Of Freebies and Schools / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Estudiantes-primaria_CYMIMA20140912_0002_16

Elementary school students (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 12 September 2014 – The school bell rings and the children enter the classroom followed by their parents. The first day of classes triggers joy, although a few tears are shed by some who miss their homes. That’s what happened to Carla, who just started kindergarten at a school in Cerro. The little girl is lucky because she got a teacher who has taught elementary school for several years and has mastered the content. “What luck!” some of the little one’s family members think, just before another mother warns them, “But beware of the teacher, she demands every student bring her a bit of a snack from home.”

On the afternoon of September 1, the first parent meeting took place. After the introductions and welcoming remarks, the teacher enumerated everything that the classroom was lacking. “We have to raise money for a fan,” she said, unsmiling. Carla had already suffered from the morning heat, so her mother gave the 3 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) that was her daughter’s share, so she would have a little breeze while studying. ”We also need to buy a broom and mop for cleaning, three fluorescent tubes for the lights, and a trash can,” said the teaching assistant.

A list of requests and needs added some disinfectant for the bathroom, “Because we don’t want the flu,” said the teacher herself. The total expenditures began to grow, and a lock was added, “So that no one steals things when there’s no one in the school.” A father offered some green paint to paint the blackboard, and another offered to fix the hinges on the door, which was lopsided. “I recommend that you buy the children’s notebooks on the street because the ones we received to hand out this year are as thin as onion skin and tear just by using an eraser,” the teacher added.

After the meeting Carla’s family calculated some 250 Cuban pesos in expenses to support the little girl’s education, half the monthly salary of her father, who is a chemical engineer. Then the school principal came to the meeting and rounded it off with, “If anyone knows a carpenter and wants to hire him to fix their child’s desk, feel free.”

Have You Tried Cyanide… General? / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 September 2014 – Today is Zero Day, the fateful date, the day the General Customs of the Republic enacts its new restrictions for non-commercial imports. The measure called to mind an old joke that circulated in the nineties and is still heard today. In this humorous story, a foreign journalist interviewed Fidel Castro and he listed all the obstacles we had faced. “The Cuban people have survived the collapse of transportation, the food crisis and power cuts,” the delusional politician said proudly. The reporter interrupted him and asked: “And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante?”

Nearly two decades have passed and they are still imposing limits and prohibitions incompatible with development and with life. As if in this social laboratory they want to test what they can do to get the guinea pigs—which are us—to keep breathing, clapping, accepting. The new experiment doesn’t come in the form of a syringe, but through customs rules governing the luggage of every traveler. Measures that were taken without previously allowing commercial imports that favor the private sector. As if in the closed glass box in which we are trapped, they are cutting off the oxygen… and watching from the other side of the glass to see how much we can stand.

And you haven’t tried cyanide, Comandante? echoed in my head while I read “The Green Book” with the new prices and limits applied to imports from electric razors to disposable diapers. We lab rats, however, have not remained calm and quiet, like so often in the past. People are complaining, and with good reason, that these restrictions are suffocating self-employed labor and the domestic economy. Everyone is upset. Those who receive parcels from abroad as well as those who don’t, because some of those bouillon cubes or rheumatism creams end up reaching their hands through the black market or the solidarity of a friend.

The reason is not an altered chromosome, but a system that has failed to maintain a stable and high-quality supply of almost any product … except canned ideology and the insipid porridge of the cult of personality

It’s not that we Cubans have a specific gene to accumulate things and—out of pure neurosis—throw stuff into our suitcases from toilet paper and toothpaste to lightbulbs. The reason is not an altered chromosome, but a system that has failed to maintain a stable and high-quality supply of almost any product… except canned ideology and the insipid porridge of the cult of personality. While the shelves of the stores are empty, or filled with the worse quality merchandise at stratospheric prices, we have to bring from outside what we don’t have here. A law on commercial imports was not what we needed and the knife of customs restrictions falls very heavily upon us.

That the measures have come into force is still more evidence of the divorce between the Cuban ruling class and the people’s reality. In their mansions there is no lack of resources, food, nor imported products! They, of course, have no need to bring them home in their luggage. To stock up they reach out to the Ministry of Foreign Commerce, to the official containers that arrive at our ports, and a network of transport that brings chlorine for their swimming pools and French cheese right to their doors. The customs rules do not affect them, because they don’t pay excess luggage fees on their luxuries, which are not considered sundries, household items or food. They live outside the law and watch us locked behind the thick glass of the laboratory they’ve built for us.

Have you tried cyanide… General? Perhaps it would be faster and less painful.

