Puro, Buy My Stimulus” / Reinaldo Escobar

Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 12 September 2014 — Passing near the Chinese cemetery on 26th Avenue, a young man leading his bike by the hand, said to me, “Puro, buy my stimulus.” I confess that it took me a few seconds to decipher the code. Clearly the “puro” was a reference to my youth, but what was difficult to understand was the “stimulus.” How can you buy such a thing?

As he explained to me, it was a plastic bag that contained a quart of vegetable oil for cooking, two bath soaps, and some ounces of detergent that he’d been given at work as a “stimulus” for having stood out in socialist emulation.

I didn’t believe a single word and committed the journalistic folly of rejecting his offer. If I had said yes, now I’d have a photo here of the products, laid out on the wall of the cemetery with the graves in the background.

When I told the story to my friend Regina Coyula, author of the blog Bad Handwriting, she told me this is the latest scam. The allusion to having been chosen as the vanguard, a standout, or special prize winner, makes you think that the potential seller is a “true believer” who has no recourse but to sacrifice the material honors his political-social conduct has earned him, to alleviate his urgent needs.

To buy the “stimulus” is almost a sado-political vengeance, but selling fake merchandise, that is oil that isn’t good for cooking, soap that doesn’t produce lather, and lime instead of detergent, is already a mockery… the old scam in new clothes.

From Digital Pages to Paper Books / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Regina Coyula

Regina Coyula, photo from her blog

Regina Coyula, photo from her blog

Note from Translating Cuba: Regina Coyula turns to the crowdfunding site INDIEGOGO to bring books by Cuban writers from a warehouse in Spain to the Miami Book Fair.  PLEASE HELP HER. No donation is too small! (And you get a book or books! Or artwork by Rebeca Monzo! Or a handmade case for your glasses!)

14ymedio, Havana, Reinaldo Escobar, 2 September 2014 — Regina Coyula combines her work on the blog La Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting) with collaboration on various digital media. She is not determined to bring a mountain of books by Cuban authors from a warehouse in Spain to the Book Fair in Miami. Among the maelstrom of tasks involved in coordinating such an initiative from Cuba, she found a few minutes to chat with the readers of 14ymedio.

Question: Your name is associated with blogs, daily vignettes, and social criticism. We’ve learned that you’re now involved in a publishing project. Do you find it a very different scenario from independent Cuban blogs?

Answer: I’ve found myself in this project, #Desevillamiami (From Seville to Miami). This is me, I like books and editorial work, especially after coming to know the Renacimiento publishing house. Most companies in the book business turn unsold books into pulp, but Abelardo Linares, who runs this publishing house, saves them and has two warehouses full of them. In some cases he has ten or a hundred copies left, but he doesn’t destroy them. And from there the idea of this project arose, basically to retrieve the books. Continue reading

University (for the Tenacious) / 14ymedio, Henry Constantin, Reinaldo Escobar

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

Henry Constantin during the interview (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 28 August 2014 – Henry Constantin is a native of Camagüey province, born in Las Tunas on Valentine’s Day, 30 years ago. He has been expelled from university three times for his ideas, but still believes he will obtain his journalism degree.

This slender, plain-spoken young man has founded two independent publications and has just returned from a cultural exchange program. For years he has been part of the reporting team of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), and today he invites the readers of 14ymedio to share the challenges he has faced in his classroom journey.

Question: You hold the sad distinction of three expulsions from university. What was the first time like?

Answer: One day I wrote this question on the board: Who was the Cuban nominee for the Nobel Prize? My fellow students did not know, neither did the professor, so I wrote the name of Oswaldo Payá. Continue reading

El Zanjon In Baragua Times / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Cartel-entrada-zanjon_CYMIMA20140825_0004_1314ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, El Zanjón, 25 August 2014 – No one remembers when the old Spanish barracks were demolished and or the decades passed since the allegorical tally of what happened there. Although the official history vilifies this place, a sign on the central highway tells us we are nearing El Zanjón, whose name also appears on the ID cards of the three hundred people who live in the small village.

On 10 February 1878, the seven agreements of the Pact of Zanjón were signed there, putting an end of the Ten Years War. Thus, the two fundamental objectives that had caused the war were frustrated: Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery. General Arsenio Martinez Campos would be the big winner in an accord that many Cubans considered a shameful page in the national history.

The vast majority of the Liberation Army fighters accepted the pact, with the exception of Antonio Maceo, who a month later starred in the Baraguá Protest. That attempt to keep the struggle alive only lasted until mid-May of the same year, and shortly after Maceo, the Bronze Titan, abandoned the Island for Jamaica. Continue reading

Four Cardinal Points / Reinaldo Escobar

puntos-cardinales_CYMIMA20140814_0005_13

They are difficult to count, not to mention uncountable, the projects carried out in order to find alternative solutions to Cuba’s problems. When I say “alternatives” I’m obviously referring to a broad set of programs, documents, statements not coming from governmental institutions, but from that disjointed amalgamation of opposition parties and civil society entities, both within and outside the Island.

