A Discreet Test of Internet for Mobile Phones Unleashes Frustrations

A young man connected to the wifi network in Havana. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 August 2018 — A young woman was talking on the phone in a café when someone at the next table overheard the conversation. In a few minutes everyone in the place had their eyes glued to their cellphones to test the mobile internet they’d heard about in that private dialogue. The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa) did not say a word, but at 11 am on Tuesday morning thousands of customers across the country knew that it was the moment they had been waiting for, for years.

Neither the official website of Etecsa, the state communications monopoly, nor its public communication office revealed that tests were being undertaken of the web connection; it was only uncovered by independent journalism sites and private accounts on the social networks. Thus, after two decades of delay and surrounded by institutional secrecy, Cubans peered into the World Wide Web from their cell phones. The experience was exciting but the technical problems generated more frustration than hope.

Congestion preventing the opening of web pages, continuous crashes causing the loss of data signals to phones, and an inability to see the images in applications with multimedia content were some of the most common difficulties suffered by thirsty netizens who expected to set sail in the virtual world, but were barely able splash on the shore of the WWW. continue reading

“I’ve spent 20 minutes and I have not been able to open a single digital site,” complained a boy who had learned about the “pilot test” through a friend who works at Etecsa. “They told the employees not to say anything but everyone who has a friend spread the word,” he says. By the end of the day, he had managed to “enter Facebook Messenger and write a couple of messages,” in addition to reading “half of an article, because it wouldn’t completely load,” from a newspaper in Florida.

The disappointed young man was only nine when, in February 2011, the Alba-1 submarine cable connected Cuba with Venezuela. At that time the majority of Etecsa users thought that the Internet was around the corner, but mismanagement and the ruling party’s fear that citizens would actively launch themselves on the web delayed connectivity.

After that came a long period of concealment and evasions. Official voices insisted that the government was going to opt for the “social use” of the new technologies, but it maintained prices for web browsing that had no relationship to national salaries. Wi-Fi zones were also born, a last attempt to delay the arrival of the web in the private space, but at least this addressed millions of people’s the appetite for communication and need for contact.

Connectivity policy has focused on delaying the moment when customers are alone, in the privacy of their homes or in a remote spot far from the public wireless access areas, in front of a screen where they can interact and through which they can publish and be heard. But Etecsa’s arguments were running out, its customers ceased to be convinced by old excuse of the US embargo and the demands for internet on mobile phones became a clamor.

In the end, the clumsy state company — one of the least efficient in the world — has announced that before the end of the year it will enable access to the web from prepaid mobile phones. Postpaid users and some privileged officials or official journalists have been enjoying this opportunity for months, but their opinions on the quality of navigation are very negative.

“It’s hopelessly slow,” says a young journalism graduate who works at a local media outlet with a quota of mobile phones connected to the web. “They have asked us to defend the Revolution on social networks but at this speed it is very difficult,” he says. The basic use this information professional has made of the connection is limited to “exchanging messages by WhatsApp and trying two frustrated video conferences in IMO.”

After yesterday’s experience, spoiled by slowness and technical problems, customers now wait for Etecsa to make an open announcement on the implementation schedule for the service and on the rates for data packages. They also want guarantees of functionality since “for something so bad I’m not going to pay as if it were really internet access,” a woman in the Etecsa office stressed this Tuesday .

The state communications monopoly is in trouble. It has millions of customers tired of waiting and many of them, on August 14, peeked into the network through their phones. Now they want to repeat the experience more efficiently and with complete freedom.

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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.

Prosecutor’s Office Accuses Jose Daniel Ferrer of "Attempted Murder"

The leader of Unpacu, José Daniel Ferrer, was arrested on 3 August along with Ebert Hidalgo. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 10 August 2018 — The leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Jose Daniel Ferrer, and activist Ebert Hidalgo were accused Friday of “attempted murder.”  Both must remain in pretrial detention according to prosecutor Rolando Reyes, as reported to 14ymedio by Ovidio Martin Castellanos, one of the national coordinators of the opposition organization.

Hidalgo and Ferrer were arrested August 3 after an incident involving an official of the Ministry of the Interior, Dainier Suarez Pagan, who supposedly had been hit by Ferrer when he was driving a car without a driver’s license.  Since then both activists have been held incommunicado and in different detention centers, their families complained.

Agent Suarez Pagan is know by dissidents from Palmarito de Cauto for being violent and stalking activists.  According to the judicial version, Ferrer tried to run him down while he was crossing the street, an assertion that the dissidents denied shortly before they were arrested. continue reading

As Ferrer told Carlos Amel Oliva, Suarez Pagan signaled to him to stop the car but on braking suddenly, the front wheel dislocated.  The agent fell to the ground and after getting up, went to a medical clinic in order to seek an injury certification.

In the Prosecutor’s documents it is stated that he was dressed in a complete uniform, something that the arrested activists denied, having always said that he was dressed in “plain clothes.”

According to the story that appears in the legal document obtained by this newspaper, “Ferrer demanded the car key from Hidalgo Cruz,” started it, and ran into the officer” Suarez Pagan, who was crossing the street to a nearby cafe, “unsuspecting” and “without noticing what was being attempted against his life and physical safety.”

“Officer Suarez Pagan went to the place where the car stopped, complained to the driver and his companion and ordered them to accompany him to the PNR station but was refused emphatically by the two,” adds the judicial document that reports after the arrests of Hidalgo and Ferrer.

For Martin Castellanos, this accusation is “a work of tyranny.”  The activist complains that it is “a gross lie” they are using in order to behead the biggest opposition organization in the country.

“Suarez Pagan never wears a uniform because he is thug, and those charged with confronting the peaceful opposition always dress in plain clothes,” he maintains.

The United States, on Wednesday, demanded Cuba immediately free Jose Daniel Ferrer and Ebert Hidalgo.  The US Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Francisco Palmieri, added that Havana must free “all political prisoners.”

Ferrer and Hidalgo face a possible sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison, although the penalty could be reduced significantly on consideration by the court because it is for a crime that did not materialize.

In 2003 Ferrer was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the well-known case of the Black Spring.  Since 2011 he has had an extra-penal license awarded to members of the so-called group of 75 who were still in jail.  The releases occurred after a negotiation between the Catholic Church, the Spanish Executive Jose Luis Zapatero and the government of Raul Castro.

