Alamar and Hip-Hop / Yoani Sanchez

Let’s go to Alamar! My mother would say and we would head out to visit some relatives who lived in that so-called “Siberia.” We arrived in an area of ugly, coarse buildings haphazardly tossed on the grass. We would play with other kids among these concrete boxes in the high grass that grew all around. It smelled of the sea, and also of boredom. It should have been the city of the New Man, but it was just a failed architectural experiment.

Alamar, despite its urbanist failings, has been the hotbed of a vibrant and rebellious musical genre: hip-hop. Its amphitheater has hosted some of the most memorable alternative concerts in Island memory. Hard songs, composed with the words of daily life and the poetry of the street. Duels between opponents who, instead of throwing weapons or blows, launch words and rhymes. How did the stage for this “citizen laboratory” end up sheltering these lyrics of the rebellion? What happened with the victorious anthems that led to such corrosive verses of survival?

What happened was that reality set in. Alamar was one of the areas of Havana hardest hit by the economic hardships of the Special Period. It saw thousands of its inhabitants leave during the 1994 Rafter Crisis, and suffered extremely long power cuts accompanied by robberies and other acts of violence. The Russian technicians left, the squatters made the empty homes they left their own, and the Chilean exiles who lived there, for the most part, returned to their own country.

Then the immigrants from the eastern provinces arrived, illegal constructions extended on all sides, and the police declared that bedroom city a “danger zone.” A “people warehouse,” conceived for disciplined and mediocre people, demonstrated that when you play with the social or constructive alchemy, you rarely achieve the desired results.

Amid the gray cement, the tiny rooms and the boredom, hip-hop has become the daily soundtrack. Alamar has its own rhythm. A cadence that hits the head like the waves that crash against its dogtooth coastline. Like the picks hitting the ground to lay the foundation of a quadrilateral and submissive future that never came.

21 April 2014

Violence and Public Discourse / Yoani Sanchez

Poster for the sixth anniversary of the magazine Coexistence

A woman hits a child, who appears to be her son, on one corner. The passersby who see it don’t get involved. A hundred yards further on, two men get in a fight because one stepped on the other’s shoe. I arrive home thinking about this aggressiveness, just under the skin, that I feel in the street. To relax my tension I read the latest issue of the magazine Coexistence, which just celebrated six years since its founding. I find in its pages an article by Miriam Celaya, who coincidentally addresses this “dangerous spiral” of blows, screams and irritation that surrounds us.

Under the title “Notes on the anthropological origins of violence in Cuba,” the scathing analyst delves into the historical and cultural antecedents of the phenomenon. Our own national trajectory, steeped in “blood and fire,” does not help much when it comes time to promote attitudes like pacifism, harmony and reconciliation. From the horrors of slavery during the colonial period, through the wars of independence with their machete charges and their high-handed caudillos,  up to the violent events that also characterized the republic. A long list of fury, blows, weapons and insults shaped our character and are masterfully enumerated by the journalist in her text.

The process that started in 1959 deserves special mention, as it made class hatred and the elimination of those who are different fundamental pillars of the political discourse. Thus, even today, the greater part of the anniversaries commemorated by the government refer to battles, wars, deaths or “flagrant defeats inflicted” on the opponent. The cult of anger is such that the official language itself no longer realizes the rage it promotes and transmits.

But take care! Hatred cannot be “remotely controlled” once fomented. When rancor is kindled against another country, it ends up also validating the grudge against the neighbor whose wall adjoins ours. Those of us who grew up in a society where the act of repudiation has been justified as the “legitimate defense of a revolutionary people,” may think that blows and screams are the way to relate to what we don’t understand. In this environment of violence, for us harmony becomes synonymous with capitulation and peaceful coexistence is a trap that we want to make “the enemy” to fall into.

