The Rolling Confessional / Miriam Celaya

Photograph by Orlando Luís

If, as the result of some wonderful spell, lots of Cubans on the island were able to (and wished to) participate with us in this blog, they would agree with me in that there is a phenomenon, as curious as it is widespread, that has been ordained as usual, at least in Havana: taxicabs are a kind of rolling confessional. Anyone wishing to be convinced of this need only have 20 pesos in national currency, that is, the most national; choose any of the longer routes covered by the “boteros” or “almendrones” (shared-ride taxis), and listen to the verbal unloading of almost every traveler who climbs aboard the car. We really could do a study in Cuban society, its needs, aspirations, disappointments, frustrations and despair by only boarding an “almendrón”. But I am slipping: the phenomenon is not confined to almendrones on route.

Any car for hire, licensed or not, becomes an adequate venue and forum –- with no previous agreement — for an analysis of “things” to start flowing between travelers and driver. It is amazing how the simple act of boarding an automobile, getting seated, and shutting the door of such a minuscule space that it even forces physical contact with people who, up to that moment, are absolutely unknown and strangers to us, triggers a kind of magical communicative effect, and people unload a whole universe of complaints, tribulations and disagreements that, as a general rule, are not even heard in labor meetings or Popular Party assemblies.

In a moving vehicle, I have listened to everything, from the deepest analyses to crazy plans for fleeing the Island. Everything exists in the vineyards… of this other guy. No exaggeration. And most relevant is the almost unanimous feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction that prevails among travelers. There is talk of licenses to the self-employed (which most do not intend to apply for) and high taxes, the country’s untenable situation, the countless shortcomings, the market shortages, the horrible state of public transportation services, the poor conditions in hospitals, the overlapping but unstoppable rise in prices of primary (plus secondary and tertiary) goods, talk of “there is no fixing this”, “these people are not going to solve anything “, “how things were before (before the Revolution, before the Special Period, before the dual currency…)”, of the children who have left to live abroad and of those who yearn to leave, of the experiences of 50 years of deceptions expressed by people of diverse ages, backgrounds and professions in a few minutes of fleeting company. The interior of a taxicab is probably the only sincere public space we have left, a microcosm of complicity and consensus that unite us, though, at the end, it might only be an illusion as fleeting as the travelers themselves.

The day this country becomes like any other, in which each person is free and master of her own self and of her destiny — if that idyllic day ever comes at last — we will have to erect a monument to taxicabs. Not just because, overheated, noisy and rattling, they were able to assume the daily and permanent transportation of hundreds of thousands of individuals, or because they are humble substitutes for the psychiatrists’ couches that we see in the movies (our psychiatrists probably don’t have couches), but because they have also been small spaces of spontaneous freedom in which Cubans, when expressing themselves, and almost without realizing it, have played at not being slaves to transform themselves into — though only for a few minutes of their lives — citizens.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 26, 2010

Haiti: The Two Epidemics / Miriam Celaya

Doctors Without Borders in Haiti. Photograph from the Internet

The media have been reporting the alarming growth of the cholera epidemic that is spreading through Haiti. It began soon after hurricane Thomas hit that very poorest of nations. Each new piece of information tells us of a constant progression in the number of infected and who dead are from the disease, and already cases are being reported in the Dominican Republic –- natural geographic heir of this and other types of Haitian diseases — and they are even talking about one case in Southern Florida, USA.

On another front, the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, in its Sunday, November 21st edition, has just published the total number of Cuban health support personnel found there: 689 in total, including doctors, nurses, health technicians and staff service. This newspaper further adds that 530 of them work full-time on the cholera epidemic, and, so far, have treated 22,123 people, with 253 deaths. Simultaneously, informal rumors by people linked to the Public Health sector in the Island, as well as family and friends of the Cubans who are part of these hundreds of workers, claim that — in addition to the risk of contagion — there is the additional danger that flows from living every minute in the vortex of social cataclysm because, in Haiti, along with the current cholera epidemic, extreme violence coexists, exacerbated by the earthquake last February with its tragic aftermath of destruction, ruin and misery, which worsened after the recent hurricane and the outbreak of the epidemic.

Thus, there are two epidemics involving Haiti these days: cholera and violence. This last one — unleashed since 1791, with its bloody revolution, echo and parody of the French Revolution of 1789 — has been nourished by death, anarchy, despotism and destruction over two centuries, and ended in making the former thriving French colony a lamentable and permanent ruin. Haiti, in its secular poverty, is a paradigm of the work of social revolutions dressed in “liberation.” Not by chance, it is said that we are fraternal nations.

The foreign media gives an account of the numerous groups of Haitian vandals that commit assaults and other criminal acts against groups of UN assistance and other civilians, whom — in their crass ignorance — they consider responsible for the actual epidemic and for the “insufficient aid”, as if the extreme hygienic sanitary conditions were not the result of the brutal lack of culture and backwardness that make this country the poorest and most unhealthy in this hemisphere, or if the whole world had the obligation to assume the consequences of the barbarian state in which these people have subsisted throughout their turbulent history.

The note published in Juventud Rebelde is sparse and inadequate, the kind that abounds in our official press and often leaves us with more questions than answers. We do not know to what extent the Cuban health joint forces are safe in the midst of the epidemic, surrounded by violence, confusion and hatred generated by a people’s hunger, disease and helplessness. Nor do we have any information about plans that the authorities should have regarding their return to Cuba, the security arrangements that might have been taken to preserve their lives or whether necessary conditions of isolation and quarantine have been undertaken to keep under care and observation those who return from Haiti.

Experience has shown us that, when it comes to politics, the government ignores such trivial details as the integrity of our health. We have examples — sadly numerous, by the way — of how the “solidarity” of the revolution has led to the entry of diseases once eradicated or simply unknown to Cubans: AIDS, imported in the 80′s thanks to the military campaign in Angola, as well as dengue and hemorrhagic conjunctivitis, introduced later as a result of hasty programs or health “missions” that brought hundreds of people (vectors) from the most remote parts of Latin America’s geography to Cuban soil in a matter of hours, without any kind of sanitary control. We have also recaptured tuberculosis, currently on the dramatic increase on the Island, just to cite the best known examples of the collateral benefits brought to us by the ill-interpreted and even worse-applied official solidarity that embark on health programs generated by populist politics and interests that have nothing to do with altruism.

Let’s hope that, this time, the alarm is without foundation; that our doctors return as soon as possible from Haiti, safe and sound, and that the terrible cholera epidemic won’t prey on the Cuban population too. Presumably, the Island’s authorities will avoid a new misfortune at all costs that will further complicate the somber panorama that lies before us. It would be best for everyone.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 23, 2010

Cuba: Possible Exit Scenarios / Miriam Celaya

Preliminary note: This article was originally published in the third issue Voices magazine for the month of October, 2010, and, despite its length, I wanted to post it on the blog in order to facilitate the participation of potential commentators who are interested in the subject.

The temptation to suggest possible scenarios out of the current socio-political and economic situation in Cuba may not be just pretentious, but also risky. It would be even more adventuresome to imagine solutions more or less simple or practical to emerge from the general crisis that has been prolonged by the imposition of such an inefficient and obsolete system that – with its burden of corruption, moral degradation, dislocation and despair — has dragged the country to a critical point that puts in jeopardy even our own nature as a national entity.

This is not an alarmist statement; I limit myself to formulate reality. Just take a look at the past 50 years of national history to ascertain the acute loss of values that has been on the rise in the face of the persistence of living in a precarious state of material survival, on the one hand, and under a dictatorial regime that castrates any manifestation of freedom and civility on the other. To this, add the elusive and irresponsible traits that typifies this human group, originator of what has been termed “Cubanity” (which is just the essence of the ambiguous nature of our character), the general apathy and the permanent exodus, to place us before the bleak picture of a nation that was aborted without having completed the necessary and sufficient maturity for its birth.

