Hablemos Press, Eduardo Herrera, Havana, 30 August 2015 — During a recent broadcast of Televisión Cubana’s national news program, the government denounced the first ever Cuba Internet Freedom Conference, scheduled for 12-13 September in the city of Miami, which members of Cuban civil society will attend to participate in the debate.
The argument utilized for the occasion is that, with the interest in establishing the World Wide Web on the Island, the US is endeavoring to topple the revolutionary government.
Of the millions of people interested in Cubans being able to fully enjoy the Internet in our country, the most interested are we ourselves, who for more than 50 years have been in the dark with regard to world developments. continue reading
During his visit to the Island, among the points that Barack Obama emphasized pertained to US assistance in communications, and facilitating the use of the Internet—which is currently still immensely restricted by the authorities.
The Cuban government’s installation of fee-based WiFi service in many areas of the country does not yet meet the needs of the citizenry.
The hourly charges for the service are 2 CUCs, equivalent to more than two dollars. In a country where the average citizen’s salary is less than one dollar per day, this is a high price for a service that is inexpensive for many people around the world, and in some cases is even free.
One must also consider that access depends on a server, one which allows the transmission of convenient information as well inconvenient information, as well as the connection’s low speed.
It was said that, some day, home service would be implemented, but this promise has yet to be met—all developments take place at an exceedingly slow pace. The State seeks to maintain its monopoly on information at all costs, violating even the people’s right to be informed.
Hablemos Press, Armando Soler Hernández, 1 August, 2016 — Timothy Garton Ash is a well-known journalist, editorial writer and British researcher. His books on history are notable, above all for their distinctive focus on recent contemporary history.
During the 1970s, Ash became interested in researching the period of anti-Hitler resistance in Nazi Germany. While seeking firsthand information, he resided for a considerable time in what were the two halves of that European nation divided at the time. continue reading
Years later, following the fall of the so-called “Socialist Camp” and as details began to be known in the West about the police control and espionage waged on the populations hidden behind the “Iron Curtain,” the British historian had the idea of again visiting the territory of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and verifying those facts with his own experience.
In 1992 the infamous archives of the Ministry for State Security in East Germany, the Stasi, were made publicly available. The revelations contained within the enormous cache of documents ignited old and new controversies within a population already in the throes of massive social and political upheaval.
Knowing full well the gigantic number of citizens of the GDR who were spied-on and on whom files were kept, Ash had an idea: what if, being a suspicious individual from “Western Capitalism,” he had also been watched? Was there a file on him?
The historian went to the center where the files were gathered (in a quantity equivalent to 178 km), having been salvaged from the massive intentional destruction carried out by the political police following the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. When the civilian preservation agency in charge of the archives, which is headed by a Protestant pastor, receives an information request, it first confirms whether a Stasi file on the applicant exists. If so, a photocopy is made for the applicant, redacting information on any other person that may appear there but who has no bearing on the applicant’s case.
When the British researcher requested the file that had been created about him, he received the chilling confirmation that he, too, had been spied-on. The code name used by the totalitarian espionage services for him was “Roman.”
What was noteworthy was that the copy of the file contained a high number of reports. All were filled with intelligence about him covering all spheres of his activity while living in the GDR, painstakingly detailed by “extra-official employees,” which is how the Stasi would refer to their informants.
Ash was amazed at the number of documents about him, especially because, as a visitor, he had resided for a relatively short time in the GDR. But the most surprising thing he found was that the majority of the reports concerned persons whom he had known and spent time with, i.e. who became friends, and participated in his researches or socialized with him.
Faced with this incontrovertible evidence, and making a 180-degree turn from his original purpose, he decided to embark on an unusual investigation for his new book: he would interview every one of the informants and functionaries who spied on him. The book he published about this experience is entitled, “The File.”
In conducting interviews, Ash was not seeking to reveal the identity of these persons nor reproach them for what they did. He simply was interested in discovering what motivated them to serve, for the most part, as informants for the despotic regime that also oppressed them, and to know the course their lives took after the years elapsed from the end of the GDR.
The reactions of each member of this long list of ex-“collaborators” upon newly encountering the subject of their spying varied greatly, too much to relate here in this brief space. Suffice it to know that the motives of most of them, arising from the oppressive atmosphere of a totalitarian regime as well as the pressure on them to “collaborate,” were ridiculous and pitiful: to obtain permission to travel to the West; a better job; a special scholarship for a disabled child, and so forth.
The most interesting part was when the British historian interviewed ex-officials of the Stasi who guided and monitored the surveillance they maintained on him the whole time without raising his suspicions. Their justifications for having secretly trailed him for being a suspected spy were absurd and exceeded all such operations they were masterminding, resulting in an enormous cumulative waste of personnel, time and money.
This book will be of great interest to readers concerned with the enjoyment of liberty—those who do not consider it normal to live one’s whole lifetime being watched over by a state and its repressive apparatus, when what is common, natural and right is the other way around.
Facts about the Stasi:
The headquarters occupied 41 buildings. The organization utilized 1,181 houses for its agents, 305 vacation homes; 98 sports facilities; 18,000 apartments for meetings with spies. There were 97,000 agents working for this repressive institution: 2,171 read mail; 1,486 tapped telephones; 8,426 listened-in on telephone conversations and radio transmissions. The Stasi had more than 100,000 active, extra-official “collaborators,” and one million other persons provided information on a sporadic basis. There were secret files on 6 million persons, and being that there is no chip worse than the block, there was a section devoted exclusively to watching the members of the Stasi itself.
During the period between the two world wars (1933-1939), the Gestapo employed only 7,000 agents. However, the population of Nazi Germany (60 million) was more than three times that of the GDR (17 million).
The File: A Personal History (Timothy Garton Ash, Random House, 1997).
The Firm: The Inside History of the Stasi (Gary Bruce, Oxford University Press, 2010).
The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police 1945-1990 (Gens Gieseke, Berghahn Books, 2014).
Angel Santiesteban, 30 March 2016 — The denunciation of the violation of Ángel Santiesteban’s human rights has been accepted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The organization has given the Castro dictatorship a three-month deadline to respond.
