The King, The President and The Dictator

Cuban President Raúl Castro receives the Spanish Foreign Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 23 April 2017 — In the palace of the Captains General in Havana there is a throne awaiting its king. It was prepared when Cuba was still a Spanish colony and a monarch has never sat in its imposing structure. The visit of Spain’s King Felipe VI visit may end such a long wait, but the Island needs more than gestures of symbolism and protocol.

The king and the Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, will arrive in the country a few months before Raul Castro leaves power. The official visit, long prepared for, has all the traces of a farewell. It will be like the farewell of the Mother Country to one of its descendants across the sea. Someone who began as leftist revolutionary and ended up being a part of a rigid dynasty.

The visitors will arrive in the middle of “the cooling off of the thaw” between Washington and Havana. The expectations that led to the diplomatic normalization announced on 17 December 2014 have been diluted with the passage of months in the absence of tangible results. More than two years have tone by and the island is no more free nor has it imagined to merge from its economic quagmire. continue reading

It will be like the farewell of the Mother Country to one of its descendants across the sea. Someone who began as leftist revolutionary and ended up being a part of a rigid dynasty

US airlines have begun to reduce the frequency of their flights to Cuba, discouraged by low demand and the limitations that remain on Americans traveling to Cuba as tourists. Castro has not withdrawn the ten percent tax he keeps on the exchange of dollars, and connecting to the internet from the island is still an obstacle course. All this and more discourages travelers from the country to the north of us.

The photos of building collapses and old cars fill the Instagram accounts of the Yumas (Americans) who tour the streets, but even the most naïve get tired of this dilapidated theme park. Cuba has gone out of style. All the attention it captured after the day Cubans refer to in shorthand as “17-D,” has given way to boredom and apathy, because life is not accompanied by a comfortable armchair to support this incredibly long move where almost nothing happens.

Last year tourism reached a historic record of 4 million visitors but the hotels have to engage in a juggling act to maintain a stable supply of fruit, beer and even water. Between the shortages and the drought, scenes of long lines of customers waiting for a Cristal beer, or carrying buckets from the swimming pool to use in their bathrooms are not uncommon.

Foreign investors also do not seem very enthusiastic about putting their money into the economy of a country where it is still highly centralized and nationalized. The port of Mariel, tainted with the scandals of the Brazilian company Odebrecht, and with activity levels far below initial projections, seems doomed to become the Castro regime’s last pharaonic and useless project.

But Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House hasn’t meant an iron fist against the Plaza of the Revolution as some had prophesied. The new US president has simply avoided looking toward the island and right now seems more focused on the distant and dangerous Kim Jong-un than the anodyne and close at hand Raul Castro.

The new US president has simply avoided looking toward the island and right now seems more focuses on the distant and dangerous Kim Jong-un than the anodyne and close at hand Raul Castro.

The Havana government lost its most important opportunity by not taking advantage of the opening offered by Barack Obama, who hardly asked for anything in return. Right now there hasn’t even been start on the drafting of the new Electoral Law announced in February of 2015. Was that news perhaps a maneuver so that the European Union would finally decide to repeal the Common Position? Fake news that sought to convince the unwary and fire up the headlines in the foreign press with talk of openings?

To top it off, they have increased the level of repression against opponents, and just a few days ago a journalism student was expelled from the university for belonging to a dissident movement. A process in the purest Stalinist style cut off her path to getting a degree in this profession that, decades ago, officialdom condemned to serve as a spokesperson for its achievements while remaining mute in the face of its disasters.

Take care. The visit of King Felipe and Queen Letizia is inscribed in times of fiascos. Failures that include the economic recession that plagues a country with a Gross Domestic Product that closed out last year in negative numbers, despite the usual make-up the government applies to all such figures. And the Venezuelan ally unable to shake off Nicolas Maduro, increasingly less presidential and more autocratic. The convulsions in that South American country have left Cuba almost without premium gas and with several fuel cuts in the state sector.

These are not the moments to proudly show off the house to visitors, but rather a magnificent occasion for the highest Spanish authorities to understand that totalitarianism never softens nor democratizes, it just changes its skin.

The Spaniard will have to spin a very fine thread not to turn the visit of the head of state into an accolade for the dying system. The royals will be surrounded by the attentions of officials who are trying to avoid, fundamentally, their stepping a single decorated millimeter beyond the careful preparations that have been underway for months. As was once attempted during the 1999 visit of Juan Carlos de Borbón to participate in an Ibero-American Summit.

The Spaniard will have to spin a very fine thread not to turn the visit of the head of state into an accolade for the dying system

On that occasion, and during a stroll with Queen Sofia through the streets of Old Havana, officialdom blocked access to the neighbors, emptied the sidewalks of the curious and worked the magic of converting one of the most densely inhabited areas of the city, with the most residents per acre in all of Cuba, into a depopulated stage where the royal couple walked.

Their successors, who will travel to the island “as soon as possible,” could do worse than to study the ways in which Barack Obama managed to shake off the suffocating embrace in March of 2016. The American president handled himself gracefully, even when Raul Castro – with the gesture of a conquering guerrilla, fists raised – tried to trap him in a snapshot. But the White House tenant relaxed his hand and looked away. A defeat for the Revolution’s visual epic.

Nor does Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy have an easy time. The official press does not like him and surrounds him always with criticism and negative news about his Party

Nor does Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy have an easy time. The official press does not like him and surrounds him always with criticism and negative news about his Party. He does not enjoy sympathies among the circles of power in Havana despite having reduced the degrees of tension that reached a peak during the term of Jose Maria Aznar. But on the island there are more than 100,000 Cubans who are nationalized Spanish citizens, also represented by that nation’s leader and who are, in the end, his most important interlocutors.

Felipe VI and Rajoy have in their favor that they will no longer be bound by the protocol to be photographed with Fidel Castro in his convalescent retirement. The king declined his father’s participation in death tributes for the former president last November in the Plaza of the Revolution. Thus, the young monarch managed that his name and that of the Commander in Chief do not appear together in the history books.

However, he still has to overcome the most difficult test. That moment in which his visit can go from being a necessary approach to a country very culturally familiar, to become a concession of legitimacy to a decadent regime.

