Being in “The Packet” / Wendy Guerra

A man with a pack over his shoulder walks down a Havana street.

A man with a pack over his shoulder walks along a Havana street. (EFE)

Wendy Guerra, Habáname, 15 December 2014 — About three years ago, a young man – tall, blond and ungainly – would haul an enormous sack full of DVDs of pirated movies, music videos, TV shows and series. Today, this same young man – now more poised and better dressed – walks the streets of Miramar with a small memory stick in his pocket, dispensing information to any of the households that can pay 15, 5 or, most commonly, 10 CUCs [Cuban convertible pesos] per week to download the latest broadcast content from international channels. For those who are unable to pay this fee, for those who lack the necessary resources, there are the memory devices that we record and distribute. This happens week after week in every Havana neighborhood.

“The Packet.” This is what we locals call the mountain of information that, on a weekly basis, the anticipated visitor sells and distributes to relieve the Cuban people’s dearth of options for visual references and news sources.

Updates of www.revolico.com or www.porlalivre.com – sites so useful for buying and selling home electronics, food, medicine, clothing and items of all kinds for the island’s resistance, advertisements for paladares (restaurants) and animal clinics, rentals of privately-owned vehicles and beauty shops – all of these form part of the so-called “packet” in addition to premieres of audiovisual productions.

What’s curious about all of this is that many Cuban producers pay 15 CUCs for their productions to be added to the local packet, the domestic one that arrives weekly at your door. This is how the great collage of images and words grows, not just with content from HBO or Channel 41, Univisión or Televisa, but also those productions which have been rejected by the ICAIC or which, because of contractual issues with co-producers, cannot immediately be seen in Cuban living rooms.

Dealer: “Please, I need to include in this week’s packet that movie by Padura*, and yours, too. If you get it for me, I’ll leave you a free month’s worth of programming. Everybody is asking for these movies and they’re driving me crazy. Do you have them already? Are they good?”

Producer: “Sure, here they are.”

This is how the popular information “combo” is sustained on a national scale.

The thing is, “being in the packet” is an honor for those writers, artists, producers and actors who must wait for the approval of institutions such as ICAIC. Meanwhile, this delay tyrannically closes the possibility for excellent films such as “Return to Ithaca”* being available to the public – that is, we who think that we still control what we can view and comment-on. Poor us!

The packet is our access to the sea. To be in the packet is the best way to insert ourselves in the real life of thousands upon thousands of Cubans who want to know what is happening in their own environment.

“They” can control the movie houses because they own them, and these venues are subject to their arbitrary sense of vigilance. But in the privacy of our homes, in the personal space inside our heads, in the packet made a la carte and to order according to our needs, nobody can meddle.

Change happens, everything changes, and institutions start losing their meaning.

The packet: Free and domestic, kaleidoscopic informer, where we all wish to enter, as spectators or creators.

* Translator’s Note: This film, with a screenplay by noted Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, was censured by the Cuban government.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Everything is Sold-Out / 14ymedio, Eliecer Avila

 Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)

Collective Transportation. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Eliecer Avila, 16 December 2014 — The end-of-year all over the world presents a challenge for many enterprises and businesses, especially for those in the transportation sector. Nobody wants to miss the opportunity to considerably increase the profits to be made from an extraordinary rise in demand for services. To this end, strategies are plotted and necessary adjustments are made well in advance. It is also true that at this time there is a surge in ticket prices. What would be strange is if, assuming you have the resources to travel, you were unable to find any means to get to your destination by land, sea or air.

That is, unless you live in Cuba. This is an island whose land and total population are comparable to or exceeded by some large cities of the world.

Over here, starting in the first few days of December, you can already hear in any office that sells tickets to travelers the famous phrase, “No, Son, no, for those dates, everything is sold-out
It is also common to find someone who laughs and says, ironically, “But who in their right mind thinks they can wait till early December to start shopping for tickets? That’s something you start doing at least three months in advance!” Continue reading

Havana: City of the “Marvelous” Unreality / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Jean-Paul de la Fuente, director of New7Wonders, the Swiss foundation behind the online contest to name the seven most marvelous cities of the world, is visiting the Cuban capital. Having been received by Marta Hernández Romero, president of the Havana Provincial Assembly of Popular Power, and Eusebio Leal Spengler, city historian, already De la Fuente takes on, from the moment of his arrival, the typical profile of the tourist who, from his birds-eye view, cannot perceive to what unsuspected point it is difficult for the average Cuban to live in his beloved city.

I cannot understand how anyone who knows at least something of the functioning dynamic of the Cuban capital can propose this city as a contender for such a prize, much less the inexplicable manner in which Havana ended up on the final roster alongside such urban centers as Barcelona, Chicago, London and Mexico City.

From there we can only presume that all these persons who voted to keep La Giraldilla‘s city among the final contestants for membership in that select group of urban marvels have one thing in common: none of them live in a shanty town in El Cerro, in a tenement in Centro Habana or in Marianao on the banks of the Quibú River, subsisting on a salary of 20 dollars a month for sustaining his whole family; none has suffered seeing his child drool over the inaccessible toy; nor does he know what an “un-ration” book is, nor has he asked himself, at five in the afternoon, gazing into his empty larder, “What the fuck are we going to eat tonight?” Continue reading

The Spell of Havana / 14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea

The Historic Spanish Dance Society in Havana (BDG)

The Historic Spanish Dance Society in Havana (BDG)

14ymedio, José Gabriel Barrenechea, Havana, 9 December 2014 – One of my earliest memories is of my young self, singing, Set fire, set fire to the lock [of hair], while riding in a bus operated by Havana’s public transportation system. The other passengers around me laugh and a lady with sweet and mirthful eyes exclaims again and again, “That little blonde boy is a hellion!”

