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

Our Own Dangerous “Twin Towers” / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Tejas Corner. 14ymedio

Texas Corner. 14ymedio

Havana, June 9, 2014, Victor Ariel Gonzalez — Corrugated fiber-cement sheets and wooden planks form a security fence in the shadow of the two tallest buildings of an iconic Havana site: the “Twin Towers” at Texas Corner, where 240 families live, marooned, as the buildings crumble.

Every day many people walk past, where the sidewalks of Calzada Del Cerro and Diez de Octubre intersect. Life goes on as usual at the foot of the gray structures, 20 floors and 200 feet high, which dangerously dominate the landscape.

A glance behind the makeshift wall leaves no doubt about the problem: chunks of rust-stained concrete detached from the walls are scattered in the grass, evidence of the deterioration of the buildings. If you look up, the poor state of the structural walls, which support thousands of tons, is revealed, with their broken edges and numerous areas where rebar is exposed. Continue reading

Dad, I Want to Go to La Yuma* / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Josué Colomé Vázquez, son of Cuba’s Minister of the Interior. Photo from Josué’s Facebook page.

Havana, Cuba – It’s not too surprising that a son of Cuba’s Minister of the Interior recently arrived in the U.S. to stay. Josué Colomé–as this immigrant is named–is not the first descendent of a high official of the regime who decided to leave for “enemy” lands, and so join the thousands of Cubans who arrive in the United States each year in search of opportunity. It’s obvious that the Revolution that dad helped make isn’t good enough. Not even for him.

His father, General Abelardo Colomé Ibarra, is one of the historic leaders of the Cuban dictatorship. He serves in a key position, given that he’s the guardian of State Security, in charge of administering the repressive forces, watching friends and enemies alike, as well as executing exemplary sentences. That is, the largest jailer on the island-prison. The job of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) one of the strongest currencies that sustains the regime: fear. The heads of this institution have always been dark characters who enjoy the greatest confidence of the Supreme Leader. MININT is the principle guarantor of the Cuban government (that is the Castro brothers) to exercise their absolute power.

Thus, although not unique, it’s a singular case of apostasy. The son of the General, who now awaits his residency in the U.S., is one of the few who know first hand the intimacies of the governmental summit. Josué has lived among luxuries and complete indifference, and could stay in Cuba enjoying his surname. However, he preferred to abandon ship.

But that’s not the most striking thing: his father having ears that hear everything, it’s tempting to wonder about the following: Did the General know that his son was preparing to escape? Did the chief of MININT participate in the plan in some way, or knowing it, did he look the other way?

It’s hard not to suspect it. The Cuban Minister of the Interior could sin at anything, but not naivete. It may never be clear what, if any, degree of involvement did the Cuban official have in the happy journey? Perhaps it’s not a crazy assumption that the young Josué, now a refugee in the USA (waiting on the Cuban Adjustment Act), had the help of his powerful father to get to his destination through a third country. Then, the “killer” Adjustment Law would have been very good for the family interests of the representative of the regime.

General and Minister of the Interior Abelardo ColoméIbarra with Raul Castro. Photo from Internet

General and Minister of the Interior Abelardo Colomé Ibarra with Raul Castro. Photo from Internet

*Translator’s note: “La Yuma” is what Cubans call the United States and other foreign countries.

Cubanet, 7 April 2014, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

Shelves of Misery / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

The old Carlos III market was transformed into a “mall.”  At the beginning, Havanans found a wide selection of merchandise (in CUC — hard currency); today the showcases are empty.

The shelves where the most common ingredients should be found often appear empty or offer only one product of its type without options of quality or size.  Those foods that Cubans eat the most are exhausted rapidly, sometimes missing from the shelves for weeks.  On the other hand, the most expensive foods stay for sale for so long that many wind up expiring.

Carlos III market, inaugurated in 1957 as Plaza de Mercado

Not to mention the toiletry section. This week there was only one kind of soap for sale, a small bar for 0.25 CUC.  The counter where there used to appear dozens of offers for varying budgets now presents a desolate emptiness. Continue reading

2014: Death Before Birth / Victor Ariel Gonzalez

HAVANA, Cuba, January, www.cubanet.org — Doorways where until a few days ago all kinds of clothes and shoes were for sale are now empty. All the usual stalls are closed. It is a return to the recent past, confirmation that the economic openings are not as open, but quite the opposite: they narrow.

The state of opinion on the streets of Havana is negative. Skeptics have multiplied and pessimism is heard in normal conversations. A taxi driver who was driving an old American car, in the dark December nights, predicted to this reporter what the new year would be from his vision at that time. According to him, he’d never seen such a dark end of year, perhaps not even such an infamous December 31, 1994, when a cigar box cost 120 pesos (the entire pay, let’s say, of a secretary).

The man apparently was not mistaken in his forecast that 2014 would be fatal. The first thing that happened is that an important branch of trade is dead. There will be no stalls where the poorest buyers can go looking for something to wear. People are angry, as the Cuban population usually is without any spontaneous social event occurring. Continue reading

Legacies of Castro-ism: The Destruction of the Sugar Industry / CID, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

On December 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes liberated the slaves of his sugar center La Demajagua and invited them to join him in the fight for Cuban’s independence. The Cry of Yara was the beginning of the 10 Years’ War.  These are the ruins of Demajagua.

The great capitals of the Cuban economy were forged within the sugar industry.  This last one and all its surrounding areas constituted a basic feature of the country’s culture, of its identity.  The formation of the Cuban nation is closely linked to sugar production in that it served to form a Creole aristocracy, which with the passage of time was differentiated from the Spanish mother country, still holder of political power on the island even while in the economic sphere it began to lag behind her thriving colony.The formation of the Cuban nation is closely linked to sugar production in that it served to form a Creole aristocracy, which with the passage of time was differentiated from the Spanish mother country, still holder of political power on the island even while in the economic sphere it began to lag behind her thriving colony. Continue reading