Meanwhile, in the Palace of the Captains General, a throne awaits its king, and in the Plaza of the Revolution a chair awaits the departure of its dictator.

Editorial Note: This article was published in the original Spanish Saturday 22 April in the Spanish newspaper El País

Invitation to the Readers of ’14ymedio’

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Miami, 14 April 2017 — In this blog I have experienced good readers and bad moments, shared stories and exchanged opinions. For almost three years you have also accompanied me in the adventure of running a digital newspaper. Together with the team of 14ymedio, you are part of a diverse family spread over several continents.

To talk about this time that we spent together and update you on the challenges that are to come, I want to invite you to the meeting: Cuba: at the distance of an embrace, this coming April 24 from 6 to 8 pm at the CubaOcho Museum and Performing Arts Center in Miami, to share anecdotes and ideas with you and two other reporters from 14ymedio.

I know that many who live far away or are busy and will not be able to come, but I don’t lost hope of continuing to have this kind of conversation in different cities and one day, why not, do the same thing in our newsroom in Havana: without repression or fear.


The Address of the Cubaocho Museum & Performing Arts Center is 1465 SW 8th Street #106, Little Havana, Miami.

There will be a menu for those wishing to buy food and drink during the event. Special guests will be our friends from Project 305 of the New World Symphony of Miami, an initiative of which we are part and which seeks to collect audio and video clips to be used in an orchestral work that reflects the spirit of this city.

Ten Years, A Blog

Yoani Sánchez received the Ortega y Gasset award for her work on ‘Generation Y’ in 2008, although she was not allowed to leave the country to receive it until five years later. (El Pais)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 10 April 2017 — Dawn, the sound of the keyboard marks the beginning of the day. I start a blog that will make me experience the most gratifying and terrible moments of my existence. I go out with the USB stick around my neck, climb the steps of the Havana Capitol and mumble a few phrases to get myself into the place with internet access exclusively for foreigners. It is the 9th of April 2007 and I publish the first text of Generation Y… My life has just taken a turn.

A decade has passed since that scene. A time during which I laid bare, post by post, the events that mark the reality of my country and of my own existence. I have filled the pages of this personal diary and left a testimony of the eventful and intense years I have lived. A digital logbook that could well serve as an impressionist portrait of Cuba at the beginning of this millennium. continue reading

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then. I discovered the immense scope of the written word, the amplifying character of technology, and an authoritarian power’s lack of ethical limits. I owned responsibility for every published phrase and not a few times paid the consequences not for what I said, but for what others believed I said.

I discovered the immense scope of the written word, the amplifying character of technology, and an authoritarian power’s lack of ethical limits

I earned a scolding from a severe leader accustomed to hearing only his own voice, I spent more than one night in a jail cell, and I learned to speak in code to evade the microphones placed in my house. I got used to seeing my face in the official media surrounded by the worst adjectives and lost more than one friend. However, the gratifying moments have far surpassed all the punishments this opinion space has brought me.

I watched innumerable voices be born and gain strength, voices that made the Cuban blogosphere a more plural and inclusive space. I met many, like myself, who in their respective countries grabbed ahold of the new digital tools to try to better their societies. I received the support of my family and discovered the profession that I exercise today: journalism.

Each text that has come out in Generation Y shows that personal path, marked by obstacles and gratifications. If I could go back in time I would only amend the moment when I decided to open this blog. I don’t forgive myself for having waited so long to express myself.

Reflections* From a Glass House

Reinaldo Escobar, 18 June 2008 (Reposted 10 April 2017) — The former president Fidel Castro has just published a foreword to the book Fidel, Bolivia and Something More in which he discredits the internet blog, Generation Y, written by my wife, the blogger Yoani Sanchez.  From the first day, she has put her full name (which he omits) and her photo on the web, visible to readers, to sign the articles which she writes with the sole purpose – as she has said several times – of “throwing up” all that is nauseating about our reality.

The ex-president disapproves of the fact that Yoani accepted this year’s Ortega y Gasset Prize for Digital Journalism, arguing that the prize is something that imperialism favors to blow its own horn. I recognize the right of this gentleman to make this comment, but I allow myself to observe that the responsibility implied in receiving a prize is never comparable to that of bestowing one, and Yoani, at least, has never awarded a medal to a corrupt person, a traitor, a dictator or a murderer. continue reading

I clarify this because I remember perfectly that the author of these reproaches was the one who placed (or commanded to be placed) the “Order of José Martí” on the lapels of the most terrible and undeserving men possible: Leonid llyich Brezhnev, Nicolae Ceausescu, Todor Zhivkov, Gustav Husak, Janos Kadar, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Robert Mugabe, Heng Samrin, Erich Honecker and others that I have forgotten. I would like to read, in light of these times, a “Reflection” that justifies the award of these inadmissible honors – to blow the horns of others – that so tarnished the name of the man we call our Apostle, José Martí.

It is true that the philosopher Ortega y Gasset can be connected to elitist and perhaps reactionary ideas, but at least, unlike those decorated by the prologue writer, he never launched tanks against his nonconforming neighbors, nor built palaces, nor imprisoned those whose opinions differed from his own, nor left his followers in the lurch, nor amassed fortunes from the misery of his people, nor built extermination camps, nor gave orders to shoot those who, to escape, jumped the fence from his own backyard.

*Translator’s note: Fidel Castro’s column in the daily newspaper Granma, is titled “Reflections of Fidel

Site manager’s note: Translating Cuba has chosen to reprint this article, from the early in the second year of Yoani’s blog, in connection with Generation Y’s tenth anniversary.

Men’s Matters

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 18 June 2008 (Reposted 10 April 2017) — In this Central Havana of guapos* – tough guys – and brawls where I was born, I learned there are certain lines a woman should never cross.  I have spent my life breaking the laughable rules of machismo, but today – and only today – I am going to take refuge in one of them, one of the ones I dislike the most.  It warns, “A woman needs a man to represent her and to go to bat for her when another man insults or slanders her.”

