Cuba’s ‘Convivencia’ Project Celebrates Its First Decade

The Convivencia Project on-line. (Screen capture)

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 October 2017 — It was April 2007 and a time of dark days. The most stagnant part of the Catholic Church intervened in the magazine Vitral (Stained Glass Window), shifting it away from its marked social mission. In the face of the hijacking, the editors jumped ship and months later founded the Proyecto Convivencia (Coexistence Project), which celebrates this October a decade of constant work.

The new publication was born under the influence of its predecessor, which had arisen in 1994 and came to have a circulation of 12,000 copies. However, from the beginning it became clear that the magazine Convivencia would be much more than a mere reflection of that stained glass window that stopped shining for diversity and reflected only pastoral issues. continue reading

In an environment of great debate and intense listening, the Catholic layman Dagoberto Valdés and his collaborators, working from Pinar del Rio, raised the first roof beams that would later cover not only that new publication, but also a project of civic development and a study center, both under the same name.

With the slogan “A threshold for citizenship and civil society in Cuba,” this triad has been a fresh wind in an independent sector where political approaches excessively prevail over social ones. Offering proposals rather than complaints became a part of the unique editorial and investigative seal of the project.

Unlike its predecessor, Convivencia placed its bets more on a digital presence. In times of blogging and Twitter accounts, its editorial board has relied on new technologies, and the web portal born of that vision has just updated its design, as well as offered more dynamic access to its content.

However, the biggest difference has been traveling the difficult road of offering information and opinion without the protection of the Church. To this difficulty is added that of maintaining a moderate profile in the midst of the polarization of Cuban society, the pressures of State Security and an intense campaign to discredit the project.

Seven years before Bishop Jorge Enrique Serpa Pérez forced a change of course on the Catholic publication, Valdés had been subjected to a harsh assault from two publishers of the official newspaper Granma, but the worst was yet to come. That was just the preamble to a sequence of interrogations and threats.

In this decade, members of Convivencia have experienced various forms of harassment. From constant police citations to a court’s latest decision to sentence Karina Gálvez, one of the leading publishers, to three years’ imprisonment and to confiscate her house which served as a headquarters.

Nor has there been a lack of criticism from other civil society groups in response to Convivencia’s approach of dialog, always maintained by the Pinar del Rio team, its position in favor of the diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States, and its use of respectful language toward any figure or institution. The project has paid a heavy price for its restraint.

In this landscape, the work of the Center for Coexistence Studies (CEC), which over a number of meetings has outlined an impressive reservoir of ideas and proposals for the future of the island, stands out. Culture, education, the media and economy are at the center of the analysis of this Cuban think tank, that labors without a lot of commotion, but without pause.

Together, the CEC, the civic center and the magazine seek “not only to educate citizens to exercise their own sovereignty but also work to have a vision of the future that will help to rebuild the nation,” Dagoberto Valdés proudly states. The man that the official propaganda calls a “mercenary” has only one obsession: to think about Cuba.

Today’s context is also very different than it was when the editors of today’s Convivencia began their work on the previous publication, at the end of the last century. Now, the spectrum of publications that address the issue of Cuba has grown both inside and outside the Island. Approaches have also diversified and readers have a flood of options from which to choose.

Other independent think tanks have also emerged and terms such as “community,” “civility” and “consensus” have become commonplace in the discourse of national activists. That light that began to peek through the stained glass of a magazine from Pinar del Rio, is today a common good that everyone shares.

Convivencia faces the challenges of surviving and growing: to avoid letting the repression make them adopt a discourse of denunciation rather than one of proposals; to overcome with their work the silence some want to impose on their very existence; to progress despite the insults others apply to their work; and to maintain their equanimity in times of hysteria.

The roof that began to rise in October of 2007 is complete, but within its interior there are still many subjects to address and innumerable situations on which to meditate. There is time for all that, because as emphasized in a recent statement the members of Convivencia Project, they have no plans to leave Cuba, Pinar del Rio or their civic space.

See also:

The Experiment of Hope, Francis Sanchez

Between the Gun and the Cassock, Miriam Celaya

Two Referendums, Different Perspectives

Young Kurds line up to vote in the referendum. (@aminahekmet)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 29 September 2017 — In a country like Cuba, where regional conflicts don’t surpass the resounding insults during a ball game, secessionism sounds like a distant subject. However, the ruling party has not hesitated for more than half a century to support annexation or separatism efforts in other nations based on ideological convenience.

Right now, the national press is addressing two referendums: those of Kurdistan and Catalonia. Both processes, so different and distant, constitute an excellent opportunity to measure the political whims of the Cuban Government and its double standards in this area.

In both cases, the news coverage has been so contradictory that even the most indifferent viewers have noticed that in the local news the Catalans are called independentistas and the Kurds separatistas. Some “have every right to be a nation,” but the others “put at risk the stability of a convulsive zone.” continue reading

The same interests that salute the Catalonian government, raise their hands against the proposal of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani. In the morning, the radio commentators clamor for Barcelona to disconnect itself from the Kingdom of Spain, but in the afternoon they support the words of the Turkish Government that consider the Kurdish plebiscite “null and void” and lacking a “legal basis.”

Behind this obvious contradiction in public discourse are the political pacts of the day, the complicities between regimes and, at worst, the objective to contribute to damaging the democratic governments of the world.

