TEDx Lands in Havana / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Herman Portocarrero, ambassador of the European Union Delegation, in Havana during his talk, “Borders Without Borders,” during TEDx Havana (Photo: 14ymedio)

Herman Portocarrero, ambassador of the European Union Delegation, in Havana during his talk, “Borders Without Borders,” during TEDx Havana (Photo: 14ymedio)

For some time, TEDx Havana had been cooking. Those of us who for years have followed the trail of this event, which mixes science, art, design, politics, education, culture and much ingenuity, were counting the days until we could hear on our national stages its stories of entrepreneurship, progress and creativity. Finally, that day arrived, to the gratification of many and the dissatisfaction of many others.

TED is a non-profit organization founded 25 years ago in California, which is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design. Its annual conference has become a feast of ideas and proposals, while the famous “TED Talks” provide a microphone to speakers who inspire their listeners to take on new projects. These talks have, over time, been sneaked into the alternative information networks in Cuba, and they have sparked a desire among the public to see these screen personalities in-person, in the here and now.

For these reasons, there was great anticipation at the news of the imminent landing in our city of that independent – and equally inspiring – part of TED, which is TEDx. The event, named InCUBAndo [“InCUBAting”], took place in the Covarrubias Hall of the National Theatre this past Saturday afternoon. Among the organizers credited in the printed program were the singer Cucú Diamante, the actor Jorge Perugorría, and Andrés Levin, music producer.

We almost did not learn of the arrival of TEDx until 24 hours prior to the curtains being drawn back at the National Theatre.

So, yes, the arrival of this program was literally a landing. The set design in the hall included some little allegorical pink airplanes – the meaning of which many in the audience wondered about – but which turned out to be part of a plastic art installation. Besides which, we almost did not learn of the arrival of TEDx until 24 hours prior to the curtains being drawn back at the National Theatre.

Some flyers distributed at the University of Havana and around the La Rampa cinema last Friday were the first signs to the Havana public that TEDx would arrive in our capital city. Actually, prior to this, the British ambassador to Cuba, Tim Cole, had already announced it on Twitter – but the news only got through to those with Internet access – of which there are very few in this “disconnected city.”

Regardless, as long as we could have TEDx, we were ready to forgive all: the haste of the arrangements, the lack of advertising, and even the “secrecy.” If the event had to occur under these conditions, well, so be it. At any rate, hundreds of Cubans arrived at the scene to hear these exceptional people who were here to tell us their life stories. One of the best presentations was the one titled “Borders Without Borders,” by the diplomat Herman Portocarrero, European Union representative in Cuba.

TEDx Havana participants greet the public at the conclusion of the presentation (Photo: 14ymedio)

TEDx Havana participants greet the public at the conclusion of the presentation (Photo: 14ymedio)

The energy in the X Alfonso Hall could be felt also from Portocarrero’s story of the birth and first steps of the Cuban Art Factory. Meanwhile the founder of the famous La Guarida restaurant tackled the difficult but gratifying path of the entrepreneur. As host, a dynamic and subtly humorous Amaury Pérez was a good link betweeb some parts of the program. Missing, however, were the voices – further away from the worlds of show business and diplomacy – of others whose ingenuity helps them to survive every day, negotiate the commonplace difficulties, and unbuckle themselves from the straightjacket of our reality.

I do not know the process that was employed to select speakers for TEDx Havana, but what I saw on the stage left me a taste of incompleteness and partiality. The dance music seemed intended to fill those voids and distract an audience that mainly had come to hear anecdotes, testimonies and life stories.

Some of the guest speakers politicized the proceedings, favoring, of course, the official line.

The worst moment was without a doubt the segment of extemporaneous versifiers Tomasita and Luis Paz – who in the middle of their improvisations sang praises to the five Cuban spies, of which three are still in prison in the United States. Up until that moment, many of us accepted the rules of TEDx Havana. Faced with the evident absences at those microphones, I believe that we had convinced ourselves that “it was all right that spaces not be politicized that way.” However, as it turned out, some of the guest speakers politicized the proceedings – favoring, of course, the official line.

Even with all the shambles, TEDx Havana leaves a good taste in the mouth – at the least a feeling that there are people not only with much to tell, but with expressiveness and composure in telling it before hundreds of attentive eyes. The experiences of this first edition will serve to better the second opportunity this event will have to take place among us.