Feeling attacked by someone with a power infinitely superior to mine, more than twice my age, and in addition – as the neighbors of my childhood would have said – someone who is “macho-male-masculine,” I have decided it will be my husband, the journalist Reinaldo Escobar, who will respond. continue reading

I refer to the damaging remarks that Fidel Castro made about me in the prologue of the book, Fidel, Bolivia and Something More.  Not even such a “great” attack convinces me to abandon the premise of refusing to engage in a cycle of rejoinder and self defense.  I am sorry to say I remain focused on the theme called “Cuba.”

Let’s leave it up to Reinaldo and Fidel to do the fighting.  I will continue in my “womanly” labor of weaving together, despite the chatter, the frayed tapestry of our civil society.
The guapos from my neighborhood will know that I learned “something” from them!

* Please do not confuse a Cuban guapo with a handsome man or suitor. That might work in another Latin American country, but here in Cuba the word carries a different connotation, which someone might explain to you  with a slap, or perhaps a stabbing.

Translator’s note: The first sentence is hard to translate because there is a double meaning.  Guapo/guapa is both an adjective and a noun and in common use it means handsome/gorgeous.  In Cuban slang “guapo” also means a tough guy, someone who likes to fight.  It can be used as an insult or to dare someone, that is as the aggressive form of “Hey, man…”  The original footnote explains this meaning for non-Cuban Spanish readers who may not be familiar with it.


Site manager’s note: Translating Cuba has chosen to reprint this article, from the early in the second year of Yoani’s blog, in connection with Generation Y’s tenth anniversary.

Eliécer Ávila, The ‘New Man’ Who Became An Opponent

Eliecer Ávila, leader of the Somos+ (We Are More) Movement (CC).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 8 April 2017 – Walking along the streets with Eliécer Ávila can be a complicated task. His face is well known thanks to a viral video broadcast almost a decade ago. However, before fame came into his life, this young man born in Las Tunas was a model “New Man”: the most finished product of ideological indoctrination.

Like all Cuban children, Avila shouted slogans during his school’s morning assembly, participated in countless repudiation activities “against imperialism” and dreamed of resembling Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. But while, in school, they taught him the social achievements that the Revolutionary process brought to the population, at home reality was stubborn and showed itself to be something quite different. continue reading

The residents of Yarey de Vázquez are poor, the kind of poverty that grabs you by the throat

The residents of Yarey de Vázquez – the Puerto Padre municipality of Puerto Padre where the leader of the Somos+ (We Are More) Movement was born – are poor, the kind of poverty that grabs you by the throat. A place lost in nothingness, where many families still use latrines for their bodily needs, and live in houses with roofs made of palm fronds.

Surrounded by pigs, chickens and tedium, Avila realized that his life did not resemble the official version he was being taught. Born in 1985, in the middle of that “golden decade” when the Soviet Union was propping up the island, he was barely walking a year later when Fidel Castro ordered the closing of the free farmers markets in the midst of the “Process of Rectification of Errors and Negative Tendencies.”

Eliécer Avila reached puberty during what was called the Special Period. With the voracity that still characterizes him, he faced many days of his adolescence with his plate half full, or almost empty. He hand stitched the shoes he wore to school, invented all kinds of “outfits” from his grandfather’s old shirts, and turned off the light when it was time to strip down to his underwear, so no one could see the holes.

Surrounded by pigs, chickens and tedium, Avila realized that his life did not resemble the official version he was taught. He was born in 1985, in the middle of that “golden decade” when the Soviet Union was propping up the Island

With a natural leadership quality, in which a certain humor mixes with an undeniable histrionic capacity to narrate anecdotes, the young man made his way through those years without climbing aboard a raft to escape the country or ending up in jail. Those who knew him predicted a future in politics, because of those “fine lips” that helped him in student meetings and in romantic conquests.

A little bit later, luck smiled on him. He was able to enroll in the University of Computer Sciences (UCI), founded in 2002 in the middle of the Battle of Ideas. UCI was located on the site that had once been the Center for Exploration and Radioelectronics Listening, known as the Lourdes SIGNIT Station, where until 2001 Russia – and the Soviet Union before it – had had its largest spy station outside its borders. UCI was a school for trusted young people to become computer soldiers for a Revolution that fears the Internet.

While a student at UCI, Avila led Operation Truth. His task was to monitor digital sites and blogs critical of the Government. In those spaces, the young revolutionary sharpened his arsenal of tools for political struggle that included everything from hacking to the execution of the reputation of anyone who opposed the Plaza of the Revolution.

Little by little, like acid that filters through the cracks, those anti-government arguments he read on the web began to sink into his mind and mingle with his own disagreements. Restless, in 2008 he took his turn at the microphone during a visit to UCI of Ricardo Alarcón, then president of the National Assembly. The minutes of that public appearance that followed marked the rest of his life.

The video of the collision between Ávila and Alarcón jumped to first place in the hit parade on the clandestine networks that distributed audiovisuals. No one wanted to miss it, especially the moment when the leader of Parliament justified the travel restrictions imposed on Cubans by saying how congested the skies might be, if everyone were allowed to board an airplane.

Avila led Operation Truth while studying computer science; his task was to monitor digital sites and blogs critical of the Government

Now, nine years later, the young activist prefers not to be called “Eliécer, the one who debated with Alarcon,” but for the rest of his life it will be his most important letter of introduction to millions of Cubans. His challenge of power, with simple questions and a firm voice, has been one of the most accurate and best documented gestures of rebellion in almost six decades of Castroism.

After that, he received his punishment. After graduating, the authorities sent him to a remote Youth Computer Club to purge his audacity. It was the decisive moment in which he decided to cross the red line towards independence. He left the state sector, founded the Somos+ Movement and relocated to Havana. One audacious act after another.

The attacks rained down from all sides. State Security raised the level of pressure on his environment, traditional opposition leaders threw darts at the upstart, and there was no shortage of those who claimed that he was only a mole for the political police disguised as a dissident.

Since then, Ávila has tried to give shape to a civic discourse that uses new technologies and a less politicized language, closer to the concerns of ordinary people. But, like every dissident, he is caught in the grip of charges of illegal action, subjected to constant vigilance and assigned the halo of demonization imposed on anyone who does not applaud power.