The enthusiastic official support for the Catalan referendum is not supported because of the connotations that this will have for the lives of millions of people, but by the blow that it means for the Spanish State. The Cuban Government is more concerned that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Popular Party suffer a defeat in their own home than it is in the fate of the independentistas.

In addition to visits by senior officials and the anticipated visit of Spain’s King Felipe VI to the island early next year, Raul Castro’s government does not condone the Moncloa Palace’s criticism of human rights violations in Cuba. In addition, Spain belongs to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and strongly criticizes Nicolas Maduro, two of many profound differences.

The press controlled by Cuba’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR) also needs the Catalan conflict to show that democratic countries are shaken by instability, a way of emphasizing that only with the Revolution will the unity of the Cuban nation be maintained and that only socialism will prevent the dismemberment of the national territory.

However, in the case of the Kurdish plebiscite, Havana does not hide its suspicions of the process, which has origins more in political opportunism than in realpolitik.

When the High Electoral Commission of Iraqi Kurdistan announced on Wednesday that more than 92% of voters said ‘yes’ to independence, there were not many smiles on the island’s newscasts. The reason is not only that Iraq is opposed to the victory of the secessionists. So, also, are Iran, Syria and Turkey, all three of which are, to a greater or lesser extent, allies of President Raul Castro.

While the Turkish administration fears that Kurdish independence will infect Kurds living in its territory, Iran accuses Israel of supporting this week’s referendum and Syrian officials say it is the “result of US policies aimed at fragmenting the countries of the region,” despite the fact that the United States has declared itself against a plebiscite that has found international support only in Tel Aviv.

Aligned with its partners, with whom it shares positions and forms blocks in the United Nations to evade responsibilities or to avoid sanctions, Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution has preferred to distance itself from the “Yes” victory among the Kurds. These separatistas are not well regarded by Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper.

It matters little to the Cuban government whether or not, in both referendums, people vote for a legitimate demand that has roots in the history of a region. What is most worrisome is deciphering who is affected by secessionism. In its symbolic and simplified way of thinking, the Plaza of the Revolution believes that independence is a prize deserved only by its comrades.

Absence Means Forgetting

Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more fruit of the pressures than of his own desires. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2017 — Most active politicians like to have their photos taken while greeting children, talking to factory workers, or visiting a disaster area. These images, seen on countless occasions, do not translate into better government performance, or even real concern, but at least they are consistent with a formal and public ritual.

More than two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma devastated countless towns in central Cuba, affected communities near the north coast and left the coastal areas of the city of Havana under water. Since then, Raúl Castro has not been to any of the affected sites and has not been seen near the houses that lost their roofs, the sidewalks filled with the furniture drying in the sun or the places sheltering some who  have no homes to return to. continue reading

In the first days of his absence, speculations focused on the octogenarian’s health and a possible indisposition making him unable to travel to the most affected areas. However, Castro had enough physical energy to go and receive Nicolás Maduro at the airport. He has chosen to take a photo with the Venezuelan president rather than with the population battered by the meteoric winds.

The feelings left by this distancing are contradictory. His most ardent supporters speculate that he does not want to add expenses to the national budget with a visit more symbolic than effective. Others say he is letting younger officials take his place before the cameras so that they can gain visibility before 24 February of next year, when he will step down from the presidency of the country.

His critics, however, speak of the weariness that has gripped the General after a sequence of defeats, among them not being able to end the island’s dual currency system, or to reduce corruption, or to offer Cuban workers dignified wages that can become their primary source of economic support, or to attract foreign investment. Exhaustion has taken over the leader of the Communist Party a few months before he leaves power.

Now it is too late for the photo next to the victims. Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more the fruit of pressures than of his own desires. A snapshot next to an old woman whose house is nothing more than the foundation would seem to be a resounding act of gimmicky populism, but the lack of that image makes him look as distant and indifferent.

If he goes where Irma left a trail of pain he loses; if he stays in his palace he also loses.

Lessons From Irma

Hopelessness has settled in for thousands of Cubans who know well how long it will for the island to recover from Irma, especially if there are no political initiatives. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 September 2017 — There is a rare calm in Havana after the passing of Hurricane Irma. So many years of crisis leave a certain resignation in citizens in the face of new tragedies. The country of this September is not the same as that of a few weeks ago, and yet it is very familiar because it is in the state of emergency in which we have always lived.

Irma’s capriciousness has left us some certainties. The first of these has to do with that bridge of tragedy that united Cuba and Florida during the difficult days of winds, floods and power outages. Nature connected what politics has separated for decades.

In small Cuban towns, when many families did not know if they would survive through the night on Sunday, countless thoughts went out to their relatives in Miami who were waiting for the arrival of the hurricane. The same thing happened in the opposite direction. Hearts on the island and the peninsula beat as one, suffered in sync and shared the misfortune. continue reading

On the other hand, Cuba’s complex national situation has taken on an unexpected variable since the weekend. Just before the name of the next president is known– in advance of Raul Castro’s commitment to leave the presidency in February of 2018– and when many analysts insisted that all that was left was the “plain sailing” of a tightly planned transfer of leadership, the country is a pile of ruins and the future leader is heir to an immense mortgage.

The loss of at least ten human lives is the most tragic outcome of the hurricane, but Irma’s most palpable victim has been hope. The victims know that recovering a refrigerator, a mattress or a kitchen lost in the water could cost them the rest of their lives. Their expectations in the short and medium term are rock-bottom.

