Capitol or Bat House

I managed to sneak into the stairway when the workers went to the dining room to scarf down their lunch. It was the summer of 1992 and the temptation to climb to the cupola of the Capitol was stronger than the “keep out” warning written in red letters. Up above, the cobwebs the structural shoring, and the openings in the molding, alternated with objects covered in dust. From the height I looked down, where a shiny dome marks kilometer zero of the national highway.

Havana’s Capitol has been humiliated by its past, punished for seeming too much like Washington’s and embarrassed for having sheltered — once — the congress. Like a symbol of that republic demonized by the official propaganda, the imposing building has suffered the fate of the castigated. The Academy of Sciences established itself there, filling its spacious interior with partitions, and an ancient museum of stuffed animals located just below the chamber. Several bat colonies camped inside, spraying the walls with their feces and making holes is the decorative embellishments. The nooks and crannies of the facade became the most popular urinal in a several bloc radius.

A few years ago word got around that an Italian millionaire had donated a set of lights for this architectural gem. But by bit the light bulbs burned out and the colossus of stone and marble once again went dark. To the surprise of those who already took for a condemned site, billboards have recently been erected around it announcing the restoration of the majestic building. Hopefully the repairs won’t take longer than the brief years of its construction, and the Capitol will become — one day — the site of the Cuban parliament: a magnificent building that houses real debates.


Heralds of the End

Jumping out of bed, there’s a loudspeaker roaring outside. I don’t understand what it’s saying, but I wash my face as if it were the last time. Maybe it’s the start of the war so often announced in recent days. My son sleeps late and I have the desire to wake him up and warn him, but I don’t understand the words coming from the loudspeaker and the truck has already moved away toward the avenue.

When are those who terrify us going to give an account of themselves? Those who have spent decades dangling the ghost of the cataclysm in front of our faces. It is very easy to forecast and call for war when you have a bunker, soldiers, a bullet-proof vest. To those heralds of the end, let them try being here, amid the buzzing of the loudspeaker and the child who opens his eyes and asks, frightened, “Mommy, what’s happening, why is there so much noise?”

Exclusion, the Real Counterrevolution

The term “revolutionary” has a different meaning in the Cuba of today than we would find in any Spanish language dictionary. To deserve such an epithet it is enough to exhibit more conformity than criticism, to choose obedience over rebellion, to support the old before the new. To be considered a man of the cause, requires one to manage a convenient silence and to watch arbitrariness and excesses March by without pointing them out to the highest levels of responsibility. A word that once gave rise to thoughts of ruptures and transformations, has evolved into a mere synonym for “reactionary.” Paradoxically, those who believe in safeguarding the essence of the “revolution” are precisely those who show a greater political immobility and who promote — with more animosity — the punishment of the reformers.

Esteban Morales, who until recently enjoyed the privilege of appearing live in front of the TV microphones, learned of such semantic mutations by dint of suffering them. A Communist Party member, academic, and specialist on issues relating to the United States, he had the dangerous idea of writing an article against corruption. His questions dealt primarily not with the daily diversion of resources — as we call stealing from the State — which is how many Cuban families manage to make it to the end of the month, but rather the ethical decay that has established itself higher up, in the estates of power, where embezzlement and misappropriation reach lavish levels. He had the unfortunate experience of putting into writing that, “there are people in government and state jobs who are positioning themselves financially for when the Revolution falls.” It is a conclusion anyone can draw just by looking at the fat necks of the managers, the shiny Geely cars belonging to the officers of CIMEX corporation, or the high railings surrounding the houses of the commercial hierarchy, but Morales committed the audacity of pointing it out from within the system itself.

Imbued with the calls for constructive criticism, calling things by their name, speaking openly, Esteban Morales thought his article would be read as the healthy concern of one who wants to save the process. He forgot that others with similar intentions had already been labeled as divisive, manipulated from the outside, addicted to the honey of power, and ideologically deviant. For less than this, journalists had lost their jobs, students their places at the university, and economists, lawyers and even agronomists had been stigmatized. Once punished with an indefinite suspension from the core of the PCC, the previously trusted professor has started down a road that we know well where it starts, but not where it ends. Experience says that the route of sanctions is never traversed in the reverse direction. Those ousted eventually realize that those they used to consider the “enemy,” could at some point prove to be people imbued with the original meaning of the word “revolution.”

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Yoani’s Blog: Generation Y

Interview with Pedro Argüelles

Click Here for Audio of Interview with Pedro Argüelles

Transcript, translated:

Yoani Sánchez: What is your current situation? Where are you and what have they told you?

