Polarization and civil society / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

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14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 26 March 2015 – The family of Yamila, age 41, is a sample of Cuban society. The father is a member of the Communist Party, the mother a Catholic who never embraced the Revolutionary Process, there is a brother in Miami and she herself is working for a joint venture where she earns convertible pesos. When they sit down to eat, they discuss the high price of food, the low salaries, how boring the telenovela is, or how late the remittances from the emigrants are this month.

For decades the ideological fire has stirred no passions in Yamila’s living room. The father is increasingly tempered in his political views; the mother prays, while buying in the illegal market; the relative who lives on the other shore and comes every now and then on vacation is an obliging forty-something who saves every cent to bring them a flat screen TV. These are the daily problems that concern them and hold them together. The struggle to survive makes them set aside any differences.

This microcosm of the Cuban family today has a lot to teach those who, from polarized positions, try to say what civil society is and isn’t, try to put limits and Manichean labels on the diversity of phenomena that make up our reality. Any definition of the framework of this complex tapestry that makes up a society should be constructed with the objective of recognizing all of its parts and the right of each to exist.

Branding some as regime supporters and others as traitors only deepens the social distances and delays the necessary transformation that this country needs to experience.  

Branding some as regime supporters and others as traitors only deepens the social distances and delays the necessary transformation that this country needs to experience. In the current social fabric there are identifiable strands that have to be considered and that no snip of intolerance should exclude. If we are aware of our responsibility in this process of inclusion, then we will try not to arbitrarily cut off any part of the fabric.

The issue heats up as we approach the Americas Summit in Panama, where both the Government and the opposition are ready to present their own versions of Cuban civil society. All indications are that, despite conciliatory longings on the part of the Panamanian organizers, this platform is only going to hear a skewed version from each side, not the so necessary discourse of respect for the other and for plurality that the Cuban nation needs at this moment.

While it is true that the so-called mass organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) behave in the ideological arena like transmission poles from the powers-that-be, it also needs to be borne in mind that each of them encompasses a large number of Cubans – whether as an automatic response, the inability to choose other options, fear, or true complacency – and every one of our families is made up, for the most part, by members of these organizations. To ignore them is to amputate a part of our reality.

To disqualify, per se, a person because they are a part of the FMC, the CDR or the ANAP, for example, becomes an act of sectarianism and eliminates from the national discussion an essential area of the citizenry. Among them are some very capable people from the professional point of view, who will be part of those supporting the economic, social and legal reconstruction of Cuba. Many of them will be at the Panama Summit – subsidized by the Cuban Government and chosen for ideological reasons – with proposals that should be heard.

Panama could be the moment when Cuban civil society meets and understands that no child of this land should be excluded from the national debate. 

Sociologists, economists, intellectuals and Cuban academics will bring solidly supported studies that address the core theme of the meeting: Prosperity with Equity: The challenge of cooperation in the Americas. Instead of rejecting them because they come with directives to convert the event into trench warfare, it would be very healthy to interact with them and their proposals with respect. Panama could be the moment when Cuban civil society meets and understands that no child of this land should be excluded from the national debate.

On the other hand, the Cuban government official campaign has already begun to vent its venom on dissident figures and groups, the opposition and independent journalism which will also attend the event in April. Those attacks are not directed at damaging the self-esteem of the activists, already used to the verbal violence constantly directed at them, but rather to avoid any possible dialogue between this part of our civil society with that part recognized as closest to the Government, the one that defends the current state of affairs on the island.

Non-government attendees will travel, for the most part, with tickets and accommodation paid for by foreign institutions and entities, given the material poverty they experience from their situation of illegality. However, the selection process for those who will attend, incarnated that part of Cuba that has lacked internal democracy and a necessary transparency. Driven by improvisation and material precariousness, these representative should know that they will also be evaluated for the ideas and proposals they bring, not just for anecdotes about the pain and repression they have experienced.

If the dissidence wants to show its adulthood, it must communicate in Panama that it has a plan for the future and not only that it knows who to survive under the heroic status of being a persecuted group

If the dissidence wants to show its adulthood, it must communicate in Panama that it has a plan for the future and not only that it knows who to survive under the heroic status of being a persecuted group, but also that it knows how to engage in politics in an intelligent, measured and thoughtful way for the wellbeing of all Cubans. Its agenda should include not only calls for respect for human rights and a framework for individual and collective freedoms, but must also address the most pressing everyday problems of the citizens they want to represent.

It is also important for this other share of Cuban civil society that does not feel recognized in the mass organizations, nor in the opposition parties, understand that their role is to be a bridge, not an island. Pointing fingers at both sides from the moral stature of those who are neither “subsidized by the Cuban Government” nor “employees of the empire,” only adds more fuel to the fire of distrust.

The small private sector that is trying to prosper on the island, the sectors tied to the Catholic Church and other denominations, the academics who have tried at all costs to maintain an independent view in their analysis, and those groups who defend the rights of minorities, working for female emancipation, independence for artists and filmmakers, or an end to racial discrimination, all should know that it is not helpful to sit on the fence watching the confrontation between the two poles. They have a responsibility to modulate and form a part of the tapestry, not snip away at it or remain outside the conflict.

