the sort- a fan or even an admirer of His Eminence, but such disqualification could also be applied to the vast majority of the Cuban people, accustomed to fearfully look the other way in the presence of an act of civic courage or in the actions of repressive forces against defenseless citizens; the list of those who can attest to this experience would be endless, both inside and outside Cuba

On the other hand, those who disqualify the Church as a mediator today seem to forget how, throughout all these years, even though most Cubans applauded (we applauded) in the presence of speeches and stages, while religious belief was an unforgivable taboo, while the religious of any tendency were excluded and condemned, and while all of society galloped towards the loss of moral and human values, the Catholic Church was a bastion of solidarity among Cubans of sincere faith, a space for the conservation of the best values, a veritable hive where the work in support of families, Cuban culture, and in upholding its principles under very adverse conditions never stopped. The Cuban Catholic Church was a hotbed of resistance against the communist totalitarianism of this dictatorship from the very beginning, before any of the opposition parties we know today, and it was tolerant and inclusive, while in Cuban society intolerance and exclusion were being imposed.

Many parishes have been carrying the discourse of resistance that few dared to listen to, and much less to speak of, and they have established themselves as promoters of many areas of education, social and academic exchanges and of formation of values. The Catholic Church has been working quietly and patiently for the reconciliation of the Cuban people, while the regime -and others- have dedicated themselves to turn us one against the other. To deny this would be not only an injustice, but also a fallacy.

It is clear that the Church is not a perfect institution and that it does not represent all of us in everything, it has also committed errors and even injustices, but it has also offered its space as a refuge amid the storms. If not, let the Ladies in White, who go to the church of Santa Rita every Sunday say it, let the Cubans who have found the support, charity and solidarity they were missing say it, let the thousands who are gathering spontaneously in the Churches in Cuba to receive, in her pilgrimage throughout the Island, the Patron Saint of Cuba, Our Lady of El Cobre, able to gather, because of their unique status as Cubans, believers and non-believers in the simple avocation of their love for Cuba say it. What other institution in this country would be capable of that? I’m not a believer in the least, I am barely an agnostic, forged in the strictest atheism, who has overcome the denial and pretends to be fair. In addition, since I wish the best for Cuba and Cubans, I support anything that helps to break down the wall.

That’s why I ask those who now oppose the mediation of the Church (I speak of the institution, not its leaders) and who, in addition, accuse her of being “a traitor to the people,” “opportunistic” and other similar epithets, to mention the reasons and accusations to expose to public opinion objectively, who they consider to be the stakeholders they feel might be sufficiently consolidated in Cuba, with the prestige and permanence needed to represent a large portion of the Cuban population, what programs these actors are proposing for change and the phases for transition.

Let those who oppose the Catholic Church-Government dialogue state if they believe that the people can delegate, right now, with full knowledge of cause, in any of the opposition parties and independent civil society groups beyond the sympathy that our struggle for democracy might stir. But above all, let’s be realistic: the Cuban crisis is not going to be resolved in the short term, a transition is a long and complex process to which actors are incorporated as they gain influence and prestige in national public life. Rather than struggle for a position or a prize, it’s time to take advantage of venues that are opening up, and to support actions that promote positive changes in order to be able to enhance the discourse of the current opinion leaders and the emergence of new ones, the birth of new ideas, civic forces and of comprehensive proposals in which we all may participate (including those who, until now, have not participated). Let nobody think that it will be easy, but let’s not make it any more difficult.

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 31, 2010

Epilogue of the JJ Saga / Miriam Celaya

JJ during his hunger strike in which he lost over 40 pounds

This past August 24th, 2010, on his return from the Archdiocese of Havana, where he had been summoned, Juan Juan Almeida settled his hunger strike: his departure from Cuba was being discussed. He eventually left by way of Mexico on the afternoon of the following day (August 25th). This ends another one of the personal dramas that the absurd Cuban emigration procedures provoke, in which every Cuban must go through the odious and humiliating process of soliciting an exit permit from the authorities. This time, another Cuban who stands up for his rights just won over the opportunity to exercise them, I rejoice.

Due to the extent and complexity of the subject, I would like to put aside, until another occasion, the proposal for a debate on the fickle and secretive institution that answers to the name “Directorate of Emigration and Foreign Affairs”, where certain uniformed officers –who misleadingly appear humanoid- dictate whether or not to authorize the release from this country-prison any ill-fated person who has committed the unlucky mistake of having been born into it. If the insect in question (a category that I state while taking into account what the circumstances suggest and not meaning to offend any of my countrymen who, like myself, are subject to the same disgraceful tourniquet), that is, if a Cuban who asks permission has the additional aggravating circumstance of belonging to the black list previously composed from on high, names and inventory numbers (i.e., Identity papers) those highly toxic individuals who are absolutely banned from leaving the country, must say goodbye even to the simple idea that there is a world beyond the geographical boundaries of Cuba, and can only hope for a miracle … or make the miracle happen. We all know that.

For now, I will just refer to the comments that my post (Breaking the Stigma) from August 17th provoked and thank the readers who participated in it for their sincerity. At the suggestion of some readers, I have posted a picture of JJ during the strike, which I found on the Internet, you can appreciate the difference between the pictures when compared with the one I previously posted.

I think that you and I have found in that debate -which was colored by the most diverse criteria around, contrasting and even sharply polarized- how much hatred has been sown among us in these 50 years of dictatorship and how much there is still left to argue and cast out of our souls so we can find reconciliation, the necessary foundation for the Cuba who so many of us dream of.

I am also thankful that all points of views, whether in favor of solidarity with another Cuban, (not “somebody’s son”) as those who chose moral condemnation, helped me to hold on even with more conviction to the principle of harmony that eggs me on: every Cuban who peacefully defends his freedom and his rights against this regime may count on my respect, solidarity and sympathy, independent of his origin, creed and ideology. Nothing is going to make me seem like those who have sown intolerance and mistrust among us.

Nor is remaining in Cuba patriotism. In my case, I have never wanted to leave my country permanently -I assume it would be more convenient for those who have ruined my country to leave- but I have never felt that such a decision makes me a patriot nor a better or worse person than others. “Patriot” is a title that, besides, produces in me certain uneasiness: here and there are terms that have been widely manipulated. Maybe, in order to recoup the true meaning of the word, it would be interesting to also define some day what we are calling “Motherland.”

For now, I will avoid the peculiar word “patriot” while I take back having used the term “idiots” if its use brings unnecessary trouble. Pretend I never wrote it, however, I will leave it in the original post to have it remain a witness, lest some suspicious person suggest that I cheat or that I delete my mistakes so I can deny them. Just know that I defend my stumbles as much as my successes: they make me more human. I don’t write to please, but it is not my intent to offend anyone.

I congratulate Juan Juan right now for having achieved his goal (personal or otherwise) and I offer my best wishes to regain his health. In addition, to all my readers, including some that from time to time carry the suspicious aroma of a camouflaged troll: remain in the ring. Thank you.

