Panama’s Darien Gap, a Mediterranean Without Boats or Headlines / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Cubans crossing the Darien jungle to get to Panama. (Courtesy to '14ymedio')
Cubans crossing the Darien jungle to get to Panama. (Courtesy to ’14ymedio’)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Panama, 23 October 2016 — If anything deserves to be called “tropical” it is the Darien jungle in the south of Panama. Humidity, mosquitoes and heat makes moving within the dense vegetation of the area a superhuman task. Through the dense jungle extends one of the most dangerous migratory routes of the world. A Mediterranean without boats or headlines, but one where opportunity and death also converge.

Where Central America joins in a narrow embrace with South America, is is the deadliest and most feared stretch along the route to the United States. Crossing from Colombia to this area in Panama are migrants arriving from nearby or distant countries, such as Cuba, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

This piece of land has lodged in many migrants’ memories as the most difficult in the long march toward a dream. However, for migrants from other continents, coming from Asia and Africa, overcoming it is a major effort. There are those who cross the Atlantic at the mercy of the human traffickers, hidden in the cargo holds of ships that often depart a Europe incapable of confronting its own immigration crisis. Continue reading “Panama’s Darien Gap, a Mediterranean Without Boats or Headlines / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Without speaking a word of Spanish, nor knowing the least cultural details of this area of the world, the recently arrived collide with a region where reality oscillates between the marvelous and the sinister. In most cases, they carry no identity documents and only a few know words such as “water” and “food.”

Those who manage to cross the thicket of vegetation and danger, celebrate on the other side, now in Panamanian territory, with the joy of reaching a final destination, but with the crossing of the rest of Central America and Mexico still ahead of them, some of it semi-desert. But conquering the Darien comes to be seen as winning a medal in the most difficult Olympic disciplines… one in which the athletes play at life.

There are no half measures in this strip of rough terrain. A coyote might be an experienced guide who leads a group of travelers toward the next frontier, or a criminal who delivers the group into the hands of extortionists, rapists and thieves.

Through the jungle, the migrants appear in groups, some with children riding on their shoulders, stumbling through the mud and branches along makeshift routes. Their stories are barely told in the foreign media, and international organizations have been parsimonious in highlighting the humanitarian crisis that is taking place in this narrow waist of land that enhances the curves of America.

It is also a path marked by simulation. Many Haitians cross the jungle passing themselves off as Africans. The citizens of the country in this part of the world hardest hit by natural disasters and poverty are considered as pariahs, with little appeal even to the human traffickers.

In no other place on the continent, as in the Darien, are the deficiencies of Latin American diplomacy in coordinating common policy more apparent. Meanwhile, Nicaragua continues to keep its borders closed to migrants, Costa Rica seeks to stem the flow of foreigners flooding it, and the president of Panama warns that those who enter the jungle area separating his country from Colombia “are going to be given humanitarian assistance to continue their journey.”

The Darian Gap incarnates the fiasco of regional integration, delayed by the short-sightedness of the politicians and the successive attempts to create select clubs of countries, united more by ideological conveniences than by the urgent needs of their citizens. The greatest failure is the fault of the Central American Social Integration Secretariat (SISCA), incompetent to implement an effective contingency plan for the situation.

It has been of little use that James Cavallaro, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), made a call to the United States of America to act “immediately to open channels that allows these people to migrate legally and safely.” In the government palaces, everyone seems more focused on lighting their own fires than in supporting joint efforts.

This diplomatic selfishness didn’t escape Cavallaro, who also said that “the fact that the migrants resort to irregular channels and human traffickers is explained by the lack of legal and safe channels to migrate,” a situation that increases their vulnerabilities to the abuses and extortion of criminal organizations, human traffickers and corrupt police.

The landscape worsens every day with a Europe overwhelmed by the massive arrival of migrants and a “destination America” appearing as an option for those fleeing armed conflicts: the poor and the desperate. Like a river that starts with a thin trickle of water, the flow of those crossing the Central American isthmus grew and grew, swelled by thousands of Cubans who fear the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the benefits it offers them in the United States.

The drama takes place beyond the photographers’ lenses. The images of the boats filled with refugees coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh trying to get to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand filled the newspaper headlines in the middle of last year, while the Darien hid its most terrible scenes. It barely appeared in the international press.

To those who boast of living in a hyper-connected world, with every inch already explored and with the eyes of satellites crossing it foot-by-foot, they would do well to visit this jungle. One of the last natural redoubts that terrorizes men, stops the most daring expeditions and seems to laugh at adventurers in the style of Indiana Jones.

A descent into the abyss of humidity and insect bites could shade the reading of news about space probes that reach distant planets and collect images of other galaxies. The region remains as stark as in the days of the Spanish Conquest.

The Pan American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Argentina, is interrupted here. A situation that has helped to preserve the natural diversity of the area but that certainly increases the deadliness of this stretch for migrants.

In September of this year, a family of three drowned in the Turquesa River. Fishermen in the area reported the body of a child not yet four years old floating in the water. Then they also found his parents. All had “foreign-features,” according to the Panamanian border service.

They are just a few of the many victims claimed by the Darien Gap. This jungle is so thick that not even screams escape it.


Editor’s note: This text was published on Sunday 23 October in the newspaper El País.

Information as Treason / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

"For the retrograde Cuban officialdom all cats are gray." (EFE)
“For the retrograde Cuban officialdom all cats are gray.” (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 14 October 2016 – Authoritarians aren’t very given to calm. They need the citizens to feel widespread discomfort to be able to govern them with ease. This scenario of fears has sharpened recently in Cuba, where the government has strengthened or opened new fronts against the opposition, against the self-employed, against young people who aspire to a scholarships to study in the United States, and, especially, against the independent press.

The battle drums sound and the main enemy is embodied on this occasion by journalists not affiliated with the state media who are reporting on the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew. The government is opposed to “private sites, or those openly in service to the counterrevolution” giving “an image, not of a different, but of a distorted reality,” according to an article published this Thursday in the official newspaper, Granma. Continue reading “Information as Treason / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

The Granma article, titled “Matthew: Humanism, Transparency and Manipulation” is barely a skirmish in the escalation of recent weeks against publications that have escaped Communist Party control. What is new is that this time the attack reaches certain areas of the independent press that have fought tooth and nail not to be included in the sack of “enemies.”

The current offensive against them, embodied in the arrests suffered by the Periodismo de Barrio team and its director Elaine Diaz, the threats against Fernando Ravsberg about a possible expulsion from the country, and the sanction against Holguin journalist Ramirez Pantoja, show that for the retrograde Cuba officialdom all cats are grey, or, and it’s the same thing: the journalist who doesn’t applaud with sufficient enthusiasm is a traitor.

The official onslaught has reached the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on the situation of the press in Cuba, a study prepared with the cooperation of Ernesto Londoño, a journalist for The New York Times whose editorials in favor of the thaw with the United States were, until recently, praised by Cuba’s government press.

Now… now we’ve all been tossed into the same sack.

It serves the new victims not at all to distance themselves from those who have been stigmatized by official propaganda on prime time television programs. There is little to be gained today by the acrimonious official rejection of independent journalism born in the nineties. Nor even that abomination of “controversial” or dissident bloggers as they publicly insist they are guided by a leftist ideology.

