“Things are not going to change overnight” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

University of Havana (14ymedio)

University of Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 20 December 2014 — “Now when they lift the blockade …” a student says jokingly to his friends sitting in Mella Park at the University of Havana. His sentence ends mentioning some a problem that has been solved, supposedly, by the foreseeable end to the US embargo on Cuba. The group laughs and continues talking about the next party of the Law School or the salary a computer engineer earns at a company like Google.

Sitting on a bench to the side and eavesdropping on the conversation doesn’t feel quite right, but it is, perhaps, the only way to capture accurately what the University feels about the latest news. Actually, few agreed to answer questions for this report, and one group of young people apologized with, “They’ve already been asking us a lot of questions today, the foreign press has been around all day.” On presenting myself as a reporter, one of them got up to leave. So it’s impossible to get a face or a statement, even though two or three loners are disposed – always in confidence and hurriedly – to offer their particular vision. Continue reading

Choreography of an Interrogation / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Arrests at a gathering on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

Arrests at a gathering on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

“Sit down!” ordered ‘Number One.’

“I’m comfortable like this, thanks,” I responded.

14ymedio, VICTOR ARIEL GONZALEZ, Havana, 12 December 2014 — “But you didn’t come here to be comfortable,” he concluded, and for once we were in agreement on something, Number One and I: I was not comfortable. It was Human Rights Day, which in Cuba is a sad date, and a mob of agents dressed in civilian clothes had arrested me together with other journalists as well as dozens of independent activists.

I was taken by force from the bus on which I was returning to the editorial office after taking photographs in the middle of Vedado, and also stripped of my mobile phone from which they also erased information. They put me into a patrol car that was parked at the corner of 21 and L, where they transferred me to bus full of uniformed police officers at the park at 21 and H. From there, accompanied again by plainclothes agents, they took me in a private car and I came to stop at the Aguilera station, an old barracks from the Batista police era.

Obviously, no one feels comfortable if they are trounced like that. During my trip to the Aguilera cells they held me without handcuffing me, maybe hoping for some violent reaction on my part so they could beat me up right there or later insinuate that I am one of them and therefore “they were treating me well.” That’s how these State Security guys work, mine also spoke of “accidents” that have happened because of not handcuffing arrestees. “What I am committing is a violation of procedure,” said the man next to me, in the rear seat of the Greely. True: It is a violation that unknown perpetrators kidnap a free citizen. Continue reading

Editing your contacts / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzales

A young woman checks her mobile phone. (CC)

A young woman checks her mobile phone. (CC)

14ymedio, VÍCTOR ARIEL GONZÁLEZ, Havana, 8 December 2014 – She turned 24 and spent that day with her few friends who still live in Cuba. She is known as a faithful exponent of a generation marked by uprooting and escape. She decided to not complete her social service so that she could devote her time to making handicrafts and, thanks to her perfect English and various contacts, she also offers guided excursions to tourists. “My degree in languages does not pay for itself,” Camila admits.

Seated in her backyard, she shares that this was where colleagues from her faculty, as well as classmates from prep school, used to come for gatherings. Camila’s yard was “the party place,” as recognized on an amusing handmade “diploma” that she keeps in a frame on her wall. There are still some festivities held there, except that now these have been occurring less frequently because “everyone has been taking their own path…you know.”

I do know. And the gesture Camila makes with her hand, like an airplane taking off, confirms this. To prove her point, she adds, “Have you ever counted how many contacts you’ve had to remove from your contacts on your phone?” and then goes on to recount how, on her birthday, more people called her from foreign countries than from Cuba.

Camila tries to make light of this fact, perhaps without meaning to do so, with a subversive smile. However, she cannot mask the subtle aroma of yearning released by her words. Today she has friends in Europe, Asia and even Australia – but the US is her “second Island” because more than half of her absent friends are now residing there. She has had to update their phone numbers on her contacts.

Even so, the new area codes in Camila’s contacts are in contrast to the old photos that appear on her mobile phone screen. She doesn’t want to forget that they were taken here, when her friends were still living in Cuba and there weren’t so many calls as visits and well-attended gatherings – be they “to study for a test or to have a drink, or both.” Camila’s vision of the present for young people like us can be summed up thus: “Our generation is mortgaged. It is going to take many years for us to pay this spiritual debt – if indeed we still can.”

Her phrase, which I stole, is so impactful, that any other word is just unnecessary. “And who do you think,” I later ask Camila, “might join the list of those who call you from outside Cuba on your next birthday?” She raises her eyebrows and laughs, saying, “The way I see things, and if everything goes according to plan, perhaps I will be the one to call from outside Cuba on my next birthday, so that those whom I’ve left behind can give me their good wishes. The most likely thing is that you will have to change my number on your contacts.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Tricking Customs, Another National Sport / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

In the suitcase of a traveler coming from Miami (14ymedio)

In the suitcase of a traveler coming from Miami (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana, 6 December 2014 — Establishing the rules of a sport takes time. Let’s take for example baseball, one of the most complicated games that exists; one could ask where the rules for its practice come from, and why some are so convoluted. But when it comes to regulatory whim, let’s go to an activity that increasingly approaches the category of extreme sport, and that is the entry of products into Cuba trying to pass through the controls of the Republic’s General Customs (AGR).