Havana at that time to me was that marvelous city which I would enter at dawn, riding through the tunnel, staying alert so as not to miss the fire station on Prado Street. Or it was that city which I would exit generally by train, at night, but not before stopping at la Casita de Martí [José Martí’s Little House]. All of this was in spite of the fact that my parents and I would go to Havana twice a year, in January and June.

Our agenda for our visits was always the same: the Aquarium and the 26th Avenue Zoo, with its little lead soldiers at the entrance, its bold squirrels that seemed not so much wild creatures as denizens of some tenement on Colón Street, the shit-flinging monkeys, the little train…and another day, to Lenin Park and the Botanical Garden. We would cover Old Havana by a route that invariably ended up in The Fort and its armories – at least until the day I stopped throwing tantrums to avoid embarking on the little Regla ferry, and then the tour would end with a slow cruise to park in that so-called “ultramarine town.” Then it was off to the Coppelia ice cream stand on any given day and later, in the afternoon, a stroll up and down the Malecón, re-enacting in the capital that small-town custom of zigzagging along the main street of Encrucijada. Such was the only way to pass the evenings in some innocent little town of the interior in those marvelous ‘70s.

Sometimes, in January, there might also be a visit to El Cerro Stadium, as our friend Ñico Rutina insisted on calling the Latin American Stadium, for my father and me to watch a baseball game. It didn’t matter who was playing whom, what my old man cared about (and still does, at 83) was enjoying the game, not being fanatical about a particular team. Our day trip would then conclude with the aforementioned visits to about a hundred of my parents’ relatives and close friends. All this to say – considering that we would alternate our stays among my Aunt Leopoldina’s house in Párraga; my Aunt Emilia’s house in the Little Cave of San Miguel de Padrón; or that of my Great Aunt Victoria in La Víbora – it can be seen that, at least on the east side of the Almendares River, very little of Havana escaped our routine itineraries for visits and outings.

Already by then, I could not escape the spell of Havana. Where people talked, walked, looked, breathed, and loved with ease, and “right” was “rye” [Translator’s Note: Habaneros are known among Cubans elsewhere on the Island for their rapid speech and lazy pronunciation of consonants]. Where defiant mulattos grew their sideburns long and dressed in the manner of their great-great-grandfathers, flashy black men in the days of the fleets. When from time to time could be heard, along some parallel street, the slow-moving cassock of one of the few remaining priests on the Island. When the stray cats were fat, not like those puny ones on Encrucijada Street, and actors in the latest adventure films might surprise you on any street corner.

“Where will all these memories go when I die?” I ask myself at times, like the android in Blade Runner. “Will that moment disappear with me when, for the first time, I watched a ship enter Havana Bay from the Point, while two other vessels lying at anchor waited their turn?” Or, fast-forwarding almost 40 years, there is an eternity in which I will always live in the entire night I spent with Her in a room on L Street, almost touching the sea, and at times would be surprised by the murmurs of another woman: Sleeping Havana?

I cannot answer these questions. I only know that upon learning of Havana having been selected as one of the Seven Wonders Cities of the World, all those memories have rushed to my throat. In any case something will remain, as today persists in our culture that spirit of the Athens of 500 BC, when a boy hand-in-hand with his father, regarded on a certain clear morning of the splendorous Mediterranean summer the road to Piraeus.

Because Havana, more than an obvious ruin, is a spirit, a soul, a mature woman with miles on her but still more beautiful than any 20-year-old. A certain something will persist when the tyrants and their henchmen no longer occupy more than a couple lines in the annals of history. A certain something to which all of us Cubans are joined in greater or lesser measure, and which provides the measure to explain why we love to exaggerate, to say that we Cubans “We Cubans are the greatest thing God ever conceived in this great wide world.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Editing your contacts / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzales

A young woman checks her mobile phone. (CC)

A young woman checks her mobile phone. (CC)

14ymedio, VÍCTOR ARIEL GONZÁLEZ, Havana, 8 December 2014 – She turned 24 and spent that day with her few friends who still live in Cuba. She is known as a faithful exponent of a generation marked by uprooting and escape. She decided to not complete her social service so that she could devote her time to making handicrafts and, thanks to her perfect English and various contacts, she also offers guided excursions to tourists. “My degree in languages does not pay for itself,” Camila admits.

Seated in her backyard, she shares that this was where colleagues from her faculty, as well as classmates from prep school, used to come for gatherings. Camila’s yard was “the party place,” as recognized on an amusing handmade “diploma” that she keeps in a frame on her wall. There are still some festivities held there, except that now these have been occurring less frequently because “everyone has been taking their own path…you know.”

I do know. And the gesture Camila makes with her hand, like an airplane taking off, confirms this. To prove her point, she adds, “Have you ever counted how many contacts you’ve had to remove from your contacts on your phone?” and then goes on to recount how, on her birthday, more people called her from foreign countries than from Cuba.

Camila tries to make light of this fact, perhaps without meaning to do so, with a subversive smile. However, she cannot mask the subtle aroma of yearning released by her words. Today she has friends in Europe, Asia and even Australia – but the US is her “second Island” because more than half of her absent friends are now residing there. She has had to update their phone numbers on her contacts.

Even so, the new area codes in Camila’s contacts are in contrast to the old photos that appear on her mobile phone screen. She doesn’t want to forget that they were taken here, when her friends were still living in Cuba and there weren’t so many calls as visits and well-attended gatherings – be they “to study for a test or to have a drink, or both.” Camila’s vision of the present for young people like us can be summed up thus: “Our generation is mortgaged. It is going to take many years for us to pay this spiritual debt – if indeed we still can.”

