“No, we have no illusions that it will be easy” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Tom Malinowski (Photo Flickr)

Tom Malinowski (Photo Flickr)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana 20 December 2014 — Since December 17, Cuba has not been the same. Discussions, questions and expectations have multiplied among us since the announcement from Barack Obama and Raul Castro about the reestablishment of relations between the United States and Cuba. We citizens have a lot of questions about the process and its influence on the future of our country.

Tom Malinowski, United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor has responded to some of these questions for 14ymedio. Today we present his answers to our readers.

Sanchez: The US has announced several measures to ease its policy towards Cuba. During the negotiations has the Cuban government shown a list of measures it is willing to implement?

Malinowski: It is important to note that the measures announced by President Obama were not things he has asked of Cuban government. They have been steps we would like to take to empower the Cuban people. Continue reading

Goliath Opens His Wallet / Yoani Sánchez: A New Era for Cuba and the United States

Havana, Cuba. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press (Taken from the New York Times)

Havana, Cuba. Credit Desmond Boylan/Associated Press (Taken from the New York Times)

[From the New York Times] HAVANA — In one of my earliest memories, I am in a schoolyard before a campfire. The kids are screaming and jumping around it while the teacher stokes the flames, where a ridiculous Uncle Sam puppet is burning. This image came to mind on Wednesday, as I listened to the speeches of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama about the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.

Generations of Cubans have grown up under the barrage of official propaganda against the United States. As the words directed against our neighbor to the north became more aggressive, our curiosity only grew. Overwhelmed by material precariousness, disillusioned because the so-called Raúl reforms have failed to fill their wallets or their plates, Cubans now dream of the material respite that might arrive from the other side of the Florida Straits. Without a fight, David, smiling, walks toward Goliath, who is about to open his bag of coins. The myth of the enemy is over; the difficult reality of coexistence has begun. Continue reading

Has D-Day Arrived? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

Telephone conversation between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. (White House)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 — Today has been one of those days we imagine a thousand ways, but never as it finally happened. You prepare for a date on which you can celebrate the end, hug your friends who return home, wave a flag in the middle of the street, but D-Day is late. Instead, events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.

The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishments of diplomatic relations surprises us in the midst of signs that pointed in the opposite direction, and also of exhausted hopes. Raúl Castro just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this December 10 repression fell heavily on activists, as it does every International Human Rights Day.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of the official bluster, of a certain turn of the ideological screw expressed in calls to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months. Clear evidence that all this discourse of intransigence was just for show. While they made the island’s citizens believe that even to cross the threshold of the United States Interest Section in Havana turned them into traitors to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics! Continue reading

Alan Gross, the hook that ended up being swallowed / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross

Demonstrations demanding the release of Alan Gross

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 17 December 2014 – With the pessimism that has now become chronic in our society, many Cubans thought that Alan Gross would only leave Cuba, “in a box,” in an image allusive of a fatal outcome. The stubbornness shown by the Cuban government in its relations with the United States didn’t presage a short-term solution for the contractor. This Wednesday, however, he has been exchanged for three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States, bringing to a close a long and complicated political chapter for both parties.

Gross was only useful alive and his health was rapidly deteriorating. And Raul Castro knew this very well. Hence, in recent months he raised the decibels around the proposed exchange for the agent Antonio Guerrero and the officials Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández, all serving long sentences in the prisons of our neighbor to the north. To the extent that the 65-year-old contractor grew thin and lost his vision, official campaigns grew increasingly insistent about the exchange. When Gross threatened to kill himself, the alarms if the island’s government went off and the negotiating schedule accelerated. Continue reading

Cardinal Bertone returns to Cuba / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Tarcisio Bertone with Felipe Perez Roque in Havana in 2008. (Reuters)

Tarcisio Bertone with Felipe Perez Roque in Havana in 2008. (Reuters)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 December 2014 — Six years ago Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone came through the front door to Cuba. This December, however, he has returned on a private visit which is evidence of the discrete recognition of failure. For the former Vatican Foreign Minister, the time between one stay and another has been filled with missteps. This is a man who returns in disgrace. Just like what has happened with the “Raul reforms” that he validated with his presence.