– The Editor
[A translation of the letter from the IACHR, addressed to Ángel Santiesteban’s editor, Elisa Tabakman, follows below.] continue reading
14 March 2016
RE: Ángel Lázaro Santiesteban Prats
I have the pleasure of contacting you on behalf of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) regarding the above-cited petition in reference to the situation of Ángel Lázaro Santiesteban Prats in Cuba, which was received by this Executive Secretariat on 13 June 2013.
I hereby inform you that by way of a note dated today, the parts of your petition pertinent to the Government of Cuba have been remitted and a due date of three months has been from the date of transmission of the present communication for a presentation of observations, in accordance with Article 30 of the Rules of the IACHR.
The present information request does not constitute a prejudgment regarding the decision that the IACHR will eventually make on the admissibility of this petition.
Likewise, you are informed that based on Article 40(1) of the Rules of the IACHR, at any phase of the investigation of a petition or case, by its own initiative o upon the request of the parties, the IACHR will make itself available to the petitioners and to the State, with the goal of reaching an amicable solution founded on the respect for human rights established in the American Convention, the American Declaration, and other applicable instruments.
I take this opportunity to give you my most cordial greetings,
Fernando Damaso, 25 July 2016 — Tomorrow, a new anniversary of the 26th of July–that failed insurrectional action of 1953–will be commemorated. This date, one of the principal ones of the Castro regime’s calendar, served as the title and standard for the political movement that emerged from the event. The province of Sancti Spíritus has been selected as the headquarters for the celebration–not for being the best choice, but rather for being the least bad one.
There will be “popular” gatherings, official festivities, cultural merrymaking, and even speeches with pretensions of historical authenticity. The script is repeated every year, varying only with regard to the secondary actors, being that the principals have remained in their roles for 58 years, despite the boredom they provoke among the spectators.
Throughout the course of a few days the inhabitants of Sancti Spíritus will enjoy abundant beer, one or another foodstuff, and much dance music, in addition to the traditional carnaval. Afterwards, all will return to the usual boring dailyness, with its meager wages, shortages, street violence, abuses, bureaucracy, and many other misfortunes–and the commemoration, as it does every year, will remain forgotten until the next one, if indeed it takes place, in a new chosen province.
Hablemos Press, Cuban Journalists and others* (see below), 13 May 2016 — Officials of the Cuban Communist Party hired a Swiss attorney to establish offshore companies for their global business activities, the Panama Papers reveal. The unprecedented leak of 11.5-million documents from the legal firm Mossack Fonseca in Panama exposed the offshore actions and suspicious financial transactions of chiefs of state, government officials and celebrities worldwide.
Cuban law does not include any specific legislation regarding State functionaries and offshore enterprises, however such activities would be questionable in the strictly communist country. continue reading
The documents reveal that Albert-Louis Dupont Willemin, a lawyer from an aristocratic Swiss family, was a high-level legal advisor and intermediary in more than 20 offshore concerns with commercial ties to Cuba. Dupont Willemin, who also represents Guatemala as honorary consul in Geneva, created two offshore companies, located in the British Virgin Islands, via the registered agent Mossack Fonseca—Curtdale Investments Limited, and Ardpoint Company, Inc. Dupont Willemin’s office stated that he had no interest in commenting on this matter.
Hernán Aguilar Parra, member of the [Cuban] National Assembly of People’s Power, appears in the Panama Papers as director of both companies. Parra ceased being a member of the Assembly in November 2015, a year after the general elections of 2014.
According to the leaked information, the tax havens are associated with Grupo Empresarial Tabacuba, a state-run company that controls all production and sale of Cuban tobacco. Parra also served as director of Tabacuba until 2015. It is believed that Parra has left the tobacco business.
“The deputies (of the Cuban assembly) have restrictions,” said a spokesperson from the Cubalex Center for Legal Information. “The function of the deputies is ad honores (they do not seek compensation) and cannot be utilized for personal gain. It is one of the duties established by existing law.” The spokesperson continued, “The law does not impose on the managers or directors of companies any restriction with respect to establishing relations with private firms. However, it would not be very well regarded for a State official, taking advantage of the function of his position, to establish commercial relations with private companies.”
The former director of production for Tabacuba, Inocente Osvaldo Encarnación, was also tied to the offshore Ardpoint Company Inc. During a telephone interview, Osvaldo Encarnación confirmed that he held shares in a company, but declined to name it. Likewise, he also refused to comment on his ties to Ardpoint.
The records of Mossack Fonseca were obtained by the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with colleagues of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)
Although the leaked data do not indicate any specific violation of the law, they do offer an intriguing perspective on the web of relationships.
Corporación Panamericana, headquartered in Havana, is the responsible party for providing the services of Mossack Fonseca to Cuban companies. According to the documents, the Cuban attorney Katiuska Penado Moreno has been the firm’s legal representative. During a brief telephone interview, Penado Moreno claimed to have no ties “currently” to Mossack Fonseca nor to Corporación Panamericana.
Penado Moreno’s name appeared in the Panama Papers in relation to four offshore companies: Miramar Investment Corporation Ltd., Mercaria Trading, Caribbean Sugar Trader, y Sanford Financial Management. Penado Moreno appears as “beneficial owner”—a legal term for when property rights belong to one person despite the legal title belonging to another. Dupont Willemin appears as director of the four firms.
Through Mossack Fonseca, Dupont Willemin founded Racuza S.A., a firm that sells computers, peripherals and software to the Cuban market.
The general director of foreign investments for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Commerce, Déborah Rivas Saavedra, is named in the Panama Papers as director of Racuza. Similarly, she appears as director of Miramar Investment Corporation Ltd and Caribbean Sugar Trader. After two days of trying to contact Rivas Saavedra, her office directed requests for information to Roberto Berrier Castro, director of the Center for Foreign Commerce and Investment. Berrier said that he had no information on the matter.
Among Racuza’s assistant directors are José L Fernández de Cossío, former Cuban ambassador to Japan, as well as Porfirio Medero Paiva and Hermes Vaillant, two Cuban attorneys who work for Panamericana. Paiva, Cossío and Vaillant also are listed as directors of Miramar Investment Corporation Ltd and Caribbean Sugar Trader. It was not possible to locate any of them for comments.