Who is Filling the University Classrooms? / Yoani Sanchez

universidad-estudiantes_CYMIMA20140902_0010_13

New students at the University of Havana (14ymedio)

Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 2 September 2014 — Born during the Special Period, they have grown up trapped in the dual currency system, and when they get their degrees Raul Castro will no longer be in power. They are the more than one hundred thousand young people just starting college throughout the country. Their brief biographies include educational experiments, battles of ideas, and the emergence of new technologies They know more about X-Men than about Elpidio Valdés, and only remember Fidel Castro from old photos and archived documentaries.

They are the Wi-Fi kids with their pirate networks, raised with the “packets” of copied shows and illegal satellite dishes. Some nights they would connect through routers and play strategy video games that made them feel powerful and free. Whoever wants to know them should know that they’ve had “emerging teachers” since elementary school and were taught grammar, math and ideology via television screens. However, they ended up being the least ideological of the Cubans who today inhabit this Island, the most cosmopolitan and with the greatest vision of the future.

On arriving at junior high school they played at throwing around around the obligatory snack of bread while their parents furtively passed their lunches through the school gate. They have a special physical ability, an adaptation that has allowed them to survive the environment; they don’t hear what doesn’t interest them, they close their ears to the harangues of morning assemblies and politicians. They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage. They’re better than us and will live in a country that has nothing to do with what we were promised.

They seem lazier than other generations and in reality they are, but in their case this apathy acts like an evolutionary advantage.

A few months ago, these same young people, starred in the best known case of school fraud uncovered publicly. Some of those hoping to earn a place in higher education bought the answers to an admissions test. They were used to paying for approval, because they had to turn to private tutors to teach them what they should have learned in the classroom. Many of those who recently enrolled in the university had private teachers starting in elementary school. They are the children of a new emerging class that has used its resources so that their children can reach a desk at the right hand—or the left—of the Alma Mater.

These young people dressed in uniforms in their earlier grades, but they struggled to differentiate themselves through the length of a shirt, a fringe of bleached hair, or through pants sagging below their hips. They are the children of those who barely had a change of underwear in the nineties, so their parents tried to make sure they didn’t “go through the same thing,” and turned to the black market for their clothes and shoes. They mock the false austerity and, not wanting to look like militants, they love bright shiny colors and name brand outfits.

Yesterday, with the start of the school year, they received a lecture about the attempts of “imperialism to undermine the Revolution through its youth.” It was like a faint drizzle running over an impervious surface. The Government is right to be worried, these young people who have entered the university will never become good soldiers or fanatics. The clay from which they are made cannot be molded.

Jabitas (Plastic Bags) and Pensions for the Elderly

Selling 'jabitas' (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

Selling ‘jabitas’ (plastic bags) in front of an agricultural market in Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 August 2014 – “I need some dark glasses,” Veronica told me one day when I ran into her on the street. Almost seventy, the lady underwent cataract surgery some months ago and now must “take care of my eyes,” as she explained to me. She works in the sun selling jabitas (plastic bags) to the customers of the farmers market on Tulipan Street. The harsh midday glare is hard on her eyesight, but that’s not the worst of her problems. “We have an alarm system to know when the police are coming, although sometimes they’re in plainclothes and catch us by surprise.” Last month she paid a 1,500 Cuban peso fine (roughly $60 US) for engaging in illegal sales, and this week she received a warning letter for recidivism for the same offense.

If you read articles like Randy Alonso’s about the absence of bags in the hard currency stores, you might come to believe this resource is being diverted into the hands of unscrupulous traders. However, it’s enough to simply know Veronica to understand that her business is one more of misery than of profit. For the four decades she worked as a cleaning assistant in a school, the lady now receives a pension that doesn’t exceed ten dollars a month. Without the resale of the plastic bags, she would have to beg, but she asserts that she “would die before asking for money in the streets.” She is not to blame, rather she is a victim of the circumstances that have pushed her into an illegal activity to survive.

Having to carry purchases in one’s hands in the absence of bags is something that annoys any buyer. But realizing that Randy Alonzo, one of the great spokesmen of the current system, doesn’t know the human dramas that lead to the diversion of plastic bags, is even more irritating. It’s not about callous people who are dedicated to enriching themselves through the fruits of State embezzlement, but rather citizens whose economic poverty leads them to resell whatever product comes into their hands. Right now Veronica is outside some business, wearing the old dark glasses they gave her, muttering “I have jabitas, I have jabitas, one peso each.”