19 April 2014

The Foreign Investment Law: Jumping Beyond Its Own Shadow? / Yoani Sanchez

A gentleman with a beard and a shabby shirt reads the newspaper in a Reina street doorway. “These people are re-inventing the wheel…” I can hear him say. The daily he has in his hands has a tabloid insert with the new Foreign Investment Law, recently voted on in the National Assembly. Unanimously approved, the controversial legislation comes at a time when the Cuban economy is in desperate need of foreign capital.

The rush to get investment has not caused, however, greater flexibility in areas such as contracting for personnel. The recently approved law will maintain the state’s monopoly as the employing company. Only through this entity will a foreign business be able to contract for its workers. People trusted by the government will continue to rise to the top of the list it’s time to get hired.

Thus, Raul Castro’s government guarantees that the workforce of foreign investors will be people the government trusts. If we understand that economic autonomy is an indispensable requisite to achieving political autonomy, we know very well that the General President is going to assure that the best salaries are going to go to the pockets of the proven faithful. In this way he maintains the ability to buy loyalty with privileges, which has characterized the Cuban model.

However, ideological fidelity and working ability don’t always go hand-in-hand. New businesses with foreign capital will see their performance hampered–among other reasons–by not having access to the best available human capital. On this point it’s clear that the Foreign Investment Law can’t jump beyond its own shadow. It continues to be marked by the fear that individuals can make themselves independent–both with regards to wages and politics–from the state.

17 April 2014

Cuban Gamers / Yoani Sanchez


One, two, three and start your computers. The sounds of the microprocessor fans will be heard all night. When the sun comes up the ashtrays will be overflowing, the coffee cups empty, and there will be a winner. They are the Cuban gamers, passionate about video games and engaged in their own tournaments.

For years Leo has been number one in his neighborhood on the Dota 2 game. Developed by Valve Corporation, this pastime mixes strategy, the appeal of role-play, and personalized maps. A rush of adrenaline keeps many of the Island’s young hooked on the screen. First they train with several friends to reach a level where they can compete against higher-ranked players. This is the case with Leo, who has already reached expert status.

“Most difficult is finding a local place with the facilities for each tournament,” this gamer says. Recently at Havana’s Maxim Rock movie theater they started a new national Dota 2 tournament, but its start was delayed for weeks in the absence of a place to develop the teams. Meanwhile, the obsession doesn’t stop. The alternative networks that connect computers–both wired and wirelessly–allow the exercising of sight and mind for the big combat.

Dota_2_wallpaper_by_commander34-d6csdrtWithin a real Havana is hidden another that only the initiated can access. For these players, everyday reality is a place where they barely spend a few hours. In their cosmogony–made of kilobytes–they become heroes without concerns about the collapse of public transport or the scarcity of food on their plates. Their mission is to defend a fortress, guard the “ancestors,” and defeat the enemy forces. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, the game is the most important thing in their lives.

Where Leo lives they have already formed a team of the best. They are five young men between 17 and 25. “I met some in high school,” but the others he found through an “intranet” they have in the building. After a few hours of watching them play, it seems they barely speak among themselves, there are only victory cries when someone manages to defeat the rival heroes and collect a considerable amount of gold.

“I prefer he be involved in this because the street is really bad and there are a lot of risks,” says the mother of Ivan Gonzalez, one of the members of this strange quintet. The president of their Committee for the Defense of the Revolution also looks favorably on this activity to which the young men devote so much time. He says, “As long as they’re playing these little games, at least they aren’t putting posters out there and getting involved with the gusanerías*,” and he reinforces it nodding his head.

At the level where Leo, Ivan and the rest play there are is still no betting with real money, but if they reach the “professional leagues” there will be. “I need more RAM memory on the machine, it’s not enough now,” says Frank, another member of the gamer group. Each one has a computer, assembled from parts which are obtained in the informal market or brought in by some relative from abroad. The quality of the technology greatly determines how far they can progress in the big leagues.

Living to play

Some of the self-employed detected a niche market in this passion for videogames. Along with 3D movies, throughout 2013 sites appeared to hold Dota 2 tournaments and other computer entertainments. When the government attacked the movie rooms, these places also fell into disfavor. A very few still operate illegally, but only for select and trusted clients.