Many of these platforms have tried to encourage an essential unity, few have managed to do so. One of the reasons for the failure of this unity of purpose is the inclusion of one or another point that has led to disagreements. Another reason is the effect of what could be called “strongman rule in reverse,” which consists in opposition leaders refusing to support a specific program because of the presence among its signatories of others with whom they have differences. Continue reading

“I am optimistic I will see prosperity in Cuba” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

Karina Galvez Chiu (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, 8 August 2014, Reinaldo Escobar – Pinar del Río born and bread, and a member of the editorial board of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), Karina Gálvez has made some important decisions in her life. She wants to continue to live in Cuba, to help change the country from civil society and some to recover the piece of patio that the authorities confiscated from her parents’ house. Today she talks with the readers of 14ymedio about her personal evolution, the Cuban economy, and her dreams for the future.

Question: Isn’t it a bit contradictory to be an economist in Cuba?

Answer: When I graduated, the final subject of my thesis focused on the economic effectiveness of the use of bagasse (sugar cane stalk fiber) for boards. The result of the investigation was negative, because making boards in those conditions was expensive and the product quality was very bad. But they ignored us.

Q: Since the conclusion of your studies you have dedicated yourself to teaching. Did you ever instill in your students that socialism was the best way to manage an economy? Continue reading

Stubborn Like an Islander / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The Islander (14ymedio)

The Islander (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 8 August 2014 – In the land of San Juan y Martinez, Bernabé Pérez Gutiérrez planted his first crops and fathered fourteen children. It was during the last years of the 19th century, and the immigrant baptized his farm The Islander, in memory of the Canary Islands where he’d come from. Today, his great-grandchildren are trying to keep one of the most important tobacco plantations in Pinar del Rio running, with the their great grandfather’s same stubbornness and his love for the furrow.

The Islander is a family cooperative inserted into a larger entity called “Rafael Morales Credit and Strengthened Services Cooperative (CCS-F),” consisting of 64 tobacco producers, occupying over 250 acres. It also includes dairy and pig farmers. Only ten of these farmers lease their land (under usufruct), while others jealously hoard their property titles.

What distinguishes The Islander is not only the quality of their tobacco, their fruit or their flowers, nor even the hard work of the members of the Pérez González family. Its hallmark is that this site has been, since the time of Barnabas an example of a sustained endeavor that refuses to be subjugated, neither by the misfortunes of nature nor the whims of the bureaucracy.

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“We want to contribute to personal and community reflection of pastoral agents” / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Erick Alvarez

Erick Alvarez

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 4 August 2014 – To mark the publication of a letter sent by five young Cubans to Pope Francisco, 14ymedio interviewed Erick Álvarez Gil, coordinator of the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL) in Havana. At just 28, this young man joined the organization in 2009, and holds a degree in Electronics and Telecommunications.

Question: What are the antecedents of this document?

Answer: This letter was sent on the second anniversary of the death of Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero, and also two years from the time Oswaldo handed a letter to the Cuban bishops in 2012, which reflected some of these concerns and also touched on the issues of relations between Church and State, and Church and Society. These ideas are still dormant and still a source of concern to us, so we went back to the idea of a letter and put it in the hands of the Pope and also sent it to the Cuban bishops, priests, religious, missionaries, and the most committed laypeople in the Cuban Church.

Q: As I understand it the letter is dated May 5 and was delivered to Pope Francisco on the 14th of that month, but only now has been disclosed to the public. Why the wait time between sending the letter and publication?

A: We didn’t send the letter to any media, the aim was not that the letter would be published openly. Our objective was to send it to the main actors of the Church in Cuba and the more committed lay people. We did that late last week and, as happens in these cases, it is already public. Continue reading

The Many Faces of the Buquenque / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Buquenque (14ymedio)

Buquenque (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, 1 August 2014, Havana – When you walk through Fraternity Park, amid the bustle of Havana, you hear the cries of masculine voices calling out possible destinations for trips to diverse places in the capital. Near the Aldama Palace they shout out that there are two spaces left for Boyeros and Santiago de las Vegas. A little further on to the left, under the shade of the laurels, they invite you to go to Cotorro, and on nearly reaching the Capitol they announce cars for Alamar. For the most part they are American cars, Chevrolet, Ford, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, made before 1960, with the exception of the odd Lada or Moskvitch, devoted to the singular transport that combines the characteristics of a taxi and a bus.

This type of transport is popularly called almendrones [almonds], which for 10 or 20 Cuban pesos (depending on the distance) run on fixed routes. At the origin points a new figure appeared one day, a character whose job it is to attract clients for the almendrones and whom everyone knows as a “buquenque.”