Her phrase, which I stole, is so impactful, that any other word is just unnecessary. “And who do you think,” I later ask Camila, “might join the list of those who call you from outside Cuba on your next birthday?” She raises her eyebrows and laughs, saying, “The way I see things, and if everything goes according to plan, perhaps I will be the one to call from outside Cuba on my next birthday, so that those whom I’ve left behind can give me their good wishes. The most likely thing is that you will have to change my number on your contacts.”

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

What I Said at FIU / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Translator’s Note: On Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo participated in a panel discussion at Florida International University, in Miami. The program announcement is here.

Since the time of the Iron Curtain and Soviet socialism, the word, “solidarity,” has been one of value in anti-totalitarian use. Within the dictatorial models that communists have historically imposed every time they have taken power, it is impossible to socialize if not through the power of the State/God. Every social bond is regulated as deemed convenient by a regime that, on principle, politicizes all, but in practice depoliticizes society.

There is no political life after the communist parties appropriate power, be it through bullets or ballots. This should be sufficient cause to ponder whether the communist parties — just like the fascists or racists or fundamentalists — deserve the right to play the democratic game. The parties that aspire to be not part, but all, have not demonstrated that they are capable of responding to or respecting the rule of law.

In the face of such false en masse socialization produced by stagnant socialist systems, for the individual to be in solidarity is, then, a way of living in the truth, of involving oneself in the complex social fabric, of reacting against systemic injustices, of not abandoning those displaced by the utopia.

In the face of a monolithic state that hijacks everything to the ideological spectrum, solidarity embodies the rediscovery of the individual, of his inner freedom and of his rights to manifest it, and also the revaluation of his dignity as a person, of his inviolable human condition. Solidarity thus became a secret word, subversive and redeeming.

In Cuba, the prestige of this word — as all language that has been strip-mined by the State — is synonymous with dangerousness. Solidarity, a word derived from “sun,” [“sol” in Spanish] was forced into the counterrevolutionary catacombs. As with the term, “human rights,” solidarity suffered the stigma of clandestinity. I suspect that the word barely arouses sympathies in the average Cuban, who associates it with conspiracies incubated abroad and thus justifies his own humiliation at having to survive with his head bowed.

Peoples learn from their tyrants. In that sense, the Cuban people are cynically wise. At this point in history it is almost unjust to ask them for more. We have sanctioned Castroism with our best spontaneous weapons, even while these same weapons make us a bit more complicit: silence, apathy, repression through inertia, pretending to walk the walk out of an instinct of self-preservation. Against a regime like that of the Castros, to peacefully preach solidarity is also to remember that all gospels end in a via crucis, in the deadly hands of State Security, an entity specifically dedicated to dissolving any trace of solidarity.

Thus the preciousness of the least gesture of our many foreign friends. They observe us, and they work and take risks for Cuba, without the straightjacket of the Revolution’s compensatory myths: the social programs, the high professional level of our countrymen, and the stability gained by sterility of life in our olive-green bubble, which now is mutating from the color of military uniforms to the color of dollars.

Thus the incalculable worth of the courageous acts of Cubans surrounded by Castroism everywhere. Blackmailing Castroism and academic Castroism, or both. Castroism of the bourse and of the beast, or both. Idiotic Castroism and ideological Castroism, or both. Castroism as anti-establishment therapy or sentimental, conciliatory Castroism.

Not to fall into paralyzing pessimism, but there is scarce room for hope in this tragedy, and therefore hope shines brilliantly to the point of virtue. It is this State-sponsored thuggery that makes it so that not one leader of the pro-democracy movements in Cuba has not foretold his or her death, carried out with exceptional viciousness, as in the cases of Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá.

The diasporization of our nation starts with our laziness toward fighting injustice somewhere else, as long as it doesn’t concern us personally. In fact, after it does concern us, many times we Cubans prefer to bury our pain and our injury, preventing some friendly hand from “politicizing” their trauma, presuming that doing so would make things worse for us.

This is how we end up being, as a people, Fidelism’s most reliable source of governability, its raw material that will not betray it. Although, as I’ve already said, day by day we also vote in a plebiscite with our feet, which is one of the most constant behaviors that should be weighed in favor of the Revolution: we leave the Island, be it only to turn back; we leave, be it only to construct a new, post-national servitude, in which we know that politics continues being not part of our life, but rather a terrible “all” whose long, barbaric arm could reach our family in whatever corner they might be.

Not one of my columns or photographs since my ostracism in Havana would have had the same impact if not for the solidarity, almost always, of the survivors of socialism. This never implied the most minimal interference with my content. I have not evolved as an accuser: it is possible that I am not even a democrat so much as an author interested in the ultimate. Thus before even knowing it, I was already free to the point of intolerability.

I am not interested in correction, be it mental or corporal, and I am bored by any creation that from its genesis already defines its destiny (and its meaning). I am obsessed by the limits of provocation. My fury at, and autos-da-fé about, Cuba do not remain in the little fossil farm of Fidelism. Rather, they go seeking in the black holes of our democracy that never knew its value apart from the currency of violence, starting with the land destroyed in the wars of independence. These wars consecrated the gallons of spilled blood as a universal value, placed martyrdom over reconciliation, suicide over surrender, hate for our very selves mutated into hate for our Cuban difference: a civic poverty that plays out as tribalism and that, well into the 21st century, still seduces and traps us.

There are many dramatic anecdotes of solidarity with the imaginary free Cuba, such that our desolation is inconsolable as a people living under an apartheid that the world does not recognize. As an emblem, I would like to mention an example exclusive to Cubans which we are careful to cite, for fear (at times average and other times downright miserable) of remaining in anyone’s territory, in or out of Cuba, as if we weren’t already pariahs in perpetuity, in or out of Cuba.