Javier has one of these underground sites near Via Blanca and rents it by the hour. “I rent the whole space with ten machines so two teams can face off, and if they want some non-alcoholic drinks I have that on offer,” he explains, while showing an old garage adapted to the new function.

Each month he develops at least one tournament in the capital. Where it will be held travels mouth to mouth among the interested. The participants can enjoy raffles where they vie for allegorical posters, T-shirts and stickers. The so-called “lan-party”–pronounced lanpary–helps them share clicks and strategies among the youngest, and even with kids. The generational continuity of gaming is guaranteed.

Others offer data packets with updates and new configurations which are renewed each week. Among the best distributors of video games in the whole capital, Yampier is a standout. His list is made up of more than 1,700 titles and includes everything from the classics to the most current. Reliability, stability and discounts for regular customers are the key ideas written on the first page of his catalog.

Yampier is lucky because he works in a department of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology where he can download anything from the Internet, with a bandwidth most Cubans can’t even dream of. “From time to time I also play, but no longer with the same passion as a few years ago,” says this young man, who is also one of the country’s leading developers of Android applications.

The meeting of the warriors

It’s Friday night at centrally located G Street. On a corner there’s a group of young people who great each other with fist bumps or just a touch of forearms. They speak little, just monosyllables, but they understand each other well. One mutters an address and selects a gang of players. Another, with pronounced dark circles, joins with the gamers remaining. There is only one girl in the whole group. “See you there,” is the last phrase heard before they disperse.

Around midnight the battle begins. Everyone is seated at a keyboard, short breaths become a chorus of clicks filling the room. Reality, sweat, the reproaches of their parents, are all left behind. They seem to shake off the apathy that accompanies them during the day and their eyes shine, some even crack a smile. They have already entered the country of their passions.

This night Leo has returned to be the captain of his team and direct their strategy. He has a ruthless style and “his troops” follow through the virtual map with respect and submission. About six hours later the victorious warrior shouts, “Ahhhhhh!” and the whole group joins in celebrating their triumph. When they hug they are sweaty, satisfied, like soldiers in an army who have won a historic, definitive battle.

It’s time to return to reality. The exhausted gamers return to their homes on foot or try to catch the bus, sleepy eyes half-closed. When they get to their respective houses they go straight to the refrigerator to put something in their stomachs, and then fall into bed. When then sun sets again they’re already ready for the next game.

*Translator’s note: In current American English this would probably translate as “the worm community” — “gusano,” or worm, being the favored epithet for anti-government types.

Yoani Sanchez, 14 April 2014

The Venezuelan Dialogue, From a Cuban Point of View / Yoani Sanchez

Photo from:

The dialog between the Venezuelan opposition and Nicolas Maduro is in full swing. Its critics are many, its most visible loser: the Cuban government. For a system that for more than half a century has disqualified and reprimanded its dissidents, this discussion table must present a sad acknowledgement of its own inabilities.

Last Tuesday stunned Cuban viewers could watch a debate between the opposition forces in Venezuela and pro-government representatives. The controversial meeting was broadcast on TeleSur, which is characterized by its tendency to back the work of Chavism with its reporting. On this occasion, however, it was forced to also broadcast the concerns and arguments of the other side.

The requirement that cameras and microphones would be present at the discussion proved to be a magnificent political move by Maduro’s adversaries. In this way the audience is engaged in the dialog and it’s more difficult to publish distorted versions later. The participants on both sides were allowed ten minutes each, an exercise in synthesis that the Venezuelan president, clearly, couldn’t accomplish.

For disinformed Cubans, the first thing that jumped out at us was the high level of the arguments the opposition brought to the table. Figures, statistics and concrete examples expressed within a framework of respect. The next day the most commonly heard comment in the streets of Havana was the popular phrase, “They swept the floor with Maduro.” A clear reference to the crushing critiques of his rivals. The government supporters, however, were notably timid, fearful, and offered a discourse plagued with slogans.