Nothing is more disturbing to a system that has played with social alchemy than the fact of a creature from its own ideological laboratory turning against it

The numerous trips abroad that he has made since the Travel and Immigration Reforms of 2013 have allowed him to know the world, only to discover that the most exciting and indecipherable of the territories that await him is located in the future Cuba. That country so many have dreamed of and that is taking so long to arrive.

Recently he went a step further and announced that he was prepared to represent the electors of his constituency as a delegate. A somewhat remote possibility, given the oiled mechanisms of control over the People’s Assemblies maintained by the ruling party where, by show of hands, the attendees must nominate the potential candidates.

This week, the guajiro of Yarey de Vázquez has crossed another line. A public protest at José Martí International Airport has resulted in his house being searched, and him being arrested and charged with “illicit economic activity.” The trigger was the seizure of his laptop at Customs when he returned from Colombia.

Now, it is expected that the siege around the young leader and his Somos+ Movement will continue to close. Nothing is more disturbing to a system that has played with social alchemy than a creature from its own ideological laboratory turning against it. Eliécer Ávila will be doubly punished because power acts with more fury against its own, when it rebels.

More articles in English by and about Eliécer Ávila can be read here.

Invasive Marabou Weed Arrives at the Plaza of the Revolution

Marabou in the Plaza of the Revolution. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, NYC, 6 April 2017 — Resistant and thorny, the invasive marabou weed has inundated Cuban fields and threatened to displace the national shield’s royal palm. The shrub has become a plague spreading across the country, covering previously arable land, and worming its way into a topic for the speeches of senior officials. But the tenacious invader is not exclusive to rural areas and has also reached that symbol of power that is the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana.

On one side of the José Martí National Library, among the ruins of a building that would have been used to house patients for Operation Miracle – an eye care program – but that was never finished, grows a spontaneous garden with tiny yellow flowers and powerful pods loaded with seeds. The marabou raises its defiant branches there as if it were pointing to the huge tower popularly called “La Raspadura” – The Scratch. continue reading

Without adequate machinery or chemical defoliants to help stop the plague, across the island many country dwellers use old machetes and makeshift axes to cut the trunks. However, on both sides of the highways and in any vacant lot, the marabou continues to display its excellent health.

In 2007, during his speech on the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks, Raúl Castro joked about the panorama he had found on his trip to the city of Camagüey: “What was most beautiful, what stood out to my eyes, was how lovely the marabou was along the whole road.”

Now, the implacable enemy is approaching the presidential office in the Palace of the Revolution. Stealthy and steady, the marabou has won the battle.

Maduro Closes His Fist Around Venezuela

The president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, in a civic act. (EFE File)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 April 2017 — Everything was to get to this point: the long harangues of Hugo Chávez, his populist promises and the perks distributed to the loyal. Nearly two decades of “Twenty-first Century Socialism” have successfully led to Venezuela’s abandonment of democracy. This week, with the cancellation and subsequent “restoration” of the powers of the National Assembly, the cage has been definitively closed.

Nicolás Maduro took a bold and desperate step. The all-powerful entity into which he converted the Supreme Court dealt the blow that the president had been planning since he lost control of Parliament in December 2015. The judges just did the dirty work and, three days later, they faced the ridicule of backing off from their decision. continue reading

The claims inside and outside of Venezuela prevented the leadership from accomplishing the self-coup. A move with which Maduro sought to end his stubborn opposition, to stand up to the possible application of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States, and to buy time for his battered and corrupt government.

A country shaken by the whims of a political elite as obstinate to preserve its own privileges, as it is to refuse to recognize that it has lost the support of the citizenry

Although Maduro backed down shortly afterwards, previous decrees make it so that the parliamentarians still can not implement their legislative decisions and the country has been living from January of 2016 under a state of exception, euphemistically denominated the economic emergency. The Venezuelans go through a calvary of hardship, violence and exodus.

Every week Maduro invents some campaign or confrontation that will help him, with the support of the leadership of his party, to stay in the presidential chair and exercise control over the country’s budget and oil wells.

The Chavistas have no ideology left. The movement they described as popular has become addicted to the attributes of power, unable to perceive the reality of the streets. It is not the Venezuelan people who interest them, but the life of luxuries that they have constructed in their palaces while proclaiming to the four winds the discourse of helping the poor and the needy.

However, more frightening than their insatiable material voracity is the institutional fragility in which they have left the nation. A country shaken by the whims of a political elite as obstinate to preserve its own privileges, as it is to refuse to recognize that it has lost the support of the citizenry.

Maduro has Venezuela in his fist and does not seem ready to let go.

Raul Castro Squandered His Last Chance / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, shook hands a year ago in Havana. (White House)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 March 2017 — A year ago Cuba had a once in a lifetime opportunity. US President Barack Obama came to the island willing to turn the page on political confrontation. The gesture transcended the diplomatic situation, but Raul Castro – fearful of losing control – responded by putting the brakes on economic reforms and raising the levels of ideological discourse and repression.

Nations are not presented with opportunities every year, nor even every century. The decision to entrench itself and not to undertake political flexibilizations has been the Plaza of the Revolution’s most egotistical measure of recent times. Failure to know how to take advantage of the end of public belligerence with our neighbor to the north will bring this country lasting and unpredictable consequences. continue reading

These effects will not be suffered by the so-called “historic generation” – those at the forefront of the 1950s Revolution – now diminished by the rigors of biology and desertions. Rather than the generals in olive-green, the ones who will pay the price will be those who are still sleeping in their cradles or spinning their tops in the streets of the island. They don’t know it, but in the last twelve months a short-sighted octogenarian tricked them out of a share of their future.

The greatest waste has been not exploiting the international moment, the excitement about foreign investments, and the expectations everywhere in Cuba of taking the first steps towards democratic change without violence or chaos. It was not the job of the White House to encourage or provoke such transformations, but its good mood was a propitious setting for them to be less traumatic.

Instead, the white rose Obama extended to Castro in his historic speech in Havana’s Gran Teatro has faded, beset by hesitations and fears. Now, it is our job to explain to these Cubans of tomorrow why we were at a turning point in our history and we threw it away.