The lack of liquidity in the national coffers and the lack of supply in the markets, which made daily life difficult before Irma’s arrival, became deeper with this climatic shockwave. Predictions of GDP growth – which last year ended in negative numbers – are no longer realistic and the tourism sector will take months to recover.

The feeling that invades millions of people throughout the nation is that even more difficult days are to come. Times of famine, hardship and social tension. Only a generous about-face from power, along with international solidarity, could shorten the deadlines for a recovery that is expected to be long and complex.

Foreign aid will do its part, but the government must make important decisions to alleviate the suffering of those who have lost all or a good part of their property. Removing restrictions on personal imports and allowing commercial imports into private hands would help to bring huge resources into the country in the coming months.

In times like these it is urgent that vehicles, construction materials, medicines in large quantities and agricultural machinery can be brought in from outside.

The granting of licenses for self-employment needs to be unfrozen, the number of occupations allowed expanded, and a moratorium established on the payment of taxes in the most affected areas. These measures can help to rebuild the nation’s economic fabric.

International organizations need to be able to channel their aid directly and with less bureaucracy. This is the only way to prevent resources from ending up in provincial headquarters, in institutional stores where the “subtraction of resources” (i.e. management and employee theft) depletes their quantity, or on store shelves where they are sold at prices inaccessible to the poorest.

In the coming weeks, the government has the opportunity to demonstrate that it can cede areas of economic control for the sake of a less delayed recovery. The last page of Raul Castro’s book as head of the country is blank. Now he must decide whether to fill it with gestures of control or openings, whether he will contribute to the sinking of the island or help to revive it.

Judge and Press

Archive image of a protest by journalists in Caracas. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 3 September 2017 — The man approaches a dilapidated Havana kiosk and buys the latest copy of the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the only party allowed. The situation, extreme like almost everything that happens in Cuba, is only a small part of the tensions that journalism is experiencing in Latin America, the most lethal region on the planet for the press.

The continent, where several of the patricians who promoted independence also exercised the profession of journalism, has become a hostile place for reporters, a minefield for the media. Now, every written word can send its author to court or even to death.

In many of our countries, families would prefer their children to become civil servants or gang members, rather that become cannon fodder for a newspaper. “You’re going to end up underground,” the mother of a Salvadoran reporter has repeated for years when she finds him searching for data or gathering the pieces of an investigation. continue reading

In the absence of solid institutions, the press has unduly been awarded the role of prosecutor, ombudsman and comptroller. With all the risks that this entails.

That role transcends the boundaries of the profession and has created excessive expectations among readers. Before it was the redeemers or the caudillos who came to save a nation, now many expect these hybrid beings – a mixture of kamikaze and journalist – to be willing to sacrifice themselves for them.

The darkest scenarios these information specialists find on their path are where impunity or populism reigns. They are the targets of insults or bullets in countries where democracies fail and insecurity reigns. There is no clearer sign that a system has been shipwrecked by authoritarianism or has become a failed state than the way it treats the press.

Where institutions are collapsing, the dangers faced by reporters are greater. A system that cannot protect its citizens, will start by failing to support those who report or those who put in writing the generalized defenselessness.

Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, Raúl Castro’s Cuba, or the Nicaragua of the late Daniel Ortega are some of the geographical points where reporting reality means exposing yourself to reprisals from power. But the list of territories adverse to investigative journalism includes many more nations in the region. In Mexico criminal groups see journalism as a more deadly enemy than military operations.

Poorly paid, even more poorly valued and with working days that know no limits, a good share of Latin American journalists feel that the dreams that led them to take on a profession were more of a mirage than a reality. They have reached this conclusion not only because of the lack of professional and material support, but especially because of coercion.

The defensive response to repression and punishment has been – in many cases – to avoid the street, to choose to do desktop journalism or to rely on the great evils that the recently deceased teacher Miguel Ángel Bastenier described as “declarationitis, officialdom, hyperpoliticization, and international omission.”

The uncritical reproduction of official declarations in the insipid environment of a press conference is complemented by genuflections to the ruling party, because it is from “up there” that the press credentials are distributed for the next event, privileges are administered and jobs in the public media are filled.

The excess of politics is also expressed with those series of stories about the internal workings of government palaces instead of addressing human stories. A press that survives off the party entrails and the fights between its figures has taken possession of the media scene.

“The prideful villager” that José Martí spoke about discovers the warm water in the midst of the ocean of needs that defines Latin America. Turning one’s back on the other has become a form of protection and reproducing in the newspaper headlines what happens on a diplomatic scale among the nations of this continent: so close and so separate.

However, the strongest effect brought about by repression is withdrawal, locking oneself in the glass bubble of a newsroom and writing from a distance. Screen and keyboard reporters swarm everywhere. Flesh-and-blood stories are missing while analyses abound.

The editors know that each headline can become a declaration of war in these places and, in most media, the red lines are added not by the publisher but are marked by threats or expediencies.

The journalist and Spanish professor Bernardo Díaz Nosty describes in his book Dead Journalism the string of obstacles faced by the reporters of our continent. Dictatorships on the one hand, impunity on the other, and narco-power, which manages large regions – as if they were countries in question –make up most of those risks.

At the top of this scale of terror are disappearance and death, although “before the assassination, there usually comes the harassment of the journalist and his relatives, physical assault, stigmatization, extortion,” says Díaz Nosty.