However, a bleak scenario is not an excuse to bury your head in the sand or to take off in flight — as is customary among us — but it must stir us towards the stance of knowing where we are, on the road to assume the risks of making errors in our standards and values, and to focus on trying to change course. Today, the dilemma could be for us to pick up our abused and scattered fragments in order to make ourselves whole, or simply to be resigned to stop being.

The speeches of sociologists, historians, economists and politicians from various backgrounds and sectors of society often refer to the current crisis as “the situation” Cuba in undergoing. However, this very concept — situation — contains in itself two immediate implications: 1) Its temporary nature, given that every situation is manifested within a limited period, and 2) it is a turning point for the inevitable move or turn leading to a way out. It is imperative, then, to define what general elements color the “situation” of the Cuban reality today, which for the current analysis, might be the following:

– Economically, a ruined country with a colossal foreign debt, which depends almost entirely on foreign investment, family remittances from Cubans living abroad and subsidies from allies (also situational). There is an explosive increase in the unemployment rate that, as officially announced, will be completed by 2012, when the number of layoffs will have reached over 20% of the workforce. In addition, there is no consideration for the national economy to be sustained by small and medium-sized private companies whose profits would be taxed and the benefits redistributed throughout the country. Agriculture, livestock and any domestic industry are virtually non-existent, and it needs to import 80% of the food consumed by the population.

– Socially, there is a loss of service quality and performance that were once favorite indicators of the “privileges” of the system, such as education and health. There is a general deterioration of the values, and feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, uncertainty and apathy that reach throughout society; loss of faith in the system and its leaders; escapism as a solution; the constant and sustained exodus abroad, and the almost complete absence of independent civil society.

Politically, the monopoly of power in a single party that is, at the same time, State and Government, establishing itself as a dictatorship in the hands of a military elite-turned capitalist business concern (state capitalism); foreign policy that has been marked by confrontation with the great hubs of power (the United States and the European Union) and the alliance with undemocratic regimes. In the interior of the country, groups and opposition parties are not acknowledged, and repression or harassment is ongoing against any outbreak of civic and alternative thinking resistance. On the other hand, due to the repressive characteristics of the system and because of historical and essential factors of Cubans, there isn’t even one proposal by the opposition sectors against the regime capable of uniting or stirring the interest of large social groups, and naming an alternative program for changes.

Other elements color the Cuban crisis, as its permanent character – with deepening cycles — and the fact that it also covers the ruling turret itself and a good part of its former followers. Add to that lack of exercise of rights in a country where lack of civic culture and the absence of freedom of individuals reign, which has led to a pernicious tendency of waiting for solutions from “above” or “from outside”, or the complacent and sickly stance that prefers to delay action until the biological cycle does its thing and takes away, once and for all, the ruling gerontocracy, whose average age is around, or exceeds, 80, as if the disappearance of a group of dictators might mean, by itself, the establishment of democracy.

At the center of this image, the government has taken too long to implement measures capable of addressing the general crisis and does not show any interest in seeking political solutions within the nation. The recently announced government measures that restore mom and pop-type, privately owned small businesses, etc., are superficial, outdated, anachronistic, and inadequate. They fail to meet expectations, and do not contribute to the welfare of the population. The popular reaction, meanwhile, has been as timid as the official proposals. Even the announcement of the wave of layoffs in just over a year, which will drag with it around 1.3 million state jobs, has caused some unease, dissatisfaction and uncertainty, but it has not produced even one public protest, though the beginning of the process of layoffs coincides with increased taxes on the self-employed, the removal of several products “subsidized” by the ration card, an increase in the electric rate, and rumors of the upcoming end of other subsidies and rising costs of services of water supply, sewerage, and telephone. The social landscape, however, shows a deceptive calm that seems subjected to extreme pressure, and is already releasing forces through the worst escape valves: the increase in crime and the rise in the handling of contraband.

All this places us facing the possibility of multiple exit scenarios, not necessarily desirable or inevitably exclusive, that is, several different scenarios may converge towards the same end. Taking into account the premises enumerated, the following can be stated, among other possible ones:

  1. Intensification of the deficiencies, with a corresponding increase in crime and social indiscipline, which can lead to extreme measures from the government, such as using the army to quell violence (violent response to violence, as part of the national history and culture) and the intensification of the persecution of independent civil society groups, which will lead to the emergence of a humanitarian crisis that might cause an international intervention in order to help overcome social instability.
  2. A migratory stampede that will eventually lead to further conflict with the United States and possible military intervention or pressure on Cuba. This scenario could also cause the intervention of an international organization.
  3. The expansion of the measures announced by General Raúl Castro and the acceleration of their implementation could lead, either by potential factors or by the urgency of overcoming the crisis, to a scenario suitable for the emergence of a sector of the population which, on becoming independent of the state, would favor the emergence of self-interest associations and would accelerate the revival of civil society.
  4. The alleged cracks within the top ruling caste and the military could give rise, through the disappearance or weakening of the “historic generation”, to the forcible seizing of power by military sectors most prone to changes, whose actions would depend on the establishment of a governing junta that, in the medium term, might lead to a process of democratization.
  5. In the short-term, the natural disappearance of the historical leaders, together with all the elements that fuel the current crisis, would result in a vacuum of authority and lack of control that could lead to chaos of unpredictable consequences.
  6. The establishment of future alliances, through programs lacking in ideology among opposition groups and the nascent independent civil society, could contribute to the strengthening of a social sector of intermediaries within Cuba, and to laying the groundwork for a scenario suitable for the establishment of effective critical action areas in order to gain status at the social level and begin to drive change “from within” while it garners and validates international support.

These scenarios are purely speculative, but are based on objective elements of reality. Certain events could accelerate or delay the events, for example, the ending of Venezuelan subsidies to the Island following the possible deposing of Hugo Chavez’s government in that South American nation in the 2012 elections, precipitating a collapse inside Cuba; the passing of the historic leaders, which could put us in a sudden or abrupt ending, or the sudden appearance of a new funding source to the dictatorship, which would allow for a respite and a further period of grace to continue in power. A very important element would be a change in the political context of the United States, in view of elections the same year, 2012. The possibility of a takeover by Republicans, supporters of a tougher line with the Cuban government, would significantly alter any scenario in Cuba, and influence its outcome. If the depose of Chávez in Venezuela and the elections of a Republican majority in the US coincided, the Island’s outlook would worsen even further, and the solution for a gradual exit to the crisis could aggravate exponentially. In addition, the dash of urgency and immediacy that Cuban –government, people and the opposition-imprint, as a rule, in each action, could stifle the opportunities to improve scenarios or take advantageous or favorable opportunities which might arise in order to prevent a violent context.