Pedro Argüelles: I’m in the provincial prison of Canaletas in Ciego de Avila. And what I have been told is on Saturday, July 10, I went to the office of the head of the prison and there they put me through on the phone to talk to the Archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega. He informed me that I was on the list of those who would leave for Spain if I would agree to go. I told him that no, I had no interest in leaving my country. He asked me about my wife as well, if she would have any interest. I said no. Well, he told me, he would report back and he said goodbye. That is all I have been told, they haven’t told me anything more, I’m here waiting for events and their development.

Yoani Sánchez: Pedro, do you think these releases will strengthen or weaken the dissident movement and independent journalism inside Cuba?

Pedro Argüelles: Well, look, whether or not it will affect the strength honestly I can’t say right now because I am here inside and I’ve been here seven and a half years, here in the prison. I know there are new groups, I know there are new people doing independent journalism, carrying on the civil struggle. I think it doesn’t weaken it because in any case there are new pines, as our apostle Jose Marti said, and well, since 1976 when the first cell of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights was created in the Combinado del Este prison, that was the first cell, and we could get to this point because there have been relays, reliefs, there have been people who have carried on, people who died, new people coming out into the public arena. So I think that, ultimately, here we fulfill the law that everyone has the right and the freedom to decide for their own person, my brothers who would like to go I have absolutely nothing against them, that is their sovereign decision, it is their freedom. I make use of the thoughts of Marti who said that the duty of a man is to be where he is most useful. I believe that here is where I am most useful, that this is my place to fight for the rights and freedom inherent in the dignity of the human person and this is where I want to be. I don’t want to be in any other place, here on the front line of combat facing the Castros’ totalitarian regime.

Yoani Sánchez: And what will Pedro Argüelles do once he is outside Canaletas prisons?

Pedro Argüelles: Continue what we started in mid-1992 when I joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights here in Ciego de Avila and then in 1998 founded the Ciego de Avila Independent Journalists Cooperative. Continue to denounce human rights violations and continue with the independent press and civil struggle. In order to achieve what we have so longed for and suffered for, the transition to democracy in Cuba.

Yoani Sánchez: Well, Pedro, thank you very much and we really hope that your name is among the next to be freed. We wish so much to give you that embrace so long postponed.

Pedro Argüelles: Some day it will happen, and I too am longing to meet with all all these new pines that have arisen.

Yoani Sánchez: Well, thank you very much.

Pedro Argüelles: A hug.

The First Sip of Water

After 134 days without solid food, or even a sip of liquid, Guillermo Fariñas lifted a red plastic cup to his lips and drank a little water. It was 2:15 in the afternoon on Thursday July 8, and from the other side of the glass in the intensive care ward where he was being treated, dozens of friends watching him burst into applause as if they had been witnesses to a miracle.

Fariñas had won one battle but still remains in a fierce war against death, because the land that has seen the action of this singular belligerency is his own body — ultimately the only space available to him to carry out this campaign. His intestines are now like fragile paper conduits distilling bacteria through their pores, his jugular vein is partially obstructed by a blood clot which, if it detached, could lodge in the heart, brain or lungs; or more precisely, in his heart, his brain or his lungs. He has suffered four staph infections and at night a sharp pain in his groin barely allows him to sleep.

His shriveled esophagus was not ready for that first sip of water. It created such a pain in his chest that for a minute he thought he was having a heart attack, but he endured it in silence. On the other side of the glass, expectantly watching, were those who for days had been keeping a vigil outside the hospital, praying for his life, and others who had come from very far away to ask him to end his martyrdom and to be a witnesses to his victory. Not wanting to dampen the celebration of his jubilant colleagues applauding the triumph of his cause, he managed to turn a grimace into a smile.

Guillermo Fariñas’s family allowed me to watch over him on this, the first night after the end of his hunger strike, and he allowed me to be a witness his suffering, his occasional crankiness, and his human weaknesses. Only then did I discover the true hero of this day.

Moratino’s Airplane

There is a lot of speculation these days about the possible release of the political prisoners. The official press, as always — half asleep between growth statistics and old speeches taken from the files — neither confirms nor denies these rumors. A careful reading of the daily paper, Granma, tells us that Spain’s Foreign Minister has arrived on the island to condemn the American blockade, talk about climate change, and to try to get the European Union to abandon its Common Position* against Cuba. If we let ourselves believe what the announcers, with their throaty voices and striped ties, say, nothing is happening here… Or almost nothing. But we all know that in the dark recesses of diplomacy, in the high political terrain woven on the backs of the people, things are moving.