“All this leads to the breakdown of professional independence, the renunciation of the practice of journalism, and exile, if not to capitulation and surrender to the conditions established by the enemy,” he points out in his book.

Writing about organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering or political corruption can be a death sentence in these places. The lack of a state response to actions against information professionals increases the feeling of lack of protection.

Worse yet, many governments in the region have chosen to kill journalism. To achieve that murder – without leaving too much evidence – they develop an extensive network of threats, legal punishments and controls. Not to mention, of course, the perks.

Buying the loyalty of a journalistic pen is one of the aspirations of any power or political group. To narrate through the arts of a loyal informant and to be able to count on the submissive undertones of the press populate the fantasies of partisan propaganda departments.

Together with the court jester, the sycophant of the moment and the spokesmen who repeat slogans, populists reassure themselves that they have their own press. A tame byproduct, headlines molded to avoid any discomfort, and reporters who settle for attending bland press conferences where the most important remains hidden and the inconsequential fills the teletypes.

The vast majority of Latin American governments dream of training the media, managing them as ventriloquists, and making them jump through the hoops of their desires. For them, a journalist is just an amplifier, through which they manage the audience and impose their ideas.


Editorial Note: This article has been published previously by the Spanish newspaper El País in its edition of Saturday 3 of September.

Goodbye August, Nobody is Going to Miss You

The August of our irritability. (E. Marrero)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — August is the cruelest month, the poet T.S. Eliot would have written had he been born in Cuba. Because by the end of July, and before the beginning of September, everything becomes much more complicated. To the high temperatures are added the massive vacations of thousands of students and state employees, which make life move slowly, gluey, like a dense and hot liquid.

The telephones in the ministries ring and no one answers them, the functionaries are not at their posts and the secretaries take advantage of heatwave to spend more time painting their nails. Everyone justifies it with summer, everyone puts the blame on this month, as if it were a virus whose only treatment is to wait for it to pass.

Irritability is everywhere. People whine in the long lines, utter an insult at the first opportunity and curse the weather, this lethargy that barely lets them think. September becomes the goal, the longed for month.

However, when August is overcome daily life continues to drag along. Be it the heat, the rain, a hurricane or a political demonstration, in Cuba there is always an excuse for apathy and idleness.

Republican Era Cuba, Patrimony Of The Ruling Party

Cuba’s ruling party appropriates the cultural images of Republican era Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — The gallery near the garden displays the faces of dozens of celebrities who stayed at the Havana’s Hotel Nacional. In one corner we see mobster Meyer Lansky, in another the sensual legs of ballerina Josephine Baker and the broad torso of actor Johnny Weissmüller. All belong to that “cocktail of the past” that gives the foreigners who come to visit an ecstatic rush.

The ruling party has converted the Republican era into its exclusive patrimony. It brings economic benefits to buildings constructed under capitalism, makes the places that served the nightlife of that era profitable, and appropriates the cultural scene of “mediatized Cuba,” as the history books call it. continue reading

The first half of the twentieth century has become a commodity, a product sold in tourist packages, souvenirs and through repetitive “canned” music, which appeals to those who want a shot of nostalgia; but it can also spark disgust when the private sector takes advantage of this scenography with its odor of mothballs.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the Island during the first half of the 20th century

Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed his annoyance in a video filmed last February, for what he considers the “eulogy to the Batista era” promoted by many restaurants and cafes through a décor of photos from the era of the Republic. However, in his speech the official conveniently avoided mentioning the use the state itself makes of marketing that country that no longer exists.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the island during the first half of the twentieth century, showing the Floridita restaurant/bar, the Bodeguita del Medio or the Tropicana cabaret. The senior officials of Gaviota and other hotel groups collect dollars in exchange for visually exploiting years that they themselves contributed to destroying.

Like all totalitarianism, the Cuban system seeks to control information and silence; the press and rumors; the past and present. Now, it has ended up closing the circle around the memories of Republican Cuba. Only power has the right to evoke that moment and, of course, it does it in its own way.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, A Future Lenin Moreno?

Miguel Díaz-Canel, the current Cuban vice-president (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, 4 August 2017 – Each ruler leaves his imprint. More than a decade ago Fidel Castro relinquished power and his brother promised continuity; but he dismantled the boarding high schools in the countryside, the army of social workers and the open anti-imperialist rallies. This coming February, Miguel Diaz-Canel could assume the presidency of Cuba and those who believe he will follow the script to the letter underestimate the vicissitudes of politics.

In recent days the news about the Venezuelan crisis has failed to overwhelm the political impact of what is happening in Ecuador. The country, which until recently was led by a man of arrogant discourse and aggressions against the press and his opponents, now has a more sedate president who is – at top speed – marking distances with his predecessor.

Lenin Moreno came to power wrapped in the controversy over a distortion of the vote in his favor. Last June, during a conference in Madrid, his main electoral opponent, Guillermo Lasso, defined that victory without circumspection: “In February there was the most brazen fraud that has been seen in Ecuador,” he said. The doubts about the cleanness of the elections and the closeness of the official candidate to Rafael Correa augured nothing good. continue reading

Nevertheless, a few months after assuming the highest position of the state, Moreno seems ready to chart his own course. He has huge motives to separate from Correa because the scandal of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht is stepping on the heels of the previous administration and the country has a debt of more than 24 billion dollars. A figure that the outgoing president tried to hide before leaving, but that has finally been revealed by the current executive.

