Of Dubious Origin / Reinaldo Escobar

Wandering along San Lázaro Street, I encountered a man with a wheelbarrow. It was just when I needed a friend to move two bags of sand to the home of a relative. His human-powered vehicle was a hybrid of scooter and a wheelbarrow, constructed with huge roller bearings, but instead of four he only had two on the front; the bottom was a structure made from rebar covered with a kind of mesh used in chicken coops.

After agreeing on a price, we walked the seven blocks separating us from the site where they sold building materials. On the way, I noticed that his wagon wasn’t empty, but contained two objects difficult to define.

“And what have you got there?”

“Aluminum, to sell as raw material.”

“But what are those aluminum things?”

“Now they’re junk but they were gas meters.”

“Oh! I get it! Surely this is part of the plan to replace the old meters with newer more efficient ones… and how did you come by these old meters?”

“These aren’t old, they’re new. Can’t you see they’re aluminum. What happens is I smash them with a sledgehammer to make them unusable, and then they accept them from me as raw material.”

For a moment I ran out of questions, in fact even out of words. Finally we put the two bags of sand on the vehicle and retraced the seven blocks to the home of my friend’s relative. Before leaving I asked him,

“And what happens if the police catch you with the smashed meters?”

“I don’t know. They’ve never caught me. Surely they would tell me something about I’m transporting objects of dubious origin. But what’s that got to do with it? Your sand is of dubious origin and I myself have no official address here in Havana so I am also of dubious origin. Come on, man, are you going to tell me there is something in this country that isn’t of dubious origin?”

25 November 2013

Bastion or Bastille? / Reinaldo Escobar

bastionbastillaAs details about the Bastion Strategic Exercises 2013 come to be known, doubts and questions emerge.

When Army General Raul Castro Ruz, in his role as President of the National Defense Council, ordered the start of this training, he explained (in my opinion, inaccurately) that this was done with the objective of being prepared “to confront different actions by the enemy.”

So far, not him, nor any other high level official or functionary, has wanted to call the enemy by its proper name, nor have the journalists who write about the issue who — as if they had received an order — have limited themselves to putting phrases in their interviewee’s mouths such as: “Today it’s an exercise, but the Yankees are capable of anything…”; “we will destroy any imperial adventure,” or at best, allusions to “our historic enemy.”

There’s no need to place secret microphones in the rooms where they convened the Leadership of the Organs of Security and Internal Order or the Working Groups or the Provincial Defense Councils, to know that in these instances when they make the plans to “preserve interior order” or “to prevent vandalism,” he directly states the names of other “enemies.” There, they detail what to do with the uncomfortable opponents, who will deal with those captured and what site they should be taken to, and in case things get ugly, what extreme measures should be applied.

The much mentioned “Cuban military doctrine” rests on the principle of “The War of the Whole Power” which has nothing to do with the war of one party of the people against another party of the people.

A philologist friend whispered in my ear that Bastion and Bastille are closely related, sharing the same etymological root. On 14 July 1789, a crowd of Parisians assaulted the infamous prison. And the soldiers located on the Champ de Mars had refused to shoot the people advancing on the fort, not only to release the prisoners but also to seize the ammunition. The rest is well-known history. The Bastille fell into the hands of the people. Many of its stones, from its subsequent demolition, were used to build the Pont de la Concorde — the Peace Bridge.

Reinaldo Escobar

What “Buenos Dias” Didn’t Say / Reinaldo Escobar

Early in the morning the program “Good Morning” featured a segment called “Good Sense” dedicated to the topic of how Cubans behave in public places. Sports facilities, lines, buses and others.

There were man-on-the-street interviews and phone calls. They talked about public insults to referees and athletes, what happens at concerts at La Tropical where things may end with machetes, they mentioned family violence as well as in schools where children are often the victims. The “celebrity” guest was a psychologist who explained the different kinds of violence, including physical, where she enumerated insults, threats and intimidation.

After listening to the usual opinions about how education should be shared between the school and the family, and some on-street interviews, I found stunning the absence of any discussion of a transcendentally important issue when talking about violent and aggressive behavior by Cubans in public: that is, the repudiation rallies.

