The Claria, From the Rivers to the Sewers / Yoani Sánchez

Excerpt from documentary by Fabian Archondo and the
Foundation for New Latin American Cinema.

My son is at that age where he could eat the columns of the house if we didn’t keep an eye on him. He opens and closes the refrigerator door, as if he believes that this appliance could produce — just for him — food. His appetite is so insatiable and so difficult to satisfy, in the midst of shortages and high prices, that we’ve nicknamed Teo after that voracious fish, “La Claria.” His ravenousness reminds us of this species which some bright person brought to our country to promote fish farming, and which is now a pest in our rivers and lakes. Of course this is just a family joke, because even our fretful adolescent is incapable of wolfing down the things that enter the mouth of this walking fish.

Blue-gray, with a pronounced mustache and the ability to survive up to three days out of water, this African Catfish has already become a part of our country, both rural and urban. One of the few animals that can survive in the polluted Almendares river, it has managed to displace other, tastier, specimens in the fishmongers’ freezers. Not even its ability to adapt, nor its ugliness, however, have aroused as much alarm as its extreme predatory nature. Clarias eat everything from rodents and chickens, to puppies and every kind of fish, frog or bird.

As a solution to the food problems of the so-called Special Period, after the collapse of the Soviet block, our authorities imported this foreign species and so precipitated colossal damage to the ecosystem. Similar irresponsibility had already occurred with the introduction of tilapia and tench fish, but the results were incalculably more dramatic with this dark and elusive creature which today reigns in our waters. Whether nestling in the mud, emerging from a manhole in the middle of the city, or crawling along the side of the road, its spread demonstrates the fragility of nature when faced with ministerial directives. I have no doubt that this fish will be with us for a long time to come, long after those who introduced it into the country are only a memory, as fleeting as crumb in the mouth of a claria.

September 20, 2010

Cuban Teachers Desert An Increasingly Despised Profession / Yoani Sánchez

Exclusive to the Huffington Post

For a long time when I heard the word teacher, it brought to mind the word respect; it was one of those unconscious associations from which the psychoanalysts draw surprising conclusions. I associated the noun that indicated this profession with the names and faces of all those who taught me from elementary school through the university, men and women endowed with patience and wisdom.

Now in Cuba, the word teacher calls forth other associations. I read in the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party, that an official from the Ministry of Education said, “As parents we want the best teachers for our children, but we don’t like the idea of their deciding to be teachers themselves.” The fact is that the shortage of teachers has become a real crisis at almost all levels of education, due to the growing desertion of those who hold these positions and the reduction of those who enroll in schools of education. The problem has become so bad that the State has now created a class of what is called “emerging teachers,” who train to be the teachers of other children starting in the 11th grade, at age 16.

There are many causes that have led to this crisis and so far the solutions applied have only served to exacerbate the loss of prestige of this noble profession. The secret is that almost no one in Cuba lives on the salary they earn, but must rely on what they can find to steal, what we call “the diversion of resources,” from their workplace, be it time, materials or equipment. Teacher have no chance to earn some extra money this way and their salaries do not differ from others who do.

Now, when I hear the word teacher, what I feel is pity for those who are educators, for their students, and for the future of our country.

Mobile-Activism / Yoani Sánchez

Image URL: http://twitpic.com/2pqj3q

Steps to activate Text Messaging service:

  1. Enter the code *#06# and immediately the phone will display your IMEI code which is a 16 digit number.
  2. Send the first 8 digits of the IMEI number by Text Message to 4222.
  3. You will receive a Text Message that will tell you if your phone model accepts the activation of Text Messaging. It does not work on a Blackberry or iPhone; recommended phones are the Motorola K1, Motorola U6, Motorola V3 and Nokia models that are not too modern.
  4. If the phone accepts the Text Messaging service, you will receive a second message that says “Accept” or “Install.” When it gives you one of these two options it will ask for a code, you should enter 1234.
  5. When the application is installed, you may need to shut down and restart your phone.
  6. When you turn it on, you will see, next to the signal coverage icon, if you have a Motorola, a pair of green diamonds; if you have a Nokia you will see the same thing next to the capital “G.”
  7. You can now send images by Text Messaging to another Cuban mobile phone with the Text Messaging service activated, at a cost of 30 centavos a message.
  8. You can also send an image to an email account at a cost of 2.30 convertible pesos (about $2.50 U.S., 1.90 euros), which is very useful for sending images overseas.

