OUTSIDE the sun is blindingly hot, and in the immigration office 100 people are sweating profusely. But no one complains. A critical word, a demanding attitude, could end in punishment. So we all wait silently for a “white card,” authorization to travel outside Cuba.
The white card is a piece of the migratory absurdities that prevent Cubans from freely leaving and entering their own country. It is our own Berlin Wall without the concrete, the land-mining of our borders without explosives. A wall made of paperwork and stamps, overseen by the grim stares of soldiers. This capricious exit permit costs over $200, a year’s salary for the average Cuban. But money is not enough. Nor is a valid passport. We must also meet other, unwritten requirements, ideological and political conditions that make us eligible, or not, to board a plane.
With so many obstacles, receiving a “yes” is like hearing the screech of the bolts pulled back on a cell door. But for many, like me, the answer is always “no.” Thousands of Cubans have been condemned to immobility on this island, though no court has issued such a verdict. Our “crime” is thinking critically of the government, being a member of an opposition group or subscribing to a platform in defense of human rights.
In my case, I can flaunt the sad record of having received 19 denials since 2008 of my applications for a white card. I left an empty chair at every conference, every award ceremony, every presentation of my books. I never received any explanation, only the laconic phrase “For now, you are not authorized to leave the country.”
But it is not only dissidents or critics who suffer these mobility restrictions. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and health professionals whom the government values too much to risk losing know that choosing those professions means they will save lives but will be unlikely to see other latitudes. They have seen their families separated, their children go into exile, while they wait for the authorities’ approval to leave. Some wait three years, five years, a decade, forever.
The blacklist of those who cannot cross the sea is long, and though the information is never published, we all know how the system works. And so we don masks of conformity before the watchful eyes of the state, hoping to achieve the cherished dream of crossing national boundaries. The exit permit thus becomes a method of ideological control.
A few days ago Ricardo Alarcón, president of the Cuban Parliament, told a foreign interviewer that the government is studying a radical reform of emigration. But we all know how the Cuban government utilizes the euphemism “we are studying” to buy time in what could become a wait of decades.
In reality, these same authorities are unwilling to give up this rich industry that brings them millions of dollars a year in fees for entering and leaving the country. The rumors fly but the locks never open.
A year ago, for example, as I was applying for permission to attend an event in Spain, the news “broke” that Cubans would soon travel freely. When I asked the official handling my request if it was true, she sneered at me, “Go to the airport and see if they let you leave without a white card.”
That same afternoon, as I was issued one more denial, my cellphone rang insistently in my pocket. A broken voice related to me the last moments in the life of Juan Wilfredo Soto, a dissident who died several days after being handcuffed and beaten by the police in a public park. I sat down to steady myself, my ears ringing, my face flush.
I went home and looked at my passport, full of visas to enter a dozen countries but lacking any authorization to leave my own. Next to its blue cover my husband placed a report of the details of Juan Wilfredo Soto’s death. Looking from his face in the photograph to the national seal on my passport, I could only conclude that in Cuba, nothing has changed. We remain in the grip of the same limitations, caught between the high walls of ideological sectarianism and the tight shackles of travel restrictions.
Yoani Sanchez is the author of “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today.” This article was translated by Mary Jo Porter from the Spanish.
Alamar – a pile of concrete blocks without order or agreement – is in this case the work, the artistic object, the clay and the wall on which one has molded and daubed. The artists can be you, me, or anyone else, although for the moment we are going to call them Juan Carlos, Amaury, Luis Eligio, René, David, Fito, Yoyi, Yohamna, Livio, or Ailer. The name of the project could move around Generación Omni, Franom-Uno, Grupo Uno, but we select – at least until the next mutation takes place – a mix of mantra and space for convergence and liberty.
Omni-Zona Franca does not allow us to remain without giving an opinion, which can go from the common insult “eccentric” to the quiet admiration by the “anti-establishment.” What they really are, not even they want to define it; “creating spaces in which to grow” is enough along with people from Alamar, Havana, and Cuba living in these places and expanding them with their spirituality.
We arrive at the omni-territory, we enter the frankness of the zone and we we make the evocative action of throwing some questions at them. We keep in mind that they may respond with a poem, a burst of hip-hop, or a vote of silence.
Why in Alamar?
Because this city without a cemetery, without industry, without churches, but yes, with a funeral parlor, can accept novelty like no other municipality in Cuba. New rhythms and art forms are welcome here. Perhaps because Alamar needs to be reinvented by its inhabitants, in the absence of a handle on some previous history to validate their existence. It needs to be humanized and recreated. Art is born here with lots of freshness and youth. For example, social action groups, environmental art (group La Cuadra, Don Quixote, Art-Native), graffiti, rock, and hip-hop have proliferated in Alamar, and even the Havana Abierta project and the group Criteria had a base here. Events also occurred that marked them all, such as those related to Maria Elena Cruz Varela and the Carta de los Diez .Poets like Angel Escobar and Mario Benedetti lived here and wrote part of their work here and radiated with the city for a generation of young poets. The visual arts also had figures like Belkis Ayon, who lived, created some of his paintings, and committed suicide within these buildings.
