Bit by Bit Marketing / Yoani Sánchez

Ministry of Work and Social Security

Eight in the morning and the rails of the station at Factor and Tulipán still have the freshness of the dawn. The only train, coming from San Antonio de los Baños, is delayed. The elderly, seated on the walls, resell the newspapers bought very early and offer, as well, cigarettes at retail. This week they suffered a tough setback with the announcement that the distribution, on the ration book, of the packs of Titans and Aroma has come to an end. Bad news for those on the lowest rung of our informal market, those who sell their own cigarette ration to survive.

Among the absurdities of the centralized market in Cuba, was that only those born before 1955 received the rationed cigarettes. In my family, my father had an allotment but my mother, three years younger, got nothing. Half joking half serious, a friend told me that in the future they would deliver the final pack of subsidized cigarettes to a long-lived Cuban who had been born in the middle of the twentieth century. Can you imagine the ceremony? Flags waving, trumpets sounding, a ceremonial marching battalion approaching the ancient one and presenting him with the last rationed cigarettes.

For better or worse this is not going to happen. These who were the youngest when they started to receive subsidized nicotine, are just now entering their sixth decade of life. Those of us who never benefited from this supply feel that today there is one less thing to throw in our faces. I believe, however, that someone should compensate the elderly at the Tulipán station, along with all those the length and breadth of this island who shore up their lives with this little bit of marketing.

He Did It / Yoani Sánchez

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Aug .26 in Miami: Juan Juan with his daughter Indira and his wife Consuelo

The day that Juan Juan Almeida announced the start of his hunger strike was like reliving the nightmare we’d experienced with the long fast of Guillermo Fariñas. “This is the worst of all decisions,” we, his friends who love him, told him, sure that he would not withstand the rigors of starvation, nor that the authorities would yield before his empty gut rebellion. Fortunately we were wrong. It turned out that the talkative JJ — as his close friends call him — was not only willing to take his chances arm wrestling with the government, but seemed willing to sacrifice himself for all of us, who have repeatedly been denied permission to travel outside this archipelago.

The jovial forty-three-year-old leaves us a painful but effective lesson, because although we have no elections to vote directly for those who govern us, nor courts to accept claims of police abuse, much less means by which a citizen can denounce the immigration restrictions holding the national territory in their grip, we still have our bones, our skin, our stomach walls, to reclaim, by way of the fragile terrain of our bodies, the rights they have taken from us.

Juan Juan Almeida with his daughter, Indira, yesterday in Miami. The two had not seen each other for five years.
Juan Juan Almeida with his daughter, Indira, yesterday in Miami. The two had not seen each other for five years.

Translator’s Note:
Juan Juan is the son of the recently deceased Juan Almeida Bosque, one of the original commanders of the Cuban Revolution who fought with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra and subsequently rose to vice president of the Council of State. Juan Juan suffers from a serious degenerative disease that cannot be treated in Cuba, and repeatedly asked for, and was denied, permission to leave the country to seek medical care abroad and to see his family. He ultimately engaged in a hunger strike and other protests to that end, and yesterday he succeeded.

August 27, 2010

Don’t Answer / Yoani Sánchez

My cellphone rings but I don’t answer. I wait for the ringing to stop and go to a nearby phone to call the number shown on the screen. I’ve warned my friends that I’ll let a call go and call them back later, but some insist, forgetting about the high cost of a minute of conversation on the cell network. I have a code with them: two rings if it’s urgent and three if it’s about something that can wait. When I’m in the street and the device I carry in my purse vibrates, I look for a public phone that takes coins and doesn’t have the handset ripped off.

Although the telecommunications company ETESCA reported that the number of cell phone users will soon surpass one million, we remain handicapped with regards to this technology. To receive a domestic call is madness, configuring the texting can take hours of fighting with the operators, and finding a place that sells recharge cards is like the movie Mission Impossible. Like a teenager whose growing feet no longer fit in his shoes, our cellphone system has increased the number of subscribers but without the corresponding improvement in infrastructure. Well, the growth doesn’t follow an integrated development of the system, but is led by the desire to collect — at all costs — those colored convertible notes that simulate the dollar.