None of that matters. Because what is happening now is a clash between two eras. An era in which the Cuban Communist Party could control, decide and manipulate at will all the information published in the island’s media. A time when we learned weeks later that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and when the images of the 1994 Maleconazo uprising in Havana itself were whisked off the front pages of the national dailies. This era is dying and another is being born, thanks to new technologies, to many journalists’ commitment to the truth, and to the growing eagerness to be informed displayed by many Cubans.

However, to the Plaza of the Revolution, accustomed to deciding each headline and appointing the directors of every newspaper, radio and TV station, it matters little whether the new object of their animosity is a fashion magazine, a sports publication or an information site. If it doesn’t have the Party’s seal on it any attempt to inform will be seen as a declaration of war.

As long as Cuban journalists fail to recognize that beyond their editorial nuances, their phobias or their individual ideological affiliations they must unite and protect each other, officialdom will continue to land these blows. They will demonize, arrest and confiscate the tools of the trade, whether the journalists they are talking about the migrations of birds of prey or acts of repudiation suffered by the opposition.

The only thing worth distancing ourselves from right now is letting the forces most opposed to free information tear us apart. Separated, we are just journalists at the mercy of the whims of power; together we are united in a vigorous and needed profession.

Let this article serve to transmit my solidarity to all my colleagues who today are in the crosshairs of repression, whatever their editorial line, the focus of their work or the color of the dreams they cherish for our country.

The Grandchildren Of The Revolution Aspire To A Normal Life With Neither Utopia Nor Frustration / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

A group of young people connect to the internet in a Wi-Fi zone in Havana (EFE)
A group of young people connect to the internet in a Wi-Fi zone in Havana (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Guatemala, 12 October 2016 – This will be the story of at least three stages my nation has lived through. Three moments when the young amassed hopes, collected frustrations and used their ingenuity to overcome obstacles along the way. Without this renewing energy and a capacity to defy the established, we would very likely be sunk much more deeply in a lack of rights, in surveillance and control.

They opened the window when the door was closed, but the challenge is to cross the threshold of freedom without subterfuges or ideological concessions.

The first generation I want to talk about is that of my father. A train driver, a Communist Party militant, a member of the political process that came to power in Cuba in January of 1959. He could not choose, he just followed the course designed by others who barricaded themselves behind the name of the historic generation and came down from the mountains, bearded, young, possessors of hope, in a convulsive and memorable era. Continue reading “The Grandchildren Of The Revolution Aspire To A Normal Life With Neither Utopia Nor Frustration / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

My father was a child at the time and saw how the country around him skipped a beat. The streets were euphoric, anthems filled every space and in the photos from that time his contemporaries are smiling and optimistic in front of the platform where the Maximum Leader speaks for hours, with his index finger defiantly extended. To my father’s generation fell the heroic tasks, like the literacy campaign, the voluntary labor to catapult the country to the highest standards of prosperity and knowledge.

However, what most marked that time was the sensation that they were working for the future, that all this sacrifice and energy would end up building, for their children, a better tomorrow. They were young, they wanted to have fun and be together, but they accepted being led and reduced to the attitude of mere soldiers, so that those who came later would inhabit a more prosperous and more free Cuba.

In order to achieve that dream, that generation set aside in great measure the rebelliousness that belongs to that age, accepted a foreign doctrine as distant as Marxist-Leninism, and offered their best years on the altar of history. No contribution was enough, so the government asked for more sacrifice, less individualism and above all, no complaining.

Their names were the first signed up for the so-called libreta, the ration book for food and manufactured products that were distributed to Cubans in identical amounts, to avoid social differences and the appearance of that demonized middle class that Fidel Castro’s regime had erased through confiscations, stigmatization and exile.

My father could only choose atheism in a Cuba where families hid their prints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the back of the room and avoided even saying “thank God,” and postponed for several decades the celebration of Christmas. For the prevailing ideology, religion wasn’t just the opiate of the people, but endowed the individual with a spiritual world to which the Party had no access. When Cubans escaped in a prayer, in a supplication, the bureaucrats and materialistic theorists lost ascendancy over them.

In every form you had to fill out to go to school or start a new job there was the question about your religious beliefs. Many hid their crucifixes under their shirts, emphasized that there were “trusted comrades” and marked “no”… saying they believed in nothing other than the Revolution, its leader and the Party. In this and other ways the basis of the double standard that runs through Cuban society today was set.

These were the Cubans who, on becoming young adults a decade after January 1959, filled the ranks of the soldiers who left for internationalist wars in far off Africa. They didn’t know it, but they were just canon fodder, “toy soldiers” that the Soviet Union deployed at will in the turbulent war scenario of the Cold War. Thousands went mad, died, and wept in those latitudes, without a good understanding of how the people on our island got involved in such a conflict.

But those who were also young back then had to say “goodbye” to many of their relatives once more, when they were forced to emigrate from Camarioca or through the Port of Mariel. Many of them, beardless and confused, were used as shock troops to scream, at their own family members, that official slogan with which Cubans confronted Cubans, “Out with the scum!”

Uniformed, with military haircuts and optimistic about the future, these young people began to have their own children, whom they nursed on the belief that they would live in Utopia, with absolute equality and happiness for everyone. It was my generation that would arrive in a world where everything was decided and programmed.

I was born in the midst of the absolute Sovietization of Cuban reality. The Three Kings of our Christmas celebration, olive oil and privacy were all simply memories from a past that should not return. We were the New Man that knew nothing of capitalism, the exploitation of man by man, the market, the law of supply and demand, respect for privacy and, of course, we also knew nothing of freedom…

We all knew, in that Cuba of the seventies and eighties, how our classmates dressed or what they ate, because it was exactly the same, a carbon copy, of what we ourselves ate and wore. Using the first person singular, “I,” became a problem, so we talked about “us,” we were comrades and projected collective dreams and the longings of the platoon.

With the concept of the “masses” that need to be be managed from above, my generation was sent to schools in the countryside. A social and teaching laboratory where we would be Cubans more committed to the cause, people disinterested in all material things, and ready, at any moment to exchange our schoolbooks for a gun, if the fatherland – or at least those who called themselves the fatherland – needed us.

However, the human being in an environment of excess indoctrination always reserves a piece of themselves, where the cacophony of power is not heard and where no ideology has access. That redoubt, defended with masks of complacency and hidden from colleagues, relatives or the neighbors who might denounce you, was the refuge of our generation.

They, the powers-that-be, promised us Utopia, but we wanted to enjoy the present. So we pretended to obey while we incubated rebellion. We yelled the slogans like automatons and minutes later we’d already forgotten the words we shouted. We learned to lie, to put on a mask, to unwillingly applaud, and to promise eternal fidelity when inside there was only apathy and doubt. In short, we learned to survive.

We came to puberty and the Berlin Wall fell. We weren’t the ones wielding the chisels and hammers that brought down the symbol of an era, but every blow against the stones echoed in our heads. My father cried for that communist East Germany that he knew from a trip he’d earned as a vanguard worker, designed so he would know the future. But my generation felt a tingling, a satisfaction…our Sugar Curtain could also fall.

With the Communist Party Congress in 1991, in which it was accepted that religious believers would be allowed in the only political organization permitted in the country, we saw how our parents pulled out their old hidden religious objects.

The hunger also came, that burning stomach that doesn’t let you think about anything else. With the implosion of the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp,” Cuba lost the subsidies and the “fair trade among peoples” that had kept the country afloat for decades. That currency that had bought our fidelity, that gravitational field that we orbited around the Kremlin, vanished.