Alamar was the Project Haus of the Revolution. It was supposed to be the most beautiful development in all Havana. Before the Revolution, it was thought this place would be a luxury development, and they even constructed part of the sewer system. Each house would have a beautiful ocean view.
Later it was projected that this would be the city of the “New Man.” For example, on a visit that Leonid Brezhnev made to Alamar, he forecast that in the future this would become a “prosperous suburb.” Many people came here from all over, including many Latin American political exiles and foreign technicians from the former socialist camp that grew out of the 70’s and 80’s. It now has about one hundred thousand inhabitants. Because of this, Alamar is the most heterogeneous and rootless neighborhood in Cuba. We ourselves were not born here, but came from other places and we live with people from all over the island.
Living here is to inhabit an area with poor structures, with many limitations when it comes to moving around, but it is also an incredibly favorable space to create, precisely because of all those deficiencies that make spirituality and creativity soar.
Foundation for Omni-Zona Franca
Omni was founded in 1997; right now we are celebrating our tenth anniversary. At first we started making sculptures in wood that we took from collapsed buildings in the city, and we managed to sell some at fairs in Malecon and the Plaza de la Catedral. We mix everything into the sculpture: our ancestors, gestures, nature and a lot of internal forces that we dump out into the wood.
Juan Carlos Flores was the axis around which we began to turn. He came from San Agustín and began working here as the custodian of the gallery. He brought with him an impressive body of poetry and an extremely influencing management of the form. He had won a David prize and a Premio de la Crítica. He came here with the idea of forming a group of poets and experimenting with new forms of literature. Other young poets from Alamar were added, like Grisel, Leonardo, John Curri, Luis Eligio, Nilo and Yohamna, and Zona Franca was born. Uniting those from the ZF and Omni, we formed a bond between the visual arts and poetry that converged in the Fayad Jamis Gallery. We were attracted by a journey to our origins, to what we were in a primitive stage. Everything was pure intuition; we had no preconceived idea or schematics.
The idea was to work for the community and in time we adopted forms such as painting, photography, installations and, later, performance. We took on discussions that others considered marginal and expressed ourselves through them.
For us, performance is an attitude that favors the constant demonstration of the creative state, but it is also the artistic demonstration that characterizes us best, and through which we can combine all of our creative possibilities. Through it, we assume elements of the body, orality, poetry, writing in its visual aspect, dance-theater, music, singing, and all of the visual arts, those that we emphatically project on urban spaces as well as in theaters and galleries. Finally, performance is like life, and through it we adopt a civic-minded behavior of involvement in the nation’s issues and public spaces.
In relation to the Fayad Jamis Gallery and the Center for Art and Literature
The Center for Art and Literature, situated in the Fayad Jamis Gallery and currently directed by Alejandro Pujol, in this cultural house in Alamar, is unique in Cuba. However, this center has never been part of the national avant-garde. Nor has it been allowed to commercialize its work, although we have fought a long battle to allow sales.
The Culture House was constructed practically under protest by artists forming part of the “El Quijote” group. Once created, the Gallery has radiated its spirituality and been the center of wonderful things, thanks to the dedication and determination of people like its first director, Alarcón. Nancy Maestequi and Pablo Rigal, for their part, supported numerous projects, among which are Omni and Zona Franca.
One of the first expressive actions was precisely to defend the autonomy of the Fayad Jamis Gallery in relation to the Culture House. We prefer to not be subordinate to the Culture House in Alamar, since enthusiastic artistic work is being realized. Therefore the space that we occupy here belongs to the City Cultural Management.
Then are they usufructuaries of this space?
Rather, we are squatters.
When we arrived, this place was torn apart. We had to reconstruct it, paint, raise walls, and make it suitable to what we wanted. I had started Native Art here before, and from that group Jorge Pérez (Yoyi), Nilo Julián González, and Jesús Miguel Roura (main Gallery specialist) joined us. This is a space of convergence and tolerance where any expression of spirituality fits. For example, on this same site, Catholic, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Rosicrucian movements have reunited. This space of liberty that we have created serves everyone.
We create and meet in this Culture House, which is an intermediate point between the people and the cultural authorities. We have direct contact with those people, we direct ourselves to them, and it does not matter if they are an opponent or lieutenant colonel.