Despite recent reductions in the high rates, even a doctor can’t afford cellphone service, but the political police enjoy subsidized rates which they can pay in national currency. Nor is it possible to open an account and pay at the end of the month, we have to pay in advance to be able to communicate. Many of us feel defrauded by ETESCA, but the State monopoly doesn’t allow other competitors to offer us better and cheaper service. Meanwhile a solution appears, thousands of users work out a strange Morse code with cellphones: One ring, two, three… Don’t answer on the other end! Just run to the nearest phone.

August 24, 2010

An Island Without The Sea / Yoani Sánchez

From the wall of the Malecón there is not much to look at. A blue dish that gets annoyed now and again and launches its foamy waves over its bordering avenue. There are no sailboats, just a couple of patched vessels authorized by the captain of the port. In summer, teenagers throw themselves into the warm waters, but in winter they fearfully shy away from the salt spray and cold wind. A boat plies the route from east to west each night; a shadow on the horizon preventing potential rafters from escaping across the Straits of Florida.

Just now we are in the months of the year when the coastal avenue comes to its greatest turbulence. But everything happens between the reef and the street; this vitality doesn’t even dream of extending to the wide and salty expanse on the other side. When did we start to live with our backs to the sea? At what moment did this part of the country, which is also ours, cease to belong to us? Eating fish, sailing on a yacht, looking back at the buildings from the cadence of a wave, enjoying the contrast of blues along the beginning of the first ridge. Chimeric actions in a coastal city, sharp delusions on an Island that appears to float in nothingness and not in the Caribbean.

I have the illusion that one day, in order to rent even a rowboat, it won’t be necessary to show a foreign passport. The sails will return to take over this bay, reminding us that we live in a maritime Havana, born between the cries of the corsairs and the clamor of the port. The red snapper will displace the catfish and carp on our plates and from the wall of the Malecón — our legs dangling over the limestone reef — we will greet a flotilla of boats coming and going from El Morro.

August 18, 2010

Fidel Castro, Present and Past / Yoani Sánchez

Fidel Castro’s return to public life after a four-year absence provokes conflicting emotions here. His reappearance surprised a people awaiting, with growing despair, the reforms announced by his brother Raúl. While some weave fantasies around his return, others are anxious about what will happen next.

The return of a famous figure is a familiar theme in life as in fiction — think Don Quixote, Casanova or Juan Domingo Perón. But another familiar theme is disappointment — of those who find that the person who returns is no longer the person who left, or at least not as we remember him. There is often a sense of despair surrounding those who insist on coming back. Fidel Castro is no exception to this flaw inherent in remakes.

The man who appeared on the anniversary of “Revolution Day” last week bore no resemblance to the sturdy soldier who handed over his office to his brother in July 2006. The stuttering old man with quivering hands was a shadow of the Greek-profiled military leader who, while a million voices chanted his name in the plaza, pardoned lives, announced executions, proclaimed laws that no one had been consulted on and declared the right of revolutionaries to make revolution. Although he has once again donned his olive-green military shirt, little is left of the man who used to dominate television programming for endless hours, keeping people in suspense from the other side of the screen.

The great orator of times long past now meets with an audience of young people in a tiny theater and reads them a summary of his latest reflections, already published in the press. Instead of arousing the fear that makes even the bravest tremble, he calls forth, at best, a tender compassion. After a young reporter calmly asked a question, she followed up with her greatest wish: “May I give you a kiss?” Where is the abyss that for so many years not even the most courageous dared to jump?
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A significant sign that Fidel Castro’s return to the microphones has not being going over well is that even his brother refused to echo, in his most recent speech to parliament, the former leader’s gloomy prognostication of a nuclear armageddon that will start when the United States launches a military attack against North Korea or Iran. Many analysts have pointed out that the man who was known as the Maximum Leader is hardly qualified to assess the innumerable problems in his own country, yet he turns his gaze to the mote in another’s eye. This pattern is familiar, with his discussions of the world’s environmental problems, the exhaustion of capitalism as a system and, most recently, predictions of nuclear war. Others see a veiled discontent in his apparent indifference toward events in Cuba. Yet this thinking forgets the maxim: Even if he doesn’t censure, if Caesar does not applaud, things go badly. It is unthinkable that Fidel Castro is unaware of the appetite for change that is devouring the Cuban political class; it would be naive to believe that he approves.