Utopia’s Courtesans / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

”Jineteras” accompany tourists on a Cuban beach. (Cuban  Human Rights Observatory)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 March 2017 — An aging prostitute is like a book with tattered pages depicting the life of a nation. A survival manual to approach the vagaries of reality, to learn about its most carnal and, at times, most sordid parts. Many of the courtesans of Utopia in Cuba are already octogenarians. They have gone from caressing the chests of their bearded idols to the arthritis they struggle with as they stand in long lines to buy bread.

More than half a century ago this island decreed the end of the exchange of sex for money. No one, ever again, would sell their body for a little food, a social position or a better job. Hookers were a thing of the capitalist past and in a country heading for Utopia there was no room for such weakness. They had to transform themselves into militants, outstanding workers and the irreproachable mothers of the New Man. continue reading

But prostitution, alas, continues to exist. Like the national lottery that was submerged in illegality after being outlawed, and the jokes against the Maximum Leader shared in whispers, the world’s oldest profession hid in the shadows. Clients were no longer nationals with a few pesos to spend at the nearest brothel, nor sailors eager to recuperate in the tropics from their long days of abstinence on the high seas.

Hookers were a thing of the capitalist past and in a country heading for Utopia there was no room for such weakness

Instead, the goal for socialist courtesans was to end up between the sheets with a guerrilla down from the Sierra Maestra, capture some senior leader of the Communist Party, or hook up with a government minister who would provide a car, a trip abroad or a house. Cash was not a part of the operation. She caressed him and he paid her with power. Those were the years of revolutionary polygamy in which a commander who was respected needed as many lovers as medals.

The pimp was transformed. There was a proliferation of heads of protocol who connected these dedicated compañeras with foreign guests of the Plaza of the Revolution. In tightly-fitting outfits they brightened the parties where Latin American guerrillas exchanged toasts with Basque separatists, union leaders and Eastern Europe diplomats. They laughed and flirted. A Revolution is pure love, they thought.

The fall of the Soviet Union caused a cataclysm in those beds where sweat and influence, semen and privileges, were exchanged. With the end of the subsidy coming from the Kremlin, and the economic reforms officialdom was forced to undertake, money regained its ability to be converted into goods, services and caresses. The new generation of prostitutes had read Karl Marx, declaimed the works of Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén, and thrown flowers into the sea after the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. They were, Fidel Castro said, the most educated prostitutes in the world.

The new generation of prostitutes had read Karl Marx, declaimed the works of Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén, and thrown flowers into the sea after the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. They were, Fidel Castro said, the most educated prostitutes in the world

International tourism came into play in the mid-1990s with canned drinks, hotels where Cubans were not allowed to enter, and the companionable ladies renamed jineteras (female jockeys). Official propaganda had shouted all over the world that Cuba was, before January of 1959, “the brothel of the Americas”; not it but collided with the evidence that the island had become the whorehouse of Europeans and Canadians.

These were the years of shortages and ridiculous prices. A bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo or a pair of shoes was enough to buy the favors of these young women who had been trained to inhabit the future and ended up in bed with men three times their age who couldn’t even pronounce their names. The dream that many of them now caressed was summed up in a marriage contract, emigration and a new life far from Cuba.

Today, many of these graceful courtesans – who swarmed around the discos in their colorful outfits – have become mothers and grandmothers walking with their offspring through the parks of Milan, Berlin or Toronto. With their pensions they buy apartments on the island and return willing to pay for a young lover who sighs before the passport with the new nationality that they acquired with the sweat of their pelvis.

They are the graceful survivors of a hard battle, but others only achieved venereal diseases, long nights in jail cells, and the treatment of rude clients who haggled until the last kiss.

The official response against the jineteras concentrated on repression. Arrests, prison sentences and forced deportations to their province of origin were some of the rigors these sex workers had to suffer. The pimp became important in direct proportion to the risks on the street. Now, many wait in a room, get a client, collect the money and manage their lives.

The well-known pingueros were not as shamed by the police in a country where the macho tradition does not stigmatize equally merchandise that comes packaged in a young man’s body

Male prostitution also flourished. The well-known pingueros were not as shamed by the police in a country where the macho tradition does not stigmatize equally merchandise that comes packaged in a young man’s body. They manage to circumvent surveillance and fill every space in the national territory where visitors are betrayed by their accents. They populate the wall of the Malecon, show off their meaty biceps on the most touristy beaches, and most offer a unisex service that doubles their opportunities and swells their incomes.

Because money, alas, continues to buy bodies. Much more so at a time when a new class stumbles to emerge among the economic spoils. The new rich do not wear military uniforms, but run private restaurants or administer a joint venture. With them, the national client has returned to the picture of Cuban prostitution.

The increase in social inequalities and the tourist boom that the island has experienced since the beginning of the diplomatic thaw between Havana and Washington have also fueled the carnal market. In 2016 the country reached the record number of four million international visitors. Once again, customers arriving from the country to our north are the most popular, those gringos that the official propaganda thought had been removed from the brothels.

These women throw themselves into the arms of tourists because “they cannot meet the basic needs of food, clothing and footwear”

At the recent International Symposium on Gender Violence, Prostitution, Sex Tourism and Trafficking in Persons, held last January in Havana, a researcher from the Interior Ministry revealed alarming figures. Of a group of 82 prostitutes studied, the majority were “mixed-race, followed by white and black, coming from dysfunctional and permissive families, living in overcrowded conditions.”

These women throw themselves into the arms of tourists because “they cannot meet the basic needs of food, clothing and footwear.” One in three began in the trade before age 18 and “charge between $50 and $200,” depending on the service they provide.

They do not seek luxuries, but crumbs. They are the granddaughters of those courtesans who panted between slogans and privileges.

Editorial Note: This text was published in Spanish on Saturday March 11 in the Spanish newspaper El País .

The Day of the Woman in Cuba, More Honored in the Breach / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

On Women’s Day, no protest march is scheduled in Cuba, as if the life of the women in this country was a bed of roses. (Silvia Corbelle)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 8 March 2017 – Lying in bed, with the light off, feeling each one of her vertebrae howling. After coming home from work she spent four hours in the kitchen, bathed her invalid mother, helped the children with their homework, went shopping and prepared an administrative report. On TV the announcers offer congratulations for the Day of the Woman, but it sounds like a distant echo that does not influence her life.