The best is that we are in a neutral space. Our objective is neither capitalism nor socialism, but rather that Omni-ZF is marked by spiritual fusion. We are neither above nor below anything, neither against nor in favor; but we are for poetry, liberty, and collective spirituality. Among the things that interest us most is Martí’s patriotic sentiment for Cuba, which is expressed as:
Community of interests
Unity of traditions
Unity of goals
Sweet, comforting fusion of loves and hopes (note the use of the plural)
Diffusion in Cuban media
Within the emerging Cuban culture, we have had the opportunity for a little diffusion of our work, but we prefer alternative means of spreading. Since the beginning, some of us have talked about non-publication, because we believe that the media here and everywhere distort the legitimate metaphor that we bring to the Nation and the world. When our work spreads through the media, it is not on our initiative, but for the sole right to also be in the media.
The magazine Esquife has echoed what we do and the last issue of the magazine Extramuros is dedicated almost entirely to Omni-ZF. Caimán Barbudo and Gaceta de Cuba have also run articles about us. The catalog of the Biennial Exhibition in Havana and in the Magazine of the Cuban Rap Agency have made reference to what we do.
The truth is that our tranquility to create and to really connect with the people is very important to us. Because of this, we are not interested in the bombast of the media. We do not want to be like those artists that have already separated themselves from reality and who are just creating for the media and publicity. So, most things we make have that mystery behind them and are protected by it.
Control and censorship
We are making original art and the policing authorities have no precedents similar to this, although Arte Calle and Volumen Uno had already made history. For example, we made one of our first acts there in 1997, when the whole city – and especially Alamar – was full of trash on the corners. It piled up weeks after weeks, without anyone coming to collect it, with the flies, the rats, the people passing close to it. We then had the idea of burying ourselves in the trash. The people gathered around us when they saw a pair of legs or a hand rising up in the middle of the waste. The police arrived quickly along with other authorities like the Municiple Director of Culture. Minus the garbage truck, everyone met there. We ended up being detained for six hours.
At the beginning, the police did not understand that we would make these sorts of public acts. Because of this, we almost always ended up in the Unit after a presentation. However, our perseverance has meant that we have continued to run along the border of what is allowed. There has been a lack of dialogue between the institutions and the new players in society. But we have been pushing the limits. This does not mean complaining about what they have not allowed us, but rather about creating a space of liberty where it is possible to do all of what we are doing today.
There is also a lot of sensationalism about what really happens to us. We have had enough shocks and encounters, but we have never been jailed, only detained and warned.
It happens frequently that Cuba’s key problems are much discussed out there, although they are not talked about inside the country. At times, when dealing with these themes, there is a desire to satisfy some morbid pleasure, to see political motivation in everything. Of course the Cuban system is to blame for this, since it has a war-like attitude and censorship is its fundamental mechanism. But we do not like the distortions that are sometimes made about us; we prefer to see ourselves as people that create space, move borders, push the limits. But without sensationalism.
For us it is more important to free ourselves from self-censorship. This has not been an easy task, but we have achieved a space where everyone can be themselves without fear, complexes or blame, without all of these obstacles that on many occasions have caused Cuban intellectuals to not talk about the true problems of the people.
The disk Alamar Express
The disk is a film that shows how space on the Island is being inhabited, reduced to the scale of Alamar and structured in zones just like this city. It is a sample of the poetic-sonorous discoveries and the experience of intervening in reality that we have reached in ten years. One could say it is an anthology of the counterculture in Alamar. Many artists appear in the film, from Juan Carlos Flores, passing through poets from Arte-Nativa, El Quijote, Omni-Zona Franca, Grupo Uno (founder of the Rap Festival, which brought together the new movement of Cuban protest), up to Tania Bruguera, a real performance legend in Cuba.
It is an entirely homemade disk. We distribute it personally throughout the island and we have also sent it to many people abroad. Here, it has been received in silence by the media, although Norge Espinosa published an article in La Gaceta de Cuba, where he links us to the most important anthologies in Cuban literature. The magazine Esquife has also put the disk up on its website.
The disk received support from the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and the Spanish Embassy in Cuba, without which we would have never made it. Alamar Express is very original for all of what it contains, the form in which it is articulated, and by presenting poetry in a sort of medium rarely used in Cuba for its spread. We know that the disk is also listened to in small towns that do not even appear on the maps. We have proof of this. But the idea of the disk was never a commercial question; it was rather to reach the Generación Omni and collect the work of a group of artists that had never been anthologized on any prior CD.
Documentaries, bulletins, or web pages
As of now, there are three documentaries that deal with our work: Cuba performances, by Elvira del Puerto, Omni frente al espejo, by Raydel Araoz, and Alamar Express: el hombre nuevo, by Patricia Satora.
We never undertake a new project without having guaranteed its complete realization or its continuity. For example, we are now working on a bulletin called Bistec de red, which will have both printed and digital versions. It will not have a large circulation, but it will be in the same spirit of calm and mystery that characterizes us. Regarding our having a web page, there are already various sites on the Internet that circulate our creations. Some are sites from other people or projects that have shared their space with us, but we also have our own: http://www.alamarexpress.com. Access to the Internet is very complicated and it is a problem to update and maintain the site, which is still very simple and outdated. However, we plan to improve it and upload our videos, photos, and music to it.