Cardinal Bertone has arrived on the Island to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, but on this occasion, far from the cameras and the presidential palace. The man who helped to coordinate the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to our country, has participated this week in the consecration in Santa Clara of a sanctuary to the Virgin of Charity del Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint.

Now, he prefers the ecclesiastical circles and has returned to the Cobre Sanctuary, where he said mass. The context today is very different from his previous stay, a few days after the installation of Raul Castro as president, which the prelate described as a “special, extraordinary moment.” In that February, he also asserted that the General “will continue (…) with a vision, if at all possible, of development.” However, the reality on display this December is stubbornly to the contrary.

The Cuba he is returning to is far from the hopes that some sheltered with the coming to power of Fidel Castro’s brother. Part of the Cuban population imagined the possibilities of an economic and political opening. However, the economic flexibilities ended up untying some knots only to tie others, and civil liberties never arrived.

Six years ago, Bertone said that he would have a conversation with “clarity, sincerity, an exchange,” with the new president, but the president seems not to have listened. The price paid by the former Vatican Foreign Minister for this family photo with the Government was high. While officialdom protected him, the most critical sector of the Catholic Church doesn’t look kindly on that embrace between the sickle and the cross. Excluding the dissidents from any possible dialog with the Cardinal, also signaled the bias of his point of view.

Accustomed to moving influences and cooking up agreements, the Vatican number two thought he could unstick the wheels of change. He met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, who a few weeks later would be ousted and accused by Fidel Castro himself of having become addicted to “the honey of power.” Those faces that once welcomed him with smiles, today are no longer here or are in hiding.

Bertone, who was also the Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office), came six years ago to teach at a conference in the Main Hall of the University of Havana. Even the newspaper Granma had something of the odor of incense in those days and published a communication from the Cuban bishops, in which they called on Raul Castro to take “transcendental measures” to satisfy the “anxieties and concerns expressed by Cubans.”

Bertone already saw his name in the history of Cuba. The mass that he celebrated in Havana Cathedral focused on the search for larger spaces for the Church within Cuba. In exchange for the ability to gain this space, he accepted all the concessions required. He adopted the official discourse against the “American blockade,” he didn’t meet with regime opponents, and he validated the flexibilizations offered by power as the path to the dreamed of country.

Today, Bertone is not who he was… nor is Cuba what he predicted. Said to have mismanaged influence, now separated from the epicenter of Vatican power, and touched by the scandal of the letters revealed by Benedict XVI’s butler, the man who has come to this Island is a shadow. But the Raul regime reforms are also shadows. Economic relaxations that haven’t managed, after more than five years since they began, to allow Cubans to live in dignity, nor have they provided larger spaces of freedom.

Chance or destiny – who knows? – this time the Bertone’s mass at El Cobre coincides with International Human Rights Day. A few kilometers from the sanctuary where he addressed the congregation, dozens of activists have been confined to their homes, threatened, and some of them have been arrested to prevent their participating in events planned to celebrate this date. The Cuba he did not want to see on his previous trip is knocking on the door with a call that combines desperation and reproach.

Parades and rights / Yoani Sanchez

Arrests in Havana on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

Arrests in Havana on Human Rights Day (14ymedio)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 10 December 2014 — The carnival was planned for days, months. The background music would slogans and false joy. The venue, the same Havana corner where the Ladies in White were called to remember the International Day of Human Rights. Meanwhile, the “corps de ballet” would consist of workers and students – taken from their workplaces and teachers – to occupy the site chosen by the activists. There would be no lack of food kiosks and some provincial towns added huge trucks dispensing beer because, in our case, instead of bread and circuses, the formula is alcohol and repression.