At Yamila’s dinner table everyone wants to live his or her life, have his or her own autonomy. They have managed it, in the shelter of their home and the understanding that comes from family ties. Can we reach it as a nation?

The Day Peace Broke Out / Yoani Sanchez

Generation Y*, Yoani Sanchez, 25 March 2015 – “Peace broke out!” the old teacher was heard to say, on the day that Barack Obama and Raul Castro reported the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. The phrase captured the symbolism of a moment that had all the connotations of an armistice reached after a long war.

Three months after that December 17th, the soldiers of the finished contest don’t know whether to lay down their arms, offer them to the enemy, or reproach the Government for so many decades of a useless conflagration. Everyone experiences the ceasefire in his or her own way, but the indelible timestamp is already established in the history of the Island. Children born in recent weeks will study the conflict with our neighbor to the north in textbooks, not experience it every day as the center of ideological propaganda. That is a big difference. Even the stars-and-stripes flag has been flying over Havana lately, without the Revolutionary fire that made it burn on the pyre of some anti-imperialist act.

For millions of people in the world, this is a chapter that puts an end to the last vestige of the Cold War, but for Cubans it is a question still unresolved. Reality moves more slowly than the headlines triggered by an agreement between David and Goliath, because the effects of the new diplomatic mood have not yet been noticed on our plates, in our wallets, nor in the expansion of civil liberties. Continue reading

A Robinson Crusoe-like Singularity / Yoani Sanchez

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 23 March 2015 — A young Panamanian told me in detail about the two weeks he spent in Havana, the new family that welcomed him here, and his surprise at a coastal city with almost no boats. His story resembled those of many who arrive on the Island for the first time, ranging from amazement to happiness, passing through tears.

However, his most astonishing conclusion was that that, thanks to the country’s disconnection, he had been able to live that long without Internet. Fifteen days without sending an email, reading a tweet, or worrying about a “like” on Facebook. On returning to his own country, he felt as if he’d been at a technology rehab clinic. Continue reading

Hello? Hello? / Yoani Sanchez

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Public telephones in Cuba (Silvia Corbelle)

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 13 March 2015 – She dialed the number and waited. Nothing, not a ring, not even a busy signal. She tried again and then got a woman’s voice telling her to wait on the line. After several minutes she realized it was a scam, but she’d already lost half the value of her prepaid card. Finally, she was able to connect, but her mother’s voice sounded as if she was speaking under water and she was barely able to say she was fine and that she missed her. The line was cut and her call to Cuba ended.

Among the many dramas that play out because of emigration, in the case of Cuba we have to add the complications of communicating with Island. We have the most expensive rates in the world for those who want Continue reading

By Secret and Direct Ballot / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Ballot for Election of the Municipal Assemblies of People's Power (Photo: Yoani Sánchez)

Ballot for Election of the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power (Photo: Yoani Sánchez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Panama, 7 March 2015 — A few years ago I asked a friend why he had voted for a candidate he barely knew during the election of delegates to the municipal assemblies. His response at the time was simple and full of wisdom. “I don’t want to get into trouble, it’s not that the ballots are marked,” he warned me slyly. With my face showing how embarrassed I was for him, he immediately declared, “Fine, in the end, voting or not voting, it isn’t going to change anything.”

My friend’s comments highlighted two of the most serious limitations of the current mechanisms for electing the people’s representatives. On the one hand, the little confidence that Cuban voters have in the secrecy of the process, and on the other hand, the inability of the candidates elected to influence the direction of the nation. Two of the aspects most mentioned Continue reading

Maduro Does Not Know How to Govern / Yoani Sanchez

Nicolas Maduro

Nicolas Maduro

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 20 February 2015 — I never thought I’d get to say this, but Venezuela is worse than Cuba. It is true that the South American country has not surpassed in number nor in intensity the shortages of basic products, the economic collapse, nor the police surveillance that we suffer; but Venezuela is worse than Cuba. Its seriousness reflects its repeating of the failed past that we Cubans are trying to escape.

In the case of both nations, the fiasco has been determined largely by improper and harmful leadership. Cuba, with a Fidel Castro who tried to mold the country in his image and likeness, taking on his marked tendency to authoritarianism, intolerance Continue reading

“It does not matter to return or not return” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Abilio Estevez

Abilio Estevez

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana-Barcelona, 17 February 2015 – During this year’s International Book Fair in Havana, Abilio Estevez’s novel, Los palacios distantes (Distant Palaces), was presented. Living in Barcelona for the last fifteen years, on this occasion the author brings us the story of Victorio, a character who shares his pains and passions.

A few hours after the launch of the book in the Alejo Carpentier room, the novelist with a degree in Hispanic Language and Literature responded by email to some questions for the readers of 14ymedio, from Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter where he lives and creates.