On March 8, the workplaces end their days earlier, the officials intone mellow speeches and all the stands are sold out of flowers. The news is filled with images of women who cut cane, give life to babies, and carry guns on their shoulders. Nor is there any lack of politics. Officialdom takes advantage of the day to insist that only “after January 1959” have we Cuban women been recognized. continue reading

There are no protest marches, no demands expressed, as if the life of women in this country was a bed of roses

The National Symphonic Orchestra prepares a special concert, the Post Office sells postcards in bad taste, while the Cuba Workers Center – the only legal union in the country – dedicates the day to Fidel Castro and the “eternal president of the Federation of Cuban Women,” Raul Castro’s late wife Vilma Espín Guillois. There are no protest marches, no demands expressed, as if the life of women in this country was a bed of roses.

The noise of the music, the slogans and the triumphalism drown out our complaints. The day, made compulsorily festive, does not allow demands to emerge, nor talk – with bras shed – about the problems that threaten our daily lives. “Today is a day for celebration, not complaining,” many say; but tomorrow other topics will fill the agenda and there will never be “a good time” to talk.

Symptomatically, the initiative of a women’s strike under the slogan #NosotrasParamos (We Stop) does not find space here, although 45 countries have joined the protests to demand equality between men and women. The lack of independence of women’s associations and their subordination to the government prevents the idea of our taking to the streets with posters and demands.

Machismo and gender discrimination fill every space of our daily lives. In the media, a catchy children’s song tells the story of mother ant who urges her daughter to abandon her games and help her iron, sweep and scrub; but the capricious little girl prefers her dolls. In schools, teachers prepare an area of ​​pink kitchens and baby beds for the girls to play in, while they reserve trucks and play weapons for the boys. In workplaces, bosses feel the power to compliment, harass and touch their subordinates, often under the belief that “they like it.”

Power continues to maintain its old-fashioned, cheesy machismo, purportedly “chivalrous”, which veers from flattery to insult towards those in skirts

In the official discourse we are seen as decorative elements, as a necessary gender quota or simple pieces of the ideological gears. Power continues to maintain its old-fashioned, cheesy machismo, purportedly “chivalrous,” which veers from flattery to insult towards those in skirts. The woman who shares their ideology is a “beautiful flower of the Revolution,” the dissident only deserves that hard four-letter word that questions our morality.

The Cuban feminist movement is dead. This system was killed by depriving it of autonomy, extinguishing the discourse of demands and imposing the false premise that women emancipated themselves five decades ago. All a fallacy that hides the drama of millions of women condemned to double or triple working hours, subjected to sexual harassment and surviving every day with a dose of antidepressants.

The entire economic crisis that we have experienced has claimed women as its main victims. The shortages force them into the long lines to buy food and the stress, every day, of having to “invent” a meal. The accelerated emigration has separated them from their children and the layoffs at state workplaces have returned them to the house, back to the hearth.

Where are the figures for the number of women murdered or beaten by their partners? Where can harassed wife who fears the next beating take shelter?

Statistics about women professionals, deputies to the National Assembly, scientists in white coats or athletes, cannot hide the other side. The numbers of battered women, threatened by a boyfriend who has sworn to kill them if he sees them with another, those raped inside or outside of marriage or those who have had to exchange sex for promotions at work.

Where are the figures for the number of women murdered or beaten by their partners? Where can harassed wife who fears the next beating take shelter? Why not talk about femicide in the national media if each of us knows at least some case where a macho rage ended a life?

Today is not a day to celebrate, but to worry. A day of demands that have been extinguished by the music of a machismo reluctant for us to have our own voice.

Revolutionary ‘Justice’ / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Two women board a shared taxi (almendrón) in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 28 February 2018 — The distance between the Havana Capitol and the Ciudad Deportiva (Sport City) remains the same and yet it seems to have changed. With the capped prices imposed by local government on the private taxi routes, this journey has become immense and difficult to complete. Where before a person needed to wait between 5 and 15 minutes, now they have to wait up to an hour to climb into an almendrón*.

At this point, those who were rubbing their hands at the reduced prices for private transport, must have realized that the hand of the state has broken a fragile network ruled by supply and demand. The taxi drivers cut their trips in a sign of protest, and many are staying home weighing whether it is worth spending so many hours behind the steering wheel for ever smaller profits. continue reading

The victims of these reductions are all of us. One of the new rich who manages a restaurant, the doctor who needs to get to the hospital, the old man who has a medical appointment, or the student who is counting his centavos to make it to the end of the month. It has not been a blow to the social class that can pay between 10 and 20 Cuban pesos for a trip, but a blow to all those who on some occasion, even if only sporadically, use this type of transportation.

Official propaganda is now unleashed against the workers of the private sector, but it is silent before the exploitive state that pays for such misery

Like many restrictive measures of this “Revolutionary” process, it has also surrounded itself with a whiff of false justice, with an aura of supposed egalitarianism. Official propaganda is now unleashed against private sector workers who charge half a day’s wages for a trip, but it is silent before the exploitive state that pays for such misery.

The television reports approach the passengers to capture the moment when they say, “that was an abuse that could not continue,” or, “now prices are more in line with our pockets.” But they are silent about those shelves in the state stores where a liter of oil cost two days’ pay and two pounds of chicken can mean a week’s hard work.

Will prices also rise in those markets? Will the Havana Administrative Council unleash itself against the retail network where a father has to pay two week’s wages for a pair of shoes for his son? The Revolutionary “justice” is one-eyed in these cases, only looking in the direction that suits it.

*Translator’s note: “Almendrón” means “almond” and refers to the shape of the classic American cars often used in shared, fixed-route taxi service.