If the organizers are open to suggestions for future TEDx events, it would be good to emphasize better and greater promotion prior to this feast of creativity and entrepreneurship. In addition, let us have transparency in the process of selecting the speakers, so that they may compete and audition in advance, from those who have created a small cottage industry of homemade preserves, to even those who, with ingenuity, laugh at censorship or dream of a Cuba where success in accomplishment is not something extraordinary, but commonplace.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Abel Prieto Attacks The “Packet” and “Technological Nomadism” / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Cuba Pavilion, where the Cultural Consumer Forum meets in Cuba: Art, Culture, Education and Technology

Cuba Pavilion, where the Cultural Consumer Forum meets in Cuba: Art, Culture, Education and Technology

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana / 1 November 2014 — Why do young people prefer video games to the high-flown revolutionary exploits that national television displays? Is the audio-visual “packet” displacing official programming? Those questions hang in the air – although without being directly enunciated – at the Forum on Cultural Consumption in Cuba: Art, Culture, Education and Technology, which is being held this weekend in the Mayo Room of the Cuba Pavilion.

Participating in the official event are Abel Prieo*, Raul Castro’s adviser on cultural topics, Miguel Barnet and other members of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and the Saiz Brothers Brigade. The meeting of intellectuals takes a critical stance in the face of an avalanche of material – uncontrolled by government – that is circulating within the country, especially through the so-called “packet” or “combo” that is distributed by alternative means.

The manifest purpose of this event is to diagnose the ways culture is consumed in Cuba and accordingly “to create an alternative platform for art, education and new technologies and in this way reach a much wider audience.”

Abel Prieto stated in one of the sessions that it seemed to him “that the intellectual position of irrational rejection of new ways of consuming culture is as harmful as that of a post-modern relativism which accepts everything as good. That relativism brings us a blurring of precisely the objectives of a cultural policy, the objectives of the humanism that today is absolutely in bad shape.”

In the forum several references were made to the topic of video games, and Prieto himself judged it as “a complex and dialectical process,” to immediately add that “some are inoffensive, but others are essentially violent and become an addiction.”

Cuba thus seems to be peeping out to the great modern debates about violence and addiction to which video games may give rise, but for the moment it is only permitted to publicly discuss a portion of those involved in the possible problem. The government’s cultural policy tries to determine from above what each Cuban sees on his television screen and what is good or bad for his subsequent social attitude.

Abel Prieto also attacked the “packet” and “technological nomadism” through storage devices like USB memory. The ex-minister of culture opined that “one of the tricks of these new ways of consuming culture is that they give the idea that the person is choosing what he wants to consume, but he does it from the paradigms that are imposed on him. Democracy and diversity are hidden beneath a trap of the hegemonic agenda of the entertainment.”

As evidence that the ruling party surrenders before the existence of those phenomena, Prieto ventured that “we have to promote more diverse and inclusive packets.” The problem is that the greater part of the Cuban people are no longer willing to have officialdom make their audiovisual menu for them.

Tedium, low-quality production, excessive ideology and secrecy have for too long characterized the audiovisual products cooked up in the laboratories of the Communist Party Central Committee Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), the entity that governs television programming and the content of all national press media.

However, the recent speeches in the Forum also hint at alarm. Abel Prieto asserted that “at no time will the State cede to private individuals the decision of cultural policy.” His immediate call “to not demonize new cultural consumption in an authoritarian manner” did not manage to erase the implicit threats in his prior words.

“Hopefully knowledge and cultural information will come into fashion,” concluded Prieto, but he failed to include in that sentence the adjectives “revolutionary” or “politically correct” which always hang over every audiovisual production promoted and encouraged by the ruling party.

Regrettably, culture continues to be governed more by political statements than by demands for education or personal growth.

This morning the Forum’s sessions will continue, missing the voices that defend video games, the “packet,” and the democratization of information.

*Translator’s note: After being ousted as Minister of Culture Prieto was given the title of “Cultural Advisor.”

Translated by MLK

“I will not return to the classroom if I am not paid a decent salary,” a teacher declares / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

First day of this school year (14ymedio)

First day of this school year (14ymedio)

14ymedio, ROSA LÓPEZ, Havana | October 10, 2014 – The mass exodus of teachers from the classroom has been, according to the official press, the theme of meetings between the Education minister, Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, and her department heads. The official admitted that “there are questions that need to be addressed in our country, which will be resolved in due time when the right conditions are in place.” Her words do not placate the dissatisfaction of workers in the education sector with low salaries and poor working conditions.

According to data provided by Velázquez Cobiella, in the last school year, “427 education workers resigned because of disagreements with their evaluations; 166 because of the issue of proximity to their places of residence; 766 for failing to obtain a raise; 37 for dissatisfaction with the teaching methods; and 2,343 cited personal problems.” These statistics contrast with the widely-shared opinion that low wages are the principal cause driving teachers from the classroom.

“I told them I was leaving to care for my sick mother, but actually I just couldn’t stand the heavy workload and low salary any longer,” says Cristina Rodríguez, who taught elementary school for almost twenty years in the municipality of Cerro. Like her, many others have claimed family difficulties or health problems in order to free themselves from a burden they have found too heavy to bear.

“The highest leadership of the nation is aware of the problem and has the will to solve it, but this will be done in an orderly manner and when the country’s economy permits it,” said the minister. Her words were a bucket of ice water thrown on the education sector’s expectations for better compensation.

Around the middle of this year, public health professionals received a significant raise, which fanned the flames of hope for similar actions in other branches of service. However, the measure has not been extended to other departments.

A big unanswered question is: When can educators expect to be paid more decent salaries?

Among the criticisms that have emerged in discussions between the Education minister and other officials is the burdensome paperwork imposed on education workers. Every teacher is supposed to maintain files on incidents in the classroom, and others that include extracurricular information, such as family evaluations, community assessments, and those well-known reports that are more police-like in nature than education-related. The minister supported limiting such bureaucratic activities to the registry of assistance and evaluation, and to the students’ cumulative records.

There are approximately 10,366 educational institutions whose principal purpose is to stem the flow of teachers to other lines of work. “I will not return to the classroom if they don’t pay me a decent salary,” asserts Martha Vázquez, a special education teacher. Thousands of teachers echo this sentiment as they do other work across the country.

A big unanswered question is: When can educators expect to be paid more decent salaries that keep pace with the cost of living? In the meantime, classrooms will continue to lose valuable teachers who will end up behind the counter at a cafeteria, or in the void of unemployment.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Alert Sounded in the Informal Market / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport

Photo: Exterior of Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport

Unauthorized vendors welcome new customs regulation with caution as they prepare to redefine strategies

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 3 September 2014 — “Call me from a land line” instructs the classified ad placed by Mauro Izquierdo, vendor of electrical household appliances. He has a wide range of items on offer, from air conditioning units to toasters, but his specialty is flat-screen TVs. This morning, his cautious response to all callers was: “Right now I’m in the midst of redefining my pricing structure until everything settles down with the new customs regulations.”

Mauro is but one strand in the complex tapestry of unauthorized vendors who are living through anxious moments with the new restrictions imposed by the General Customs of the Republic. Price increases are imminent in the black market, given that a good part of the merchandise offered through its networks enters the country via the flight baggage of so-called “mules.” “I have ceased all operations for the time being, because I don’t know if I will get the accounts with new prices that have been imposed on the airports,” the able merchant confirms.

His clients also have been preparing for the increase.”I’m finishing construction on my house and I had to run to buy lamps, bulbs and bathtub plumbing for the bathroom, because all of that might become unavailable very soon,” said Georgina M., looking to the future, as she concludes construction on a new residence in the western township of Candelaria.

14ymedio contacted approximately 20 vendors offering merchandise on classifieds sites such as Revolico and Cubisima. Although previously-listed products remained at their advertised prices, any orders going forward would come “with with new tariffs added to the price,” according to various distributors. Last week, Leticia was offering hair dryers, massage machines, and hair removers. However, now she is planning to raise prices by about 20 or 25 per cent on each product so as to be able to “finance the payments that those who bring the items into the country must make at Customs.”

The advance notice given of the new rules has allowed many people to be prepared. Rogelio, a Panataxi driver who makes trips from Terminal 2 of José Martí International Airport, refers to how even “two days before the new restrictions went into effect, what people brought was incredible — suitcases upon suitcases.” Even so, he noted that since yesterday, “travelers seem more cautious and, among those I have transported, I have seen a decrease in the amount of baggage they’re carrying.” Another taxi driver joined the conversation, saying that “people have now been made to jump through hoops.”