Official Press: Triumphalism, Blacklisting and Censorship / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

News kiosk (Luz Escobar)

News kiosk (Luz Escobar)

14YMEDIO, Havana, Yoani Sanchez, 22 August 2014 – The phone rings and it’s a friend who works for a government publication. She’s content because she’s published an article that attacks bureaucracy and corruption. The young woman finished college two years ago and has been working in a digital medium that deals with cultural and social issues. She has the illusions of a recent graduate, and she believes she can do objective journalism, close to reality, and help to improve her country.

My friend has had some luck, because she exercises this profession at a time when the national media is trying to more closely reflect the problems of our society. The official journalist exists in a timid Glasnost, 25 years after a similar process in the Soviet Union. If that attempt at “information transparency” was promoted through Perestroika, on the Island it’s been pushed by the Sixth Communist Party Congress Guidelines. In this way, a more objective and less triumphalist press is pushed—from above. The same power that helped create laudatory newspapers, now urges a shift from applause to criticism. But it’s not easy.

The original sin of the official press is not the press, but propaganda. It emerged to sustain the ideological political-economic model and it can’t shed that genesis. The first steps in the creation of the current national media always includes an act of faith in the Revolution, It is also funded entirely by the Government, which further affects its editorial line. It’s worth noting that the official media is not profitable, that is, it doesn’t generate income or even support its print runs or transmissions. Hence, it operates with subsidies taken from the national coffers. All Cubans sustain the newspapers Granma and Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the Cubavision channel or Radio Reloj (Clock Radio)… whether we like it or not. Continue reading

Female Caricature / Yoani Sanchez

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

Woman drinking (14ymedio)

14yMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 August 2014 – A woman on national television said that her husband “helps” her with some household chores. To many, the phrase may sound like the highest aspiration of every woman. Another lady asserts that her husband behaves like a “Federated man,” an allusion to the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which today is celebrating its 54th anniversary. As for me, on this side of the screen, I feel sorry for them in the face of such meekness. Instead of the urgent demands they should mention, all I hear is this appreciation directed to a power as manly as it is deaf.

It’s not about “helping” to wash a plate or watch the kids, nor tiny illusory gender quotas that hide so much discrimination like a slap. The problem is that economic and political power remains mainly in masculine hands. What percentage of car owners are women? How many acres of land are owned or leased by women. How many Cuban ambassadors on missions abroad wear skirts? Can anyone recite the number of men who request paternity leave to take care of their newborns? How many young men are stopped by the police each day to warn them they can’t walk with a tourist? Who mostly attends the parent meetings at the schools?

Please, don’t try to “put us to sleep” with figures in the style of, “65% of our cadres and 50% of our grassroots leaders are women.” The only thing this statistic means is that more responsibility falls on our shoulders, which means neither a high decision-making level nor greater rights. At least such a triumphalist phrase clarifies that there are “grassroots leaders,” because we know that decisions at the highest level are made by men who grew up under the precepts that we women are beautiful ornaments to have at hand…always and as long as we keep our mouths shut.

I feel sorry for the docile and timid feminist movement that exists in my country. Ashamed for those ladies with their ridiculous necklaces and abundant makeup who appear in the official media to tell us that “the Cuban woman has been the greatest ally of the Revolution.” Words spoken at the same moment when a company director is sexually harassing his secretary, when a beaten woman can’t get a restraining order against her abusive husband, when a policeman tells the victim of a sexual assault, “Well, with that skirt you’re wearing…” and the government recruits shock troops for an act of repudiation against the Ladies in White.

Women are the sector of the population that has the most reason to shout their displeasure. Because half a century after the founding of the caricature of an organization that is the Federation of Cuban Women, we are neither more free, nor more powerful, nor even more independent.

Chrome Becomes “Legal” in Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

Logo-Google_CYMIMA20140821_0003_13

Yesterday, the giant Google authorized the download of their well-known browser Chrome by Cuban internauts. The announcement came just two months after several of the American company’s executives visited Havana and saw for themselves the problems we suffer accessing the vast World Wide Web.

Among the topics of conversation between several members of 14ymedio and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, were precisely these restrictions. Hence, our satisfaction on knowing that the opinions of citizens interested in the free flow of information and technology influenced the elimination of this prohibition. An obstacle that, while it was in effect, affected the Cuban population more than a Government that is among the greatest Internet predators in the world.

During their trip to Cuba the four Google directors not only suffered the inconvenience of the digital sites censored by the Cuban authorities, and the high prices to connect from public places, but also experienced the restrictions imposed by their own company on Cuban Internet users. If must have been a particularly bitter pill to swallow to try to download Google Chrome and see the screen appear saying, “This service is not available in your country.”

