The Wireless Network that Puts the Cuban Government in Check

SNet has turned its users into the best organized and connected group in Cuba outside the ruling party. (Karla Gómez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 14 August 2019 — Its users cannot talk about politics or religion, but even so, the Street Network (SNet), which connects tens of thousands of Cubans through the Wi-Fi signal, has become a place of citizen freedom and convergence. This virtual web, where people play, chat and exchange content, is now in the eye of the official censors after new legislation that regulates the use of radio spectrum space on the Island took effect on 29 July.

Creativity has been an escape valve in Cuba for decades of material deficiencies and excessive control. As recipes are invented in kitchens to make the few ingredients sold in the markets less boring, many young people use offline tools that replace part of the experiences they might have on the web to alleviate internet connectivity problems.

SNet was born more than a decade ago, precisely, as a space for videogames, forums, social media substitutes and the transfer of files among those who did not have the ability to frequently access the world wide web. With devices bought mostly on the black market and others manufactured by the users themselves, customers began to connect, the first nodes emerged and even administrators appeared to manage a phenomenon that intertwined Havana with invisible threads. continue reading

During all this time they existed in a legal vacuum, somewhat tolerated by an officialdom that preferred to have those thousands of young people more focused on learning the latest videogames than on exercising some civic posture. But even so, SNet never pleased the Plaza of the Revolution, especially because it allowed people to connect and create communities beyond ideology and politics. For a government obsessed with knowing every detail in the lives of its citizens, that was a danger.

In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized in. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

 The new legislation for wireless networks gives SNet legality but has put it on the verge of death. The regulations include rigid technical requirements that, if met, would reduce the range, speed and number of users that can connect. It is a regulation that seeks to cut the influence of this network underpinned by NanoStations and Mikrotiks, some of the devices that compose it. The official decision is a way to kill it without prohibiting it, to diminish its importance by limiting its technology.

The users’ response was not long in coming. Last Saturday dozens of people gathered in front of the Ministry of Communications to demand a special license that allows SNet to continue operating. Several of the protesters proposed that the authorities use the network infrastructure to enhance the computerization of Cuban society and that the state telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa, make agreements with administrators that allow access to the Internet through its nodes and antennas

The official response has not been positive and SNet users are preparing for new actions. In their favor they have the largest reasonably organized and connected community that exists in Cuba beyond the official mass organizations. Against them, a system that deeply fears its citizens will unite without being given the order to do so.

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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.

August, the Cruelest Month

After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the days of August generate widespread irritation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 11 August 2019 — The poet T.S. Eliot was wrong… or at least his most famous verse does not work in the case of Cuba. “April is the cruelest month,” he wrote almost a hundred years ago, but on this Island that adjective belongs to August, the most difficult time of the year. After long weeks under the intense heat of summer, the days of August generate widespread irritation, a tendency to scream and rage.

To that we must add that the tortuous official bureaucracy becomes even more difficult to circumvent because many state entities work at half strength, many employees in that sector are on vacation and the phones of the institutions can ring for hours without anyone answering. In this eighth month of the year, suffocation and lethargy, despair and anger, are sharpened. Phrases like “better leave it for September” or “you won’t be able to do anything until August passes” are repeated everywhere.

Lovers repel each other with their sweat, buses are rolling saunas and the few air-conditioned offices become a fiefdom that employees defend tooth and nail from “non-authorized persons,” that is, citizens, who try enter to access services and incidentally enjoy temperatures under 77F. Everyone who has a fan in a public place feels themselves lord and owner of the situation, turning it to cool just their face, their desk, their small plot of power.

Oh, T.S. Eliot, how wrong you were with April, how good it seems that you never spent an August in Havana…

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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.

The Evil of the Private Sector According to ‘Granma’

As of May 2019, 605,908 self-employed people were working Cuba in the 128 authorized activities. (Alfonso B.)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 August 2019 — More than 20 years ago, when I was studying Philology at the University of Havana, a colleague did a study on the headlines of the official press. The young woman compared the verbs that headlined the national news with those used for international issues. The result was that most Cuban events carried positive terms, in the style of “developing,” “building,” “expanding,” or “growing,” while articles about other countries were often titled with words such as “kill,” “destroy” and “repress.”

Over the years, little has changed in this editorial line which has fueled the popular belief that “for the newspaper Granma, inside the Island everything is good and everything outside, bad.” But such contrasts are expressed not only based on where the news is generated, but also when addressing the state sector as opposed to the private sector. While public companies enjoy a good part of the triumphalist phrases, self-employed people are often the targets of criticism, stereotypes and accusations. continue reading

Separated by a few days, we have before our eyes two excellent examples of this difference in treatment. The first of them was the publication, on August 5, of a text by Oni Acosta under the title Music and nightlife: vampires on the prowl? The author complained about the musical choices of a private Havana bar whose name he never mentioned, preferring to define it as “you-know-who’s place,” and accused it of having a “mediocre” repertoire and “puro reparterismo” in the song lyrics.

In addition to failing to note that much of the same music is played from the speakers of State-owned bars and recreational centers, public areas in hotels and even school parties, Acosta (or his editor) chose to title the text with two pejorative words: “nocturnality,” which is mainly used to refer to the aggravating circumstance of a crime perpetrated at night; and “vampires,” which suggests bloodsuckers or people who take advantage of the customer to suck their money to the beat of reggaeton.

Acosta’s criticism raised eyebrows precisely because he approached the phenomenon in a manner partial to and skewed towards officialdom, but also because it prolongs and feeds the prejudice against the self-employed/private sector as a promoter of bad taste while being more interested in collecting cash than in promoting good music. As an insatiable Dracula, the small Cuban business owner looks more like a greedy exploiter willing to do anything for money, than an essential pillar of the national economy, as inferred from the text.

Not even three days passed and the onslaught against individuals has risen. This Thursday, the official organ of the Communist Party published a long article signed by Luis Toledo Sande on the salary increase announced this June. As an illustration, a vignette shows two smiling state employees commenting on the benefits of the new salary with phrases that nobody anywhere, in their right mind, would say. An example: “…in parallel we will have to increase productivity, dedication to work…”

The official newspaper ‘Granma’ published a vignette that shows two smiling state employees commenting on the benefits of the new salary. Panel 1: I still can’t believe it, they raised my salary. / Panel 2: …in parallel we will have to increase productivity, dedication to work… / Panel 3: Only one thing is forbidden to rise. Prices! / Sign on stand: Price caps (Granma)

The two workers are painted in a bluish shade, dressed as officials, and walk together to a stall selling agricultural products with a sign reading “price caps.” Behind the counter, the merchant is drawn in a very different way. With greenish-yellow skin, the face of a criminal recently escaped from prison and attired in a way that tries to ridicule him and make him appear vulgar; in short, the self-employed person looks like the bad guy in the scene.

The text reinforces the attack, as it includes a tirade against economists and academics who have sounded an alert about the dangers of capping the prices of products and services. In response to them, although he mentions no names, the author warms that “it is not accidental that they try to sow doubts and uncertainties against the current increases,” and their advice not to try to regulate the market so drastically is only a “liberal confusion,” according to Sande.

The text leaves a bitter aftertaste because it gives the impression that everyone who is against the imposition of capped prices for private transport, drinks in private cafes and agricultural markets is, at least, an enemy of the homeland. This thesis, together with the Manichean cartoon vignette that heads the article, is a calculated and visceral attack on entrepreneurship.

“We are not going to go back or stop, nor allow stigmas and prejudices towards the non-state sector,” Raúl Castro said two years ago insisting on an idea he had already outlined previously. But it is not enough to say it from time to time to demonstrate a good attitude towards the private sector. The facts, the treatment that is given to the self-employed people in the press and even the way in which they are shown graphically reveal more than the slogans.

If we let ourselves be carried away by what the Cuban newspapers publish, it could be concluded that the government continues to look on private businesses with animosity. For the authorities, they are an evil, although a necessary evil.

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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.

Kafka at Cuban Customs

The average wait to retrieve a suitcase is between 5 and 8 hours during the day. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 August 2019 — “Mommy put your feet up, put your feet up,” says a daughter with a worried face to a lady who has been waiting for eight hours in the missing luggage department in terminal 3 of the José Martí International Airport in Havana. The old woman tells me that she has recently had cancer surgery and has a very painful leg.

The dialogue takes place near an official of the General Customs of the Republic (AGR) who, in her red supervisor’s vest, comes out to explain the delay. People just let her talk, especially Rafael Vidal, a 57-year-old, thin and hyperkinetic Cuban who has been trying to recover his lost bag for 24 hours.