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 27, 2010

My Donkey, My Donkey… / Miriam Celaya


May the influenza not win over us!
THE SOLUTION IS IN YOUR HANDS
A message from the Cuban Public Health at the service…

Photo: Orlando Luis

When I was young, there was a very popular children’s song that made reference to a sick donkey whose ills always had a solution. “My donkey, my donkey, has a headache: A doctor sends him a black cap…” we children sang in chorus, and the little tune went on, letting out in its stanzas each discomfort of the quadruped, until he would end up completely cured. I never thought I’d see the day when I would, sincerely and categorically, envy that donkey because, in spite of the difficult conditions that the Cuban reality imposes for our survival, everything is more or less “tolerable” until you find yourself forced to see a doctor. It is there that the true agony starts.

Recently, my mother had to go to the clinic (family doctor) because of her persistent discomfort in the throat. There, after waiting for her de rigueur turn, a physician as ancient as she, or older, prescribed an exudation –to be performed at the Emergency Hospital- to test for possible bacteria. As a precaution, the doctor prescribed Tetracycline tablets to her “to be taken after the exudation.” It is clear that the doctor knows the reality of the Cuban health system. The exudation could not be done because “there is no technician” at the hospital’s laboratory, nor do they know when there will be one, “go see if they want to perform it at the Hospital Calixto Garcia.” They did not want to, or they were not able to. Resigned, and without a diagnosis, my mother completed her “treatment” by taking her antibiotics: she was sick to her stomach and for several days, she still presented with discomfort in the throat. (My donkey, my donkey, has a sore throat; the doctor has put on him a white tie.)

But hers is just a minor case. When you go to a doctor’s office here, you discover horrifying cases. A lady I personally know went to a certain hospital with numbness in one arm and general malaise, including a headache, and, just like that, she was diagnosed with a stroke. Very alarmed, her family then went to another hospital, this time through a doctor friend of theirs, who was a friend of another doctor who had clout, etc. It was only then that, after rigorous tests, they arrived at the correct diagnosis: the old woman was incubating a virus, her immune system was compromised and –besides that- was rejecting the antihistamines she had been prescribed to treat her allergies, hence the numbness of the limbs. She improved within a few days.

I recently heard of an extreme case about a man, also very old, in the terminal phase of lung cancer who was not being given oxygen “as to not to create dependency.” He died within a few days, which was inevitable, only that he was in terrible agony. I’m not allowed to cite this source either, but it is a real life case from my own municipality (Centro Habana). This very humble old man and his family didn’t have any “godfather” to go to. I could write whole pages with enough examples of this sort to crash this website.

I know that many readers might also give examples of irresponsibility, poor attention, lack of resources and missed diagnoses that take place everywhere in the world, but here, they are becoming commonplace, and we don’t have the opportunity to make the slightest claim or to opt for “another service” because of the “egalitarian” and centralized character of the system. The truth is that, in Cuba, one can no longer be assured of receiving good medical care -except for few and honorable exceptions- if not with the corresponding “recommendation.” Almost always, if one sees a doctor through established channels, the doctors’ hands are tied and they cannot perform tests that are required for an exact diagnosis; in other instances they are able to diagnose, but it is possible that the medication needed is not found at the drug stores, or it is dispensed only in CUC, at prohibitive prices for the commonplace Cuban pocket. Because of so much confusion, many prefer not to see a doctor uselessly and try to “make do” with concoctions of traditional medicine and with prayers that aren’t always sufficiently effective, as may be understood. Such are our very expensive freebies.

In today’s Cuba, the total deterioration of the system rages most scandalously in hospitals, polyclinics, clinics and pharmacies. Added to the already inadequate resources -always attributed to the ubiquitous “embargo”- and the eternal lack of medications in national currency pharmacies, is the shortage of medical personnel or the questionable ability of some of those not yet “in mission” or “collaborators” (which is not the same) in some Venezuelan neighborhood, in any remote jungle, or in a lost valley in the Andes. The TV news and the official press abound with examples of the medical miracles Cubans manage through other lands. Apparently, when it comes to Cubans, any place is good to practice medicine and to find solutions to illness… Any place, except Cuba. (My donkey, my donkey, nothing ails my donkey. The doctor prescribes apple syrup. You don’t say! Apple?! Ha, ha!)

Translator: Norma Whiting

August 20, 2010

Breaking the Stigma / Miriam Celaya

JJ Almeida at graduation from the Blogger Academy

Just over 60 days ago Juan Juan Almeida started a hunger strike. His, in some ways, is the most solitary of strikes. It is true that many of us bloggers and his other friends have been aware of his condition and have followed the long-running saga of his pursuit of an exit permit to allow him to get treatment, not available in Cuba, for a severe health problem; it is also true that several digital sites have published his trials and tribulations (including his arrests) as he constantly pressures the authorities and demands his right to travel, to be reunited with his family, and to receive on-going treatment for his illness. But regardless, public opinion has not been sufficiently mobilized.

Reflecting on the crossroads where Juan Juan finds himself, I think of how difficult it is in his case and the stigmas he is burdened with at a time when he so greatly needs to rally support. First, because his fight, placed within the contours of a personal drama, lacks the heroic elements traditional solidarity demands; his dispute, according to some of the more ignorant, is not for Cuba and Cubans, but only to resolve a personal problem. Why don’t we just describe his drama as that of any Cuban, and therefore, of all Cubans. Second, because the most well-known and far-reaching of the international media pay attention to someone whose huge mustache or quantity of body-piercings earn them a Guinness record, but not to the tragedy of a lonely man who launches a desperate appeal to defend the right to freely leave and enter one’s own country. Third, the greatest stigma, is because JJ – as many of us call him – is the son of the Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida Bosque, which brings with it a strong prejudice: being one “of them” and having enjoyed benefits and privileges that the most of us do not, he “deserves what happens to him.” A pattern repeated over and over when I’ve expressed JJ’s dilemma among friends, as if being born to someone in particular entails a curse, as if to each of us our parents were not always loved and lovable, or as if the coincidence of not belonging, as a birthright, to the anointed grants us some certificate of moral purity, without “the children of so-and-so” hanging over our heads.

For my part, I think it is precisely his origin that makes his struggle more difficult than mine. His rupture has been greater and the cost of his daring higher. From my vertical dissent I have not lost even one friend (in fact I have gained many new friends); I have had no ruptures nor family resentments, no one has separated me from my loved ones (neither living nor dead), nor have I suffered any rejection. This has not been true in his case.

I prefer to see JJ in another way: not as the privileged person that he’s not, but as another of my companions along the way. I choose to strip the name and pedigree from this man and see the human being who lacks the same rights we all lack on this Island – and as even some do who are outside of it – including the greatest right which is Freedom. This is a sick man who, thanks to his many friends who love him (but no thanks to the Revolution which, for some reason, detests him… and that makes him good in my eyes), has the chance to improve his health outside of Cuba; but the government prevents him from traveling and condemns him to die. This is a man prevented from being reunited with his wife and daughter for having committed the incredible sin of writing a book where he says what he knows, what he believes and what he thinks about certain topics that discomfort the warrior oligarchy, the master of all our fates. I choose to stand by this human being in whom I recognize so many gestures of solidarity toward others and toward us, the disobedient ones, with whom he has cast his lot.

Since August 10, 2010, Juan Juan Almeida has been hospitalized in Havana. His health has deteriorated and his body has been debilitated by the long fast. His demand to leave Cuba has ceased to be an individual claim; and although JJ himself has no pretensions of leadership or of carrying the flag, today he claims a right for all Cubans. We must not leave him to do it alone.

August 17, 2010

Translator’s note: JJ Almeida yesterday: Photos here.