Then it was time for the parade. Around the Coppelia ice cream stand, in Havana, an unusual crowd of people dressed in civilian clothes caught the attention of some naïve bystanders who didn’t know if it was a line to buy an extinct product, or passionate movie buffs waiting for the Yara cinema to open. Moving their heads from side to said, like someone waiting for prey, they were wearing the clothes we all recognize as the attire of State Security when they want to go undercover, and displayed that physical state of over corpulence compared to the average Cuban. They weren’t dancing, like at carnivals, they just moved towards the women who came dressed in white and tried to shield with their bodies the act of forcing them into a police car. A macabre “corps de ballet” thus represented their choreography of reprimand.

And then the trumpet sounded, excuse me… the car horn. A small lady had managed to get to the left atrium of the heart of El Vedado. Dozens of faces turned and they spoke into the little cables hanging from their earphones. An agent, who for years infiltrated the ranks of independent journalists, unmasked without pain or glory, directed the orchestra. The loudspeakers blared previously recorded phrases, so there were no surprises nor spontaneity. The woman disappeared in seconds. The kids drank their soft drinks and Havana experienced one of the coldest days of the year. The spectacle continued for hours.

How many times as a child was I part of a carnival of repression without knowing it? What naive parties did I participate in that, in reality, were a cover for the horrors? Have those dances and street festivals also been a police operation? After this, it will be hard for me to ever enjoy a parade again.

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

Battered women in Cuba: Where can they go? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

UNHCR workshop on prevention and response to gender-based violence with women from Cuba, Haiti and Peru. (UNHCR Americas)

UNHCR workshop on prevention and response to gender-based violence with women from Cuba, Haiti and Peru. (UNHCR Americas)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 November 2014 — “Do you know what it feels like to break the wall?” she asked me years after we met. “It’s like someone cracked a table on your face… it hurts, but you can’t believe its your body.

“Now I’m afraid of men, I don’t want to have anything to do with them,” she confessed while we talked in a café with more flies than menu options. She began to narrate the details of a Calvary she had always kept hidden, from shame and because she felt responsible for those blows. Today, she can’t hear out of one ear, her nose slants to the left and she mistrusts all those whose pants have a fly.

Like many provincial women. Ileana landed in Havana on the arm of a man who promised her “villas and castles,” he said. “I was very young and, since I was a little girl I’d been taught in my house in Banes that I should serve a man and please him.” While she told me her story I had the impression I was speaking with a woman from the early twentieth century, but no: Ileana is younger than I am. She wore the school neckerchief, shouting “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che,” and studied up to the eleventh grade in a high school in the countryside.

“I came to Havana and for the first weeks he treated me like a queen,” she said, unable to contain her smile. When Ileana laughs her whole face lights up and her nose looks more crooked than ever. “Then he started to mistreat me, but only verbally,” she says, downplaying the importance while looking over her shoulder. A young man had sat down at the table next to us and was observing us laciviously. “Ladies, did someone stand you up? Because here is a stallion who never fails,” he blurts out, under the imperturbable gaze of the waiter.

“The neighbors called the police several times. Then we spent hours and hours at the station at Zanja and Dragones streets, for nothing. The investigator told me they didn’t get involved in things between husband and wife,” and that, “I had to go home with him, because I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” she explains, already on the verge of tears. In Cuba, current law has enormous gaps with regards to gender violence. If the abuse “is not defined in the Penal Code, the abuser is not sanctioned,” a lawyer at the law firm on Carlos III Street later explained to me, asking not to be named.

“He could only be charged if a doctor determined I had injuries,” Ileana recalls. However, a black eye or an ache in the side isn’t considered one. “I had to show a wound that was a puncture or bleeding,” she explains. I look at her and question why a doctor would ignore the marks of cigarette burns on her forearm and her boxer’s nose, without protecting her. What was lacking for a restraining order? That he kill her? I wondered, without sharing it with her.

Things have calmed down. The abuser is far away and this petite woman with her battered face confesses, “Well, I have to say, he wasn’t so bad,” and immediately adds, “in the tenement where we lived one woman had a husband who came home drunk from work one day with a machete.” She touches wood and looks around while concluding, “Thanks to the virgin, I was luckier.”