Source of the text: http://twitpic.com/2pqktq

September 19, 2010

The Evil Master / Yoani Sánchez

One of the most frequent topics of discussions when talking about Cuba, is whether the reality in which we live can really be called “socialist.” For my generation, which grew up with books on Marxism, manuals on scientific communism, and volumes of the writings of Lenin, it is difficult to find the Cuban model in those works. When someone asks me about it I say that on this island we live under state capitalism, or, as one perhaps could call it, on the Party’s plantation… the family clan’s plantation…

My theory derives from those ancient books I was forced to study, where there was one factor essential for characterizing a society as socialist: the methods of production were in the hands of the workers. But what I see around me is an “omni-proprietary” state, owner of the machines, the industries, the infrastructure of a nation and of all the decisions made about it. A master who pays the lowest possible wages and demands applause and unconditional ideological fealty from his workers.

This miserly owner now warns that he cannot continue to employ more than one million of those working on the public payroll. “To advance the development and actualization of the economic model,” we are told payrolls must be drastically reduced, while opportunities for self-employment will see only the smallest and most controlled expansion. Even the Cuban Workers Center — the only labor union allowed in the country — reports that the layoffs will come soon and we must accept them with discipline. A sad performance for those whose role it is to represent the rights of their members vis-a-vis the powers-that-be and not vice versa.

What will the antiquated owner, who has possessed this Island for five decades, do when his unemployed of today become the dissatisfied of tomorrow? How will he react when the labor and economic autonomy of the self-employed turns into ideological autonomy? Then we will hear cursing and stigmatization of the prosperous, because any surplus — like the presidential chair — can only be his.

September 14, 2010

Will a Half Million Laid Off Cubans Find Work in Private Enterprise? / Yoani Sánchez

The line at a home-based private “pizza parlor” — takeaway only — in Havana.

Exclusive to The Huffington Post.

Under the strict canons of the socialist economy — planned, centralized and subsidized — self-employment has always been seen as an undesirable species of pest that periodically needs to be abated and occasionally even exterminated. One day the specialists will write the history of the correspondence between the performance of the macroeconomy, the pace of foreign trade, and the response from the corridors of power in loosening or tightening the reins of this denigrated, but successful, creature.

Cuba once had a long tradition of small private businesses: bars, restaurants, shops, kiosks, repair shops and others, unimaginable. On the long night of March 13, 1968 they all disappeared at the exact moment in which, from the public square, Fidel Castro proclaimed the Revolutionary Offensive that confiscated everything.

In the mid-seventies there were a few small openings, but it wasn’t until 1994, under the crushing impacts of the fall-out from the collapse of the Soviet block, that self-employment and the establishment of small private businesses was authorized on a major scale. The country filled with places where you could eat a beefsteak or a Neapolitan pizza. The straitjacket that had controlled creativity began to loosen. Surprised, but happy, we Havanans saw how our city filled with little enterprises and houses converted into restaurants. The euphoria was short-lived, however, because faced with high taxes, a law that prevented the hiring of employees, and the long list of forbidden products, many of these entrepreneurs eventually gave up and shut down.

Now, Raul Castro’s government has announced that half a million State employees will be terminated and that self-employment will be expected to pick up the slack, with a broader authorization of licenses and more flexible contracting mechanisms.

My neighbor Humberto is relieved. In his private restaurant he serves more than a dozen dishes on the sly. Few know that on brilliantly white tablecloths he offers his customers lobster, shrimp and beef. These three products are highly penalized by Cuban law and their possession, “without papers,” can lead to a long prison term. Hence, they are not listed on the menu. But if trustworthy looking clients whisper in his ear, the forbidden delicacies emerge from the kitchen, far from the watchful eyes of the inspectors.

As the law, to date, has prevented Humberto from hiring anyone outside his own family, he tried to convince his daughter to marry — only on paper — an excellent chef who had recently left his job in a tourist hotel. When he discovered that his daughter was making secret plans to elope with her boyfriend, he thought he might have to surrender his license and trade the saucepan for an illegal taxi. Now, the government’s words have offered hope that he might not have to marry off his daughter to gain a chef. Who knows whether the new flexibility could also allow him to openly offer the proscribed menu items which for now he keeps hidden in his kitchen.

September 14, 2010

Olivia / Yoani Sánchez

My friend Miguel left, tired of waiting for a sex change operation, and knowing full well that he was never going to get a better job. He left the red wig to a friend who worked in the same hospital and sold, illegally, the room he had in Luyanó. The day he asked permission to leave he put on a suit and tie, which made him roar when he looked at himself in the mirror. At the immigration office he tried to keep his hands off the fold of his trousers, so that the last gasp of homophobia wouldn’t spoil his departure.

He escaped before they closed the river of Cubans which, for a brief time, flowed to Ecuador. His was one of some 700 marriages contracted between citizens of both countries, many of them with the sole objective of obtaining residency in that South American nation. Miguel paid the equivalent of $6,000 and in return got a wedding in Havana with a woman from Quito he’d known for barely a couple of hours. He faked pictures of the honeymoon, paid an official at the Ministry of Public Health so he would give him his “release”and even handed over a little cash so that his white card — the exit permit — wouldn’t be too delayed. He pretended to be what he was not which was easy for him, because those of us born on this Island are good at putting on a mask.

Now he expects difficult times because the Ecuadorian police have started to investigate the 37,000 Cubans who entered that country in recent years. He doesn’t seem scared, however. He is gay, one of those they loaded into police trucks under a rain of blows, and for years he was also monitored for his critical views. After experiencing both edges of the blade of censorship, nothing frightens him. When called to testify — if he is called — he will go wearing the red dress he always wanted to wear here. Nobody is going to stop him from gesturing while they interrogate him, because already Miguel has escaped that Miguel he once was, to become — happily — Olivia.

September 13, 2010

Broken Promise / Yoani Sánchez

The Revolution Is Working Well. Fight, Work, Advance. Continue Onward! Fidel

I swore never again to speak of that gentleman with the well-trimmed beard and the olive-green uniform who castrated* filled every day of my childhood with his constant presence. I underpin my decision not to refer to Fidel Castro with more than one argument: he represents the past; we need to look forward, to that Cuba where he no longer exists; and in the midst of the challenges of the present, to allude to him seems an unpardonable distraction. But today he once more gatecrashed my life with one of his characteristic outbursts. I feel obliged to focus on him again after his declaration to the journalist Jeffry Goldberg that, “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

If my memory doesn’t fail me, they expelled many Communist Party members for lesser or similar phrases, and purged innumerable Cubans who served long sentences. The Maximum Leader systematically pointed his finger at those who tried to explain that the country wasn’t working. And not only were the nonconformists punished, but we were all forced to don the mask of subterfuge to survive on an island he tried to remake in his own image. Pretense, whispers, deceit, all to hide the same opinion that the “resuscitated” commander now flippantly tosses out to foreign journalist.

Perhaps it is a fit of honesty, as assaults the elderly when it comes time to assess their lives. It could even be another desperate try for attention, like his prediction of an imminent nuclear debacle or his late mea culpa for the repression of homosexuals which he came out with a few weeks ago. To see him acknowledge the failure of “his” political model, makes me feel like I’m watching a scene where an actor gesticulates and raises his voice so that the public won’t look away. But as long as Fidel Castro doesn’t take the microphone and announce to us that his obsolete creature will be dismantled, nothing has happened. If he doesn’t repeat the phrase here in Cuba, and, in addition, agree not to interfere in the necessary changes, we’re back to square one.

Note:
Yesterday, on hearing the news, I wrote a brief tweet: “Fidel Castro joins the opposition, telling the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” Shortly after a dissident friend to whom I’d sent the same message by text called me. His words were ironic, but true: “If He has joined the opposition, I’m moving over now to the official side.”

*Translator’s note: The original text was dictated over the phone and there was an error in the transcription, hence this correction.

September 9, 2010

Celebration / Yoani Sánchez

On days like this I very much regret not having an Internet connection to share so much happiness with the commentators on the blog. Clacking keyboards, drinking toasts screen to screen, and thanking all of you who have supported me with your words of encouragement, your critiques and your suggestions.

Three years ago that shy woman — who I once was — opened this virtual space to narrate her reality, with more fears than certainties. I remember the incredulity of the readers at first, the doubts of some, the State Security or CIA card others assigned me, the slip ups on the arduous journey of opinion. From 2007 until now I feel I have lived six or seven lives at once, full of achievements but also marked by constant coercion from a repressive apparatus that never sleeps.

As I am a chronic optimist, however, I’m only going to focus on the satisfactions: the growing alternative blogosphere, the cracks that have opened in the wall, the Podcast I just inaugurated a few weeks ago, and all the text messages I’ve received to congratulate me on the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Hero Award, and today, the great surprise of the 2010 Prince Claus Award.

September 6, 2010

Four Centimeters of Tolerance / Yoani Sánchez

Yesterday I went to enroll my son in high school and instead of a welcome sign I found a blackboard with the following contents:

Regarding the uniform: Females may not wear more than one pair of earrings. Shirts and blouses will be worn tucked in. They will not be altered by clamps, nor cut to fit to the body, nor allowed to be higher than the waistband of the skirt or pants. Do not remove the pockets. The skirts should be 4 centimeters [1.5 inches] above the knee. Skirts worn on the hips are not allowed, nor may they be discolored or have ironing marks. Pants must extend to the height of the shoes. Pants worn on the hips are not allowed. Females may not wear makeup. Bracelets, necklaces, chains and rings are not allowed. Religious objects may not be visible. Shoes must be close-toed and socks white and long. MP3s, MP4s, and cellphones may not be brought to school. Males may not wear earrings, clips or piercings. Belts should be simple and without eccentric, large or stylish buckles and must be black or tan.

Regarding the hair: Haircuts, hairdos and shaves must be correct, eliminating any eccentricity or styles outside the definition of the uniform. Males may not have: long hair, dyed hair, nor any spikes in the hair, nor designs shaved into the hair. Females may not have any dangling jewelry in their hair. Items used to style the hair must be blue, white or black. These shall be of an appropriate size. Males must not have hair longer than 4 centimeters.

Now I wonder if Teo is enrolled in high school, or in a military unit.

September 4, 2010

The Unbearable Roundness of A Golf Ball / Yoani Sánchez

As if cutting a cake before it is even baked, our government has extended to 99 years the right of foreign investors to use our land. Pieces of this nation will pass into the hands of those who hold foreign passports; meanwhile local entrepreneurs are granted the use of agricultural land, in usufruct, for a mere ten years. The Official Gazette speaks of the “real estate business” when we all know that land — our land — is not available to Cubans who would like to acquire a small sliver on which to build.

Another recent surprise has been the announcement of the creation of several golf courses throughout the island. With the objective of promoting classy tourism, they will open the greens and manicured lawns, surrounded by luxurious amenities. When I told a friend about the coming of these expanses for entertainment, the first thing she asked me was with what water are they planning to maintain the green freshness of the grass. She lives in a neighborhood where such provisions only come twice a week, and to her, the thought of water pumps spraying the precious liquid between one hole and another is a painful one. You’ll have to get used to it, my friend, because the abyss between the dispossessed citizens and those who come from abroad with bulging wallets…

I can already imagine the rest of the movie: to work on one of those golf courses will be a privilege for the most trustworthy; men in suits and ties, microphones attached, will be stationed all around to keep watch and ensure that locals cannot enter and… live and learn… the most prominent and faithful servants will also have their turn with the stick to complete a round with the ball. Hence, they are in training for that morning they plan to enjoy, when they will be on the golf course in their bermuda shorts while we look on from the other side of the fence.

September 3, 2010

Inside the Neighborhood, Outside the Heart / Yoani Sánchez

Barrio Adentro Clinic in Venezuela -- Image taken from: http://paulagiraud.blogspot.com/

“You must turn in your passport!” So they told him on arriving in Caracas, to prevent him from making it to the border and deserting. In the same airport they read him the rules: “You cannot say that you are Cuban, you can’t walk down the street in your medical clothes, and it’s best to avoid interacting with Venezuelans.” Days later he understood that his mission was a political one, because more than curing some heart problem or lung infection, he was supposed to examine consciences, probe voting intentions.

In Venezuela he also came across the corruption of some of those leading the Barrio Adentro Project. The “shrewd ones” here become the “scoundrels” there, grabbing power, influence, money, and even pressuring the female doctors and nurses who travel alone to become their concubines. They placed him together with six colleagues in a cramped room and warned them that if they were to die — victims of all the violence out there — they would be listed as deserters. But it didn’t depress him. At the end of the day he was only 28 and this was his first time escaping from parental protection, the extreme apathy of his neighborhood, and the shortages in the hospital where he worked.

A month after arriving, they gave him an identity card, telling him that with it he could vote in the upcoming elections. At a quick meeting someone spoke about the hard blow it would be to Cuba to lose such an important ally in Latin America. “You are soldiers of the fatherland,” they shouted at them, and as such, “you must guarantee that the red tide prevails at the polls.”

The days when he thought he would save lives or relieve suffering are long gone. He just wants to go home, return to the protection of his family, tell his friends the truth, but for now he can’t. Beforehand, he must stand in line at the polls, show his support for the Venezuelan Socialist Party, hit the screen with his thumb as a sign of agreement. He counts the days until the last Sunday in September, thinking that after that he can go home.

August 31, 2010

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