Whispers come and go. In them, the word “liberation” has been stuck to a term with nefarious connotations: “deportation.” “They will go directly from the prisons to the planes,” a gentleman who keeps his ear glued to the radio told me, based on what he hears on the prohibited broadcasts from the North. Forced expatriation, expulsion, exile, has been standard practice to get rid of dissenters. “If you don’t like it, leave,” they tell you from the time you’re small; “Get up and go,” they spit at you if you insist on complaining; “Why’d you come back?” is the greeting if you dare to return and continue to point out what you don’t like. The ability to rid themselves of the inconvenient, the skill to push off the island platform anyone who opposes them, this is a talent in which our leaders are quite adept.

Moratinos would have to have a very large plane to fit all those who obstruct the island’s authoritarians. Not even a jumbo jet could transport all those potentially at risk of going to prison for their ideas or their civil actions. A veritable airline with weekly flights would be necessary to remove all those who don’t agree with the administration of Raul Castro. But, as it turns out, many of us do not want to go. Because the decision to live here or there is something as personal as choosing a partner, or naming a child; it is not permissible that so many Cubans find themselves caught between the walls of prison and the sword of exile. It is immoral to force emigration on those who might be released in the coming days.

One question, simple and logical, jumps out at us with regards to this issue: Wouldn’t it be better if the ones they carried on this plane were “them”?

P.S. A link to the Archbishop’s statement is here.

Translator’s note:
European Union Common Position on Cuba: Adopted in 1996, it makes cooperation with the communist regime conditional on improvements in human rights and political freedom. The text can be read at this link
.

Get Me Off The List

I happened to overhear a scrap of conversation between two nurses at a clinic near my home. “This coming week they will publish the list…” said one, while the other looked at her with alarm and answered something I didn’t manage to catch. A few yards further on a taxi driver, talking into his cell phone, said, “I was saved, there are a ton of drivers on the list, but not me.” The issue began to puzzle me. Although on this Island there are no shortages of lists and inventories — in some we are forced to appear and others they won’t even let us peek at — one of them is especially upsetting for my compatriots. I knew they were talking about the lists of those who will be unemployed, pages full of names of those workers who exceed the needs in each workplace.

About 25% of the current workforce could end up on the street after the layoffs already under way. Some employees have been advised a week before their company runs out of money to pay them, and they have been without any unemployment compensation to support themselves until they can find another job. Faced with the dilemma of staying home or working in agriculture or construction, the majority choose to dive into domestic life in the hopes of new opportunities. They figure they can work offering illegal manicures, or preparing food to order, and it might pay better dividends than bending their backs over a furrow or raising brick walls.

Today, the issue of layoffs is a worry shared by all Cubans, because at least one member of each family will be affected by the cuts. However, the official press only talks about the layoffs in Greece and Spain, telling us about the call for a general strike in Madrid or the collapse of the economy in Athens. In the meantime, popular rumors feed off the personal stories of those who have already appeared on the frightful lists. In workplaces employees crowd around the wall, running their index fingers over the lists expecting to come across their own names. No one can take to the streets to protest what has happened, nor will they appear on the TV that only mentions unemployment when it happens thousands of miles away.

The Horror From the Sweetness

In one of life’s random events I came across Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi in a Havana bookstore. I didn’t find it in one of the individually managed stalls selling used books, but in a local State store that sells colorful editions in convertible currency. The small volume, with a photo of her on the cover, was mixed in among the self-help manuals and recipe books. I glanced to both sides of the shelves to see if someone had put the book there just for me, but the employees were sleeping in the midday heat, one of them brushing flies off her face without paying me any mind. I bought the valuable collection of texts written by this dissident between 1995 and 1996, still taken by the surprise of finding them in my country where we, like her, live under a military regime and strong censorship of the word.

The pages with Aung San Suu Kyi’s chronicles — reflections on everyday life mixed with political discourse and questions — have barely touched the shelves of my home. Everyone wants to read her calm descriptions of Burma, marked by fear, but also steeped in a spirituality that makes her current situation more dramatic. In the few months since I found the Letters, the vivid and moving prose of this woman has influenced the way we look at our own national disaster. The thread of hope that she manages to weave into her words instills in them an optimistic prognosis for her nation and for the world. No one has been able to describe the horror from the sweetness as she has, without the cries overwhelming her style and the rancor being reflected in her eyes.

I can’t stop wondering how the texts of this Burmese dissident made it into the bookstores of my country. Perhaps in a bulk purchase someone slipped in the innocent-looking cover, where an oriental woman tucks some flowers, as beautiful as her face, behind her ear. Who knows if they thought it might be from some writer of fiction or poetry, recreating the landscapes of her country motivated by aestheticism or nostalgia. Probably whoever placed it on the shelf didn’t know about her house arrest, or the richly-deserved Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1991. I prefer to imagine that at least someone was aware that her voice had come to us. An anonymous face, some hands quickly placing the book on our shelf, so that when we approached it we could feel and recognize our own pain.