Her case was archived again and again. She had no phone to call from, no address for a battered women’s shelter is published in the official media, so Ileana endured and remained silent. Her martyrdom lasted for a decade, including rape within the marriage—also not defined in our laws—the odd fracture, and constant humiliation.

“Then my daughter was born and she made me bold,” says this woman dressed in baggy clothes, looking down, avoiding the eyes of the man sitting beside us at the café. “One night I gathered everything and went to my aunt’s house.” However, the escape didn’t last very long. “Someone ran their mouth and told him where I was staying and he came to find me. It was the darkest night of my life.”

Between pushes and insults, Ileana returned to her husband’s house. “That night he forced me for hours while telling me ‘you’re mine and no other man’s’.” She told how the next day she couldn’t even urinate. “I hurt all over and had his teeth marks all over my back.” Then began the phase of total defeat. “I got used to it, that my life would be like this, and stopped resisting,” she related with a pragmatism that is still painful.

Shortly afterwards the abuser found “an even younger country girl he mistreated,” recalls Ileana. “I was crushed, I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror, I didn’t put on make up, or go out in the street.” In all that time, no women’s organization approached her, she didn’t know of any haven where she could find shelter, and more than a dozen times she heard the police that responded say, “Well, she must have done something to piss him off.”

Today, Ileana shared with me her wish. “I want to have sex with a man without fear… romantically.” As she says it her right hand touches her nose, trying to push it to the center… The place where it should have been if the abuser had not crossed her path.

The Ferguson case and its possible implications for Cuba / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Ferguson protests. (Andrew Benedict, Twitter)

Ferguson protests. (Andrew Benedict, Twitter)


14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 27 November 2014 – The events in Ferguson, arising from the death of the young man Michael Brown and the decision not to charge the police officer who killed him, have caused millions of people in the United States to question the situation in their country. The protests that followed the grand jury’s verdict raised new questions about the image of coexistence within the diversity that has been presented as a pillar of American identity.

The situation has renewed the alarm about the American model and sets off warnings in other countries where large sectors of the population continue to be disadvantaged, whether because of ethnicity, race, or geographic origin. This week’s images showing the overwhelming anger on the streets of Missouri speak to us of the accumulation of problems, which have found their trigger in the recent decision not to charge the police officer.

It is not only a question of Michael Brown’s death during a questionable arrest, but one of a society that has been fractured for centuries, living with racism that prolongs the distrust, stokes hatred and fuels the violence that is now breaking out into fires and vandalism. A scream, at times, sometimes silenced, that now raises its volume after the sad events of last August 9th.

Cuban society should take note of the events in Missouri. Among us racism, far from diminishing, has increased in recent decades. Motivated in part by the stubborn official policy of denying its existence and downplaying the rancor that sometimes hides under the disingenuous appearance of a joke, but whose bitter side is the high percentage of the prison population that is black, or the economic precariousness that characterizes this community.

At the last minute, and in a race to show international organizations that it is working on the problem, the Cuban government has created an agenda to fight against racism, which sadly lacks independence as well as enforceability. Lectures, conferences, statements by prominent figures in the Afro-descendant community, abound in the media. However, in reality, little has been done to give a voice to those who suffer first-hand from these prejudices.

Capitalizing on fear of greater discrimination has been, for too long, an instrument of ideological subordination on the Island. The constant allusions to a past of abuse and segregation – prior to January 1959 – have been used by official propaganda to maintain the support of the black community. As if the only choices were the current situation or returning to the slave quarters and slave drivers.

The authorities have ended up hijacking and distorting the voice of this community that should have its own presence in independent organizations and entities that allow it to denounce and make demands with regards the situation in which it exists.

Lately, the Ferguson case has also been sadly used by the official media to stoke fears of democracy. “Look at what happened in the United States,” the television commentators – obsessed with the mote in another’s eye – seem to say to black Cubans. Again, the fear of returning to the whip and the specter of police lynchings are used to call Cubans of African descent to conformity or false complacency.

However, anger is something that is incubated slowly. We are fed facts such as false quotas of power delivered to people by the color of their skin, people who have no real possibilities of decision-making.

Anger gains strength when you enter a university classroom and see hardly any colors beyond a “light mixed-race,” while in the prisons it is just the opposite.

Resentment rises when you see who lives in the illegal slums that crowd the outskirts of the capital and compare that to the racial origin of those who hold positions in foreign joint-venture companies, tourist facilities, or in the administration of economically strategic entities.

Pain increases outside the offices that receive remittances from exiles abroad and you can see for yourself that the most of the people who rely on this relief in convertible pesos are white.

Anger grows slowly and one day explodes. The detonator can be a police officer in Ferguson who kills a young black man, or a man in Havana who is handcuffed and put in a squad car for the simple act of walking through a tourist facility with that skin tone that brings so many problems in so many places.

Mexico is running out of tears / Yoani Sanchez

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

Mobilization in Mexico City for 43 missing. (Twitter Juan Manuel Karg)

YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 24 November 2014 — When I visited Mexico for the first time I was impressed by its tremendous potential and enormous problems. I was amazed by a culture whose calendar is lost in time, especially when compared to a Cuba that is still a teenager. However, most shocking for me were all the warnings and advice from friends and acquaintances about the insecurity and the dangers that might await one in every street.

The most heartbreaking testimony of that visit, which I heard from the mouth of Judith Torrea, a Spanish journalist based in Ciudad Juárez who collected the stories of mothers whose teenage children never returned to their jobs or their schools.

It pained me to see how violent death has become commonplace in different areas of this beautiful country. La Catrina – Mexico’s grande dame of death – was no longer smiling, rather her empty sockets seemed a sad premonition of what is needed to live in Mexico. The disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotsinapa has exceeded the horror already suffered by a society where corruption, an ineffective legal system, and the armed force of narco-traffickers have thrived for a long time. As if a people already torn apart by what they have lost could suffer new wounds.

Each one of these disappeared young people is around the age of my son Teo, some of their photos remind me of his swarthy face and slanted eyes. He could have been one of those who one day left school and decided to protest against the status quo. All indications are that the local political power, mixed in with the drug cartels, violently ended the lives of those who still had the better part of their existence ahead of them. Over the last few weeks their families have gone from tears to hope and back to pain. The sad end is not confirmed and no one wants to accept it as fact, but the evidence suggests the worst case scenario.

Mexico is running out of tears. It is the responsibility of Latin America to accompany this beloved nation in the search for answers to the disappearance of the students, but also to the solutions of the grave social and institutional problems that caused it. To the citizens, for our part, we offer our solidarity, and we share their pain and their anger. Let no one look their child in the eyes without remembering those who are missing.

Havana, how you hurt me! / Yoani Sanchez

Collapsed building in Havana (Photo: Sylvia Corbelle)

Collapsed building in Havana (Photo: Sylvia Corbelle)

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 16 November 2004 – To be a Havanan is not having been born in a territory, it’s carrying that territory on your back and not being able to put it down. The first time I realized I belonged to this city I was seven years old. I was in a little town in Villa Clara, trying to reach some guavas on a branch, when a bunch of kids from the place surrounded my sister and me. “They’re from Havana! They’re from Havana!” they shrieked. At that moment we didn’t understand so much uproar, but with time we realized that we had come by a sad privilege. Having been born in this city in decline, in this city whose major attraction is what it could be, not what it is.

I am totally urban, a city girl. I grew up in the Cayo Hueso neighborhood where the nearest trees are more than 500 yards away. I am the child of asphalt, of the smell of kerosene, of clotheslines dripping from the balconies and sewer pipes that overflow from time to time. This has never been an easy city. Not even on the tourist postcards, with their retouched colors, can you see a comfortable and comprehensible Havana.

Sometimes now I don’t want to walk it, because it hurts me. I am heading up Belascoaín, my back the sea that I know so well. I arrive at the corner of Reina Street. There is a Gothic-style church, which as a little girl I perceived to be lost in the clouds. I saw my first Christmas tree there when I was seventeen. I walk though the doors, skipping a little to this side and that. Water trickles down some stairs and a woman tries to sell me some milk caramels that are the same color as the street.