Due to the strict customs regulations and the convoluted mechanism that allows Cubans to pay import fees in Cuban pesos – but only once a year – Cubans with lost luggage have to go to the airport to deal with the cumbersome process. continue reading

On the afternoon of August 3, Vidal is desperate and the others there tell him to remain calm, “you’ll give yourself a heart attack,” they say. But he keeps gesticulating and jumping around without getting Customs employees to do their work any faster. It takes them between 30 and 45 minutes with each client, but sometimes up to an hour.

To retrieve luggage, you must first get into the outer line, and then after two or three hours you can access an office where a passenger must locate their luggage. If an airline representative arrives, the customer can advance somewhat in line but still the average wait is between 5 and 8 hours during the day. Soon you will have to weigh the suitcase and fill in the Customs form. Between one thing and another endless minutes pass in which nothing happens.

In some seats – which once had padded bottoms but are now only metal – those of us who wait exchange stories. “I’m here since five in the morning,” says a father with a small girl. “I have not had breakfast or lunch because I can’t go out,” adds a teenager who points out the padlock that closes the access gate, located on the side of the main terminal building.

We are not imprisoned, no judge has dictated that they lock us up, but we all know that going out to try to go to the bathroom or drink some water can mean losing our place in line. We are prisoners of Customs; inmates without prison uniforms or bars, although prisoners in the end.

We remain in a corridor, between two offices, with a light roof full of gaps and a floor that has not been cleaned in months. There is no bathroom, drinking fountain, or a place to buy something to eat. Outside, first under the inclement sun and then soaked by an intense downpour, are the less fortunate, those who have not even been able to enter the area where they can sit.

A lock closes the access gate to the waiting area to recover lost luggage that is already in the national territory. (14ymedio)

“I got in line before noon,” says a talkative lady who is still tired from her long journey from Mozambique where her doctor daughter lives. When she arrived, Customs confiscated an electric oven for not complying with the import requirements and she does not understand why, as of three o’clock this Saturday, she has not been given her suitcase, which has been in Havana for a day.

That ordeal is only experienced by Cubans, including those who reside outside the Island, since most tourists will get their lost luggage delivered to their hotel or the rental house where they are staying. “We are not people, we are animals,” laments a woman who has arrived with her daughter to claim some bundles. She says it almost under a surveillance camera, with a fish eye-shaped lens, at which she stares defiantly.

“Foreigners do not stand in line and if you drop a bill in the right hands you go through very quickly,” complains a young man next to me with dark glasses that hide his eyes, red from not sleeping. “I arrived Thursday on the Aeroflot flight and my suitcase landed yesterday,” he says in a weak voice. He opens a package of cookies and offers them, hands come up fast to get one.

In the almost six hours I spend there, I see everything. A European retrieves his suitcase in minutes and tries to pay the airport employee who slipped it to him, but the man indicates with a gesture that it is better to make the transaction more discreetly. Another, in exchange for two ice cream snacks, wins the favor of a customs official, while a woman passenger breaks into tears of despair under the sign that says “lost luggage.”

Strong ties are woven between the preschool teacher, the reporter for 14ymedio, the young man traveling on an official passport, a woman returning to stay, a reggaetonero, a teenager who grew up in Belgium but whose dual citizenship is not recognized in Cuba, a young man who does not want to protest so as not to stand out, and the retiree who sees “a repudiation rally or a tribute as the same thing,” he says.

No one shows any mercy to Customs: it is the enemy; we, a varied and unarmed platoon. In there they have weights, scanners, forms, arrogance, grim looks; out here helplessness, annoyance, anger… a rage that is taking shape as the hours go by. Vidal is the most troubled because he is the one who has been waiting the longest.

The man shouts that he will complain, that he needs witnesses of so much “abuse”; some laugh softly thinking he is crazy, but most support him, close ranks with him. You can’t be very sane and challenge power in Cuba, much less a Customs that decides what merchandise can make a family happy and relieve their daily hardships.

Everything related to luggage uncovers sensitivities. We packed the gifts for relatives, the medicines for a patient, the order that a friend entrusted us. Behind every suitcase is a drama. “I brought a cream for the bedsores of my grandfather who is prostrate and I have not been able to get it for four days,” says a woman who waits by my side, while the rain sneaks through the gaps in the roof and soaks us.

Another woman takes out a pen to share with those who must fill out the Customs form, although they have already completed one before arriving in Cuba, a blue piece of paper asking if we are bringing live animals or pornography, when the danger is actually something else.

The authorities limit private imports because the State wants to continue selling its lousy products at very high prices in its stores.

For Customs, we are potential criminals who carry a larger number of disposable shavers in our bags, cans of sardines that we do not declare, or shoes that are not our size and that make it clear we are importing them for third parties. We are the enemy and they treat us as such.

Fear shows in every step that the AGR employees take before the tired but attentive eyes of a crowd that after several hours of waiting seems to have lost its own fear. “Either they give me the bags or I denounce them”; “They deal with me right now or this is going to go through the channels [alluding to Miami television]”; “They expedite this or even Raúl Castro will find out,” shout the more daring.

There is a Cuban couple living in the United States who have brought their son. The boy plays on a cell phone but occasionally emits a phrase of despair. Heat and dirt envelop everything. The mother warns him that, although he was born on the other side of the Florida Strait, he has to learn that in Cuba “making anything happen requires work.” Not very satisfied, the little one concentrates on the screen.

A lady notices me. “You are a journalist, right?” she says loudly. A score of eyes look at me. “You are going to have to report this,” voices from several corners demand of me, charging me with the responsibility of writing down the long hours they have been there, the employees’ laziness and their absolute inefficiency. I can’t escape, it’s my turn.

The supervisor explains that “this is complicated every day but today it has been more complicated than ever because the system is down,” in reference to the computer program that collects the data of all travelers who pass Cuban immigration. I like the phrase … and yes, the “system” is on the ground, broken, bankrupt, taking on water everywhere, I add in my mind.

Others do not miss the opportunity and also joke about the double meaning of the phrase. “Look, it fell and we didn’t even have to lay it down,” says a woman with a beautiful rose-shaped tattoo who arrived around three in the afternoon.

“Every time we try to scan a passport, it does not give us the passenger’s record,” the red-vested supervisor justifies herself. “Then we have to ask the security cameras to review the filming of the day the traveler arrived,” she adds. When the “system goes down” they can only know if the person brought more kilograms of luggage than allowed by checking that footage.

In my mind the scene reminds me of the television series where an electronic eye watches everything, whether the passenger was carrying one suitcase, two or none. According to this supervisor, to return lost luggage to its owner, it is necessary to check in the security recordings to see how many packages the traveler took from the airport the day they left.

It is not that the lady thinks us fools, she knows that she is speaking to Cubans, a “domesticated” and controlled group… at least she thinks so. The treatment she gives us is like that of an officer who gives orders to his soldiers. “Don’t disrespect me,” “you have to wait,” “if you don’t like it, leave,” “if you keep bothering us we’ll kick you out of here,” “your problem,” “this is the procedure and we have to collect the money for the State,” the employees say.

After four in the afternoon the rain continues and the water floods the place, some raise their feet in the seats and others are resigned to it. None of the office doors open to summon us to shelter inside them. “Revolution is humanity,” one mocks, repeating a slogan from a billboard. I estimate that every day the place collects thousands of pesos in import fees, but they have not invested much in improving it.

They call me by my name. A Customs officer tells me that I can’t go through with the cart and I appeal to the lady who arrived from Mozambique. We are already friends, there is trust. The hours waiting have united us. They move a metal detector over my body and ask me to go to a dimly lit corridor where I find my suitcase. They also collect my passport and the import form.

The process is just beginning. They tell me to go out again. Outside Vidal looks like a caged lion and the temperature of his protest has risen. We are all soaked, hungry, upset and have that look of those who are already willing to lose everything, including their suitcase. Someone suggests that we go to the State Council and another gives their phone with some recordings to a relative and says “upload them to the internet.”

The screams of the daughter with the newly operated mother increase in volume. We all join. “Let that lady go and just give her her suitcase,” we bellow. An employee comes out and says she was able to scan seven passports to know the “import history of each one.” There are seven chosen ones, seven lucky ones. Vidal is one of them, perhaps to prevent him from continuing to call for a revolt.

The ungainly man puts a makeshift sign on the door: “People outside forbidden to enter the premises.” We are all Vidal, a little crazy, fed up, too mad. Thirty long minutes pass and he comes out with a briefcase and a look that fails to appear relieved. Immediately from inside they say my name and I go back in, and the employee attending me is paying more attention to the ice cream snack she just went to buy than to her work.