I’m referring to legislated solidarity, to the very rare documents that have sought to wrest liberty from legality. In Cuba, of course, no citizen initiative ever pointed in such a radical fashion to a refounding of the republic as did the Varela Project. This enterprise received from Oswaldo Payá its genius of inspiration and perseverance, but it was also our great public march against the usurpers of the law, a milestone for future generations to know that all measures short of bloodshed were attempted, that there was no humanly possible way of telling the Castros that they are not welcome in our homeland, and that it is they and not some foreign power who have hijacked our sovereignty as a nation.

Other documents of legislated solidarity — that also do not seem to be in fashion amongst a dissident movement that no longer pretends to be an opposition and even less to stop being an opposition and aspire to power through ballots instead of bullets — can be found in North American legislation. Stone me as the Castroites have always stoned me before and after Castro, but in the best of circumstances, it is an act of ignorance not to cite that the so-called Helms-Burton Act is actually named the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act.

Beyond the technicalities of geopolitics, this document establishes the keys to repealing the North American economic blockade. The few sections that discuss normalization of Cuba-US relations — without being complicit with Castroism — are much more respectful of Cubans than the avalanche of editorials from The New York Times, or the campaigns by NGOs that from Miami to Washington DC want to capitalize on the pretend-changes in Cuba, on the auto-transition of power to power and not of law to law, of a tired Castroism to a dynastic, post-Castroism with the literal blood-heirs of the Castros at the helm.

Section 205 of the Act lists in legal language the minimal characteristics needed to jump-start our delayed democracy: Legalize political activity. Liberate political prisoners. Commit to holding free elections. Establish independence among the branches of the State. Legalize workers’ unions. Allow free individual expression and a free press. Respect private property. Protect the rights of citizens on the Island and in Exile.

In that risky context wherein a State capitalism is constructed in Cuba which is no less totalitarian than communism (which is another form of centralized capitalism), perhaps it would be pertinent for Cubans — with a voice empowered by their labor for liberty — to demand of democracies not just one but many laws for liberty — so that the Hierarchs of Havana — who would never sit at a table of reconciliation because they do not recognize their enemies as anything more than potential exterminations to be carried out — will at least feel some effective, legal pressure against their opaque tactics. Thus an unequivocal sign would be given that they do not bear any kind of legitimacy — because 56 years of governing in their belligerent, ill-advised and manipulative manner, are more than enough.

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

5 December 2014

Two hours with the New York Times’ Ernesto Londoño / 14ymedio

Ernesto Londoño

Ernesto Londoño

Our team had a conversation with the New York Times journalist who has authored the editorials about Cuba.

14ymedio, 1 December 2014 — Ernesto Londoño, who authored six editorials on Cuba published recently by the New York Times engaged in a friendly conversation on Saturday with a part of the 14ymedio team, in the hotel where he is staying in Havana.

Our intention was to interview him, but he told us the rules of his media prohibit his giving interviews without previous consultation. He also declined our proposal to take photos. Instead, he was eager to listen to our opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. There were two hours of conversation dedicated to refining, enriching and debating the controversial ideas that the newspaper has addresses in his editorials.

The following is a brief synthesis of what was said there, arranged by topics and ascribed to the author of each opinion.

Journalism

Yoani Sánchez: Cubans are going to need a great deal of information to avoid falling into the hands of another authoritarianism. In 14ymedio we are including a plurality of voices, for example on the issue of the embargo. We leave it to the reader to form his own opinion from a variety of information.

Reinaldo Escobar: The official Cuban press, which is all the press, there are no public media, they are private property of the Communist Party. Now, has there been a change? Yes, there has been a change. Since a few years ago the newspaper Granma has had a weekly section with letters by readers where you find criticism of bureaucrats, things that don’t work or prices at the markets. But look, the emphasis is on the self-employed markets.

So far I have not read a profound criticism of the prices at the convertible peso markets that the Government has, which are abusive. Nor can you talk about the legitimacy of our rulers or the impracticality of the system. Here are two big taboos, and in the third place, the topic of political repression. If they report on a repudiation rally, they show it as something spontaneous on the part of the people, without telling how the political police were behind it, organizing it all.

Miriam Celaya: There are changes indeed. The problem is that there are real and nominal changes, and these changes are generally nominal. Now everyone in Cuba can legally stay in a hotel, which before was forbidden. They never explained why it was forbidden before. But Cubans cannot really afford the luxury of a hotel stay, with wages being what they are; nor can they buy a car, a house, or travel. The problem with the reforms is that they are unrealistic for the vast majority of Cubans. They are a government investment in order to buy time.

There are two of those reforms that are particularly harmful and discriminatory for Cubans. One is the foreign investment law, which is explicitly for foreign investors and it does not allow Cubans to invest; and the other is a new Labor Code which does not acknowledge autonomy, the right to strike, and which spells out explicitly that Cuban workers cannot freely enter into contracts with potential companies investing in Cuba, which constitutes a restraint and a brake.

Víctor Ariel González: Yes, things are changing, but we ask ourselves if really those changes offer a brighter horizon and why people keep leaving, even more are going than before.

More Apathetic Youth?

Miriam Celaya: It is a backlash against ideological saturation, a submissiveness which conditioned almost every act of your life to obedience, to political subordination, whether picking a university career, a job or an appliance, anything. Everything was a slogan, everything a roadblock. This has subsided somewhat, but previously, it was impossible to take a step without hearing “Motherland or death, we will triumph” and go, go… The investigations they undertook to see if you belonged to the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution… the youth of today have not experienced that bombardment of “the enemy that harasses us.” I did not bring up my kids in that, on the contrary, I tried to detoxify them. So this generation, the children of the parents of disenchantment, grew up devoid of that and are at a more pragmatic level, even at a marketing one, whose greatest dream is to leave the country.