The Panama Papers expose the legal agreements between the Cuban government and Mossack Fonseca.
International Juridical Consultants (CJI) is a Cuban law firm that lends assistance and legal consultation to privately-owned businesses and companies. It is also a legal partner of Mossack Fonseca. The firm became the principal agent between the Cuban government and Mossack Fonseca in charge of providing legal services.
Upon being contacted, CJI directed information requests to attorney René de Jesús Burguet Rodríguez, whose name also appears in an email exchange between CJI and Mossack Fonseca. No reply had been received as of press time.
The leaked data include other links between officials and offshore enterprises.
The Union of Hydraulic Research and Projects is a consulting service of the National Institute of Hydraulic Resources (INRH), the government agency in charge of hydraulic networks and sewerage systems on the Island. The Union appears as a shareholder in Técnica Hidráulica, an offshore company headquartered in the British Virgin Islands and created through Corporación Panamericana. The company, property of a commercial enterprise of INRH called Técnica Hidráulica S.A., operated until 2015, when, according to the Panama Papers, it was liquidated.
CJI was in charge, according to a contract, of representing the legal affairs of the offshore companies of Técnica Hidráulica S.A., which are run by Mossack Fonseca.
The Panama Papers identified Wilfredo Leyva Armesto, also known as William Leyva, as the director of Técnica Hidráulica. Leyva could not be contacted for comments.
A spokesperson for Cuba’s National Assembly said that they could not respond to questions related to the Panama Papers.
*This work is a collaboration of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Independent Cuban Journalists, Cubanet and Diario de Cuba.
Hablemos Press, Leonel Rodriguez Lima, Havana, 16 April 2016 — It has been much-emphasized by Cuban officialdom that we are in the process of constructing an indigenous or distinctly Cuban socialism, prosperous and sustainable. But the phrase could turn out to be a hollow one, being that its realization continues to be delayed as time goes on without any concrete progress being attained to lend it credibility. This concept deserves some analysis.
Time and again there have been attempts to codify, at the worldwide level, a theory of socialism and communism. Hybrid models of the two have been tried, which have concluded in total disaster. With regard to our country, it is not precisely socialist ideas that govern us. From the start this process was distinguished by a strong Stalinist influence on how we faced the future, and whose political totalitarianism contaminated continue reading
any attempt to legitimize and develop an alternative that would signify social and economic advancement. The fact is that without a systemic change, nothing is possible.
This coming 16 April marks 55 years since the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution was proclaimed, and of a profound crisis that has been its shadow ever since. This time span was more than sufficient to achieve a state of wellbeing in keeping with the needs and aspirations of the most humble among us. But were it not for some attempts that brought about paltry results, the venture could be categorized as unfruitful, and this period in the life of the Cuban nation declared a loss.
When the conditions of economic and social decline reached critical mass, then the complaints of the people were echoed in the highest echelons of our society. Our “government think tanks” let loose their imagination and created the magical “Guidelines” which, according to them, will move our distressed economy forward and lay a strong foundation for the future of our descendants.
Once the Guidelines were officially set over economic and social policy, the slogan for the new historical moment was rolled out: to achieve the construction in Cuba of a “Prosperous and Sustainable Socialism.”
But this new socialism which we have not had the pleasure to meet has already given off its poisonous essence and shown two completely different faces. On the one hand, it pretends to give a vision of a do-gooder Cuban society replete with opportunities for everyone. On the other, it reveals this society’s worst defects and starkest truths. Therefore it begs the question, who is entitled to enjoy the prosperity, and who must provide the support for this prosperity?
Our national hero, José Martí, poetically compared the homeland and its citizens to a statue. And, as if to curb any ambition to power that might seek to arise above the public interest, he expressed that “the homeland is an altar and not a pedestal.”
What is happening is very simple. The current options for development and wellbeing are for a few citizens within an inner circle, which constitutes the “establishment.” This is the highest link or pinnacle of Cuban society, to which access is exceedingly restricted.
Those within the circle are the authentically privileged, who maintain this rank while they exhibit an abjectly opportunistic and demagogic conduct. These are the ones who are called to prosperously enjoy a full life—that is, they pretend to be the altar of the figurative statue—and to hoard the promised Cuban prosperity, personalizing it for themselves.
Outside of these are the poor and irredeemable majorities for whom the riches left over by the insatiable elites will never be enough. These popular majorities constitute the pedestal that sustains the fictitious society which comprises the statue, the many who must sacrifice themselves so that the aspirations of a few may flourish.
We should not be fooled by this new socialist alternative. What is left to each one of us is to ask ourselves where our place will be in this heralded socialism: will it be in the segment of the prosperous altar, or in the enormous supporting pedestal?
Hablemos Press, Dr. Eduardo Herrera, Havana, 16 April 2016 – Juventud Rebelde newspaper, in its “Letters” section—in which they usually publish cases of social injustice or irregularities—ran an article this past 16 March titled, “Inability to Differentiate,” which recounts how a research scientist with the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute was slapped with a fine for trying to sell an Argentine national soccer team jersey.
The scientist’s name is Marité Bello Corredor, resident of No. 1714, Seventh Street, between Second and Acosta Avenue, Casino Deportivo district, Havana. At the time of the incident, she was on unpaid leave, caring for her sick mother. continue reading
Bello decided to sell the garment because she needed the money, but despite explaining to the inspectors that she is a worker, they imposed a fine on her of 1,500 Cuban pesos (about US$60), according to the article by journalist José Alejandro Rodríguez.
The columnist sees this event as an injustice, and I do not doubt that it is, because the matter pertains to a scientist, someone who makes significant contributions to society. Regardless, in my opinion there is an error in focus, because as it turns out, everyone, equally, should abide by the laws of the land, being that all citizens enjoy equal rights and are subject to equal duties, according to the Constitution.
What is shameful (for the Cuban state) is to see someone who makes a great social contribution having to sell an article of clothing at a bargain price just to survive.
In Cuba, many people who provide important benefits to society do not make a salary that can guarantee them a dignified life. Therefore they are liable to commit crimes without knowing.