Moreno has come to converse with several opponents, including the former president Abdalá Bucaram (1996-1997) exiled for years in Panama. This is a step that shows a clear change of direction for the Palace of Carondelet, which until recently fought those who disagreed politically with blows, insults and threats.

This week, the difference between the two most recent presidents went one step further and Moreno revoked the powers of the vice president Jorge Glas, a kind of tutor left by Correa to watch over the course of the so-called Citizen Revolution. The schism threatens to fracture the Alianza País party, shaken between those who support the former president and those who clamor for the decisions of the current president to be respected.

From distant Belgium, Correa burns with anger at what he considers a betrayal. His impetuous character, fed even more by ten years in power, has led him to write numerous critical messages against Moreno on the social network Twitter. His successor has become an antagonist and has refused to follow the path laid out by the 54-year-old economist for his party colleague.

In these months Moreno, as will happen to Diaz-Canel, has had to face his people and the international community. He has realized that it is one thing to be the designated heir, while something quite different to take the helm in the control room of a country that has long been ruled by the whims of one man. To lead with some efficiency, in both cases, requires breaking with those who placed them in those positions.

The differences between the Ecuadorian and Cuban cases are marked. While the government of Rafael Correa lasted a decade, on the island the Castro brothers have controlled every detail of the economy and politics for more than half a century. The imprint left by the Correa’s time in power in Ecuador is intense and is evidenced in a greater polarization along with a weakening of civil society, but the effect of Castroism is much deeper.

Moreno has managed to distance himself from his predecessor because, among other reasons, there are democratic structures in the country that support him in this effort, something far from the Cuban landscape. In spite of the international questions about his election to the presidency, the Ecuadorian has the approval of the majority of the governments of the region and of international bodies, some of whom see him as a concerned administrator trying to impose order on the asylum.

Miguel Diaz-Canel, less charismatic and grayer, will have biology in his favor. While it can not be ruled out that Rafael Correa will put an end to his Belgian retreat and try to reassume the Ecuadorian presidency, the current Cuban vice president will witness the deaths the members of the historic generation, people who now consider him a manageable upstart, with no battles or dead to show in his favor.

However, the economic gulf that the island dauphin will inherit will be even more unfathomable. The country that he will receive in February is experiencing a process of economic stagnation, has failed to resolve the dual currency system, is experiencing a slowdown in the expansion of the private sector and has not even been able to convince a significant number of foreign investors to put their money in the Island.

Sitting in the presidential chair and with the script of each step written on the table, Miguel Díaz-Canel will face the dilemma of having to make his own decisions. With the stares of commanders and generals fixed on the back of his neck, he is likely to opt for submission. But something of his imprint, his personality, will creep into the agenda. One day, out of bravery or fear, he will end up giving some mortal blows to Castroism.

The Betrayal Of The Minstrel

Silvio Rodríguez lost the ‘blue unicorn’ of his creativity many years ago. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 30 July 2017 — Songwriters are often confused with prophets or leaders. The output of numerous troubadours has ended up molding consciences, erecting political slogans and becoming unquestionable mantras. Every social movement needs its musical soundtrack and in Latin America these loners of the guitar have sonorously accompanied more than one.

Chroniclers equipped with melodies most commonly take these songs literally, confusing the characters of their stanzas with the flesh and blood being who ascends the stage. Under the lights, in the intimate atmosphere of a theater, they intone those phrases that are later later subverted for thousands of spectators into slogans and postures. continue reading

After the hard years in which a ballad could cost them their lives or prison, Latin American troubadours who shaped the protest songs now exist in a stage of permissive tranquility. The fiercest battle is waged against reggaeton, not against censorship. Their greatest fear lies not in swelling the blacklists, but in the audience moving the dial to look for some other, “more moving,” music.

They are no longer the focus of the reviews and the critics, and find themselves in the boring corner of the consecrated who no longer fill stadiums nor provoke sighs. They live on past glories and rarely does one of their songs make it to the top of the lists, although on TV they are still presented as “unsurpassable” or “indisputable.”

Among these shaggy ones of the easy verse, the most roguish have ceded their guitar to some power they criticized years ago, to vegetate in the shadow of festivals, tributes and interviews. The few darts they still throw in their lyrics mix the most recurring commonplaces of progressive discourse, while their clothing maintains every trace of a disguise of calculated sloppiness.

The best-known names of a few decades ago, today they caress the discs with which they assembled crowds and made their consciences throb. In the absence of those emotions, they are now engaged – without score and with weakened voice – in their professorships of how to behave civically or how to incite a rebellion that they themselves dismissed as unprofitable.

Some of those musical themes they composed, when they breathed the air of making love not war, have been hijacked by militants and extremists who sing them – neck veins bursting – in front of their political opponents. From libertarian musical expressions they became the gags to silence differences, mere hymns of blind battle.

The times of rhyming and believing each verse have given way to cynicism. Many of the minstrels who put rhymes to nonconformity moved away from the public scene; others parked their uncomfortable songs in search of greater income, while the majority, having lost the muse, have become defenders of whatever cause can hide their creative drought.

Nostalgic for a time when crowds gathered, more than one has chosen to sing to the powerful and dedicate his refrains to certain unpresentable populists. They compose to order, exalting in their refrains faded revolutions transmuted in dictatorships, and so they earn a space on the official platforms where the promises abound and the sincerity is lacking.