We Cuban user, fortunately, had not expected the American company to be allowed to access the program from a national Internet Provider. Google Chrome, along with Mozilla Firefox and the controversial Internet Explorer, have been the most used browsers in our country. It simply required someone to bring an installer, after downloading it for free on a trip abroad, for it to pass from hand to hand—or flash memory stick to flash memory stick— and to be installed on hundreds (thousands?) of computers.

What has happened now is that we have gone from being illegal users to joining the brotherhood of more than 750 million people around the world using this program in an authorized manner. Services such as Google AnalyticsGoogle Earth and the Android App Store are now awaiting a similar thaw. Hopefully we will not have to wait from another visit to Cuba by directors of Google for these limitations to be eliminated!

21 August 2014

Dengue Fever and Tall Stories for Children / Yoani Sanchez

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Leaks like this foster the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries dengue fever. (14ymedio)

Explaining death to a child is always a difficult task. Some parents reach for a metaphor and others lie. The adults justify someone’s death to children with phrases that range from “he’s gone to heave to live on a cloud,” to the tall story that “he’s gone on a trip.” The worst is when these inventions transcend the family and become the political information policy of a State. To falsify to people the actual incidence of death, is to rob them of their maturity and deny their right to transparency.

In 1981 an epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever broke out in Cuba. I was barely six, but that situation left me deeply traumatized. The first thing they told us in school was that the disease had been introduced by “Yankee imperialism.” The Uncle Sam of my childish nightmares no longer threatened us with a gun, but rather with a huge Aedes aegypti mosquito, ready to infect us with bonebreak fever. My family panicked when they began to learn about the dead children. The emergency room at the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital was a hive of screaming and crying. My mother asked me once an hour if anything hurt, her hand on my forehead checking for fever.

There was no information, only whispers and fear, a lot of fear. By not speaking publicly about the true source of the evil, the population could barely protect itself. In my primary school we kept running to the shelter—underneath the Ministry of Basic Industries—in the face of the “imminent military attack” that was coming from the North. Meanwhile, a small stealthy enemy ran rampant among people my age. That lie didn’t take long to become obvious. Decades later dengue fever has returned, although I dare say it never left, and all these years the health authorities have tried to hide it.

Now there is no one else to blame, as if hygiene hasn’t deteriorated in our country. It is not the Pentagon, but the thousands of miles of damaged plumbing leaking all over the Island. It is not the CIA, but the inefficiency of a system that has not even managed to build new drainage and sewer networks. The responsibility doesn’t point overseas, but directly at us. No laboratory has created this virus to kill Cubans, it is our own material and sanitary collapse that keeps us from being able to control it.

At least that story for children, where the evil always came from abroad, no longer works. The tall story, which presented us as victims infected by American perfidy, is accepted only by the most naïve. Like children grow up, we have found that the Government has lied to us about dengue fever and that those were not paternalistic falsehoods, but sophisticated lies of the State.

The New Gold Rush / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Panning for gold (14ymedio)

Panning for gold

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 August 2014 – Evening falls and the sound of the sieves in the rolling hills trails off. The three men collect their belongings. They’ve finished the first day in their arduous search for gold. Tomorrow they will wake up early and with the first light of day return to dig, wash, sift and find the little nuggets among the mud and sandstone. “If I find at least one gram, I’m going to finish the roof of my house,” says the most experienced of the stealth miners.

The Rafael Freyre area in Holguin province attracts hundreds of people every year who dream that a mine will help them out of their economic difficulties. Is it need? A hobby? Or a real gold rush? Everyone experiences it in their own way, but the oldest people in the area say that when “people have gold in their eyes it’s like a demon that will never leave.”

The stealth miners have created their own working tools from few resources. Among the most important is the “car,” a sieve with a piece of rubber where the mud is deposited, that then falls through the screen. It is a team effort, requiring at least three strong men. While two shake the sieve, the other pours water over the mud collected in the excavations. “Then the gold dust is left, in particles like a kind of pea hull, although there can also be nuggets,” says Fernando Ramón Rodríguez Vargas who lives in Levisa, Mayari municipality, and for years has dedicated himself to the pursuit of the precious metal.