I see the traffic light at Galiano, but the pace slows because there are so many people. A cop turns the corner and some hide themselves behind the doors or slip into stores as if they were going to buy something. When the officer leaves, they return and offer their merchandise in undertones. Because Havana is a city of cries and whispers. Those immersed in their own blather may never hear the whispers. The most important things are always said with a nod, a gesture or a simple pursing of the lips that warns you, “be careful,” “coming over there,” “follow me.” A language developed during decades of the clandestine and illegal.

Neptune Street is nearby. I hear an old couple in front of a façade saying, “Hey? Wasn’t it here where there was…?” but I didn’t manage to hear the end of the sentence. Better that way, because Havana is a sequence of nostalgia, memories. When you walk, it’s like you’re traversing the path of the lost. Where a building collapses into rubble that remains for days, for weeks. Later, the hole is made into a park, or a metal kiosk is built to sell soap, trinkets and rum. A lot of rum, because this is a city that drowns its sorrows in alcohol.

I reach the Malecon. In less than half an hour I’ve walked the slice of the city that in my childhood seemed to contain the whole metropolis. Because I was a “guajira de Centro Habana,” an urchin of downtown, one of those who thinks that “the green zones” start right after Infanta Street. With time, I understood that this capital is too big to know the whole of. I also learned that those born in the neighborhoods of Diez de Octubre, el Cerro, el Vedado or Marianao, shared the same sensation of pain. In any event, Havana shows its wounds in any neighborhood.

I touch the wall that separates us from the sea. It is rough and warm. Where are those kids who, in my childhood, in a remote little village, looked at me in astonishment because I was a Havanan? Will they want to bear this burden? Have they also ended up in this city, living among its dumpsters and lights? Does it pain them like it pains me? I’m sure it does, because Havana is not just a location inscribed in our identity documents. This city is a cross that is carried everywhere, a territory that once you have lived it, you cannot abandon.

Our wall has not fallen … but it is not eternal / Yoani Sanchez

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

The fall of the Berlin Wall or the birth of a new era (Archive Photo)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 November 2014 – My life up to then had always been lived between walls. The wall of the Malecon that separated me from a world of which I’d only heard the horror. The wall of the school where I studied when Germany was reunified. The long wall behind which the illegal sellers of sweets and treats hid themselves. Almost six feet of some overlapping bricks that some classmates jumped over to get out of classes, as indoctrinating as they were boring. To this was added the wall of silence and fear. At home, my parents put their fingers to their lips, speaking in whispers… something happened, but they didn’t tell me what.

In November of 1989 the Berlin Will fell. In reality, it was knocked down with a sledgehammer and a chisel. Those who threw themselves against it were the same people who, weeks earlier, appeared to obey the Communist Party and believe in the paradise of the proletariat. The news came to us slowly and fragmented. Cuba’s ruling party tried to distract attention and minimize the matter; but the details leaked out little by little. That year my adolescence ended. I was only fourteen and everything that came afterwards left me no space for naivety.

Berliners awoke to the noise of the hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie

The masks fell on by one. Berliners awoke to the noise of hammers and we Cubans discovered that the promised future was a complete lie. While Eastern Europe shrugged off the long embrace of the Kremlin, Fidel Castro screamed from the dais, promising in the name of everybody that we would never give up. Few had the insight to realize that that political delusion would condemn us to the most difficult years to confront several generations of Cubans. The wall fell far away, while another parapet was raised around us, that of ideological blindness, irresponsibility and voluntarism.

A quarter century has passed. Today Germans and the whole world are celebrating the end of an absurdity. They are taking stock of the achievements since that November and enjoying the freedom to complain about what hasn’t gone well. We, in Cuba, have missed out on twenty-five years of climbing aboard history’s bandwagon. For our country, the wall is still standing, although right now few are propping up a bulwark erected more at the whim of one man than by the decision of a people.

Our wall hasn’t fallen… but it is not eternal.