A scientific researcher can make approximately US$60 a month—insufficient to feed himself properly, let alone feed a family, even a small one.
Personally, I would have titled José Alejandro Rodríguez’ article, “Incapacity to Recognize,” being that in our country, people’s work is not recognized, because workers are not compensated as they should be. Thus, citizens are discouraged from making greater contributions to society.
Meanwhile, Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, president of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) continues documenting–with an artisan’s meticulousness and well-sharpened pencil–every blow, act of repudiation, police harrassment, and finally compiles the details on every Cuban sent to prison under obscure circumstances that appear to be politically motivated. continue reading
CCDHRN published–mere hours after Castro’s misstep during the March 21 press conference with Barack Obama–a current list of Cuban political prisoners, including first and last names, detention dates, charges, sentences, and a few observations. CCDHRN provided the current list to 14ymedio two weeks prior to when the organization had planned to release its regular update; the General’s slip-up motivated them to issue an advance report.
There are 89 political prisoners. The flimsiest causes could end up being up charged with aggression after having bean beaten with military force, or receiving a years-long sentence for an indictment of public disorder following an act of repudiation–if one takes into account that the state’s case is based on the fact that activists are labeled as ones who provoke “the impassioned public” with their peaceful protests.
“The most frequent crimes for which government opponents are imprisoned are contempt, pre-criminal social dangerousness, resisting arrest, disobedience, or attack. If at the moment when a citizen is detained there is any violence, trying to block the blows with his hands can be interpreted as resistance. If in the scuffle the detainee elbows a police offider, this is considered an attempted attack,” Sánchez explained.
Throughout the 2000s I visited the CCDHRN headquarters in the Miramar neighborhood on several occasions, to have a drink of water, or to access books and magazines banned by the regime. I always witnessed the calls for help coming in from the most diverse points of the country: a lady who cried for her son whose ribs were broken because he pleaded for medical attention; the son of a prisoner of the Black Spring who denounced that his father was not allowed to receive a Bible; an elderly man who described how his brother was sentenced for damage to property, when in fact the government agents banged his head against the door of the patrol car. In all cases, Elizardo documents, takes notes, his “correspondents” gather details in the field, and a final report is issued.
“Give me the list!” shouted the old man of the olive-green oligarchy that day. There is such a list: it has been produced for more than 20 years, and has served such prestigious organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and governments that have negotiated the final exile of those condemned for differing from Cuban communism.
The list of political prisoners exists–as does the deafness of Raúl Castro.
There have been threats of drastic measures to be taken against any who do not comply with maintenance guidelines, and owners of vacant houses who have not had them fumigated. What you will see here is an open space of state property located just 30 yards from my house. All that’s needed is a light rain.
Theme Music: The Mosquito’s Bite
J. Rudess; J. Petrucci
14 March 2016
*Translator’s Note: This is a take-off from a line in a Spanish-language children’s nonsense song, “The backyard of my house is special: it gets wet when there’s rain, just like the others.”
Fernando Damaso, 15 January 2016 — Personally, I have nothing against the plastic artist known as “Kcho,” be it against his values or his work–a task I leave for specialists–aside from the fact that his recurring little boats and oars leave me cold.
The reason for these lines is that “Kcho” seems to have become the “preferred artist of the kingdom”: his paintings, installations and other works are regularly presented as gifts from the authorities to foreign and national personalities, as if there were no other national plastic artists whose works would merit this special treatment. continue reading
The fair thing would be for these “official gifts” to be chosen from among proposals presented for this purpose by different creators, or as a result of competitions convoked for it–in the latter case, provided there were enough time and the decision were not made at the last minute.
In any event, it is worrisome that, in the face of this discrimination against the rest of the plastic artists, neither those affected, nor the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), to which they belong, nor their syndicate, nor the Ministry of Culture, make any pronouncements on the matter.
Given what has been going on for some time, it would seem that the only important work being done in Cuba in the plastic arts, and which meets all the requirements to qualify as an official gift from the authorities, is that of “Kcho,” when in fact the reality is totally different.
Iván García, 16 March 2106 — Around 12 midnight on Tuesday, 18 March 2003, I was en route to my apartment in the La Víbora neighborhood when, from the balcony, some incomprehensible signs coming from my mother set off the alarms.
Those were hard years. My mother and I were contributing articles to the independent press agency, Cuba Press, prohibited by the government, which was led by the poet and journalist Raúl Rivero. We were detained, intimidated or warned by cowboys from State Security with too much insistence.
Fidel Castro, meticulously, had prepared his “crime” scene. Since February 1996, when MiG aircraft shot down four civilian aircraft of the Brothers to the Rescue, and with the turn of the screw to the embargo on the part of Bill Clinton’s administration, the olive-green strongman unleashed his furies upon the peaceful opposition. continue reading
In 1999, the obedient and one-note national parliament had approved Law 88, a legal platform that allowed the government to impose prison terms of up to 30 years on dissidents, human rights activists, and independent journalists.
The acts of repudiation conducted on our domiciles were frequent. We lived in a climate of fear. But we continued reporting stories about the other Cuba, the one that was never reflected in the official press.
That night, my mother tells me that she had gone to turn in some articles to Raúl Rivero at his home in Centro Habana and, no sooner had she arrived but Raúl tells her that State Security had been searching the homes of Ricardo González Alfonso and Jorge Olivera, and that as soon as these searches were over, they would be taken into custody. “He said that I should return immediately and tell you,” she recounted, “because at any moment, they would come looking for the two of us.”
Two days later, on Thursday 20 March, Blanca–Raúl’s wife–tells us that at around 5 pm, he had been arrested. “The operation was tremendous,” she said. “Television cameras, several patrol cars and dozens of police officers, as if he were a terrorist. But when the neighbors found out, they went out into the street and several of them screamed.”
Throughout the following hours and days, we learned of other arrests of colleagues in the capital and the provinces. Their weapons: typewriters. Their crime: to dream of democracy in Cuba.
I was going around with a toothbrush and a spoon in my backpack. The atmosphere was oppressive. Hijackings of commercial airlines and ships were taking place. In a summary trial, Fidel Castro ordered the execution of three young black men who had hijacked an old passenger ferry. It was a state-sponsored execution.