Addressing the issue from another angle, so far, no internal opposition movement has been strong and sustained enough to force the government to implement real change. The release of political prisoners has been taking place, by previous agreement between the government and the top hierarchy of the {Cuban} Catholic Church, is in response to strong pressure from independent civil society groups, which demonstrates the power of these groups when energies are coordinated for the sake of a common goal. It is understood that the present does not pose challenges just to the government. The “traditional” dissidence, in spite of its efforts and its longevity, hast yet to reach the visibility and maturity that the “situation” requires to be counted as a force that the government or national public opinion might have to take into account, so it is urgent for its members to implement new strategies, alliances and programs that offer attractive and viable alternatives, capable of breaking the cycle of social apathy, and move, at least, a representative group of Cubans to force for necessary changes. The task is difficult: never before was the moment more propitious to seek the support of the common Cuban, but neither were we ever so apathetic and displaced

This current analysis — incomplete, naturally — is not intended as a forecast or a prediction about the impending future of Cuba, nor is it immutable or exclusive: many events can occur that may alter or eliminate the scenarios included here, and it could also support the emergence of others. I do not intend to invalidate other opinions or analyses either. The intention that moves me is the development of an approach to establish a debate about the moment we are experiencing in Cuba today, considering the circumstances and nature of the events surrounding the Island now, and, hopefully, try to guess possible solutions. We have reached a critical point and this is a time of urgency, but we must ensure that, this time, the solutions are not limited to simple short-term adjustments or changes in figures. Maybe we do not have the civil forces necessary to conjure all the evils we are suffering and the ones ahead, but I dare to assure that some of us Cubans believe it is worth a try.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 19, 2010

The Next Congress? Or the Last? / Miriam Celaya

Any Cuban who followed the media on Tuesday, November 9th might have concluded that the Communist Party has suddenly gone underground. At least that should be impression when finding out the news that, next April 2011, the VI Cuban Communist Party Congress, which has been organized in great secrecy, will be the held. To add to the sense of unreality, the announcement took place within the frame of the celebration of the “Act for the Tenth Anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement for Cuba-Venezuela Cooperation” (¿?), and with no previous mediation for an official discussion among the membership base to establish the proposed members and the agenda for the Congress.

It has been reported that, this time, the one-party will have one theme, and only one, for the most momentous conclave, “the update of the economic model and social development of the country, whose guidelines — already developed by the paramount chiefs and ready to be digested by the lower membership and the rest of the “masses” — have been published in a booklet which, undoubtedly, was also developed in secret. One should, therefore, ask: can there seriously be a debate on Cuba’s economy without discussing the failed policies (and shod) which have put us in a state of terminal crisis? Is it possible, when tracing the economic patterns, to exclude the critical social situation in the country and to find ways to design their solution? It is clear that the government intends to use the swamp fires, flowing in the form of Chavista subsidies, from that cadaver called ALBA to divert attention from the problems at root level afflicting the nation. On the other hand, we don’t know if a delicate theme will be decided or if it will remain pending until another occasion: Will the First Secretary remain in office or will we have a “new” octogenarian ideologically renovating the model? Or, better yet, will there be elections in this sui generis Congress?

Another satirical touch that can lead to confusion is the provision of a copy of the brochure by the Cuban President to the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. Is he a member of the Cuban Communist Party? Does this man by any chance have the right to know, before the Cuban people themselves, the “Guidelines of Economic and Social Policy” that will supposedly chart this country’s destiny over the next five years? After thirteen years without holding the most important meeting, and without the renewal of its top leaders, in clear violation of the statutes of the organization, communist activists have been publicly excluded from its preparation: a just reward for their proverbial servility. After all –- the owners of the ranch in ruins might say to themselves — they always nod and applaud.

But, without a doubt, this time, the political farce that still clings to leadership here have exceeded their limits significantly; it is no longer possible to follow the desperate juggling of the heads of the three-ring circus. However, vigilance is needed, because not one thing of what is happening is by chance. The old dinosaurs are hiding some agreement with their South American pet. Something that may have to do with a new injection of petrodollars that will allow them to soften the blows on the Caribbean plantation slaves, at least for a very short period of time; perhaps the possibility to evade international pressure momentarily by a childish demonstration of proficiency. Time bought with this piggybank called Venezuela that the aspiring dictator continues to gouge at will. The Venezuelan people must have paid dearly for the little pamphlet which, in a false gesture of symbolic submission, the lesser Castro will surrender to Hugo Chavez!

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 11, 2010

The “Decentralization” of Responsibility / Miriam Celaya

We Believe in You, Revolution

Photo: Orlando Luis
“The first time you deceive me, it will be your fault, the second time, the fault will be mine”
(Arab proverb)

One of the skills we Cubans in the Island have developed in the face of the persistent ability of leaders to “speak without saying,” is figuring out official positions and intentions, not from what is expressed, but, just the opposite, from what is not said. The most recent example of this is reflected in the booklet on the guidelines to be adopted — not “discussed” — during the VI Party Congress of April, 2011, a document that, Cantinflas* antics and euphemisms aside, is still interesting, since it summarizes in just 32 pages the obvious failure of the socialist model imposed for 50 years. Finally, though this may not be what is proposed, it puts things in perspective, at least at the level of the root issue: the country is economically devastated.

Of course, this summary does not include official recognition of the national disappointment, nor does it at all imply the acceptance of any responsibility by the government for the critical economic situation in Cuba today. To recognize such a setback would unequivocally mean the resignation of the President, the Politburo, and of the Central Committee in its entirety, including all its carnival-style puppets (of which there are many); something unthinkable, since this operetta is precisely about trying to retain power even at a cost of (ouch!) introducing some minor changes.

It is easier, then, to pass the hot potato of blame to others who, according to what the Draft Guidelines of the Sixth Congress of the PCC suggests, could mean anyone, such as the Ministries of Economy and Planning, Finance and Prices, Labor and Social Security, or who knows what other scapegoat. Replacing the puppets, in short, that will always be expendable and missed by no one; at the end of the day, all the officials of different ranks here are die-cast, simple ventriloquists, and emerge with the label of “disposable”. If anyone doubts this, you just have to remember Lage, Pérez Roque and Soberón, to name some of the most recently removed from the carnival. And, though the regime has centralized all power for decades and has boasted of control over life and property, it has always shown real expertise in applying the “decentralization” responsibility for failures.

Nobody can understand by what discrete method so many economic and financial blunders could be committed over such a long time, mocking the supposedly efficient government controls. I, for one, do not believe it. There are also no guarantees in place to ensure that countless errors committed over half a century will not be repeated. At the end of the day, though they may change the officials du jour, the rules and the referees of this game will continue to be the same. And, since the crisis is systemic, encompasses all spheres of national life and has –- indeed — irreversible properties, there are no guarantees in place that “now” things will be different for the better. We cannot overcome social crises with assemblies, but this is something that, I am sure, the hacienda owners are aware of, so I suspect some hidden conspiracy behind the apparent good intentions and ill-specified good intentions of the government with a sudden celebration of a meeting that is eight years overdue, of a “political party?” that has pertinently demonstrated its ineptitude to govern. By the way, as I see it, the PCC –- just as it happens with the revolution — does not really exist, unless we are calling a “political party” that immense herd incapable of making decisions, designated to pay a monthly fee and, in addition, applauding the antics and commands of the Gerontocrats-in-Chief.

The Supreme Orate recently told the international press that, if there was an official responsible for the persecution of homosexuals in the decades of the 60’s and 70’s in Cuba, he was the one. But the unusual, almost posthumous revelation, cannot even qualify as repentance, because it was not accompanied by the appropriate apologies for the huge share of the suffering that the openly homophobic policy of “the revolution” caused. More than a mea culpa, his was an open, cynical, and boastful expression that almost amounted to saying: “Yes, it was me; I did it… so what?” That is the essential spirit of the dictatorship that is also revealed now, when it intends to “renew the model” not admitting, prior to that, the failure of an experiment that has cost several generations of Cubans so many tears and misery. Does it make sense to renew that which doesn’t work?

Today, despite the failure of the proposed “reforms,” the geriatric caste knows that a precarious card is being played in their runaway bet for more time in power, and they are asking Cubans for a new vote of blind faith. How many will be willing to bet on them?

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 16, 2010

Another Broken Promise / Miriam Celaya

March of The Ladies in White

The deadline that the Cuban authorities established for the release of all 75 political prisoners of the Black Spring, as formally agreed in their talks with the Catholic Church and reported by the media and abroad, expired at the stroke of midnight last November 7th . Thirteen of these 75 Cubans, however, remain in prison. They are, not by chance, precisely those who refused to leave Cuba when they were “liberated.” Obviously, it is very dangerous in the current conditions to have such free thought within the Island, especially with all the moral authority that these prisoners carry.