Much curiosity is awakened by the heap of prohibitions, conditions and loopholes that regulate the arrival of luggage and packages to the Island. There are so many questions that the official press devotes a lot of space to explaining how the still-confusing system functions. But more than confusing, annoying, because it affects the way in which Cubans cope with their shortages, while also feeding a bulky staff of officials.

This Thursday the official daily Juventud Rebelde devoted a whole page to detailing, for the umpteenth time, how the mechanism works. With the title of The Other Package – a clear allusion to the demonized “weekly package*” – the text delves into the issues that it considers most important for public awareness in regards to international parcels.

For that it cites, for example, Law Decree 22, where it is provided that the total value of shipments may not exceed 200 CUP (Cuban pesos — roughly $8 US); and Resolution 208 from 2014 whose provisions establish that the import value of one kilo of miscellaneous items equals 20 pesos, so up to 10 kilograms of miscellaneous items can be imported via shipping, with the first 30 CUP (1.5 kilos) being duty free.

Until that point let’s say everything is clear. The complications come when the shipment is made of up “miscellaneous items” and “durable” goods like appliances or tires. In such case, “the sum of both values must not exceed the import limit legally established (…) because all that exceeds that figure will be confiscated after the person chooses the articles that he wants to prioritize.”

This is only the first complication of a thick tangle, because there are also sender-receiver considerations. A Cuban resident on the Island who finds himself on a trip, for example, will not be able to send to himself a package on return to his country. The condition would be that the delivery be classified as “household goods,” and not everyone in the world has this right. Who does? The bulky manual of the AGR offers an imaginative response.

Also, the number of entries into the country determines the quantity of products that can be brought in luggage, and this will affect also the ability to receive packages. In sum, a newspaper page is not enough to explain all that one needs to know when not knowing it could mean that they won’t let your soap or coffee pass through.

In a country where the government lives to complain about external harassment, the citizens live under the harassment of the authorities. Any effort to supply the informal market or even the family economy in an independent way can be considered illegal, without it mattering that said activity serves to remedy the shortages somewhat.

In the capital there are three delivery points for packages. The others are in Holguin, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba and Varadero. Since there is no courier service, those who live distant from these warehouses are obliged to make inter-provincial trips. More complications, more work, more bother.

The directives of the AGR recognize that the existing installations are insufficient, and they resort to the now usual promise that “we will continue to expand service.”

If there is an excess of luggage or the package is too big – very easy to achieve given the strict margin established – then comes the expropriation, a point that has been avoided by official investigations.

When 14ymedio contacted the AGR asking about the matter, it reported the confiscated articles wind up at the Ministry of Interior Commerce (MINCIN), “so that they can be distributed to the Ministry of Health and Education and others.”

Nevertheless it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find in a hospital or school a flat screen television, a bottle of L’Oral cream or other products that are commonly confiscated on arrival into the country.

For its part, at the MINCIN, specifically the “office of attention to the people,” the operator does not know where to direct the question. “This is the first time that someone has called asking what happens to what Customs confiscates.”

One suspects that corruption within the AGR is rampant. After all, the popular wisdom says that in Cuba everyone has a need, so everyone has a price.

It is evident that travelers insist on tricking customs controls, and it is highly likely that they will keep trying. The contraband, another non-institutionalized sport, challenges the imagination, even that of those charged with writing the customs laws.

*Translator’s note: The so-called “weekly package” is a collection of videos and other materials, ranging from news articles to computer games, that circulates hand-to-hand in the ‘grey market’ as an alternative to the very limited official TV and radio programming and other Party-owned media.

Translated by MLK

Two hours with the New York Times’ Ernesto Londoño / 14ymedio

Ernesto Londoño

Ernesto Londoño

Our team had a conversation with the New York Times journalist who has authored the editorials about Cuba.

14ymedio, 1 December 2014 — Ernesto Londoño, who authored six editorials on Cuba published recently by the New York Times engaged in a friendly conversation on Saturday with a part of the 14ymedio team, in the hotel where he is staying in Havana.

Our intention was to interview him, but he told us the rules of his media prohibit his giving interviews without previous consultation. He also declined our proposal to take photos. Instead, he was eager to listen to our opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There were two hours of conversation dedicated to refining, enriching and debating the controversial ideas that the newspaper has addresses in his editorials.