The Instant Creation of Emerging Teachers

Cuban schoolchildren repeating slogans at the morning assembly.

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 11 February 2010 — It was a sober meeting attended by several representatives from the municipal Ministry of Education. A murmur passed among the parents, seated on the same plastic chairs used by their children in the morning. The date was approaching for the announcement of who would continue their studies at the senior secondary school; it appeared that at this meeting they would tell us the number of pre-university or technical school slots assigned to our school site. Thus, the news at the end about “comprehensive general teachers” took us by surprise, because we had come to believe that their existence would be extended until our great-grandchildren reached puberty.

Educating adolescents – through accelerated courses – to teach classes ranging from grammar to mathematics, turned out to be a categorical failure. Not because of the element of youth, which is always welcome in any profession, but because of the speed of their instruction in teaching and the lack of interest many of them had in such a noble endeavor.

Faced with the exodus of education professionals to other sectors with more attractive earnings, the emerging teachers program was developed; with it the already ailing quality of Cuban education fell through the floor. The children came home saying that in 1895 Cuba had lived through “a civil war” and that geometric figures had something called “voldes” which we parents understood to mean “edges.” I particularly remember one of these instant educators who confessed to his students on the first day of class that they should, “Study hard so you don’t end up like me, someone who ended up being a teacher because I didn’t take good notes.”

On top of that the tele-classes arrived, to fill a very high percentage of the school hours from the coldness of a screen that cannot interact. The idea was to make up for the lack of training of those standing in front of the students with these lessons transmitted by television. The tele-teacher substituted in many schools for the flesh-and-blood version, while teacher salaries increased symbolically, but never exceeded the equivalent of 30 dollars a month. Teaching became, even more than being a priest, a sacrifice.

Thus, standing in front of the blackboard were people who had not mastered spelling or the history of their own country. There were young people who signed a pledge to become teachers, but who already regretted it after one week of work. The incidents and educational deformations that this procedure brought with it are written in the hidden book of failure of revolutionary plans and ridiculous production goals that are never met, with the difference that in this case we are not talking about tons of sugar or bushels of beans, but about the education of our children.

I breathe a sigh of relief that this long experiment in emergent education has ended. However, I do not envision the day in which all those people with preparation to teach leave the wheel of their taxis, come out from behind the bar, or exchange the tedium of working at home to return to the classroom. At least I could feel more relaxed if, in place of a television screen, Teo could receive all his classes from a corporeal teacher with a mastery of the content. I think that in this case we will have to wait for the great-grandchildren.

Adios to Schools in the Countryside / Yoani Sanchez

gallo

Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 July 2009 — The idea of combining study with work in high schools looked very good on paper. It had the air of an immortal future in the office where they turned it into a ministerial order. But reality, stubborn as always, had its own interpretation of the schools in the countryside. The “clay” meant to be formed in the love of the furrow, was made up of adolescents far away—for the first time—from parental control, who found housing conditions and food very different from their expectations.

I, who should have been the “new man” and who barely could have become a “good man”, was trained in one of these schools in the Havanan municipality of Alquizar. I was fourteen and left with a corneal infection, a liver deficiency and the toughness that is acquired when one has seen too much. When matriculating, I still believed the stories of work-study; at leaving, I knew that many of my fellow students had had to exchange sex for good grades or show superior performance in agricultural production. The small lettuce plants I weeded every afternoon had their counterpart in a hostel where the priorities were bullying, lack of respect for privacy and the harsh law of survival of the fittest.

It was precisely one of those afternoons, after three days without water and with the repetitive menu of rice and cabbage, that I swore to myself that my children would never go to a high school in the country. I did this with the unsentimental adolescent realism that, in those years, calms us and leaves us knowing the impossibility of fulfilling certain promises. So I accustomed myself to the idea of having to load bags of food for Teo when he was away at school, of hearing that they stole his shoes, they threatened him in the shower or that one of the bigger ones took his food. All these images, that I had lived, returned when I thought about the boarding schools.

Fortunately, the experiment seems to be ending. The lack of productivity, the spread of diseases, the damage to ethical values and the low academic standards have discredited this method of education. After years of financial losses, with the students consuming more than they manage to extract from the land, our authorities have become convinced that the best place for a young person is at the side of his parents. They have announced the coming end of the schools but without the public apologies to those of us who were guinea pigs for an experiment that failed; to those of us who left our dreams and our health in the high schools in the countryside.