One of the latest performances
A short time ago, we made a march walking backwards from the Capitolio to Coppelia as proposed in an alternative event to share vital experiences, organized by the group Gigantería. In a single line of more than 15 people, we also walked through Calle 23 on the yellow strip that separates the two roads. Some people joined us on the way. Near Habana Libre, a police officer stopped us, and when we explained to him that this was an artistic event, he said, “Ah, now I understand. Well then, I am going to tell that to everyone calling me here, saying that this is a counter-revolutionary march!” And he let us continue.
Hip-hop arrived in Cuba, first in English, copying what came from abroad, but immediately fusing the best of the Cuban musical tradition and thought, and also taking on civil discourse of social criticism and political questioning, which has lead the Cuban cultural authorities to mobilize themselves and quickly create the Cuban Rap Agency. The creation of this entity is born out of politics on the part of official institutions to assume and absorb alternativeness.
At the last Rap Festival organized by Gruop Uno, for example, the police still did not see the rappers as artists, but rather as delinquents. They constantly asked for identity cards and hounded them. René, who is part of the Festival promotion team, spoke with the police and explained things to them. Afterwards, the mood relaxed a little and things continued with fewer problems.
Many people tell us that we are an example of resistance, but the truth is that we are not resisting; although this also is a component of our art, it is not fundamental. Hip-hop, for example, is a rhythm of protest, of resistance, and Omni-ZF has a lot of that as well. In place of resistance, opposition, or rebellion, we prefer to say that we work to open spaces of understanding.
Outside of Alamar and the City of Havana, what other acts have you made, and where?
In Santiago de Cuba, we did one called “Three hours of discourse” at the Caribbean Festival in 2004. There, we made reference to the prisoner of influence, specifically the Cubans, and to the excess of nationalism. We walked papered with newspapers and flags, with a tube that left our mouths and allowed us to “breathe” from a suitcase, also papered. We walked like so to the Parque Serrano where we undressed and danced in a circle of fire to demonstrate that one can break away from influence and artificial respiration.
At the beginning, people watched us out of curiosity, but they slowly became involved in our act so that at the end, when we we put the beggar (another participant) in the suitcase and carried him like a prisoner of information to the Cabildo de Santiago, shouts of sympathy and support were heard from all sides.
When the police started to act, we had already finished. This is something we have learned: in the midst of the agents’ dilemma – they do not know if this is a spontaneous demonstration or an artistic act – we have already transmitted our message and involved the people in our actions. At the end, the organizers of the Caribbean Festival pointed out to us that the Parque Serrano and City Hall were not suitable places to do that, but we could not turn back time. Therefore, one of our principal recourses is surprise.
We have attended various artistic events throughout the country, among which are the Visoarte Internacional de Cienfuegos (2001), the Jornada de Performances in the same city, also in 2001, the Romerías de Mayo (2003), the Jornada Nacional de la Poesía de Santi Spíritus from 1999 to 2002, at Puente Sur – Encuentro de Performances de Melena del Sur – from 2002 to 2007, at La liebre muerta – Festival de performances de Matanzas in 2004 and 2006, and up to the Biennial Exhibition in Havana where we proposed the city of Alamar as a work of art.
In ten years we have realized more than 300 different acts, always investigating and counting on all the live elements of the space in which we work.
This is a place where we meditate daily and now we are also going to do it in public spaces in the city and throughout the country. Every one of us has our own method of meditation. This is a space for spiritual dialogue, since Cuba is multiple and diverse and this manifests itself a lot in spirituality. We want this space that we have created to multiply, and as a result, we will sow the same love wherever we go.
We recently held a spiritual mass dedicated to poetry. We wanted to contact, get down to the spirit of poetry in a traditional Cuban mass, with various mediums. It was a great experience because we were in the middle of the mass and together with the prayers, Hindu and Buddhist mantras also joined in.
Every year we make a procession to El Rincón, where the sanctuary dedicated to Saint Lazarus is found, carrying a huge “drawing” to ask for the health of the poetry and dedicated to the hidden energy of the people. We leave from Alamar and mount the drawing on a camel, and from the sports city we go to El Rincón on foot with our request on our shoulders.
For us, poetry is the foundation of our creation; it is our road through life; we are essentially poets, beyond the written poem. The pilgrimage is part of the poetry festival “Poetry Without End” that we have held throughout the month of December for the last nine years. In 2007, it was called “Poetry Without End: The Sacred Family,” because after all these years of going, we have arrived at the center, the foundation of society: the Family, the Great Cuban Family, and we want to nourish and illuminate this center through poetry.