After leaving prison, Ferrer founded the Patriotic Union of Cuba which is today one of the biggest opposition organizations in the country.  UNPACU carries out citizen protests and has several aid programs for low income families.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel.

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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.

Abortion, an Inflammatory Topic in Latin America

The Cuban context is different from that of other countries in the region. In some of them, women can spend long years behind bars for resorting to abortion. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 11 August 2018 — She is 20 years old and has had four abortions. This young Cuban woman, whom I will call Aimara to avoid revealing her identity, is not an isolated case. The interruption of pregnancy is so frequent among the Island’s women that is difficult to find one that has not gone through the procedure.

Our national context is different from what happens in other countries in the region. In some of them women can spend long years behind bars for resorting to such a procedure or simply because it is suspected that they have done so.

While in nations such as Chile and Argentina the debate inflames the streets and public forums, in Cuba a discussion on the subject barely registers on social networks or on the digital sites of the independent press. continue reading

According to official propaganda it is a “solved problem,” but within religious temples pastors sharpen their rhetoric against women who decide to abort. Meanwhile, in Cuban hospitals the practice has become almost as routine as having a tooth pulled. Abortion is considered one more method of contraception.

Mass access to medical services and the legalization of the interruption of pregnancy, despite decades of material deterioration in the Island’s public health services, contributes to saving maternal lives because women are not forced to resort to quacks or improvised clinics.

In 2016, 85,445 of these interventions were carried out in Cuban hospitals, representing 41.9 interruptions per 100 pregnant women, according to official figures.

A good part of these patients came to the hospital operating table moved by economic precariousness, but also by the helplessness resulting from little family support or the indifference of their partner. Strict gender roles and the prevailing machismo continue to place what should be a shared responsibility on the shoulders of women.

This is the case for Aimara, who, living “in a house overflowing with people and lacking in space,” as she herself says, doesn’t want to “give birth with an abusive husband and much less in Cuba as things are.” Right now, she has made the rounds of a dozen pharmacies in Havana and “there are no condoms,” the employees tell her, with resignation.

Maintaining a supply of birth control pills is also difficult and the last intrauterine device that the young woman had inserted “did more harm than good,” she says.

If, on the one hand, Cuban women claim the decision about what happens inside their wombs, on the other they find in interruptions of pregnancy — the so-called “curettage” (scraping of the uterus) and “menstrual regulations” (practiced before 6 weeks and without anesthesia) — a solution to the shortage of contraceptive methods, the chronic economic crisis and the desire to emigrate, which is complicated if there is a child included in the escape plan.

“Getting a visa is difficult for one person, imagine for two,” says Aimara, with a crushing logic. Her way of thinking is widespread. The housing difficulties, in a country with around 11 million people a deficit of more than 800,000 homes, and the desire to settle in any other geography, are some of the most important motivations that have led to the fall in the birth rate that has set off alarm bells on the Island.

In addition, repeated abortion, which is so frequent in Cuba, multiplies the dangers to women’s health and in many cases causes cervical problems and infertility. Aimara now traverses that dangerous tightrope. She has the legal and medical right to what happens in the small perimeter of her uterus, but her life and that of her future children are at the mercy of greater forces, especially at the whims of what a group of gentlemen without ovaries decide in an air conditioned office surrounded by creature comforts.

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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.

Bachelet, Havana’s Friend, to Monitor Human Rights for the UN

The last time the Chilean president visited Cuba was in January 2018. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 August 2018 — For some time it has been clear that the next steps in Michelle Bachelet’s career pointed to an international organization. With her political path closed in Chile, where as president her popularity hit historical lows, she is now poised to occupy the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (ONCHR), as announced this week.

Bachelet’s appointment to the head of the ONCHR comes as no surprise given that her name was mentioned as a potential leader of the UN after the departure of Ban Ki-moon. Although her new responsibility has yet to be ratified by the General Assembly, the Chilean is very likely to occupy the United Nation’s most important position in the field of human rights. Although both are based in Geneva (Switzerland), the ONCHR should not be confused with the Human Rights Council, which is a political body made up of the representatives of UN Member States. The ONCHR on the other hand, is a supposedly independent organization staffed by more than one thousand employees. continue reading

Bachelet assumes that position in a complex moment in which violations of citizen rights are rising in tone in many countries and the United Nations is experiencing a period of fragility, derived from its inaction, the manipulation of its mechanisms by authoritarian regimes and the little credibility it enjoys among democratic governments.

Her record will not help her much in this ecumenical endeavor. During her two presidential terms Bachelet demonstrated that she may suffer from an obstinate myopia when it comes to the excesses committed by her ideological colleagues who rule in Venezuela, Nicaragua and, above all, in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

In the long years she was in charge of the solid Chilean democracy, her criticisms were rather lukewarm or nonexistent towards the leftist populisms that repressed their dissidents. With a few exceptions, the president preferred not to annoy her fellow utopians and opted for the strategy of looking away.

A few weeks before handing over the presidential sash to Sebastián Piñera, she arrived in Cuba on a trip that could only be understood as that of the practitioner of a creed to the temple from which it spreads its doctrine. Although both countries’ official spoke of a visit to strengthen commercial ties, in reality that visit had all the traces of a renewal of support Castroism.

The appointment of a friend of the Plaza of the Revolution to a position much coveted by Havana is not the result of chance. In it we sense the influence of Cuban diplomacy and its ability to move in the UN corridors, applying pressure, buying loyalties and votes, to pave the way to make the Chilean president to the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The appointment of Bachelet is a magnificent opportunity for Havana because it needs international support to compensate for the weakening of its regional alliances within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

It is also an opportunity for Havana’s allies, who are experiencing difficult moments and doing everything possible to avoid international condemnations for their repressive actions. This is the case for Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega, the former guerrilla turned Caudillo, has met popular revolts with fire and. Something similar is happening in Venezuela, which is experiencing a terrible humanitarian crisis while the Miraflores Palace resorts to a more aggressive, exclusive and disparate discourse.

In Cuba itself, the organizations of the United Nations system tend to align themselves with the Government instead of taking note of the denunciations by citizens against the iron control of the Communist Party. Can this change with the appointment of the former Socialist president at the head of the ONCHR?

If she hasn’t done so before, why would Bachelet now criticize her old friends in olive green? Why would she denounce acts of repudiation against dissidents, arbitrary arrests or the control exercised by the authorities over the lives of millions of Cubans?

Instead of speaking out about the violations of the political rights of an entire population, Michelle Bachelet has dedicated herself for many years to extolling the supposed achievements in Cuban healthcare and education of which barely a mirage remain. There is no reason to think that she will change her discourse from the UN watchtower.

She can always justify her silence and her inaction with the argument that she is very busy with the multiple complaints that will come from so many other places on the planet.

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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.

Facebook, Do Not Leave Us In the Hands of Etecsa!

For those who live in societies with little access to the Internet, third-party services were an opportunity to publish on several networks at once. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havavna, 4 August 2014 — Facebook is changing its privacy policy, a scenario that was easy to foresee after the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal that affected 87 million accounts on this social network. Last April, CEO and company founder Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Until now, those of us who use this platform — to disseminate stories, inform about our realities and seek a minimum of protection against the repressive onslaught of certain regimes – had no worries. Rather it seemed that we would be more protected from surveillance, attacks and data theft.

However, many of us who live in societies where freedoms are violated also suffer difficulties in connecting to the web. Hence, we use paths that range from the basic text-only messages of mobile telephony (SMS), to email or services such as IFTTT and Buffer, which allow you to update several profiles at the same time and to connect them to each other. continue reading

On August 1, the news hit like a sledgehammer. HootSuite alerted people that they will not be able to upload content to Facebook’s personal profiles from their HootSuite account. With that announcement, my chances of keeping my wall updated wall were significantly reduced. Most of the time I use third party services due to my limited access to the web and to the considerable length of time Facebook takes to load on the slow connections on the Island.

For a long time I have been able to upload my voice to Facebook, in a regular and updated way, because HootSuite allowed me to prepare the messages, program them, send them in unison to several online services, and take advantage of a few minutes on one of the wifi zones operated by Etecsa, the state telecommunications monopoly, to narrate my reality. With that possibility now closed, I fear that my presence on those sites will be less frequent.

Some friends tell me not to despair and remind me that Etecsa recently announced that the coming of the internet to Cuban mobile phones was “almost ready.” But putting hope in a company that is responsible for our technological backwardness does not seem realistic to me. Nor is it clear whether, when the web browsing service comes to cell phones, it will be possible to enter Facebook, or if the government will try to impose a local, controlled and “safe” substitute.

When the administrators of Facebook decided to shut down many third-party services, they did not foresee the fragile state in which they left the thousands or millions of users across the planet who experience restrictions in their connectivity, whether due to bandwidth or censorship problems. Slamming the door on that community, without having previously improved the tools that allow us to effectively and safely overcome these obstacles is, at the very least, a snub. This social network has a commitment to all those people who have used multiple ways to make their voices heard. They can’t burn our bridges now.

These “Internet users without Internet,” or with very little Internet, chose third party services because the ‘blue giant’ has quickly shifted in the direction of serving increasingly connected companies, users with ever more intelligent phones and countries where people speak of ‘digital government’ and ‘the internet of things’, but it has been clumsy in continuing to promote more basic tools that allow any individual with an old mobile phone and an idea to share, to post content on their wall.

It now remains for the network of “Likes” and smiley faces to strive to find solutions for these users, to put its teams to work – also — for that fraction of the world that does not have smooth access to the network but needs it as a protective shield, whistleblower channel and information bulletin board.

Come on, Facebook, you can do it… because we cannot rely on Etecsa…

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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.

Athletes and Air Conditioners

Air conditioners pile up at Havana’s Jose Marti airport. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Bogota/Havana — Flight 254 climbs over Bogota on a cold, gray morning. Inside the plane members of the Cuban delegation is traveling back to Havana, after participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Barranquilla, Colombia. For more than three hours, the restless athletes fill their area of the craft with conversations — which cross from one side of the aisle to the other — and that revolve, basically, around one issue: the purchases they have made to take home to the Island.

Other travelers flying on Avianca Airlines, on Tuesday, encountered more than twenty athletes dressed in blue uniforms marked with the flag with the single star. The composition of the group was heterogeneous. They were young people in perfect physical shape who evidently participated in the competitions; others with gray hair and the appearance of coaches, and third parties who were neither one nor the other, but who acted as guards.

As the plane broke through the dense layer of clouds over the Colombian capital a question broke the hypnotic silence of the ascent. “Hey, were you able to buy the split (air conditioner)?” an athlete sitting in row 11 loudly asks another, three rows back. The answer was also loud enough for everyone to hear. “Yes, I bought it with no problems, and also the bicycle and the parts that I need for the bike.” The brief dialogue triggered an avalanche of comments in the same style. continue reading

During the entire time the plane spent in the air, the group did not exchange a single word about the sports competition, the medals won, or the hard struggle for Cuba to come in second, after having lost the event’s scepter for the first time in almost fifty years. The contest they discussed was another. The protagonist was the game against the clock to be able to “leave the village and reach the markets” nearby, according to one of the athletes, or “to find where they sell things more cheaply to make the money stretch,” said another.

The jackpot, what really excited them and elicited grins, was not, for many of these young talents, to win the gold, silver or bronze, but to be able to return home with products and devices that will improve their quality of life. One boasted of having been able to “lift the suitcase a little bit with my hand” so that it did not register its whole weight during the airline check-in.

“I told the employee that they were bicycle parts although they are for a motorbike because it is easier to get them through,” boasted another. “They let me bring three suitcases and the extra they charged me I will get back quickly, because everything I brought is worth a lot more in Havana,” added an older man who seemed to be the manager of some sport. Beside him, a man with a military haircut and the same sports suit as the rest of the delegation listened without opening his mouth, but the backpack he had placed in the overhead compartment could barely be closed.

The plane began to circle over Havana. “We have to wait because we have been informed that the airport is closed for operations,” the captain informed the plane. While the passengers peered out through the windows at the same landscape repeated over and over, the athletes exchanged the latest recommendations for dealing with their luggage. “I’m going to pass the screening because I still do not have an import for this year, but I need you to take through the two phones I brought,” he asked one of his row mates.

Finally, the flight touched down and after the long line for immigration came the most anticipated moment for the anxious athletes: picking up their luggage on the belt. On one side of the conveyor, an employee of Customs shouted loudly that the AC units and televisions must exit through a small door that leads to the room where they scan each package to check its interior. The sports delegation was completely crammed in there.

Then an air conditioner came out, followed by another and then several more. The boxes were piling up, smiles lit faces, some took selfies in front of the growing mountain of appliances. Still, nobody was talking about medals.

It was time to exit to José Martí International Airport’s crowded waiting room. There were whole families waiting with babies or the elderly in wheelchairs. Screams, commotion and a woman in tears telling an athlete that seemed to be her son: “I knew you were going to bring it,” as she touches the box with the air conditioner with the relief of who imagines nights without sweating in a room kept in the comfortable 70s.

The scene repeats itself. The members of the sports delegation are hugging their relatives and distributing the first gifts. The tourists who have arrived on the same flight understand less and less. “Why do they have to bring those things?” asks a surprised Chilean who has come for a cousin’s bachelorette party. Nobody answers him.

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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 Country of ‘Wificulties’

Cubans connect to the internet on state-owned Wi-Fi networks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 21 July 2018 — A small insect falls on they keyboard of my laptop, a few minutes later there’s another one while a third lands on my neck. A few yards away, a well-known filmmaker tries to block the sun shining on his screen and a lady screams some intimacies while videoconferencing with a family member who has emigrated. A stray cat approaches my bag and demands food, but I didn’t bring any, as I’ve come to a wifi access area only a few yards from my house.

I’ve been lucky enough to claim a bench, even if it doesn’t have any back, and after an hour of navigating my lower back is demanding some support. Then I move to an area near the staircase of a building, checking beforehand that there is no balcony over my head to be sure that some resident won’t throw water or food scraps onto my computer. I have found a good place on the stairs and my spine now has the relief of a wall to lean against. continue reading

After a few minutes I start to sense an unpleasant smell. Evidently someone used a nearby bush as a public toilet and my ideal “office” loses all its charm with that stench. I move somewhere else. Some children are playing baseball with an improvised bat and I put myself in a position where my screen is not in danger, but the sun is advancing towards the area and I calculate that I have half an hour before “the Indian” catches me.

The sky clouds over but now the battery is telling me it has less than 15% charge left. There are no outlets nearby and nobody who “resells” a little energy – a business that would be very lucrative to install in these wifi areas. So I adjust the screen brightness to save the battery, but with all the light around me I can barely see a thing. I manage to post a couple of messages in Twitter, check my inbox, and look over a contribution that has arrived for our daily newspaper, 14ymedio.

A drop of rain falls between the “D” and “F” keys. I have been lucky, it’s tiny and hasn’t managed to slip through the crack that would let it get inside to the circuits, the electrical contacts and, perhaps, the motherboard. My face reflects my fright as I wipe off the moisture and close the laptop. Looking around me, I see that while I’ve been focused on web pages and social networks, a stalker has sat down nearby and released his anxieties all over a bench.

I save everything and seek reliable shelter until the downpour passes. Under a small roof other websurfers talked about the news they’ve read, the messages they managed to receive before the rains came, and a half-finished visa application, but that was it until the sun came out again.

In spite of the wificulties, people squeeze the maximum out of the wireless signal they pick up with their phones, tablets and computers. The makeshift internet “café” hums with life all day, although for every connection hour users pay the excessive price of one convertible peso (CUC), more than half a day’s wages for the average state worker. Any thoughtful person would say that under these conditions you can’t get any work done, or do anything other than chat with friends or laugh at the memes. Every day, however, professionals of all kinds extract the most they can out of these places, sun, rain, insects and hungry cats notwithstanding.

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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 Funeral of the Revolutionary Left

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Nicolás Maduro, Raúl Castro and Evo Morales, center stage, during the closing of the Sao Paulo Forum. (EFE / Ernesto Mastrascusa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 June 2018 – The only thing missing was the funeral band accompanied by some black crepe and sobbing. The closing ceremony of the XXIV Sao Paulo Forum, on Tuesday in Havana, had all the traces of a funeral. You could almost hear the shovels of earth falling on the Latin American left which has not figured out how to disassociate itself from populism.

Far from the time when the region’s leftist leaders could fill a large stage, a few political survivors of that time, more closely related by their furious addiction to power than by the banner of social justice and the equitable distribution of wealth, met on the Island.

There was no lack, among the more than 600 guests, of disoriented people who still believe the propaganda that “the Island is a Utopia,” or who naively seek a space of fresh plurality in a meeting of this kind. False illusion. Created in the 90s at the initiative of Fidel Castro and Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the Forum has never been a place for polyphony. continue reading

An indirect heir of those congresses organized by the Soviet Union, the scenography of the hammer and sickle is now hidden, the word communism eliminated from the talks, and Leninist allusions banished. The organizers may have dressed as progressives and sucked in the environmentalists and the indigenous and human rights movements, but the skeleton that supports them continues to mimic the constitution of the conferences staged by the USSR, because they try to pass off as spontaneous what is controlled down to the tiniest detail.

The latest edition has once again served as a gateway for those such as Nicolas Maduro who promote political intolerance, authoritarianism and ‘assistancialism’*. Others include Bolivian president Evo Morales, with his longing to serve in perpetuity, Raul Castro, the caudillo who inherited power through blood, and Cuba’s hand-picked president, Miguel Diaz-Canel.

For three days the participants furiously applauded the slogans, the rants, and even the false promises of “helping the disadvantaged” and “defending the truth,” which fell from the mouths of some of the most corrupt and predatory press on the continent. Every new phrase uttered was like an extreme unction intoned over their own doctrine.

Those who this week clothed themselves in the garments of social struggles and the demands of the most disadvantaged, have shown that once installed in their palaces their objective is to undermine republican institutions and dynamite the legal bases of democracy, actions that in the medium term end up inflicting extensive damage on the very social sectors they claim to represent.

The meeting also gave ample space to explaining the false and Manichean dilemma of choosing between a left that still speaks of revolutions and enemies, and neoliberalism, the right and the powerful. A false dichotomy that cloaks itself in calls to respect “the free determination of the people,” which in reality masks the demand for governmental impunity to sweep away citizens’ rights.

In the narrative thread that connected the sessions of the event, one strand insisted on the idea that the left is not finished in this part of the world and nor can one speak of a change in the ideological cycle. Such irony: those who contributed to the fall from grace of a political leaning presented themselves in Havana’s Palace of Conventions as doctors ready to auscultate their victim.

The populist champions who devoted a good part of the debates to naming the culprits, with index fingers pointing north, have handed their opponents the arguments to discredit an entire ideology on a silver platter. Experts, perhaps, in that fall from grace, they now appeal to each other to prop them up. “Either we unite, or we sink into the mud of the counterrevolution that they are trying to impose on us,” they concluded presciently.

That phrase also reveals the real reason for the event. A council to grease the wheels of the machinery that sparks actions, triggers protests, twists the frameworks of opinion and screams, from every lung, opposition to any speech that moves a single inch from the pre-established script. The Sao Paulo Forum functions like one of those meetings where the instructions for the ideological mafia are handed out and watches are synchronized to the time for the next ‘escrache’ or repudiation rally.

However, not everything from the recently concluded conclave should be discarded. Their sessions can act as a warning to the other left, democratic and less vociferous, that is rarely invited to this type of session, to publicly mark the distance and revitalize progressive ideas on the continent.

Latin America needs a left with renewed ideas, modern and responsible, not the conglomeration of unpresentable leaders who met in Havana. We need progressive parties that stop placing responsibilities elsewhere, fearing their own citizenship and fishing in the troubled waters of social conflicts. But for this to happen it is perhaps essential that the Sao Paulo Forum be dissolved.

That scenario is not so distant. To the extent that the governments that supported the Forum disappear from the executive map of the region, the meeting is stumbling back and forth among a few countries. The previous meeting was held in Nicaragua and this time it returned to the island, where it had already taken place in 1993 and 2001. It is easy to guess where the next encounters will be: Bolivia, Venezuela… or Mexico.

This time, and it came as no surprise, in their final declaration the forum members blamed United States “imperialism” for the revolts and social conflicts in the region, especially in Nicaragua, and called for the release of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. As expected, Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” received special support.

Something, however, cracked the mask and revealed the face hidden beneath the progressive disguise. On the same day the Forum ended in the Cuban capital, Daniel Ortega’s bombs fell on Masaya. Applause at the Havana Convention Center, and deadly explosions in the streets of Monimbó’s indigenous neighborhood. Laughter in one place, seven hours of terror in another. No attendee of the Sao Paulo Forum condemned the repression.

Translator’s note: Assistancialism is often defined as the creation of dependence through imposed aid. At least one scholar has defined it as “sit down and shut up money.”

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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.

For a Press Without Silences or Omissions

Delegates from the province of Santiago de Cuba to the UPEC congress. (Sierra Maestra)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 14 July 2018 – One has been unemployed for two years, the other went to Miami and works for one of those media the Cuban government calls “imperialist press,” while the third writes ephemera for a local Cuban radio station and dreams of doing investigative reports. The three of them are journalists who are graduates of the island’s universities, and who have in common talent, a desire to do things, and professional frustration.

On Friday, the Congress of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (Upec) opened in Havana, bringing together 267 reporters, editors, photojournalists and news directors from all over the country. The meeting is being held amid expectations that range from one extreme to the other: from its final agreements can come a renewing impulse for the press or a straitjacket closer to the current exercise of the profession.

As in every Upec conclave, the demands to make journalism more incisive and closer to reality, to give newsrooms greater access to official data, as well as a broader editorial autonomy for the local press, are repeated on this occasion, along with the demand to modernize a sector plagued by excessive ideological controls and material instability.

The congress could not avoid offering an obligatory reverence when dedicating the meeting to Fidel Castro Ruz, a tenacious predator of press freedom and the main architect of the biggest problems that have plagued the guild in the last half century. But, in addition to these formalities moved more by opportunism than by faith, the meeting takes place in a complicated scenario. continue reading

The journalists gathered at the Palace of Conventions are exchanging opinions at a time when censorship against the ‘weekly packet’ is increasing, new obstacles are imposed on the presentation of artists in private venues and the harassment of independent reporters grows. All these events suggest that the ruling party wants to recover, through intimidation, the ground that has been lost in the distribution of content and news in recent years.

Upec is also meeting with president Miguel Díaz-Canel who, a few weeks after he took office, expressed ambivalent positions towards the media. On the one hand, he has called on journalists to address more deeply issues of Cuba’s reality and, on the other hand, he has emerged as an implacable keeper of the revolutionary press, demonizing and threatening to put an end to media outside the control of the Communist Party.

A new information policy could be enshrined at the meeting, at a point where the system, lacking results to show amid a deepening economic crisis, chooses to continue substituting headlines for realities, strengthening the media’s ideological component  and demanding a new commitment from professionals of the press to behave like “soldiers of the pen” rather than as keen informants.

For their part, journalists who work in official media are demanding better guarantees to do their work, but many of them start from the condition that other information sources, which they consider to be inadequately trained or ideologically objectionable, be eliminated.

On the other hand, a part of the union, not represented in the congress and made up of journalists who work for independent media or manage their own information spaces, has been asking for a Press Law for years that guarantees the exercise of the profession beyond the strict official frameworks. They seek legal recognition for their work so they do not end up with their bones in jail.

The latter are the great absentees of the meeting and the most affected by its possible results. What is anticipated from the meeting is an information policy that seeks to close ranks, lash out against those who maintain links with the independent press or who have dared to found blogs, newspapers and websites that touch on taboo topics such as violence in the streets, the excesses of State Security, administrative corruption or environmental pollution, among others.

In contrast, none of the attendees of the Upec congress has published anything about the most urgent problems that have shaken the reality of the island in recent weeks. Did even one of them ask Cubana de Aviación the details of the agreement that led the state airline to rent a plane from a Mexican company plagued by irregularities? Did they inquire about the thorny issue of compensation to the families of the victims?

Which of these delegates bid to sneak into the debates of the new Constitution of the Republic that take place behind closed doors? Or has published at least one line about the theft of thousands of dollars experienced by dozens of Cuban doctors in Venezuela? How many of them have asked for “authorization” from their editorial chief to report about the new migratory route that is taking thousands of Cubans to Chile, Uruguay and Brazil?

This Friday, when the calendar marked the 24th anniversary of the sinking of the 13 de Marzo tugboat, in which 37 people died, people who were trying to escape the country and among whom were children, which delegates to the congress thought of writing a note, promoting an investigation or picking up the phone and calling a ministry for answers? Did any of them ask for an interview with the new head of state to ask him what his program for the government consists of?

All these questions are answered with a single word: none. All the journalists gathered in the Palace of Conventions have concurred in the silence, looked the other way and tried not to inconvenience the powers that be. The motto of the congress states “The truth needs us,” they boast with a certain touch of superiority, when in reality they are the ones who need the truth and who should be running after the facts.

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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.

New App ‘Donde Hay’ Inventories the Shortages

Cubans spend many hours each day searching for products in the undersupplied state markets. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 7 July 2018 — In the shade of a busy Havana colonnade the young man pulls out his cellphone and types in the word “milk” in search of this basic food in the nearest markets. The new app for Android, “Dónde Hay” (Where is…?) promises to find any product in the network of retail stores. But this 28-year-old Cuban suspects it will not be as easy as a simple click.

With shortages worsening and the coming of summer – when the consumption of food and cleaning supplies increases – the use of this new tool created by the state-owned Grupo Empresarial Cimex has spread. The utility, launched in May, aroused hope among those who must devote several hours each day to searching for something in national markets.

Among the advantages of Dónde Hay worth mentioning is that you can access the service not only through a mobile phone connected to the Internet, but also from the mobile data network of the Telecommunications Company (Etecsa), the same infrastructure used to check Nauta email accounts on cell phones. So, its offline functionality helped many decided to try it. continue reading

“This is what we needed,” “the end of the walk from store to store,” “how great they’ve done something to make things easier for people,” “why did it take so long to create something like this and when they had already created so many political apps,” were some of the comments that could be heard on the streets of the Cuban capital any time the Dónde Hay app came up.

Even those who do not know much about technology, or those who have a clear animosity toward everything composed of circuits and microprocessors, were willing to learn the rudiments of how to use a touch screen to find everything from floor cloths, to fruit compote for children or disposable diapers intended for the elderly. But the illusions were short-lived.

In less than two months of use, the Cimex app has earned a lousy reputation for misinforming customers, insisting that some product is available in certain stores where it actually ran out days ago or, as expected, was shipwrecked in the intricacies of the corruption and diversion (i.e. theft) of resources that characterize the state retail network.

Magdalena, a 56-year-old pharmacist in Havana, showed up at the doors of the Ultra market, on Reina Street, after several days of looking for chicken breasts. Magdalena’s mother is convalescing and doctors have recommended eating mashed potatoes and lean meats. “It is difficult to maintain a supply because the chicken quarters they are selling have a lot of fat,” she laments.

With databases that can take up to 72 hours to update and a large network of corruption in retail stores, the application Dónde Hay can not guarantee customers accurate information about where products can be found. (14ymedio)

So Magdalena, helped by teenagers who live on the ground floor of her building, entered the word “breast” in the app. Afterwards, she had to choose between several variations, with or without skin, with or without bone, until she could focus more on the search and opt for packages of one kilogram, discarding the boxes with more portions. She was as happy as a clam.

“This is the one I want,” she pointed, looking through a small magnifying glass at the name of the product. Then, the magic was done and a list came up of all the places in the municipalities of Plaza, Playa, Centro Habana, Cerro and La Habana Vieja where they were selling the food that her mother needs. Even so, Magdalena ran into three problems.

The Dónde Hay only includes a map so that the user knows the market’s address, but it does not include a phone number so the user can call and confirm if the product is still for sale. So the busy pharmacist had to look for a telephone directory, write the number with a pen on the palm of her hand and start calling to inquire about the breasts.

Then she ran into the second obstacle. No one answered the phone in the Ultra store, a very common practice in shops and state offices. So, afraid that if she continued to delay the store would run out, she decided – under the burning July sun – to head over to the store. In her hand, like a talisman, her mobile phone kept assuring her that there were at least 70 packages of that chicken part on offer.

But Magdalena failed to notice something important. The date of the update of the information she had read was one day earlier, a characteristic of the Dónde Hay app. The database can have a delay of up to 72 hours caused by the time between the supply of information by store managers and the processing of the data, until it finally reaches the customer.

As Magdalena searched the empty refrigerators, all she got from the clerk, when she asked her why there was no chicken breasts after the app on her cellphone said there were tons, was a roar of laughter and the phrase, “but you didn’t believe that, did you?”

That morning, the beleaguered pharmacist completely lost her confidence in technology and a bit later she deleted Donde Hay, because she prefers to “walk all over Havana” searching with her own eyes versus being guided “by a lie.”

Other unfortunate users have experienced similar situations. Products that appear as if they are for sale but when the customer gets to the store they are informed that “it ran out” and was “taken off the list” or that they sold out in less than 24 hours, like a small kiosk on a little-traveled street that sold 90 bottles of mayonnaise.

Compañero, we haven’t had acrylic paint here for years,” snapped a salesclerk to the disappointed customer who had seen on Donde Hay that exactly what he needed to finish touching up his window grille was for sale just a few blocks from his house. “None of that is true,” insisted the employee who was stacking the empty boxes behind the counter.

“You believe this chaos can be inventoried, huh?” was the last thing the customer heard before turning his back, pausing for a few seconds in the shade, and typing the word “paint” again and mentally noting the next address where it might be for sale. It was like one of those cellphone games, in the new location he could expect the reward of finding the desired enamel or the frustration of “no hay” (there isn’t any).

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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 Cuba of Humboldt and Ruiz Urquiola

Ariel Ruiz Urquiola believes that the authorities want to seize his family’s farm. (Facebook)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, Havana, 5 July 2018 — At the entrance to Humboldt University in Berlin, an inscription in Spanish says that the statue of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt that stands there was a gift from the University of Havana, in homage to the man who has been called “the second discoverer” of Cuba. Cuban biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola repeatedly passed that statue with its serene face during his time at that institution of higher learning.

In recent days the name of this young researcher, 43, has graced the covers of numerous international media, for having maintained a hunger strike for more than two weeks. With that strict fast, Ruiz Urquiola demanded his release after being sentenced to one year in prison for the alleged offense of “contempt,” in a flawed case plagued by irregularities. Thus, the scientist put his life at risk to demand freedom, using his own body as a lever of complaint against what he considered an injustice. continue reading

On Tuesday, the Cuban authorities yielded in their stubbornness and released Ruiz Urquiola. For health reasons he was granted a parole which does not totally annul his sentence, but it does permit him to return to his home and to the agro-ecological project he manages in Viñales. Although his tenacity allowed him to win this battle, he knows that the eyes of the ruling party will be watching for any false step in hopes of making him shoulder “the blame” for his public demands, putting the Government on the spot and, above all, denouncing the ecological damage that it commits in that protected area of ​​the Cuban West.

If Alexander von Humboldt lived during a time of discoveries and explorations, Ruiz Urquiola is living during a hard time of complicity on this Island. The German explorer helped to expand knowledge of the geography, flora, fauna and even the topography of a country that he himself barely knew, but more than two centuries later the Cuban scientific community is trapped between a lack of resources and excessive state control. Researchers are now evaluated based not only on their abilities and the results of their projects, but most importantly on their ideological fidelity.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that during all the days the biologist refused to eat, there were no pronouncements of solidarity, nor even a call to review his case, on the part of functionaries, educators and staff of Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment. Nor did any official entity linked to agricultural production, the care of the ecosystem or the study of fauna raise a single voice to demand justice for Ruiz Urquiola.

The official media never mentioned the case, although social networks lit up with messages that demanded his prompt release and his face was a constant presence on the alternative information networks that cross the country. Meanwhile, in contrast to the silence of the national scientific community, colleagues from other parts of the world put their names to the #FreeAriel movement.

More than 200 years ago Humboldt came across a country to explore, study and report on, now Ruiz Urquiola inhabits a nation where researchers are wary of every word and prefer silence.

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

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

Who’s Watching toDus?

The latest app developed on the island has been baptized toDus and is presented as a Cuban WhatsApp.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 2 July 2018 — While Cubans are counting the days until internet service is available for mobile phones, the saga of offline tools is writing a new chapter. The latest app developed on the island has been baptized ‘toDus’ and is presented as a Cuban WhatsApp.

The free messaging application, available in a version for Android, can be downloaded from the first made-in-Cuba apps store Apklis, where it shares space with tools designed, for example, to find products in the shortage-plagued markets of the island, or a video biography of Ernesto Guevara, among others.

ToDus, created by the University of Computer Science (UCI) in collaboration with the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa, is one example of a trend that official entities have promoted with little success among the users of the Island: the creation of rivals as substitutes for apps from popular American companies that have spread around the world such as Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and Wikipedia. continue reading

Despite the high prices to browse the web and the small number of households with connections, Internet users on the island seem to prefer universal tools and have become accustomed to the same social networks that can be used by someone in Berlin, Montevideo or New York, so for many the choice to use a national impersonation is not convincing.

In a country with a high level of emigration, interaction in chats, forums and social networks on internationally available apps is vital for everything from getting a visa to receiving remittances. In the five-year period between 2012 and 2017, Facebook accounted for 87.17% of web traffic from Cuba on social networks, followed by Twitter with 8% and Pinterest with 3%, according to data from the measurement and analysis tool StatCounter Global Stats.

In this context, the greatest and almost unique attractions of a national chat variant lies in its free nature and its offline operation. The first will be a factor in its lifespan, given the precarious wages earned by Cubans, but the second could be about to change if Etecsa sells data packages that allow the use of WhatsApp or Telegram.

The most significant reason for choosing foreign variants is the security and privacy of conversations. Although UCI’s director of networks, Tadier Perdomo, said that all messages “travel encrypted and are not stored on the servers,” but only on the devices of the sender and receiver, users don’t know what “other eyes” are observing the content.

Although UCI’s director of networks, Tadier Perdomo, said that all messages “travel encrypted and are not stored on the servers,” but only on the devices of the sender and receiver, users don’t know what “other eyes” are observing the content.

The “Terms and conditions of use” specify that the user should not “make comments that are offensive or contrary to morality, as well as those that denigrate or offend the government or government policies.” The warning refers directly to political issues frequently blocked by Etecsa, which filters even text-only messages (SMS) with the words “dictatorship” or “democracy.”

In order to use all the features of toDus, the customer must accept that the tool has access to the photos, videos, multimedia content and general files on their device. However, when that premise is accepted, it is clear that the official program, created and promoted by the Government, has access to everything on the phone.

Just as the great giants of technology, such as Facebook or Google, have been questioned about the use they make of their clients’ personal data, toDus is vulnerable to the same problems. In the Cuban case, the information would go to the authorities instead of to companies who intend to use it to generate financial returns.

So far it is unknown if a message sent through toDus can be used as evidence in court or shown in the national media, as has often been the case with the private correspondence of activists and opponents. The consequences to a user who openly criticizes the president of the country or an institution through the service are also unknown.

Clarifying these questions and defining the limits of the privacy of this new tool would go a long way towards allaying the fears and mistrust it is already generating. In some Havana neighborhoods, with a heavy does of irony, the application has already been baptized “the ‘cederista’ chat,” a reference to the national Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) blockwatch committees that maintain files on and inform on all citizens with a focus on “counterrevolutionary activity.”

Despite the suspicions surrounding toDus, the tool has been downloaded almost 200,000 times since it was announced on June 20. A fact that is less surprising given that the students and workers of the University of Computer Science and the state-managed Young Computer Club have been given “the task” of swelling the numbers of customers, as 14ymedio was able to confirm.

Beyond the headlines in the international press, which reports that the “Cuban WhatsApp” is causing a furor on the island, toDus faces the test of time.

In its beta version, there is still much about the app that needs to be improved, including the delay, often excessive, the SMS registration, unforeseen crashes that end with the tool closing, messages that are sent but never reach their recipients, and the fact that it is still not possible to make voice or video calls. All issues that technically undermine the app’s performance.

However, the hardest battle to fight against is the preferences of Cubans themselves. These tend to point the internauts’ compasses towards services accessible world-wide, which make them feel part of the great global village and a little bit safe from the strict eyes of State Security.

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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 Unfinished Tasks of Pope Francis

Pope Francis assumed the throne of Saint Peter with the aura of renewal. (Twitter)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 July 2018 — The scandal has transcended Chile and reached the doors of the Vatican itself. The earthquake provoked by accusations of sexual abuse and cover-ups against several Chilean priests has also challenged Pope Francis, who accepted the resignation of five Chilean bishops but is aware that the problem extends throughout the world’s Catholic Church.

Among the prelates and seminarians themselves, opinions on how to solve the current crisis remain divided and polarized. While some see the denunciations as an attack to the Christian faith and an attack against the ecclesiastical institution, others urge the implementation of important changes that would diminish the incidence of these scourges. Placed above this mountain of criticism, the Pope seems like a figure made of paper at the mercy of the storm. continue reading

The man who became the Bishop of Rome surrounded by an aura of renewal, has been able to do little to introduce real changes in the temples and convents that would contribute to modernizing the Church, opening it to a changing world where “the rule of law” must govern everyone, without complicities or silences. Francis has failed the victims of these abuses by not fostering the transformations necessary to prevent them from continuing to happen.

The discussion on the subject has special connotations in Latin America, since this region has more than 425 million Catholics, a figure that represents almost 40% of the Catholic faithful on the planet. The debate has been ignited even in countries such as Cuba where scandals of clerical abuse have not yet reached the front pages of the papers, due to the prudish secrecy of the official press and the fear of those affected.

Sotto voce, in Cuban corridors and sacristies, the news about the events in Chile inflames discussions. Few can escape taking sides given what happened.

“Eliminate the obligation of celibacy,” a young Cuban who studied at a seminar on the island proposes without blinking. “The ordination of women, greater transparency in the management of resources, the democratization of the communities and even the acceptance of homosexual marriage,” round out the demands of this potential priest who finally hung up his habit without seeing his dreams materialize.

“These scandals will pass because the Church is millenarian and has withstood worse attacks, we are going to weather the storm and continue,” says the elderly priest of a Havana parish. “We can not all be evaluated by the actions of some and celibacy must remain intact because it is something that distinguishes us and reinforces our chastity,” he adds.

Between the weathered priest and the young ex-seminarian is an abyss carved out by their differences. Both share religious faith but there is a vast difference in their beliefs about how the institution to which they belong should function. Both are Catholics, but while one clings to the traditions and the old ways, the other inhabits the church of the future, the one that Pope Francis has not managed to promote.

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

We, The Guilty

Fidel Castro spent a week in Nicaragua for the celebration of the first anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. In the image, a celebration on July 19, 1980 marking the first anniversary of the fall of Somoza. (La Prensa / Archive)

14ymedio biggerIt was the 80s and, from Cuba, Nicaragua seemed to offer hope that the leftist revolutions would take power across the continent. The fall of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza fit into the pieces of my children’s puzzle, where the walls of the Kremlin, Fidel Castro’s beard and Nicaragua’s volcanoes shared space.

A classmate in my third grade class bragged that her father was in Managua as a military advisor. These trips, in addition to guaranteeing the importing of exotic gifts in the midst of the boring distributions from the rationed market, increased social prestige because they immediately conveyed the status of “proletarian internationalist.”

Years later, when that fog of slogans and chimeras cleared, I understood that this official euphemism hid a much more heinous reality: military intervention in another nation. The chess of geopolitics had turned Nicaragua into a board where Moscow moved its pieces through Cuban hands and the United States did the same through the “Contras.” continue reading

Along with that physical presence and the ascendancy that the Plaza of the Revolution maintained over the Sandinista commanders, the main offensive was developed in the media and in whatever cultural display served to convey the idea that the sickle with its implacable hammer had destroyed the old Latin American regimes.

This is how documentaries, posters, hymns and poetic riffs were created, which were mandatory in Cuban schools and, above all, a mold was created from which it was impossible to escape. Being a Sandinista and supporting Daniel Ortega, who led this revolution then occupying the most space in the Island’s official discourse, was a necessary catechism to be able to be “ordained” as a full-fledged revolutionary and communist.

Castro supported the Sandinistas with strategists and arms, as he did so many other guerrilla movements in the region. Testimonies and documents that have come to light confirm that the Cuban leader maintained a fluid communication during the insurrection directed from its Palo Alto headquarters in Costa Rica, because he always liked to play war from a distance, with the bullets wounding other bodies.

After reaching power, the Sandinista commanders visited Havana and the president talked with them during a more than 70 hour marathon from which at least two counsels have come to light. He recommended that they call elections as soon as possible and not introduce compulsory military service. The stubborn comrades paid no attention, perhaps because they realized that the “counselor-in-chief” had not followed any of these premises and, nevertheless, continued to control the Island.

After that alliance, Cuban children had other commanders to worship, another revolution to shout Viva! for, and a new geography to explore on the maps, as we thought about the day we would disembark there with our boots, compass and rifles, to kill or die in the name of utopia. Our own island was narrow and when that time came we would be able to project a continental Cuba, making the leap from our caiman to that cinched waist offering the promise of continued advances towards the voluptuousness of the two Americas.

While that moment of physical sacrifice was still over the horizon, we applauded. We sang praises to Ortega and his companions even when the confiscations they imposed spoke more of voracity than justice, when the nationalizations ruined the country, and when their hands did not tremble as they pointed their rifles against their own people. An ideological friendship at that time involved this kind of selective myopia.

The official Cuban media also continued to present the Sandinistas as rebellious youngsters, even in moments of absolute international disrepute, such as the one provoked by the so-called Sandinista “piñata” in which they scandalously distributed property and goods among themselves and lined their own pockets. Although some of the Sandinista commanders turned away from the insatiable Ortega, Cuban propaganda continued to present them as “the Nicaraguan guerrillas,” a tight group, a closed bloc.

Cuba’s official newspaper Granma never dedicated a critical phrase to them and Silvio Rodríguez continued to sing that “another hot iron” had been broken in Nicaragua. A theme that served to spread, from passion, a lie. The Sandinista revolution, like the Cuban one, erected from its emergence an insatiable source of rights for its followers, even above the law, shielding itself from its critics and forgetting that foundational impulse of change that had made it possible. It aged badly and fast.

After almost 40 years, the young man who initially conquered power by the force of arms is now trying to keep it through them, amid the popular protests that broke out in Nicaraguan streets in April. Ortega has ordered his forces to kill and will continue to do so to keep the presidential chair. Lacking the revolutionary mysticism that once surrounded him, he is now left with only repression or claudication.

Aggravating his international loneliness, his former ally and mentor has been dead almost two years and Havana no longer enjoys those fat subsidies of yesteryear that allowed it to deploy troops in other countries. But the official media is a redoubt of support for the Ortega regime and occasionally, on some old radio station, you will hear about the “rope with bait” that was cut in Nicaragua.

Today most Cubans, partly guilty for that mirage turned into satrapy, are silent, look the other way or dream of reaching other geographies, this time not to extend a utopia, but to escape it.

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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.