A Caribbean Tunisia / Miriam Celaya

For a few moments, while looking in astonishment at my television screen, I assumed that some paramedics would show up and, straitjacket in hand, definitively remove the decrepit orator from the scene, as happened years ago with Habib Bourguiba in faraway Tunisia. It was Saturday, August 7, and I could not believe that Mr. F, in a public speech broadcast live and addressed to the full Cuban Parliament, unleashed the greatest avalanche of nonsense that has ever been spewed, with complete self-confidence and without a single one of those present daring even to cough. After half a century of an absurd and vivid unreality, I haven’t lost the ability to be amazed. I confess that, much to my regret, I felt badly, a kind of guilt by association simply from watching the magnified ridicule of others. I also imagined the discomfort of the most clearheaded of those spectators (deputies, they say) pretending to take seriously the embarrassing errors flowing from an already too deteriorated brain. But many of them were shameless enough to applaud, ask questions and even flatter the orator. It was the biggest farce I have ever seen. However, despite the exaggerated shows of submissive support (or perhaps because of them), never did F seem to me so lonely and helpless.

Only in the opening minutes did the loquacious octogenarian manage to refer to “the Soviets” (who “are working” to avoid the nuclear conflagration that is coming) and the “Soviet Union” (which currently has serious problems with forest fires), with a present conviction as if twenty long years had not passed since the total collapse of that socialist monstrosity known as the USSR. The blunders of the old man followed one after another with complete impunity. Thus, F included new scientific evidence such as “Evolution began about 4,000 years ago…” or “18,000 years ago there was only fire on Earth…” and even some otherwise sage advice, “We already know that the sun will go out one day…” My anxiety grew as time passed and I started to bite my fingernails, but no paramedics appeared with a rescuing straitjacket. This time, definitely, it was not only F who was the victim of his proverbial arrogance… it was obvious that some elements of the higher-ups had a particular interest in publicly exposing this speaker’s remains.

I couldn’t stand the pain and turned off my TV, convinced that this country is sick. Since then I’ve been overwhelmed by a strange feeling encompassing shame, helplessness and anger. For the first time I excuse (partly) F for what is happening now; he is nothing more than an old man who suffers from the mental incapacity to critically distinguish reality from his own delusions. Perhaps he no longer has the lucidity to pay for his numerous crimes. But that huge hall was packed with other culprits; there was the president of this country and the president of the parliament, there were the more than 300 deputies and guests of the occasion, a whole herd of rip-off artists who continue to thrive in the shadow of the benefits they receive for their symbolic jobs and for their merits as active participants in the collapse of Cuba, while society is increasingly submerged in the worst of its permanent crises. They are also responsible for what happens in the future.

What interests are in motion through this lamentable theater and what perverse strategy is capable of supporting a farce like that orchestrated on Saturday the 7th, even at the risk of provoking greater instability than that in which we already live? Only THEY know, but I suspect that today we have more reasons for alarm than for laughter. If the factions vying for power in Cuba are divided between a deceitful and slow reformer and a deranged druid with messianic manias, we’re in real trouble. In the meantime, this Island has neither helmsman nor leader. How much would I have given that Saturday morning so that we Cubans, who do not have a real parliament, would at least have had some paramedics as timely and efficient as those in Tunisia!

Luis Orlando Photography

August 12, 2010

A Pause / Miriam Celaya

For some time I have wanted to pause to respond to some doubts from readers of this blog, a practice I would like to maintain but that I cannot exercise with the frequency I would like, due to my limited access to the internet. I am going to explain to you, because my readers deserve it, my general procedure for loading a post, making links, reading commentaries or answering correspondence, as well as my “political censorship.” Various opinions that could be confusing have come up and I like to clarify things.

Some readers believe that the blocking of our pages is a myth. That’s all well and good but the sites Desde Cuba and Voces Cubanas, the oldest and largest platforms in the Island’s alternative blogosphere, respectively, are blocked from here by the government, so that it is not possible to access them from inside Cuba, except from a place that has direct access to the satellite, or by detouring through an anonymous proxy at a public internet site. I can access my site sporadically, when some friends and supporters offer me a time when the first option exists (direct link without passing through the Cuban filters), in which case I administer the page myself and try to load posts, revise the links, and respond to some messages; or the times when I would buy a card to connect from a public place (usually a hotel), when I might be able to read my page and the comments (through an anonymous proxy) but I can’t administer my blog. Whenever I go try to maximize the short time available, so I bring the already-edited articles on a flash memory and even some messages I have written to those who write me, and I also download the commentaries to read at leisure at home. This is a primitive process, which explains the slowness and the reason I can’t update my blog more often.

Another option that I make use of is to appeal to a guardian angel who helps me: a Cuban who lives abroad and has the password to my blog and my complete trust. She has been a real support since shortly after the start of this blog and offers me more chances to get on with the work when I only have to use my email account to send posts and photos. At times, she herself looks for photos from the internet. This irreplaceable friend also “patrols” the site to remove the coarse and vulgar insults which at times – as some of the long-standing readers will recall – came to greatly contaminate the site, such that I asked her to do it. I’ve never removed someone’s comment simply because they don’t agree with me or for having a different political point of view. I don’t exclude even those who defend the system. That doesn’t seem democratic to me, truthful, nor do I believe it is healthy to censor anyone who maintains a respectful attitude. That would be inconsistent with the spirit of pluralism that I defend. If anyone of them (or others) has complaints about what they believe is the intentional omission of their opinions, they need to know that I don’t have enough connection time to devote myself to establishing filters nor have I ever revealed the identity (nor will I) of the commentators; for me that is strictly a question of ethics. I will ask my friend and “Cyber-Godmother” to review those details when she can, because she also has to work for a living and the hours she spends on this blog are taken from time she could be resting or spending with her family. I ask you, then, for your understanding and patience.

Someone has criticized my lack of participation in the comments. This is a choice I made because, in my capacity as hostess, I prefer to give my opinions in the posts and leave space in the comments for the readers, without interfering in the debate, with the intention of not imposing my presence or abusing my privilege as the owner of the site. When I thought it opportune to emphasize a theme or refer to the comments (as in this case), I have chosen to post a separate text and explain my reasons, which is the way I have to speak with all of you at once, although at times for various reasons I have singled out some and sent direct messages to them via email.

Finally, those who believe that perhaps I have other occupations, not just attending to this blog, are correct. I have a precious family to take care of (my number one priority), I work as an independent tourist guide to make some money from time to time, I read and research many things and am writing a novel for teenagers, an old project that I hope to complete in a year or a year and a half and that is more complicated than I thought it would be. My rare presence on-line however, is due to my lack of access. I greatly enjoy the time that I share with my readers; I hope the day will come in which a connection from my home is more than a dream. Thank you for coming to find me, for demanding more from me, and for your patience.

A hug,

Eva-Miriam

August 6, 2010

Cuba: Two Governments? / Miriam Celaya

In all of the overflowing liturgical calendar of the Cuban Revolution, for half a century the 26th of July has been the quintessential date. More important even than January 1 (the day of the triumph of Castro’s rebels and the establishment of a revolution doomed to failure), the commemoration of the assault on the Moncada barracks, despite the numerous deaths it caused in 1952, became a national holiday that at the stroke of a pen subordinated the importance of any of the Island’s other historical events, one attempted coup d’état within another: violence against violence, the force of arms, the civil war. With the passage of time, the central commemorative event of the date also became a “political prize,” with the site of the largest celebration awarded to the provincial capital deemed to be the “winner” of “socialist emulation” based on what exactly no one knows, or remembers, but nor is anyone interested because — as is well-known — it is a designation that in reality responds to the short-term interests of a government and not the supposed merits or achievements of this ill-fated system.