Because of this, we like to think that we are a space of dialogue that helps us to feel the nation not through fear, but through love. We try to find a solid basis; we have Buddha here with us as much as Christ and Olofi; even the Taínos are included. And finally, all of the divine beings that have reincarnated once and again to teach us the road to follow.
Last week I ran into an Italian friend on the street who has lived in Cuba for a decade. It occurred to me to ask after his children, two teenagers born in Milan but now growing up in Havana. “Here I have them in a French school,” he confirmed, smiling. At first I did not understand why he had chosen this Francophone education, but he clarified for me. “What do you want, that I send them to a public school? With the terrible education here!” Inquiring, I learned that they share the classroom with the children of diplomats, foreign correspondents, and figures of our culture who have married an immigrant. For an annual fee of 5,550 CUC ($5,800 USD), both offspring of the rotund Italian are well cared for and educated.
The first impression of that encounter was that my friend was exaggerating, but I immediately reviewed my own experience as the mother of a student. I visualized the number of floor mops, bags of detergent, and brooms we had donated to make sure the hallways and bathrooms of the school were at least presentable. Also on this list was a lock for the classroom door we replaced on several occasions and a fan all the parents bought because the suffocating heat made it hard for the children to pay attention. Nor did I forget the infinite number of times that the exams were printed in our house because the school had no paper, no ink, no working printer. The snack that we gave to the teacher so many days, because the food in the dining room was simply unpresentable. I recalled the folios, tubes of glue, the tempura and colored paper that we also provided for the mural that would hang on the wall with an image of a magnanimous and smiling Fidel Castro.
I didn’t stop with just the high material cost of those school years, but continued connecting memories. I recapitulated those times when they implemented the so-called tele-classes, that filled over 60% of the teaching hours with television. The great teachers who decided to return home to paint nails, sell coffee, or relocate to the tourism sector, because the combination of high responsibility and low wages was unbearable. And I even took a minute to count all the primary and secondary teachers who had left their jobs. I enumerated, one by one, all the atrocities voiced to so many adolescents by the “emerging teachers” (they should have been called “instant teachers”): from the reason that the Cuban flag has a five-pointed start is because there are five Interior Ministry agents confined in U.S. prisons, or that New Zealand is in the Caribbean Sea. I also reconstructed the afternoon that a teacher announced in front of our son, that very nearby there was an act of repudiation underway against “dangerous counterrevolutionaries” and little Teo got a lump in his throat, since he knew that his mother and father were among the victims of the harassment. The teachers’ assistants with their tight clothes and their navels hanging out paraded in front of my eyes, or a teacher with a gold tooth and an eagle on his shirt criticizing the students’ long hair and not letting them into the classroom.
My evocative waterfall that afternoon didn’t lack the slogans repeated to the point of exhaustion, the endless and monotonous morning assemblies, the cult of personality of some men who appear in history books as saviors and in science books as scientists. At the end of my reflection, all this helped me to understand why my Italian friend prefers the “little French school” of Havana. But I also know that his children will grow up with a very different idea of what education is on this Island. They will believe that the bright and well equipped places where they receive each assignment, a balanced lunch, a caring teacher, and quality school materials, are characteristics inherent in our education system. I can’t rule out that some day — on returning to Europe — they will participate in some street protests so that their public education will look like ours, so that their children can enjoy what they “knew” in Cuba.
Guanajay has a central park that looks like one of a larger town and a gazebo with the majesty of an entire capital. Right there, for 28 days, Jeovany Jimenez staged a hunger strike demanding his right to return to his practice as a physician. He had been expelled from his profession in 2006 when he protested a miserable wage increase for public health personnel. He complained about the meager 48 Cuban pesos ($2 USD), to be added — with great fanfare — to the salaries of surgeons, anesthetists, nurses and other health care professionals. Along with the administrative action applied to him, he was also expelled from the Communist Party in which he was active. In late 2010 and in the absence of any institutional response to his complaints, he opened the blog Citizen Zero on the Cuban Voices platform.
After sending the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) a score of letters over these last five years, the proscribed Dr. Jiménez resorted to a desperate strategy, to stop ingesting food until reinstated in his position. Amidst the sadness of his friends and the curiosity of passersby in Guanajay Park, he started to lose both pounds and hope. From March 5, he refused to eat and saw only two options: abandoning his strike without achieving his goals, or ending up in a coffin. The most unlikely scenario was his legal reinstatement as a doctor, given the stubbornness of our institutions when it comes time to rectify an injustice. And yet, the miracle happened.