Once again, the government has proven that it doesn’t know how to honor its commitments. It mocks the public and leaves those who have wanted to wash the face of the most tenacious dictatorship this hemisphere has known standing in their underwear before the international organizations Placing these 75 Cubans in jail in March of 2003 took only a few hours. Four months have not been enough to get them out of jail, while the struggle for their liberation has raged over seven years and threatens to take even longer. Meanwhile, evidencing that the essence of the government is repression, the harassment against private individuals and groups of independent civil society continues. How do we explain such arrogance and stupidity? Because of the impunity the regime has enjoyed for over 50 years of absolute power in the face of the fear of the Cuban people and the world’s patient tolerance.

The imprisonment and the “judicial processes” followed in that painful spring against citizens who had committed no other crimes than to express what they were thinking was a move that took a heavy political toll on the Castro regime, as some of the darkest spots of the system were put under a magnifying glass. It was, in addition, an incentive for other Cubans bent on disclosing to the world the material and moral deficiency of this government. However, used as hostages of government policy, the 75 continue to be a boomerang for the arrogant old men in uniform.

Now, when thanks to those imprisoned journalists and others who live in the relative “freedom” of our streets, much of the world knows about the Cuban reality, the long-lived military cabinet fears that these truths might make their way to the Cubans on the Island. That is why they repress every civic movement, even the small and humane gesture of a mother in the town of Banes visiting her son’s grave, a victim of the dictatorship, able to move solidarity and support from the simple people of her village.

But we know that the government is deaf and mute to the demands of the Cubans, so let’s ask the Mediator: what can the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as the official interlocutor of the conflict, tell us about this new broken promise? Do the ecclesiastic authorities deem the inauguration of the new Seminary a sufficient government concession, or will they insist on the government’s fulfillment of the commitment for which the Archdiocese was the spokesman? Can they give us a release date for our brothers and give us guarantees of complying with it, or must we be happy with just praying?

At the present time, it is necessary to keep the pressure on the dictatorship. Governments, individuals and civilized societies should not be in spiritual intimacy with tyrants. The Cuban government must ratify the pacts it signed on February 2008, comply with its principles, and stop persecuting the deserving Cuban people who have the courage to confront it. It is the Cuban dictatorship that must take steps down this path, beginning with the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 8,2010

Cuban “Steps Forward” and the PSOE’s Warm Washcloths / Miriam Celaya

Wilfredo Vallín, President of the Cuban Law Association

While reading some information on recent statements by the Cuban Foreign Minister in the framework of the UN General Assembly, in which he once again makes charges against the European Union, I join, without hesitation, the side of those who consider insufficient the measure and steps of the Cuban government, and come out in favor of maintaining the Common Position. I see with surprise that some people talk about “the changes that have occurred in Cuba,” and I am almost tempted to remain silent before such disrespect. What changes are they talking about? Perhaps the slow release of political prisoners who should never have been incarcerated? Maybe those changes that a sharp commentator in the on-line newspaper Diario de Cuba has nicknamed “cambios timbiriches”*?

A brief review of certain events that have taken place in Cuba in the last week shows how false the “steps” of the Cuban dictatorship are, and brings out the official incompetence in matters of political and civil rights. In line with the ridiculous arrogance of the puppet up at bat nominally covering the Foreign Affairs folder, there has been an increase in the persecution and pressures on individuals and groups engaging in internal dissent, as in the case of attorney Wilfredo Vallín, President of the Cuban Law Association (not officially recognized) and the arrest of Reina Luisa Tamayo, along with 40 other activists in the eastern city of Banes, to cite only two known and very recent examples.

It’s well known that attorney Vallín, in addition to legal counsel, serves as an independent professor in various fields related to civil law. In his academic program various relevant issues are disclosed, including the laws themselves of the current Cuban Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Act, among others, so often violated by the authorities responsible for ensuring their compliance. The Blogger Academy was honored to have Vallín in its faculty, and several of the groups of civil independent society that have organized self-improvement courses among their members have also benefited from his experience. Since the government feels it is so “dangerous” for the people to learn their rights, on Friday, October 29th, the regular repressors prevented professor Vallín from lecturing at a conference about UN Covenants before a group of citizens from various sectors and trends of thought. An entire operation was deployed to sabotage a completely legal activity, though one admittedly uncomfortable for the government. This is not the first time that elements from State Security have hindered the teaching-information activities of Attorney Vallín. Recently, they prevented him from appearing before the group from Convivencia Magazine, which the renowned scholar Dagoberto Valdés successfully publishes from Pinar del Río, proof of the official will to not just refuse an opening in civic or political matters, but to prevent the population from being exposed to the universal principles of Human Rights which, hypocritically, and as an occasional act of mere formality, the dictatorship has signed, though not ratified.

On the other hand, the arrest of Reina Luisa Tamayo and her colleagues on October 30th in Banes is, in addition to an outrage, another sign of the impotence of the authorities against the growing expressions of resistance of Cubans who insist in speaking out in spite of the repression.

Both cases are the clear government response to the European Union: the centers of world politics should be content with the proposed “patched-together street stand changes” that grocer Raúl Castro intends to implement. Rights in Cuba will not be tolerated. Well, then, we will see what warm washcloths the PSOE (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party) and other permissive organizations will place, mercifully, on the battered face of the Caribbean dictatorship.

*Translator’s note: Impromptu street vendor’s stand, hut, or kiosk. Used to describe the changes, it implies the changes are improvised and unstable.

Translated by: Norma Whiting

November 3, 2010

Who Are The Debtors? / Miriam Celaya

He’s vanishing. Photo by Orlando Luís

A source that I’m not authorized to quote assures me that, on October 30, 2010, the privilege of the SEPSA agency will be withdrawn, by virtue of which the “blue” custodians – so nicknamed because of the color of their uniforms – have been paid a “stimulus” of 48 CUC a month (1,152 in the misnamed “national currency”), an amount that they have been getting since they took away other privileges years ago, such as regular allowances of toiletries and food. As a result of this new cut that will eliminate the only attractive feature of the occupation, many of these guards, who work as custodians at banks and at exchange houses (CADECA) have begun seeking other horizons of employment prospects in a time when having access to a job in Cuba is equal to or more difficult than eating a piece of beef (which is saying something).

Though the wave of layoffs has not reached the status of the tsunami that it will achieve between the first quarter of next year and 2012 – when the final completion of approximately 1,200,000 layoffs, which is said will be the number of unemployed on the Island – social discontent is palpable. Uncertainty, irritation and a slight but steady increase in the crime rate are the notes that make up today’s Cuba. On the other hand, there seems to be a kind of popular consensus to not apply for licenses for the exercise of self-employment (a palliative that the government is trying to implement as an alternative to a crisis of unprecedented labor supply for the revolutionary process) due to excessive taxes, the lack of a wholesale supplier market, the chronic instability of supplies and the high retail prices, the uncertainty about the economic future and – particularly – in the absence of a legal framework of guarantees to investors, among other causes. The experience of those individuals who in the 90’s were victims of official pressure and systematic extortion by the state inspectorate responsible for “controlling” the quality of services and the “legality and purity” of self-employed workers, discourage people’s interest in risking their funds, usually minimal or very limited, in a leap so uncertain and where those who invest their capital are the most helpless of the system: the common Cubans.