There is no doubt, this discussion table has been a bitter pill to swallow for those who up until a few hours before were accusing their political opponents of being “fascists” and “enemies of the nation.” Venezuela will no longer be the same, although the negotiations end tomorrow and Nicolas Madura will once again take the microphone to hand out insults right and left. He acceded to a discussion and this marks a distance between the path followed by the Plaza of the Revolution and another that recently began for Miraflores.

And in Cuba? Is this also possible?

While the broadcast of the Venezuelan dialogue was airing, many of us asked ourselves if something similar could occur in our political scenario. Although the official press presents these conversations as a sign of strength on the part of Chavism, it has also kept enough distance so that we won’t get illusions of possible Cuban versions.

It is less chimeric to imagine Raul Castro getting on a plane and escaping the country than to project him sitting at a table with those he dubs counterrevolutionaries. For more than five decades, both he and his brother have been dedicated to demonizing dissident voices, such that now they are prevented from accepting a conversation with their critics. The danger posed by the impossibility of negotiations is that it leaves only the path to an overthrow, with its consequent trail of chaos and violence.

However, not only do the Cuban regime’s principal figures show reluctance before any negotiating table. The better part of the Island’s opposition doesn’t want to hear it spoken of. Before this double rejection, the agenda of a chimeric meeting fails to take shape. The opposition parties haven’t yet come together on a project for the country that can be coherently defended in any negotiation and look like a viable alternative. We members of the emerging civil society have reasons to feel concerned. Are the politicians now operating illegally in the country prepared to sustain a debate and capable of convincing an audience? Could they represent us with dignity when the time comes?

The answer to this question will only be known once the opportunity arises. Until now the Cuban political dissidence has concentrated more on tearing down than on elaborating foundational strategies; the greater part of their energy has been directed to opposing the governing Party rather than on persuading their potential followers within the population. Given the limitations on disseminating their programs and the numerous material restrictions they suffer, these groups have not been able to carry their message to a significant number of Cubans. It is not entirely their responsibility, but they should be aware that these deficiencies hinder them.

If tomorrow the table for a dialog was set, it would be unlikely that we would hear a speech from the Cuban opposition as well articulated as that achieved by their Venezuelan colleagues. However, although negotiation isn’t a current possibility, no one should be exempted from preparing for it. Cuba needs for the people before those possible microphones to be those who best represent the interests of the nation, its worries, its dreams. They may speak for us, the citizens, but please, do so coherently, without verbal violence and with arguments that convince us.

14 April 2014

5 iOS Apps Essential for Cuba / Yoani Sanchez

Guava Mac

Where will the first Apple store in Havana be? I wonder sometimes when I am fabulating about the future. I imagine it on the corner of Galiano and Reina, above those arches that could well support an enormous apple. Although much is needed before we will see Steve Jobs’s creatures in a display window in Havana legally, these well-designed gadgets with their excellent technology have already broken into the national scene. In the informal market, the solidarity of so many travelers and the appetite for modernity have come together to make an iPad or MacBook Pro increasingly common in our lives.

The taste for iPhones has strengthened the market for applications for these smart phones. Useful packages, including games, maps of the whole country, dictionaries and audiovisual publications, can be acquired in numerous private workshops throughout the Island. The technicians in these matters are very young, offering also to unlock terminals, jailbreak, change the glass if it breaks, clean the start button, and supply a wide range of connectors to recharge the battery, or plug it into a computer. There is something for all tastes and pockets.

Among the iOS applications most requested by domestic customers, here is a list of the five essential ones. Tools needed to elude censorship, solve daily problems, and amuse us a little.

- OffMaps2: Excellent functionality with maps of several Cuban provinces and the ability to use these without an Internet connection. Its “street” is pretty true to live, with the addition of being able to locate sites of interests in our surroundings, wherever we are. The geo-locator service works by triangulating off cellphone towers and not by satellite. Although less precise, it keeps us from getting lost in cities and towns we visit for the first time.