Economy

Eliécer Ávila: The law governing the leasing (in usufruct) of lands for farmers to work them was the basis of a plan for increasing food production and lowering prices — so that the average salary for a day’s work might be more than just three plantains.

I come from the banana plantations of El Yarey de Vázquez, in Puerto Padre, Las Tunas. The nation’s food supply is the most critical element in our collective anger. In January of last year, a pound of onions cost 8 Cuban pesos (CUPs). Later, between March and April, the price rose to 15. In May it increased to 25 CUPs and now, the onion has disappeared from low-income neighborhoods. It can only be found in certain districts such as Miramar, at five convertible pesos (CUCs) for 10 onions — more expensive than in Paris — while the monthly Cuban salary still averages under 20 CUCs per month).

I know very few farmers who even own a bicycle. However, any young person who joins up with the Ministry of State Security is in no time riding around on a Suzuki motorcycle.

Embargo

Yoani Sánchez: When talking about the end of the embargo, there is talk of a step that the White House must take, and for me I don’t care for the idea that what happens in my country depends on what happens in the White House. It hurts my Cuban pride, to say that the plans for my future, for my childrens’ future, and for the publication of 14ymedio depend on what Obama does. I am concentrating on what is going to happen in the Plaza of the Revolution and what civil society here is going to do. So for me I don’t want to bet on the end of the embargo as the solution. I want to see when we will have freedom of expression, freedom of association and when they will remove the straitjacket from economic freedom in this country.

Miriam Celaya: The reasons for the establishment of the embargo are still in effect, which were the nationalizing of American companies in Cuba without proper compensation. That this policy, in the limelight for such a long time, has subsequently become a tug of war is another thing. But those of us with gray hair can remember that in the 70’s and 80’s we were under the Soviet protectorate. Because we talk a lot about sovereignty, but Cuba has never been sovereign. Back then, Soviet subsidies were huge and we hardly talked about the embargo. It was rarely mentioned, maybe on an anniversary. Fidel Castro used to publicly mock the embargo in all forums.

Reinaldo Escobar: They promised me that we were going to have a bright future in spite of the blockade and that was due among other things to the fact that the nation had recovered their riches, confiscating them from the Americans. So what was going to bring that future was what delayed it.

Miriam Celaya: The issue remains a wildcard for the Cuban government, which, if it has such tantrums about it, it’s because it desperately needs for it to be lifted, especially with regards to the issue of foreign investments. I am anti-embargo in principle, but I can see that ending it unilaterally and unconditionally carries with it greater risks than the benefits it will supposedly provide.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez: The official justification says that as we are a blockaded country so we have the Gag Law. Because we are under siege and “in the besieged square, dissidence is treason.” There are those who believe that if the embargo is lifted that justification would end. But you have to say that this system has been very effective in finishing off the mechanisms for publicly analyzing the embargo, it has killed off independent institutions.

Then, how will people be able to channel discontent and non-conformity with the continued repression the day after the lifting of the embargo?

Reinaldo Escobar: They will have another argument for keeping repression when the embargo is lifted. Write it down, because “this will be the test” as they say around here: “Now that the Americans have the chance to enter Cuba with greater freedom, now that they can buy businesses and the embargo is over, now we do have to take care of the Revolution.” That will be the argument.

Repression

Yoani Sánchez: In this country people are very afraid. Including not knowing they’re afraid, because they have lived with it for so long they don’t know that this is called “fear.” Fear of betrayal, of being informed on, of not being able to leave the country, of being denied a promotion to a better job, not being able to board a plane, that a child won’t be allowed to go to the university, because “the university is for Revolutionaries.” The fears are so many and so vast that Cubans today have fear in their DNA.

Eliécer Ávila: We also need to understand how Cubans make their living. Ninety percent of Cubans do not work where their calling or vocation would take them, but rather where they can survive and make do. In this country, to be a Ph.D. in the social sciences is truly to be the idiot of the family. This is the same guy who can’t throw a quinceañera party for his daughter, who can’t take his family out to dinner at a restaurant. The successful person in this society is the manager of a State-owned cafeteria. This is because he controls the supplies of chicken, oil, rice, etc. and sells the surplus on the black market — which is really how he makes his living. The fundamental tactic to create social immobility in this country is [for the State] to make as many people as possible feel guilty about something.

Self-employment

Eliécer Ávila: People think that because there is now self-employment in this country, that there is a way to be more independent of the State — which is true up to a point. But the question is, how does a self-employed business person survive? I had to leave my ice cream business. After having received my degree in information technology, I was sent to the interior as a sort of punishment for having an incident with Ricardo Alarcón, who at that time was the President of the National Assembly. It was a turning point for me as I tried to become one of the first self-employed people in my town. I had a 1967 German ice cream maker. The process requires 11 products — including coagulant, which someone had to steal from the ice cream factory. Or rather, I should say, “recover,” because in this country we do not call that kind of thing “stealing.” The milk had to be taken from the daycare center, or from the hospital, so that it could be sold to me. The point is, there simply is no other way.

All of these private businesses that are springing up and flourishing are sustained by illegality.

Yoani Sánchez: … Or in the capital that comes clandestinely from abroad, especially from the exile. There are restaurants in Havana that could be in New York or Berlin, but those have received foreign money or are engaging in “money laundering” from the corruption and from the highest leadership itself.

Eliécer Ávila: Many of these businesses are created so that government officials can place their children, grandchildren and friends in them, people who are no longer interested in the creation of the “New Man” nor in achieving a communist society. Rather, they want to launder their money and insert themselves in society like any other person.