On Sunday, two officials from the Ministry of Public Health brought Jeovany Resolution 185, which allows him to return to work in his profession. It even reinstates the monthly salary that he was not paid over those six years of unemployment. To achieve this “happy ending” Dr. Jimenez came armed primarily with his tenacity, this constant that many of his acquaintances cataloged as almost an obsession. This protest didn’t have a political slant, it was work, relying on the magnificent tool of the Internet to give it visibility, along with the microphones of journalists from foreign radio and television stations who shed light on such a disproportionate administrative punishment. But the final touch was his own body. That body that he was sworn to care for in others and that he put at risk in himself to return to the right to heal. A doctor who has struggled so as to return to the clinic, stethoscope around his neck, in the whitest coat, with his prescription pad, deserves more, he deserves a diploma in gold.
Tracey Eaton, a Florida-based journalist, has been traveling to Cuba for a long time, and more recently has been undertaking a series of interviews with Cubans ranging all across the ideological spectrum. He has now begun the work of subtitling these videos in English, and here is the first to emerge.
Distrust is a fundamental part of the negative legacy of this system. The doubt when receiving a hug, suspicion in the face of candor, and phrases such as “I’m sure he’s with State Security” instead of “I’m glad he dares!” There is nothing more frustrating, for those who cross the line between silence and speaking out, than being greeted with suspicion by others. That eternal distrust they’ve inoculated us with since we were small children stands as the major achievement of the Castro regime. I’m fed up with being afraid of others, always wondering what their real intentions are, if they get close to me to inform, lie, snoop. I renounce the caution; what’s more it slows me down, makes me sad.
The return of Eliécer Ávila, with his excellent interview for Estado de SATS, has caused my phone to fill with messages in the style of “be careful, he could be a decoy of the political police.” I take them all in stride, appreciating the honest concern of many, but not disposed to continue this cycle of apprehension. Eliécer’s every word seems born from sincerity. If life some day shows me this was the wrong assessment, I will continue to think that now — in this minute — his word was more detrimental to the powers-that-be than any benefit later from some hypothetical unmasking.
When we reject someone or fail to extend a hand for fear that they might be a G2 mole, some obscure official in our native version of the KGB’s Lubyanka wins a medal. They feed on our fears, gain strength in the field of intrigue. I refuse, therefore, to continue to make their work easier. At the end of the day it is too ridiculous for a government to brag about having infiltrated secret agents into transparent and peaceful groups. The administration that exercises control from the shadows, because they cannot do it from law and arguments, is laughable.
*Translator’s note: In 2008 Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly of People’s Power, visited Cuba’s University of Technology to speak before a large room of students. During the Q&A Eliécer Ávila, one of the students, posed a series of questions to Alarcon and their interchange was captured on a video that soon went viral. Among Eliécer’s many questions and comments were: Why do Cubans have to work several days to earn enough money to buy a toothbrush? Why can’t Cuban’s travel freely? Why is access to the Internet restricted and censored? The subsequent chain of events remains cloudy and English-language articles are scarce. Here is a link to one report, a second report, a third report.
I disagree with what you say, I totally disagree with it, but I would defend with my life your right to say it. Voltaire
Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 22 November 2011 — I press the headset until it almost touches my eardrums, but still the music in the collective taxi is pounding in my head. It’s the third time today I’m forced to hear the same song, a lascivious reggaeton capable of making those of us riding in that 1950s Ford blush. The most popular song has won the fanaticism of some, the repulsion of others and even a strong critique by the minister of culture, Abel Prieto, on national television. It would seem that no one can remain unmoved, tranquil, while listening to that “Dame un chupi chupi, que yo lo disfruti, abre la bocuti, trágatelo tuti*.” Either you wiggle your hips or you cover your ears, there’s no middle ground.
The El Chupi Chupi video has been nominated for a Lucas Prize, but a few days ago it was categorized as “horrible” by the president of the Cuban Music Institute himself. The many fans of the composer Osmani Garcia and his controversial lyrics don’t know if he will remain in the competition and the media has almost stopped airing the song. Hundreds of people have already sent in their votes — via text messages — in favor of giving the popularity award to this reggaeton artist. They hope to dance to his creation during the gala this coming Sunday at the Karl Marx theater. But a television presenter declared — half joking half serious — that “there will be no ‘honey nor caramels’ at the event this weekend… because they’re bad for your teeth,” in a clear reference to the likelihood of presenting the controversial rhythm with its direct sexual allusions.
If all of the television, newspapers and radio in Cuba were not the private property of the one political party, there would also be space for these kinds of productions, even though many don’t like them. The current problem is that if national television broadcast it, it would be as if it had the endorsement of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) itself, as if the entire political discourse would have to recognize that its “New Man” is more interested in amusing and lewd tunes than in the anthems of the working man and songs about utopia. I am confident that some day there will be stations devoid of ideology, that in adult programming they will present topics far beyond melodic preferences or the blushing point that everyone accepts. Controversy will arise, of course, and generate debate, but no public official will be able to erase it with the stroke of a pen, because musical tastes don’t change through censorship. If they doubt it, let them climb into a collective taxi in Havana right now.