For years, so many lives and livelihoods have hung on the gestures of his hands, the way he raises his eyebrows or the twitch of his ears. Fidel watchers now see him as unpredictable, and many fear that the worst may happen if it occurs to him to rail against the reformers in front of the television cameras.

Perhaps this is why the impatient breed of new wolves do not want to stoke the anger of the old commander, who is about to turn 84. Some who intended to introduce more radical changes are now crouching in their spheres of power, waiting for his next relapse.

Meanwhile, those who are worried about the survival of “the process” are alarmed by the danger his obvious decline poses to the myth of the Cuban revolution personified, for 50 years, in this one man. Why doesn’t he stay quietly at home and let us work, some think, though they dare not even whisper it.

We had already started to remember him as something from the past, which was a noble way to forget him. Many were disposed to forgive his mistakes and failures. They had put him on some gray pedestal of the history of the 20th century, capturing his face at its best moment, along with the illustrious dead. But his sudden reappearance upended those efforts. He has come forward again to shamelessly display his infirmities and announce the end of the world, as if to convince us that life after him would be lacking in purpose.

In recent weeks, he who was once called The One, the Horse or simply He, has been presented to us stripped of his captivating charisma. Although he is once again in the news, it has been confirmed: Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return.

Originally published in the Washington Post, August 5, 2010.

August 13, 2010

Between Two Walls / Yoani Sánchez

Finally, I sit down in the chair of a hotel, open my laptop, and look from side to side. Seeing me, the security guard mutters a brief “she came” into the microphone pinned to his lapel. Afterwards some tourists appear, while my index finger works the mouse as fast as it can to optimize the few minutes of Internet access. It’s the first time in ten days that I’ve managed to submerge myself into the great world wide web. A list of proxies helps me with the censured pages and I will see the Generation Y portal from an anonymous server, the bridge to banned sites. In three years I’ve become a specialist in slow connections and badly performing public cybercafés under surveillance. Feeling my way, I administer a blog, send tweets that I can’t read the responses to, and manage a nearly collapsed email account.

After bypassing the limitations to reach cyberspace, we Cubans see the censorship that grips us from two different sides. One comes from the lack of political will on the part of our government to allow this Island mass access to the web of networks. It shows itself in blogs and filtered portals and in the prohibitive prices for an hour of surfing the WWW. The other – also painful – is that of services that exclude residents in our country under the justification of the anachronistic blockade/embargo. Those who think limiting the functionality of sites like Jaiku, Google Gears, and Appstore for my compatriots will have any effect on the authorities of my country are naïve. They know that those who govern us have satellite antennas in their homes, broadband, open Internet, iPhones full of applications, while we – the citizens – trip over screens that say “this service is not available in your country.”

Just as we get around the internal restrictions here, we also sneak through the closed gates of those who exclude us from abroad. For every lock they put on us there is a trick to picking it open. But it still frustrates me that after avoiding the State Security agents below my apartment, paying a third of a monthly salary for an hour of internet time, seeing the animosity in the faces of the guards at the hotels, seeing that Revolico, Cubaencuentro, Cubanet and DesdeCuba continue in the long night of the censored sites, I go and type – like a conjurer of relief – a URL and instead of opening it seems to me that a wall has been raised on the other side.