I do not know a single communist worker in Cuba who has been able to launch a business. Those committed Revolutionaries, who gave their all, are today the people who don’t have onions in their kitchens.

Yoani Sánchez: Self-employment has been presented as one of the major indicators of the “reforms” or the Raul regime changes. But on the issue of self-employment many things are not considered: they have no access to a wholesale market, they can’t import raw material nor directly export their products. Thus, the annoyance all Cubans have with the customs restrictions that went into effect in September. The Government justifies is saying that “every country has this kind of legislation,” but in those countries there are laws for commercial imports.

Miriam Celaya: They made a special regulation for foreign investors, so they can import, but not for Cubans.

Yoani Sanchez: Another issue that greatly affects the economy is the lack of Internet connection. We’re not just talking about freedom of expression and information or being able to read 14ymedio within Cuba, but that our economy is set back more and more by people not having access to the Internet.

Luzbely Escobar: It’s not only that: Self-employment is authorized only for selling or producing, but the professionals cannot join that sector with their abilities. You cannot be a self-employed lawyer, architect or journalist.

Miriam Celaya: A large administrative body was created to control the self-employed and it is full of corrupt individuals, who are always hovering over these workers to exploit them and relieve them of their gains. Some tell me that there are fixed fees for inspector bribes. Here, even corruption is institutionalized and rated.

Eliécer Ávila: In this country, for everyone who wants to lift his head towards progress, there are ten who want to behead him. There is much talk of “eliminating the middleman.” However, the great middleman is the State itself, which, for example, buys a pound of black beans from the farmer for 1.80 CUPs, then turns around and sells that pound for 12 CUPs at a minimum.

The New York Times Editorials

Eliécer Ávila: It would be a great favor to Cuba if, with the same influence that these editorials are intended to have on the global debate about one topic [the embargo], they also tried to shed light on other topics that are taboo here, but that go right to the heart of what we need as a nation.

Miriam Celaya: I have an idea. Rather than making gestures about the release of Alan Gross, rather than making gestures about making the embargo more flexible, I think that the strongest and clearest gesture that the Cuban government could make would be to liberate public opinion, liberate the circulation of ideas. Citizens should manifest themselves; this is something that is not happening here.

Reinaldo Escobar: Without freedom there is no citizen participation.

Miriam Celaya: What is going on with these editorials? They are still giving prominence to a distorted, biased view, composed of half-truths and lies about what the Cuban reality is. They are still giving prominence to what a government says, and Cuba is not a government. Cuba’s government today is a small group of old men, and when I say “old” it’s because of their way of thinking, of individuals who have remained anchored in discourse rooted in a cold war and belligerence. The Cuban people are not represented in that government.

Yoani Sánchez: I read editorials when they came out but last night went back to read them more calmly. The first editorial is perhaps the most fortunate, because it achieves a balance between one side and the other, but there are some that I think are really pitiful. Such as the one about the “brain drain” because these medical professionals are living a drama in this country that is not recognized in these texts.

First, I am against the concept of the theft of, or brain drain, because it accepts that your brain belongs to someone, to the nation, to the educational structure, or to whoever taught you. I think everyone should decide what to do with his or her own brain.

That editorial gives no space to the economic tragedy experienced by these professionals in Cuba. I know surgeons who may be among the best in their specialty in Latin America and they can’t cross their legs because people would be able to see the holes in their shoes, or they have to operate without breakfast because they can’t afford breakfast.

Miriam Celaya: There is something in that editorial that cuts and offends me, and it’s that slight of condescension, for instance, in this quote: “Havana could pay its workers more generously abroad if the medical brigades continue to represent an important source of income”… But, gentlemen! To do so is to accept the slavery of those doctors. It is to legitimize the implied right of a government to use its medical personnel as slaves for hire. How can that be?

Yoani Sánchez: With regards to these medical missions, I must say that the human character, no one can question it, when it comes to saving lives. But there has to be a political side and that is that these people are used as a kind of medical diplomacy, to gain followers, and because of this many countries vote at the United Nations on behalf of the Government of Cuba, which has practically hijacked many countries because they have Cuban doctors in their territories. It becomes an element of political patronage.

Another aspect is the economic, which is pushing doctors to leave because they can see the appeal of having a better salary, they can import appliances, pots for their home, a computer. Also, every month their bank account gets a deposit of convertible pesos, which they only get to keep if they return to Cuba and don’t desert from the mission. From a labor and ethical point of view it is very questionable.

Another issue is the negative impact it has on the Cuban healthcare system.

Luzbely Escobar: You go to a clinic and it is closed, or of the three doctors on duty, only one is there because the other two are in Venezuela, and then there is total chaos.

Miriam Celaya: In these editorials, I have read “Cuba” instead of “the Cuban government,” and I have read that the members of “the dissidence” were considered “charlatans.” These definitions, in addition to being disrespectful, put everyone in the same bag. Here, as everywhere else, society is complex, and, while it’s true that there are charlatans among the opposition – and among the government too — there are a lot of honest people who are working very faithfully for a better Cuba, with the greatest sacrifice and risk.

When they demonize it, then it seems that they are speaking the government’s language, as if they had written this in a room of the Party Central Committee and not in a newsroom of a country in the free world. Such epithets, coming from prestigious media, end up creating opinion. That’s a big responsibility.

Dissidence

Yoani Sánchez: In this country the nation has been confused with the government, the homeland with a party, and the country with a man. Then this man, this party and this government have taken the right to decide on behalf of everyone, whether it’s about growing a tomato or a cachucha pepper, or what ideological line the whole nation is going to follow.