The regime’s reasoning, taking advantage of the start of the war in Iraq, was that the raid would be unnoticed. It was not so. Presidents, intellectuals and international media focused on the wave of repression. In its prosecutions, the government was requesting the death penalty for seven opposition members.
Years later, Raúl Castro, handpicked as president by Fidel–pressured by the fatal hunger strike of the dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and by the marches of the Ladies in White demanding the release of their husbands, fathers and sons–initiated negotiations to free the government opponents, as part of a troika with the Catholic Church and the Spanish chancellor Miguel Ángel Moratinos.
The military autocracy undertook lukewarm economic reforms that were indispensable to its continuance in power. The furniture was moved around, but the same décor was maintained.
It was not a gamble on market economics or democracy. No. It was a play for survival. They legalized absurd, feudal-style rules that had kept Cubans from accessing mobile telephones, hotel lodging, buying cars or selling their homes. But structurally, the essence of the regime was–and still is–maintained.
Thirteen years later, in Spring of 2016, you can say whatever you want. But you cannot create a political party, an independent association, or a print newspaper.
In the economic sector, the opening is limited. There is no coherent legal framework for private entrepreneurs who, lacking a wholesale market where they can buy their raw materials and ingredients, must resort to trickery, corruption and cooking the books.
The State continues to classify self-employed workers as presumed delinquents. The regime’s economic guidelines–its holy bible–warns that the government will not consent to the concentration of capital in private hands. The new investments law does not permit investing in the self-employed.
What have been the changes undertaken by the Cuban autocracy? The prime transformations have been in foreign policy. Key aspects of Cuban diplomacy have undergone a 180-degree turn during Raúl Castro’s term in office.
The Havana regime has gone from training guerrilla groups or terrorists in their territory, to negotiating a place in world financial mechanisms, to signing new treaties with the United States and the European Union, to mediating between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, to being an important actor in achieving a peace accord in Colombia.
Cuba has opened itself to the world, as Pope John Paul II asked, but not to Cubans. At the internal level, the aged gerontocracy’s resistance continues, with its anachronistic concepts of social control, absence of political liberties, and suppression of free expression. In the economic area, the reforms are limited and insufficient.
When Raúl Castro regards his reflection in the mirror, he does not see himself as Wojcieh Jaruzelski, the Polish leader who opened the fortress to democracy. He would like to be remembered as the man who perpetuated his brother Fidel’s “Revolutionary work.”
It is necessary to prognosticate what Cuba’s future might be. To open a Pandora’s box in closed societies is always a dangerous game. And a presumed redeemer can turn into a probable gravedigger.
Perceptions are deceiving. A great red carpet for President Obama, a mega-concert by the Rolling Stones, a recent accord with the EU, and the imminent signing of a commitment between the FARC and the Colombian government to put an end to the continent’s last armed conflict.
But on the Island, repression of frontline dissidents and arbitrary arrests continue–as do low wages, high cost of living and a questionable future. This is why many Cubans are opting to emigrate.
His Excellency Mr. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
I extend to you the most cordial welcome to our country and wish you a happy stay in this land, which you can now feel as your own.
Cuba and the United States of America share a long history of friendship which has not been erased throughout more than 57 years of dictatorship in my country. It is time now that our citizens to meet at the middle of the bridge, and what they feel cannot be separated by any government or group. continue reading
We, as members of the Laura Pollán Ladies in White Civic Movement, an NGO dedicated to the liberation of political prisoners and aid to our people in general, thank you for the courage you have shown in changing an approach that has not been effective for more than five decades in transforming the current state of affairs in my country. The dictatorship gains strength from confrontation, and not from negotiation and compromise.
Our nation needs a change. Civil society has been growing, stimulated by so many decades of hardships and attempts to destroy it. You can do much for our people. Empowering our population is among the first steps to achieve several of our objectives: freedom of expression, of the press, a multi-party system, and a dignified future for our children.
We know that it is still too soon to appreciate the results of these policy changes, but we are confident that subsequent US administrations will know how to build upon this first rock that you bravely dedicated to the liberty of our people. Cuba is grateful for it, and needs it.
We believe in your sincerity when you say that your efforts are to empower our civil society and not to support a government that has visited great afflictions on its populace. The politics of compromise is vital to achieve peaceful and lasting changes, as you said on 17 December 2014. Perhaps you have been able, as none of your predecessors, to convince the Cuban government that it is time for a change.
My mother, Laura Pollán, who died under circumstances that lead to suspicions she was assassinated, was always very clear about the role her government, as well as others of the free world, would play in the changes that necessarily needed to come. For her labor in defense of the rights of Cubans and the promotion of democracy, she was honored, during your administration, by the National Endowment for Democracy.
We hope that during this very short visit you will plan on the possibility of hearing from the lips of our people and our civil society the reality that we live in Cuba. We would like for you to meet with us as part of that opposition with which you said you would consult during your visit. From our women you will hear firsthand all that is happening in our nation, and the sentiments of the Cuban woman who, like Michelle, love freedom.
When you depart from our country on 22 March, I assure you that you will carry Cuba in your heart, and you will hold in your hand one of your greatest achievements.
You will know how to represent the free world, and you will be the voice for those of us who cannot speak.
Laura María Labrada Pollán
Laura Pollán Ladies in White Civic Movement
Luis Felipe Rojas, 28 February 2016 — Attention, all who rabidly applaud the Obama-Francisco-Castro pact: it is worthwhile to make difficult proposals, ask inconvenient questions, and bother the military beast that has run the Island with the trembling hands of whisky hangovers.
Oh, no? Not in your plans? It must be said again and again, because after the hugs have come the kisses, and who knows what else. Among secretaries of agriculture, lady mayors, aide-de-camps, successful businesspeople, and rock superstars, there must be somebody left with a little shame who will make it known to Raúl Castro that his outstretched hand should go in another direction, he should look the people in the eye and quit posing for a photograph that will take on a sepia tone faster than his egomania can stand it. continue reading
Muriel Bowser, Lady Mayor of Washington, visited Cuba last week and said that she wants an educational system similar to that in Cuba for her fellow citizens. Was she including among this the Study-Work method — that she was taken to see — which Cuban instituted to put an end to the family and turn common citizens into robots? Does Her Ladyship know that Cuban children are obligated to shout that they want to be like Ché Guevra, and that from repeating it so much they become so, barely out of adolescence?