The following is a brief synthesis of what was said there, arranged by topics and ascribed to the author of each opinion.

Journalism

Yoani Sánchez: Cubans are going to need a great deal of information to avoid falling into the hands of another authoritarianism. In 14ymedio we are including a plurality of voices, for example on the issue of the embargo. We leave it to the reader to form his own opinion from a variety of information.

Reinaldo Escobar: The official Cuban press, which is all the press, there are no public media, they are private property of the Communist Party. Now, has there been a change? Yes, there has been a change. Since a few years ago the newspaper Granma has had a weekly section with letters by readers where you find criticism of bureaucrats, things that don’t work or prices at the markets. But look, the emphasis is on the self-employed markets.

So far I have not read a profound criticism of the prices at the convertible peso markets that the Government has, which are abusive. Nor can you talk about the legitimacy of our rulers or the impracticality of the system. Here are two big taboos, and in the third place, the topic of political repression. If they report on a repudiation rally, they show it as something spontaneous on the part of the people, without telling how the political police were behind it, organizing it all.

Miriam Celaya: There are changes indeed. The problem is that there are real and nominal changes, and these changes are generally nominal. Now everyone in Cuba can legally stay in a hotel, which before was forbidden. They never explained why it was forbidden before. But Cubans cannot really afford the luxury of a hotel stay, with wages being what they are; nor can they buy a car, a house, or travel. The problem with the reforms is that they are unrealistic for the vast majority of Cubans. They are a government investment in order to buy time.

There are two of those reforms that are particularly harmful and discriminatory for Cubans. One is the foreign investment law, which is explicitly for foreign investors and it does not allow Cubans to invest; and the other is a new Labor Code which does not acknowledge autonomy, the right to strike, and which spells out explicitly that Cuban workers cannot freely enter into contracts with potential companies investing in Cuba, which constitutes a restraint and a brake.

Víctor Ariel González: Yes, things are changing, but we ask ourselves if really those changes offer a brighter horizon and why people keep leaving, even more are going than before.

More Apathetic Youth?

Miriam Celaya: It is a backlash against ideological saturation, a submissiveness which conditioned almost every act of your life to obedience, to political subordination, whether picking a university career, a job or an appliance, anything. Everything was a slogan, everything a roadblock. This has subsided somewhat, but previously, it was impossible to take a step without hearing “Motherland or death, we will triumph” and go, go… The investigations they undertook to see if you belonged to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution… the youth of today have not experienced that bombardment of “the enemy that harasses us.” I did not bring up my kids in that, on the contrary, I tried to detoxify them. So this generation, the children of the parents of disenchantment, grew up devoid of that and are at a more pragmatic level, even at a marketing one, whose greatest dream is to leave the country.

Economy

Eliécer Ávila: The law governing the leasing (in usufruct) of lands for farmers to work them was the basis of a plan for increasing food production and lowering prices — so that the average salary for a day’s work might be more than just three plantains.

I come from the banana plantations of El Yarey de Vázquez, in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas. The nation’s food supply is the most critical element in our collective anger. In January of last year, a pound of onions cost 8 Cuban pesos (CUPs). Later, between March and April, the price rose to 15. In May it increased to 25 CUPs and now, the onion has disappeared from low-income neighborhoods. It can only be found in certain districts such as Miramar, at five convertible pesos (CUCs) for 10 onions — more expensive than in Paris — while the monthly Cuban salary still averages under 20 CUCs per month).

I know very few farmers who even own a bicycle. However, any young person who joins up with the Ministry of State Security is in no time riding around on a Suzuki motorcycle.

Embargo

Yoani Sánchez: When talking about the end of the embargo, there is talk of a step that the White House must take, and for me I don’t care for the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the White House. It hurts my Cuban pride, to say that the plans for my future, for my childrens’ future, and for the publication of 14ymedio depend on what Obama does. I am concentrating on what is going to happen in the Plaza of the Revolution and what civil society here is going to do. So for me I don’t want to bet on the end of the embargo as the solution. I want to see when we will have freedom of expression, freedom of association and when they will remove the straitjacket from economic freedom in this country.

Miriam Celaya: The reasons for the establishment of the embargo are still in effect, which were the nationalizing of American companies in Cuba without proper compensation. That this policy, in the limelight for such a long time, has subsequently become a tug of war is another thing. But those of us with gray hair can remember that in the 70’s and 80’s we were under the Soviet protectorate. Because we talk a lot about sovereignty, but Cuba has never been sovereign. Back then, Soviet subsidies were huge and we hardly talked about the embargo. It was rarely mentioned, maybe on an anniversary. Fidel Castro used to publicly mock the embargo in all forums.

Reinaldo Escobar: They promised me that we were going to have a bright future in spite of the blockade and that was due among other things to the fact that the nation had recovered their riches, confiscating them from the Americans. So what was going to bring that future was what delayed it.