How can the official media criticize a behavior that is promoted by government institutions without making any reference to this obvious contradiction?

Fool that I am, I turned to the telephone numbers displayed on the screen to solicit audience opinions. I had the good fortune to be dealt with by the program director (or by a woman’s voice who identified herself as such). Trying not to fall into what I was criticizing and as moderately as I was capable of, I snapped at the poor woman my concerns. She thanked me for my participation in the segment and I, fool that I am, continued to stare at the screen until the final goodbyes, without hearing any mention of my opinion.

I already said I was a fool, don’t remind me again, but even if I’d tried I couldn’t have written this post without some commentator criticizing me for having kept my opinions to myself.

In the end, I’m left with this question: Isn’t it a demonstration of violence to use the power of the editors to annul my humble participation?

11 November 2013

Reinventing the Wheel* / Reinaldo Escobar

The application in an experimental form of a new regulation on the marketing of agricultural products, contained in Decree Law 318, shows that the bureaucratic bonds that stem from the State’s desire for control have been and continue to be one of the major causes of the shortage of food.

The geniuses of the Ministry of Agriculture having just discovered that the competition generated by the emergence of other forms of buy-and-sell will have a regulatory role in setting prices, have arrived at the novel conclusion that the balance between supply and demand directly impacts production and have come to the realization — the wonders of human thought! — that the less they want to control things the better they go.

But they are still dominated by the temptation of keeping their hands on the reins. They fear that the savage best of the market will devour in one bite or knock down in one blow their jockey of central planning.

*Translator’s note: To explain the illustration of this post… the phrase Reinaldo uses is “discovering warm water.”

8 November 2013

Bayamo / Reinaldo Escobar

Great festivities today celebrated the 500th anniversary of the founding of Bayamo.

It was Diego Velázquez who, on 5 November 1513, christened this region as San Salvador de Bayamo. If we apply the same logic which leads the Cuban government not to celebrate Cuba’s independence day on May 20, we would have to be against celebrating what is, according to this way of thinking, a conquering victory by the Spanish invaders of our island. My share of aboriginal blood, recalling Hatuey’s ordeal, seethes with anger at the armed revelry for this event.

Television dedicated its prime-time show, The Roundtable, to this celebration, while the newspaper Granma filled its front page with a chronicle worthy of the Euphrates Valley (if it weren’t for the spelling mistake which, in Spanish, turned “burning” into “arm”), in which there is not the slightest allusion to the crimes that foundation allowed.

Personally, I feel good that each people has its own traditions and celebrations, starting with its birthday, what I can’t understand is the double standard that brings those who rule Cuba to remember with joy the act of conquering, and to ignore the instant we deprived ourselves of the metropolis, as incomplete as it was, as mediated by the Republic.

6 November 2013

Upon Returning from Distant Shores / Reinaldo Escobar

The impressions of recent days will not fit in the brevity of a post, but it is my fault for not updating my blog while outside Cuba. First of all, friends. Embracing Ivan Canas, Pablo Fernandez, Celso Rodriguez, former colleagues of the magazine Cuba International (I had already seen before Raul Rivero and Manuel Pereira Salado Minerva); reconnecting with José Antonio García, Adolfo Fernandez, Jose Antonio Evora, Alcibiades Hidalgo; to meet personally dozens of compatriots in exile whom I knew only from telephone contact, old and young generations of Cubans, all of them anxious to do something for their country, “How can we help?” they asked in every corner we visited … “How about this?” And one assumes the huge commitment of lifting spirits or lowering expectations and finally returning to the island to see with the renewed perspective provided by the interweaving of views with different trends.

Upon returning from distant shores one’s soul is filled with mourning and shadow: the repression increases, the process of reforms stops and reverses, fear silences protests, simulation sculpts masks, corruption metastasizes, cities crumble, while others continue to sing their eternal flattery of the powerful, the media hides the reality and the reality suffocates citizens, who confront the dilemma of emigrating, faking compliance, or challenging. Cuba is going badly and time threatens to make the damages caused irreversible. I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of not doing enough.

4 November 2013

Remembering Laura Pollan on the 2nd Anniversary of Her Death / Jorge Luis Piloto, Amaury Gutierrez and Translating Cuba Bloggers

Lyrics by Jorge Luís Piloto; sung by Amaury Gutiérrez
(English translation follows)

Laura, Dama de Blanco,
te quisieron silenciar y hoy tu voz
suena más alto
por las calles de la Habana tu energía
acompaña a tus hermanas, tu familia
esas bravas heroínas
con gladiolos en las manos
defendiendo los derechos del cubano…

Laura, Dama Maestra
demostraste con tu ejemplo que el amor
es más fuerte que las rejas
la maldad de tu verdugo te hizo eterna
y la patria te agradece y te venera
hoy el mundo está mirando
y los complices callados
se avergüenzan y tu nombre lo respetan…

Laura Pollán,
llegaremos al dia y al final de este martirio
y en La Habana una marcha de gladiolos será un río
y llorando de rabia por los héroes que perdimos
Cuba entera caminará contigo…


Laura, Lady in White
they wanted to silence you and now your voice
rings out the loudest
through the streets of Havana your energy
accompanies your sisters,your family
these brave heroines
with gladioli in their hands
defending the rights of Cubans…

Laura, Lady Teacher
you showed with your example that love
is stronger than the prison bars
the evil of your executioner made you immortal
and the country thanks you and venerates you
today the world is watching
and the silent accomplices
are ashamed of themselves and respect your name…

Laura Pollán,
we will come to the day at the end of this martyrdom
and in Havana the march of the gladioli will be a river
and weeping with rage at the heroes we lost
all of Cuba will walk with you…

Reposted from October 2012

Laura Pollán Remembered by Translating Cuba Bloggers:
Yoani Sanchez: First Anniversary of the Death of Laura Pollán. The Legacy of Laura Pollán. Laura is gone, Laura is No More. Laura Pollán, you are still with us. In Laura Pollán’s House.
Reinaldo Escobar: A Special Day for the Ladies in White. What I have left of Laura.
Miguel Iturria Savon: The Final Odyssey of Laura Pollán
Ivan Garcia: Laura Pollán Risked Her Neck to Demonstrate Her Truths. How can the persecutors of Laura Pollán sleep peacefully?
Rosa María Rodríguez: Laura And Courage in White
Miriam Celaya: Laura and the Rebellion of the Gladioli
Regina Coyula: Laura and the Mob
Angel Santiesteban: Laura Pollán Has Died
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo: Photos

From Today

Act of repudiation against Ladies in White commemorating the 2nd anniversary of Laura Pollán's death. Already 21 have been arrested.
Act of repudiation against Ladies in White commemorating the 2nd anniversary of Laura Pollán’s death. Already 21 have been arrested.

My Memory of Oscar Espinosa Chepe / Reinaldo Escobar

Óscar Espinosa Chepe

When I heard this morning that Oscar Espinosa Chepe had died, some memories of the prominent Cuban economist came to mind. I had the privilege, the pleasure, of meeting him in person; he offered a master class on the Cuban economy in our Blogger Academy and participated on one occasion in the taping of our show, Citizens’ Reasons.

On several occasions I visited him at home where he always received me surrounded by books and an immense collection of paper, where only he seemed to know exactly how to find each document. Many were the times I consulted with him by phone on the definition of some concept, an exact date, or something even more valuable, his personal assessment of some matter. I always received from him a response filled with wisdom and tinged with a sincere affection.

But among all these memories, I don’t know why, that which stands out is his spontaneous smile when he heard an idea that seemed suggestive, or when he remembered some anecdote from his life filled with accomplishments. His wife, the journalist Miriam Leyva, was his guardian angel, she assisted him in everything and constantly defended him from anything that could affect him. She knows better than anyone what that smile represented.

23 September 2013

My Kingdom for a Microphone / Reinaldo Escobar

 Subtitles read:
Free access to information for me to have my own opinion.
I want to elect the president by direct vote, not by other means.
Neither militants nor dissidents, all Cubans with the same rights.
End the blockade… and the INTERNAL BLOCKADE.

It’s been six days since the Cuban musician Robertico Carcassés surprised everyone with his daring improvisation in the midst of a concert at the Anti-imperialist Plaza on the Havana Malecon. As with any urban legend, there are versions that add and others that subtract words from his unusual speech. Like many other television viewers, I was watching another channel when the event  dedicated to demanding the release of the Ministry of the Interior’s five combatants in the United States was broadcast, but in less than 24 hours I received a text message which reproduced the words where he asked for free access to information, the right to elect a president by direct vote and equal rights for Cubans, be they militants or dissidents, adding the desire to end the blockade and the internal blockade.

There are many of us who envy the luck of the singer. To have a microphone in hand while broadcasting live and direct to the whole nation. Everyone would like to say their piece, personally, if only for a few brief seconds; I would limit myself to demanding the decriminalization of political dissent. Others would ask for freedom of the press or justice before a specific outrage. Robertico Carcassés must have thought very hard about his improvisation. I hope he can come to terms with the consequences.

Now some are criticizing him for what he said and others for what he didn’t say. From this modest space, I congratulate him.

Oh, if I only had a microphone!

16 September 2013

Discipline vs. Survival / Reinaldo Escobar

No littering

The theme of social indiscipline occupied an important space on the national television news this morning. Music played too loud, trash thrown off balconies, graffiti on public walls, the rubble in the middle of the street, and many more examples from daily life, especially in the country’s capital. We learned that there are “Operations Groups” dedicated to detecting and punishing such irregularities.

Many of these indisciplines, dare I say most, are the reflection of a combination of two elements: on the one hand the lack of conditions to make things as they should be, and on the other the lack of civic education that leads citizens to behave in an uncivilized way. I have seen some tourists (obviously foreigners) walk for blocks and blocks carrying the little paper wrappings from peanuts, while local pedestrians happily throw them anywhere at all. Neither ever found a bin to dispose of their trash. And some residents, when they’re forced to solve their problem of access to the sewer, have had no choice but to cut into the street, thus creating a new pothole in the city.

In fact, one could say that “nothing justifies” the commission of an indiscipline that affects the community, but the truth is that many of them have at least one explanation. And, indeed, there is an overarching general explanation related to this “acimarronada“* conduct of thousands of Cubans every day, and it is the lack of resources available to address our problems, coupled with little ability to participate in the decisions that affect society as a whole.

As always, duties and rights must go together. When the State only seems interested in citizens fulfilling their duties, it entrenches them in their rights and they ignore all the rules. Such a situation is a breeding ground for other excesses, unjustifiable and difficult to explain.

*Translator’s note: “Acimarronada” comes from word cimarrones, runaway slaves. It refers to the way Cubans pretend to do and think one thing, but in reality are always thinking of fleeing.

27 August 2013

Change: The Power of a Word / Reinaldo Escobar


Perhaps the most interesting and at times heated discussion of today with regards to Cuba is that around whether or not it is lawful to recognize that changes are occurring in the country. In this area the most frequent responses are usually: “Nothing has changed here,” or “Things are changing, but not enough.” What I haven’t heard anyone say is: “We’ve already changed everything that needs to be changed.”

Someone told me that in North Korea the most recent of the Kims authorized six new styles of haircuts as part of what he considers a process of reforms. I don’t dare assert that this is true, but I like the example. One can’t deny that a measure of this type, apart from highlighting the existing level of prohibitions, would have to have brought ounces of joy to Koreans, especially the youngest.

I remember how some foreign correspondents accredited in Havana celebrated, almost with jubilation, the news that we Cubans could now legally contract for cellphone service. Suddenly the cancellation of a xenophobic ban, which for years had placed nationals in a humiliating and discriminatory situation, was exposed, along with the permission to stay in hotels, as an unequivocal sign that Raul’s reforms were serious.

Later, in drips and drabs, we were authorized to sell houses and cars, the list of approved self-employment occupations was expanded, the hiring of labor was permitted, and some extensions were made in the matter of land leased in usufruct.