We came up against our own reality. It was hard, sad, without expectations. Nothing resembled those projections of the future with which my father put me to sleep when I was a little girl. His generation had inherited a moribund doctrine and to us fell the heavy task of burying it.

The Rafter Crisis that erupted in August of 1994 was one of the many ways that my contemporaries found to bury that mirage. We didn’t confront power in a public plaza, nor tear down the walls of control surrounding us. A good part of Cubans preferred the sea, the waves and rickety boats as the path to escape.

On Havana’s Malecon we watched them assemble the rafts of disillusionment, people my father’s age and the new shoots, energetic and young but frustrated. They left, we said goodbye and the cynicism began, the nothingness, the stage of not believing, of no illusions but also no rebellion. We arrived at this moment in our national history that could be called “every man for himself.”

Between the sound made by the oars of the rafts that sailed the Florida Straits and the stubbornness of the power that kept calling us to resist the economic vicissitudes, my generation began the difficult task of being parents. Those we brought into the world were the babies of disenchantment: the grandchildren of those who cursed having given their best years to a failed project and the children of a generation that should have been the “New Man” but didn’t even manage to be a “good man.”

Not much can be asked of them, but the young people of today have been better than us. The generation of my son, who is 21 now, suckled our disbelief, heard us blaspheme in front of national television, buy in the black market, surreptitiously escape from the public marches and hope – in a whisper – that the future wouldn’t be the one our parents dreamed of. Because we already understood that was a golden cage in which others had planned to lock us up.

With a touch of indifference and a shrug of the shoulders in that so Cuban gesture that, translated into verbal language, means “Me? What do I care?” the new generation of young people is dismantling what is left of the Cuban system. It is doing this without heroic gestures, one could almost say with a certain reluctance and a touch of indifference. Nothing they say from the official podiums touches their hearts, or even instills fear.

Unlike those who came before, today’s Cubans under 25 don’t know about the ration book for manufactured products, where you could buy a single pair of pants or one shirt per year. They barely remember hearing a speech by Fidel Castro and haven’t had to accumulate ideological merits or brownie points at or work to be able to buy a home appliance.

Instead, they live on an island where the only valid thing is real money, which is achieved by doing the exact opposite of what my father once had to do to get a refrigerator, and where the black market has crept into all spheres of life.

Almost from childhood, these Cubans of the third millennium have been glued to a computer keyboard. Their parents bought their first computers and laptops in the illegal market. Their first kilobytes and videogames have come through the alternative distribution networks and represent the exact opposite of the ideology taught to them in school.

With haircuts inspired by Japanese manga, by figures from international show business or rebellion, today they populate our streets.

My son’s generation does not seek revolutions because they already know what they cause. They have learned to be suspicious by nature of Robin Hood style discourses that know how to steal from the rich and divide the spoils among the poor, but have never learned to generate wealth, to make a prosperous nation, one with opportunities like those once promised by that band of outlaws that came down from the mountains with their beards and olive green uniforms.

Today they have the appearance and dreams of any young German, English, Guatemalan. They look back with the necessary disdain and with a certain confidence that the future will not be as predicted in the science fiction books of the twentieth century, nor like that predicted by totalitarian ideologies. They believe it will be, at least, a more humane and pluralistic time, and a more free one.

When someone tells them that the Castro regime is here to stay and that Cuba will never return to its democratic path – imperfect and risky, like that of any nation – these Cubans living on the island today smile and remember those impetuous young people who drove the changes in the far off Soviet Union. Like them, they say to themselves, it doesn’t matter that the historic generation has the power, because we – fresh and skeptical – have the time.

They grow up, go to the gym, listen to pirated music like anywhere else on the planet, make love, take selfies, try to share their lives on the web, and continue to live in a country where officialdom fears information. In short, they are twenty-somethings while Fidel Castro is in his nineties. They belong to the twenty-first century, but the old caudillo remains a prisoner of the twentieth.

These grandchildren of the generation of sacrifice and children of the generation of Utopia are the ones who, for the most part right now, feed the emigration that is crossing Central America. They suffer, die and are carried away in the hands of the coyotes while escaping the country that, by this time, should be the paradise once promised by their elders.

These young people today are the future. They will do it their way. Without listening to the advice of their parents. Who, under 30, follows the path traced by others? Especially when those who preceded them were so wrong? They are the grandchildren and children of a chimera. They come with the necessary pragmatism of forgetting and with the indulgent balm of forgiveness. They will live in a Cuba we never imagined, or knew how to achieve. A country, finally, with room for everyone.


Editor’s Note: Lecture given on October 6 by Yoani Sanchez in Juan Bautista Gutierrez Francisco auditorium at Marroquin University in Guatemala.


Scholarships, Fears And Attractions / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

World Learning's scholarships are targeted to 16-18 year old students in Cuba.
World Learning’s scholarships are targeted to 16-18 year old students in Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 27 September 2016 – The woman approaches without fear or hesitation. “How can my son apply for one of the scholarships mentioned on television?” she asks me abruptly. It takes me a few seconds to realize what she’s talking about, for the images to come to mind of young Cuban students engaged in demonstrations called by the government to reject the programs of the World Learning organization.

She waits a few minutes, standing next to me, eager to have an email address she can write to, a bridge for her child to learn another reality. The slogans against the US NGO launched by officialdom don’t seem to have swayed her. When I ask her if she is aware of the government campaign attacking this program, which is targeted to Cuban youth between 16 and 18, she responds with a very popular phrase: “In this case, it’s all the same to me to me to be the pedestrian, or the driver who runs over him.” Continue reading “Scholarships, Fears And Attractions / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Fear no longer works as it once did. A few decades ago, it was enough for any phenomenon or person to be demonized on television for the circle of silence and fear to close around them. Now, the volume at which the extremists shout is inversely proportional to the interest in the object of their animosity. Without realizing it, the Party propaganda of recent days is helping to advertise the existence of some scholarships that were known to only a tiny part of the island’s population.

The woman is not afraid. She sticks close to me for help in some details that will allow her son “to breathe other air.” Like her, thousands of parents throughout the island watch their children leave for school, where in morning assemblies they shout their rejection of the new “manipulations of imperialism.” At home, the adults move heaven and earth to inscribe their children’s names on the list for the next round of scholarships.

‘Kaputt’: The Dreams of a Goethe Institute in Havana / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

The Headquarters of the Goethe Institute in Munich. (Goethe Institute)
The Headquarters of the Goethe Institute in Munich. (Goethe Institute)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 September 2016 – The word made me smile. I read Kaffeeweißer – coffee whitener – on the tiny envelopes near the coffee machine in a Berlin hotel, that promised to “whiten” that dark beverage that was relieving my jetlag. I had forgotten how direct and powerful the German language can be. For years, along with the Cuban Germanophile community, I had awaited the inauguration of the Goethe Institute on the island, but last week a report in Deutsche Welle poured a bucket of cold water on our aspirations.

The longed for opening of the center that would let us observe German culture was only a matter of time. In July of last year, the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made the first official visit of a German chancellor to our country since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In May of this year it was followed by a visit of Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, to the capital city of bears and sausages. Continue reading “‘Kaputt’: The Dreams of a Goethe Institute in Havana / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Like a diplomatic dance, we waiting impatiently for a step here, another there and the prodigal handshakes for the camera. Meanwhile, we counted the days until the country of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Herta Mueller and Gunter Grass would honor Havana with a center of the stature and quality of the Alianza Francesa.

I’ve never found a word that is better at expressing the breakage of something than the German word kaputt. To this, my language of dreams and nostalgia, I owe the force of the verbal sledgehammer that Spanish hides in sinuous constructions and compromises. This crack that means “broken,” and carries with it a sense of frustration, resonated in my mind this Saturday when I read the declarations of the president of the subcommittee on foreign policy for material culture, Bernd Fabius, about the possible causes of the sine die – the indefinite postponement – of the Goethe Institute among us.

“Cuba fears that with the Geothe Institute, which promotes the German language and culture in the world, Germany will encourage the counterrevolution,” said Fabius, noting that the refusal “shows how fragile the systems of such states perceive themselves to be.”

The Cuban government has preferred that the “German dose” come through its own educational institutions and under tight control. In the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Havana there is a lectureship for teaching the German language, but the autonomy of a cultural center – managed directly from Berlin – is not in its plans for now.

A real shame in a country where it is calculated that around 30,000 Cubans studied or worked in the German Democratic Republic while many others have gone in recent years to live in this now united European nation and there is a curiosity mixed with empathy for the Teutonic culture, despite the distance and the marked differences in identity.

Bernd Fabius’s conclusion about the fears of Cuban officialdom are not too far from the real motive for freezing out the Goethe Institute’s project. Every place that is not under the strict rules of ideology, that offers literature not filtered by the island’s publishers, or promotes a view beyond the borders of political blindness and the sea that surrounds us, causes the Plaza of the Revolution to break out in hives.

Most instructive is that the German government has spent years “behaving itself” so that it might make a sign with the name of the author of Faust shine on a Havana street. More than five years of exploratory feelers, plugged ears, caution, and maintaining a great distance from any phenomenon that might upset the olive-green hierarchy. After all this time invested to avoid hurting feelings, the Bundestag has received a loud and clear nein, as can only be heard in the language of Nietzsche.

Cubacel Censors Texts With The Words “Democracy” Or “Hunger Strike” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Reinaldo Escobar

Cuban woman on her cellphone. (14ymedio)
Cuban woman on her cellphone. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez/Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 3 September 2016 — If you are considering sending a text message to a friend to wish him a “happy coexistence” with his family or to suggest that he not give in to “the dictatorship of work,” it is very likely that the phrase will never reach its destination. A filter implemented by the Telecommunications Company of Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) blocks certain words from flowing through the cellular network. (See below for the list.)

For years, users of the only cellphone company in the country have suffered from congestion on the lines and areas of poor coverage, but few have noticed that there is also a strict blockade on the use of key terms and phrases in mobile messaging.

The discovery of this list has happened almost by chance. Several users, upset that their messages were charged for but not delivered, exchanged experiences. This week they connected the dots and found that texts containing the following references never reached their destinations: “human rights,” “hunger strike,” “José Daniel Ferrer,” or the name of the independent magazine “Coexistence.” Continue reading “Cubacel Censors Texts With The Words “Democracy” Or “Hunger Strike” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Reinaldo Escobar”

Texts with references to “human rights,” “hunger strike,” “José Daniel Ferrer,” or the name of the independent magazine “Coexistence” never arrive

Over several days and at different points in the national geography, this newspaper has run tests from terminals with very different owners, ranging from opponents and activists to people without any links to independent movements. In all cases, messages containing certain expressions “were lost on the way.”

Cubacel is ETECSA’s cellular network and the contract that each user signs to get a mobile line makes clear that the among causes for which the service will be terminated are uses “prejudicial to morality, public order, state security or that serve as support in carrying out criminal activities.”

The customer is never warned that their messages will be subjected to a content filter or that a part of their correspondence will be blocked if it alludes to opponents, concepts that are uncomfortable for officialdom such as “human rights” or to blogs critical of the government in the style of “Generation Y.”

Arnulfo Marrero, deputy chief of the ETECSA branch at 19 and B in Vedado, Havana, was surprised on Friday morning by a complaint presented to his office about the censorship. “We have nothing to do with this, you should contact the Ministry of Communications (MICOM),” the official explained to the bearer of the complaint.

“MICOM governs communications policy, because we don’t make any decisions here. All I can do is report it,” said Marrero.

Censorship, however, is not yet activated on messages that are sent to foreign countries, perhaps because of their high cost: 1 Cuban convertible peso (about $1 US) per 160 characters. Blocking them would provoke more complaints from disgruntled customers and would have set off alarm bells much earlier. However, in text messages received from abroad the same censorship applied to domestic text messaging is also applied.

In the Cuban case it is not morality that guides the scissors of censorship. Cubans can narrate an entire orgy in 160 characters, but cannot send the word “democracy”

In late 2001, Pakistan implemented a similar filter on cellphone text messages. The telecommunications authorities of that Asian country created a list of more than 1,600 prohibited terms in English and Urdu, which included obscene and insulting words, as well as words such as “condom” and “homosexual.”

In the Cuban case it is not morality that guides the scissors of censorship, because all the words in the popular argot alluding to sexuality can be sent freely. Cubans can narrate an entire orgy in 160 characters, but cannot send the word “democracia” to their recipients, not even when they try the trick of changing the “i” to a “1” and try to sneak in “democrac1a.”

The difference with Pakistan lies not only in the reason for blocking certain phrases or words, but also in the secrecy with which this censorship has operated for months, perhaps years, in Cuba. Few have noticed the relationship between certain expressions and communication problems, because they attribute it to the chronic problems of congestion and Cubacel’s bad service.

With more than three million cell phone users, the Cuban authorities have bet on few people associating errors in receiving messages with a desire to prevent the transmission of concepts and words.

The meticulous choice of what terms to block has not been random. Despite the high prices for mobile phone service, where one domestic call can cost as much as half a day’s wages, the presence of cellphones in the hands of Cubans has changed ways of interacting and people find parallel paths to avoid the excessive controls the government impose on all areas of activity.

“I didn’t know this was happening, although now that I read the list of censored words I’m sure I’ve used one of them at least once,” says Leo, 21, who was waiting outside the Cubacell office on Obispo Street in Havana this Thursday.

“I watch the news with breakfast,” said an astonished young man next to him, who said he had not noticed blocked terms, “although ETECSA works so badly that nothing should surprise us any more.” During special days, Christmas or Mother’s Day, communicating becomes a real ordeal.

At the University of Computer Sciences, as part of Operation Truth, a group monitored the internet and created matrices of opinions favorable to the Government

During his students years at the University of Information Sciences (UCI), the engineer Eliecer Avila worked on the so-called Operation Truth. His group monitored the internet and created matrices of opinion favorable to the government in forums, blogs and digital diaries. At present, Avila leads the independent Somos+ (We Are More) Movement, which is also on the long list of terms blocked by Cubacel messaging.

“We implemented algorithm projects that, given certain phrases or words entered by a user into their browser, they would appear preferentially in official pages,” Avila recalled for this newspaper. “We tried to invisibilize alternative proposals or criticisms.”

The presence of an intelligent filter is obvious in this case. If you type in the text “cacerolazo” – a word meaning the banging and pots and pans as a form of protest – your message will take much longer to arrive than some other text. A similar slowdown occurs if you write the names of Fidel Castro or Raúl Castro, and it is true in the latter case with or without the accented letter U.

How many dissident meetings have been frustrated because the invitation message never reached the invitees’ inboxes? How many misunderstandings between couples, domestic squabbles, and uncompleted professional tasks result from the filtering of messages that include last names such as Biscet and terms such as plebiscite?

Telecommunications censorship is not a new tool for the Plaza of the Revolution. Activist frequently denounce the blocking of their cellphones on December 10th, Human Rights Day, or other times when they want to gather together.

During the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the island in September of 2012, more than 100 opponents reported the suspension of their cellphone service, along with house arrests and arbitrary detentions.

A blockade of uncomfortable digital sites has also been a common practice for officialdom. On the list of inaccessible sites are portals set up from abroad such as Cubaencuentro, as well as local newspapers like 14ymedio. More than a few users manage to circumvent the censorship by sending news via email or sending offline copies of pages that pass from hand to hand thanks to technological devices like USB flash drives and external hard drives.

China has transferred to Cuba its experience with the so-called Golden Shield Project, known as the Great Firewall, which employs more than 30,000 censors

In March of this year, Amnesty International noted that “only 25% of the Cuban population uses the internet and only 5% of households have a connection.” This situation has strengthened the use of mobile phones, especially texting, as a way of using “the internet without internet.”

Only since 2008 were Cubans legally allowed to have a cellphone contract and Cubacel currently has over three million users. Last year 800,000 new lines were established throughout the island, despite the high cost of a national call, the equivalent of half the salary of a working day.

In July 2014, the governments of Cuba and China signed an agreement on “cooperation in cyberspace.” China has transferred to the island its experience in monitoring and blocking content on the web, especially what they have learned from their launch in 1998 of the so-called Golden Shield Project, known worldwide as the Great Firewall, which employs more than 30,000 censors.

Raul Castro’s government has not only copied China’s content filtering strategy, but also the creation of its own social networks to discourage Cubans from using Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus. To achieve this an ersatz Wikipedia, called Ecured, was created, along with a platform-style Facebook dubbed La Tendera (The Shopkeeper) and an unpopular substitute for Twitter known as El Pitazo (The Whistle), all with little success.

We now know that the Cuban Government wants to go beyond such crude imitations and aspires to follow in the footsteps of its Great Chinese Brother, which has a long history of censoring text messaging through a “keyword list.” A user can have their entire messaging function disabled if their content does not pass the filter of the censors. In the city of Shanghai alone, the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily reports, messaging has been blocked for some 70,000 users.

List of Words and Phrases Known to be Blocked by Cubacel

14 y medio
Berta Soler
Carlos Amel
Coco Farinas
Coco Fariñas
Cuba Posible
Damas de Blanco
Derechos humanos
Elecciones libres
Generacion Y
Generación Y
Guillermo Farinas
Guillermo Fariñas
Hablemos Press
Huelga de hambre
Jose Daniel Ferrer
José Daniel Ferrer
Oscar Elias Biscet
Óscar Elías Biscet
Policía Política
Policia Politica
Primavera Negra
Seguridad del Estado
Todos Marchamos
Yoani Sanchez
Yoani Sánchez

Thinking With Our Stomachs / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Decades of shortages and economic hardships have led us to a plane of survival where food is the center, obsession and goal of millions of people who inhabit this island. (14ymedio)
Decades of shortages and economic hardships have led us to a plane of survival where food is the center, obsession and goal of millions of people who inhabit this island. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 September 2016 – At the dining room table the grandparents are playing with their two granddaughters. They ask them what they would ask the genie for if they happened to stumble on a magic lamp in the corner. “I want a plate full of chicken and French fries,” the littlest one said immediately, while the older said she wanted it to rain candy. Their second wish included ice cream by the ton and the third wish concentrated on endless cheeseburgers.

National television broadcasts a report about a popular camping site that has been renovated and reopened to the public this summer. One customer smiles at the camera and says, “The food is good.” The administrator of the recreation spot enumerates the dining options and promises that culinary offerings “suited to all pocketbooks and well prepared” await whose who book one of the cabins scattered in the countryside. Continue reading “Thinking With Our Stomachs / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez, calls for moral and material respect for teachers to avoid the exodus that profession is suffering as teachers quit for other—more lucrative—jobs in other areas. The official recommended holding agricultural fairs next to school buildings, with sales of pork and produce, so the educators can buy food after work.

An opponent of the Castros visiting a market in Miami recorded a video in which he says the only way his compatriots would be willing to “overthrow the dictatorship” would be if they were promised that the shelves would then be full of the same variety of beers on offer in Miami. The well-known dissident lists the prices, the quantity of food available in pounds and the high quality of the products that star in his video.

A nouveau riche couple books two nights all-inclusive at a Varadero hotel. They manage to polish off a lunch with two pork steaks each, a serving of fried beef, several helpings of rice and beans, along with a pile of succulent shrimp and lobster. Returning home they fail to describe a single example of the scenery they admired during their trip.

When was it that we Cubans came to be ruled by our stomachs? At what moment were we conquered by a mouth that swallows and a brain that thinks only of food? Can our dreams and desires be reduced to filling our bellies, whetting our appetites and cleaning our plates?

Unfortunately, yes. Decades of shortages and economic hardships have brought us to a plane of survival where food is the center, obsession and goal of millions of people who inhabit this island. That obfuscation often does not allow us to see beyond, because “with an empty belly, who will think about politics,” as any materialistic philosopher would say.

The problem is that “hungry once, always hungry.” When a tongue of flame rises into the esophagus, when a few grains of rice are at the center of wet dreams and some crumbs of bread are the be-all and end-all, it is immoral to talk about something beyond whetting the appetite.

We have been condemned, as a people, to mastication, gastric juices and digestion. In the process we have lost what makes us human and become creatures of the feedlot, more focused on the dinner bell than on our rights of free association or expression.

We are like Pavlov’s dog, whoever brings us a plate of food will make us react and salivate. How sad!

Reinaldo Escobar Arrested in Santa Clara, Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

Arrested, handcuffed
Arrested, handcuffed and forcibly deported to Havana — This is what happened to Reinaldo Escobar yesterday at the arrival of the JetBlue [flight in Santa Clara, Cuba, which he was covering as a journalist for 14ymedio.]
My phone service was cut off
My phone service was cut off so I couldn’t report the arrest of my husband Reinaldo Escobar when he was covering the arrival of the JetBlue flight.

See also:

JetBlue Ends Abusive Prices of Charter Flights to Cuba / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Extremist Today, Democrat Tomorrow / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Journalist Jose Ramirez Pantoja. (Facebook)
Journalist Jose Ramirez Pantoja. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 31 August 2016 – In the nineties, this student was one of the most militant in his university classroom, until he managed to get a fellowship in Spain, and today he writes asking me, “Why do you put up with so much and not rebel?” From a rabid militant of the Young Communist Union (UJC) he went on to carve out a history as a clandestine fighter for the democracy he had to escape to because on this island “little could be done.”

The story of this colleague, who overturned his ideology at breakneck speed, came to mind lately on reading the intense controversy over the work sanction against the Radio Holguin journalist Jose Ramirez Pantoja. The young reporter published on his digital diary a statement by Karina Marron, deputy director for the newspaper Granma, where she defined the current economic and social conditions as the basis for “a perfect storm.” Continue reading “Extremist Today, Democrat Tomorrow / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Along with the disciplinary measure, which consisted in permanent separation from his job at the station, Pantoja had to undergo a process of public disqualification that reached its climax in a text signed by Aixa Hevia, vice president of the Cuban Journalists Union (UPEC). The official accused him of wanting to “create a history that allows him to cross to the Miami media.” Perhaps a projection of what she herself would do if the opportunity presented itself.