This July 26, 2010, however, came with a marked difference, because this time it converged with a succession of events that altered the habitual monotony of the ritual. Santa Clara, the host city in which, as in the rest of the country, nothing is produced, was the scene, this time won not by the “sustained work and extraordinary economic and social achievements” of its population (as apathetic and hopeless as any other Cubans the length and breadth of the Island), but rather — paradoxically — by the prolonged hunger and thirst strike sustained by the dissident Guillermos Farina from his provincial hospital bed, to demand the release of the prisoners of the Black Spring. The formidable solidarity aroused by Farinas and the many comments circulating about the amazing accomplishment of this Cuban capable of sacrificing himself and putting his life at risk for the freedom of others, were sufficient grounds to bring an injection of official ideology to the city: The Central Event of the 26th was, therefore, a smokescreen to show that Santa Clara was not practically a kind of moral plaza besieged by the dissidence, but a bastion of faithful revolutionaries in the spirit of Moncada.

This 26th was marked by the beginning of the release of the political prisoners of conscience; by the sensationalist public reappearance of Mr. F., that jealous starlet coming to steal the scene and trying, with exaggerated blush, to make up for a lack of freshness; by the publication of a series of predictions about an imminent nuclear holocaust; by the stubborn silence of General Raul Castro, broken only recently by his brief closing remarks on August 1 to the latest session of the National Assembly; by the replacement of another minister, this time in public health. All this could signify the same incapacity to remain in the position of “throwing in the towel” in the middle of the ring in which he sees himself battling the fighting the major competition of the moment: the top leadership.

To make this anniversary even more different from others, the Cuban president remained enigmatically (or conveniently) silent at the event in Santa Clara: not only did he omit the usual speech in which he commonly makes statements and promises that are never fulfilled — perhaps avoiding having to comment on the release of the “despicable mercenaries in the service of the Empire,” or about the sudden emergence of a character who is officially no longer on the stage, or on a possible governmental contingency plan to deal with the consequences of the “nuclear war” that we’re facing — but he passed the ball to no less than Machado Ventura, celebrated for his attachment to the stagnation of the so-called hard-line communists and for his markedly dogmatic positions bearing the Stalinist stamp. It was, for many, like a bucket of cold water. Everyone was commenting: “That’s it?” “Who’s the winner here?” Or, as they said in the years of my youth, “We’ve been left at the altar.”

In short, this July 26 transpired as if there were two Cubas, or rather two governments in a single Cuba: one, phantasmagorical and hallucinatory, where an ancient specter announces the end of the world while placing offerings to the dead — who died at his own hand — and designating who will be saved from the coming holocaust (as happens, for example, with Pastors for Peace president Lucius Walker and his caravan); meanwhile another government, perhaps more mundane or closer to reality, negotiates secretly with Cuban and foreign institutions to free the prisoners, ignoring the ghostly apparitions of F and his supporting staff. In any event, this duality has only managed up to now to emphasize the impression of chaos. The presence of F interfering in the affairs of State which — if we stick to the letter of the law — should be the sole responsibility of the government and its institutions, is incoherent and harmful, now more than ever; it is, in fact, a complete aberration. Cuba urgently needs realistic definitions, not delusions, to address the most difficult situation in the last 50 years. The future of everyone depends on the intelligence and skill to address today’s issues, because we can clearly see that our real Holocaust is within us.

August 3, 2010

Economy Bankrupt and Prices Rising

A new rise in prices, not announced in the media, has been taking place silently, both in products that are purchased only in CUC as well as in others, sold in Cuban pesos. “Silently” in a manner of speaking, because at times the price increases are a scandalous 20% or more over the previous value. That is, to the common tactics of theft applied directly by the merchant to the consumer, which are primarily associated with violations of weight and price, to mention the most common, is added, once again, the “legal fine,” through which the State-cum-owner gives itself the right to arbitrarily alter, at will, the prices of some products it considers “superfluous” or that aren’t considered to be “basic necessities.”

It was, therefore, a surprise to “consumers” — I hate this buzzword that tries to disguise its real meaning: “the consumed” — of various butcher shops in Havana when they discovered that these days a pound of processed cheese, frequently served in Cuban homes with spaghetti as a substitute for the inaccessible Parmesan, had gone up from 20 to 25 pesos, without any explanation beforehand, while some “specialized” butchers who sold visking ham at 30 pesos a pound have increased the price to 35 pesos. All this in a tropical county where only the price of a mango can fluctuate between 5 and 7 pesos in the farmers markets and a medium avocado in-season costs up to 15 pesos. Keep in mind that the average salary in Cuba is about 300 Cuban pesos, 12 CUC at the official exchange rate.

It’s in the hard currency stores, however, where there has been a major increase in prices, this time in unquestionably staple products such as oil, toilet paper and bath soap. Generally such “fines” happen just days apart and are often preceded by the sudden “disappearance” of the product in question for periods of time, just enough to create a modest shortage and increase demand. An example of this is the convenient ground turkey, one of the U.S. products added in recent years to the network of CUC shops, which enjoys great popularity due to its relatively modest price, the versatility with which it can be used in the meager Cuban kitchen, and its good quality. Of the three varieties of this product that have been marketed, the greatest demand is for the one that comes in a package of 400 grams costing, until recently, 1 CUC. After several days disappearance from the shops it has returned, this time for 1.35 CUC in stores such as Yumurí (formerly Casa de los Tres Kilos, at the central corner of Belascoaín and Reina), although in others the increase has been a more modest 1.20 CUC.

People wonder when the this dizzying monetary spiral will end, carried out by the State at the expense of people’s pockets in an economically ruined country, where wages are purely symbolic and where, in addition, an alarming wave of layoffs — which here has been re-baptized with the euphemism “rationalization of places” — has begun, one that will leave approximately one-in-five workers, a million people, “available.” No one can explain how products obtained through trade with a neighbor as close as the United States, can show up in the retail market with constantly rising prices, prices that are similar to those of products imported from China or Vietnam. It’s clear, however, that the desperation of a government lacking capital falls on the people’s nearly empty pockets and, in the medium term, helps to stimulate the black market, corruption and crime in Cuba. That is why, on this Island, our children understand contraband before they know the alphabet, because illegal trade is the only possible source of survival.

Legitimate Doubts

Photo: Luis Orlando

On this island where even the news circulates of contraband, we have been witnessing a kind of spiritual mass that has brought back to the public sphere the political specter of the ex-president, Mr. F. It is no coincidence that so many public appearances have taken place following the start of the release of the political prisoners of the Black Spring who are still in the regime’s prisons, and while Guillermo Fariñas was making news in the most prominent of the international media. We know that the arrogant vanity of F. could not bear to be so overwhelmingly displaced and, given that he hasn’t forgotten any of his old tricks, he decided to exploit the sensationalism of his image as a nomadic ghost and the eternal “Head of State” who puts aside his useless little brother to take the reins of power in his own “efficient” hands. But I suspect that there is something more that we don’t know behind these renewed histrionics; something sordid, twisted and definitely dark, so we will have to follow the signals in the same way naturalists detect the creatures of the forest by following their excreta. Particularly now that the classic incoherent babbling of his newspaper column, <em>Reflections</em>, has been turned into a free verse version of The Watchtower announcing to us Armageddon, specific dates included. Elderly patients have a tendency to project themselves.