The employee at a public office who was complaining a few days ago about the recent loss of her husband’s job and claimed that, because of that, she would stop making payments for the Chinese refrigerator they had given them in exchange for the old Russian home equipment. Little more than three or four years ago, the tropical sultanate took up the eccentric decision to imitate the old story of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in which they exchanged old lamps for new, but with more practical sense in the Arab case. “I cannot afford to deduct one cent from my salary”, the woman lamented, and she added: “If they start discounting it, I will also stop working and will use that same refrigerator for the sale of ice pops”.

Which brings up another small detail, forgotten by everyone in the middle of this storm surge: until fairly recently, the Cuban press published, with some regularity, short articles about the huge debt that people owed the state due on overdue payments for household appliances, – mainly cheap Chinese refrigerators that had replaced the old American equipment from before 1959, and Soviet from the 70’s and 80’s – that were distributed on a massive scale with the so called “energy revolution,” an idea thought up by… well, we all know who could have had such a great idea. In short, the newspapers would publish drawings reflecting the movement of such payments through provinces and municipalities, to the extreme that one of the indicators to be considered when granting a province the status of “vanguard” or “outstanding” was based on the performance of that province’s repayment history, a consideration also taken into account in awarding the site of the great celebration for the year’s 26 of July ceremonies.

For several months, the issue of the defaults recurred on TV and the written press, urging people to repay what “the state had acquired with so much effort and sacrifice for the sake of saving energy and raising the living standard of the people”. In order to pressure the debtors the food markets, where products on the ration cards are obtained, displayed lists of “slow paying consumers” who had not yet begun payments. Rumor had it that payments would be deducted from wages and communist party militants would be sanctioned if they had not complied with their payments on a regular basis.

Now, mired in the biggest socio-economic crisis that Cubans can remember, such a debt is not spoken of, nor are the slow payers mentioned, as if, all of a sudden, the debtors had settled their outstanding debts. Or could it be that, half a century behind, the hacienda owners have suddenly discovered that, in fact, we are the creditors?

Translated by Normal Whiting

October 29, 2010

The Battle Continues Between the “Appropriate” and the Corrupt / Miriam Celaya

Margelis works in a company belonging to the Gastronomic Enterprise in Centro Habana and is a member of a rationalization committee that includes those who are in charge of the dismissal of some of their colleagues. The task is just as thankless as it is extremely complex for several reasons: in recent times, the individual acting as director of the company was ousted when they discovered millions of pesos missing, which led to his placement under precautionary measures “while the case is investigated” and replaced him with a punctilious uniform, who, showing admirable zeal in debugging field leaders in the municipality, has removed more than one manager and other leaders, and has kept on whipping those who still have not fallen under his purifying rage.

Further complicating matters, it is known that in these culinary centers there are long-standing corrupt goings-on that manifest themselves in different ways: defrauding customers — preferably foreign tourists — which translates into illegal sales of counterfeit products such as cigars and rum; they are places for offering the services of prostitutes and others; wages are not paid to workers by the administrator. Under the pretext of assigning such wages towards the maintenance and renovation of the facilities, such wages are appropriated by the administrator with the prior consent of the employees, who sign the roster, taking into account that they will earn more by cheating customers than by collecting the pay that is legally due to them.

Add to this that there are dining facilities (bars, restaurants and cafes in the above mentioned network) in which the administration has disproportionately inflated the employee roster in order to be able to appropriate more wages every two weeks. Since it is such a profitable activity, lots of candidates fill positions as bartender-waiters who will report net earnings of 80 to 100 CUC in each work shift, which in turn produces more income to managers, who sell each of those openings for 200 CUC plus get a share of the ill-gotten gains of his employees, turning a blind eye to illegal activities going on at the establishments with their full consent. It is, therefore, a closed cycle of corruption in a society completely foul from the bottom up, caught in a system that, when the individual initiatives of Cubans are cancelled, the effect of the loss of value corrupting every place increases exponentially.

These days, Margelis must decide, along with the other commissioners, which ones of these thieving associates (who, along with her, and just like her, cheat customers and bribe the bosses) meet the appropriateness requirement to remain as part of the gang and who will be abandoned to their fate when they are laid off. She lives mired between anxiety and distress, because she knows that in her environment — as if it were a Sicilian mafia — relative job security is based on a silent system of loyalties, and betrayal is punished harshly.

Nobody is safe, neither Tyrian nor Trojan, and while the funnel of the wreck keeps widening, almost no one understands that there is no use trying to ward off the effects of failure if the causes of so many evils are not eradicated. Purges and dismissals will not make the economy function, just like they will not end the thievery from the State, the smuggling and corruption, nor will the desperate and insufficient government measures turn this obsolete machinery productive. The only thing that can really break the cycle of corruption and loss of values from which Cuban society suffers today is the disappearance of the system that engendered them.

Translated by Norma Whiting

October 26, 2010

The Cuban Way? / Miriam Celaya

As everyone knows, the tendency of many Cubans to magnify the qualities of the Island’s nature and its natives, as if we had been chosen by divine grace, is proverbial. There are a few written works – some of them real satiric gems – whose sole purpose is to satirize this peculiar habit of ours to “be the bestest”: the ones who dance the most, the most mischievous, the best flirts, the bravest, the best lovers, the most loving, the ones who drink the most (and best cheaters), the funniest, the most caring, the most generous, the best hosts, the best baseball players and a long list of others that, of course, only include good things. To be even luckier, we were born in “the most beautiful land human eyes ever saw,” so the most beautiful beaches in the world are in Cuba, and the most fertile lands, the gentlest climate and the best tobacco, best rum, best coffee (here, an etc. similar to the one before). As if so much perfection were not enough, we are, in addition, touched by the gift of wisdom: we know about everything and we know it all. We are, therefore, something like superior stock, the result of a sort of celestial magma placed in this world to the wonder, amazement and envy of mankind.

It’s unfortunate that, seemingly, so many virtues turn out to be useless when dealing with the harsh reality that we have been dealt, especially what we have been living through for the past half a century, and in particular, at this juncture. Since last October 4, 2010, the volcano of the layoffs previously announced entered its active phase and – to my knowledge – in meetings that have already been taking place in some workplaces, such famous Cuban qualities as solidarity and empathy have been relegated to second fiddle, and true camp battles are taking place among and against everyone to hold onto their jobs. Of course, the more attractive those positions are, like those related to tourism and others with similar opportunities for access to “convertible” currency, the bloodier the attacks and stronger the accusations against each other: “Why am I going to get fired and not what’s-her-face, who is corrupt and accepts bribes?” “Why me and not whosie-face, who’s always late?” In the midst of so much moral decay, there have been revelations of bedroom secrets: “Sure, they are not going to fire You-know-who because she f…ed the head of the commission.” It is said that, in recent days, the meeting of the dismissal commission at Terminal 3 of the International Airport was a real scandal that brought to light so much dirty laundry and corruption of work “companions” that even the District Attorney will take action in the matter.

Definitely, at the moment of truth, too many Cubans put aside their love and their famous sense of humor and tear each other apart mercilessly, and the worst thing is that this is not a new experience. They did the same thing during the meetings of the 70’s and 80’s, those in which they “assigned” electrical appliances in the workplace, and more than 500 workers had to compete in revolutionary merits for a single Soviet refrigerator; or when it was time to hand out twenty or so apartments in a new micro-brigade building among hundreds of candidates – who had been working in the sun for years on its construction – and the officials in their guayaberas – who remained in their air-conditioned offices all that time – and suddenly all that hatred and the most acrid accusations came unleashed, not among the system’s managers, but among those who had, up to then, while they worked together side by side, shared their snacks and their hopes.