Miriam Celaya: The issue remains a wildcard for the Cuban government, which, if it has such tantrums about it, it’s because it desperately needs for it to be lifted, especially with regards to the issue of foreign investments. I am anti-embargo in principle, but I can see that ending it unilaterally and unconditionally carries with it greater risks than the benefits it will supposedly provide.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez: The official justification says that as we are a blockaded country so we have the Gag Law. Because we are under siege and “in the besieged square, dissidence is treason.” There are those who believe that if the embargo is lifted that justification would end. But you have to say that this system has been very effective in finishing off the mechanisms for publicly analyzing the embargo, it has killed off independent institutions.

Then, how will people be able to channel discontent and non-conformity with the continued repression the day after the lifting of the embargo?

Reinaldo Escobar: They will have another argument for keeping repression when the embargo is lifted. Write it down, because “this will be the test” as they say around here: “Now that the Americans have the chance to enter Cuba with greater freedom, now that they can buy businesses and the embargo is over, now we do have to take care of the Revolution.” That will be the argument.

Repression

Yoani Sánchez: In this country people are very afraid. Including not knowing they’re afraid, because they have lived with it for so long they don’t know that this is called “fear.” Fear of betrayal, of being informed on, of not being able to leave the country, of being denied a promotion to a better job, not being able to board a plane, that a child won’t be allowed to go to the university, because “the university is for Revolutionaries.” The fears are so many and so vast that Cubans today have fear in their DNA.

Eliécer Ávila: We also need to understand how Cubans make their living. Ninety percent of Cubans do not work where their calling or vocation would take them, but rather where they can survive and make do. In this country, to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences is truly to be the idiot of the family. This is the same guy who can’t throw a quinceañera party for his daughter, who can’t take his family out to dinner at a restaurant. The successful person in this society is the manager of a State-owned cafeteria. This is because he controls the supplies of chicken, oil, rice, etc. and sells the surplus on the black market — which is really how he makes his living. The fundamental tactic to create social immobility in this country is [for the State] to make as many people as possible feel guilty about something.

Self-employment

Eliécer Ávila: People think that because there is now self-employment in this country, that there is a way to be more independent of the State — which is true up to a point. But the question is, how does a self-employed business person survive? I had to leave my ice cream business. After having received my degree in information technology, I was sent to the interior as a sort of punishment for having an incident with Ricardo Alarcón, who at that time was the President of the National Assembly. It was a turning point for me as I tried to become one of the first self-employed people in my town. I had a 1967 German ice cream maker. The process requires 11 products — including coagulant, which someone had to steal from the ice cream factory. Or rather, I should say, “recover,” because in this country we do not call that kind of thing “stealing.” The milk had to be taken from the daycare center, or from the hospital, so that it could be sold to me. The point is, there simply is no other way.

All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing are sustained by illegality.

Yoani Sánchez: … Or in the capital that comes clandestinely from abroad, especially from the exile. There are restaurants in Havana that could be in New York or Berlin, but those have received foreign money or are engaging in “money laundering” from the corruption and from the highest leadership itself.

Eliécer Ávila: Many of these businesses are created so that government officials can place their children, grandchildren and friends in them, people who are no longer interested in the creation of the “New Man” nor in achieving a communist society. Rather, they want to launder their money and insert themselves in society like any other person.

I do not know a single communist worker in Cuba who has been able to launch a business. Those committed Revolutionaries, who gave their all, are today the people who don’t have onions in their kitchens.

Yoani Sánchez: Self-employment has been presented as one of the major indicators of the “reforms” or the Raul regime changes. But on the issue of self-employment many things are not considered: they have no access to a wholesale market, they can’t import raw material nor directly export their products. Thus, the annoyance all Cubans have with the customs restrictions that went into effect in September. The Government justifies is saying that “every country has this kind of legislation,” but in those countries there are laws for commercial imports.

Miriam Celaya: They made a special regulation for foreign investors, so they can import, but not for Cubans.

Yoani Sanchez: Another issue that greatly affects the economy is the lack of Internet connection. We’re not just talking about freedom of expression and information or being able to read 14ymedio within Cuba, but that our economy is set back more and more by people not having access to the Internet.

Luzbely Escobar: It’s not only that: Self-employment is authorized only for selling or producing, but the professionals cannot join that sector with their abilities. You cannot be a self-employed lawyer, architect or journalist.

Miriam Celaya: A large administrative body was created to control the self-employed and it is full of corrupt individuals, who are always hovering over these workers to exploit them and relieve them of their gains. Some tell me that there are fixed fees for inspector bribes. Here, even corruption is institutionalized and rated.