It would not be the first time that a well-known face from Cuba’s official journalism ended up “crossing the pond” and declaring on the other side that it was because “at that time I believed, but not any more.” The greatest extremists I have met in my life have ended up this way: burying their red or olive-green attire, without intoning the self-criticism that would give some relief to the victims they caused with their outbursts.

Over time, if ever, the instruments of censorship such as Aixa Hevia undergo a process of selective amnesia and forget all the damage they did to those who demonstrated greater honesty and consistency. They leave behind a trail of colleagues they have betrayed and helped to depose, without even sending them a short note of apology or condolences.

It is not Pantoja, in this case, who is carving out a “history,” but the sectarians like the vice president of UPEC, who is capable of lashing out against someone she should defend. As a representative of the journalists’ union, she should protect her colleague, instead of helping to sink him. But she has preferred to act in harmony with the censors rather than in solidarity with a professional who simply defended freedom of the press, information transparency and the right of his readers to be informed about what journalists think.

This is not about speculating whether Pantoja will exercise his right to perform as a journalist in another country because he is prohibited from doing so in his own. It seems more likely that someday it will be Aixa Hevia who will shed her chameleon skin to change her color in turn, to the dictates of the next power for whom she wants to behave as a mere instrument.

Cuba’s Landscape After the Thaw / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

 United States and Cuban flags in the streets of Havana
United States and Cuban flags in the streets of Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 August 2016 – The baby cries in her cradle while her mother sings to console her. Barely three months old, her name is Michelle, like Barack Obama’s wife. This little Havanan who still nurses and sleeps most of the day, came into the world after the armistice: she is a daughter of the truce between the governments of Cuba and the United States. A creature without ideological phobias or hatred on her horizon.

In the history books that Michelle and her contemporaries will read, these months after 17 December 2014 – “17-D” as Cubans have dubbed it – will remain in a few lines. In these retrospective summaries there will be optimistic tones, as if the whole island, stranded for decades on the side of the road, had set out anew from this moment, putting pedal to the metal and making up for lost time. But, for many, living through the reconciliation is less historic and grandiloquent than was playing a starring role in a battle. Continue reading “Cuba’s Landscape After the Thaw / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

A process that, one day, analysts will compare with the fall of the Berlin Wall and perhaps define with high-sounding names like the end of the sugar curtain, the death of the Revolution or the moment when peace broke out, is losing brightness now, faced with the daily exhaustion. Indeed, the truce quieted the noise of the slogans and has allowed us to hear the persistent hum of the shortages and the lack of freedom.

The day when the presidents of Cuba and the United States announced the beginning of the normalization of relations has been left somewhere in the past. It will be a reference for historians and analysts, but it means little to those who are facing a whether decision to spend the rest of their lives waiting for “this to be fixed” or to choose to escape to any other corner of the world.

17-D has increased apprehensions about the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act. The number of Cubans who, since then, have crossed the United States border has shot up, with 84,468 arriving by land or air while another 10,248 have tried to cross the sea. The popular ironic phrase of the latter for leaving the island –“turning off El Morro,” a reference to Havana’s iconic lighthouse at the entrance to the bay – dramatically foreshadows those numbers.

Why not stay in the country if the thaw promises a better life or at least a more fluid and profitable relationship with the United States? Because 17-D arrived too late for many, including several generations of who had to face off against our neighbor to the north, shouting anti-imperialist slogans for most of their lives and abetting the commander-in-chief in his personal battle against the White House. They don’t trust promises, because they have seen many positive prognostications that survived only on paper and in the mystique of a speech, lacking any impact on their dinner tables or their wallets.

After a prolonged skirmish lasting over half a century and eleven US administrations and two Cuban presidents with the same surname, the nation is exhausted. The adrenaline of the battle has given way to dreariness and a question that finds it way into the minds of millions of Cubans: Was it all for this?

It is difficult to convince people that the confiscations of US companies, the diplomatic insults, becoming the Soviet Union’s concubine, and the many caricatures ridiculing Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush were all worth it, even with all the official propaganda that controls every one of the county’s newspapers, radio stations and TV channels.

The American flag raised at the US Embassy in Havana just one year ago, on 14 August 2015, put a final end to an era of trenches and to the eternal soldier: the Cuban government with its still hot Kalashnikov and a marked inability to live in peace. It is prepared for confrontation but its ineffectiveness is clearly evident in times of armistice. In his convalescent retirement, Fidel Castro noted how the country he molded in his image and likeness was out of his hands. The man who controlled every detail of Cubans’ lives cannot influence how he will be remembered. Some rush to deify him; others sharpen their arguments to dismantle his myth; while the great majority simply forget he’s alive: he is buried while still breathing.

Children born since 31 July 2006, when the illness of the “Maximum Leader” was announced, have only seen the president in photos and archival materials. They are the ones who don’t have to declaim incendiary versus before him in some patriotic act, nor be a part of the social experiments that emerged from the gray matter under his olive-green cap. They live in the post-Fidel era, which does not mean they are entirely freed from his influence.

For decades to come, the schism created by the authoritarian leadership of this son of Galicia, born in the eastern town of Birán, will divide Cubans and even families. The aftermath of this tension that has infiltrated the national identity, otherwise lighthearted, will last for a long time. There will be a before-and-after Castro for the followers of the creed of political obstinacy he cultivated, but also for those who will breathe a sigh of relief when he is no longer.

The Maximum Leader’s 90th birthday, celebrated this August 13 with cheers and a good dose of personality cult, has all the earmarks of being his farewell. Now his closest family members should be exploring the calendar to select a date to announce his funeral, because such a huge death won’t fit just any date. They will have to pick a day that is not associated with the memory of some offensive in which he participated, a project that he opened, or some lengthy speech that hypnotized his audience.

There will be no need, in any case, to disconnect the machines or to stop administering medications. To say the final goodbye, it will be enough to give him his measure as a human being. Forget all those epithets that extolled him as “father of all Cubans,” “visionary,” or “promoter of medicine” on the island, along with “model journalist,” initiator of the “water-saving policy”, “eternal guerrilla,” “master builder,” and a long list of other grandiloquent titles that have been repeated in the days before his birthday.

Fidel Castro and Michelle, the little baby born after the visit of Barack Obama to the island, will be together in the history books. He will remain trapped in the volume dedicated to the twentieth century, although he has made every effort to put his name on each page dedicated to this nation. She will star, along with millions of other Cubans, in a chapter without bloody diplomatic battles or sterile confrontations.


Editor ‘s Note: This text was published on Monday 15 August 2016 in the Spanish newspaper El País .

Recipe For Forgetting Fidel Castro / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Former president Fidel Castro with a “Queen” brand pressure cooker, made in China. (EFE)
Former president Fidel Castro with a “Queen” brand pressure cooker, made in China. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 August 2016 – Turn on the radio and the announcer reads a brief headline: “Fidel Castro, The Great Builder.” The man goes on to explain that the most important works of the country have come from this head that for decades has been covered by an olive-green cap. Weary of so much personality cult, I decided to watch television, but on the main channel a lawyer was detailing the legal legacy of the Maximum Leader and at the end of the program they announced a documentary about “The Invincible Guerrilla.”

For weeks, we Cubans have lived under a veritable bombardment of references to Fidel Castro, which has increased in proportion to the closeness of the date of his 90th birthday, this 13 August. There is no shame nor nuance in this avalanche of images and epithets. Continue reading “Recipe For Forgetting Fidel Castro / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

This whole excess of tributes and reminders is, undoubtedly, a desperate attempt to save the former Cuban president from oblivion, to pull him out of that zone of media abandonment in which he has fallen since announcing his departure from power a decade ago.

We have left the man born in the eastern town of Biran, in 1926, in the past, condemning him to the 20th century, burying him alive.

Children now in elementary school have never seen the once loquacious orator speak for hours at a public event. Farmers have breathed a sigh of relief on not having to receive constant recommendations from the “Farmer in Chief” and even housewives are thankful that he does not appear at a congress of the Federation of Cuban Women to teach them how to use a pressure cooker.

The official propaganda knows that people often appeal to short-term memory as a way of protecting themselves. For many young people, Fidel Castro is already as remote as, for my mother in her day, was the dictator Gerardo Machado, a man who so adversely marked the life of my grandmother’s generation.

Followers of the figure of Fidel Castro are taking advantage of the celebrations for his nine decades of life to try to erect a statue of immortality in the heart of the nation. They deify him, forgive him his systematic errors and convert him into the most visible head of a creed. The new religion takes as its premises stubbornness, intolerance for differences, and a visceral hatred – almost like a personal battle – against the United States.

The detractors of “Él,” as many Cubans simply call him, are preparing the arguments to dismantle his myth. They await the moment when the history books no longer equate him with José Martí, but offer a stark, cold and objective analysis of his career. They are the ones who dream of the post-Castro era, of the end of Fidelismo and of the diatribe that will fall on his controversial figure.

Most, however, simply turn the page and shrug their shoulders in a sign of disgust when they hear his name. They are the ones who, right now, turn off the TV and focus on a daily existence that negates every word Fidel Castro ever said in his incendiary speeches, in those times when he planned to build a Utopia and turn us into New Men.

Tired of his omnipresence, they are the ones who will deal the final blow to the myth. And they will do it without hullabaloo or heroic acts. They will simply stop talking to their children about him, there will be no photos in the rooms of their homes showing him with a rifle and epaulettes, they will not confer on their grandchildren the five letters of his name.

The celebration for the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro is, in reality, his farewell: as excessive and exhausting as was his political life.


Editor’s note: This text was published Saturday August 13, 2016 in the newspaper O Globo of Brazil

The Special Period: The Return Of The Cuban Middle Ages / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

 Cubans try to repair an "almendrón" (old American car) in Havana. (SN)
Cubans try to repair an “almendrón” (old American car) in Havana. (SN)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 August 2016 — She split the plate into two meager rations. “Mommy, you’re not going to eat?” asked one of the daughters voraciously swallowing the mashed banana without oil, free of protein and with hardly any salt. The image of this skimpy dinner in the summer of 1993 is recalled by Maria Luisa, 59, a Havanan who now fears the return of the hardest moments of the Special Period. Like her, many Cuban families are alarmed by the worsening economic crisis.

Announcements during the last session of the National Assembly about the island’s liquidity problems, amid the falling prices of nickel and oil, have only confirmed what has been palpable on the street for months. The reductions in annual growth forecasts from an initial 2% in GDP to a more realistic 1%, is one of many signs of the worsening living conditions of Cubans. Continue reading “The Special Period: The Return Of The Cuban Middle Ages / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

For much of the island, Venezuela’s collapse is much more significant than the flutter of a butterfly’s wings and its effects could be a true economic tsunami. A scenario that could aggravate the migration crisis in a nation where few are willing to relive the deprivations of the 1990s.

The return of those rigors would be perceived like the reopening of a still painful wound. Once again, the languid faces whose features display hunger. The smell of sweat and grime that fills the air in the absence of hygiene products. People launching themselves en masse on the sea. The images when that period is evoked are like slides passing over and over again before the eyes.

There is no worse nightmare for a nation than to perceive that the past it is trying to distance itself from is returning in an endless loop. But the difference from that first period of misery, is that a new edition is not finding the same naiveté in its protagonists. Cubans know very well what is coming: it is called despair.

Official sources themselves warn of the possibility that the population will not react with the same complacency to the turn of the screw. Karina Marrón, deputy director of the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba, predicts that “a perfect storm is forming” on the island, due to the reduction in the supply of fuel to the state sector, the increasing blackouts, and the food shortages. Others also predict a situation that could lead to episodes of popular protests like the Maleconazo of August 1994.

Unlike then, the pressure cannot be released by decriminalizing the dollar, opening agricultural markets, or authorizing self-employment.

The most likely outcome is that increasing scarcities will increase the number of people emigrating. The repetition of a drama creates in the minds of those who have lived it the feeling that it will go on forever, without any possibility of changing it or influencing its ends. The looming economic collapse, whose real scope can barely be imagined, could be the shot that sets off the great stampede.

To convince the youngest to stay here and face it is harder every day. For many of them, who grew up practically without toys after the implosion of the Soviet Union and in a society divided by the dual currency system and with a generation in power that is exhibiting a threatening longevity, there is no argument strong enough to make them endure in their own land the effects of a profound economic crisis.

However, the Special Period, a Cuban Middle Ages, a dark age of despair and hunger, never ended. Its worst symptoms have only been appeased with the subsidy coming from Caracas. Cubans have remained in a “survival mode” all this time and the misery has shaped their character, determined their physical abilities and left an irreversible injury on their minds.

Although some, in the last two decades, have managed to work for themselves, benefit from remittances from family abroad, or open thriving businesses filled with the foreigners now flooding the island, Cubans have not lost the feeling of insecurity, the shock of store shelves that can be emptied in a second, and the dread of the so-called Zero Option—a fallback plan devised in the depths of the Special Period to feed the people of each block from a single collective pot.

Maria Luisa’s daughters are already mothers in their turn. They know that if the financial meltdown in the country continues to worsen, they will have to choose between carrying their children on their backs through the Central American jungles or once again lying, telling them: “Eat, eat all your mashed banana, I’m not hungry.”


This text was previously published in El Nuevo Herald

Erdogan Unmasked / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president of Turkey in 2014 after eleven years as prime minister. (DC)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president of Turkey in 2014 after eleven years as prime minister. (DC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 July 2016 — Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken off the mask and let us witness the spectacle of his contorted and autocratic face. Last week’s failed coup d’etat has allowed him to unleash political persecution in Turkey. Now he rails against his opponents, decrees a state of emergency and suspends the European Convention on Human Rights. The sultan is out of control.

We are witnessing the moment when the serpent emerges from the egg, but we knew long ago it was incubating, its heart beating beneath the shell of an elected president. From playing at blackmailing the European Union with the refugee crisis and embracing other caudillos enthroned in power, in the style of Raul Castro, the red warning lights have been flashing all around Erdogan. Continue reading “Erdogan Unmasked / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

He just needed a justification. All he lacked was an argument with sufficient nationalist weight and the breath of a defensive gesture to show his true self. Now we contemplate the pure despot, without sweeteners. He no longer wants to pretend that he governs in a state of law. It suits his purpose that only one man is in charge of the situation.