-  Minipedia: An offline version of the famous interactive encyclopedia, Wikipedia. The advantage of this application is that it doesn’t require a jailbroken phone. You can get the Spanish XL database, updated but without images. Other apps compete with Minipedia, among them Wiki Español and the functionality of Wikipedia installed in the Safari navigator itself, although this latter needs a jailbroken phone.

- Messy SMS: For those interested in sending text messages to friends without the phone company being able to snoop on the contents, this application is perfect. You and your friend simply agree on a password and with that you can encrypt and decrypt texts sent. Fun, easy and necessary for those times when more than one indiscreet eye is spying on our private messaging.

-  WordLens: Nice functionality that mixes the camera with a translator for several languages. It allows you to immediately translate posters and written phrases within reach of our phone’s camera lens. Although the result is a word-by-word translation, without any literary or metaphoric flight, it helps in situations where we’re in a hurry and don’t know how to decipher what a text says.

- PhotoStudio: To edit your photos with just a few moves on the screen, this app comes in handy. It includes filters, the ability to crop or resize an image and even add text on it. After working on the photo, we have the option to save it, export it, or upload it to a social network… although this latter only if we have access to the Internet.

I hope that these slices of the apple serve as signs that point the way to a day when Apple, without restrictions, will come into our lives.

11 April 2014

Many Happy Returns! / Yoani Sanchez

Happy Blog-Birthday Generation Y!

At seven I had an incomplete smile. I was losing my baby teeth and also I read every sign I came across in the street. It was a time of learning and scraped knees from falls during games. Today, I once again blow out the same number of candles on an imaginary cake. This time it isn’t for me, but for the virtual creature that was born on 9 April 2007, and which in this time has experienced dentition, fevers, laughs and stumbles.

Generation Y is celebrating its birthday with almost one thousand published posts, about a million and a half comments, several friends lost, and others gained.

In this time, I have never suffered the horror of a blank page. Rather I feel that neither time nor Internet connectivity have sufficed to tell all that the Cuban reality has offered to my eyes. This blog now has a life of its own. It breathes in its readers and has a parallel existence where I can’t reach it, hide it, protect it. It has stood the tests of my initial fear, official demonization, the distrust of many, technological collapses and even the survival instinct that more than once told me to abandon it. Here it is with the bruises and experience of its seven years.

A new era will begin soon. Generation Y will move to its new home within a digital, collective and modern press. On the next birthday cake there will be other faces to include in the photo. Let’s blow out the candles for them now!

8 April 2014

Apretaste! A Craigslist for the Island of the Disconnected / Yoani Sanchez

Home page of the site Apretaste!

Tatania wants to sell a stroller, Humberto is interested in some sneakers, and the retired woman on the corner is offering a mahogany desk. Individual barter and buying-selling alleviates the shortages in state markets. So it’s become common to see walls plastered with ads offering houses for sale or the services of someone who repairs furniture. The classified sites on the Internet also trade in anything you can imagine, from an illegal satellite dish to birdseed.

Despite the poor connectivity, Craigslist-style sites are very popular on the Island. Some of them have developed strategies to reach Cuban readers, such as the distribution of classifieds via email. This is the case with Apretaste! which offers the service of sending and receiving information via email for users on our “Island of the Disconnected.” Winner of a hackathon held in Miami this February, the site has great potential and boasts a simple design that loads quickly.

Visiting Apretaste!, I remember a phrase I always repeat when I encounter something hard. “Creativity is the capacity to open a window when the door is closed,” I tell myself, like a mantra in complex situations. And this classified portal is a diminutive and promising window that has opened in the iron wall of disconnection. A breath of air flows through it.

I hope that one day Tatiana, Humberto, and the retired lady on the corner can not only use the powers of Apretaste! through email, but also enter it on the web, click, enter a phrase into its simple search engine and find, in this way, whatever they need.