Those children who were so excited to be like Ché Guevara left the country to kill Africans that they had never met, and returned bearing all the traumas of war, turned into fat fifty-somethings, who today run a plastics factory or a Rapid Response Brigade (those at-the-ready to shout down — or even beat down — any display of non-conformance with the regime).
Could it be that no superstar, before giving a concert or going out to enjoy mojitos and pork chunks, will ask Castro to disarm the surveillance mechanism that keeps an eye even on the intimate apparel of every Cuban woman? The wizened stool-pigeon of the neighborhood, the “honorary official,” the “specialist” of State Security who controls every provincial cultural center, even the thug who organizes a raid on dissidents — they are all part and parcel of that magic that today enthralls the political tourists when they gaze upon Raúl Castro. He is the criminal with whom they pose and will be seen in the Times, the Washington Post, or the now “spotless” and in-the-running-for-an-Oscar Boston Globe.
It will never be to late to align oneself to infamy. So, start running today to Havana, stroll around sporting your little container of bottled water, take a whiff of that 21st Century dungheap that has been sold to you as the best-educated nation of Latin America. Forget about the penitentiary system, of the fear among neighbors, of the violence that can just as easily decapitate with machetes as take a youth’s life by kicking him until his spinal cord is crushed in the police station at Zanja and Dragones streets.
Go and tell the world that Cuba has changed, that the island is a paradise.
Luis Felipe Rojas, Miami, 15 February 2016 — Cuban photographer and dissident Claudio Fuentes was once again arrested on Sunday, 14 February, by forces of the National Revolutionary Police (PNR) in Havana. The Castro regime’s gendarmes kept Fuentes from taking part in the peaceful action #TodosMarchamos [We All March], which the Ladies in White and dozens of activists put on in support of Human Rights.
Claudio Fuentes is an independent photographer who has been arrested on numerous occasions for taking part in and photographing peaceful activities of the internal dissidence in Cuba. His photographs reveal victims of beatings, women who express their courage against the threatening actions of the Cuban dictatorship, but he has also photographed in an original manner life in Havana as he has lived it.
The information regarding the arrest of Claudio Fuentes was provided by Ailer González, who in charge of artistic projects for State of SATS, which is directed by Antonio Rodiles. The activist posted various photos in which Fuentes can be seen being detained at the hands of the PNR and officials from State Security. Similarly, González reproached the journalist Fernando Ravsberg and others who blame the Cuban opposition for not bringing together more people.
“…And how do you mobilize them under a totalitarian dictatorship where there are these levels of control, harrassment and repression? Assisted further by the Obama administration, the Vatican and even Kirill, the czar of the Russian mafia?” asked the activist.
For over 10 months, diverse organizations and individual activists have documented 41 consecutive Sundays in which the military forces have violently repressed the Ladies in White during their march upon leaving St. Rita Church, on 5th Avenue in the Miramar neighborhood in the Cuban capital. The Forum for Rights and Liberties (FPDyL) has coordinated support for the women.
Claudio probably is free at this hour, and frustrated because they did not allow him to photograph that piece of Cuba not found in today’s tourist guides. If not, I send him all my solidarity — as on several occasions he did with me, when the henchmen were detaining me and minutely recording my life in a small town of eastern Cuba where the tourists, businesspeople and celebrities did not, and still do not, arrive to stroll impassively while looking the other way.
I will leave you here other marvelous photos taken by Claudio Fuentes.
In the 1960s, close to 30,000 young men were detained in forced-labor camps. The mistreatments that took place in these camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production UMAP, in the name of “social hygiene,” testify to the homophobic component of the Cuban Revolution.
Abel Sierra Madero, From Letras Libras, January 2016 — Between 1965 and 1968, the Cuban government established, in the central region of the country, dozens of forced-labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), where about 30,000 men were sent under the pretext of the Obligatory Military Service Law (SMO). The hybrid structure of work camps cum military units served to camouflage the true objectives of the recruitment effort and to distance the UMAPs from the legacy of forced labor. Thus the military-style organization and discipline to which the detainees were subjected could be justified. November 2015 marked 50 years since the regime implemented this experiment.
Historians have generally avoided research into state social-control policies based on forced labor, concentration and isolation of thousands of Cuban citizens at rural locations set up during the 1960s. Likewise, they have rejected the usage of such terminology, as if it did not apply to the case of Cuban socialism, or its use was not “politically incorrect.” By the same token, testimonies and narratives produced by former UMAP detainees have almost always been held suspect. A fascination with beards and uniforms on the part of the mainstream press in Europe and the US, along with powerful images constructed by revolutionary propaganda, have up to now overshadowed the testimonies of Cuban exiles regarding their terrible experiences in these camps.
These accounts became part of an anti-communist narrative to which, supposedly, the exiles had to conform in order to survive outside Cuba. At least, that was what Ambrosio Fornet, one of the most recognized intellectuals on the Island, thought in 1984 while giving an interview to Gay Community News. Although he recognized that the UMAPs were a sort of “academy to produce macho-men,” Fornet criticized the perspectives on the repression offered by exiled continue reading
Cuban writers and artists in the documentary film, Improper Conduct (1984), by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal. According to Fornet, the majority of the witnesses who appeared in the film lied about UMAP; the writers were saying “what they should say because they’re making a living off of anti-communism.” He added, “The idea of a repressive police state that persecutes individuals is totally absurd and stupid.”
UMAP cannot be understood as an isolated institution, but rather as part of a project of “social engineering” geared toward social and political control. That is, a technology that involved the judicial, military, educational, medical and psychiatric apparatuses. For the establishment of these camps, complex methodologies were employed to identify specific subjects and purge them from mass institutions and organizations, up to and including their recruitment and internment.
Masculinization and Militarization
There were several criteria that the authorities took into account to recruit and intern thousands of subjects in the forced-labor camps. One of them was homosexuality, and it is estimated that around 800 homosexuals were shut away in the camps. Nevertheless, there were other, political, reasons.