At the zero hour, no Cuban – or almost none, to avoid being absolute, although I have not known any exception to this rule – has the wisdom to discover where his real enemy is. At the zero hour, a Cuban on the island, instead of closing ranks with his fellow prisoners and staking the flag and saying, “either nobody leaves or we all leave”, instead of saying one thing and feeling another, vents his anger and frustration against his companions in a despicable, opportunistic and aggressive attitude that only defends the precariousness of his own survival. No Cuban here will leave with a placard that reads with at least one sentence begging, “don’t get me fired, I have family to support”, neither will he point his finger at his long time boss. These days, any Cuban will turn tormentor against one another, stupidly believing that action will save his neck. The myth of the native kindness breaks down because, deep down, if there is one thing this system has stamped on the national conscience it’s fear, with its eternal maximum expression: cowardice. Today, that is the most visible characteristic of a Cuban. The government knows it well, and it has the advantage of power and strength. That is why it has leisurely laid off with impunity half a million workers in barely six months; that is why it allows itself to decide the moment, the rhythm and the depth of the so-called “reforms” to “update” a model that for 50 years has already demonstrated its ineffectiveness and that, thanks to the proven “courage” of Cubans, threatens to maintain the sultanate until the end of time.

Photo: Orlando Luis

Translated by Norma Whiting

October 22, 2010

Appropriateness / Miriam Celaya

Ever since the national organization that represents the Cuban workers elected itself as speaker on behalf of the olive-green bosses to announce the layoff of half a million employees in record time, a certain word has become fashionable and has circulated by word of mouth: appropriateness. To be “appropriate” has become the essential requirement to keep your job, but nobody quite understands what that term may mean, given that this is an extremely elastic quality that cannot be applied equally in each case. Let’s use as an example that an appropriate bank teller is not the same as an appropriate gravedigger. It is understood, although neither of them produces absolutely anything, like the respective appropriateness of an artist and of a restaurateur. Don’t panic if this is confusing, readers: I don’t understand how the mysterious meaning can imprint so much power on a simple word. I don’t think I am the appropriate person to explain it.

According to an acquaintance of mine, secretary general of the union section at her workplace, right now, in order to be considered appropriate, it won’t be enough to rely on the backing of a combative-intransigent-integrated-vanguard-revolutionary. No sir. The renovated model demands a “new” conception of work, according to which, the worker has to produce and be efficient (¿?). Come on, after 50 years of sweating in vain, our leaders have discovered that work has to produce something besides poverty. Let’s not be too demanding of them, at the end of the day, it is a modest achievement.

Thus, in every workplace, a different standard will be applied when measuring the adequacy of workers, and one wonders what indicators will be identified as appropriate for the street sweepers in a city so dirty, for the police officers who supposedly watch over the peace in a society that is becoming more violent every day, in which all kinds of crimes are committed, for the official jurists, responsible for carrying out legal injustices and twisting the already twisted laws, for the hundreds of officials who charge complete salaries to any son of a neighbor, to hinder all and each one of the undertakings they initiate, for the dozens of store employees and other service units that bask in customer mistreatment. Oh, by the way, what will be the appropriateness of the baker who will ensure the quality of our daily bread! (the extremely humble bread of the dying ration card that always comes up as the number one point on the government agenda of every delegate of the People’s Power).

But, above all, I wonder what the members of the Councils of State and Ministers, starting with the General-President, who might be labeled with the grace of appropriateness after such wreck and collapse of the nation, amid such administrative corruption at all levels, and after the utter devastation in which they have plunged this country. Or is that there will not be a reorganizational shakeup of posts on the heights of the Olympus warrior?

Now that we are renewing the model because “it doesn’t even work for us” – according to statements of the Great Orator in his first coherent words that we can recognize in a long time – isn’t it time to also remodel and rejuvenate the Jurassic Park of greenish dinosaurs that continue pounding on this devastated homestead?

Translated by: Norma Whiting

October 20, 2010

Family Remittances, The Surest Line Item / Miriam Celaya

It is a real irony that after 50 years of a socialist revolution in Cuba, the surest foreign currency income that the government is counting on today is the income in the form of family remittances from abroad. Such remittances, a monolithic truth, are, for the most part, sent by Cubans who live in no other place but in the bowels of the dearly beloved monster, since that is the place where the great majority of emigrants from this island live. This turns capitalist labor, the terrible imperialism, and the demonic currency into sources of continuing permanent support for the regime that — oh, paradox! — has led to the largest emigration of nationals since Christopher Columbus landed, almost by accident, on this, the most fair of lands.

Surely, the astute reader will have understood that the title of this post refers to the uncertainty that arises for the olive-green tower from the results of the recent parliamentary elections in Venezuela. Apparently, with the reawakening of the opposition in that South American country, after the unfortunate political mistake that had led to its withdrawal from the last presidential election — leaving the door open for the populist chieftain and thereby promoting his ratification in power — Chávez’s adversaries have gained ground in public opinion and today there is an effective force against the dictatorial pretensions in Venezuela, which means that things are going to be uncomfortable for the boisterous Mr. Chávez, who — after failing to gain the seats he sought with all the usual ventriloquists — must start submitting for approval his hitherto unilateral decisions which have allowed him to freely dispose of Venezuelan resources. Ergo, the horizon of the Caribbean military caste gets overshadowed at times in the face of the real possibility of the end or of a drastic reduction of Venezuelan subsidies in the medium-short term.

For its part, despite new laws that offer attractive opportunities for those wanting to buy a parcel of Cuban land for tourist purposes — provided they meet the prerequisite of not being Cuban-born — potential foreign investors are being a bit reluctant to a financial venture on this sort of postmodern Turtle Island, ruled by the most cheating and greedy pirates all time, where there is no respect for any agreements, contracts or foreign coffers, and is set at the whim of the capital of unsuspecting investors who once fell in the trap. There have been many a sheep who, shorn by the insatiable pirates, are still bleating their disappointment and showing their scrapes. Now the Buccaneers seek to lure none other than the pragmatic and calculating gringos, who don’t seem to have the urgency of the decadent military elders. It is an open secret that, despite the official media – just like a jilted lover, they keep reviling the “eternal enemy of the people” — all hopes of the Cuban elite are codified on the Empire: I hate you, my love.

And since, meanwhile, the stealing must go on, Cubans remain the perpetual victims, in this case the émigrés and their families in Cuba. Lacking an honest recourse, and in the absence of any other ability, official turpitude uses family ties as emotional blackmail to raise hard currency. An enormous number of émigrés — more knowledgeable about Cuban reality that any foreign investor, and appreciably involved with the fate of their family in Cuba — budget part of their income to the saving remittances that help alleviate the hunger and poverty of their kin, subjects of the slavery of this dismal plantation. As soon as they arrive on the Island, the remittances are taxed immediately and ostentatiously by the gluttony of the landlords, and converted into headquarter tokens (they call them CUC), with which the slaves acquire, at astronomical prices, products offered at the company stores, owned by the same landlords. No Way Out is a perfect cycle of robbery, “legal” and assured, because the dictatorship knows that the majority of Cuban émigrés will avoid by all means letting their parents, children or siblings suffer deprivation and will strive to spend even a handful of dollars or euros to ensure the minimum safety of their families.

And I hope nobody thinks that I am launching a criticism to those who send their remittances, or those who receive them. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy food, clothing, shoes and medications knowing my family is lacking them, nor would I deprive my children of certain benefits that, unfortunately, in Cuba are only available to a few. I just want to remind readers how subjected we still all are — or nearly all — in or out of Cuba, to the dictatorship’s diabolical machinery. The ones “over there” are forced to work harder to meet the needs of their Cuban family and to ensure the government’s free juicy slice; those “over here” are permanent hostages of the official extortion, and unwitting accomplices in the exploitation of their exiled families, with whom they don’t know when or how they will reunite, because the reunion also depends of the humiliating entry or exit permit of the masters. And in addition, these olive-green parasites, with haughty contempt, dare to call us “subsidized”! The condition of today’s Cubans is really sad. A regime that condemns us to so much material and emotional poverty depends so much on us!