Measuring Hopelessness / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Those who believe that the closing of a one door to emigration will act like the snap of the fingers to awaken a society whose civic conscience is hypnotized are mistaken (Archive photo)

14ymedio biggerEl Pais/14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez,12 February 2017 — Statistics are deceiving. They only reflect measurable values, tangible realities. International agencies cram us with numbers that measure development, life expectancy or educational attainment, but seldom succeed in grading dissatisfaction, fear, and discouragement. Frequently in their reports they describe a Latin America and its inhabitants encased in a fog of digits.

This year the region will have weak growth of 1.3%, according to forecasts by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). A data point that barely manages to transmit the scope of lives that will be ruined by the region’s sluggish progress. Unfinished projects and a long string of social dramas will be accentuated in many of these countries in the coming months. The breeding ground from which populism springs.

However, the major drama remains the lack of horizons for millions of people on this side of the planet continue reading

A Haitian who risks crossing the jungle of Panama’s Darien Gap to reach the United States is driven not only by the miserable conditions of life in her country, the destruction left by natural phenomena or the repeated epidemics that cost thousands of lives. The most powerful engine that moves her is hopelessness, the conviction that in her own country she will never have new opportunities.

Seeing no end to violence pushes other Central Americans to escape their countries. In several of these nations gangs have become an enthroned evil, corruption has corroded the internal scaffolding of institutions and politicians go from one scandal to the next. Discouragement then prompts a response quite different from that generated by indignation. While the latter may push people to rebel, the former pushes them to escape.

Meanwhile, on this Caribbean island, millions of human beings ruminate over their own disappointment. For decades Cubans fled because of political persecution, economic problems and weariness. Until 12 January 2017, that generalized choking sensation had a relief valve called the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, but President Barack Obama closed it a few days before finishing his second term.

The most staunch critics of that migratory privilege say that it encouraged desertions and illegal exits. Some people also criticized its unjust character in that it benefitted and offered entitlements to people who were not escaping war, genocide or a natural disaster. They forget, among these arguments, that discouragement also deserves to be taken into account and computed in any formula that tries to decipher the massive flight that affects a nation.

A similar error has been committed by agencies such as the FAO, UNHCR or ECLAC, all of which specialize in measuring parameters such as the number of daily calories ingested, the effect of climate change on human displacements, or the percentage decrease in a nation’s GDP. Their reports and statements never evaluate the energy that accumulates under frustration, the weight of disappointment or the impotence reflected in every migration.

When more than three generations of individuals have lived under a political and economic system that does not evolve or progress, there is a conviction among them that this situation is eternal and immutable. They no longer see any horizon and the idea that nothing can be done to change the status quo becomes rooted in their minds. By now, many of those born in Cuba after January 1959 have grown up with the conviction that everything had already been done by others who preceded them.

That explains why a young man who had recently slept under a roof in Havana, who had access to a limited but adequate amount of food through the rationed market and who spent his long free hours on a park bench, launched himself into the sea on a raft, at the mercy of the winds and sharks. The lack of prospects is also behind the large number of migrants from the island, in recent years, who have ended up in the hands of human traffickers in Colombia, Panama or Mexico.

Washington not only cut an escape path, but the White House’s decision ended up deepening the depression that comes from the chronic absence of dreams that characterizes our country. The Cuban Adjustment Act, enacted in 1966, is still in effect for those who can prove they are politically persecuted, but the most widespread feeling among potential migrants is that they have lost a last chance to reach a future.

However, this undermining of illusion has little chance of being transformed into rebellion. The theory of the social pressure cooker and the idea that Obama closed the escape valve so that the fire of internal austerity and repression will make it explode is a nice metaphor; but it misses several key ingredients, among them the resignation that overcomes individuals subjected to realities that appear unchangeable.

The belief that nothing can be done and nothing will change continues to be the principle stimulus, in these areas, to lift one’s anchor and depart for any other corner of the planet. The pot will not explode with a sea of people in the streets bringing down Raul Castro’s government while singing hymns on that dreamed of “D-Day” that so many are tired of waiting for.

Those who believe that the closing of a one door to emigration will act like the snap of the fingers to awaken a society whose civic conscience is hypnotized are mistaken. The cancellation of this policy of benefits in the United States is not enough to create citizens here at home.

A new bureaucratic barrier is a small thing to those who believe that they have reached their own glass ceiling and that in their homeland they have nothing left to do. This quiet conviction will never appear in tables, bar charts or schemes with which specialists will explain the causes of exodus and displacement. But ignorance of it means the specialists will never understand such a prolonged escape.

Far from the reports and statistics that everyone wants to explain, hopelessness will take Cuban migrants to other places, re-orient their route to new destinations. In distant latitudes, communities will flourish that will dine on their usual dish of rice and beans and continue to say the word “chico” before many of their phrases. They will be the ones who will let drop small tear when they see on a map that long and narrow land where they had their roots, but in which they could never bear fruit.

Editorial Note: This text was published this Sunday, February 12 in the newspaper El País.

When Life Is In The Hands Of Human Traffickers / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Terminal 3 in Jose Marti International Airport in Havana (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 4 February 2017 – The wifi signal barely crosses the glass. The wireless network at José Martí International Airport only covers the boarding area. But a woman presses her whole body against the opaque window that separates the travelers’ area to communicate with human traffickers who are holding her daughter in Mexico.

For half any hour the lady reveals her despair. “I don’t have that much money, if I had it I would send it right now,” she prays through IMO. The videochat is cut several times by the poor quality of the connection On the other side, the voice of a man repeats, without backing off, “Three hundred dollars so she can return on Tuesday.”

The woman wipes her tears and unsuccessfully asks for a reduction. Nearby, a maid who cleans the bathroom passes by, idly dragging a cart with cleaning supplies. A customs official walks by, absorbed, and pretends he is not listening to the disturbing request projected from the screen of the phone, “Don’t kill her, don’t kill her.” continue reading

For half any hour the lady reveals her despair. “I don’t have that much money, if I had it I would send it right now,” she prays through IMO

The scene happens in a place crowded with people, most of whom are passengers about to board a transatlantic flight, or a new commercial route to the United States, and there are also the family members and friends who have come to see them off. No one shows any sign of hearing the drama developing a few feet away.