Eliécer Ávila: In this country, for everyone who wants to lift his head towards progress, there are ten who want to behead him. There is much talk of “eliminating the middleman.” However, the great middleman is the State itself, which, for example, buys a pound of black beans from the farmer for 1.80 CUPs, then turns around and sells that pound for 12 CUPs at a minimum.

The New York Times Editorials

Eliécer Ávila: It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what we need as a nation.

Miriam Celaya: I have an idea. Rather than making gestures about the release of Alan Gross, rather than making gestures about making the embargo more flexible, I think that the strongest and clearest gesture that the Cuban government could make would be to liberate public opinion, liberate the circulation of ideas. Citizens should manifest themselves; this is something that is not happening here.

Reinaldo Escobar: Without freedom there is no citizen participation.

Miriam Celaya: What is going on with these editorials? They are still giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government. Cuba’s government today is a small group of old men, and when I say “old” it’s because of their way of thinking, of individuals who have remained anchored in discourse rooted in a cold war and belligerence. The Cuban people are not represented in that government.

Yoani Sánchez: I read editorials when they came out but last night went back to read them more calmly. The first editorial is perhaps the most fortunate, because it achieves a balance between one side and the other, but there are some that I think are really pitiful. Such as the one about the “brain drain” because these medical professionals are living a drama in this country that is not recognized in these texts.

First, I am against the concept of the theft of, or brain drain, because it accepts that your brain belongs to someone, to the nation, to the educational structure, or to whoever taught you. I think everyone should decide what to do with his or her own brain.

That editorial gives no space to the economic tragedy experienced by these professionals in Cuba. I know surgeons who may be among the best in their specialty in Latin America and they can’t cross their legs because people would be able to see the holes in their shoes, or they have to operate without breakfast because they can’t afford breakfast.

Miriam Celaya: There is something in that editorial that cuts and offends me, and it’s that slight of condescension, for instance, in this quote: “Havana could pay its workers more generously abroad if the medical brigades continue to represent an important source of income”… But, gentlemen! To do so is to accept the slavery of those doctors. It is to legitimize the implied right of a government to use its medical personnel as slaves for hire. How can that be?

Yoani Sánchez: With regards to these medical missions, I must say that the human character, no one can question it, when it comes to saving lives. But there has to be a political side and that is that these people are used as a kind of medical diplomacy, to gain followers, and because of this many countries vote at the United Nations on behalf of the Government of Cuba, which has practically hijacked many countries because they have Cuban doctors in their territories. It becomes an element of political patronage.

Another aspect is the economic, which is pushing doctors to leave because they can see the appeal of having a better salary, they can import appliances, pots for their home, a computer. Also, every month their bank account gets a deposit of convertible pesos, which they only get to keep if they return to Cuba and don’t desert from the mission. From a labor and ethical point of view it is very questionable.

Another issue is the negative impact it has on the Cuban healthcare system.

Luzbely Escobar: You go to a clinic and it is closed, or of the three doctors on duty, only one is there because the other two are in Venezuela, and then there is total chaos.

Miriam Celaya: In these editorials, I have read “Cuba” instead of “the Cuban government,” and I have read that the members of “the dissidence” were considered “charlatans.” These definitions, in addition to being disrespectful, put everyone in the same bag. Here, as everywhere else, society is complex, and, while it’s true that there are charlatans among the opposition – and among the government too — there are a lot of honest people who are working very faithfully for a better Cuba, with the greatest sacrifice and risk.

When they demonize it, then it seems that they are speaking the government’s language, as if they had written this in a room of the Party Central Committee and not in a newsroom of a country in the free world. Such epithets, coming from prestigious media, end up creating opinion. That’s a big responsibility.

Dissidence

Yoani Sánchez: In this country the nation has been confused with the government, the homeland with a party, and the country with a man. Then this man, this party and this government have taken the right to decide on behalf of everyone, whether it’s about growing a tomato or a cachucha pepper, or what ideological line the whole nation is going to follow.

As a consequence, those of us who have ideas different from those of that party, that government, and that man in power, are declared to be “stateless” or “anti-Cuban” and charged with wanting to align ourselves with a foreign power. It is as if now, that the Democratic party is governing the United States, all Republicans were declared to be anti-American. This is, like all the countries in the world, plural. If you walk down the street you are going to meet every kind of person: anarchist, liberal, social democrat, Christian democrat and even annexationist. Why can’t this so plural discourse be expressed in a legal way? And why do people like us have to be excluded from speaking and offering opinions?

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MLK, MJ Porter and Norma Whiting

What else can you expect from a TEDx in Havana? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

TEDx event in Havana. (Víctor Ariel González)

TEDx event in Havana. (Víctor Ariel González)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel González, Havana, 18 November 2014 — I have spent several days trying to digest the mass of information coming out of the first TEDxHavana, where I was present as just another spectator. However, no matter how much I ruminate on it, I just can’t seem to swallow it. So before it gets too old, I must write this article, especially before its content becomes more toxic — because the more I consider the issue, the uglier I find it, and the worse I make it out to be.