At a table with battered corners, another worker fills in a few sheets with a pen stroke where the name of the travelers appears. Obviously “the system has not come back to life and we are in the analog era,” I think. The phrases are rude, abuse is breathed in with the air, nobody says “sorry” for the technical problems that have caused the wait. At times I feel like some abandoned furniture in the middle of the office.

A half broken door gives access to the office where they weigh, inspect and process each baggage to be delivered. (14ymedio)

I look for my suitcase in the dimly lit hallway. Every corner of the room is trashed, all tiles have traces of grime and the place smells like dirt. “Where is your Customs form?” He asks me. “I already delivered it with my passport,” I babble, tired and shivering. “No, it’s not here,” he says.

The worst was yet to come. The inefficiency of Customs reached the point where they had given my passport to Vidal, who had quickly left for Las Tunas. In that chaos of documents scattered on the table, they didn’t even check the name, the photo or the gender. As he confirmed hours later, he was given a document twice, once his and once mine. The man, who was running on overdrive, didn’t even notice.

Anger rises, the employee washes her hands. “You have to find out where Vidal lives to get your passport back,” she tells me in a festive tone. I will have to become Sherlock Holmes for a mistake they made. But of course, Customs is untouchable, sure of itself, it doesn’t have to do anything for us, even when it loses the only document that allows you to cross national borders.

They let me carry my suitcase even though I no longer have identification that certifies to Customs that I am me, that I have entered Cuba on a certain date or that I have not brought any imports that require customs duty to be paid. They abandon me to my fate. I am an uncomfortable discard of their lack of efficiency.

I go out and the faces of frustration are still out there. I still have the strength to say that they are awaiting hours of abuse, inefficiency and the possible loss of their documents in the hands of a Customs office that knows how to control but not to take responsibility, an entity that acts as a watchdog but not as a safeguard; an guardian of imports that does not incur duties, only rights.

I run as fast as my legs will let me. I shout the name of Vidal in the parking lot and along the terminal exits, in the taxi area, to see if I can find him before he leaves with my 32-page booklet and filigree sheets. People think I’m crazy and by now they may be right.

The lady who had surgery with the sore leg passes by me and offers words of encouragement to follow. I can no longer cross the fence with a padlock that separates me from the employees of Customs at the Lost Baggage office. There, in the uncomfortable seats, with the dirty and still flooded floor, dozens of people wait to complete the same process that I know well. They have long faces and continue to complain loudly.

Twenty hours later I will rescue my passport thanks to the help of the employees of the JetBlue and Avianca airlines, together with the persistence of Rafael Vidal, who engaged all his energy to return it to me as soon as he realized the error. And the General Customs of the Republic that should have watched over my document and helped me in the process of recovering it? I’m still waiting for an apology.

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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.

Ricky Left to the Rhythm of Reggaeton

Protesters celebrate the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló. (14ymedio / Juan Jaramillo)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 27 July 2019 — “He had to go and he left.” With these words the taxi driver welcomes me. No name or details are necessary, because in the streets of Puerto Rico everyone knows who he’s talking about. While driving through San Juan, the driver tells me how “people tossed out” Governor Ricardo Rosselló after days of protests, in which outrage and reggaeton shook hands.

At a traffic light, the driver, in his 50s, hits the steering wheel with gnarled hands as if it were Ricky’s face. “He didn’t want to leave, but he had to step down,” he insists. Along with his two children, the driver spent every night of last week around La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Puerto Rican governor. “I carried a flag, but in black and white, without colors, because here we are still in mourning,” he says.

While he tells me the details of the nights of protest, we pass through several blocks where balcony after balcony and door after door display the flag with the blue triangle and red stripes one after another. A banner so similar to the Cuban flag that in my fantasies of the recently arrived, I imagine being in Havana the day after a change of government. continue reading

This confusion of realities haunts me as the car heads towards old San Juan. So when the driver says “people joined together and it didn’t matter if you were an artist or a mechanic, rich or poor, everyone was together,” I fantasize about some workers who drop their picks and shovels on the railroad line to shout in chorus with novelists and troubadours in front of Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The image lasts in my head for a second before I return to Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria is an open wound that crosses the Island. “My brother lost everything and had to move from the town where he lived, spent a year and a half without electricity,” says the taxi driver. Interposing some words in English: babyexpensivedealerfood… a linguistic mix that I hear everywhere in this free state associated with the United States.

Evening falls, headlines around the world point to this place where in the plazas twerking people celebrate the first day without Ricky, the beginning of a new stage, filled with questions. In one of those places, where popular joy, alcohol and hip movements mix, is Alder, a musician who plays the piano and the clarinet. He also dances, but with some care.

“I had sciatica problems last year and I don’t want to be in a wheelchair again but I couldn’t miss this,” he tells me as he glugs down a bottle of a craft beer made by friends. “These are not gone, they remained after the crisis and the hurricane, they are still here,” he says, pointing to the label “one hundred percent Puerto Rican.” Every time he tries to twerk he puts a hand on his waist, “to not do it too hard,” he says.

Beside him, a family has come with two darling and barking mutts, collected from the shelters where they left them when they fled from the hurricane to their families in the United States, who took them in that fateful September 2017. The winds and rains took then more than 4,600 lives, according to a study by Harvard University.

“It was hard because we had to go back to our origins, learn to do things that we hadn’t done for years,” says Nata, a Puerto Rican who has come out to celebrate with her two rescued pets. “There were people here who didn’t know how to live without air conditioning, without their cell phones or without electricity and ‘Maria’ forced us to learn from scratch,” she recalls.

“After that, the telephones did not work so people were in the street. In the villages they had to improvise common pots to feed themselves and the citizenry had to organize themselves to deal with the disaster,” she says. “This all started with ‘Maria’. Without what happened to us two years ago people would not have ended up mobilizing as they have done now, they would not have ended up uniting.”

The tipping point was the recent leak of a chat of almost 900 pages in which Rosselló shared with his close collaborators, his “brothers”, as he called them, hundreds, thousands, of opinions, comments and public policy issues. Sexual jokes and misogynistic jokes also dot the extensive exchange in the Telegram app that ended up sinking his Government.

But the rejection was incubated long before. “This is a rich boy, he doesn’t know what’s going on down here,” says a very thin man on the outskirts of a club that has been closed for more than a year. “He is the son of former Governor Pedro Rosselló González, so he has always had a good life without difficulties,” he explains and heads to a place where, on a rickety sofa, several drug addicts have a peaceful space to inject.

The musicians have been protagonists of the social movement that brought down Rosselló. The voices of Bad Bunny, Residente and Ricky Martin act as a soundtrack to social dissatisfaction and, at the bus stops, young people with wireless speakers blast their rhymes. You can go from one side of the city to the other completing the songs with the snippets that emerge from cars, windows and the voices of Puerto Ricans themselves.

Several phrases call for independence, for taking advantage of the situation to “go beyond and end the colony,” as a young man demands outside a small house near La Puerta de Alto del Cabro bar, a traditional site that has managed to survive despite the onslaught of the big chains. But it is the rejection of Rosselló, the villain of the day, which everyone seems to share.

Alder waited all Wednesday afternoon for Ricky to leave. In the musical studio where he recorded some songs, they stuffed themselves with popcorn, drinks and patience to celebrate the governor’s departure. After seven o’clock in the evening their supplies had run out and “the bastard still did not resign,” he recalls. It was like watching the end of a movie that goes on and on without the credits appearing.

An hour later, they decided to go to the outskirts of La Fortaleza. “It may take time but tonight he’s going, no matter what,” said Adler. In the early morning, he ended up on the bench of a drunk and happy park as if he had been part of the “liberating command” that removed the governor from his post. There was no one on the street who did not feel part of that group as well. They did not need balaclavas or machine guns, they did it with shouts.

Exhaustion and so many impressions mix up everything in my head. I grew up hearing about the two wings, that it is only together that the islands can take flight. Dawn arrives, and on the other “half of the bird” just a few hours remain before Cuba’s official 26th of July event.

Here, Puerto Ricans exercise their civic force against power, and there, Cubans attend the liturgy of immobility, the worn out ceremony of “continuity,” the motto most repeated by Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel to prolong what has already lasted too long. Here they talk and unite, there we shut up and fear. On the same morning, San Juan is a party and Havana a tomb.

Harry drives an Uber for ten hours a day, his real estate business was ruined by the hurricane. Every person I meet has a before and after ‘Maria’. Just mentioning that name makes people emotional, exploding in an avalanche of anecdotes. “I should have left, because a brother of mine who lives in New York was going to help me get settled there, but I didn’t want to leave my parents alone,” he says.

