‘The Mechanism’: A Series That Will Not Be Seen On Cuban State Television

The fictional series, based on real events, revolves around the investigation that uncovered the fraudulent network woven around the semi-state oil company Petrobras in Brazil. (The Mechanism)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 20 June 2018 — When people talk about Brazilian TV shows, some think of the dramatic soap operas that Cuban media broadcasts every year. Those soap operas, full of intrigues, loves and hatreds, have been part of the island’s television network for decades, but The Mechanism, a production that addresses the corruption revealed by Operation Car Wash, will not suffer the same fate.

For a couple of weeks now, the series, directed by the filmmaker José Padilha and produced by Netflix, has landed in Cuba through the informal content distribution networks such as the weekly packet. With a dynamic plot and excellent performances, The Mechanism premiered on Netflix last March and since then has not stopped stirring passions. continue reading

The fictional series, based on real events, revolves around the investigation that uncovered the fraudulent network woven around the semi-state oil company Petrobras in Brazil. These investigations led to the discovery of the tentacles of bribes, money laundering and payments to politicians extended by the construction company Odebrecht for decades throughout the region.

Padilha, who had already made a name for himself with Narcos, structured his series based on a book by journalist Vladimir Netto and managed to build a gradual sense of disgust in his audience. The repulsion grows as the names of those involved appear, and the bribery strategies and the depth of these practices in the political and economic life of Brazil come to light.

Due to the little that has been reported in the national media, Cuban viewers are probably tempted to read the story as a documentary, although it is essential to take into account the warning message that appears at the beginning of each episode: “This program is a work of fiction freely inspired by real events, characters, situations and other elements, adapted for dramatic effect.”

However, along with the creative freedom that has led Padilha to change or recreate real events, The Mechanism maintains the authentic edges of Operation Car Wash, which have not been reported in Cuba, hence its dual character as entertainment and revelation. Unlike other countries where the scandal filled extensive headlines, on the island this will be the first details many people see about the many dimensions of that rot.

The case, which shook the whole continent and reached as far as Angola and Mozambique, is of particular interest in Cuba, where Fidel and Raúl Castro maintained close relations with two of the characters in this truculent story: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, who appear in the series with changed names but easily identifiable.

In the same years that Odebrecht bought contracts, supported election campaigns in Latin America and distributed millions to fend off any investigation against it, the Cuban authorities embraced, smiling and complicit, the two politicians who were up to their eyeballs in such corruption.

No wonder, the construction company Odebrecht was hand-picked for the modernization of Cuba’s Port of Mariel. The megaproject, a kind of white elephant Raul Castro’s regime used to try to attract investors, was inaugurated in January 2014 by Dilma Rousseff and the Cuban president. They posed smiling in front of the cameras of the foreign press just a a few weeks before the scandal would shake the Brazilian president.

Since then, Cuba’s official press has mostly reported the upheavals caused by the revelations of Operation Car Wash to the region’s centrist and rightist governments. That information strategy prioritized the details of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s resignation as president of Peru, and the international arrest order against former Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo, also accused of receiving bribes from Odebrecht.

In contrast, Cuba’s national media hardly mentions the sentencing of Ecuadorian Vice President Jorge Glas to six years in prison for the same reasons, and has totally ignored all the evidence that points to Nicolás Maduro as part of the machinations of that powerful construction company. The links to current Brazilian president Michel Temer, who assumed office after Rousseff’s impeachment, were reported in the pages of Granma, like those of Lula and Rousseff, except that in the case of these last two, it was reported as a “conspiracy of the right.”

As expected, both Brazilian former presidents are among the staunchest critics of the series since it was launched on Netflix. Lula has insisted that the “piece is one more lie” and Rousseff accused it of “distorting reality” and spreading all kinds of lies.

Beyond the welts that it raises, the arrival in Cuba of The Mechanism helps to break the mantle of silence that the Plaza of the Revolution has thrown over parts of this history, and it will set people talking about the subject and raise desires for a greater investigation of the true details.

The series is also a great opportunity to enjoy solid performances, such as those of Selton Melo who plays investigator Marco Ruffo, a researcher obsessed with the case and whose childhood friend, called Roberto Ibrahim in the series but taken from the real life Alberto Youseff, is one of the money launderers whose arrest uncovers the scandal.

The manager of the construction company, Marcelo Odebrecht (in the series presented as Ricardo Brecht), manages to transmit that calculated coldness of someone who knows that he has presidents and senators from all over the continent in his pocket, while the character of Verena Cardoni, played by Caroline Abras, stands apart from the female stereotypes that abound in Brazilian soap operas.

This, unlike those soap operas of unrequited love and exalted hatred, is not a production to get you to mourn for a couple separated in the past or for an unrecognized son, but for the rottenness of a country. What happens on the screen is not history, but absolute fiction, but one based on the uncovering of a crooked network of corruption that extends its threads to this Island.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Nicaragua on Edge

Students at the barricades in Managua. 12 June 2018.

Yoani Sanchez, The Voice of Your Rights, Havana, 14 June 2018 — With the roads cut off, the universities turned into barricades or makeshift infirmaries, and a figure of 146 people who have lost their lives in the protests that broke out last April, Nicaragua today is a nation awaiting a decision that must be taken by a single man. Daniel Ortega has in his hands the ability to allow the country to resume the democratic path or to sink into a spiral of violence and death.

The Nicaraguan Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, which brings together broad sectors, has called a national strike for next Thursday with the aim of demanding an end to the “repression.” Another of the objectives of this call is to demand the resumption of a dialogue that would allow ending the socio-political crisis in the country. continue reading

The strike is one more among the many signs Ortega has received in recent weeks of Nicaraguans’ rejection of the government formed by him and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo. However, the former Sandinista guerrilla believes he is the only man capable of leading the Central American country towards a bright future that only exists in his delusions. He considers himself a kind of irreplaceable anointed.