A tourist tosses back a beer just as the woman is asking the man for half an hour to “collect the money.” She starts the race against the clock. She calls several contacts from her IMO address book, but the first four, at least, don’t answer. On the fifth try, a shrill voice on the other end says, “Hello.”

“I need a huge favor, you can’t say no,” the lady stammers. But the head that can be seen on the screen shakes from side to side. “Are you crazy? And if after you pay this money they don’t let her go?” asks the voice. The tension makes the hand holding the phone start to tremble and her granddaughter, who has accompanied her, helps her hold on to it.

Several more calls and the money is not forthcoming. Finally a serious voice says yes, he can lend the money if the woman will pay it back “in two installments” to his sister in Havana. The mother agrees, promises she can “repay every cent,” although it sounds like a formula to get out of a bind. The man believes her.

Now they must arrange the details. The victim doesn’t have a bank account but the mother will send information about “how to send the money.” This is how the kidnappers get paid. Only then will they allow her to fly from Cancun to Havana, or at least that is what they promise.

Several more calls and the money is not forthcoming. Finally a serious voice says yes, he can lend the money if the woman will pay in back “in two installments” to his sister in Havana

In the middle of last year the Mexican authorities shut down a network trafficking in undocumented people from Cuba that operated in this tourist area in the Mexican state of Qunitana Roo. The end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy this January has left many migrants in the hands of the coyotes, who don’t hesitate to turn to extortion to make up for the reduction in the flow of Cubans and, as a result, their loss of earnings.

The wifi signal is lost altogether, but the mother is feeling relieved. “She was in a large group, about 20 people,” she tells her granddaughter. A simple calculation allows us to know how much the captors will earn on “freeing” all those they are holding.

Nothing ends with the delivery of the money. “She is going to want to go again,” concludes the mother, the instant she hangs up from the last videochat. “I can’t stand it here, I can’t” she repeats, while walking toward the escalator filled with smiling and tanned tourists.

Leaving Cuba But Stranded on Another Island / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A group of Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago by immigration authorities. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Miami, 25 January 2017 — They left Cuba before January 12 and are now stranded on the island of Trinidad and Tobago, northeast of Venezuela. They arrived with the advantage of not needing a visa, but they have lost hope of reaching the borders of the United States after the cancellation of wet foot/dry foot policy.

Unofficial figures estimate that more than a thousand Cubans have arrived in Trinidad and Tobago and are waiting to be able to leave for the United States. Some received refugee status in this time, conferred by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but have difficulty obtaining a work permit.

Recently 15 Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago for being undocumented, including 12 men and 3 women, stated that they would rather die than return to their own country

Zenaida, a fictitious name, still has a son in Cuba and fears to give her real identity to the story she has experienced in recent months, but her desire to tell what happened demonstrates, at times, a touch of recklessness. continue reading

“The word that they are offering asylum has gotten out, and if the immigration authorities hadn’t turned back a large number, there would be considerably more of us.” Those stuck there when their visas expire are sent to jail.

Recently, 15 Cubans detained in Trinidad and Tobago for being undocumented, among them 12 men and 3 women, declared that they would rather die than return to their own country. They are trapped on one island and trying to avoid being returned to another.

Zenaida had a job with the Cuban Workers Center (CTC) – nominally a labor union, but entirely controlled by the government – but was disillusioned with the official ideology. “Despite experiencing the time of the mass exodus in the 1990s, I never thought to leave the country because I’m very attached to my family and my only daughter,” she says.

Her nonconformity started from the time she was a member of the Young Communist Union. “I realized that Robertico Robaina, our leader at the time, obeyed the principle of ‘do what I say and not what I do’.” Zenaida worked on a poultry farm and one day discovered, “a great embezzlement of the birds, where the records were falsified.” On confronting the people involved she learned that among the embezzlers was the director general of the enterprise. Frustration washed over her.

She decided to attend the course for political cadres to get away from the poultry farm. “I couldn’t imagine I would go from one hell to another.” After being a witness to the opportunism and the double standards of many of her colleagues, the little faith she still had in the system was completely destroyed.

“I requested to be released from my job after witnessing the outrage that the opposition figure Jorge Luis Perez ‘Antunez’ and his family were subjected to,” she tells 14ymedio. “That was the trigger that made me decide not to continue there.

“I started working secretly in my aunt’s paladar (private restaurant). There they offered me 100 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly the same in dollars) and the cost of my passport if I would go to Trinidad for seven days in order to import clothing,” she said.

But the fate of the “mule” took a turn when, passing through the airport in Havana, she happened to greet and speak with the author of this article. One of the women she was traveling with, who had witnessed the exchange, returned to Cuba before her, and told one of Zenaida’s neighbors that she was now “one of those human rights people.” “Small town, big hell,” she says, recalling that incident, “the news spread like wildfire and even my husband was called in by State Security.”

Trinidad and Tobago Airport

“My mother and my son were also questioned about my behavior,” she says. “I was aware of the consequences I would have to face if I returned to Cuba.”

“There are families who have been stranded here  waiting for a host country for more than two years. I think the world is not aware of the drama Cubans experience”

She applied for political asylum and now her legal situation is complex. “Immigration took my passport and gave me a card that’s called a supervision order, that allows me to be in the country freely, but doesn’t allow me to work.” Zenaida has to work in the shadows to survive. “I do it on my own and I do the hardest cleaning jobs that the natives here reject.”

For the moment, she is receiving some help from a Catholic organization, Living Water Community, which consists of a food allocation that includes rice, sugar, grains, flour, toilet paper, soap and some clothing donated by others.

After some time she will have her first interview with United Nations representatives and only then will she be able to obtain refugee status. “There are families who have been stranded here waiting for a country to take them for more than two years. I think the world isn’t aware of the drama Cubans experience,” says Zenaida.

Although Zenaida has been optimistic since reuniting with her husband and celebrates not being alone, her feelings are contradictory with respect to emigration “I do not know if we are living in limbo, but only now do I know that fleeing resolves nothing. We are left without our customs, our families, our roots, and clash with the hard reality of the immigrant. We will only be free when we don’t cross jungles and oceans looking for an answer that is only inside ourselves.” And she concludes with regret, “What a pity that it is only now that I understand all this!”