One day after the governor’s resignation the graffiti on the streets continue to recall the long days of demands. (14ymedio)

Skeptical about Roselló’s departure, Harry is one of the few who has not gone to demonstrate or celebrate after the governor’s resignation. “It doesn’t matter, a corrupt one leaves and another arrives,” he says. “Whoever comes will also steal,” he says categorically as we head for Ocean Park in Santurce. A black cloth whips loudly back and forth on a flagpole. “Ricky resign,” it says in huge white letters.

The vehicle turns the corner, passes a Walgreens pharmacy, a McDonald’s and a KFC. Throughout the neighborhood, local businesses try to maintain themselves in the presence of large firms that “sell cheaper and cheaper,” Harry tells me. “Young people prefer to eat a hamburger over a fricasé,” he laments.

Harry has been very worried since Wednesday, when Rosselló announced that he was leaving. “I live from tourism and the people who come here to do business. If they see us as an unstable or unsafe country, they won’t come,” he calculates. He proposes a trip to and from the beach for a good price, but then immediately realizes that I come from an Island; “ah … true you also have enough sun over there,” he says.

I arrive at Río Piedras, where time seems to have stopped. The once populous boulevard is now a street with few businesses and abandoned buildings. A store displays its Made in China merchandise on the sidewalk. Walking, I come across a cart that sells honey, lemon and ginger. I need them because my throat is sore from the Havana rain and the Puerto Rican revelry. I take advantage of the shade and approach the merchant.

“This was full of life before,” he says. Several cats come out of the abandoned house behind me. One, black as night, rubs against my legs to get me to give him something to eat. I cross the street and buy a corn fritter from a woman who has her little post at the entrance to a cafeteria. A recorded voice constantly repeats the list of sales “today only.”

In Río Piedras, near the University of Puerto Rico, people got tired of waiting. A coffee seller evokes the 1996 gas explosion in the Humberto Vidal store that left 33 dead and an indelible mark in the memory of the community. “Afterwards everything went from bad to worse,” he tells me and gives me a cup with a strong and bitter liquid that makes my eyes cross. “We didn’t have to fire a shot and Ricky left,” he boasts.

If it weren’t for a few details of the accent and because the coffee has no hint of roasted peas, I would think I was conversing with any Cuban in a town in the interior of the country. He smooths his hair with hand, raises his index finger and predicts that “already Puerto Ricans are not the same as before, now we know we are strong, that we must respect ourselves.”

Across the street, a Colombian underwear store exhibits bras with lace. “So Cuban,” says the man. I make a move to leave because I suspect that he will repeat stereotypes about my island, the other wing, a wing with its own wounds. I sense that he will recite to me “the conquests of the Revolution,” but I am wrong. “You don’t have this,” he emphasizes with a hint of superiority. “At least we have started along the road.”

I turn to give the cat something to eat but it is gone. The building where it came from smells of abandonment, of that humidity that is encrusted in the walls when people stop inhabiting a place. A nearby graffiti demands that Ricky step down and in the corner a tattered flag beats against a balcony. I squint my eyes and my tiredness or the heat make me see blue stripes instead of red stripes next to a triangle, blood red.

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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.

The Day Innocence Drowned

The faces of the dead. The dramatic events of that summer ended the final illusions of a subjugated people.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 13 July 2019 — From that year I remember the wait, it was a feeling that filled everything like the unstoppable ticking of a story that was about to end. More than hunger, the heat of summer and the blackouts, the most difficult thing to endure was that prolonged parenthesis that had become our lives. And then July and August of 1994 arrived. The months in which we lost the little innocence we had left.

The news was diffuse, fragmented. “It was there, at the exit of the bay,” pointed out some residents in my Havana neighborhood of San Leopoldo, in the days after that 13 July when 37 people lost their lives at sea, among them 10 children. At first it seemed unreal, one more rumor of a frustrated escape, but little by little the story began to take shape, we knew the names of the victims and we knew the details of their last minutes.

Three tugboats — Polagaro 2, Polagaro 3 and Polagaro 5 — had sunk a ship carrying 72 people who were traveling with their eyes focused on the other side of the Florida Straits. People escaping a deep, dehumanizing crisis, which the ruling party had baptized with the “nice” euphemism of “Special Period in Times of Peace.” But in fact it was a time of material and moral deterioration, when children went to their parents with their hands out to ask for a piece of bread, a time when from the rostrum a delirious Fidel Castro called on us to “resist and win.” continue reading

That morning, 25 years ago, a few kilometers from the bed where I slept my apathetic dreams of adolescence, a terrifying scene developed that has been reconstructed thanks to the testimony of the survivors. The three tugs that were chasing the migrants pointed high pressure water hoses on them, knocking several adults and children off the deck. Those traveling on 13 de Marzo tugboat could do little against the onslaught.

The sea was filled with tumult and shouting a few meters from the imperturbable lighthouse of Morro, the same one that weeks later would again see avalanches of people leaving, this time in fragile crafts. While the water filled the throats of those dozens of people, others sitting along the wall of the Malecón to alleviate the summer heat stared out to sea imagining their dreams of a future in another place.

Then, the official media recrafted the story at will and blamed the tragedy on those who had stolen the 13 de Marzo tugboat and accused them of being irresponsible. They said that “the accident” was due to a collision between the fleeing ship and one of the Polargo tugboats, a version widely refuted by eyewitnesses who spoke of persecution, purposeful ramming of the boat, and water hoses. The state newspaper Granma also blamed the sinking on strong swells, low visibility and the deteriorated state of the boat itself.

The Communist Party militants were ‘oriented’ to tackle the rumors of state responsibility in the action, the Rapid Response Brigades greased their parapolice mechanisms of repression and a slab of silence was placed over that 13 July, similar to that the Chinese authorities have put on the events of Tiananmen Square. Even today, a quarter of a century later, the majority of Cubans living on the island avoid talking about it in public.

In their study circles, the militants of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) denounced the “new hoax of the empire,” while some calculated how to get rid of the red card they carried in their pockets and emigrate to that place where “the enemy” lived. Most of the bodies of the victims were never recovered from the bottom of the waters and, to this day, Havana is missing a monument that remembers them. Despite its seriousness, the event is not studied in any History class in the schools of the Island.

During the days following that morning, the official media did not lose any opportunity to paint the actions of the Polargos as part of the revolutionary militancy that had motivated the crew of the three ships to try to prevent the theft of the tugboat. They exempted the authorities from any responsibility, not one of the perpetrators of the sinking was prosecuted and, instead, their work received copious praise from the Plaza of the Revolution.

With such complicity and without an institutional investigation, the tragedy became a state crime. Especially because it was used to induce fear in a civilian population about what could happen to them if they tried to escape from the “socialist paradise” imprisoning us. But even terror did not work.

Less than four weeks later the Maleconazo erupted and finally Castro opened the national borders for anyone who wanted to emigrate. Thousands and thousands. This time the Polargos did not go out to chase them, but many also drowned. The dramatic events of that summer put an end to the last illusions of a subjugated people.

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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.

Fidel Castro and The Press As Propaganda

The magazine titled this interview “Fidel Castro in ‘Playboy’: a candid conversation with the bellicose dictator of Communist Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 July 2019 — While in the official media Fidel Castro was presented as an austere ruler, reserved with his private life and little given to worldly pleasures, in the American press the image of him was closer to that of a superhero, a villain and a seducer. In his new book on Fidel Castro, the historian Abel Sierra has traced with precision the contrast between the sober comandante en jefe projected by Cuban newspapers and the sensationalist tints that accompanied his name in most of the media across the Strait of Florida.

The man who upset Cuban history and radiated his willful personality throughout Latin America took great advantage of the fascination he generated among reporters in the United States, using them to export an oversized and irresistible image of himself. That relationship began before the triumph of the Revolution, when he was in the Sierra Maestra. Journalists of the time, such as Herbert Matthews from The New York Times, helped create an epic story about revolutionary exploits, which their readers devoured with delight. continue reading

Castro knew well the importance of using the front pages of newspapers to erect the myth of the system he built. He used the foreign press to reinforce certain clichés about the Cuba of the past — clichés that would justify the excesses after January 1959 — and to charm his ideological sympathizers such that they set aside their criticisms and only applauded. To expand his myth he used publications such as The New York Times, Time and Playboy, but he was also helped in that endeavor by cartoons and comic strips, and these pages were one of the many battle fronts on which he fought for power.