But do not be alarmed, dear readers, this post is not a psychoanalysis of F., to whom my conscience already read the last rights, long ago. It is now only about some legal worries that go around and around in my head and confuse me… Being that I insist on being a citizen in a country where the Constitution is only damp paper, pissed on by those who created it.

So, then, I ask myself: if Mr. F. is no longer the president of Cuba, if he doesn’t occupy any office in the Council of State and only retains that of the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (in clear violation of the statutes of that organization, since it has not been ratified because the Congress at which it would need to be “voted on” is eight years behind schedule); I repeat, if he is not legally and officially anyone or anything in this country, by virtue of what authority does he have the right to order specialists to undertake economic research, specialists who, at least in theory, have their own projects to complete as part of their jobs at the institution that supports and pays them? What Latin American country has asked F. for an economic salvation plan, to be developed in just ten days, when it has been precisely this gentleman who has been the successful architect of the economic ruin of Cuba in the last 50 years? How is it possible that he might provide guidance to Cuban diplomatic officials abroad in the management of a war that has erupted only within his own imagination? Where is the Cuban president, who hasn’t said or done a thing, while the founding caudillo of this disaster wanders around trying unsuccessfully to sow terror in the minds of the nation’s people? (Here people are much more frightened of real hunger than of imaginary nuclear conflagrations.)

In short, if we were to be civilized and respect our own laws, following the discourse they’ve been stuffing us with, they should take legal action against this impostor who usurps the powers of our legitimate President, democratically ratified in that responsibility by the National Assembly of People’s Power in 2008. We must prosecute this saboteur who goes along creating instability in the institutions, alterations in the labor discipline of our workers (the National Aquarium does not work at night), and fostering a climate of panic among the people by announcing the end of the world for this coming August 8, just when working people should be enjoying a well deserved rest.

To comment on this post, please visit:
Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion.

Mamerto

Photo: Orlando Luis

A teacher without much character, I won’t mention her name, who worked in one of the ten elementary schools I attended when my father’s career — he worked as an industrial mechanic — moved our family like circus tumblers all over Cuba, came up with a strategy to maintain calm and discipline among her most restless students. The method was not, indeed, very educational, but it was indisputably effective: with an old broom handle as the backbone, she (or someone) had constructed a rough doll something like a scarecrow. The head was skillfully made with an old paper-mâché ball onto which had been painted a mouth and eyes with watercolors, while an exaggeratedly long protuberance served as the nose in that frowning face. The whole was crowned with an abundance of rope hair, disheveled enough to give the doll a ferocious mien.

This scarecrow, named Mamerto, “lived” in the second grade’s classroom closet and, at least at the beginning of the school year, a single reference to him was enough to subdue the naughtiest of students. The veiled threat was that Mamerto, a really bad guy, was uncomfortable in the narrow closet, so if you misbehaved the punishment would be to take him home to live in your house and to sleep in your bed with you. In those innocent days, when children believed in magic and Santa Claus, no one wanted to be near the terrible presence of Mamerto, much less to share a pillow with him when it came time to sleep. Mamerto had one more curse: obstinate children who earned his antipathy didn’t pass the grade. Yes, in the early sixties we took our studies more seriously, perhaps because subjects, and even entire years were repeated, even in elementary school.

The truth is no one had ever gotten a really good look at Mamerto. All that was required in the lively classroom was for the teacher to invoke his name aloud while opening a chink in the closet door just wide enough to let his tangled hair spill out; the result was a deadly silence in the room with all eyes wide in alarmed expectation. This shared fear was contagious, but also a little incredulous. Deep down, almost all the children sensed that Mamerto was a fraud, particularly the most boisterous and reckless of us, so the teacher was careful never to fully display the bogeyman and always made sure the closet was locked when she left the classroom.

For some of us, however, myself included, the saga of Mamerto had a certain adrenaline-laced charm and inspired a good dose of curiosity. So it was no surprise that one day some of the boldest of my classmates — children have the innate wisdom to join forces in their difficult campaigns — managed to open the closet and discover the true essence of the inanimate and defenseless Mamerto; from that time on, the unfortunate doll became the focus of the antics of the children. He soon appeared propped against some desk in the classroom, leaning against the blackboard, or stripped of his pants, setting off a general hilarity where before there had been fear. Finally the doll became a bore to everyone and was forgotten in his corner of the closet, until one day he disappeared for good. The teacher tried to substitute a cardboard dog and even a stuffed rooster, but in vain. If the whole classroom had vanquished the fear of Mamerto, nothing minor by comparison could take his place.

Somehow, in recent days, certain images appearing in the official press and on TV have called to mind that almost forgotten lesson of Mamerto.

To comment on this article please visit:

Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

A Mediation Discussed

Cardinal Jaime Ortega.
Photo: Luis Orlando

The talks between the Cuban government and the highest Catholic leadership on the Island, which started last May and led to the gradual release of all the political prisoners from the Black Spring, have not only occupied the attention of the foreign press, but have also generated a great deal of debate among different sectors of the opposition and independent civil society within Cuba, many of whose leaders are offended by their exclusion from this process.

I don’t think it necessary to enunciate here what we know, the important role played by all elements that has led to such a positive outcome as the release of these Cubans, victims of totalitarianism since 2003. The tenacious and peaceful struggle of the Ladies in White over the long seven years was a persistent drop of water eating away at the rock; the death of Zapata Tamayo, a warning bell that the climax had been reached; the altruism and dignity of Guillermo Fariñas with his hunger strike, the coup de grace. Without these three pillars, nothing would have been possible. But, objectively, other facts are no less important, among them, the severe economic and social crisis of the regime, its loss of credit both within the Island as well as in its image in the world, international pressure, the suffocating external debt, the reduction or absence of foreign investors, the rupture in absolute control of information thanks to the use of new communication technologies (despite the well-known limits of their application under conditions in Cuba), and the discrete increase in the independent sectors within society which have been exerting a constant force to open critical spaces and move the spectrum of opinions on the most diverse subjects, from within Cuba itself. All this, without even taking into account the long history of dissident resistance, of different tones and points of view, over the whole of the 51 years.

Just a few years ago, the regime would not have agreed under any circumstances to hold a dialog — not with the Catholic Church, nor with any other social actor in Cuba — must less regarding the release of those whom they had systematically demonized as “enemies,” mercenaries,” traitors,” and other epithets of similar style, and against whom they they have publicly unleashed their bestial shock troops every time they’ve considered it appropriate. Thus, they avoid creating false expectations: it is essentially the same dictatorship. The release of these Cubans today is a currency of exchange to try to recover the grace of acceptance before the the world, but it is also a breakdown of the autocracy, which, on the other hand, will try to regain lost ground by weakening the opposition.

In the midst of this situation, the Catholic Church emerges to mediate in a conflict and seek an arrangement; and — as often happens at every critical juncture between Cubans — this leads to burning questions and the adoption of polarized positions about the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s role as mediator, of the moral authority of Cardinal Jaime Ortega for this job. For my part, despite the fact that I am not Catholic nor do I practice any religion, I consider the conduct of the Church positive in this case because I endeavor to analyze the moment and circumstances with a cool head. It is a difficult exercise, certainly, but we must face facts: the dictatorship has been weakened and has been forced to cede, but this does not imply that they have lost control or that the opposition of the civil society is sufficiently consolidated to take a part in the talks as a condition of the negotiation. The authorities reserve the right to choose an interlocutor, and we know that, to date (and I say quite deliberately “to date”), they do not recognize the opposition or other independent sectors as such; we recognize it would be a suicidal move that they are not going to take, at least not now, nor will they take it willingly when they are forced to do so. In these circumstances, I do not know an institution more solid or with more social recognition in Cuba than the Catholic Church, an institution that, taken as a whole and in this work, is much more than the individual figure of Jaime Ortega.

But in fairness, we must recognize that in this earliest step the fundamental objective has been freeing the prisoners of the Black Spring — which implies a victory for the civil resistance and, along with Fariñas, all of Cuba — in which the Church has played a significant role.

It is up to all of us, as free citizens, to maintain the pressure and to continue to push the wall. We know that the dictatorship will retain all possible power for the longest possible time; we know that our road is long and uphill. I believe that we also have the responsibility to support every movement or gesture of conciliation or opening that brings us closer to democracy, because these cracks in the regime strengthen us only in so far as we know how to take advantage of them. And, of course, even though I am happy for the freedom of at least one group Cubans who have left their prison cells, or who expect to leave soon, I am still not satisfied. In my opinion, the Church cannot permanently monopolize the mediation, and so should, in the not too distant future, attempt also to defend the right of the people to represent themselves, above all in politics. We also should demonstrate responsibly and calmly that we are sufficiently grown and that we no longer want to have a Daddy State, and (without any intention to offend anyone and with all due respect), nor do we need a Mommy Church.

To comment on this post, please visit:
Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

We, Dissidents

Ladies in White in one of their marches down Fifth Avenue.
Photo: Luis Orlando

I don’t want to saddle anyone with adjectives they don’t want. In general, I, for one, have always been rather hesitant to accept labels, especially when the socio-official “taxonomy” is so prodigious in itself in ambiguous definitions that it turns a political opponent into a traitor, an individual freely expressing their own ideas into a Treasury Department employee of the United States, or alternative bloggers practicing what has been called citizen journalism into “cyber-terrorists.” Everyone, without exception, is put in a large sack with the terrible label of “dissidents”, which automatically makes us “despicable mercenaries at the service of the empire”. Ordinary Cuban citizens that we come across in our daily strolls, or the very neighbors that greet us when we meet on the stairs in our building have come to incorporate into their psyche that we carry on our shoulders and faces the epithet of “dissidents”, that we are a sort of contagious plague, such as the lady with the scarlet letter, the Jews with their yellow star under Nazi Germany or the lepers forced to wear jingle bells in medieval times.

This comment I’m making is a necessary preamble. Believe it or not, a candid and sincere old couple living in my neighborhood was offended when someone warned them to be careful because I’m a dissident. They protested: “Don’t say that about her, she is a good person and hers is a very well-mannered and decent family”. These nice old people and I often run into each other at the grocer’s, the butcher’s or the farmers’ market, and they know my political opinions (which I have never hidden and they are in agreement with, by the way), but won’t allow that anyone to “insult” me with the loathsome nickname of dissident. I simply cannot be “that”.

Another example no less amusing is that of another elderly gentleman, one of my sources of information about what happens in the neighborhood, who even enlightens me with comments that hit the nail on the head. I once told that I am a citizen-journalist and that what I write can only be read on the Internet. “Ah, you’re a journalist!” I said “kind of”. “And you dare to write about the heavy things we discuss?” I answered yes and added that -as he must know- I am a dissident. “No way! You’re not with the government and criticize all the bad things, which are many, but dissidents are those who want the Americans to invade us”. I gave up: he’s over 70, and, with his low level of schooling, he would probably better understand how to manage a blog than the true concept of what a dissident is. The term has been demonized to that extreme.

Because of this, when I use the word I am always ready for a reply, even when applied to a civil disobedient like me. Some people get uptight, perhaps because they know the power of words. That is why, here and now, I ask permission of to all who disagree with the government, of political prisoners, of those who spread the truth about the Cuban dictatorship, of those struggling to promote peaceful change towards democracy in Cuba, of independent journalists, of bloggers, and all civic organizations not affiliated with the government to refer to this large set as dissidents. I assume that everyone in this diverse group has in common a clear awareness of the need for change in our country, will do and say what we think is necessary to promote those changes through peaceful means, the spirit of democracy and freedom, and the hope for a better future for all Cubans, among other principles. The risk this entails unites us in a country where a half-century long dictatorship holds absolute power and has begun to understand that its power will not last forever.

We are used to viewing the government as a clever and powerful enemy, so perhaps we may not have realized how much we have been growing in recent years. There are more Cubans raising our own voices every day inside the Island. More and more groups are facing the dictatorship. It is cracking the shell of fear, and the authorities are expected to increasingly tighten the nut and repress with ever-more rage. Though the signals of the future end of the regime are in sight already, it would be premature and hasty to mention deadlines; we have a long way to go to reach a consensus, a common destiny, but I have the impression that, for some time, dissidents have begun to abandon belligerency and, showing respect for mutual differences, we have begun to show solidarity with each other. That is a first step and a healthy sign.

I want, therefore, to publicly thank today all dissidents for the reasonable end to the hostilities. This time, the alleged “unity” is not based solely on signing a proposal every once in a while. Orlando Zapata’s death, the sacrifice of Guillermo Fariñas, and the constancy of the Ladies in White have had the power of assembly that political harangues or programs of either leader had not achieved before. Interestingly, this time, almost no one is claiming the limelight, and almost all are pushing in the same direction and with similar strength… I vote for such humility to be maintained. All indications are that the true seeds of the strength of the dissidence lay in plurality, solidarity and respect for civic differences.

To comment on this post, please visit:
Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

Unjust or Legitimate?

Flags in front of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. Photo: Luis Orlando

An article published by the official Cuban press (Granma, Tuesday June 15, 2010, front page) reports a collateral appeal, or habeas corpus, filed on behalf of Gerardo Hernandez, one of the five Cubans imprisoned in the United after being tried on charges of espionage, as “the final legal recourse for his case,” under the judicial system of that country.

It seems no coincidence that they have recently taken up the issue of five State Security combatants imprisoned in the U.S., in an apparent effort to minimize, in the eyes of public opinion, the question, in turn, of the political prisoners in Cuba and the controversial talks between the government and the Catholic authorities, which have captured the public’s interest in recent weeks. Collaterally, they insist on establishing some form of subordination between the potential release of the Cuban prisoners from the Black Spring and the return to the island of the above-mentioned spies, so that, once again the media minutely obsesses with notes about the five “heroes” of the regime’s reckoning. 
 
It is not idle, however, to take advantage of this juncture to point out the abysmal difference between the case of the five confessed spies, captured during Operation Wasp, and that of the peaceful journalists imprisoned by the Cuban dictatorship in March 2003, not to mention the marked contrast between the two cases relative to the considerable resources spent on the Cuban government’s campaign to release the Five. To wit: the very expensive lawyers; travel and per diem for family members who have come from around the world; the national and international crusade that has mobilized money and agents in the four corners of the globe; as well as the immense propaganda campaign; all of which is explicitly covered almost entirely with State funds without any consultation with taxpayers.

Nor do they skimp on the resources invested by the government in relation to the 75 political prisoners of the Black Spring, although in a completely opposite sense: mobilization of the repressive forces to trample the Ladies in White; privileges and incentives for their most loyal henchmen; the propaganda apparatus set in motion to slander and demonize the political prisoners and their families as well as the whole civic movement that supports them. All this without counting the political cost and the demoralization caused by this repression, the death in prison of Orlando Zapata, and the current hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas.

Apart from this brief summary, there is still an additional critically valid question: if the Cuban government has always declared the imprisonment of their spies by their northern neighbor to be unjust (and even “illegal”); if they insist they were sentenced after a process that was “rigged” and markedly political against five “anti-terrorist fighters,” as they try to convince international public opinion and as they have broadcast in the national catechism; if, in short, the American judicial system is so “corrupt” and “subordinated to the Miami Cuban-American mafia”… How is it possible that the government of the Island is allowed to legitimize its own system by appealing to the recourse that system offers? It is not immoral to demonize and criticize the U.S. Justice system and at the same time lower oneself to appeal to it? Could it be that the five imprisoned spies are politically more useful to the Cuban government than to the anti-Castro groups in Florida?

Clearly, the Cuban authorities display an unlimited impudence by not discriminating between the unjust and the legitimate. So twisted are they, that we will see them once again ranting against the U.S. system to which they now appeal, should they get a new denial of the last legal recourse they have just presented before the Federal Court in Miami.

To comment on this post, please visit:
Miriam’s Blog: Sin Evasion / Without Evasion

Open letter to the BBC of London / Miriam Celaya

Note to readers of this blog:

The text that follows is extensive. It is a reply to statements made in recent days by the BBC’s correspondent in Havana, Mr. Fernando Ravsberg, as part of statements he made in an interview with his fellow countryman, journalist Emiliano Cotelo, during Ravsberg’s recent stay in Madrid. The complexity of the topics covered there and my total disagreement with Ravsberg’s views prevent me from expressing myself in a shorter post. I warn you, then, that those who enjoy brevity in writing do not get mired in reading this post and forgive the inability of this blogger to remain silent before such iniquities.

Miriam Celaya González

Open Letter to the BBC in London

I’m just one among millions of earthlings who use the Internet. That said, in my capacity as an alternative Cuban blogger, my access to the net is rather limited and sporadic. However, I feel a sincere respect for information professionals worldwide, and consider the BBC a serious and competitive agency. It is just because of this that I cannot understand how it is possible that under such prestige and tradition there is a chance for the defense of such deceitful and unscrupulous “journalists” who, violating every principle of ethics in the profession, are engaged in misinforming the world, distorting the reality of a nation and, incidentally, providing a (free?) service to the longest dictatorship known in the Western world.

Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg, a BBC Havana reporter, was interviewed recently in Madrid by Emiliano Cotelo concerning the controversial dialogue initiated between the Cuban government and the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Cuba. Ravsberg’s answers, at times ambiguous and always highly partisan, reflect the contempt he feels for this country and for Cubans, as well as the profound ignorance of Cuban history and the aspirations of its people. Ravsberg is not the essence of a journalist, but a propagandist of the Cuban regime and, as such, an uncompromising critic of the dissent and civic outbreak that has started to gain strength in society, sectors very harshly persecuted and harassed in the Island that are struggling to maintain the economic, political, and social rights of all Cubans despite the harassment and repression of which they are victims, while “informers” such as the correspondent in question either look the other way or prefer to reinforce the official discourse by fabricating an imagined reality.

What is that “Cuba” that Ravsberg reports about, and what benefits does he get from it? Only he could answer this. We have already read on other occasions his very personalized Cuban scenario analysis and his peculiar versions in interviews he has done, so it is not so surprising this time that the brilliant correspondent of the BBC paint us a Cuba that Cubans themselves do not know and, to top it all, that he should exceed his ominous functions. It often happens that some clever foreigners like him need just a little bit of time in the Island and a couple of questions that they claim to ask around to master Cuban issues. It’s as if the tropics overheat their brain and they lose the ability to discern. Now Ravsberg not only misrepresents the Cuban reality, but also comes out as an expert in sociology and social psychology of Cuba, mainly in terms of politics and religion. An analysis of such nonsense would be extremely long, so I think it’s best to make only some remarks in order to correct a little the compass of this disoriented reporter, who, as the old popular saying goes, can’t see the forest for the trees.

The BBC correspondent in Cuba states that the government does not give value to dissidence “because it receives money from abroad.” I don’t know if this government has provided Ravsberg with the evidence of such emoluments received by “the dissidence”, since the Cuban people have never been shown any concrete evidence of this, unless we take into account the unilateral declarations of the official beefeaters (and unofficial ones, such as Ravsberg). On the other hand, who can be classified as “dissident” to the clever correspondent? In general, in that wide tuning fork in Cuba are included the opposition parties as well as the independent journalists, the alternative bloggers and whoever does not abide by government guidelines. If this is the case, I feel authorized to deny such a claim: at least one large group of bloggers who are close to me and I, among other “dissidents” do not receive any money from abroad. The Cuban government, on the other hand, not only has gotten all kinds of resources for decades (which it still receives and squanders) but –in addition- applies an abusive tax on relatives’ remittances and on any other kind of income Cubans may receive from abroad. With this in mind, it follows that the government also benefits from the alleged foreign funds destined to the internal dissidence, as I’m sure Mr. BBC Correspondent knows.

The Cuban government does not consider dissidence, not exactly for “receiving money from abroad,” but because dictatorships do not accept any alternative demonstration, whether colored by politics or not. The Cuban government does not recognize the opposition parties nor independent journalists, the various alternative civil society associations or bloggers, and we are not even an organization. The weakness of totalitarian regimes lies, nevertheless, in that absolute monopoly over society, over information, and over individual fear, so that all alternative event or trend that may involve a breach in the system becomes “dissidence” and must be demonized. Thus, according to the official discourse (and curiously, in that of “journalists” such as this Uruguayan gentleman) all dissidents “are mercenaries in the service of a foreign power that attacks, blockades and is hostile to us”.

Ravsberg tries to underestimate the international pressure on the dictatorship of the Island following the death of Orlando Zapata by arguing, “except the United States government, no other government condemned the Cuban government for the death of Zapata.” The criticism from Mexican and European parliaments, as well as those of civil society groups, artists and intellectuals from many countries, do not seem relevant to one who, paradoxically, employs Uruguay as an example of democratic tradition. Not even the discrete statements of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who publicly grieved over the death of Orlando Zapata, are mentioned by Ravsberg. His own discourse betrays his distinct sense of democracy: if governments aren’t the ones to directly produce criticism, international pressure does not exist.

Another issue relates to considerations about Cuban politics. Ravsberg tries to convince public opinion that in Cuba there has been a change in president that supposes some difference or change in the Cuban process. In an absurd simile, he makes a comparison between the Cuban dictatorial succession process (a real fingering of the candidate) and Uruguayan democratic elections that placed –via the polls- Mujica in power, after Tabaré Vázquez. Big deal, Ravsberg tells us, both (Tabaré and Mujica) are representatives of the Frente Amplio, this implies that the change in representatives in the Cuban dictatorship is “somewhat similar to what just happened in Uruguay”, since there is a different person in power in each case. One must be very stupid or disrespectful of the intelligence of others to hold such a belief.

Ravsberg’s views walk the same tightrope during the referenced interview, when he asserts “there has been a series of changes in Cubans’ access to hotels, which resulted in tourist hotels occupation rate of 10% for Cubans last summer, which also indicates that certain sectors have good incomes”. And also the unusual mockery on the Cuban people by saying “there have been a lot of changes in the country that people seem not to follow: economic changes, recognition of rights of citizens, for example, internet access, which was banned to Cubans for years, has just been legally ratified by decree as a right, and Internet cafes were immediately established so that any citizen can check out anything, from the Miami Herald to the BBC World and even El Espectador. These are key steps, steps that are not taken into account, but that mean, for example, that the Cuban government accepts, for the first time, to end the information monopoly and to grant access to the world”.

What Ravsberg failed to state is that certain websites cannot be viewed from the cybercafes because the government has “cut offs” that prevent access and, curiously, some of the banned pages are those of the alternative bloggers, which shows that officials show greater fear of the dissemination of news and views of those who are inside the Island than of the entire foreign press, including the one accredited in Cuba. The BBC’s correspondent didn’t clarify that such “rights”, generously granted by the government, will not become generalized, because no salary in Cuba provides enough income to cover the price of lodging in hotels or to afford the luxury to surf the Internet for information, unless there is an alternative income source (not legal), family or friends abroad to cover such expenses, or if the person is a Cuban with a foreign residence permit or with a job contract outside of Cuba. Only thus can Cubans allow themselves such excesses, against the grain of the painfully slow network connections or the questionable hotel service offered. However, each independent Cuban national staying in hotels is so suspect that his stay is carefully controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, with strict monitoring of his spending and the number of times he takes pleasure in these accommodations.

Perhaps a good demonstration of the government’s willingness to end the information monopoly would be to unblock the websites that host the alternative blogosphere (www.vocescubanas.com and www.desdecuba.com, for example), or to allow the right to all those who the official press has offended and discredited through the mass media, to reply, so that ordinary Cubans may get to know all the arguments presented for debate and form their own opinions. Ravsberg cannot ignore that the Cuban press has never published a single one of the documents condemning the government occurring at the national or international level, although it has allowed itself to deride them, so that the people has had only a partial and distorted version of them.

As for the internal repression and harassment that has kept up during seven long years against the Ladies in White, wives of political prisoners of the Black Spring, which the BBC’s correspondent attributes to the indignation of the people against betrayal, is Ravsberg ignoring that the raging hordes that have attacked these defenseless Cubans during their peaceful demonstrations every Sunday are agents of the Cuban government, specifically trained to smack and suppress any demonstration by the alternative civil society, whether they are opponents or not? Mr. Ravsberg is, at best, rude and vulgar when he so candidly states, referring to the talks between the Cuban authorities and the Catholic Church that “there is an antecedent, a few weeks ago when Raúl Castro’s government called on the Catholic Church to inform it that it had authorized the Ladies in White to march freely through the streets again.” In fact, the Ladies never asked nor needed government permission to march for the release of their relatives who are imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression to disclose truths that Mr. Ravsberg pretends to ignore; the streets are a place they have earned with their reputation and courage, just like they have earned the respect and admiration of all decent Cubans. They conquered the streets on their own.

As for the Catholic Church, which Mr. Journalist regards as if it were a sect of pariahs and fugitives and which he considers “a weak institution”, he clarified that the religious institution is the strongest in Cuba, only that Catholicism a la Cuban is not similar to that practiced in Uruguay, or, say, Spain. In Cuba, the syncretic cults of African origin have not surpassed Catholicism, but they have given rise to a particular religious amalgam in which it is difficult to see where the contributions of one or the other belief begin or end; they have imprecise boundaries because, for example, in everyday practice, the followers of the cults of African descent baptize their children in Catholic churches following the traditional Christian ritual, they place offerings in those very churches and show respect to both God and Oloffi. On the other hand, some call themselves Catholic and make offerings to the orishas, or consult the babalawo. The Social Science scholars in Cuba have never ventured to say that “the majority of Cubans profess an Afro-Cuban faith known as Santería”, as the audacious Ravsberg dares to assure us. Judging by how he sets out the issue, he seems to have spent much time in Cuba doing a survey of high statistical value to ensure this (the National Institute of Anthropology has lost so much for not having him on its staff!), as well as to maintain that the Cuban Catholic Church “is not a strong institution in the sense of having many followers, many supporters. It is a minority religion” and, in spite of that, it has high social influence ” (what, then, is this influence based on?).

I don’t want to finish without proposing to correspondent Ravsberg that it might be advisable to spend a little less time sightseeing in Havana and immerse himself in Cuban History texts in order to avoid issuing disparate comments; willful ignorance is not an ornament, so displaying it so shamelessly is not nice. When this man says that “Cuba is a country that was practically never independent, when the Spanish colony ended troops from another country entered, the US installed the first president, and later on there was practically no democratic history…” he is missing a rich history as a republic in which strong democratic values were consolidated, plus civil institutions that enabled the birth of a constitution in 1940, the most advanced of its time. Ravsberg ignores that the seeds of Cuban democratic vocation were born in unison with the dawning of a nation, when we were still a colony (as were all the nations of Latin America, including Uruguay), which was refined in the XIX century in the ideas of José Martí, the most democratic of all Cubans. Half a century of dictatorship and latent fear are preventing our people to show it; that is why sometimes Cubans don’t dare to express themselves, that is why when they express themselves freely they are incarcerated, that is why any false correspondent may divulge whatever he pleases about Cuba, as long as what he says is in tune with the government line, or risk losing his accreditation. The day Cuba becomes free, maybe even Ravsberg will be surprised of the democratic vocation of Cubans, but, on that day, he will have to strive to be a real journalist.

Finally, I’m sorry for having overextended my comments on what many might consider excessive attention that the BBC correspondent does not deserve, but it is not about him: We Cubans have already suffered enough damage for over 50 years, and, in addition, have had to remain mute to the offenses and contempt of a parasite of the press. I am not speaking on behalf of Cubans in general, no one has authorized me, nor do I merit it so much, but I speak in my own name because, like the bloggers and independent journalists whom I call my fellow travelers, every day I run the risk of repression for spreading the truths of my country, while Ravsberg’s arrogant insolence waddles with impunity in the midst of my people. I speak, too, because as Mr. Ravsberg knows, the vast majority of Cubans ignores the number of blunders being reported about them by this “journalist”, whom, I’m sure, has been welcomed with the hospitality and the affection of which he is not worthy. I don’t have the authority or qualities to issue guidelines to the BBC, but I am of the view that an agency that was born as far back as 1923 and has provided invaluable services to humanity as a reliable source of information, even during the bloody circumstances of the last century’s world conflagration, should be careful when selecting its correspondents: in the case of Havana, the BBC is paying in cash for the perpetuation of lies. It is disgraceful.

Sorry for your time, I hope that, after all, Fernando Ravsberg is only a small and regrettable error.

11 June 2012