These are not the times when Victor Jara took his art to the ultimate consequences. “I do not sing for singing / nor for having a good voice, / I sing because the guitar / has meaning and reason,” said the Chilean who died at the age of 40 with dozens of bullets embedded in his body. Now there are plenty of artists who take care with every word to avoid moving beyond the scheme of the politically correct. Composers of polished rhymes and well-combed hair who walk through government palaces and whose honoris causa is welcomed.

They are a part of that plethora of intellectuals and artists who appear in the family photo, pointing out anyone who confronts them as the cause of all problems. Bitter anti-imperialists, false ecologists and distrustful of wealth – as long as that phobia does not affect their own pockets – they star in cantatas against distant powers and governments under which they do not live.

About four years ago, the Spanish singer-songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute said that he identified with President Rafael Correa’s Citizen Revolution. The statement was made at a time when the Ecuadorian ruler was engaged in a tough fight against the media in his country and put strict limits on freedom of the press. The irreverent poses always involve a lot of myopia, of not seeing beyond the fabricated irreverence. Under the influence of his own refrains, Aute believed in the character of his songs and that: “They say that everything is tied / And well tied to the markets,” when in reality he forgot that other powers also like to control every detail, especially words.

In Cuba lives an extreme case. Silvio Rodríguez lost the ‘blue unicorn’ of his creativity many years ago. As his subjects were filled with visible seams and boredom, his public outlook became closer to the official discourse. He stopped writing unforgettable songs to engage in diatribes against “the enemies of the Revolution.”

Recently, the singer added his signature to the manifesto Let the Catalans Vote, asking the Spanish Government to allow a referendum on independence in Catalonia. Rodríguez’s name is accompanied by other figures such as artist Yoko Ono, African-American philosopher Angela Davis and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú.

Rodriguez, author of Ojalá, initialed the statement that “a large majority of Catalans have repeatedly expressed in various ways the desire to exercise the democratic right to vote on their political future.” He considers that “preventing the Catalans from voting” contradicts democratic principles, precisely those that Cubans have been unable to enjoy for decades in their own land.

There is nothing left in this Rodriguez of the rebellion that characterized his first tunes. In 2003, he signed the Message From Havana To Friends Who Are Far Away, in which a group of intellectuals offered justifications for the imprisonment of 75 dissidents on the island. The document also supported the decision of Fidel Castro’s government to shoot three men who hijacked a passenger ship to try to escape to the United States.

With a comfortable life, a recording studio authorized by the Government and with a full table, the minstrel went astray in bows and silences. His music, which once accompanied the disobedience of so many citizens in this part of the world, is now a part of the official lyrics, of the symphony of power.


Editorial Note: This text has been previously published by the Spanish newspaper  El País  in its edition of Sunday 30 of July.

Missing Words

A group of high school students share audiovisual content through a cell phone. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 July 2017 — The man forms a trumpet with his hands in front of his mouth to warn of the presence of an informant. It is a transcendental gesture warning not to blab in a daily life were people constantly appeal to body language, obscene words and metaphors. Failing to do so leads to jokes, scares those selling things under the table, and generates mistrust among friends.

The official media is expressing concern about the deterioration in Cubans’ oral expression. Several television spots in recent weeks have tackled the shouts and rude terms that fill talk on the street. Journalists attribute this poverty of vocabulary to the family and insist that the epidemic of vulgarities that plagues the country is incubated at home.

Another culprit pointed to is reggaeton. The songs loaded with lust and machismo cultivate an expression filled with denigrating concepts and sexual allusions, say the specialists who speak on these TV programs. According to the opinions of these sociologists and psychologists – linguist are seldom invited – listening to acts such as El Palo Divino makes teens utter more insults per minute. continue reading

So far, each one of the analyses aired has failed to point to any institutional responsibility for verbal degradation. They ignore that for decades everyone who has spoken “nicely” and has dared to pronounce all the letters in every word has been labeled “unpopular,” “arrogant” or “lacking in humility.”

Foul language is a distinctive feature of the revolutionary language that has been imposed in Cuba since January 1959. Since then, expressing oneself with the rudeness of a stevedore has become one of the many strategies that opportunists assume to disguise themselves as proletarians. Offending others has also been fashionable in this political uproar established in the country more than half a century ago.

Now, the authorities are shocked because young people insert a bad word in every sentence they utter. They blush for the constant allusions to sexual organs in conversation, a real trifle compared to the using the derogatory gusano, worm, against a political opponent, as was coined and promoted by the government.

After accusing those concerned about the correct use of language of being bourgeois, now they are afraid of this vulgar generation that was born of so many verbal castrations. After pursuing the free and frank word, today from government institutions, they complain of the incoherent monosyllables that so often arise when these children of censorship are asked about politics, human rights or the leaders of the country.

Many years ago, here, talking stopped being a way to communicate and instead become the fastest way to relax. Not only does expressing an opinion cause problems, but the style in which it is expressed can also be a source of conflict. Understanding the danger of articulate language has been one of the most successful survival mechanisms developed by Cubans in the times we have been living in.

Not recognizing the implication of the political system in this linguistic deterioration is another way of doing damage to the vocabulary… by not calling things by their names.

The Simple Story Of Roof Sealant

Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and stains are some of the consequences of poor placement of a sealing cover on the roof. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana 20 July 2017 — One day they came carrying rolls of roof paper to waterproof the roof of this concrete block where we live with more than a hundred families. Those state employees were deaf to the warnings. “We do not need coverage here,” some neighbors told them. “No apartment leaks when it rains,” said others. However, the installation continued its course without listening to the citizens, like all directions “from above.”