In the mid-1960s, Cuba was involved in a transnational process of constructing socialism along with the Soviet Union, the Eastern socialist bloc, and China. These regimes invested many symbolic resources in the creation of national stereotypes that were almost always associated with complex processes of masculinization. In this sense, the concept of the “New Man” was one of the most powerful ideals within these systems, although it had also been used by German Nazism and Italian Fascism.
In the Cuban case, this concept was associated with a broader ideological strain of social homogenization in which fashion, urban sociability practices, religious creeds and work-related behavior were key elements to bring in line with the official normative vision. Thus it is not strange that—besides homosexuals—delinquents, religious believers, intellectuals or simply young men of bourgeois background, were also sent to UMAP.
Although the establishment of the forced-labor camps was accomplished towards the end of 1965, these camps were created under the pretext of Law 1129 of 26 November 1963, which established Obligatory Military Service (SMO) for a period of three years, for men between the ages of 16 and 45. The law exempted those who were the only source of economic support for their parents, spouse and children. At least in theory, the law allowed for a deferral of the recruitment of young men who were finishing their final year of secondary school, pre-university, or university studies.
Nonetheless, the authorities applied those sections with discretion, employing political criteria regarding UMAP. Some young men who constituted the only support for their families were recruited without regard for the consequences for those domestic economies. Many students of diverse educational levels who were at the point of graduating became eligible for recruitment to the SMO when they were expelled as part of a “purification” process. This process, which began around 1965—a few months before the first call to UMAP—had the character of a “purge,” a social crusade, headed by the Union of Young Communists (UJC) against those who were not perceived as “revolutionaries.”
In a communication published in Mella magazine on 31 May 1965, the UJC admonished high school students to expel “counterrevolutionary and homosexual elements” from their groups in the final year of study, so as to impede their university admissions. Also mentioned are those who display “deviances,” or “some kind of petit-bourgeois softness and apathy towards the revolutionary activities being performed by the student body.” They should be sent to the SMO so that they may “gain the right” to be admitted to university. “You know who they are, you have had to fight them many times […] apply the strength of worker and peasant power, the strength of the masses, the right of the masses against their enemies […] Away with the homosexuals and counterrevolutionaries from our schools!” Thus concluded the communication.
A few days later, Alma Mater magazine—the official organ of the Federation of University Students (FEU)—went along with this policy, assuring readers that the purification was the result of the historical moment, and a “necessity for the future development of the Revolution.” The assertion was that the purges of counterrevolutionaries and homosexuals should not be understood as two isolated processes, but rather as one, because “so noxious are the influence and activity of both of them to the formation of the professional revolutionary of the future.”
Once the purges were finalized, those young men were left exposed and at the mercy of the State. Their entry into UMAP was a matter of time. No sooner were the purifications concluded, via the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR)—one of the most effective surveillance institutions created for social and political control in Cuba—than censuses were conducted to identify those youths who were not working nor going to school. This information was provided to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), the entities charged with recruitment for the UMAPs.
By 1964, Fidel Castro was boasting of the impact the SMO was having on Cuban youth, and emphasizing the failure of institutions such as the family and school in the education of young people. “All right, then, what they could not teach them at home,” he would declare, “what they could not teach them in school, what they could not teach them at the institute, they learned in the army, they learned in a military unit.” For his part, his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, at that time minister of the FAR, gave assurances in a speech delivered on 17 April 1965, that the objectives of the Revolution could only be achieved with a “youth of tempered character,” possessing a “firm character” that was “forged in sacrifice,” far from “softnesses.” A youth that would be inspired “not by dancers of the Twist and Rock and Roll, nor by a display of pseudo-intellectualism,” a youth that would stay away from “all that would weaken the character of men.”
The economic utilization of the body
By way of these processes of militarization and masculinization, the intent was not only to correct gestures and postures, but to reorient and reintegrate those forces and bodies to an economic apparatus. The rhetoric of war, employed repeatedly by the leaders of the Revolution, was incorporated into the ideological and economic discourse in the form of military-type campaigns, and the workers were seen as heroes and soldiers—not just to insert them into a political rituality, but to utilize them as a workforce without having to compensate them financially. In a 1969 article, economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago analyed the types of non-paid work during the 1960s in Cuba, and among those models mentioned UMAP. According to Mesa-Lago, the government achieved savings of around $300-million Cuban pesos through non-paid labor between 1962 and 1967.
Around the 1960s, the Cuban economy was dependent on sugar, but the mechanization of cane-cutting was not widespread, therefore the success of the harvests depended on manual cutting. During this period, the sugar harvests began to form part of a great ideological leap that Fidel Castro had planned for 1970. The Maximum Leader was trying to take the Island to a higher degree in the construction of socialism by way of a harvest of ten-million tons of sugar. To achieve the desired effect, Castro needed to mobilize and deploy a major workforce to the areas where large sugar plantations were located. Camagüey province, with considerable expanses of land and scarce labor, was strategically selected for the establishment of the UMAPs in the final months of 1965.
Thus, the camps were inserted into the planned socialist economy, as had occurred in the Soviet Union with the gulag (General Directorate of Labor Camps). Vladimir V. Tchernavin, who managed to escape from a Soviet gulag, describes how, at the start of 1930, that institution became a great forced-labor enterprise, appearing to be a correctional entity, which allowed for the establishment of development plans in places where such an endeavor would have been very difficult without the available forced labor. According to Tchernavin, the gulag provided a structure and functions similar to those of a state enterprise, it was organized like military units, and the detainees received a miserable wage for their work.
A similar thing occurred with UMAP. The inmates of these camps, as well as others recruited by the SMO, received a salary of seven pesos per month, and they were compelled to participate in what is known as “socialist emulation,” a type of competition to incentivize production in which the “vanguards” did not receive financial compensation, but rather diplomas or recognition during political and mass events.
“Social hygiene is what this is called”
It could be said that at the start of 1959, moral panic was the ideological framework on which the campaign for national regeneration was based, which called the entire nation to liquidate the “vices” of the past and consolidate revolutionary power. But very soon, this religious sort of schema was complemented with speeches about hygiene and the notion of “social sickness.”
On 15 April 1965, some months before the first recruitment drive for the UMAPs, the writer Samuel Feijóo, in El Mundo newspaper, published “Revolution and Vices,” an account of the tensions that caused the merging of the religious, political and hygienic discourses. Among the vices that still needed to be eradicated, the writer pointed to alcoholism, and “rampant and provocative homosexuality.” He assured readers that the matter was “not about persecuting homosexuals, but rather about destroying their positions, their procedures, their influence. Social hygiene is what this is called.”
In this manner, the discourses on hygiene and those that came out of the field of psychology were adapted to justify the UMAPs. The camps became a quarantine area, a laboratory that provided not only for the isolation of inmates, but also for the opportunity to study them. In May of 1966, a few months after the UMAPs had been established, María Elena Solé put together a team of psychologists and physicians that made up a secret operation organized by the political arm of MINFAR, to design and work on rehabilitation and reeducation programs for homosexuals in UMAP.
According to Solé’s testimony to me in March 2012, the team’s work consisted in “evaluating these persons from a psychological perspective.” But the evaluation and classification was not based exclusively on aspects related to the generic-sexual configuration of the individuals, but rather incorporated also an ideological criterion.
The team of psychologists drew upon the notion of “afocancia,” a cubanism not recognized by the dictionary, which has been employed to negatively describe those persons who stand out publicly because of certain physical or moral characteristics. Thus, a Template A (for “afocante”) was designed, to distribute homosexuals across four scales: A1, A2, A3 and A4. Type-1 “afocantes” were considered to be those “who did not make a public show of their problem, and were revolutionaries—in the sense that they did not wish to leave the country—comported themselves in a normal fashion, and were more or less integrated into society.” Conversely, “one who let his feathers fly and who, besides, was not integrated into the Revolution nor had any interest in it,” and had expressed a desire to leave the country, was considered a Type-4 “afocante.” As María Elena Solé explained, “there were revolutionaries in this group, but if someone made a display of his problem, we would not classify him as A-1, but as A-4.”
Some of the former UMAP inmates assure me that the team of psychologists conducted various experiments and tests of a behaviorist and reflexologist nature, which included the application of electroshock. However, Dr. Solé asserts that the tests that were done were solely designed to “measure intelligence.” In contrast, Héctor Santiago — a theater person connected to one of the most controversial cultural projects of the 1960s in Cuba, Ediciones El Puente, and who was sent to a UMAP — assured me that the team’s examinations were, at least in their totality, of another character. According to Santiago, the psychologists and psychiatrists utilized behaviorist techniques in the UMAPs such as shocks produced by electrodes, and insulin-produced comas. These experiments consisted in the application of alternating-current shocks “while showing us photographs of nude men, so that we would subconsciously reject them, turning us by-force into heterosexuals.”
This description concurs with various articles that detailed this procedure and that circulated in specialized Cuban journals of psychology and psychiatry during the 1960s. This therapy, which had been developed in Prague by K. Freund, consisted in creating conditioned reflexes. In Cuba it was Dr. Edmundo Gutiérrez Agramonte who incorporated this practice.
Felipe Guerra Matos, the official in charge of the dismantling UMAP, remarked to me during an interview in June 2015, that the idea of placing teams of psychologists in the UMAPs had been his, and that up to 30,000 subjects were confined in them, including approximately 850 homosexuals. At one point in the conversation, Guerra Matos stated, “We committed grave errors, imposing punishments on the little faggots, a lot of things were done there […] They were made to stare into the sun, to count ants […] ‘Go ahead, stare into the sun, you’ll see.’ Any abomination that occurred to some harebrained guard. I am at fault, because I signed off on recruitments.”
The punishments in the UMAPs could range from verbal insults to physical mistreatment and torture. Several of my interviewees assured me that one of the methods of punishment employed by some guards consisted in burying the detainee in a hole in the ground and leaving him with his head exposed for several hours. Some were dunked in a tank of water until they lost consciousness; others were tied to a stake or a fence and left for the night, exposed to the elements, so that they would be food for mosquitos. According to Héctor Santiago, this method of punishment was called “the stake.” The torment and mortification of the body had a purpose of intimidation and formed part of a narrative in which the punishments were given names such as the “trapeze,” the “brick,” the “rope,” the “hole,” among others.
On the other hand, many of the camps were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, used repeatedly in jails and concentration camps. According to the singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, who was sent to UMAP in 1966, these fences were composed of 14 wire strands, arranged so that they reached up to six meters in height. A brief song is dedicated to this wire fence and the enclosure, entitled, “Fourteen Strands and One Day.” Milanés explained to me that the song was not recorded in those years, but rather later, in the studios of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, in the 1970s.
Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my beloved,
Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my mother,
And now I know whom I will love
When the strands and the day
I am able to leave.
The history of this sad experiment has remained buried on the Island. Up to today, the Cuban government has constantly denied the character of the UMAPs, and has sought to erase from the collective imagination anything related to this subject. At the same time, the international Left has preferred to view UMAP as an error inherent to revolutionary movements. This ideological exercise has been influenced by the manner in which the figure of Fidel Castro became one of the most powerful representations of the Revolution. Therefore, once the critiques and international campaigns calling for the dismantling of the camps began, it became indispensable to disassociate the Maximum Leader from these processes, so that UMAP could be justified as an exception that should not be identified with the Revolution. This is how, for example, Ernesto Cardenal did it. In his book, En Cuba (1972), the Nicaraguan poet and theologian told of how he was visited by two young men who were interested in complementing his official view of the Island. One of them had been a “jailer” for UMAP, and assured Cardenal that it was Fidel Castro who eliminated those “concentration camps,” invoking at times the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The picturesque account that Cardenal narrates in his book constitutes the only source that makes this type of reference. In 2010, during an interview granted to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Fidel Castro himself finally “assumed” his responsibility in the establishment of those work camps.
UMAP was officially dissolved via Law 058 of October 1968. Although these camps disappeared as an institution, other, more sophisticated devices and institutions replaced them, keeping intact the spirit and motivations that created them. The decade of the 1970s was still to come.