From his Latin American allies and mentors, in the style of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, Ortega learned to hold on to power no matter at what cost. The presidential chair for him is not only a post from which he controls every detail of national life, but also a fortress that protects him from the law. As long as he stays inside the palace he will be safe, he thinks. A mistake made by many of the operetta caudillos who have ruled in Latin America.

Retaining the highest office in the country and not agreeing in time to resign may be the worst of the decisions that Daniel Ortega has made throughout his long political life. The protests have touched an emotional fiber in millions of Nicaraguans, especially among the youngest. Many of them, turned into improvised street fighters, intuit that there is no turning back and that allowing the continuity of ‘Orteguismo’ will result in a prison sentence or death.

That revolutionary fervor Sandinismo once counted on and the social mysticism that elevated it to power is now in the hands of its adversaries. Ortega does not have the support born of ideological passion nor does the enthusiasm of yesteryear animate the people. That connection was broken irremediably and the repression that he has unleashed against the demonstrators has ended by crumbling the little ascendency that was left to Nicaraguans.

Every hour that passes, every second that the caudillo does not negotiate his exit from the presidency, brings him closer to a more violent end.

In Managua, a man addicted to power takes refuge in his stubbornness without being willing to recognize that if he chooses to give up power and retire, when it is still possible, he would save countless lives, including his own.

Originally published in Deutsche Welle

 

Renewal of Vows: The Red Scarf

Cuban schoolchildren during the ceremony where they take on the red scarf. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 June 2018 –Three decades later, the woman is facing a familiar scene. A row of children dressed in their elementary school uniforms receive the new red scarf that replaces the blue one they had previously knotted around their necks. Like a déjà vu, she listens to her daughter repeat the same slogan she shouted out in her own childhood. The little girl, one knee on the ground, swears to follow the example of Ernesto Che Guevara, just like her mother had promised to do so long ago.

The school’s morning assembly started early this Thursday, June 14, the day chosen for the initiation of students who completed the third grade. They now become part of the José Martí Pioneers Organization and have started down a path where ideological excesses and political manipulation will follow them forever. The ceremony has all the traces of a religious initiation, almost mystical, despite of its being centered on an atheist guerrilla, who this very day would have turned 90. continue reading

To conclude the moment, the loudspeakers broadcast a song dedicated to Fidel Castro at full volume. “Louder, Louder!” the school principal shouts to the students, who must sing the boring tune verse by verse. “Louder, louder to be heard up there!,” he reiterates as he points to the sky, where, he believes, his Commander-in-Chief must have gone.

The music is over, the children shout the slogan that they will repeat in the coming years: “Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che.” Then they leave the ranks and return to the unruly games of any child. The political “renewal of vows” is over.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Fear of Losing Political Control Explains Cuba’s Technological Backwardness

Video: Cuba’s Minister of Communications talking about the implementation of cellular internet. (Not subtitled)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 June 2018 — Facing a mountain of medical records the nurse looks for the patient’s history. She flips through the pages, pulls out the folders, but the clinical report does not appear. “It’ll have to be done again,” she tells the disgruntled gentleman who, that very morning, had read in the official press about the “advances in computerization” in Cuba’s Public Health system.

The VI Latin American Telecommunications Congress, held in Varadero, is serving these days as a launch pad for triumphant headlines in the official press. Those who pay attention only to the reports emerging from this technology congress may come to believe that, on the island, many procedures are accessibly by a click, but the reality is very different. continue reading

A country where the vast majority of people have never completed an online financial transaction, never been able to buy a product from a virtual store, and do not know the enormous potential of distance courses that would allow them to learn from home, cannot be categorized as a computerized nation.

To this we add the poverty level wages that prevent many professionals from signing up on international online resource sites related to their fields, where they could keep abreast of the latest trends. Paying a day’s salary to connect for one hour in a public wifi zone is not an indicator of a connected society, but rather an indicator of the economic penalty that weighs on Cuban internet users.

On the one hand, the Deputy Minister of Education, Rolando Forneiro Rodríguez, stood in front of congress delegates painting an optimistic scenario with a large number of teachers for the subject of Computer Science. However, on the other hand, in countless schools in the country students’ so-called ‘machine time’ comes with an absence of teachers and the deterioration of infrastructure.

Children under the age of ten learn more about technology by exchanging video clips through mobile apps such as Zapya than they do attending boring computer classes where ideology is intertwined with HTML code and the computer programs offered on the official list have more to do with politics than with fun.

For more than two decades, the teaching of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has also suffered from the Government’s attempts to create a “corralito” – a little corral – of filtered content. Those intentions are responsible for sites such as Ecured, a poor imitation of Wikipedia; the unpopular Mochila (Backpack) created to compete with the weekly packet and the failed Tendedera (Clothesline) born to wipe away Facebook.

At a time when the internet is strengthening its role as an environment for activism and a place for debate on issues as hot as the contradictions of democracy, racism or gender violence, Cuban authorities are still trying to domesticate the network and lock the Island’s users into their little guarded plot.

In hospitals and polyclinics the picture is similar. The bulky bureaucracy of the Public Health system still works with paper. The loss of a single sheet can mean months of delay in a treatment and medical appointments, most of the time, are first come first served, to the discomfort of the sick and their relatives.

In the classrooms of the faculties of medicine, the blackboard, the chalks and the plastic models of the human body have not given way to other technologies that might  make the Island’s doctors modern professionals. Saving lives, today, can also happen due to the dominance of devices such as mobile phones or the ability to search for information in the great world wide web.