Translated by Norma Whiting

October 15, 2010

Possible Utopia (II) / Miriam Celaya

An image that threatens to multiply. Photograph by Orlando Luis

Despite the apparent ease with which life goes on, the magma is rising from the bottom and nobody can predict how events that will put an end to the Cuban dictatorship will unleash. Just in the last few days, events have accrued which, directly or indirectly, have an impact on this country, strongly staking a reality that, until recently, has been characterized by paralysis. Now everything has begun to move in reverse (a good example of that is what is already known as “the medieval list,” the 178 lines that, according to official publication, will receive self-employment licenses, to which we will devote a little more space in another post), but that –paradoxically- could mean a step forward if we take into account the popular ancient principle “the good thing about this is how bad it is getting.” Anyway, it has never before been worse, and there are premonitions in the breeze that things may even get worse.

A very brief overview of the most relevant events is: the upcoming layoffs will leave us half a million unemployed in just six months, a significant increase in the self-employed tax, the piecemeal sale of the country to potential (and real) foreign investors, Decree-Law 273 of August 13th, 2010 (see The Cuban Official Gazette website), and the South American gorilla -Hugo Chávez’s- formidable slap in the face in Venezuela’s recent parliamentary elections and the consequent and immediate increase in oil prices in Cuban sales channels, which, as expected, will mean increased prices in transportation, food and other goods in the very near future.

The social climate is tense and the old socialist ship is listing, threatening to do a 360◦ turn. There is a generalized feeling of worry and uncertainty, and it can be seen in every corner of this city. The new wave of misery that lies ahead is compounded by the growing discontent, the lack of confidence in the future, in the “revolution” and its leaders, as well as the ever increasing prevalent belief about the failure of the system and the uselessness to renew a clearly obsolete model. I do not remember ever before having found as persistent and epidemic social unrest reaching from the highest rated of the intellectual ruling caste to the poorest and most fragile sectors of the population.

Early yesterday morning, a middle-aged and apparently very poor woman was picking up a shopping bag full of plastic bottles lying next to a waste collector in front of my building. “Let me take this before they tax me for it,” she said, with a smile that was part bitter and part accomplice. Because, my friends, the popularly called “deep sea divers”, previously persecuted and heavily fined by the authorities for creating unhealthy conditions in the city causing filth, in addition to offering a lamentable image for foreign visitors, now, by the grace of new official measures of self-employment and of official “euphemistology” will not only receive the new title of “recycling- sellers of raw materials”, but also need licenses to perform the same work for which, until just yesterday, they were being punished. Additionally, they must pay taxes in exchange for being submerged, almost all day, in the filthy detritus of nearly three million people, which confirms that crap is also the property of the state.

Some denominations from the famous medieval list, so-called because it contains related occupations and types of work organization that do not correspond with present times, are truly amazing: water bearers, a joke on the water and sewage system, to the embarrassment Albear and others; lumberjack, in a country where deforestation has been rampant for over 500 years; travel managers, individuals who shout the destination of cars for hire or at fixed taxi line entrances and bus terminals; collectors-sellers of natural resources (¿?) manufacturers-sellers of religious articles, among others. Other occupations hitherto clandestine and not requiring any more than the personal initiative of those performing them, as in the case of those braiding hair, fortune tellers and the so-called “Habaneras” (usually young women who are dressed in colorful costumes, supposedly belonging to the colonial era, who walk through some of the historic places and charge tourists wishing to take their picture), will join the ranks of the self-employed, and will be obligated to also contribute to the Treasury. They seem to have thought of everything, except a line that will soon be greatly increased … the beggars. The lords of power could consider including beggars on the self-employed lists, of course, while they seek a more noble title for the occupation. We know they are talented in this regard.

However, the very government engaged in violating the law that is trying to have so many who go astray “on their own” jump through the hoop of the legalities, faces a difficult challenge. I don’t think that they have sufficient repressive personnel to detect and punish the army of offenders, which will remain the majority, given that the only true act of defiance for this imperiled and fearful people has always been irreverence. The street cries of many of those who have been practicing these arts for years is that they will not request a license because, far from being an advantage, it will impose a heavy tax on their meager personal and family income. The government is fighting a war that it has already lost: it seeks to exploit the working population while preventing the formation of a middle class, able to surpass the official interests and give way to independent citizens. Such efforts, as happened with the system, are doomed to failure. The sad picture of the Havana night of September 27th, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the CDR’s, with a few and isolated campfires, where small, pathetic, hungry groups cooked their traditional watery meals to share in their poverty, should be a clear signal that loyalty and subservience are concepts that are also depleted. There is nothing to celebrate. Not yet.

Translated by: Norma Whiting

October 1, 2010

Intellectuals: Between Loyalty and Complicit Silence / Miriam Celaya

Haroldo Dilla, Cuban historian and sociologist. Photograph from the internet.

A few days ago, a friend of mine gave me an interesting opinion piece by Haroldo Dilla Alfonso, entitled “From Loyalty to Complicity.” I can’t tell the readers where it was published, because I don’t know, though it is dated Tuesday, September 14th, 2010, but it is a core article that puts back on the table a tricky issue: the role of Cuban intellectuals on the Island during the past 50 years and in the face of changes taking place in the country.

I must declare, for honesty’s sake, that I usually chase Dilla’s writings, because they are always illuminating and marked by moderation, sober analysis, synthesis, and a deep understanding of the Cuban reality. The article referred to has the additional benefit -which is appreciated- of being as full of energy as it is devoid of passion, a truly rare thing when it comes to debate among Cubans.

Its plot is not, in itself, a novelty: the characters are Cuban intellectuals, those who remain on the island and those in exile. The argument is based primarily on the debate –which took place ten years ago- about what Jesús Díaz called “the silent complicity” of intellectuals inside Cuba in the face of the negative traits of the system, defined by Aurelio Alonso, in turn, as “loyalty on the side of the more genuine revolutionary program.” The scenario in which the theme develops, about which Dilla is commenting now, is the current Cuban reality, not a new theme, but a lot more complex than what it used to be 10 years ago, hence the importance of his article.

Dilla’s piece has also brought me back to the memory of another debate between intellectuals, which took place during the months of January and February 2007, following a TV show in which several individuals responsible for what, in the decade of the 70’s was known as the “gray quinquenium” (and “the gray decade” for others), an act that sparked true and spontaneous virtual discussion that went as far as to include strong questions about the cultural policy of the Cuban revolution. Since the debate took place through e-mails among many Cuban intellectuals inside and outside the Island, the phenomenon transcended into “the little e-mail war” and slowly faded away, after the Culture Minister held a closed-door meeting at the Casa de Las Americas with a group of intellectuals and other personalities in the field of culture, by previous invitation only and with strict controls that prevented entry to a multitude of interested people and participants in the debate itself, who were swarming outside of the meeting place.

Those events, which I experienced personally as part of the editorial board of the magazine Consenso (later Contodos Magazine, both at web page), had a kind of expectation that Haroldo Dilla calls a “little ray” of enthusiasm, because we then believed that –finally- Cuban intellectuals would join in the push for change in Cuba and, as opinion leaders, they would generate the thinking guides necessary to equip the ideas of the aimless dissenters or the fed-up and disoriented “masses.” We were hoping that the voices of many renowned intellectuals, who at times had even lent some prestige to the revolutionary process with their talent, would also rise against the lack of freedoms of Cubans and of their own group. It did not happen that way, with some exceptions.

There are special cases, like the poet Ena Lucía Portela, writer Leonardo Padura, actors Pablo Milanés and Pedro Luis Ferrer, and director Eduardo del Llano, among others, who dare to express concerns about the Cuban reality. Others, younger ones, are representatives of a generation that has broken ties with a system alien to their interests; they might represent hope if we could bridge the schism that often characterizes the alienating and escapist stances slowing down their self-consciousness about civic responsibility.

After that memorable virtual revolt of 2007, silence and luke-warmth again dominated. Official counsel returned to its ivory tower retreat, fear silenced almost all the protesters, and many of that time’s lost sheep tamely returned to the fold. The burning fires in some of the more illustrious were placated through small favors granted by the magnanimous power: some of their minor works were published or some others were edited. Some trips and other little perks were granted, and those who could have become prestigious tribunes or promising compasses were, once again, silent.

Our best social scientists in dozens of institutions, witnesses of the critical social situation in the country, have been silent (silenced?) for too long, and, when they have spoken, it has been quietly and asking shyly and humbly, for permission of the authorities, like someone who fears to offend. Now the most devious insist that they are most useful remaining in their respective research centers, “discovering” the truths that we all know and suffer daily. They allege that they are waiting for “the most opportune moment” to bring their proposals to light. Perhaps some of those are good intentions, but who is better served by that silence? I know about what and of whom I am speaking, because I was trained in a social research center where some valued researchers denied in the courtyard what they did not dare to disclose at an event’s podium.

Today, we are faced with the dilemma of a Cuba that is divided between a capitalist government and a country suffering the rigors of a failed socialist project. The banquet among the elite of the ruling caste has intensified; discontent and uncertainty among modest Cubans pile up, and a death silence seems to reign among intellectuals, packed away and untouchable in their Parnassus. They, the ones with tribunes and microphones, with the authority granted by the knowledge, choose the silent complicity in the face of government corruption and the total absence of civil rights.

I fully embrace Haroldo Dilla’s denouncement, when he insists that “there is no reason to be complaisant with the Cuban political elite, including the outspoken octogenarians who have labeled themselves “the historical leadership.” There is no room to believe that the silences, the cryptic criticisms and the requests for excuses are the price of loyalty to the revolution, socialism and the motherland, as the old slogan goes.

And, indeed, in Cuba, the revolutionaries of yesterday are the burden of today. They represent the most reactionary class society. The Cuban Revolution died decades ago. It is time to break the comlicit silence of which Jesús Díaz spoke, and which researcher Haroldo Dilla has brought to the debate arena recently.

Translated by: Norma Whiting

September 28, 2010

Possible Utopia (I) / Miriam Celaya

Photography by Orlando Luis

In the last few weeks, one topic has become the focus of comments and expectations: the announced increase in self-employed persons, mainly from the massive layoffs that will literally leave half a million state employees out on the street in just one quarter. Speculation grows, while the case is being cooked -as always- behind the curtains of the Palace, with no clear information on the magnitude and pace of applications for licenses for those who will begin to operate outside the “protection” of the state.

There are many edges from which a question, at once complex and controversial, can be addressed, especially if we underline some of the unpublished touches contained in its embossed printing: never, since 1959, had the government prepared a similar wave of layoffs, not even in the critical conditions of the 1990’s. The Cuban Workers Union had not previously displayed, so publicly and openly, its complete submission to the State. On the other hand, it is totally absurd that the loss of half a million members might lead to the “strengthening the organization of the working class”, as its Secretary General recently stated, unless the government intends to recognize the right of unionization of the self-employed in different branches, which, of course, is unlikely.

For now I’ll just refer to one issue that seems to have been forgotten amid the comments, especially by the foreign press, which seems to overestimate the provisions of the government. A list of about 124 professions, trades and other occupations that will be licensed has been unofficially released, which has unleashed a wave of speculation even among ordinary Cuban citizens, who have not been formally apprised of the news. A foreign journalist just mentioned to me, with almost jubilant optimism: “finally, the Cuban government is implementing innovative changes.” Of course, I am also in favor of the changes and of the abolition of the dependency of individuals on the State, I just do not believe in half measures because they do not resolve the root of the evil, especially if these provisions are forced. We can’t lose sight that the government is applying them because it has no other alternative. Somehow, it will continue to try to exercise a strong hold on the new “independent” workers. It remains to be seen if the measurements become “improvements” or not, and that won’t depend on the government alone.

Another detail: none of the occupations approved so far are new, but they have all been practiced illegally for decades. Who in Cuba has not retained the services of a carpenter, a mason, a welder or a plumber? Let’s be clear, if anyone here needs to buy or repair furniture, he goes directly to the nearest state carpentry and negotiates the terms and the price of labor with a carpenter. The raw materials and machine tools belong to the state; the benefit is private, in a process that my friend and colleague Dimas Castellanos has named “staticular work.” The same applies to the blacksmith or welder. Where do they get the oxygen, acetylene and metals for jobs in a city that, because of the increase in theft and violence, has bars on all its windows? In the workshops and state warehouses. Widespread illegal work is such that the authorities have chosen to look the other way, and today it enjoys almost total impunity.

So, these occupations have been carried out on their own and without any licenses because, in 1968, the State canceled all small family businesses or cooperatives offering such services, but it failed -both because of its inefficiency and the impossibility of such an endeavor by any State- to create the infrastructure necessary to offset people’s demand. As a corollary, an underground service market supplied with state resources to cover basic need requirements for the population was established. Revolutionary or not, every Cuban has had to resort to these illegal actions, aware that he is committing a crime and “resolving” the problem by their thievery against the State; in this scenario are included numerous individuals whom we know, responsible for monitoring for the CDR. At the end of the day, as the saying goes, “The thief who steals from a thief…”

And so it was that, in trying to eliminate all vestiges of individuals’ property in order to cause economic independence to adhere, and with it, their freedom, the government only managed to encourage crime and corruption. The new government measures of today are merely legalizing what until now was illegal and uncontrollable. After more than 40 years of the Revolutionary Offensive, we return to the starting point: the restoration of what should have never been abolished, the small private property.

But now, the other aspect of the matter is just how the self-employed will ensure, henceforth, the raw materials, which thus far have come out of state warehouses. Or, for example, how does the government plan for household appliance, bicycles or automobile repairmen to work without commercializing spare parts, as dictated by the business? Will there be warehouses that will sell parts and accessories at reasonable prices? Will the state be able to keep those stores stocked? Probably not. And, as for taxes, will they be fair and beneficial to workers? Because existing taxes are really abusive and arbitrary, which implies that most of the self-employed who have survived prefer to buy their products and raw materials on the black market and pay bribes to tax inspectors, to make their activity less burdensome. The pseudo-socialist self-employment, as a genuine product of this system, thus becomes a generator of corruption.

In the current climate, compromises are not worth it. The liberalization of so high a portion of the labor force and its insertion in the private production of goods and services will have to be sufficiently profitable to become effective and stimulate the domestic economy. In that case, the worker who is able to fend for himself will be able to overcome the current survival conditions and will attain the material well-being he wishes and deserves. We must also note that, by being outside the official trade union organization -as logic would indicate- these workers should have the right to organize according to their own interests in order to demand the enforcement of contracts and commitments they might establish with the State. The self-employed would then cease to be “mass” to become citizens and strengthen civil society: the first step towards a possible utopia.

This time, the government must consider the fact that, with these layoffs and with the new legalization of the old self-employment, it will lose a great deal of the control (including ideological blackmail) that it exercised, at least over this half a million Cubans. There will probably be 500,000 less marching each May 1st to contribute their annual “labor day” to the Territorial Militia Troops, to pay its union dues to the State or to clamor for the release of these or the other heroes of the day… Unless licenses, like streets and universities, turn out to be for “self-employed revolutionaries”.

September 24, 2010