As a consequence, those of us who have ideas different from those of that party, that government, and that man in power, are declared to be “stateless” or “anti-Cuban” and charged with wanting to align ourselves with a foreign power. It is as if now, that the Democratic party is governing the United States, all Republicans were declared to be anti-American. This is, like all the countries in the world, plural. If you walk down the street you are going to meet every kind of person: anarchist, liberal, social democrat, Christian democrat and even annexationist. Why can’t this so plural discourse be expressed in a legal way? And why do people like us have to be excluded from speaking and offering opinions?

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison, MLK, MJ Porter and Norma Whiting

Academic Cruise Ship from U.S. Arrives in Cuba / 14ymedio

place

Students from Semester at Sea at the University of Havana. Photo Credit: Semester at Sea.

14ymedio | Havana | 29 November 2014 — (Supplemented with information from EFE news agency) The M.V. Explorer academic cruise ship from Semester at Sea arrived today [Saturday, 11/29] in Havana bearing 624 students. The students, hailing from 248 U.S. universities, will participate in a program of cultural exchanges, conferences and excursions.

Frank González, rector of the University of Havana, greeted the group upon their arrival. The students were then transported to the grand staircase of the university where they were given another welcome.

On their first day in Cuba, the students were scheduled to attend conferences on US/Cuba relations, and to view an evening performance in the Havana Amphitheater.

On Sunday, the students were to have their choice among excursions to provinces such as Matanzas, Pinar del Río and Villa Clara. This last one will include stops in Remedios, the Monument to Ché, and the eco-tourism/art project, NaturArte. The Trinidad itinerary includes a stop at Topes de Collantes in the Escambray mountains, while in Matanzas they will be able to visit Playa Girón in the Bay of Pigs.

In Havana City, the students are scheduled to visit Ciudad Escolar Libertad (Freedom School City), the old Columbia military encampment that, after the Revolution, was converted into a school. There will also be a tour through La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) that will explain the restoration process for various buildings and streets in the city’s historic district.

The M.V. Explorer will remain docked in the port of Havana until Dec. 3.

Apparently, the program will provide these university students with a very specific vision of Cuba, one that celebrates the “achievements” of the Revolution in the areas of culture and education, among others.

May these students also be able to maximize their brief stay on the Island so that they may compare this ideal vision with the reality that we Cubans live every day.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

An Epidemic of Editorials / Fernando Damaso

Archive photo

A few days ago the sixth editorial by the New York Times appeared regarding relations between the Cuban and North American governments. I believe that never has a country so small and relatively unimportant merited so much – and such sustained – attention. This smells of strange interests on both shores.

The editorial writer who undoubtedly pulls down an annual salary in the five figures, must feel fulfilled. It is said, although I cannot confirm it, that he was over here seeking official information for his writings. This would not be surprising.

To cast blame on the embargo for all of Cuba’s problems — even for the exodus of our professionals lured by United States government policies — lacks originality. It is merely repeating the same worn arguments made by the Cuban government during almost 56 years in order to sweep under the rug its own errors, economic failures, misguided adventures, blunders, etc., which have resulted in the prolonged political, economic and social crisis that Cuba endures.

It is true that artists, sports figures, doctors and many other professionals seize the slightest opportunity to leave the country in search of better living conditions. The majority of our youth do this, too. But this does not occur only because North American government policies offers them incentives them do do so.

Rather, it is the terrible situation in their country: no housing, miserable salaries — even after raises — and, what’s worse, no real opportunities for bettering their circumstances.  Every human being has but one life to live, and it cannot be squandered believing in outdated lectures about the future — always about the future — when what is truly important is the present. This is a concept that apparently eludes the editorial writer.

What’s more, if we truly look at reality, only a portion of Cuba’s medical missions abroad are provided freely. The majority are paid-for by the governments of countries that benefit — a juicy business for the Cuban authorities, who even describe them as better revenue-generators than sugar harvests because they provide greater sums of foreign currency. Between 60 and 75 per cent of the total salary payments made by these governments for the services of Cuban doctors remain in the hands of the State, which then apportions the remainder as wages — and even that comes not entirely as hard cash, but rather as rights for obtaining housing or consumer goods, at the artificially high prices set by the State. Something similar happens with artists and sports figures working abroad.

In any event, although many of these professionals leave the country, the Cuban authorities never lose. This is because after the emigres settle in other countries, they begin sending monetary remittances to their relatives, who then spend them primarily in government establishments where the prices are set high, the stated objective being to maximize the collection of foreign currency.

The editorials will continue and the official Cuban press will go on reprinting them in their entirety, down to the last comma and period. It would be helpful if those who influence public policy and public opinion, whether from the inside or the outside, would not allow themselves to be misled.

Nobody is against change, and even less so if such change were to lead to the restoration of normal relations between the governments. However, this cannot be achieved on the backs of the Cuban people without their true and complete participation.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

21 November 2014

Kill, Already, If You Are Going to Kill / Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuban State Security — that is, the Castroist assassins of the State — just as in Havana, have not ceased from monitoring and stigmatizing me for even one minute since I have been in the US.

It is the sole legacy of a dictatorship that from its inception disintegrated our nation in an irreversible manner.

But we Cubans are free. But we Cubans do not fear Evil. Castro has no more Cubans left. And now we are going to relaunch another country, another Cuba with no traces of Castroism, be it on the Island or in some other spot. There are plans. It is enough to merely awaken the political imagination, to break the bonds of our thinking that the dictatorship is the dictatorship.

And the page of Castroism will remain congealed as a sort of North Korea of the Caribbean, barbaric, abusive, unnecessary.

There will be another Havana, Brothers and Sisters.

Our children will be handsome, gorgeous and free. Never will they know the horror of so many generations destroyed by the person of Fidel and his blackmailed and salaried agents, as well as those already thirsting for lives that are whole, and the hopes of living them. Castroism is a criminal habit.