August 11, 2010

Post-Marambio Era / Yoani Sánchez

A week ago Max Marambio, alias El Guatón – The Fatso – was due to come to this Island, appear before a court, explain certain matters. The owner of the joint-venture company Río Zaza, however, has preferred the protection of his Chilean homeland, as he is an expert – like no one else – in the unpredictable results of putting oneself in the hands of Cuban justice. Accused of bribery, embezzlement, forgery of bank documents and fraud, he who was once the favored protégé of the Maximum Leader just received – instead of pats on the back – a warrant for his arrest.

I miss Marambio even without having known him, because with his departure the number of families on this Island who can drink a glass of milk whenever they like has been greatly reduced. The informal market that supplied itself from his warehouses collapsed as soon as he left, and the underground networks that diverted his products either dried up or doubled their prices. When the lieutenant colonel turned manager escaped to Santiago de Chile, we realized the role that this man – forged at the right hand of power – played in what we put on our tables. He didn’t do it for altruism, clearly, but at least he diversified the boring local production and managed to make a tetrapack something that was not a collector’s item.

Marambio’s fortune was amassed where Cubans cannot invest a single centavo: in those joint venture companies opened to those with foreign passports but not to those with national ones. His personal history was a preview of what we will see, a prediction of how ranking military will transform themselves – dressed in suits and ties – into ideology-free entrepreneurs. Despite his agility with yesterday’s weapons – a Kalashnikov, slogans, Marxist dogma – we remember him for other strategies: bank accounts, trading favors, investments. His former comrades in the struggle will show him no clemency when judging him in court, because the paunchy Chilean ended up turning himself into a commercial competitor, not to mention that he knows too many stories – secret ones – about them.

August 8, 2010

The Wait / Yoani Sánchez

My mother shifts from side to side. She stands first on one leg and then the other, while I wrap my skinny 7-year-old arms around her hips. What is the line for? I don’t know, perhaps we’re at the bus stop, or outside a shop where they had plates, or in front of the drugstore to buy some aspirin. It’s a long line in the sun and it seems that our turn never comes.

She fans herself. Keeps shifting from right to left. With this movement my mother – almost oblivious – is teaching me the art of waiting, the exercise of patience to deal with the long lines that are waiting for me.

August 7, 2010

Forbidden, But Possible / Yoani Sanchez

The smoke gets in my hair, my clothes, and overnight I take on the smell of tobacco although I am one of those Cuban adults who has never smoked. The man at the next table has consumed a pack and a half of Hollywoods in the short time he’s been here, using an empty beer bottle as an ashtray. On the wall there is a sign showing a cigarette with a red line through it; the white background of the poster is stained with nicotine. There is no remedy, I’m a passive smoker even though my country adopted a decree in 2005 that should protect my lungs in.

I passed unscathed through that first “drag” — shared while sitting in a circle — that kids try to prove how grown up they are. Thirty-two percent of my compatriots, however, ended up hooked from this youthful prank, and today spend a good part of their personal resources on Criollos, Populares, or H. Upmanns. This is one of the highest smoking rates in the region, perhaps comparable to the high levels of alcoholism, although the latter is not officially declared. Though half the homes on the Island are exposed to smoke, in our house we have an ex-smoker, a teenager who doesn’t seem interested yet, and this humble servant who used to dunk the packets in water to discourage her father from the vice.

The resolution to protect those who don’t smoke is strict and very modern, but in practice it only worked for a couple of weeks. I don’t know anyone who has been fined for violating the rule against smoking in public places or on public transport, and you can still see people selling different brands of cigarettes close to elementary and secondary schools. Notwithstanding my abstinence, a couple months ago I was diagnosed with emphysema and the doctor gave me a wink while saying, “You smoke, right?” I feel like buying myself a dozen of the strongest cigars, taking long drags, and blowing the smoke on the damp paper of a law that is not complied with, or on those who have ensured that these regulations aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. But I don’t know, I suspect that if I did I would received one of the few fines imposed in the last five years.

August 3, 2010

Losing a Tooth, Winning a Number / Yoani Sánchez

Months ago I dreamt I lost a tooth. That tiny one on the side that’s been with me for more than thirty years. An incisor that has never moved and that I should care for, knowing it can’t be replaced. If my grandmother were alive she would have interpreted these dream experiences as “an omen that someone is going to die.” Anna associated dreams in which molars, eyeteeth, or front teeth fell out with the loss of a loved one; she had dentures and had buried almost all of her friends from her generation.

I analyzed the superstition coldly and remembered that in our illegal lottery the number eight is also called “death.” It wasn’t hard to find the neighborhood ticket seller; despite a five decade crack down, the well known bolita is present on every block in my country, with the most popular and well-established lottery being the one run by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution themselves. A clandestine network collects the risky money until the bolitero hears the winning numbers on Venezuelan or Miami radio and delivers to each bettor their respective winnings. So, any daily situation can be reinterpreted as a prediction, and you can bet on the numbers between 1 and 100 in hopes of winning a tidy sum. In colloquial speech, when someone says “butterfly,” “horse” or “buzzard” they are referring 2, 1 and 33 in the clandestine raffle, and “nuns” are a reference to the number five.

So I ventured out and put twenty pesos on the number that signifies a funeral. As I expected, I didn’t win anything. Still, I’m not about to give up, to the point where I still poke through the daily paper, Granma, to look for some figure to improve my luck. The first reward I enjoyed from the lottery was when, being a teenager, I ventured on a striking 90 (the number that corresponds to “old man”), taken from a headline in the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party. Believe me, many Cubans read that paper to hunt for clues to guide them in our most popular sweepstakes, not to find real news. Like a secret code, we analyze announcements, dreams, political billboards, anniversaries… signs of reality that are translated into numbers for the forbidden lottery.

August 1 2010

Car Museum

There is a detail of our reality that fascinates tourists and surprises collectors around the world: the number of old cars still running on the streets of the country. Right now, on some Havana street, a 1952 Chevrolet purrs along, and a Cadillac, older than the Minister of Transportation himself, is in use as a shared taxi. They pass by us, rusting out or newly painted, on the point of collapse or winning a contest for their excellent state of repair. These rolling miracles make up a part of our country, just like the long lines, the crowded buses, and the political billboards.

At first, visitors show surprise and pleasure on seeing the theme park created by these vehicles. They take pictures and pay up to three times as much to sit in their roomy interiors. After asking the driver, the astonished foreigners discover that the body of that Ford from the early 20th century hides an engine that’s just a decade old, and tires adapted from a Russian Lada. As they earn the trust of the owner, he tells them that the brake system was a gift from a European friend, and that the headlights are originally from an ambulance.

Summer people marvel at the taste of Cubans in conserving such relics from the past, but few know that this is more by necessity than choice. You can’t go to a dealership and buy a new car, even if you have the money to pay for it, so we are forced to maintain the old. Without these artifacts of the last century, our city would be less picturesque and more immobile every day.

Summer Vacation

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are on summer vacation, among them students who enjoy almost two months until September comes around. The summer break happens at the time of the highest temperatures and all analysts believe that the social pot reaches its maximum pressure point at the beginning of August. The combination of heat, scarcity and the school break, especially irritates those adults who dream of keeping their family cool, fed and quiet. Many parents are forced to stop working because they have no one to leave their children with and in most workplaces productivity declines during July and August.

In summer the beach is inviting, especially on a narrow island where the coast — even at the widest point — is less than 60 miles away. But swimming in the sea also involves some difficulties, particularly with regards to transportation and because once we are lying on the sand next to the ocean, we discover that nearly all the food on offer must be paid for in convertible pesos. This goes for the umbrellas, too.

Sooner or later boredom leads us to the corners of the house that need repair. The chair that wobbles, the sink’s half-clogged drain, the outlet that sparks, the old clothesline that no longer supports the weight of the laundry, and the toilet tank that has sprung a leak. In short, the many corners that deteriorate over time and to which we must dedicate hours when we have some days of leisure. Thus, by the end of the vacation, talking among our colleagues we hear more about the difficulties of repairing the kitchen light than of the warm Caribbean waters.

Without Fanfare, But Without Results

Image taken from adn.es
The July 26 event started early, in fear of the evening rains and to avoid the sun that makes the neck itch and annoys the audience. It had the solemnity that is already inherent in the Cuban system: heavy, outdated, and at times dusty. Nothing seemed to jump out of the script; Raúl Castro didn’t take the podium, nor was the speech addressed to a nation waiting for a program of changes. His absence at the microphone should not be read as a intention to decentralize responsibility and allow someone else to speak at such a commemoration. The general did not speak because he had nothing to say, no launching of a reform package, because he knows that would be playing with the power, the control, that his family has exercised for five decades.

In previous speeches, on this same date, the phrases of the Cuban Communist Party’s second secretary have created more confusion than certainty, so this time he avoided analysts reinterpreting them. Enough doubts have already been created with his 2007 predictions of mass access to milk, his unfulfilled forecast of having Santiago de Cuba’s aqueduct completed, and the unfortunate phrase “I’m just a shadow,” with which he began his speech last year. Perhaps because of this he preferred to remain silent and leave the address to the most unyielding man of his government: José Ramón Machado Ventura. Some portentous cannon shots shook the city of Havana just as the first vice president approached the podium and began his harangue filled with platitudes and declarations of intransigence.

Referring to the postponed measures to address the economy and society, Machedo Ventura declared that they will be made, “step by step at a pace determined by us.” The old confusion with the first person plural, the well-known ambiguity of the apparently consensual. The pace, the velocity and the depth of these long-awaited apertures are decided by a small group which has much to lose if they apply them, and time to benefit if they delay them. Some will say Raúl Castro’s silence is part of his strategy to avoid bluster and bravado. But, more than political discretion, what we saw today is pure State secretiveness. To make no public commitments to change, no visible implications of transformation, can be a way of warning us that these do not respond to his political will, but rather to a momentary despair which — he thinks — will eventually pass. By saying nothing, he has sent us his fullest message: “I owe you no explanations, no promises, no results.”

Waiting for Orders

An acquaintance of my mother, who lives very near to a Lady in White, told her that they are under orders not to assault these women in light clothing with gladioli in their hands. The same lady, who until recently wore a sneer of disgust when talking about the masses at Santa Rita and the pilgrimages on 5th Avenue, today was on the point of shaking hands with Laura Pollán and asking for her autograph. Perhaps another neighbor, who screamed “The worms are rioting!” last March on national television, is now confused and waiting for new orders to return to her rants. The mechanisms of false spontaneity have been exposed by this truce: the manufacture of that supposed popular response is confirmed by this interruption in the attacks.

From the point of view of the official discourse, the people who have been released from prison in recent weeks deserved to be prey. Using this argument, and certain known pressures, they mobilized Party militants and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to participate in so-called “repudiation rallies” where they spat on, insulted and knocked about the Ladies in White. Now the energetic troublemakers who came to “defend the Revolution against the mercenaries in the pay of the imperialists” should be expecting some explanation to justify the prisoner releases. It would be interesting to go to a meeting of the Party nucleus to see what secret revelations they come up with, because if none are offered they will end up seeing themselves as pawns in the control of those who incite them one day and then the next day command them to keep quiet.

My mother’s acquaintance doesn’t hide her confusion. “There’s no one who understand them. Yesterday they called us to insult them, and today we’re not allowed to touch a hair on their heads,” she says. The truth is that here, where it seemed like nothing would ever happen, we are suddenly in a situation where anything can happen. At what point did history begin to change? Perhaps in the damp, dark, vermin-filled punishment cell where Orlando Zapata Tamayo decided to sacrifice himself; or in the sterile, chilly intensive care ward where Guillermo Fariñas stuck by his decision to die if they were not freed; or in the streets of Havana, where some defenseless women defied an omnipotent power by screaming the word freedom, where there was none.

  • The truce — brief and fragile — appears to be limited to Havana as in Banes Reina Tamayo continues to be a victim of the same methods.

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.