Fidel Castro, El Comandante Playboy: Sexo, Revolución y Guerra Fría (Fidel Castro, The Playboy Commander, Sex Revolution and the Cold War) is the story of a fascination, the meticulous description of how the American press contributed to the creation of a leadership that allowed the authoritarian Commander in Chief to become a figure familiar to the citizens of the United States. With this book, readers now have before them the detailed itinerary of a romance, between the media and the guerrilla; between the editors and the dictator.

Many of the attractions of the ideological theme park into which Cuba was converted, and whose montage Abel Sierra describes chronologically, are born of that romance. A parallel island that is formed not only from a carefully made-up reality, but also a skillful directing of the eyes of foreign visitors and reporters. With overwhelming effectiveness, Castro sends them to see for themselves, but sets a tight schedule that does not let them peer beyond the windows of their air-conditioned car, and rewards them when their articles follow the script of the Plaza of the Revolution.

For decades it has been very difficult for professionals of the press to escape from this warped view and to avoid swallowing whole the information pap fed to them by the Castro regime. Those who did not want to put aside their professionalism to engage in propaganda for socialist Cuba were considered traitors, revisionists or CIA agents, and in most cases they were not allowed to step foot in utopia ever again.

In his book, Sierra also finds the points of contact between the magnetism of the worlds created by Hugh Hefner and his Playboy fantasies on the one hand and, on the other, the revolutionary universe Castro tried to establish on the island. A bubble that has fascinated a good part of the international left for decades. If the American magnate promoted a life of pleasure surrounded by bunnies, the Cuban leader reciprocated with a country of docile militia members ready to die at the slightest wave of his hand.

This world created by Castro attracted comrades from other parts of the planet who arrived eager to find the keys to the materialization of an ideology on the island of Cuba. For them. There was a broad repertoire of statistics that insisted on the superiority of the system, which they found evidence of in their visits to schools and hospitals, the long speeches expounding on “the conquests of the Revolution” and, for the most incredulous, scenes of the leader surrounded by children and chanting young people could always be arranged.

The several interviews that Fidel Castro offered to Playboy also speak of his astuteness in placing himself in one of the most read magazines of those years, a way to reach the average American who came to those pages in search of nudes, celebrities and interviews with controversial personalities. Between an highbrow photo on one page and a photo of a nipple on another, Castro hurled his political darts.

This book shows an impressive sequence of covers of those years in which the Cuban dictator alternated with faces such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley on the cover of Playboy. But what follows is not only a collection of covers, references and dates, but a pleasant journey through the years in which Castro’s profile was chiseled for the American people.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, we assist in shaping an image with some pieces that are pleasing and others terrible, but all extremely alluring. The mere mention of Castro’s name was a profitable hook to sell more copies of magazines and newspapers, in addition to the damage that this massive dissemination posed for the present and the future of Cuba.

The media-savvy Commander always saw the press as an animal to domesticate, hypnotize and hold tightly by the reins. Thus, reporters who managed to reach the island to interview him, after having pressed numerous contacts and appealed to influential intermediaries, had to spend long weeks waiting docilely by the phone for the call confirming that they could approach Castro and ask him questions.

Over time, the circle of chosen reporters narrowed and by the end of the last century only figures very close to the Plaza of the Revolution managed to interview the Cuban leader. Beyond interviews, the result of those talks carried all the traces of a sounding board from which only one voice was heard, as in the books published by Frei Betto and Gianni Miná after several meetings.

In one of life’s ironies, the last years of Fidel Castro’s life passed away from the public scene and the press. Only the most trusted fellow travelers, comrades such as Evo Morales, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Nicolás Maduro, served as chroniclers who told the national and international public how the former president was doing. They were, at that moment, the “complicit reporters” of his end, and tried to create, like so many others described in this book, the legend of his exceptionality, the false impression that he was an extraordinary man who had to be allowed everything.

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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.

Multitudes and Frustrations at the New Coppelia

Customers protect themselves from Havana’s summer sun while waiting outside Coppelia.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar and Yoani Sanchez, Havana, June 26, 2019 — At what has been called the Cathedral of Ice Cream, the faithful wait outside for hours on the day that the Coppelia ice creamery is scheduled to reopen after a weeks-long remodeling. The first day of operation is marked by scenes of people shoving each other as police try to control the line of customers waiting to try the long anticipated chocolate ice cream.

On Monday, after official news outlets announced the date of its reopening, dozens of people with the patience of pilgrims start lining up outside. Designed by architect Mario Girona, the iconic Havana building looms as large in the public imagination as the Giraldilla statue, Morro Castle and the Malecon. As they wait patiently, hundreds of customers try to glimpse the menu board inside to see if it lists all fifteen flavors promised in official media reports.

Such a high level of anticipation should come as no surprise. Coppelia is one of the few places in the capital where ice cream can still be bought with Cuban pesos rather than hard currency, something hard to fathom for the astonished, open-mouthed tourists who walk past the enthusiastic throng, asking if they are part of a demonstration. When told the crowd is just waiting to buy ice cream, they can be heard saying, “I can’t believe it.” continue reading

In spite of a sign announcing a 10 o’clock opening, Coppelia begins its first day of operation an hour later, much to the discomfort of customers, who have to rely on umbrellas and sports caps to escape the relentless summer sun. This means that, before cooling off with ice cream, customers are first treated to a “free tropical sauna,” as one woman waiting in line notes ironically.

Every generation is represented. There are those who remember Coppelia in its heyday, after its debut in 1963, when it offered dozens of flavors; those who watched it languish during the Special Period of the 1990s, when it operated almost as a workers’ canteen; and those born after the advent of the dollar economy, who grew up eating Nestlé ice cream at shopping malls or coveting it through display windows.

Everyone arrives armed with cell phones to report the reopening to a family member who has emigrated to Buenos Aires, Miami or Berlin, someone who met her partner in the historic ice cream parlor, where a man’s wife began to feel her first delivery pains, or where someone had a final conversation with a friend who passed away not long after. Each of them has some memory sewn into the metal trellis chairs on the ground floor or to the thick shade trees.

Between the shoving to get inside and the screaming at others who have jumped the the line, there is the sound of “clicks” from dozens, or even hundreds, of cell phone cameras. “This is for Instagram and this for Facebook,” explains a teenager who poses in front of the sign of a ballerina’s plump legs above the iconic location’s name. He also takes a snapshot in front of a slogan, “La Habana real y maravillosa” (The real and wonderful Havana), that now appears on an exterior wall.

As the hours pass, enthusiasm dims and outrage grows. Around noon, after getting past the doorman trying to control the entrance, an avalanche of people runs through the esplanade to the staircase on the second floor, where the area known as the Tower is located. Their first surprise is the wallboard menu in this most exclusive area of Coppelia, which lists only eight flavors, half of what was promised.

When the crowd gets to the bottom of the stairway, they regroup. Some take the opportunity to fix their hair, some to straighten shirts which were rumpled in the scuffle outside and some to make sure they have not lost their wallets in the tumult. Children cannot stop smiling, their eyes open wide, as if they were on an adventure, monsters included, with a promised reward.

Eventually, little by little, everyone sits down. Then comes a second surprise: you may only order two specialties per person, a restriction that began with the crisis of a quarter of a century ago and which apparently is still in force despite a new, strikingly blue paint on the walls and employees in redesigned uniforms.

As has become customary, tables at Coppelia must be fully occupied. It does not matter if the people with whom you are seated are complete strangers. Some customers enjoy the surprise of being able to have a conversation with someone they are seeing for the first time. Others resent the lack of privacy and the unwanted, frightening encounters they imagine having.

Now seated after waiting four hours in line, Ulises — a 60-year-old restaurant worker — is still running his hand over a rib which was jabbed during the scrum to get inside. “Older people being pushed around, women with small children shoved to the ground, people in wheelchairs and with canes not given priority. And everyone fighting with the employees. I’ve never seen anyting like it,” he tells his companions.

“You didn’t experience Coppelia when it was Coppelia,” he says with a certain taste of nostalgia. Before paying, he very slowly counts his coins because, as he notes, no one gives him anything; he lives on his salary. This is a rarity, as difficult to find as a sliver of almond in the ice cream, which is now served on plastic plates when you order three scoops.

Next to him is a Cuban couple who now live in Florida and cannot stop laughing. “We needed a dose of Cuban reality but here we’ve gotten a full shower,” they joke. When the ice cream arrives, the woman takes a small taste but leaves the rest while the man takes several photos, which he will later post on Twitter. Meanwhile, Ulises takes a plastic container out of his bag and begins filling it with a melted chocolate and strawberry combination.