There was no way to convince the authorities that this multifamily building, built in the years of the Soviet subsidy, had other emergencies. Water pipes have collapsed over the years and the lightning rod has been inactive for decades. “What we have is a roof sealer and that is what we are going to install,” said the head of the team of workers who for several days toiled over our heads. continue reading

Shortly after, the cover began to breakdown in several places. The rainwater accumulated underneath and, as it could not evaporate in the sun, leaked into the houses. The residents on the top floors have suffered all kinds of problems as a result from that awkward decision. Short circuits in ceiling lamps, leaks and yellow stains that increasingly cover a larger area in the ceilings. What should have been a solution, has become a real headache.

Now the community is battling to remove the sealing sheets, but the authority to do so does not arrive at the same speed with which some bureaucrats ordered it to be installed. The most daring residents have ripped off the pieces above their own apartments, while the most cautious wait for official directions from above.

During the years the cover has remained in place, several areas of the roof have been filled with mold and have developed cracks due to moisture, a damage that, now, each affected resident must repair with the resources of their own pockets.

A few yards away, in the neighborhood of La Timba, several families have been demanding that they be given roof paper — at affordable prices — to repair their homes. With summer rains, their homes “get wetter inside than outside,” they say. Some have approached our concrete building to get what we obtained in the lottery of state inefficiency.

The history of this sealing or roof paper is just one of the thousands of absurdities that Cubans are forced to deal with every day. A sample of how the country’s resources are wasted on superfluous tasks designed to fill in the numbers or meet irrational goals while the real difficulties are avoided or hidden.

The useless roof covering has not only left significant damage in several apartments, but has further hurt the decision-making ability of a community, a group of neighbors that does not even have sufficient autonomy to remove the shreds of the mistake that remain on our roof.

Parliamentary Karaoke

Cuban members of the National Assembly of People’s Power lodge in the Hotel Tulipán during their regular sessions (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation y, Yoani Sanchez, 14 July 2017 — Wednesday night. The neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado is sliding into the darkness. Catchy music resonates in the Hotel Tulipán where parliamentarians are staying during the current regular session. They dance, drink under the sparkling lights of the disco ball and sing karaoke. They add their voices to a programmed score, the exercise they know how to do best.

With only two sessions a year, the Cuban legislative body gathers to stuff the population full of dates, figures, promises to keep, and critiques of the mismanagement of bureaucrats and administrators. A monotonous clamor, where every speaker tries to show themselves more “revolutionary” than the last, launching proposals with an exhausting generality or a frightening lack of vision. continue reading

Those assembled for this eighth legislature, like their colleagues before them, have as little ability to make decisions as does any ordinary Cuban waiting at the bus stop. They can raise their voice and “talk until they’re blue in the face,” and enumerate the inefficiencies that limit development in their respective districts, but from there to concrete solutions is a long stretch.

On this occasion, the National Assembly has turned its back on pressures that, from different sectors, demand new legislation regarding the electoral system, audiovisual productions, management of the press, same sex marriage and religious freedoms, among others. With so many urgent issues, the deputies have only managed to draft the “Terrestrial Waters Bill.”

Does this mean that they need to meet more often to fix the country’s enormous problems? The question is not only one of the frequency or intensity in the exercise of their functions, but also one of freedom and power. A parliament is not a park bench where you go to find catharsis, nor a showcase to demonstrate ideological fidelity. It should represent the diversity of a society, propose solutions and turn them into laws. Without this, it is just a boring social chinwag.

The parliamentarians will arrive on Friday, the final day of their regular session, in front of the microphones in the Palace of Conventions with the same meekness that they approached the karaoke party to repeat previously scripted choruses. They are going to sing to music chosen by others, move their lips to that voice of real power that emerges from their throats.

Leopoldo López Returns Home… Now what?

Leopoldo López greets the Venezuelans who gathered in front of his house to celebrate his release. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 8 July 2017 — Authoritarian regimes must learn some lessons: imprisoning opponents increases their prestige. The government of Nicolás Maduro forgot that basic political truth and is now harvesting the fruits. This Saturday’s release of Leopoldo López from Ramo Verde Prison will bring unpredictable results for the dictatorship installed in Miraflores Palace.

Lopez has rejoined his family, although freedom is still far away. Now he must remain under house arrest, an electronic bracelet controls his movements and the operation around his house seems unbreachable. He’s stuck in a new perimeter, but he has the relief of hugging his kids, kissing his wife and looking out the windows at his city.

Leopoldo Lopez is in good health and happy to be home, according to his family

Every ladder has a first rung and today the one that leads to full freedom for the government opponent has been delineated. Venezuela’s oil oligarchy has released him from jail, hoping that this gesture will reduce the tension in the streets and allow the government to impose a Constituent Assembly so it can cement the totalitarian system within the country. A dismal calculation. continue reading

Lopez radiates freedom wherever he is. It doesn’t matter if he can’t access a phone, write a tweet, or accompany his compatriots in the protests. The symbols are there without being there, and in this he has become the founder of the Popular Will party. It has escaped the ruling party that putting him behind bars converted him into a symbol.

The Maduro government has chosen a fairly elegant excuse for granting release to Lopez, who has been in prison since 2014 and who was sentenced to almost 14 years; it is because of “health problems,” according to Venezuela’s Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ).