Even so, for other alternative vendors, the new measures barely affect their supply chain. “I buy space in the ‘containers’ of people who are on official missions, working in the embassies and consulates throughout the world, and that is how I bring in my merchandise — therefore the new rules don’t touch me,” boasted a seller of lawnmowers and commercial refrigerators, who enhances his ads with attractive photos of each unit and the guarantee that it’s “all done with proper documentation.”

It is still too early to measure the true impact on the informal market of the new customs rules, but sellers as well as merchants are preparing for the worst.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Suchel, a State Monopoly With Feet of Talcum Powder / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Suchel at the Havana International Fair

Suchel at the Havana International Fair

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 29 August 2014 — Just outside the Tienda Ultra (Ultra Store), an illegal seller advertises deodorants and colognes. It is precisely in August, this terribly hot month, when the shortage of hygiene products aggravates the bad odors and other annoyances. The problem has made the pages of the official newspaper Granma, which this Thursday published a story looking for answers to the lack of soap, cologne, toilet paper and deodorant. The text reveals the tortuous and inefficient ways of Cuban centralization.

The director general of the Cuban company Union Suchel said that “funding cuts” have limited purchases of raw materials. The statement of this official contrasts with the monopoly status of this well-known industry. Suchel has reigned for decades in the domestic market, given the absence of competitors to push down prices, diversify the product line and improve the quality of the offerings. Instead, the perfume, talcum powder and detergent giant has taken advantage of the privilege of being a State-majority consortium with zigzagging foreign capital.

For 2104, Suchel developed a “reduced production plan” due to the financial problems facing the entity. Even so, the volumes coming out of its factories point to mammoth nature of the company still so influential in its decline. Deliveries for this year in the unrationed market should reach 17 thousand tons of laundry soap, 17.9 thousand tons of hand soap, and 9.6 thousand tons of liquid detergent. Packing, transporting and distributing such quantities has become a real headache, especially in a country where corruption and the diversion of resources act as leaks, sucking dry the sources of products and services.

The position of guard in one of the many company plants trades on the black market for more than 5,000 Cuban convertible pesos

Suchel is undermined by the theft and embezzlement, an issue not addressed by the article published in Granma. The position of guard in one of the many company plants trades on the black market for five thousand Cuban convertible pesos. Working in one of those jobs guarantees the fortunate employee “under the table” earnings that exceed in three days what a doctor earns in a month.

The work of the guard consists of simply looking away, to allow the majority of the merchandise slip away, unregistered in the accounts. These undeclared goods are sold in the State’s own “hard currency collection stores” (as they’re called). The profit is distributed among the managers, drivers and the industry’s own security guards.

In the absence of a free market to test the efficiency of Suchel in competitive circumstances, the monopoly will continue to impose prices, quality standards and high costs, as well as to cause chronic supply problems.

You Can’t Come In / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Anuncio-derecho-admisiAn-cine_CYMIMA20140827_0002_16

This venue reserves the right of admission (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Havana, Rosa Lopez, 27 August 2014 – “You can’t come in,” a young doorkeeper emphatically tells a young man, while gesturing for him to move away from the door. When the target protests, he receives the explanation that in this crowded Havana club, “you can’t enter wearing shorts.” A sign posted at the entrance warns that the place, “reserves the right of admission.”

The story is repeated in many other places in Havana. The Charles Chaplin Cinema downtown posts a sign with entry restrictions. When you ask an employee if the rules are dictated by higher body, she says, “No, no. Management is in charge, there’s no law. We are the ones who decide.” And she adds, “We don’t allow people without shirts, or wearing flipflops, or behaving inappropriately.” It’s not unusual to see, however, flexible rules for foreigners. An Italian in short shorts—which could be confused with a bathing suit—passed through the lobby without being ejected.

In 2010, the Chaplin Cinema refused entry to a group of people trying to attend the premier of the documentary Revolution about the hip-hop group Los Aldeanos. Some of these citizens drafted a legal demand against the entity, charging that the segregation was based on ideological reasons, because they were activists, bloggers and musicians from the dissident scene, but it was unsuccessful in court. Years later, the downtown movie theater still sports a sign with restrictions on entry. Continue reading