The fear of the social impact of connectivity and the loss of political control that would be implied by access to other news channels has been the real brake on Cubans’ ability to disembark in the 21st century, an era characterized precisely by social networks, digital content consumption and connectivity.

This fear of the ruling party has a cost not only in national economic development but also in quality of life and education. We don’t have to wait to see result of that delay because it is already visible in each classroom and during each consultation.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Pollution Without Punishment

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 7 June 2018 — The activists arrive in the woodlands to sink their hands in the oil spilled over the forest, thousands of miles from a hot air balloon displaying a banner denouncing CO2 emissions near a crude oil extraction platform where a group is protesting. Actions of this kind are barely seen in Cuba and it is not because the environment is respected.

Last week the people of Cienfuegos woke to the news of an oil spill in their bay. The heavy rains from subtropical storm Albert caused the pools of the nearby refinery waste treatment plant to overflow, spilling more than 3 million gallons of water mixed with crude oil into the bay. The official news programs made haste to minimize the damage and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (Citma) kept a complicit silence. continue reading

No environmental group showed up with posters to stand outside the refinery, not a single chemical engineer raised their voice in the national media to warn of the danger to human health, nor were the voices of marine biologists heard detailing the negative effects on local wildlife. The official version prevailed and on television we saw a group of smiling workers cleaning the stains off the tourist boats.

The mistakes made by the authorities at the Cienfuegos refinery were not analyzed and no official journalist questioned the entity about the bad management practices over their waste that led to an ecological disaster. As in many known cases, the lack of independence of the judiciary, the press and social organizations allowed impunity to surround an event that deserved huge headlines, fines and a public commitment that such things will not happen again.

With the same state approval and “protection,” hydrocarbons are poured into the sewers from vehicle repair shops, the polyclinics throw medical waste into neighborhood dumpsters, and several companies continue to drain their dangerous miasmas into the rivers, just like the sad case of the Almendares River in Havana.

The State does not punish itself for these excesses and the lack of freedom prevents civil society from expressing itself in a clear and public manner. Despite small environmental groups that collect litter along the coastline and digital sites that promote a culture of respect for nature, Cuba lacks an environmental movement that can bring pressure, there is no seat in parliament from which to raise a complaint, nor is there the ability to demonstrate in the streets to defend our natural heritage.

In the absence of these voices, the island’s ecosystem is at the mercy of negligence, outrages and silence.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

A Country Narrated By Its People

Image of the incident recorded by one of the first residents of the area who ran to help the victims of Cubana de Aviacion flight DMJ-972 in Havana. (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 29 May 2018 — In recent days the images of two unfortunate events have jumped from one mobile phone to another across the country. First were the videos of the Cubana de Aviacion crash on May 18 and then the films of the floods in the center of the island. In both the tragedy and in the emergency the citizen information channels have been faster and more effective than the official media.

The press controlled by the Communist Party has been seen to act clumsily, compared to the rapid and viral news transmission Cubans have achieved on their own, thanks to new technologies. Even Granma’s “minute-by-minute” updates on its digital site suffer from the delays cause by having to wait for authorizations about what events can be talked about and how they must be addressed. continue reading

The nationally circulating newspapers distributed in the network of government-run kiosks have silenced all the statements from pilots, flight attendants and experts who point out the technical problems and penalties that have characterized the Mexican company Global Air in recent years. Cubans have learned about these circumstances entirely through alternative networks.

In a Havana high school in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality, the teenagers have exchanged at least a dozen videos about the air disaster, including interviews with a former employee of the firm who denounced the technical problems of its planes. To silence the existence of these testimonies in the news only increases the distance between official journalism and reality.

While the television broadcasts, over and over, the face of president Miguel Diaz-Canel in the place where the Boeing 737 fell out of the sky, videos circulating in the streets show not only the first neighbors who arrived to help the survivors, but also the vandals who tried to take wallets, cellphones and money from the wreckage of the plane. Thanks to these images filmed by amateurs, the ineptitude of the rescue team has also become known.

In the recent days of heavy rains it is also the cellphones and cameras of ordinary people that have allowed us to see the collapse of the bridges over the Zaza and Sancti Spiritus rivers, and the dramatic situation of families with their flooded houses or lost harvests.

National television, on the other hand, has chosen to give more space to the visits of the officials inspecting the state of the tobacco in Pinar del Rio and the boring meetings of party cadres dressed in olive-green who insist that everything is “safeguarded.”

Meanwhile, Civil Defense didn’t bother to release information, an alert or an alarm for the affected territories, but the residents of the sites with the most damage advised their families and people living in nearby villages about the advance of the waters from a dam or the increase in the flow of a river. Not only has the news travelled from one cellphone to another, but the warnings and proofs of life have as well.

One can imagine this same scenario under the absolute information control of the government. Would the antecedents of an accident or the magnitude of a natural disaster come to light if Cubans didn’t have their own sources to learn about them? The experience from the years when the official press completely dominated the scene tell us that the answer is no.

The dangers of this new scenario, however, are also many. Apocryphal images, falsified videos and photos attributed to one moment that actually belong to another, also abound in this avalanche of content that has been unleashed on the island. Even the official sites have republished some of these hoaxes as authentic.

However, beyond the risk of ‘fake news’ and the morbid reproduction of some of these images, the final balance is much more positive than alarming: Cubans are informed now they have their own narrative of the country and have left, far in the past, that informational innocence that served such nefarious purposes. news

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

We Ask For Transparency in Investigation of Tragic Plane Crash

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 May 2018 – The tragic images are hypnotic. Across a swath of agricultural land near Havana’s José Martí International Airport are scattered the remains of what, a few minutes earlier, was an airplane filled with 110 people traveling from the Cuban capital to the eastern province of Holguin. Only three passengers have been rescued and Cuba is facing the worst air crash in recent years.

The plunge of this Boeing 737-200 comes at the worst moment for the island. The diplomatic thaw with Washington has been halted for months and the 7% drop in the number of tourists over the first quarter of this year complicates the economic situation. A disaster of this magnitude can seriously affect an economic sector that enables the government to deposit hard currency in the dwindling national treasury. continue reading

The serious economic situation that affects Cuba’s ally Venezuela also intensifies this picture. Hopefully, in the coming weeks the Cuban authorities will open our territory to an international investigation because the victims include citizens of Mexico and Argentina. The secrecy that traditionally surrounds these types of investigations within our borders will be put to the test before the demands for information that will come from abroad.

To further complicate the moment, the official media just announced that Raul Castro, who remains at the head of the Communist Party, has undergone surgery and his successor in the position of president, engineer Miguel Diaz-Canel, is facing the most delicate moment of his mandate. This Friday he was seen arriving at the crash site, visibly alarmed, perhaps calculating the political costs the accident will have for his management.

However, the fundamental blow goes to the heart of the Cuban people and especially the family members of the hundred Cubans aboard that fateful flight that crashed at 12:08 pm on May 18. For them, there is the long pain of loss, the rigors of the identification of the bodies and the intense political campaign with which the ruling party will surround every step taken by medical and police institutions in the search for answers.

In their minds, the last moments with their loved ones will surface again and again, along with the sequence of coincidences that brought them to the aircraft leased by the state airline to the Mexican company Global Air. The stories of those who at the last minute could not obtain a ticket to travel and those who, on the contrary, were not planning to take that flight but by chance ended up on the list of fatal victims will emerge.

Doubts and questions will also arise, with demands for clear explanations in a country where the authorities have decades of training in doling out each piece of information. But not even this ability to remain silent will prevent people from relating the news of recent months and feeling that this Friday’s news has all the traces of a predictable tragedy.

The state airline, Cubana de Aviación, has been plunged for years into a profound crisis of constant flight cancellations due to the poor state of its fleet, consisting mainly of Russian airplanes with long years in service. The deterioration of their planes has forced the island’s main airline to continuously lease aircraft from other companies, and reduced their stature to almost nothing among their Cuban passengers.

The next few days are crucial. The reaction of the families will depend to a large extent on how the authorities and the airline manage the information about what happened. Transparency is now the most recommended approach but it remains to be seen if the Cuban government is going to choose it.

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Note: This column was originally published in the Latin American edition of the Deutsche Welle chain.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

CEPAL, Five Letters That Have Lost Their Way

Alicia Bárcena (2nd from R.), executive secretary of Cepal, along with President Miguel Díaz-Canel (R.). (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 10 May 2018 – Among the regional organizations that proliferate in Latin America there is a clear dividing line marked by their position towards Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. In this “acronym stew” there are entities opposed to Castroism, others that are apathetic, and many accomplices. In this last block is the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL, for its initials in Spanish).

For years, CEPAL has been the Cuban government’s willing fellow traveler, supporting its management, validating its inflated statistics, and silencing any criticism. An attitude that earns it official praise and continuous red carpet receptions, in the style that occurred this week during CEPAL’s 37th period of sessions held on the island.

The meeting, attended by Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, was the framework to deliver CEPAL’s presidency pro tempore into Cuban hands. A great irony for a country experiencing a prolonged economic crisis and one where real data about poverty are adulterated or censored. continue reading

With Havana in a leadership position, CEPAL is expected to maintain the support for leftist populism that it has shown to date.

Cuba’s new president Miguel Diaz-Canel did not fail to take advantage of the opportunity of so many high officials and journalists arriving on the island and in his first speech in an international forum he offered some grandiloquent phrases, such as promising that the government will not “leave any citizen homeless” and that no “shock therapies” will be applied.

At the very moment the president was making these statements, thousands of Havanans were going from one place to the next looking for something to eat, in a nation where daily shortages of food intensify and wages become ever more symbolic. On the one hand, Diaz-Canel promised protection, and on the other, reality for the elderly, black and rural population continue to be marked by the premise of “every man for himself.”

A system that maintains average salaries that don’t exceed the equivalent of 30 dollars a month, but sells in its state stores a liter of oil for more than $2.50, and has a long history of leaving its citizens homeless, has established itself as an insatiable predator of its work force, a voracious boss and a ruthless exploiter.

These are the data that CEPAL prefers to hide, while its executive secretary, Alicia Barcena, sets aside all the objectivity her job requires to affirm that Cuba sets an example and has “constructed alternate paths.” At the same time, she presents as reality some achievements in education and public health that she cannot verify, but only skims over the set designs targeted to foreign tourists and organizations.

With a meekness that is scandalous, Barcena has become a spokesperson for Castroism, a repeater of half-truths, disinformation campaigns and glaring omissions. In condemning the US economic embargo on the island and not mentioning the Cuban government’s blockade on the freedoms of its own society, the official shows she lacks the professionalism required to exercise such an important position.

Why not take advantage of the opportunity in front of the microphone to demand that Diaz-Canel unfreeze the delivery of licenses to the private sector which have been on hold since last August? It is incomprehensible that the face of CEPAL is silent before the evils caused by Cuba’s dual currency system and the financial distortions generated in the island’s economic data by the coexistence of the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC).

Between abundant cocktails, glamorous welcoming ceremonies and sophisticated receptions, CEPAL has ended up attaching itself to the groups in power instead of the citizens, preferring the musical band of the government palaces over the real cacophony of the streets. It chooses to be hosted by authoritarian regimes rather than question the painful impact caused to ordinary people by those regimes’ crazy policies of centralism and nationalization.

In that soup of acronyms made up of the organisms that have tried to unite, represent and define the direction of Latin America, there are five distressing letters (CEPAL) that have definitively lost their way.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Goodbye to the Castros

Fidel and Raúl Castro have left their surname branded in blood and fire on the history of Cuba of the last sixty years (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 April 2018 – One impulsive and the other pragmatic, one charismatic and the other lacking any magnetism, the brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro have left their surname branded in blood and fire on the history of Cuba of the last sixty years. This week the generational relay knocks on the door of the powerful family clan that plans to leave the spotlight but not to let themselves get too far from power.

There was a time when Cuban children calculated how old we would be when the new century arrived. We imagined becoming adults in a millennium dyed red with the Communist flag, where money and misery did not circulate. However, the Berlin wall fell, the illusion broke into a thousand pieces and our personal arithmetic shifted to counting how old we would be when Castroism fell. continue reading

That day has arrived, but not as we thought. Instead of an epic overthrow with people waving flags in the streets, the Cuban regime has been fated to fade away like an old photograph: without grace or romance. That process began twelve years ago when Fidel Castro fell ill and transferred the command of the country through his bloodline to his younger brother.

Raúl Castro had to contend with the complex inheritance he received. A nation in numerous reds, with an increasingly apathetic citizenry, an exodus that rejected the supposed socialist paradise narrated by the official propaganda, a network of prohibitions suffocating daily life and a deficient institutional framework languishing under the whims of the Commander-in-Chief.

“Without haste but without pause” was the motto chosen by Raulismo to attempt to fix some of those wrongs. The General came to win the ironic moniker of “gradual revolutionist” because in the face of most of the country’s pressing problems he revealed himself more in the style of a cautious and rancid conservative than someone with the urges of a former guerrilla.

The first thing he did was dismantle Fidelismo, that personal system his brother built in his own image and likeness: capricious, violent, adamantine and vociferous. Without lifting the repressive hand, the second brother put an end to several “absurd prohibitions,” as he called them then, which left the bars of the national cage more visible and rigid.

Oriented in the right direction, but with the speed of tortoise and only skin deep, Castro II authorized the sale of homes, frozen for decades; he allowed Cubans to contract for cellphones, until then a privilege enjoyed only by foreigners; and launched travel and immigration reform on the prison island.

Under the euphemism of self-employment the private sector was encouraged by his hand; the country opened to foreign investment and thousands of acres of land, left fallow for years, were leased to those who would work them. Even public ideological demonstrations lessened, the mass political campaigns to which his brother was addicted were buried, and a process of comptrollership was launched to try to stop waste, corruption and inefficiency in state enterprises.

In those years, between July 2006 and January 2013, Raúl Castro spent all of his political capital, exhausting a government program that had very clear limits: maintain the socialist system, avoid increasing social inequalities at all costs, and stop any attempt toward political plurality.

As Raulism began to languish, on 17 December 2014 came the news of the diplomatic thaw between the White House and the Plaza of the Revolution. For almost three years the world believed that the “Cuba problem” was solved, when it saw Chanel parading on the Paseo del Prado, Madonna dancing in a Havana restaurant, and the Kardashian family driving around the island in an old car.

But the dream of normalization was short-lived. Raul Castro was afraid of losing control and did not respond to the measures taken by Barack Obama with the necessary complement from the island. After the official visit of the US president, the official media intensified criticism of Washington and the honeymoon ended. A divorce was inevitable with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House.

Fearful of the thousand-headed hydra he had unleashed with his ‘capitalist’ reforms, Castro backed down or froze several of the flexibilizations that had earned him the label of “reformist.” As of August of last year the issuing of most private sector licenses is frozen, travel bans decreed against opponents have increased in recent months, and the official discourse has turned its criticism against local entrepreneurs.

The ruling octogenarian could not solve two of the biggest problems: unifying the two currencies circulating on the island and increasing the paltry salaries paid to the majority of the population. He also failed to stop the exodus of Cubans from the island, or to implement effective policies to raise the birth rate, a serious problem for a nation that is expected to be the ninth oldest country in the world by 2050. Nor did he manage to clean up the state sector corroded by corruption and the lack of efficiency.

However, the greatest failure of the General during the decade of his two terms was his inability to push the necessary political reforms needed to deliver a more orderly house to the generational change. Faced with the dilemma of keeping all power or ceding a part to avoid a dramatic fracturing in the future, the younger Castro was not very different from his brother; he chose absolute control.

He knows that although he methodically planned the succession and chose a docile and manageable heir in first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel, the personal system he inherited from his brother does not lend itself to a division of responsibilities.

As long as he maintains control over the Communist Party, which the Constitution establishes as the leading force of the country, Raul Castro will be able to keep an eye on this technocrat, who was raised in his shadow and is well aware that any attempt at autonomy could mean his fall. But the old guerrilla knows that the end of his life is approaching and that favored sons become unpredictable when their mentor no longer breathes.

The successor inherits a country in crisis and a society discouraged, an unfavorable international context whose clearest signs are the shift in the ideological course across Latin America and the almost unanimous rejection of his Venezuelan ally, Nicolás Maduro. It is up to him to end the dual currency system, deepen the economic reforms to attract investors and expand the private sector.

Unlike his predecessors, he did not participate in the conflict waged in the Sierra Maestra or in the assault on the Moncada barracks. He will have to build his legitimacy on the results of his management and the realization of real and broad political reform. The myth has ended and for the historical generation, which prevailed with terror and charisma, the days are numbered.

The Castro era concludes and we children of yesteryear are in the maturity of our lives. Many of us fell along the way without knowing another system. Now we return to our personal arithmetic: how old will we be when Cuba is truly free?

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This article was originally published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Havana, Year Zero

The majority of Cubans are tied to a daily cycle of survival (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 17 April 2018 — My mother was born under the Castro regime, I was born under the Castro regime and my son was born under the Castro regime. At least three generations of Cubans have lived only under the leadership of two men with the same surname. That uniformity is about to be broken on April 19 when the name of the new president will be publicly announced. Whether he maintains the status quo or looks to reform it, his arrival to power marks a historical fact: the end of the Castro era on this Island.

Despite the closeness of this day, without precedent in the last half century, in the streets of Havana expectations are extremely low. In a country on the cusp of experiencing a transcendental change in its Nomenklatura that could begin in couple of days. continue reading

At least three reasons feed this indifference. The first is the regrettable economic situation that keeps the majority of people tied to a daily cycle of survival, one in which political speculations or predictions of a different tomorrow are tasks relegated to other emergencies, like putting food on the table, traveling to and from work, or planning to escape to other latitudes.

The second reasons for so much apathy has to do with the pessimism that springs from a belief that nothing will change with a new face in the official photos, because the current gerontocracy will remain in control through a docile and well-controlled puppet. Meanwhile, the third force engendering so much ennui is knowing no other scenario, of having no references that allow on to imagine that there is life after the so-called Historic Generation.

This feeling of fatality, that everything will continue as it is now, is the direct result of six decades of, first, Fidel Castro, and later Raul Castro, controlling the Island with no other person to cast shadows or question their authority at the highest rung of the government. By remaining at the helm of the national ship, by their force in crushing the opposition and eliminating other charismatic leaders, both brothers have shown themselves, throughout this entire time, to be an indispensable and permanent part of our national history.

More than 70% of Cubans were born after that January in 1959 when a group of barbudos – bearded men – entered Havana, armed and smiling. Shortly after that moment, school textbooks, all the media of the press and government propaganda presented the “revolutionaries” dressed in olive green as the fathers of the nation, the messiahs who had saved the country and redeemed the people. They spread the idea that Cuba is identified with the Communist Party, the official ideology of a man named Castro.

Now, biology is about to put an end to that chapter of our history. The Cuban calendar could have, in this, its year zero, a new beginning, However, instead of people waving flags in the plazas, of enthusiastic young people shouting slogans, or epic photos, the feeling one perceives everywhere is that of exhaustion. The stealthy attitude of millions of people whose enthusiasm has atrophied after a very long wait.

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This text was  originally published by Deustche Welle’s Latin America page.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

An Embarrassment

More than fifty Cuban pro-government and a dozen Venezuelans screamed “mercenaries” as they hijacked the start of the meeting between representatives of governments and members of civil society. (EFE / Alberto Valderrama)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 16 April 2018 — The echoes of the recently concluded Summit of the Americas are beginning to fade. The event that summoned most of the presidents of the region and served as a framework for various social forums is a thing of the past. However, the images of the deplorable performance of the official Cuba delegation remain fresh in our memory.

The ‘civil society’ that Raul Castro sent to Peru provokes, at the very least, at sense of embarrassment over the actions of others. Their contemptuous faces and their intolerant screams spread the idea that the inhabitants of this Island have no talent for debate, we lack the necessary respect for differences and respond to arguments with shouts. continue reading

They, with their calculated bullying and their picket line behavior, have seriously affected the image of the nation. Under the slogan “Don’t mess with Cuba,” they ended up damaging this country’s reputation in the region even more, a prestige already greatly undermined by our having tolerated, as a people, more than half a century of an authoritarian system.

Why did these shock troops insist on their performance knowing the backlash they engendered? Because the message to be transmitted was precisely that of a horde of automatons without nuance or humanity. Their bosses in Havana trained them to present that sad spectacle, exposed them to ridicule, and used them to make it clear that nothing has changed.

Over time, as has happened so often, some of the protagonists of these escraches will ascend to positions of greater responsibility as a reward for the decibels they achieved with their cries. Others will emigrate, using the opportunity of some official trip to escape from the country, and try to forget making such fools of themselves. But they will never apologize to the victims of their aggressiveness.

The new stain on the image of the nation will last longer than the false intransigence of these soldiers disguised as citizens. They will move on, but the shame will remain.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Opinion: Lula’s Final Hour

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil. (Picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Perezs

Deutsche Welle, Yoani Sanchez, 6 April 2018 — A few years ago, the socialism of the 21st century, that populist imitation that deftly disguised itself with a discourse of social justice and opportunities for all, seemed to be in full force in Latin America. The region was dotted with leaders who resembled something more than the ideology they embraced: they loved to hear themselves speak in public, they suffered from a chronic intolerance of political opposition and they believed they embodied the feeling of an entire nation.

That motley explosion of charismatic and authoritarian leaders ranged from the vociferous Hugo Chávez, to the arrogant Rafael Correa, the coca grower Evo Morales, and the popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The latter was described as having emerged from the most humble strata of Brazilian society and, once in Planalto Palace, to have promoted changes to lifting more than 30 million people up from poverty. With these credentials, it was difficult not to applaud him and many international organizations fell at the feet of the steelworker become president. continue reading

However, behind the image of an austere man and implacable enemy of political corruption, Lula was creating his own networks of favors and support to which he responded with privileges and perks. The Workers’ Party became a more powerful force every day, one that harassed its political opponents, supported untenable regimes like that of Cuba and was constantly accused of diverting funds and mismanagement. However, Lula maintained his impressive popularity in Brazil and almost unanimous support beyond its borders.

Now, the former trade unionist seems to be coming to the end of his road. Last year he was convicted of corruption and money laundering and this month the Supreme Court rejected the last legal recourse to stop his imprisonment. Although the seasoned populist still draws crowds and leads the polls for the October elections, on his last tour of Brazil eggs were thrown and taunts shouted.

Cornered, the former president has chosen to to keep running forward. He has redoubled his discourse to the popular classes and has presented the whole judicial process in which he is immersed as an attempt to silence him politically or as a revenge of the elites and his old ideological adversaries. Others, however, accuse him of running for president to elude justice. Despite this attack from the podiums and from the media, it has not managed to prevent the myth from suffering major cracks.

With the conviction of Lula, part of the illusion that he fueled also falls, that of a leader who rises from below, who understands the poor, who will never steal from them. His fall from grace is also a blow to the left’s populist forces in the region, many of them tarnished by corruption scandals linked to the extensive maneuvers of Brazilian giant Odebrecht.

The socialism of the 21st century was not only killed by its own inefficiency in finding solutions to the serious problems of the continent, but by its dirty financial management. Their most distinguished representatives encouraged networks of loyalties and bribes that ended up taking their toll. The coup de grace was not “the empire” so much reviled, nor the “bourgeoisie,” but their own ambition.

Which One Is The Criminal?

The brothers Raul and Fidel Castro together with Lula (center) in 2010, when the former Brazilian president visited the island at the time of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. (Juventud Rebelde)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 April 2018 — In 2010, then Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva provoked a bitter controversy when he compared Cuban dissidents to common criminals. Those words, said a week after the death of the opponent Orlando Zapata Tamayo, take on a new meaning today, a few hours before the Brazilian leader goes to prison.

“I think hunger strikes cannot be used as a human rights pretext to free people,” said the former steelworker, eight years ago in March. “Imagine what would happen if all the bandits who are imprisoned in Sao Paulo went on hunger strike and asked for their freedom,” he remarked cheerfully. continue reading

For Lula, the dissident who agonized in his cell until he died was nothing more than a criminal who refused to eat for 86 days to pressure the authorities to release him from prison. Despite publicly lamenting his death, Brazil’s president believed the official version of Zapata’s death and insisted the Cuban bricklayer, born in Banes, was not a political prisoner.

Now it is the popular trade unionist who has been tried in the courts of justice and public opinion. He came to this point not because he protested police repression in the streets, as Zapata did, but because of corruption and money laundering. As president of his country he betrayed the voters’ trust by exchanging favors, receiving bribes and handing out contracts.

Under the image of a humble man who ascended to the highest position in an imposing nation like Brazil, Lula was in fact a “political animal” accustomed to prioritizing ideology and his old ‘comrades in the struggle’ over the welfare of his people. As soon as he settled into Planalto Palace he began to create his own robust network of perks and fidelities that ultimately blew up in his face.

In this network of favors were not only some of his old comrades from Brazil’s Workers Party, but also those from outdated regimes like Havana’s. Lula solicitously served the Castro brothers the entire time he was in office, an attitude inherited by Dilma Rousseff when she succeeded him in office.

For the Cuban Government the years during which the Workers Party led Brazil served as a panacea. Lula and Rousseff closed ranks to support the Plaza of the Revolution in international forums, kept their shock troops at the ready to attack any critics of the Castros, and financed the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone project, which involved the corrupt Brazilian transnational Odebrecht.

In the name of those old favors, on Thursday the Havana regime released a statement signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in defense of the former president, calling his sentence an “unfair campaign against Lula, against the Workers Party and against the leftist and progressive forces in Brazil.” Some corruption is repaid with apartments, some with bribes, and much of the rest with political statements.

Lulu’s 12 year prison sentence could well be extended much longer, should the magistrates find him guilty in other pending cases. His time behind bars could be long, enough time to allow him to reflect on everything he has said and done.

Perhaps in the long days that await him looking through the thick bars, the former president can imagine what Zapata’s last days might have been like for the young black bricklayer born in a small town in the east of the island who refused to eat or drink water to demand his freedom. That man, unlike Lula, was innocent.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Lessons From A Planned Succession: Angola and Cuba

United by the slave trade and, later, by geopolitics, today Angola and Cuba are closely linked in a way that goes beyond beyond cultural ties. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 28 March 2018 – United by the slave trade and, later, by geopolitics, Angola and Cuba are today experiencing a similar moment beyond cultural ties or military pacts. Both countries are going through a process of succession from the historic leadership, which, in the case of Luanda, is defying more than one forecast.

When the oil producing nation began a new chapter in its history last year and José Eduardo Dos Santos left the presidency, after almost four decades, everything pointed to the transfer of power being a maneuver to prolong the status quo and to ensure the former president’s family remained well situated.

Joao Lourenço, who had occupied the post of Minister of Defense, was chosen to succeed the man whose face is still on the currency and whose official propaganda surrounded him with an exalted cult of personality. JLO, as Lourenço is also known, was seen as a stand-in, a puppet who would be closely managed by Dos Santos. continue reading

Among the 27 million inhabitants of the African country, many were born or grew up under the shadow of the leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). However, shortly after taking power, JLO began to dismantle his predecessor’s extensive web of family businesses. One of the first pieces to fall was Isabel Dos Santos, daughter of the former president, whom Forbes magazine has named the richest woman in Africa, with a personal fortune of around 4.5 billion dollars.

Isabel had been named in June 2016 as head of state oil company Sonangol, which controls more than 90% of the country’s crude exports. Last December Lourenço relieved her of her position, shortly after having also done the same to the Commander General of the National Police and the Chief of the Intelligence Service and Military Security.

The coup reached two of the family’s other children, son José Paulino and daughter Welwitschia, who had under their control the most important television networks. The new president, who during his inauguration had lavished praise on the father of these skilled businesspeople, took a few weeks to move on the man’s children.

A few days ago it was the turn of José Filomeno Dos Santos, formerly responsible for the Angolan Sovereign Fund, which has assets of more than 5 billion dollars. The son of the country’s former strong man has been accused by the Justice Department of defrauding the Central Bank of 500 million dollars and has been barred from leaving Angola.

Removing the Dos Santos children from those positions not only allows JLO to replace them with more trustworthy members of his administration, but it represents a sledgehammer against the network of nepotism that fueled his predecessor. This economic undermining translates into a loss of power in a country that ranks 164 out of 176 nations on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index.

With its rich oil deposits, Angola continues to be a nation of deep social contrasts, hit by inflation and a country where bribes or thefts of public assets constitute the main sources of economic gateways for many officials and businessmen.

José Eduardo Dos Santos, who was reputed to be an “African Machiavelli,” is now a sick old man, unable to oppose his successor, who has abandoned the script of the transfer of power and is threatening to take his children to court.

The table is set so that the historical diatribe falls on his figure and the opposition – which he kept at bay with the blows of repression – is beginning to take advantage of the cracks in the dome. Although the old patriarch was left in his leadership position in the MPLA, he has had to call an extraordinary congress where it is very likely that a new leader will be elected.

It is difficult to resist the temptation to extrapolate these events to the situation that now exists in Cuba with the succession of Raúl Castro, the old ally who led thousands of men to die on African soil so that the MPLA could take power in 1975. Nor is the careful planning of generational change, which will take place in Cuba as of April 19, a guarantee against upsets.

From the Angolan experience, Castro can extract two lessons: puppets can cut their strings, and protecting a family clan is a difficult task when you do not have all the power.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuban Government Prepares for Pitched Battle at Lima Summit

Castro’s repressors hitting and kicking Leticia Ramos and Jorge Luis García Pérez ‘Antúnez’ during the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama. (marporcuba.org)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 22 March 2018 — The images of the Cuban government’s shock troops at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015 will seem tame this April. The Government of the Island is preparing for the meeting of presidents and the Civil Society Forum in Lima, Peru, as if the event is a battlefield, one it plans to dominate by the volume of its cries.

Part of that confrontation began this Wednesday during the Hemispheric Dialogue, a preliminary meeting to set agendas and present the region’s numerous delegations. The speech Cuban ambassador Juan Antonio Fernandez delivered at the meeting advanced part of the strategy that will be deployed by the official delegation in a few weeks. continue reading

Setting aside the composure that his position as a diplomat requires, Fernandez opened in a vulgar tone, more worthy of a street fight than an international event. “With regards to Cuba, don’t you mess with us,” he spit out in response to a comment from Jorge Luis Vallejo, a member of the Latin American Youth Network for Democracy.

Fernandez’s threat, besides being a preview of the bad taste, attacks and even blows planned by the Plaza of the Revolution, rests on a grotesque generalization, defining the Island as synonymous with an ideology, a Party and a man in power, masking the plurality and diversity of ideas that exist in the country.

However, beyond the ambassador’s tantrum, it’s worth the effort to alert the organizers of the Summit, the Peruvian hosts who will have to deal with these intolerant people, about the signals the Castro nomenklatura is sending to let them know it will seek to tarnish the event, disrupt the Civil Society Forum and even generate disturbances.

In Panama, these hordes of extremists turned the hotel where both delegations (the pro-government and the independent) were staying, into a site of political trench warfare, where they shouted, pushed, and staged an ugly show of aggression and even frightened other guests who had nothing to do with Cuba.

Over the last three years, State Security has trained its ‘troops’ for the new confrontation style, polishing its discourse to hijack the terminology of the Forum, claiming possession of concepts that, until a few years ago, they considered “bourgeois,” such as “civil society,” “community” and “governability.”

This chameleon-like simulation will allow them to present themselves as autonomous civic entities, and claim their places in the plenary room and on the debate panels. Once there, they will remove their masks and exploit their arguments with their stubborn slogans. With them there is no room for nuance because they think in a binary way: “ally or enemy,” “Fidelista or mercenary,” “poor or rich,” “north or south.”

They want to send a loud and forceful message that Castro is still “alive and kicking” a few days before Raúl Castro finishes his second term and hands over the presidential chair to a hand-picked successor. The Lima Summit is a stage for this old gerontocracy to play-act at being modern, renewed and in charge of the future.

Among those who will carry that message is the vice president of the government’s National Union of Cuban Jurists, Yamila González Ferrer, who has made it clear that she will not share “any space with ‘elements’ and mercenary organizations.” However, she did not say if she planned to withdraw from the event, or drive out the independent activists with blows, or even prevent the sessions of the Forum from taking place.

Ferrer knows that a standout performance in Peru is a guarantee of future promotion, as happened with the psychologist Susely Morfa who was catapulted into the position of general secretary of the Union of Young Communists, after she screamed in the faces of dozens of dissidents and independent Cuban journalists in the lobby of El Panama Hotel at a previous summit.

Faced with the signs of an upcoming battle, members of the real civil society will have to arm themselves with a lot of patience and avoid provocations; it will serve them well not to respond to shouting with shouting, or insult with insults. The pro-government forces are just looking for this response to start the fight.

The best way to “face” this squad of screamers is with data, information and evidence that proves what happens inside the country. Preparing presentations or exhibitions with fewer adjectives and more evidence could be a good defensive strategy.

Another advisable attitude is not to offer only complaints about the present situation, or to play the role of victims. In Peru, independent activists and sources of information from the Island must show that they have proposals and ideas for Cuba’s future. They should make it known that, unlike the shock troops that attack them, they see a country with a future where there is room for everyone.

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.