Translator’s note: Roughly: “Give me a suck, which I enjoy, open that little mouth, and swallow it all.”
Eight years ago, Laura Pollan was a schoolteacher living with her husband, Hector Maseda, the leader of the outlawed Cuban Liberal Party. Despite the vicissitudes of living in a country where association is penalized, the family tried to live a normal life in their small house on Neptune Street in Havana.
But early one morning, a pounding on the door irrevocably changed their lives. After an exhaustive search and a summary trial, Maseda was imprisoned and sentenced to 20 years in jail, accused of acting against national security. His crime: imagining a different Cuba, politically opposing the authorities and putting those opinions in writing.
Seventy-five opposition figures were arrested and condemned during that sad March of 2003, a time that will remain forever known in Cuba’s history as the Black Spring. The Cuban government expected this blow to the opposition to persuade other restless citizens to abandon the ranks of the protesters. Officials also believed that the wives, mothers and daughters of the political prisoners would remain silent, so as not to cause more problems for their loved ones. They never anticipated that these women would band together to publicly denounce the arrests and imprisonments. But every political calculation made from the arrogance of power turned out badly.
Thus was born the Ladies in White, a group of women who, through peaceful struggle, demanded and achieved the release of all the prisoners of conscience. At first it seemed a tiny, disjointed movement, given the long miles separating one woman from another. But the ladies’ indignation functioned as a unifying element, and their marches through the streets of Havana, each woman dressed in white and carrying a gladiolus, followed Sunday after Sunday for more than seven years. One voice stood out among them, that of a diminutive blue-eyed woman who taught Spanish and literature to teenagers.
Laura Pollan was emerging as the spokeswoman and leader of the Ladies in White, which focused on human rights and the release of their relatives. In a country that has always been moved by the polarization of its ideological discourse, the Ladies in White were different from their inception. Instead of party platforms, the women displayed only the desire to embrace their loved ones. They did not choose to organize themselves around a doctrine but rather around the unassailable position of family affection. Thus they won a great deal of sympathy among the population of the island, and so, of course, provoked the authorities into a campaign of defamation and insults against them.
If one group has been denigrated to a fault in the Cuban media, it is the Ladies in White. The regime has launched a kind of media war against the women, backed by experiments in intimidation. “Repudiation rallies” — busloads of “spontaneous” protesters called in to scream insults at and even beat their targets — made Pollan’s front door their highest altar. Official journalists called them “The Ladies in Green,” an allusion to the economic support they received from Cubans in exile in order to take food to their imprisoned husbands. Meanwhile, the Cuban government didn’t hesitate to dip into its national coffers for every kind of political attack; part of this money — which could have gone to feed Cubans — was spent ferreting out every cent that reached the hands of these women in need.
The national press continued to denigrate Pollan even on Oct. 7, when she was admitted into the intensive care unit of a Havana hospital with aching bones, shortness of breath and extreme weakness.
Given the seriousness of her condition, government officials asked her family if the patient could be transferred to a luxury clinic designed for the military. But Pollan herself said, before losing consciousness in an induced coma, “I want to stay in the hospital of the people.” And there she died on Oct. 14, after a five-day delay in diagnosing dengue fever, in a country that has been experiencing an intense outbreak of the disease for months now.
While newspapers around the world reported on the death of Laura Pollan, Granma, the official paper of the Communist Party, and all the papers of Cuba’s provinces remained silent. This reaction is a given, considering the pettiness of a government that cannot feel sympathy at the death of an opponent. The Castro regime has never been able to pause in its belligerence, never been able to offer condolences.
But this silence also stems from its fear of this little teacher of Spanish, the fear that sticks, even now, in officials’ throats. The leader of the Ladies in White is dead, and no one in Cuba will ever carry a gladiolus in his or her hands without thinking of Laura Pollan.
Yoani Sanchez is a writer in Cuba. Her awards include the 2010 World Press Freedom Hero award. She blogs at www.desdecuba.com/ generationy and is the author of “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today.” This column was translated from Spanish by M.J. Porter.
For a long time the only way to get one’s hands on that gadget called a microphone was to pass through many ideological filters. Given that same paranoia, to this day few programs on our national channel are broadcast live, so that no one can deliver–to the eyes of the viewers–opinions contrary to the system. And although in recent months criticism has been timidly allowed to pass in the official media, the doors remain closed to those who do not agree with the official discourse. Hence, we have had to find other microphones, other sets, other cameras. Improvised and less professional, yes, but indisputably more free than those of the studios at 23rd and L, at Mason and San Miguel, or at the provincial broadcast centers.