More recently, the long awaited and controversial migration and travel reform was approved, and some places were opened where one can connect to the Internet. Right now the so-called “non-agricultural cooperatives” have the illusion that they will be the prelude to small and medium-sized private businesses.

Surely I’ve forgotten some aspect that could be incorporated in the rosary on which the prayers for change are said, especially in some academic circles, however it is not in the tiresome enumeration of the previously mentioned measures where it can be demonstrated that something is moving in Cuba. The change is seen in the results.

Starting with cellphones, I must say that the vast majority of opponents, independent journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and other spheres of civil society, use this tool systematically, especially to communicate any complaints or news via text messages or tweets.

The decrease in the dependence on the State sector, personified by nearly half a million self-employed in the country, has produced a change of expectations in the work environment, with deep social and political connotations.

The now numerous trips abroad by the majority of the opposition leaders and civil society activists, has contributed to breaking what was, until now, a monopoly on the export of a vision of the country in international events, and has encouraged a stream of contacts at the highest level between Cubans on the Island and those in the diaspora.

Moreover, and no less important, the middle class is no longer demonized, and taking advantage of the decrease in prejudice against them they have started to find their own spaces, initially to exercise their inherent consumer exhibitionism; sooner or later to develop new external paradigms and to negate all the “New Man” rhetoric, proclaimed by the now-exhausted social engineering of Communist affiliation.

All this has happened in just seven years. The most important argument to deny that these things can be seen as “the change,” and even simply as “changes,” is that the only intention of their promoters is to stay in power.

I share this view in reference to the intention of those who govern, but the paradox is that they have understood that the only way to stay in power is to cede it; and the governed — that is us — we have realized that it is no longer enough to repress us, monitor us, arbitrarily imprison us, to organize hordes to stage repudiation rallies against us. We know they are ceding and we have the civic obligation to take advantage of every inch, as adolescents with authoritarian parents have always done.

If we aren’t capable of seeing and appreciating the cracks that we ourselves have helped to open and widen; if we keep our eyes fixed on what has not changed without noticing what is changing, we run the risk of acting like the elephant that keeps walking in circles around the axis where it once was bound, not realizing that the old rotten stake can no longer hold.

13 August 2013

2018: Elections and Transfer of Powers / Reinaldo Escobar

Sixty years after having initiated the actions to seize power, General-President Raul Castro finds it opportune to emphasize that “the process of transferring the main responsibilities of leadership of the nation to new generations is ongoing, gradual and orderly.”

At a time when those who, as children, founded the Pioneers Organization are beginning to retire, the news makes it clear that “the principals responsible for leading the nation” are not as concerned with the nominations made by Nominations Committee as they are with establishing Articles 73 and 143 of the Cuban Electoral Act; and it is also evident that — given that it is all about a gradual and orderly transfer and not about democratic elections — there is no point to the vote of the parliamentarians who have to approve (or disapprove) such nominations.

Everything is already decided! All that’s lacking is some 1,700 days to produce “the baton.” In some drawer, particularly obscure, lies the list.

29 July 2013

10 Questions for the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) / Reinaldo Escobar

At the end of this morning’s TV news magazine, Buenos Dias, conspicuously absent in the official Cuban media was the issue of the North Korean ship loaded with missiles. I am absolutely certain that the coming days will produce nothing like a press conference with the Minister of the Armed Forces to respond to questions from foreign journalists accredited on the Island, not even with the accomplices of the national press. However, I would like to make public, in this small space, what my questions would be, should I be given the opportunity to present them to the minister in question face to face.

  1. Do you consider that contracting with North Korea for armaments repair services is consistent with the policy or replacing imports set out in the guidelines from the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC)?
  2. Does Cuba lack the technical facilities and personnel capable of maintaining combat readiness of the armaments available for the defense of the Homeland?
  3. To what point does the obsolescence of our munitions affect the often proclaimed military invulnerability of Cuba?
  4. What elements were taken into consideration in choosing North Korea as a destination to repair our armaments instead of contracting this service out to Russia, where they were built?
  5. Is it true that in the agreements signed by the Cuban government with the USSR there is a commitment established not to re-export the arms acquired?
  6. The note from the Foreign Ministry (MINREX) mentions that there were two complete rockets on board the North Korean ship. Were they so entirely broken that they had to be shipped in their entirety to be repaired?
  7. Is the fact that the weapons were covered with sugar an intent to mask the military cargo, or is it a new method of taking advantage of the space?
  8. To what extent does the Cuban government share the responsibility for not having informed Panama what was being transported in the holds of the ship?
  9. In the contract signed to repair these armaments in North Korea did the government of Cuba introduce any clause about the discretion, any warning, that would prevent the North Koreans from doing something else with these weapons?
  10. At what level was this high-risk operation organized? Was it your personal decision or was it known to president Raul Castro?

19 July 2013

El Sexto / Reinaldo Escobar

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 10.03.01 PM
On the billboard: “Free our [Five] Heroes. Speech: “The citizen who calls himself ‘The Sixth’ has been detained for mistreating the public art. And now.” Artist: Garrincha

New graffiti is present on Havana’s walls. In large cursive letters thier author writes the word “Sexto” — Sixth — at times finishing off the the writing with a star, other times adding to the text the image of a face. It reminds me of the pioneer of Cuban graffiti, Chori, who left barely a wall in Havana without his signature made with white chalk back in the ‘60s, and, they tell me, from before that.

Is it a proper name, or perhaps the name of a hip hop group that in my profound musical ignorance I can’t call to mind? A retiree whom I greet now and then in the line for newspapers, asked me if this poster could be some kind of advertising for the Sixth Communist Party Congress, in the style of a campaign invented by Robertico Robaina in the years when he was first secretary of the Young Communist Union (UJC). Do you remember? 31 and Ever Onward and that Ever whatever, commander, ever whatever. But it doesn’t seem that Julio Martinez, the most insipid youth leader in the history of Cuba, is the one that has had the initiative.

Who knows? Maybe it is the sixth child of a marriage, or someone demobilized from military service who celebrates his release remembering the number he had in his unit or a sex maniac with poor spelling, and I can’t even rule out the hypothesis of my retired friend that it is a militant communist who, in this way, is reminding his party leaders that they have already celebrated the end of the congress.

Part of the Dossier of El Sexto, which will appear here piece by piece.

The Weight of History / Reinaldo Escobar

This Tuesday, in the morning, tens of thousands of Young Cubans will be taking their history exam as part of their entrance exams to higher education.  The main content of the test is Cuban history, and it covers from the wars for independence of the 19th century through the early 21st century. To enter university, one has to pass three exams: mathematics, Spanish and history.  The final score on these tests represents 50 percent of the final score that is added to the other 50 percent formed by the cumulative grade point average acquired through three years of high school. Thus, the final scores are accumulated with which students compete for a place to study the major of their choice.

Very often, the opportunity to study a specific major is lost because of a missing decimal point in the final score. That missing decimal point can be the result of giving the wrong answer on the subsection of a single question.

Tomorrow, tens of thousands of Cuban youths’ future will depend on the way they answer questions like these: “When was the Moncada Program* fulfilled?” “What has been the repercussion of the US Blockade against Cuba?” and others of a similar style in which ideology is most important.

Many will answer what is expected of them because to a great extent their chances to fulfill their vocation depends on it.  Then, they will have to face the “University is only for Revolutionaries” requisite, and they will have to make new choices, such as attending an act of repudiation**, or raising their hands to participate in a meeting, or applauding something they dislike.  But, one day they will laugh at all that, and they will tell their children what they had to do to obtain that college degree hanging on their wall.

Translator’s notes:
* The Moncada Program was a series of demands and measures stated by Fidel Castro in his History Will Absolve Me (La historia me absolverá) speech while conducting his own defense at the trial for his assault to the Moncada Army Barracks in 1953.
** The linked video shows images of an act of repudiation against the author of this blog.

Translated by: Ernesto Ariel Suarez

13 May 2013