“The chocolate failed the test,” a young woman seated at another table is heard to say. “But the only thing on this plate I can eat is the chocolate. The strawberry is totally synthetic. There’s no fruit in it,” she adds with her nose near the plate. A dusting of cookie crumbs begins to fuse with the melted ice cream scoops.

One of the most frequently heard complaints involves the well known combination known as the “salad,” a mixture of five scoops with a few small cookies on the side, which can only be ordered with a mix of ice cream flavors. When a group of adolescents at one table asks an employee why this is, her only response is that it results from “a desire to provide a variety of flavors.”

But the ice cream fails to deliver. “Not creamy, tasteless and melted,” is how a mother with two children describes it, wrapping up her assessment with an “I won’t be coming back.”

After returning to his table smiling, another guest is eager share the details of his trip to the restroom. “They fixed all the toilets and there was even water for the sinks,” he explained. Though he wanted to provide more details of his experience, few listen to him.

At three o’clock a lady who has been in line with her granddaughter to go up to the Tower finally cries out in despair, “I have been here since 1:30 and everything they are saying on television is a lie. It’s an insult.” The woman has brought her daughter here for her birthday after the girl became intrigued by a report on the midday news about the successful reopening earlier in the day.

Images of the fights were not shown on national television, nor was the presence of police, who were there to maintain order, or the attendant trying to maintain discipline in the line. Instead, news reports only described calm and happiness. One customer adopted the idyllic tone, tellling a reporter, “It’s all beautiful, so beautiful.”

Far from camera range, one woman is compelled to seek shelter under a tree after waiting three hours in line. “This is abusive,” she repeats. Meanwhile, her two grandchildren, now on vacation from school, take advantage of not having to contend with the sun’s glare on their cell phone screens to share some wifi apps.

In the distance they can see an air-conditioned upper-floor salon offering ice cream for sale in hard currency. At The Four Jewels,* as the space inside Coppelia is known, smiling, sweat-free customers are enjoying a much more costly and creamy ice cream.

*Translator’s note: The space, named for four legendary dancers of the National Ballet of Cuba, was inaugurated in June 2013 by the ballet’s then-director, Alicia Alonso, in a ribbon cutting ceremony.

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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 MeToo Movement Challenges the Power with “Hairs on Its Chest”

For the official Federation of Cuban Women, women are soldiers, impeccable workers and players that underpin the ideology (Alan K.)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 July 2019 – He watches her pass by and whistles as she walks away, on the bus he sticks to a young woman until he is so close she feels his sweat on her skin and, when he gets home, his wife has dinner on the table and doesn’t start eating until he takes his first bite. At night, even though she doesn’t want to, he will “fulfill his manly role.” These situations are so common and repeated that many have come to believe that this must define normal, a woman’s lot.

This entire web of pressure, abuse and violence is coming to light as a result of the personal scream of a singer who decided to tell what she lived through. The public denunciation made by Dianelys Alfonso, known as La Diosa de Cuba (The Cuban Goddess), against the musician José Luis Cortés, El Tosco (The Rough One), for alleged verbal, physical and sexual abuse has opened a Pandora’s box of incalculable scope. We can delineate when it all began, but not how far the catharsis will go.

Cuban society is pierced from one side to the other by machismo. A harassment and exploitation that is so commonplace that many do not see it, or do not want to see it. It begins very early, sinking its roots so deeply into everyday life that sometimes it is difficult to separate how far feminine will goes and at what point masculine imposition begins, how much more determinate is machismo, than is the free will of a human being. continue reading

From the men who still brandish the teasing compliment or supposed street flattery as a way to respond to the physical attractiveness of a woman, passing through the administrator who believes that by organizing a party with gifts for March 8 – International Women’s Day – he has paid his share of respect towards “the beautiful gender,” right up to the official spokesman who accuses a dissident of moral laxity or of being a prostitute just because she utters a criticism.

Millions of women on this island are trapped between the role of “flowers of adornment,” and that of domestic slaves or of pieces to be used and discarded. Not only are they condemned to perform most of the domestic chores, but from the time they are small they are trained to please, complacently serve and assent to masculinity. Departing one centimeter from that mold can lead from insults to aggressions.

They are the ones who do the most of the cooking, take care of the children, go to school meetings, do the tasks related to the care of the elderly, financially support the children of the husband who took off or who does not pay support, attend the sick, and work in the most thankless places in hospitals, schools, soup kitchens or asylums.

They are also mistreated. A violence that has many faces, some of them so apparently “benign” such as to pushing them to always look “beautiful, well-groomed and attractive.” Something that forces them to straighten their hair, paint their nails, shave their legs, constantly fuss with their hairstyle, wear make up, dress sexy and be willing to compliment and conquer, grateful that men pass by, look, praise or touch.

But coercion can also be much stronger. It is the boyfriend who says “if I see you with another man, you know what’s going to happen to you”; the husband who prevents her from wearing tight pants; the neighbor who insinuates that if she is very lonely he can accompany her and be at her side so that no other man dares to bother her; the boss at work who lets fall that she has a promising future ahead and “all the attributes” to achieve it.

There is also physical violence. Like that suffered by the woman who conceals her black eye under sunglasses; another who endures beatings because she has nowhere to go in the absence of shelters to house battered women; or the woman who has been protecting herself for years from the slaps of a husband who comes home drunk but she has to put up with it because – after all – she migrated from the east and it would be illegal in Havana if he were the kick her out of the house.

The actress who has to undress on stage to achieve a role, the singer who only has sexual relations with the bandleader so she can aspire to a permanent position in front of the microphone, the professional who must accept the idiotic flirting of her company’s director to be chosen to go on a trip, get a promotion, or simply have the chance to keep her job.

And the social and institutional violence of the police who, when she comes to file a complaint, repeat “no one should intervene between a husband and wife”; the lawyer who refuses to take her case because the defendant is a powerful man and she is “a perfect unknown”; the friends of the abuser who are on his side and throw tons of mud on the credibility of the victim; the official figures that hide the femicides; and government spokesmen who strut in international forums insisting that on this island there is no real problem of gender violence.

Now, all that reality begins to find a speaker from the MeToo movement, which has been slow to reach this island, but in other places on the planet has already made visible a problem shared by many women. A movement that has given strength to other women to bring several abusers before the courts, and to dissuade other men from continuing to commit their excesses. A movement that has raised awareness about the situation of gender-based harassment in this country.

What role has the official Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) played in all of this? So far none, because the largest and only formal female organization allowed in the country does not act if it does not receive guidance from Power ahead of time. Feminism, like social, environmental or LGBTI activism, has never been looked on kindly by the Cuban government, which considers all these “isms” to be forms inherited from bourgeois mentality and capitalist countries.

For the FMC, women are soldiers, impeccable workers and players that underpin the ideology, but defending them from male abuse would, in many ways, be confronting the Government itself. In the end, harassment against females is not only carried out at the domestic or social level, but it is disseminated and validated by the State itself.

The “hair on the chest” Power that dominates Cuba resorts to sophisticated threats against women who oppose it. They publicly question women’s morality, accuse them, when they engage in active dissent, of not acting on their own impulses but under the management of some man, allude to their lack of femininity and, in the final indignity, reveal their most intimate details, exactly those that they taught her in school and the family to hide, keep silent about, keep in the shadows.

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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.

The “Damn Circumstance” of Plastic Everywhere

As long as there is no awareness of the effects of plastic, the region will not be able to make progress on this issue. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 28 June 2019 – A tourist finishes their meal in front of the sea and the wind carries off the disposable plate that a second earlier was on the table. A few yards away a local family enjoys a soft drink from a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle that, shortly, will end up in the waters of the Caribbean. All of Latin America has one of its toughest environmental battles ahead, the one we must fight against the residue of single-use plastics that end up in nature, but there are nations where the first skirmish has hardly been engaged.

In Cuba, plastic bags in the markets have been an inseparable part of life for more than two decades. Considered almost a status symbol in the 90s when they began to be handed out with the opening of the first stores selling in hard currency, they are currently used for a wide variety of daily tasks: from repairing a broken pipe to head coverings on rainy days. You can see them floating in Havana Bay next to the bottles and beer cans in the dark waters that smell like hydrocarbons.