With this turn of the authoritarian screw, the president of Turkey has betrayed those who elected him through the ballot box and the thousands of citizens who, just a few days ago, took to the streets to preserve the democratic order. None of them deserve this autocratic slap in the face.

Erdogan has ended up being worse than any coup, because he has broken the agreement. He used the attack on his person to arrest about 7,000 soldiers, accusing them of being linked to the coup attempt, and even publicly flirted with the idea of applying the death penalty, a punishment that is currently no longer in force in Turkey and that would prevent his country from becoming a part of the European Union.

The long arm of this unscrupulous authoritarian didn’t stop there, he has suspended 21,000 teachers from their jobs in private educational institutions. He has prohibited officials from traveling abroad and has withdrawn the broadcast licenses of 24 stations. A decision he justifies under the framework of an investigation to find the alleged collaborators and those involved in the failed coup.

Erdogan has taken advantage of the circumstances to request the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic preacher exiled in the United States whom he holds responsible for all his ills, including the recent coup attempt.

Meanwhile, official spokesmen say that the state of emergency would only last 40 or 45 days and not three months as initially announced by the president. They promise that the current situation is not synonymous with martial law and that citizens will not be affected. They even assure that parliament will continue to function, but the Turkey that tried to maintain its chequered democratic journey has been broken.

Erdogan plans to dismantle all the plurality that the transcontinental nation has achieved and reduce the opposition to a minimum. He wants Turkey only for himself: a country that he can manage as if it were the Ottoman Empire, as he has dreamed of his whole life.

Guilty! / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

This summer, taxi drivers have become the government’s new public enemy. (14ymedio)
This summer, taxi drivers have become the government’s new public enemy. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 20 July 2106 – At the beginning of the year evil was incarnated in the intermediaries, who were blamed for the high food prices in the produce markets. At the end of 2013, the boogeymen were those who worked for themselves selling imported clothes and other merchandise. In February of this year the war against the pushcart vendors reached its height, and today the enemy drives a shared taxi, a person who in common parlance is called a “boatman.”

If there is anything that has characterized the Cuban system of the last 57 years it is its ability to find a scapegoat. When the agricultural plans are not met it is the fault of the drought, the indiscipline of the workers or the poor organization dictated by some low-ranking bureaucrat. If in times of heavy precipitation the water supply remains unstable in towns and cities it is because, “the rain is not falling where it should,” as was explained to us in recent statements by an official of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH). Continue reading “Guilty! / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

Urban transport does not work well due to “vandalism” and because “the population doesn’t treat this equipment as it deserves,” they tell us. Meanwhile most road accidents are because of the “recklessness of the drivers,” and not because of the poor state of the roads and highways, the terrible signage or the inventive measures taken by drivers to keep their obsolete vehicles running.

The powers-that-be point their index fingers in all directions to accuse others, but never turn it back on themselves. From time to time, to display a certain tone of self-criticism, they come down on Communist Party members themselves, and accuse them of not voicing their opinions “in the right place and at the right time,” or they make some minister take the fall for the failed policies in the areas of public health, education or some other sector.

We citizens are the main culprits, according to what state television tells us, for the presence of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that, for years, has failed to yield to spraying or campaigns against it. Our homes are the “main foci” of the mosquito, they spit at us from the press, as if state and government entities were untainted redoubts of cleanliness and order.

Emigration is also among our sins, because we go in search of “siren songs” and let ourselves fall “into the hands of the coyotes,” declares the Castro regime’s discourse. In this script it is third parties who are always to blame; the migrants who protested in front of the Cuban embassy in Ecuador were ‘scoring points’ with the United States and some of them, once they are settled in our neighboring country to the north, will end up sending “illicit funds” to their relatives on the island to support a private business.

The easiest to find are the external enemies, like imperialism, “the criminal United States blockade,” the conspirators “from the Latin American right,” and even the “historic betrayal” of the old comrades of Eastern Europe. This scarecrow to install fear is accompanied by the demonized “counterrevolutionaries” in our own backyard, who are targeted by all the insults the rude government machinery has created over almost six decades.

If products are missing on market shelves, television reports accuse the “profiteers.” If a papaya has come to cost an entire day’s wages for a professional, it is “the fault of the unscrupulous” who want to “profit at the expense of the people,” or so they lecture us from the little screen. In this apportioning of blame we have all been placed in the center of the allegations.

Right now the government propaganda apparatus is taking on the drivers of shared taxis, but tomorrow it could be the proprietors of private restaurants, the teachers who offer private tutoring, or the water carriers who sell their precious commodity in neighborhoods where the pipes have run dry for weeks now.

There will always be an “evildoer,” an “irresponsible” or an “enemy” that keeps the system from working in all its great manual-guided humanity, its never demonstrated efficiency, or it supposed but still un-proven capacity to make Cubans happy.

But the strategy of blaming others, in waves and programmed installments, has a weak point. There comes a time when the culprits outnumber the accusers. There is a second in which, from this side, from the stigmatized, we agree with the rafters, the dissidents, the pushcart vendors, the self-employed, the taxi drivers, the ousted ministers and the vilified trinket sellers. At this point, where we have been for a long time now, we have every right to point our index fingers at the system that has condemned us to the perennial dock of the accused.

Cuba’s Journalists Missing in Action / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

Six members of the Cuban volleyball team have been detained in Finland without the press explaining what crime they are accused of. (Volleyball World League)
Six members of the Cuban volleyball team have been detained in Finland without the press explaining what crime they are accused of. (Volleyball World League)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 July 2016 — My father came home with his head spinning. “What is the crime that several Cuban athletes in Finland are accused of?” He had only heard the official statement signed by the Cuban Volleyball Federation read on primetime news on Monday and published in the written press. The text did not clarify the imputed misdeed, so my father speculated: “Illegal sale of tobacco? Theft? Public scandal?”

The rape of a woman, for which the athletes are presumed responsible, was not mentioned in the statement, which constitutes an act of secrecy, concealment of the truth and disrespect for the audience. The official press acts as if we are small children with delicate ears to whom they cannot mention any gory details. Or worse still, as if we don’t deserve to know the seriousness of the accusations. Continue reading “Cuba’s Journalists Missing in Action / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez”

What happened, again makes clear the straitjacket that prevents information professionals from doing their jobs within the Communist Party-controlled media. This is something that many of them bear with pain and frustrations, while others—the most opportunistic—take advantage of the censorship to do work that is mediocre or convenient for the powers-that-be.

Why has no prominent Prensa Latina correspondent in Europe gone to Finland to report minute-by-minute on what is happening with the athletes from the island?

We suffer omissions of this type every day in the national media. These absences, now chronic, belie the winks that accompany Cuban first vice-president Miguel Diaz-Canel’s call for a journalism more attached to reality and without self-censorship. Where, now, is that official to urge the reporters to investigate and publish the details regarding the fate of the volleyball players?

It is very convenient to urge the journalists to be more daring and to take the time to guide them to be cautious or to remain silent. Such duplicity has been repeated so many times over the last five decades that it has inculcated in the collective imagination the idea that the press is synonymous with propaganda and with being an informer, a representative of the government.

The damage inflicted on Cuban journalism is profound and systematic. Repairing it will take time, a framework of respect for such an honorable profession and even the emergence of a generation of informers who are not marked by the “vices” of the current academy of Cuban journalism. These young people, without compromises with power, are the only hope left to us.