For a long time buquenques thrived outside the law, charging (chiseling, some say) each driver 5 national pesos for the service of bringing him passengers, but recently the legislation that protects self-employment opened a space for them. Of course it didn’t call them buquenques, but the job appears as number 53 on a list of 201 activities as “Taxi trip manager.” In the “description of scope” the law defines the work content as: “Manages passengers to fill the capacity of vehicles at stops authorized by the corresponding Administrative Board.” If properly registered they should pay the national treasury 80 Cuban pesos every month.

Put this way, one imagines a coat and tie and even a web page to make reservations, but it’s not like that, rather it’s a shouted offer, often unnecessarily loud, where the volume of the shouts, and a certain authoritarian air, almost orders the passenger to get in the car. Continue reading

From Cyberspace to Moringa / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

The signing of 29 documents between the government of Cuba and various official and business interests from the People’s Republic of China on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s visit to the island has awakened great expectations among Cubans. One of the most striking things was the television news broadcast of the signing ceremony for the documents, which could be seen along with all of the boring protocol details. A parade of ministers and businessmen passed in front of the table placed in the hall the Council of State, and in the background an enormous stained-glass titled The Sun of our America stood under the watchful eyes of the presidents of both countries.

While the television-announcer-turned-master-of-ceremonies was revealing the nature of the initialed documents and saying the names and titles of the signatories, it was difficult to take in what was really happening. What is the difference, many wondered, between a memorandum of understanding, an exchange of letters, a framework accord, a cooperation agreement, a commercial contract, and a funding agreement? How could one discern the hierarchy that distinguishes an exchange agreement from an executive program? What is the basic difference between a framework agreement and a memorandum of cooperation?

What everyone did understand was that the Asian giant granted credits and made donations and investments in very sensitive areas. Examples of these are cyberspace, communications, digital television, improvements in the port of Santiago de Cuba, the supply of raw materials for the production of nickel, oil drilling, and the construction of a building complex associated with a golf course.

The rest, not wanting to overstate their importance, is filled with Chinese water meters, young Chinese learning Spanish in Cuba, packaging lines, office supplies, and transportation.

With regard to what was missing, at least among the 29 documents, nothing was heard about an increase in tourism, nor was there a single word about the Port of Mariel megaproject, and there was nothing about free-trade agreements such as those between China and other Latin American countries.

By chance—or benevolence—the number 13, a number so significant to the former Cuban president, appeared at the top of the Framework Agreement on the Establishment of the Agricultural Demonstration Farm, signed by the ministers of agriculture of both countries, which had among its objectives “cooperation on the science and technology of moringa, mulberry and silk worms.” What it said, a mere detail, passed unnoticed.

The Second Shipwreck of the Granma / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

It has a woman’s name and the fatality of a widow. The Carolina center, in Matanzas province, not only ground sugar cane for decades, but gave sustenance and prosperity to an entire village. On dismantling the mill, the former workers and the neighbors had to learn to live in a ghost town.

Carolina was one more among the 161 sugar mills that ground through the middle of the last century. In total, national production approached five million tons of sugar per harvest. The owners of the center, the Mirando Blanco brothers, never suspected that in October 1960 the industry that rose on their own efforts—theirs and others’—would pass into the hands of the State.

Imbued with revolutionary enthusiasm, many believed that the nationalization of the sugar industry would bring higher production and better working conditions. In an assembly where a new name would be selected for the Carolina, worker Piro Martinez suggested that the plant should be called Granma*. The reason was that one of the expeditionaries, Luis Crespo, had been born and spent his childhood in the batey (the sugarcane workers’ village). And so the name of that femme fatal was replaced by the English nickname for grandmother.

In the distance the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)

In the distance, the dismantled sugar mill (14ymedio)

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To the Rhythm of the Chinese Horn / 14YMedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Chinese Horn

Chinese Horn

14YMEDIO, Havana, Reinaldo Escobar, 22 July 2014 – On an unspecified date at the beginning of the twentieth century Havanans heard for the first time the sharp and contagious sound of an as yet unknown instrument, brought by Asian immigrants. It happened in the middle of a carnival parade and was played by members of a troupe called “The Good Chinese.” Soon after, the horn was brought to Santiago de Cuba where it became a main part of Santiago’s conga and was dubbed the Chinese horn.

In remarks to the press on the eve of his visit to Cuba, President Xi Jinping said, “China has sounded the trumpet for the comprehensive deepening of the reform, while Cuba is promoting the updating of its economic model.”

More than a century has passed since that memorable cultural event and another Asian wind instrument arrived in Havana today calling for a change in the rhythm. Perhaps less leisurely than that pushed by Raul Castro, characterized by the gradual introduction of slow and short movements in our society. It would be better if this were another troupe of good Chinese and not the messengers of a new authoritarianism.