7 April 2014

#MejorDesnudosQue: Better Naked Than / Yoani Sanchez

Better naked than…

A woman with her breasts bare is an oracle in an ephemeral work of art. It is Havana in the eighties and the scandal caused by the exhibition “Nine Alchemists and a Blind Man” ends with its closing and the demonization of more than a few artists. The uncovered skin is a challenge, a protest, in a country where power, still today, sheathes itself in olive-green uniforms, long sleeves, hot outfits that hide, instead of display.

Authoritarians handle nudity badly. They feel impure, dirty, humiliated, when in reality it is the natural and primitive state of human beings. Totalitarians are prudish, prudish and timid. Any libertarian gesture frightens them, and they perceive too much exposed skin as a gesture of defiance. They think this because–deep down–they see the human body as something impure and obscene. Hence, undressing their opponents constitutes one of the repressive practices they most enjoy. They believe that by stripping them of their clothes they reduce them to simple animals. The same mental mechanism that leads them to call their critics “worms,” “vermin” or “cockroaches.”

In a windowless cell a guard forces a political prisoner to undress; in a room where no one can hear the screams, three women grope around under the clothes of a recently arrested citizen; in a dorm at a school in the countryside the showers don’t have curtains so no student can possess the territory of her own body; in a cold gray room the Jews were stripped of their clothes before entering the gas chambers. Undressing to humiliate, undressing to dehumanize, undressing to kill.

The images coming from Venezuela confirm that the practice of stripping people of their clothes as a moral punishment continues. A young man is stripped by a group seeking to degrade him by exposing every inch of his skin. However, they end up making him into a beautiful icon, pure, innocent. There is nothing dirty about the human body, there is nothing to be embarrassed about appearing before others as we came into this world.

What is shameful is these others, hiding behind their uniforms, trappings, the military ranks they awarded to themselves. They should be embarrassed to be hiding under the dishonorable garb of their fear.

6 April 2014

Vice President Joe Biden Meets with Yoani Sanchez

Biden-recibe-a-Yoani-SánchezThe challenge for defenders of free expression on the island was the subject of a meeting between the well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez and the vice president of the United States Joe Biden.

Both communicated news of the meeting from the Twitter accounts (@VP for the vice president and @yoanisanchez for the blogger), with an attached photo.

On October 25, 2013 Joe Biden received Berta Soler, representative of the Ladies in White, in a meeting in which they talked about human rights in Cuba and civil society in general.

Days later, on 8 November, president of the United States Barack Obama, on a visit to Miami to raise funds for the Democratic Party, met for the first time with Cuban dissidents living on the island.

Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and Guillermo Fariñas, both winners of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, met the president at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

The Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, in Miami on Tuesday, said that she hopes to launch her own media in the coming weeks, announced several months ago, and which she described as “independent” and distanced from “barricade journalism,” according to EFE.

The blogger attended the Hispanicize Conference, where she received the Latinovator award for having contributed to and encouraged the use of new technologies on the Island.

The Hispanicize Conference started on Tuesday, with nearly two thousand Hispanic professionals for three days of discussions of trends in journalism, social media, advertising and new technologies

Asked about her journalistic project, Sanchez told Reuters she does not want “to be used as a weapon to defeat another. We want to be a medium that survives the current moment of Cuba, a medium for now and for later.”

According to Sanchez, the bloggers movement in Cuba has become “a civic voice in recent years” to express “discomfort and the desires for change.”

“The fundamental objective is that ordinary Cuban who now cannot go to the corner newsstand and buy any newspaper other than Granma ” said Sanchez, who admitted to having alternate plans in the event that the Cuban authorities want to prevent the opening of the new medium.

“Do we fear reprisals? Yes, it’s possible. That’s the fear that everyone has who expresses an opinion and opens his mouth in Cuba. But I hope that international public opinion will protect us because what we want to do is journalism, we are not founding a guerrilla movement,” Sanchez said.

She added that he would like to make a newspaper “to accompany the democratic transition” in Cuba and consolidate it as a space for interaction and participation in society.

Cubanet, 3 April 2014