What happens on the island is part of the drama that is experienced throughout the continent. According to a United Nations report, one third of all waste generated in Latin American cities ends up in open dumps or in nature. Every day, some 145,000 tons of waste are disposed of incorrectly and only 10% is reused thanks to recycling or the use of various recovery techniques. Some countries, such as Chile, Peru and Costa Rica, have faced this situation with legal actions, while others, such as Jamaica and Panama, are beginning to draw up regional alliances to avoid greater evils. continue reading

But the problem has deep roots in education, environmental training and even into civil society’s autonomy or power to make itself heard. As long as millions of citizens in this part of the world continue to believe that pollution is something far away that occurs only in a distant garbage dump, or in remote oceans, and that they are safe inside their homes, little can be achieved. Nor can much be achieved if we persist in the mentality that places consumerism and the exhibition of material goods above the protection of the planet. If we continue to associate single-use containers with comfort, modernity or purchasing power… we will end up drowning – literally – in plastic.

In Cuba, with all markets under state management, with state control of all television channels on the island, and with a well-oiled state propaganda mechanism, the authorities could have declared a battle against PET bottles and disposable bags, popularly known as jabitas.

To date, however, the government’s attention to the serious problems of the waste that fills our seas and our countryside has been minimal. At this point, the importance of a civil society that promotes these campaigns is clear, as is the need for citizens to have an active voice when talking about the environment.

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This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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.

Two Lives Drowned in the Rio Grande

The lifeless bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his one-year-old daughter, Valeria, on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, on Mexico’s border with the United States. (EFE / Abraham Pineda-Jácome)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 26 June 2019 – “I have a brother in Houston,” “I can’t find work,” “There’s a lot of violence here,” were some of the reasons to emigrate that three young people with sparkling eyes told me, haltingly. I was with them in a remote village in El Salvador – barely a month ago – and I asked them the question that has obsessed me for decades. Why do people emigrate? The same question asked of Cubans in the Darien jungle, of Africans in shelters in a Panama, and Hondurans traveling on the roof of La Bestia – the Beast – in Mexico.

This week, the bodies of a Salvadoran and his daughter were fond floating in the Rio Grande, after trying to cross the southern border of the United States. My first reaction was to look for his face, to see if it was one of those young people I’d talked with just four weeks ago in a remote part of that Central American country. But in the image being circulated both victims are drowned and face down on the bank. They float together in a final embrace that makes the scene even more dramatic.

Why do people migrate? I asked again after looking at the photo, and I myself answered: for causes as varied as those told me by those young people in the community of Santa Marta. They are escaping poverty, the lack of opportunities, and the gangs that are a cancer that crosses that small country, also known as el Lilliput del Pacífico. They flee from despair and many also are trying to complete the route that was previously followed by a cousin, a brother, the father himself. continue reading

It’s the cycle of flight. A path in which they risk looting, rape, modern slavery, deportation and death, but still undertake with a dose of illusion similar to that which motivated the first humans to explore new territories. But we are no longer in those times of discovering places or seeking the best hunting grounds, but rather in the era of displacements motivated by war, the deterioration of natural resources, poverty, the lack of job opportunities and the absence of rights. It is not the exodus of expansion but of flight.

I have traveled all over Latin America in search of the answer to my question and after that journey I can only say that the responsibility for this immigration drain is shared. Each of us has some guilt. To direct the accusing finger only at one piece of the picture is to ignore the multiplicity of strands – where non-conformity and desire mix; pain and dreams – strands that end up woven into any decision or willingness to emigrate.

They leave, not only because of the attraction of richer and safer countries such as the United States, where many of these migrants already have relatives waiting for them. No, not everything is reduced to the siren songs of a more prosperous life.

Reducing the game to a search for comfort, the impulse to access streets that are better paved, markets that are more varied, better functioning public transport or a more generous salary is to ignore the complexity of the human soul. It would reduce people to a stomach, or a hand that plays with the remote control of a state-of-the-art electronic device.

This constant flight that marks the lives of thousands of human beings in our continent falls fundamentally on the shoulders of the governments and institutions of nations that have not managed to offer their citizens a decent life. Countries where politics has often been used more as a battlefield between partisan or ideological forces than as a platform of beneficial public services with initiatives and programs for the population.

People leave, especially, from the places where corruption, populism and, in many cases, clientelism fueled by the money of international programs, have been entrenched. To make matters worse, in much of Latin America executives make decisions that are driven for the convenience of a  small group, rather than the benefit of the people. Instead of nourishing hope, they encourage confrontation and distrust.

They also escape from the lack of freedoms. Being free is not only being able to take to the streets in a demonstration to make demands, to vote in elections or to decide which political force you want to support. The bars may be shaped by the inability to influence the course of national events, by the fear of punishment if criticism is expressed, by the intolerance of certain groups and the fear of taking risks in the exercise of citizenship.

The stampede is also caused by those civil society groups that prefer to shape themselves according to a foreign agenda, conceived and designed in some European office, rather than go out into the streets and listen to the problems of the common people and develop programs that allow them to love their surroundings, develop plans in their own country, and join together to confront problems and even to defend themselves.

The two inert bodies, found this week, symbolize the despair of all those who have left their lands: Hondurans, Cubans, Haitians or Salvadorans. Father and daughter floating in the waters of our own collective failure.

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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 Human Rights Group Adds President of Etecsa to List of ’Violent Repressors’

Mayra Arevich Marín, director of the telecommunications monopoly, Etecsa.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 22 June 2019 — On Friday, The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHRC) added Mayra Arevich, executive president of the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa, to its database of violent repressors, according to a statement released by the organization.

The FHRC, based in Miami, has also added Ernesto Gómez Novoa, second chief of the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba, blogger Iroel Sánchez and director of the CubaSí site, Manuel H. Lagarde to the list.

Averich has been classified as a violent repressor by the Foundation “for publicly inciting hatred” against the journalist and director of 14ymedio , Yoani Sánchez. In its statement, the FHRC warns that these attacks may open the possibility of acts of violence” against and they are happening “at a time when the government is intensifying its war propaganda against citizens.”

On Twitter, Sánchez said she would hold Averich responsible, “for any damage” suffered by her or her family from the dissemination of a “message of hate and misogyny” that the official spread in her account of that social network. continue reading

“A violent repressor is not only the person who strikes a peaceful opponent, but also the one who incites, foments and encourages the exercise of violence, as established by international norms,” explains the FHRC. “It is important that government officials and the Party know that their actions have inescapable individual responsibilities that do not diminish over time.”

“Among the participants of this recent orgy of insults are the pens of two collaborators of the State Security: Iroel Sánchez and Manuel H. Lagarde,” the text points out.

“Both had been included in our permanent database of Cuban white-collar repressors for months, but from now on they have reached the category of violent repressors,” he adds.

The NGO, based in Miami, noted that this is not the first campaign to against the journalist meant to kill her reputation. It also called attention to the “ferocity” deployed against her and the “uncharacteristic incitement” to violence.

Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the FHRC, said that people who feed hate “should take note that they assume legal responsibility before international courts.”

“This is now the case if Yoani Sánchez is the victim of physical aggression by fanatics, or by police agents disguised as an ’enraged people’, for the simple fact of her request for a reduction in the abusive prices of that state monopoly,” he said.

During this month there have been several digital protests through the social network Twitter with the hashtag #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet (LowerThePricesOfInternet). The first day of the demands occurred on June 1, the second on the 15th and a third is scheduled for this Saturday the 22nd.

Unlike the first occasion, on Saturday, Etecsa officials prepared to counter the online protest and verbally attacked the participants with accusations of being financed from the United States.

In less than 24 hours, the hashtag #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet became Trending Topic in Cuba, with messages published by a great variety of users of the social network. Students, computer engineers, clients of the domestic service known as Nauta Hogar, independent journalists and activists were some of those who denounced the high rates charged by Etecsa.

In return, the state monopoly and several official spokespersons spread messages with labels such as #CubaInformatiza and #CubaMasInternetvsBlock. The official accounts of Etecsa also published infographics and figures on the evolution of mobile telephone services, internet connectivity from homes and Wi-Fi zones, together with data from web browsing from mobiles.

The data packages to surf the Internet from mobile phones sold by Etecsa range from 7 CUC for 600 megabytes to 30 CUC for 4 gigabytes, the latter the equivalent of a professional’s entire monthly salary.

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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.

‘Chernobyl’ and the Reconstruction of Memory

The HBO series Chernobyl is circulating in Cuba on “alternate distribution networks.” (HBO)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 13 June 2019 — I was 10 years old and my world was the size of the matryoshka dolls that adorned my living room. It was 1986 and in Cuba we were experiencing another turn of the screw of nationalization with the rectification of errors and negative tendencies process, while the official press reached its highest levels of secrecy. In April of that year the Chernobyl accident occurred in Ukraine (then a part of the Soviet Union), a nuclear disaster that we – along with the Soviets – were the last to find out about.

Under the strict monopoly of the Communist Party, the island’s media hid, for months, the explosion in the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Power Station that exposed enough radioactive material to spread almost entirely across Europe. The details of that catastrophe, the horror caused by the accident and the forced evacuation of the inhabitants of Prípiat, a city located 3.5 kilometers from the reactors, were barely mentioned in the Cuban newspapers.

While millions of parents over there were putting their children to bed without knowing if they would see a tomorrow, over here we were oblivious to the tragedy that had been unleashed. The camaraderie between Havana’s Revolution Square and the Kremlin, in this case as in others, involved sweeping the problem under the information rug, even if it was a highly explosive story, if one might say so. The few details released, after months, spoke of a controlled situation, of the punishment of those at fault, and of the heroic response of the Soviet people. continue reading

We would have continued to believe this if other fragments of the story had not, over time, breached the Island. Some of them from the mouths of the so-called children of Chernobyl, who for more than two decades received treatment on Tarara beach, a development east of Havana where I spent several summers in student camps located in houses confiscated from the Cuban bourgeoisie. The situation of those infants, many of them orphans, and the serious health problems with which they arrived, did not fit with the official story we had been told.

How could there be so many people affected if that accident was just exaggerated by the Western media, as the apparatchiks told us, and was also quickly controlled by the warlike Soviet comrades? Something was wrong in that story and then we knew it.

The Chernobyl series, broadcast by the American channel HBO, is already circulating in Cuba, thanks to the alternative networks that distribute content. Its five episodes have probably been seen, so far, by a greater number of viewers than those who tune in to the official television news. Such voracity is due to the fact that several generations need to fill a hole in our history and reconstruct the memory of an event that they hid from us.

Filling in the memories we never had can be a painful process. Our first impression on watching the initial scenes is the familiarity, the objects that populated our childhood, the way of speaking of the opportunists, the constant camouflage of reality that is a fundamental pillar of these totalitarian regimes. They are Soviets, but they are so similar to us that at times there is a sense of the tragedy of our own history.

Then comes the conviction of how little value is placed on human life in these circumstances. Of people as numbers. Individuals as a gears in a superior engine that does not skimp on sacrificing its own, the ordinary citizens who are sent to a certain death without knowing the magnitude of the disaster and the risk. And the lie. Deceiving the world, covering the truth, hiding the problem, threatening those who could relate what was happening; in short, appealing to one of the cards that kept the USSR standing for more than 70 years: Fear.

With its dark tones, almost black and white, the atmosphere of Chernobyl  can become stifling at times. It makes you want to scream all the time, but 33 years after that event it would be a scream too much delayed… As the end approaches the indignation grows. How could something like this happen and we be so marginal? Why did we never know how close the world was to a nuclear catastrophe of irreversible proportions?

Beyond the license for fictionalization for which some have reproached the series, beyond those who criticize its approach to the health effects of radioactivity, and beyond the sparks that it has provoked in the Russian authorities, who have announced the filming of an alternative Chernobyl, the series has a special value for Cubans in particular because at the time of the accident they were building the Juraguá Nuclear Power Plant in Cienfuegos, a cousin of the Ukrainian plant. Knowing the inefficiency, secrecy and triumphalism of the Cuban state company, that would have been a time bomb.

Personally, and in addition to the horror that this HBO production has caused me, I believe that Chernobyl  leaves us with the hope that everything ends up being known and that it is of little use to disguise or silence a reality, because there are voices that will eventually tell it. I await, then, all the documentaries about Cuba and its taboo subjects that the future will bring us.

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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.

Latin America, Battlefield Between Huawei and the United States

Huawei’s presence in Cuba is obvious to travelers as soon as they arrive at the José Martí International Airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 1 June 2019 — What happens on social networks does not stay on social networks and any event that affects mobile phones also ends up radiating unsuspected consequences throughout our lives. That is why the current conflict between the Chinese company Huawei and the US administration keeps millions of mobile users around the world in suspense, many of whom live here in Latin America.

China has gained ground in the last two decades in the economies between the Rio Grande and Patagonia, but it has been in the telecommunications arena where it may have taken its most rapid steps. Founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, the Asian firm is on the heels of Samsung and is already ahead of Apple on the list of the most important mobile phone manufacturers in the world.

In Latin American countries, the most affordable prices and extensive features of Huawei’s devices have won the favor of customers looking for mid-range or even high-end phones that are not too expensive, in contrast to those customarily offered by the giant from Cupertino. After reaching this side of the world at the beginning of this century, Huawei has led an almost viral expansion, supported by telecommunications projects in which it has been involved with several governments in the region. continue reading

In Cuba, working with the state telecommunications monopoly, the Asian company has been the main distributor of the antennas used for the Wi-Fi zones, which, starting in 2015, the government began to open in squares and parks. In a captive market, like that of the Island, Huawei’s traditional competitors – embodied in South Korean and American firms – cannot carve out major pieces of the succulent pie of the computerization of society. Here, the Chinese company has the playing field almost entirely to itself, supported by the Plaza of the Revolution.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro recently announced that he planned to make a joint investment with Huawei, the Chinese company ZTE and Russian companies to deploy a 4G network throughout the territory of that South American nation. In Mexico, according to data from the consultancy Statcounter, Huawei ranks fourth in the telephone market. In 14 countries of the region, the market shares accumulated by the Chinese company exceed two digits and in at least four of them it has grown to over 20%.

Not even the accusations made months ago by the United States that Huawei devices could be used by Beijing to spy on their users could dissuade Latin American customers from buying one of these devices, and in the last year the number of Huawei brand phones on the continent continued to grow. Users appeared to be more influenced by their pocketbooks than by fears of violations of their privacy.

So it was, until this May, when the conflict escalated a little more and several technology companies in the United States announced that they will stop supplying technology to Huawei. Google marked the turning point by decreeing that its Android ecosystem would no longer be included on phones sold by Huawei, a measure that also affects updates of that operating system on mobile phones that are already active. Chinese managers have insisted that they can get their own software but, despite their words calling for calm, the alarm is widespread.

While Washington and Beijing test their forces in this technological dispute, Latin America is about to divide again between affinity towards or rejection of one of the parties. Everything indicates that mobile phones will be the cause of the new schism.

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Note: This text was originally published in the Deutsche Welle for Latin America.

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.

‘14ymedio’: Five Years Since That First Day

The 14ymedio newsroom, located in this building in Havana, has been home to a great deal of work, nerves and time pressures these last five years.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 21 May 2019 – Today is 14ymedio’s birthday. This “informational creature” celebrates its five years of existence between the challenges that remain to be achieved and the satisfaction of having come this far. For any publication to survive five years is a test of maturity, but in the case of Cuba, where the independent media are prohibited and censored, it is a true act of boldness and persistence.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since that May 21, 2014. The dawns became intense, coffee cups accumulated on the tables of our newsroom in Havana, the stories to be told multiplied and, more than once, our journalistic work led to one of the reporters on our team behind the bars of a dungeon, arbitrarily detained.

In this time we, too, have changed. The reports, notes and interviews we did left a mark on the entire editorial board. We said goodbye to some colleagues who emigrated, we tried to console others who decided not to continue publishing for fear of reprisals, and we welcomed new faces. We broke several forecasts that predicted barely a few months of existence, and convinced some skeptics that what we have is information, good journalism and the press. continue reading

At the beginning all our editorial communications were made through the Nauta email system, there were no Wi-Fi zones in parks and squares, the diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana had not begun, cruise ships had not yet docked in Cuban ports, and Fidel Castro continued to publish his delirious ‘Reflections’ in the official press.

In this time, we also extended to other platforms and now part of our content is disseminated through instant messaging such as WhatsApp and Telegram. We inaugurated an information podcast, and we maintain a weekly e-mail newsletter, routinely issue a PDF of the week’s news every Friday, engage in numerous collaborations with various media, and opened a membership program.

There was no shortage of tough days. Moments when it seemed like we were not going to make it. There are still many of those, but every comment left by a reader, a word of encouragement that we hear in the streets or from social networks, someone who manages to make their story visible through our pages and solve their problem, are the greatest stimuli to continue.

The pillars that sustain us remain solid: to perform better journalism every day and to maintain our economic independence, without receiving a penny from governments, parties or groups in power. Our objective is intact. Like the dinosaur in Augusto Monterroso’s story*, we want Cuba to embark on the path of democratic change and for 14ymedio to be there, accompanying citizens with information.

*Translator’s note: Monterroso’s story, in its entirety, reads: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”

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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.