From the terrace of a house, with a sheet hung as a curtain and lights borrowed from a musician, one can make films without the boring triumphalism of the Roundtable show. One example of these new spaces that are emerging is the SATS project, where “art and thought come together,” directed by Antonio Rodiles. In a broad framework for debate, guests expound on a theme and then, later, respond to questions from the public. They analyze, equally, the trajectory of a hip hop musician, the work program of an outlawed legal association, or civil society from the viewpoint of a doctor of philosophy. Afterward, each day’s filming is distributed by the same alternative networks within which blogs, films, documentaries and opinions circulate.
Still missing, it’s true, from these space of SATS and also Citizens’ Reasons, is the presence of the “other.” Of those who defend the official versions of events and who are willing to come together with us and say so in front of a camera. But however much invitations have been extended to these people from State institutions, calling on them to debate and present their arguments, they prefer not to bestow on us the belligerence of their presence. I remain hopeful, however, that one day they will arrive. Sooner rather than later they will come, perhaps before they offer us their own spaces and allow us to speak from “their” microphones.
Thirty years after he left the White House and nine years since his only previous visit to Cuba, Jimmy Carter arrived in Havana last week, wearing the white guayabera that would serve as his uniform during a three-day visit to our island. Watching on television, I recalled how toward the end of his presidency — just as I was starting kindergarten — I learned to scream my first anti-imperialist slogans while thinking of his blue-eyed face.
In the 1970s, the newspaper Granma mocked his background as a peanut farmer. Soon, however, the Castro regime launched more than grievances and caricatures at the U.S. president. In 1980, the Mariel Boatlift sent more than a hundred thousand of our compatriots to his shores, including prisoners and mental patients rushed to the port from Cuba’s jails and asylums.
Those same sad days brought the birth of “repudiation rallies,” with mobs throwing stones, eggs and excrement and spitting on the “infamous traitors” boarding those boats because they couldn’t stand to wait any longer for the promised island paradise.
The pressure of such a flood forced Carter to close the doors to immigrants, handing that battle to Fidel Castro, who screamed “Let the scum go! Let them go!” as he masked ideological extremism under the pose of revolutionary euphoria.
Carter’s mishandling of that immigration crisis, some say, is among the reasons he was not reelected.
Some 20 years later, our media did an about-face and began referring to the former U.S. commander in chief as Mr. Carter. When he visited in 2002 he was introduced as a friend of our Maximum Leader. We who had once insulted him at school assemblies were confused by the red-carpet treatment afforded the man who was once our greatest enemy.
On that visit, as on his recent one, Carter met with government figures but also with opposition groups demonized and outlawed by the authorities. For a moment, we almost thought the world might have changed when Carter spoke before national television cameras in the Great Hall at the University of Havana. It was from his lips that we Cubans heard for the first time about the Varela Project, an effort by Oswaldo Paya to collect signatures for a referendum to amend the Cuban constitution to recognize our basic human rights, including freedom of expression and association.
But the moment was fleeting. Within a few months of Carter’s departure, a series of arrests known as the Black Spring took place across our country. Long prison sentences resulted for 75 dissidents and independent journalists, particularly those who had gathered signatures.
Last week, Carter met with Raul Castro in a formal government setting and with Fidel Castro, casually and at length in his living room.
As before, the regime pretended to show a tolerant face. Raul apparently gave the order not to interfere with the Nobel peace laureate’s early-morning breakfast with a few of us alternative bloggers who, just days earlier, had been demonized on official television as “mercenaries of the empire.”
Also on Carter’s agenda were just-released prisoners of the Black Spring, at least those who were not forced into exile, and their brave wives — known here as the Ladies in White — who never stopped marching for their husbands’ freedom, stoically facing down the repudiation rallies.
As before, Carter found points on which to praise the government, but it all sounded more like diplomatic formalities than real points of consensus.
The big question is whether the presence of the former U.S. president in our complex national situation will change anything. While I don’t believe we will move from a totalitarian state to a democracy by the mere fact of his visit, some acts have a symbolic significance that transcends their purposes.
His willingness to meet with bloggers and other representatives of our country’s emerging civil society extends some ephemeral mantle of protection. It proves that a bubble of respect is possible and that the shock troops who act against the activities of the dissidents are neither spontaneous nor autonomous but a formal arm of the regime. Carter’s willingness to hear our concerns forced Cuban authorities to inadvertently validate us and to acknowledge that there are other voices.
But there must be no illusions. Never mind that Carter proclaimed the innocence of jailed American Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years for sharing technology to provide Internet access to Jewish groups in Cuba, nor that he stated that Cubans should be able to freely leave and enter the country. Carter will not succeed in creating changes we ourselves have not set in motion. And on this island where objectivity finds no middle ground, it seems we must wait for an entire family to die before anything can happen.
Yoani Sanchez is a writer in Cuba. Her awards include the 2010 World Press Freedom Hero award. She blogs at www.desdecuba.com/ generationy and is the author of “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today.” This column was translated from Spanish by M.J. Porter.