To give the reader the opportunity to escape from this article early on, I will break the ice now with a phrase that sums up my general impression: the first TEDxHavana was, in essence, a fiasco. I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event. In the final analysis, more important and lasting things have been spoiled than the five hours of TEDx in the Covarrubias Hall of the National Theatre.

Paradoxically, if each presentation is considered separately, it can be said that there were more positive aspects to the event than negative ones. The diversity of topics discussed lent comprehensiveness to the program, although I still did not encounter Cubans there willing to say anything truly daring. On a personal note, I found interesting the presentations by Yudivián Almeida, X Alfonso and Natalia Bolívar, not to mention others that also shone, for the most part.

Nonetheless, there were various elements that detracted greatly from the proceedings. As the hours went by and it became evident that there would not be much more to the event, it was obvious that the plurality of discourse was limited to those differences that have been deemed acceptable by officialdom — nothing more. Thus, the first TEDxHavana failed to cross the frontiers of political censure.

Now, going on to the details, some of the talks were quite poor or made use of quite unfortunate phraseology. One example was when the architects Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán, in a presentation that they obviously had not rehearsed sufficiently, called the inhabitants of Havana an “elitist vanguard” because they get around in boteros — taxis — (“those incredible machines”), or that it is a “luxury” to look in the eyes of “he who brings the packet” instead of downloading movies from the Internet. In other words: “It’s so cool to be backward!”

I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event.

According to them, “all Cubans, when they hop aboard a botero, are aware that they are becoming a statistic.” The hushed derisive laughter emanating from the public seated behind me – who had their peak moment at the statement, “we invented ‘vintage’”– did not cease until those two inhabitants of a Havana that I don’t know, but that intrigues me, left the stage.

Eugene Jarecki added another bit of fantasy. The documentarian stated, in English, that Cubans are, above all, proud of their educational and healthcare systems, and very happy to live here. Of course, the more than half a million souls who in the past 20 years have emigrated to the US alone do not count. The same speaker said that he would not like to see how “savage capitalism” might arrive here and turn us into “just another Puerto Rico.” As he displayed postcards of Cuba such as those sold to tourists, Jarecki pretended to give me a tour of my own country.

Another North American suggested that there should be many, many independent film festivals; that “every individual should get a camera and produce a film” and show it “in his own cinema” or, simply, project it “onto the largest screen he can find.” This was Richard Peña, who obviously does not know that just very recently a government decree prohibited private video screens.

If anything tarnished the event, it was also its emcee, supposedly charged with threading together the various presentations and providing some dynamism to the endeavor. More than that, Amaury Pérez bestowed hugs and kisses upon almost everyone who arrived to give a talk. Few were able to escape his incontinent expressions of affection. As if that were not enough, we also had to endure his jokes in poor taste.

With all that occurred that Saturday afternoon, I was left with many unanswered questions because the organizers left no room in the program for voicing doubts. This was, above all, because neither CuCú Diamantes nor Andrés Levin wanted to pay any attention to me – first, to keep the matter under a “low profile” and second, because they wanted to have pictures taken. Frankly, I, too, would have ignored some nobody who might suddenly shout the question, “What would it take to be a presenter here next year?” – the beginner’s mistake of an amateur journalist.

The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir.

The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir; as a forum for some political campaign or other; and, according to Amaury Pérez, to demonstrate that “yes, there can be dialogue between Cubans and North Americans.” It turns out that some still need such demonstrations.

TEDx Havana was, among other things, an elite event orchestrated by show business denizens, as well as an opportunity to sell national beers as the “modest” price of 2 CUCs (which is 10% of the median monthly salary). Ingenious idea of the sponsors of this event! If at the next one these people give a talk titled “How to Cheat the Thirsty” I will applaud them until I burst.

The fact of a TEDx in Havana does not lack a certain transcendence, in spite of it all. An architecture student told me that she had not liked several presentations, but that it was “magical” to see the enormous sign with its red and white letters, the organization’s logo on an actual stage and not on a screen. Upon the conclusion of that inaugural gala of TED in Cuba, where a couple of extemporaneous versifiers improvised a rhyme for “our five heroes, prisoners of the Empire,” I ran into a friend who calls himself a “compulsive consumer of TED Talks” who confessed, visibly annoyed, that he “expected more from TED in Havana.”

May I be honest? I expected nothing more.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

A Management Success: The Butcher Shops without Flies / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

A client leaves The Golden Pig (14ymedio)

A client leaves The Golden Pig (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana / 6 November 2014 — It’s ten in the morning, and the Golden Pig is packed with customers. On entering, one detects the intense odor of smoked meat mixed with the aroma of ripe guavas. Two salesmen work behind the counter, and a third places fruits in their boxes.