14ymedio: To those who still haven’t read Los palacios… and hope to get a copy at the Book Fair, what would you like to warn them about before they enter your pages?

Estevez: Nothing, I would not warn them. I think should have its own importance, and the author should pass as unnoticed as possible. Also, the book should always be a mystery to solve, an adventure Continue reading

The Independents of the Independents / Yoani Sanchez

ADSL cables

ADSL cables

Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 8 February 2015 — “Do not talk about politics or religion,” says the number one rule of the most extensive illegal data network in Havana. Those who join the network of routers and antennas that make up SNET accept such guidelines as a matter of survival. Plugging into the service allows them to form a part of a brotherhood that every member protects and keeps “low profile.” Despite such strict limitations, it’s worth experiencing this chance to connect ourselves to others, to use the internal chat service, and to experience the vertigo of being online… even though we know we are sadly offline. An illusion of Internet that is maintained as long as the WiFi receptor on our computers is lit up. Continue reading

“In Cuba we have learned our duties very well, but not our rights” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Tania Bruguera

Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)

Tania Bruguera (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 February 2015 – This coming February 22 Tania Bruguera should be in Madrid to present one of her works at the ARCO International Contemporary Art Fair, but she knows she isn’t going to make it. Trapped by Cuban justice since last December 30, when she was arrested during her performance #YoTambienExijo (I Too Demand), the artist remains in Havana hoping to resolve her legal situation. We talked with her about this, her artivism, and the future of Cuba.

Sanchéz. What is your current legal and immigration situation?

Bruguera. I am waiting for a prosecutor to reduce the charges against me. I have been advised by several attorneys, such as Laritza Diversent from Cubalex, and also René Gómez Manzano, from Corriente Agramontista [both independent legal groups]. They have told me that in this case there are at least three possible outcomes: one is the dismissal of the case, which could be temporary or permanent. Another is that they could impose an administrative measure, which carries a fine. The detail with this option is that I would have to recognize my guilt and accept the charges and accusations they’ve made against me, and I don’t think this variation is just. The third possibility is that it will be taken to trial Continue reading

What Will We Do With the Hope? / Yoani Sanchez

An "Esperanza" (Hope) grasshopper. (Silvia Corbelle)

An “Esperanza” (Hope) grasshopper. (Silvia Corbelle)

“Any frustration is the daughter of excessive expectations,” I shared my concern with the U.S. members of Congress who visited Cuba in January. The phrase was designed to stress the flow of illusions that has been let loose in the population since December 17. The announcement of the restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States has provoked a resurgence in this country of a feeling lost for decades: hope.

However, the expectations that have been created are so high and so difficult to meet in the short term that many may feel disappointed. There is no way that reality can satisfy such extravagant fantasies of change. The level of deterioration in Cuba needs enormous resources and urgent transformations Continue reading

The spy who never wanted to be one / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The journalist Jose Antonio Torres.

The journalist Jose Antonio Torres.

  • The unusual story of ‘Granma’ journalist sentenced to 14 years in prison

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Santiago de Cuba, 27 January 2015 — Just outside the building, a ditch carries sewage down the street. Several children jump from side to side of the stinking canal which later runs through Micro 7, a neighborhood in the José Martí district of Santiago de Cuba. For a few years now the neighbors have pointed to number 9 on one rough block and said, “That’s where the Granma newspaper journalist lives.” Today the family bears the stigma of a journalist who is in prison, where he is serving a sentence for espionage.

The steps are rough and uneven. At the top improvised bars cover the door to the house. I knocked for long minutes, but no one answered. Mayda Mercedes, José Antonio “Tony” Torres’s wife, only received me another day, with a certain tremor in her voice while looking up and down the street. There I managed, for the first time, to see the court ruling that twisted the fate of this man, as a bolero says, “like a weak tin rod.” Continue reading

“It is up to Cubans decide their future” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Roberta Jacobson at 14ymedio’s offices

Roberta Jacobson at 14ymedio’s offices

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 24 January 2015 — In October of 2013 I had a conversation with Roberta Jacobson, via a Google hangout (videodebate), on democracy, technology and the role of women in activism. On that occasion, we interacted through a screen in the company of internauts interested in our chat. Now, we talked with a few inches between us, in a visit of the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs made to our independent daily, 14ymedio, in Havana.

Proximity has allowed me to confirm what I had already felt in our previous conversation, that this loquacious woman with an attentive gaze has a profound knowledge of the Cuban reality. It is no wonder that she has led the first round of conversations between Cuba and the United States after the December 17th announcement about the reestablishment of relations between both countries.

Several members of our editorial board along with some collaborators met with Jacobson on the 14th floor of the Yugoslav-style building where our headquarters are located. Following is a transcript of a conversation, where we tried to address a wide spectrum of topics.

Yoani Sánchez: Do we have reason to worry that pragmatism and the politics of rapprochement prevail above all else, and that the issue of human rights and civil liberties will be relegated to the background? Continue reading