A Cuba will come that manifests permanent values: Good, Beauty, Truth, Kindness, Love — that which comes easily, which is common, which is natural.

If the assassins of visionaries do not permit me to arrive alive on that shore, there will be another Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo who will love all free Cuban men and women as much as I love them.

Castroism’s crimes are numbered.

Cubansummatum est!

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

14 November 2014

Miami in a graffito / Luis Felipe Rojas

We went to Miami’s Wynwood District today, a zone of street art, of abundant graffiti. Miami is also redeemed by these beauties and daubings, by this joy that is the festival of color mediated by no other rule than the imagination.

We walked today from one point to another in the district accopanied by the benevolence of a sun that heralds good times. I avoided taking pictures of the compositions and the depths already discussed in books — to gaze upon these lovely things and then press the shutter is to try one’s luck at Russian roulette.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

What else can you expect from a TEDx in Havana? / 14ymedio, Victor Ariel Gonzalez

TEDx event in Havana. (Víctor Ariel González)

TEDx event in Havana. (Víctor Ariel González)

14ymedio, Victor Ariel González, Havana, 18 November 2014 — I have spent several days trying to digest the mass of information coming out of the first TEDxHavana, where I was present as just another spectator. However, no matter how much I ruminate on it, I just can’t seem to swallow it. So before it gets too old, I must write this article, especially before its content becomes more toxic — because the more I consider the issue, the uglier I find it, and the worse I make it out to be.

To give the reader the opportunity to escape from this article early on, I will break the ice now with a phrase that sums up my general impression: the first TEDxHavana was, in essence, a fiasco. I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event. In the final analysis, more important and lasting things have been spoiled than the five hours of TEDx in the Covarrubias Hall of the National Theatre.

Paradoxically, if each presentation is considered separately, it can be said that there were more positive aspects to the event than negative ones. The diversity of topics discussed lent comprehensiveness to the program, although I still did not encounter Cubans there willing to say anything truly daring. On a personal note, I found interesting the presentations by Yudivián Almeida, X Alfonso and Natalia Bolívar, not to mention others that also shone, for the most part.

Nonetheless, there were various elements that detracted greatly from the proceedings. As the hours went by and it became evident that there would not be much more to the event, it was obvious that the plurality of discourse was limited to those differences that have been deemed acceptable by officialdom — nothing more. Thus, the first TEDxHavana failed to cross the frontiers of political censure.

Now, going on to the details, some of the talks were quite poor or made use of quite unfortunate phraseology. One example was when the architects Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán, in a presentation that they obviously had not rehearsed sufficiently, called the inhabitants of Havana an “elitist vanguard” because they get around in boteros — taxis — (“those incredible machines”), or that it is a “luxury” to look in the eyes of “he who brings the packet” instead of downloading movies from the Internet. In other words: “It’s so cool to be backward!”

I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event.

According to them, “all Cubans, when they hop aboard a botero, are aware that they are becoming a statistic.” The hushed derisive laughter emanating from the public seated behind me – who had their peak moment at the statement, “we invented ‘vintage’”– did not cease until those two inhabitants of a Havana that I don’t know, but that intrigues me, left the stage.

Eugene Jarecki added another bit of fantasy. The documentarian stated, in English, that Cubans are, above all, proud of their educational and healthcare systems, and very happy to live here. Of course, the more than half a million souls who in the past 20 years have emigrated to the US alone do not count. The same speaker said that he would not like to see how “savage capitalism” might arrive here and turn us into “just another Puerto Rico.” As he displayed postcards of Cuba such as those sold to tourists, Jarecki pretended to give me a tour of my own country.

Another North American suggested that there should be many, many independent film festivals; that “every individual should get a camera and produce a film” and show it “in his own cinema” or, simply, project it “onto the largest screen he can find.” This was Richard Peña, who obviously does not know that just very recently a government decree prohibited private video screens.

If anything tarnished the event, it was also its emcee, supposedly charged with threading together the various presentations and providing some dynamism to the endeavor. More than that, Amaury Pérez bestowed hugs and kisses upon almost everyone who arrived to give a talk. Few were able to escape his incontinent expressions of affection. As if that were not enough, we also had to endure his jokes in poor taste.

With all that occurred that Saturday afternoon, I was left with many unanswered questions because the organizers left no room in the program for voicing doubts. This was, above all, because neither CuCú Diamantes nor Andrés Levin wanted to pay any attention to me – first, to keep the matter under a “low profile” and second, because they wanted to have pictures taken. Frankly, I, too, would have ignored some nobody who might suddenly shout the question, “What would it take to be a presenter here next year?” – the beginner’s mistake of an amateur journalist.

The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir.

The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir; as a forum for some political campaign or other; and, according to Amaury Pérez, to demonstrate that “yes, there can be dialogue between Cubans and North Americans.” It turns out that some still need such demonstrations.

TEDx Havana was, among other things, an elite event orchestrated by show business denizens, as well as an opportunity to sell national beers as the “modest” price of 2 CUCs (which is 10% of the median monthly salary). Ingenious idea of the sponsors of this event! If at the next one these people give a talk titled “How to Cheat the Thirsty” I will applaud them until I burst.

The fact of a TEDx in Havana does not lack a certain transcendence, in spite of it all. An architecture student told me that she had not liked several presentations, but that it was “magical” to see the enormous sign with its red and white letters, the organization’s logo on an actual stage and not on a screen. Upon the conclusion of that inaugural gala of TED in Cuba, where a couple of extemporaneous versifiers improvised a rhyme for “our five heroes, prisoners of the Empire,” I ran into a friend who calls himself a “compulsive consumer of TED Talks” who confessed, visibly annoyed, that he “expected more from TED in Havana.”

May I be honest? I expected nothing more.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison