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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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