They almost have no time to assist the journalist who is interested in knowing how they have managed to start this business. This is not just any market; there are electronic scales, vertical refrigerators, air conditioning and — most surprising – the cleanliness and organization are infinitely superior to those of the typical farmers’ markets of Havana, those built hurriedly under zinc plates where flies swarm and mud has stained everything.

Here it is different. This is a small shop inside a building at the corner of Linea and 10 in Vedado. They threw cement on the floor and oiled it, installed dark windows and put an attractive label over the glass. “We took two months to prepare this,” says one of the workers when he can finally answer some questions. “You already saw that it is full,” the man continues. “In December I imagine that we are going to even need a doorman!” Success has come to them quickly since they have only been open a few weeks.

The Golden Pig functions as a cooperative. On one of the walls, over the counter, hangs the license that the State grants for this form of private activity that is gaining momentum and opening new businesses at several locations in the city.

So, for example, there is also El Barrio market, close to the embassy of the Czech Republic. It is easy to pass by if you are not familiar with it because, seen from outside, the closed garage does not have much paint for being a business. Inside, the presentation of products is even more attractive than the previous place. They possess a big refrigerated counter with all the offers in view, already packaged and with labels printed in Cuban pesos. They have a shiny machine for making slices at the customer’s request and an area in back where they prepare the packages. There are not those so disagreeable odors that one usually smells in the state butcher shops that sell in CUC (hard currency).

There are not those so disagreeable odors that one usually smells in the state butcher shops that sell in CUC

In El Barrio a saleslady explains how a business of this type can be pulled off. The required license is “retail seller of agricultural products” and is sought in the municipal offices of the Ministry of Work and Social Security. “It took us five months to take the necessary steps for the permit, but the advantage of this activity is that we do not need a health certificate like our suppliers,” she says before assisting another recently-arrived customer.

“Although we have to pay a lot in taxes, we manage to profit,” says a staff member at the Golden Pig. The prices on the boards are well above what the pocketbook of the common man can pay, although similar to those found elsewhere. “Our advantage is that we have made a different presentation, and people like that,” say the workers of the other store.

Mind you, it will never be possible to find beef in any of these businesses. Not even cow’s milk or its derivatives. The yogurt they offer in one of these butcher shops, where they sell several types of foods, is made with goat’s milk. Neither are they permitted to trade in imported products.

In spite of the administrative tethers and the enormous limitations that the government places on the offer of products, private initiative little by little paves the way in this economy that insists on calling itself “socialist” and “planned.” Nevertheless, the paltry purchasing power of the population means few Cubans can give themselves the luxury of entertaining their families with a pork leg – a month’s average salary – and some mouthwatering fresh lettuce leaves wrapped in clear plastic.

Translated by MLK

Berta Soler: They Must Put An End To This / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Berta Coler, Leader of the Ladies in White

Berta Soler, Leader of the Ladies in White

14ymedio, Havana, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 21 October 2014 — Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, has called for a vigil this October 21 in front of the Diez de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. The reason is the new suspension of the trial of Sonia Garro.

Soler explained that there are “dubious things” in the way the authorities have handled this latest extension. “Sonia called to tell me that a captain had told her that the trial was suspended, but she did not believe it.” The activist also said that Sonia Garro’s defense lawyer “was unaware” of the decision. The new date for holding the criminal trial has been set for next November 7.

“We do not trust the Cuban Government, therefore the vigil goes on,” the leader of the Ladies in White told this newspaper. Soler does not rule out that “all this supposed suspension is for the purpose of demobilizing the people.” So, “we are going to be there anyway,” she announced.

There will also be a vigil in the interior of the country because it is expected that in front of the courts of Santiago de Cuba and other cities peaceful demonstrations similar to that in Havana will take place. The Diez de Octubre municipal court is at Juan Delgado and Patrocinio, and Berta Soler says that “the plan is to begin at 8:00 a.m. and last until noon. It depends on whether they let us or not.”

The activist also reported that “since this Saturday, State Security has reinforced vigilance over the Ladies in White.” This is the third time that they have suspended the trial of Sonia Garro. “They must to put an end to this,” she demands.

Translated by MLK

Back Channel to Cuba / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Presentation of "Back Channel to Cuba" at UNEAC (14Ymedio)

Presentation of “Back Channel to Cuba” at UNEAC (14Ymedio)

The Villena room was too small for the audience, which endured sweltering heat during the two hours of the presentation of the book “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

The free event, at the headquarters of the Cuban Artists and Writers Union (UNEAC), had raised such high expectations in the academic world and in public opinion that almost two hundred people gathered his Monday at 4:00 in the afternoon to meet the authors of a book that has been presented outside of Cuba as “revelatory.”

Researchers Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande had to face being accosted by the press before entering the room where they were awaited by figures as diverse as Ministry of the Interior agent Fernando González – imprisoned in the United States for 15 years – and the Cuban-American businessman Max Lesnick. Continue reading

Florida Two Hundred Yards Away / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

The view from Devin Castle, at the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Source: Wikipedia)

The view from Devin Castle, at the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Source: Wikipedia)

14ymedio, Havana, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 19 September 2014 – The Morava and Danube rivers come together in Devin. The place still belongs to the Bratislava region, but only the far shore is Slovakia. The near shore is Austria.

Maybe a detail that means nothing special. Even less because today you can cross from one side to the other without anyone saying anything to you and the barges loaded with tourists calmly navigate up and down the river. But before the Velvet Revolution, this was the border between communism and capitalism, between oppression and freedom; to try to cross, in many cases, implied paying a very heavy price. Say what you want to those who died, shot by the “proletarian” side, or to those taken by the strong current, but the rivers have never been as terrible as the politics of middle Europe.

It’s as if we Cubans had Florida 200 yards away, right in front of Mariel. Although we do have the Guantanamo Base and the sad death toll that claims those seeking to escape the island-prison. “The law of adjustment is to blame,” the border guards at Devin would have said in their time. Why not: We Cubans are all so observant of the laws…!

On a rock that strategically dominates the Devin landscape are the ruins of a fort. Our guide told us that people launched themselves from up there,  during the Soviet heyday, hanggliding to try to get to Austria. It was a flight of freedom or death.

A portico in memory of the millions who crossed or tried to cross the Iron Curtain rises here today. A mute reminder of what should not be repeated. All borders have some capriciousness about them, but the one that was in place here until just 25 years ago was a sinister monument to the absurd. To the delight of all, the Warsaw Pact soldiers are long gone and today fishermen sit near where the waters of the Morava and Danube flow together. By the way, the wine in this region is very good.

Reseller, That Dirty Word / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

14YMEDIO, Havana, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, 21 August 2014 – “I have mattresses, games room, air conditioning …” an individual stationed at the entrance to a popular store says softly. A few yards further on, another vendor has filters for drinking water, and so it continues, on both sides of the commercial center, an illicit network that caters to more than a few dissatisfied customers with poor State offerings.

If you look in the stores without success, you shouldn’t worry, because outside it’s possible to find everything you need from the “resellers” for a few pesos more. Those traders who swarm streets like Carlos III, Monte, or 10 de octubre, operating with nothing more than the law of supply and demand. The solution that occurs to the government, far from focusing on filling up the half-empty shelves, has been to eradicate what they describe as “social indiscipline.”

What they haven’t considered, however, is granting licenses to the traders. In fact, the word “trader” is banished from the official jargon. Those who exercise one of the oldest crafts known to humanity are called “resellers” and that, in the eyes of the authorities, is not a good thing. The government accuses them of hoarding and speculation.

So far this year there have been almost 17,000 fines and hundreds of seizures. However, the punitive measures taken so far are not enough. “We don’t have an inspector on every corner. We need help from the public,” declare some State inspectors on the TV news. The phenomenon has gotten out of control. This not only contributes to the lack of productivity and bad distribution on the part of the State monopoly, but the problem also includes more than a few corrupt officials.

What Was the Havana Metro? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Bus Routes in Havana. (BdG/14ymedio)

Conceived 30 years ago, it would have been the largest civil engineering project in Cuba, but it sank after Perestroika.

14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez, Havana | June 17, 2014

It’s morning rush hour at the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor bus stop, a busy node in the city of Havana. Thousands of people rush to work, school, the office, or run errands. New bus routes, as well as signaling changes on the existing road network, have tried to relieve the headaches involved in mass transit in our country.

Thirty years ago, when the island was a satellite of the USSR, and other foreign capital was virtually nonexistent, an ambitious rapid transit project was conceived for the Cuban capital with a metro  system as the centerpiece. The civil engineer Felix C., today employed by a Cuban-Foreign construction equipment company, related his experiences working for the City of Havana Executive Group (GEMCH), the company then in charge of what was called “the work of the century.”

“I came here after I graduated, in the mid-eighties,” he said. “GEMCH already existed at the beginning of the decade and several projects for the metro came out of CUJAE (Ciudad Universitaria Jose Antonio Echeverria) — the technical branch of the University of Havana. Several of us were even sent to Eastern European countries to study and participate in works of this type already being implemented.

During those years, in fact, everything seemed to be in place to build the metro in Havana. A series of articles published in the magazine Technical Youth in August, September and October of 1982, expounded in a straightforward way not only on the necessity, but also on the possibility that Havana could count on this type of transport. Enthusiasm was great. At that time relations with the USSR looked stronger than ever, and it was considered significant that the only socialist country in the Western Hemisphere would have its own metro system. Continue reading