However, the first images of the prisoner upon arriving home show him vital and smiling. The excuse of an illness only tries to mask a truth as big as a mountain: the protests in the streets have forced the government to yield. The move from prison to house arrest is a victory for the Venezuelan opposition.

Chavismo is shaken and now must deal with a Leopoldo Lopez who no longer knows the narrowness of a cell, who again wakes up with his family, and more expeditiously receives information about what is happening beyond the walls of his house. His political reach grows by the hour.

One of those historical images … a man returns home … his country awaits him.

Every day that passes within that domestic enclosure, Lopez will continue to accumulate support. Letting him out is a headache for the populism that has hijacked the South American country, but keeping him in prison is worse. The Venezuelan government is up against an insoluble dilemma: if it releases the opponent, it loses; if it continues to hold him, it also loses.

Nicolas Maduro’s time is past, although right now he is surrounded by opportunists who applaud and nod. Leopoldo Lopez is the future, even though his cell is the size of a house filled with love but lacking in freedom. All that’s left is to get around those walls.

Fidel Castro In Humor And Oblivion

The man, who in life was the target of thousands of jokes about his death, has been dead for more than half a year without popular humor deigning to mention it. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Havana, 3 July 2017 — For decades Cubans were bombarded by official propaganda filled with materials about Fidel Castro’s supposed genius. In these vindications he was not only a father, but also a strategist, visionary, pedagogue, farmer and cattle rancher, among other lofty characteristics and pursuits. However, that prototype of patriarch, scientist and messiah had some “soft spots.”

Over time, many of us came to understand that the Maximum Leader was not as outstanding as they wanted to make us believe. Counting against him, he had several capital defects: with a complete lack of any capacity for self-criticism, he never engaged in debate, and he was not given to irony or humor, the most difficult and elevated scales of the human intellect.

Despite all the ill-advised decisions he made, Castro died without saying “I’m sorry,” contrary to those who say “to err is human but to rectify is wisdom.” My generation waited in vain for his apology for the high schools in the countryside, and other sad educational experiments, just was we waited for a mea culpa for the victims of the Five Grey Years, the Military Units in Aid of Production (UMAP) or the Stalinist purges. continue reading

Nor was controversy the terrain of the Commander-in-Chief. He shunned diatribe and prepared himself with selected data and later spewed it out over unsuspecting foreign journalists and crowds gathered in the Plaza of the Revolution. He liked them to say: “What a well informed man!” When in reality he was only a ruler with access to information that was not allowed to his citizens.

Castro drowned, in long hours of discourse, what could have been sound political talk and a constructive discussion to improve the nation. We had to worship him or applaud him, never contradict him. He never ceded the spotlight, fearing perhaps that we would realize that “the king is naked” or that the guerrilla had “not the least idea” of what he was talking about.

All the times the late leader approached controversy he was caught short. When he exercised that egregious sport that is verbal fencing, he was beaten in the first act.

All the times the late leader approached controversy he was caught short. When he exercised that egregious sport that is verbal fencing, he was beaten in the first act. His way of dealing with these defeats was to overwhelm the other with long speeches or to get his acolytes to destroy the reputation of his opponent. He was mediocre as a gladiator of the word.

Nor were jokes his forte. Although Castro was the target of thousands of humorous stories, at no time in his life did he demonstrate a gift for humor. In a country where there is always a parody waiting to break the surface, that corpulent character – dressed in olive green with his serious and admonitory phrases – was the constant butt of mockery.

His death has highlighted that lack of charming banter. The man, who in life was the target of thousands of jokes about this death and his presumed arrival in hell, has been dead for over half a year without popular humor deigning to mention him. Not even Pepito, the eternal child of our stories, has wanted to “portray” the deceased.

Sad is the fate of those who are not remembered in a single joke. Poor is the man who never said “I was wrong,” who never knew the pleasure of engaging in arguments with an adversary, and who couldn’t even manage to taste the grace of humor.

A Cuban Fight Against The Demons Of Machismo

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive us of women’s talents. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 July 2017 — A man looks over my shoulder because I talk about cables and circuits. He grimaces in disgust when he sees my clumsy nails cut short and is annoyed because I reject his “compliments,” which I should accept with pleasure and gratitude. He does not say it out loud, but to him I’m just a creature who should look “pretty,” care for his home and bear his children.

It is an exhausting battle. Every day, every hour, every minute, Cuban women – and so many women in other parts of the world – have to deal with this accumulation of nonsense. “You can’t, let your husband do it,” is one of the more pleasant phrases we hear from them, although I have found others who insist that “women should only talk when hens piss*,” a coarse way of saying that we should be seen and not heard.

A journalist asks me in front of the camera how I combine being a mother with the task of running a newspaper. Although I try to lead the conversation down a professional path, he insists on referring to my ovaries. A political policeman mocks me because my hair is tangled. Probably my texts bother him more, but he feels a special pleasure in “attacking” my femininity. He is wasting his time.

At the end of the day, I have had to evade a thousand and one attempts to force me into a mold. That box where we must be silent and endure; smile and bear it; laugh with grace at the machistas** and act flattered by their repartee. A twisted mechanism that results in society losing out on our cores and being left only with our shells.

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive ourselves of the talents that we possess, not only as women, but – mainly – as human beings.

Translator’s notes:
*This expression derives from the fact that chickens do not urinate (as we know it).
**Male chauvinists.