Those who spend a lot of time in these tasks have developed and eye for finding where the gold is, they don’t believe in metal detectors. “They aren’t very effective because they go off everywhere, in this area there can be a little piece anywhere. The most commonly used method is the same as it is used by industries. I take a sample of the dirt and I wash it to check how much gold it contains just so I will know if it’s worth the trouble,” Veredia Elcok says, revealing his secrets. He has participated in numerous fortune hunting expeditions. He claims that the Cuatro Palmas area in Holguin is the most famous for the size of the pieces found, and because the gold “is at ground level.” Continue reading

Reporting is the Least of It / Yoani Sanchez

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic "objectivity." [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’”]

Big Brother stands as judge of journalistic “objectivity.” [The text says that CPI can temporarily or permanently cancel press credentials for “lack of journalistic ethics… or objectivity.’” Minrex is the Foreign Ministry]

A few years ago I met a foreign correspondent based in Cuba who related an absurd and revealing anecdote. The International Press Center (CPI) had called him in to warn him about the content of an article. Receiving the summons didn’t surprise him, because warning calls like that were a common practice of this agency in charge of registering and controlling foreign journalists living on the Island. Nor could he refuse to appear, because he depended on the CPI for his credentials to report on a nature reserve and even to interview a government minister. So there it was.

The reporter arrived at the centrally located building on 23rd Street, where the CPI is headquartered, and was led to an office with two annoyed looking men. After bringing him coffee and talking about other things, they got to the point. They reproached the journalist for a report where he had referred to Cuba as “the communist Island.” This was a huge surprise to the correspondent because previous warnings he’d received were for “reporting only on the bad things about the Cuban reality,” or “not treating the leaders of the Revolution with respect.” But he never imagined that this time he would be scolded for the complete opposite. Continue reading

My Mother and the Onions / Yoani Sanchez

Onion seller (14ymedio)

Onion seller (14ymedio)

14YMEDIO, Yoani Sanchez, 6 August 2014 – Who do I think about when I write? How does the reader imagine my texts come to me? Who do I want to shake up, move, reach… with my words? Such questions are common among those of us who devote ourselves to publishing our opinions and ideas. It is also a common question among those of us who engage in the informative work of the press. Defining the subject to which we turn our journalistic intentions is key to not falling into absurd generalizations, unintelligible language, or the tones of a training manual.

I do not write for academics or sages. Although I once graduated in Hispanic philology, the Latin declensions and text citations belong to a stage of my life I’ve left in the past. Nor do I think that my words reach people seated in the comfortable armchairs of power, nor specialists nor scholars who look for keys and messages in them. When I sit in front of the keyboard I think about people like my mother, who worked for more than 35 years in the taxi sector. It is to those people, tied to reality and dealing with adversity 24 hours a day, that I direct my words.

At times, when I talk to my mamá, I explain the need for Cuba to open itself up to democracy, to respect human rights and to establish freedom. She listens to me in silence for a while. After some minutes, she changes the conversation and tells me about the eggs that haven’t come, the bureaucrat who mistreated her, or the water leak at the corner of her house. Then, I ask her how much onions cost. My mother has to pay out three days worth of her pension to buy a pound of onions. I no longer have to say anything, she just concludes, “This country has to change.”

The Maleconazo in a Can of Condensed Milk / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Karl Poort, 5 August 1994

Photo: Karl Poort 1994

14ymedio, YOANI SÁNCHEZ, Havana, 5 August 2014 – We had run around together in our Cayo Hueso neighborhood. His family put up several cardboard boxes in vacant lot near Zanja Street, similar to those they’d had in Palmarito del Cauto. His last name was Maceo and something in his face recalled that Titan of so many battles, except that his principal and only skirmish would entail not a horse, but a flimsy raft. When the Maleconazo broke out he joined in the shouting and escaped when the arrests started. He didn’t want to go home because he knew the police were looking for him.

He left alone on a monstrosity made of two inflated truck tires and boards, tied together with ropes. His grandmother prepared water for him in a plastic tank and gave him a can of condensed milk she’d been saving for five years. It was one of those products from the USSR whose contents arrived on the island congealed, after the long boat ride. My generation grew up drinking this sugary lactose mixed with whatever came to hand in the street. So Maceo added the can to his scanty stores—more as an amulet than as food—and departed from San Lazaro cove.

He never arrived. His family waited and waited and waited. His parents searched the lists of those held at the Guantanamo Naval Base, but his name was never on them. They asked others who capsized near the coast and tried to leave again. No one knew of Maceo. They inquired at the morgues where they kept the remains of the dead who washed up on shore. In those bleak places they looked at everyone, but never saw their son. A young man told them that near the first shelf he had come across a single raft, floating in nothingness. “It was empty,” he told them, “it only had a piece of a sweater and a can of condensed milk.”

Editor’s note: Today is the 20th anniversary of “The Maleconazo.” You can read more about this uprising and the subsequent Rafter Crisis in previous posts: